Transcending towards Systems of Giving: Reflecting on our Roots

Posted by : | Posted on : October 4, 2016

Einstein once said “if you can’t explain it simply, that means you don’t understand it well enough.” I realised to follow the same principle while writing this piece. I am amidst the noise of heavy taxonomies of the modern world – Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR), charity, volunteering and our very favourite sustainability. I have embarked my journey with Charities Aid Foundation (CAF) India and a discussion with my senior, made me reflect back on my learnings. The immediate question that emerged – are all these fancy terms not basically associated with the “act of giving” and “act of returning”?

Act of Giving – Reflecting the Nature of a Society

Societies have been construed on diverse forms of “giving” which characterise the nature of social relationships, exchanges and cultures of individuals. Societies journeyed from simple to complex and agrarian to modern. The act of giving was prevalent in all societies. However, the progression of giving juxtaposed with a society’s progression. In contemporary times, giving is viewed with a narrow lens – as a onetime act in form of philanthropy, charity and donation. Relive your childhood for a moment, while performing the simplest act of attending a friend’s party, our act of exchange was guided by “act of giving”, along with a sense of “acting responsibly” and the act of giving back signified “the act of reciprocity”. It ensured a sense of reciprocity or acknowledgment of being responsible in a social relationship and the evasion (refusal) created a sense of mistrust between the exchangers.

Now, from this individual transaction, widen your imagination, as we move towards 2030. Sit back and reflect on the forms of giving being associated with three legitimate stakeholders of modern world – government, corporate and civil society. The nature of exchange devoid of any of the three obligations – act of giving, act of reciprocity and act of responsibility creates a sense of mistrust and uncertainty amongst them. The act of responsibility influences stakeholders to examine what constitutes giving i.e. positive and negative giving (bribes) and a sense of conscience and integrity.

Way back, a famous anthropologist Mary Douglas very interestingly stated, “foundations should not confuse their donations with gifts. What is wrong with the so called free gift is the donor’s intention to be exempt from return gifts coming from the recipient”. The intention of quoting Douglas is not to preach an academic jargon but to emphasise the value of “expectation” – makes both recipient and donor morally responsible to one another. In modern times you term this as social returns which makes the act of giving viable for social good.

Giving a System – Invoking Innovations from our Past

As citizen of modern world we have moved away from being simple and have negated our own past. During my tenure with IIT Delhi, I was involved in an innovative European Union project Product Service Systems (PSS) and was taken aback by this complex terminology. The focus is not merely “giving of products” that are eco-friendly and resource efficient but also offering holistic “service systems”. Too complex?? I was asked by my Professor to reflect upon my roots as it has been practiced in India, by none other than Mohan Das Karam Chand Gandhi. His system of self-reliance models – Charkha and Khaadi symbolised people’s way of participating and giving back a system to environment, society and economy. It is unfortunate that when the same principle is re-packaged in form of Global Agenda 2030 and thrusted upon we tend to follow it relentlessly.

The responsibility of compulsory giving while fulfilling the three Ps of sustainability existed for centuries in our religious and cultural beliefs. To quote few a examples such as to give goods – “daan/alms”, to give earnings dasvadan in Sikhism to give one tenth of your earnings for societal benefits and to give servicelangar or community kitchens practiced in gurudawars are exemplary models of giving a system for societal good.

One can use terminologies like philanthropy, CSR, socially responsible, voluntary, SDGs or sustainability but ultimately it is ingrained from our traditional and cultural legacy that promotes giving to and giving back to environment, society and people. The problem is that we have moved from this ingrained legacy to an imposed colonial one. In colonial, we openly embrace concepts as novel ideas without any sense of reflections, without realising the fact that the germination of these ideas have already been inculcated within our generations. Our traditional concept of giving went beyond giving merely products but was extended to a system of services with people at its core both as givers and as recipients.

So whether you call it philanthropy, CSR, SDGs, sustainability, it is engrained from our traditional and cultural legacy that promotes giving to environment, society and people. The problem is that we have moved from this ingrained legacy to an imposed colonial one. In colonial setup we openly embrace concepts without any sense of reflections without realising the fact that these ideas have been inculcated in us for generations. Our traditional concept of giving went beyond merely donating products to a “system of services” with people at its core.

I and many like me belong to the “first generation” responsible for ending poverty. The onus is on to us that we do so by promoting innovative means of giving. As we are rejoicing the Daan Utsav – Joy of Giving, I leave you with few questions, for you to rather act upon –

1) What is your notion of ‘giving in’ and “giving back’ to nature and society?
2) How did you celebrate the Daan Utsav or the Joy of Giving?
3) What is the one innovative act of giving which you have done or witnessed that generated an impact?

I urge you all to empty your cup of knowledge, pause and critically reflect on what pathways we as collectively have to undertake. We need to redefine the culture of giving and embark upon systemic transformations, and the answers exists in our historical roots. I have attempted to pen down my ideas on the culture of giving in the most simplistic manner and will leave you with another quote from Einstein– “everything should be made as simple as possible but not simpler”.

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