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Charity versus Social Justice: It’s time to change the system, not just treat the symptoms

22 February 2022

It is indisputable that charity work plays a hugely important role in our society. There are about 169 thousand registered charities in England and Wales alone, all of whom function solely for public benefit and deliver indispensable services to those who are vulnerable and/or facing hardship. While these services can manifest in a number of different ways, one thing is for sure: they often play a pivotal role for the communities who they are trying to help.

But what if more can be done to actually eradicate social inequalities, rather than just mitigating the effects of them?

The impact of charity work

Charities are very pragmatic in how they operate, offering day-to-day services which provide immediate relief to a very real situation. One example of this is food banks: who supply food free of charge to those who can’t afford enough to eat due to economic hardship. Food banks have existed in the UK since 2000, but the need for them has sky-rocketed in the past few years and their number have grown dramatically.  There are now currently over 1,300 Trussell Trust food banks across the UK, in addition to 900 independent food banks. Between 2021 and 2022, the Trussel Trust recorded its highest ever number of users: 2,537,198. The distribution of emergency food parcels also increased by 33% in the same time period. If food banks were to suddenly disappear, it is undeniable that the effects would be devastating for so many people.

While food banks offer an immediate solution to this crisis, they are not solving the underlying problem. The very existence of food poverty and the need for food banks in the UK – one of the richest countries in the world – is shocking and evidence of the gaping inequality that exists in our communities. Therefore, rather than just focusing on treating the symptoms of this inequality (food poverty) we should also be challenging the root causes of it, such as low and/or unreliable income and a patchy social security system, which allow its continued manifestation within society. By failing to do so, charity can be seen as accepting the injustice itself while trying to mitigate its consequences.

While we have used the example of food banks and food poverty, the sentiment is the same for any social justice issue: a framework rooted in charity alone ignores the realities of the problems society faces.

So, what needs to change? 

We must move away from the short-term fix that charity provides and build more social justice orientated solutions. While charity might focus on the surface level, a social justice approach looks deeper into the issues and works to achieve structural change, challenging the values, policies and practices in society which allow inequalities to continue to manifest. This approach can achieve the long-term change needed for a more fair and equal society for all.

If charity is the first aid kit treating society’s injustices, then social justice is the cure.

The reality of the situation

Ending the cycle of human inequality begins with social justice work, and the change it brings will eventually eradicate the need for charity’s short-term fix. However, achieving justice and equality throughout society is something that cannot be done overnight, and true systemic change will be a long endeavour. We can’t abandon people in need while we work on resolving such complex issues, and therefore, both social justice and charity must be embraced, and a hybrid approach adopted.

Our social justice approach 

Shiva Foundation aims to end human exploitation in all its forms. We recognise that exploitation arises from inequitable distribution of power across society, and we focus on tackling this injustice at an institutional level, whether that’s corporate or government. Currently, we act as a support and anchor for those working on the frontline – this includes community groups, grassroots organisations, local councils, civil society, local leaders and businesses etc. We also leverage our networks and influence to enact meaningful change at the policy level, in government and across business. Our work in labour rights and modern slavery is centred around two goals, which showcases our social justice approach:

1.Embed labour rights and modern slavery provisions into policy.

We ensure that local and national government policies meaningfully address modern slavery and labour rights violations and support survivors fully, including and going beyond the Modern Slavery Act. We work with policymakers, local councils, government and regulatory bodies to make this happen and our projects include:

  • Embedding better survivor support mechanisms into local practices
  • Informing and imposing specific and practically useful regulations on business
  • Advocating for changes in new legislation where it might impact survivors or those vulnerable to exploitation.

2. Shift corporate practices towards more equitable power distribution.

We provide expertise to ensure that business policies and practices meaningfully incorporate activities that address modern slavery and uphold labour rights.  We consult on projects to:

  • Help businesses to make meaningful shifts in their policies and practices
  • Advocate for businesses to address where unequal power and agency lies in their business.

An approach rooted in charity alone will not work to end the social injustices from which so many people suffer. While we recognise the need for charity, it is not a solution to many problems, and groups will continue to be oppressed and inequalities within society will continue to thrive. We must all make a conscious effort to start the shift to a more social justice-oriented approach in our work and destroy inequalities at their root. This is how we can make the biggest impact.

By Gabriella Jiménez


This “Eyes on Trafficking” story is reprinted from Shiva Foundation’s website.


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