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Charity is fostering complacency

By Vanessa Huang

Faced with feeding the masses of people who have been laid off or had their pay cut during the pandemic, food banks have been placed under an extraordinary amount of stress. The images of queues snaking for miles outside of food banks pervade the internet, serving as a visual reminder of the economic devastation wreaked by the pandemic.

I spent many of my evenings between the ages of 15 and 17 volunteering at a food bank. I collected unsold food from retailers and delivered this to the food bank’s warehouse, where it would be sorted and redistributed to people in need. I was utterly convinced that this was the solution we, as a global community, were looking for. If we could only scale this up, we could solve hunger. It seemed so convenient that we could divert surplus food from the landfill and feed people that would have otherwise gone hungry.

But the reason this ‘win-win’ situation seems so beautifully easy is that charity has de-politicised inequality, on both a personal and political level. Rather than addressing why so many people lack access to sufficient meals every day, we can choose to circumvent policymaking and just hand poor people our scraps, maintaining an illusion of ‘making change’. Rather than mobilising and facilitating collective action to solve problems, we make do with charities mitigating urgent symptoms. As American journalist and political pundit Anand Giridharadas says, our preference for quick and easy solutions is not unlike a doctor prescribing a magical cure-all pill without having carefully performed a diagnosis

Food insecurity will not be solved by simply providing more food, and food banks are not equipped to tackle the financial insecurity that gives rise to it. A food bank is an emergency resource, a life raft to stop us from drowning. We have taken this temporary quick fix and made it permanent. What was meant to be a last-resort safety net has now evolved into our main form of social protection. When we accept and normalise food banks as an adequate substitute for governmental policy, we reject institutional changes towards income, housing, employment, education, and health. 

When the responsibility for looking after its citizens shifts from the state to the individual, we internalise the idea that global issues can be solved by scaling up one-to-one interactions, rather than through governmental means. The dopamine rush we get when doing a charitable action reinforces our feeling that we are making a tangible difference, at the price of letting governments off the hook.

Some point to nations with unstable governments, highlighting that without the charitable sector citizens would not be able to meet their basic needs. That may be true – many well-meaning NGOs and aid workers may arrive in a country and provide valuable services to its citizens. Despite this rosy picture, the process of replicating public services can crowd out a government’s financial resources. This can also siphon away good governance through eliminating any means by which citizens previously held their government accountable. When engagement is no longer demanded of leaders, these citizens become stuck in a state of limbo: able to access important services but lacking any kind of commitment from politicians towards long-term improvements in education, health or infrastructure.

It is dangerous to prioritise our own desire for instant gratification over the needs of our community, and become distracted by the optics of giving. In doing so, we risk our governments falling idle and evading responsibility. Providing for basic needs becomes an act of patronage, placing recipients at our mercy. Sudden windfalls occur when we feel particularly generous, perhaps during the holiday season, but dry up with the fading of the twinkling Christmas lights. 

Charities should be operated with the aspiration that they will one day become redundant. This is not an indictment of all charitable giving: if charities were to disappear tomorrow, scores of people all across the world would be worse off. But a balance needs to be reached between meeting the immediate needs of people today, and ensuring a sustainable future tomorrow. Unless our charitable giving is accompanied by a wider commitment to political change, we are just muddling along and maintaining the status quo.

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