The annual BBC Children in Need telethon took place across the TV and radio network yesterday (Friday 17th November 2018). Over £50m was pledged for children’s charities in the UK during the day – a record for the event that has been running since 1980. Indeed, yesterday’s total took the cumulative money raised by the charity across its 38 years to over £1 billion. This is an incredible achievement and there are literally thousands of organisations that have been able to develop, deliver and sustain projects for and with young people in the UK that would otherwise never have happened without access to this funding. It may seem odd that children living in one of the world’s most advanced economies have to rely on charitable funding to deliver services that you might think ought to be the responsibility of government in a wealthy, democratic society; but another story from yesterday’s news reveals the impact that 40 years of more or less neo-liberal economic policy (and a self-imposed austerity programme in the past 5 years) has had on the poorest people in the UK. The UN’s special rapporteur on extreme poverty released his assessment of poverty in the UK and concluded that : “Levels of child poverty are “staggering” and 1.5 million people were destitute at some point in 2017.” While the gap between rich and poor in the UK continues to grow, the need for appeals like Children in Need will continue. It’s frankly bizarre that we continue to take pride in how much is raised each year, rather than rising up in fury at an economic system that makes charity necessary to prop up essential services for those who are least able to fend for themselves. To be clear, this is not a criticism of Children in Need which is doing fantastic work. It’s just a shame that it has to.
Also catching my eye today was this story in the Guardian. At first sight, the account of the homeless man who donated his last $20 to a woman stranded without petrol in a strange city, shows the best of human kindness. That the woman then created a GoFundMe page for the man as a way of thanking him and creating a fund to allow him to get back on his feet, appeared to be about all that is good and uplifting about the human condition. The fact that $400,000 was raised for the man is an indication of the touching effect that the story had on those who read about it on social media and in the following newspaper coverage.
Except it was completely untrue. There was no late night drama at the petrol station; and whilst its true that the man was homeless, he has never seen a dime of the $400,000. The man, the woman and her partner have all now been arrested on charges of fraud and obtaining money by deception. Ironically, the authorities were alerted to the case when the man sought to sue the couple for the money raised. It’s not clear what’s happened to the $400k, but it does seem as though it has disappeared.
There is no doubt that social media and on-line communications and donation channels have revolutionised the way that charities and charitable causes are able to raise money quickly, easily and with minimum administration costs. But as with all things on-line, their speed and ease of use also make them attractive to people with less altruistic intentions. I guess the lesson from the US case is to treat on-line appeals from unrecognised individuals and organisations in the same way that we would people randomly shaking tins in the street. It’s a shame that that’s the case, but its probably the only way that we can be sure that our donations will truly end up where we think they’re going.