The Role of Charities

Many charities appear to be about finding solutions to dysfunctional situations, about ending things.

Oxfam: "Mission possible: ending poverty"
NSPCC: "we aim to end cruelty to children in the UK"
RSPCA: "It's our vision to work for a world in which all humans respect and live in harmony with all other members of the animal kingdom."
Unicef: "To protect the rights of every child, and invest in her or his well-being, is the surest way to end poverty and to build peace and security in the world."
Breadline Africa: "Ending Poverty Through Charity Donation"

Whilst many who are involved in charity work may want to contribute towards finding solutions and ending things, we must ask if these solutions are really to be found through the current tactics of certain charitable organizations.

Picture this scenario.

A person is trapped within a cell. Conditions within the cell are not good, and our prisoner suffers from a number of physical and mental wounds caused by his imprisonment. He is visited regularly by a medic, who tends to his physical grievances, and a psychologist, who tends to his mental grievances. Between them they manage to keep the prisoner at an apparent equilibrium. He neither gets too ill, nor too well.

We can see charities as being akin to these health professionals, tending to the wounds of those in need. Our professionals stick firmly to their remit. They are trained in tending wounds, and this is their role. They are not there to ask why the prisoner is held captive, because questions like these may well be beyond their jurisdiction, and could land them in trouble with their superiors. After all, their duties provide them with a steady income, and they have families to support. In the last, our professionals have no real concern with seeing an end to this scenario. They may not like it, but they do not see how they can end it. It does not seem to be something that can be changed. The best they can do is to make conditions for our prisoner as bearable as possible.

Our professionals think in the small-scale. They know the borders of their roles, and they do not travel beyond them. They are specialists, and their forte lies in tending wounds. This is the role that they play, and the shape that they assume in order to fit a larger pattern. A charity can likewise think in the small-scale. In doing so it concerns itself with its mission, tending to whatever wound it happens to specialize in. Like our small-scale medics, it would not be concerned with looking beyond the borders of its remit; with asking why the prisoner is held captive, or with questioning the effectiveness, the purpose, or the ideology of the prison.

A charity that thinks large-scale, on the other hand, would be interested in such questions. It may be concerned with his wounds, and may tend to them; but it would also see that if the larger context - the cell - is not dealt with, is not changed, then the wounds will continue to be inflicted; and eventually our prisoner will simply not be able to take anymore, regardless of the help he receives.

A charity that thinks in the large-scale must always have one eye on the larger picture - the prison - and must always be asking questions of it, regardless of where they may lead. Whilst it may be difficult to trace back the causality of any given situation, this is no excuse for not engaging in an investigation. It cannot simply stick to its remit as medic, otherwise it becomes complicit in the drama, another player on the stage.

Such a charity must be interested in systems. It must be interested in how one thing leads to another. Its natural role is a dual one; both medic (zoomed-in, seeing and tending to details) and systems-analyst (zoomed-out, seeing patterns and connections). It must always be seeking to see the larger picture, to push back the boundaries of causality until it can go no further. Only once it has a wide perspective - once it has climbed the mountain of causality, traced the thread all the way back through the labyrinth - can it truly act effectively to eliminate dysfunction.

To zoom-in and look at things in isolation is characteristic of the way that we currently approach the world in most "advanced" Western societies. Traditional societies tend to adopt different approaches. When it comes to health, Native Americans, for example, see things holistically. If a person is unwell, then their illness will be seen as part of a larger picture, and the whole person will be treated rather than the illness in isolation. The essential connectedness of things is acknowledged, instead of one part being split off and seen as separate.

"For the Native American, healing, spiritual development and quality of life cannot be separated from other life aspects to include politics and economics. Harmony with the Earth is essential for health."

In attempting to heal the various wounds of our current way of life, charities could learn a lot from this holistic approach.

However, perhaps most charities only seek to alleviate dysfunction, as opposed to remedy it. In this sense they are a bandage, as opposed to a cure. They become part of a balancing act: through mopping up the mess that is made by the larger system (capitalism) they make it presentable - acceptable - thus allowing it to continue. Without them it would slip into a massive imbalance. The wound would worsen beyond repair, and we would be faced with the full consequences of our actions. As it is, the system appears to be held in perpetual motion - nothing gets better, nothing gets worse, and things go on as normal. The wound is left to bleed, and a new bandage is constantly applied. But this can only go on for so long. Despite the combined efforts of all of the worlds charities, they cannot balance out the ongoing destructive impact of the system, and our state of "equilibrium" is really nothing more than an illusion. Eventually the wound will cause problems that no bandage can deal with.

If a person or an organization is serious about bringing an end to a dysfunctional state of affairs - to find a remedy, to bring about change - then it is not enough for them to simply tend to the wound. They must be prepared to think holistically, balancing small-scale thinking with large-scale thinking. As the Native Americans remind us, it is a mistake to think that the only way to help a sick man is to take away the illness. And inasmuch as a particular illness is found to be related to a larger state of affairs, then any such charity that is not radically opposed to the status-quo cannot be rightly described as being serious about its aims.

If we decide that our society is sick then in order to heal it we may need to do more than simply attend to its various wounds.