Charity is a phenomenon as old as the history of mankind itself. Surprisingly, there are not many scientific works on it. However, a great dispute has evolved around the phenomenon of charity which aims at answering the question whether it is indeed a good deed, or its negative consequences still prevail.
In order to answer this question, first of all the definition of charity should be given. Charity is the act of providing needy people and groups with gratuitous and altruistic assistance by organizations and individuals. Although in the past this activity was not called charity, the phenomenon used to find manifestation in the form of compassion, sponsorship and support.
Charity in the Name of the Benefactor
Still the tribe of Kwakiutl Indians held a traditional ceremony called potlatch when the members gave presents to each other and the more expensive the gift was, the higher got the status of the giver. The person who did not respond to the gift in the same way was considered dishonored. It means that giving gifts to each other becomes a tool for social stratification and the confirmation of social status.
Are we convinced that nowadays we do not behave in the same way using our property as a means of influencing others? Those who receive gifts or help are sometimes ready to satisfy their “benefactor’s” request, driven by the sense of commitment. Even if our intention is exceptionally good, whether those who receive help are not labeled as needy, whether they do not accept that label waiting for the next helping hand and getting used to it? On the other hand, at the expense of economic resources (social assistance, etc.) large charitable organizations try to gain authority becoming a counterweight for the state. Providing people with social security conditions, gaining the trust of a large number of individuals, they create seriously challenge the state, as a new power appears in the sphere on behalf of charitable organizations that get money from people in order to help those in need. Along with the growth of the danger, the authorities try to get rid of charitable organizations but, in general, a supervision system is formed (the existence of these both sides establishes an indirect mutual control over each other), which maintains its balance towards state governmental bodies on the one hand, and the activity of NGOs sector (encompasses also charitable organizations) on the other hand.
Holbach pointed to the connection between charity and authority, especially the authority of church which preaches compassion and profits from it. It was a process through which the church collected the donations from the poor and then made redistribution gaining an authority over them. It should be noted that the connection between charity and authority was mentioned, for example, in the 1793 French Revolution law which excluded charitable activities, as well as in the Soviet Union law on prohibiting charity which came into force in 1929, through which the totalitarian state attempted to centralize distributional functions in its own hands and thus to increase its own power, etc.
Viewing charity from a different perspective its function of reducing social tensions cannot escape our attention. Charity is often a means of preventing social shocks and movements carried out by the high class, rather than an aspiration of doing a good deed. In order to reduce the complaints among the population, the high class implements a restricted redistribution of economic resources. Of course, the latter does not solve the social problems of people because it satisfies the needs (and very often an insignificant part of them) of only a small part of the society but it temporarily appeases the discontent. According to various theorists, this is the main incentive for charity. One of the theorists Peter Frumkin separated the functions of the charity based on the motivations of the donors (benefactors,) who use charity not only to reduce the social tension and to avoid social transformations but also to establish social links. This is mainly accepted among the elite when during charitable campaigns, projects and events new elite networks are formed which are unions consisting of people belonging to that class intended for discussions about charity and can be useful in business as well as in politics. Thus, charity becomes a useful tool for creating a high social status. It is also an effective tool for the improvement of the reputation, as it worked in case of the businessman Leonard Stern who donated 30 million dollars to New York University so that its business section was renamed after him.
As another example of influencing the public opinion can serve the huge charitable activity of Philip Morris tobacco producing company: it invests large resources into improving the lives of people, at the same time producing something which is harmful for their health, and due to the reputation of a philanthropist it ensures a high level of consumption. At this point another item for dispute arises as to what extent the charity of businessmen may be considered a kind deed, if they donate immense amounts of money in order to get a larger sum through their reputation. Let us bring another example: a mobile phone operator carries out charitable activities. The operator’s services are used by all layers of society but a part of the income is given directly to the socially disadvantaged. On the other hand, the illumination of this fact provides the mobile phone operator with a greater number of consumers, which in its turn brings more income, and the process is repeated. That is, a redistribution of resources is carried out, and both the poor and the commercial companies profit from it. In their turn, large companies help people not only in order to increase the income but also to attract qualified personnel. Commercial companies also care about the welfare, health and daily organizational problems of their employees. Therefore, activities carried out by a for-profit organization are often viewed as a corporate social responsibility. In addition, commercial organizations employ charity for gaining a good reputation, as well as for forming a public opinion. It turns out that there is a reality where the formula charity for the sake of benefactors works, rather than the formula charity for the sake of the people in need.
Charity for the Sake of Those in Need
The investigation of the phenomenon is interesting from another perspective – institutionalization of charity- through which new laws and procedures of regulating charity are established in developed countries. The institutionalization implies the existence of a formal-legal base and a system of social norms and expectations corresponding to each society. The fact that social institutions are a result of a social request means that a public demand for charity has been formed.  This demand mainly appears in case if the state is not able to completely fulfill its functions. Very frequently it happens in difficult social-political and cultural situations and in case of natural disasters when a need for a fast coordination arises, as it was after the 1988 earthquake in Spitak when a number of organizations were formed which were providing the victims with humanitarian aid. And whether the people who have appeared in a disadvantaged condition as a result of the flaws of the state’s activity in the social political field are not victims too? And is the social justice not a relative phenomenon itself, and those who have become outsiders appeared in those conditions not only because of themselves, but mainly due to the imperfection of the system where the same state bodies which establish social justice have not created equal conditions for the integration and development of all the layers of society? Right at this point a public demand for charitable organizations is formed which leads to the institutionalization of charity. Under these new conditions it is supposed that the activity of a higher institutional level will become more systemized, targeted and effective.
It should be noticed that in the countries with low living standards the activity of the institution of charity is directed towards the reproduction of the society which implies that charitable projects are supposed to satisfy the basic needs of the society by providing with humanitarian aid (food, necessary things, accommodation), while in developed countries where the state is able to solve social security issues, charity is carried out for implementing social changes which aims at improving the public policy and raising the level of education, etc. Meanwhile, it is the socially disadvantaged society that first of all needs social changes.
Charity on the Intersection of Positive and Negative
Returning to the dilemma of “good” and “bad” essence of charity, it should be mentioned that charity is stems from the human nature and even under the most prosperous social conditions it will not disappear. It is the result of the fact that people like to be kind and to demonstrate their humanism through charity not only to “others significant” but also to themselves. This is a unique identification requirement in a society where humanism is considered to be the highest value. Thus, pure humanitarian values probably do not actually exist but the culture of practicing charity and the ideas about it can be constructive (charity leads to the self-assistance of the society: people are able to satisfy their own needs themselves), and in some cases deconstructive (people find themselves in dependence on assistance).
In the eastern literature the concept of scientific charity has been formed which takes place with the help of “civilized methods”. This suggests a detailed study of the cases of the people in need and development of an appropriate solution for each case, which should be aimed at a long-term elimination of the causes of the problem and not at short-term solutions. According to Locke, the secretary of the Council of the Charity Organization Society in Britain, “the charity which does not help to stand up is evil”. That is, the charity should enable the receiver to recognize one’s own abilities. According to him, the ultimate aim of philanthropy (systemized and targeted charity) is the provision of the person and his family with complete independence and the creation of a socially healthy person.
The above mentioned indicates that in case of a certain functioning the institution of charity can become an agent carrying out social changes. Besides, philanthropic activity performs the function of moral educational within the society as well. In addition, the introduction of the charity culture can serve as a relatively stable ground for the establishment of a friendly society. Therefore, it is necessary to find the principles on which the activities of this institution will be organized. As a solution, first of all, it should be defined by law what is meant by saying charity. In its turn, the development of the conception of charity should clearly reflect the policy adopted by the state for providing a sustainable social development which will serve as a guide for the companies performing charitable activities. The new conception will exclude as far as possible the programs causing social dependence, which suggests that charity should not be aimed at a simple provision of material goods, but should be directed to creating such conditions which will contribute to the availability of equal opportunities, people’s free activities in society, and most importantly to self-assistance. Thus, charity should gradually nullify providing the people in need with food, clothing and money, and start dealing with the following issues: provision of services, skills training, creation of jobs, promotion of leadership and improvement of living conditions. It is supposed that within the frames of such charity not only the rich but also the whole society will make donations, and in addition to its simple redistributional function, charity will also promote the public participation in social-political processes.
Thus, the motives of charity derive from human nature and social values which include also the accomplishment of benefactors’ goals through charity, and it should also stem from the interests of beneficiaries. Charity may be a powerful tool for carrying out reforms in case of an appropriate coordination and development of a system of perceptions, as well as a reason for creation of social dependence, inability to work and psychology of poverty. Charity is not always so good as we imagine it to be, and perhaps our “kind” deeds harm the people surrounding us, indirectly depriving them of the opportunity to work, develop and live freely. Therefore, what is important is to introduce into the society rational and ethical culture and functioning mechanisms of charity corresponding to the given society, which may lead to positive social changes that is possible through creation and implementation of a common conception of charity within the scopes of law at the state level.
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Author: Marta Mamyan: © All rights are reserved.
Translated by Lusine Marutyan