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Is this famine an excuse to feel good?

The way the country has responded to the ongoing famine is wonderful, is it not? Every day we hear of new donations of food and money. Every day a new company steps forward to announce its own initiative to help those in need. Donors, too, have put their shoulder to the wheel; for all their disquiet about our corrupt practices, they have released large sums for famine relief. NGOs have mobilised relief operations across the land to ensure that the food gets to its destination rapidly. We can all pat ourselves on the back for demonstrating our concern for fellow Kenyans in need.

Or can we? Forgive me for ruining the party, but I am concerned about this whole affair. The endless procession of companies parading themselves before the cameras with donations, for one thing. ‘Corporate social responsibility’ is all the rage these days, but it is, or should be, a bigger thing than mere donations. It is the easiest thing in the world, after all, to sign a cheque out of your company surpluses, or ask your employees to each make a small contribution. It is a far more challenging task to ask your company to think about getting involved in solving the longer-term problems that bedevil this nation.

And so I find myself wondering about some of the characters coming out of the woodwork to smile for the cameras and hand over some bales of flour. The president himself is often hauled out to provide a photo opportunity on the steps of State House. Say cheese, everyone, and then go home with your chests puffed out for caring about the plight of the needy. Mission accomplished, put a tick against the feel-good box, go back to sleep. Until next time.

In fact there is a long tradition of using donations and a benevolent public profile to disguise nefarious activities in this country. Many of those rushing forward to donate are the same people who design complex schemes in which to evade taxes and defraud the exchequer. Many cannot extend the same munificence to their own employees, who are treated with disdain. Many put raw effluent into rivers and lakes without a care for what happens next. Some have even built temples using a small portion of the massive funds plundered from dodgy enterprises. Oh, it is a wonderful face cleanser, this charity business. Sign a big cheque occasionally, and past malfeasance is washed away.

Corporate citizenship is a bigger undertaking than that. It should emerge from the heartfelt realisation that there is more to a corporation than filling the pockets of shareholders. It is about using profits to become a bigger entity, in every sense, than you were when you started. It is about building sustainability into the environment and the economy, for the sake of everyone’s future. In fact, the best practitioners of this art (and we have a few in Kenya) know that social responsibility is most effective when it is aligned with the company’s own strategic goals; when it is used to do good to society in addition to doing good for the company.

That involves more than playing Father Christmas once year in front of the flashing lights. Ask yourself this: if the cameras were taken away, how many donations would we be getting for this famine? How many companies are actually willing to help regardless of publicity, because social concern is part of their fundamental values, and because they are building longer-term solutions for the country? Very few, I imagine. That is what separates the true corporate citizens from the publicity hounds.

A famine provides an easy opportunity for too many people. It is a photo shoot for those looking to turn a cheap public relations trick. It is free airtime for leaders to wax lyrical and shed glycerine tears at the plight of the poor. It is a leading chance for donor agencies to release the funds on which their own existence depends. It is a time for NGOs to go into adrenalin-charged overdrive, plunging deep into the countryside as the white knights that come to save lives.

Forgive my cynicism. I wish not to trivialise the nature of famine, nor to doubt that lives are indeed being saved by all this activity. But if we were truly serious about eliminating famine in this country, we would be going far beyond mere generosity. We would be putting emphasis on longer-term food security and planning. We would be jailing without delay those who have apparently plundered strategic food stocks. We would be starting projects in affected areas that build longer-term purchasing power and provide the poor with a livelihood that is not wholly dependent on rainfall. We would be prioritising roads, electricity and phone lines to provide the basis for self-sufficient local economies. I have said it before: famines are not about droughts; they are not even about food. They are about the inability to generate stable income. In a modern market-based economy there is no famine when incomes are stable. So which of our magnanimous givers are involved in initiatives to build income?

At the heart of this is the disease that lurks within every individual: the need to receive applause and plaudits for whatever we do. We are so attached to personal benefits that even when we give something away, we must feel some gain. We must receive the recognition of our peers. Everyone must appreciate our noble deeds and worthy initiatives. That is why if you visit religious institutions and charity homes, you will often see that every chair and table is marked with the name of a donor in bold lettering. You will be hard put to find a single social hall or sports pavilion that is not named after some long-dead benefactor. Most foundations carry the name of their sponsors. In some places of worship, long lists of donors who gave a few measly shillings each are carved into ornate plaques.

Are these people donating anything? No, they are signing a contract. There is gain for both sides. Is it really too much for us to give freely without seeing our name in lights? What is it we think we ‘own’ in the first place, that we are now ‘donating’? Awakening will come when we realise that we own nothing. All our wealth and property, our skill and talent, is merely held in trust. It is a flow, not a stock. It comes into our lives in accordance with the quirks of fate. It must pass through our fingers freely and without impediment. If we can extend the idea of ownership to the entirety of creation, we will be able to give freely without searching for gain.

An ancient tradition puts it thus: when divinity sent the first man into the world, it whispered a message into his ear. The message was this: “There are only three words you need to remember as you go forth into the world. These words will give you the only hope you have of being happy. The three words are: ‘Give, give, give.'”

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