Aside from being sexual and social animals, we are also ‘helping’ beings. Giving aid to a neighbor in need is considered an ethical duty. Volunteering in charity houses, community shelters, and churches once in a while is equated with doing good. We honor individuals and groups whose mission is to extend assistance to poor families.
But we also ‘help’ if we give our very best in achieving the goals of our respective social groupings. A schoolteacher ‘helps’ by providing excellent education to students. A journalist ‘helps’ by reporting the truth. A restaurant owner ‘helps’ society by satisfying its hungry customers. We do not require a teacher to spend time in a drug rehabilitation center since we expect him to focus on his classroom lessons. A journalist who does not organize a relief drive is not accused of being unhelpful since his primary duty is to spread information.
In recent years, many groups have taken a more pro-active approach to ‘help’ the community. We have TV networks advertising their charity works in news programs, entertainment programs giving generous cash gifts, and businesses offering various free services such as medical check-ups, livelihood trainings, sports clinics, and greening initiatives. It seems it is no longer enough to excel in a chosen profession; a person must also participate in an outreach program. A group or business must give something back to the community by adopting the code of the ‘corporate social responsibility’.
The visible and direct kind of ‘helping’ naturally became so popular that even politicians have appropriated its language. We have cunning politicians announcing their disavowal of partisan politics in favor of the so-called service-oriented leadership. Instead of offering new politics, they gave ‘pork’ to constituents.
But when citizens expect ‘help’ from private groups, it reflects the failure of our welfare agencies. If there is an efficient and equal distribution of government-funded social services, there would be no need for widespread promotion of charity. The poor and unemployed should receive food stamps and other forms of aid from the government and not from TV hosts. Classrooms and school supplies should be provided by the state and not by private donors. Hospitalization expenses should be guaranteed by the Universal Health Care program and not by rich politicians.
But government funds were either pocketed by greedy politicians and their cohorts or diverted into non-welfare programs. Three decades of neoliberalism has resulted into privatized services, which make the lives of the poor more miserable. When the state withdrew from its traditional mandate of providing lifeline services to the community, the role was partly fulfilled by private groups and ambitious politicians.
As for politicians who prefer pork-related activities over political debates, they are guilty of distorting the meaning of politics. The great aim of politics is not to indulge in charity but to empower the citizens in a political community. The basic task is to challenge the unjust and unequal power relations; and then work to enhance greater political participation of the citizens. Giving scholarships to poor children is charity; denouncing budget cuts in state schools is politics. Mobilizing the youth to fight for greater education funds is political empowerment.
Politicians and political groups should not be judged by their charity initiatives but by their political actions or inactions. Otherwise, politics will be reduced into an act of charity, which would allow the old elite and other moneyed classes to dominate electoral politics.
Similarly, we should be able to distinguish the original purpose of a group and their incidental charitable activities. A media network that donates to flood victims deserves to be lauded but in the end its relevance to society is determined by its espousal of truthful information. Some business groups flaunt their non-profit activities to hide their unfair labor practices. Others want to pay less taxes.
‘Help’ should be more than just volunteerism. It is permanent volunteerism plus solidarity. A person can’t simply ‘help’ without questioning the present conditions that perpetuate the helplessness of individuals. When we act to ‘help’, we must remember that there are always victims who need our solidarity and oppressors who need to be punished. We smile and feel good when we interact with the victims but the most meaningful kind of ‘help’ is when we enjoin the victims to fight their oppressors.
Mong Palatino is a Filipino activist and former legislator. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org