Charity is not a currency

“We don’t assume that the people we work with need something, there’s a communication there. It’s not us unknowingly assuming and giving them stuff they don’t really need, it’s about that communication, that relationship, that exists between both parties.”

Martha (far right) on a shoe box trip in 2019

The theory of toxic charity is not a new one, it follows work from authors such as Robert Lupton. In his book aptly named, ‘Toxic charity’, he has raised the question on whether some forms of charity (often from religious organisations) do more harm than good. As an individual involved in charity work in Romania, it is something I always try to be aware of.

As mentioned by Lupton in his book, charity work mustn’t not lead to dependency. As non-sustainable charity, often involving one-way giving, tends to make those who receive aid ‘objects of pity’. This dependency damages the receiver’s work ethic and becomes equally unhealthy for both the giver and recipient.

As Martha explained, she doesn’t want to be involved in one-off giving that creates dependency and turns into a very toxic form of charity. We discussed future projects and, “if the opportunity comes up where somethings sustainable and a less toxic form of charity, then I’m game for that.”

Martha (far left) has been involved in the work of CASA Grace since 2015

White saviour complex

The white saviour syndrome has been discussed a lot recently following the Stacey Dooley controversy in which she posted a picture of a child in Africa with the caption ‘obsessed’.

When our discussion led to the white saviour syndrome, Martha reiterated that she often thinks of it. As she believes it often stems from one-off giving.

“I also think that we are working with a small charity over in Romania, and we’ve built relationships with this charity for over ten, fifteen years. Working with the same people and families that we work with, it’s like a sustainable model of giving,” said Martha.

Martha reiterated that when you buy into the idea that the work you are doing is a selfless gift, that you are constantly the giver, that is when you run the risk of participating in the syndrome.

“Because we become the almighty givers who are kind of controlling the monopoly,” said Martha. “Whereas if you see it as something that is reciprocal, then we’re equal, there’s not a hierarchy in the two parties involved.”

This is extremely important to mention because, often especially when you’re with a group, such as the Roma, that already face so much discrimination and inequality in Romania.

You never want what you are doing to be viewed as an act of pity, as this will only facilitate a one-dimensional view of the Roma. Perpetuating existing stereotypes of Roma that will only work to undermine them and their inequalities.

“Being conscious of that fact that we don’t want to fall into the trap of the white saviour complex ever,” said Martha. “It’s something you have to maintain in the back of our mind that this is a possibility, so you have to watch out for it.”

Martha on a CASA Grace camp in July 2018

Advice to someone getting involved in charity work

Towards the end of the interview, Martha discussed advice she would give someone who was considering getting involved in charity work.

Martha said: “If it’s a sustainable charity and you’re willing to put in the hours and the time to build these relationships, then definitely it’s a life-changing thing to do for both you and those you’re working with.”

However, in the six years Martha has been involved in charity work in Romania, she has met people who have gone on the trips with seemingly good intentions. Yet, if they had been honest with themselves deep-down, they were sadly there for the wrong reasons.

We discussed red flags that you should spot when you get into charity work. The main one we discussed was the reason you’re going in your heart. As before you go on any trip, it is essential to sit down and be honest with yourself about your intentions.

Are you going to ‘enjoy a different country’ or as something to put on your CV? Or are you going because you genuinely want to get involved with this charity?

As I have had people say to me, especially when I was younger, that ‘this will look good on your CV’. It would always upset me when people said this. Helping those less privileged than yourself shouldn’t be just something you do to just write on a piece of paper.

If you want to find out more about anything I’ve mentioned in this article, here are some relevant links!

Toxic Charity by Robert D. Lupton

More information about the CASA Grace in Romania

Many thanks to Martha Morton for her time and insight into her experience with charity work!

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