The big charity heist

February 8, 2019

Against Charity
By Daniel Raventos & Julie Wark
AK Press, 2018
294 pages, $16.95

One often hears that we should “give to charity”. Is this a good idea? Daniel Raventos and Julie Wark wrote their view in Against Charity. Admittedly, the title is a give-away.

Charities aren’t new, but in modern capitalist societies, many states have legislated to regulate charities. In this way, “the crumbs from the rich man’s table can safely be given to the poor”.

This, Raventos and Wark say, benefits the rich more than the poor. The “rich man … prides himself on his generosity, gets tax deductions, gives his little homilies and gets some wonderful advertising to brush up his image if he’s a celebrity”.

Beyond that, donations trap the poor inside a cycle of gift-giving and mutual obligations. They have to return the favour. Since centuries, the poor have been told, “don’t chop off the hand that feeds you”.

Charities are by no means small fish. The current “relief aid economy [is] worth about US$156 billion”. Its biggest supporters meet in Davos for the World Economic Forum, issuing ideologies such as “resilience … a euphemism for survival of the fittest”.

Charity creates obligations on the part of the poor. In short, charity “is an assault on the three basic principles of human rights: justice, freedom and human dignity”. It creates dependencies while cementing the inequality under capitalism as donations depend solely “on the will of the donor”.

Donations are not democratically legitimised. There is no state agency securing the rights of the poor. Donations aren’t rights — they are give-aways that depend on the whims of the rich.

Also, charities work for themselves as “many charitable foundations make … money out of the plight of the wretched of the earth”. At the same time, donating to the poor is also done “to shore up the class system”. They prevent the destabilising effects of poverty.

Historically, giving to charity has always supported the “social status [while] guaranteeing priestly privilege”.

In modern capitalism, this hasn’t changed. The author’s write: “To give one example, David Beckham, with a family (Brand Beckham) fortune of nearly half a billion pounds (which makes him richer than the queen) said in a recent interview that he hopes to be remembered ‘for his charity work as much as for his football.’

“And it turns out that he was doing his charity work because he was really hoping for a knighthood.”

Beyond the hopes of a second-class celebrity, charity giving has also more serious consequences. In “the 1974 Bangladesh famine [for example], approximately 1.5 million people died, mainly poor labourers and non-landowners, two key facts were fundamental. First, the state rationing system and market led to speculative hoarding and hence rising prices, and, second, the US ambassador had made it clear that, since Bangladesh exported jute to Cuba, the US was not going to give food aid.

“Bangladesh yielded and stopped the exports but the food came too late.”

Facts like these are excluded by the corporate mass media. Instead, mass media thrive on celebrities such as Bill Gates — one of the world’s biggest aid givers. “His ‘pleasure-dome,’ Xanadu 2.0, with lots of security (walls and towers…girdled around), covers 600,000 square meters. Half a million board-feet of lumber (500-year-old Douglas trees) went into this monstrosity (bye-bye ‘forests ancient’) with twenty-four bathrooms, six kitchens, twenty-three car garages, and lakeshore frontage with sand annually imported from St. Lucia.”

Still, Bill Gates is widely known as a philanthropist. This philanthropist, “it is calculated … earns $250 every second or about $20 million a day. He’s the ‘most generous person’ in the world with donations exceeding $27 billion (to his own foundation). He earns money much faster than he gives it away”.

Not to be outdone, “super-greenie Leonardo DiCaprio zooms around in his private jet lecturing on climate change”. Meanwhile, “the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation is being questioned, in particular when it was found by a US federal probe into money laundering to be linked with a $3 billion scandal involving a Malaysian sovereign wealth fund”.

Apart from this, the authors write that celebrity charities also involve cases such as:

  • At “the 2005 World Economic Forum, Sharon Stone heard the president of Tanzania describing how people were dying from malaria because they lack basic amenities. She stood up and pledged $10,000. Then she challenged business leaders to match her and, in no time at all, a million dollars were offered. But the pledges weren’t honoured and the United Nations had to make up the shortfall.”


  • UNICEF is so impressed by banging bucks that in 2002 it teamed up with the McJob company to invent a McDonald’s World Children’s Day, by which means it raised about $20 million in 24 hours. UNICEF’s British spokesperson prated: “Unicef is protective of its brand and chooses partnerships carefully…”

UNICEF is a “brand”, so McDonald’s low wages and poor working conditions are part of the deal. “McDonalds is accused of dodging, from 2009 to 2013, corporate tax worth about €1 billion…you’d think McDonalds could have given UNICEF a little more for its whitewashing job.”

In 2013, McDonalds made a profit of $28.11 billion. Donating one-tenth of 1% of corporate profits, a good name comes really cheap. Overall, “celebrity charity is [a] makeup job for an unsustainable system. It helps to keep people out of politics, as Lewis Lapham wrote in The Wish for Kings, for belief in princes, princesses and fairy-tales is easier than political engagement.”

Presenting celebrities as charitable assists the global amnesia about capitalism’s rising inequalities, poverty, global environmental vandalism, etc. It camouflages the fact that “the fate of humanity is concentrated in the hands of people like the 2,500 attendees (83% male; average age about 50; one-third American; using 1,700 private jets; paying $71,000 subscription fees; and largely unconcerned about climate change) of Davos, a social engineers’ clique funded by 1,000 of the world’s biggest companies”.

It also disguises the fact that “Mother Teresa of Calcutta was a perfect charity idol for a rich world with a poor conscience. The good nun wasn’t fussed about praising the atrocious Duvalier family of Haiti as they funded her projects, or accepting millions from devout Charles Keating, one of the US’s most notorious fraudsters, or from big-time pension-funds embezzler Robert Maxwell”.

Then there is the “environmentalist Harrison Ford, vice-chairman of Conservation International (accused of green-washing for BP, Cargill, Chevron, Monsanto and Shell) who almost crashed into a Boeing 737 when he landed one of his eleven planes on a taxiway”. The list is endless.

The big charity heist operates inside charities as well. In many countries, the neoliberal state offers the rich lucrative tax cuts when donating. Meanwhile, charities themselves rake it in big time.

Simultaneously, we are told “charities help the poor”. Not so: in “the US alone, there are more than 200,000 charitable organisations and Americans were set to give $400 billion to charities at the end of 2016 … yet poverty rates keep climbing: 20% of American children are from families that struggle to put food on the table, and the number of homeless minors has grown by 60% in the last six years”.

In a nutshell, here is how the charity heist works: “a billionaire can set up, tax-free, a charitable trust to give his kids a lifelong job and salary, and no estate tax is due on the ‘donation.’ The trust is protected from creditors because, by law, the heir does not own it but only ‘controls’ it”.

Beyond that, the neoliberal state can offload its responsibility for the poor to charities that, in turn, look good, as do celebrities when giving to the poor while receiving tax cuts and the ability to give jobs to friends and relatives. Meanwhile the poor are kept in dependency and obligation to the rich.

It is an ingenious system that makes the rich richer and the poor poorer. It seems to benefit everyone but the poor. Meanwhile, capitalism is stabilised.

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