The politics and ethics of giving

In an ideal world, the truly benevolent give for no other reason than that their cup overflows. They expect nothing in return from the recipients of their bounty. No recognition, no fawning show of gratitude. In turn, the beneficiaries accept help only because of a pressing need, and usually, in spite of their pride.

But, in the real world, help is typically provided out of a desire to gain something in return, while those who receive usually end up surrendering their pride for a pittance. All this prompted the philosopher Nietzsche to remark: “Hence we should make a distinction in benevolence between the impulse to appropriate and the impulse to submit, and ask whether it is the stronger or the weaker that feels benevolent.”

We are witness today to the crude way in which the game of politicized benevolence is played out in earthquake-stricken Bohol. The head of Maribojoc town, Mayor Leoncio Evasco Jr., recently did the unthinkable when he shooed away a Red Cross team that was about to distribute relief packages to his affected town mates who had already lined up. He said that the municipal government had made a decision to centralize the distribution of relief goods in the interest of fairness and order.

The members of the Red Cross team refused to hand over to the head of the barangay the relief goods they had brought, insisting that they be allowed to directly distribute the packages to the residents themselves, in accordance with the organization’s procedures. They said they did not bring enough to give to every resident, and so they had spent time surveying the communities and identifying the neediest households based on certain criteria.

The mayor said he had informed Red Cross chair Richard Gordon of this policy when the latter visited Maribojoc last week. Apparently, their brief conversation did not go well. Obviously alluding to the former senator, Evasco told the Inquirer: “I’m not the one who is using an organization to promote his own political agenda. Don’t turn us into puppies who follow you around because you have relief items.”

Politicians in our country are notorious for transforming all kinds of assistance to the public into an opportunity for gaining political points. We see this opportunism everywhere—from school buildings and multipurpose halls bearing the names of politicians who use public funds to build them yet shamelessly claim these as their personal donations, to useless arches marking boundaries that carry the deeply etched names of unworthy politicians on their facades. Civic groups and organizations that raise their own funds to bring urgent help to affected communities in times of disaster have thus learned to avoid coursing their assistance through the local government units. They are only too aware that disaster relief can be recycled into political patronage in the blink of an eye.

But, the Maribojoc incident gives a new twist to an old story. To my knowledge, this is the first time that the charge of political opportunism has been hurled against the leadership of a reputable NGO that specializes in relief and rehabilitation in times of emergency. I believe it is a fair comment, and a timely reminder of the sensitivities that attend the act of helping. Indeed, we may have become so accustomed to the conventions of a hierarchical society that we forget that helping others does not give us the license to appropriate the recipients of our charity. It is not to say that Dick Gordon was doing something political, but it is not easy to avoid this impression since his Red Cross affiliation formed the core of his recent senatorial run.

Ethical issues are more complex. It is well to keep in mind that appropriation can come in many forms, both subtle and stark. To me, apart from the fact that public funds are involved in the first, there is hardly any distinction between printing a politician’s name on relief bags and the corporate practice of using relief operations to market a product or a service. Both dilute the selflessness of genuine giving.

Modern society preserves this selflessness by encouraging the virtue of anonymous charity. I remember being impressed by what I saw a few years ago at the height of the California wildfires. In the city of San Diego, I saw people, Filipino-Americans among them, leaving bags of food and bread and boxes of bottled water at the door of a school gym that had been converted into an evacuation center. No one demanded any acknowledgement or receipt for what they gave from their own pockets. No one seemed to be concerned that their little donations could turn up later at a convenience store or be used as patronage by some politician.

Even more stunning was the behavior of the Japanese in the wake of the massive dislocation and loss caused by the Fukushima tsunami and nuclear plant disaster two years ago. The tragedy left thousands of people homeless. Many became dazed and destitute overnight. But, no one was reduced to the indignity of begging. The strong sense of community quickly dispelled the feeling of despair. Brilliant examples of personal generosity helped speed up the healing process. It wasn’t just the lack of material things that people tried to alleviate. A TV documentary featured a young man visiting people in their homes offering free soothing massages to those who needed it.

Adversities often bring out the predatory in human beings, but they can also showcase our proud and strong natures. We see this when help goes beyond the cliché of relief goods, and benefactors choose to remain anonymous, and victims of misfortune are not further diminished by those who help them.