International Day of Charity fundamentally exists to celebrate the role charity plays in the world alongside notions of philanthropy. However, at MRN, we believe this day should mark a time for much-needed reflection. As members of civil society, we have to be honest with ourselves about why the charity sector exists, and must reckon with the truth about the space we inhabit.
The 5th September was chosen to mark the death of Mother Teresa. This fact tells us a lot about how we are prone to celebrate charity rather than critically engage with its existence. Mother Teresa is perhaps best known for receiving a Nobel Peace prize “for work undertaken in the struggle to overcome poverty and distress, which also constitute a threat to peace”. The truth is more complex and arguably darker. Mother Teresa is a highly controversial and criticised figure whom, to many, embodies White saviorism.
At MRN, we are constantly reflecting about the role of charity, particularly in migration advocacy. In a recent Civil Society article, we asked the question: as migrants’ rights advocates, can we truly be committed to achieving justice while advocating for reforms that keep oppressive systems intact?
Transformation not reform
In the midst of an increasingly hostile and divisive atmosphere for social justice where the Government is implementing more regressive legislation, the default position can end up being a defence of the status quo. We all work in this sector because we want to reduce suffering and fight for what is right. But often, our desire for immediate change can cause us to become indifferent, and accept concessions at the expense of our end goals.
Equity for migrants and racialised people cannot be achieved through our current systems. They are inherently racist and colonial in nature, and so there is no fixing what is purposefully designed to oppress. We must as a sector look towards abolitionist alternatives centred on collective care. This involves ending the criminalisation of migration in all its forms, including ending surveillance, detention, and deportation.
We must understand the root causes of the systems we exist within, reject division and build solidarity.
Charity industrial complex
The charity industrial complex often engages in modern-day colonialism, extraction and domination. It extracts radical revolutionary knowledge and repackages it as neoliberal reformism and single-issue politics. It sanitises violent, colonial histories by taking on the role of a “benevolent” saviour to the Global South. The concessions that charities demand of the Government will only ever cushion and alleviate the effects of oppression ever so slightly, whilst keeping structures and systems of domination (such as capitalism and racism) intact.
The existence of the charity industrial complex legitimises the status quo: it normalises the state’s failure and refusal to provide life’s necessities to its population and those seeking its help. Charities are a symptom of our current world, but also consolidate it.
As individuals working in the charity sector, we must expose the oppression upon which the third sector is built, through our campaigning work. We must stop legitimising and normalising harmful policies by centring our entire purpose on minor legislative amendments. We must hope for a world where the work we do is rendered obsolete, and we must make that known. This is the only way we can meaningfully disrupt anything.
But disruption is not the abolition and dismantling of harmful systems. Disruption is awareness building: it cultivates our awareness of the fact that systems need to be dismantled and abolished, since harm reduction is not good enough. Harm reduction is not the ceiling to which we should aspire, and we should be loud about this in our campaigning work.
Dismantling can only be achieved through a bottom-up struggle. Charities must only have a secondary supportive role to play in all of this, especially those that are White and non lived-experience led. They will never be the driving force behind movements for liberation: people will.