The original meaning of this proverb was that a person’s first responsibility is for the needs of their own family and friends. However, nowadays the ‘home’ referred to is frequently not an individual household, but the UK as a whole. When discussing overseas aid, this phrase is often used to argue that the UK should tackle its domestic problems before spending money to help those in need abroad.
This phrase is bandied around as if it’s some kind of universally acknowledged truth – like ‘practice makes perfect’ or ‘scissors beat paper’ – which automatically trumps any other argument. Really, it’s just a group of words which doesn’t make that much sense if you encourage people to think about it for a while.
The point of charity is to help those who need it most. Imagine if someone’s house burned down, and their next door neighbour refused to help because they had rising damp in their walls and so needed to sort that out first because, after all, ‘charity begins at home’. Only the most heartless person would do that, right? The scale and urgency of need must surely be taken into account when deciding where charity is deserved.
Those of us living in the UK are very fortunate that our collective ‘home’ has wealth in abundance. It may not feel like it at times – to someone on a zero-hours contract struggling to pay the rent it must feel like a kick in the teeth to be told they’re fortunate to live in a rich country. The truth is, there is an enormous amount of wealth in this country which could be put to use solving domestic problems if only the British public would vote for policies aimed at tackling economic inequality. In much of the developing world, no matter who they vote for (if they even get to vote) they will still be poor.
It’s hard to even imagine the hardship which exists in some parts of the world. The scale and urgency of their problems make ours seem small by comparison. In the UK it is (quite rightly) a national scandal that so many people are reliant on food banks; in Chad, people routinely starving to death doesn’t even make the headlines. Here, the NHS is experiencing a funding crisis; in Malawi, there is no universal healthcare and medical services are struggling to cope with an AIDS crisis. Here, it is claimed that the ongoing Brexit debate is tearing the country apart; in Colombia, lives, families and communities have been torn apart by decades of civil war.
We have the resources in this country to tackle our domestic problems and help those in need overseas. It doesn’t have to be a choice. Many countries around the world have significant and urgent problems which they need help to solve. If the UK abandons foreign aid because ‘charity begins at home’, we are no better than someone refusing to help their newly homeless neighbour because of their own troubles with rising damp.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Development in Action.
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