15 October 2008

Charity and Poverty begin at Home

I am sure you will be familiar with the old saying that "Charity begins at home". And that is as it should be. Unfortunately during the years of the so-called 'Celtic Tiger', the massive and unexpected economic boom Ireland experienced over the past decade, many Irish people were so enticed with our newly found - and, as it turned out, very short-lived - wealth that they forgot this important principle.

With our natural generosity and enthusiasm we got involved in all sorts of charity projects around the world, and especially in Africa. We send food aid worth many millions of Euros to Ethiopia (and some other countries), and that saved a lot of lives. But it did nothing to change the situation there, and we are asked to donate ever more money, to send more and more food again and again. An old Chinese proverb comes to mind, when I look at Ethiopia and other African countries in turmoil and chaos: Give a man a fish, and he has food for one day. Teach him fishing, and he will never starve again.
Irish charities either don't know this proverb, or have not taken it to heart. Because all we do is giving the Ethiopians a fish a day, every day. Thus they survive, and in fact the population of Ethiopia has more than doubled in the past twenty years. But they are still not able to look after themselves and feed their own people, because we - and other western charities - never bother to 'teach them fishing'.

There is a long tradition of collecting money for Africa here in Ireland. And it was not started by the likes of John O'Shea (of GOAL), Bob Geldof and Bono (of U 2).
Many people of my generation will remember the Catholic nuns and Christian Brothers, who ran the schools here in the past, urging us to part with the few pennies we had as pocket money and donate them for "the poor black babies in the African missions".

Many of us did, believing in our innocence that we did something good and would make a difference. In recent years we learned that only a portion of our donations ever reached Africa, and was mostly spent on short-term help. No-one seemed to have looked at the bigger picture and long-term prospectives. Subsequently nothing much has changed in Africa, and in fact things are a lot worse there now than they were some decades ago.

Meanwhile many of those former "black babies" are now grown-up adults and here in Ireland, attracted by the great wealth the 'Celtic Tiger' promised everyone, native Irish and foreigner alike. Some are true refugees and in need of our help and support. But the vast majority are economic migrants, pretending to be persecuted at home and thus benefiting from our generous asylum programme. I see many of them every day, well fed and well dressed (often much better than the average Irish people), talking almost constantly on mobile phones and driving around in nice cars, many of which were given to them by Ireland's social services. They are enjoying to be here and have, to use an old Irish phrase, "the life of Reilly".

I am not envious and wish them no harm. Quite the opposite. As a member of Amnesty International for more than 30 years I have worked with countless refugees, including many Africans. And I still do. But what I see more and more is that the really deserving people, those who have suffered and often only narrowly escaped terrible regimes at home, are marginalised by the (Irish) State, which seems to favour well-off West-Africans (predominantly Nigerians) who are here to milk the system. Many of them did not even come directly from Africa, but have lived for years - and often all their previous life - in the UK, where they did the same. The 'Celtic Tiger' and the more generous welfare payments the Republic of Ireland offers (compared with the UK) attracted many thousands to the Emerald Isle. They are in receipt of help and benefits that no Irish person, no matter how needy, and no foreigner from any European country has ever received. Enquiries why that is the case are leading nowhere, as the civil servants in the social welfare department refuse to "comment on individual cases". And politicians say nothing as well, in fear they might be called "racist" by some if they utter a critical word in this matter.

So while we still send many millions of Euros to Africa every year, and spend even more millions on over 100,000 Africans now living in Ireland, thousands of Irish people in deep poverty have been forgotten. Many of them are old or elderly, have medical problems, and most of them live alone, in tiny little houses or flats that have not been renovated for decades.

Yesterday our Minister for Finance - Brian Lenihan - dealt these people another devastating blow by announcing in the 2009 Budget that he is to withdraw the right to a medical card (which guarantees free medical treatment) from all people aged 70 and above. (see also yesterday's entry)
Seven years ago the free medical card for the oldest portion of our population was introduced before an election, and it has made a big difference for many of the most needy people.
They are now distraught and have no idea how they will be able to afford medical treatments in future.

But this is only the tip of the iceberg. There are at least 200,000 people in Ireland who live in fact on or even below the poverty line. They are all at least over 50, and many of them are over 65. While the latter receive an old-age pension, the younger ones are usually unemployed and receive only the most basic benefits. Those between 50 and 65 have almost no chance to find a job in a country that is so massively dominated by the young, and many have disabilities and other medical problems that makes it even more unlikely to be employed.

These people are the forgotten poor of Ireland, a whole generation ignored by their own government and nation. For the past decade they have been living in the shadow of the 'Celtic Tiger', who never even touched them once. While our reckless bankers squandered the nation's savings and pocketed millions as 'bonuses' in the process, greedy stock brokers messed up the financial markets with ever more dubious and risky gambling on worthless shares, and ruthless property developers created - with the help of the government - an irrational and unsustainable housing bubble, the poor of Ireland were ignored and forgotten.

Now that we are in recession and global financial meltdown, they will suffer enormous hardship, without the slightest chance of help from the government or anyone else. The Finance Minister - backed by the Taoiseach and the whole Cabinet - is squeezing the ordinary people for extra taxes. He has nothing left in his coffers that he could offer to the poor, even if he wanted to (which is very unlikely anyway).
And our many charities - with the noble exception of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul - are focused on Africa and don't take any notice of the enormous poverty in Ireland either. In fact, I have seen it so many times that 'charity muggers' on the streets are even trying to talk money for Africa out of these poorest of the poor.

To illustrate the situation in which many poor Irish live, let me give you one concrete example. There is a man living not far from me, and through my own involvement in local charity work I happen to know his circumstances very well.
He is in his mid-fifties, single, childless and an unemployed printer. For many years he worked in one of the well-known printing companies in Waterford, until he was made redundant during a general modernisation process that brought in new machines that require less manpower than the ones used previously. For years he has tried to find work - as a printer or in other industries - but no-one here is interested to employ a man over the age of 50.

Since he never married and has no children, he is entirely on his own. And being a single male, he only qualifies for the lowest rate of social welfare. (All the welcome extras are only given to women and especially single mothers.)
He does not smoke or drink alcohol, and does not gamble either. "I don't like that," he tells me, "but even if I would like it, I could not afford it." Every week he receives about € 190 social welfare money, and this is all he has. He has to pay € 100 rent per week, for the little old house he lives in. It is very old in fact, has no proper bathroom (only a tiny shower) and no central heating. After the costs for electricity and waste collection are deducted, he is left with less than € 50 a week to live on. This is scandalous, as it is not enough for a decent living. Most people spend more than that on one visit to the super-market, or on one meal in a restaurant.

No-one has ever offered him a council house, and when he applied for rent allowance, he was turned down without any explanation. He has as good as no social life, barely survives on meagre meals he prepares for himself, and the only place he goes to is the local library. He loves to read books, but could not afford to buy any. He has no television, no telephone and not even a refrigerator. A little radio and the books from the library are his only 'entertainment'.

Let me remind you: This is a man who has worked and paid taxes in Ireland for 30 years. He was for many years a member of the FCA (voluntary army reserve) and goes to mass every Sunday.
But not even the Church looks after him. "The only times I hear from the parish priest is when there is a special collection and an envelope is pushed through the door," he explains. In nearly four decades no priest has ever knocked on his door. But this is quite normal now, as parish ministry in Ireland is dead. The few remaining priests, most of them now elderly themselves, are no longer able to visit houses of parishioners between saying mass and playing golf.

During the past two years the prices for food, electricity, coal and turf have risen out of all proportion, while the social welfare payment only rose by a few Euros a week.
"I soon won't be able to buy enough coal for the winter," he says, grateful for the voucher from a coal merchant I bring him on behalf of a local charity. "And often it is a choice between heating the house or eating."
I am ashamed when I listen to that and wish I could do more for him. But I am not a rich man myself. So now and them I add a small banknote from my own pocket to the charity vouchers, but that is not more than a drop in the ocean.

There are many people like him. No-one in the social welfare office wants to know about their dire circumstances.
If he were an alcoholic or a drug addict, there would be special programmes he could join, programmes that cost the taxpayers millions each year. If he were mentally ill, there would also be special help. He would even receive some extra money if he were a criminal released from prison.

But he is just a normal and decent ordinary man, a "regular Joe" as they would say in the USA. And for normal people no-one cares. They are supposed to look after themselves, even if they have not a chance in this world or the next.

In the street in which he lives there are now six African families, living in council houses. Before they moved in, the city council spent a lot of money to modernise and refurbish the houses. The Africans pay no rent - as they are seeking asylum - and receive all kinds of social welfare and other payments. They all have a second-hand car, paid for by social welfare, which also covers the costs of insurance, road tax and petrol.
The Irishman I told you about has no car, and would never get one from social welfare. He has not even a bicycle, and as he is under 65, he does not qualify for a free travel pass for public transport. So he is trapped in a little old house that has not been renovated since the 1950s, and completely forgotten by the State, the government and most of the rest of us.

There is nothing wrong with helping the Africans who come here, but it is a scandal that the same help and care offered to them is not also given to the poorest of the poor in our own native population.
Let me remind you just once more: Charity begins at home. And so does poverty. If we ignore this fact then we do it at the peril of losing touch with reality. With the recession being upon us and ever more jobs being lost everywhere and every day, anyone of us could be in a similar situation as the man I introduced to you above.

As much as overseas aid and help for the foreigners living here are necessary, we should never forget our own people. Ignoring one's poor neighbour while feeling good about helping the poor in Africa is at best cruel, but often hypocrisy. Don't let it come to that, and keep your eyes open. When you do, you will soon see the people I refer to, and you can do your share of charity, right here at home, where it begins.

The Emerald Islander


Anonymous said...

my heart is broken hearing about this man... it is wrong that he is not taken care of at least offered a job that he can do; not to mention that others are taken care of and he is the victim of age discrimination. Please print this story in the local paper.

nickysam said...

Charity may begin at home. The underlying causes of poverty and the elimination thereof are a controversial, politicized issue. Those with right wing views may consider that poverty results from personal choices or preferences, the breakdown of "traditional values", lack of birth control, and over-interference by government. They may also look to structural factors that prevent economic growth, such as poorly protected property rights, lacking credit system, crime, and corruption.

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