Controversially, a petition signed by 100,000 people has called for some re-allocation of the UK’s foreign aid budget to help compensate the victims of British floods and improve flood defences. The annual £11bn budget is aimed at alleviating poverty and helping crisis-hit areas around the world. Similarly, grumbling voices in the right-wing media have criticised aid agencies such as Oxfam for caring too much about international poverty and ignoring poor people in the UK.
This attitude seems to be the opposite of a more common sentiment that argues that aid charities, associated with humanitarian disasters in the developing world, have no real business operating in the UK, where, it is sometimes suggested, “real” poverty doesn’t exist. In Venezuela in 1999, 30,000 were killed. The devastation in Bangladesh in 2004 was unspeakable, with the waters covering 60 per cent of the country and leaving roughly 30 million people homeless or stranded. The south-east Asian floods of 2011 killed 3,000 more, and wiped out the livelihoods of millions.
So, should charity begin at home? Should we first give aid to our own people before worrying about the rest of the world?
Aid needed close to home
“If you really want to make the world a better place, start by being giving aid to those in need right here in our city.”
In other words it is no good sending money to a foreign relief fund if you ignore the needs of the people sleeping rough on your own streets who need food banks.
Several international charities do provide aid in Britain.
The international charity Oxfam has had UK aid programmes for the past 20 years.
UNICEF focuses on the most disadvantaged children wherever they are to grow up safe happy and healthy. It works in 190 countries including with UK public services to protect, promote, and support breastfeeding and to strengthen mother baby and family relationships.
Save the Children works in more than 120 countries. It has worked in the UK since the 1930s when it set up nurseries in deprived areas of the country. It supports children living in the most severe poverty providing their families with household essentials, like a child’s bed, a family cooker or educational books and toys.
“If you haven’t got any charity in your heart, you have the worst kind of heart trouble.” (Bob Hope)
Aid for social exclusion
The need for food and shelter is an obvious need that pulls at our heart strings and is found in many war-torn regions and third world countries. Aid charities are not going to be distributing emergency shipments of grain to people in the UK because by and large this is not how poverty is found here.
However, there are other forms of deprivation which are less easy to discern. Poverty looks different across the world but deprived communities all have a sense of social exclusion, a lack of voice, and a lack of opportunity to shape their own lives. In Britain there are many families who are not starving but are suffering with food and housing insecurity triggered by low pay, unemployment: they are slipping through the net of what some commentators have described as an increasingly threadbare social security system, where complications with benefits mean there are long delays.
Aid not creating dependency
A major worry many of us have about giving to the poor is creating a culture of dependency. Where is the incentive for trying to make personal progress out of poverty when one stands to lose the benefit of regular handouts? That is why genuine charity involves acting with good sense as well as love.
“Charity towards the neighbour is thought to consist in giving to the poor, helping a person in need, and doing good to everyone. But genuine charity involves acting circumspectly and with the end in view that good may result.” (Emanuel Swedenborg)
Oxfam uses the principle of the “hand-up”, rather than the “permanent handout”. On a practical level it funds welfare advisers to guide often desperate food bank clients through the social security maze and offer them advice on managing debt and getting back to work.
Another sensible way forward might be to donate money for low-cost loans which can create a ‘can-do mentality’ on the part of recipients.
Aid as daily charitable behaviour
Giving to an aid charity is all well and good but is it not meaningless unless we also do good in the normal exercise of our everyday roles? That would mean acting with sincerity and honesty with concern for others rather than self-interest. Giving our time and efforts not for the sake of for the sake of reputation, honour and gain but rather for the sake of meeting the needs of those around us.
“Charity towards the neighbour is far wider in scope than helping the poor and needy. Charity towards the neighbour involves doing what is right in every task, and doing what is required in any official position.” (Swedenborg)
Central to this view is the notion that charity is all about giving of ourselves without seeking recompense for self-interest.
Unless charity starts at home, in this sense of an attitude of goodwill and integrity in our relationships, then I would argue that any donation of money for international aid is like giving a guilt-gift to a child to compensate for being an absent parent, or fulfilling an occasional social obligation without bothering to give any regular useful contact and input.
Aid as a means of spiritual enlightenment
Helping those we know, and whose lives interact with our own in our daily life, is important. But that perhaps should only be the start.
“Charity begins at home, but should not end there.” (Thomas Fuller)
Regular giving to aid others in need has been a common spiritual discipline and found in several religious traditions. The Christian tradition of tithing, optionally pledging a portion of personal income for donation to charity, has analogies in the obligatory charitable traditions of Sunni Islam (Zakat), Judaism (Tzedakah) and Hinduism (Dana).
Copyright 2014 Stephen Russell-Lacy
Author of Heart, Head & Hands Swedenborg’s perspective on emotional problems