India Uncut

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Wednesday, January 05, 2005

Despatches 37: "The pathology of giving"

As I head out towards Cuddalore again, my companions, in addition to the formidable Dilip D'Souza, are Nityanand Jayaraman and his wife, Karen Coelho. Nityanand has just written an essay for Infochange India that sums up a phenomenon I've been observing for a while now in one lovely phrase: "The pathology of giving". In it, he writes, "Vans carrying relief material and disaster tourists comprised the second tidal wave ... It seems that the greed of giving, and the need to help has overcome the need for help."

He tells me about an interesting experience that illustrates this perfectly. He was at some relief site, he said, when a group of volunteers arrived with material they had collected to give away. When they found that the affected people already had all those things, they were visibly distraught. The fact that the need of the affected people had been fulfilled meant less to them than their own need to give.

This need is fulfilled most easily by donating old clothes. We all have old clothes in our cupboards which pile up, and emergencies like this give us a chance to both get rid of them and to assuage our conscience. Nityanand points out, and I and others have mentioned before, that giving old clothes is counter-productive, and they now constitute a particularly irritating form of garbage, lying in dirty heaps along most roads in coastal Tamil Nadu.

As Dr Mahendra, the gentleman from the Indian Red Cross whom I had chatted with a couple of days earlier, had told me, over-enthusiastic volunteers, with a desperate, selfish need of their own to fulfill, the need to give, can actually make things worse in disaster areas. Of course, there are plenty of volunteers who work selflessly and untiringly, and those guys are the reason that India is limping towards recovery. The rest of us should not get in their way.
amit varma, 11:50 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage

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