Opinionista Shelagh Gastrow 19 September 2018

International Day of Charity poses questions about giving – and how we give

September 5 was the International Day of Charity, declared by the United Nations General Assembly in 2012 in order to highlight the developmental and aid roles of charitable giving.

The date, 5 September, was selected as the International Day of Charity because it was the anniversary of the death of Mother Theresa of Calcutta who received the 1979 Nobel Peace prize and was world-renowned for her charitable activities. Various happenings take place around the world, but it has not received much high-profile coverage in South Africa.

There is a critique of charity and Mother Theresa in particular. While there is always room for charity or relief in times of crisis such as wars, fire or flood, the question is whether charity actually sustains a system resulting in poverty and inequality by providing on-going support, either with funding, food or shelter, that makes poverty bearable, rather than encouraging citizens to change the system so that it is more inclusive and provides greater opportunities for all.

There are people who believe that the harm caused by charitable giving exceeds the good especially as it can create a cycle of dependency. Yet, for the “giver” it is easier to provide an immediate donation or food for a soup kitchen, than to envisage a long-term developmental contribution. How does one shift the charitable paradigm from short-term assistance (such as the provision of relief) to long-term social investment that can take years to achieve specific outcomes? This is a question facing most governments and aid agencies, not only individual givers and private philanthropic foundations.

I recall a meeting with an aid worker in Ethiopia in the 1990s who explained how his organisation was faced with a cycle of drought and famine which required relief, and then some years of developmental work as the country stabilised, which would then be interrupted again by new relief requirements as famine hit again. Yet we know that many famines are a result of government inability to manage and plan adequately and it was these systems that actually required “fixing”.

In an article in the Express Tribune (Pakistan) on 6 September, it was reported that Faisal Edhi, Head of the Edhi Foundation and the son of a renowned philanthropist, expressed his wish for the country to become a welfare state so that all the essential needs of its citizens could be achieved. It was pointed out that the role of charity becomes important when the tax system is unable to meet social needs, but that charity is also not a long-term solution to deal with poverty.

We in South Africa are only too aware of our collapsing tax collecting ability as well as the breakdown in trust between the state and its citizens, resulting in resistance to paying tax to a corrupt and wasteful government. Besides increased pressure on the philanthropy sector, this has also resulted in individuals tending to give their charity “closer to home” such as their children’s schools, to their mosques and churches, rather than to entities that they do not know.

So here we are in South Africa, faced with growing poverty, a slipping middle class where people are finding it difficult to repay their bonds or the rocketing cost of their rates and electricity.

What advice can we give on the International Day of Charity?

We need to acknowledge that assisting others in our community or society is a good thing, whether providing charitable funding or simply helping when required such as stopping to assist someone whose car has broken down. However, most people who want to make a financial contribution do not have the time or know how to investigate where an intervention can be made to forward systemic change. They therefore act on their charitable impulse which is generally short term, but also important. To assist, there are some key principles involved in giving that can be kept in mind. These include :

  • A willingness to listen rather than assuming that you have the answers to all problems.
  • Ensuring that the recipient of the funding/assistance is not made to feel indebted to the giver.
  • That where possible, on-going support is provided to ensure a specific outcome eg continued annual support for a learner through to matric.
  • If giving to a non-profit organisation, do some checking via their website on who is on their board and who their other donors are. If this information is not available, rather avoid the organisation.
  • Encourage your children to learn about giving by providing them with some money to donate to a particular organisation of their choice or encourage them to volunteer their time. This will help them to think about the society in which they live and to understand how to give. These donations can be used to celebrate a birthday or a religious holiday.

While charitable giving is often seen as short-sighted and donor focused (as indeed in many cases the donor doesn’t even know the name of the recipient or what he/she will use the money for), it has a crucial role to play in crises.

Gift of the Givers in South Africa is a good example of charitable giving that has an impact not only in South Africa, but internationally. They have plugged many gaps and saved many lives. It is currently providing for drought-stricken farms in the Karoo with boreholes, fodder and other necessities such as school meals. Its charitable programmes are all-encompassing and include, inter alia, medical support, pet care, food parcels, sports development, provision of water and counselling services. This is done through the donations of many individuals and the organisation has become a world leader in charitable activities.

Many of us feel powerless to change systems, especially as systemic change takes time. When faced with immediate crises, it is important for our society to respond to stabilise the situation before systemic shifts can occur.

To quote the previous Secretary-General of the United Nations, Ban Ki-moon:

At a time when the need for humanitarian assistance has never been higher and when there are more refugees and displaced people than at any time since the end of the Second World War, charities play an increasingly vital role in meeting human need.… I call on people everywhere to volunteer and act charitably in the face of human suffering.” DM

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