Breda O'Brien: Does charity perpetuate unjust systems?

Without radical societal change, charity will always be inadequate

Benefacts, a non-profit organisation founded to bring transparency to Ireland's non-profit sector, issued a report this week which suggests that we Irish are not as generous as we like to think. In fact, charitable giving has been in decline for 30 years.

This seems odd because the World Giving Index in a 10-year analysis ranks Ireland fifth internationally and the highest-ever scoring European country. The World Giving index, however, does not just include charitable giving but also helping a stranger, and volunteering.

The Benefacts research covers up to only 2015 but may cause further anxieties for charities given the stresses which Covid-19 has brought.

For example, the Wheel which, with 1,850 members, is Ireland’s largest national association of community and voluntary organisations, charities and social enterprises, reports an expected shortfall of €400 million in the sector’s funding by the year’s end.


According to Benefacts, the average value of weekly household donations was only €3.75 in 2015. Lower-income people gave significantly more of their disposable income but older people were also more likely to give (which may reflect giving at religious services).

One school of thought says that giving to charity is just a band aid and that without radical societal change, throwing a few bob into a collection box is more about salving people’s consciences than it is about meaningful change.

Republican-leaning Americans tend to take the opposite view, saying that only charity is meaningful and that relying on the State to administer social justice is deeply suspect.

The relationship between charity and social justice is more complex than either position, I suspect. The word charity originally came from the beautiful Latin word, caritas, meaning love. It was often used in the fourth-century Latin translation of the Bible to translate the Greek word, agape, which means universal, unconditional and self-sacrificing love.

It was not until the 18th century that charity became associated with giving to the poor. It began to develop all sorts of unpleasant connotations such as dividing people into the deserving and undeserving poor, and patronising and infantilising even the so-called deserving poor.

Oscar Wilde was no fan. In The Soul of Man Under Socialism, he loftily declares that "charity degrades and demoralises". He compares those who try to do good through charity to the worst type of slave-owners, the ones who were kind to their slaves and, therefore, delayed the dismantling of the slave-owning system.

Is charity really only useful for perpetuating unjust systems? The Society of St Vincent de Paul (SVP) is an interesting case study. Right from its origins in the 1830s in the wake of a cholera pandemic, its founder, layman Frédéric Ozanam, emphasised the central role of justice. He described charity as “the Samaritan who pours oil on the wounds of the traveller, who has been attacked. But, it is justice’s role to prevent the attacks.”

Charity which remains true to its Latin roots will always be needed, but without work to change the structures which perpetuate injustice, it remains inadequate and incomplete

However, aware that as a French lawyer and Sorbonne professor he was privileged, he also stated that “the knowledge of social wellbeing and reform is to be learned, not from books, nor from the public platform, but in climbing the stairs to the poor man’s garret, sitting by his bedside, feeling the same cold that pierces him, sharing the secret of his lonely heart and troubled mind”.

There are three pillars to SVP’s work. The first is friendship and support, with a huge network of 11,500 volunteers, many of whom visit people in their homes (temporary or otherwise). Covid-19 has severely curtailed these visits and the lack is sorely felt. The other pillars are promoting self-sufficiency and working for social justice.

Charity which remains true to its Latin roots will always be needed, in the sense of personal care for those in need, but without work to change the structures which perpetuate injustice, it remains inadequate and incomplete.

It is this personal knowledge and care which is often overlooked by those who think the State should do everything. Bureaucracies cannot offer friendship and care, but charities like SVP can.

The volunteers’ personal contacts provide invaluable, practical and constantly updated reference points for SVP’s essential lobbying and advocacy for social justice. Charitable giving makes this vital work for social justice possible, too.

We have scandalous evidence of injustice in Ireland – children born into poverty, disadvantaged from the moment of conception, not receiving adequate nutrition even in the womb and without a true home after birth.

Covid-19 has been devastating in its economic impact. The new year will see temporary unemployment turn to permanent unemployment for many. Yet for others, the pandemic has meant that money that would have been frittered away, accumulated instead. For the latter, now would be a good time to give more, not to salve an uneasy conscience but because it is the least we can do. SVP would be a good place to start but Ireland has no shortage of charities.

What Ireland may lack is sufficient commitment to answering the question which Ozanam posed: “whether society will go for ever-increasing enjoyment and profit, or for everyone devoting themselves to the general good, and above all to the defence of the weakest”.