How do you respond to the child on the street in New Road who is begging for money? What do you do when he clings to your legs, drags himself, and embarrasses you until you offer money? This is a situation familiar to us. We know many children on the street use cigarette, alcohol or sniff dendrite. If we give them money, they might use it on these harmful substances. So by giving money, we might be doing more harm than good to these children.
But we are charitable and want to help. Also, it is embarrassing when a child clings to your feet and so many people are making faces at you. When I find myself in such a situation, I ask the child what they need the money for and almost unfailingly, they respond ‘for food’. And I offer to buy them food instead of giving money. Some appreciate the gesture and accept food, while some curse me and leave. I accept the curses believing that I did the right thing by preventing my charity from doing harm to this child.
“Charity is a tricky thing. I don’t always know when to offer it and when not,” my wife says. Many others have shared similar confusion. In this opinion piece, I discuss the tricky issue of charity with my current view, and while doing so I also present my earlier views.
Growing up, I had learnt from my parents to be kind and charitable to the poor and needy. Although I don’t recall the reasons they gave me, I believe they were based on the idea of daan leading to punya. And I used to give money to people on the streets who appeared needy and were seeking help. But this changed when I joined Social Work education. I now came across a view where charity wasn’t encouraged.
This view laid out that giving money to the poor encourages begging and makes them depend on others for a living. So I stopped giving money to those on the streets, although I found it difficult to say no to their requests. My training in social work taught me that giving skills, instead of money, was the right thing to do to help the poor. This was in accordance with the perspective that focuses on empowering the marginalized and the vulnerable by providing skills so that they can take care of themselves. The most commonly used example in professional social work is that if you give fish to a hungry person, they will survive for a day but if you teach them how to fish, they will survive every day of their lives. This was what I believed in then.
Relevant in the discussion about ‘to give or not to give charity to the poor’ is the individual vs structural view of poverty. The individual view contends that people are poor because of their laziness or unwillingness to work, whereas the second view highlights that people are poor because of structural issues, for example the socio-economic arrangements. The individual view blames the person for their poverty and thus discourages charity whereas the structural view holds the larger system accountable for the poverty of an individual. After being exposed to this individual vs structural view on poverty, I resumed giving to people in need but with a newer understanding of poverty and charity.
My understanding of charity expanded from giving money to the poor to providing support to the needy and poor including materials, skills, and networks. This understanding corresponds to the Merriam-Webster dictionary’s definition of charity as “generosity and helpfulness especially toward the needy or suffering”. My understanding of the poor as helpless and needy expanded to view them as victims of the larger socio-economic system, which needs to be changed in order to address the root causes of poverty. I learnt that each of us can intervene or contribute to bring about change in the system to lift people up from poverty. What we can do depends on where we are and what we are capable of.
There can be various levels and natures of interventions to address poverty, namely, micro, meso, and macro. At a micro level, an individual can help poor people by providing them with basic necessities of life or with skill development. At meso level, too, groups of individuals and organizations can extend similar help. And at the macro level, governments (local, states and central) can provide welfare to the poor through cash transfers, unemployment allowances, subsidized housing, skills development opportunities, employment generation, affirmative action, to name a few.
No matter where we are in the level of intervention, providing charity should be a thoughtful act of helping the poor or needy and not merely an expression of compassion or a daan. Charity should not be limited to acts carried out to feel good but aimed at empowering the poor and needy so that they are not dependent on charitable individuals and organizations. And acts of charity must bring no further harm to those helped.