Sunday, August 25, 2013

Letter to Financial Times on Indian Philanthropy

The FT published a drastically shortened version of a Letter to the Editor which I had submitted.

Here is the full version:


John Godfrey (Letters, February 2) writes that “literature and studies on philanthropy in India and Asia more widely are in short supply”. He may be pleased to hear that I started work, last Autumn, on a history of Indian philanthropy from Vedic times to the present, examining the historical impact of Buddhism, Jainism, Islam, Sikhism, Christianity, and Hinduism as well as the contemporary impact of secular modernity. That work is what led to my initial letter on the subject.

In addition, another study is expected to be published in the next few days by Coutts; still another study is forthcoming in the next few months from Sage, written by three North American academics. So studies of Indian philanthropy do appear to be emerging.

However, there is a question of how various studies define the subject: do we wish to include donations in India, whether from the poor or from the rich, to temples and priests or do we to we wish to confine ourselves to donations that are actually philanthropic? It was just this week that a report was published by a religious organisation in India announcing donations of the equivalent of over half a billion dollars to that organisation in the last year alone! While it is true that some temples and religious organisations have started philanthropic work as a reaction against Christian influences over the years, it is unclear how much of the money received by these temples and religious organisations is now devoted to philanthropic causes.

Outside the world of temples and religious organisations, I agree that genuine philanthropy has increased, though a lot of it, perhaps inadvertently, ends up strengthening the gap between the rich and the poor.

In fact, it is not clear how much Indian philanthropy has even attempted to address the real problems of the country or to ameliorate in any systematic way the lot of the masses – India has more poor people, more uneducated people, and more people dying from preventable diseases, than any other country. Indeed, India apparently has one NGO for every 400 people: so, while Mr Godfrey is undoubtedly right about the scale of aspiration in the area of philanthropy, one is perplexed about how to understand, evaluate or remedy the relative lack of impact. Though I remain cheered by Mr Godfrey’s belief that India’s bureaucracy might be able to regulate and support the growth of Indian philanthropy, it is clear that India’s poor taken as a whole are benefiting at best only marginally both from the expansion of India’s economy and from the growth of Indian philanthropy.

There is the further question, which I will raise in my lecture at the National University of Singapore later this month, of whether the newly promising forms of Indian philanthropy, as they follow in the wake of developments in the USA, may also end up strengthening the trend towards crony capitalism in India as they appear to be doing in the USA, or whether a more positive outcome in India might be in view.

Lastly, I am not aware of any assessment of the historical and contemporary role and impact of Indian philanthropy as a whole (which is partly what I am aiming to do through my book), and any comments on that from your readers would be particularly useful.

Prabhu Guptara, William Carey University, Shillong, India

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