Subsidiarity theory and the role of charities in society

Subsidiarity theory holds that social and political issues should be dealt with at the most immediate or local level that is consistent with their resolution. This theory underpins the role of charities in society.

It says that charities are best placed to deal with issues such as food poverty by providing food banks because they can respond locally to specific needs, whereas government would respond nationally which wouldn’t be as effective.

In this way, the charity sector could be seen to be implicitly supporting the state in not dealing with the underlying causes of the issues at a systematic level.

Philosophically then, charities could be seen to be stuck between individualism of doing what helps people vs. collectivism of doing what changes the system.

In reality, the charity sector is very good at balancing this conflict by delivering services and campaigning for change. There are numerous examples of charities bringing about changes in policy whilst supporting people in need.

Charity serves an important role in society, not only by helping people in need, but also in bringing about progressive change. Charity is not a response to the failings of a society, it is an integral part of a society’s success.

“An active, questioning charity sector is one of the guarantees of democracy… Government and democracy without voluntary exertion and voluntary idealism loses its soul.”

Lord Longford, reporting to the Nathan Committee.