Charity: The Elite’s Virtuous Weapon

Once again, great piece of writing by the Guyana Mosquito. 

I touched on the topic of charity in my early days as a remigrant and made the faux pas of criticizing one particular act of charity I couldn’t wrap my head around. Cue the colourful comments. The idea that not all charity is good or that charity itself is a problematic enterprise is almost unheard of in Guyana, a country seemingly overflowing with charity at times, as the author explains below, and where there appears to be a perpetual blind spot.

Anyway, this piece popped up on my Facebook feed and I just had to share it. You can read it directly on the link above or below:

Flipping or clicking through the newspapers over the holidays one could not help but be struck by the numerous donations made to various charities and individuals by corporations as part of the “spirit of the season”.

Gizmos and Gadgets and Game Express gave away a sled full of toys. Demtoco donated two brush cutters to some organisation. GBTI handed over $800,000 to eight charities including Uncle Eddie’s Home, the Guyana Relief Council and the Guyana Society for the Blind. Guyana Goldfields generously gave $20M to several NGOs as part of its “holiday children needs and development assistance initiative”.

Meanwhile one of the biggest givers, GT &T has in past years donated $1.9M to Merundoi, another $1M to Habitat for Humanity and $1M to the National Aids Programme. RK Security recently donated a minibus to the Peace Federation whatever that is. Courts has made various donations to the UG Library and to the Guyana Fire Service. Namilco donated $1M to St Joseph Mercy; Digicel donated $200,000 in trophies as part of Amerindian Heritage Month….ok we could go on, but you get the picture. Guyanese corporations are really generous and like to give back.

So what’s all this generosity about? Well there’s obviously alot of dough to spread around among the poor people, so first let’s examine the profitability of companies doing business here. GT&T for example has been a cash cow for their parent company Atlantic Tele Network for decades after signing a monopoly deal in the 1980s.

Even with the arrival of Digicel it is still highly profitable and essentially these two companies are engaged in a lucrative duopoly that has the facade of aggressive competition while still offering laughably substandard service at relatively high rates. Anyone who has used GT&T’s “Lightning Fast” DSL will appreciate this. If real lightning were that slow any grandmother could dodge it.

Namilco has a monopoly on the importation of flour, New GPC a near monopoly on the supply of drugs to the Health Ministry. Banks and Ansa McAl are the only companies producing or importing beer. Courts has a substantial market share on home furnishings and subsequently can run a higher purchase programme that charges exorbitant rates of interest.

Meanwhile lack of competition in the banking sector means interest rates on loans can reach as high as 18% while rates on deposits run around 3%. The spread is, to say the least, generous and has resulted in record profits for all the banks. Numerous smaller companies who regularly “give back” are also very profitable.

One knows this not from their accounts but because we see the owners driving around in the highest priced cars, flying first class and quaffing $60,000 bottles of Moet et Chandon at Palm Court. Life is sweet and for the business elite they want to keep it that way.

In a perfect world of course there would be no need for charity. The government would provide for all who need. But as we all know Guyana is far from perfect and the corporate world feels compelled to fill this breach. Why and what dangers might this bring?

This kind of charity is first and foremost self serving propaganda. A headline in the newspaper or on the nightly news can be bought for as little as a $50,000 donation. And as many of the large companies advertise heavily, editors and broadcasters are pressured to carry these piffling non-stories that merely serve to burnish the image of the businesses involved.

Secondly charity is for the most part a band-aid that addresses only the symptoms of a society not the root causes. Case in point – a donation to an orphanage only sustains the orphanage; it does not address why there are so many orphans. Donations to Help and Shelter assist in the protection of abused women but do nothing to address the epidemic of domestic abuse in the society. And while we are at it, can anyone explain why the government would donate $5m to the Salvation Army when it is their job to provide for the same people the Army is assisting?

It is woefully upside down and goes to the next hazard of charity: the way it obviates the government’s duty to care for its citizens be they the old, the disabled, the blind or the destitute. For example the Ptolemy Reid Centre and Help and Shelter while both partially funded by the government must make up the rest of their budgets through private donations.

But we need to go still deeper to understand why it is in the interests of the business class to offer charity. At its heart is the goal of maintaining a social stability that works to the advantage of the bourgeoisie. Such acts of charity are often lazy and superficial behaviour. You write the cheque and smile for the photographed handover. But they are significant in how they change relationships and the perceptions of class in society between the benefactors and the mendicant class, creating a false perception that these companies are indispensable to maintaining a humane society. In fact these very companies are the reason the society is the way it is and their trifling donations are shiny trinkets to fool the people and maintain their socio-economic position of the elite.

Because that position is always under threat by the very fact that the working class is constantly being exploited by the business class. Whether you approve of this or not, it is a fact.

If you are for this exploitation then it is really a matter of the extent of this exploitation that you are comfortable with. So a sales girl working in a Regent St store makes a minimum of $6500 a week by law, simply not a living wage, while the owners reap stunning surplus profits off her labour. Across the spectrum the business elite attempts in part to cover up this embarrassing exploitation and inequality through very public acts of charity.

The fact is that were the minimum wage to be raised substantially, it would begin to solve some of the same social problems that the corporate world and the government pretend to address through charities and other spending. The school uniform programme for example would become largely obsolete. Food for the Poor and other charities would be drastically scaled back and yes the government would not have to donate $5M of taxpayers’ money to the Salvation Army.

It may also remedy the domestic abuse epidemic which is based in a large part on the subservient economic position women find themselves in, meaning they are forced to tolerate continued abuse from their husbands rather than leave and make new independent lives. And crime – especially the prevalence of larceny, robbery and armed robbery – would naturally decline with higher standards of living.

Of course this will not happen because neither the government nor the business community want a comfortable working class. They would rather pay them a pittance, keep them demoralised and asking for handouts. So when one examines the wage increases in the past ten years imposed on the public sector, which is really the benchmark for the private sector in setting their own pay increases, they have been miserly. Actually it has gone from a minimum wage of $20,045 in 2001 to $37,657 in 2012. Try living on that.

And for the forseeable future only sustained and widespread industrial action will result in the kind of living wages public servants and all workers deserve. In the meantime the business class will make their very public donations. Read about them in the newspaper.

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