Thursday, May 6, 2010

Why Do Some Discount Altruism That Isn't 'Pure'?

A journalist writing in the Irish Herald ends an article on 'charity gurus' by saying "charity work is best done when it is done quietly". I assume that charity work that is done quietly is that which doesn't attract the attention of the mainstream media, press, TV, glossy magazines, the works. Because this journalist may be relieved to know that most charity work is done quietly, most people doing volunteer work or any other kind of development work, attract little or no attention. I find that gurus of all kinds are created by the very media that so loves to then condemn them once they are no longer able to control them.

This journalist, apparently, made a film about a woman who started a charity in Asia and 'hands out wads of cash to the poor'. The woman enjoys giving money to the poor and the journalist interprets this as meaning that the woman enjoys their gratitude and adoration.

Again, the journalist need not worry so much. I have never seen or heard of someone working in development who hands out wads of cash. Nor is everyone particularly grateful, nor do most people who do voluntary work expect people to be grateful. At least, that's my experience. People who receive charity may sometimes be grateful, perhaps very grateful, but their reaction may be embarrassment, shyness, contempt or perhaps a combination of things, often contradictory things.

I'm not saying this journalist is wrong or that she is misinterpreting things. I'm just saying that she is perhaps underanalysing what appears to be a rather unusual phenomenon. And I don't think she is cynical in interpreting the charity woman's enjoyment the way she does. I'm sure that among all the emotions and sensations people who work in development feel, it wouldn't be unusual to feel some enjoyment of any gratitude and adoration, if they receive such.

But supposing you were to do a survey of lots of people who worked, in any job, to find out what they enjoy about their work, or even why they work at all. I think you would find that many people work for money. They may or may not enjoy their work but the majority will do the job they do because they have to do something to pay their way. But I don't think your analysis of the survey would be very interesting or insightful if it was your main conclusion that people work for money.

Some people working in development earn money, some earn quite a lot. But most of the people I have known working in the field earn very little. Some volunteers earn a local wage and have all their expenses paid. But again, most of the volunteers I know do not earn regular wages, nor do they receive much in the way of expenses. Most of them volunteer for some of the week and do other things the rest of the time, so that they can feed themselves and perhaps their families.

I haven't surveyed the people I know who give some, often a lot, of their time for free. But one, who works as a volunteer for part of almost ever day has even pointed out to me that often when you do a lot for someone, they don't want to know you once they are better. Those were his words. This man has a sense of public spiritedness that you rarely find even among volunteers. Another volunteer, a woman, has never really discussed the subject. But she gives her time and sympathy and even some of the little money she has. And she also knows that people who receive her care can treat her with scorn later.

In fact, most of the volunteers I know don't even give out money most of the time because they don't have very much. They do work, take time, donate their skills and reach out to people who have no one. I don't know if they go home at night and bask in the glory of doing something that they may never even receive thanks for, let alone money. Nor do I care, I don't believe that altruism needs to be 'pure' in order to be altruism. People's motives for anything can be mixed, contradictory and even hidden to them.

By all means, Ms Journalist, condemn the thieves, the bullies, the smug, the sanctimonious, the extortionists and whoever else you like in the world of development, charity and the voluntary sector. But please recognise that they are probably the ones who were unusual enough to be picked out by you and your rather undiscerning and unanalytical media friends. They were picked out because they were unusual, not because they were the low key, modest people who often do things for other people without first thinking what there might be in it for them.


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