Thursday, 1 July 2010

What make a cause "worthy"?

Some people may find what I am about to write a little controversial, and if it offends then I apologise, that is not the intention.

Since I began writing this blog it has basically been a tale of what I’ve been doing and how I felt about doing it, which unless you know me is probably about as interesting as watching paint dry. Since I claim to be a “writer” it is surely about time I wrote something worth reading. So here it is, I think.

Charity is a tricky and dangerous subject that can stir up all kinds of emotions. This was something I learned a couple of years ago on a random afternoon at work.

My company at the time, Flight Centre, has supported a specific charity every year and for the first time had decided to put it to the masses what charity they supported the following year, giving a short-list of six.

The previous charity was Cancer Research and this was again on the list. Now, I have to firstly state that I am incredibly lucky in that I have not lost a close friend or relative to one of the major causes like Cancer or Leukaemia that often dominate these kind of things. As a result, I kept my council in the vote.

Suddenly a discussion erupted; some chap said that he felt Cancer Research received a ton of money each year from all over the world and that it would be more worthwhile for Flight Centre to support a smaller charity where the money would make a real difference. The charity in question was the Smile Train, where £85 can fix a child’s face thus making a serious, tangible difference.

Clearly this was an emotive issue and the debate took off giving all kinds of arguments, but in truth I had to agree with the fella. Cancer Research gets a lot of money from all over, and always will. Flight Centre raises a (shamefully) small amount of money each year for charity; should that not go somewhere it could really make a physical difference?

Of course there is no right answer to this, and being over here - quite how apparent that situation is has really hit home. Everywhere I turn there is a good cause. The hospital I visited on Monday for example. They raise a lot of money already so should I, as one man, decide to support a Nepali hospital, would my money not be better spent going somewhere that doesn't already receive a load of funds from overseas?

Maybe, but then there is the age-old problem in third-world countries of: is the money actually going where it should, or vanishing into someone’s pocket? Who knows? Frankly, this country, as are hundreds of others around the globe, is full of good causes, so how can you justify what is worth your support, or to use the words so often heard; is a “Good Cause?” I hate that term; it suggests that other causes are not good.

As I said, I am lucky as I have never had need to support a specific cause through personal experience, at least I was until now.

Since I’ve been in Nepal whenever I had had to eat out alone I have picked the cheapest, most basic place I could find and generally ordered the cheapest thing on the menu, such is the life of the budget traveller. Those that know me will appreciate that I am a man who enjoys the odd expensive restaurant fit with a massive steak and fine glass of wine polished off with a good Cuban Cigar and Irish Coffee. Tonight I was in one of those moods and decided to head to one of Pokhara’s most fancy hotels and order myself dinner and drinks (for what it’s worth, it really isn’t that fancy). As I sat there enjoying the view and contemplating how hard things are going to be when I get home, my phone beeped.

I was enjoying curry and beer that was twice the price yet exactly the same as what I had eaten the previous evening and it was Nir asking how I was and saying he hoped all was OK. I replied saying that Pokhara was hot and cloudy and then asked how the family was. This was his reply:

Here also same weather. No rain village since long time. I am so sad and depressed. All maize dead. Very difficult this year. I don’t know. How can survive life. I am quite surprised today. Too much bad news man. Take care and have a nice time.”

How does reading that make you feel? I know how I felt. I wanted to puke. In fact, just typing it makes me want to puke again. This bloke has put me up in his house, and fed me, for three months never once asking for anything in return and even getting upset when I gave him money, yet his family in his village cannot afford to eat.

Nir is perhaps the most honest and hard working bloke I know. A few years back he had helped build a new school and medical centre in his village and since then he basically holds the weight of an entire community on his shoulders, which is why this latest situation has hit him so hard. He is 32.

Now, Nir himself makes enough money from his trekking business to survive in relative comfort, but what about all the family members who all look to him for support? He is not on the breadline and his village has running water, therefore they do not stand out as people in desperate need of government or charitable help. The school he built was done without any aid from within Nepal, but rather a charitable organisation from Holland that just thought it was a worthy cause.

How do you choose what a good cause is? In the last couple of weeks I’ve had friends cycle from London to Brighton all manner of causes I don’t remember and another mate who is about to drive to Mongolia to raise money for a charity over there. Sure, they are almost certainly worthy causes, but unless you have a personal affiliation with them why would you donate your hard earned?

Frankly, I don’t know why I’ve written this, or what I hope to achieve by it – since it will unquestionably achieve nothing – but this is the dilemma with which I am currently faced. I am unemployed and have no immediate prospects of a job that will enable me to actually change the lives of the people that I have come to regard as both friends and a “worthy cause” (how awfully patronising does that sound?). I do however feel it is my duty to do something, anything. Perhaps some of you reading this will feel the same, or even go looking for a cause that is special to you. For now I have found mine; I am grateful it didn’t take someone dying for me to work it out.


  1. Al

    This is amazing.....very thought-provoking and very humbling.

    Makes you remember what is truly important in life....i.e. people. Not cash.

    Enjoy the remainder of your time over there.
    Hope to see you soon.

    Mrs Howse

  2. Al, you have just transcribed a conversation that I have had in my head many times. Allow me to babble out my experiences:

    My mother used to say all the time that 'charity begins at home'. I didn't really understand this as a kid, as we were pretty well off. Now, I realize that she wanted me to understand the importance of taking care of yourself and those closest to you, because it enriches your own existence.

    Sometimes I feel that everyone is sticking an open palm in my face: from the crack heads that abound my parking lot at work to my ex-employer who laughed in my face when I asked him for some overtime pay. As Dolly Parton put it in 9 to 5 "all takin' and no givin'".

    Any Nigerian scammer will tell you that they operate on the guilt and sympathy of complete strangers. It's actually phenomenal how this industry thrives in that country: an estimated US$1.5 billion has been scammed from people all around the world. That's a big impact on their GDP.

    There's a guy that hangs outside Starbucks with a clipboard, asking people to donate to his soup kitchen. I told him that I didn't have any money, but I'd be happy to volunteer my time in order to help cook or serve. He looked shocked and said they ‘hadn’t started yet’. This has gone on for 3 years and I confront him about it every time I see him. I find this particular kind of scam abhorrent - posing as a charity. I'd much prefer to be scammed by my own greed (i.e., helping a Nigerian prince move his millions from one bank account to the other) that by my own bleeding heart tendencies.

    We all know what motivation guilt can be - it’s a control tactic that is used by abusers and other power-grabbers. However, guilt and sympathy should not be the motivation for giving. It should be a free choice.

    Part of what my mother meant about charity beginning at home: we have a duty to society /God /the cosmos / families, to take responsibilities for ourselves so that we don't become a burden. Once that is taken care of, we must do what we can for those around us in order to strengthen our own communities from the inside out. Family is the foundation of the community, then society, then humanity. We experience huge culture shifts that are often traced back to individuals. Change and strength always come from the inside out.

    I used to personally cut a check for Sally Ann every Christmas and say that was my ‘charity’ quota for the year. One year at the Hash House Harriers Christmas party, we took a collection and raised about $1,000. Because I was Hash Master, it was my choice on where to spend the money. Naturally, I decided to give it to the Salvation Army. Hard to imagine, but this idea was shredded by the council members. Nobly, they wanted to give it to someone or something where it would make the most difference and have the most impact.

    Alas, they didn't want to give it to a religious institution (or for that matter, a private nor a government funded institution). Now, I'm sure you can appreciate; that once we have excluded private, government and church institutions, there ain't nothing left. Of course, they didn't want to give it to an individual because, well, they don't know what's good for them, they'll piss it away!

    So this ridiculous conversation went around and around for about a year and $1,000 sat in my dresser drawer until the following Christmas. We did another collection, and the new Hash Master went through the same arguments with the council. Luckily, the new Hash Master was (and still is) my boyfriend. So I took my money along with his, phoned the Emergency Youth Hostel and asked them what they needed. They had just received some new mattresses so we bought them some rubber sheets. With the left over money, I paid for this little ghetto youth I knew (his mom was my neighbor's maid) to do a summer art program because he liked to draw. Case closed. Better there than the dresser drawer.