Saving charity from scandal, by Azu Ishiekwene

Azu Ishiekwene.

Conversation with Azu

In the nearly two weeks of lockdown so far in most Nigerian cities, we have seen great acts of charity by individuals, groups and institutions.

Many have gone the extra mile to share what little they have with friends, neighbours, and even strangers, who have little or nothing.

And in one inspiring example, Bamidele Ademola-Olateju, a US-based Nigerian author and creative writer, entered a challenge only to share the entire prize money of N330,000 she won from it among her followers and needy strangers she never met.

In the midst of the heartening news of extraordinary sharing, however, a few concerning videos have gone viral.

One particularly striking one showed the hand of a young man holding a small plastic bag of what looked like steamed white rice, which the Alfa who made the video said his family had received from an unnamed government.

In the two-minute-seven-seconds video, the Alfa rained curses on the government in stinging sarcasm, yet without the slightest hint of bitterness or anger in his tone. It’s an
uncommon gift mostly endowed in the Southwest.

He told the story of how the same government that had asked everyone to stay at home with a promise to provide essential supplies had left citizens with the short end of the stick, with only a few grains of rice to survive on.

According to him, that same day, he had seen large trucks carrying bags of rice and other staples in the neighbourhood, only for each family head to be invited and handed packets of rice that could hardly fill N500 bread nylon.

It was for this singular act of extraordinary charity that he decided to make this special video to thank the government on behalf of himself and his entire family, for the great, incredible act of kindness in this time of desperate need. He then prayed that the suppliers and their children would receive just this kind of help in their hour of need.

It was invitation to hell delivered with an affection that will make those responsible for that supply stew in quiet rage at how their kindness had stuck in their own craw.

Elsewhere, the strategy was different, far less nuanced, but with the same catastrophic effect. A prominent politician in Lagos had his name branded on bread loaves and distributed randomly.

Recipients who were not particularly pleased with the Amount of loaves they got and who couldn’t muster Faith to multiply the loaves as in biblical times, went mad.

Incensed that apartment buildings with scores of people had been forced to share four loaves each, they tossed the bread on the road and kicked the thing around like Football.

The rage against backhanded charity was not on the streets alone. Inside sources said the week before the lockdown, the Central Bank of Nigeria had to save the banks from killing themselves with charity.

After one bank chairman announced millions of dollars to match the status of his bank as a global African bank, others joined the bandwagon, announcing billions of naira donation in the fight against Coronavirus as well.

The problem was not only that the CBN was concerned that most of it (apart from the one directly tied to the construction of an isolation centre) would eventually turn out to be 419 donations, there was also genuine concern about the adverse knock-on effect.

Banks that were making pledges to hotspot states could soon find themselves under pressure to extend the same gesture to other states where they also have branches or
risk losing goodwill! How far would they go?

In any case, where else in the world – even in the global epicentres of this virus – are banks directly and publicly involved in announcing donations of billions to fight Coronavirus (COVID-19)?

Deploying help of any kind was always going to be problematic for predatory reasons, poor planning and weak control. More than once in recent times, we have given charity a bloody nose.

In a scandal that the world is yet to recover from, 200 tonnes of dates donated to Nigeria by Saudi Arabia three years ago, were diverted and sold in the open market.

The dates, valued at nearly N20 million, were supplied to help millions of poor people who had been internally displaced by Boko Haram to break their fast during the Ramadan. But the dates vanished and that was that.

To be sure, such scandals occur even in the better organised systems: the difference which is fundamentally important is that the chances of getting caught and punished are much higher in a number of these other places.

In our present circumstances, I’m not even sure that the millions at the receiving end of predatory charity are ever going to ask for retribution.

They know they are being taken advantage of. They have met the politicians among these folks before. They have met them on voting lines before elections when the politicians put a few crumpled naira notes inside slices of bread.

They have been swindled in different ways before but too weak and too poor to say no, they have grown to accept their fate, and laugh them off in skits.

What is the point pursuing retribution anyway? The IDPs cheated of their dates have since moved on. Who will ask the banks if they redeemed their dubious pledges?

The folks who got only miserable loaves of bread have kicked the loaves down the road. And the Alfa with only a few grains of rice for himself and his family has buried his discontent in a two-minute video.

That is that. Can we put the experience this time to good use? I know how difficult it can be for politicians to resist the Urge of playing politics with everything, as some of them are
already doing with COVID-19. Even when they try to do right, godfathers up the food chain can sometimes make

it hard. And predatory poverty makes it even harder for ordinary folks to ask questions even where public funds are involved.

I know, too, that ego and PR would often not let some individuals and corporates do the right thing, even when it beats them over the head. But if the few angry videos have taught us anything about charity this season, it’s that we need not just do it, but to do it in ways that make both the giver and the receiver feel valued.

Charity tends to be more effective when impact is measurable and giving is narrow and targeted. The scale of the despair may suggest otherwise and the urge would always be to do more than we can chew.

But the improving science of charity, which depends heavily on data, can help us do a better job. Why stir up anger and even potentially cause a stampede by distributing a few packets of rice when the government can simply decide to make direct, one-off cash transfers to a certain category of civil servants through their bank accounts and leave them to decide what they want to do with the money? And if the plan is to reach a wider target outside white collar, why not use resources by the World Food

Programme or other established charities, online and off? As for banks falling over each other to announce phantom donations, why can’t they simply use their data bases to credit a pre-determined number/class of customers and perhaps, also, work with the major IT companies and agents to reach the e-wallets of customers in remote areas?

The point is not to try to reach 190million Nigerians, but to choose your charity with clear thinking, respect and openness, especially when other people’s money is involved.

There’s no need for a rat race. Just one bad video can do a lot of damage to the most well intentioned effort. Charity and scandal need not go hand-in-hand.

Ishiekwene is the MD/Editor-In-Chief The Interview


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