The other day, I was prevailed upon to give a tenner to “sponsor” an acquaintance who is undertaking a mountain biking, trekking and rafting trip to Tibet and the Himalayas next August. Now I don’t usually pay for holidays for people who are not members of my immediate family (and not always then either), but this was in a Good Cause as the “proceeds” were going to the Irish charity, Concern.

Ever since I was parted from my hard-earned money for this “Tri-Adventure Challenge”, a niggle of resentment has been afflicting me.  Not because I have anything against giving money to charity – in fact, I give rather a lot – but because I am simply browned off at being asked to pay for exciting trips for people to far-flung destinations, with an unspecified (and probably negligible) quantum of the money eventually finding its way into the coffers of the charity itself. 

I want all of any donation I might make to go directly to the charity, and not to have most of it spent in flying (with attendant carbon footprint) an army of under-occupied do-gooders to the ends of the earth, where their energies will be dissipated in pointless activities that serve no purpose, and where no doubt many a pleasant evening will be spent relaxing and socialising, all at my expense.

I was musing on this last Saturday when I opened the travel section of the Irish Times and found an article entitled “Charity begins away”.  Here I read that “It’s supposed to begin at home but charity can also take you abroad to some of the world’s most exciting places. It’s the ultimate win-win so Sandra O’Connell rounds up some great holidays for worthy causes”. 

At least the article doesn’t pretend that the trips are not holidays.  Here is a sample of the sort of trips somebody with time on their hands could undertake under the guise of charitable endeavour [my comments added]:

Walk the Great Wall  Easily one of the wonders of the world, the 6,400km Great Wall of China stretches from the Gobi Desert to the mountains of Korea. Happily, you’ll only be taking in a tiny bit of it [must leave enough time for sightseeing, after all]……Once you’re off the wall there is a guided tour of Beijing, including Tiananmen Square, the Olympic Park and the Silk Market, as well as free time to undertake your own excursions [that’s more like it].   Charity: Irish Cancer Society. Event:Great Wall of China Trek. Date: October 14th to 23rd, 2011. Sponsorship required: €4,500.

Grand Canyon trek   Children’s charity Barnardos already has a full quota for its big trip this year [I’m not surprised] but if you fancy giving yourself plenty of fund raising time for next year, check out its Grand Canyon Trek which takes place in June 2012.    Fly to Las Vegas [party!], transfer over the Hoover Dam into the Lake Mead National Park for an acclimatising walk. By day three you’ll be spending your first full day on the trails, with an early start [not too early, I hope] into the Hualapai Indian reserve and a trailhead that overlooks the Grand Canyon.  From there you begin your descent along remote paths past waterfalls with the Colorado River snaking far below. You continue down the canyon, crossing creeks and waterfalls and pitching your tent at night.  Expect to walk around 15km a day [OK…but let’s not overdo it], taking in highlights such as the “wet route” to Beaver Falls, swimming through to a subterranean cavern under the first tier of the waterfall, before jumping 5m into a frothy pool below.   Charity: Barnardos. Event:Grand Canyon Trek. Date: June 2nd to 9th, 2012. Sponsorship required: €4,600.

Make for the Cape   A much gentler option open to volunteers of all fitness levels [now you’re talking] is a nine-day meander [a good stress-free word, that] through South Africa, helping to raise funds for people with disabilities back home.  The walking tour of Cape Town and the surrounding countryside includes treks through the Kirstenbosch Botanic Gardens and the Silvermine Nature Reserve, enjoying views out over both the Atlantic and Indian oceans on the Cape of Good Hope peninsula [mustn’t forget my camera].  Equally unmissable is the panoramic views of Cape Town from the top of Table Mountain [wonder what the suckers back home are up to?] , a visit to the penguin colony at Boulders Beach and an exploration of Stellenbosch in the country’s winelands [yes!].  You’ll also get to take a boat over to Robben Island for a guided tour of the former prison Nelson Mandela spent 27 years in [can I skip this bit? –  sounds boring], now a Unesco World Heritage site.      Charity : Rehab. Event: South African Challenge. Date: November 2011. Sponsorship required: €4,950.

If I’m going to subsidise somebody to take part in a trip or an event, I want the sponsored efforts to have tangible beneficial results in themselves, and not be just a diversion or holiday for the participants.   Why not a sponsored clean-up of Dublin parks and canals?  A sponsored cook-in for homeless people? A sponsored house clean for sick and elderly people?  A sponsored day out for handicapped children?

In the Sunday Times, Daisy Waugh has similar feelings:

…. I’ve made it a rule never to contribute to fundraising efforts where fundraisers are simply finding a moral high ground from which to bore us all about a new personal hobby.  So: premenopausal ladies struggling with weight issues, wanting sponsorship to run half-marathons: forget it.  Ditto middle-aged fathers demanding money for week-long bike rides in exotic and manly places.  Not a chance. In fact, now I think about it, any begging communication at all which uses the words “challenge” or “fun” – or which suffixes their named endeavour with a facetious “athon” – doesn’t even make it to my Maybe One Day pile.  No matter what the cause.  It goes straight in the bin.

Her article appears under the headline “Nobody’s having fun at my expense”.  Join the club, Daisy.

I read in the Irish Times  that “Irish volunteers overseas with the Niall Mellon Township Trust …. completed 140 low-cost houses for poor people in a South African township……. the 750 mainly Irish volunteers managed to overcome the heat and meet their building goal….. Volunteers started to hand over the keys of dozens of two-bedroom houses yesterday to some ecstatic South Africans who had been forced to live in shacks in the Wallacedene township.”

Nice story, and all involved are to be commended for their efforts.  But let me run through the questions that seem to me to be unavoidable and that interfere in my proper enjoyment of the story.

  • Q:  How many of the 750 volunteers had relevant construction expertise that a local unskilled worker would not have, or could not be rapidly trained to have? 
  • A:  Probably a small minority.
  • Q:  Was there in the township or its environs a good supply of healthy and strong local men (or women) who could have done the bulk of the heavy work involved in constructing the houses? 
  • A:  For certain.  No shortage of that.
  • Q:  If so, why were such locals not paid to do this work out of the funds available to the Niall Mellon Township Trust, instead of the latter spending hundreds of thousands of euros shipping workers from Ireland and elsewhere? 
  • A:  No idea.  Could it be that individual fundraisers are much more committed to their task if there is the incentive of a trip to South Africa as a result of their efforts?
  • Q:  The continent of Africa is full of townships and slums where conditions are even worse than in those in South Africa that NMTS assists, so why are its efforts restricted to this one area?
  • A:  Pass. 
  • Q:  Is it cultural/racial conditioning that seems to make it unremarkable for rich, mainly white, folk to fly in from Europe to the townships of South Africa (or for that matter, Haiti) to act as navvies for a few weeks, as if the locals couldn’t be trusted to do the job if we just gave them the money instead?
  • A:  You might have something there.  Try to visualise NMTS or its equivalent flying people into (say) Pakistan or Egypt or Mexico or Rio de Janeiro for the purpose of building houses for their slum-dwellers: I think locals would find it a bit odd.  I suspect the attitude would be: “Welcome.  Now give us the money, leave behind a few managers if you must, and the rest of you piss off so we can do it ourselves”.

 Last April, it was reported in the news that (a) President McAleese had launched a new fund dedicated solely to women’s causes (“The Women’s Fund for Ireland”) and (b) that she claimed that the current economic situation was “pretty much testosterone driven”.  At the launch, it was claimed that there were 200 women’s funds worldwide and that there was clearly a need for funding specifically for women.

I was expecting a degree of protest at President McAleese’s comments (where’s her scientific evidence that testosterone had anything to do with our economic crisis?), or even a question or two about whether a fund dedicated solely to women’s causes was necessary or appropriate.  But hardly a peep was registered.  Now, if our President had launched a fund dedicated solely to men’s causes, there would have been a landslide of critical comment.  What does this tell us about our media, or about how we are all still conditioned to think of women as victims in the game of life?

But it is predominantly men who are the academic underachievers, the criminal offenders, the drug addicts, and the morbidly unhealthy.  Men work longer hours, die years younger than women and are now under-represented in third-level education.  Men’s health issues receive far less taxpayer funding than women’s health issues. 

But I don’t expect to read any day soon about a new fund dedicated solely to men’s causes (“The Men’s Fund for Ireland” anybody?)

I feel slightly uneasy when I see those large (sometimes full-page) advertisements in newspapers or magazines for SmileTrain, the charity that is dedicated to solving the problem of cleft lip and palate in developing countries, and of which the great and the good are professed supporters. The photographs they use are invariable of young children with faces sadly distorted by their affliction.

My discomfort is partly due to the “in your face” nature of the advertisements, which pulls at the heartstrings and wrenches the stomach at the same time. Yes, I know that’s the point of the ads: why should I be shielded from the brutality and unfairness of the world, and particularly the Third World?

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James Joyce wrote about Ireland being the old sow that ate her farrow.  The late John Kelly T.D. memorably said that the position had been reversed and the Irish State had become like a sow “lying, panting, exhausted by her own weight and being rent by a farrow of cannibal piglets”.

 How true that seems now, with our massive Government spending deficit, and the raucous clamour from every sectional interest demanding that they be spared the coming cuts in Minister Lenihan’s budget.

His simile seems all the more appropriate when one looks at one particular section of the scrum of lobbyists: those NGOs, quangos and charities who draw liberally on the public purse to support their activities (and in many cases their very existence), yet are now spending their money (which is partly or mainly OUR money) on expensive lobbying campaigns designed to influence our public representatives in their decision-making.  As if the Minister for Finance’s job isn’t hard enough, he has to put up with attacks from organisations he is helping to fund.

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