Outside Edge: Two new angles on charity

There are shifting relationships between politics and charity, says Tash Shifrin.

How much does charity have to do with poverty? Perhaps not as much as we might think. The idea that charity is a mechanism for relieving disadvantage is being challenged, and from two quite different directions.

The first challenge is the notion that it is just as charitable to help people who are not at all disadvantaged. The lovingly preserved charitable status of private schools for the wealthy springs to mind.

A more subtle refinement is suggested by Stephen Dunmore, chief executive at the Big Lottery Fund. We should "spread the jam a little more widely", he argues.

The Community Fund days are clearly gone. Helping the disadvantaged will not suffice for the BLF. A shiny new mission statement adds "bringing real improvements to communities" to the fund's remit.

This sounds horribly like a euphemism for "funding government social policy", but it also marks a redistribution of lottery cash.

"There is an argument that you want to make lottery funding widely available and you just don't want to restrict it to disadvantaged groups," Dunmore explains.

This is a new line from the body that in statute is still the National Lottery Charities Board. It comes as the gap between rich and poor continues to widen.

But a very different take on the loosening connection between charity and the relief of poverty and disadvantage comes from the growing Make Poverty History campaign. One of MPH's many remarkable features is that, although hundreds of charities are backing it, the campaign has little to do with charity. It is expressly political. According to its website it wants "in nine words - trade justice, drop the debt, more and better aid".

The campaign mobilised tens of thousands for its public launch by Nelson Mandela. But it is not asking them to dip their hands in their pockets and spare a penny for the poor. Instead, it is focusing campaigners' energies on the economic structures that keep much of the world in poverty.

The call for "more aid" could be seen as charitable, but it also challenges the grossly unequal distribution of wealth across the globe. Those demonstrating outside the G8 summit in Scotland in July will no doubt make the case for redistribution eloquently, and in huge numbers.

The popular call for aid to be "better" - without strings such as enforced links to privatisation programmes - reverses traditional demands from governments of richer nations that the "deserving poor" should doff their caps to donors' favoured economic policies.

The public instinct to give is still strong, as the response to the tsunami shows. But alongside the charitable impulse, a political challenge to poverty is growing. Good job too.

- Tash Shifrin is a specialist social affairs writer.

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