As we approach the end of another year, permit me the indulgence of quoting Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol and Scourge’s encounter with The Spirit of Christmas Yet-to-Come, “Money can’t buy a happy life, or a peaceful death”.
According to GoCompare, a British financial services comparison website, the UK spends £21 billion a year on Christmas, that’s an average of £753 per household. Generosity can take many forms and it is right to enjoy time with family and friends and all the trappings of the season. It is also right to give generously to those in need; it is right, when we see the wounded, sick and marginalised, to give what we can from where we are. Money can’t buy a happy life, but for those that are destitute it can make a huge difference. It can’t buy us a peaceful death, but it could perhaps avert someone else’s premature death due to conflict or illness.
Stephen O’Brien, United Nations Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, has stated that since January 2017, the number of people needing humanitarian aid has risen by 12.5 million people to 141.1 million people. A total of US$23.5 billion (£17.6 billion) was required to respond to this need in 2017 alone, which is a 5.7% increase since the beginning of the year. Sadly, the global appeal is funded at just US$6.2 billion (£4.6 billion). The harsh reality is that in 2007, this amount would have covered the entire appeal for UN-coordinated response plans. In 2017 it covered just 26% of the need. More staggering, in the 2017 the UK will spend more on Christmas than the UN’s global humanitarian appeal will need.
According to the UNHCR, the UN’s Refugee Agency, the consequence of the scale of this need is that today there are nearly 66 million people who have been forcibly displaced. This is a record high and a substantial increase from 33.9 million people in 1997. To put this into context, the number of new displacements is equivalent to 20 people being forced to flee their homes every minute. In addition, half of all refugees are children under 18 years old, with unaccompanied or separated children lodging 75,000 asylum applications in 70 countries during the year. This figure is believed to be an underestimation. Even if it isn’t, there are 75,000 children who will be separated from their families, cold and in fear for their lives, over the festive period.
You don’t need to cross an ocean, however, to find need. Britain has a deep-rooted social mobility problem. The problem is not just social division, according to the UK Government’s Social Mobility Commission, but a widening geographical divide between big cities and towns and counties, which are being left behind economically and hollowed out socially. This hollowing out, over Christmas, will be relieved by charities, churches and other faith groups providing hot food and shelter or through giving a present for a child to open on Christmas day morning.
The reality of this crisis is so acute that over the last decade 500,000 children from poorer families were not school-ready by age 5. This has a knock on effect later on with 1.2 million 16-year-olds – disproportionately from low-income homes – leaving school without 5 good GCSEs. The culmination of this systemic failing is that today only 1 in 8 children from low-income backgrounds is likely to become a high-income earner as an adult. The impact of this will have consequences on Britain’s already low productivity levels as well as economic performance, but more importantly it will deprive our children of a hope for a future.
Cynicism and Hope
This last year has seen “fake news” and the cynicism and manipulation of populist politics continue to challenge the orthodoxy of open, tolerant societies and the ability of responsible markets to bring people out of poverty. We have seen seeds to division sown, leading government policies to become increasingly insular with drawbridges being hoisted up with only a glimpse of what the real, long-term impacts might be.
I choose not to buy into the cynicism because I don’t believe we have become that mean spirited. But I do believe that when the propaganda of fear becomes infectious, you need to be intentional about countering the affects. Not just with words, but through deeds.
There is cause for optimism. Between 2000 and 2015, volunteering rates in the UK increased from 39% to 41% for men and from 39% to 42% for women. And according to the Charities Aid Foundation, 61% of the UK gave to charity in 2016 raising a total of £9.6 billion. 2016 also saw a significant increase in numbers of people saying they had taken part in a protest or signed a petition, peaking at 35%.
These actions demonstrate a common set of values, which I believe are clearly manifested through the unfortunate growth of foodbanks. The Trussell Trust, the UK’s largest operator of food banks, in 2016/17 provided 1,182,954 three day emergency food supplies to people in crisis. I am also forever proud of the UK publics’ ongoing commitment to giving to the Disaster Emergency Committee’s appeals – this year over £112 million has been given by the public.
Generosity, either through our governments or through our personal commitments, is the foundation to ensuring that the wounded, sick and marginalised are brought in from the edges of our communities. It is also the antidote to the polarised rhetoric we see in our politics, albeit in Western Europe, North America, West Africa or wherever else.
As we celebrate Christmas it is also a time to think about the challenges the world faces, the crises that will still be there in the New Year, and to encourage each other to think about what we can do. Maybe a starting point is giving an Inspired Gift from Unicef (other charity gifts from other charities are available)!
Christmas, for me, is about the restoration of hope and generosity is the gift of the hopeful. I believe, therefore, generosity will help us build a better vision for the future. One that cares for the left behind, that takes greater account of the realities that have fed the politics of anger, and one which gives hope for a happy life and a peaceful death.