Charity is a chimera. Giving for the simple and pure sake of giving is rarely occurring, as the selflessness of the act is replaced with various types of gain – either a boost in brand identity, in the case of corporations, a promise to be repaid in the afterlife, in the case of religious organisations, or simply a feeling of personal satisfaction, in the case of most individuals. Charity is almost always an investment, involving clear steps to measure the return on investment and further implications of the act of giving.
Corporate philanthropy, as one of the larger structures of giving in the Western world, involves complex strategies of following and accounting for donations made, and consequently installs a hierarchy of giving, which often follows existing cultural, political, and economic demarcations. The vectors of charity are essentially drawn to reinforce the division between the rich and the poor, rather than genuinely attempting to close this gap. The Global South, and the so-called Third World nations are often the target of waves of charitable work, which fails, nonetheless, to take a realistic measure of existing needs, and design sustainable strategies of help and intervention. Therefore, charity maintains the established status-quo, performing an othering of the recipients of charity, rarely imagining or working towards an actual overcoming of this hierarchy, which essentially translates as an “us and them” divide. This shows that, in order to keep its principles intact, charity needs inequality – the rich cannot thrive as philanthropists unless the (significantly) less rich exist.
In recent years, many businesses have started to rethink their philanthropic work, and move towards a more socially viable self-awareness – from direct donations to charitable organisations, to incorporating social responsibility at all levels of their business model, and considering the larger impact on society and the environment. This has the potential to reduce the distance between the source of charity and the recipient, and consequently limit the discourse that affects the latter, by removing culturally violent labels of inferiority.
Similar forms of social aggression and proselytist views are often present in the work of religious missionaries. Although rooted in an uncomplicated love-of-the-neighbour logic, religious charity comes often with strings attached, contributing to the transformation of churches and religious organisations into veritable corporate entities, employing colonial attitudes and politics that turn suffering and poverty into a business for donors.
The American model of the megachurch provides the perfect setting for the perpetuation of cultures of inequality at the core of charity work. Almost always run with a clear business model in place, these megachurches gather thousands of worshipers to multiple services every weekend. Their internal organisation follows a most secular pattern: with staff teams of thousands of people, they appoint communications directors, implement complex outreach programs and work divisions, and manage finances in the millions of dollars annually. A study carried out by the Leadership Network & Hartford Institute finds that “global mission programs are a major emphasis or a specialty of the congregation for 81% of megachurches.” Missionary work is thus essential to the identity of the church, and is at risk of serving as its own reason for charity, rather than actual needs of people. This leads to most churches indiscriminately choosing to do their mission work in areas of the world they do not always understand and research, placing a strain on the local culture and values.
These narratives of the “helper” rest on a strange mix of affect and politics, faith and calling, which, more often than not, ends up promoting a structural devaluing of those labelled as “needy.” If corporations and charitable organisations might define the poor also as “culturally or economically retrograde,” religious organisations take one step further, to define them as living in a sort of darkness of spirit, which can only be filled with the light of the gospel. There is a form of voyeurism at work here – missionaries eventually go back to their church packed with thousands of curious supporters. How do they portray the ones they “helped,” how do they describe the “success” of their mission, and how do they argue for going back to these allegedly God-forsaken places to bring the good word? Once again, inequality is at the core of a well-oiled machine.
How can all this be overcome? Removing the colonial aspect of charity – bringing help from outside – would be a start in replacing the binary distribution of value in the context of charity, and reduce the dependency on foreign agents. Dedicated work towards ending the use of poverty and helplessness in the business strategy of elite donors, as well as active and genuine support of local businesses are also essential in reducing the backlash of charity as we now know it.
Words: Elena Stanciu
Concept: Oana Crusmac and Annunziata Santelli