The Big Society starts small

Prof Philip Booth writes for the Catholic Times

So often when Catholics express a wish to help the poor, their emphasis is on the role they believe the government should play. By way of example, I recently received the annual message from a leading Catholic charity. About half the expensive, glossy leaflet was critiquing the various government spending cuts. It also made unreasonable claims about proposed schemes to require people receiving welfare benefits for three years to undertake some work for the community – echoing Archbishop Rowan Williams’ claims that such requirements would send people into a downward cycle of despair. Similarly, Cafod spends a rapidly growing amount of its budget on campaigning on climate change and for more government aid for the under-developed world – much of that aid is channelled through agencies such as Cafod of course.

Such charities do still stress individual responsibility to donate money and time. And, it has to be said, our Bishops are increasingly doing so. However, it is perfectly legitimate for two Catholics to take the same view on the supreme importance of charity whilst taking a different view on the role that the state should play in poverty relief. As such, charities should tread carefully. Catholic social teaching reserves these matters for prudential judgement and we are called to look at the evidence in coming to a view. Certain fundamental principles of Catholic social teaching can be applied but it is not wise for charities to divide their supporters by taking partial stances on such matters.

As it happens, there is a good case for taking an increasingly sceptical view of the success of the state in reducing poverty. The signs of the times do not favour the welfare state. This year, the government will spend over half of national income and problems of worklessness and family breakdown have often been encouraged by government welfare spending.

There is an alternative to government assistance for the poor. Solidarity, in Catholic social teaching is a virtue which involves a firm commitment to the good of all. This is not the same as income redistribution by the state. In Caritas in veritate Pope Benedict reiterated the message that: “Solidarity is first and foremost a sense of responsibility on the part of everyone with regard to everyone, and it cannot therefore be merely delegated to the State.” In his 2009 World Peace Day message he pointed out: “[I]t is timely to recall in particular the ‘preferential love for the poor’ in the light of the primacy of charity, which is attested throughout the Christian tradition, beginning with that of the early Church.”

In the marvellous encyclical Deus caritas est, Pope Benedict, in many senses, hit the nail on the head and summarised succinctly what many modern political and economic scientists have come to realise: “There is no ordering of the State so just that it can eliminate the need for a service of love. Whoever wants to eliminate love is preparing to eliminate man as such. There will always be suffering which cries out for consolation and help”. In other words, the real needs of those whom the welfare state seeks to help are personal and particular and must be dealt with by intimate, loving and personal concern. This is, of course, precisely what our Catholic charities - as well as much Catholic social action at local level - practise.

Perhaps we have relied on the state to do so much because we worry that voluntary charity can never do sufficient. Philanthropy, however, is far better at catering for the real needs of the poor. As Pope Benedict indicated, in order to deal with the problems of poverty, we have to get down to the grass roots. In pure economic terms, too, charities are more effective than government action. Private charities are directly accountable – day-by-day – to those who give their money and time. People will not waste their freely-given resources on a charity unless it achieves the desired results. Charity is also more substantial than many would imagine. To illustrate both points, it is interesting to look at two Rotary initiatives. When Rotary International became involved in an anti-malaria bed-net project in 2002, it managed to deliver the nets 90% more cheaply than they had been delivered before. Astonishingly, that same charity also funded 20% of the total global polio vaccination programme.

Sadly, though, philanthropy in Europe – especially in what might once have been termed Catholic Europe – is nothing like the level of philanthropy in the US. Each year the Hudson Institute in the US produce an index of global philanthropy. The scale of US philanthropy is stunning: over $300bn (and we should remember that published figures tend to under-estimate the real totals). This is not just a few rich people flashing their cheque books around – much of the philanthropy is in the form of donated time. The Hudson Institute figures suggest that US giving of time and money to under-developed countries is greater than government assistance from all OECD countries combined. As has been noted, that private giving is also so much more effective.

It is interesting too that there seems to be a relationship between how socialistic a country is and the amount of philanthropy it generates – having the government put its hand in its citizens’ pockets seems to be a substitute for people putting their own hands in their own pockets: perhaps this should not be surprising. The data is incomplete but the Hudson Institute estimates that individual giving to poor countries in the UK is $6.3bn; in France, the number was only $1bn. Unsurprisingly US philanthropy outstrips all non-US philanthropy put together.

Of course, charities cannot take command of over half of national income in the way that government does, but it is amazing what they can achieve and how much income they can mobilise.

It seems that the government is latching on to the benefits of bottom-up philanthropy with its “Big Society” agenda. This can seem remote and irrelevant, though, partly because the government itself seems to want to control the programme in a rather clumsy way. But the underlying objectives should be second nature to Catholics. As Pope Benedict noted in Deus caritas est, direct loving personal concern is the key to charitable endeavour. The $300bn of philanthropy in the US starts from the bottom up – it is made up of lots of individuals trying to make a small difference. This is why the Big Society should start small. We do not need an “Office for Civil Society” or a “National Citizens’ Service” as proposed by the government. We need to unburden charities and volunteers and tax people less. We could have some additional time-limited tax incentives for certain types of philanthropy. For example, for a short while, those giving to charities helping underdeveloped countries could be allowed to write that donation off their tax bill pound-for-pound. We must be careful not to distort the charitable sector with too many tax favours but this money could be deducted from relevant departmental spending budgets and we know that every penny of it would be better spent than the government would spend it.