Giving Till It Hurts

Charities help needy, but also help governments deny help
September 1, 2013

Of the roughly 150,000 non-government organizations (NGOs) in Canada, about 40% have charitable status. This means they provide services that Revenue Canada considers useful enough to warrant allowing them to give tax-deductible receipts to their financial supporters.

If you’re wondering why Canada has so many charities (or even if you’re not), it’s basically because we live under corporate rule. When governments mainly serve corporations and their major shareholders, the needs of many Canadians go unattended. And that’s where the charities come in handy. They do their best, usually with limited resources, to provide relief to the poor, the jobless, the hungry, the homeless, and the many thousands of others who have been abandoned by the governments ostensibly elected to help them.

If we had a democratic political system in which governments governed in the public interest, most of the 60,000 or so charities could safely be disbanded. Not all of them, of course, since even in the most caring community there will be people who fall between the cracks. But there would certainly be far fewer charitable organizations because far fewer Canadians would need their help.

Also no longer needed would be most of the activist NGOs whose main purpose is to try to persuade governments to become the democracies they’re supposed to be. For example, while the food banks and soup kitchens exist to feed the poor and hungry, their efforts are supplemented by the anti-poverty organizations that lobby the politicians to take on this responsibility. The same is true of the charities that provide shelter, clothing, counselling, legal aid, child care, and other basic services. They all have their polititical activist NGO counterparts.

Governments, of course, seldom respond to such pressure. They are delighted that there are so many charities doing – or trying to do – what legislatures have stopped doing, or have cut back on doing. The more charities, the easier it is, politically, for governments to serve their corporate masters and neglect everyone else.

The lobbying NGOs are far less popular with the politicians, since they sometimes expose government faults and failings. The Harper government has directly attacked the ones dependent on grants or some other kind of public funding, slashing or eliminating such financial aid, or rescinding their charitable status. Other governments have found ways to subvert or co-opt such NGOs, or at any rate to cite them as “proof” that the system is still democratic.

This is done, first, by inviting the NGOs to make presentations to legislative committees, to phone or email individual MPs or MLAs, sometimes even “consult” with them on the formulation of policies. Rarely is this input from NGOs acted upon, but the government can then claim (correctly) that it consulted with all affected parties before coming down as usual on the side of the corporate and wealthy élites.

The NGOs, for their part, can use even futile lobbying efforts to justify their continued existence.

I wonder sometimes if most NGOs, especially the charities, have become – albeit unwillingly and perhaps unknowingly –  integral cogs in the oligarchic machine. Would the corporations be able to keep ruling us, and their political minions keep ignoring us, if the charities did not inadvertently cushion and conceal their worst depredations?

Don’t get me wrong. I admire the charitable organizations and support them financially as best I can. I do so reluctantly, however, knowing that most of the essential services they provide should be provided or funded by governments and financed through the taxes we pay. But I am also painfully aware that, with our governments now preoccupied with serving the needs and demands of the business barons, most of the charities have become absolutely essential. If the food banks, for example, were to shut down, it would be a disaster for the hundreds of thousands of families who depend on them. (It would also be a disaster of a different kind for the uncaring politicians whose neglect of the poor would then be starkly exposed, but as it stands the food banks have no ethical alternative but to keep on feeding the hungry and thus taking the politicians off the hook.)

My problem with most of the charity NGOs is that they seem to be resigned to their role of helping the needy even though it also enables governments to keep gorging the greedy.

There seems little awareness among the charities and other NGOs that nearly all the social and economic ills they try to ameliorate have a single source: the corporate takeover of our economic and political systems, and the subsequent diversion of government expenditures into the coffers of the rich and powerful.

It seems to me that if even half – even a quarter – of the 150,000 NGOs were to join forces in an all-out campaign to democratize Canada’s political system, they could stand a good chance of succeeding. They would probably, in that case, also succeed in putting themselves out of business since, in a truly egalitarian society, the need for charities would mostly be gone. But surely making themselves redundant is their ultimate objective, isn’t it?

(Ed Finn is the CCPA's Senior Editor.)