Beyond good intentions- Joining the conversation on public charity

Beyond good intentions- Joining the conversation on public charity

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”[1]. 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.

                [1] 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.


Bose Maposa

Bose Maposa is the Assistant Director of the African Studies Program at Ohio University, USA.

4 Responses to Beyond good intentions- Joining the conversation on public charity

  1. Thanks for this piece Bose! This is something we do not emphasize enough in our everyday discourse. I’m reminded of a blog piece I wrote a few years back on ‘How Rhodes University Students Play with People’s lives” (

    Here I was reflecting on some of the Anthropology ‘township walks’ that we would have as part of the ‘power and wealth’ module. I was always amazed at the apprehension of mostly poor township people towards us (the Rhodes students), because often students have all these ‘community outreach’ initiatives which aim to ‘help the poor’ by fund-raising, gala events micro loan schemes etc but often don’t last long enough as after a few years the students leave and the community has to fend for itself.

    I closed with a quote from Kojo Baffoe – he said: “I live in Africa. It isn’t a cause, it is our lives.”

    I think while that quote is Africa focused, applies equally elsewhere. We treat people like ’causes’ that we can feed into to make ourselves feel better, forgetting that they are not a cause, but full human beings like us.

    Thanks for this reminder. I just think that there wouldn’t be extreme poverty/inequality in the world if the privileged really cared. The “10%” hold over 85% of the world’s household wealth. If they really, genuinely cared. It would take less than 10 years to solve our most pressing problems.

  2. “There’s an old saying that the road to hell is paved with good intentions, but that’s not really the case. The road to hell is paved with intentions that are careless, lustful, or mean. Good intentions — in proportion to their true goodness — tend toward heavens of pleasure. So why do they have such a bad reputation? For three main reasons. One is that not all good intentions are especially skillful. Even though they mean well, they can be misguided and inappropriate for the occasion, thus resulting in pain and regret. A second reason is that we often misunderstand the quality of our own intentions. We may mistake a mixed intention for a good one, for instance, and thus get disappointed when it gives mixed results. A third reason is that we easily misread the way intentions yield their results — as when the painful results of a bad intention in the past obscure the results of a good intention in the present, and yet we blame our present intention for the pain. All these reasons, acting together, lead us to become disillusioned with the potential of good intentions. As a result, we either grow cynical about them or else simply abandon the care and patience needed to perfect them. The Road to Nirvana Is Paved with skillful intentions”. Thanissaro Bhikkhu

  3. Thanks Bose for this insightful engagement. Since the comments before me by Thembani and Gcobani point us to some individuals who have been part of this conversation, I wish to evoke the classic intervention by Paulo Freire in the “Pedagogy of the oppressed” when he argued with great clarity that “…the fact that certain members of the oppressor class join the oppressed in their struggle for liberation, thus moving from one pole of the contradiction to the other… Theirs is a fundamental role, and has been throughout the history of this struggle. It happens, however, that as they cease to be exploiters or indifferent spectators or simply the heirs of exploitation and move to the side of the exploited, they almost always bring with them the marks of their origin: their prejudices and their deformations, which include a lack of confidence in the people’s ability to think, to want, and to know. Accordingly, these adherents to the people’s cause constantly run the risk of falling into a type of generosity as malefic as that of the oppressors. The generosity of the oppressors is nourished by an unjust order, which must be maintained in order to justify that generosity. Our converts, on the other hand, truly desire to transform the unjust order; but because of their background they believe that they must be the executors of the transformation. They talk about the people, but they do not trust them; and trusting the people is the indispensable precondition for revolutionary change. A real humanist can be identified more by his trust in the people, which engages him in their struggle, than by a thousand actions in their favor without that trust.”

    I use Freire because the superficial nature of public charity is based on a fundamental mistrust of the fact that poor people can speak for themselves and that they should be included in all initiatives that are designed for ‘their’ emancipation. Dambisa Moyo has made the point about the irony of these gala events in particular those held by the likes of Bono on behalf of African poor, yet in most cases in these events Africans are usually absent, if you are lucky there might be one African present. The assumption being that while we ‘doll up’ to end poverty in Africa, we don’t need the Africans to be present in ‘our’ process of ending their poverty. Therefore in pretending to be ‘giving’ the voiceless a platform we effectively render them silent if not only present as bodies without a voice. It is important for them to be absent because their presence is too much of a reminder of the irony of spending money preparing to do something about poverty instead of doing it. ‘Their’ presence is painful reminder of the convoluted nature of our own privilege and indirect contribution to a structure of inequality.

    Furthermore, what you are articulating about the self serving and sexified nature of these interventions is due to the reality that we find ourselves in a space where individuals and organisations have to make the task of ending poverty “fun”. So why not dress up in a 2000 dollar shoe and make you stamp at poverty? This is of course with the even greater irony that she or he who affords to spend 2000 dollars on a pair of shoes perpetuates the structure of inequality as Gcobani indicates above. Jason Hickel drove this point home in his equally brilliant intervention “Occupy Philanthropy: From charity to change” by looking at the public charity of George Soros who “in the morning he devotes himself to making absurd amounts of money in financial speculation, and in the afternoon he gives some of it back through charity. The only problem is that the stuff he does in the morning is exactly what causes the suffering that he tries to fix in the afternoon.” As Jason continues to argue, “the problem with philanthropy is that it allows us to believe that wealth is somehow not connected to poverty, that wealth and poverty are static, natural realities. It takes power relations out of the equation. This is a convenient fiction that lets us imagine that we can solve the problems of global poverty without ever questioning our own privilege and wealth and the structure of neoliberal capitalism that facilitates our accumulation” what Freire above sees as the “generosity of the oppressors is nourished by an unjust order, which must be maintained in order to justify that generosity.”

  4. Gcobani, Thembani and Siphokazi- thank you all for your comments! As I stated in the title, pretty much all this has been said before, which is surprising because we seem to still be doing the same thing. But of course the conversation need not end now and here- we must continue discussing these issues.

    Gcobani- Thanks for sharing the link to your article, I really enjoyed reading it. I think there are a lot of people how genuinely care, but are sometimes overwhelmed about how much work/ the amount of resources and they end of giving up or settling to do the easy thing, which ends up being harmful, than stick with it. The ‘responsible’ entities, like you suggested universities and the privileged to me are the ones failing the most.

    Thembani- I decided not to use that saying because I agree with what you stated in your comment, and because I didn’t want to use the word ‘hell’ (personal reasons). And the reasons you gave are why I would go back and agree with Gcobani that we do need ‘champions’ who can ensure efficiency and most importantly a change in systems.

    Siphokazi- I believe everyone needs to read that book! I also wanted to include Jason’s article but didn’t have enough space-but what he said is important. I think those people can be the ‘champions’ that I just talked about. In the book ‘’ the authors mention a group of Buddhist who purchase fish from the local fishermen only to throw it back into the sea. Yes, the life of the fish are spared that time, but is that sustainable? These are the things we need to be looking at when we try and ‘fight’ poverty!

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