M is for Money: Ungenerous country
While the United Nations and the international media have lauded the Odisha government’s concerted evacuation plan, the appeals for funds to rebuild and rehabilitate the state in the wake of the cyclone have met with lukewarm response in India and sparse coverage in the national media.
When Cyclone Fani made landfall in Odisha on 3 May, the Indian Meteorological Department ranked it as a Category 4 Extremely Severe Cyclic Storm. However, the Government of Odisha had heeded advance warning systems and evacuated over 1.1 million people before the cyclone ravaged the state. The death toll, as of 13 May, stood at 64 - a small number - given the enormity of the storm.
But there is a flip side to this - while the United Nations and the international media have lauded the Odisha government’s concerted evacuation plan, the appeals for funds to rebuild and rehabilitate the state in the wake of the cyclone have met with a lukewarm response in India and sparse coverage in the national media. Indian social media, preoccupied with the general elections, has remained oblivious to Odisha’s plight. Crowdfunding appeals, fundraising requests for aid organisations, links to the chief minister’s relief fund – they are all conspicuously missing from people’s timelines.
Does this apathy indicate that India has a problem with giving for charity? It certainly appears we do, according to the data published by the Charities Aid Foundation World Giving Index for 2018. India ranks 124 out of 144 countries - a sharp drop of 43 places from the previous year. Going by absolute numbers, India has the highest number of people who donate to charity and volunteer time. Yet, when you take the size of our population into account, the numbers are discouraging.
On a percentage basis, India is one of the least generous countries in the world, ranking significantly lower than our neighbours in the region - including Myanmar (9), Sri Lanka (27), Nepal (52), Bangladesh (74), and Pakistan (91). Only China fares worse than India, ranked at 142 out of 144 countries.
Does that mean we are ungenerous as a culture? If so, why is this the case? What prevents individuals from loosening their purse strings for social causes that lack the shock and awe element?
Not all disasters are created equal
Anshu Gupta, a social entrepreneur and the founder of Goonj, an NGO that works in the areas of disaster relief, humanitarian aid, and community development, is of the opinion that not all disasters are created equal. He believes that disasters that strike urban centres get prominent coverage and air time in comparison with disasters in rural and semi-rural areas. “Two feet of water in Mumbai or Delhi makes much bigger national news than six feet of water in Odisha. All disasters are terrible of course, but there is an issue of privilege even here. The kind of money that was available for (prominent states like) Kerala and Tamil Nadu, is not available for Bihar or Odisha - among the poorest states in the country,” he says.
In August 2018, heavy monsoon rains caused the worst floods in Kerala in a century, killing close to 500 people. After an initial lull, when the enormity of the devastation became evident through social media, all of India came together to contribute for relief efforts on an unprecedented scale. In contrast, Facebook and Twitter timelines have been unusually quiet in the aftermath of Cyclone Fani.
Morbid: Higher casualties get higher contributions
“Even during a disaster or a natural calamity, the scale of the devastation is unfortunately measured by the death toll. For instance, people are happy with the positive news that not too many people have died in Odisha. That is indeed fantastic. But there is no shock element (in the low casualty numbers.) When a million people are successfully evacuated - they still have to rebuild their lives from scratch. But people don’t think about that,” Gupta insists.
In contrast, when a cyclone of a similar intensity hit Odisha in 1999, over 10,000 people died. In recent years, the Indian government's "zero casualty" policy has reduced the death toll from calamities. But nonprofits and social organisations continue to struggle with raising funds from individual and institutional donors. Anshu Gupta believes that unless there is a large scale disaster that gets prime time coverage in the national media, donations are hard to come by.
“Disasters like floods and cyclones now happen at regular intervals in states like Bihar, Odisha, and Assam. Do we have to wait for the casualty figures to come in (before we realise how grave the situation is)? We have to start using our common sense to see that if a million people have been evacuated from a cyclone that was raging at 150-200 km per hour - a cyclone that hasn’t even spared concrete structures, what about the majority of the population that lives in kachcha houses?” he adds.
While the data might show that we don’t give enough for social causes, our timelines tell another story - they are often filled with moving appeals shared via crowdfunding platforms. These appeals tug at heartstrings - often featuring children or young adults battling rare illnesses or facing other dire situations. Bharati Ramachandran, the founder of Barapani, a communications agency that works with nonprofits, says that fundraising appeals related to healthcare or education propel us to contribute as they appeal to our emotional side. She calls this phenomenon ‘emergency giving’ - urgent causes such as medical emergencies, where people believe that their contributions can help allay a grave situation.
“While there is nothing wrong with giving for emergencies, there are other legitimate causes that need funds. Women’s issues, climate change, rural livelihoods, urban poverty, for example. People seldom get to see these - unless highlighted by an Oxfam or Breakthrough. So, organisations working in these areas don’t put their campaign out there thinking donors won’t give - and donors don’t give because they haven’t been asked to support these causes.”
Anshu Gupta agrees and adds that one-on-one giving, while well-intentioned, might be problematic. “When institutions pick one child, or one cause and try to raise money for that, it might help that one individual for sure. But it distorts the whole giving process. You are getting people habituated to giving to one person who is in an emergency situation. Besides this, can we start contributing to larger causes? Can we build a coherent atmosphere of giving?” he adds.
Gods over humans
Indians, irrespective of faith, are known for giving to religious causes - to temples, churches, ashrams, godmen, faith healers and so on - rather than social causes. In a country where people derive a sense of community from their socio-religious groups, this is unsurprising. While unstructured giving, such as giving alms and feeding the poor is commonplace, this does not help the social sector. “The amount of money that is going to gurus and babas and religious causes is much higher than what is coming to the social sector. It’s time for us to start differentiating between religious giving and social giving. There is nothing wrong with religious giving. But we have to stop confusing religious giving with social giving,” says Gupta.
In addition, India’s giving problem is partly due to outdated attitudes, believes Priyanka Deb, an e-learning professional based in Delhi. “Middle and upper-middle-class Indians, who grew up pre liberalisation, have trouble trusting their own affluence. They still think there isn’t enough to go around. This makes them want to hoard wealth not only for themselves, but also pass it down to their children and their grandchildren. People assume that “doing charity” is the responsibility of corporates and celebrities. They think of giving as a luxury - when it’s anything but that. Giving to social causes should be as natural as giving to religious causes,” Deb says, echoing Gupta’s sentiments. “Giving to charity has to become part of our lifestyles. It cannot be a one-off act; it has to become an ongoing, deliberate act,” she says.
Anshu Gupta believes that problematic perceptions about the development sector in the minds of people are yet another barrier for giving. “When people give money to the development sector, they want to see it spent today. And they want to see it spent on a cause of their choice. They look at our balance sheets online and demand to know how come we have so much money in our bank account. They don’t understand that a nonprofit is like any other organisation that needs to have money in the bank - for rent, for salaries, for overheads, for logistics,” he says.
Gupta believes that people fail to see NGOs and NPOs as an organised sector that employs professionals like any other: “They ask us if we take salaries for the work we do. They ask us how much salary we get. You don’t ask any other professional whether they get paid for the work they do. They don’t question the integrity and honesty of other professionals like doctors or engineers. Why are people in the development sector asked to prove our integrity time and again when we are in fact a highly regulated sector?”
Donor education through organisation building
Bharathi Ramachandran is of the opinion that India’s giving problem can be changed with a two-pronged approach - better communication and donor education.”The single biggest thing holding back organisations working in tough areas - women’s issues, human rights, climate change - when it comes to raising funds for their work, is lack of communication skills. They can’t find talent in the remote places where they work, and even if they do, can’t afford it. For this to change, institutional donors need to go beyond funding programmes and have to start investing in building organisational capacity - in communication and fundraising.”
Anshu Gupta believes that India's giving problem can be alleviated with deeper attitudinal shifts and a change in perception. “You don’t always have to wait for an earthquake or a flood. I always say that poverty is the biggest disaster. The day we start treating poverty as a disaster, you will not be saying, “Can I sponsor one child or one cause?” You would much rather contribute to address the root cause of the problem.”