Beyond charity: analyzing relief work in the context of social conflict

“The question is, what has the government – this government and its predecessors – done to ensure that the damage wrought by natural phenomenon does not reach levels of extreme devastation?”


MANILA — When we give to the needy, it’s called charity; and charity, for most people, is always good.

But is it?

In recent years, the Philippines has been pummelled by a series of typhoons and the consequent floods. Appeals for relief and assistance were issued quickly through various social media, and it it appeared that not even the government was needed because ordinary citizens and various people’s organizations had immediately taken action. Private corporations and their so-called “corporate responsibility” departments as well as television networks also joined the fray and conducted their own relief missions to extensive fanfare.

Everything, it appeared, was to the good and for the benefit of affected Filipinos; and a tradition was set. Post-Ondoy (2009) and up to the time the massive floods of August 2012’s monsoons struck, the Filipino public has become highly-alert to the necessity of doing relief work. A tradition of kindness and charity of strangers to fellow strangers was set.

For progressive professors from the University of the Philippines (UP) Diliman and members of the Congress of Teachers and Educators for Nationalism and Democracy, however, there is something both unacceptable and dangerous about charity as it is popularly understood and conducted in the Philippines.

Hold the government accountable for disasters

“It should be noted that in the Philippines, the government is seldom made accountable for disasters. It is as if the widespread devastation that follows natural calamities could not have been prevented to some crucial degree. The mainstream media deliberately ignores its responsibility to report on the failings of the government to address issues of climate change and disaster prevention and mitigation, but instead focuses on the two kilos of rice, the two cans of sardines, the token relief food packages the government gives out to the victims of its criminal neglect,” said College of Mass Communication professor Choy Pangilinan.

According to Pangilinan, the fact that the government is able to somehow escape blame and accountability in disasters is what also allows the false notions of the “goodness” of charity to seep into the public’s consciousness.

“People are encouraged to do charity work, to give to relief missions or to devote their time and efforts to participating in the actual relief and rescue activities, and this is good. But on the other hand, it should be asked: whose main responsibility is it to ensure that residents are not directly and badly affected? Who is to blame for the extent of the disasters? It has never been the case that the Philippines is caught unaware by typhoons: even elementary school level children know that every year the country is visited by typhoons and massive flooding is not a possibility but something that can be expected. The question is, what has the government – this government and its predecessors – done to ensure that the damage wrought by natural phenomenon does not reach levels of extreme devastation? In the flurry of their own relief missions, their own charity work, people forget that the government itself has not taken action,” he pointed out.

Pangilinan said this is where the danger lies when it comes to acts of charity.

“Is it charity when the government gives out food and medicine packages? No. It’s an insult. It’s an insult to the hundreds of thousands of poor and the affected residents. The government should be doing more than giving out noodles, sardine cans and slivers of hope: it should have long implemented policies that will protect the people, the environment from calamities. Its neglect of its primary duty to ensure the welfare and safety of Filipinos is an act of terrorism,” he said.

According to Pangilinan, when the government does charity work, it is more often with the deliberate motivation and intent to fool the public into believing that it did not drop the ball on disaster prevention.

“What’s worse is that the mainstream media aids and abets the government in projecting an image of saintliness, of goodness. Government officials are given media coverage, the military is also given a stellar role in the relief missions of the government. The truth is far rosier: most areas ravaged by the floods do not receive help or the people there receive help very late in the day and the aid is far from being enough. If public officials like mayors, or congressmen can actually give out food packages or lead rescue missions, the better the chances of the victims of being helped. Otherwise, many of our fellow Filipinos are left stranded, cold and hungry on their rooftops,” he said.

As for the media networks and institutions themselves, Pangilinan said they also do their best to outdo each other, projecting who is doing more. Tragically, he said, it deteriorates into a competition where the goal is not so much to help the greatest number of people but who gets to make better entertainment out of the charity work.

The socio-political context of charity work

Sociology Prof. Sarah Raymundo of the Center for International Studies said the social and political context of disasters should never be ignored because it is also what provides the context for charity work. According to her, divorcing the context from the actions leads to absolving those responsible for the devastation that follows natural climatical phenomena and perpetuating a cycle of violence against the true victims: the poor.

“It should be remembered that all this devastation takes in a system, a society controlled by capitalism. The motives, for instance of private, profit-driven corporations are seldom genuinely altruistic. Acts of generosity cannot negate the impact of capitalism and corporate interests. Genuine charity endangers capitalism,” she said.

Raymundo’s position echoes and mirrors the opinion of other social observers that the charity work of corporations widely-acknowledged to be exploitative and abusive in their quest for higher profit margins stinks to the high heavens of hypocrisy. If oil companies, electricity firms and water corporations, for instance, gave out food packages and donations for rehabilitation efforts in damaged municipalities, chances are residents would not feel grateful.

According to Raymundo, when private corporations and the government does relief work, the erroneous belief that those who give are good and those who receive are in perpetual need of help because of some fault of their own is strengthened.

“There is no actual relief given when we think of it. The poor remain poor, and their poverty is even worsened in the wake of calamities. Unless the government and the same corporations that project themselves to be generous and charitable change their corrupt and rapacious ways, social disasters will always take place in one form or another. It is precisely the government’s corruption and the orientation of corporations to amass wealth at the expense of jobs, lives and the environment that wreaks havoc on society and exacerbates the crises created by natural phenomenon like typhoons,” she said.

Service to the poor, not charity

The sociologist and political activist also said the charity work of people’s organizations, for instance, greatly differ from that of private corporations or the government itself.

“For one, when people’s organizations like Kilusang Mayo Uno (KMU), Gabriela and Anakpawis conduct their own respective relief missions, it cannot be considered in the same terms as the relief missions of, say, the telecoms firms. The KMU etc focus their efforts on helping the poorest sectors most heavily affected – the workers, the slum-dwellers, the semi-proletariat, the peasants in the rural areas. What they do is actually an indictment of the government and its failure to protect and provide for its citizens. There is the actual and immediate necessity for people’s organizations to take action because the people need to be helped, and there is no help forthcoming from the government,” she said.

In this sense, Raymundo went on to explain, what people’s organizations are doing cannot be considered as charity.

“These people’s organizations consider that it is their duty to help, to serve the people. During times of disaster, the service comes in the form of soliciting money, medicine, food and even medical help on their behalf and ensuring that the poor receive them. In ordinary times, the service comes in the form of political guidance, and in the daily involvement of activists and organizers in the economic, political and social issues that affect the poor. This is not charity work but service,” she said.

As for the government, social observers in their blogs, Facebook statuses and Tweets have denounced the conduct of the Benigno Aquino III presidency and its own relief work. In the aftermath of the August monsoon floods, Aquino was seen making the rounds in flooded communities accompanied by members of his cabinet and his allies who are all set to join the 2013 senatorial elections. Riding an army truck and surrounded by soldiers, critics said, Aquino looked more like he was campaigning more than seeing to the situation of his constituents.

Raymundo also emphasized that the very heavy criticism against charity work or relief work is not at all being levelled against the people from the organized sectors or the individuals who are committed to helping on their own, but against the government and its own dynamics for charity work.

“Why are more and more Filipinos joining relief missions? It’s not only because it’s a popular thing to do, but because they see that it is the right and necessary thing to do seeing the miserable failure of the government to provide adequate and sufficient aid to all the affected people. The divide between the rich and the poor is made more evident during disasters, and all charity work is conducted within the context that there is social conflict. It is precisely the divide between the classes that makes the impact of a bio-political even like disasters much, much worse,” she said.

Charity should only be the first step to helping the poor

The progressive academics were united in saying that even as it is important for Filipinos to consider and understand charity work in its correct political and social context, it is also crucial that alternatives to charity work be upheld.

Vice-chancellor Marion Tan said charity work is slippery work because when one does it while unaware of its meaning in a society where there is both extreme poverty and extreme corruption, one risks perpetuating band-aid solutions while allowing criminals in government to get away with their neglect.

“By all means, start with charity. Many people begin to develop their social awareness and concern from doing charity work, but it would be best not to stop there. The situation of those who benefit from relief and charity work is not improved in the long run if they are forced to become permanent beneficiaries of charity. It’s more important to do work that will empower victims of calamities and those affected by other social disasters and help them return to their feet, fight for their own rights and demand justice for what has befallen them as a result of the government’s failure to protect them,” she said.

Tan said that if one is inclined to help others, it would be better to join people’s organizations whose means of helping goes beyond charity work.

“Charity is not justice and it never will be. The problems created by a system run through capitalism, a system that’s profit-driven and oriented can never be solved and alleviated by charity. In any case, genuine charity in many ways can only emanate from the poor because genuine charity means giving even when it means one cannot ensure even one’s own survival. It comes from true sacrifice,something which the poor are used to doing for others,” she said.

Tan asserted that to help mitigate the impact of future disasters, Filipinos should also involve themselves in crucial social issues.

“They should support measures that push for reproductive health care for the poor such as the RH Bill; they should call for the passage of a genuine agrarian reform law on the one hand, and the repeal of the Mining Law of 1995 on the other. The country’s disasters are magnified all the more because of the anti-poor and anti-people policies of the government,” she concluded. (

Share This Post

2 Comments - Write a Comment

  1. · Edit

    Welfare is a basic right. There are committed individuals and groups who are inclined to do welfare work as they see it as social responsibility (bayanihan, damayan and pakikipagkapwa). When they begin to be more involved in the work and start asking questions about the situation, they may be able to raise their own conciousness along with others who may have reached higher level of awareness. Thus there are those who remain simple in their acts of charity while others (people’s organizations with a cause)take up actions on a sustained manner by engaging in collective efforts addressing issues of the causes of disasters in the context of social realities. Acts of others that remain more of narcissism than altruism indeed are blocks to genuine response to the realities of disaster in the country. Disaster management goes beyond charity, geographical location and biological factors need comprehensive analysis towards coming up a holistic and responsive approach to the issues and concerns of catastrophes nationally and regionally. Undeniably, the neoliberal regime complicates the matter as “social services” being privatized and self-help( pay your own)pushed as acceptable in light of public-private partnership. Self-help as a notion placed into a negative frame as state frees itself of its core responsibility in welfare programs and social services when self-help is supposedly a positive value- a sense of empowerment, but state agents exploit this to the detriment of the majority who are facing hunger, malnutrition, curable and preventable diseases, underemployment, unemployment landlessness, land-use and crop conversion, extractive industries, and dislocation not to mention violence against their persons (women and children). Disaster in the country thus comes in many forms, from natural to human-made, which requires overhaul of the welfare system- the framework that is patchwork and localized (DSWD as steering than rowing)following a new public management informed by free market ideology.

  2. “Genuine charity endangers capitalism.” Not true. Consider the work of Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity. They take care (bathe, feed,clothe..) of the sick, the orphaned and the dying. Does this not qualify as genuine charity? And yet the missionaries do not question the status quo. They do not critique capitalism, much less work for its overthrow. They provide social services and do not engage in social action. I think it’s unfair and unjust to belittle the work of people like them just to privilege those working to “endanger capitalism.” By the way, I am a social worker who used to do the same. But, I’ve since learned that charity and justice, social service and social action are not necessarily mutually exclusive.And there are spaces for both in any society, whether welfare, capitalist,or socialist.

Comments are closed.