London Calling June 2014

Fighting for those who can’t

NGOs and charities play a vital role in society

From Amnesty International to Stonewall and Age Concern, there are numerous prominent non-governmental and charitable organisations in the UK. Amnesty champions human rights, Stonewall advocates for the lesbian, gay and bisexual community, and Age Concern fights for the needs of the elderly. They all have their place and purpose.

These groups are very visible and powerful. Each has its own lobbyists and harnesses various media tools to achieve its goals.

During recent years’ debates in Britain on whether to make same-sex marriages legal, the country faced strong opposition from various quarters. This included opponents from the Church of England, which believes marriage is only possible between a man and a woman.

Representatives from Stonewall and other organisations argued on TV and radio that the ability to marry was a basic human right for all couples, regardless of gender. Debates raged both inside and outside Parliament. The provisions of the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act came into force in March 2014, and the first gay unions were celebrated across the country.

When reporting on contentious issues, the media customarily includes commentary from both sides of an argument to give audiences a balanced view. When politicians and civil servants make a statement on a particular policy decision, their arguments are gauged against experts’ views or the opinions of those who might be affected by a policy change.

Non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and charities give a voice to people whose positions may not be sufficiently represented.

I’ve come to notice the important role that NGOs play in society since moving to the UK. Before, I tended to believe that elected officials would work for my benefit and that of other citizens; therefore I could just trust them with decision-making. I also didn’t really notice the poor people or sexual minorities who might benefit from my support of policy changes.

I read occasional reports about such classes of people, but they all sank to the bottom of my conscience. I truly believed, as most of my colleagues did, the myth of everyone in Japan belonging to the middle class and that we were all basically okay.

In the UK, my eyes were gradually opened to reality. One example came during Christmas. Every year, starting as early as October, the newspapers come out with special pages dedicated to advertising Christmas presents for your loved ones.

Among a heap of shopping recommendations, a red pamphlet called “Christmas menu” caught my attention. It was made by the charity Crisis, and was not among the typically well-designed restaurant menus I was accustomed to receiving.

It promoted giving Christmas presents to homeless people, who have no family or loved ones to visit during the holidays. The charity has various centres throughout London where you can help serve meals to those in need. They also solicit donations.

This pamphlet brought to light the stark difference between my life and that of people in dire financial straits. It made me think, and urged me to take action.

When I came to London in 2002, I was shocked that poverty is still a political issue in a developed country such as this. I’ve since come to perceive that poverty is relative. Not having access to the Internet or higher education due to a lack of money can drastically reduce your chances for success in life.

The public activities of NGOs and charitable organisations don’t necessarily solve the problems against which they struggle. Although the Stop the War coalition and the anti-war movement led several million people in the UK to protest in the streets before the 2003 invasion of Iraq, it did not stop the government from pursuing military deployment.

Still, I believe that NGOs play a vital role in society. They fight for those who can’t, and make the voices of the populace heard. As an individual you may be but a small component of society, but, if you cry out, there will be some person or organisation out there that is ready and willing to help.