The wondrous ability of intellectuals to glamourise the “worker” was a major characteristic of the 19th and 20th centuries. Karl Marx was a prime example of the type, having spent a lifetime getting as far from the working class as possible – to prevent reality imposing on his theories.

Western intellectuals still cling to this vision of the “working man” locked in a heroic struggle with “capitalism”. Ironically, those clinging the hardest are those who make a very comfortable living, directly or indirectly, from the market.

Often the strongest, most vehement criticism comes from charities and foundations whose own incomes come from donors who earn it – you guessed it – in the free market system.

Anyway you look at it, their money all comes from the private sector, that is, from “filthy capitalism”.

None of this would matter much in the case of traditional charities, where one can assume with reasonable certainty that the money goes towards helping those the donors intend to help.

Problems arise when the charity or foundation (the latter sounds so much better) is an “advocacy group”. Money given to such organisations goes towards two main things. The first and most important is to keep the executives of such organisations paid and accommodated. The balance goes on administration, or for whatever else this lobby group wants to do with it.

Such advocacy groups should be called political parties, for that is what they are. They want to change the way we are governed – without having to sully themselves by entering openly into the political arena and asking for votes from, among others, workers.

These advocacy organisations (Bench Marks Foundation is a prime example of the genre) are part of a massive global industry, some of them every bit as rich as the multinational corporations they love to vilify. Greenpeace, for example, likes to portray itself as a small David tackling the Goliaths of capital. Meanwhile, its annual income is hundreds of millions of dollars.

African stamping ground

It is sometimes quite difficult to find what salaries these international organisations pay their staff. Only by careful scrutiny of job adverts does one discover that many are paid at least as much as oil company executives (or some mining bosses, for that matter).

So expert at propaganda are international charities and foundations that they are rarely challenged. The cloak of do-gooding is opaque and glitters too brightly. But for anyone wanting to bequeath money to an organisation that claims to be doing good, it is advisable to check a number of things first.

Inquire about the salary package of the chief executive. Include benefits like first- or business-class air travel. Ask what percentage of every dollar donated is spent on salaries and administration.

Check whether you are giving to a traditional charity or to an advocacy group. Should you be a churchgoer, check what your church is doing and whether it knows where your money is going. Has it done a due diligence on the organisations it backs? If you do not check, you may be alarmed to find out that your money is being used for purposes other than those you intended.

Africa is a favourite stamping ground for charities and advocacy foundations. Many moved their African headquarters to South Africa after 1994, the climate and amenities being so much better. They are quite visible to any discerning tourist in Kenya, Tanzania, Zanzibar or Zambia, say.

The truth is that the poor or the working class, whatever that means, are not a special type or class. They are individual human beings like everyone else. They love, lie, and cheat. They have honour, loyalty and wisdom. In short, they are fallible, like we all are.

To pretend otherwise is ridiculous. Only middle-class intellectuals with private incomes or academics who have never worked in commerce or industry cling on to what is essentially a Marxist myth. Of course, real charities help the poor and only some advocacy charities tend to help themselves while claiming to do the same. Learning to discern the difference is difficult but essential.

Keith Bryer is a retired communications consultant.