Back in the days when I worked for Quaker Peace and Social Witness, our water-cooler chat was often a bit different to the norm. One thing we often discussed was our student-visitors on secondment to the Quaker UN offices in Geneva, in particular their visits to Red Cross HQ. Some of my colleagues were deeply uncomfortable with these visits – as a non-violent religious community, Quakers in Britain campaign for resolution in peaceful ways rather than through war and conflict. The concern was that the Red Cross, by intervening in a humanitarian way during conflict, was tacitly supporting the ongoing appearance of those conflicts rather than working to prevent or avoid them.
Moving to today, we have been asked to make several donations to our new local food bank recently as part of DD1’s harvest festival celebrations. And I have got to know a number of people involved in Nearbyborough’s big food banks, one of whom is very high profile in that context. As I was sitting in the Minster considering the offerings brought by schoolchildren for the new foodbank, I wondered whether the existence of foodbanks isn’t rather like the existence of the Red Cross.
Both exist to alleviate suffering, both intervene in humanitarian ways. What’s not to like about that?
Well, my concern here is that by donating (tinned, processed) foods to the food banks we are neglecting the real problem – hunger isn’t caused by poverty alone but by unequal power relations. Even in the harshest famine the powerful won’t be as hungry as the powerless. Does our concern with alleviating the symptoms of this inequality take focus of the cause, and thus perpetuate the problem? Are we tacitly accepting the presence of war, or of unequal power relations?
Furthermore, increasing reliance on charities for social support is a risky business. Food banks and other charitable doles flourished in the 19th century, as economic inequality spiralled ever outwards. The social state introduced in the early 20th century was, in large measure, a response to the eventual breakdown of these charitable support systems. They inevitably become partial, selective, fragmented or sectarian. And when they broke down, the social state stepped in to provide dignity for all and a way out of hopeless powerlessness and its best mate, poverty.
I don’t have the answer to food poverty, or unequal power relations, and I’m not slating the Red Cross or food banks. But I do think we need to think about whether we want our safety nets to be held out by unelected, church-based volunteers or by accountable public servants.