Charitable donations help, but they won't change the system

altruism definition in dictionary
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Money can do a lot to improve the lives of the world's poor, but it's lasting transformation that is really needed.

The concept of ‘effective altruism’ is getting a lot of press these days, as a result of William MacAllister’s new book Doing Good Better. In it, the Oxford professor of psychology argues that charitable donations should be made with much care and research, so as to have the greatest impact in terms of lives saved or significantly improved.

MacAllister argues that there are various ways in which to contribute to the general good, including social entrepreneurship – but then he takes his argument too far, suggesting, “Why work for a charity trying to change the way the world works when you could be an investment banker and donate more cash?”

Harriet Lamb, the CEO of Fairtrade International, takes serious issue with this idea. In an engaging article for the Huffington Post, Lamb points out that the world’s poor do not want generous donations so much as they want dignity and the ability to pull themselves out of poverty.

“Farmers and workers want to earn a fair price for their labour. Just as much as your investment bankers, they want to make their own decisions about how they will invest in their farms and families, cooperatives and communities according to their greatest needs and priorities.

‘Pay us a fair price for our coffee, and we will make poverty history for ourselves,’ Raymond Kimaro of Kilamanjaro Native Co-operative Union famously told the G8 delegation in 2005.”

Kimaro’s statement makes wealthy North Americans feel uncomfortable, not just because many people still choose not to buy Fairtrade-certified products that seem expensive compared to conventional items, but mostly because the wealth and comfort of a small elite relies upon a social system that does tremendous harm to the majority of people in the world.

In a speech recently given at the Aspen Institute’s Action Forum, Anand Giridharadas said:

“So let’s just come out and say the thing you’re never supposed to say in Aspen: that many of the winners of our age are active, vigorous contributors to the problems they bravely seek to solve. And for the greater good to prevail on any number of issues, some people will have to lose — to actually do less harm, and not merely more good.”

When businesses and corporations donate a sliver of their millions to charity, they are lauded for being generous, while managing at the same time to avoid much of the scrutiny that would reveal them as key contributors to many of the world’s woes. Giridharadas likens it to medieval papal indulgences – “a relatively inexpensive way of getting oneself seemingly on the right of justice, without having to alter the fundamentals of one’s life.”

But that system must be changed if the cycle of poverty is to be broken. People need fair-paying jobs, not the sweatshop jobs that MacAskill claims are good for the economy. Lamb argues that sweatshops keep people trapped in poverty, which is why workers and economies need better jobs – not better charity – with proper health and safety, paying proper wages. This, she says, is “perfectly possible because we can all afford to pay a little more for our clothes.” (Fast fashion shoppers, take note!)

Charitable donations are important and helpful, but that’s not where the social aid should stop. It’s crucial to question the system that perpetuates the very problems that we fork out cash to help, that continues to marginalize people and prevent them from receiving their due. As Giridharadas says, “We talk a lot about giving more. We don’t talk about taking less.” It’s now time to do that.

Charitable donations help, but they won't change the system
Money can do a lot to improve the lives of the world's poor, but it's lasting transformation that is really needed.

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