The civil society sector has grown exponentially in the last couple of decades. This should (and is) a cause for great joy, because it means that there are more people who are interested in the common well-being of society. There are many branches of civic activity, but the one that has really become more evident is charity work. Volunteering has always been the foundation of charitable activity, however in recent times charities have employed persons to offer their skills and experience, on the same terms as any public or private company. The growth of this sector has meant that there has been many other practices, good and bad, that have made their way into this sector thereby transforming this it into a quasi-private sector.
There are two strands or styles of charity work; charity as a vocation and charity as a profession. The word vocation is derived for the Latin vocatio which means to be summoned or called. This means that there are those who see their charitable work as their lifework, or the purpose of their very existence on earth. In this category of charity work is someone like Mother Teresa of Calcutta, who summed up her vocation as; “giving drink to the thirsty; not only for water but for knowledge, peace, truth, justice and love. Clothing the naked; not only with clothes but with human dignity. Giving shelter to the homeless; not only a shelter made of bricks, but a heart that understands, that covers that loves. Nursing the sick and dying; not only for the body, but also for the mind and spirit.”
Vocational charity work does not always have a large administration, and for this reason there is always a direct and clear link between those who fund and run the organisation, and those who are recipients of whatever service is being offered. On the other hand there are professional charities. It is important to say that even though professional charities are, in this article, tabulated against vocational charities it does not always mean that they are in contrast with each other. Professional charities also do a lot of good work on a scale larger than that of vocational charities. Professional charities are highly staffed, and make use of a variety of professionals on an employment or contractual basis.
In recent decades charity work has become very fashionable and glamorous. Celebrities are now ambassadors, and the faces of many charitable organisations and causes. Even though we cannot be found to be doubting the maxims or the motivations of celebrity interventions in charitable work, we can assume that it has a lot to do with public relations for both the celebrity and the charity. Charities use the public appeal of celebrities to further their causes while some celebrities use charities to display that they have some kind of a social conscience, and they are ploughing back to the communities from which they come. This relationship can be truly authentic, but also it can be purely a public relations stunt. It is a publicity stunt to exalt the name of an individual or that of an organisation at the expense of a suffering person.
In most cases the sufferer is nameless, and is lost in the figures that are tossed around in order to solicit funding. Tied to this is the notion of the dignity of the sufferer. Vocational charities are concerned with the preservation of dignity, from when the person arrives until they leave. This is not always the case with some large scale professional charities. Even though their ultimate aim is to enhance and better the lives of individuals, they can be ignorant of the fact that people are dignified by virtue of life. When we see pictures and advertisements of people in at their worst condition; children suffering from malnutrition, drinking water from the same springs or rivers as animals and being pestered by flies, three things come to mind.
Firstly, the displaying of anyone under such conditions places them in a position where their dignity is compromised. Not only do they have to suffer the indignity of their situation everyday of their lives but they also suffer that indignity on a global scale through advertising. The response from charities would be that they desire to show the world, particularly those who enjoy comfortable lives that in some places people suffer and urgent help is needed. However the same message can be communicated with showing people being healed or discharged from hospital or launching a new fresh water supply to a community and documenting their joy not their pain.
The second area is one that comes to mind every time I turn on the television in a Western country and see a charity advertisement; was there any effort made to seek the consent of parents to have their children photographed and filmed? Or did these people agree to be filmed or photographed? If yes, where these individuals told that they (or their children) will become the faces of human suffering in global advertisements? Today no one can walk into a clinic in any of the developed countries and begin to take pictures of people especially children. This seems not to be the case with third world countries.
The third element is, in fact, the most worrisome, it is the one that sets vocational charities apart from professional charities – the videoing of misery and not doing anything to assist immediately. A recent advertisement or appeal of a large charity in the United Kingdom dealing with children showed a child drinking dirty water from some dirty spring. What is of great concern is that this child was filmed instead of being offered clean water. It is not a farfetched idea to hold the opinion that the filming crew must have been in possession of clean water if not they too must have been drinking from the same dirty spring. A charity that is interested in helping people would help people first not after filming but before. Too often charities use pity to get funding. What they should be doing instead is allowing their track record, the result of their work to speak for itself.
Another area which has also been on the rise in large and professional charities is the use of executives and celebrities. When celebrity ambassadors, charity executives and others in large scale charities receive VIP treatment, fly business class and sleep in five star accommodation while they do charity work, the goal of charity as a labour of love is compromised. When doing site visits charity executives and celebrities are driven in expensive cars whose prices could feed the entire community for more than one week. Some could argue that one does not have to be poor in order to serve the poor. That view is indeed true, but it does not take into account the bigger picture.
The bigger picture goes back to the question of funding. The intension of the donor, when he or she makes a pledge to an organisation, is to see to it that those who need help are indeed helped. Granted, there is a need for effective administration processes even in charities, but as soon as charities become commercial the bigger the disparity between the executives, and those on the receiving end. Some charities not only have a large administration, but they also contract and subcontract other professionals. Other areas begin to eat into the charity like advertising, accounting firms, law firms and many more. The costs of running some of these charities can solve some troubled areas in a very quick and tangible manner. What is, perhaps, missing in some of our charitable organisations, which is key in this sector, is a vision that always places those in need at the centre. No one should be doing any work for a charitable organisation without having any link with those the charity claims to be helping.
There is also something to be said about charity in truth. Growing up we were taught that there is absolutely no need to blow your own horn every time you do something good for someone else. I am often surprised when I see someone write or refer to themselves, on their own profile, as a philanthropist or humanitarian. I am surprised because it would seem that helping the other in anyway has in recent years become a thing in itself. Helping someone else, I believe, is part of the human condition, it is what we have to be doing. Perhaps this point is well summed up by the mother of Mbuyisa Makhubo, the young man who is seen carrying Hector Pieterson in that famous photograph of June 16 1976; “Mbuyisa is or was my son. But he is not a hero. In my culture, picking up Hector is not an act of Heroism. It was his job as a brother. If he left him on the ground and somebody saw him jumping over Hector he would never be able to live here.”
It is understood though that the desire to encourage others to do the same is what leads individuals, particularly celebrities to always publicise their good deeds. This notion, though solid, assumes that the other person who has been on the receiving end of the good deed would not say anything. It assumes that those who have been served by charities do not share with their communities about how they were helped. In addition, it also assumes that those who stand outside the charitable exchange cannot witness and share with others about charitable deed encountered. This type of behaviour leads to questions about the maxim of the charitable act.
A while back in South Africa, there was an advertisement which had an insurance company painting a church or a crèche, and giving seeds for communities to start vegetable gardens. When looking on the surface it is easy to view the act as commendable. What was of great concern was the fact that they had commissioned an advertisement to be made and broadcast about this act. It does not take a very intelligent person to note that the price for paint and seeds, put together, did not come even close to the amount paid to the advertising agency that put the add together and the costs of broadcasting the advertisement. Such acts cast a shadow on charitable acts; they smack of a public relations exercise masquerading itself as charity.
It would be foolish to suggest that there are no pseudo vocational charities or charitable acts. However there is something to be said about the visible link between those who start a charity and those who are on the receiving end. Often such founders, community workers, know the people they serve by name. These persons operate from the bottom to the top, and not from the top to the bottom. Operating from the top to the bottom means that there is an unfamiliarity with the specific cases on the ground. Some of these professional charities throw money at problems, hold mega conferences, and can even afford to run statistics and so on. Even though these are necessary, they do not hold the same authority as accompanying people in their day to day experience. Charitable works have always enjoyed a certain moral authority, but this does not mean that there are some practises within them which might cause ethical questions to be raised. DM