Padraig Colman

Rambling ruminations of an Irishman in Sri Lanka

Tag: Peter Singer

Helping the Covid Poor

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.

Inequality

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!

The Art of Giving

Colman's Column3

This article appeared in Ceylon Today on October 15 2014

Last weekend, a woman from the village visited our home with her daughter. We shared some food and conversation and they left with a few items of food we had in the house. Later the woman said how happy the gifts had made the family. Although the family are fortunate in having a house and some land, their situation is not good. There is no regular income. The mother is a seamstress but the income from that is sporadic. The husband has mental problems. He does not encourage visitors to the house and sometimes locks the wife and daughter in the house and disappears. The daughter is epileptic, partially blind and there is some paralysis on one side. She is in her early twenties and the mother is in her fifties. Although we are not rich, we are able to make a difference to that family simply by paying for medication – only Rupees 1,500 per month – and pay the mother to do some sewing work for us. A little money makes a big difference if it does not have to go through the grinding bureaucratic mills of an NGO. We plan to use our medical contacts to find out if anything can be done about the daughter’s eyesight.

Making a Difference

I do not want to engage in what Paul Newman called “noisy philanthropy”. I write not to boast of my own saintliness but to give readers an idea of what an ordinary person can achieve by small acts of direct giving.

Last week, I challenged ethical philosopher Peter Singer’s idea of “making a difference”. Singer advocates regularly donating a percentage of one’s income to charitable institutions. He 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.

Delusion

 

Bhikkhu Bodhi edited a small book of essays called Dāna – The Practice of Giving. In his introduction, he writes: “The goal of the path is the destruction of greed, hate and delusion, and the cultivation of generosity directly debilitates greed and hate, while facilitating the pliancy of mind that allows for the eradication of delusion”.

One would not be eradicating delusion if one merely set up a standing order to pay a percentage of one’s salary to an organisation without finding out how the money is used. The Argentinian poet Antonio Porchia wrote: “I know what I have given you but I do not know what you have received”.

Singer’s writing in The Life You Can Save seems to me to fall short of his usual subtlety of thought. “The ultimate purpose of this book is to reduce extreme poverty, not to make you feel guilty.”  If I forgo some trivial pleasure and give the saved cash to some corporate body there is no guarantee that any benefit will result (except to the corporation’s employees). The most likely immediate result is that I will feel some kind of self-gratification from making a painless donation. Singer’s stated aim of eradicating extreme poverty is a big ambition and is several degrees of separation away from setting up a standing order from a bank account.


Corporate Humanitarianism

 

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.” Today it is much worse. Humanitarianism has become a billion-dollar industry. NGOs are huge corporate businesses ossified by management and career structures and bureaucracy. NGO workers can build up an image of saintliness as well as developing a lucrative CV.

Personal Micro-Funding

I have found ways to make my modest income work in a form of freelance micro-funding. We have had second –hand cell phones given to us and passed them on to three-wheeler drivers to help them in their businesses. I have provided cash to buy seeds to start a vegetable-growing business. When we were having our water pipes extended, we arranged for our plumber to put a water supply into a neighbour’s house. We put an electricity supply into other village houses. We have helped with cataract operations – these can be provided free but a small extra financial input can make the process more comfortable. On a trip to Colombo, we noticed along the route that a woman from whom we had bought fruit was distressed because a violent storm had wrecked her home and her business. We gave her money to replace roof sheets. Two Buddhist nuns run a little school, somewhat off the beaten track not far from our home. We reinforced their community work by helping with their building work and arranged a water supply for them.

Ecumenical Community Projects

There is a larger temple near our home. The high priest there has become a very good friend. He is very ecumenical and states “people are humans first”. Our Muslim neighbours take their children to his Montessori school and Hindu Tamils work for him and bow down to show their respect. He is now in his late 80s. Over the years, he has initiated many community projects such as providing a water supply to village houses; organising a huge pit into which waste is dumped to produce gas for cooking; establishing computer classes for local children; various job creation schemes such as growing mushrooms for sale were organised with the local catholic priest.

When we decided that we needed a new car, selling the old one was problematic. Our friend the high priest offered to buy the car as it would be helpful to take him to his diabetic clinic appointments and various official functions. We gave him the car free of charge.  The car itself has become a community project. A local mechanic, without charging, has put right many mechanical wrongs, spray-painted the car, and proudly added many little accoutrements. The mechanic says he cannot ask for payment because we made a gift of the car.   A local builder constructed a new garage free of charge to house the vehicle and the completion of the structure was marked with a little ceremony with songs sung by small schoolchildren.

This gift had beneficial consequences for us. When we first came to live in this area, we felt some hostility and suspicion. After giving the car, we were greeted with smiles everywhere.

 

The Gift Relationship

 

Richard Titmuss, British social researcher and teacher, published The Gift Relationship in 1970. He compared blood donations in Britain (entirely voluntary) and the US (some bought and sold). Titmuss’ s conclusions concerned the quality of communities where people are encouraged to give to strangers. When blood becomes a commodity, he argued, its quality is corrupted (American blood was four times more likely to infect recipients with hepatitis than was British blood). Titmuss helped preserve the National Blood Service from Thatcherite privatisation.

Lewis Hyde also has examined the concept of the gift. He locates the origin of gift economies in the sharing of food. Many societies have strong prohibitions against turning gifts into trade. Hyde investigates the effect our delusion with the market economy has on our ability to give and receive. In a market economy, wealth is increased by ’saving’. In a gift economy, wealth is decreased by hoarding, for it is circulation within the community that generates increase in connections and strong relationships. Here in Sri Lanka, it is the custom, among Muslims, Hindus and Christians as well as Buddhists, to provide dānes (the Pali word for giving).

Giving It Large

Some cynics might believe that the main concern of many philanthropists is less benevolence towards a community than self-aggrandizement and tax-avoidance or the assuaging of guilt. Michael Milken boasts of his philanthropy and is lauded for it, but expresses little contrition for the fraud – back in the days when “greed is good” was the motto- that landed him in prison.

 

Andrew Carnegie warned successful men who failed to help others that “the man who dies thus rich dies disgraced.” Carnegie knew how to make money and he knew how to use it effectively. By the time he died in 1919, he had given away over $350 million ($ 494,200,000,000 in 2014 money) and he had established charitable organisations that are still active nearly a century after his death. Modern day rich givers like Warren Buffett and Bill Gates have expressed a Carnegie-like wish to divest themselves of their wealth.

Greed and Giving

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. Dāna is the very practical act of giving; caga is the generous attitude ingrained in the mind by the repeated practice of dāna. The word caga in Pali means giving up, abandonment; the selfish grip one has on one’s possessions is loosened by caga. 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!

Philanthropy – the Last Refuge of the Scoundrel?

This article appeared in Ceylon Today on Wednesday October 8 2014.

I am not sure who originally came up with the phrase “Philanthropy – the last refuge of the scoundrel”. I first encountered it in an article published in October 2012 by the novelist Howard Jacobson on the subject of Jimmy Savile. Savile used his reputation as a philanthropist to sexually abuse children. I recently encountered a use of the phrase in a book by James O’Toole: Creating the Good Life: Applying Aristotle’s Wisdom to Find Meaning and Happiness, published in 2005. James O’Toole is the Daniels Distinguished Professor of Business Ethics at the University of Denver. O’Toole shows how a range of people embarked on quests that led them closer to achieving a good life based on awareness and values rather than riches and fame.

Aristotle: “To give away money is an easy matter and in any man’s power. But to decide to whom to give it, and how large and when, and for what purpose and how, is neither in every man’s power nor an easy matter.”

 

I recently became embroiled in an argument on Facebook about Otara and Odels. Someone who thought he was supporting my point of view wrote that Otara should be spending her philanthropic funds on people rather than dogs. Compassion is not a zero-sum commodity. Anyone who loves animals is likely to have empathy for people. People who are cruel to animals – GW Bush, Jeffrey Dahmer, Fred West, Prabhakaran- are likely to be cruel to people. A friend of mine who is engaged in practical hands-on animal welfare was sceptical when Otara embarked upon Embark, predicting that it was a publicity stunt. I chided her for her cynicism but there has been criticism of how Embark operated. We will see how it goes now that Otara has more time to personally supervise it.

 

Noisy Philanthropy

 

I do have issues with celebrity philanthropy. The late Paul Newman raised $150m for various good causes. He explained a dilemma: “One thing that bothers me is what I call ‘noisy philanthropy’. Philanthropy ought to be anonymous but in order for it to be effective, you have to be noisy. Because when a shopper walks up to the shelf and says, ‘shall I take this one or that one?’ you’ve got to let her know that the money goes to a good purpose. So there goes all your anonymity and the whole thing you really cherish”.

 

Peter Singer’s Practical Ethics

When I was working with my cynical friend on an animal welfare campaign, her daughter had the brilliant idea of approaching ethical philosopher Peter Singer for support. Peter Singer has a motto: “make a difference”. He certainly made a difference to the way I live my life. Way back in the 1970s, I read articles by Singer in the New York Review of Books that made me see things in a radical new light. His subsequent books Practical Ethics and Animal Liberation reinforced the message of the articles. Singer argued that the boundary between human and “animal” is arbitrary. He popularized the term “speciesism”, to describe the practice of privileging humans over other animals. I was rather disappointed when Singer asked me to remove his name from my mailing list. He was not interested in giving painless direct help for the welfare of animals by simply lending his name.

Outsourcing Compassion

In “Famine, Affluence, and Morality”, Singer argued that it is morally indefensible that some people enjoy surplus abundance while others starve. When one is already living comfortably, a further purchase to increase comfort will not have the same moral weight as saving another person’s life. Singer claims to donate 25% of his salary to Oxfam and UNICEF. He acknowledges that there are problems with ensuring that charitable donations are effectively spent.

In Joseph O’Neill’s latest novel, The Dog, the main character, X, is concerned about the working conditions of construction workers in Dubai. He deals with his concern by paying 37% of his gross salary to Human Rights First and Human Rights Watch. This sounds like a big sacrifice but it is a comfortable way for X to delegate his conscience. O’Neill makes blatant the bad faith of Singer’s thinking. Singer’s method of giving means that it does not matter whether the money does anything to relieve suffering or poverty but it certainly boosts the giver.

 

Bono – Mrs. Jellyby in a Ten-Gallon hat

Novelist Paul Theroux has noted the similarity between the secular saint known as Bono and the philanthropic Mrs. Jellyby in Dickens’s Bleak House. Mrs. Jellyby tries to save starving Africans by financing coffee growing, making pianoforte legs for export and bullying people to give her money for those purposes. Theroux wrote in the New York Times on December 15 2005: “There are probably more annoying things than being hectored about African development by a wealthy Irish rock star in a cowboy hat, but I can’t think of one at the moment.”

Bono says at U2 concerts, “We don’t want your money, just your voice.” Bono wants you to give the government your money in taxes and spend it for him. Bono’s ONE organisation wants Western governments to spend tax dollars on development and aid programmes. Many voices, those of William Easterly and Dambisa Moyo the most eloquent among them, have argued that aid does more harm than good to the countries receiving it.

Theroux taught in Malawi as a volunteer Peace Corps teacher 45 years ago and knows the country well. Despite large amounts of financial aid, Malawi “has declined from a country with promise to a failed state.” “I would not send private money to a charity, or foreign aid to a government, unless every dollar was accounted for – and this never happens.”

In 2008, Bono’s ONE Campaign raised $14,993,873 in public donations — of which only $184,732 (or just over one percent) was distributed to charities. More than $8 million went to salaries for executives and employees at ONE.

In 2008, New Internationalist readers chose Bono as their Artful Dodger of the year. For many years, Bono’s home country of Ireland had not taxed the income of “artists”. Then the Government decided to set a cap of $200,000 a year – a fortune for most artists, but not for U2. Ireland is still a corporate tax haven and Bono would have done well enough had he decided to stay home. The Netherlands offered a more attractive deal, because of its link with offshore tax-havens in the Antilles. It seems that Bono wants ordinary people to pay through their taxes for his causes but does not want to pay tax himself.

Geldof

 

I was one of those caught up in the mass hysteria generated by Live Aid in 1985. I responded to Bob Geldof’s exhortations to pay up to save the starving Ethiopians. Live Aid turned Geldof from a has-been pop performer into a global charity superstar. Not everybody was impressed. World Music champion Andy Kershaw wrote of the Wembley concert: “It became clear that this was another parade of the same old rock aristocracy in a concert for Africa, organised by someone who, while advertising his concern for, and sympathy with, the continent didn’t see fit to celebrate or dignify the place by including on the Live Aid bill a single African performer.”

Alex de Waal estimates that the relief effort may have cut the death toll by between a quarter and a half. However, critics say that NGOs were complicit in the Ethiopian government’s “resettlement” of 600,000 people from the north while enforcing the “villagisation” of three million others. Donor governments and mainstream relief NGOs turned a blind eye while government officials raided refugee camps. This was a totalitarian scheme masquerading as a humanitarian effort. The conservative estimate of those dying en route is 50,000. MSF’s (Médecins Sans Frontières) estimate is double that. Asked about allegations that 100,000 had died in the transfers, Geldof said, “in the context [of such a famine], these numbers don’t shock me.”

Ethiopia remains one of Africa’s poorest countries. Whilst making a fortune for charity Geldof has also shown an aptitude for making himself rich. One of his companies, Ten Alps Communications is Britain’s fastest growing media, entertainment and marketing company. The company deals with some unsavoury allies, creating “branded environments” for BP, Glaxo Smithkline and Microsoft, and even the British Foreign Office. When Geldof tried to relive Live Aid with Live8, Nestlé, BAE Systems and Rio Tinto sponsored some of the concerts. Nestlé has been accused of benefiting from the HIV/Aids epidemic in Africa by selling more milk substitute products; Rio Tinto, the world’s largest mining corporation, has been condemned for human rights and environmental abuses; BAE Systems, according to Mike Lewis of the UK’s Campaign against Arms Trade, is “fuelling conflicts across Africa”.

Many people involved in the Make Poverty History (MPH) campaign were not happy with Geldof. He chose to hold Live 8, without consulting the MPH organisers, on the same day in 2005 as the main MPH demonstration in Edinburgh, stealing most of the media coverage. Geldof praised Tony Blair and GW Bush for saving millions of African lives and promoted the Washington Consensus of free trade, foreign direct investment and privatisation.

 

 As with Live Aid in 1985, Geldof was criticised for not including any African musicians. At the final press conference that concluded the G8 summit in Gleneagles, the South African activist Kumi Naidoo acted as spokesperson for Make Poverty History gave the coalition’s verdict that: “The world has roared, but the G8 has responded with a whisper.” Geldof turned on Naidoo in front of the assembled media, attacking his statement as “a disgrace”. African civil society representatives went on television afterwards to make public statements dissociating themselves from Geldof’s remarks.
Carnegie

Andrew Carnegie was a practical philanthropist. He knew how to make money and he knew how to use it effectively. Carnegie established charitable organisations that are still active nearly a century after his death and he set the template for other philanthropists through his well-written thoughts on the theory and practice of charity. Carnegie urged the wealthy to provide for themselves and their dependents and then make it their “duty” to use the rest of their funds for their communities. He warned successful men who failed to help others that “the man who dies thus rich dies disgraced.” Modern day rich givers like Warren Buffett and Bill Gates have expressed a Carnegie-like wish to divest themselves of their wealth.

 

This echoes The Buddha’s aphorism about the wealthy man who enjoys his riches without sharing, digging his own grave. Those of us who are not wealthy would be advised to give directly to those in need rather than outsourcing to huge corporations or overweening rock stars. Make a difference to the poor not to the rich.

 

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