Published in the Opinion column of The Jakarta Globe, September 24, 2009
On Monday, Jakarta Governor Fauzi Bowo hosted a major Idul Fitri charity event that involved 6,000 bags of essential goods and a total of Rp 240 million in cash handouts to be distributed among those who came to City Hall.
Surely there were many who benefited from the event, but we must not forget that two were severely injured in the surging crowd and 11 others fainted. Two weeks earlier, in South Jakarta, five people fainted in a rush to get aid packages. And a year ago in Pasuruan, East Java, 21 people were killed in a stampede during a similar charity distribution.
The Indonesian Council of Ulema (MUI) warned Muslims not to give alms directly to the needy this Ramadan. The governor himself had even said that those hosting large events to distribute alms were more concerned with gaining publicity than with actual charity. But if people were still determined to host such events, he said, local authorities must be informed so that sufficient security can be provided. He did as he told others to do, providing security to ensure the smooth running of his own event, but his former statement still applies: The purpose of his and most others’ charity was to gain publicity. This form of charity is based not on altruism but on selfishness.
Reinhold Niebuhr, the American theologian, once said that a powerful person’s donation to charity is “a display of his power and an expression of his pity.” Those with enough wealth to afford so-called altruism tolerate the existence of poverty because it inflates their own sense of power. Yet Niebuhr added that the sickening truth is that our generosity freezes over when our superiority is challenged or when our charity is not met with suitable humility. The stampedes and the injuries endured by those waiting on our giving hands make us feel honorable and good when in fact we are perpetuating the very social injustice which breeds poverty.
Charity in and of itself is not bad, but it can be severely debilitating when it is used to veil greater social problems. Good charity should be the giving to those with the greatest need using the most efficient method. It is not morally better to focus on those more immediate to us when there are others with more pressing needs. It is also not morally better to choose more interesting methods when there are more efficient ways of delivering aid. However we often give to big disasters and organizations with attractive projects instead of those with greatest need and efficiency. Even worse, yet more common, we give according to our whim.
Our choice and method of charity demonstrate our actual motive in giving to the poor. Let us ask ourselves: Why is it that we are more inclined to be generous than to grant social justice?
Begging has become a lucrative career choice in Jakarta. Recently on these pages, a World Bank consultant decried direct almsgiving to beggars because it encourages otherwise capable people to beg. Our greater generosity to children and those with children has resulted in them being coerced to beg or used as props. The consultant wrote, “Your alms during Ramadan, even if they do increase your chances of going to heaven, may deprive the poorest of the poor and endanger the children here on earth.”
If our intention is to eradicate poverty, then our selfish charity work is a mere band-aid solution for the gaping wound that requires more radical treatments. This is not to say that we should completely cease to give, but that we should give necessarily before we do so unnecessarily. Without poverty, there would be no need for charity, but without social justice, there would indeed be poverty.
Before we applaud ourselves for having donated much to charity, let us ask ourselves if we have paid our own dues as is just. Paying taxes immediately comes to mind. The dire state of social welfare for the needy and unemployed is due also to the lack of government funds. When we give to charity but evade our taxes, we encourage begging and dependence while discouraging economic independence and social reform.
The fight against economic inequality cannot be won by charity alone, especially when the wealthy give only as they please and not as they should. We should not disillusion ourselves that our gift of small percentages of our wealth while we still live in abundance and others starve to death is generous. True charity should not be driven by pride, but by a sense of obligation. Were there a drowning child in the middle of a lake, it is only right that we do all we possibly can to save him. It is not by any exercise of our superiority or by our benevolence, but only because it is our duty to do so. Suppose we were completely capable of swimming over and rescuing the child, yet we chose not to. If we then threw him small wooden sticks to grasp at as he continued to drown, we would be deemed inhumane, uncharitable and certainly not just. But is this not what we are doing?
Paying our taxes, instead of throwing coins to street-side beggars, should make us feel good. Advocating social justice and teaching those drowning how to swim should be at the forefront of our fight against poverty. We must necessarily be just, and then on top of that we may be generous.
Read more great stories at Jakarta Globe.