I used to think of charity as an unattractive legacy of Victorian society. I still do.
But, it’s become more complex as I’ve got older and, you might say, wiser. Two events in 2001 helped temper my views.
In October I visited Mongolia. Not pleasant to admit, but my task was to take money out of the hands of the Mongolian government. Strictly speaking it was not money to which the government was entitled. Nevertheless, experiencing third world conditions for the first time whilst bullying the Mongolians tugged on my guilt strings.
One evening as we drove through the less than salubrious outskirts of Ulaan Baatar, I asked our hosts – rather naively, I suspect – what could I do to help the Mongolians help themselves.”Donate to charity” was the answer. Not really what I wanted to hear. I really wanted to roll up my sleeves and help in a more direct and practical way. Well,what could a bureaucrat do? Not a lot.
A few months later, I donated my Christmas Day to a homeless shelter. Cliche: it was a real eye opener. It was tough. Although I’d got to the stage that Christmas didn’t mean much to me, I was acutely aware that it was crappy for the men and women I met to be on the streets at Christmas. To be honest, I wimped out and only did one out fo the several days I’d volunteered to do. But, it probably made some difference.
My view had softened, if that’s the word. Not a dramatic change and it wasn’t as though my wallet had opened up.
Fast forward a couple of years: up a ladder on Boxing Day painting the front bedroom withe Radio 5 in the background, I listened and tried to comprehend what was going on in Thailand. A day or so later, watching the awful pictures on TV, I finally decided to cough up some money to charity. Yep, I did wrestle with my conscience. I wanted to know where my money was going. I wanted to know what I had done. Then again, that didn’t matter. People who, at that time, could not help themselves, needed help. I could help. With money.
Now, a few quid goes to Oxfam every month. And, tonight I’ve paid more money than I can afford at this time to help those in need in Haiti. Or Sudan. Or Bangladesh. Or disappearing Pacific islands. Does it matter?
I guess my middle class conscious has been salved.
Postscript: more money than I can afford has also gone to bail out reckless bankers. Can I humbly propose that the reckless and feckless bankers donate the bonuses they are about to receive to the DEC Haitian appeal.