Rabindra Mishra used to like going out for a few beers after a hard day's work at the BBC Nepali Service in London. He doesn't mind doing with less these days-for a cause. For every pint he doesn't drink, he puts away a quid.
The kitty goes to the Help Nepal Network (HeNN), an organisation Mishra founded. This small London-based network encourages Nepalis living abroad to donate the price of a beer they forego to help fund development projects in Nepal. Since its establishment in September 1999, HeNN has raised about ?9,000 to support small projects: a school library in Dunai, Dolpa, a de-worming campaign among Chepang children in Chitwan and thr restoration of a school building in Pyuthan. "It's a small effort. But we're growing," Mishra told us.
The idea for Help Nepal came out of the frustration Mishra felt when chatting about lack of development in Nepal over bottles of beer in Soho pubs. He says he and his friends got plain tired of talking and complaining and not seeing anything happen, so they decided to begin the "A pound a month fund for Nepal." So far, about 200 members from the Nepali diaspora have chipped in with about ?9,000 and have begun making a difference.
Help Nepal members comprise a new breed of Nepalis, those who give and are trying in their own ways to restore Nepali traditions of philanthropy. Such givers are still a minority, but they mean much to people being helped by their contribution. "Many people from the villages have begun approaching us for help. They're willing to volunteer time and labour to ensure that the community benefits from the projects," says Arun Singh Basnet, who coordinates HeNN's work in Nepal.
Giving to others has long been a tradition in Eastern societies. But we have been used to giving to the less fortunate not because we want to, but because we hope it will earn us divine merit in the afterlife. That isn't really philanthropy as we understand it today-as an offshoot of a particular humanist practice, giving without expecting physical or spiritual returns, giving to try and build a just society. Caught between modernisation and tradition Nepali ways of giving are changing, albeit slowly. People give, but with strings attached-where not appeasing gods or the spirits of departed souls, they are occasionally trying to sell something. "Even if this altruistic impulse comes out of a guilt-ridden and security-driven reflex of the better-off sections, the outcome is a contribution toward narrowing the gap," says an NGO worker in Nepal. "Likewise every rupee a privileged Nepali can spare, if used properly, can make a huge difference in the lives of those who don't have anything."
Paropakar, founded by Daya Bir Singh Kansakar in 1952, is the best-known and oldest organised charity in Nepal. ("Bahadur Nepali", #30) Many still remember how Kansakar once brought home a cholera-stricken child and nursed him back to health against his own family's wishes. He built the charity brick-by-brick, freely using his own funds and resisting the temptation of being co-opted by modern "projects" funded by donor money. Paropakar runs an orphanage, a free ambulance service, a school, a children's village and a maternity hospital. Its branches in 30 districts also run primary health care centres in 175 villages across the country. Kansakar passed away earlier this year, but his charity continues to carry his initiative forward. They are thinking of new ways to promote domestic philanthropy in Nepal so that the work is more sustainable and fulfilling. It may be easier to just hand the projects over to donor-funded NGOs, but Paropakar wants this to be a Nepali initiative.
Feminist activist Rita Thapa, founder of the women's support group, Tewa, is trying out a similar concept on a larger scale. She wants to develop philanthropy as a non-religious, secular campaign to advance projects that can help change lives. The organisation she helped to found asks Nepalis to stop spending millions on rituals-daans and sharadas-and instead give to communities that use the money to help women throughout Nepal. Unlike many Nepali development organisations, Tewa tries to focus on raising money from individuals and institutions locally, which hasn't been easy. "Our ability to retain Nepali donors has been rather low. We need to educate people more about philanthropy," adds Thapa.
Some charities are more concerned with giving and working, and the idea of sustainability for them is not as important-arguing that their work has to be supported by donations. Other organisations have their own revenue sources like handicrafts and other businesses through which they support their projects. However, both kinds of organisations feel it is more important "to teach the people to fish than to just give them fish". Says Hitkar Bir Singh Kansakar of Paropakar: "In a philanthropic organisation like Paropakar there's always more expenditure than income. Our orphanage, dispensary, ambulance services are all free. We do keep a little donation box. Those who can afford it leave something, which is welcome."
This is in sharp contrast to how most Nepali development organisations do business. They are largely over-funded by donors, and compelled to make disbursements through NGOs, which in Nepal take on the air of philanthropic undertakings. Critics say such groups are completely dependent on donor funding and dry up once the source of money dries up. The extent of foreign involvement in national development is so high that in some schemes it is difficult to discern whether the real beneficiaries are even intended to be the Nepali poor: the priorities, area of work, methodology are all pre-decided elsewhere.
Tewa's concept of secular philanthropy to advance development is new, not just in Nepal but also in other parts of South Asia. Kaval Gulhati, founder of the Unniti Foundation in India, is another proponent of giving just for giving, and uses money her foundation raises to improve the reproductive health of women and to enhance opportunities for educating girls in South Asia. Writes Gulhati in Twice Blessed: The Art of Giving: "Philanthropy is seen in as a broader concept, more than just giving for charity. It embodies the ethic of sharing one's good fortune with others to help them lead more fulfilling lives..." In other words, it is about transmitting compassion by sharing the surplus, however small, with others or with the cause(s) one values the most. This giving is different from the motivation behind the giving of businesses, who expect the goodwill of targeted buyers to take the form of tangible returns. One sure test of the genuineness of a charity act is whether or not the giver seeks publicity for giving.
This desire to give comes from within as was the case with the late Nepali mountaineer Babu Chhiri Sherpa. He never saw a classroom as a child, and so was motivated to contribute much of what he earned by guiding-when not actually carrying foreign mountaineers to the world's highest peaks-to build a school in Takshindo, his native village in Solu Khumbu.
There are many other Babu Chhiris in Nepal about whom we know little. One is Man Singh Maharjan, a wage labourer from Man Maiju in Kathmandu. He saved his wages to found a primary school in his village in 1985. And in 1992 when the school was recognised by the government as a lower secondary school, Maharjan says, he felt fulfilled.
A random survey on charity conducted in 2000 by Martin Chautari confirms that middle-class Nepalis do give to charity, but mainly for religious purposes. A majority don't mind spending to fund satsangs but would think twice about giving the same to organisations like Paropakar and Tewa. The survey showed that Nepalis gave almost Rs 190 million in religious donations in four years, mainly to restore temples or rituals. They gave Rs 30 million to set up health clinics and run health camps and another Rs 90 million for education projects like school buildings, the establishment of trusts and scholarships. The survey shows that Rs 270 million was given for social work, including infrastructure development, drinking water supply and bridge-building projects. The survey indicates that funds were collected on an individual, community and organisational basis.
The same study also confirms that Nepal's corporate sector, unlike that of India or the United States, is stingy when it comes to real charity. Says a former employee of a community radio station that had tried to raise money to help one of Nepal's most beloved musicians, Amber Gurung: "We went to breweries, asking them to support the cause. They flatly told us 'our consumers profile does not identify with the singer'." In other words, the corporations are not interested in giving if they don't see ways to get recover the money, or even make more as a result of their donation-charity as a PR exercise. "It's not that they don't give. You only have to look at the number of shawls they give away at felicitation functions,' says Ratna Sansar Shrestha, a corporate lawyer. "But for every rupee they donate, they get ten times more in terms of publicity."
Even institutional mechanisms are not geared towards encouraging giving. The law (Section 43, Income Tax Act 2031/1974) allows a meagre five percent tax deduction on net income or Rs 100,000, whichever is less, on money given to charity. Nepal does not have a law to govern charitable trusts, which does not help either. Instead we have individual trusts created by separate legislation-mainly commemorating politicians-which end up as political fronts to extort businesses for funds to run political parties and groups. Says Shrestha, "Only a separate Trust Act enabling charitable institutions to function independently and transparently will encourage people to donate to deserving causes. We've had talk of such a law for the past two years, but it is nowhere near becoming finalised."
Until then, organisations like Paropakar and Tewa, and individuals like Mishra, and giving to their causes will be a novelty, not a habit for most Nepalis.