Tuesday, December 27, 2005

A tsunami of dilemmas

Last year after the tragic tsunami I came across the phenomenon of on-campus fund raising in the United States. It exposed me to a whole different ethos. At first I felt queasy at the manner in which the Americans went about raising funds, but over a period of time I began to appreciate their approach better. Yet, one year after, and having seen lot of other responses to natural disasters, I still haven't resolved my dilemmas completely.

After the school reconvened for Spring in January 2005, I was hit with flyers advertising free pizzas for coming to Room 240 at 5:00 pm. The words Free Pizzas were in a large bold font and below that in a smaller font the solemn purpose for the meet was stated. "To organise a comprehensive strategy for fund raising for the tsunami victims."

It had been just four months in the States for me and I carried a lot of baggage in terms of my Indian socio-cultural background. At that time I remember I found it jarring that people had to be induced by offering free pizzas and a soda for the noble objective of raising aid money for the tragic tsunami victims.

I went into the meeting all eager to contribute and help gather more funds. Almost 50-60 students showed up, out of which only 10-12 people participated in the actual discussions. Others were there for the free pizza. (The organisers were clever enough not to open the boxes till the meeting was over) The discussions were mainly about how to go about organising funds. They debated whether a party at the neighbourhood food joint would be more profitable or a party at a neighbourhood bar during the happy hour. In the end they decided to do both. The way these parties generate funds is that people are invited to come in large numbers at the restaurant/bar. The restaurant/bar owner gets a lot of customers at one go and he promises 15-20% of the bill in donation. So more the people having fun and spending, the more the donations collected. Somebody also came up with the idea of hiring a DJ and having a dance party on campus with tickets selling for $30. In one of my conversation with an NRI kid, who was coordinating the effort, she talked about how by taking this initiative she has enhanced her CV and improved her job prospects etc. I am not clear about this but apparently you earn some credits from your school for community service or something. This seemed to be a common thing here.

For me, the naïve 'fresh off the boat' Indian student, this was unbelievable. With my middle class background, the only fundraising I knew of was passing around a tin dabba covered with white paper and 'DONATE' written on it with a green sketch pen. Another form of fundraising I remembered was those embarrassing situations when as school going kids we were given a sheet of paper by Helpage India/Blind Youth Association and went about apartment complexes seeking money for those organisations. We expended all the goodwill we had earned with our neighbours (by not playing cricket on Saturday afternoons while they slept or by allowing their little kids to be part of the apartment cricket team) for this purpose. It was awkward and embarrassing. I used to pray that not every one of them follow the example of the neighbour who had proudly put in the amount of Rs. 2 besides his signature.Somehow my rich friends used to come up with amounts like Rs.1500 with Rs. 1400 donated by their parents, while I could gather only Rs.150. But I am digressing.

So coming from there, it was a huge leap for me into a setting where there were free pizzas and cans of coke just for offering suggestions, where it was ok to talk about enjoying yourself by dancing to raunchy hip hop and drinking alcohol; all for the cause of raising money for those tragic victims who were homeless and crying their eyes out. It seemed to bother no one's conscience but my own that I will be having a wonderful time drinking booze and having good food while the people in my country have lost thousands of their loved ones. I was raised in a home where Diwali and Ganpati celebrations used to be cancelled if a distant relative had died as a mark of respect. I remembered at the time of Bhuj earthquake I was in Fergusson College in Pune and a similar student body had been formed to organise a response. But there were no parties at Vaishali restaurant nor was there any talk of a 'Earthquake Bash' at the local dance club. Talk only centered around bringing more and more people to donate. If I remember right many colleges cancelled their annual college festivals as a mark of respect and mourning.

In India donation has to be associated with sacrifice. Otherwise it becomes meaningless. Newspapers may not carry stories about an industrialist donating 20 lakhs for a cause, but there will always be stories about how a retired schoolteacher with a salary of Rs.2,000 donated his lifetime savings of Rs. 20,000 to the victims etc. Indians empathise with that teacher more than the industrialist whose money actually makes all the difference. The sense of sacrifice is valued more than ruthless utilitarian view of what benefits more in real world scenario in absolute terms

But somehow the students here did not have any such compunctions about not sacrificing anything. They weren't sacrificing anything. If not the parties they would have spent the money at some other bar anyways. The money they were spending was not pinching them in any manner. They faced no such moral dilemmas as I did. And this was what set me thinking. Looking at it from a moral relativistic perspective this just proved that what I thought as moral was not an American's idea of morality. What I considered to be universally valid conscience prick was not universal at all. And when it comes down to it, the funds generated through the parties the Americans arranged, far outweighed any funds I might have collected going around holding a dabba in my hand.

It is the classic quandary of ends and means. If only I disregard the means, and focus on the ends, yes, the American system of fund raising works great. I am forced to acknowledge that. By incentivising fund raising for the youth, the amount earned is just phenomenal. I am not blind to the fact that had it not been for those parties, the donations would have been far less monetarily. So what is wrong about spending on alcohol and having good food yourself if in the end it is all for a good cause? Surely, my going into mourning was not going to help those Tsunami victims at all. They wouldn't know and wouldn't care less if I cried my eyes out for them or went on a fast or if I drank alcohol or ate good food or flirted with a girl on the dance floor. So long as they receive funds without hurting their own dignity in the process, I don't envisage a protest from their side about the source of funds. In fact this idea is brilliant. Everyone benefits. The students were going to spend their Saturday night out anyways. They merely spent it in that particular club. The club owner made a profit regardless. He did not lose any money. If his profit margin was 30%, he got twice the number of customers on a normal day and so in numerical terms his profits were more and so donating 20% of those was no big deal for him as he would have earned a 10% profit regardless. Add to this the 'look good on CV' argument. If by linking fundraising to a PR campaign for the student one can ensure enthusiastic participation, why not? It takes nothing away from the fund raising.

Apart from that, implicit in the idea of going into mourning is lack of spending and therefore loss to the economy. Whereas an American is actually spending and pouring money into the economy and the health of American economy might benefit the Tsunami victim through the invisible hand of the market. So from an economic perspective this is an open and shut case. In fact there was no case here at all. If raising money is the goal that is what should be the focus. So I have to concede that this model is great. Whether it will be replicated in India, I do not know. It is possible. However, a more creative alternative might be finding better ways for incentivising the sense of sacrifice while adopting this model. If one can weave that sense of sacrifice into an Indian fundraising party the revenue might be much more rather than just a consumerist feast.

Bottomline, I am sold out for this American idea for fundraising.

Then what is the word dilemma doing in the headline of this post? I have resolved my compunctions at this 'partying' model of fundraising but am still confused about the implications if this model is stretched any further.

The problem with a morally relativistic perspective is that only your imagination is the limit. Would you be equally comfortable had a brothel in Amsterdam organised a similar fund raising by inviting patrons to spend a night in their brothels? Economically there is nothing wrong. One can argue that an unintended consequence may be that a family man may be tempted to cheat on his wife 'for a good cause' etc. But even then the loss to the world economy by a couple of couples separating is far less than the gains by the revenue generated. The same may be the case about Dawood Ibrahim writing a check of 20 crores for tsunami relief. Would you accept it? Do the ends justify the means in these cases? Should laws of economics alone determine all human decisions? I have not resolved these dilemmas. Feel free to post what you think about this in the comments section.

P.S. Before posting your response do read this article from The Week's anniversary special issue about how Indians think. It captures the Indian mind perfectly and is aptly titled "We are like this only."


Suyog said...

To the helpless and needy in times of distress, well, ends do justify the means. I mean, if dawood were to write a check of 20 crores and take it to Banda-Aceh, would people refuse his check in times of need? Probably not.

Consider your second example about man and brothels in amsterdam - a man is prompted to cheat on his wife - well then, thats the man prerogative right? If you are willing to do "wrong" because you want to do something "right" doesnt mean the people who invented the idea are wrong :)

So, I guess the ultimate decision to do something good or right is in our hands; if you think that by attending a 100$ a plate charity dinner which cost only 30$ for hosting party to orgazine is a good way to socialize and help people - so be it - on the other hand, you should be a good judge yourself if you have been invited to a deer hunting charity event (if there are any like that, god forbid!).

Good one here chetan - I am looking forward to some interesting responses here, and i will keep a watch on this one and keep adding inputs :)


anangbhai said...

Free Pizza and sodas is pretty much how it goes around here. Its the carrot on a stick for hungry college students. As for taking money from Dawood, If I was starving and I needed that money, yes I would take it. Why would you deny assistance based on some superior morality about "blood money"?

Manasi said...

As always whether means justify the ends is a very subjective matter. In this case it definately seems that everyone benefits and so no one should have any qualms about the means. But with that brothel thing, many would think twice. Like I wouldnt want my husband to cheat on me even if it is for a 'good cause'. I might as well give away my jewellery for it (and later pester him to buy some more of the latest! Say what?) Of course that is not to say that the idea in itself is bad, for if it brings in the money where it is urgently needed, its allright (sab kuch chalta hai!).
On a moe serious note, I think so long as the ends are 'right' and all that money collected is actually going to go in to the distressed and needy, inducing people with pizzas and sodas is perfectly alright. Just make sure 'all' the money actually reaches the 'distressed'.

Krishna said...

Interesting post. My immediate feeling was that while there was certainly some truth in your stress on the differences in the methods of obtaining contributions for charitable causes in America and India, may be you missed some crucial similarities and consequently exaggerated the differences.

To begin with, on a mass scale, there will not be anything more than an expression of sorrow at these disasters. While people are sad about the tsunami, unless their family or relatives are directly involved, that sadness is not going to be personal. I am not being accusatory at all. People are genuinely sad about the disaster, but they are not going to alter their daily routine significantly. You mentioned how we cancel celebrations of festival in case of a death in the family. But the key there is family. An average family does not cancel any thing in case of many disasters. In the case of the last year's tsunami itself, people went ahead and celebrated the new year's eve as they do always. At best, there was a genuine realization of the plight of many people and the resultant somberness to the festivities.

Completely removed from the above is the general willingness to contribute something to the relief effort. People contribute handsomely, while at the same time they are not in any sense devastated by the disaster. So it is unreasonable and impractical to demand of the general public their somberness, in addition to the monetary contribuitions.

It is also not completely precise to say that the methods of obtaining contributions are totally different here. It is very common in India to conduct music concerts, cricket matches of cricketers. movie stars etc to get money for relief. At a local level also, in colleges and schools one of the main methods is to arrange some sort of show. And obviuosly many of these shows tend to be festive in spirit. I am sure all of us have seen cricket matches played by movie stars and how jolly everything is in such shows. In the US, you have gatherings in pubs, dance clubs etc. So the difference is mostly cultural and not in the idea. It is possible for an Indian to derive as much pleasure from a music concert or a cricket match as an American derives from a get together in a dance club. So the "pleasure" aspect is there everywhere and there is also good contributions.

I just to wanted to point out this side too. Still, I agree with you about the differences in the overall (cultural) attitude toward these disasters. It is probably true to say that Indians are made to feel that to contribute something necessiates a "sacrifice" on your part, while Americans are more relaxed on this point. This, however, can be attributed to the importance given to individuality in this country.

suchi said...

Well-written post.

I think the value of sacrifice is high in the Western world as well. Here in Melbourne, I hear about volunteers who spend time and effort in disaster-struck areas or foster parents who take in hundreds of children. Also, as the previous commenter said, the concept of charity "events" is becoming rather popular in India too. So there may not be too many differences.

I personally don't have a problem with the means of fund-raising so long as it is not contradictory to the end and so long as it does not seek to put a pretty cover on a difficult issue. For example, let's say we have a charity concert for aiding handicapped children. Rock stars fly to it from all over the world, but the children are not invited to even watch. So do we want to help the children or not?

Chetan said...

Suyog: I understand the thing you mentioned about the man's prerogative. However my dilemma is whether I would be 'sold' to the idea. Implying whether I would be so comfortable with a brothel advertising an orgy in aid of tsunami victims that I will have no problems promoting their cause on my blog just like I did with the partying theme. For instance by acknowledging that I appreciate the American method today, I am in effect saying that, "readers go and have fun at these parties and you should not let your conscience get into the way." Will I be able to say the same in case of brothels? Will that be a responsible behaviour?

Anangbhai: Yea, I have realised that about the pizzas and soda carrot now and must tell you I myself have become a fan of this 'carrot.' The problem with the Dawood thing is that extending the 'I have no problem with blood money' analogy you then have lose the right to criticise a Robinhood/Veerappan style loot the rich and give money to the poor policies. If you condone that, then you are setting the bar too low for the criminal elements in the society. They may use it as a way to gain respectability.

Manasi: Thanks for bringing in a woman's perspective here. Most women, I assume, would share your antipathy towards husbands visiting brothels for a good cause. About selling off the jewellery just to get new one. I am not too sure your husband would be happy with that idea. :)

Krishna: That was a wonderful and well-thought out comment. Thanks a lot for bringing forth this perspective. I had missed it. It was not my intention to belittle the way Americans think of tragedies, but to point out how despite being different their creative ideas benefit much more than an Indian emotional response. My perspective on the issue was hemmed in from a very middle class straightjacketed life I have led. So I haven't ever been to charity cricket matches and charity dance events in India and therefore it did not strike me to take those examples into consideration. I guess the difference there is that, that sort of fund raising is restricted to the upper classes in India and majority does not participate. For instance, here this was happening on college campuses whereas in comparison Indian college students do not find this idea very appetising for some reason. The behaviour of an elite in a society is always different and so to extrapolate the behaviour of the masses from that is a bit of over-generalisation. About the New Years' celebration, I think it was much subdued in India after the tsunami. I am not sure whether the same would have been the response here had Katrina happened in November/December. Also, would you mind elaborating further on the link you establish between individualistic culture and the resultant lack of focus on the sacrifice aspect? I do not understand completely how the two are related. Once again thanks for taking the time to post that thoughtful comment and looking forward to many more such comments from you in future.

Krishna said...

The first point you raise (about charity events and upper classes): I come from the middle class too and have not actually seen any charity cricket matches in the ground. But I have seen them on TV. I think the telecast of these matches on TV is an important part of the idea and these things are quite well advertised. I am surprised that you have not seen any of these on TV. As for the music concerts, these are more down to earth, in the sense that I have seen them being organized in school. My point only was that people in India contribute for charity via events like this which are by definition "enjoyable". And I do not think this is restricted to the upper classes. I mean my parents and relatives bought tickets for concerts arranged for charity and we are very much in the middle class. I agree with you in the sense that among the middle classes lot of the contributions, probably most of them, come directly. Nevertheless, I feel that at least the concept of charitable contributions for "painful" disasters via "enjoyable" events is quite widespread even in the middle classes.

The other point you raised (individualism - lack of focus on sacrifice): one of the meanings of individualism (in Merriam-Webster) is that it is "a doctrine that the interests of the individual are or ought to be ethically paramount". This is the abstract notion of individuality and as such it is not to be found concretely in any one person. Further, I am sure there are Americans representing all the shades in the spectrum ranging from individualism to altruism. But the overall character of the American culture tends to approximate that abstract notion. This is my hypothesis, with which one may or may not agree. I do not, in the least bit, suggest that this is an undesirable trait (though I think it is - but again we are in the realm of value judgments) nor do I imply that this results in less charity. However, this individuality means that people never "help" anyone before they think of themselves/their families. In other words, no one will help when that help might harm them. It is in this sense that I wrote Americans do not think of charitable contributions as sacrifices, because really they are not. They are contributing from that part of their budgets which is remaining after they take care of all their needs. Of course, no one India also sacrifices in this sense. But as a culture we are not sure that this approach is virtuous, while Americans are very sure that this is the way to go. Hope this conveys my point. I will be interested in your thoughts.

Krishna said...
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Krishna said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Chetan said...

Suchi: Thanks. I agree with your point about the people towards whom the charity is intended should feel included in that effort. Regarding 'not having a problem with the means' part of your comment, you haven't given your response to the two hypothetical situations that I sought responses about. Does this 'no-problem-with-the-means' attitude extend to those areas as well?

Krishna: That was another fine comment by you. Very articulate. "But the overall character of the American culture tends to approximate that abstract notion." Touche! Beautifully put. Yes I see now what you mean about Americans not 'sacrificing' owing to the culture of individualism. Thanks for explaining. About Indians becoming comfortable at the notion of enjoyment during working towards a good cause, I guess I can only observe how this plays out in the long run as the two different world views compete. I hope we find a golden mean rather than going all out either way. Thanks. (I have deleted the duplicate comment and the apology, which was unecessary. Hope that is not a problem.)

suchi said...

Hi Chetan,
Thanks for your response.

I've been thinking about the two situations you mentioned: the fund-raising at a brothel, the cheque from a criminal.

I surprised myself with my reaction to the first, namely, that I would have no problem. My answer may have been different a few years ago when I lived in India. In places like Melbourne where brothels are legal, a sex-worker is simply another worker in a service business. I don't see a reason to worry about the motivations and morality of the customer either. Both are adults who are making conscious choices.

The second is interesting. Honestly, I really don't know which way to go with this. On one hand, there is the question of whose money this really is. Is he simply returning the money to people he once cheated (directly or indirectly). As Bollywood puts it, is the money "tainted"? Then again, what if it is? It's not as though the sin is transferred through the money. Also, if the police have not been able to find evidence of his sins, well then he's legally as innocent as you and I. We'll probably take huge donations from corporations with dodgy practices, why not individuals?...I think I just made up my mind there!

Chetan, you say in your comment: The problem with the Dawood thing is that extending the 'I have no problem with blood money' analogy you then have lose the right to criticise a Robinhood/Veerappan style loot the rich and give money to the poor policies. If you condone that, then you are setting the bar too low for the criminal elements in the society. They may use it as a way to gain respectability.

Isn't that a different issue? All of us, in some way, use philanthropy to feel morally superior. Corporations use them to buy goodwill. Why only worry about the criminals? And, just thinking off the top of my head, why worry about them gaining respectability? There are other ways to punish them.

Krishna said...

Thanks for your compliment.

Suchi said...

I just read about the Harvard-Exxon case where Harvard divested its stock in Exxon (and other companies) because it thought they were indirectly lending a hand to the genocide in Sudan. However, Harvard had no problem in continuing to accept philanthropic contributions from Exxon.

Details here: Tainted Money: The Ethics and Rhetoric of Divestment

The Payton Papers site also has other interesting articles.

Anirudh said...

You might be interested in this post by Anangbhai: http://anangbhai.blogspot.com/2005/10/notes-on-high-school-research-topic.html

Anon said...

Nice discussion. But don't you guys have better things to do than philosophize?

Chetan said...

Krishna: I was looking through the archives of your blog. Nice blog. Send me a mail. I could not find an email address mentioned on your blog. I had a lot of things to talk to you about.

Anirudh: I read Anangbhai's post. It is a bit too cynical while being right on the mark. I haven't yet reached a stage where I become that cynical but maybe in the future I will be able to appreciate it better.

Suchi: I think I did not communicate my point about Robinhood/Veerappan style goons properly. Why I linked the two (Dawood and Veerappan) was that by accepting 'tainted' money a wrong message is sent out. If tainted money is 'OK' to be accepted then what is to stop a tsunami victim from looting the rich localities in order to provide for housing for the poor. After all so long as he doesn't get caught the society is going to accept his contributions and the tsunami victims will be benefited. In an hypothetical scenario, if a Robinhood style gang like that emerges, wouldn't accepting their money just like we accepted Dawood's give impetus to, and consequently more legitimacy to looting? Doesn't this moral sanction send out a message that may lead to lawlessness? We send people to jail or punish them not only for their crimes alone but also to send a message to the others in society who might be contemplating indulging in similar behaviour. It might have a cascading effect on the law and order situation. There was an interesting essay I came across through Naveen's blog. It said, "There is only one difference between a bad economist and a good one: the bad economist confines himself to the visible effect; the good economist takes into account both the effect that can be seen and those effects that must be foreseen." I think this notion of accepting tainted money borders on the bad economics realms. Though the immediate gains are obvious, it is easy to lose sight of the future implications.

Chetan said...

Thanks for that link to the fine essay. It does raise some interesting points. I think it is easy to agree with the authors opinion that Harvard should stop accepting money if it makes a moral issue about investing in shares. But I actually found myself disagreeing with the author about this.

Doing business successfully at all in the modern world is difficult. Being ethically sensitive makes it more so. To the extent that being ethical means being consistent, a moral stand on one issue requires a similar stand on similar issues. Knowing where closure comes is difficult.

Now I think this I will take the liberty to channel this discussion into a different direction. The point I found most interesting in that essay was that Exxon finally did pull out of South Africa. This shows that the pressure, however subtle and pointless, did work. It may be difficult to establish a causal relationship but I think this must have forced the then South African regime to take a hard look at its aparthied policies owing to the losses it suffered. One could argue that how long and how far is one going to police the corporations in a globalised interconnected world. But I feel the point is moot. For one there was no pressure from the government, it was a voluntary decision on part of Exxon. It was only the resulting bad PR that forced Exxon to pull out and the resultant social good I feel far outweighs any economic loss it might have engendered. But then going by the argument in the essay, our moral outrage should be equal and we then ought to put pressure on Exxon to pull out of China or any other country violating human rights. I think that is an overly simplistic notion. A society's outrage works in a graded manner. The outrage one may feel about apartheid is not in the same degree as one feels about China snuffing out dissenting opinion. And consequently it is not incumbent on the society to pressurise Exxon to pull out from everywhere where there is a moral dilemma. This however exposes the dissenters calling for pull-out to the charge of hypocrisy. But personally I have no problems with hypocrisy. Read this post and this one by Swaminathan A Aiyar, one of my favourite columnists, about hypocrisy. They talk about how morality and self interests may converge sometimes. Hypocrisy is necessary for smooth functioning of a modern society. As one's self-interest changes so does one's stance on issues and it is quite ok to be a hypocrite. Only problem is what self-interest does it serve for the dissenters. No economic self-interests for sure, but there are other mostly psychological, sociological interests at play. When someone points to the hypocrisy of Michael Moore or Naom Chomsky or anti-globalisation protestors, they fail to realise that these guys are in turn pointing at the hypocrisy of companies who while paying billions of dollars to orphanages under the garb of corporate social responsibility are employing child labourers in Thailand. So using the word hypocrisy as a stick to beat down opposition is a recursive exercise leading to nowhere. Just as one has come to live with free markets/corporations operating in hypocritical conditions, one will have to accept the equally hypocritical demands of the free marketplace of ideas with all its misplaced idealism. Whether this hurts economic interests? Maybe. But it just shows that economic implications alone don't determine humanity's decisions to support or oppose something and I think that is not necessarily a bad thing. Which brings me back to the question I had raised in the post, "Should laws of economics alone determine all human decisions?"

anonymous said...

No comments on u'r article (for many reasons), but one comment that i would like to make on your inspiration article is that - I dont see the authors point. My take -the article is superficial(stupid too). I would call all the characteristics that he has called as "Indian" as rather "Instances of general characterisitics in an Indian setting". Pick up a different setting, u will easily pick up instances which represent the same characteristics. So none of the characteritics is just Indian, it is rather everywhere,..Not just an indian(as i can see from 16 comments), any body else would think it is abt him/her.

Chetan said...


The Week article wasn't an 'inspiration article' for this post. It was added as a post script. I came across the article after I had written this post. I reread the article from the perspective you present, but could not look at it the same way you do. Even leaving aside the examples he has provided from the Indian setting, his observations about the values underlying those examples are in my opinion spot on. You asked 'what was the author's point.' This was an anniversary special article and from my understanding it was about how paradoxically Indians are dealing with modernity. Modernity in India is nothing but a continuous act of tradition expanding to accommodate our emerging needs. I couldn't agree more with this point. So probably this may apply to other settings and cultures especially Eastern and South East Asian whose brush with modernity came abruptly like ours, as against in the west, where it evovled over time. But even granting that factor I don't think those values are universal and just by changing the setting a different set of cultural symbols would be seen reflected elsewhere. For instance take this one...

We protect things that are new with ferocious pride. New sofa sets with delicate upholstery are robed with hideous covers with large floral prints. No one ever sees the real sofa ever again. We love watching the pennies—we buy luxury cars but prefer the diesel version. We can spend lavishly on a family meal but argue endlessly over the parking charges.

I don't think these paradoxical traits and dubious attempts at parsimony can be found in many other cultural settings worldwide. Would you mind shedding light on what you mean exactly and elaborating your point with examples? I would be interested in reading your perspective.