An Argument Against Charity

Finn Witham, Reporter

Imagine you are standing by a lake and you see a child drowning. You could easily save the child, at the cost of ruining your clothes and losing your shoes, or you could let the child die. In such a scenario, the obvious choice (at least for most people) would be to save the child. Now, put yourself into reality. Children (and adults) die all the time because of starvation, preventable disease, lack of water, human trafficking, and a million other things. If all it would take for you to save these people is to spend some of your disposable income, then aren’t you just as obligated to give the money as you are to save the drowning child in the lake? Those who support charities would likely argue that yes, you are obligated to give up your greater resources to help those in need. Hence their veneration of charities. 

But let’s step back for a moment and examine this logic, because there’s an obvious hole in it: Why is harm occurring in the first place? In the hypothetical scenario, why is the child drowning? Are their parents neglectful? Do they have present parents? Were they able to learn to swim? If our goal is to reduce harm, why should we let children continue to drown, relying on the good graces of people to save them, without addressing the root causes of drowning children? 

When applied to reality, the basics of this question remain the same. Why do 8.9% of people go undernourished when, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN, the world produces enough food to feed 150% of the human population? Why do 9.2% of humans live in extreme poverty while, according to a 2019 Credit Suisse Report, the richest 1% own 44% of the planet’s wealth? Why does the World Health Organization report that 1.5 million people die every year from preventable diseases? Charities are designed by wealthier, more privileged people to give to poorer people in need. This system not only ignores the question of why there are needy people in the first place, while so few people lead lives of exorbitant wealth, affluence, and economic power. 

To understand how we can move beyond charities towards proactive solutions that stop social issues at the root, we have to understand how this system of inequality and deprivation works. On a global scale, imbalances in economic progress and large-scale colonialism have caused some countries (like the U.S., those in Europe, etc.) to be more wealthy and developed while other countries (like those in Latin America and Africa) to be poorer and less developed. Charity money mostly flows from these more developed countries to less developed countries, who have greater levels of poverty, undernourishment, preventable death, etc. However hyper-global, market-based economic policies in wealthier countries have locked poorer countries into systems that serve profit and ignore the pressing concerns of poverty, health, education, nutrition, sustainability, and more. 

Poorer countries have, in theory, two general options when it comes to economic development. They can attempt to achieve economic self-sufficiency and build a thriving economy within their nation, or they can earn money by entering the global market and exporting goods. In reality, they are coerced by wealthy countries, companies, and international organizations to choose the latter. Oftentimes, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank, as well as wealthy countries, will condition aid to less-developed countries on those countries implementing “structural adjustments.” This means that countries are forced to sell more exports to raise money to pay off debts. Without a strong, robust economy, countries end up exporting cash crops and raw goods, selling them cheap to wealthier countries (who profit from the low cost and the revenue generated by manufacturing and processing these goods). To remain competitive, countries have to continue to sell exports cheap, and governments, stretched from debt-payments and export funding, are forced to cut costs. This means that funding for education, healthcare, infrastructure, and anti-poverty programs dries up. 

As this is occurring, more and more agricultural land is being devoted to cash crops, much of it owned by investors from wealthy countries who profit from the cheap land and labor of less-developed countries. Land Matrix reports that foreign investors have acquired 26.7 million hectares of agricultural land since 2000. This causes small, subsistence farmers to lose their land and their livelihoods, leading to a $34 billion loss in income, according to Oxfam. This also exacerbates hunger and environmental degradation. The overriding theme is that rich countries, who hold economic power and control international institutions, pressure poor countries into selling them cheap crops and raw goods, under the guise of “free markets” and “fiscal responsibility.” Meanwhile, poor countries pour resources into exports and lower prices to compete in a global market, draining their resources, leading to austerity, and blocking them from developing their own economy. Thus, people continue to die as disease, hunger, poverty, sustainability, healthcare, education, and infrastructure are ignored. 

What about in the United States? Plenty of charities are focused on helping people in need within our own country. So, what is creating need in America? Well, much like at the global stage, the concentration of wealth and power in a small group of self-interested parties creates an economic landscape that makes suffering all-too common. In the 1970’s and 80’s, a new political and economic philosophy (commonly called neoliberalism) came to dominate the United States, epitomized by thinkers like Milton Friedman and politicians like Ronald Reagan. Neoliberalism poses that people and businesses’ only social responsibility was to pursue their own profit, and that governments should adopt policies that allow this “free market” to thrive. This gave rise to companies that sought profit above all and were too concerned about stock buybacks and quarterly earnings to invest in their employees.

As a result, today’s America is one in which, according to Pew Research, average hourly wages have gone from $20.27 in 1964 (adjusted for inflation) to $22.65 in 2018. Essentially, the average American has about the same purchasing power today as they did in 1964. But home prices aren’t waiting for wages. ATTOM reports that in 80% of U.S. housing markets, housing prices are increasing faster than wages. And PolitiFact reports that 18.5 million households spent over half their income on housing in 2016. This housing shortage and affordability crisis results from restrictive zoning laws, which bar more affordable housing development, as well as gentrification, where businesses move into older, cheaper urban areas and develop them to attract more affluent people. These factors are the direct cause of the steeply rising rates of homelessness seen in American cities. And the housing and wage issues don’t even begin to mention the skyrocketing cost of higher education in America, or the fact that America has the most expensive healthcare in the world, while millions of people are left uninsured. 

It is clear that many people in the United States are living paycheck to paycheck, barely balancing the cost of their housing, healthcare, education, and necessities. While many other developed countries have begun treating these services as human rights, many Americans are one big medical bill or rent increase away from poverty or homelessness. The ruthless pursuit of profit has driven Americans out of good-paying jobs, affordable homes, and a robust public service system. 

What can be taken from all of this is that poverty, hunger, health, and our many pressing social issues are caused by a political and economic landscape that allows wealthy individuals, corporations, governments, and organizations to make decisions for their own profit motive. “Free-markets” hide a global system of exploitation and a national-level defunding of social services. When we focus on charities, we ignore and take energy away from the real solution to human needs: policy change. Until we combat inequality through real redistribution, focus on sustainable, participatory, and localized economics, and re-invest public funds into vital services, benefits, and infrastructure, we will never fully solve the issues charity claims to address. Charities merely focus on the symptoms of larger, structural problems in our societal framework. And they cause us to celebrate well-off people for pretending to fix the problems that they themselves created. 

So, if you’re sitting and wondering what you are supposed to do, don’t get too overwhelmed. Large-scale policy change may seem much more difficult to achieve than the occasional donation to this or that foundation or organization. But remember that the goal of being charitable is to ease suffering. And the best way to do that is to dismantle the conditions that allow suffering to exist, not just to embrace quick fixes. If you do choose to make donations, volunteer, or spend time in some way, do so with an organization that recognizes that helping people isn’t just about delivering meals and vaccines (while those are important), but is about creating a society where every human being, no matter their background or birthplace, has a decent standard of living, and a foundation on which they can build their own dream.