DURING the month of Ramazan train and busloads of alms seekers converge on Karachi and other large cities where the rich live. They roam on the roads, crowd around traffic signals with sickly babes in arms, some of them skilfully made up to appear so, to seek alms.
They know that Ramazan is the month of giving and benevolence. So they come in their thousands to seek out believers who would like to give from their wealth for the sake of Allah — the term zakat is derived from zakaa, which means to increase, purify and bless.
But charity is sometimes given badly or not as well as it should be. Charity is not responsible when it is used to patch up the effects of basic differences that are built into the structure and values of society. From this point of view, charity can sometimes be seen as actually accepting the injustices of society while trying to mitigate the results of the injustices.
Philanthropy sometimes combines genuine pity and concern with the display of power and this explains why the rich and the powerful are more inclined to be generous in their disposition than to grant social justice to the sufferers. A certain senior Pakistani director of a foreign bank would, during the month of Ramazan, keep a wad of five-rupee (now coins) and 10-rupee notes on the dashboard of his car, with instructions to the driver that anyone extending his hand for bheek (alms) should be handed one without delay.
Giving charity may distract from finding the best solution.
When the long-serving driver respectfully pointed out to the seth that not all alms seekers are genuine and some belong to racketeer groups the boss shut him down: “That is none of your business and this is not your money. It is mine.” The driver was not too far off in his assessment because there are a number beggars nowadays who are believed to act as conduits, passing on information to their armed accomplices about the money and valuables being carried in a certain car. Insofar as the ‘giver’ is concerned, his generous impulse freezes if his power is challenged or his generosities are not accepted with suitable humility.
Appeals for zakat during the month of Ramazan also come from free and charitable hospitals, homes for women and the aged, social service wings of political parties, educational and religious institutions, even media barons promoting relief for the poorer segments of society. All of them indulge in an advertising blitzkrieg seeking zakat support for their programmes that are supposedly aimed at alleviating the sufferings of the poor.
Arguably, the purpose of giving charity is to solve the problems of individuals and society. Is this the most effective way of solving the problems of need and poverty? In fact, giving charity may distract from finding the best solution, which may involve a complex rethink of the way a society organises its economic and social relationships.
Charity organisations can be more effective in pressurising the government to bring about change. An excellent example of this is the rebuilding of two apartment blocks in Abbas Town, Karachi, that had been totally destroyed in deadly bomb blasts.
The shine of the two buildings and the joy and relief on the faces of the residents and shop owners is testimony to what sound philanthropy can achieve when a few well-meaning scholars take up the cudgels to act as a bridge between society and government.
An example of fair and equitable fundraising is provided by a prominent medical college and hospital of Karachi. A funds committee comprising corporate heads reviews all proposals for expansion and new projects. To set a good example, the committee members raise at least 10pc of the desired funds for the project and thus motivate their friends and associates to join the effort. The objective of this committee is to improve the effectiveness of grants,
lower the cost of administration and invest in more effective strategies for social change.
In charity spending, the interests of all persons must count equally and all discrimination avoided in the rights and obligations of individuals. In one case, on going through the old records of grants and loans for financially deprived scholars I was appalled to find that many of the loans had been allowed to the sons and daughters of senior bureaucrats, armed forces personnel, company heads and friends of the group’s directors. This was done as a public relations exercise in clear violation of the trust’s objectives.
Giving charity to causes that appeal to the donor does not necessarily mean these are the causes with the greatest need. Likewise, tax incentives to rich charity providers may worsen social inequalities by reducing the funds that the state needs for social projects. Give zakat as a religious and moral responsibility by all means. But do so with a sense of responsibility.
The writer is a freelance contributor.
Published in Dawn, July 25th , 2014