"As much as I’ve never anticipated arguing against Mother Teresa, I find myself disagreeing"Wikipedia Commons

Mother Teresa famously once said that “it’s not how much we give, but how much love we put into giving.” As much as I’ve never anticipated arguing against Mother Teresa, I find myself disagreeing. In fact, a hot debate has raged between Cambridge’s charitable student societies for years over this exact question – how much should we give, and how should we best achieve lasting change?

According to an extensive national survey in 2016 by the Charities Aid Foundation, only 50% of the British population believed charities were trustworthy. Louis Slater, the Chair of RAG, adds that students are particularly aware of ethical issues around charity: “Students here are really switched on… [we] also have to be switched on and think about those problems.” RAG is walking the talk: changing the fundraising model of this year’s Jailbreak (so that 50% of their fundraising during the competition goes directly to charity), and planning to release an impact report for the first time this year. I would add that people’s lack of trust does not just stem from a suspicion of overheads and administrative costs, but also from questioning the legitimate role which charity plays in our society.

“In certain contexts, short-term aims make a difference on a systemic level”

Charity is often presented as a sticking plaster over the wounds that our governments and global economic system create: after all, Bob Geldof’s concert was named ‘Band Aid’ for a reason. But charity is almost always political. Louis believes that “in a perfect utopia, charity doesn’t exist, because the government invests in public services so much that there is no need for any charity to exist. Charities fill the holes that governments can’t fill, and sometimes create.” We can see this in our backyards – as Parliament’s Communities and Local Government Select Committee found in 2016 that national increases in homelessness were a side effect of the Tory government’s austerity policies. While charity often provides short-term aid to those in need, it responds to, and in turn influences, the political establishment.

In certain contexts, short-term aims make a difference on a systemic level. Sebastian Oehm, President of Effective Altruism Cambridge, tells me that “charities that may at first seem to just provide temporary relief can sometimes help the long-term development of a country as well.” Global health interventions can have significant knock-on effects, by enabling a significant part of their population to rejoin the workforce. The Against Malaria Foundation, endorsed by GiveWell as one of the most effective charities in the world, claims that every US$1 million spent on fighting malaria efficiently improves the GDP of the continent of Africa by US$12 million. While aid is often accused of causing dependency, targeted charitable interventions like the Against Malaria Foundation partly explain improvements in global development indicators over the last century. There is much systemic progress to be made, and charity can be an, albeit small, part of that.

“Working in the corporate sector supports a global capitalist system which perpetuates global inequalities”

This is the heart of the debate between student societies here at Cambridge. Giving What We Can, part of the Effective Altruism umbrella, encourages people to take The Pledge, a commitment to donate at least 10% of their income to effective charities over their lifetime. This sort of giving can have a huge impact, especially as Effective Altruism’s research shows that the best charities in the world can be over 1000 times more effective as others. Given that the average starting salary of a Cambridge graduate (£25,000) will place us in the richest 3% of the world, this puts us all in a good position to do good. But what happens if you make this income from working at Goldman Sachs? Working in the corporate sector supports a global capitalist system which perpetuates global inequalities along national, racial and gendered lines – so donating to charity using profits from work in this sort of sector is really a small adjustment within an unfair system. Unfortunately, while this system is unfair, it seems for the moment we are stuck with it. Activists might see this as a cop-out, but for the meantime, charity donations enable the generosity of those who want social change, but don’t want to dedicate their lives to it. How then should we combine the two?


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Louis suggests that the “two-pronged approach” – including both traditional charity groups and activist organisations – works best for achieving social change. There is a clear division of labour within the cause of climate change, with charities like Cool Earth conducting on-the-ground charitable work to save rainforests, and divestment campaigners and Greenpeace promoting large-scale political change. According to Louis, both are charitable, working towards the same long-term objective, but using different methods: “Lasting systemic change is largely reliant on activist groups within the charity sector, but you do need that immediate aid to change people’s lives in the short-term, that activism doesn’t offer.”

This two-pronged battle plan against social evils applies not just to the charity sector then, but to the whole spectrum of our careers: we need people to donate, and people to campaign. Charity is compatible with systemic change, but only as part of a package deal. Perhaps Mother Teresa’s statement needs an update: “It is not about how much we give, but how we do it…” although of course, the love is important too

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