Saturday, 10 December 2011

Sweet and Sour Charity

A month ago, I had a thought-provoking encounter with my hypocrisy.

I was in Glasgow's Royal Exchange Square taking photographs for an online photo-journal; I had a DSLR and an extra lens in a case hanging round my neck.  I had just been interviewed on camera by a group of media students who had asked me questions about the importance of technology in daily life.  I suppose to the untutored eye I looked like a 'proper' media person.  As I left the square, a street beggar who was sitting cross-legged at one of the arches called out "Hey! Y'gonnae take my photo?"  and threw out his arms in an expansive gesture. He smiled broadly.
"Oh, I wouldn't be bothering you!" I replied.
"That Kate Moss gets £100K a day, they say!"
"Aye, just to get out of bed!"
At that, someone dropped a coin in his paper cup.  "An' I've just got 20p!"  He smiled and laughed ruefully.  The whole conversation was very jokey and he seemed more upbeat and focussed than, sadly, street beggars usually are.  The eyes feed information to the brain without our immediately realising it and in retrospect  I had registered that he was very clean, that his skin was fresh and clear, that he was warmly dressed, that his hands were clean.  Perhaps because of this as well as the selfish prospect of the chance to take a portrait I agreed that if he wanted me to photograph him, I would, but would put cash in his cup.

I raised the camera.  At that point, to my astonishment, he dropped his gaze, drooped at the shoulders and wiped the smile!  He posed.  I took the image, showed it for his approval, dropped coins in his cup and bid cheerio to his waving hand and beaming smile.

In the intervening weeks, I have questioned my whole attitude to charitable giving.  For many years, I have had a Charities Aid Foundation account, paying in a monthly sum which I then distribute among my favourite charities, as well as having standing orders to two other charities. It is all very genteel.   I don't even notice the money going out; I get pleasure from bursts of online giving.  I strongly resist on-the-spot street collectors; would never sign up in response to 'chuggers' ; I don't buy The Big Issue or give to street beggars.

What does all this say about me?  I want the egocentric pleasure of giving but try to impose middle class rules to 'merit' my generosity?  I'm not giving to the street beggar, because (I reassure myself in  righteous inner voice) I "don't know where the money will go"?  I become become irritated by charities which phone to tout for business or indulge in 'chugging'; I want to choose the recipients of my miserly bounty.  And, interestingly, I don't tick the 'give anonymously' box!

I don't like what I have discovered about myself.

If I give a beggar some money, do I have the right to worry about what he'll buy?  If life has dealt him such blows that he finds himself sitting next to polystyrene pizza boxes and dog shit in a city lane, does it really matter if he collects the money for something brain-numbing, or spends it on a healthy bagel  and a latte with cinnamon?  Who am I to judge?

The argument extends to the wider issue of overseas aid.  We see the images on TV and reach for the laptop to donate.  Then we hear that a huge proportion of the money raised disappears through fraud and never reaches those in need.  What to do?  We give freely when the disaster kills holidaying Europeans in  a place we thought was paradise or in a setting which looks a bit like our own country;  we hesitate when it is Haiti or New Orleans.

I am always moved when ordinary folk do extraordinary things to raise money for good causes.  Who could remain unmoved by the magic of Cash for Kids, Children in Need, Comic Relief?  That money changes lives, beyond doubt, and I am in awe of those who tirelessly give of their time and imagination.  The target of my enquiry is myself:  if I want to look in the mirror and like what I see, do I need to change my attitude to giving to those in my own country who are closest to despair?

Does an imposed hierarchy of need sit easily with true compassion?

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