Rethinking the Relationship Between The Words We Use, The Actions We Take, and the Thoughts We Think
Part 2. The Actions We Take
Continued from: Part 1. The Words We Use
Charity vs. Mutual Aid
The dictionary tells us that poor is the opposite of rich, and we often think of poverty to mean simply that – low income or lack of wealth. But for the over one billion people living in extreme poverty throughout the world, poverty is much more than just lack of wealth.
Poverty is hunger, illiteracy, pervasive poor health. Poverty is insecurity, vulnerability, even loss of childhood. Underlying all these burdens, poverty is powerlessness – powerlessness to access the basic opportunities needed to improve conditions for oneself and one’s family.
For many poor people, a primary source of this powerlessness is the denial of their basic human rights by others. As Mohammad Yunus, founder of the Grameen Bank (a leading microfinance institution) says, “The poor remain in poverty not because they want to, but because of the many barriers deliberately built around them by those who benefit from their poverty.” (Smith & Castleman, 2010, p. 1)
From a rational point of view, prevention deserves even more moral praise than helping one victim, but in the culture of charity, it is the immediate act of caritas that is most praiseworthy. This morality encourages people to direct action and resources to visible suffering rather than underlying problems. (Dees, 2012, p. 326)
If political correctness and anti-oppression are, reductively, for the purposes of this paper, of words, then we can, similarly, consider charity and mutual aid as of action. I am arguing that this works in the sense that charity and mutual aid are physical manifestations representing a similar dichotomy––and system of beliefs––as political correctness and anti-oppression. Traditionally, we understand that, “[c]harity is a virtue, consisting of selfless action for the benefit of another, ideally a stranger. The term is derived from the Latin ‘caritas’ which refers to ‘caring,’ ‘compassion,’ or ‘love’” (Dees, 2012, p. 322). In my experience, informed by my activist community, charity is a means of addressing social ills that functions from the top down, distributing funds and resources as determined by outside forces down to those in need of them. Contrarily, mutual aid functions from the bottom up; those in a situation of inequity are empowered to determine their needs and capacity is built from within, with support from others in ways and means requested. In my view, charity is designed to give a new coat of paint to the rotting house, while ignoring that the foundation is crumbling. There is, after all, more money to be made in continually repairing the house again and again. Mutual aid, on the other hand, looks to see the root of the problem. Perhaps it’s not from within the house at all, perhaps there is a leak in a pipe that is causing water damage to the foundation of the house. Mutual aid would seek to repair the pipe first, and then create lasting repairs to the home’s foundation.
The issue at hand in this analysis of charity versus mutual aid is that often charity is actually not about the people that it is purporting to support. Rather it is about serving the needs of the people who are providing the services.
When we want to help the poor, we usually offer them charity. Most often we use charity to avoid recognizing the problem and finding a solution for it. Charity becomes a way to shrug off our responsibility. Charity is no solution to poverty. Charity only perpetuates poverty by taking the initiative away from the poor. Charity allows us to go ahead with our own lives without worrying about those of the poor. It appeases our consciences…” —Muhammad Yunus, founder of Grameen Bank and 2006 Nobel Peace Prize winner (Yunus 1999, p. 237). (Dees, 2012, p. 321)
Charity is often enacted quickly and without much consideration. The act of donating a small and personally irrelevant sum of money, whether it be pocket change to the Salvation Army with their red buckets and jingle bell during Christmastime, or $5 or $10 to the Red Cross at the ATM or via text message following an event of climate devastation. The act of donating feels good, while requiring very little sacrifice. As a result, there exists a reality of unaccountability. Charitable organizations are not accountable to their donors; the donation is made anonymously or with minimal framing for the use of the funds, and there is no expectation of report-back on progress. Organizations are also not easily held accountable by the people they claim to serve, because the effort is conducted by the organization asserting itself upon those in need, not because the people commissioned or even requested the service provider’s support.
As a result of this bias against analysis, passion can dominate reason in charitable activity. Many of the resources that flow into charitable causes do so without serious deliberation, due diligence, assessment, strategy, or commitment to learning. Charitable organizations can act out of compassion without worrying about whether they are deploying resources efficiently and effectively. Why should a charitable actor conduct due diligence? Charitable virtue does not require it. It requires only the right motivation, ‘‘caritas.’’ (Dees, 2012, p. 324)
It is this reality, that allows for the Red Cross to collect nearly $500 million in the name of supporting post-earthquake Haiti, and spend $125 million on its own expenses (Sullivan & Elliott, 2016), and successfully reverse a nearly $100 million deficit, while building reportedly a total of six houses (Elliott & Sullivan, 2015). Providing charity aid can be a lucrative enterprise. As such, I am forced to wonder if there is a form of charity that aims solely to end poverty, or respond to a crisis, without at the same time empowering systems of dependency.
[c]harity is a complicated thing to do well…It has inherently perverse incentives of keeping the problems it addresses alive so that future generations can continue to exercise this virtue. This can lead to a ‘‘charity industry’’ that has a vested interest in problems remaining unsolved. Charity can also be performed in ways that have unintended detrimental effects on the recipients. (Dees, 2012, p. 327)
One of those unintended detrimental effects is dependency on outside actors, which perpetuates rather than alleviates conditions of poverty. Charity, in essence, is antithetical to self-determination and self-advocacy. Largely, services provided by charitable organizations are limited to what can easily be reported to funders, grant-lessees, or are within rigid definitions of their scope regardless of whether this meets the needs of those being served.
I first encountered the term, “mutual aid” while organizing with Occupy Sandy (OS), a network of community-based, grassroots organizations working together to address a variety of needs in communities of New York City that were affected by Superstorm Sandy in 2012. I was surprised that in my research I found a reference to mutual aid from 1901 that echoes so closely the understanding of Occupy Sandy nearly 111 years later:
One prominent fraternal lodge leader distinguished mutual aid from charity in a speech to the 1901 National Fraternal Congress, saying mutual aid is ‘‘absolutely distinct from charity or philanthropy. It is liberalizing, self-sustaining, elevating, gives mutual rights, and preserves independence of character.’’ While charity ‘‘signifies condescension, a position of superiority on the part of the organization, and of dependency on the part of the recipient’’ (Beito 2000, p. 58). (Dees, 2012, p. 328)
Mutual aid is one way that anti-oppression takes action; through a belief in self-advocacy and determination, with respect for dignity, mutual aid allows for those in need to be the shapers of their own fate.
The goal of Occupy Sandy, for example, with some arguable success, was to work with the community, support it, develop relationships, but not to put down roots. With an inherent analysis of colonization and disaster capitalism, OS (contradicting the “Occupy” in its own name), did not intend to have a perpetual presence in the community. There are three stages to disaster relief, at least in the way that OS envisioned its work: (1) Relief; (2) Recovery; (3) Resiliency. The relief stage is the most similar to traditional charitable work in post-disaster scenarios. Funds and specific items are donated and transported to the affected areas to relieve the immediate suffering of people, and to provide for basic needs, including food, water, medicine, housing, and clothing. Contrary to other models, OS created a system that was designed to prevent inundating local communities with things they did not need or want (blankets and clothing), and provide the specific things they did (diapers of specific sizes, baby formula, low-sodium non-perishable food, etc.). In the second step, recovery, OS mobilized teams of volunteers, in collaboration with local individuals, contractors, and professionals, to begin restoring people’s homes, community centers, and other buildings, while working to access grants or federal funds for this work in an effort toward reestablishing everyday life. The third step, resiliency, which is the most lasting and ongoing effort, is to address systemic issues and inequities, to build systems from the ground up, acknowledging root causes of these problems, to prevent devastation from happening at this scale again. Dependency on outside actors can easily be created through any one of these steps. One such example is the community group, Rockaway Wildfire, which formed with the support of OS organizers whose goal was to facilitate skill building around community organizing and self-advocacy. Rockaway Wildfire continues to organize in their community around city land-use projects, affordable housing, and anti-police violence campaigns.
Because of the work that I performed with Occupy Sandy, my relationship to the non-profit industrial complex and charity-capitalism has been shaped and forever impacted. Over the last year or so, as I have explored various options of jobs, volunteering, continuing educational endeavors, etc., I have asked myself if I am interested or willing to invest time and energy with organizations that do not have clear and defined exit strategy, or intention to ultimately put itself out of business. In the world of violence prevention, or sexual violence victim/support services, where most of my energy has been dedicated over the last year, it can be incredibly difficult, and maybe fruitless, to spend time envisioning a post-patriarchal world in which violence is so rare that the need for survivor advocates is non-existent. However, I would argue that the ultimate goal should be to work toward that reality, in whatever small way possible. The alternative is to at least assume that the need will always be there, and therefore our jobs are secure. When it comes to violence, I do not want my job to be secure. I want to be made redundant as soon as possible, and will work hard to create that reality for myself and if unsuccessful, for the next generation. I was again surprised to see these sentiments echoed in comments on alleviating poverty from 1893:
…renowned economist Alfred Marshall commented, ‘‘I regard poverty as a passing evil in the progress of man; and I should not like any [poverty relieving] institution started which did not contain in itself the causes which would make it shrivel up, as the causes of poverty itself shriveled up’’ (Marshall 1893). The appeal of Marshall’s principle is clear, but its effects could be perverse. Few institutions want to shrivel up. If they were designed as Marshall requires, the leaders would have an incentive not to address the causes of poverty. What is more likely to happen is that many organizations will show some ‘‘progress,’’ but few will really solve the problems they are attacking. If we want the organizations to shrivel, we need to find a way to reward them and their leaders for their success and for the shriveling. (Dees, 2012, p. 328)
In my view, this is the most hopeful description utilizing the moniker of perversion I have ever encountered. It is unfortunate that reward is seen as a necessary recompense for shriveling a successful venture after alleviating a designated issue, but in a capitalistic society, perpetuating one’s existence is seen as central to a successful endeavor. This reality prevents success from actually being achieved at the root level of the problem.
Dees, J. G. (2012, August 17). A tale of two cultures: Charity, problem solving, and the future of social entrepreneurship. Science+Business , 321-334.
Elliott, J., & Sullivan, L. (2015, June 3). How the Red Cross Raised Half a Billion Dollars for Haitiand Built Six Homes. Retrieved January 8, 2017, from ProPublica: https://www.propublica.org/article/how-the-red-cross-raised-half-a-billion-dollars-for-haiti-and-built-6-homes
Smith, S. C., & Castleman, T. (2010, March). Ending extreme poverty: Securing human rights can be decisive. Retrieved October 10, 2016, from Research Gate: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/228276009_Ending_Extreme_Poverty_Securing_Human_Rights_Can_Be_Decisive
Sullivan, L., & Elliott, J. (2016, June 16). Report: Red Cross Spent 25 Percent Of Haiti Donations On Internal Expenses. Retrieved January 8, 2017, from NPR: http://www.npr.org/2016/06/16/482020436/senators-report-finds-fundamental-concerns-about-red-cross-finances
Edited by Alejandro Varela, Alexandria Ward, and Carrie Morrisroe