I once had the acquaintance of a group of Uniting Church types who used to get together to do 'Good Works'. (Normally I don't capitalise key words but these people were so upright, they resembled capital letters themselves as they strode into their church hall, once home of the long-gone choir, to discuss their next charitable expedition 'abroad'.)
Mostly they were upper middle class widows from Kew and East Hawthorn who could afford to travel but some were gentlemen, retired woolly academic types or timid pastors who hadn't quite made it as zeal-filled missionaries, but still liked the travel aspect. They all got on together like a house on fire, of course. At their monthly meetings the ladies discussed the agenda fiercely – which third world country should be the next destination - while the men silently made tea in the corner, and with slender pale hands put out not enough stale biscuits on a tray. Hopeless.
I used to drive one of the men to the airport from Camberwell so he could save on taxi fares. The trips were hardly pilgrimages. They stayed in hotels, although they did fly Qantas economy where they'd eat the pre-prepared Neil Perry fare rather than the first class chef and sommelier deal. However, once arrived, the travellers were careful to eat only the correct regional cuisine for the area visited as a kind of gastronomical correctness. On return to Australia they'd hold dinner parties and put around plates of punugulus as if they were Smiths crisps. "Oh, just one of the things we ate in India," they'd say airily, plonking down giant bowls of pindi chole and Kerala mutton.
At one of these dinner parties, an old dear - we'll call her Mrs Jellyby - sipped her glass of mineral water and told me about the well they had provided in some scummy village in a part of India. They had travelled overnight on two buses and a crowded train from the city into which they had flown. The well was communal, of course. "It takes a village to raise a bucket," explained the old dear gravely, which was either gag of the day or she was demented, or maybe both. The well would allow the women of the village to lower a bucket on a rope and drag up some filthy artesian water with which they could cook chick peas or rinse garments or whatever it was that Indian women did when they weren't burning cow dung in their huts to stop their babies dying of cold, or walking around with pots on their heads. Or was that the African expedition? The stories all ran into one after a while, like the tigers turning to butter in Little Black Sambo.
Time and many monthly meetings passed in the old Uniting Church hall, now a 'refugee centre'. One night, someone raised a motion that they adopt a new way of being kind to poor people. Maybe they had tired of standing around in an Indian field while watching an Indian guy operating a drill in the back of a Hindustan truck. An ingenious new system had been developed, said the member, whereby you made a credit card payment and donated a goat, a duck, a piglet, or an entire farm if you had deep pockets. You could even give a Hindustan truck. Whatever. It would still be cheaper than your airfare to India. This had two key benefits. One, you could attain the moral high ground without leaving your house; and two, you could give the card proclaiming what you had given to a friend in lieu of a Christmas or birthday gift. Or for no reason at all, other than to signal that you were a Charitable Person, in capitals again.
More time passed and it was clear that token gestures would never have the effect of sheer scale, the kind of scale only possible through serious industrial undertaking. India's Adani approached Australia to run a Queensland mine, with resulting infrastructure bringing employment to Australians while providing power for an India for which a million wells, goats or Hindustan trucks are never enough.
Blow me down if I didn't see the old Uniting Church types getting in on the act. Opposing the mine. No power for cowpat-burning Indians! The dementia had clearly advanced.