Reasons to be charitable, by Peter Roffey
Thursday 12th September 2013, 5:00PM BST.
‘CHARITY begins at home’ is an expression that dates back to the 19th century but which is often misused.
These days, most of those trotting out this cliche are making an argument against charitable giving – or at least against supporting non-local charities. They’re suggesting that the cash would be better spent on the donor’s own family or in their own community.
That’s not what the phrase first meant. Rather, it was aimed at those ostentatious Victorian philanthropists who bought public esteem through huge donations to good causes and yet treated their own families or households rather poorly. It suggested that a charitable heart should care more about helping people for its own sake than about gaining kudos.
What about the more modern use of the expression? Should charity begin at home? The answer of course is yes – but it shouldn’t end there. The whole issue was recently brought into focus by Deputy Lester Queripel, who canvassed other States members to see if they would support a requete aimed at suspending Guernsey’s Overseas Aid programme. It seems he garnered little support.
That’s quite a relief, because if that debate had gone ahead it would have shown Guernsey in a very poor light indeed – and rightly so.
The very modest percentage of our GDP that we give to development projects in far poorer countries is the least that could be expected from a relatively wealthy member of the international community. It’s a small fraction of the UN target, but given our lower ratio of government income to GDP (because of our tax regime) that’s probably inevitable. Nevertheless, we should at the very least be trying to maintain our current level of giving and when possible increase it. Even in the UK, where the recession has been far deeper, the international aid budget has been ring-fenced to protect it from the current spending cuts.
What about the argument that the money could be better spent here?
Well there are certainly lots of gaps in our social policy and a surprising (to some) amount of relative poverty in Guernsey. It’s also heartbreaking to see some vital public services being curtailed because cash is currently short.
But let’s get this in perspective. Thousands of islanders are not dying because of a lack of clean drinking water, poor sanitation or having no protection from malaria-bearing mosquitoes. Local children do have schools to go to and aren’t forced to work from age five to help support their families.
Also, it’s naive to argue that stopping support for the poorest people in developing countries would somehow solve our problems at home. I guarantee that if all overseas aid was scrapped and the cash used for the States’ domestic spending programme instead, we would have just as many complaints about inadequate services. The cash involved simply isn’t a game changer.
However, if some people think stopping modest expenditure on other things will suddenly eradicate deprivation in Guernsey while balancing our books, why start with Overseas Aid?
Why not cut out the spending on baubles like the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association or the British Irish Council? Unlike the aid programme, no one would die as a result – there would just be fewer trips for deputies to go on. Even better, why not reduce the expenditure on deputies’ wages? I’m not suggesting a pay cut, but rather reducing the ludicrous number of politicians we have for such a small community.
Getting back to overseas aid, some people can’t help trotting out myths such as suggesting that Guernsey’s cash often goes to corrupt regimes.
Not true. Guernsey doesn’t give any cash to other governments but only to specific projects run by trusted NGOs. Other people opine that after decades of giving, there’s been no discernible benefit to the recipient communities. Again, that’s just untrue – a huge number of people have been given a helping hand out of poverty and are now making better lives for themselves.
Is it a 100% strike rate? Of course not, but it does make a big difference – I’ve seen that time and again. Why do you think our giving to Asia has fallen so much in recent years? Because of the region’s recent economic development.
Perhaps most importantly, Guernsey’s economy is built on a global marketplace in financial services. Without the developing world, we would be much poorer and if we ignore our global responsibilities it would be shameful double standards.
So, sorry Deputy Queripel, but this was not your finest hour.