Written by Jaspar Chan | Illustration by Jeffrey Yeung
It is an undeniable fact that through our acts of charity, the greatest virtues of humanity are hence extolled: compassion, empathy, generosity, altruism, amongst others. The lower strata of society – the impoverished, powerless, underprivileged, dispossessed – are given a helping hand by those better-off, good Samaritans acting on their most noblest intentions. It can even be argued that it is intrinsic in human nature to help out those in need, and that the underlying instinct is to forego our own inclinations to act in the interests of the greater good – we humans are social animals, after all. But perhaps today, in this age where neoliberal capitalism has become the order of the day, we should at least start reflecting on the practice of charity and how we go about doing it, and the implications for society that it entails.
Today it is estimated that there are over 37,000 international NGOs of considerable size, with presumably many more minor NGOs operating on smaller scales. The largest of them wield considerable power on par with corporate mega-conglomerates and governments – Oxfam, the Gates Foundation, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative. In Bangladesh, the NGO BRAC (Building Resources Across Communities), has accumulated such power and influence that it has come to supplant the government in providing welfare and social services. However diverse in scope and purpose they might be, these NGOs are collective in the fact that they receive much of their financial backing from wealthy philanthropists and corporate sponsors. The corporate-funded nature of major NGOs means that they are invariably beholden to their sponsors; they are obliged to act in the interests of the sponsors and are wont to adopt a watered-down version of their message, their compromised ideals made palatable and non-threatening in their efforts to appeal towards high-profile corporate sponsorship.
Part 1: Criticising Corporate Charity
Sometimes, the very sponsors NGOs court are responsible for perpetuating their own self-made injustices at home and abroad – Microsoft, a company which has consistently provided aid to Africa and other lesser-developed regions throughout the past few decades through partners like the British Council and Microsoft’s own 4Afrika initiative, has also left thousands of their Americans workers out in the cold through their outsourcing of production to Africa and China, and engages in exploitative business practices that leaves their foreign factory workers struggling to subsist on Microsoft’s minimum wage.
Another striking example is Uber’s highly-publicised support for No Kid Hungry, a campaign run by the nonprofit Share Our Strength aimed at combating child hunger in America. Does this act of corporate charity on Uber’s part excuse their track record of corporate sexism and misogyny, as well as their unsavoury business practices that hugely disadvantage their contracted drivers and staff, threaten the livelihoods of taxi drivers, and delegitimize market regulations for fair competition?
Corporate charity also empowers a neo-colonial ideology implicitly endorsed by the Global North, the effects of which can be seen in the involvement of prominent western NGOs in developing, postcolonial countries. Take for instance the New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition, a G8 initiative funded by the World Bank, the IMF, and the Gates Foundation. With the ostensible aim of spurring local agricultural development, the NAFSN supports state-capital partnerships in developing countries that advocates the use of GMO seeds and the attendant fertilizers and pesticides that are tailored for intensive farming – farming methods which have been proven to degrade the soil and poison the surrounding environment. Local farmers’ organisations – representatives of those who the NAFSN ostensibly sought to help – were excluded from the negotiations between the Tanzanian government and NAFSN to secure foreign aid. Subsequently, the Tanzanian government’s signage and acceptance of the quite unreasonable and arbitrary conditions of the aid provided by NAFSN went without the acknowledgement of those who would be the most affected by them.
The resulting legislation, which green-lit the developmental assistance offered by the NAFSN, greatly benefitted agribusiness giants, such as Monsanto, at the expense of small-scale farmers. Intellectual property laws on Monsanto’s GMO seeds outlawed the selling or trading of seeds between farmers – transgressions may result in a prison sentence of 12 years and a fine of over €205,300. These new laws have introduced the alien concept of private intellectual property rights and criminalized the exchange of seeds in a vast informal system that comprises of neighbors, friends and family; farmers now have to pay a high fee to certify their seeds if they wish to continue their ages-old tradition of seed exchanges. Moreover, if traces of Monsanto’s GMO seeds are found in the seeds of traditional farms as a result of inadvertent cross-pollination, those farmers are liable to be sued by the multinational for stealing its intellectual property, as has happened in its legal battle with US organic growers in 2013.
These underhand tactics foster a dependency on agribusiness corporations in Tanzanian farmers, as they are now encouraged to depend on foreign corporations for their sustained agricultural development. They suffocate the efforts of local NGOs to pursue locally-spurred development, driving a wedge between those NGOs that seek food sovereignty and those that seek corporate partnerships. Indeed, the agenda pushed by the alliance of global North countries, powerful multinationals, and philanthropic private foundations is reminiscent of the unequal treaties forced onto indigenous peoples by colonial powers.
This practice of corporate charity and the provision of development aid is in itself questionable, as it propagates the paternalistic conception that those in need are passive victims requiring the voluntary patronage of benevolent corporations who know better. Regional and local NGOs are forced to tone down their activism once they are co-opted by foreign sponsors, and grassroots movements fighting for reform and self-sufficiency are in effect neutered once those in need have become complacent to remain dependent on foreign aid from NGOs. Instead of fighting for radical and structural change or engaging in grassroots activism, NGOs co-opted by their corporate sponsors instead turn to professional organisation and fundraising activities, operating along a careerist model of organisation dominated by an exclusive leadership of a few highly-paid experts instead of being an inclusive, grassroots-led mass movement consisting of a diverse variety of marginalised peoples. Concerned with maintaining funding from their sponsors, NGOs are incentivised to address immediate, short-term concerns with measures that consistently provide quantifiable results, such as food drives to keep the homeless from starving, instead of pursuing transformative strategies that take aim at the roots of social problems: fighting against wealth inequality, oligarchs’ monopolies and the state-capital collusion that pushes up the cost of living in cities and leaves people starving on the streets. It’s as if patients with wasting (but ultimately curable) diseases were just given painkillers by their doctors, who are inclined to put off having to develop a cure since they’re already quite content with their profitable deals with painkiller manufacturers.
This practice of charity is ignorant at best and cynical at worst, with NGOs deliberately bypassing and therefore weakening local government welfare services to implement their own aid projects – a practice characteristic of the neoliberal tendency to encourage the diminution of governmental oversight in favour of benefitting the private sector. In addition, this approach stifles potential for locally-driven development and growth and fosters an area’s dependence on foreign aid, in essence allowing NGOs and other foreign actors to maintain their control over that area in a form of neo-colonialism.
Part 2: Charity and the neoliberal state
The conscionable appeals made by charities – “Your $25 could buy warm clothing for a Syrian child refugee” – masks the complicated and murky reality of how NGOs distribute their resources. Most of the time, how NGOs use the funds at their disposal is left to their discretion, allowing for lapses in judgement that result in corruption and nepotism; the current unfolding controversy around Oxfam’s misconduct in Haiti comes to mind. Moreover, the top-down model of charity dictates that it is up to NGOs to decide what issues they think are worth diverting funding to, the flaws of which manifest in single-issue campaigns that overshadow or ignore equally pressing problems facing the recipients of humanitarian aid. For example, an aspect of the current interdisciplinary curriculum in the Hangzhou Chinese International School features a Film – Digital Design – Individuals and Societies unit with the prompt “there will be a charity gala attended by rich donors & you are in charge of promoting a social cause to receive funding”. The unit, centred around creating a marketing campaign championing a social cause to secure funding from wealthy elites, is emblematic of the competitive marketplace where social causes have to stand out as if they were glamourous products on supermarket shelves in order to be considered worthy of support. In essence, this propagates the narrative that it is the most heartrending issues eliciting the greatest emotional response that determines which causes receive attention and what other causes don’t.
Perhaps the best example of the aforementioned NGO-led single-issue campaigns can be found in the role of food banks in developed countries. In Hong Kong and other countries which favour small-government and laissez-faire policies, food aid from charities and NGOs often outstrip that provided by government authorities, and at times supplant them altogether. There are some problems with this governmental practice of outsourcing food aid to charities, mainly: the depreciation of what would otherwise be a structural societal issue to a matter of charity, and the inherent fact that such methods of food aid provide only short-term relief at best, and do nothing to solve the underlying problems that cause food poverty in well-developed countries in the first place. In Hong Kong, NGOs such as Feeding Hong Kong, along with smaller charities and a few truly noteworthy, altruistic individuals, are those who take on the responsibility of feeding the poor. Unintended consequences of this approach include an acute lack of government attention towards the issue of food scarcity amongst the city’s lower class, as well as the legitimation of food as a commodity rather than a basic right and the entailing diminution of the Right to Food – we may not see anything wrong with having to pay more for higher-quality foodstuffs, but we have to consider that this also means that those less well-off only have access to low-quality, unhealthy and potentially unsafe foods due to their lack of spending power, meaning that what should otherwise be a basic human right – that to reasonably nutritious food – is only attainable to those who have the money to do so. This same argument also applies to other commoditizations of basic human rights, such as the rights to housing, education, medical care, legal representation, and political participation.
The outsize role of foodbanks in poverty-alleviation efforts also gives credence to the implication that social issues garnering the most public attention are those that are addressed with a disproportionately large amount of public and private resources, usually at the expense of other interrelated social issues. In Hong Kong, the stifling of local community spirit, as well as the growing radicalisation of low-income youth, are both under-regarded issues linked to the worsening socio-economic prospects of the city’s lower and working class. These symptoms of Hong Kong’s larger wealth disparity problem are equally as serious and as deserving of attention, and while single-issue campaigns aimed at alleviating specific social problems are not undesirable, without recognising the overarching problem of the city’s wealth disparity these campaigns can only have a limited effect on affecting meaningful change.
The social inequalities plaguing developed societies (food insecurity in this case) are direct consequences of decades of consistent implementation of neoliberal policies, enabled by the collusion between the state (the government) and private business (capital). The consequences of this state-capital alliance include the cutting of wages, the growth of precarious un/underemployment, the contractualisation of labour and the entailing weakening of unions and workers’ rights, the brunt of which is experienced by the marginalised – this referring to the diverse lower and working classes; for instance, Hong Kong’s own (disproportionately poor) Nepalese underclass. It is crucial, when we think about the benign contributions made by NGOs such as Feeding HK, that we do not become placated by the platitude that these NGOs are at least making an effort to alleviate such social problems. However benign the focus of their charity may be, the obligations to their corporate sponsors hinders their ability to achieve a larger degree of change beyond that of providing a limited degree of aid, which belies the true nature of the labyrinthine, well-entrenched socio-economic disparities that continue to aggravate these social problems – consider the high-profile relationships between prominent charities and their corporate sponsors; for example, that between Feeding HK and one of Hong Kong’s largest property conglomerates, the Sino Group. With the cost of living and housing prices continuing to rise, the Group is part of the mega-conglomerates’ monopoly on the city’s housing market, responsible for the growing wealth inequality in the city and some of the social problems they purport to be alleviating. These conditional relationships limits the ability of NGOs to provide meaningful criticism of current socio-economic injustices due to the fact that their corporate sponsors are often responsible for creating and perpetuating these injustices.
The reality remains that, despite their outwards pretense of neutrality, NGOs operate in a highly politicised environment. Conflicts of interest are inevitable, but some might argue that it would be counterproductive and perhaps overly-idealistic to reject funding from wealthy philanthropists and corporate sponsors altogether. Is it possible for NGOs to transcend a pious, paternalistic patronisation of those in need, and move towards efforts to achieve self-sufficiency and equality in the developing world? The piercing criticism of neoliberal globalisation offered by the prolific NGO Mission for Migrant Workers, alongside its invaluable assistance to migrant workers in Hong Kong, gives it legitimacy as an ally to those in solidarity with the marginalised. Indeed, their grassroots and community-based approach to organised activism, as well as their lack of aversion towards critiquing prickly socio-economic issues, proves to other NGOs and aid organisations that it is possible to be a meaningful benefactor to those in need without being beholden to funds or publicity from corporate sponsors.
As individual activists or volunteers, our contributions might only be drops in the ocean, and perhaps that sentiment is not entirely unfounded – after all, while doing things like doling out gifts of cash to struggling students may seem like conspicuously benign gestures, how much of a difference does it really make on a wider socio-economic scale? The least we can do is to actively reflect on our work and how it affects (or perpetuates!) the situation of those who we seek to help; thinking critically about our practice of charity, and getting other people around us to do so too, may well be the first step towards precipitating lasting and meaningful change in society through the development of a perceptive public aware of the reasons behind poverty and other socio-economic injustices.