Toxic Charity : How Service Providers Can Hurt Those They Help (And How to Reverse It)
Previously in these pages we have questioned whether some of what we do to help clients through our distributions and programs might actually be having a negative effect on the long term health and independence of those clients. Earlier this year I interviewed Jan Poppendieck about her book Sweet Charity, which addressed some of these concerns.
Today on ‘From Hunger to Health’ provide a review of another book, Toxic Charity by Robert Lupton, ED of Focused Community Strategies (FCS) a respected community development organization operating in inner-city Atlanta.
The book was published last year, and this piece also draws elements from an interview with the author that took place this week.
Let’s start out with a little Rorschach test on your attitudes to our work. How does the following quote land with you?
Give once and you elicit appreciation;
Give twice and you create anticipation;
Give three times and you create expectation;
Give four times and it becomes entitlement;
Give five times and you establish dependency.
Does it piss you off? Do you default to a stance that everyone deserves enough food therefore dependency doesn’t even come into it? Or maybe you kind of agree with it. Whatever your response, I would bet that you will find a lot to chew on in Robert Lupton’s book.
“Food in our society is a chronic poverty need, not a life-threatening one. And when we respond to a chronic need as though it were a crisis, we can predict toxic results: dependency, deception, disempowerment.”
His basic supposition is that a lot of what NPOs and churches do to assist people has a negative rather than a positive result. He is not questioning people’s motivations, but rather the unintended consequences of rightly motivated efforts. He believes that if ‘emergency’ relief does not transition to development in a timely way, then compassion becomes toxic.
He provides an ‘Oath for Compassionate Service,’ which is meant to be a guide to the provision of services:
The Anatomy of Giving
Lupton describes his own experience of handing out boxes of groceries from one of his church’s food pantries. He began studying the facial expressions and the how recipients seldom gave him eye contact. The body language of the recipients was head and shoulders bent slightly forward, self-effacing smiles and meek ‘thank yous.’ He observed how quickly the response to charity devolved from gratitude to expectation to entitlement. He then observed his own part in the ‘anatomy of giving.’
“I expected gratitude in exchange for my free gifts. I actually enjoyed occupying the superior position of giver (though I covered it carefully with a façade of humility). I noted a hidden irritation at those who voiced their annoyance when free food stocks ran low. I grew weary of filtering through half-truths and manipulative ploys as I sought to equitably dispense resources.”
After 6 years of running homeless shelter kitchens I would have to agree with Bob’s observation of the attitude he observes in himself and others. He says that doing for rather than doing with those in need is the norm. Add to it the combination of pity that can become patronizing with unintended superiority and charity becomes toxic.
Big is Bad, Small is Good
Lupton spends a good chunk of his book looking at the sometimes misconceived results of church foreign aid trips, and disempowering nature of aid to Africa, but he also provides a detailed demolition job on the work of TAP (The Atlanta Project) born out of Jimmy Carter’s desire to eliminate poverty in Atlanta prior to the 1996 Olympic Games.
This top down approach to community development spent countless millions to leave behind a situation that was actually worse at the end of it. He also looks at the Faustian bargain that was the Salvation Army’s acceptance of a mega donation from the Kroc Foundation to build huge Kroc Centers that would centralize a vast array of social services. While this is convenient for the economies of scale of the service providers, it has the effect of drawing people from miles around to access the services and so distorting the normal societal fabric of the area around.
Lupton favors the Asset Based Community Development (ABCD) model (More on this in a later post) and his own organization in Atlanta operates on the smallest neighborhood by neighborhood approach. He also musters a pervasive though depressing argument about the effectiveness of microloans overseas and the reasons why they would not work in this country, except for with first generation immigrants. (He has nice things to say about ex-Feeding America CEO Vicki Escarra’s new organization, Opportunity International).
Lupton talks about ‘Parity vs Charity.’ That it is a very delicate undertaking to develop authentic parity between people of unequal power. But relationships built on reciprocal exchange (what he calls holistic compassion).
When Justice and Mercy Meet
Lupton identifies compassion as a powerful force, a stamp fo the divine nature within our spirits. It lies within us all – from tender child to hardened criminal – waiting for the right trigger to set it off. Mercy is a power that compels us to acts of compassion. He indicates that the Bible places equal emphasis on both mercy and justice. “He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” (6:8, NIV)
He breaks this down:
- Act justly. Justice is fairness or reasonableness, especially in the way people are treated or decisions are made.
- Love mercy. Mercy is compassion, kindness or forgiveness shown especially to someone over whom a person has power.
“Twinned together these commands lead us to ‘holistic involvement’. Divorced, they become deformed. Mercy without justice degenerates into dependency and entitlement, preserving the power of the giver over the recipient. Justice without mercy is cold and impersonal, more concerned about rights than relationships. The addict needs both food and treatment. The young woman needs both a safe place to sleep and a way out of her entrapping lifestyle. Street kids need both friendship and jobs. Lupton identifies that mercy combined with justice creates:
- immediate care with a future plan
- emergency relief and responsible development
- short term intervention and long-term involvement
- heart responses and engaged minds
“Mercy is a door, an opening, an invitation to touch a life, to make a difference. But it is not a destination.”
I believe that this resounds heavily within our work in ‘emergency’ food provision. We know that the vast majority of what we are now dealing with is the chronic situation not the emergency one. It is time we owned up to the responsibilities and possibilities of what we are involved in.
What is the real ROI that we are seeking with our billions of pounds of food? Those who read this blog will know that I believe that this return is in terms of a huge impact on the preventative healthcare of our communities and by using food banks to leverage and co-lead community development efforts.
What is the way from here to there? How do we transition from emergency relief to development? We could do worse than follow the steps suggested by Roger Sandberg, Haiti Director of the NGO Medair. He describes a progression of three steps:
1. Relief – Responding to the initial need. (We’ve already achieved this).
2. Rehabilitation – This overlaps with the first stage. It is anything that increases the capacity of a local community enabling them to respond to future crises. (This would include nutrition education and empowerment programs that a food bank can run or champion, and I am sure you can suggest lots of other things at this point in the continuum.
Lupton promotes food bank-supported food cooperatives as a replacement for food pantries that ‘offer free food at the price of recipient’s dignity.’ The cooperatives he mentions in his book are run by Chad Hale of the Georgia Avenue Minestries.
This organization is a member of the Atlanta Community Food Bank. Co-op members pay $3 biweekly dues for $30 worth of groceries. (More on the pros and cons this approach in a later post – if anyone wants to share any experiences, that would be great).
3. Development – This overlaps the other stages too. Development work is long term. It seeks to raise the standard of living and the quality of life for a population over many years. (This corresponds to the work a food bank can do creating jobs, assisting with community organizing and partnering with coalitions to work on long-term change in service areas).
Lupton believes that currently, the food bank network as a whole still remains on the sidelines of these efforts. Many food banks have great untapped potential to be involved in community development, but are shying away from it for a number of reasons.
“Erik, I’m glad that this discussion is coming up. It is encouraging that an increasing number of food banks are reconsidering a more community developmental approach.”
It is not unfair to Lupton to say that he doesn’t necessarily have a lot of answers about what the role of food banks should be in fostering this community development approach. He is clearer on the negative effects of some of what we do now.
That means it is up to us to create this vision for ourselves, in collaboration with our communities and our member agencies.
There is a lot of potential for new ideas and scaling of existing ideas. These are exciting times to be a food banker.
AFTERWORD: I normally stir up the odd vociferous reaction to my posts, and these sometimes upset those on the political left and the right equally. This is usually an indication that I am on to something interesting in my waggling of tooth nerves. The latest post is no exception. People are way too polite it seems to leave stinging comments on the actual blog, but send me emails instead, which is a shame. I am happy for a little public pushback.
The reactions to the Toxic Charity entry largely indicate a concern that this is some kind of right-wing agenda to ‘blame the poor’ for their situation and to cut them off from help. I don’t see it this way at all. I see it more of a case of ditching kind but ineffectual low-touch help and replacing it with long term relationship and commitment to make change in the community (which is the best help of all).
I think it is one of those situations where when we touch a sensitive area, then everyone retreats to a defensive position, sensing criticism and judgment and thinking they hear the things they are expecting and dreading to hear. I’m the most sensitive, touchiest little soul there is, so I am just assuming that others are the same.
It may be very uncomfortable for people to deal with Lupton’s criticisms of things that are close to our hearts, but I think if you look into what he is recommending in its place: Asset Based Community Development, you will see that this is not some kind of harsh ‘fend for yourself’ approach, but involves us helping each other in a deeper, more lasting way.
As I get into this work, I find the default approaches of left and right to be increasingly unhelpful and out of touch with my experience of the world.