December 2013        

Is charity the enemy of justice?

The news that an account linked to the Central Remedial Clinic has millions of euros sitting in it will hopefully encourage an examination of the “charity sector.”
      The first question is why a country as rich as Ireland should depend on charity to support vital services, such as health, education, and shelter, given that people should be entitled to these services as citizens, according to their needs. Secondly, if one is constantly shelling out to these charities, should it not be considered another form of taxation?
      A walk through the streets of any city or town in Ireland is usually punctuated by appeals for help from individual people, and now there’s a new form of corporate begging that many find obnoxious. This entails approaches by faux-jolly people who greet passers-by like long-lost friends and try to sign the victims up to a commitment to a standing order.
      This “cold sale” technique must be one of the most difficult and disheartening jobs in the world; it’s hard not to be sympathetic with these people, especially as they are generally working on commission. (One would hope that these are not considered “jobs” as far as employment statistics are concerned, but if they are, then improvements in employment figures must be taken with a grain of salt.)
      Many of the officers at the top of the so-called charitable or voluntary organisations draw salaries commensurate with those earned by the upper echelons of the corporate world. If corporate greed has made it into the charity sphere, then we really have reached the bottom of the barrel.
      One definition must be made plain, and that is “voluntary organisation.” To many people, this title would imply that the organisation is run by unpaid volunteers, with donations from the public, and not, as is generally the case, a body existing on taxpayers’ money.
      Examining the salary scales of the top officers of some of these “voluntary” bodies, one is often surprised at the level of their pay. Many of these organisations have a professional staff, paid at the same rate as those employed in the statutory services but without the same responsibilities. Also, “voluntary” organisations can choose which groups they work with—unlike the statutory sector, which provides services for all groups. This would raise the question whether it’s in the interests of these private groups ever to address or solve the problems or issues their organisations provide for, for example homelessness.
      In the case of the Central Remedial Clinic, the question that must be asked is whether, and why, services were reduced or employees were let go while this huge amount of funding remained untouched. From some of the media coverage it would appear that this was the case. Again, why is the CRC receiving funds from the state while it has sufficient of its own?
      One of the most nauseating sights that appear from time to time in the social columns of the newspapers is the gala dinner to raise funds for the hungry. Happily these are not so frequent since the demise of the “Celtic Tiger.” Among the glitterati at these occasions are to be found representatives of the biggest tax-avoiding corporations and companies. One well-known face at such events belongs to a family whose company is involved in the wholesale destruction of native lands in Latin America, with resulting hardships.
      Hunger is a choice, but not one that is made by the hungry: the choice is made by the powerful of the world. When a section of society decides not to pay their fair share, it is making a choice that will affect the health and security of the rest.
      Philanthropy is another way the rich get to publicly display their “generosity.” It has been heralded as a much-needed revolution in the business of giving, especially by members of the present Government and often actively sought by them. It always comes at a price, or with an agenda, control being one of the main demands of the “philanthropist,” who decides where the money goes and often on condition that the state provides matching funds. In this way the state’s right and duty to allocate spending can be, and has been, usurped.
      It can also make good business sense for a company to donate to a local community. To quote a web site devoted to small businesses, “by using profits derived from the community to benefit that same community (filled with its customers) businesses can greatly increase their prospects of future revenue flows. Supporting a community can lead to greater local economic success—creating income that can then be used at the business. For impoverished areas or those without experience with particular products, philanthropy can actually be used to create a market.”
      Irish people always seem to respond generously to appeals for help, especially from abroad and for children’s needs. In the end it’s a personal choice whether one contributes to a charity; but shouldn’t we ask if this is the way we want to finance such areas as children’s hospitals, education, and overseas aid? And what does this say about our view of these basic human requirements? Do we really see them as charitable gifts, rather than human rights? The more they become associated with “charity,” the more such rights become eroded.
      On a more mundane level, if we do donate to charity shouldn’t we always know what proportion of our money disappears in administration and salaries?
      With the continuing neo-liberal agenda of transferring more and more wealth to a smaller section of society and the ensuing increase in poverty, one can forecast a bright future for the CEOs of companies involved in the “misery industry.”
[RCN]

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