Just Giving.

Matthew Hilton Professor of Social History  University of Birmingham

This week sees a series of blogs by staff and postgraduate researchers on the history of non-governmental organisations and humanitarianism. They are being prepared ahead of a workshop in Potsdam looking precisely at this topic.

They appear just as aid is about to reach the victims of the latest natural disaster in the Phillipines. Governments, charities and private organisations around the world have pledged to give up to £240 billion in the massive relief effort. The British public has donated over £50 million, principally through the campaign co-ordinated by the Disasters Emergency Committee, which operates on behalf of all the leading humanitarian charities.

            Such a massive demonstration of public generosity is certainly not new. The response to the Asian tsunami in 2004 was simply staggering as was the Band Aid movement in the 1980s. But these spectacular instances of international giving are only recent examples of dozens of other key moments of mass philanthropy. In the 19th century, the British public raised millions of pounds (in today’s money) for victims of famine across the empire, especially India, and organisations such as the Save the Children Fund put aside political prejudice to rescue starving children in Saratova during the Russian famine of the early 1920s.

There is a long history of persistently high levels of charitable giving in Britain. As a historian I am interested in the different ways Britons have voluntary given up parts of their income to aid and assist others less fortunate than themselves around world (whether  suffering from natural or man-made disasters or experiencing the injustices of primary poverty).


But what does all this charitable activity amount to in the minds of the generous donors? Certainly, it reflects a care and a concern for suffering by people far removed from the everyday concerns of ordinary men and women in Britain. But how far does this concern extend and to what ends? The ambiguities over the meaning of the name of the leading charity website, ‘Just Giving’ is particularly instructive on this point.

Firstly, ‘just giving’ refers to a moral action. It describes the ethical decision to donate and evokes the sense of moral obligation we have to those less fortunate than ourselves. It is understood as a politically neutral term which assumes the act of giving is in itself a moral good, irrespective of how the donation is made, to whom and for what purposes.

Secondly, the phrase also invites a political question. It implores us to ask whether the act of giving is in itself sufficient to deal with the issues that inspired the act of giving. In this sense ‘just giving’ is the starting point for a greater political understanding of the underlying causes of poverty or a humanitarian disaster.

Thirdly, it is a sociological statement that serves as a more negative answer to the above. It is an observation that the act of giving is just, or only, that: as donors we give but we do nothing else beyond it. Just giving is the endpoint of our intervention and we do not reflect on, act on or engage with the issues which provoked our compassion in the first instance.

These three aspects of just giving – in turn, moral, political and sociological – get to the heart of existing debates about charitable, voluntary humanitarianism. Thanks to the deposition and cataloging of major new archives of the leading agencies sustained historical investigation into the support for and growth of charitable humanitarianism in Britain since the late-19th century can now be made. Oxfam’s archives have been recently deposited at the Bodleian Library, University of Oxford, and will start to become available to researchers from the summer of 2014. These papers will complement those already available for Christian Aid and War on Want, held at the School of Oriental and African Studies, London. And at Birmingham the massive deposit of the archives of the Save the Children Fund, brokered by the History department’s DANGO project will enable dozens of research projects to be undertaken into the ways in which the British public has donated to charitable causes.

Hopefully, such projects will enable us to better understand the nature of charitable giving and to cast further light on a central problem all humanitarian NGOs have had to face. Oxfam, Christian Aid and Save the Children are all committed to long term aid and development projects. But they also know that appeals based on such plans hold little sway with the public. Time and time again they are brought back to the relief of disasters as they know images of immediate suffering have a strong pull on the nation’s purse strings.

Matthew Hilton Professor of Social History  University of Birmingham


Useful links:

Disaster Emergency Committee pages on the Philippines Campaign

BBC News: UK Sending Six Aid Planes

BBC News: UK Aid legacy in Asia

Guardian: Five years after the Tsunami

Antinomies of generosity: Moral geographies and post-tsunami aid in Southeast Asia

Public diplomacy as symbolic interactions: A case study of Asian tsunami relief campaigns

Band Aid

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