Thursday, 13 November 2014

Why Do We Give to Charity?

By Dr Siobhan Holohan

It’s Children in Need tomorrow. The day in the year when the British public come together to raise hundreds of millions of pounds for children’s charities around the country. For weeks or months individuals and groups of people have run marathons, held bake-offs, or worn silly costumes to fundraise for this worthy cause. No-one can deny that the projects supported by this money need to be funded. They provide, amongst many other things, safe places for children to go when they feel threatened at home, respite care for the many thousands of children who care for their sick or disabled parents and siblings, and specialist childcare facilities for children with learning or physical disabilities.

Like many, I support local, national and international charities such as this on a regular basis; by putting a few coins in a bucket, by texting £5, or logging onto a website to donate. I also support a number of charities year in, year out. These are the causes that over the years have meant something to me. When I had no money, I supported them with time, now I have no time I mostly support them with money. I have also dropped in and out of other charities as my world-view and priorities have changed and, sometimes, as particular causes have come to dominate the headlines.

But why do I, and so many others, support charities - to the tune of £10.4 billion last year alone? Despite my willingness and indeed desire to show my support by volunteering time and money to these causes, over the years I have often questioned why we need charity as a society. This often hits me hardest when the ‘big’ celebrity-endorsed televised fundraising events come around. Watching TV last night and listening to the radio while driving into work this morning, I was struck by the entertainment and consumer value attached to Children in Need, one of the longest running and best known televised fundraising events in the UK. As I listened to a popular morning radio show auctioning off experience days for hundreds of thousands of pounds to generous (and clearly very wealthy) listeners, I wondered at the disconnect between these two polar opposites – individuals and groups who rely on the generosity of others to function and, indeed, offer vital support to those in need, and those who are able to give away large amounts of money without too much thought.

Within the current economic context where the gap between rich and poor is widening exponentially,  Zizek has provided an interesting take on this dichotomy in a controversial lecture on the problems caused by allowing charitable exchange to become the main feature in contemporary cultural capitalism (transcript available here). In short he argues that charity is being sold to us within the cultural products we consume. For example, when be buy a coffee from Starbucks, our guilt at buying into corporate capitalism is somewhat assuaged by the fact that we are drinking Fairtrade coffee that might benefit a remote community in South America. This transaction benefits the company by giving them good press and also allows us to feel better about our relative security in an increasingly uncertain world. The same could be said for televised fundraising events like Children in Need. In between being entertained we are shown heart breaking clips of those in need of our help. When we donate, we allow ourselves to feel better, but also to feel more in control. But, for Zizek, charitable giving does not solve the problem at the centre of the need for charity, he says:

People find themselves surrounded by hideous poverty, by hideous ugliness, by hideous starvation. It is inevitable that they should be strongly moved by all this. Accordingly, with admirable, though misdirected intentions, they very seriously and very sentimentally set themselves to the task of remedying the evils that they see. But the remedies do not cure the disease they merely prolong it; indeed the remedies are part of the disease. They try to solve the problem of poverty, for instance, by keeping the poor alive. Or in the case of a very advanced school by amusing the poor. But this is not a solution it is an aggravation of the difficulty (Zizek 2009).

So, giving to charity does not make the problem go away. Instead, in some kind of perverse contradiction, it acts to hide the problem behind a veneer of altruism where individuals become liable for the failures of a social system strategically organised to benefit the already wealthy.

Does this mean that we should all stop giving? Absolutely not. Not for Zizek, not for me, and most certainly not for the many millions of people who regularly donate time, money, and occasionally their lives, to causes that would otherwise be unable to function. But what it does mean is that we should perhaps open our eyes to why there is such a great need for charity, volunteers and philanthropy. What I would like to see in between the stylised gloss of the latest televised giveathon are accounts of why certain services have been cut, why charities need to exist at all, and, occasionally, a suggestion about how to organise society in a way that benefits all. 

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