Charities: How Do We Choose Who is the Most Worthy?

Last week, Pierre Bergé, the co-founder of the fashion house Yves Saint Laurent unleashed a violent diatribe against the French telethon. This takes place every December and raises money for a Muscular Distrophy charity.

By Iman Kurdi (Debate)

Published: Tue 1 Dec 2009, 9:49 PM

Last updated: Mon 6 Apr 2015, 12:48 AM

It breaks all records, raising more than 100 million Euros every year and easily dwarfs the fund-raising capacity of every other French charity. Bergé’s point is that this charity needs money less than other charities — and he has a vested interest in Sidaction, an aids charity of which he is president — and that the means at its disposal, namely two days of non-stop television coverage on two channels, give it an unfair advantage over other ‘more worthy’ charities.

In an ideal world all worthy charities should get all the funds they need, but in reality charities are in competition with each other for our donations. So how do we choose who gets what?

As it was Eid al Adha, my first thought was to slaughter a lamb and feed the hungry. When I was little, I remember a particularly traumatic Eid when the lamb that had been tethered in my grand-parents garden for a week and whom we had fed and played with was slaughtered. Most of the meat was given away to poor families in Madinah, leaving just enough for our evening meal. Crucially, the part that was cooked at home included the head and I remember sitting at the table staring at the head of the lamb feeling nausea overcome me. Back then, and for some families this is still the case, giving to the poor was a physical concrete act. In choosing which charities I support, I rely on values my parents taught me. I hear their voices telling me to help the needy and look after orphans, that giving to the needy should be done discretely with the ‘left hand not knowing what the right hand has done’, that those close to us should have priority over strangers, and that any money we give to charity shall bring us a multitude of blessings.

Giving money to Muslim causes has become more conplicated since the events of 9-11. Something which I would once have done without a thought, namely giving money to charities that support Palestinians in the Occupied Territories, has now become something which could be labelled — according to the US treasury — giving money to terrorists. Six Muslim charities have been closed by the US since 2001 on the grounds that they provided funds or support for so-called terrorist organisations, mainly Hamas.

Though I disagree vehemently with the US stance it did make me think a little more seriously about the best way to give support to the Palestinians. I think people should be free to give money to Hamas if that is their intention, but I resent giving money to a political organisation without my knowledge.

There is also the related issue of a breakdown in trust. We give money to charities in good faith only to find out in a number of cases that a large percentage of their income is spent on administrative expenses. And when it comes to aid to third world countries, there is often the worry that the money is diverted into corrupt hands. Besides, there is also a creeping feeling of helplessness. We can feed the hungry for a day or a week or a month but we do not actually pull them out of poverty. Just as we can provide a little much-needed material help or medicines or medical care to Palestinian refugees without substantially changing their quality of life. Of course that is only partly true, most international aid charities have programmes aimed at economic development as well as emergency aid. Besides, the hungry and the sick need to be looked after, period.

In my case I have solved the problem by choosing one international Muslim aid charity that I trust, namely Islamic Relief, and channeling all the money I give for aid through them. It may be unfair to other charities who do just as good a job, but it works for me.

Then there are what I think of the causes I support, and here I am minded by how a selfish hidden agenda has crept into aid giving. In choosing who to support I am immediately attracted to charities in sectors that I have experience. Number 1 is cancer research. My father died of cancer at a young age. The disease in all its forms hangs like a sword over our heads. If they can find a cure, well could there be a worthier cause? But I fully accept that it is largely fuelled by my fear of this disease hitting my family again at some time in the future. There is nothing wrong with charities using all the means at their disposal to get our attention.

Whether it is the recent trend on European streets to have young men and women accost us in the street to get us to sign on to their fundraising or whether it is the media jamboree of celebrities doing things for charity. But Pierre Bergé is right, those that have access to such ressources have an unfair advantage over other charities. What I am increasingly aware of is how far I have travelled from my parents world. Their values remain just as valid but they have become harder to apply. Whereas in their day helping others was a direct act that involved them on a daily basis, in my life it is almost an automated response. Often it involves a couple of a clicks on a computer screen, a duty that is dispensed with in an instant so that I can sleep more peacefully.

Which charities should we support? Each of us will have different criteria. What we should remain aware of is the extent to which the agenda is controlled by others. The charities that are marketed the most successfully, or who seem most appealling, are not necessarily the charities that need the money the most. Often we overlook the truly needy in favour of the politically appropriate or the socially popular.

Iman Kurdi is an Arab writerbased in London. For feedback, write to

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