winsight 19 Philanthropy: Karuna in Corona times

Philanthropy: Karuna in Corona times

Karuna - love in action - is at the core of all enlightened human endeavour. Stressful times bring out the best and worst of us. In this pandemic, there are few who are not moved by the ocean of humanity trying to get back to their homes hundreds of kilometres from the cities, oftentimes on foot. Many in the middle and affluent classes are providing shelter to the less fortunate. Many want to do more, and volunteer in relief operations and donate small and large amounts of money. The instinctive outpouring of solidarity makes for a powerful urge to act - do anything - in the fond hope that it will ameliorate the suffering of the less fortunate.

Few pause to think how their contributions can best reach the most needy, or what the most appropriate response would be at a given time. In practicing karuna, there needs to be an understanding of who the most needy are, and the stages of humanitarian relief. The requirements of each are different, and inappropriate responses will lead to a greater disaster. It is better not to act at all, rather than act inappropriately. The typical stages are rescue, relief, rehabilitation, and reconstruction.

In any disaster, those who can reach the relief camps, or disbursal centres, are not the most needy. The most needy cannot for various reasons. They could be those with disabilities living alone, with no means of contacting the outside world. They could be those living with HIV, stigmatised by society, and fearful of reaching out. They could be newly orphaned children, who do not know how to reach out or are too scared to, hiding in place. The relief effort needs to actively look for and reach out to these most vulnerable, and the always left out sections of our society. Societies with strong networks in normal times invariably do better at this, since the frequent or regular social interaction leaves fewer untouched.

The present approach has been to vacuum up all the money at the highest possible level. In the government, it has been to centralise it all with the prime minister, with no tax breaks even for donating CSR money to the chief minister’s relief funds at the state level. In civil society initiatives, most of the funding is scooped up by international NGOs and their affiliates in the country, due to their well oiled fund-raising and PR machinery. This centralisation is wasteful, since rescue and relief to the most needy has to be at the local level, and going through all the bureaucratic layers of identification and disbursal from the national to local levels is not only time consuming, not based on local needs, but also diverts a substantial portion of the contribution to overheads. Rescue and relief are micro-activities, almost as a reflex action, and therefore should not go anywhere other than the local community directly (preferably to the women). The rule of thumb is to give to a women’s group directly if you know of one, or to a civil society organization (local NGO) working there, if you know of one. Volunteering with either is the best way to contribute, before donating in cash or kind.

Regardless of the phase of recovery, contributions that need no tax benefit certificates, should always go directly to the community or organisation closest to those affected. It is only those who need tax exemptions that need to send it to larger groups. Even here, it is best to send it to medium size civil society organizations, with the requisite expertise. It is important to note that even during the 2004 tsunami that had international repercussions, it is the grassroots community organisations that provided the best and most sustained support to the community.

This interaction and engagement with the local community, and the community or civil society organisation working with them, will hopefully lead to a long-term relationship, where the skills of the upper and middle class can be used to enhance the resilience of the community, be proactive in mitigation, and accompany the community in the path of development on their own terms - which is the most sustainable of them all. The government and large NGOs struggle to ensure ‘people’s participation’ and sustainability. Working with the community or community organisations, both of these are a given, and the soul returns are infinitely more.