Sunday 25 September 2022

Charity marred by uncharitable behaviour

This column first appeared in Malta Today

I would hazard a guess that the majority of us have much, much more than we need when it comes to material possessions: from clothes, shoes, bags to children’s toys, pushchairs, prams to electronics and an assortment of household items and even furniture.

On the other end of the spectrum, however, we are reading more and more about people who do not have much; who are living hand to mouth, just about making ends meet between their rent/mortgage, daily living expenses and bills. When requests are made on recycling pages or other groups by people who need such items, there are many who gladly give away what they don’t need for free. On the whole, we are still quite a generous nation in this respect.

However, you will always find those who try to take advantage of others’ kindness, so inevitably I have also come across quite a few accounts of people pretending to need recycled items, only to turn around and try to sell them. I can understand how this can be extremely galling and infuriating for the person who gave away the item – they thought they were doing a good deed for someone who genuinely needed it, only to find that they have been duped and that that same person was now trying to profit from an item they obtained for free on false pretences. Of course, it is unconscionable that there are those who can resort to such barefaced lies (especially when one makes up a fake sob story using their own children) but unfortunately this world is made up of all sorts of people.

But while I can understand how such duplicity can make people harden their hearts and refuse to donate anything ever again, some of the reactions I have read sound downright heartless. “I would rather throw something away than give it to someone” and even more harshly, “even if it is in good condition, I would break it and then throw it away.” I have to admit I was very taken aback by the callousness of the latter comment because it shows an underlying sentiment of malice and spite. I have tried very hard to figure out why someone can feel so strongly about an item they no longer need. What this person is saying is basically, “I don’t want it or need it, but I don’t want anyone else to take it and make money off it either”. Are we really so attached to our material possessions and does the money we spent on it matter so much that we cannot possibly bear the thought that someone else will take the item and make money from it?

I know people will say it is the principle of the thing; that when you give something away for free it is not supposed to be turned into a profit-making venture, and yes they are right. But if you have donated something in good faith, your conscience is clear and the onus of responsibility lies on the person who lied to you. Surely other people’s lack of integrity should not make us become cold and uncaring, willing to smash a perfectly good pram into pieces (for example) rather than give it away? I think we really need to examine our own motives for doing charity and why it upsets us so much that someone has sold our item. After all, for all we know they needed the money to pay a bill or buy groceries and asking directly for money is something they cannot bring themselves to do.

This reminds me of the outrage felt by some people when they realised that the blue bins located in several towns and villages for unwanted clothes and shoes belong to a recycling organisation which then sends them to third world countries where they are re-sold at cheap prices. I wondered at the outrage: surely if you have decluttered your wardrobe and have a bag full of clothes you don’t wear any more and are giving them away, it should not matter? After all, even if you give them to charity shops, they are going to be re-sold in the same way.

With new shopping malls opening up all the time, the availability of online shopping and our love of shopping when abroad, we are a nation of compulsive shoppers so it is no surprise that most households have a surplus of clothes with wardrobes ready to burst. Sometimes we can pass on clothing to friends and family who welcome second-hand clothes, and there is always the option of giving them to children’s homes, refugees and women’s shelters. Facebook is also always full of requests from people (usually mothers) asking for hand me downs by those who have fallen on hard times. Now one can either prefer to give the clothes to someone they know personally or else they can just give things away with no strings or emotions attached.

The Recycle Malta page does an incredibly good job in this respect, bringing together those who need something with those who have something to give away. But of course, as stories of deceit have emerged and grown, so do the suspicions of whether some of these stories are authentic or not. Ultimately, I believe if you want to be charitable, then just be charitable. It’s no use becoming a private detective and trying to investigate whether the person asking for an item is really in need by rifling through their FB profile. There is also no use in getting all riled up because someone may have duped you – frankly, that’s on them, not you.

Those of us who are lucky and comfortable enough to have such an abundance of material things that we have closets, storage boxes, washrooms, garages and cabinets packed to the brim, can hardly conceive what it means to have to ask for a hand out. We are in such a privileged position that if we had to spend a day visiting the homes of those who are truly lacking in what we take for granted, we would probably go home shamefaced and never complain again.

Perhaps rather than quibbling over a pram, what we really should be concentrating on is why there are so many people in dire straits at a time when Malta’s economy has “never been so good”?

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