Is charity ruined?
MIKAEL MATTILA, text
HENNA SILLANPÄÄ, translation
AT THE END of February, Helsingin Sanomat wrote about the shady aspects of the charity work of Ari Koponen, also known as Brother Christmas. There was need for improvement in the organisation’s bookkeeping and somebody leaked offensive private messages sent by Koponen. Around the same time, the YLE programme MOT investigated the Lotta Svärd Foundation and reported that only a fraction of their 80 million euro property goes to those in need.
Taking care of the needy is vital for a functioning society. However, charity often seems to be enveloped in shady scheming.
Noora Kotilainen answers. She is a postdoctoral researcher of political history in the University of Helsinki. Kotilainen’s research has focused on international aid, but she sees similarities in smaller charity projects as well.
“Cases like Brother Christmas carnivalise charity,” says Kotilainen.
DURING THE past decades, the visibility and importance of so called humanitarianism have increased. It has become a big business and the set of methods has become more varied. Even military action has been justified by humanitarianism. According to Kotilainen, it all becomes a carnival when entertaining programme is added to giving aid.
The musician Bob Geldof arranged the massive Live Aid concert in his day. The Finnish children’s clinics’ sponsors went golfing along with Teemu Selänne, and Ari Koponen dressed up as Brother Christmas.
”The aid-giver always has some power over the receiver. Contemporary charity projects often gather money for some specific target designed in advance to be attractive. This may distort the starting point of giving aid so that it follows capitalistic intentions instead of a moral calling.”
Additionally, in contemporary humanitarianism, the one giving aid is often the centre of attention, says Kotilainen.
“When we send goats to Africa or toys to sick children through a charity programme, the focus of the act may not be on the ones in need, but rather ‘me, a good person’. Charity becomes a tool for constructing your identity.”
THAT DOES NOT sound good. Celebrities bask in the limelight, donators are self-satisfied, and organisations fuss around.
In the past, there was talk of the welfare state that takes care of the less-well-off by levying taxes. Have corrupt organisations and blundering swindlers replaced the state?
Not quite, says Kotilainen.
However, she maintains that there is a risk of misuse of power when helping people becomes the job of private market-bound agents.
“Carnivalesque charity is also unpredictable. The benefactors must always create new campaigns to survive in the attention economy.”
HOWEVER, the researcher finds it positive that there are many types of agents giving aid. It is important to ask why they are doing what they are doing, though. In this sense, the traditional relief organisations seem more trustworthy despite their blunders.
“There may be a different spirit and routine in the operations of large organisations than in smaller, quickly established agents. The much slandered bureaucracy is there to minimise misconducts.”
Kotilainen also reminds us that charity is not just a bandage that fixes the outcomes of inequality.
“A responsible benefactor thinks about where poverty and suffering stem from and how we can prevent them.”