Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Charity among us

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One of the better things expatriates bring home with them is the appreciation of charity, if not the act of giving itself. Or to rephrase it in our context, getting involved in charitable endeavor is not one of our better traits. Being one of the poorest nations doesn't help much in this regard either. There is this onerous question - "How can one think of giving to charity when one is practically living off one?" True - we, as a nation, are on the receiving end when it comes to charity. But, that's exactly where I stop agreeing with this logic - the keyword being "as a nation".

If you are reading these lines, there is no question in my mind that you do not fit the mold of a typical Nepali. You obviously can read and write in English, have access to the Internet and further than that, found this post in the blog universe. That should put you in the top few of the Nepali populace, economically speaking. Come to think of it, you most probably had a city schooling in a private school where you had harder time writing in Nepali than in English; if you are about or beyond your college going age, you probably don't bother writing in Nepali anymore; if you are of the working age, you probably work in Kathmandu or abroad; or if you are a retired person you probably retired as a very senior government officer or a professor or a professional in some sector. I can make those claims with so much certainty because of one factor alone - your English skills. Add to that your access to the blog and the rest is left for your guesswork.

Regardless, I can make another claim very quickly. At least 90% of you have never given to charity. And no, I don't mean about the times when you handed out 10-15 bucks just to get rid of the bunch that came to your doorstep with a "chanda" pad. It is not to say that you never intend to or you do not want to. Reasons for your not giving are plenty and reasonable - lack of information, lack of credibility of the fund raisers, lack of proper/convenient means, no visible gains of giving, no apparent results of your contributions, skepticism over the proper utilization of your contribution are, but, few reasons that come to mind.

Winter is upon us now. And each day when you complain about your car a/c not warming up quick enough, your gloves not blocking enough wind-chill as you ride that bike, your heaters not warming farther corner of your living room or your tea getting cold quicker, think of one person. This could be anyone who you see everyday on your way to work, temple, gym or bazaar. This person is someone you see and fail or choose not to notice. This kid who works in the teashop; this little girl who is scurries along in bitter cold of Kathmandu mornings to buy milk for her "sahibs" still asleep in their cozy beds; a homeless boy in Pashupati area who gets the warmth for winter from the pyre's heat. Those are few examples that we Kathmandu-baasi are more familiar with. What about the tens of thousands of children that we never hear of - in villages. Can you withstand the same conditions for one day that these people do everyday? Can you live as a homeless for one day? Can you work cleaning glasses in a teashop for just 3 hours? Easier said than done, my friend. Try it out and I'd like to hear from you.

I still remember a conversation I had with a friend of mine while I was in college. In the span of this discussion, he said "....whereas, people in villages get to eat fresh vegetables, milk, ghee, yogurt and meat." The context of our conversation is not even relevant here. The point is that we city dwellers have become oblivious to the state of our country. Yes, you get closer to the source of food as you go to villages but who actually gets to reap the harvest is another question worth writing about altogether. My point, for now, simply is that we don't know anything about the state of our country. May be we do, but it has not hit us home yet. We know there is dire need, we know there is hunger, we know there is no school out there and yet we have not really felt the pain. At least, not like we would feel if those condition were our own !

I don't have to cite any references to say that most of our help should be directed towards the people we do not mostly talk about. Three centuries of Shah dynasty combined with one century of Rana oppression as a "change" has established an unproductive culture among us. Along with infrastructure, education and healthcare, moral attitude of the citizens has suffered a great deal. Three hundred years of continued rip-off didn't leave much time for looking back when the window of opportunity opened up during the 90s when our leaders showed us exactly how hungry we are. Believe it or not, I don't blame them. What do you expect when you place a plateful of delicacy in front of a hungry street kid? Do you expect the kid to go and look for a place to take a shower and then go find his street buddy to share his food with while it is warm? No way! Our leaders did what was natural. (Only, it never stopped was what made matters worse!!). We all are takers, opportunity provided. Bluntly put, we don't give. We take, and more often than not, snatch when we have the opportunity.

I have observed quite a remarkable phenomenon in the western world when it comes to charity. It is not only praiseworthy, but of late has become a fashionable trend. Angelina Jo Lee seems to have inspired sizeable few to follow her path of philanthropy. While the intention of the Hollywood superstars are beyond anybody's contemplation, here are few USA facts that are interesting. Approximately 1,20,000 children are adopted each year in the United States. Some adopt for love, others for religion and yet others for human cause. More than 83% of adults have been donating to some chairty every year since the last decade and a typical contribution amount is 3% of the individual income. Besides, numerous studies have shown that middle class families struggling to make ends meet are the biggest contributors of all the charity. In addition, those who receive charitable contributions are known to be many times more likely to return favors later in future. And, how can any one not feel the warmth of human compassion at the magnanimity of the likes of the Gates, Buffets and Rockefellers just to name the few mega-philanthropists.

How do we fare? It's hard to sallow - we suck!!! If we ask even the smartest and well informed among us to name a few charitable organizations in the country, they will probably come up with at most 2 or 3 names - most very obvious like Red Cross. I am very interested in a survey that asks people to list 5 things they would do if they won a lottery of one corer. By the way, has anyone noticed what are the responses in the game shows in TV channels where they give away prize money? I wonder how many in Nepal say "some part of the winnings for charity!"

You don't have to earn big, you don't have to give big and you don't have to have big objectives to give for charity. An amount of 10 bucks a month is not too much to ask for, is it?* It is 3% of 4000 bucks. Now, don't tell me you don't earn 4000 buck in a year !! (If you don't, don't waste your time reading blogs, you fool. Go and make money!) Being the minimalist that I am, I think it is enough to start the habit of giving. It is not the intent of giving that we lack but the habit and means. Is it not true that you have more than once felt the need, if not the urge, to give? Would you not give more or more regularly if it were easy, transactions honest, organizations transparent and dedicated? Would you not give if you could SEE with your own eyes that your money is being put to good use, to take children off the street or build school? Would you not give if you knew that if you don't, the kid of the same age as your kid will remain hungry today, and probably the days after too? Would you not give if you knew that without your giving, a little girl will never be able to read and will spend her days beating the rocks to gravels?

We can achieve tremendous results with very little individual efforts, if we do it collectively. It is a simple logic and power behind numbers. The inexplicable phenomenon of "If 1 horse can pull 100 kg, then 2 horses can pull 500Kg" also applies here. There is much more to human spirit than we give credit for. Once a giver, always a giver - I experienced it myself. An friend of mine tried to instill the habit of giving to charity in me. I used to hate him during his this obvious solicitation of advice without my asking for it. I did not give a penny when he asked - mostly because I didn't like him enforcing his idea on me, but also because of his choice of charities. He didn't gain anything from those - far from it; he gave even when he could least afford to.

Yet, for all his nagging and irritation, I thank him. He has made me a giver without his knowing it. (That reminds me - I must write him soon thanking about it - he will be pleasantly surprised!!) Nothing has satisfied me more than when I give – sometimes, as little as 25 bucks. I give when I can and when I want. I don't give merely because someone asks. I give if I feel the organization or individual deserves a helping hand. And I give where there are more visible results - sometimes loans without interest and sometimes just a helping hand. I give to expect nothing in return. I don't have any other pattern of giving than that I give whenever I see more personal attachment to the one receiving it. Giving to help Ram dai buy a cow, or to help Kaali go to school is more meaningful to me than giving to Red Cross. You may feel otherwise. It is all personal choice just like fashion and food choices. The bottom line is, I give. Do you?

Yes, the last statement was intentional. I intend to arouse that anger, irritation or ego in you with that question. I give to charity - do you? (A T-shirt campaign comes to mind!!) I hope one day, you will. When you do, I am sure you will do it again. Be it your shame of having too much, or the anger of not having more, or the ego of not being the one who didn't give, or the irritation of being constantly asked to give, or the compassion towards your fellow being or the love of an innocent child's desperation - the fact that you helped when it was needed outweighs all the reasons in the world. We go out in the world with a pauper’s begging bowl and yet fail to sound the SOS alarm among ourselves. Are we so hopeless that we are not even asked to help? I don't believe it.

I give when i know how, when and what to give.
I give when what I give, gets to the needy.
I give when I see my contribution is making a difference.
I give because it makes me feel that I am better than others.
I give because it changes someone's course of life.
I give because it is a matter of life and death for someone.
I give because I dare you to try it out and brag about it.

Any takers? No puns intended ! :-)

(Have you read Small is Beautiful by E.F. Schumacher? If you are 30+ and have not read it already, shame on you. And yes, you can restore all your shame by reading it!)

Note:
* @Rs 10/- a month = Rs 120/year. If you get one lakh persons to do that, it is Rs 1.2 corer/ year. One lakh is less than 4 out of every 1000 of us. How many kids could you feed and send school for that amount? Now, that is a question worth finding an answer for.
-Saral Nepal

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