For myself, Ramadan has always been one of those months that reminds me of the fact that there people who are worse off. Charity has always been an interesting concept and one that I’ve been involved in since I can long remember. In the past three years since I’ve come back to Jordan, perhaps some of the fondest memories I have was filling pickup trucks with food and clothes, and delivering them to some needy people in the refugee camps. And perhaps the pinnacle of these memories was the 7iber drive during Gaza, which managed to collect over 60 tons of food and clothes in 48 hours – and soon after the campaign met its goals, 7iber helped mobilize hundreds of people for three weeks to help with the Aramex campaign. The night we received those donations was simply an unforgettable moment in my life as I had, until then, never seen so many people coming together organically for a single purpose.
Since then, charity has always been on my mind, but getting a chance to interact with and engage people on the ground more frequently, I discovered what I should have known all along: charity, while providing a temporary fix for the short run, also creates lasting damage in the long run. That damage goes by the name of “dependence”, and the rising culture of it, especially in developing nations like Jordan.
In the past year or so, I read all I could about the subject. From Charle’s Murray’s thesis on “The Underclass” and welfare systems, to Willie Cheng’s book “Doing Good Well”. In the latter, Cheng states: “charities should seek extinction rather than growth.” Now that’s a powerful message, and one that most charities probably do not aim to abide by from an institutional point of view. Their goals are always to grow, bigger and more powerful – all they need is a marketplace, and developing nations offer just that.
And therein lies our problem. When a group of people whose core issues, including education, unemployment and standards of living, are not resolved, then charity moves from being a temporary fix to being a long term solution. Even if a person’s or an organization’s intentions are not so, this is an inevitable and destructive outcome, because like anything else, someone who is dependent on something will always find a means to attain more of it, and an entity that will provide it for them. And in the charity world, it is a bottomless pit. One organization will always replace another, and one giving hand will always have another waiting right behind it. There is arguably an abundance of charitable organizations in a country like Jordan, while the number of citizens who are worse off is growing – this alone signifies that there is something seriously wrong with the equation.
The rising culture of dependence has meant that many are simply relying on others to provide for them, and will constantly find new ways to maintain those links. Last year, I spent several weeks visiting and talking to charitable organizations run by the Muslim Brotherhood, who are arguably the most widespread operators of charity in the country, and specifically Amman. The stories they told about people who tried to “cheat” the system were not isolated; they were the norm, they were the majority. Some of these stories included women who registered to receive donations from several organizations, and would travel to each one everyday. Or women who hid various appliances around the house when a surveyor from one of the charities was due for a visit. Or other stories involving the misuses of national ID cards to obtain charity. And so on and so forth.
One can either interpret this as an act of desperation in tough times (and times have always been tough here) or, a byproduct of this very culture. One that has opened too many doors, and too many opportunities for abuse. And the abuse does not need to be intentional; in most cases it is a natural outcome of the culture that engulfs the people that exist within its environment. There are whole generations that are being brought up in this very environment today. It has become a part of their daily fabric.
The aim of charity should not be to empower a culture of dependence but nurture a culture of self-reliance. Even from an Islamic point of view, there is a constant misconception as to the very idea of alms giving, which is Islamically defined and constructed for the purposes of creating a self-reliant people, not a population weakened and drowning in dependence. The Muslim Brotherhood, to their credit, have managed to strike some sort of balance on the grassroots level, mixing charity for temporary fixes, with more sustainable efforts that include teaching and apprenticeships to impart job skills on its constituency. A great deal of their efforts are motivated by religion and politics, but it is nevertheless a system that outmatches anything else I’ve seen.
Interestingly enough, what one can commonly see in a country like Jordan where this culture of dependence has grown for decades and erupted in recent times, is a new social norm: entitlement. There is undoubtedly a growing segment of society that has now evolved past the stage of mere dependency on the charity of others, to a point where they feel entitled to this charity. This can commonly be seen in the attitudes of many people towards the organizations they have become accustomed to receiving charity from, be it governmental or non-profit. They view it, by and large, as a right.
All notions that charity empowers people seem absolutely ridiculous and folly in the face of such an ugly tide. If the goal is to help someone, then charity, in the way it has been defined today, is a system that should publicly be recognized as being the biggest adversary of that very goal. Moreover, in a country like Jordan where an environment has been created in the last several years that is bent on institutionalizing charity, organizations have become businesses, and the trouble with that is exactly as Cheng points out: a business’s goal is to grow, while a charity’s goal should be to become non-existent. Charities have grown exponentially, and so have the number of people they serve. Charities have become brands, even selling religious principles as a product to entice the customers; the givers. These organizations also compete for popularity, as do the growing number of individuals who seem to be more interested in popularizing their efforts to a bleeding heart constituency than in the actual efforts – and if that’s your goal then you can never go wrong with charity as a weapon of choice.
There are of course some natural exceptions where charity can play a vital role in social rejuvenation, but I would mainly attribute or limit such exceptions to emergency situations where immediate relief in the most essential form is required. A natural disaster for instance.
But when it comes to cultures of dependence, here’s something I’ve been thinking about recently:
A few years back, a city like Amman had its traffic lights flooded with beggars. Over the past few years, their numbers suddenly declined. Now the government may have us believing that their decline in numbers has been due to police efforts to simply “round them up”, but does anyone really believe that locking up a street beggars is going to discourage them from returning to their place of business? In my opinion, the truth is closer to on-the-ground observations. As stories of traffic light beggars making unseemly amounts of money became more commonplace in local media, people grew increasingly discouraged to giving them anything. At the same time, we’ve seen a sudden shift in the activities at traffic lights. No longer do we see beggars but rather entrepreneurs. Traffic lights now have more people careening through the stopped cars, but everyone is selling something. Typically, different “gangs” take on different areas, but one could simply define this as a form of unionization. Their products constantly change according to determined market forces of supply and demand. In the spring they sell flowers, in the summer they sell fruits, on hot days they sell accessories like miniature fans, and on occasions like the world cup they sell fan memorabilia. Their growth in numbers might be a good indicator as to their success rate.
This is a segment of society that was forced to shift from a culture of dependence to one of self-reliance. Finding it more feasible to sell even the silliest or cheapest of things, than to wager on the giving mood of the marketplace that day. The market may not always feel like being charitable, but you can always depend on them to be what they genuinely are: customers. Thus they were forced to learn a completely different skill set and apply completely different methods to earn a living.
This is perhaps but a small example of the greater aspirations a society should be aspiring to, especially in a post-financial crisis world that shaken the marketplace from boardrooms to alleyways, and demonstrated the need for individuals, societies, and governments to be financially resilient, and not financially dependent. There needs to be a movement, a real on-the-ground effort, to move away from charity and towards a more sustainable front. We need to nurture a new culture of self-reliance by cutting off avenues of dependence and forging superhighways where new skills are learned, applied, exchanged, grown, sustained, linked, and affirmed. Empowering a people involves looking at the elements that fuel a culture of dependence, and tackling them one bit at a time. Education, employment, vocational training: big words that can be broken down in to tiny pieces ripe for the picking.
For business-minded organizations and the nouveau riche: so-called social activists, this is definitely not something that is sexy enough to get involved in, as such efforts usually do not come with glossy brands, or potential for popularization.
But then again, anyone who’s involved in the field of charitable works should be asking themselves that quintessential question: what’s the ultimate goal of my efforts?