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Helping or hindering? A thought or two about charity

N.S. Venkataraman examines the concept of charity, and wonders if it is always a virtue. Charity is a noble and admirable concept, he says, but it should not lead to a situation where it fosters laziness, causes loss of self-respect, or facilitates misuse of donations

Religious texts and philosophers have always advocated that love and compassion for others should be the central focus for a life of peace and tranquillity. Such a mindset would involve extending support to needy people and animals in whichever way possible. But there are parameters to be followed while practicing charity too.

The long-held criteria are that those engaging in charity should not have any personal motives for doing so, nor should they derive any benefits from the act. It is said that charity should not be indulged in by means of self-denial except in exceptional cases – it should be practised only after satisfying one’s requirements. Another view is that ‘reckless’ charity, without verifying the genuine needs of the recipients, is not appropriate. And there’s also the corollary that the act of charity should not result in a negative impact on others or on society.

Dependent mindset

In a number of cases, charity has been found to encourage a dependent mindset or a ‘beggar attitude’ among recipients, who may think they can meet their needs by actively seeking donations and support from kind-hearted persons.

In recent times, it has been seen that some people take up education or treatment avenues that they know are way beyond what they can afford, hoping and believing that they can drum up some support. They run from pillar to post to identify donors and request funds, even risking humiliation. Such an approach is negative, and fosters laziness. It destroys self-respect and prevents the persons concerned from putting in hard, sustained efforts to earn the required resources honourably.

Thousands of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) in India undertake welfare work voluntarily, and seek public donations for their activities from India or abroad, as most don’t have the resources to fund their work on their own. Some NGOs reportedly even appoint agents to collect donations for their work, on a commission-basis. Disturbingly, some NGOs are accused of diverting donations for purposes other than the intended one.

On the flip side, as there is no guarantee of donations, many NGOs face difficulty in pursuing developmental work, and may even be forced to curtail their activities for lack of funds. The question is whether these NGOs should feel disappointed over their failure to attract adequate donations, or blame themselves for launching activities without proper planning to source funds.

With an agenda

Charity dinners are popular fund-raising events. They are held in luxurious venues, with a celebrity, often a film actor, being invited to attend, to woo donors. These celebrities are paid an honorarium, and invitees are attracted by the opportunity of interacting with the celebs. In other words, the participants in the event are looking at their own benefits. Profits after expenses from the event are given to voluntary bodies or deprived persons, but that is incidental. Neither the celebrity nor the participants are likely to be thinking of the plight of the deprived persons that the event is meant to benefit. There is no spirit of charity here.

Without proper thought

The feeding of stray dogs is another example of what may be seen as misplaced charity. There are an estimated 55 million stray dogs on India’s streets. They have become a safety threat for passers-by and some people, including children, have been wounded or even killed due to dog bites. 

Many people feed these strays, either occasionally or regularly. This is being criticised, and it is pointed out that the dogs are multiplying and the threat they pose is increasing. Government policies in this regard are confusing and the ground situation is not improving. Since those who are feeding the strays are not taking full responsibility for the care and control of the animals, their act of charity comes into question.

There is no doubt that charity is a noble and admirable concept. But it should not lead to a situation where it fosters laziness, causes loss of self-respect, or facilitates misuse of donations. In such cases, it would mean that the act of charity has lost direction and purpose.

This brings to mind the Tamil saying that donations should be given only after careful study of the need of the recipient and whether they deserve it. Charity should not be unconditional.

(The writer is trustee, Nandini Voice for the Deprived, Chennai.)