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Should we use charity to help individuals or the community?

By Suleiman Shahbal | October 25th 2021

We need to find a balance between the collective good and the individual requirements. [Courtesy]

Joseph Stalin once said, “the death of a single man is a tragedy but the death of a million people is a mere statistic.”

The death of a person you know may be painful but the death of thousands in some remote genocide is a statistical abstraction that may evoke sadness but certainly no feelings of personal loss. Don’t feel guilty, it’s the human condition.

The reverse is equally true in that there is more gratification in helping an individual and feel the immediate impact of your help than to contribute to a large cause. It is even less gratifying when your contribution is insignificant in the total scope of the project even though your contribution of a few thousand shillings may be large for you.

Last Friday, the Imam in the Karen mosque challenged the congregation that it is better to contribute to a greater cause or help a few people in a meaningful way than to make many small contributions. I and many other Muslims spend large amounts of money distributing food to the needy and feeding thousands during Ramadhan and Christmas. The Imam declared this as a waste of money.

Feeding people for a few days does not help them in any meaningful way. God will provide for those few days as he does for the rest of the year. Instead, he suggested that we use the same amount of money to help a few people with enough capital to put them into business and make them self-sufficient. With luck these people who we put into business will in turn become charity givers as well. There is merit in this logic.

Muslims have two types of charity; Sadaqa and Zakat. Sadaqa is an optional charity and we are all advised to give while Zakat is an obligatory 2.5 per cent tax on wealth. There are strict rules on how Zakat is paid, who is entitled to it and how it is calculated. In an ideal situation this tax should have been paid to a “Beit Al Maal” or House of Wealth - or a Central Bank for charity work. This doesn’t exist, so every Muslim distributes this as he sees fit. Hence, the debate on the best utilisation for these funds.

It is obvious that charity contributed to a large project serves a larger number of people for a longer time. It makes sense to invest in long-term projects or help a few people to go into business. This can enable a whole family rather than feed a large number of people for a few days. It is logical, but emotions are not logical.

How do you tell a parent whose child is suffering in pain that you will not help him because your money has a higher social return in building a clinic? How do you refuse to help a child in their final year in school and about to be thrown out of school for fees arrears that you will not help because you are buying a library for the school?

We need to find a balance between the collective good and the individual requirements. Perhaps Stalin was right after all, a single person’s pain is more personal than helping millions in an impersonal community project. This year, I will greatly reduce the food distribution and help put some young people into business. What do you think?

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