We Need to Draw a Distinction Between Charity and Justice: A response to Eamon Delaney


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“You need to find a way to sell your ideas to people. Make them want to buy into them.”

That was the advice given to me in a little Belfast coffee-shop months ago by a lady whose area of expertise is working with troubled youth. Promoting social justice issues for her is akin to selling brand X toothpaste. Idealism is all well and good, she seemed to be saying, but it is pragmatism that moves toothpaste off shop shelves.

Eamon Delaney’s thoughts on Irish overseas development assistance in Tuesday’s Irish Times reminded me of that conversation. The core of his argument seems to be this: convince me why I should buy into the brand X toothpaste that is overseas development assistance. Given the proclivity of people in the developing world for procreation, given the state’s dire financial circumstances, given also that, most importantly, Ireland has already proved herself as one the world’s most generous nations and benefactor to some of the poorest, most pathetic peoples, what reason can the development sector possibly put forward to justify the continued national purchase of overseas aid?

It’s a terrible question. Delaney conflates two separate issues – global justice and the demographics of places like Ethiopia – and then goes on to frame them in a completely inappropriate manner. But the fault is not his alone; the development sector has a lot to answer for. The fund-raising departments of most aid organisations see themselves as quasi-commercial entities competing for a limited market of potential donors. While they may as well be selling toothpaste, the product they offer is a sense of well-being. They are well aware of the numerous studies indicating that most charitable giving is egotistical. Most aid campaigns are therefore some variant of ‘in return for some spare change, we’ll enable you to become someone’s saviour and you’ll feel fantastic about yourself’. While this strategy is an effective means of getting people to part with their money, it’s natural end is something along the lines of Delaney’s observation – there’s only so much toothpaste that any household needs to buy.

Many people share Delaney’s sentiments. Ireland has done more than enough to feel good about its charity towards the starving little black babies in Africa. If in the end their plight has not improved because of African corruption, tyrannical leadership, an altogether unhelpful male population, or an inability to grasp the folly in reproducing like rabbits, well then… There are plenty of ways to purchase well being through doing good domestically. There are poor people here, school children who are being educated in unsatisfactory conditions, addicts without access to detox programs, and an economy which needs all the help and resources the state can muster. And as we all know, a rising tide lifts all boats. Besides, charity begins at home, so why not get Ireland sorted out first and then return to the problems of the developing world? A rising tide, don’t forget…

If the regular Irish citizen owes her Ethiopian counterpart nothing but charity, nothing that is, but whatever flows from the goodness of her heart, then there is something to be said for the argument above. The question then that must be answered to the satisfaction of Delaney and others like him, is whether the Irish citizen has a duty or obligation to people in places like Ethiopian, Bangladesh or Nicaragua.

A case can be made for that obligation on multiple grounds, the simplest being the set of arguments put forward by Thomas Pogge, who has written extensively on global justice. He challenges the notion that poverty in a place like Ethiopia is due to purely, or even primarily to domestic issues. Historical harms have put many places at a great disadvantage in terms of providing for their people. While Ireland has clean hands in that regard, and was even a colony herself, the country has still benefited indirectly from the wrongs of that period, if only by accident of geography.

Over and above that, the global economy is structured in such a way that people in wealthy countries benefit at the expense of those from poor ones. The World Trade Organisation rules, for example, are such that rich country tariffs on manufactured goods from poor countries are four times higher than those on the same goods from rich countries. Similarly, the nature of the global order is such that my ability to buy cheap clothes comes from the poor wages and working conditions of people on the other side of the world. Worse, war in the Congo probably subsidised my smartphone. Pogge argues that most of the world is interconnected through various institutions, government and commercial, and if an institution that I am involved with harms others, then I have an obligation to those people.

Whatever one makes of those arguments, the point remains that a distinction needs to be drawn between charity and justice. Charity, by definition, is a tap that individuals can open and close as and when they see fit. The dictates of justice, on the other and, are not subject to our circumstances or convenience. Plonking Ethiopia and countries like it into the box marked charity is convenient for just about all the parties involved with global poverty – aid groups can raise money by selling self-actualisation; the state gains an impressive international reputation for a proportion of GDP that is incomparably smaller than what any large company would set aside for its marketing department; and citizens are safeguarded from the burden of further taxation which might have the unthinkable effect of making us actually pay for ideals we claim to hold dear.

In Leviathan, Hobbes wrote,

Seeing every man, not only by Right, but also by necessity of Nature, is supposed to endeavor all he can, to obtain that which is necessary for his conservation; he that shall oppose himself against it, for things superfluous, is guilty of the war that thereupon is to follow.

Those words have an ominous resonance.


6 Responses

  1. Mark Coughlan

    March 4, 2010 8:45 pm

    Fanstastic piece. Hope you pitched it to the Opinion pages, it’d be a gfood counterpoint to Delaney’s stuff.

  2. Dr. X

    March 5, 2010 11:42 am

    Out of all the people you could choose to comment on this issue, why pick Eamon Delaney?

  3. Hanora Brennan

    October 24, 2010 11:54 am

    What about the corruption in this country? The only worthwhile charity that people have no problem giving to is the SVP. They go about quiety, efficiently and effectively and get the job done. You don’t see their names in the papers for Person of the Year nor running for local councillors positions. They know the true ethos of charity. Who was it that once said that ‘the poor will always be with us’ – so deal with it! Less pontificating and point scoring.

  4. Bryan Mukandi

    October 24, 2010 12:05 pm

    With respect to charity, Hanora, I don’t disagree. I suppose my point though is that a lot of organisations that go about calling themselves, or implying that they are charities, really shouldn’t. They should rather work as and be thought of as advocates for justice.

    It was Jesus who said the poor will always be with us. He was right. But so will gravity, and yet attempts to work around that have produced the aviation industry. I think the ‘development sector’ hasn’t done as well as the aviation industry, in part because too little real thought has gone into it, and when it has, the thinking that has been applied has been that directed at charities, not at questions of social justice.

  5. Hanora Brennan

    October 25, 2010 8:28 am

    Why didn’t the religious congregations just ignore the political implications of poverty and its causes when they were doing their ‘charitable’ work out in foreign parts.

    I know I couldn’t have turned a blind eye to what happened out there no more than I could do it here.

    Must we always be so submissive to our fears?