I have issues with the word ‘charity.’ It makes me squirm and wrinkle my nose when I’m introduced or described as working for a ‘charity.’
‘Charity’ conjures up images of wealthy church ladies in Victorian times, assembling baskets of Christmas food for the poor that their husbands maintain working for miserable salaries the rest of the year. ’Charity’ to me is working at a soup kitchen but never asking why people don’t have enough to eat, and who should be doing something about it and what needs to change. ‘Charity’ is the community members having to kowtow to the big man in the community for some of his left-overs in difficult times.
‘Charity’ is about power. ’Charity’ is having pity for those that you are ‘helping’ and seeing ‘the poor’ as helpless victims. ‘Charity’ rests on foundations of guilt, privilege and the belief the ‘the poor will always be with us’.
Most everyone understands the act of ‘charity’. I have more than you do, so I give you some of what I have. You feel grateful for my generosity. I feel good about my generosity. Everyone’s momentarily happy. We do it again next season, nothing changes or gets better; and ‘the poor are always with us’ and kept in check by power imbalances.
‘Charity’ is related to a ‘needs-based’ approach, still used by some non-profit organizations, both large and small.
There’s another approach that is referred to as social justice, related to the ‘rights-based’ approach. This type of approach is a little more complicated, but still not too hard to grasp on the surface.
However, social justice or rights-based approaches are not so easy to actually implement, because they imply shifting power, changing systems, demanding that governments and other authorities fulfill their obligations, pushing citizens to take on their civic responsibilities, and getting political. They require those who have power to question why they have it, and they require those who are claiming rights to be empowered and organized. They often require examining one’s own behavior on a broader level. These approaches are not so easy as giving someone some money or your old clothes or a turkey at Thanksgiving. Talk of justice and rights makes a lot of people afraid, both those who hold wealth and power and those that the wealthy and powerful manipulate through the media. However these approaches can lead to long-term and sustainable changes.
This blog post at the Episcopal Cafe (I recommend reading the whole post – it’s short) sums up the difference between charity and social justice quite well. It starts off with this quote:
“Had I but one wish for the churches of America I think it would be that they come to see the difference between charity and justice. Charity is a matter of personal attributes; justice, a matter of public policy. Charity seeks to eliminate the effects of injustice; justice seeks to eliminate the causes of it. Charity in no way affects the status quo, while justice leads inevitably to political confrontation.” – The Rev. William Sloane Coffin, Jr., from his book Credo.
When I read about some of the initiatives being promoted these days – the #SWEDOW projects of the world and the idea that ‘anyone can do aid or development’ – more than anything, what irks me is that many (not all) of them are coming from a charity mentality. Sure, if all you need to do is hand out some of your old stuff or build something, maybe anyone can do it. But that’s not really helping much in the long term.
It doesn’t matter if it’s a non-profit, a do-it-yourselfer, an innovator, a business person, a religious-based group, a social media guru, or a movie star who wants to help out. And it doesn’t matter if the person is from (or working in) the US or a ‘developing’ country. The first thing that I look at in an initiative is the approach — is it coming from a charity mentality (in which case I will groan and fume) or is it questioning why the problem is happening in the first place and does it work in a non-patronizing, non-romanticized, respectful way with the people who are affected by the issue in an effort to help resolve it? (In which case I’ll then look further to see if the person or organization initiating the project has done their research to find well-documented good practices and avoid repeating mistakes or potentially doing harm or doing something that’s totally unsustainable.)
I recognize that social justice is not nearly as easy to achieve as ‘charity’. And I recognize that sometimes people need to be fed so that they have the strength to question why they are hungry and so that they have the energy to do something about it. And I don’t want to give the impression that solutions come from the outside, because most of the time they don’t.
I also recognize that ‘people want to do something’. But if ‘doing something’ means ‘charity’ then I am not in favor. It’s important to address the causes, not just treat the symptoms.
Social enterprise with its triple bottom line (people, planet, profit) has come up heavily in the past few years as one way to address poverty. Social entrepreneurship is also a trend that allows people a way to ‘do something’. I’m not as familiar with these approaches as I am with the other approaches, and I admit that I get the two terms confused.
I like that they move away from the charity mentality. But I’m not entirely sure that these approaches do enough on the side of changing power structures and ensuring that those who are marginalized can access their rights. I’m not convinced that the market takes care the people ‘at the bottom’, or balances out society. I’m also concerned that when push comes to shove, the profit motive will always win out over people and planet, and we are back to where we started perhaps… ‘the poor will always be with us’…. The jury is still out on that one for me.
I’m looking forward to seeing what hybrids develop over the next years, and if we will ever finally eliminate poverty and injustice. In any case, I feel pretty confident saying that it’s time to retire the charity mentality.
Bamboo Shoots – a tookit for facilitators working with children using a rights-based approach
Anything by Robert Chambers (my development hero!)
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