Open your wallet, but mind how you do it

Open-handed: Americans are estimated to have given $449.64 billion to charity in 2019. © Fareshare

Is it wrong to talk about charity? Manchester United star Marcus Rashford is working to save children from hunger, but many people feel uncomfortable about receiving strangers’ help.

As Begin Bom Ohisa was sitting under a tree in a South Sudanese market, a little girl in rags came and stood beside him. When he asked her how she was, she said, “I am hungry.” He learnt that her mother was in hospital and that she and her three brothers had not eaten properly for weeks; when he saw where they lived, he burst into tears. He and his family gave them food, money and new clothes.

Begin Bom Ohisa works for CARE, a registered charity that fights poverty around the world. But when he wrote an article about the girl he helped, it appeared under the headline, “It’s not about charity, it’s about shared humanity.”

Many would say that this was a false distinction. Sympathy for our fellow humans is precisely what inspires us to acts of charity. But “charity” is a word people today often try to avoid. A lot of charities prefer to describe themselves as “non-governmental organisations” (NGOs) or “not-for-profits” – even though these are vague terms that could equally apply to a darts team.

One reason put forward by Simon O’Connell of Mercy Corps is that “charity” simply suggests handing out money, whereas the work he is involved in is much more complicated. It ranges from helping refugees in Uganda share farmland with locals to setting up micro-finance programmes.

Others claim that it is patronising to act in a charitable way: they believe that those who give help are presenting themselves as superior to those who receive it. Recent complaints about “white saviours” are a case in point.

Meanwhile, people in need of assistance often feel ashamed about it. They think that they ought to be able to stand on their own two feet, even if they have had terrible disadvantages or had to contend with bad luck.

Marcus Rashford is trying to alter this attitude. "I feel like at times people think they are being looked down on if they ask for help,” he told a TV interviewer yesterday, “and I think in this generation [...] that is something that should change.

"You should feel free if you want to ask for help for anything. Hold your head up high, and if you need help, go and get help."

After successfully campaigning to have free school meals provided to children during the summer holidays, Rashford has now formed a task force with some of Britain’s biggest supermarkets, businesses and charities – Sainsbury’s, Tesco and Kellogg’s among them – to reduce food poverty.

He is asking the government to extend the free meals scheme to help a further 1.5 million needy children and to provide more food and activities for them in the holidays. He also wants Healthy Start vouchers given to more people, and their value to be increased.

Is it wrong to talk about charity?

Give and let live

Some say, yes: charity is mainly about rich people easing their consciences by giving money they can easily spare to the less fortunate. It has inescapable associations with Lady Bountiful and robs the people who receive it of their self-respect. Government hand-outs make people work-shy; it is much better to help them stand on their own two feet by providing them with jobs or short-term loans.

Others argue that charity is one of the greatest of all human virtues, and everyone should respect and practise it. People should certainly be encouraged to help themselves, but not everyone is able to. Sharing wealth is an acknowledgement that some are luckier than others, and we should be happy to give or receive according to our circumstances. You never know when the roles might be reversed.

You Decide

  1. If you could choose three charities to donate money to, which would they be?
  2. Some people believe that charities that fight poverty would be unnecessary if the government gave everyone a guaranteed minimum income. Is that a good idea?


  1. Choose a charity that you admire. Design a poster to explain what it does and encourage people to donate money to it.
  2. In Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations, the hero is given money and an education by an unknown benefactor. Write a story about an unexpected act of charity.

Some People Say...

“It is more difficult to give money away intelligently than to earn it in the first place.”

Andrew Carnegie (1835-1919), Scottish-American philanthropist

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
It is generally agreed that the practice of charitable giving has its roots in the world’s leading religions. It is an essential part of Christianity, Islam and Judaism, while Buddhism, Hinduism, Sikhism and Jainism also have long traditions of donating alms to the poor. Secular charities first became common in the 18th Century: the Foundling Hospital, started by Thomas Coram in 1741 to care for London’s abandoned orphans, provided an influential model.
What do we not know?
One main area of debate is around how well charities spend the money given to them. It is a common complaint that too much of it goes on administration, and that aid workers can often be seen driving around in brand new Land Rovers and staying in expensive hotels. On top of that, there have been scandals such as the one involving Oxfam workers in Haiti, who were accused of sexually exploiting local people after an earthquake in 2010.

Word Watch

South Sudanese
South Sudan is a Central African country that has been independent since 2011 but locked in a civil war for most of the years since. Although a peace deal was reached in February, violence has continued. It is one of the youngest nations in the world, with half its population under 18.
False distinction
A claim that things are different when they are fundamentally the same.
Mercy Corps
An international aid organisation originally founded to help refugees in Cambodia.
A way of lending small amounts of money to poor people, rather than the large amounts the banks generally deal in.
“white saviours”
In 2019 the TV presenter Stacey Dooley was criticised for posting a photo of herself holding a Ugandan baby while campaigning for Comic Relief. Her critics said that attention should have been focused on African people instead.
Healthy Start
A scheme to provide young children and pregnant women with milk, fruit, vegetables and vitamins.
Lady Bountiful
A character in George Farquhar’s 18th-century play The Beaux’ Stratagem. She gives to the poor so that she can impress people with her wealth and generosity.

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