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4 Reasons Why Charity Can't Eradicate Poverty

Updated on March 3, 2015
The Poor Need Development and Empowerment, Not Charity.
The Poor Need Development and Empowerment, Not Charity.

Why There are So Many Poor In The World

Poverty is still the most widespread form of human suffering despite the massive wealth creation and government spending aiming to help the poor (at least this is the popular excuse for running public welfare programs in all nations). The United Nation’s Millennium Project was launched in 2000 specifically for poverty reduction through various Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). The very first MDG aimed to halve the global poverty by 2015 compared with the percentage of poor (which was 43 percent) in 1990. It was achieved 5 years in advance: in 2010 the global poverty fell to 21 percent.

Yet, there are over 1 billion poor in the world – in fact, they are extremely poor living below the $1.25-a-day income yardstick of the World Bank. If we just double the benchmark to $2.5-a-day, then almost half of the human race can be considered poor. By way of warning, these statistical numbers tell nothing about the nature or magnitude of suffering poverty inflicts on people. According to UNICEF, 22,000 children die daily due to poverty. In 2011, 165 million below 5 children were stunted due to chronic malnutrition. 870 million people go to bed hungry every day. If $10-a-day is used as poverty line, it would globally make 80 percent people poor.

So Many Anti-Poverty Programs

Countless charities, NGOs and research organizations focused on the world’s poor across the globe, apart from the anti-poverty efforts of local, state, federal and international government programs there are. There are poverty reduction targets, international goals and agreements. National and international leaders are never tired of anti-poverty tirade. The corporate world is ever willing to promote “growth” and the governments are always willing to oblige them with sops to enhance development. In fact, there is nothing new in these activities. For several decades governments and charities have been focused on rushing aid to the poor and starving. Yet, progress has remained elusive and the problem only seems to escalate. There is an ever-widening disparity between rich and poor. Why?

The reason is obvious: most poverty reduction efforts focus on temporary relief rather than getting to the root of the poverty. It is not surprising because poverty is a peculiar puzzle; it is difficult to separate its effects and causes. As a result, most efforts have been consumed to responding the most obvious effects of poverty like starvation, malnutrition, ignorance and bad health. Consequently, though the poor got temporary relief their situation remains where it is.

The hard fact is that such interventions actually “sustain” poverty and over time it actually increases. How?

It is a widely acknowledged fact by now that poverty also promotes higher fertility – the poorest societies also have the largest population growth rate. As prosperity comes, the fertility rate goes down.

Charity is the Traditional Way of Wealth Redistribution

When poverty is seen from the monetary perspective, anti-poverty efforts are naturally focused on redistributing wealth from the rich to the poor. Worldwide, this thinking promoted charity and even institutionalized it. Governments encourage charity spending through tax sops. The basic thinking is that at least some part of the wealth of the rich and those who can afford it, will reach the needy and poor. But the question is: Is charity the best way of income redistribution and poverty removal?

Why People Donate to Charities

The biggest driving force behind charity comes from religious and spiritual side. It is prescribed as a sign of good human-beings who act through compassion and goodwill for fellow suffering humans-beings. There is no doubt that charity is a virtuous human act that almost comes spontaneously on seeing people in pain and suffering.

In today’s material world, there are many other motivations behind charity that come from things like strong feelings towards a certain cause due to some personal experience, desire to make a difference, expectations of social recognition and fringe benefits like invitations to events, peer pressure, and so on. Researchers have come to the conclusion that

“Happier people give more and giving makes people happier, such that happiness and giving may operate in a positive feedback loop.”

From the motivations of the donors, we can draw two important conclusions that tell us why charities work the way they do. It is easy to see that:

  • Charity is primarily about the donors – their visions, desires and expectations. It’s not about the recipients of charity. And
  • The donors expect something in return so that they can feel good about donating.

In the light of these two facts, it will become obvious why charity is not the way to poverty-free world.

Hunger attracts most charities.
Hunger attracts most charities. | Source

1. Charities Focus on Symptoms, Not Causes

Most people fail to realize that fighting poverty and combating cancer are two very different things. While cancer is a relatively simple scientific problem, poverty is a multidimensional puzzle covering social, cultural, political and economic plains. It is rather easy to focus efforts on the problem of cancer because the medical parameters limit the boundary of focus. Besides, the scientific results obtained at one place can be replicated at any other place in the world.

On the contrary, the nature of poverty and the root causes are often buried in a society’s culture, social structure, nature and state of economic development as well as government policies and institutions. Add to that the role of international agencies and their pressures to favor certain policies which they think are important. In reality, what they promote reflect the goals and thinking of their donor countries (in the rich West). Therefore, there are simply too many intertwined factors that dictate the life people lead.

Expectation of donors is another factor that charities can’t ignore. The motivation of the donors is to see positive results and feel good. Therefore, they do their best to produce quick results and inform their donors, who in turn pledge further money.

Obviously then, the safest course of action is to focus on the visible effects of poverty such as hunger, malnutrition, poor health, lack of sanitation and safe drinking water, drug addiction, high fertility rate, maternal and child mortality and so on. No doubt, even helping the poor manage such visible aspects of poverty is a wonderful thing. But the fact remains: they are just symptoms, not root causes.

If poverty has to be actually eliminated, one has to come with a long term perspective because it necessarily involves a slow process of political, cultural, social and economical change, with many stakeholders. Such a commitment is only possible from the governments because they are committed to people and have the power to make suitable policies and organize best resources. Charities have to show quick results to their donors so that they feel good, they are not ideally placed for the task of poverty eradication.

5 Charity Quotes

“The proper aim of giving is to put the recipients in a state where they no longer need our gifts.” — C.S. Lewis

Charity is injurious unless it helps the recipient to become independent of it. – John D. Rockefeller

“While we do our good works let us not forget that the real solution lies in a world in which charity will have become unnecessary.” ― Chinua Achebe

“If every man took only what was sufficient for his needs, leaving the rest to those in want, there would be no rich and no poor.” — St Basil of Caesarea

Charity is no substitute for justice withheld. – Saint Augustine

2. Charities Hamper the Process of Social Change

As argued above, charities provide relief from the temporary symptoms of poverty. Although it is a good humanitarian act under any philosophy, it does a subtle harm to the poor. Besides creating the need for perpetual charity (because food aid, for instance, must be given regularly because people get hungry everyday), the sense of relief tend to make people complacent and dependent on the aid. They lose the sense of urgency which might possibly galvanize them to find a permanent solution. It is human nature that people normally rise up to change their lives only when pushed to the wall (and have no chance of temporary relief). Putting is crude language, the temporary pressure release at regular interval does not allow build up of pressure in the minds of people which would prompt them to look for a better solution.

Therefore, many informed people suggest that the effort put into charity and temporary relief of symptoms should be better devoted to pressuring governments to bring about more lasting change. Another reality is that the government might be more likely to focus on dealing with poverty if the poor weren't being helped by charities.

This isn't a new argument. It has been echoed by J A Hobson one hundred years ago:

“It is more socially injurious for the millionaire to spend his surplus wealth in charity than in luxury. For by spending it on luxury, he chiefly injures himself and his immediate circle, but by spending it in charity he inflicts a graver injury upon society. For every act of charity, applied to heal suffering arising from defective arrangements of society, serves to weaken the personal springs of social reform, alike by the 'miraculous' relief it brings to the individual 'case' that is relieved, and by the softening influence it exercises on the hearts and heads of those who witness it. It substitutes the idea and the desire of individual reform for those of social reform, and so weakens the capacity for collective self-help in society.”

3. Tax Incentives to Charities Reduce Both Public Revenue and Accountability

There are researchers who feel that tax incentives to charities do harm by reducing public revenue; the government has less funds for social projects. Granting tax exempt status to charitable organizations also does the same thing.

Moreover, such incentives might possibly go towards increasing inequalities rather than decreasing it. Since the tax benefits don’t discriminate on the nature of charities, there is a possibility that donations to private schools, for instance, can indirectly hurt public schools and increase disparity by reducing public fund.

Since donors have the freedom they donate to a cause that appeals them. They are not expected to have consideration of urgency of need from a larger perspective. For instance, a donor might choose to give for an art museum rather than for natural-disaster relief.

Such instances also bring forth the issue of accountability. Government is politically more accountable than private donors. So funds are better spent for people’s urgent needs when the government spends the money rather than private donors.

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4. Charity Delays Real Justice

“Overcoming poverty is not a task of charity, it is an act of justice. Like Slavery and Apartheid, poverty is not natural. It is man-made and it can be overcome and eradicated by the actions of human beings. Sometimes it falls on a generation to be great. YOU can be that great generation. Let your greatness blossom.” Nelson Mandela

By focusing on and patching up the side effects of the fundamental injustices that are built into the structure and values of a society the charities inadvertently sustain the injustices. The debate of charity vs justice makes the difference between giving “fish” and “fish-rod”

Charity Vs Justice

Charity is generally a short term patchwork, focuses on effects, is done at personal level, makes people dependent, and causes little change in the status of the recipient. It is like giving fish which can only be eaten once.

Justice means fairness, equity; the fair distribution of advantages, assets and benefits for all members of society. For example, equal access to high quality healthcare and education for all. Justice is long-term, it attacks the cause, it is done institutionally, does not make people dependent, they can maintain their pride and it causes systemic change. It is like giving a fish-rod so that the poor can fish whenever he wanted!

Thus, from long term and sustainability perspective it makes more sense to focus energy on creating a just society where people are empowered to look after themselves.

Charity vs Justice

A JUST global order can make poverty history
A JUST global order can make poverty history | Source

What Will Eradicate Poverty

“If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich.” — John F. Kennedy

Prevalence of widespread poverty in the world today is more a reflection of the ever growing inequalities, in all forms, has much to do with the power equation between people and their groups in the society. Basically, the boundary is between those who have – they are rather small in number but wield most of the power – and those who don’t – they form the majority of the humanity. The socio-economic structure is such that it favors those who already have too much; in the process it also sidelines those who are struggling to survive.

A whole new vision is required if poverty has to be actually eradicated from the world. Fortunately, right ideas exist and are waiting to be adopted by those in command and leadership position. Two things need changing; one at the system level and the other at the people’s level.

System Change: Move From Economy-Centered to People-Centered System

At present, progress and development revolve around only one thing: economic growth. People have become secondary; they are used as mere tools to achieve the GDP growth along with the use of technology. The fact that people need “fruitful” employment and freedom to make dignified choices ceased to be of priority. The utterly narrow brand of shareholder capitalism gives all the power in few hands – people with capital. They are supposed to only “maximize” their profits. Consequently, employees are paid the least for their “labor” and social and environmental impact of the business are no longer issues for the “moneymakers” and “profit maximizers.” It divides the society in two: exploiter and exploited (or haves and have-nots). While the haves take away everything, the have-nots have little access to resources, opportunities and services.

Therefore, the world today needs a better and more just system to promote the well-being of the humanity and the planet both. The capability theory of Amartya Sen and its other slightly different versions proposed by others point to the right direction. It suggests making people the focus of development rather than “economic growth” as practiced today.

Empowerment of People

People working to eradicate poverty need to recognize that simply digging into the pockets of the “haves” is not enough to achieve the goal. They need to think beyond giving the “fish” and move to teaching “how to fish”; however, this requires more human involvement than more cash in dollars. In fact, charities need to also think in terms “raising involvement” of capable people just as they “raise funds”. Dollars can’t replace human efforts to motivate and empower the poor. The poor need to be taught to think differently – as “active agents of change” in their own lives rather than mere receiver of “favors” and doles.

Education, knowledge, skills, connectivity, freedom to participate in social and political processes and access to credit are ideal tools to empower people – they enable the poor to think differently and solve their problems on their own. Feeding hungry stomachs is good humanitarian deed but can’t change the lives of people unless they are empowered with hope and self-worth.


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    • Duane Townsend profile image

      Duane Townsend 3 weeks ago from Detroit

      A well thought out Hub. Good work Goodpal.

    • Goodpal profile image

      Goodpal 2 years ago

      You are right San.

      The system is designed to favor those who are already well off; of course, at the cost of the weak and poor.

      It has led to a situation where actually 1% humanity owns almost as much wealth the rest of us 99%. If you consider top 100 economies in the world, 40 are corporates!!

      We are not ruled by the governments any more. Behind the governments big companies and rich people are ruling us through what they call "Lobbying". Lobbying for what? Tax concessions and favorable policies.

      In this hub I pointed out 5 things that are threatening us:

    • profile image

      SanXuary 2 years ago

      If we had a system where charity could be invested and people paid back and the difference given to charity with no taxes, why not? Someone would steal it of course but are we not doing this already with tax write offs.

    • Goodpal profile image

      Goodpal 2 years ago

      Well said San.

      We live in an unjust system and admire hypocrisy of charity!

      I wonder, why can't we change the system?

    • profile image

      SanXuary 2 years ago

      Most charity's are false charity's to begin with. When it's a company and you have a CEO with a CEO salary your no longer a charity. When its a tax write off and its a job its not much of a charity. When you live in a system that robs you daily where do you have any room for charity to begin with.

    • lawrence01 profile image

      Lawrence Hebb 2 years ago from Hamilton, New Zealand

      I still think we need disaster relief to deal with the immediate effects of disaster but the development aid needs to be targeted better. Some agencies have recognized this but governments don't like it as there's less chance for corruption

    • Goodpal profile image

      Goodpal 2 years ago

      Thanks for commenting on such a topic of human interest.

      All this international 'aid" is only for political leverage. In addition to that the recipient stays dependent that's the idea. "Real charity" would device ways to empower people. The correct solution is to modify the economic system to make it just and moral. Then stop all charity shops, except for emergency purposes.

    • lawrence01 profile image

      Lawrence Hebb 2 years ago from Hamilton, New Zealand

      This is a hub I can identify with. I worked for a few years with a Christian Development agency that sought to take the approach of actually listening to what the locals tell us were the real needs. They were often different to what the NGO's were telling us.

      One place I worked we noticed that two provinces were completely different to each other. In the one area Saddam ha total control so he;d given the people everything, when the proverbial hit the fan they couldn't cope as they'd been literally 'spoon fed'

      The other area, he'd never had control so he'd made sure they got nothing, and when the same thing there happened life actually continued as normal because they were used to dealing with hardship.

      I'm convinced that one of the biggest contributors to poverty is actually the creation of the welfare state and the socialist system, why? Because it's robbed the recipients of the ability to think for themselves. Voted up

    • Goodpal profile image

      Goodpal 2 years ago

      Thanks Claudia, for sharing.

      In today's world overflowing with technological brilliance and wealths of all manners, if there are people living in filthy conditions it is simply because human beings like you have become rare who feel for others suffering.

      Unfortunately, over the decades the quality of economy has been improving, the quality of technology is simply getting superb but the quality of human mind is still the same as in stone age. It fails to go beyond selfishness, violence and exploitation.

      Today, all problem are our own creation. The distorted system is converting human beings into mere human consumers and human resource. I find it pathetic to see heads of powerful democracies acting like medieval tribal chiefs, ever ready to wage wars. Thy love to talk about the endless so-called war on terror as the "costliest multi-trillion dollar war of the history" but go pale when it comes to global poverty or climate change issues.

      If we have a system to educate these leaders, the planet will soon turn into paradise with justice and dignity for all.

    • Claudia Mathews profile image

      Claudia Mathews 2 years ago

      Wow, you've nailed it! So many valid points and observations.

      Personally I do give money and food even though I know it is not a solution, but it is difficult not to help for the short term when innocent children are involved.

      Feeding a man a fish, when he can not or will not learn to fish is something we have to continue to do though. There is a cycle of the poor and victim mentality and it would likely take several generations to irradiate it. But there are many people that do truly realize their own role in their lives and targeting those people, we can make real and lasting change.

      This paragraph made a lot of sense to me, where I'd never thought about it before....

      “Overcoming poverty is not a task of charity, it is an act of justice. Like Slavery and Apartheid, poverty is not natural. It is man-made and it can be overcome and eradicated by the actions of human beings.

      Great article, I will refer to it again. Thanks for sharing.

    • Goodpal profile image

      Goodpal 3 years ago

      Thanks for sharing Bishop.

      You state the reality when you write:

      " see people using a hand up as a "hand out" and they don't even try to improve their situations."

      We need to think why this situation arises at the first place. Where are all the values gone? A valueless rich is as stupid as a valueless poor. No difference!

      Charity is not a fix for the wrong structure of the society coming from wrong values and faulty concept of "development."

      I support charity at the personal level, but not at the institutional level.

    • Bishop55 profile image

      Rebecca 3 years ago from USA

      I agree on many levels. I think the problem is a lot of poor people are stupid. And if you can't fix stupid, you can't fix poor. I'm lower middle class, not "rich" by any means, I donate and try to volunteer for charitable causes, but it gets exhausting when you see people using a hand up as a "hand out" and they don't even try to improve their situations. Just my opinion.