charities: a time to rethink?

It’s no secret that charities have gained a bad reputation in the wake of the countless scandals that fill newspapers and dominate radio headlines; household names have been dragged through the mud and doubt sewn into the minds of donors. Despite these instances of appalling behavior, though, we should treat this as an opportunity to reconsider our attitude towards charity in order to make our ongoing support as meaningful and worthwhile as it can possibly be. In 2016, The Guardian published an article on how trust in charities has been declining slowly but surely, with 33% of people blaming media coverage of recent scandals as the reason for this apparent trend. Figures like these are likely to be even more stark a year on will all of the recent, high-profile scandals that have been rigorously covered by news outlets, Alice Ross of the Financial Times warning that donors, particularly big ones, will be much more wary of donating in future.

Over time, there have been countless examples of misconduct in the charity sector, though these last few years seem to be the worst yet. Oxfam, for example, has been embroiled in a sex scandal that emerged from 2011 which took place in Haiti, where aid workers allegedly used sex workers (some potentially underage) while working on the ground. Save The Children, the international NGO promoting children’s rights, has also been in the media firing line after it was revealed that its chief executive – as well as the husband of the murdered MP Joe Cox – harassed his female employees whose concerns were not addressed with the appropriate scrutiny and respect. In 2016, The Wounded Warrior Project, a foundation that aims to help ex-combatants recover after service was accused of “spending lavishly on itself”, directing funds towards luxuries like expensive hotel rooms and business class flights rather than its service users.

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Scandals such as these happen everywhere and in almost any organization, though while there may be a measure of outrage following exposed tax evasion or fraud, such as that of Starbucks for instance, it is not nearly as long-lasting or damaging as the fallout from a charity scandal. In these cases, we are far less forgiving, which may say something about how we imagine a charity to be. In the minds of many, charities are purely do-gooding institutions that not only make the world a better place but also make us feel better about ourselves. When charities we support are involved in questionable or downright immoral behavior, we feel betrayed and experience a loss of the trust we put in them when we decided to hand over our credit cards details. To add insult to injury, many find it embarrassing when they have publicly donated to a ‘good’ cause only to be told that their contribution went to nothing or, worse still, that it funded bad behavior at the expense of people in need.

Perhaps, then, the reason why charity scandals are so abhorrent in particular is because of the way in which we think about these organizations and about ourselves when we give. Giving to charity is an easy way of assuaging a guilty conscience, an example being the thousands of people who donate to homelessness charities after passing a rough sleeper. The psychology of charity is extremely complex, research featured in the New York Times indicating that there is not one motivating factor but many when we donate, ranging from pure altruism (if that exists) to self-interest. If there’s one thing we might salvage from these charity scandals it is that they have forced us to consider why and how we give as well as who to and how our money is being used. writes for the Guardian on how giving to charity has a similar effect in the brain to taking addictive drugs such as cocaine, neatly putting it “Charity can get you high”. If anything, it is charity scandals that threaten to kill our buzz.

One way of thinking about positive charitable giving might be to think if it as a relationship between two people. If one was experiencing difficult times, the other – if they are a true friend – should try to support them and to enable them to overcome or adequately cope with the hardship while allowing them to retain a degree of independence and dignity. Clearly, this is preferable to a relationship of unequals where one party is dependent on the other, who is only committed to giving just enough, the bare minimum. In Mighty Be Our Powers, the autobiography of the leader of the Liberian women’s movement for peace, Leymah Gbowee has some interesting things to say about giving aid, arguing that organizations must work with the people affected or the service users as, quite obviously, they know that will work or what won’t and where funds really need to be channeled. In her words:

“Most of the institutions that come in to offer help after disaster don’t have the resources to provide concrete help like that. Donor communities invest billions funding peace talks and disarmament. Then they stop. The most important postwar help is missing…You’d think the international community would be sensible enough to know they should work to change this. But they aren’t.”

As we see so often, charitable causes are reduced to hashtags and one-off donations during its five minutes of fame. In 2012, for example, my Facebook feed was full of support for victims of the Lord’s Resistance Army and cries for Joseph Kony to be brought to justice for his atrocious crimes. Tellingly, the hunt only ended last year, 5 years after the media storm took off, though you’d hardly know as the cause had long ceased to be ‘fashionable’, a scandal in itself.

Charity scandals, while not all alike, shatter the illusion that these organizations can do no wrong and provide opportunities to reconsider what they need to be about. What is becoming increasingly clear is that these organizations must work with the affected people to be as meaningful as possible and fully realize their potential for doing good. Service users must be able to make informed choices about the help or support they receive and be able to meaningfully contribute to the decision-making process. It is these people who best know the scale of the issue, how outside help fits in and how they might best be supported . Now, in many organization mission statements is a declaration of the intention to work alongside those affected, such as that of the Refugee Council, for example, who claim that “We[they] work with refugees and people seeking asylum in the UK…We offer a helping hand to support and empower them to rebuild their lives”, the key words being “support” and “empower”.

Giving to charity can be a wonderfully positive and fulfilling enterprise though, like everything else, should be undergone with serious thought and reflection. There are many organizations doing excellent work which we should be funding to further empower their continuation. Really, then, we should do proper research and take time to reflect before we thoughtlessly donate and ask ourselves the difficult questions before we hit the ‘pay’ button and then share our ‘generosity’ on our social media feeds.

 

 

 

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the filth of ‘clean’ eating

The other day, I was stacking shelves where I work and was shocked at the conversation I overheard between two young girls popping in for a post-workout snack which went something like this: “I want to buy something healthy – what about these gluten-free dairy-free brownies? Or the vegan wheat-free flapjacks?” “Oh but look at the price” “Oh yeah *groan* it’s so hard to eat healthy – it’s all so expensive”. The girls left the shop with only a small pot of melon slices each – apparently it was the only ‘healthy’ food on offer that they could afford. I was left rather confused and disgusted, having been confronted with the inescapable force of the food trend that everyday shows itself to be more and more problematic, that being the ‘clean’ eating phenomenon that seems to have stealthily taken over attitudes towards food in recent years.

The link between poor mental health and ‘clean’ eating is undeniable, particularly when in is exacerbated by the pressure and strains of social media. The subject has been well documented by health organizations, the eating disorder charity Beat recording a rise in the number of calls to its hotline over the past few years linked to anxiety overly restrictive food rules.bloog1 Documentaries such as the BBC’S Clean Eating’s Dirty Secrets and Clean Eating – The Dirty Truth have exposed the fragility of many of the claims being made and the impact they have on those exposed to them. Eating disorders are serious mental conditions that can have devastating consequences – anorexia having the highest mortality rate of any mental illness – and affect all age groups, ethnicities and genders. Recently, the phenomena of orthorexia, defined in the Oxford Dictionary as “an obsession with eating foods that one considers healthy”, has come to popular attention, though it cannot currently be clinically diagnosed. Social media platforms such as Instagram, Snapchat and Facebook alongside other sharing platforms like Youtube act like a petri dish, facilitating the growth of myriad restrictive and absolutist diet trends that often overlap and contradict one another, flying in the face of well-researched evidence on what a truly healthy diet for body and mind might actually look like.

To make matters worse, food becomes a moral issue with a hugely negative impact on the mental health of vulnerable young people. What one eats comes to be placed in to two categories, namely foods that are ‘good’ and those that are ‘bad’. This black and white thinking generates a lot of anxiety for people who feel that they are failing if they do not meet these exacting standards. As mentioned earlier, the emergence of orthorexia nervosa points to a serious problem with our attitude towards food, orthorexia also translated as a “fixation on riteous eating”. This could not be more telling, food not only being a way to fuel our bodies on a daily basis but a means to improve our moral character, to become a “righteous” individual by proxy. Eating the ‘wrong’ food triggers self-loathing and acute anxiety, the message behind the moralism being that we are intrinsically unworthy and it is only through eating the ‘right’ way that we can somehow vindicate ourselves.

It is ironic, then, this obsession with restrictive diets often proves to be unhealthy, not only mentally but physically. Much of the ‘clean’ eating movement is based on pseudoscience concocted by individuals financially invested in this lucrative lie. Restrictive food rules are dressed up as science and packaged seductively, be it in a beautiful and slim food vlogger, an expensive new cookbook or a new range of pricey products in the supermarket. Often, these companies make dubious claims about what their products can do, some saying that they reverse disease, aid weight loss or garuntee an overall ‘healthy glow’. Many, if not most, of these corporations rely on a kernel of truth which they exaggerate and capitalize upon. A significant number of these ‘clean’ celebrities do not have the appropriate medical qualifications to be touting such advice, taking advantage on the vulnerability and ignorance of their customers to turn a profit. In a piece featured in The Guardian, Bee Wilson insightfully points out how

clean eating confirms how vulnerable and lost millions of us feel about diet – which really means how lost we feel about our own bodies. We are so unmoored that we will put our faith in any master who promises us that we, too, can become pure and good.

The promise of wellness is, however, a mirage.

Crucially, this trend is also having a sinister effect on society as a whole, particularly in regards to class and elitism, food offering yet another way to divide and segregate.bloog2 These so-called ‘health’ foods are marketed at inordinately high prices in full awareness that their affluent target market are willing to pay extra to opt into the ‘clean’ eating club. Food is an accessory, a statement of class, completely inaccessible to those who cannot afford to participate. Only the wealthy can afford to pay £3.99 for Deliciously Ella’s Original Granola when Tesco’s own is under half the price, or £2 for Rude Health’s organic oat milk when cows milk costs just £1.50 for more than triple the amount.

The clean, healthy eating movement is essentially a vanity project for the middle class, food being just one more way to distinguish the haves from the have-nots.

This movement is the perfect money-spinner, as where diets or eating trends used to be temporary, this trend is permanent and necessitates a complete and sustained lifestyle overhaul. Despite what the advertising industry would like you to believe, it is entirely possible to lead a healthy lifestyle without emptying your savings account. 

Similarly, this same movement is contributing to the divorce of food from its social and historical context; once deeply embedded in a collective culture, certain foods turn into trivialized fads in the western world. Matcha green tea -an integral part of the ancient Japanese tea ceremony  – has been adopted and can now be consumed as a latte, ice-cream or even a ‘chocolate matcha butter cup’. Quinoa, once an obscure crop from South America to many in the west has become as basic a grain as pasta. Foods that are integral to a culture heritage are taken and commercialized as the next ‘it’ food, only to be dropped and forgotten to make way for the next trend. Food is often imbued with cultural significance so the idea that a middle-class young food vlogger in Shoreditch has just ‘discovered’ the versatility and health benefits of sorghum when it has been growing in Africa for centuries and is the fifth most popular crop in the world is not only arrogant but demeaning too.

The myths of the ‘clean’ eating movement – essentially ‘fake news’ – could be debunked with proper education about the reality of what constitutes a healthy diet. No, eating only alkaline foods will not reverse cancer. No, you do not need to blow your next paycheck on the most expensive products in the supermarket to be well. No, cutting out gluten when you are not coeliac or even intolerant will not necessarily make you feel ‘energised’, neither will it make you a better person. With proper education, many of the ‘truths’ of the industry would be exposed as lies. Yet this would not solve the other equally if not more important issue of the sense of moral superiority associated with ‘clean’ eating.

Until we stop feeling the need to make ourselves feel better at the expense of others and by appealing to the standards set by the advertising industry, this distinctly unhealthy trend and accompanying mindset is here to stay.

 

 

 

 

 

the Finsbury Park attack was a wake-up call

Around six months ago, on the 19th June 2017, the 48 year old Darren Osborne is accused of having driven a van into a crowd of Muslim worshipers outside a mosque, injuring nine people and killing one 58 year old man. Though the suspect has not yet been convicted, the tragedy has opened the eyes of the public to the urgency of the problem of combating Islamophobic propaganda and of rethinking the way in which a narrative can be created about a community that is not only divisive, but potentially deadly. 

Though it might have been Osborne who is responsible for the tragedy, this should in no way detract from the bravery of the victims, in particular that of the imam Mohammed Mahmoud who prevented any retaliation by shielding him from a crowd beginning to show signs of shock-induced aggression. Despite being lauded as a perfect example of someone loving their enemies and even being labelled as the ‘hero imam’, though, Mahmoud rejects this characterization on the basis that it implies that he is the exception to the rule. In an interview for The Guardian, he eloquently explains:

“We can’t escape the fact that Muslims are portrayed in an unfavourable light in the media…to conclude or theorise that [Osborne] would have been killed if [I wasn’t] there, that’s based on a narrative that’s put forward that Muslims are savage and don’t respect the law”.

Instead, he calls attention to the fact that he was helped by many others, that aggression is the natural response to such a barbaric act of cruelty. The London mayor Sadiq Khan similarly spoke out about the horrific events, asserting:

“This is a good community. They pull together, they work closely with each other and the actions of Imam Mohammed are what I would expect from a good faith leader and a good Muslim leader.”

Why, then, must it take a disaster such as this for people to recognize the power of common moral principles, of shared dignity and humanity? Why must it be necessary for a tragedy such as this for a Muslim man to be called a ‘hero’ for the work he does and for the outpouring of support that came in the wake of the attack even though Islamophobia is increasingly being felt by British Muslims on a daily basis? The Independent has published figures that show that instances of anti-Muslim hate crime targeting mosques have more than doubled between 2016 and 2017, Sadiq Khan also pointing out that Islamophobic attacks have increased fivefold since the London brige attack.

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Source: YouGov

Undeniably, the media has a huge role to play in the unfair demonization of Islam, the press being responsible to much of the kind of hateful, extremist content that motivated this act of terror. Osborne’s partner, Sarah Andrews, described to the BBC in an interview how “He seemed brainwashed and totally obsessed with the subject [of Muslims]” prior to the attack. She cites programmes such as the BBC’s Three Girls and the social media accounts of nationalist parties such as Britain First and the English Defence League as contributing to his paranoia, it being fair to say that a clear line can be drawn between hate crime and the way that Islam is presented in the media. An article in the Guardian draws attention to graffiti on the Sutton Islamic Centre which reads “Terrorise your own country”, ironic when the terror suspect in this instance is British and attacking fellow Brits.

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Source: NewStatesman

This kind of bad press disproportionally targets and affects those most vulnerable, it being convenient to create a scapegoat for society’s ills that can shoulder the blame for everyday hardships. It dehumanizes entire communities and encourages a tribal way of thinking where those who may be of an unfamiliar race or religion do not ‘belong’, or even pose a threat to the existence of one’s own tribe, even though this is an entirely ludicrous and unhealthy way to look at the world.

All of this only highlights the growing need for the government and the police to combat Islamophobia and to put the same kind of efforts into eliminating the issue as they do towards extremist Islamic propaganda. Both of these are terror-related, and must be treated with the same degree of urgency and dedication for they both pose a threat to what we might like to imagine a peaceful Britain to be . It seems completely absurd that schools might summon a boy who simply converted to Islam into a meeting to check if he was being targeted by Islamic State (as they did at mine) but authorities wouldn’t investigate a man (Osborne) who had made inflammatory and threatening statements at a pub – “I’m going to kill all the Muslims, Muslims are all terrorists. Your families are all going to be Muslim. I’m going to take it into my own hands” – and publicly announcing his intentions to kill members of the Labour party such as Sadiq Khan and Jeremy Corbyn.

Fundamentally, the debate comes down to issues of identity and belonging, Osborne harboring the ideology like many others that those of other ethnicities, cultures and religious faiths don’t ‘belong’ in Britain. At the heart of this is a certain dangerous conception of what Britain was and should be i.e. a predominantly white and Christian country. Though this Britain may never truly have existed, as this country has for thousands of years been composed of countless different cultures and ethnicities, the dream persists, more accurately described as a nightmare for the potential hatred and division it feeds and facilitates. I for one would rather belong to a community made up of members who honour justice and mercy, such as Mohammed Mahmoud, than those who take the law into their own hands and fail to recognize the humanity of others as Osborne has demonstrated. Now, rather than divide us, this tragedy should teach us that we must actively nurture compassion and understanding rather than hatred and division, or the society that we would like to live in might never come to fruition.

the ethics of the bystander

As someone who works in retail, I come to interact with people on a daily basis, not only to help them with their weekly shop but also to be a listening ear for many people who otherwise would have no social outlet. It is inevitable, then, that I come to meet people who hold views vastly different to my own, a positive thing though not without its difficulties. In the past, I have met a middle-aged woman who, when praising the Austrian burqa ban, remarked that “you never know if they’ve got a bomb under there”. Another woman, when telling me how offended she was to have been followed around the shop by an Asian member of staff who suspected her of stealing, told me of how she mocked them, asking her “you no speaki inglese?”, related to me in a whisper as a black customer was walking down the aisle we were standing in. Examples such as these are no doubt symptomatic of ignorance and circumstance, yet here what I want to explore is my own complicity in the situation when I remain silent. In both instances, I didn’t challenge the women, didn’t even raise an eyebrow, I am ashamed to say, as I feared being told off later by my boss.

Reflecting now, I would say that this cowardice is inexcusable as it facilitates the perpetuation of this toxic problem. These people feel comfortable saying these things to me because I appear to be ‘like them’ i.e. I am a white British female, hence they feel I am familiar, an ally. In remaining silent, I only reinforce this view, maintaining the idea that those of the same tribe, so to speak, are allied to each other, easily remedied by challenging them to shatter this illusion.

In remaining silent, I am essentially shirking the responsibility for solving the issue, leaving it up to those who are the victims of ignorance and intolerance. Can one really be said to be not racist, not sexist, not homophobic if they passively allow these problems to worsen, even if they do not actively contribute to their intensification? Is it really enough to be ‘nice’ to others when this has no real effect in combating the root problem? If one were to watch someone being mugged, for example, it would be ludicrous to suggest that the responsibility for resolving the situation lies with the victim instead of the silent bystander; in the same way, it is ridiculous to suggest that the buck stops with the receiver of the abuse alone.

Clearly, then, remaining silent is an ethically inexcusable act, the implication being that I did wrong when I didn’t challenge these customers. In the same way, society does wrong when it doesn’t confront these issues head on but claims to be liberal and unprejudiced. Next time, I will definitely be tackling this bigotry rather than feeling a vague sense of guilt in remaining silent as it seems obvious that this is the only moral reaction to an immoral situation.