Tim Costello is better than me


I would have enjoyed that World Cricket match had it not been for Eddie appearing every ten minutes with another man in a suit carrying an over-sized cheque. It was around that time that I got sick of the back-slapping, and the continuing rounds of ‘Isn’t it amazing how generous we all are?’ at barbecues. Cricket match this, rock concert that. If we’re all so generous, I thought, then why is Africa racked with HIV/AIDS, why are children being used as soldiers in Sudan, why is there so much trafficking in women and children? And why do we tolerate Baxter?

It’s easy to give money when everyone’s doing it. Even easier if you get to do it on TV.

Then came Cherie Blair’s visit, and things got really confusing, because here was a very real reminder that while I was feeling cynical about people and organisations who give money, plenty of other people are just as cynical about the people and organisations who take it.

I shared the concerns voiced by critics of the Cherie Blair functions. I’ve never been comfortable with gala fundraising. It makes me feel the same way I felt when I was watching Eddie and the suits and the over-sized cheques. But on talkback radio, the debate widened, as it so often does when it comes to charities and their work, and the air was filled with indignant voices. Some door-knockers get thirty cents of every dollar they collect. You know those people who try to sign you up in the street, they get paid for that, you know. I was in Guatemala/East Timor/Vietnam and you should see where the aid workers stay/drink/eat. Whatever the specifics, the underlying complaint is that ‘the money doesn’t get to the people who need it’ because charities chew it up in ‘administration’.

And yet, we have trusted those organisations enough to give them over $260 million within a period of just a few weeks. We have given them money of our own, we have put pressure on businesses to give some of theirs, and even in the wake of the Eyre Peninsula bushfires the sentiment was more one of looking after own backyard ‘as well’, rather than ‘first’.

As anyone who has any experience in NGOs and charities knows, the debates aired on talkback have already been thrashing around within organisations, sometimes for years, and sometimes with a great deal of emotion. Should we replace our shop volunteers with paid staff, should this campaign be run by activists or staff, should we knock on the door of nursing homes looking for bequests, how big should our marketing team be. They are questions which continually challenge any organisation which relies on the goodwill “ financial or otherwise – of its supporters.

And now they are mixed in with unprecedented questions and challenges. What about the small organisations and the ones operating outside the aid and humanitarian sphere, what impact will this have on them, the work that they do and the people they support? Do organisations really need ‘we will receive more money than we can possibly use’ in their risk management strategies? What do you do when people are watching you and listening to you as they never have before and might never do again? How do you keep their attention and capture their imaginations to demonstrate the on-going need for money, for thought and for action? What do you put behind the ‘act now’ buttons on your website, what do you write in your press releases, and how do we all keep the cynicism at bay?

‘Nothing can detract from the truth that we have responded in an unprecedented way,’ Tim Costello told the ABC‘s The World Today just as I was starting to feel particularly glum and overwhelmed. ‘This is a moment in our history which I think we’ll look back on and say, boy, we really stood up, we can have genuine pride So I say let’s praise ourselves and say this was a hopeful moment rather than be cynical that we’ve been selectively hypocritical. We can imagine making poverty history. We can actually have the moral imagination, because we’ve got the riches and the capacity to do it, to give it a shape.’

He is right and it is time to use our moral imagination. Far more useful than sitting on the lounge swearing at Eddie. Tim Costello is better than me, and thank goodness for that.

ACFID, with general information about aid organisations, with particular information about the tsunami-related donations at: www.acfid.asn.au/campaigns/asiaearthquake.htm

World Vision detail their response at www.worldvision.org.au/appeals/tsunami/

An example of interviews regarding Cherie Blair, see www.abc.net.au/pm/content/2005/s1298612.htm from Tuesday 8 Feb on ABC Radio, PM

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