Politics of Charity


The word “charity” has inherent in it the absence of ulterior motives or hope of benefit. ( I am of course speaking of an ideal situation, Christian missionaries by and large have always performed charity with a motive–conversion) Yet as we have seen in the aftermath of the Tsunami catastrophe, charity is being increasingly used as a means of publicity–it is not enough to be merely doing something but more important to be able to be seen doing so.

The charge leveled at the US by Jan Egeland, undersecretary general for humanitarian affairs and emergency relief for the UN, of being “stingy with aid” may be a bit harsh especially if one looks at the real figures. But if the objective was to stir the US administration to action, it succeeded in its intent. In an ideal world the US should not even have reacted to this statement and gone on doing what it intended to do with respect to Tsunami relief. But it did retort–Colin Powell and George Bush repeated “we are not stingy—we gave xyz dollars”, the US press touted figures showing how much more the US gives “effectively” (as a government and as individuals) than France and Germany (the conservative Press’s favorite whipping boys nowadays), Jeb Bush trooped off to the affected areas in a blaze of publicity (with an eye on Decision 08) —-humanitarian help became one more ring in the media and PR circus.

Sandra Bullock donates 1 million dollars (the same as for the 9/11 victims), Leonardo De Caprio gives blah amount….the list goes on. Now these are admirable gestures and the dollars are very welcome but what happened to silent charity and anonymous donations ? Why is everyone, people and governments alike, so struck up on using charity as a media exercise with the amount being donated directly proportional to popularity brownie points ?

One way to look at the issue positively is that many people or governments who otherwise would not have engaged in it or to a lesser extent go the full hog because of the PR brownie points . After all to many people what matters is the ends not the means. Or the motivations in this case. But the politics of charity work both ways: while it exalts the giver it somehow reduces the receiver. Case in point: the Indian government’s stance of not taking foreign aid even though we desperately need it. In its endeavor of not to be considered as a “victim” and a receiver, the Government of India seeks to disburse monetary and military help to other countries ignoring its own citizens in dire need.

The flip side of the politicization of charity is that those who contribute less are considered in poor light. Charity is not even “I gave. Ergo I am great”. It is now “I gave more than you. Ergo I am greater than you ” with the “you” continuously trying to up the ante in the game of “who gave the most”. (Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front –the dreaded JKLF–the grand daddy of terrorist organizations in Kashmir gave 100,000 ruppees as donation–which begs the question if their cohorts kill Indians by the dozen every month why are they even concerned for Indian Tsunami victims?The answer is tokenism.) The result is that people and government are not doing charity out of their own convictions but out of the fear of being considered “stingy”. If the means and the end are both important (that may be argued ), then this very public way of giving becomes a subversion of what lies at the heart of charity.

The Tsunami victims need money. But what they need even more is grassroots help and a long term plan. Many of the aid organizations (at least those working in India) have come up with long term rehabilitation and community building plans—not only with respect to financial allocation but with respect to how to actually do it. It would be interesting to see how many of the entities who are now falling over themselves to donate money are going to be there for the long haul where there will be no glamour or PR but only hard work and new ideas. I am afraid not many.


8 thoughts on “Politics of Charity

  1. @Rima- Yes beautifully written and so very true. I never read this till just now….thanks a lot for digging it out of the archives.

  2. YOURFAN writes:
    @GB: You wrote ‘The word “charity” has inherent in it the absence of ulterior motives or hope of benefit’. That is one way of looking at the definition of charity. But frankly speaking anybody who gives for charity even anonymously has some ulterior motive and that is the ‘feel good’ factor for himself. Besides, one’s charity may remain anonymous to the people who are receiving it but his relatives, neighbors are aware of his charity – thus he also receives some publicity – definitely not of the stature of say a film star or a politician. But in his own world he gets publicity. When we give something extra to say our poor maid servants – we expect some sort of gratitude from them – that is also a ‘hope of benefit’. But to me, these are all right because people must have some focus/reason for their activity/action – nobody can operate in a vacuum. Desire to do some charity even with ‘ulterior motive or hope of benefit’ is all right as long as the recipients are not directly or indirectly forced to do something which they otherwise won’t be doing if they were not the victims.
    @Rima: Thank you for digging out this nice thought provoking article. I missed it the first time. Although I want to read all of GB’s previous posts I just can’t manage the time. And most importantly I feel like a kid in a candy store – don’t know where to begin!!

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