The case against charity

30 July 2013 | Dan Maré | Insight

Grantmaking, and corporate social responsibility more generally, is the conduit between the capital of corporate South Africa and the NGOs that have taken it upon themselves to shore up the work of the state and assist those who have the least. Why is this money given? Sometimes out of a sense of ethical responsibility, sometimes out of a need to conform to governance imperatives and legislation, sometimes because it accrues public relations benefits, sometimes out of a sense of charity. Not all of these motivations are noble. One; charity, is pernicious.

There are arguments against the efficacy of corporate giving. That it addresses symptoms, not causes. That it composes a drop in the ocean compared to public expenditure. That its real purpose is to give the giver something to boast about, to themselves or to others. Tshikululu would not still be in existence after 15 years if we didn’t believe that these arguments lack substance. But arguments against charity need not take place at the level of practice.

Charity is fundamentally conservative (in that it reinforces existent divisions of power), selfish (in that it expects to dictate its own terms), disingenuous (in that it professes to lift people up, but is not expected to do so to the level of the giver), and above all, patronising (denying the recipient’s agency – their ability to take responsibility for their own future).

This is not to say that funding NGOs is a bankrupt practice, but rather that its motivation ought not to be based on charity or pity.

Giving ought to be based on solidarity; the expression of commonality between people.

Solidarity proposes that the interests we share outweigh, in the final reckoning, the differences in our material positions, and that it is commonality, not difference, that ought to impel our giving.

I would like to draw a distinction which is nicely illustrated by the etymology of the word solidarity, which is originally from the Latin solide, meaning solidity. Solidarity speaks to the fundamental, and orienting, similarities in human desire, pain, and experience.

Pity, upon which charity depends, is conversely a divisive emotion. It places the burden of indebtedness, unasked for, upon the receiver of the pity, driving a wedge between giver and receiver. Charity differentiates; saying: ‘I am in this position where, through my talent and hard work, I have accumulated enough that I can make a gift of some small part of it to you, you who are unable to help yourself.’ Charity denies the recipient’s agency: their ability to feel in control of their own destiny.

Charity says: ‘It is the case that I am in a position to assist you, and we should both be thankful for that fact.’

Solidarity says: ‘It is the case that I am in a position to assist you, but it could easily be otherwise, and that is why I am beholden to assist.’

The fact that so many people suffer is not cause for sadness, but for anger. It should not be thought of as unfortunate, but as intolerable. As long as we have the power to change the fact of suffering, and don’t, we are complicit in the result.

We are not here to work for the betterment of society because of some faith in progress, or out of a sense of charity, but rather because the alternative is unacceptable: to know that there are those of us who suffer, and yet to do nothing.