Charity: Resetting priorities, redefining roles

By Mansoor Durrani for

“Our leaders are inefficient” and “cruel” and “corrupt”! These are common complaints or discussion points in our parts of the world. There is some truth in such remarks. But there is another eternal truth i.e. leaders are not parachuted from the sky. They come from the society, from among us. They are our own reflection.

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For historical reasons, Turkey has been very close to Muslims’ hearts. Less than a century back, as seat of Islamic caliphate, Turks were our political masters. Leading a global political empire covering parts of Europe, Africa and Asia for half a millennia requires a lot capabilities. But all that came to an end in the aftermath of the World War I. What was left behind of this massive empire is presently the Republic of Turkey. Since the beginning of this Century, Turkey has experienced first set of democratic governments. The present leadership may have its share of failings. But overall, they command a high level of genuine respect and love from the masses. My business takes me to Turkey frequently. Last month, I visited one of the most iconic (multi-billion dollars) infrastructure projects in Turkey’s modern history which my team and I are honored to have structured and financed, together with a club of banks. This is among a large number of infrastructure projects the Turkish leadership has been executing to make the life of its citizens easier. Such a leadership came from a society which -in my personal experience – is full of educated, progressive, honest, hardworking, humble, kind and generous people – a society worth emulating.

Turkey is also at the forefront of humanitarian efforts. Like all sincere nations, it walks the talk. It presently hosts 3 million Syrian refugees, as guests. Turkey hosted two back-to-back, high profile humanitarian conferences last month. One was under the banner of the UN and another organized by the World Congress of Muslim Philanthropists (WCMP).

I was invited to speak in two sessions. I shared my understanding and views on “giving” in our faith. After the opening supplication (Fatiha), the very third sentence of our Holy Book (Chapter: The Cow) states that the Qur’an is a guide “for those who spend from what We [The God] have given them”! So in our faith, “giving” is an absolute religious obligation. Not optional. And the giving mentioned here is not the annual, mandatory 2.5% zakah. This is additional giving. It seems that the extent of guidance we receive from the Qu’ran is linked to the quantum of our charity. Wit widening gap between the rich and the poor, our giving also need to increase.

A group of poor people wait for food to be distributed at the old quarters of Delhi after Iftari.

The theme of the WCMP event was apt: “resetting priorities and redefining roles”. Conservative estimates indicate Muslims have been collectively donating US$ 100+ billion every year. But the impact of such a large scale giving is not as visible as it should be. I consider two broad categories for our charity dollars: (1) repair and maintenance and (2) reconstruction. The repair and maintenance consists of feeding the hungry, providing shelter and medical care to poor, supporting orphans, ever increasing relief and rehab work etc – just for the record Islam never sanctions building gold-plated mosques.

Ongoing repair and maintenance is extremely important. And a significant amount must be continuously allocated for that. No doubt. But in my view, an unduly large chunk of total charity funds are allocated there. And only a fraction of the giving is directed towards the reconstruction work. This is a flawed strategy with long-term negative consequences. Reconstruction will pull us out of our present state of helplessness and humiliation and will allow us to stand on our own strong feet; consequently expanding the repair and maintenance pool as well. The building blocks of reconstruction are: setting up world-class schools, entrepreneurship development centers, microfinance institutions, social and media research centers, data warehouses etc. There is widespread acknowledgement about the lack of accurate data in Muslim communities. And in 21st century, we can’t develop effective strategic plans without credible data.

Unlike repair and maintenance, reconstruction projects require large doses of capital. And their real value takes longer time to emerge. This must be clearly understood. Like building a tall structure begins from the ground, not the 30th floor or the 50th floor, the foundation of strong and sustainable societies also begins at schools, not top-end colleges or universities. At present, that foundation is very weak. This is reflected in (a) not a single school student from Muslim countries figuring in the top 40 Pisa score and (b) only 2 Universities from 50+ Islamic nations figure in the top 200 Universities in the world i.e. just 1% of our Universities compared with 20+ per cent of our population! Is the US responsible for this pathetic state? Or Israel is responsible?? I often stand up in front of my teams with a piece of pencil and ask them ”have you ever come across a world-class pencil that is made in Bangladesh, or Indonesia or Egypt? A pencil which is recognized from Toronto to Tokyo as world’s top brand?” I do not ask them about smart phones or iPads or other hi-tech gadgets. I ask about as petty a product as a pencil. And the answer is obviously, no! So when one-fifth of the humanity is just consumer and not contributing anything useful – only a liability on the planet and not an asset how can we expect to earn any respect in this world? Indian Muslim “leadership” cries and cribs on the pathetic situation of Muslims in India. Let’s not forget that the global situation is not too different either. Our faith teaches us honesty. Let’s admit our deficiencies. And take corrective measures i.e. top-dollars should be allocated for reconstruction. Immediately.

“Redefining roles” is another critical area that – we discussed in Turkey -needs our urgent attention. Our charitable organizations are run by supremely sincere but not-too-competent folks. Like business organizations, we must employ top-talent and cutting-edge business practices. Charity is a serious business. And it must be run very professionally. We hardly come across the Head or CEO of Muslim Charities having MBA from top business schools. Or having extensive experience in top-corporates. Even those from non-management/corporate backgrounds can be enrolled for short courses in “Social Enterprise” or “Governance in Not-for-profit” offered by premier business schools like Harvard and INSEAD. But not much interest is visible in this either.

Employment of high caliber professionals in the social sector will multiply the returns in terms of social impact. Even from a religious standpoint there is no restriction in giving competitive salaries (figuring in the available means) to high caliber staff who are capable of enhancing the value of giving through sharp strategic planning and impeccable execution of social projects. In my experience, there is a lot more saving (and value) in engaging such professionals who adopt the best business practices, governance structures, bring efficiency and transparency, performance measurement systems etc.

In order to make perceptible positive changes in the society, both resetting priorities and redefining roles are extremely urgent needs. And the Istanbul conference has at least kicked-off this crucial debate.

Mansoor Durrani is a banker in Saudi Arabia and founder of Eastern Public School in Bhopal.