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I was at the 10 year jubilee of an inspiring organization yesterday. They do wonderful work with mentally disabled children and their families. Providing services and hope to young people who undoubtedly benefit greatly from the organization’s help and dedication. During her short address, the founder said something I feel like I hear more and more, it went something like, and I paraphrase: “…this is not charity. Charity is about someone who has something to give, giving it to someone who needs something, it is an unequal relationship, and demeaning to the person receiving charity.” That is jarring to me. By all means no need to tout your own charitable nature, that would be in bad taste, but to make a point of denying it implies that more is at work.

While the power inequities (wow, I think I used that phrase now in two consecutive posts!) in international development are an important topic for discussion and for the industry to be keenly aware off, I would feel that doing away with charity and charitable acts because it would be a reflection of the inequities in the world, would be a high price to pay. For both sides of that equation. Now, I suspect that many feel that charity is not just a reflection of those inequities, but that charity contributes to the inequity. Which it surely has the potential to do. I seem to recall from an anthropology course that an important sought-after effect of gift giving – a seemingly charitable act – is the power it gives the giver over the one who accepts the gift. That then would no longer be an equitable relationship. But does this miss the point that some people are in dire need of some help, even if this is in the form of a hand-out?

I googled the title of this blog, and from some of the returned articles and blog posts, it does appear that people and organizations that seem charitable to me, are somewhat fearful of using the term or ashamed of it, or at the very least, consider it bad for their marketing efforts. Of course in British English “charity” stands for what in American English is often referred to as a “nonprofit” or “not for profit”, and hence in England some organizations are reconsidering their use of the word charity, reflecting their concerns about the connotations of the word. Which I take it is often about perceived operational inefficiencies, wastefull overhead expenditures and unsustainable and ineffective practices. While some of this is surely true about some charities somewhere, it seems like we are at the risk of throwing out the baby with the bathwater.

Dung beetles engaging in some uncharitable activity.

I think the bad-rep the act of charity is getting these days, is partially an unintended – or at least undesirable – consequence of all the talk about sustainability (and metrics, something I’ll surely come back to one day), where charities and nonprofits have become by nature of their models beacons of unsustainability. Lest I am misread here, including sustainability as a goal for interventions and programs and solutions is good, I agree with that. However, sustainability has become such a catch-phrase and to some extent questioning its validity as the single most important goal has become developmental blasphemy. But used as a dogma, I am convinced that it would mean that only those who are considered (and yes, we’ll have to ask by whom) to have it in them to succeed, will be judged deserving of a hand-up – not out – to help them reach their potential. Because these people will be considered capable, self-motivated, “ready to own it” and self-sustain their development going forward. That would leave a whole lot of people (and animals, and eco-systems) out in the cold.

Alas, I just re-read the above, and it certainly feels my thoughts are incomplete, so lets consider this an installment in a series of thoughts.