Skip to content
Society, Politics & Law

Enough Giving? Charity, Aid & Development

Updated Thursday, 3rd February 2005

Here, Doctor Matt Smith gives his personal perspective on the interplay between charity, aid and development.

This page was published over five years ago. Please be aware that due to the passage of time, the information provided on this page may be out of date or otherwise inaccurate, and any views or opinions expressed may no longer be relevant. Some technical elements such as audio-visual and interactive media may no longer work. For more detail, see our Archive and Deletion Policy

Images of desperate human suffering, such as those we have witnessed after the Asian tsunami, make most of us want to give and to help. But wanting to help isn't always straightforward. How can we help? Is money what is needed? Who should we give to? How much of the money goes to those who really need help? Does the money we give make a difference anyway?

Some of our money already goes to help the poor since it is our taxes that pay for the government's overseas aid programmes. But the growth of development charities has also made it very easy for the public to make their own personal contributions. Many of these organisations are well-known household names who make the process of donating as simple as possible; you could donate online, organise a collection at school, set up monthly direct debits, sponsor a child, or perhaps even change your will to help after you're no longer around.

"It is essential the support continues once media interest wanes"

If we want to know where our money has gone, the organisations provide information on how much money goes to the projects rather than on administration, about the projects our money helps and how this has changed people's lives. The success of development charities has been built on their reputation for efficient spending of money, on their strong understanding of the needs of the poor and in their ability to act quickly. Although some believe that this is harder to achieve as the organisations grow in size, most development charities carry out their work in partnership with smaller organisations based on the ground in poorer countries. At the same time, governments also give large sums of money to development charities when they think they offer the most efficient and effective means of delivery. However, this can raise problems, particular in relation to charities' impartiality should they wish to challenge the government's aid policy.

Development charities' ability to act quickly is particularly important when help is needed after a disaster such as the Asian tsunami. Able to launch appeals, send staff and access emergency supplies very rapidly, development charities are almost always the key players in international emergency relief efforts.

But although images of disasters and tragedy may make us want to give, this doesn't mean this is the only time that the poor may need help. Donations in response to such emergencies are important, and may also make the giver feel good that they are doing something. You could argue that this doesn't matter, as long as the donation helps, but there is the problem that acting charitably can give a quick emotional fix, whereas what is needed is long-term commitment. As has been pointed out in relation to the Asian tsunami, the immediate donations are very important, but it is also essential that support continues after media interest wanes as, over the longer term, people start to rebuild their lives.

So as well as playing a role in relief situations, charity is also important to longer-term development. In the past, development charities were criticised for using stark images to raise funds that failed to explain why people are poor or portrayed them as passive victims unable to do anything to help themselves. However, there is now much greater emphasis on acknowledging the dignity of the poor and their ability and energy to fight their poverty and develop their communities and lives. The emphasis in long-term development work is on building people's capacity to help themselves rather than on providing hand outs. After all, few of us want to depend on others - we prefer to make our own choices.

But why are so many people poor? Surely we need to address the causes? A range of complex factors causes poverty. We need to recognise the roles of countries' debts, trade rules, gender relations, conflict, climate, democracy and rights – and acknowledge that the poverty these engender means the poor are the worst affected by 'natural' disasters.

It is very difficult to capture these in a short TV advertisement or on a flyer through the letterbox. On the other hand, symptoms such as malnutrition or poor housing and sanitation offer a clear demonstration of need and make it easier to understand why a donation might help. It is also easier to show how such symptoms are alleviated, providing rapid evidence that a donation was worthwhile. However, a focus on approaches which provide immediate results could be at the expense of long-term but less visible changes. If poverty is to be permanently eliminated then there is a need to pursue the difficult and long-term as well; a sticking plaster is only part of the solution.

"Forget geography - these ARE your neighbours"

So whilst donating money is one way of having an impact, it is not the only one. We have an impact on the lives of poor communities through the goods that we buy, the prices that we pay for them and the proportion of that money which reaches poor producers. We can have an impact through generating pressure on our elected representatives to cancel debt or reform trade rules. We can have an impact through where we go on holiday and how much of the money we spend which goes to the local community. Development charities not only focus on raising and giving money, but also seek to educate and to talk to people about the other ways in which they can get involved in challenging poverty.

Charity, giving and helping aren't simple, but they are important. Do larger sums mean more effective or appropriate help? Do higher donations tell us who cares the most? What does how much we give say about our relationship to people in distant places? After all, how does our commitment to helping the poor overseas relate to our treatment of those who reach our shores as asylum seekers? Is giving to a highly publicised cause more about showing our generosity than a concern for justice?

To make a difference, we need to think clearly about what our responsibilities are, decide on the best ways of helping, and think about why people are poor. In a programme about poverty in Africa during Comic Relief 2003, Lenny Henry comments:

"If it was happening to a neighbour of yours, you'd bust a gut to help, if you knew somebody on your doorstep who walked eleven days because they were starving and they needed a quid for food, you'd say have a bloody quid. Actually have five. The point is forget geography, these are your neighbours, this is your doorstep."

Lenny Henry highlights the importance of charity and generosity, that distance should not make a difference and that we should think of the African poor as neighbours. But we would not only help our next-door neighbours by offering money. We might also listen and try to understand, we might attempt to make sure they get a fair deal, look out for them and show friendship. We might even have to compromise what we want in the process. A parallel can be drawn to the ways we try to help the world's poor. Giving money is only one part of it. We also need to get involved and stay committed.






Related content (tags)

Copyright information

For further information, take a look at our frequently asked questions which may give you the support you need.

Have a question?