If we learnt anything from this series on philanthropy, which concludes today, it is that the idea of giving back is here to stay. Twenty columnists have expressed this faith, in spite of some cynicism about the “how much and how” of giving strategies. Indian philanthropy will take firmer root and will grow many branches. There will be public pressure on the rich to be more accountable for their wealth. Public policy will inch forward to take away some of the impediments in the ecosystem; aggregator institutions will come up to better connect donors to grantees; more peer group learning will happen among donors of all sizes and receiving organizations will develop more absorption capacity and become more accountable.
Impulsive giving, that visceral response by one human being to another’s suffering will and must continue, as is practised by millions around the country every day. It has its own beauty and its own place in an ethical society. It is “nishkam karma”, action without the expectation of a reward or even a response.
But as millions of people begin to accumulate wealth much beyond their own needs, and they experience that millions of others are left out of this wealth creation, another kind of response arises. Some of those who benefited begin to question why this is so, and how can they help redress the imbalance by striking at the root cause of the problems of poverty, inequity and environmental injustice. That’s when a new joy of giving kicks in. That is also when the complexities arise. From being a pure “gift”, now the philanthropy becomes instrumentalist. It begins to seek reward (outcome) and response. It is intermediated by rationality and also by regulation by the state or by beneficiary organizations, who demand that there be not patronage but partnership. The donor must now apply not just his money, not listen only to his heart but must rule his action with his head! And he must convince himself that wisdom will flow from his mind.
To make this difficult enterprise successful, the self-aware philanthropist must develop a theory of change. Why does she think there is so much inequality of opportunity? Who can be the change agents? What kind of society is envisioned as a good society? In that society, what role should be played by the samaj (society), the bazaar (market) and the sarkaar (state)?
Once some of those questions find some answer, even if tentative, the philanthropist must enter into contracts with individuals or institutions to establish a chain of actions to further her idea of the good society. And she must, in order to be a responsible giver accountable to society at large, periodically monitor whether things are going according to plan and enable course correction as necessary.
Sounds easy? Well, I for one, find this process quite challenging. And on some days, almost impossibly difficult. Over the years, as we became wealthy beyond our imagination, with little desire to spend too mindlessly on ourselves, I had to go through the entire process described above, while trying to maintain a sense of balance and humility. Roman emperors used to have a sensible practice to keep their hubris under control. They would have slaves whisper each morning into their ears—“Remember, you are mortal”. That’s all very well for Roman emperors, and hopefully the slaves did not then immediately have to deal with their own mortality. For us, it was tricky. In an age where wealth and its power were being uncritically celebrated daily by a gushy media, I tried to stay a little below the radar. To take the time and space to understand what exactly money given forward can do and what it cannot do. What things need personal time and other resources and what activities need substantial monetary support. I am not sure I have clear answers.
There are several models of development that are playing out in India. The dominant paradigm right now is definitely market-driven economic growth. The assumption is that rapid growth will eventually bring most people into material prosperity. Many of the newly wealthy have bought into this argument and have created philanthropic institutions that support capitalist structures of the market and the welfare structures of the state that come from increased revenue. Whether through funding educational institutions, creating health infrastructure or more, they have in this effort benefited many people in the short run.
But there is another view struggling to be heard. A view that broadly spans the philosophy spectrum from Marx to Gandhi. Which reflects an anguish that the promised trickle down is not happening and may not happen, ever. That we need to re-examine the model of growth we are pursuing, because of its tremendous negative impact on people’s lives and livelihoods and on the environment systems that support us all. Civil society organizations involved with people’s struggles over land and water conflicts, for example also need philanthropic capital to explore their alternative ideas. And they are finding it harder to get support as international donors move out, ironically because of the wealth generation in India. In a democracy like ours, in a society like ours with its amazing diversity and resilience, we do need to make sure many paradigms of development are allowed to play out. There is never one right answer to economic, environmental and ethical problems such as we are facing now. So I try to support the work of good committed leaders and institutions that are working in that difficult space that falls below both market and state interventions, where the very poor are. I do not know how long change in India will take. I do know that all of us have to be engaged in the politics of that change, as citizens first and consumers later.
So much wealth created for so few and so quickly, by means both fair—which are welcome—and foul—which must be contained—inevitably creates a certain frisson in society. If that wealth creation is surely and transparently accompanied with an underpinning of thoughtful philanthropy, it can, perhaps, be a change for good. For the sake of India’s future, we have to make it so.
As a verse from the Vedas says, “Shat-hast sam¯ah¯ar sahasra-hast sankir” (Collect with a hundred hands and give it away with a thousand).
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