Unless we live in a communist utopia, there will be people among us who own and control most of the resources, and others who are largely bereft of said resources. Perhaps there is a tendency towards egalitarianism within human nature, but the idea that the rich should give charitably to the poor (that is, without the expectation of commensurate return) is what society promotes as a virtue to us. However, while there is much good that can arise out of such unselfishness, being charitable out of reflex is irresponsible and potentially less than helpful.
Human beings are cooperative by nature. By experience, we know that through working together we can acquire sufficient resources to fulfil our needs when they arise. This exchange of contributing work for a share of resources produced is the basic foundation of our societies. Successful societies are able to generate resources that meet contributors’ immediate needs, store reserves to meet future needs, trade resources to diversify the resource base to meet other needs and wants, and with the remaining surpluses, assist charitably other members in society who for some reason are unable to contribute and are thus disqualified from a share of these resources. Given this priority sequence, charity exists as an antecedent to the overarching principle of “don’t work, don’t eat”.
In this sense, charity is emotionally rather than economically driven. We hate to see people suffer. Our hearts go out to the malnourished, disease-ridden people wallowing in squalor, living out horrific, short, brutal lives. Their tearful eyes and outstretched hands appeal to us to contribute just a little of the abundance we enjoy, and often we feel like monsters if we turn our backs and walk away. So our first motivation for giving charitably is to assuage our guilt with a small donation (United Way claims that contributing the amount that buys a cup of coffee a day is all it asks). Sure, if it makes us feel better about ourselves, then why not?
Charitable giving is likewise desirable to us as to be able to give charitably, we are in a position of superiority, possessing such a surplus of resources that we can afford to give some of it away to others who need it more. We may not know who to give it to, or how to make a contribution, so we go along with the advertising of established charity organisations who compete for our donations using the most heart-wrenching images and narratives they can use to make their appeals. If we don’t give out of guilt, then we give out of a hero complex: making a small commitment on our part helps to save the world.
The good of charitable giving lies in the question, “who benefits”? Recent allegations against certain charitable organisations have revealed that charity is a business to them. While our donations do in part go to help the people who need it, most of what we donate goes towards the operational costs of running the organisation, the marketing it does to continue selling sob-stories that keep donations rolling in, and some organisation heads have been accused of misappropriating funds for their own personal enrichment.
It’s not like donors are being duped, but they are disillusioned that their gifts of charity are not being put to the best use, and are not sufficiently benefiting the right people. But donors also shoulder some complicity in that they, for all intents and purposes, donated to an ad campaign, rather than to an actual need. Without taking due diligence to study the issues, and carefully consider the actual situation, they simply threw money at a problem via a third party, and felt good about it.
In a world that still suffers from inequality, hunger, and deprivation, charitable giving can still do much good. Giving money is always accepted, but a donor must make sure that the right materials are purchased to meet the right needs of the right people. That takes time, and it takes a commitment to meet the beneficiaries, get to know them personally and understand their situation clearly. Certain needs are so extensive that they require an organised effort to meet them. Donors should understand the processes therein and thoroughly vet the organisation for trustworthiness and efficiency with minimal waste. Above all, donors need to keep track of the progress of the work being done – that people’s lives are improving, secure homes are built, diseases are eradicated, and people, especially children, are facing the future with hope, not despair.
In recent times, people have taken the convenient but mistaken route of charitably giving money, and only money, to be disbursed by a third party organisation, and believing they have done their part. But in order to do any actual good, the kind of charitable giving that is desirable requires more than just a commitment of money, but also time, thought, and personal outreach to the intended beneficiaries. That way, donors can see for themselves how their acts of charity are truly improving the lives of the people they want to help. True, it is a commitment that makes it impossible to give charitably to some impoverished community in some other impoverished country, but unless one is prepared to go there personally to see how they can help, there are always people in one’s own country, even one’s own neighbourhood that need help. Charity does indeed begin at home.
Inspired by Singapore-Cambridge GCE ‘A’ Level General Paper (Paper 1) 2021 Question #5
If you would like access to my annotated Google Doc, please drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org for notes on my thought process!
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