Charity Tourism

27 09 2010

I was faced with a dilemma in deciding the title for this weeks blog. The issue that I want to raise is the proliferation of overseas jaunts purporting to be in aid of charity.

We are used to seeing celebrities swanning off to Africa in order to be filmed chatting to locals and aid workers in a famine ravaged village, the footage to be transmitted at some future date as part of one of the regular gala fundraising TV spectaculars. On these occasions the cost of making and televising the film, complete with celebrity expenses, is quite probably exceeded by the amount of money donated by viewers when the programme airs.  And in these days of falling newspaper circulation it quite probably raises awareness of the plight of people in places that would never otherwise be on the radar of most TV viewers. If I were a celebrity I might well want to use my celebrity to bring famine and war and injustice into comfortable suburban sitting rooms, so to speak.

However the idea of visiting far-flung places in order to raise money for charity has taken a new dimension over the last few years. It has become charity tourism.

Essentially charities organise trips abroad and participants are asked to raise a certain amount of money in order to be able to go on the trip. Participants, therefore, approach friends, family, business colleagues, clients and strangers to collect money towards this financial target.

Has it not occurred to anyone else that we are simply being asked to pay for someone elses holiday abroad?

True, an amount of the money raised will go to the charity organising the trip but a significant proportion goes to pay for the trip itself as the costs of taking UK nationals to far-flung corners of the globe, feeding them, moving them about and returning them home safely are not inconsiderable. If I raise £5,000 for charity I would much prefer that the full £5,000 went towards the work of the charity than some pay for a jolly overseas trip. If I want a trek through the Hindu Cush I’d find a way of paying for my trip myself.

Another problem with charity tourism is that in order to excite the potential tourist the destinations chosen are ever more remote and ever more distant. I’m sure that there are many charity tourists hiking to Everest base camp, pounding the Inca Trail or cycling through Malawi as I write.

So what about the impact of tourism on these regions?

We fly thousands of miles with not insignificant carbon impact, invade local environments, buy a few trinkets and head home from these impoverished regions having improved their lot very little and raised a small amount for relatively wealthy western charities. Unlike the celebrity visits to remote regions this type of fundraising does nothing to raise awareness of these remote regions and nothing to help the local people out of poverty.

Why do people chose to raise money in this way? Whatever happened to sitting in a bath of baked beans in the local leisure centre?  I can only think that it is vanity. “Look at me. I’m walking in the Andes to raise money for ‘chaarideee'”, as Smashy and Nicey of Fast Show fame might put it.

I know that we all suffer from giving fatigue and that charities have to be more and more inventive to persuade us to participate and to help them to raise funds, but paying to take a UK national on holiday to China in order to raise money for a local hospice makes no sense at all. Look at the great work Maggies do with their Bike and Hike endurance events in Scotland. Innovative, challenging, integrated with local communities and fantastic in raising huge sums of money.

So next time someone approaches you looking for a tenner towards their trip to The Andes, please politely refuse and give your money somewhere where all £10 will go towards the work of the charity and let the vanity charity tourist pay for their own holiday to South America

Why is it OK to be ignorant?

13 09 2010

Why, in the 21st century, is it still socially acceptable to be ignorant about science?

Recently, on BBC Radio 4’s flagship programme Today, I heard a piece explaining why genes inherited along the maternal line might promote selfishness. The scientist responsible for the research under discussion explained his findings clearly and in a way that was easily understood.

All human bodies are carriers of genes. One might imagine that genes will always cause the bodies which house them to act selfishly in order that the genes are protected and then transmitted to future generations via reproduction.  Altruistic behaviour might be beneficial if it promotes the survival of copies of the genes held in other bodies, ie the bodies of those to whom we’re related.  JBS Haldane in his discussion of Kin Selection famously explained that, “I would lay down my life for two brothers or eight cousins”

It would seem that in our distant past that it was the women who dispersed when finding mates and tended to live in family groups with the fathers family. The woman, therefore, was not related to anyone else in that family group; shared no genes with the group. Selfish attributes in genes carried by women may have proliferated under these circumstances in the maternal line.

Now, this is a fascinating idea and not difficult to understand, is it?

The interviewer on the Today programme reduced debate to “Ha Ha, blame your mother” There was no attempt to  understand and explain the findings – just a rush to the ‘amusing’ punch line – blame your mother.

It was perfectly acceptable for the well educated journalist to show a complete ignorance of science – to take the “if it’s too hard I wont understand it” approach. It should not be acceptable to be proud of such ignorance. Imagine had a scholar come onto the programme to talk about Shakespeare or Michelangelo. You can be sure that not only would the radio presenters have spoken to the expert in hushed, reverential tones, they would have been keen to show off their own knowledge of the arts.

It would not have been acceptable to be unaware that Michelangelo painted the ceiling of the Cistine Chapel and created the sculpture of David sited outside The Ufizzi in Florence.  But it is OK not to have the vaguest idea of the laws of science that allow the universe to exist. It is socially unacceptable to be unfamiliar with the novels of Dickens but perfectly acceptable if you cannot recite Newtons Law of Motion. And further, such ignorance of science is often a badge worn with pride – as if it is beneath the dignity of artists to sully their intellect with base technological knowledge.

It is not good enough and it should not be allowed to persist.

I am a scientist and am well read. I am proud that I have a broad knowledge. It enriches my life.  Journalists, and the rest, who refuse to engage with science should be ashamed of the gaps in their knowledge and not feel able to flout their ignorance.

It is important that this is not allowed to persist.

While young people are still getting the message that maths is hard, science is dull, chemistry boring, then we as a society will continue to struggle to get enough people to take science at university and to consider a career in technology.  The economy will suffer in the increasingly technology driven 21st century if we do not produce enough scientists and enough lay folk with a pride in the understanding of science.

For this reason it is important that we do not allow ignorance of science to be a badge of honour.