“There exists the argument that some returned volunteers have gained insight into the damage they have done to others – and thus become more mature people. Yet it is less frequently stated that most of them are ridiculously proud of their “summer sacrifices.” Perhaps there is also something to the argument that young men should be promiscuous for awhile in order to find out that sexual love is most beautiful in a monogamous relationship. Or that the best way to leave LSD alone is to try it for awhile -or even that the best way of understanding that your help in the ghetto is neither needed nor wanted is to try, and fail. I do not agree with this argument. The damage which volunteers do willy-nilly is too high a price for the belated insight that they shouldn’t have been volunteers in the first place.”
The excerpt above is from Ivan Illich’s 1968 speech To hell with good intentions which in my opinion is as timeless as blue jeans! As specific as this speech was to a particular audience, and at a particular time, it does transcend boundaries, time and context. Illich, known for his opposition against North American volunteers in Latin America, was speaking at the Conference on InterAmerican Student Projects in Mexico. Furthermore, it is critical that in this era of ‘let us all do our part to fight poverty’, ‘a dollar a day can feed a child’, sponsor a child/family, micro lending schemes, running/eating for a cause, etc. phenomenon’s, we revisit, understand and attempt to execute the key advice provided—that public charity has become and continues to be mostly a self-serving and image promoting undertaking by those with power and privilege, to the powerless and underprivileged. Attending a dinner to raise funds is usually a double ended sword that not only does nothing in the long term to change the circumstances of the people we are trying to help, but many times does not allow us to interrogate the consequences of our own privilege.
I specifically term it public charity because there always seems to be some reporting or spotlight on these events. The main objective is that the public know what is being done, for whom, how much the individual(s) is sacrificing and how grateful the recipients are! Regardless of how good the intentions of these public charities are, they are still in my opinion wrong.
Take for example the Gala economics as elaborated by Seth Godin- a big gala is held at an expensive location, people pay a lot of money to go and some of the money goes to a charity. Yes, the ‘cause’ ends up being assisted, but money has also been invested in assuring the attendees good image. While I agree with Godin’s argument, that galas of this type are not an efficient way to raise money, I do believe that his argument can be applied to many other inexpensive social events that raise money by spending money. We should not have to only be able to spend X amount of money if we get something in return, especially when we are supposed to be giving. Giving, especially in the case of what we believe is a noble cause, should never have to be a two-way street. My donations need not be coupled by a gift or note of appreciation.
Charity should aim to shift the conditions that create inequality. Should this not be the case, then we need to be very honest and assert that our charity is indeed to make ourselves feel better first and secondly to assist.
Note that I am not talking away from the power many of these major events have which include the bringing people together, and the networking among other benefits. But just like we have discussed before regarding sporting major events, though the power of sport cannot be denied, hosting a prestigious major sporting event is expensive. In their book More than good intentions, Dean Karlan and Jacob Appel state “To make a difference in the fight against poverty, we need more than good intentions, more than what sounds good, and more than what looks good anecdotally. The answer isn’t always what we want it to be, and frankly that does not matter”. While Karlan and Appel are addressing mainly researchers who are trying to aid different communities, the lessons do apply to all of us. Whether it be solving a problem or assisting in finding a solution, the focus should be on the individual(s) being helped. The idea that we should get something in return should not even cross our minds.
Furthermore, this assisting must also come with the realization that the most genuine and sustainable way of assisting is to create a condition where the other is not placed in a perpetual condition of need aid, while the other is the perpetual aider. What is critical is to create a condition where resources are shared such that individuals have a high chance at succeeding after gaining some assistance such that they can be able to be live independently and also contribute to a society where opportunities to success are open to many people.
 Karlan, Dean; Appel, Jacob (2011-04-14). More Than Good Intentions: Improving the Ways the World’s Poor Borrow, Save, Farm, Learn, and Stay Healthy (p. 276). Penguin Group. Kindle Edition.