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Friday
Apr282006

Philanthropy after the tsunami.

At first, it seems silly to ask why so much philanthropy followed the tsunami. With so much death, destruction and dislocation there was great need and, obviously, generosity follows need, one might say. But I want to look a gift horse, not so much in the mouth, really, but in the eye, and ask, quietly, why are you here? What will you be doing? It isn’t radical, after all, to take things for granted; asking ‘why’ and ‘what’ should help us see more clearly.

The first reason’s a little elusive it seems. And it seems a little unkind to bring up. But it’s true that there were thousands of Euro-Americans affected by the waves and that makes for a very different kind of news story. You don’t have to be as unconsciously crude as mainstream US news channels, that will routinely announce, after a plane crash. ‘123 people are missing, including 3 Americans’ – to realize this. Michael Ondaatje puts it this way in Anil’s Ghost:

'American movies, English books--remember how they all end?' Gemini had asked that night. 'The American or Englishman gets on a plane and leaves. That's it. The camera leaves with him. He looks out of the window at Mombassa or Vietnam or Jakarta, someplace he can look through the clouds. The tired hero….the war, to all purposes, is over.’

That’s what makes The Year of Living Dangerously, or Cry Freedom real to mainstream Euro-American viewer. One of your own, caught up in it all.

Well the second reason is simple, really. Natural disasters generate more generosity than (hu)man made ones. No one is to blame in earthquakes and floods, the victims are innocent. In a tsunami, the victims are pure and blameless as babies. Charity pours in, to save the children.

 On this view, not only are riots and civil wars caused by morally repugnant perpetrators, something we all agree with, but also, and in an odd and disagreeable way, even the victims of these events seem slightly tainted to the compassionate ones. There were hundreds of thousands of displaced people in refugee camps in Sri Lanka on the 25th of December, but these people, some displaced many many times, and living in quite appalling conditions, weren’t the recipients of very much at all, from any body. It is the purportedly innocent who receive, one supposes; those tainted with what colonial anthropology calls the pathology of culture, have to be re-formed before they are suitable to receive. Improve yourself first, before we give you very much, is what the philanthropist is really saying.

But if that’s so then why does even natural disaster philanthropy ebb and flow in odd ways? Heart-melting images of innocent victims might catalyze charity, but what sustains it? Compare the response to the earthquake in Bamm, Iran, that took place exactly a year before the Asian tsunami – on 26th Dec. 2003. The casualties were of the same order of magnitude, if you take Sri Lanka and Iran; and Iran, like Sri Lanka, and unlike India and Thailand after the tsunami, allowed charities from everywhere except from Israel. Yet a year later, the initially enthusiastic INGOs are unhappy . Says Patrick Parsons of Merlin, a British medical charity: "Iran's been a closed country for the last 25 years… the authorities have no idea how an NGO operates."

That’s not the case in Sri Lanka. Everyone knows what an NGO is. Everyone wants to join one, or get micro credit from one. The administrative service is in many ways receptive to NGOs. Some sections of our administrative apparatus are almost run directly by INGOS. No one seems to mind. That’s what sustains charity, a society and people who have somehow been convinced that they need it. And sustained giving isn’t about giving at all, it’s about reform. Just like the other kind, that comes after riots and war. It’s about improvement.  That’s different from unconditional giving. Like true love, that’s rare. Philanthropy isn’t rare, but its recent. The kind of philanthropy I’m talking about has only been in operation for less than two hundred years; coming into being just after the invention of penitentiaries, which replaced exile as a form of punishment in Europe, and simultaneously with the discovery of ‘poverty.’ Criminals and the ‘poor’ now had to open their souls to goodness, become Christians, be good, and be saved. That’s the logic of the Salvation Army. And that it seems to me, is where we are.

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