Charity and social justice

Dina Shehata
Wednesday 12 Jun 2019

New charitable organisations and contributions from business people are increasingly becoming an alternative to public spending in areas such as education and healthcare

Ramadan is the time of year when charitable organisations bombard Egyptians with television and other advertisements promoting various charitable causes and asking for their contributions.

Building upon the increased piety and desire to do good that is associated with the holy month of Ramadan, charitable organisations tend to concentrate their fund-raising efforts during this month, hoping to extract the maximum resources to finance their activities for the remainder of the year.

And while charitable giving has always been part of the Egyptian landscape, with the zakat (charitable contributions) and alms monies of most Egyptians going to charitable organisations through mosques and religious NGOs, in recent years, and especially after the events of 2011 and 2013 and the ensuing crackdown on religious NGOs, new forms of charitable organisation have begun to supplant the old.

The new charities are often associated with the state and/or with the business elite. They include various hospitals such as the National Cancer Institute, the Magdi Yacoub Heart Foundation, and the Burns Hospital, and charities such as the Food Bank and Masr Al-Kheir.

Moreover, in recent years the state has also adopted the paradigm of collecting donations to finance various public initiatives. The Tahya Masr Fund was created with the idea of collecting contributions from business people to finance various public initiatives, for example, including public-housing initiatives such as the Asmarat Project and public-health initiatives such as the campaign to detect and treat the Hepatitis C virus.

More recently, the minister of planning has discussed the possibility of creating a charitable fund to finance public education shortly after the minister of education complained that the budget allocated to education was insufficient to cover the expenses of the ministry.

A new initiative to create a fund for the handicapped has also been publicised.

As a result, charitable organisations and contributions from business people and private citizens are increasingly becoming an alternative to public spending in areas traditionally considered the domain of the state such as education and healthcare.

The rise of philanthropy and charitable giving as an alternative to state spending on essential public services is not a phenomenon unique to Egypt, however, as it can be observed elsewhere in the world and is closely associated with the ascendency of neoliberal economic policies.

With the demise of the welfare state in much of the developed and developing world, philanthropists and civil-society organisations are being promoted as alternatives to the state in the provision of essential social services such as education, housing and healthcare.

Meanwhile, growing inequality and the concentration of wealth in the hands of the few everywhere in the world have been associated with the deregulation of economies, increased monopoly, and lower tax rates.

However, rather than address the structural problems that continue to create this growing gap between the rich and the poor through more aggressive economic regulation and taxation policies, emphasis is being placed on the promotion of philanthropy and charitable giving as a solution to worsening economic and social conditions instead.

In the United States, the increasing number of billionaires and the concentration of wealth in the hands of the top one per cent of the population have been associated with the creation of the largest charitable foundations in the world today.

US billionaires such as Bill Gates, Warren Buffet, Mark Zuckerberg and Jeff Bezos have contributed billions of dollars to financing various charitable causes. Similarly, large US corporations are now investing a percentage of their revenues in various well-publicised corporate social responsibility (CSR) projects.

While on the face of it the significant growth in the charity, philanthropy, and CSR sectors everywhere in the world might look like a positive development, in reality its negative implications may exceed any positive outcome.

Very generous contributions to public causes allows capitalists and large corporations to whitewash their images by shifting the focus away from their exploitative labour and environmental policies and monopolistic economic practices towards their philanthropic activities, hence diluting the buildup of public resentment vis-à-vis the dominant class.

Moreover, charitable contributions are usually tax exempt, allowing corporations to evade paying taxes and depriving the public of needed tax revenues that could be used to finance public spending on basic social services.

Some of the largest and most profitable US corporations get away with paying zero taxes, and the money they donate to charity is in the final analysis considerably less than any real taxes that could be imposed by the state.

Charitable foundations also set their spending priorities according to the private visions of their boards and founders with little input from the general public and little regulation and accountability vis-à-vis the government.

Thus, rather than abiding by a national agenda set by elected representatives, charitable foundations act in an independent manner and often contrary to the popular will.

Finally, the shift away from public spending and the welfare state towards charity and philanthropy undermines the whole notion of social and economic rights that informs modern notions of citizenship and nationhood.

By transforming basic social and economic rights such as the right to education, healthcare and housing into grants given by the rich to the poor, the whole paradigm of philanthropy is undermining the idea of modern citizenship and weakening the notion of modern statehood.

Not all that glitters is gold, and rather than celebrating the rise in philanthropy perhaps we should be examining this phenomenon more critically both within the Egyptian and the global contexts.

*The writer is a senior researcher at Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 13 June, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Charity and social justice

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