Concerning 'Hearing But Not Listening: Why Charities Fail', a chapter in The Right Use of Money

Wednesday, 13 July 2011 13:52

When the mutual society Friends Provident became a public limited company in 2001, the Board set up a charitable foundation. In 2003 the foundation commissioned 17 people, of whom I was one, to write a chapter each for the book with the theme 'the right use of money'.  (Click here to read the full chapter.)

I decided to write about charity – doing good to other people. This was particularly relevant to me at that time. I had been let down very badly by a woman whom I had previously seen as a very sensible and kind friend. My bathroom had been flooded and, despite being ill, I needed to purchase bathroom fittings so that the plumbers could begin work. I asked this woman to come with me because she had recently refurbished her house and perhaps would have some advice about the kind of fittings I needed. However, as soon as we entered the shop and without asking me she took over the whole proceedings. Each time I attempted to speak to a salesman she edged me to one side, making it clear to the salesmen that I was incapable of making any kind of sensible contribution to the discussion. I had to leave the shop to bring this humiliating nonsense to an end.

This experience has left me wary of ever asking anyone for help. Even the visit to my dear chicken-soup-making friend did little to moderate my wariness.

I encountered another instance of this domineering 'I know best' attitude recently at a large teaching hospital in London. I had been referred there because a small basal cell cancer had developed on my upper lip. The plastic surgeon there, a woman, saw me for no more than three minutes, in which time she described to me what the operation entailed. When I asked whether the operation could be done under local anaesthetic, she told me it required a general anaesthetic. When I tried to tell how how limited my lung capacity was she left the room. She did not take a history, or contact my consultant at the Royal Brompton Hospital for Respiratory Diseases, or tell me that there was an alternative to the operation, namely radiotherapy.

It took me a month to extricate myself from the process the plastic surgeon started that would lead to the operation. In that time the surgeon who worked with the plastic surgeon very grudgingly told me about the alternative of radiotherapy. This proved to be a simple process carried out over ten days by some delightful radiotherapists. Towards the end of all this the plastic surgeon and the surgeon wrote to me separately to reprimand me for disobeying their instructions. They reminded me that they were doctors, indeed consultants, and because they knew me far better than I could ever know myself, they knew what was best for me.

Millions of Africans have suffered far, far worse than this at the hands of their colonial masters. In 'Listening but Not Hearing' I wrote about the government and charitable aid that that poured into Africa with little thought being given to what would be done with all this money. Meanwhile, something equally terrible was happening in those parts of Africa where oil had been discovered.

In his book Poisoned Wells: The Dirty Politics of African Oil Nicholas Shaxson wrote, 'West Africa's daily oil output is worth about as much as all the development aid flowing to the world. . . African rulers have a rising tide of money at their disposal, fit for mischief. . . Africa's oil is spreading poison deep into the fabric of the international financial system and the rich world democracies.' You will have to read Shaxson's book to find out why all this is so.

Whenever there is any mention of the the huge contribution our oil consumption makes to climate change, apologists for the oil industry point out how oil improves the quality of our our lives. Without oil we would be so much worse off. Whether our grandchildren will agree with this is another matter.

I often have cause to say that the most dangerous people in the world are those who believe that they know what is best for other people.

July 9, 2011

Last modified on Monday, 08 August 2011 23:00