Friday, 3 July 2009

Support Your Favourite Charity -- and Keep People Marginalised

The recent success of the indigenous peoples of the Peruvian Amazon in getting the government to pull back (which is, when all is said and done, probably only a tactical retreat) from privatising vast areas of the fragile rainforest, leads me to think that we need to radically restructure the way marginalised people around the globe (and in our very own neighbourhoods) are supported by us, the public, through our favourite charities.

I believe that non-profit organisations as they currently work, however well intentioned, may well be part of the problem, instead of the solution to addressing social problems, whether at home or abroad.

In brief, I believe they tend to keep people marginalised.

Thousands of indigenous people, armed only with bows and arrows and spears, mobilising throughout the Peruvian Amazon against ill-conceived government development policies caught the imagination of many of us.

Few of us knew that they were able to accomplish their well-coordinated protest because they have spent decades organising themselves, locally, nationally and internationally.

They have steadfastly refused to let others speak on their behalf. They have struggled long and hard to be in charge of their own future, of their own paths to development. Of course, with the help of alliances with sympathetic organisations, many of them charities from the U.S. and U.K.

The organisations formed by indigenous peoples in the Peruvian Amazon are first and foremost accountable to their communities, not to the Peruvian government and certainly not to international donors. During my stay as a guest of the Consejo Aguaruna y Huambisa (CAH) in the 1980s, I saw how CAH directors of programmes (health, education, etc.) had to report directly to the community at bi-annual meetings. And the community could replace a director on the spot, if their performance was found lacking.

If we examine the charities, the nonprofits, in our own communities, especially those that exist to address the needs of marginalised people, how many of them have marginalised people as trustees or on their board of directors? How many are actually managed by the very people the organisation purports to help? I suspect very few.

Instead, in many cases we have nonprofits managed by professional staff members, often with the help of volunteers. The staff answers to trustees who are very often chosen for their ability to raise money from the community; that is, they are people of means. And too often the objectives of programmes are determined or, at the very least, greatly influenced, by donor organisations. The more money, the greater the influence. And the larger the charity, the greater the bureaucracy.

The first rule of thumb of any organisation is to guarantee its own survival. This can easily conflict with the goals of the very people the organisation says it wants to help.

Now, there are charities that have helped marginalised people to establish their own organisations, and have done so without creating any kind of dependency. But such organisations are few in number.

So why are there not more organisations created by and managed by marginalised people? Perhaps they’re too dumb? Or they don’t have the skills to run an organisation? Or they don’t have the resources?

I doubt it.

When marginalised people start to organise themselves, they make the transition from being objects of our pity and compassion to becoming a threat to society and those groups that are benefitting from the status quo. By donating to a charity that works with marginalised people, we know that we are supporting a well-known organisation, approved of and regulated by the government. Few of us demand that our favourite charity address the causes of poverty or inequality. Instead, we want to know that our dollar or pound will help to feed a child or provide clothing or shelter. In return we get a letter of thanks. It makes us feel good.

I believe that any charity, any government aid or development policy, has to help marginalised people to empower themselves, to organise themselves, to help them to choose the path to development they believe is best for them – if they want to make a real difference.

Any other approach is just business as usual.

No comments:

Post a Comment