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

Running and giving – marathon displacement activities

25 04 2010

Millions and millions are raised for charities each year.

For most of us our attention is drawn by the huge media spectacles – sports relief, children in need, the London marathon.

More and more I am feeling myself wondering if this is all just a massive displacement activity.

I’m sure that the hundreds that will be running the London Marathon on behalf of cancer charities do care about the plight of those suffering  but why not do something more relevant to the illness. A sponsored bed bath marathon, for example. The truth is that those raising the money don’t really care how the money is spent. I’d be surprised if the participants have much idea about the structure of the organisations they are running for. How much of the money raised goes to research, salaries, administration and the like.

To a large extent they are running 26 miles in 4 or 5 hours so that they don’t have to think about these things! They can drag themselves around the streets of London dressed as the back end of a pantomime horse, send off the sponsorship money and forget about the charity for another year. They have done their bit!

And the competitive element, particularly amongst the celebrities in the television spectaculars. It used to be acceptable to sit in a bath full of baked beans but now it is necessary to cycle across Europe by way of the international rugby stadiums, waterski across the channel or canoe up the Amazon. While it was heroic and glorious for Phidippides to run 26 miles to tell of a crushing naval defeat Eddie Izzard feels compelled to ape this effort by running 43 marathons in 51 days!

The point about the marathon is not that it is impossible but that anyone can do it! It isn’t that it is easy but it is just at the end of what can be achieved with some discomfort but without having to change your life. This makes it the perfect displacement activity.  Those sitting at home watching will be in awe of the sweating staggerers as they head up The Mall will be back at work on Monday none the worse for their exertions.

Endurance events have replaced genuine heroics. Climbing Everest cost Sir Edmund Hillary his life but now Josh Lewsey can set out in his footsteps for fun – and for charity – of course.

Charities have been very good at letting you do what you like doing, like running, and pushing the boundaries just enough so that even though anyone can do it the coach potatoes are impressed enough to dig deep into their pockets so that they can avoid doing anything at all – by raising themselves off the settee long enough to dial the freephone giving line they have done their bit too!

The charities have been so good that if I wanted to run a marathon just because I could, I would feel guilty that I wasn’t doing it for charity!

But the runners are doing something – however tangential to the needs of the sufferers – to raise money to be spent even though they know not where. How much more of a displacement activity is watching these spectaculars, picking up the phone, donating an easily affordable sum and thinking that’s good enough.

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