When charity becomes a vice

We have all accepted a situation whereby the State mismanages its finances – through a combination of inefficient tax collection and questionable spending – and then turns to the taxpayer to foot the bill.

Cartoon by Mark Scicluna
Cartoon by Mark Scicluna

L-Istrina – the annual Christmas variety-show/charity fundraiser on TVM – is often considered evidence that Malta is indeed as ‘generous and compassionate’ as tradition decrees. 

On paper, there is some truth to this claim. This year’s edition, for instance, raised four million euros for charity within literally a few hours, comfortably beating the previous year’s record. Closing an eye at large corporate donations that could just as easily have been expensive public relations gimmicks, there can be no doubt that the sum collected represents tens of thousands bona fide donations by persons not in the public eye.

Clearly, then, ‘L-Istrina’ does trigger a genuine charitable instinct among the population at large. And there may be other reasons for its popularity. In a country starved of ‘celebrity culture’, L-Istrina is one of the few events that unites all the country’s ‘great and good’ under one roof for a common, altruistic purpose. Political antagonism, social issues, tensions and controversies are set aside for the greater good, at least for Chistmas.

We all know, of course, that this is merely a fabricated media paradigm; but it makes a welcome change nonetheless.

But behind all the glitz of this often garish spectacle, there is an uncomfortable truth. Inasmuch as L-Istrina serves as a spotlight focusing on Malta’s generosity, it can also be said to exploit this cherished stereotype to gloss over certain other, less savoury characteristics. 

For one thing, the artificial festive atmosphere evokes a sense of exhibitionism and self-congratulatory smugness. This may well be an inevitable feature of all such initiatives. Other countries likewise employ their State broadcasters for fundraising purposes at Christmas time; the results are often similar.

Yet there is a difference in Malta. L-Istrina is not merely shown on state TV; it is organised under the auspices of the Office of the President, which makes it a State initiative in itself. Opinions are naturally divided on the question of whether the State should involve itself in charitable fund-raising at all. But it would also be pertinent to question whether the event itself serves another purpose: to assuage the State’s conscience for having abdicated several key aspects of its remit.

Most of the beneficiaries of this year’s L-Istrina  involve medical causes that technically already fall within the spectrum of State-provided national health services. Among the 66 NGOs to have access to last year’s Strina funds were: the Physically Handicapped Rehabilitation Fund, the Down Syndrome Association, Association for the Deaf, the Malta Hospice Movement, the Mental Health Association, Puttinu Cares [Cancer Foundation], and a host of others providing ancillary support to the existing health system.

A system which the State is already committed to financing at its own expense.

There is, of course, nothing wrong with financing support services through private charity – many of these NGOs would not be able to exist otherwise – but we are talking about private charity being used as a direct substitute for State aid. This is questionable for a number of reasons. 

From the outset, there is a conflict of interest. Some of the money collected this year will fund expensive drugs for the treatment of several ailments – not least, cancer – in Malta’s state medical centres. It is already bad enough that the NHS has become dependent on private charity to finance critically important health services: another example from outside ‘L-Istrina’ would be the annual Lifecycle Charity Run, which donates money (and, in previous years, equipment) to Mater Dei’s Renal Unit. 

But when the funds are raised by the State itself – which should, in theory, fund such services itself through taxes – this becomes analogous to passing the bill over to the private citizen.

It is perhaps a consolation that Malta’s private citizens are only too happy to dig into their pockets and contribute. If nothing else, it proves that our reputation for generosity is not misplaced. However, the problem here is not the generosity of the public; it is that our generosity as a nation has substituted the obligations of the government to provide for its people, according to the Constitution.

This in turn points towards another, paradoxical failure. While the organs of the State boast about raising large sums for charity – something they have no real business to be doing – the same State consistently falls shorts of its legitimate fund-raising targets: i.e., tax revenue.

It is estimated (somewhat conservatively) that Malta annually loses around 250 euros in tax revenue per taxpayer. Last year alone, tax evasion is understood to have cost the country a staggering 83 million euros – more than 20 times the amount collected by L-Istrina. Add that uncollected revenue to the sums of money annually wasted on various public events and oddities, and a systemic anomaly swims into view.

We have all accepted a situation whereby the State mismanages its finances – through a combination of inefficient tax collection and questionable spending – and then turns to the taxpayer to foot the bill. Even more bizarrely, we have somehow turned this unwholesome situation into a cause for annual celebration… or, as novelist Immanuel Mifsud recently described it, a grotesque parody of ‘carnival in December’. 

He is right. Charity is a virtue, but it can also be a vice.

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