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Volume 6 | Issue 11 | November 2012 |


Original Forum

How Did We Arrive Here?
-- Ali Riaz

A Known Compromise, A Known Darkness
'Ramu-nisation' of Bangladesh
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Intolerance -- Wearing Religion on Our Sleeves
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“Charity vs. Social Empowerment”
A socio-economic perspective

ROBIN ABDULLAH CHOWDHURY favours social empowerment over charity as a more sustainable form of development.

I was having my usual morning discussion over coffee along Robinson Road when a very common face walked up with the usual smile. I have seen him before and turned away, but today decided to give him those five minutes he has asked for before. After a quick chat, I realised he isn't the usual credit card sales agent but a representative from a popular charity foundation in Singapore. The deal is, I donate $200 a month, which in turn will provide me an annual tax reduction by 60%. Not a bad deal considering, that could amount a saving of as much as $1000 a year. Satisfied with having done a great deal, I was wondering why I haven't spoken to him before. About a month later, the news broke out regarding an investigation and charges against a senior member of this particular foundation for misusing donation fund, amounting to a few million. Out of curiosity, I decided to do a bit of research to see how guilty I should be for contributing to this fund. It seemed as if the foundation was directly helping cancer affected patients, and the person under investigation seemed to also have associations to a religious foundation. To my horror, the foundation was extending financial support to its members who are either unemployed or do not have sufficient earnings to support themselves. To put things in perspective, Singapore boasts a very low long term unemployment (unemployment more than 27 weeks) rate of 0.7% (Singapore Ministry of Manpower). With an active resident population and solid efforts by the government to keep the economy strong, this indeed came as a horror.

This article questions some fundamental issues with regards to charity in its various forms. It identifies and analyses the impact of “non-objective” based charity efforts on socio-economic developments. It critically scrutinises how charity disguises in different forms to inject well targeted messages to the masses, and the significant role it plays as a strategic tool for organisations seeking market share -- contradicting the tagline of “Not-for-Profit” they usually use. It explores the characteristics of the typical “Non-Profit Organisations”, often under the umbrella of a Non Government Organisation (NGO), and evaluates how in reality they are nothing but lucrative business ventures. The article explores how a significant shift in focus on social empowerment could have positive impact and a more sustainable socioeconomic development if approached in the right way.

´We can get this charity for nothing. We can get medical assistance for nothing. We can get our children educated for nothing. Why should we work? Why should we save? Such is the idea which charity, so-called, inculcates. The "Charitable Institution" becomes a genteel poor-house; and the lesson is extensively taught that we can do better by begging than by working.' -- Samuel Smiles, Thrift, 1875.

When you give a $100 note to a person in need, it will be spent in many different ways. It could disappear instantly over satisfying his or her thirst for an addiction, or it could last a week on food. But it disappears eventually, and the person is on the street again. You have indeed done a favour, a favour that triggers a level of dependency in an individual, in a society -- a vicious culture that does not appreciate the concept of self-development. “Give a man a fish and he will eat for a day. Teach a man to fish and he will eat for a lifetime.” -- Confucius (Circa 551-479 BC).

Why charity/not-for-profit starts and why they are successful
This entire "I am a Non-profit" fiasco vehicle disguised to save the world, in reality is out to cripple the society, and permanently. There is a pretty justified reason why some of the best leaders in the industry are moving towards these foundations. Being a product of the capitalist system, you would be a fool to think they are out to do social good for "no profit". In an economy, particularly that of a struggling and competitive one like Bangladesh, almost everyone is out to make money, either through exploitation or manipulation. The “Non-profit” label just happens to provide the right ingredients for them to do so.

In an unregulated market like Bangladesh, it seems fairly easy, effortless in fact, where the “clever chaps” plunge into these profitable businesses with very little or often no investment. Local and International NGOs in Bangladesh totals up to 58,000 (figure published in The Daily Star, 2011), and to put things in perspective, there are only 18,500 Secondary Schools (www.moedu.gov.bd).


Continuous education is a major driver of social empowerment, and although this comparison alone is insufficient to prove any point, it is enough to suggest how real developments are being compromised in the face of more financially lucrative ones.

“But when thou doest alms, let not thy left hand know what thy right hand doeth.” -- (Mathew 6:3, the Holy Bible).

This popular line alludes to the honour that exists in not giving yourself credit for providing charity to others, while individuals these days are only motivated to be recognised by awards or a stint at the next election -- where it is apparent that most of the popular charity organisations horde more of a popularity show than actual charity. The naïve youth populations determined to make “that difference”, instead end up volunteering for causes which only satisfy the ambition of the leaders managing them. In Bangladesh, a particular youth volunteer group that rightly merits the title of a “Celebrity Foundation”, self claims to support about 1,200 children through its sponsored education programme, engaging a whopping 7,000 volunteer members -- which is about 5.8 volunteers per child they support. Their use of the dedicated professional cameras, graphic designers and the ever so dependable social media not only reinstates how expensive charity is but also ensure maximum publicity earned for the most insignificant contributions. Their underlying success comes in the form of maximising return on investment (RoI) for them and their sponsors.

It never fails to amaze sceptics like myself how some of the biggest corporations in the industry fly their logos in banners and posters of most “seems to be” charity campaigns. And I wonder how and why such companies associate with these “Non-profit” foundations when they are all about profits and maximising their resources. Having worked in such organisations, I know for a fact that not a single penny comes out without a viable projected RoI, not even in the form of the so called “Corporate Social Responsibility” fund. Whether it is to cover up some bad press or to indirectly reach out their target markets to increase sales, these companies are up there neck-in-neck partnering with these campaign organisers. In charity, they have found a brilliant business model. With one single CSR fund, they are creating a positive brand image; ensuring targeted demographics attach their emotions and sentiments to the brand. In most cases they are even compensated in form of tax holiday for being actively involved with social developments. A very popular tobacco company spends millions every year globally in support of educational institutions. And I wonder what exactly are they educating?

“When we want to help the poor, we usually offer them charity. Most often we use charity to avoid recognizing the problem and finding the solution for it. Charity becomes a way to shrug off our responsibility. But charity is no solution to poverty. Charity only perpetuates poverty by taking the initiative away from the poor. -- Muhammad Yunus, Banker to the Poor: Micro-Lending and the Battle Against World Poverty

Before this article is labelled as an anti to charity, let us explore the other side of the table where we look at the importance of social empowerment and how it is arguably the lone solution to replace the traditional concept of charity echoed also by Dr. Muhammed Yunus, to be a “A more sustainable approach.”

The socio-economic perspective
Poverty is not only a Social crisis; it is also economic. Charity without an economic objective or purpose does not help to eradicate poverty, not permanently at least -- over time it makes it worse. A society with “free flow” of money pouring in, over time becomes substantially dependent. It becomes a culture. A culture that questions the necessity to work for a living, when living is taken care of by others. It reaches a point when it can no longer sustain without these free money. A nation becomes crippled dragging itself to survive under the shadows of charity.

While this example could be perceived as somewhat extreme and unlikely, let us critically look at a case. I once had the privilege to meet an individual who saved up for years to set up a local pharmacy in a remote village in Kenya. His idea was to set up a local pharmacy selling essential medicines with a slight markup. His idea was brilliant considering that the locals would now have immediate access to medicines, at a significantly lower cost, considering they no longer need to travel to the next town. In the long-term he had also planned to attach a free clinic to also serve the nearby villages. A noble intention considering that it is not only ensuring long-term economic prosperity for him, but also takes care of a significant aspect of social security; health and safety. Within a month of his opening, an international drug company sets up a booth for three months under a “Social Responsibility” banner, donating boxes of essential medicines for free. Faced with lack of customers and uncovered operational costs, he was forced to shut down his humble store within three months.

The Human Development concept identifies six basic pillars: equity, sustainability, productivity, empowerment, cooperation and security. The above example wipes out “equity” where locals are deprived of access to medicine. It also discounts “sustainability”, where using this as an example, no one else in that area will be encouraged to set up anything similar in the future. And lastly, “security,” -- once the charity drive is over, the locals would no longer have access to ready medicines in the future. While the above could be perceived as a dignified effort by the drug company, it is likely to be nothing but a branding effort. Such activities in their diverse forms not only obstruct sustainable developments but also deprive the society from securing their basic needs, without being dependent on others. It actively prevents a society from developing its own capacity and progress to a self-sufficient society. This theory is addressed by Amartya Sen's model of “Capabilities Approach” of positive freedom, of someone's actual ability to be or do something.


Bangladesh is a society that suffers from chronic poverty. Poverty provides hope. People who struggle to make ends meet everyday have hope. Hope is something that keeps them moving, let us support their hopes, not by dropping money from the sky but by empowering them to earn that money while on their own feet.

Charity no doubt is going to stay. In many forms, it is an essential part of social developments. In theory it ensures that wealth is distributed to the underprivileged part of the society that is deprived of access to resources. However, in recent years, particularly in least developed and the developing nations, it has evolved in various forms and, most commonly, one that does more harm than good to the greater development of society. It is high time that governments review their policies and reassess the role charity is to play in its effort for social development, and ensure that no activities are carried out without long-term or sustainable development. In Bangladesh -- a country that prides itself for the two renowned organisations of Grameen Bank and BRAC, which proved that everyone could be an entrepreneur -- what justification is there to continue to provide free money? Considering, the amount of funds we have available and continue to have from the richer nations, is it time for us to explore an alternative model of donations distribution with a more sustainable development purpose? Yes, it could be argued that it is not practical to ensure proper utilisation of the funds by the receivers. While understanding that the micro-credit model may not be accessible nor practical for some people, it may be time for us to explore a model that could disburse these donations to individuals and at the same time have accountability and responsibility to best utilise the capital.

Robin Abdullah Chowdhury is the Director of International Markets of team engine Ltd -- a communication hub for social good. He is also the Founder & CEO of Singapore based PR & communications agency, PinkKnots Communications Pte. Ltd.

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