Kuro5hin.org: technology and culture, from the trenches
create account | help/FAQ | contact | links | search | IRC | site news
[ Everything | Diaries | Technology | Science | Culture | Politics | Media | News | Internet | Op-Ed | Fiction | Meta | MLP ]
We need your support: buy an ad | premium membership

A different kind of charity

By dash2 in Culture
Tue Oct 16, 2001 at 06:12:02 PM EST
Tags: Culture (all tags)

There's something about certain organisations that makes you sure they are going to change the world. A look in their eyes. A sort of certainty that shines through everything they do. Supposedly, you can see it at Transmeta, the upstart chipmaker challenging the big boys at Intel. You can certainly see it at ATD Fourth World, the anti-poverty charity founded by Father Joseph Wresinski in 1957.

There are hundreds of organizations working against poverty - from Oxfam to Christian Aid to Save the Children. But ATD (it's French for Aide à Toute Détresse) is a very different organisation. It doesn't airdrop blankets or hand out soup. It's not even about teaching people skills - the mantra of modern aid organizations. In fact, it is more about learning from people than helping them. ATD's core belief is that the front line fighters against poverty are not charity workers, not doctors, not teachers, not government agencies, but poor people themselves. ATD is there to learn from the experience of the very poor, and to allow their voices to be heard.

So what do they do, exactly? That's not an easy question to answer. Instead of coming to an area with a pre-defined plan, ATD volunteers listen to what poor people themselves want and need - which could be a street library, an art workshop, or a chance to talk with policy-makers. Every ATD branch is different. But there are some constants. Long term volunteers live in solidarity with the poor, on strictly limited incomes. For example, UK volunteers live on 340 per month, or less than 85 per week, although their board is paid. (That's not living in poverty - it's more than many welfare benefits, and unlike those in poverty, volunteers can leave at any time - but it certainly made me think twice about my lifestyle.)

The emphasis on the quality, rather than quantity, of the help offered can cause trouble when others miss the point of ATD's approach. When poor families from around the world were flown in to Geneva to address the UN Secretary-General, one company wrote in withdrawing support. They were scandalised at the waste of money; in future funds would be handed out to organisations which supplied food or clothing. Of course, basic needs are important, but ATD believes the most fundamental aspect of poverty is the denial of your worth as a person - which includes the fact that most policy-making is done to the poor, rather than with them.

ATD was founded by a Catholic priest - who himself came from a very poor background - and it's impossible not to notice the strong Christian themes underlying much of what ATD does. Like a secular order of monks, volunteers can be asked to move to different destinations around the world at any time. ATD's approach of high-quality work with a few people, giving an example to other organisations rather than trying to start a production line, is reminiscent of the Christian idea of witness, exemplified in the parable of the mustard-seeds. The fundamental belief in the dignity of individuals in poverty is also a strongly Christian theme. There is one saying of Jesus that ATD would probably reject, at least in its conventional interpretation: "The poor ye have always with you". ATD believes that extreme poverty is an unacceptable violation of human rights, which must be not ameliorated, but eradicated.

For kuro5hiners, perhaps there's a lesson in ATD's policy work, in which poor family members develop - sometimes over years - the self-respect and skills to speak out in front of government task forces and officials. We pride ourselves on our open and democratic approach here. All our stories and our comments are made available for voting, making Scoop one of the most technically advanced bulletin boards. ATD would remind us that real democracy requires the contribution of everybody in a community; and in the case of the very poorest individuals, this cannot be achieved by technical or formal means alone, but only by an active effort to give these people a voice. That's not so important when you're running a bulletin board; it's essential when you are thinking about the future of democracy.


Voxel dot net
o Managed Hosting
o VoxCAST Content Delivery
o Raw Infrastructure


Related Links
o Scoop
o ATD Fourth World
o Also by dash2

Display: Sort:
A different kind of charity | 7 comments (2 topical, 5 editorial, 0 hidden)
A good rewrite... (4.00 / 2) (#3)
by Kashie on Mon Oct 15, 2001 at 01:10:59 PM EST

Thank you for taking the time to edit and re-post this article. The changes you have made really stand out- this article reads much more tightly than the previous version.

This is a good thing - it's all about respect (4.50 / 2) (#7)
by Wondertoad on Tue Oct 16, 2001 at 12:32:33 PM EST

To me it's not about giving the poor political power or giving them a voice. To me, if you say you want to do that, you have already disrespected them. You have said that they can't do that themselves; you have assumed that you CAN do that, somehow, touting your superiority; you have assumed that this is what they want, thinking on their behalf as if you understand their situation better than they do.

To give to someone because you've assumed they need it is to disrespect them. But many, if not most givers give because it answers their own needs, not the needs of the poor or otherwise needy.

The most obvious example is very current. People are giving tons and tons for WTC relief. It started with blood. Robin Williams gave blood. Arafat gave blood. Was any of this blood actually needed? Not at the WTC. Was it needed elsewhere? Not an important question for the givers.

Now it's money. There is a relentless call for giving for relief funds. Something like a billion dollars has been collected - I don't know what the real figure is, because nobody considers that important enough to widely report. Meanwhile, on Montel yesterday, they interviewed a widower whose wife had died at WTC, leaving him a stay-at-home dad with a part-time income to take care of their children, and nobody had been in touch with him. What the hell?

Especially since learned helplessness is a big part of poverty, the first question should always be, "Do you need help?" Second question, "Do you WANT help?" Third question, "What kind of help do you want?"

Most people seem to say "Well I wanted to do something." Yes well I'm sure you're a good, caring, thoughtful person, but does it truly not matter to you if your efforts were meaningful or just a waste? A lot of people applaud even if the giving was needless, because it made everyone feel like they were a part of it and helped. Is that the point - to feel better about yourself? Is is all about compassion, or is it really all about guilt?

A different kind of charity | 7 comments (2 topical, 5 editorial, 0 hidden)
Display: Sort:


All trademarks and copyrights on this page are owned by their respective companies. The Rest 2000 - Present Kuro5hin.org Inc.
See our legalese page for copyright policies. Please also read our Privacy Policy.
Kuro5hin.org is powered by Free Software, including Apache, Perl, and Linux, The Scoop Engine that runs this site is freely available, under the terms of the GPL.
Need some help? Email help@kuro5hin.org.
My heart's the long stairs.

Powered by Scoop create account | help/FAQ | mission | links | search | IRC | YOU choose the stories!