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Charity of guilt

Food donations during Ramazan have evolved over the past few years, moving from simplicity to extravagance

By Yusra Salim |
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PUBLISHED April 14, 2024

As a child, everyone who has ever lived in Karachi likely recalls the meal settings for Iftar scattered across the city in various setups, whether on roadsides, under flyovers, or in other open spaces. However, what stood out in these Iftars was the simplicity of the menu, typically consisting of a samosa, banana, dates, and a few other items. These meal tables were set up with the intention of earning rewards during the holy month of Ramazan.

Ramazan is more than just a month of fasting; it holds deep significance as a time for acts of goodness, particularly in the form of charity, especially concerning food distribution during Iftar and Sehri. In Karachi, this tradition of communal sharing during Ramazan underscores the spirit of generosity and community that defines this sacred month.

The significant impact of food donations during Ramazan in Pakistan has undergone remarkable changes over time. The Sehri and Iftar arrangements throughout the city no longer resemble those from the early 2000s. Instead, they have evolved into buffet-style setups offering a variety of dishes to support the hungry and the poor. This transformation hasn't occurred overnight; rather, it has been shaped by various factors, including cultural, economic, and spiritual influences.

‘Good deed, multiplied 70 times over’

Giving holds a profound significance during Ramazan, especially for those facing economic challenges. This tradition, rooted in Islamic teachings highlighting empathy, compassion, and solidarity with the less fortunate, is deeply ingrained in Pakistani culture. It finds expression in the widespread charitable practice of providing meals to the underprivileged during Sehri and Iftar.

"Feeding the poor is already a source of reward, and during Ramazan, every good deed is multiplied seventy times over,” said a spokesperson for Saylani Welfare. “Consequently, more and more people engage in feeding the needy, irrespective of their social status or financial stability."

One of the most important ways to combat poverty and food insecurity in Pakistan is through humanitarian food distribution during Ramazan. Numerous people and groups volunteer to set up communal kitchens, provide food hampers, and fund meals at public spaces like mosques. In addition to ensuring that nobody goes hungry during Ramazan, this group effort also promotes a sense of unity and shared responsibility in society.

Iftar ‘luxuries’

Where this practice encourages people to come out and donate it has also turned into a show in recent years where serving luxury food items in Sehri and Iftar has turned eyes.

“The problem is not what food is served but who is serving,” shared the general secretary of the JDC foundation, Syed Zafar Abbas. The JDC foundation was in hot water throughout the Ramazan month for serving ostriches and shrimps to the poor and needy.

Abbas stressed that giving meals to others is a deeply rooted cultural practice in Pakistan that reflects the principles of hospitality, generosity, and unity. “This custom is strengthened throughout Ramazan, fostering a welcoming community where individuals from all walks of life gather to offer support to one another,” he added.

Speaking on behalf of his organisation, Abbas highlighted that people contribute to them according to their means. “We facilitate those who wish to provide quality food to the needy. For instance, if a company owner wishes to fund meals personally, it's entirely their prerogative; we simply serve as a conduit between them and those in need," he said.

Abbas mentioned that his organisation feeds over 10,000 people daily at separate Sehri and Iftar gatherings. He emphasised that they only provide services to donors who request assistance and provide a budget and menu, functioning primarily as a liaison between the needy and those willing to help.

Explaining the shift in the paradigm of food offerings in recent years, Abbas claimed that JDC has been serving quality food since its inception. “Nowadays, many sponsors opt to procure food from their own catering services and deliver it to our setup,” he said, adding “Numerous prominent brand owners contribute food for sehri and iftar, and our role is simply to provide a space where people can gather and eat without any discrimination based on caste or color."

Fostering dependency

While giving food as charity at Sehri and Iftar during Ramazan is often seen as a beneficial and influential tradition in Pakistan, it's crucial to recognise that there may also be some unfavorable effects. These detrimental effects could result from several variables and behaviors related to the context of food distribution for charity during Ramazan in Pakistan.

The philanthropic food initiatives during Ramazan yield both short-term and long-term effects on the economy. In the immediate sense, these programmess offer vital sustenance to low-income families, labourers, refugees, and other marginalised communities. Particularly during fasting hours, this support ensures that vulnerable populations have access to nourishing meals, alleviating hunger. Moreover, the Ramazan season stimulates economic activity by encouraging increased spending on food, charitable contributions, and Zakat.

However, one potential adverse effect of providing charity food assistance during Ramazan is the risk of fostering dependency among certain individuals or communities. While such assistance offers immediate relief, there's concern that it may overshadow the pursuit of long-term solutions to poverty and food insecurity.

"Feeding the poor isn't inherently problematic, but these practices can foster reliance, hindering self-sufficiency and perpetuating cycles of dependency on external aid," explained psychologist Syeda Rida Alvi.

For religious scholars, the notion that providing food through NGOs might discourage hard work and earning a living is flawed because the act of giving food as charity during Ramazan holds profound spiritual significance that goes beyond mere social and financial implications. It is regarded as a means to fulfill religious duties, seek blessings, and attain purification.

"In Islam, feeding those who are fasting is a highly esteemed practice associated with numerous benefits and blessings,” explained Mufti Naeem, who is affiliated with a charity organisation. “Engaging in selfless activities throughout Ramazan serves to strengthen one's faith and bring spiritual fulfillment to many Pakistanis," he said, emphasising that donating food promotes selflessness, gratitude, and fosters a deeper connection with the compassion and empathy that Islam cherishes.

Fair distribution

Apart from dependency, unfair distribution of philanthropic food aid can also be an issue. "Despite efforts to reach marginalised groups, there may still be instances where specific communities or individuals are overlooked or receive inadequate assistance," Alvi elaborated. She cautioned that if resources are not allocated fairly and transparently, existing social inequalities could worsen, leading to feelings of injustice.

"To ensure that charitable funds have the greatest possible impact and reach the most vulnerable individuals, there's a need for increased accountability and transparency in their management," countered the spokesperson of Saylani Welfare. He also mentioned that the organisation extends its services beyond Sehri and Iftar, providing food to the labour class 365 days a year. However, the focus remains on providing them with essential sustenance through a structured process.

Sustainability and stigma

While the act of giving food as charity during Ramazan yields many positive effects, there are also several drawbacks to consider beyond just fostering dependence and ensuring fair distribution of resources. These include addressing food waste and promoting sustainable practices in charitable activities. Every year during Ramazan, thousands of people gather on roads to partake in Sehri and Iftar meals, impacting not only social dynamics but also economic aspects, particularly within markets. The surplus of donated food during Ramazan, particularly in the food and hospitality sectors, can pose challenges.

"Free or heavily subsidised food offerings may create challenges for local businesses, making it difficult for them to compete," explained Alvi. This situation can lead to imbalances and disruptions in the economy, particularly affecting the livelihoods and sustainability of small-scale vendors and businesses.

Receiving free food assistance during Ramazan can sometimes lead to stigma or negative perceptions within the community. This stigma may prevent individuals from seeking necessary assistance due to fear of judgment or unfair treatment. "Addressing these social barriers is crucial to ensure that vulnerable individuals can access support without feeling stigmatised or ashamed," emphasised Alvi. She noted instances where the needy face judgment while professional beggars receive preferential treatment.

Comprehensive approach

Providing food as charity during Sehri and Iftar in Pakistan during Ramazan has multifaceted impacts on society, the economy, and spirituality, beyond being a simple act of kindness. "It underscores the power of collective action in fostering positive change and embodies the essence of Ramazan as a period of reflection and gratitude," noted Abbas. However, he expressed concern about a recent orchestrated campaign aimed at undermining charitable efforts, particularly those directed towards his organisation.

It's essential to adopt a comprehensive approach to mitigate these negative effects. This involves combining short-term relief with long-term solutions aimed at strengthening communities, promoting self-sufficiency, and addressing underlying structural issues such as unemployment, inadequate social safety nets, and limited access to healthcare and education.

Bringing about enduring positive change beyond Ramazan necessitates investing in social welfare initiatives, education, skill development, and economic opportunities, rather than solely focusing on providing food aid. This holistic approach is key to fostering long-lasting improvements in the living conditions of vulnerable populations.