The Charity Problem: Creating A Culture Of Dependence

 For myself, Ramadan has always been one of those months that reminds me of the fact that there people who are worse off. Charity has always been an interesting concept and one that I’ve been involved in since I can long remember. In the past three years since I’ve come back to Jordan, perhaps some of the fondest memories I have was filling pickup trucks with food and clothes, and delivering them to some needy people in the refugee camps. And perhaps the pinnacle of these memories was the 7iber drive during Gaza, which managed to collect over 60 tons of food and clothes in 48 hours – and soon after the campaign met its goals, 7iber helped mobilize hundreds of people for three weeks to help with the Aramex campaign. The night we received those donations was simply an unforgettable moment in my life as I had, until then, never seen so many people coming together organically for a single purpose.

Since then, charity has always been on my mind, but getting a chance to interact with and engage people on the ground more frequently, I discovered what I should have known all along: charity, while providing a temporary fix for the short run, also creates lasting damage in the long run. That damage goes by the name of “dependence”, and the rising culture of it, especially in developing nations like Jordan.

In the past year or so, I read all I could about the subject. From Charle’s Murray’s thesis on “The Underclass” and welfare systems, to Willie Cheng’s book “Doing Good Well”. In the latter, Cheng states: “charities should seek extinction rather than growth.” Now that’s a powerful message, and one that most charities probably do not aim to abide by from an institutional point of view. Their goals are always to grow, bigger and more powerful – all they need is a marketplace, and developing nations offer just that.

And therein lies our problem. When a group of people whose core issues, including education, unemployment and standards of living, are not resolved, then charity moves from being a temporary fix to being a long term solution. Even if a person’s or an organization’s intentions are not so, this is an inevitable and destructive outcome, because like anything else, someone who is dependent on something will always find a means to attain more of it, and an entity that will provide it for them. And in the charity world, it is a bottomless pit. One organization will always replace another, and one giving hand will always have another waiting right behind it. There is arguably an abundance of charitable organizations in a country like Jordan, while the number of citizens who are worse off is growing – this alone signifies that there is something seriously wrong with the equation.

The rising culture of dependence has meant that many are simply relying on others to provide for them, and will constantly find new ways to maintain those links. Last year, I spent several weeks visiting and talking to charitable organizations run by the Muslim Brotherhood, who are arguably the most widespread operators of charity in the country, and specifically Amman. The stories they told about people who tried to “cheat” the system were not isolated; they were the norm, they were the majority. Some of these stories included women who registered to receive donations from several organizations, and would travel to each one everyday. Or women who hid various appliances around the house when a surveyor from one of the charities was due for a visit. Or other stories involving the misuses of national ID cards to obtain charity. And so on and so forth.

One can either interpret this as an act of desperation in tough times (and times have always been tough here) or, a byproduct of this very culture. One that has opened too many doors, and too many opportunities for abuse. And the abuse does not need to be intentional; in most cases it is a natural outcome of the culture that engulfs the people that exist within its environment. There are whole generations that are being brought up in this very environment today. It has become a part of their daily fabric.

The aim of charity should not be to empower a culture of dependence but nurture a culture of self-reliance. Even from an Islamic point of view, there is a constant misconception as to the very idea of alms giving, which is Islamically defined and constructed for the purposes of creating a self-reliant people, not a population weakened and drowning in dependence. The Muslim Brotherhood, to their credit, have managed to strike some sort of balance on the grassroots level, mixing charity for temporary fixes, with more sustainable efforts that include teaching and apprenticeships to impart job skills on its constituency. A great deal of their efforts are motivated by religion and politics, but it is nevertheless a system that outmatches anything else I’ve seen.

Interestingly enough, what one can commonly see in a country like Jordan where this culture of dependence has grown for decades and erupted in recent times, is a new social norm: entitlement. There is undoubtedly a growing segment of society that has now evolved past the stage of mere dependency on the charity of others, to a point where they feel entitled to this charity. This can commonly be seen in the attitudes of many people towards the organizations they have become accustomed to receiving charity from, be it governmental or non-profit. They view it, by and large, as a right.

All notions that charity empowers people seem absolutely ridiculous and folly in the face of such an ugly tide. If the goal is to help someone, then charity, in the way it has been defined today, is a system that should publicly be recognized as being the biggest adversary of that very goal. Moreover, in a country like Jordan where an environment has been created in the last several years that is bent on institutionalizing charity, organizations have become businesses, and the trouble with that is exactly as Cheng points out: a business’s goal is to grow, while a charity’s goal should be to become non-existent. Charities have grown exponentially, and so have the number of people they serve. Charities have become brands, even selling religious principles as a product to entice the customers; the givers. These organizations also compete for popularity, as do the growing number of individuals who seem to be more interested in popularizing their efforts to a bleeding heart constituency than in the actual efforts – and if that’s your goal then you can never go wrong with charity as a weapon of choice.

There are of course some natural exceptions where charity can play a vital role in social rejuvenation, but I would mainly attribute or limit such exceptions to emergency situations where immediate relief in the most essential form is required. A natural disaster for instance.

But when it comes to cultures of dependence, here’s something I’ve been thinking about recently:

A few years back, a city like Amman had its traffic lights flooded with beggars. Over the past few years, their numbers suddenly declined. Now the government may have us believing that their decline in numbers has been due to police efforts to simply “round them up”, but does anyone really believe that locking up a street beggars is going to discourage them from returning to their place of business? In my opinion, the truth is closer to on-the-ground observations. As stories of traffic light beggars making unseemly amounts of money became more commonplace in local media, people grew increasingly discouraged to giving them anything. At the same time, we’ve seen a sudden shift in the activities at traffic lights. No longer do we see beggars but rather entrepreneurs. Traffic lights now have more people careening through the stopped cars, but everyone is selling something. Typically, different “gangs” take on different areas, but one could simply define this as a form of unionization. Their products constantly change according to determined market forces of supply and demand. In the spring they sell flowers, in the summer they sell fruits, on hot days they sell accessories like miniature fans, and on occasions like the world cup they sell fan memorabilia. Their growth in numbers might be a good indicator as to their success rate.

This is a segment of society that was forced to shift from a culture of dependence to one of self-reliance. Finding it more feasible to sell even the silliest or cheapest of things, than to wager on the giving mood of the marketplace that day. The market may not always feel like being charitable, but you can always depend on them to be what they genuinely are: customers. Thus they were forced to learn a completely different skill set and apply completely different methods to earn a living.

This is perhaps but a small example of the greater aspirations a society should be aspiring to, especially in a post-financial crisis world that shaken the marketplace from boardrooms to alleyways, and demonstrated the need for individuals, societies, and governments to be financially resilient, and not financially dependent. There needs to be a movement, a real on-the-ground effort, to move away from charity and towards a more sustainable front. We need to nurture a new culture of self-reliance by cutting off avenues of dependence and forging superhighways where new skills are learned, applied, exchanged, grown, sustained, linked, and affirmed. Empowering a people involves looking at the elements that fuel a culture of dependence, and tackling them one bit at a time. Education, employment, vocational training: big words that can be broken down in to tiny pieces ripe for the picking.

For business-minded organizations and the nouveau riche: so-called social activists, this is definitely not something that is sexy enough to get involved in, as such efforts usually do not come with glossy brands, or potential for popularization.

But then again, anyone who’s involved in the field of charitable works should be asking themselves that quintessential question: what’s the ultimate goal of my efforts?

13 thoughts on “The Charity Problem: Creating A Culture Of Dependence

  1. “charities should seek extinction rather than growth.” I never thought of that, it makes perfect sense.
    I am not sure if the Muslim Brotherhood provides microfinance as the Garmeen Bank example in Bangladesh. Microfinance idea is to give the poor enough money to start a business. Why don’t we use this system? I am not an economist so I don’t know the pros and cons of this system. But I know it worked efficiently in Bangladesh and many other poor countries.
    Excellent post!

  2. kudos … I seriously never thought about charity in that wide concept !! ofcourse i had the ” **** off you are not getting a cent out of me you bastard ” idea because i will only encourage them to beg for more !
    but when you put it on a bigger scale it becomes crystal clear , yes the more you give in the wrong place the more need you create it’s just a big vicious cycle .

    JUST to show your point on a bigger scale check out those numbers :

    * the 2009 budget of ” sondook il ma3onah al watanieh ” is a whopping 87,900,600 imagine how freaking huge the number is !
    * according to 2008 numbers 70,000 people are helped by the sondook , imagine that we have 70.000 people who depend on charity from this single organisation ! ya3ni it doesnt make any sense !

    and they ask where the money goes ! as you said some people consider it their right to get the money even if they can live without those 50jd after years and years of being accustomed to it , they won’t even consider not taking the money .

    * not to mention the millions and millions that are donated privately through millions of other charity organisation ! zay ili 3a bwab il jawame3 on friday.

    * i tried to find what happens to the zaka money that the ministry of awakaaf takes ! no luck so far but am sure that sums up to a considerable amount of money each year !

    peace nas
    great as usual

    [comment has been edited by blog administrator]

  3. ohh sorry i kind of made a huge mistake

    the number of people who are on the payroll of the sandook is not 70,000 person its 70,000 family
    i know thats ****** UPPPPP !

    now we take the 70000 * (the average number of the poor family members) which is said to be 3,65

    = 255000 person cheers !

    [comment has been edited by blog administrator]

  4. As you are flawlessly heading for one side of the equation, beside problems made by charity receiving are equaled by those that come up sending charity.

    Most people tend to forget the industry behind international charity: E.g. the rice and chicken producers in the first world’s countries are given a fabulous opportunity to sell their over production while at the same time local agriculture is suffering of dumping prices (who will pay a lot if charity is giving away for symbolic prices). Meanwhile, all selfless good people in the rich countries – including politicians – can be prowd of temporarily fixing problems that would not even exist were the markets open for developping countries.

  5. Yeah, thank you for this excellent post; Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime…. I do not have a lot of experience in charity; but I’ve seen the bad effects this dependence has on younger generations… and so me and some friends were thinking of maybe starting to do something like teaching kids how to use recycled material to make some art works, jewelery and the like, then maybe opening a stand in JARA to sell their things…. not very innovative but it’s a start. Actually, one of my friends is taking education- through- art courses for that very purpose…

  6. Nice in theory until it hits the wall of reality. The reality is that there are two distinct groups when it comes to charity dependence split across …. you guessed it!
    One party just refuses to do anything, the vocational training they undergo is a time wasted because that is not the type of job they are willing to get and would rather wait until they earn their rights to the job that they want.
    The other party … their ability to work is extremely hindered by the legal framework so they prospects of employment are limited, even though they would work in most jobs except the ones that are traditionally occupied by foreign workers.
    and from that you get to the root of the issue… those people feel entitled for a better life and job and don’t earn their right to deserve it. just like that girl on 7iber whining about Bedouin women.
    The best charity that can be given to these people is to squash their egos into teeny tiny bits so that they realize where they belong.

  7. The best charity that can be given to these people is to squash their egos into teeny tiny bits so that they realize where they belong.

    Yeah, that will help us all, why dont start with yours.

    Get well soon!

  8. Years ago I read an interesting interview with an African economist James Shikwati (I have the text but the link is old now, if anyone is interested) He says that when the West sends food, it puts the farmers out of business and when clothing is sent, it puts the textile industries out of business. So aid ends up doing more harm than good.
    My family in Canada has always supported World Vision ( a Christian charity). They go into a community, put the kids through school, teach the families things like hygiene and farming and build wells. Once the community is self-reliant, they move on to another community. That is a better model than just strictly giving to the immediate need.

  9. @ VonFernSeher
    we are talking about the specific case of working with jordanian in vocational training workshops and seeing their reaction to being trained in vocational and hospitality work. Even though they would benefit from the work, a good chunk of them end up brushing it off to wait for a goverment handout of a job.
    So here is a great advise to you my german friend… read up about jordan so that you wouldn’t look stupid again.

  10. @bambam
    Still I do not see your point why humiliating them (“squash their egos into teeny tiny bits”) should help. Ever thought about teaching them some skills and values? Some useful like self-awareness, group dynamics and that stuff? Ever heard the strategy of breaking their egos and building them up again shows high recidivism?

    Maybe you are just not the right one to do so. And surely I am not your German friend.

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