The perils of altruism

14/06/2013 § 5 Comments

I once spoke to someone who ran a mentoring scheme for young aspiring entrepreneurs. Part of his task was to screen prospective mentors. He explained that he would always consider it a warning sign if a prospective mentor spoke of wanting to “give something back“. He sought instead mentors who viewed the relationship as one of mutual benefit to both sides.

Conventional thinking might find this surprising. What’s wrong with wanting to give something back? I believe it reveals a truth I’ve been pondering some time: altruism is bad for our health. Let me try to explain.

Altruism, defined in the concise Oxford dictionary as “regard for others as a principle of action”, is responsible for some really harmful and wasteful activities. This is because it is founded on a fundamental mistake. Ancient philosophywater drop and modern science point out that there is in fact no “other”. There is only one, and we are all part of that one. That is not to say we have no individuality, but we are all drops in one ocean.

The more we are able to see this oneness, the more we understand that the only thing to do is pay attention to ourselves and to act in the moment, where we are. I don’t want the cells in my liver to worry about what is going wrong in my skin or my lungs – let them simply look to being the best liver cell they can be.

Gandhi did not set out to kick the British out of India, he simply set out to help some individuals who, as it happened, were suffering as a result of the system the British established. In a similar vein, Mother Teresa is reported to have said: “You cannot do great things, you can only do small things with great love”. They saw the whole and served the part in front of them. If you want to serve the world and the planet, start with serving yourself and those around you and you will find that you cannot help but serve the whole. George Monbiot, the journalist, went overseas to developing countries to help them, and came to realise that the best way to help was to go home and seek to change things there.

When we start paying regard to others, we stop paying attention to our own actions. We end up like the mother of someone I met, who for years poured energy into caring for a gang of motorcyclists while wholly neglecting the needs of her own child. Too often altruism is a way of distracting ourselves, of ignoring what is right in front of our noses but is too painful to face. It is a way of ignoring the awkward truth that there is no-one to rescue us from our human predicament except ourselves.

When we see the poor in Africa as “other”, all we do is help, in some subtle way, to maintain their state of poverty. This is where so much of Western aid to Africa goes wrong. We think we know best, we think they need our help, whereas they just need our love.  We want to “give something back” but our motivation sours the gift.

The same fundamental error underlies so much of “corporate social responsibility”. If it is not genuine, or authentic, it is better not to do it at all. These businesses need to look to improve the way they do business, rather than continuing exploitative business practices and then handing back a tiny percentage of profits so they feel better.

I don’t buy fairtrade goods out of altruism. I buy them because I believe it is in my interests that tea and chocolate growers in Africa are able to eat properly and can afford to educate their children.

Rather than seeking to be virtuous in giving, we need instead to develop the practice of seeing ourselves in others, and thus glimpsing our place in the grand landscape of life. If we can expand our sense of self to include all others, rich or poor, black or white, human or nonhuman, we cannot fail to serve the entire community of life.

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The challenge of giving

03/03/2011 § 1 Comment

“You give but little when you give of your possessions. It is when you give of yourself that you truly give.” Kahlil Gibran

I once lived in Brighton, where there were often people on the streets begging. I didn’t normally give them anything, but one day I got chatting to a friendly woman in her 30s who had a rather scruffy dog with her. She told me earnestly how she was looking to raise a few pounds to feed her dog and then herself. I was touched and gave her £2. The next day I passed the same place and saw her again, blind drunk and without the dog. “Never again” I thought.

I was reminded of this yesterday when hearing of the UK government’s decision to re-distribute its aid budget. As with street people, international aid is an area where it is notoriously hard to be sure that donated money achieves its intended purpose.

A large part of the aid budget never leaves the UK in the first place, being spent on consultants, equipment and administration. Corrupt dictators siphon off some of the remainder, using it to strengthen their grip on power. Then there are the stories of schools that lie empty, having no books or teachers, and of fancy equipment that is dumped for lack of maintenance skills or spare parts. It is a miracle if any of the £8.4bn gets through to its intended beneficiaries.

Giving properly is not simple. Too often we give money or gifts as a replacement for generosity of spirit. The son sends his mother flowers out of guilt for not calling or visiting. We give to street people to assuage our guilty feelings as we pass them, their very existence a challenge to our comfortable lives. And governments give aid rather than alter the exploitative policies that make aid necessary in the first place.

The plain truth is that developing countries are systematically ripped off by the rich West. Most developing countries suffered through colonization in the past. These days our exploitation is more subtle. We subsidise our farm products to unfairly compete with theirs, our governments sell arms to autocratic dictators that keep their people in poverty while the leaders live the high life, our corporations use market dominance to drive down unfairly the price of commodities we import. And then, magnanimously, we give a tiny percentage of our income in aid to make us feel like good people.

Aid is a sticking plaster that aims to cover up the gaping wound we have caused with our own sword. When blood continues to flow from the wound, we simply shrug and say “We did our bit”.

Giving money is easy. The real challenge is, as Kahlil Gibran put it, to give of ourselves.

A few years ago I got fed up with giving to charity. I used to routinely give a few hundred pounds a year to large charities, but I began to realize that I had no real idea where the money was going. I also felt that many large charities had fallen into the institutional trap, where the survival of the institution had become more important than achieving the purpose for which it was set up.

Then I was introduced to an inspiring and innovative charity named Afrikids, which advances childrens’ rights in Ghana. They are resolutely committed to true sustainability – they invest in projects that are financially sustainable (social enterprises, micro-finance), to support their other projects, and they have a large team in Ghana while keeping a tiny base in the UK. Together we came up with a different way of giving, called the Afrikids Social Investment Club. A group of 18 of us have bought “shares” in the club, which then invests in something practical (last year it was a hospital ward, which charges the Ghanaian government for its services). Like any good investment, the club members get a say in where the money is spent and get quarterly reports. Our returns are not financial, but rather social. Above all we get a warm feeling of connection, something that is almost impossible via a huge charity.

The problems of international aid won’t be solved so easily. True change will only come when we dare to re-think our paternalistic and exploitative attitude to the developing world. At the same time, the people in the poorer countries will need to start reclaiming their power. What is happening in north Africa and the Middle East at the moment is a strong sign that this may happen sooner than we dare think.

And what to do about beggars? One bitterly cold evening last week I was touched when I passed a lady sitting on the ground who was shivering with the cold. I offered her a cup of tea. She asked instead for a hamburger – I obliged and we ended up sitting in a McDonalds restaurant exchanging life stories. When we parted we gave each other a hug, and I felt moved and uplifted. Giving isn’t so hard, I realised. We just need to put our heart into it!

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