Every year the month of Ramadan is an occasion for Muslims around the world to worship through fasting from dawn until sunset, and through giving and sharing. Ramadan is a month of discipline for the body and soul, to empathise with the poor, with their empty stomachs and their life of hardship.
In 2012 in the city of Beirut, Lebanon, to some, Ramadan appears as an occasion for systematic beggary. One cannot help but notice, while walking or driving through the streets of Beirut, the heavy bombardment of advertisements urging people (Muslims) to donate for charity or as it is known in Islam the 2.5 % Zakat. All year round we see the deployment of organized beggars but in Ramadan they seem to increase their numbers; they prey on the fact that this month is a rare opportunity for Muslims good-doers: god has the doors of heaven wide open. The poorest, and the well-off, tend to take advantage of the season; the well-off seize the occasion to buy their way to/in heaven through their good-doing towards the poor, and the poor know it’s the season. Both are two faces of the same coin.
Dar al-Aytam al-Islameyeh is a Lebanese based charity and the most visible, among many others, during the month of Ramadan. Just few days before the month starts they deploy their work force to install monuments on sidewalks and on small islands that separate roads, fix signs to electricity poles, and put up billboards along main roads in Lebanon. The charity invasion of public spaces force pedestrians during Ramadan to jostle for space on the few sidewalks left in Beirut. There are also ornate cabins (empty of their cashiers most of the time)dotting corners for people to make direct donations, and if there is still any space left on Beirut’s limited sidewalks next to these cabins stand a 3 meter tall monuments that carry advertisements and slogans urging people to donate to the advertising charity.
Observing the sheer amount of advertisements and the urgency of these ads for people to donate to charity begs the question how much money is being spent on this excessive advertising campaign? The above question leads to another: why is this vast amount of financial and human resources not deployed directly to the orphans (or other needy groups) instead of wasting it on extravagant plastic decorations in the shape of moons and stars? An estimate by a decoration specialist estimates the price of each of these decorations used for charity advertisements ranges between $200 and $300: there are usually over 5 on each display. This year there has been a noticeable increase in this kind of decoration. If we do the math, on a national scale, we would probably end up with a steep figure being spent just for the purpose of advertising Ramadan.
This intense urgency, by the charity NGOs, for people to pay their 2.5% (an obligation by god and one of the main pillars in Islam itself which leads one to think it shouldn’t require so much reminders and advertisements for people to fulfill it) makes one think: is the shallow campaign of emotional manipulation meant to purely and directly serve those in need or does it serve merely for the benefit of the pockets of those who actually own the organization(s)?
There many similarities between these highly organized, well established charities and the street organized gangs of direct beggars. Street beggars use children between the age of 6 and 12 and people with physical disabilities exhibiting, with tactics of emotional manipulation, their unfortunate conditions to the passerby and asking for money. These beggars are often chased away by the police and have no institutional umbrella to protect them. On the other hand the organized institutional charities use pictures of sad looking orphans, children with physical disabilities and old people on canes and wheelchairs as if displaying their merchandise. The same tactics but a disparity in the sophistication of their tools.
According to a study issued in a book earlier this year, Profiles of Poverty: The human face of poverty in Lebanon, almost a third of the country’s population lives in poverty.
In times where the gap between the rich and poor is continually growing more vast and faster than ever before there is a need to question whether charity work and aid limit the numbers of the hungry and deprived on the planet. It’s becoming obvious that NGO charity work is operating in the same way as putting a plaster on cancer; keeping the poor barely alive and constantly on the verge. Giving a handful of rice to the poor once in a while is not a solution to this inhumane situation. Questioning the circumstances that made the poor poorer is where we need to be looking at for solutions.
Ramadan comes and goes every year and with it the extravagant food festivities but the poor and needy are still around all year long, increasing in numbers. In the mean time NGOs and charities spend more and look for new innovative advertising campaigns to further develop the business of helping the poor. Since the numbers of the poor are growing like wild fire it is difficult to ignore the fact that those needy ones are mere tools for yet another charity.
“Ramadan Kareem” the advertisements on the streets say but would Ramadan’s generosity extends outside those billboards or is it just another advertising slogan?