On charity, solidarity & NGOs
The last 25 years has seen a transformation of the architecture of the left which has been matched only by the speed of our decline.
In the summer of 1985 (the summer I was born), 2 things happened. The National Union of Miners finally gave up their strike, and the Rainbow Warrior was sunk in New Zealand by the French Navy – pushing Greenpeace onto every front page. This year was a mile-stone in the decline of unions and the rise of NGOs.
There are, I think, a number of problems with the contemporary NGO model, and maybe we’ll look at others later. But here, I’m going to look at one of these – the way we divide the country.
Because the language used by most large NGOs is not that of the unions. We don’t talk about enlightened self interest and solidarity, but of pity and charity. We don’t talk about making everyone’s life better together, but of helping the bottom 1-5%. And so we divide the population along a fault line that perpetuates a false split between those we need to unite.
Take, for example, Shelter. Shelter are a great charity who do really good work combating homelessness. But the truth is that people being homeless is only the fringe, most extreme and most terrible consequence of a housing policy which has failed millions in this country. As a young graduate with a reasonable salary, I live in a damp, mouldy bedroom. Millions suffer from our un-regulated, out of control, private rental sector. Yet there is no one organising us to demand decent housing. While Shelter do provide advisory services, their fundraising leaflets don’t encourage me to understand that, as a member of the young middle classes, the failure to build more council houses or abolish right-to-buy is one of the main reasons I pay most of my salary to my landlord. Instead they encourage me to empathise with homeless teenagers. I do. But ultimately, this casts my interests against theirs. It implicitly tells us that we are not in this together: it divides us into rich ‘donor’ and poor ‘victim’. And that leads to a political divide which puts most people on the wrong side. While the right use aspiration to encourage us all to share the interests of the rich, our use of the language of charity risks doing the same.
Or look at organisations campaigning on global poverty. I was in a discussion the other day with someone representing one of the main groups campaigning on development. They told us that we should tell people that, after the credit crunch, they are connected with the renewed poverty in many developing countries because we have got rich by making them poor – that we should be guilty.
Whether or not that is true, it accepts the same basic divisions that the right wish to draw – we share the interests of the mega-rich, and the poor – a minority in this country, foreigners if in other countres, have different interests. We should be good and gracious and giving, rather than expressing our collective solidarity, and desire to build a better society for all of us, together.
Our campaigns should show how the person we are speaking to has the same interests as the people who are suffering most – how better housing policy would help everyone who is screwed by the over-dominance of the private rental sector, including those without homes; how Britain’s bankers who wreaked havoc all around the world have also broken our economy; how we are all in this together, and a better world would be better for all of us. We should encourage empathy, yes. We should encourage mutual support, yes. But we must be careful, when doing so, not to
The NGO movement is the political wing of the charitable movement. We campaign like we fundraise – because it’s easy to ask someone to empathise with the most extreme examples of poverty. But people will never take the risk of changing the system which creates this poverty unless they see that it will also improve the lot of them themselves – and, just as importantly, their family, their neighbours, and their friends.
The network United Students Against Sweatshops, which organises on American campuses, has as it’s slogan a quote “If you are here to help me, then you are wasting your time. If you are here because your struggle is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”
The political language of charity splits the country into a wealthy 95% and a poor 5%. This false demography is a massive barrier to true progress. And until we unite a majority around a vision for a future which is better for both them, and their communities, I don’t see how we can change this country.