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The wing is on the bird

Myopic Philanthropy Needs New Glasses

By ARUNAVA SINHA

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THE affluent professional in India has a problematic relationship with philanthropy. The notion of sharing their own, burgeoning wealth – which they consider their natural due in recompense for their work – is not informed with any idea of equality or empathy. It is, instead, considered an opportunity for a display of moral superiority, of playing to the social gallery for adulation and approval, even of impacting their self-perceived balance-sheet of good and evil deeds.

It almost never stems from a conviction that there is something fundamentally wrong in an unequal society, and doing a little bit to right this wrong is one of the most human acts that can be performed. There is no understanding of the enormous injustice that is being perpetrated in a country where 1% of the population owns 58.4% of the wealth. There is no realisation that a more equitable sharing of assets is only a natural way to conform to the fundamental equality of all humans.

In these circumstances, it is hardly surprising that philanthropy in any form is low on the list of personal priorities even of individuals or groups who might be demonstrating their capacity for sensitivity, even empathy, in other situations.

The pitches that NGOs make to well-off sections of society to contribute money for the deprived follow the same pattern: the less-than-subtle emphasis is on the personal heroism, the acquisition of the halo of goodness, that making such a contribution implies. Those soliciting such contributions – their idealism and doggedness in the face of rejection is extraordinary and unequivocally admirable – make transparent appeals to the potential donor’s conscience and probable guilt in order to get something out of them.

Surely the time has come to change this. In a country where everyone is competing for limited resources, it is all the more important to inculcate a sense of fairness, to instil the realisation that it is one human’s natural, fundamental, even cosmic right to have access to the same standards of living – including food, shelter, education, healthcare, and the resultant freedom – as everyone else.

As we have seen over 50-odd years of a more or less socialist economic framework, followed by 25 years and counting of the charge towards a market economy, neither system has succeeded in changing the fabric of society in a way that economic strategies and forces are consciously directed towards reducing, and finally eliminating, financial disparities.

In this situation, only a profound change in the zeitgeist can ensure that wealth, no matter how it is created, is distributed in a way that reflects the fundamental equality between humans. The professional, in particular, used as they are to the paradigm of competition, must find a way to internalise the philosophy of equality, to direct their efforts not just towards the construction of pools of wealth, but also towards its redistribution. Unfortunately, the neoliberal ethos is driving even fair-minded individuals and groups of people towards widening the disparities further. The problem, it appears, is someone else’s (the government’s?) to solve.

Perhaps any sustained strategy for converting citizens to philanthropy must begin not with appeals for contributions, but with efforts to change the intrinsic thinking about the right to equal resources. Redistribution of personal wealth, then, might become not a choice but an organic component of living.


arunava-sinha-picArunava Sinha translates Bengali classic, modern and contemporary fiction, non-fiction, poetry, and children’s books from India and Bangladesh into English. Thirty-two of his translations have been published so far. He has won the Crossword Award for Best Translated Book twice, for Sankar’s Chowringhee (2007) and Anita Agnihotri’s Seventeen (2011). He has also been shortlisted twice for the same award, for Buddhadeva Bose’s My Kind of Girl (2009) and Rabisankar Bal’s Dozakhnama (2012). He is the winner of the Muse India translation award for Buddhadeva Bose’s When The Time Is Right (2011), and has been shortlisted for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize in the UK for Sankar’s Chowringhee (2010). Besides translating, he conducts translation workshops and consults with HarperCollins India and Scroll.in

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8 thoughts on “Myopic Philanthropy Needs New Glasses

  1. Well said Sinha! New set of glasses are a MUST in a scenario where bountiful is on <1% of population and scarcity is on the other side comprising 99% of the population.

    Like CSR, PSR (personal social responsibility ) is to be inculcated from a young age. Previous generation has missed out on this leading us to this ever-increasing chasm, but our generation can really do wonders without missing the bus, inculcating in our children a sense of belonging, humanity, and Giving to the bottom-of-the-pyramid.
    Of late, I see a total change in outlook of many children "first-time-office-goers' wanting to contribute, be it thru volunteering or resources (in kind) or in cash.

    Best wishes to all of us, non-profits, only this generation will do a lot, please don't 'Miss the Bus', Do Good, and get Good contribution from Millenials, in whatever form they might give.

    1. Thanks for your comments, Ravi. You are very right about this generation, there is a ton of hope. In particular, we hope the nation begins to see the underlying issue: that everyone has right to basic resources and infrastructure, and for that to happen we have to move past the idea that a donation is a quick way of solving a problem. It should be a collective action, that could one day lead to equality.

  2. While it is true that the unequal distribution of wealth needs to be addressed, the article has a very negative slant to it. Yes we do lag behind other countries, but the situation is definitely changing for the better. I have worked in the non profit sector for over 20 years now and I think philanthropy has only grown in India. According to Bain’s India Philanthropy 2015 report, the country has added 100 million donors since 2009. Today, the nonprofit sector has become more professional, it has become more open to receiving funds from a diverse base of donors and has a greater capacity to respond to their concerns than ever before. Also donors are more informed and a great many of them believe in involving themselves with the cause as opposed to just donating for it. To attribute their philanthropy and volunteering to playing to the gallery and a sense of moral superiority is not doing justice to their efforts in addressing social needs. Also while NGOs have become more savvy in their marketing techniques it is done with a genuine concern for and commitment for the communities they address. I feel your article is a bit myopic; perhaps a little more research is in order.

    1. We think a part of the solution lies in turning the act of charity on its head. Maybe donation is not a quick-fix solution by itself. Perhaps, part of the problem is that we assume people who are better off can always lend a buck here and there. What’s more powerful is if we start to realize that every human has a right to education, infrastructure, health care, and emotional care.The movement of giving then becomes a larger ideology, rather than one act of charity. What do you think? Thanks so much for reading!

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