Philanthropy and conscience launderingEngaging in charity and developing the image of the ‘nice guy’ always comes in handy one way or the other.
On November 1, the Chaudhary Foundation—the philanthropic arm of Nepal’s most famous noodle producer—launched a non-profit initiative called Baliyo Nepal which aims to end malnutrition in the country. President Bidhya Devi Bhandari herself inaugurated the initiative. The board consists of many famous names from various sectors. The venture has received funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, amounting to $788,192, which in 2018 was apparently channelled through the Chaudhary Foundation. The generous donors had no legal obligation to worry about Nepal’s chronic struggle with malnutrition and its effects on the less advantageous among us. So why has there been a surge of negativity surrounding Baliyo Nepal, instead of gratitude?
The controversy reminds me of an opinion article in The New York Times, written by Peter Buffet, the son of Warren Buffet, in 2013. In 2006, Warren Buffet, one of the world’s richest people, pledged to donate over US$30 billion to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and, on top of that, created a foundation for each of his children. This is how his son Peter Buffet, who is a composer and author, got into the business of philanthropy. In the article, Peter Buffet called the whole business of philanthropy ‘conscience laundering’ which he defined as ‘feeling better about accumulating more than any one person could possibly need to live on by sprinkling a little around as an act of charity’. The younger Buffet’s pointing out the flimsy impact philanthropy has is not an aberration. There are plenty of academics and rights groups who oppose the whole business, and the trend has gotten stronger in the recent past. While inequality is continually rising, the nonprofit sector has been steadily growing. According to Buffet’s article, the number of nonprofits increased by 25 percent between 2001 and 2011. Adding to this, William Easterly—a staunch opponent of foreign aid—in his book, White Man’s Burden: Why The West’s Efforts To Aid The Rest Have Done So Much Ill And So Little Good argues that even though very little is needed to free the masses from numerous deprivations, a huge amount is spent on the same. But, still, the deprivation is so apparent and, at times, the persistence of foreign aid and the politics around it exacerbate the sufferings of an already troubled recipient.
But if philanthropy is a bad thing, why are rich people still so committed to ‘give away’ their hard-earned money? This question makes me recall a conversation that I had with some seasoned journalists in Kathmandu about the significance of charity. My friend praised Amitabh Bachchan, a Bollywood actor, for his adoption of some villages in India to take care of their needs. I couldn’t help but point to the irony; the same gentleman’s name had appeared in the infamous Panama Paper investigations, implying that Bachchan had stowed money abroad to avoid paying taxes. So, what do these juxtaposing realities mean? The author of The New York Times bestseller, Winners Take it All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World, Anand Gridhardas, in a tweet wrote that donors derive intangible reputational and access benefits which helps them to ‘get a project approved or avoid some legislative crackdown, which sweetens the deal’. The manifestation of being a ‘nice guy’ helps the donor gain more access to lucrative deals, while further enhancing their image. A very tiny fraction of the money earned through this goes to charity, the rest goes offshore.
The conspicuous relationship of Chaudhary Group’s iconic product, Wai Wai, with the anti-malnutrition initiative is more telling than anything else. Nirvana Chaudhary, the company’s managing director, is reported to have said that rather than giving people supplements, why not make the products that they already consume rise to a higher nutritional level? But, he added, ‘We will definitely start with noodles’. Quite interestingly, when the foundation started to receive strong criticism, the Chaudhary Group came out with a tweet that reads, ‘Wai Wai is constantly working on its own to make the product as nutritious as possible, therefore remains the staple food of those who can afford it. If you come up with affordable highly fortified solutions for the marginalised, please let us know.’ Somehow, this reflects what Buffet wrote in his opinion piece: ‘All are searching for answers with their right hand to problems that others in the room have created with their left’. Following the controversy, Aruna Uprety, a renowned nutritionist, who was an advisor for Baliyo Nepal, resigned from the post and decried the ‘vested interest of a company that promotes junk food’.
The damage instant noodles can do to our health can already be observed today. In the far western region, a region that is among the most deprived on almost all indicators of development, male kids are found to be weaker, visibly stunted and more fragile than their female counterparts. The region is also notorious for gender inequality which makes parents feed their male kids chau-chau out of more affection and love towards them. Their girls are left to eat the usual dal bhat or whatever the locally available staple foods are. In a society that grapples with malnutrition due to junk food intake, and which considers chau-chau an institution, the Baliyo Nepal initiative is likely to worsen the situation.
At the end of the day, the private sector’s interest is to make money. And the reputation companies gain when attempting to improve the lives of the poor through philanthropic initiatives serves them for exactly that purpose. Buffet, in his article, pleads: ‘I’m really not calling for an end to capitalism; I’m calling for humanism’. Acting according to humanistic values is indeed to be lauded. Using the lives of the marginalised as an avenue for business development is not.
What do you think?
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