The closure of the Kids Company (KC) on Thursday 6 August 2015 was front page news in the UK. By the time the National Audit Office (NAO) released its report into KC last Thursday, the list of the charity’s management failings and misuse of funds had grown like weed (or like the “weed” on which the kids in KC’s care had spent the cash it handed out to them), and included funding an Iranian diplomat’s child’s PhD studies among its most bizarre examples.
When an infinite need meets a finite resource
KC’s many and varied mistakes had common characteristics: spending money outside of its stated remit (e.g. on the Iranian diplomat’s child), spending within its remit but in an irrational and gullible manner (e.g. the cash handouts for dope), attracting funds from donors for specific projects which KC did not implement (an anonymous former KC worker told BBC Radio 4’s The Report: “Banks would fund in three year cycles right? So we’re going to fund this programme and then, down the line, they would pitch that and get the money, they wouldn’t turn around and tell the relevant department, ‘you know this is what we’ve promised, you’ve got to deliver it.’ And then there was this scrambling to get something in place and it was practically impossible”), and, finally, an inability to demonstrate what results were being achieved by any of the money it was spending.
Of all the domestic UK charities to which I have donated (most of my donations go to poorer countries than the UK), KC was one of the biggest recipients (over one thousand pounds), and I shook my head at each example of misspending as it emerged. I won’t deny that these examples show KC as anything other than incontinent and disorganised. My point in this blog is that the mindset in KC which encouraged such misspending is also essential to charity. Dismissing KC’s profligacy is therefore much more complicated than first appears – paradoxical even. Each one of KC’s misdemeanors may have been mad, but I want to argue that charity would not be charity without such madness. Most charity scandals are the result of fraud or other uses of charity money for personal gain. KC is special because no one in the charity took the funds to put them in their own pocket. It was the opposite. They took unconditional giving to an unsustainable extreme.
For any charity to really be a charity (and not some kind of business) it has to give without expecting anything in return for itself, as opposed to engaging in a transaction (as businesses do). KC is emblematic of this issue because it works with children (such as Eniola Akinlabi, pictured above) whose parents either neglected or were unable to look after them. The relationship you have to your children as a parent is the most intuitive, tangible and unquestioned example there is of the unconditional giving which defines the concept of charity according to which KC operated. Young children need that unconditional love more than anyone else – because they are less self-sufficient and need support, but more importantly because that unconditional love is crucial to their feelings of confidence, security and self-worth. And this throughout life.
The heartbreaking agony of the children KC was trying to help was that they did not get that unconditional parental support when they most needed it. KC’s controversial approach of giving unconditionally to the kids it helped was therefore dictated by the lack of unconditional parental support from which those kids suffered. As David van Egen, a former KC mentor told The Report: “It was absolutely based on a unique relationship between each young person and their worker … some of these guys hadn’t had any kind of responsible adult in their life for 12 years.”
Critics argue however that the problem wasn’t KC’s laudable aims, but the fact that it did things that had nothing to do with those aims and that it didn’t realise those aims efficiently. As Fraser Nelson writes: “Ministers were so dazzled by its goals … that it seemed almost rude to ask if the money was being well spent.” There is a paradox however: damage caused by the lack of unconditional parental support in a child’s life is unlimited. You never fully heal such a wound. So how can you place clear limits on something unlimited? How can you decide to stop giving when the need for giving is endless? How can you measure the impact of a Gift which tries to make up for the absence of the most essential gift in any child’s life?
That’s why, when accused of profligacy, KC counter-claimed that it only seemed like profligacy because of the childrens’ huge needs. When challenged to “demonstrate results” it responded that the children’s problem was precisely that they had suffered from the lack of a parent who could give to them unconditionally, whether they demonstrated results or not, and that bureaucratic statistics could never capture the “result” of KC’s attempts to make up for that lack.
The deconstructive concept of the Gift
The paradoxes which need to be negotiated by anyone attempting to evaluate KC’s behavior are paradoxes which underlie the Gift as a philosophical concept. I therefore think you need to understand the Gift as a philosophical concept to understand KC. The Gift was extensively analysed as a concept in the 90s by the deconstructive philosopher Jacques Derrida.
After a period of great popularity from the 80s to the end of the 90s, albeit one during which most of his admirers completely misunderstood his work (egregious examples include serial ‘Derrida for students’ textbook writer, Christopher Norris, and the translator of Derrida’s Grammatology, Gayatri Chakraborty Spivak), this work is almost entirely forgotten today, regrettably. I think that it is worth rescuing from obscurity for anyone trying to understand what happened at KC.
So what is the Gift according to Derrida? A gift is distinguished from an exchange as something that is given without receiving anything in return. It must also be given intentionally (to distinguish it from accidental loss). And it must be something that benefits the recipient (if you shoot someone you may get nothing in return, and certainly no gratitude, but it’s not a gift because the person doesn’t want to be shot). If all these conditions are satisfied, the donor will be repaid, at least symbolically, if not by gratitude, then by the recipient’s acknowledgement (in French, reconnaissance) of the gift. Any gratitude on the part of the donor turns the gift into an exchange (see Jacques Derrida, Given Time (hereafter “GT“), Trans. Peggy Kamuf (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1992): Ch. 1, 11-14). In other words, for the gift to be a genuine Gift, it will always result in some form of repayment (because of its value to the recipient) and therefore no longer be a gift. That is the paradox of the Gift.
Deconstruction can make the impossible Gift possible because of its radical concept of the subject, which derives from its concept of language. Language according to deconstruction is only possible as the citation of a code which is derived from previous uses of language (see Derrida, ‘Signature Event Context’ (1972), Trans. Samuel Weber and Jeffrey Mehlmann (1977), Limited Inc., Ed. Gerald Graff (Evanston: Northwestern UP, 1988), 1-23: 18 ). And we can only apprehend reality in language; even supposedly direct or intuitive apprehensions of reality which are not verbal, and don’t use language in its common and restricted sense, need to have the same characteristics as language defined more broadly by deconstruction as a citation of an iterable code (‘Afterword: Toward an Ethic of Discussion,’ Trans. Samuel Weber, Limited Inc., 111-160: 148). This is what Derrida means in his controversial statement il n’y a pas de hors texte (“there is nothing outside the text”). The sentence is often fatuously assumed to mean that all reality is really “language,” and that there is therefore no difference between fiction and reality. Rather, what deconstruction is saying is that there is no direct access to reality outside of the iterable code of which words (spoken or written) are an example.
According to deconstruction therefore, whenever you use language – even in the most original way – you are already citing someone else, who was also citing someone else … So all experience is both yours and that of the Other from who you derive the language which makes the experience possible. Therefore, whatever you do as a subject constituted by language is only possible because of an Other who precedes you. From this follows a shared agency in which what you do is both a repetition of what was already said by the Other, and at the same time something completely new. As Derrida says about Geoff Bennington’s reading of Kant: “Geoff Bennington’s reading of Kant is … a valid countersignature for Kant. It adds something new that is … Geoff’s invention; but this invention is an interesting one only to the extent that it acknowledges an event that was already there, which is Kant’s text” (‘“As if I were Dead”: An Interview with Jacques Derrida,’ Applying: To Derrida, Eds. Julian Wolfreys et al. (London: Macmillan, 1996), 212-226: 220).
Derrida says: “The writer writes in a language and in a logic whose proper system … his discourse cannot dominate absolutely. He uses them only by letting himself … be governed by that system’ (De la grammatologie (Paris: Minuit, 1967) Pt. 2, Ch. 1, 227; although it is often shabby and misleading, I have used Spivak’s translation  which is adequate in this case). The Gift works according to a similar movement to the one performed by the writer. The giver only gives because he is “letting himself be governed by” the Other who constitutes him as a subject. The person who makes the gift according to deconstruction is not credited with it (see GT Ch 1, 23-24), but owes it to the Other whom he is repeating. However, it is also his intentional act, and therefore is not accidental, and cannot simply be credited to the (abyssal string of) Other(s) whom he repeats (GT Ch. 3, 101).
Not only does deconstruction’s concept of the Other make possible a Gift which is radically different from any exchange, it says that the Gift is an obligation: the fact that you are constituted by the Other gives you an obligation to give to others without reciprocity.
Deconstruction says you must even give to the charlatan
A critic might object that just because you give without reciprocity, with a pure generosity as it were, doesn’t mean you have to be a mug. Generosity can be pure without being directed into the wrong pockets, be they those of corrupt officials or, as in KC’s case, kids out for free trainers or marijuana. But the deconstructive gift isn’t just unreciprocal, it is also unconditional. When confronted by an other whom you judge, deconstruction argues that the shared linguistic experience between the subject and the Other means that you should be open to the new and potentially surprising expression you can give to the other whom you are judging.
Imposing conditions means you cannot be open to the Other in this way. Bennington argues that although ‘it clearly matters whether I am faced with a legislator or a charlatan … I have no means of making a confident decision between them: any decision of that sort would need to refer to an existing criterion, and thus foreclose the possibility that all my existing criteria are being challenged by the other’ (Legislations: The Politics of Deconstruction (London and New York: Verso, 1994): [Introduction] 2). The “I” who would decide whether the other to whom she is giving is a worthy recipient or a charlatan is constituted by the Other to whom she is giving. However Derrida says that it’s perfectly possible to ignore the fact that you are constituted by the Other, with all the attendant complexities, and to assert yourself according to a simplified, unreflective concept of the subject: “What is found at work in everyday discourse, in the administration of justice … is a lexicon of responsibility of which one cannot say that it does not corresponds to any concept but that it floats without rigor around a concept which it cannot find” (DLM Pt. I, Ch. 4, 117-118; my translation). In fact Derrida argues that simplifying in this way is easier, and makes you more efficient. Because deconstruction avoids this simplification it is forced to take an approach which complicates any allocation of responsibility and the attachment of any conditions to the Gift.
This may partly explain one of Batmanghelidjh’s controversial remarks to “The Report”: “The state is giving us money to support the children with their basic needs, and that is what we’re doing, and if we find that a child is using their money to buy drugs we will of course intervene. But once you hand over that allowance to that particular kid, if they then make a poor choice with it, that is part of the learning curve” (my emphasis). She refuses to make a “confident decision” about the childrens’ use of the money given to them by KC, and won’t “foreclose the possibility that her existing criteria” might be “challenged by” the children’s idiosyncratic “learning curve.” Of course such an approach is vulnerable to abuse, yet you can easily see how valuable such unconditionality could be for such damaged children.
It follows from deconstruction’s refusal of such simplification that it demands a Gift without reserve. Because the Gift is unconditional, as we have just explained, it must be given without calculating whether the recipient deserves it. A calculation of “how much” that recipient deserves is impossible for the same reason. And each gift is given to a unique recipient who also constitutes the Giver in his uniqueness. Therefore the Giver cannot make choices between one potential recipient and another. If all recipients are unique, and the gift to each one is unconditional, there can be no rational calculation of how to allocate resources among all potential recipients. Derrida: ‘As soon as I enter into a relation with the other … I know that I am responding … by sacrificing whatever obliges me to respond in the same instant to all the others’ (DLM Pt. I, Ch. 3, 98; trans. David Wills ). But that is true of all potential recipients. Each one must be given to unconditionally without reference to any other recipients. There can be no limit to the Gift.
There is no evidence that Camila Batmanghelidj ever read Derrida, but the deconstructive concept of the Gift certainly seems to underlie KC’s most controversial disbursements. Indeed the most cringe-worthy statements made by Batmanghelidj don’t show that she was self-serving or venal. She is in fact quite the reverse, having mortgaged her own home to fund the charity, and devoted her whole life to it without any exceptional remuneration. What they do show is someone with no idea of accounting and financial discipline. Time and time again she claimed that there was nothing wrong merely because KC’s accounts had been “signed off” by their auditors. That only means that both sides of the balance sheet match up and that the income and expenditure can be traced down to quite a general level of detail. It tells you nothing whatsoever about how efficiently the money has been spent. And of course Batmanghelidj would argue no accountant can tell you that.
Why the Gift must be pure
Deconstruction may do justice to the paradox of the Gift, and avoid a half baked concept of the Gift in which all gifts slide back into the logic of exchange. But you can imagine regulators, government officials and people on funding boards greeting it with the proverbial “who farted?” face.
Their obvious response might be: “so what if the gift isn’t a pure Gift? Surely it’s just easier to admit that charity is a transaction, where we give to certain vulnerable people to get certain clearly defined results. And so what if feeling good about it is a kind of repayment?” The discussion of the deconstructive Gift in this blog will merely be proof for many that “Continental philosophy is a waste of time.”
I think the problem with that is that it begs the question of why we give. If you just give to “get results” you need to understand why you want those particular results. Of course some giving can be justified in terms of pure self-interest, for example it might be better, for purely selfish reasons, to pay for an inner-city kid to have a mentor than to pay for that same kid to spend a year in jail after he’s burgled your house.
But most charity is not based on such narrow self-interest. You don’t give to Hives Save Lives just because you want more honey, you give because you want bees to flourish for the bees’ sake, and to help the people in Africa to whom you send the hives to make an independent living – for the beekeepers’ sakes.
As soon as you stop thinking according to narrow self-interest, you start to think unconditionally, and outside the bounds of reciprocity and rationality. The problems which afflicted Kids Company are not just an example of, as an anonymous former KC worker put it: “a lot of money [being] wasted” due to “the lack of efficiency and the lack of organisation,” but an emblem of the excess which defines the unconditional Gift which is at the heart of all charity. It is necessarily a kind of madness, it is irrational in the root sense that no ratios can be meaningfully applied to it.
The unconditional Gift to the Other as Other is a supreme value for me. For me, the whole point of efficient and productive free markets, and the money they make, is to give us the ability to give without reserve. This is not to say that I condone the mis-spendings. Indeed, if we give without reserve all the time we go bust, get ripped off and starve. Ideally of course, everyone would give unconditionally to everyone and there would be no cheats or free-riders (the young Marx’s utopian ideas were close to such a concept of felicity). But that is not how people really behave, unfortunately.
Intuitively, you could say that you had to have a balance between the two approaches. But to achieve that balance you would need a perspective from which to decide when to be unconditional and when to be calculating. The problem is there is no third perspective which is neither unconditional nor calculating and which can comprehend both the unconditional and the calculating perspective. So it would have to be one of the two competing perspectives. And if it’s the calculating perspective which decides it will never decide to be unconditional, and vice versa. You would have to think of an unconditional rationality, and that is a difficult concept.