The Charitable Conscience

Take a closer look, the above photo isn’t digitally altered. The wealth gap in Mexico is shocking and obvious, and it’s not uncommon to see the rich and the poor live side by side like this. Mexico isn’t considered First World (despite joining NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement, 20 years ago) nor Third World, but rather sits in the vague and variable ‘developing country’ category.

  • According to 2013 government data, 45.5% of Mexicans currently live below the national poverty line.
  • The World’s Richest Man is the Mexican magnate Carlos Slim, whose fortune increased from $74.5 billion to $79.6 billion between the 1st and the 11th of July this year, that’s a jump of $5.1 billion in just 10 days.
  • Mexico ranks second only to Chile for Worst Income Inequality as measured by the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development).

In Britain, we like to pretend that our society is much more equal than it really is; we want to believe that we live in a thoroughly modern, civilised, just society. We don’t want to see poverty: if we must deal with it on our doorstep, it’s veiled as ‘regeneration’. It’s hidden behind confidentiality clauses and highly sensitive lists of children receiving free school meals, just a glimpse caught in the odd homeless person being swept off the street by a bobby on the beat, and begging is illegal – if you’re poor, better just not to show yourself in public at all. Poverty is a foreign problem, and even then we arm ourselves with numerous distancing mechanisms: charity campaigns are glossed up, large scale events put the ‘fun’ into fundraising, and the causes are glamourised with endless celebrity endorsements. It all makes poverty sickeningly palatable.

General advice tells foreigners not to use the Metro, the figurative and literal underground of Mexico City. I believe this is less to do with the impending ‘danger’ and more to do with the discomfort of being visually assaulted with the desperate poverty of Mexico’s poorest citizens. The devastating reality chokes your throat and crushes your heart. Be prepared to be approached by people with shocking disfigurements, infected gun wounds, exposed catheters, and filthy children crawling the carriages with no shoes. Some have something to sell, others are purely begging, but it is impossible to look away. What do you do? What can you do? And what should you do? What if by giving money you are perpetuating the problem rather than helping to solve it? Many children have shoes, but they look more pitiful and are given more money by going without them. The more money they return home with, the more hours a day they are made to go out begging. The horrible truth is that a lot of children are abused and exploited by their families, who are themselves the victims of mental health problems or drug or alcohol addiction. There’s a real likelihood that your good gesture is doing more harm than good, so how do you give responsibly?

A few weeks ago, I passed a boy of about 10 crying in the street. “What’s the matter?” I asked, and he replied that he had lost his wallet and couldn’t get home. Pobrecito, I thought, and asked him how much money he needed. “50 pesos.” FIFTY PESOS?! This wiley little weasel was having me on. “How many buses do you need to take?” “Three,” came the reply. Well unfortunately for him, I know very well that three buses costs 18 pesos (it’s also highly unlikely that he really needed to take three different buses). I gave him the 18 (just under £1) and went on my way, rather confused by the exchange that had just taken place. Were they crocodile tears? Does he know exactly how to make some easy extra pocket money after school each day? Or does he have a sick parent or many younger siblings at home that he has to care for? I will never know. Giving money to people is the most direct form of giving, but you still don’t really know where your money is going.

The nature of charitable giving in the UK has undergone huge changes in the last 30 years: as the third sector has increasingly shifted away from alliance with the public sector to be more closely aligned with the private sector there has been a dramatic rise in demand for the transparency and accountability of charitable institutions. Charity is increasingly competitive and funds are hard fought for under strict requirements of impact assessment and evidence of effective spending. We are also much more personally concerned with responsible giving, and it seems that no type of contribution is without its criticism. Social media has hugely increased accessibility and awareness, but is also criticised for its swing towards ‘slacktivism,’ where a click, ‘like’ or ‘share’ is the newly favoured form of being seen to be supporting without really doing anything impactful. There is cynicism towards international aid as recent exposés have revealed instances of foreign funds being squandered, fostering corruption, destroying local enterprise and creating a dependency culture. Even direct volunteering is often attacked as ‘voluntourism,’ where short-term programmes are accused of benefitting young, privileged white Westerners more than the needy communities they recklessly flit in and out of.

These dialogues raise important issues, but mustn’t become an excuse for apathy or a “my money won’t do any good so I won’t give any” attitude. Instead they ought to be used as an opportunity to harness much more deeply engaged giving. It’s great to see the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge raise so much awareness and money having ‘gone viral,’ and simultaneously be closely scrutinised and called to account for how their funds are directed. When deciding how to donate, it is a good idea to think about where there is the greatest need for support, where your money will have the biggest influence, and what are the most urgent problems. We all prioritise differently: do your research, choose your cause. Every kind of aid is political, so it really is worth thinking carefully about. And when you’re abroad, you can do your bit by not just staying within a resort but travelling and spending money in the local community.

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6 thoughts on “The Charitable Conscience”

  1. Nice one! A discussion starter that should be published on the issue. Makes scarves disappear into insignificance when basics are so callously used at times!

  2. .Re: .. recent exposés have revealed instances of foreign funds being squandered, fostering corruption, destroying local enterprise and creating a dependency culture.
    Call me old-fashioned, but 30 years ago such exposes were common-place, and, as now, although well-founded, an excuse for cynicism and inaction. We need to grow up, and learn from experience, rather than keep on in the old, discredited ways. This applies to those appealing for, as well as those giving to, charitable causes.

    1. I think there is hope in the fact that a lot of people do take a more active approach to giving these days: in response to the amount of money big charities spend on admin and doubts about what proportion of their funds gets to those in need, lots of people now seek out ‘grass roots’ organisations to support. Of course volunteering is nothing new but still a great way to help directly, especially where time and specialised skills can be worth more than money.
      There is also positive promise in the increase in social enterprise and more collaborative forms of charity, such as the provision of micro-loans.
      Unfortunately, at the bottom of it all, basic needs like health care and education are expensive to meet and can seem impossible to provide on the scale required. This makes technological innovation in areas such as water provision especially crucial.

  3. As you say, giving money to people is the most direct form of giving.
    But many people would say that it is usually a mistake. Give instead to an organization that exists to help such people. Organizations like the Salvation Army, Crisis, Shelter etc are best placed to 1. make most efficient use of funds and 2. distinguish the genuine from the fraudulent. They can meet immediate needs such as accommodation, food, clothing, warmth, while also helping people to overcome the kind of background dysfunctions that you mention.
    It’s not easy, but some of these people know what they are doing; unlike the ordinary man or woman in the street.

    1. In the UK we have (despite constant threats and pressures) a very strong third sector, and many charities such as those you mention have quite rightly earned highly esteemed reputations over many years of good work. In countries like Mexico, however, a third sector like ours simply does not exist, and the need and demand for support hugely outweigh the services available. Furthermore, charities that do exist and survive in Mexico’s fragile economy are unlikely to have money to spare on flashy national fundraising campaigns. One organisation that does brilliant work (I ought to admit my bias, I work for them) is Juconi, who help marginalised families living in extreme poverty who are affected by domestic violence. You can read about Juconi here or watch the information video here

  4. It is very hard in our society to give out of choice to charities either that can or do not advertise their function. Nor where empathy to a situation is difficult to imagine. Please keep making us aware of the situation through your blogs so that we can understand the difficulties and complexities of such a diverse country. Is your organisation best helped through donation or voluntary manpower?

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