If being a social worker means I care, why do I spend more on frothy coffee than starving children?

If being a social worker means I care, why do I spend more on frothy coffee than starving children?

You wouldn’t believe how conflicted I feel about free-range chicken. At home, after I’ve seen a TV show about where poultry actually comes from and seen thousands of birds cooped up in a shed, anaemic, feathers falling out, mistreated, grown until 30 days old and then stunned, hung, drawn, plucked and bagged for resale… It’s not so hard then. But at the supermarket, in the refrigerator aisle, with those prices? Some evenings I stand there so long having a crisis of conscience I get hypothermia.

This is the truth, and it’s an uncomfortable one.

It’s the same with my phone. Sure, I’ve read the reports about Chinese factory workers tirelessly flogged to assemble Apple’s products. But want to know what I’ve got beside me on the desk right now? What I’m writing this on? Dilemma or what? The fact is, I really liked the packaging.

It gets worse.

Because I also earn a living as a writer I have to complete self-assessments for tax purposes, and because I don’t earn much this way, there isn’t a lot of tax to pay. But you can, so I’m told, donate extra money to the government if you so wish. I never have though. Yet at the same time I complain about the cuts.

And I’m not done yet. Over Christmas my girlfriend and I enjoyed a luxury night away at a big country estate with a spa, rolling grounds, and waiters in bow ties who drape serviettes over their arms and surreptitiously top up your wine. It was that sort of place.

But it was here I had my greatest crisis of conscience yet. What are we doing…? I lamented over my confit of lamb in a red wine jus. ‘How can we live with ourselves when there are children starving in the world?’

She has come to term this my mid-life crisis, and by the end of the meal she was having a crisis of her own, thinking I was on the verge of deserting her to go and tend to the sick and ailing of Rwanda.

Instead, I resolved to give more to charity. You want to know how much more…? My initial plan was to give all I had away and then live off rye bread and water, forsaking all money for the greater benefit of mankind. But this quietly retreated until I found myself filling out a standing order for ten pounds a month to help foster carers in the UK. And even that minuscule amount took a monumental effort of will power.

Why am I telling you all this? Because isn’t it astonishing? Isn’t it crazy that there are millions of children dying for lack of food, clean water, medication, and that according to Oxfam I could buy a family a whole goat for £8. Heck, I could buy a whole herd. But I don’t, because I choose instead to meet friends for a coffee.

Isn’t that crazy?    

Isn’t that particularly crazy coming from a man who chooses social work as a profession?

Why enter social work, after all, unless it’s to help others? But then if I want to help others, why do I value frothy coffee over the lives of African children and, for that matter, blanche at the idea of stumping up an extra £2.50 so that a chicken gets at least a breath of fresh air before being turned into a Parmo?

This is a question I’ve been putting to lots of people recently, usually with a wild-eyed, half-crazed look in my eye, usually with my wallet in my hand, usually in the refrigerator aisle at the supermarket.

But there is no easy answer. What’s particularly interesting is how people react when you bring this up. Mention starving children and you get a forlorn shake of the head followed by lengthy explanations of why it’s not as easy as simply donating cash; that charities waste money; that a lot of it goes to corrupt governments; that the world is a terrible place and there’s just nothing to be done about it.

I do wonder though. And I do hope, with every fibre of my being, that they’re wrong. But that doesn’t mean this blog comes to any sort of neat and tidy conclusion. It doesn’t mean I’m any closer to knowing what’s right.

For years I’ve said loudly to anyone who’d listen that if I won a million pounds I’d give it all away. My generosity with money I don’t have knows no bounds. I am the most generous yet-to-be millionaire I know.

But you just try cadging another ten pounds out of me to feed an African family. Sure, I take a lot of pride in my values as a social worker, but when it comes to my values as a person the truth is I’m lost. I’ve Ted Baker shirts in a world where children die for clean water. That’s pretty hard to explain.

MATT BEE (coffee addict) qualified as a social worker in 2007 and has worked for local authorities, NHS Trusts and charities across adult services. As a freelance writer, he writes for Community Care, Professional Social Worker and the Guardian’s social care network. Occasionally he tweets: @MattBeeWrites


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