Rob Rix questions why we do, and don’t, give money to charity
I happened to catch a few minutes of ITV’s Celebrity Chase (pictured above). Jon Snow gets a question wrong and misses out on £45000 for charity. Everyone goes ‘Aaaah’ and Adrian Chiles bangs the table in mock despair. Jon Snow makes a joke about a banana. Everyone laughs. But I can’t help but wonder what that £45000 could have done for the beneficiaries of that charity. Imagine if they were watching, and to their horror Jon Snow’s knowledge of The Beatles is not enough to double the figure heading their way. There may well be cries of anger, disbelief and tears as they calculate how much food, mosquito nets or clean water that blunder has just cost their community … then Jon Snow makes a joke about a banana.
It seems like perverse logic that the format of the show should deprive people of money that is clearly available. But then is that really the point of the show? Or is it just to wheel out some celebrities in an attempt to boost ratings and advertising revenue? Well, probably. But it says something about the role of charity in our society. It’s a nice comfy blanket whenever we want to feel a little better about ourselves.
If all your friends are going out and you can’t afford to because you gave all your money away, the fuzzy glow of charity probably won’t stop you feeling like you’ve missed out
Comic Relief provides one of the few times when we collectively recognise the huge injustices in the world, but we’d better have Jonathan Ross and Jack Whitehall presenting it or it would be too depressing. The only way we can look at that giant elephant in the room is if someone puts some comedy glasses on it. And then it finishes with that wonderful moment when the final total is totted up, a new record, of course, and we can all go to bed happy that we are doing something about it, even if we didn’t actually give any money, and forget about all those Africans for another year. Perfect.
Take some of the other activities that generally inspire charity. Everyone knows someone who’s run a marathon for charity or jumped out of a plane to part us from our well-hoarded cash. Because the only reason I help those less fortunate is if my friends go through extreme physical endurance or fear. “You didn’t bungee jump of the shard? Well f**k you then, I’m not giving to WaterAid”. Or the ice bucket challenge, hugely successful in capitalising on people’s mindless conformity in persuading us to donate to a worthy charity.
But is this the way decisions should be made? Which charity has the best viral campaign is going to dictate how resources flow to the neediest. Why do we need these crass incentives to motivate us to act?
Maybe because our lives are so comfortable, and the problems seem so big, so beyond the capabilities of any individual to tackle that it’s much easier to watch Celebrity Chase than actually do anything about it.
Real structural change in the world will only happen through the collective organisation and struggle of mass movements, which can all seem a bit abstract and unrealistic until it actually happens. In the meantime it’s difficult to personally donate appropriate amounts to the poor because your mates probably aren’t. If all your friends are going out and you can’t afford to because you gave all your money away, the fuzzy glow of charity probably won’t stop you feeling like you’ve missed out. We experience life relative to those around us, so to expect people to sacrifice large proportions of personal wealth individually is just not realistic. And so it takes a viral campaign, or a feat of endurance to shake us into giving every now and then.
At this point I should say that charity is undeniably a good thing and those who carry it out deserve huge credit. It makes a real difference in the world that cannot be ignored. But let us recognise it for what it is. At its best it is like putting a plaster on a gunshot wound. At worst it can oil the wheels for the system by protecting those who benefit from their conscience.
It is no coincidence that a great age of philanthropists emerged during the brutalities of the industrial revolution. That the Gates Foundation operates in areas directly affected by oil companies that he invests in is perhaps the starkest demonstration of this mind-set, exploiting with one hand and then giving back with the other. I’m not saying charity is bad or that anyone should stop fund-raising or giving. But we need to recognise the context within which charity operates and the role it plays in our societies. If we did this it might pave the way for the kind of movements and change that would make charity unnecessary. Until then we can listen to Jon Snow making jokes, about bananas.
Featured image credit: itvstudios.com