Debate | Helping the poor…by getting rich: ingenious or delusional?

What would be better: to work as a highly-paid banker so you can give more money to charity, or to take up a lower-paid job in an NGO, so you can help others directly? Aveek Bhattacharya, of 'Giving What We Can', and Puneet Dhaliwal, of War on Want, take sides in a thought-provoking debate introduced by deputy editor Musab Younis.

Debate, New in Ceasefire - Posted on Thursday, November 24, 2011 5:31 - 3 Comments

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(Photo: net_efekt)

In 2009, Oxford moral philosopher Toby Ord founded an organisation called ‘Giving What We Can’. The premise is simple: every member pledges to donate 10% of their future incomes to alleviating global poverty (some cap their incomes at a certain level, and pledge to give away everything else that they earn.) Members are encouraged to give to what are designated the most ‘cost-effective’ charities – currently, these are a tropical diseases charity, and a de-worming charity, both of which work in Africa.

The organisation has been actively campaigning for members in Oxford since 2009, emphasising that its way of combating global poverty is more effective than alternatives. It has even spawned a sister organisation, ‘High Impact Careers’, which encourages people to enter high-paying careers (mostly in finance and consulting) so that they will be able to give away more money. ‘High Impact Careers’ promotes itself as a new take on ‘ethical careers’, and claims that a ‘philanthropic banker’ can help ‘several times as many people’ as a doctor.

These organisations have become well-known brands in Oxford, developing a professional PR strategy based on a discourse of effectiveness and pragmatic consequentialism, and actively reaching out to students through events and presentations.

But while some have expressed disquiet or concern with such logic – on the grounds that it kills agency, implicitly supports a disastrous financial sector, misunderstands activism, or is even rooted in colonial notions of charity – there has not yet been in print a debate between active proponents of the initiative and their critics. As such, the two camps have largely stuck to their respective positions, with little productive interaction between them.

With this in mind, Ceasefire asked Aveek Bhattacharya, director of political campaigns for GWWC, to discuss these issues of contention with Puneet Dhaliwal, Global Justice Campaigns Officer at War on Want. (Both are studying political theory at Oxford.)

In a collaborative spirit, the two have worked together to find areas of disagreement and debate them. The issues at stake – effectiveness of charity versus social movements, the best ways of alleviating global poverty – are substantial, and the debate by no means ends here. But we hope that it has, perhaps, started.

Aveek: Giving What We Can & High Impact Careers

The logic explicit in High Impact Careers (HIC), and implicit in Giving What We Can (GWWC), is straightforward. Given the incredible scale of the problem of global poverty, and our limited ability to affect it, it is our responsibility to take an honest, clear-sighted and practical look at the resources at our disposal, and to use them in the most efficient manner. For many of us, like it or not, our greatest resource is the money that either we already have, or have the capacity to earn.

The marginal benefit of most direct efforts to combat poverty is small. If you don’t take that charity, NGO or political job, the chances are that someone of similar talent and motivation will, and will perform the job to a similar level. On the other hand, if you were to go into a high paying job, you would be able to earn and donate money that would have been otherwise unlikely to go near the developing world. You may even be able to pay for two or three extra people to do the work you initially wanted to do.

Our money is capable of doing immense good – according to the Disease Control Priorities Project, it costs less than £10 to secure a year of full health for another person. Think of how little time and effort it takes most of us to earn that sort of money, and tell me if there is any more effective way to use our resources.

Puneet: Poverty is Political

On the face of it, the logic driving HIC and GWWC appears compelling. Yet, upon examining the assumptions underpinning this logic, it soon unravels. By conceiving poverty reduction through individual action, we neglect the centrality of collective action in fighting poverty. This is not merely revolutionary posturing, but recognition of the concrete impacts that sustained movements can –and do– have in reducing poverty, particularly by strengthening the collective power of the global working class. Investigations by the Workers’ Rights Consortium and campaigns by People & Planet, for instance, forced Fruit of the Loom to re-hire 1,200 workers and re-open its Honduran factory that had been closed after workers had attempted to unionise. Regardless of the benefits of individual donations, they simply cannot yield the structural changes required to effectively address the root causes of global poverty.

Collective action and individual donations are, of course, not mutually exclusive – we could conceivably donate our money to movements struggling for social justice. The fundamental problem with individual action, however, is its divorce from an understanding of the nature and causes of poverty, the political and economic structures of global capitalism that sustain it, and the collective means by which it must be addressed. Only together do we have the power to challenge global poverty by working with movements that are fighting for real, lasting change. For us to say that we have a ‘limited ability’ to affect global poverty and that ‘our greatest resource is money’ is to profoundly sell ourselves short.

Aveek: The Pragmatism of Poverty Reduction

The acknowledgement that collective action and individual donations can supplement each other is crucial. The obvious channel, as you recognise, is to pay for other people to push for structural change. And often it is funding, as much as anything else, that such political organisations need. Giving away our money is not likely to exhaust our resources, either. Insofar as we have time or skills (perhaps developed by working in a high earning profession!), these can be dedicated to collective struggle. Of course, it is still crucial that we reflect carefully and ensure that these efforts are concentrated on the most effective anti-poverty campaigns.

I suspect what worries some people about GWWC and HIC is the idea of people throwing money at the global poor, and then forgetting about them. This is not an approach that I or anybody associated with the organisations would endorse. We devote much of our energies to understanding the nature and causes of poverty, and provide resources for others who would like to do the same. At the same time, I wouldn’t want to denigrate too much the contribution of those who only give money – I’ve already explained how much good this can do.

I can see how the whole approach that GWWC and HIC take to poverty can be criticised. The starting point is fundamentally individualistic – the initial question is what I can do, rather than what we can do. Moreover, we have a tendency to be pessimistic about fundamental structural change – there are a lot of things that are assumed to stay constant when we work out what to do.

The obvious response to this charge is that we have to be realistic. The number of people we can convince to join our campaign is unlikely to be large enough to alter the structure of alternatives at the individual level. It is unlikely to bring down capitalism, or make charity workers paid anything like investment bankers.

That said, I don’t think it’s ridiculous to suggest that joining GWWC or HIC might well be a social and political act. A friend of mine asked the question ‘I wonder what it would be like if everyone was a GWWCer?’ His point, of course, is that signing up to GWWC or HIC is to live up to a powerful set of principles. It is potentially to reject the materialism and self-interest of many of those around us. Those who militate for a better world might find something to learn, or at least admire, from those who put these beliefs into practice.

Puneet: The Poverty of ‘Pragmatism’

The hollowness of paying others to push for structural change is resounding and fundamentally misapprehends collective struggle. By acknowledging that collective action and individual donations are not mutually exclusive, it does not follow that I would methodically endorse paying others to engage in such struggles. Social movements clearly require resources in terms of money, personnel, physical space, and support from civil society, but it is misguided to treat ‘collective struggle’ x as just another option alongside aid agency y or anti-poverty charity z. While we can feasibly compare the impacts of two charities within clearly defined parameters, it is more impractical to compare the effects of supporting different charities with the effects of supporting sustained struggles for ‘structural change’. This drive to comparatively quantify individual and collective action elides the two and obscures the distinct logics underpinning them: charity vs. solidarity.

Charity, despite its demonstrable benefits, does not join the dots between global injustices to the point where we acknowledge our privilege enough to be motivated to change society more fundamentally. Solidarity, by contrast, provides concrete support to oppressed people so that they can more easily develop their own power to change the conditions of their lives. This shifts focus towards building links between struggles, rather than regarding them as mere potential recipients of donations, monetary or otherwise. The appeal of GWWC and HIC for many, of course, is its combination of hard-headed pragmatism with clear quantification of the concrete good we can do through charity. In rejecting the ‘pragmatism’ of charity in favour of solidarity, however, we do not unrealistically proclaim the instantaneous overthrow of capitalism. Rather, we engage in sustained collective mobilizations against the structures and social relations of capitalism that underpin global poverty. Such radical change, of course, requires preparation, time, and patience but ultimately trumps the ‘pragmatism’ of charity by focusing on developing the popular power necessary for an effective fight against poverty.

Rather than denigrating GWWC, I aim to encourage GWWCers to live up to their principles in a more ambitious manner. Although we might envisage a ‘diversity of tactics’ for poverty reduction –encompassing both donations and mobilizations– the distinct logics of charity and solidarity necessitate a choice of strategy. Strategies are broad approaches to implement our principles, whereas tactics are short-term choices for implementing strategy. Thus, while tactics of individual donations may be included in the broader strategy of solidarity, collective struggle simply cannot be reduced to one choice among many in the strategy of charity. If we truly care about doing the most good, we must look beyond charity and towards solidarity.

Aveek Bhattacharya is Director of Political Campaigns for Giving What We Can and a postgraduate student in political theory at the University of Oxford.

Puneet Dhaliwal is Global Justice Campaigns Officer at War on Want and a postgraduate student in political theory at the University of Oxford.

Musab Younis

Musab Younis is the Deputy Editor of Ceasefire. His writing has appeared in n+1, Prospect, and openDemocracy.

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3 Comments

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Michael Barker
Nov 24, 2011 10:52

Why not start a group called “High Wage Earners Demanding Greater Self-Taxation.”

Ian Hislop was on TV last night talking rubbish about the good old days when bankers used to give to charity and the majority of people lived in the UK lived in poverty. http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/2011/nov/23/ian-hislop-when-bankers-were-good

Rachael
Nov 25, 2011 2:40

It’s really great to see a well thought through academic debate on this issue that has got many students engaged, if a little uneasy. I wonder though if it might be helpful to unpack the notion of the structural barriers to wealth that Puneet so ably implicates. It isn’t immediately clear to me why funding de-worming charities doesn’t leave more children free to participate in social movements? Also, I’d be interested to hear more about what the implicit or explicit harms of engaging in what are perceived as the highest earner jobs might be? According to the Guardian http://www.guardian.co.uk/money/2010/dec/18/uks-best-paid-jobs we should all become pilots and doctors rather than lawyers, which may well have positive externalities rather than being bankers anyway.

Giving What We Can: A Self-Imposed Tax on Guilt « Nicola Sugden
Aug 26, 2012 21:52

[...] as far as I can find, it is limited to a few debates on some pretty niche online spaces, a short dialogue between a proponent and opponent of the campaign in Oxford, and discussion of the wider issue of the methodology behind measuring the ‘efficiency’ of [...]

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