Colombo Telegraph

On Giving Left And Right

By Malinda Seneviratne

Malinda Seneviratne

OMG, BTW, WTF and other three-letter ‘words’ which sound more like 4-letter words are relatively new.  Time was when acronym was ‘short’ for proper noun, for example a political party; there was LSSP, CP, UNP, SLFP, FP, TULF, JVP and later TNA, ITAK, SU, JHU and so on.  Maybe NGOs (yes, another 3-letter four-letter word) had something to do with it.  NGOs, or rather FGOs (Foreign Government Organizations) as veteran journalist and prolific commentator H.L.D. Mahindapala calls them, talk a language that sounds foreign to non-N/FGO people.  Nothing beats CSR, though, I sometimes feel.

Corporate Social Responsibility, CSR, sounds nice.  Wholesome.  It probably makes those who work for corporates feel good about themselves.  But CSR projects generally cost next to nothing in overall expenditure and typically corporates make a song and dance about SCR that quite out-shouts the pits and pieces of feel-good they dish around.  It is called brand positioning.

Consider this.

Immediately after the tsunami struck Sri Lanka in December 2004 and after the immediate sense of horror, there was an outpouring of generosity. People gave and gave and gave, and gave in a thousand different ways.  There was no name to giver, to claim of giving.  People gave, as individuals and collectives.  Schools, clubs, cooperatives and groups of friends did what they could.  But there was a different class of givers too, a different colored ‘generosity’.  This was the Giving-Bragging club, one could call it.

There were corporate entities sending lorry-loads of bottled-water. With label.  Either on cap or on the side of the bottle.  With legend about who did the giving.  That’s giving of the return-envisaging kind.  It is called investment.

Is that giving?  Is that dana? Well, it is of course unlikely that one can draw a direct line from beneficiary to some kind of advantage that the giver obtains somewhere down the line.  On the other hand, a generally positive association with a brand, product or company does pay, down the line.  Investment is recovered, often with interest.  That’s giving ‘of a kind’, but only in appearance.  In essence it is business. As usual.

Alms is not about that kind of giving.  It is not investment, it is not business.  Consider the following line from the Bible: ‘But when thou doest alms, let not thy left hand know what thy right hand doeth’ (Matthew 6:3).  Such giving goes without name-tag.  There can be face, word and smile, due to necessity, but there won’t be thought of possible recovery, possible benefit; not of the ‘return on investment’ kind and certainly no thought of pruning tax payments.  One gives, because some urgent need is identified and because one can.  And that’s it. No more talk of it.

If, on the other hand, the left hand knows what the right gives, then left, metaphorically speaking, is ready and able to take back, in one way or another, what was given.  With interest, one must add, because that kind of giving is not about giving X and taking back X+A (A=Transaction Cost), for business if not about a zero balance sheet but an exercise where marginal benefits must outweigh marginal costs.  Like CSR.  Like politicians doing what they are mandated to do and what they promised to do, and then spending public funds to brag about it as though it has cost them an arm and a leg, which they gladly ‘gave’ because they so love the people.

Merit accrues. One way or another.  But if it is desired, the gloss of giving comes off.  If it is advertised, then there’s no gloss to begin with.

If you want to give or if someone claims to give, this side of not looking a gift horse in the mouth, it is always good to check the hands, right and left, and their knowledge or ignorance of one another.  Good to ask oneself, for we are all humanly frail and unconsciously pass the buck, so to speak, from one hand to the other.  In short, we can’t do alms and CSR at one and the same time.  That would be a four-letter word, I am sure.

*Malinda Seneviratne is the Chief Editor of ‘The Nation’ and his articles can be found at

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