Helping the Covid Poor

by Michael Patrick O'Leary

A shorter version of this article was published in Ceylon Today on July 21, 2021. It is on Page 7 of the E-paper

Giving Is Good

Easy Giving

The philosopher of ethics, Peter Singer, recommends giving a sort of tithe to charities along the lines of religious organisations such as the Mormons. Of his book, The Life You Can Save he says, “The ultimate purpose of this book is to reduce extreme poverty, not to make you feel guilty.” The Life You Can Save seems to me to fall short of Singer’s normal subtlety of thought and is an example of the fallacy of false analogy. Just because I choose to forgo some trivial pleasure and give the saved cash to some corporate body claiming to be engaged in philanthropy does not guarantee that anything better will happen to “the poor”. The most likely result is that I will feel some kind of self-gratification from donating.

Poverty in Sri Lanka

The problem of poverty in Sri Lanka had eased considerably until recent times. The per capita GDP improved rapidly from below US $1,000 in 2003 to a peak of US $4,081 in 2018 before dipping to $3,853 in 2019 (World Bank). Both the Department of Census and Statistics and the Centre for Poverty Analysis (CEPA) recorded a sharp decline in the actual numbers of the ‘poor’ from the late 1990s up to 2016.

Blows to the Sri Lankan Economy

The Coronavirus pandemic has a devastating effect on Sri Lankan livelihoods. The Easter Sunday bombings severely damaged the Lankan economy and also exposed serious flaws in political management. There was insufficient time for the economy to recover from the shock of Easter Sunday before the pandemic hit.

The first case of COVID-19 in Sri Lanka was detected on March 11th, 2020. The initial response by the government was stringent and effective. However, the unfortunate by-product of government measures to contain the spread of the virus was further severe damage to the economy. When the economy is damaged there are many who are not cushioned from the impact. Many of those serving in the Sri Lankan economy are what Professor Guy Standing has called the “precariat”. Lockdowns result in reduced incomes and higher prices which are hard for many to bear.

Many Sri Lankan workers lost their jobs in the immediate aftermath of the lockdown. Statistics indicate that the total number of jobs in the economy contracted by 160,996 in the first quarter of 2020. Even skilled workers who help to maintain our own living standards through their construction, electrical and plumbing expertise tend to be paid on a daily basis and have little scope to build up protection against unforeseen contingencies. Life is far more precarious for those who are unskilled and rely on casual manual or domestic labour. This is very difficult when movement is restricted.

After the lockdown implemented in Sri Lanka between March and June 2020, overall unemployment increased to above 6% in the second quarter and conditions continue to worsen for many workers, especially the precariat.


Even in the good times, the spread of wealth was uneven, with the heavily urbanised Western Province accounting for almost 40 per cent of the national GDP. Central Bank data shows that in 2019, There are large pockets of people in all parts of the country still below the poverty line, malnourished and stunted children, substantial numbers of unqualified youth and unemployed, under-employed or only seasonally employed people. This situation fuels drug addiction, alcoholism and general social discontent.

Direct Giving

Whatever about government disaster management or the contribution of INGOs (International Non-Governmental Organisations) and local NGOs, Sri Lankan people have a good record for responding to natural and other crises. I witnessed for myself the efforts of ordinary people to help out after the tsunami.

Susantha Goonathilake wrote in his book, Recolonization, about the influence of foreign NGOs on Sri Lanka: ‘While NGOs stood wringing their hands or trying to mobilize funds only from international sources, Buddhist temples around the country were the quickest to respond. Those affected by the tsunami rushed into temples where they were received with warmth. These temples along the coast became havens of shelter, not only for Buddhists, but also for Hindus, Muslims and Christians. There are innumerable stories of the incredible generosity of these temples. Monks gave up their robes to bandage victims, looked after their children and babies, fed them from whatever little provisions they had, and comforted them.

Private Initiatives

A recent private response to covid poverty involved the distribution of 400 packs of dried goods to needy communities in the Aluthwatta area near Kandy. The organiser wishes to remain anonymous, but she said this about what motivated her: “I saw a heartbreaking video of starving people and felt that, how can some people not have a grain of rice to cook when we have three square meals a day!”

The video clip was shot in the Ambakote area near Kandy. This lady is very well-networked and managed through her many contacts to communicate with the vice-president of a women’s organisation in Ambakote. It became clear that the publicity had been beneficial to Ambakote, and the local people had had their suffering relieved somewhat. A nearby village had been having similar problems, so the project was now targeted on Wijayasirigama, Aluthwatta.

Each pack included five kg of rice, one kg each of dhal, sugar and potatoes and a 400 gr milk powder packet. The organiser sent a WhatsApp message to family and friends who then passed it on exponentially to their own contacts. The original aim was to collect a 100 packs. “I got calls from people all over the world, most who helped and some who didn’t. But what was amazing was the giving spirit of the people!” Some people, such as a cancer patient, were generous from limited resources. One individual generously provided funds for 80 packs.

Within a week funds were available for 400 packs. “This would not have been possible if not for the friends, family and mostly total strangers who called from all over the world to say, ‘we need to do something for our country’ and who placed their trust in me to do this with honour and integrity.” The distribution was done on an ecumenical basis from Gangaramaya Temple, Gangapitiya, Lighthouse Church, Wijayasirigama, Masjidul Noor Jumma Mosque and Shri Kali Amman Kovil, Gangapitiya.

The person who organised the Aluthwatta initiative would not want to engage in what Paul Newman called “noisy philanthropy”. This is not about saintliness but about examples to encourage others of what an ordinary person can achieve by small acts of direct giving. Whatever Peter Singer might claim, the main function of NGOs has long been to provide a career for the ambitious rather than a vocation for the idealistic. Andrew Carnegie wrote: “[O]f every thousand dollars spent in so-called charity today, it is probable that nine hundred and fifty dollars is unwisely spent—so spent, indeed, as to produce the very evils which it hopes to mitigate or cure.” Before his death on August 11, 1919, Carnegie had donated $350,695,654 for various causes. “Humanitarianism” has become a billion-dollar industry. NGOs are huge corporate businesses ossified by management and career structures and bureaucracy speaking an impenetrable language. NGO workers can build up an image of saintliness as well as developing a lucrative CV. NGO links with the World Bank can lead to even more lucrative careers in inter-state organisations.

Active charity is more effective than passive giving. Singer recognised that one could not always know how one’s donations were being spent. It seemed to me that this form of delegated compassion makes more of a difference to the giver’s self-esteem than to the welfare of the needy. A little money makes a big difference if it does not have to go through the grinding bureaucratic mills of an NGO.

Those of us with less wealth than Carnegie and co. can also benefit from giving. We can perhaps benefit more, because we can have the satisfaction of giving to the hand and looking in the eye. Clinging to material goods makes people selfish, struggling to satisfy insatiable desires with transitory pleasures.  When we decide to give something of our own to someone else, we simultaneously reduce our attachment to the object; to make a habit of giving can thus gradually weaken the mental factor of craving. Giving is the antidote to cure the illness of egoism and greed.

You do not need to be as rich as Bill Gates is or as well-connected as Bono. You do not have to send money abroad. You do not even have to give money. Awareness is the most important thing. Look around your own area, talk to religious leaders and doctors, talk to your neighbours. They will advise you who is in need. By giving of your heart as well as your money, you can save yourself, make a difference and improve someone else’s life, by giving with wisdom.

It’s a bargain!