The Charitable Impulse: Part 1

In the summer of 2010, I saw a talk given by James Shelley that started to erode my basic assumptions of how to make the world a better place.  The challenge is that somewhere along the way I’ve picked up the desire to change the world, which is a fire you can’t put out, and which demands action.  This was simple and straight-forward through my twenties, as I assumed we could change the world by simply providing more resources to those who have less.  However, James changed that, and the basic assumptions I held of what was required of me began to crumble.  Here is the talk:

In this talk James talks about some of the basic assumptions of international charity, highlighting that charity can actually impede development.  Here’s my favourite line from the talk:

“Just because an idea is driven by really good intentions, does that make it a good idea?”

Continuing to explore what charity means in an international context, I have been exposed to the critical exploration of volunteer international health work based on studies by my colleague Oona St Amant.  Volunteer health work, where health professionals go into less developed nations to help bring medical care to those in need, is rife with the same problems that James identifies in his talk: If done as charity rather than development, more harm can be done to the community in the long run.

In this series of blogs I will critically explore the charitable impulse and what this has meant in terms of addressing poverty and homelessness in our community.  This will not be a conservative treatise on why not to give, but rather an exploration how we as decision-makers in our community need to focus on the long-game, treat root issues, and make lasting change.

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