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The moral maze of charity

Bono in Ghana Copyright The Observer 2013
Bono in Ghana Copyright The Observer 2013

Sometimes (actually as often as we can) I think it’s good to step back and remind ourselves why we do what we do. Why we work in the charity world. Especially for those of us who work more in the back offices, perhaps having few encounters with frontline workers or beneficiaries. It’s easy to forget how important each individual is who works for a better world, no matter how seemingly small their contribution.

I was struck by this when I read about the work of Bono at the weekend. Now his life is certainly a far cry from any desk-bound back-office bod. International rock star, major Live Aid personage, hobnobbing with Presidents and counting the likes of Bill Gates and Warren Buffett as friends. His life these days is mainly spent on the world stage, spearheading major international aid programmes and fundraisers and heading up RED, which partners with some of the world’s best-known brands, such as Apple, Coca-Cola, and Starbucks, to donate up to 50% of proceeds to a Global Fund to tackle HIV/AIDS in Africa.

Having just completed the UK’s first Company Giving Almanac exploring the giving of the top 500 companies to UK charities and communities, I am highly attuned to the spin, ‘charitywashing’ and dubious corporate-charity partnerships around. One of the hardest things in the analysis was deciding how to present the apparently highly-successful giving programmes of companies who have been in the news for tax-avoidance, Libor-rigging, and other morally-dubious business practices including contributing to the global economic crisis of the last few years.

But one of the conclusions I came to was that there is no black and white in these issues. Companies, like individuals, cannot be characterised as being either wholly villainous or wholly holy. Corporations are made up of a collection of individuals, not one cohesive body. One can find excellent CSR teams inside the most profit-driven environments, and terrible ones in more social-minded companies. So we have to work with what we’ve got, on the ground, now. As Bono states:

“…the world is an imperfect place, you know. While we wait for capitalism to reform itself, or another system to emerge, or for these [developing] countries….to move toward the point when they don’t need our assistance, we have a problem….And our angle is really that we will use anyone who can help with that.”

Bono has been criticised by all sides for “sleeping with the enemy”, but there is no doubting that what he is doing is helping to do some good. It started with the well-meaning and ground-breaking “Live Aid” which raised around £200 million, but ended in Bono realising that Ethiopia – the country primarily benefitting from the money – was paying around £200 million in debt interest. This spawned the “Drop The Debt” campaign which has seen 52 million more African children in education. Then further projects which have resulted in a halving of the number of people in extreme poverty across 10 African countries, and a huge dent in the HIV/AIDS death figures (approximately 6.8 million lives saved by drugs paid for by the US Government alone).

A lot of this change has been achieved with massive donations from some of the world’s biggest brands and cosying up to some of the world’s most dubious power-mongers. So where’s the morality in all this? Do motives really matter when the end product is a net gain for a better society? This is the moral maze we all tread every day when we partner with a company or government department and take their money to do good.

Bono calls this the “inside/outside” philosophy: you try to change things simultaneously from the inside and the outside. You try to change the system at the very top while mopping up the trail of destruction left in its wake at the same time. In other words, you do what you can. You start from where you are, and what you can do, and you take it from there. You make deals with who you need to make deals with, so long as your conscience is telling you that the end product is worth the criticism you might attract. And you stick to your principles no matter what.

Bono says that he’s not an idealist, just a pragmatist about finding solutions. I think you can be both. In fact I think it’s imperative to be both. All of us are in the same boat, and while we may not all have the means and influence of Bono, Bill Gates or President Obama, we can all do our bit to make the world a better place. And that’s what it’s all about in the end.