Tuesday, 2 February 2010

Begging the Charity Question

Another natural disaster, another prompt to donate money to help those in need. That’s absolutely right. And decent people – i.e., most of the human race minus hate-warped evangelists – respond. Not all as generously as the likes of Sandra Bullock ($1 million cheque to the Haiti appeal - never mind the Oscars, she should be given an award for her lead role in generosity), but we did our bit. The problem is that we all know this still leaves the much bigger question unanswered: how can we stop people from being so wretchedly vulnerable to the disasters to come?

Earthquakes, hurricanes, droughts, floods, extreme heat and cold, and more will keep coming. Charity will supplement the resources to deal with the immediate crisis, but the underlying weaknesses are still there. Hurricane Katrina infamously hit New Orleans when the rich had been able to leave the city behind, killing the poor stuck behind with no protection. Across the world, excepting where people have been able through the use of their democratic power to take collective action to look after themselves, the powerless are left to be crushed whenever the next catastrophe strikes.

Charity is a useful top-up, drawing on the generosity of the kind, adding to relief for the stricken, but only fools and charlatans would suggest it holds the key to combating human suffering. For all the moralising about Victorian values of charity, the one vital legacy of the Victorian era was to highlight the squalor, degradation, and utter repugnance of a laissez faire society, where people, old and young were left to suffer and die whenever misfortune should befall them. Successive governments in Britain, other European countries, and even America learnt in the early twentieth century that state funded public actions were ultimately indispensable to improving people’s life chances significantly.

So let us not succumb to global amnesia and forget the necessity of democratic public institutions to secure better protection, fairly and reliably, for all. Alongside the most valuable charitable work, there must be real political foundations for long term housing, development, law and order, education, and health provisions if those with the least power to protect themselves are to have any future.

And it is not just countries like Haiti that need strong democratic governance to bring about improvements for the people, their American neighbours are also experiencing a growing incapacity to develop public solutions beyond the acts of private charity in meeting desperate needs. With over 45 million US citizens lacking health insurance cover, and a life expectancy rate lagging behind all other major developed countries (and not so developed ones like Cuba), it beggars belief that the idea of collective government action to guarantee protection for all citizens should be vehemently rejected by so many. Perhaps those who are fortunate enough to have insurance themselves can’t bear to pay a few dollars more in taxes to help others, and they shield their conscience by pointing to charity as the safety net.

But make no mistake, in America, in Haiti, across the world, individual acts of charity can never substitute for universal support secured for all citizens with contributions from all citizens. So give generously to charities, and if you really care about minimising avoidable suffering, give your backing to collective action to secure better protection for all, at home and abroad.