Friday, December 20, 2013

Peter Singer and the Charity of Western Imperialism

Covert Capitalism and Western Benevolence

A friend of mine who specializes in philosophy and ethics was promoting Peter Singer's "The Life You Can Save" giving project, which initiated an interesting conversation.  Basically, Singer has decided what the best and most effective charities are and then encourages donating to them.  Singer's shtick is that we all behave irrationally by not sharing our wealth.  He encourages us to "take the pledge" to donate a certain percentage of our income to charity.  If we redistributed our wealth, all the world's problems could be solved.

Peter Singer: The Great White Savior
In a nutshell, such an approach grossly misunderstands the history and ongoing impact of politics, capitalism, and Western domination.  But, I took the bait anyway...

My friend was rallying others to take the quiz hosted on the project's website. If you take the quiz and answer correctly, you are awarded $4 to donate to a charity of your choosing that has been pre-selected.  Seems simple enough, but I wanted to first verify that none of the charities would be using those monies to fund animal testing or Western imperialism (as so many charities do).   My friend assured me I could have my pick of charities, and:
One of those most effective charities is give directly, which does exactly what it sounds like - give money directly to those in need, and let them decide how to use it. Turns out they use it for important things, and unless you think money is necessarily a tool of western imperialism, then it looks like a solid bet
So I took the quiz out of curiosity, and was pretty disturbed at what I found.  First, the project argues that with just $125 billion dollars, extreme poverty could be ended.  Then, it suggests that with some more money, 200 million people could be saved from malaria.

First, aid is not the answer.  Aid has had a long sordid history with third world countries. That is, we usually only give aid to countries if we expect something in return, like getting them hooked on our products, indebted to us, and willing to "free" their markets up.  The result has been forced sterilization projects, spread of Western diseases of affluence, the infiltration of polluting and unsustainable industries, the destruction of traditional foodways, and a dependence on the West in general.  In short, aid has been a project of Western imperialism.

Second, Big Pharma could easily relieve those millions dying of malaria.  Instead, they jack up the prices of the drugs to many times the actual cost in regions where malaria cases are more frequent.  They also heavily lobby to protect their "intellectual property" and prevent affordable generic alternatives from hitting the market.

Some of the charities Singer has selected worry me as well.  First, there are no charities that target Nonhuman Animals.  Though, if we were being rational about maximizing our impact as Singer seems so interested with, wouldn't we want to help Nonhuman Animals?  Not only are there billions more of them suffering and dying, but their suffering is directly linked to the suffering of humans and the environment.  Targeting our consumption of Nonhuman Animals would be the most utilitarian solution.

He does, however, support Project Healthy Children, which pushes Western-approved foods on African children.  This includes milk, even though most Africans are lactose intolerant, milk is directly linked to a litany of deadly human diseases, milk production is notoriously destructive to the environment, and milk causes immense suffering for the cows and goats forced to produce it (see Greta Gaard's recent publication).  Peter Singer is supposed to be the father of what again?  Animal rights you say?

At the very bottom of Singer's list of choice charities is probably one of the most frightening:  Population Services International.  It seems suspiciously like a ruse for forced and coerced sterilization projects on poor women in poor regions of the world.  Poor people are a burden to the capitalist system, and "population control" in these regions has been a top priority of Western governments and aid projects for decades now. Millions of women have been psychologically devastated, socially ostracized, violated, hurt, maimed, and killed due to these policies.  "Family planning" is usually a euphemism for brutal, institutionalized violence on vulnerable women that burden capitalist growth.

What Singer's project seems to overlook is that the underlying problem here is not a lack of funds, it is the capitalist system.  We need to stop oppressing vulnerable groups and destroying infrastructures for the benefit of a few wealthy elites.  So long as this system remains in tact, we will always have need for more donations and more charities.

The Non-Profit Industrial Complex

In general, I have a huge problem with the non-profitization of social change, which basically entails state and industry led nullification of radical liberatory politics. Instead of thinking we have the power within us to make social change, we've been convinced that social change = donating. This is decidedly a very pro-capitalist, neoliberal solution.  And neoliberal capitalism is the problem itself.

Non-Profit Industrial Complex
Of course, not everyone can afford to "participate" in social change and when we're convinced financial participation is the only legitimate means of helping others we become very disempowered.  They don't want your time, they don't want your services, they don't want your creativity, your organizational skills, your leadership, etc., they just want a check.  I was struck by a comment made by a representative for The Pollination Project (a non-profit organization) on ARZone last week. Ari Nessel, a real estate broker, was looking to leave the business and start helping animals, but Jack Norris of Vegan Outreach encouraged him to keep at it because the movement needed his money more than they needed him.

And "helping others" is just that: help. Not change.  Non-profits are not in the business of radical restructuring because that would be off-putting to conservative foundations that issue their grant money (foundations that were created by wealthy elites who profit from the exploitation of the very oppressed persons we're trying to help). The state and corporations love radical disempowerment, because radical claimsmaking is a threat to the capitalist agenda.  It disrupts the status-quo that benefits the elite and naturalizes the suffering of the oppressed. Instead, non-profits are in the business of social services.  In other words, these charities are doing the work that is made necessary by the capitalist exploitation that the state facilitates but does not "pay" for itself.  Big industries get big off the backs of the poor and with the state's helping hand.  Now it's up to us to shell out more money to charities that flimsily attempt to relieve those damages when the state won't.

What about that charity my friend mentioned? The one where you can give directly to the people most in need.  Is it really given directly to the people? Or is it first given to a non-profit and then to the people?  By allocating charity work to non-profits, we give all control over social change to elites.  Non-profits are staffed mostly rich white men with privileged worldviews that will bias how they frame social problems and their solutions.  So, I want to know just who gets to decide who is most worthy and why.  I'd also like to know how much those folks doing the deciding get paid to do so.

Radicalize Your Giving

If you are determined to donate (and have the means to do so), the best thing to do is to donate to grassroots efforts in areas of need. Literally put the money right in the hands of people who need it, not non-profits who scrape off the top to stay in business. Just as one example, Vegan Outreach spends at least half of their donations on more advertising and business expenses, not social change. shiny gold hot pants!
For people like me who don't have any money at all to participate in corporatized social change, what am I supposed to do?  I may not have money, but I do have time, so I engage in online advocacy.  It should be no surprise that big non-profits and elite institutions poo poo blogging as not being "real" activism. But here's the short of it:  Social change requires the collective effort of thousands, even millions of people.  Not everyone can expect a paycheck working for a non-profit professionally, and not everyone will have the means to donate financially.  When we make social change about financial transactions, this isn't about social change anymore, this is about streamlining capitalism.  Capitalism is full of holes, but we keep plugging them up with bailouts.  In other words, the capitalist system is unsustainable if we stop sustaining it.

Post Script
Incidentally, I assigned my virtual quiz money to a group working to repair fistulas among poor women in the Global South hoping that it wasn't a front for forced sterilization. After the fact, I learned they are primarily funded by Johnson & Johnson, the face of Big Pharma and one of the most anti-vegan institutions of Nonhuman Animal suffering of the face of the planet. They've also been under fire for withholding critical information about the deadly side effects of their drugs and they spend a lot of time in the courtroom protecting their patents on potentially life-saving products.  Should we be thanking them for supporting vulnerable groups?  Or should we be working to prevent them from oppressing vulnerable groups in the first place?