Originally published at http://www.india-forum.com and http://www.ivarta.com
By: Narayanan Komerath June 29, 2005
The British activist charity “ActionAID” claims that over $20B of the $50B global poverty-alleviation budget is pocketed by consultants (Mathiason, The Observer, May 29). Years ago, another British report concluded that much of their Gujarat Earthquake relief funds fed SUV dealers. Hardly surprising.
Charitable organizations fill a critical need of US desis. They help us to “give back” and make a difference. With 1$ buying over Rs. 43, charities help us achieve our dreams of helping to improve many lives in our native land, leaving us free to focus on earning a living. Given this emotional aspect, the fierce debate about charities is not surprising. Today, one must take the time to be aware of where one’s money may be used. Let me share some pointers I’ve learned from research on these:
1. Social and development work is not easy, so those who do it full-time must be strongly motivated. What is that motivation? Type 1 is the “religious” MNC seeking to convert others to their faith – which in turn brings more money and market share. Not very different from the East India Company. Type 2 buys votes for political power. Type 3 is the scam, whose “overhead” may exceed 50%. Type 4 is the personality cult, set up to praise one individual. Type 5 is a club of well-intentioned socialites. Is there really a Type 6? A class of people to whom helping others fulfills their own purpose in life, believing that “Service to fellow humans is the best service to the Almighty”? Such people accept only a minimal livelihood, but work hard to help those in dire need. This seems incredible to us in “modern” society where one “bills” by the minute, but the evidence proves that there are indeed such – spread through many organizations. We put our trust in them, and have every reason to be proud of that decision.
2. An example may illustrate the distinction. Most of us are horrified by images of poverty and suffering, and some are dazed by the realization of having the near-Divine power to change a human life for less than the cost of a haircut. The recruitment pamphlet of a certain US-based “charity” with ties to India, uses the metaphor of a man who stood on a beach, picking up fish squirming on the sand, and tossing them back into the water. He responds to a sneering passer-by who questions his sanity: “It sure made a difference to THAT one!” Touching, no doubt, but they miss an important point. Fellow-Indians are not fish. They are proud, sensitive citizens of a great nation. Their lack of bank accounts and clothes as expensive as ours does not make them inferior or less intelligent. An organization set up to stoke its donors’ and fund-raisers’ egos, is less likely to use our money effectively. Predictably, their project reports, read carefully, reveal the reality that Indian villagers usually lose patience with their antics and ask them to leave.
3. How honest is the organization? Recently, a US-based charity hastily purged its websites and blithely disowned its grassroots relief-delivery partners in India, when questioned about their political colors. The leaders seemed confident that their ludicrous contortions would please gullible donors, instead of amplifying suspicion.
4. Do your funds get used to play politics or pay politicians? The US Internal Revenue Service is very specific about tax-deductions for donations to “501 c3” charitable organizations. If your “charitable” leaders march with banners saying: “Brick by Brick, Wall by Wall, US Rule Is Gonna Fall!” or “Allah Will Destroy America and India!” it may be time to worry. Ditto for political grandstanding with $20,000 “PadaYatras” etc. Political activism is not charity.
5. Does your charity simply throw money at poor people and walk away? Or do they actually help the local people to get educated, plan projects, make their own decisions, and then fund those projects with clear budgets, timelines and milestones? Yes, Indians in rural areas are smart and disciplined enough to do these. Anything else is just a waste of money. As the expensive British study concluded, and as I could have told them for free, “local buy-in” is critical. This means that the project will be cast in the locals’ realities, not yours. Religious metaphors and icons rooted in local culture and legend may adorn their workplaces. They will use names in Indian rather than western dialects and traditions, and praise the Almighty in every sentence. If all this offends your secular purity, you may be better off tossing the money from 30,000 feet and imagining that it did a lot of good. You’ll be happier than if you really find out just how the self-proclaimed “secular” organizations spend your money, or who paid for those new SUVs and “OSAMA IS OUR HERROW!” banners, not to mention AK-47s.
None of this in any way excuses deliberate discrimination by religion, caste, color or gender, let alone any sort of violence. Many desis who depend on CNN or “OUTLOOK” for their news, find it hard to accept that poor Indians can indeed conduct projects without such nonsense. The reality of human relations in India is far more complex and beautiful, though it can no doubt turn very ugly as well. We find that Indians even in the deepest, most remote parts are kind, caring, compassionate people whose first instinct is to be friendly and generous to their neighbors – and even more to strangers. Working with them, and helping them with the opportunity to achieve their dreams, can make one’s own life richer beyond anything that mere money can achieve. And finally, one must not lose interest and give up just because the task looms huge – or because someone lies about or tries to “label” the charity one supports. Take the time to find out the truth – and press for positive changes whenever possible. Meaningful achievement takes time, patience, and dedication.
Satyam eva jayate