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.

 

 

 

museums: some thoughts

Museums: though we might like to think of them as neutral places where observe art, history and culture, arguably it is difficult, nay impossible, to do so with impartial eyes. The many ethical problems that present themselves to us make it clear that the nature of curation is far more ethically complex than we might have initially thought and might merit our reflection before our next visit.

Glaringly, there is the issue of how certain artifacts have come to be acquired, particularly in light of the colonial past of countries such as Britain, where valuables all around the world were plundered and looted both intellectually and materialistically. In 1897, the British led a ‘punitive’ raid of Benin (often described as a massacre), notorious for its violence and brutality.  The British took many Nigerian cultural artifacts home with them where they have remained for decades, though now their right to possession is being contested, there being the possibility that they might return to Nigeria.

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British soldiers pose next to stolen artifacts in Benin, Nigeria 1897

The Benin bronzes are a case in point in terms of the ethics of museums, namely that they are places fraught with cultural significance and complexity. Surely the way that such artifacts came into British hands cannot be ignored, particularly when their history is steeped in blood, violence and theft, as is the way with so many other valuable and precious objects. In showcasing stolen artifacts, some say that museums are essentially legitimizing the way they were acquired and the profoundly troubling superiority complex that lies behind raids such as these.

This particular objection to museums is such a vast topic, however, that I must move on, being unable to do it proper justice; I would, however, encourage people to do some digging into similar instances of cultural appropriation and theft as it is clear that the history and ethics of museums is intricately woven into the history of the world, both ancient and modern.

On top of this, museums cannot escape cultural hegemony, even if they aim towards neutrality and impartiality. Exhibitions are curated for certain audiences and must make sense for that audience, meaning that exhibitions take on a narrative quality. Curators must decide how the artifacts will be displayed, putting them together in a way that is easy for outsiders to digest. They must choose what information to include or omit, what and what not to display and how to frame and compose the exhibitions. In an article for the Independent, Shazia Awan shows that “cultural imperialism is very much alive and kicking” after a curator for the British Museum explains in a Q&A session how “We aim to be understandable by 16-year-olds. Sometimes Asian names can be confusing – so we have to be careful about using too many” displaying an attitude of what she calls “arrogance and sheer ignorance”.

When we enter a museum, we are not simply seeing a collection of facts grouped together but rather but a certain representation of history, of reality. We look at artifacts neatly dated and captioned with names, perhaps with a little background information about the piece. They are displayed in a sterile public building often thousands of miles away from their country of origin, to be viewed by people who are not only culturally removed but also by time and place.100_3262

Though facts may be objective, their curation is not. Without context, exhibitions are prone to over-simplification of the culture or time they represent. Objects are placed and information told in a certain way so that, while factually accurate, they necessarily become a narrative. On top of this, audiences come with preconceived notions about what they are about to see or intend to take away from the experience which has the potential to then be reinforced upon their arrival. Museums as institutions wield a great deal of power as they, like schools, history books and newspapers, define what is to be understood by ‘truth’.

The British anthropologist and curator who joined the expedition to Benin later published Great Benin: It’s Customs, Art and Horrors , seeking to present some of the items acquired on the raid and give each a short explanation. Though his work attempts to be anthropological and academic, he cannot escape the racism and imperialism of his time, his preface asserting that “if a city ever deserved its fate, that city was the city of Great Benin”, that is, being looted and burned down by British colonial soldiers for its apparent “squalor”, though thankfully the days when captions such as these would have been considered acceptable are long gone.

In spite of all this, to deliver a brief history of hundreds of international cultures and communities is no easy feat and is indeed a noble endeavor, particularly if you want audiences to understand and learn from what they see. Museums are great places for us to move beyond our narrow scope of experience to achieve a more global perspective. As Anra Kennedy writes in a piece for The Guardian,

They’re places where the extraordinary jostles for space with the everyday – our local community’s everyday or that of distant peoples and past times. They hold evidence of craftsmanship, ingenuity, creativity and imagination, alongside that of cruelty, horror and inhumanity. Just as valuable are their people – curators, academics, scientists, artists, makers, researchers, educators, re-enactors and storytellers

Precious objects, wherever they are from or displayed, can be given the proper care and attention they need to be preserved and enjoyed for centuries to come. In a museum, artifacts can be placed alongside similar objects rather than in isolation, allowing us to see patterns of cultural exchange throughout history and the proper context within which they should be understood.

Crucially, some exposure to the past, to other cultures, is better than none or even a limited amount. By making us aware that life goes on outside the bubble we live in, museums fulfill a crucial role in shaping how we see ourselves in relation to the rest of the world and to appreciate the unfamiliar. It is by going to exhibitions that we are able to admire Grecian sculptures or the intricacy and beauty of ancient Egyptian tombs. Though they are by nature ethically complex places, museums are crucial for the success of a culturally aware, pluralistic society.

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.

when the news got social

You would have to have been living under a rock to have missed the way that news coverage has moved to feature in social media feeds, so ubiquitous now that it barely merits a second thought. This union has proved to be both beneficial and problematic, though the advantages, efficiency but one, are difficult to overlook. Rather than having to visit a separate website, tune in to the radio, switch on the TV or pay for a newspaper, all one has to do is log in to their social media account to access the same content, often in real-time. Leaving this to one side, this marriage can have important consequences when it is one’s only way of accessing the latest news, particularly in a society that is becoming increasingly dependent on technology. In a report published by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism it was revealed that 1 in 10 people favour their social media in briefing them on the latest news, a figure likely to be higher almost two years on from the study.

The media industry is under a lot of pressure to adapt to the rapid change that society is currently undergoing, some even referring to this transitional period as a ‘technological revolution’. Over the last decade, there has been a massive decline in the number of people consuming printed news, preferring other sources such as television and radio and, increasingly, online coverage. It is fairly recent, however, that the news has bled into social media platforms and on such a scale, this phenomenon corresponding to the rising popularity of companies such as Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and Snapchat. It seems only natural that in such a climate news organisations would be willing to adapt in order to reach the largest audience, only made possible by embracing these new networking tools. According to the Pew Research Centre, 67% of Americans admit to accessing some of their news coverage on social media, says a report published in 2017. Now, Facebook has a built in feature that mimics a news bulletin. Snapchat hosts the stories of many of the major players in media, such as the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, along with others such as The Sun and The Daily Mail. Much of today’s political debate takes place within what has become known as the ‘Twittersphere’. Social media has become impossible to ignore, it being entirely logical to see why many well-known news organizations have jumped on the social media bandwagon, it being too important a ride to miss.

Today’s problem, though, is that of the spread of ‘fake news’, to use the famous term coined by Donald Trump. When social media becomes one’s main or only source of accessing news, they make themselves more vulnerable to be exposed to sensationalist or misleading information which feeds off the freedom and scope of these platforms. At its heart, social media is intended to be a personal, social space hence when one introduces news coverage, it too must become social and personal for its target audience, there then being a fine line between what is real ‘news’ and what is actually an ideology dressed as ‘fact’. In this sense, it’s no surprise that social media platforms are the seed-bed of extremist content or birthplace of ‘fake news’.  In 2017, a rumour that the devastating hurricane Irma would be a category 6 storm – a level that does not exist – was doing the rounds on social media after it was broadcast by the website InfoWars and shared on Facebook. The President of the United States Donald Trump even retweeted one of the right-wing Britain First’s campaign videos about Islamic terrorism, both deemed Islamophobic and later discredited. When news becomes ideological, which it inevitably does when it leaks into social media, “fake news”, misinformation and the distortion of fact becomes unavoidable, even inevitable. The presence of reputable news organizations on social media legitimizes the less trustworthy ones that whose sole aim is to reach as many people as possible, making it even more difficult to distinguish between ‘real’and ‘fake’ news. Though this task was far from easy even before this shift, all these developments can do is further muddy the waters of fact and fiction.

Crucially, this phenomenon has made it necessary to have some way of filtering the ‘real’ news from the ‘fake’ news. In The Guardian’s James Ball’s piece on the decline of public trust in social media makes it clear just how prescient this issue really is:

Trust in social media platforms fell just four points year-on-year in the UK, and even after the relentless coverage of social media being exploited for propaganda, and the big tech backlash in the US, fell just 11 points there. Globally, media was trusted less than business and NGOs, and is equal to government – and this trust level isn’t increasing.

Many government leaders and CEOs have pledged to tackle the spread of fake news, attesting that it is one of their main priorities. This can be problematic in itself though, people voicing their concerns that freedom of the press must be protected, that a state where fake news is rife is preferable to a state policed and censored by governing bodies. In spite of this, some of these strategies are compelling and might well positively contribute to the fight against misinformation and sensationalism. During the run-up to the Italian election, the government is assigning a task force to combat fake news in the wake of the suspected Russian meddling in the 2016 US election. Following much public uproar, Mark Zuckerberg has committed to suppressing the spread of fake news on Facebook by encouraging its users to take a survey on which sources of information they perceive to be most “trustworthy” so as to give priority to “high quality news”.

Social media platforms are a great way to respond to news stories and are often used as vehicles for social or political movements, undeniably a good thing in that they are a sign of a healthy democratic society. The #BlackLivesMatter and #MeToo movements would not have taken off in the same way if social media platforms had not been their to give them access to millions of people. Complications arise when social media is a source of news rather than a space to react to news, though this recognition may have come too late. As James Ball points out,

they [social media and news coverage] are now wedded to one another, and will sink or swim together. News won’t be saved by the public falling out of love with Facebook. It will take much more than that.

Regrettably, it seems to be too late to curb these developments, it being instead more important to get with the programme and experiment with methods of damage-control and of improving the quality of journalism today. Though the future is far from certain, there remains huge potential for the media industry, avenues that are only available thanks to these very social platforms. It seems that all we can do at present is keep scrolling.

 

View story at Medium.com

ladies, stand up

“If you have unshakable faith in yourself, in your sisters and in the possibility of change, you can do almost anything” so said the said the Liberian social activist Leymah Gbowee in her book Mighty Be Our Powers: How Sisterhood, Prayer and Sex Changed a Nation at War. After listening to an inspiring interview of Liberia’s outgoing president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, I felt compelled to do a little digging into the country’s history to observe her path to becoming Africa’s first woman in the presidential office, a journey made possible by the Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace, led by the single mother Leymah Gbowee. I am ashamed that I was ignorant of so monumental a peace movement, run by ordinary women, what would have such far-reaching, lasting consequences not only for Africa, but for the international political community as a whole.

It is worth here giving a brief outline of Liberia’s history, the West African country emerging from a colony of American ex-slaves in the 19th century, only to gain its independence as the Republic of Liberia thirty years later. For decades, the political sphere was dominated by Americo-Liberians, the descendants of the freed slaves that migrated there decades before, leading to growing tensions among the indigenous community who felt they were being neglected and cheated by the ruling class. This state of affairs continued until the president William Tolbert was killed in a military coup led by Samuel Doe, an indigenous Liberian, whose leadership – the result of a fraudulent election – was violent and bloody, swiftly publicly executing members of Tolbert’s cabinet after his rise to power. During his rule, another uprising occurred, led by Charles Taylor sparking a long and bloody civil war, after which he was elected president. Throughout his leadership, he was accused of supporting the perpetration of the torture, rape, mutilation and murder of thousands of innocent citizens, many of whom were displaced from their homes, the principal victims being women and children.

It was this 14 year long civil war that compelled Leymah Gbowee to action, herself a single mother and social worker working with UNICEF to counsel those who had been traumatized by war, putting her into contact with some of the most vulnerable members of Liberian society, some of whom were ex-child soldiers. In 2002, she reported having a dream in which God spoke directly to her, telling her to gather the women of Liberia together to lobby for peace and an end to the fighting and hostilities that had caused untold suffering and devastation to thousands or innocent, ordinary people like herself. She begun at her Church, forming the Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace whose supporters demonstrated continually at a local fish market with signs and placards, all dressed in white as a symbol of peace, strategically choosing the route they knew the president to take everyday on his way to and from work. Significantly, Muslim women made up a large part of the assembly, Gbowe credited with uniting women across cultural divides in the name of peace and prosperity for Liberia and the future of their children.

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Leymah Gbowee

Suffice it to say, the movement grew to encompass thousands of women, eventually succeeding in making direct contact with the president when Gbowee issued a speech to Taylor, refusing to turn her back to him, where she declared “We [the women of Liberia] are tired of war. We are tired of running…We are now taking this stand to secure the future of our children”. Later, peace talks would be held in Ghana following pressure from the international community as well as the women’s movement, an event attended by many supporters of Gbowee’s cause. After weeks of seeing little change, the women staged a sit-in at the presidential palace where they prevented anyone in attendance from leaving until a satisfactory outcome had been reached, Gbowee resisting arrest by threatening to strip naked as, in her words, “You [they] have taken all of this from me, I’m giving you [them] the last bit of my pride”, whereupon they released her. Not long afterwards, a peace deal was reached and Charles Taylor was exiled and imprisoned in Nigeria charged with crimes against humanity throughout his six year presidency.

Many argue that is was largely the work of these brave, inspiring women that facilitated the election of Africa’s first woman president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, often credited with stabilizing a country that had for years been in the grip of violence and corruption.

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Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace

Sirleaf is herself another inspiring woman in Liberia’s political history; a victim of an abusive relationship and imprisoned twice for opposing the government Johnson Sirleaf still managed to ascend to the presidency through democratic election, going on to implement free primary education for Liberia’s children, attract valuable foreign investment, promote equal rights for women and stabilize a country long at war, though she has been the recipient of fierce criticism for tolerating corruption within the presidential circle as well as nepotism. It is unsurprising, then, that both Sirleaf and Gbowee are recipients of the Nobel Peace prize for their work in fighting for social justice and peace for their country despite all of the odds that seemed to work against their favour.

These women provide us with clear proof of the strength and grace of ordinary women, show us that women wield extraordinary power both as individuals but, more importantly, as a unit. When women put on a united front, there is little they cannot achieve, as Liberia’s Women’s movement demonstrates. Ladies, stand up.