Maybe because November heralded the International Day of Giving (November 21) I am in analysis mode about what philanthropy or charity entails for us — as South Asians. India has a long tradition of giving, and all major religions including Hinduism, Islam and Buddhism — see charity as a cornerstone to a fulfilled life. Wealthy families have long built wells and schools in their native villages, and even the poorest Indians leave a few coins at a temple, mosque or Gurudwara.
However, a Bain & Co. study estimated that Indians give much less as a percentage of the country's gross domestic product than Americans. Moreover, individual and corporate donations account for just 10 percent of the charitable giving in India, compared with 75 percent in the United States and 34 percent in Britain. The balance comes from the government and foreign organizations. This is reflected in the donations that temples, orphanages receive in India from people following varied religious denominations. Investing in poverty alleviation programs, for example, is not the first choice. In contrast, according to the Washington File, 70 percent of American households that make charitable contributions give, on average, $1,800 dollars per year, or 3.5 percent of their income. This amounts to about $180 billion dollars. When contributions from foundations, bequests and corporations are added, total charitable contributions in the United States amount to over $240 billion.
On the global scene and in every international summit related to social development wealthy nations emphasize their commitment to deeper debt relief and increased aid programs for developing countries. In fact, at the United Nations Millennium Summit in 2005, the participants called for halving the world poverty and hunger levels by 2015. Studies reveal that while such efforts have been worth their while, they assume that wealthy nations can materially shape development in the less developed world and so providing resources to trading opportunities is offered as a solution. The fact that local economies have a life of their own and that external contribution can only play a very small role in transforming conditions is completely ignored.
Additionally, the social environment in which giving is played out is changed and institutional or individual charity has an entered an altered phase. The Washington Post reported that the U.S. Agency for International Development gives India $131 million per year to fund girls' education, farming programs and solar energy projects. But those funds have been inadequate and India's government is teaming up with local corporations to help the poor. President Barack Obama's visit to India last month, focused on ways to strengthen India's growing middle class and lift hundreds of millions out of poverty. Currently, according to reports, the India-U.S. relationship is no longer one of donor and recipient but more equal.
Some of India's biggest corporations, many of them IT companies are at the forefront of India's economic boom. Recently, India's Tata Group donated $50 million to Harvard Business School, the largest gift ever received by the institution from an international donor. The gift came days after another wealthy industrialist — Anand Mahindra, a Harvard alumnus — gave $10 million to the Humanities Center at Harvard.
Not surprisingly, within the United States the debates on charity have taken various routes. The United States supports programs to alleviate hunger in many African countries. Under the system Washington buys tens of millions of dollars of surplus corn and other products from agribusiness. The food, which can only be exported on U.S. flagged ships, is then sold by charities to raise money to pay for emergencies. Critics of the policy say it undermines African farmers' ability to produce food, making the most vulnerable countries of the world even more dependent on aid to avert famine. Consequently to this debate Care, an international nonprofit that works to alleviate poverty and hunger globally, has announced that it will boycott the controversial policy of selling tons of heavily subsidized U.S.-produced food in African countries. Care wants the U.S. government to send money to buy food locally, rather than unwanted U.S.-produced food. This has disturbed the processes in American charitable sector by deciding to phase out the practice. It has also effects the U.S. agribusiness and shipping interests, which benefit to the tune of some $180 million a year from the practice.
While organized, systemized giving is yet to pick up in India immigrants of South Asian origins have presented their approach to support initiatives. Vinod Khosla, the Indian American venture capitalist, is a proponent of supporting businesses not governments or nonprofits to eradicate global poverty. While he is cautious about the capabilities of nonprofits, he is resolute about supporting commercial entities that provide say education loans or distribute solar panels. The argument against this approach has been that while companies play a crucial role in combating poverty they do not address those that are entrenched in poverty. And that it remains a profit making enterprise that can in the end only hurt communities.
In the changing economic history of the world today while cash strapped donors are figuring a way to continue with aid, the wealthy Indians of today are rising to address the needs of the disadvantaged. In his inaugural address President Obama said that the success of the economy depended on the ability to extend opportunities because "it is the surest route to our common good." Maybe the newly rising economies such as India might now be presented with opportunities to trust and endorse systematized philanthropy that draws its strength from ascribed traditions and acquired wealth.
Rajashree Ghosh is a resident scholar at the Women's Studies Research Center at Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass.