Spotlight on charities as hunger hits millions

Cry for help: Plan International is one of the Disasters Emergency Committee’s 13 charities.

A humanitarian crisis is gripping much of East Africa. Millions face starvation. Charities have launched appeals for donations. But would businesses do a better job of solving the problem?

At least 16 million people need food, water and medical treatment. More than 800,000 children could die. The UN says it is “the worst famine in modern times” and “the biggest humanitarian crisis since the second world war”.

These are the stark warnings currently coming out of East Africa. A series of bloody conflicts and years of drought have brought starvation to South Sudan, Kenya, Somalia and Ethiopia.

Yesterday Saleh Saeed, the chief executive of the Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC), said “a race against time” was underway. “Unless we act now the number of deaths will drastically increase,” he added.

Aid agencies and governments called for donations; the runner Sir Mo Farah made an appeal for Save the Children. But their task may be made harder by public apathy: in the last two years studies in the UK and USA have revealed growing distrust of charities.

Recent press investigations have uncovered some charities’ inefficiency, poor financial management and aggressive fundraising tactics. Some also criticise charities for focusing too much on short-term crises, rather than their root causes.

The idea of charity features in all the world’s major religions and is thousands of years old: the first appearance of the word “philanthropy” was in a Greek play around the year 500BC. But it gained particular traction in the 19th century, especially in the UK and USA. Traditionally charities have operated on the principle of not making a profit.

But could this come to an end? In recent years companies such as Google have created for-profit organisations dedicated to philanthropic causes. Billionaires including Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg have set up foundations which work with profit-making companies to address problems in the developing world.

And in October the restaurateur Iqbal Wahhab’s book Charity Sucks (Biteback) came out. He argues businesses with a social mission would do a better job than charities.

“Businesses win over charities in our ability to improve the world,” he wrote.


He is right, say some. Charities need only appeal to people’s sense of guilt to raise money. Businesses earn money on merit, so they must show results, address people’s needs and do a better job than the competition. They can afford to invest in long-term solutions such as infrastructure. Charities are a patronising hangover from a paternalistic era.

Rubbish, cry others. Businesses are accountable to shareholders. This means they prioritise profit — and there is precious little money to be made saving the children of East Africa. Charities answer to their beneficiaries — so they understand the problems they face and have a more meaningful incentive to solve them.

You Decide

  1. Who would you trust more with your money: a charity or a business?
  2. Are charities better than businesses at solving major humanitarian problems?


  1. You have just arrived in East Africa on a fact-finding mission. In pairs, write down 10 questions you would ask local people to understand what a charitable organisation (or business) could do for them.
  2. Think of a charity of your choice. Prepare a three-minute talk to your class explaining what it does. What need is it addressing? Could it do anything better? And would it work better as a business?

Some People Say...

“Profit is the best motive to solve any problem.”

What do you think?

Q & A

This is very sad, but I don’t live in East Africa.
This affects millions of your fellow people — many of them younger than you. Extreme poverty is not good for anyone: it harms the world economy and causes rapid movements of very impoverished and desperate people. It is a natural human instinct to want to help people in dire need somehow. And even if you are never caught up in a famine, people you care about will probably use a charity or need aid of some sort one day.
I don’t work in a charity. Does it matter how they are run?
You may give money to charity, or at least consider doing so — for example, because a friend is doing a challenge to raise money. And events in developing countries affect you more than they used to: technology and globalisation have brought people closer together.

Word Watch

Disasters Emergency Committee
An organisation which co-ordinates UK charities’ responses to disasters overseas.
Last year the Charities Commission found that 57% of people in England and Wales trusted charities — the lowest figure since records were first collected in 2005. In 2015 research firm Princeton Survey Research Associates found that 35% of Americans had little or no confidence in charities.
Critics say too much is spent on overhead costs, salaries, fundraising, marketing and publicity.
The UK charity Kids Company collapsed amid high-profile allegations of wrongdoing. Age UK came under fire for marketing an energy tariff to the elderly.
Last year the Charities Commission warned British charities to stop “hounding” donors, for example by collecting assertively in the street, cold-calling and sending intrusive mail.
19th century
In the UK conscientious rich people such as Joseph Rowntree and Charles Booth championed social reform. The writer Alexis de Tocqueville said philanthropic giving was one of the American people’s strengths.

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