Saturday, 25 July 2009

Accidental altruism

Anyone who tried to read Proust knows that what is, I think, the longest novel in the world was caused by a single bite of a chocolate biscuit.
I’ve just had a Proustian moment. Don’t worry, I’ll try to be briefer than he was.
Recently I lunched with a friend. As I had to dash away before him I asked for my bill, paid by card without looking at it (I 100% trust restaurant workers from once having to be one) and ran back to work. Later my friend thanked me for paying his bill without telling him.
As well as being absent minded, I realised this also makes me an accidental altruist. But I also wonder if, like acts of random kindness, accidental altruism might be something to provoke for folk like me who understand and therefore reject ‘proper’ charity.
I was practicing acts of random kindnesss decades before Danny Wallace wrote the book. In the early 1980’s, for example, I was involved in ‘guerilla art’ groups who played games like leaving poems, jokes or short stories for commuters to find at random, and which ended by suggesting they did the same.
It was, as one collaborator said, like throwing a stone into a pond and watching the ripples. The funniest thing was that press reports soon after often quoted incidents and stories we did not create.
Now that is choosing to interact socially and provoke action, but in a manner which allows people to get on with it for themselves, not telling them how to do it or setting yourself up as an ‘expert’ so that if you don’t control it, everything stops.
Accidental altruism would be choosing to go even further, and probably work something in the manner of Adam Smith’s ‘invisible hand’ in free market economic theory. In effect, the best thing you can do for the less fortunate is to mind your own business and stay out of theirs, instead of patronising them to death while creating neo-colonial QUANGOs.
But there’s a difference between this and apathy. My argument would be that ‘traditional’ charity is built on the Christian example of the Good Samaritan and the command to "Love Thy Neighbour". Which is reasonable enough until you ask “What if my neighbour rejects my advances?”
Think about it. Isn’t there an eery similarity between the way evangelical charities in particular ‘help’ people who never asked them to interfere and the office junior trying to ward off the advances of a drunken manager at the Christmas party?
I’m not even going into the cases of fraud, economic opportunism, property speculation, political interference or just plain old rape that I know about where individuals have manipulated ‘charity’ to their own (and distinctly un-Christian) ends. I am talking about the general principles – the balance and abuse of power and the way in which the weaker party in such ‘negotiations’ can hardly be said to consent freely to the arrangement.
If you must start from ‘timeless’ religious ‘wisdom’ (I don’t, but others seem to need Mystic Megs just to get out of bed in the morning), how about the Buddhist “Do no harm”?
Take that as far as you like. If you’re determined to meddle in charity and risk wrecking the developing world faster than it can export heroin here for lack of an open market in any legal product, at least think your action through.
Buying that land to build and control housing for locals sounded good, but did the wealthy Westerner coming in and buying up land put land and property prices out of reach for self-sufficient locals who’ve been saving for years?
And if you insist on deciding the tenants yourself doesn’t that say you don’t trust locals to run their own lives? Sounds like blatent racism to me.
At a simpler level, why are you bowing to emotional blackmail and paying your quid to go with the Christmas basket a nice churchy group send to East Europe. Who distributes the baskets, are they only doing so through local evangelical churches who insist the poor come and sing hymns for them, and why do they need the quid if transportation is free, courtesy of a friendly road haulier?
And when a charity tells you they only act in the developing world after consulting with local’community leaders’, ask “which ones?” Often it will turn out to be ‘faith leaders’, which is passed off as a practical necessity.
Is it?
Can you imagine if Toyota were planning to build their latest hybrid car here, and they set the whole deal up via Churches Together in Mann? It would be a miracle if one car was produced, and if it didn’t have square wheels and a Sat Nav system based on the King James Bible.
I’m not saying don’t get involved in charity.
I am saying that far too much bad charity screws up lives because it isn’t thought through properly, or because the structures we have created for charity encourage, rather than prevent, fraud or the misuse of human good nature by powerful, anti-democratic and often plain nasty organisations.
And I am saying that every person who ever put a coin in a collecting tin without trying to find out exactly how it will be used contributes to that.
Another chocolate biscuit?

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