I had an interesting conversation with a seasoned development professional some years back, as he held forth on why ‘charity is bad and development is good’.
“Imagine”, he said, “that you are standing by a river, and you see a baby floating by, obviously thrown into the water and likely to die. Naturally, you will get into the river and try to rescue it.
But a few minutes later, another baby will float by, and another, and another…. Now if you walk upstream, you will find the root cause–someone who is throwing these babies into the water.
Tackling that person and preventing them from throwing babies into the water, will solve the problem forever. That is development, and it creates impact–charity doesn’t change much.”
“Well, what happens if after a few hours, you find another person throwing babies into the water?”, I asked, “and another, and another… surely, one has to go to the source of that problem and you will discover that some childhood trauma is creating individuals who throw babies into the water. So shouldn’t we solve that problem, isn’t that the root cause?”
“Well, yes”, he agreed, “if that is the case, we need to create counselling solutions for such people.”
“But what if we find out that those children experienced trauma because their parents weren’t taking good care of them? Isn’t that the root cause? And if those parents weren’t educated about bringing up children; isn’t that the root cause? And that the parents weren’t educated because schools don’t teach parenting, isn’t that then the root cause?”
“Well, there’s no end to it, then, is there?” he asked, struggling to see his ‘development’ model collapse in a few seconds.
Yesterday’s solutions have created today’s problems
These popular and definitive development paradigms we operate under are characteristic of a Western world view—one that believes in deterministic approaches and ‘permanent solutions’ to problems. It fails to acknowledge that the world we live in is complex and dynamic and the only permanence we can expect is that there will always be new problems to solve.
Indeed, a lot of the problems we solve today have been created by ‘solutions’ of yesteryears.
Our solution to poverty was massive industrialisation and urbanisation, and while it did solve the poverty problem to an extent, it has created environmental problems for us to solve today.
To end hunger, we adopted inorganic farming techniques at scale and are only now beginning to realise the consequences of those.
What we need to realise is that problems will always exist in our world and therefore, the only solution is to build the capacity of our people to solve problems on their own. Developing skills and competencies in people, and strengthening institutions and structures that can channel them are a critical part of that capacity.
But equally if not more important is developing empathy and motivation to solve these problems–what our un-jargonised elders used to call ‘caring’, and what our millennials call ‘giving a damn’.
It is only when we care, and we manifest that care through action, that we will both individually and collectively build our capacity to solve our problems.
Which is why, individual giving, community giving and volunteerism are the bedrock of any society; not CSR or large grant-making. This is not to say that they are bad; they are just one part of the solution.
Change must come from within
Ancient wisdom, be it Egyptian, Chinese, Indian or African, tells us that a fair and happy society can only be built by good human beings. Spiritual texts—regardless of religion—exhorted us to seek and find the good within ourselves and expand it, to focus relentlessly on it, so that the bad in us has diminishing space available.
In today’s India, it means that we can only have a Swachh Bharat if the average Indian becomes swachh and stops littering, dirtying and polluting. Our women can only be safe if our men (and our High Courts) understand the meaning of consent.
These problems cannot be solved through systemic interventions like laws or policing alone; they have to address the most fundamental of society’s problems–changing human behaviour.
And changing human behaviour is difficult—any marketing professional can tell you that it is the mother of all problems!
The corporate world is built to give us what we want, and so is the government. Neither has the courage to hold a mirror to us and tell us that WE are the problem. That ‘sachetisation’ and convenience is harming the environment, that populist policies that governments are forced to adopt to win elections are bad for us in the long run.
And so it is up to us, as civil society, or as a community of individuals, to look inwards and make ourselves better human beings.
Making the world a better place, slowly but surely
And the only way to do that, is by getting each and every citizen to engage in the project of making our world a better place to live in based on a shared understanding of what better means to us. An understanding that cannot be derived only through dialogue or debate but also through action of all kinds–volunteering at a langar, teaching a child, helping a cop manage traffic or donating money and materials to support various causes.
As Peter Drucker says, the role of giving, above all, is to help us live out our ideals, our beliefs, our best opinion of ourselves, so that when we look into the mirror, we can see someone who as a citizen takes responsibility. Someone who as a neighbour cares.
A festival like #DaanUtsav celebrates exactly that–the opportunity for each one of us to be the best we can. To give without expectation and in doing so, to experience the unbelievable joy of knowing that you just became a slightly better human being, and that you made the world, howsoever infinitesimally, a slightly better place!
Venkat is an IIMA graduate who co-founded Educational Initiatives Pvt Ltd, a company that works with 1000+ schools across India, improving student learning outcomes through diagnostic assessments. He is the erstwhile founder of GiveIndia and has recently managed to transition himself out of the organisation. He is now a retired social worker, who mentors young social entrepreneurs and volunteers to evangelise #DaanUtsav- the Joy of Giving Week.
This article was first published in IDR Online
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