Participatory giving can strengthen civil society

Sharadha de Saram spoke on 'Can traditional and religious giving lead to social change?' at the first International Women's Leadership Workshop hosted by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) in Jerusalem. The workshop provided educational, networking and professional development opportunities in disaster relief and global development. The participants from Haiti, the United States, Sri Lanka, India and Ethiopia have served as partners to JDC in countries where JDC is conducting humanitarian efforts. Here she shares some insights

Giving and volunteering are deeply rooted in Asian cultural traditions. We are familiar with the concept of Shramadana which is widely practised in South Asia. It means the sharing of time, skills, labour, thoughts and energy for the awakening of all. In Sri Lanka, Sharamadana was popularized by the country's largest people's participatory movement, the Sarvodaya Shramadana Movement. The vision of Shramadana is a no-poverty, no-affluence society, based on the sharing of resources, which would uplift the status of the poorest people in the country. Based on Gandhian principles, its methods are designed to preserve traditional Sri Lankan values and culture at village level while promoting sustainable wellbeing on a national level.

There are, of course, other organizations as well which work with a pure sense of charity and sharing but in general the culture of giving as practised in Sri Lanka is to a great extent in keeping with Sri Lanka's strongly-held culture of religious and traditional giving and at odds with the true concept of social philanthropy. It is against this background that we need to increase the understanding of philanthropy and try to change the mindset from traditional giving.

In the most recent report published by The Charities Aid Foundation, the results across the world's population in 153 countries showed that in the overall giving index:

*30% had donated money
*20% had volunteered time
*45% had helped a stranger in some form or the other

Sri Lanka is ranked 8 after Australia, New Zealand, Ireland, Canada, Switzerland, USA, The Netherlands and Britain. In the volunteering sector, Sri Lanka comes second with 52% of its population volunteering time.

Sharadha de Saram (centre) with other participants in Israel

In the West, many organizations and people give with the intentions of benefitting from tax exemptions. Tax incentives for charitable gifts have existed for over a century (in the US since 1917) to encourage private philanthropy for public benefit.

While research shows most people don't give solely because of tax advantages, it also finds those incentives do drive more giving. In Sri Lanka, giving is often associated with a better after-life. This form of giving which if I will refer to as 'Karmic Giving' could be one reason why Sri Lanka comes tops in the giving index.

The chief reason for 'karmic giving' is to have a better life in the next birth or a better life for their children in their next birth, or simply to negate any ill-effects on a person's current life and bring merit to the lives of the family members. We can argue that,- the act of giving regardless of the motive is what really matters. This is partly correct but in my experience the donor focuses more on his/her own merit rather than the impact that the donation will have on the recipient.

Why is it necessary to change this mindset from traditional and religious giving?

Being aware of the impact is a very important aspect of philanthropy, in particular, social philanthropy. This can be achieved when the donor establishes a connection with the beneficiary. This is important because it not only contributes enormously to further giving but,- more importantly, it raises awareness on the rights of others - in this case the less fortunate who are the beneficiaries of such philanthropic initiatives. When a living connection is established between givers and receivers it creates a voice for the building of a more just and equitable society. It helps empower communities and increases understanding that opportunities must be equally available to all citizens.

The challenge then is to effect a paradigm shift from a traditional approach to a more meaningful approach whereby the gift made becomes an intrinsic part of the humanitarian process.

A paper published by the Synergos Institute in New York states: "The primary difference between social philanthropy and traditional philanthropy is that while traditional philanthropy avoids making radical challenges to existing wealth and power structures, philanthropy for social justice or social change advocates a grant making philosophy based on the principles of social, economic and political justice".
Working for social justice entails working to overcome current injustices, to ensure every group has a voice, every culture is respected, and every individual has equal access to resources and means of communication. To achieve all this we need to be aware of the impact of our philanthropic initiatives.
The giving which took place at the time of the Indian Ocean Tsunami in December 2004 is one such example. Individuals and organizations irrespective of their cultural identities helped people and communities recover from the disaster. They reached out to the tsunami survivors for the pure cause of social change rather than for religious or traditional-giving reasons. The challenge was to forget one’s personal cultural identity in the interest of the humanitarian process. In this instance, the goal was successfully achieved. This was also evident in the post- tsunami recovery process after 2005 when not only the local population, but also the Sri Lankan Diaspora gave generously in order to help make a difference. In today's context in particular, it is important to reflect and remember how different ethnic communities came together for the betterment of society. Sri Lankans forgot their personal cultural identity in the giving process.

It is my conviction that social philanthropic mechanisms can heal the wounds of communal disharmony and ethnic tensions. Social philanthropy is also a way to solve the identity issue. Currently we see how national identity has become a 'brand name'. Bill boards boast of, 'apeyma kama' or 'apeyama guwanyanaya' and so on. Branding identity does not increase patriotism nor can it create a national identity. Social philanthropy can contribute immensely towards a new post war identity with Sri Lankans forgetting their narrow understanding of identity and moving forward with a new identity based on equality and respect for all cultures. Disasters need not be the only stimulus to bring people together. Social philanthropic initiatives in general can achieve the same objectives. In doing so, we can contribute to building communal harmony, raise awareness of the rights of others and unite the different ethnic groups.

Proactive involvement is essential for the sustainability of any livelihood or humanitarian programme. Instead of hand-outs, which are devoid of any humanitarian impact, participatory philanthropy raises awareness on the rights of others. The level of giving in a country also indicates something about the strength of civil society. If we are to follow the principles of social philanthropy we can see a much wider civil society participation in humanitarian work as well as build on the existing capacity of civil society to allow for a more participatory philanthropic and humanitarian initiative.

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