The other day I attended a forum on the latest attempt to more specifically define the term ‘public benevolent institution’, a phrase used in Australia to describe those charities that aim to relieve poverty or distress.
As part of the discussion the question was asked if relief should be confined to providing assistance after the fact: shouldn’t those charities in the developmental space – that aim to prevent poverty and distress – also be considered public benevolent institutions?
The discussion brought to mind a question I have long pondered regarding the extent to which relief should be provided to people in distress. The answer seems clear in terms of disaster relief – it would be impractical and unloving to stand by and do nothing to alleviate suffering in the aftermath of an earthquake, flood or similar such event, be they man-made or natural. Emergency humanitarian aid also seems appropriate in situations where displaced populations have gathered as a result of conflict or similar.
Where I find things become less clear are in situations where poverty and distress are entrenched. I’m thinking here, for example, of African nations where poverty has been an issue for decades despite years of western intervention.
Is there not a point we should reach where we have to ask if all that charity is actually doing anything? And if the situation is not improved, despite long-term support, does that not indicate that it is not?