Tuesday, 3 July 2012

The worst kind of emergency

Tuesday 3 July 2012

Like most people who want to think of themselves as morally conscientious, I've been acutely aware of my obligation to contribute to charity for some time now. I wrote in March last year in the post 'Further Irish adventures' on my travel blog, Ordinary things, smashed and reconstituted

I can’t really explain it, I suspect because it doesn’t make sense, but I feel a kind of guilt being in someone else’s country and being better off than them. Here I am, a visitor, a traveller in London and there’s a homeless man whose country this is, and I’m better off than him.

In retrospect, I now feel I can account for that 'inexplicable', 'irrational' guilt with another passage from the brilliant documentary that everyone should see, Stephanie Black's Life and Debt, and the book upon which it is based, Jamaica Kincaid's A Small Place

But some natives--most natives in the world--cannot go anywhere. They are too poor. They are too poor to go anywhere. They are too poor to escape the reality of their lives; and they are too poor to live properly in the place where they live, which is the very place you, the tourist, want to go--so when the natives see you, the tourist, they envy you, they envy your ability to leave your own banality and boredom, they envy your ability to turn their own banality and boredom into a source of pleasure for yourself.

The writer has, I think, natives of the third world in mind here, but I think it applies to the homeless of the first world, too. I think I was picking up on this dichotomy between the privileged tourist and the impoverished native, and it made me uncomfortable. I continued in that post to explain how I assuaged both this tourist's guilt and my obligation to give:

I just made a promise to myself that, while travelling, I would give something to everyone who asked it of me – even if it’s just always the smallest coin in my pocket (although I think giving single pennies away is more insulting than anything else). I know it’s irrational, but I don’t think giving can really be a bad thing, so I’m happy to keep doing it. It’s either homeless people, charity workers, or buskers, so the money’s never going somewhere it shouldn’t.

I felt that satisfied my obligation while I was away, but I always intended to, upon my return, do some research and choose a charity or two that I could champion and support regularly. The task, however, proved too large and too difficult. Where do you start? How do you choose between one cause and another? I soon realised that the very dedication I had to the idea of charity (and of finding the right one) was only serving to delay my actual participation in it. So my ultimate solution ended up resembling my European policy more than anything else. Since then, I've been meting out smaller amounts of money more frequently to whichever charitable cause comes my way. $10, say, every time a friend does a charity run. 
So far this has led me to make donations to causes as diverse as the Sexy Tales Comedy theatre collective, Cancer Research UK, the Leukaemia Foundation, the lesser known Nepalese Blinknow Foundation and even, controversially, Invisible Children's Kony 2012 campaign. I have also recently begun to donate monthly to the activist group GetUp!, although I would classify that as a third-tier act of charity. It's third-tier because, as strongly as I feel about the issue, its importance is higher-order, more abstract, contentious. I might be wrong about the need for the Australian political discourse to be dragged left, just as it might not be as important to donate to the Atheist Foundation of Australia, or any particular political party, despite my personal feelings on the issue. These are disputable ideological causes whose need to be kept at the third tier is underlined when you consider that many people in the world would not donate to GetUp! or Avaaz, but to right-wing think tanks and the like. I would also place donations to arts organisations, libraries, museums, schools, local children's sports clubs, and other institutions of general good in this category. These are worthy causes, but they would serve only to improve lives, not to save them. The fact that there are two tiers of importance below them should not reflect poorly on their worth, but rather on how very dire the need of other causes is.

We can all agree, for instance, about finding a cure for cancer, or multiple sclerosis, or AIDS, or leukaemia, whatever objections I may have to the shameless corporate exploitation of the breast cancer pink ribbon (most disgustingly in the name of 'breast cancer awareness', as though we could be any more aware of breast cancer), and misgivings I might have about the resulting disproportionate funding of breast cancer research to that of other cancers. These potentially life-saving causes I would name second-tier, once again because of the seriousness of other causes, not because of their own lack of worth.

Because, while the pursuit of cures for disease is undoubtedly a noble cause, no one can say it is morally wrong that diseases exist, that this is an injustice for which we are implicitly to blame and which we can act to stop. That is the nature of the first-tier causes, those which attempt to solve and alleviate poverty.

Now, semantic decay has unfortunately seen to it that we hear talk about poverty mostly as meaningless platitudes. We're all inured to it. 'Starving children in Africa' has become a reproach for parents to get their children to finish their meals and avoid waste, the touchstone invoked rhetorically in every argument, a phrase to be bandied about by comedians in witty contrasts with petty Western concerns.

But try to stop and think about it for a second, as I have recently. Try to undo the work of semantic decay, to resensitise yourself. It's like how we grow up with giraffes and elephants in our books and toyboxes, their long necks and noses pointed out to us as their distinguishing features from the very beginning, so we are robbed of the chance to ever really marvel at them, until one day you're half-watching a documentary when you realise how remarkable they really are.

Think about it. Try to look at it from an objective perspective, that of intelligent alien observers, or our descendents in the future. What would they think when they heard that three quarters of the world's population lived in poverty and the other quarter did nothing. How can we go on with our lives knowing that the rest of the world is suffering in this way? How can we buy an expensive new TV when we know that if we only donated that money to a charity instead, we would literally be saving hundreds of lives? How can we spend billions exploring space when we haven't even solved the problems here on Earth? How is this allowed to go on? If you accept that the boundaries between nations are arbitrary and we are all just human beings on this world, it's hard to believe. It's hard not to think that there should be some kind of limit on the wealth that a nation can possess while its neighbours are dying of easily curable diseases. That each rich country should have to take on a number of poor ones whose welfare it is their responsibility to ensure before they can continue to expand themselves. The poverty of the vast majority of the world is nothing short of an emergency, and it is the worst kind: the kind that we have gotten used to. The kind that can last centuries.

Think about the last time you heard about or saw someone rich, or some possession you wish you were rich enough to own. Now realise that nearly everyone in the rest of the world feels that way about you. The rest of the world would give anything to be in your financial position, however humble you may feel that to be. And not just now, but for all human history. It's mindblowing. This tweet comes to mind:

In light of all this, I've decided to add a new page to this blog, which will track my charitable efforts over this financial year. I'm not doing it to boast. I'm doing it because I want to be able to see the difference I've made, and judge whether I feel it's enough. I'm doing it mindful of what Peter Singer has been urging us to do: change the culture of giving. To make it something that you would expect any normal, decent person to do, something that you could envision bringing up in casual conversation: 'Oh, so who do you donate to?'

I'm urging you to do the same. Pick a charity, a first-tier one, and work out how much you can spare and start giving. Then, if you want, you can give to the second and third tiers too. Or do what I do and give out ten dollars here and there wherever the opportunity arises. As Singer says on the webpage linked to above:

almost a billion people live very comfortable lives, with money to spare for many things that are not at all necessary. (You are not sure if you are in that category? When did you last spend money on something to drink, when drinkable water was available for nothing? If the answer is “within the past week” then you are spending money on luxuries while children die from malnutrition or diseases that we know how to prevent or cure.)

Once you have any amount of expendable income there is no excuse for you not to give. If your savings are in the hundreds, just give ten dollars every now and then at the least. We live in the age of the internet. You can do it with your credit card without ever seeing your money leave your hand. You won't even notice the difference, I promise.

And don't just give, but record it, like I am. Publicly, if possible, but privately otherwise. So you know how much you're giving and can feel good or bad about it accordingly. And talk about it. Take the pledge on Singer's website. Tell people you're looking for a charity to donate to and ask them who they recommend. Act surprised if they say they don't give. Shame them subtly if you must. And every time you give to charity, click the 'share on Facebook' or 'share on Twitter' buttons afterwards. Let everyone see, and let's change the culture of giving.


Stephanie Black's 2001 documentary Life and Debt, produced by Tuff Gong Pictures.

Lisa Pryor (@pryorlisa)'s 2012 tweet.

WhatNewsShouldBe's 2011 YouTube video, 'african food joke comic strip', of Dwayne Perkins's 'Not a Part of the Problem' comedy routine.

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