How to Help the Needy

Sunday, 28th December 2014

At this time of year, we are supposed to turn our minds to the wider community around us, so everyone can enjoy a Merry Christmas and restore their faith in humanity. People in the UK seem to have three competing personas.

  • The do-gooder: always thankful of one’s relative financial privilege and eager to share some wealth with charities or maybe with less fortunate neighbours or relatives.
  • The reveller: focused on having a good time and spending as much of their cash as possible on lavish indulgence, expensive clothes, holidays, gadgets, new cars, booze and other recreational drugs.
  • The obsessive compulsive loner: ungrateful and cynical about overhyped festivities, worried that everyone else is having a better time.

Amazingly these traits often coexist in the same person. One may buy an expensive present to keep a relative happy, get drunk at the office party and spend Christmas day barely tolerating relatives concerned only with pop culture. Why are so many people so miserable when so many others exhibit so much joy and goodwill ?

Advertisers and peer pressure urge us to max out our credit cards or contemplate payday loans to ensure nobody in our immediate circle of friends and family feels deprived of the latest fashion accessories and gadgets. Once upon a time, a young boy would cherish a brand new Meccano set, a remote-controlled toy car or, if he was really lucky, a bicycle. Today, anything worth less than the latest and greatest game console or a top-of-the-range electronic smartphone is bound to disappoint.

Yet this Christmas thousands of tonnes of uneaten roast turkey and vegetables will end up in brown recycling bins. Hundreds of thousands of unwanted presents will be sold on ebay and the same Chinese container ships that carried many of our Christmas presents will return with plastic and cardboard packaging. Most presents will have a short life span. Some gifts will last just a few months or maybe just weeks or even just days before they join a pile of assorted junk destined for some hapless charity shop customer. Yet leading economists worry when retail sales fall and rejoice when people buy more junk.

The latest craze among the better educated click-happy middle classes is to order distant friends and relatives a Christmas hamper. Back in the day, local community groups would distribute donated grocery items to old and disabled people in the neighbourhood. Now, hampers have become a multi-million pound business and recipients are often those who least need these festive treats. Apparently everyone loves more chocolate, cheese, Christmas pudding and wine, even if their fridge, garage and pantry are already overflowing with special treats. As Christmas loses touch with its Christian roots, it has become a huge collective shopping spree of atomised individuals wrapped up in their own tiny social networks, eager to demonstrate both their outward generosity and their feigned merriment. Post-modern society frowns on frugality and sobriety.

Marketing agencies have long been aware of our dual needs to exhibit altruism and indulge our material desires. As you shop, charity workers will encourage you to donate some of your earnings to some spurious cause whose true agenda you ill-understand, but whose worthiness you dare not question. So for every £100 you spend on fashion accessories, multimedia consumption devices, branded fragrances and so on, you may allocate £1 to the marketing campaign of what sounds like a good cause, but don’t really know how much of your £1 will actually help the vulnerable individuals the charity claims to help.

Charities, or the third sector as some call it, are now a multibillion pound business. They have chief executive officers just like corporations and often receive billions from very profitable businesses. In many ways they supplement the welfare state, but because of their allegedly philanthropic nature they enjoy tax exemption. How could former prime minister Tony Blair pay just 3% tax on his earnings of £12 million in 2012? By setting up a set of charities and business consultancy, he could legally claim most of revenue either as business expenses or as part of a non-profit endeavour.

However, many charities have become household names in the do-gooder brand awareness market. Most of us have relatives or friends who have died of cancer, so any charity claiming to fund research into cures for cancer must surely merit our support. However, pharmaceutical multinationals and the growing biomedical business have vested interests not so much to find a cure, but to expand their markets.

A couple of years ago I had to work on the payments gateway of the new Web site of a major UK charity, Amnesty International, an organisation I once greatly sympathised with and regularly donated to. They had outsourced their Web site redevelopment to a Central London digital agency, housed in the same building as Saatchi & Saatchi. The digital agency shared open-plan offices with a much larger marketing agency whose clients included Shell Oil, Novartis, AstraZenaca, McDonalds and The British Heart Foundation. Being associated with Amnesty International must have been a massive a PR coup for company busy marketing fast food and diabetes drugs to growing East Asian market. Amnesty had become a brand with a message barely distinguishable from other commercial brands, a kind of horror story that invited you to donate to good causes. Why would Amnesty International hire an expensive marketing agency to do something many budding unemployed Web developers could have done for a fraction of the cost? In another corner of Central London under AKQA's plush offices is the UK headquarters of Save the Children. AKQA is one of the world's largest advertising outfits. They advertise everything from booze to video-games, cars to luxury holidays. The very same marketing geniuses that urge you through clever social media campaigns to buy your 10 year old son a Sony PlayStation 4 complete with 18-rated games, also want to save him from potential child abuse. Once upon a time, child abuse meant extreme deprivation and/or negligence often combined with serious physical assault. Whether these extreme cases have become more or less common is a separate debate, but these days most parents are very mindful that any attempt to enforce discipline by overly coercive means is very likely to land them in trouble with myriad agencies overseeing their children’s progress. As a result of family breakdown and the information technology revolution, children are increasingly cocooned in their bedrooms in touch with a parallel universe of youth-oriented social networks, into which the likes of AKQA have invested big time. A parent’s role has been reduced to that of a breadwinner and enabler. If you don’t buy your kids XYZ gadgets, you are a bad parent, unless you are lucky enough to live in an isolated community where children still socialise by more traditional means.

If you really want to help tackle the causes of misery and hardship, why not just opt out of the consumer rat race, invite a lonely neighbour around and stop trying to keep up with the proverbial Joneses.

+