Charity and rights: Towards a new service model

by Seán Andrews Maynooth, Co. Kildare


Imagine this scenario. You are walking along a city street and a poor person approaches you and asks for money. You are in a generous mood, so you hand over a Euro. The beggar looks at the money and, instead of thanking you, he says ‘This is not enough!’ How do you feel? The chances are you will feel surprised, annoyed or even deeply offended. You are doing someone a favour, an act you are not obliged to perform. The gift comes from the goodness of your own heart and the desire to help someone you have identified as less fortunate than yourself. At least, that is how you see it. Your disturbance at the beggar’s reaction comes from his failure to acknowledge your high-minded motivation, perhaps by saying thanks or through some kind of deferential response. Instead, he has focused on his pressing need for more money. The upshot of an encounter like this is certainly not that you will ask him what he really needs. You are more likely to tell him to get lost.

There is a scene described in the early pages of Charles Dickens’s classic novel Oliver Twist, in which Oliver, the starving workhouse orphan, asks for more food. The respectable, well-fed Christian gentlemen who sit on the board of the workhouse and who control all that happens there have agreed upon a diet that they believe is adequate for paupers. The diet is very meagre, but they are clearly decent people who have only the paupers’ interests at heart. No one would think for a moment of questioning their motives or querying their decisions.

However, Oliver is primarily concerned with the fact that he is very hungry. After another miserable meal of thin gruel he approaches the workhouse master who is distributing the food, with the request, ‘Please, sir, I want some more.’ The workhouse master, the workhouse ‘chief executive’ of his day, is thunderstruck that anyone as small and insignificant as a workhouse orphan should question the status quo. Once he gets over the shock, he reacts with anger and takes a swipe at Oliver with his ladle.

The upshot of this incident, once Oliver’s outburst is reported to and considered by the Board, is that the unfortunate child is locked up, and subsequently expelled from the workhouse to be apprenticed to an undertaker.

In the early nineteenth century there was no social welfare system as it exists in the modern sense. The distressed were obliged to rely on the charity of others. Those in desperate need were obliged to take what was offered, without question, from those who had a mind to be generous. A marked feature of charity giving was the requirement that the recipients should also be suitably deferential and grateful for anything they received, no matter how little that might be. The vast gulf which existed between the well-off and the destitute also made for great inequality in the balance of power. Democracy was weak and the industrial revolution was wreaking havoc on the older structures of society.

The workhouse was the final resting place of the most destitute—the poor, the orphans, the disabled and even the mentally ill. As such, the workhouse was one of the earlier examples of a residential institution in which inmates might spend a significant portion of their lives. It was funded, usually very reluctantly, by the wealthy members of the parish.

The workhouse is now part of distant history and today we have many different and more effective ways of meeting the needs of those who require help. But have some attitudes been resistant to change? Do we still expect those in receipt of help to be deferential and not to question the wisdom of those who provide? When someone does raise an issue, are we shocked, and like the workhouse master, do we reach for the ‘ladle’?

One of the snags about charity is that it is never dispassionate. It has always been tied up with the Christian admonition that we should love one another. Those who practise this virtue are in some sense getting right with God and, as a by-product of that, gaining merit for themselves.

There is a strong natural tendency for those who act for what they believe to be honourable or charitable motives to overreact to criticism, real or implied—even though that criticism may be justified and worthy of attention and consideration. This is because most of us are not dispassionate when it comes to giving or helping. What we are doing is tied up in some way with how we feel, not about others, but about ourselves. We want appreciation, we want to feel that we are being good and doing the right and Christian thing. When someone launches a criticism we feel that our sacrifice is unappreciated and that our high-minded motivation has been trashed in some way.

There are dangers in this. In Ireland, most of our provisions for those in need have their origins in the charity model. Our systems for the care of the disabled, now well developed and heavily subsidised by the state, have arisen out of that charitable Christian concern for those ‘less fortunate than ourselves’.

Explore the origins of our larger learning disability organisations, for example, and you will find charitable and religious bodies. Most of these facilities are now almost completely funded by the taxpayer, yet they are still granted considerable autonomy. Many have volunteer boards of management which establish policy, set the tone and determine the nature and quality of the service they provide. Although they are largely supported by the state, these bodies continue to encourage volunteer effort in fulfilling their mission. Many organisations who seek to better the lot of the disabled continue to operate on the charity principle—and openly refer to themselves as charities.

Tied up with the charity model is the notion that somehow the provider is doing the recipient a favour—out of the goodness of his heart. The charitable person is making an effort, perhaps above and beyond what should be expected, to improve someone else’s situation in some way. So the recipient must be grateful because, after all, if this organisation and all its wonderful people hadn’t helped out, the person would be in severe difficulty.

This notion makes it difficult for the recipients of services or their representatives to complain and to effect change. People often feel guilty about opposing a policy or making a complaint. There is a feeling, at a certain level, that these people are doing them a favour. There is an over-sensitivity among potential complainants as to how organisations in the deeply engrained charity tradition are likely to react. They do not reach for the ladle, these days, but they can become inordinately tetchy and obstructionist or adopt an exaggerated attitude of wounded innocence.

One more worrying aspect of our relationship with these organisations is that, if an injustice or maladministration is detected within that system, outside agencies charged with redressing matters will often be reluctant to become involved. In the final analysis they can be less harsh in their judgments because the organisation’s work is respected and appreciated by the public. This ‘hands off’ attitude was clearly one of the factors delaying the exposure of appalling abuse scandals in the church.operated industrial schools and residential homes—abuses which should have come to light many years ago.

We need to organise a major shift away for the charity model to the rights-based model of needs provision. The concept of equal human rights for all is often associated with the rise of humanism, which is viewed in some quarters as deeply antipathetic to the religious traditions held dear in Western Europe. However, the idea that all of us are of equal status arises from the precept enshrined in the teaching of the monotheistic faiths (Christianity, Judaism and Islam) that we are ‘all equal before God’. Human rights, as we understand them today, are merely an elaboration of that fundamental notion.

In a rights-based society, the recognition of the right of all to a decent life, to health and to the support of others is not something that can be granted on a whim, or only if we consider that the individual is ‘deserving’. Nor can we seek some form of aggrandisement, or special thanks for have established or defended these rights. There are no kudos, spiritual or otherwise, to be gained from ensuring that everyone’s rights are respected. We are all in this together.

Good health care, for example, is not merely the right of those who are pleasant and amenable, but it must also encompass the very old, the chronic sick and the disabled—many of whose situations or personal qualities may not be easy to deal with. In a rights-based system, no one is more deserving than anyone else. If someone wishes to complain, that complaint should be heard and responded to dispassionately—no matter who it comes from.

A rights-based society may seem very idealistic, particularly in a society like ours where we identify needs and seek to help by making use of old systems which carry with them the engrained defects of the charity model. Clearly, many of these defects work against the welfare of the individuals dependent on services. We need to step away from antiquated systems and create something new that will serve us better in the future.

Sean Andrews is a graduate of Queen’s University Belfast , Trinity College, Dublin. and received the Diploma in Special Education at St. Patrick’s College, Drumcondra. He is a former Deputy Principal of St Raphael’s Special School in Celbridge, Co Kildare. He has worked for 36 years in special education with teenagers with a variety of learning disabilities. Sean has a son who is profoundly disabled. He is active in promoting the needs and welfare of profundly disabled young adults.