by Mary Harrington
Monday, 23
November 2020

Memo to Justin Welby: Charity is for the Church, not government

by Mary Harrington
Justin Welby has called on the British government to reconsider proposed cuts to the foreign aid budget

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, has called on the British government to reconsider proposed cuts to the foreign aid budget. His comments follow on from reports that the cash-strapped UK Treasury is considering ending the commitment to spend 0.7% of British GDP annually on international development.

“Our generosity and strategic input has genuinely changed lives and communities for the better,” Welby told The Observer. “In his teaching, Jesus tells us we mustn’t limit our concept of neighbour simply to those close by to us. We need to heed that message in the tough times as well as the good.” While Welby’s intentions are doubtless good, his endorsement of government as a vector for charitable work raises some troubling implications.

It should scarcely need saying that governments aren’t charities. As such, they don’t do charity; they do politics. In his criticism of the proposed cuts, Tony Blair stated this baldly: aid, he said, “has been a great British soft power achievement. It isn’t about charity. It’s enlightened self-interest.”

Last year I wrote about ‘policy laundering’, the practice of governments funding NGOs to lobby government for things government wanted to do anyway. It’s apt that Blair should be among the first to intervene on hearing the Treasury’s aid plans: one senior NGO staffer told me recently that it was under Blair that policy laundering began in earnest. Government grants to development charities skyrocketed; the price was a strong government hand in shaping charities’ campaigning priorities.

Perhaps Welby takes the view that such political co-opting of charity is acceptable provided it does good as well. But what he misses here is the fact that as voluntary civil society activities become dependent on state pump-priming, top-down political objectives do not so much complement as replace civil society ones.

If the public thinks something is the government’s job, they’ll stop doing it themselves. We were snowed in a few years ago and lived on a little housing estate served by a private road. My husband took a shovel and started clearing a path to the main road, only for one woman to appear in her doorway and say: “About time the council did something”. In effect, by calling for government to take centre stage in the nation’s charitable activities, Justin Welby is calling for the continued marginalisation of his own institution’s efforts.

If Welby wants the Tories to maintain a strong foreign policy focus he should say so, and explain why this should take the form of development aid. But if he thinks it’s right for Britain to send money overseas to help poorer countries, he should have the courage to call on his flock to tithe.

That he has not done so suggests strongly that Welby would prefer the latter, but doesn’t really believe he has enough of a flock any more for such charitable efforts to have a meaningful impact. This would imply the grim possibility that he sees no role for a modern Church of England except as yet another vehicle for that class of elite moral nodding-dogs who cheerlead for the imposition of state-sponsored liberalism on a fragmented and ambivalent civil society.

Join the discussion

  • December 31, 2020
    I worked for a leading charity for some years. The greater portion of the public donations and giving was for the salaries of accountants and administrators and legal advisors. Not a lot of pro - Bono. The coal face staff and their professional practice was so badly funded and disregarded that there... Read more

  • December 1, 2020
    I believe you have shifted my admittedly fierce condemnation of 'professional charity business's By smart read - we should be a little more worldly wise in the 21st century. I couldn't use the word intelligent. I have only admiration for volunteer groups who work for the betterment of others.... Read more

  • November 29, 2020
    "if we are so smart why do we need charities?" Smart people sometimes need help. And smart people are often able to help others. Not sure why smartness would negate any of this. "Charities... exist to make money" Maybe your cynicism is stopping you from understanding. There may be people working... Read more

To get involved in the discussion and stay up to date, become a registered user.

It's simple, quick and free.

Sign me up