Britain: The most charitable country in the world?

I grew up in Tenerife where my parents decided I would go to an English school for the first 5 years of my life. This school was a really small school with maybe a total of 100 children attending and it has provided me with some of the best experiences of my childhood. One aspect that I remember being ever present in every event that was organized by this school was the collection of donations for a foster child named Marco in Ecuador. I have no idea how much was obtained from all these contributions but just from the frequency of these charity petitions I can only assume that Marco was probably getting bullied at school and got his new trainers taken from him ever two weeks (okay, probably not … but I am very certain that his life improved considerably thanks to the persistence of our headmistress).

What I am getting at is that I remember this school to be continuously collecting for the benefit of this child in Ecuador. I then went to a Spanish school for the remaining 8 years where there was nothing of the sorts going on. Once I finished my primary studies my university studies took me to Newcastle upon Tyne (UK). After those awesome years I went back to Tenerife only to return to the UK a year and a half later, this time to Bristol. During these stays in the UK I gradually noticed more and more the presence of a variety of organizations and events dedicated to obtaining of donations for charity.

Some of these organizations come in the form of shops, others are projects or trusts. Probably the most known one is Oxfam, an organization dedicated to overcome poverty and suffering. The main vehicle I saw of this affiliation was the placement of shops to which one would donate the clothes that are no longer going to be worn and second hand (or third, fourth … even ancient) books. Another charity that uses the same format is the British Heart Foundation which aims to help treat heart conditions and diseases. A further concept that I found interesting was a tea and coffee shop representing the Marie Curie Cancer Care which, as the name suggests, uses its income and donations to fight cancer.

This brings me to the concept of fair trade. Virtually every store that handles with food (except the locally sourced ones and the bottom range supermarkets) offers the option to choose a fair trade product.  In my opinion, this is not actually a case of that supplier being necessarily charitable themselves. These products are somewhat more expensive than any other product with the same characteristics other than that they don’t forward some of the earnings to projects helping farmers and communities in third world countries. This causes the slight dilemma expressed by Russel Howard on the comedy panel show Mock the Week – “Faritrade offer. If you don’t buy it, you’re a racist!” (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6wrARM-P8pM in case you want to watch the clip). One feels lie confronted with the options: Buy it for more than you can afford or be rated as xenophobic. This concept, I believe is just companies’ marketing for their product rather than being concerned about the farmers who could also be helped by actual charities without the need for paying more to the middleman for a packet of coffee beans. Or maybe it’s just a way to give people a possibility of giving to charity whilst doing their shopping so that the consumers don’t have to spend some of their valuable time on finding the charity, donating the money, etc.

Then there is The Big Issue, a magazine which according to their website exists to offer homeless and vulnerably housed people the opportunity to earn a legitimate income. Basically it produces a weekly entertainment and current affairs magazine which vendors buy from them for £1 and sell to the public for £2, keeping £1 for themselves. There are various types of vendors out there: from the glum and silent to cheerful and light-hearted, some of which even enjoy a sing-song as encouragement for you to buy from them.

To add on to all of this there are numerous events organized on a regular basis that aim at obtaining funds for an extensive array of charities. The biggest ones I know of are Red Nose Day, the London Marathon and the Great North Run. The first is well known mainly due to the involvement of celebrities and its large TV presence during that day and those leading up to it. The other two are long-distance running events where every participant offers a donation to take part in the event. Usually they get sponsored by their friends, work colleagues, etc. There are many other sporting events of this kind, be it swimming, cycling, hiking or anything else that usually requires endurance.

In case you are interested, here is a list of charities to choose from in the UK,

I was overwhelmed by the large presence of charity organizations and events that I have not seen in any other country so far. In Germany and Spain, the two other countries I know to a reasonable extent, I have not noticed such a huge presence (although in Germany they also introduced the Red Nose Day). Obviously they exist and you have no trouble in finding them when you need to, but they do not have the ‘publicity’ that they have in England. This has led me to get a little more curious about whether the English are more charitable than everybody else and if so, why this is.

As to why, it wasn’t me who came up with this hipothesis but my girlfriend. She was able to make me aware of the fact that in England there are constantly sales or discounts on. We come from Spain where there are only two occasions during which there are sales in the year: January and July. It was then that I realized that indeed, the ability to get clothes for ridiculously low prices can be a huge contributor to peoples willingness to donate these clothes to charity when they are no longer needed. Those that are better off in this society have the chance to get the newest range of the seasons most fashionable clothing line for very low prices if they know where to look. It is rarely the case that I have bought any clothing item for its full price with the exception of the tuxedo I bought for a wedding and the clothes I bought at Primark. And there we are confronted with another possible factor for giving away the clothes we buy to charity. Primark and other stores of the like offer their products at such disproportionately low prices that even the better quality stuff doesn’t bother us too much if we give it to charity.

Then there are the books. Unless we are talking about specialist books such as those intended for higher education or professional sectors, books are relatively cheap to come by. Specially with sites like Amazon which can provide you with second hand books or other forms of entertainment at prices that don’t burn a hole into anyones pocket. It becomes numbingly easy to just give them to charity rather than throw them away when we are done and bored with them.

The question that bears posing is whether the fact that this cheapness of ‘stuff’ that would reduce the pain of giving it away to charity is simultaneously presenting itself as a competitive threat to charities that obtain their donations from selling those second hand posessions for under the market value. How much cheaper would something have to be for you to be willing to go down to the charity shop and browse throught the store in the hopes of finding what it is you are after rather than buying it over the internet in the comfort of your own home? Are charity shops losing their attraction as sites with cheap prices where the benefits go to charity … or have they become the dumping ground for our old stuff that also allows us to keep our concience at peace? Is it recycling with a little bonus that allows us to feel smug thanks to illusion of selflessness?

As to the first part of the question, are Brits more charitable than the rest?, studies suggest that this is not the case at all. According to the Guardian in 2010, the United Kingdom is in 9th position in terms of being the most charitable. This sort of coincides with another list set up on Wikipedia for the Official Development Assistance by country as a percentage of Gross National Income in 2009 (April 2010):

I have not been to any of the countries that are above the United Kingdom on this list, but I have a hard time imagining that the various charities and events organizers put in as much time and effort in getting out into the public eye as in Britain.