Pakistan stands out in charity — giving and receiving charity — with an estimated 7% of GDP that people spend voluntarily on philanthropic activities. It is a good thing for many reasons and one should not cast doubt on one’s intentions for spending money when and where needed but in some cases the unintended consequences far outweigh the intended social benefits.
It is especially true in the case of on-spot donations/alms given to unidentifiable individuals and organisations. Mosques, public transport terminals, stopovers on roads, and rush points in markets offer free access to all sorts of beggars who sell their products (miserable life stories, slogans, and symbols). In Ramadan, almost every prayer is followed by announcements from all around in the mosque imploring the worshippers to support a religious cause (Jihad, madrassa, or refugees) or a suffering family.
Many of the beggars/donees, if not all of them, have doubtful credentials and real financial problems. They cash in their physical disabilities, poverty-stricken portrayal, and/or a phony social cause supported by medical prescriptions (plastic coated) and registration documents (mostly fake) as proof of being ‘genuine and deserving’ candidates for donations. Most often the tricks work with many naïve people pouring huge amounts into their pockets. Money given to such institutions/individuals has often ended up in wrong hands spent for bad causes.
There are at least three problems associated with such on-spot charities. One, it is not possible to discriminate between an imposter and a genuinely deserving institution/individual. Appearances are most often deceptive. It leaves one with a false sense of helping the poor and serving a social cause. In reality, it creates a culture of beggary with many mafias/ professionals making it a lucrative and risk-free business. Many cases have been reported in the media about how professional beggars and their sponsors hoodwink the public through innovative tricks to get sympathies.
Two, it leads to the dependency syndrome. Some people have adopted begging as a profession. They find it easier and more rewarding than doing some productive work. To give charity to such professional beggars is essentially encouraging others to become perpetual parasites and free riders in society. Similarly, most religious seminaries/dargahs/khanqas continue to thrive on charities and are least pushed to explore other sources of income. Even most of the madrassa graduates deem it below their social status and dignity to do business or get employment.
Third, the ones who are really poor go unattended and unnoticed. Has anyone paid a labourer, working all the day long in harsh conditions, more than his fixed daily wage out of magnanimity? Does anyone bother to pay a higher price for something that a hawker sells? Is the small boy, collecting garbage in the dawn, visible to anyone to be helped? Has anyone ever visited an ailing poor person in a hospital and paid his/her medical bills? How many of us give financial support to our poor relatives and those living in our neighbourhood? For no apparent reasons, all this is not what we should be doing as part of our social and religious obligation.
Given the fact that beggary has become a social evil, the Imams in mosques should strictly ban unauthorised announcements and clarify the true spirit of charity and the modus operandi of its payment. The government, too, should launch a crackdown against professional beggars and show zero-tolerance in preventing this epidemic from spreading any more. The people in general should pay zakat and other donations to rightful people.
Spending money for a social cause with an intention to please Allah is a commendable act provided it is done properly according to the rules prescribed by Islam.