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A defence of charity and civil society

A defence of charity and civil society


Fri Mar 13, 2015

by Storm Gonsalves

In light of the aspersions cast on my motives to seek funds for the purchase of a bus for the people of North Windward, I decided there was no better time than now to publish a defence of charity, the charitable, as well as the beneficiaries of charity. The recent accusation that my actions to raise funds for a bus are somehow linked to my desire or moreover, my father’s desire to introduce me to the electorate, is not only ridiculous, but also irresponsible.{{more}}

There is a common cry by many activists, political or otherwise, that civil society is weak or non-existent in St Vincent and the Grenadines. If we look around we could argue that it exists, but can be much stronger. The essential ingredient needed to expand the space between the Government, the private sector and the ordinary household in which civil society lies, is the volunteer. The humble volunteer who gives his or her time, skills or money ensures that society is healthier, makes the Government more effective and raises awareness among the populace about issues that may otherwise go unnoticed.

Therefore, if civil society is weak, it is because we do not have enough volunteers. There are many leaders among us, potential volunteers, whose skills are not being utilized due to their hesitance to be subjected to unwanted attention such as unfounded political attacks. The Honourable Member of Parliament for Central Kingstown, in his political meandering, has struck a blow against civil society by demeaning my actions to that of some Machiavellian ploy. Simply, I was in the right place at the right time, with the right skills needed to take action and I’m happy I did, certainly I’m sure the thousands of people who will use that bus over the next few years are too. I hope any Vincentian in my position would have done the same. However, in my opinion this is the precedent the critics of my actions have set:

‘If you are perceived to have a viewpoint opposite to that of a given political force, your charitable actions will be completely discounted, discouraged and destroyed as to prevent you from becoming a political threat.’

This sort of criticism is irresponsible, for how can debate happen if some of the most able to debate defer in fear? What action will be taken if many of the most able remain inactive? Most importantly, how can charity survive in a society where keeping still and quiet is seen as the surest policy for self-preservation? The comments by political critics concerning my actions, published recently in a local newspaper, do not constitute the harshest political attack I have ever witnessed, but I dare say it is one with a most devastating impact. No politician has a monopoly on charity and no politician can define my motive.

My motive to take action was born on the 12th of January 2015, when our golden coast turned crimson with the blood of the children of the Rock Gutter tragedy. I saw the unedited version of photos on social media sites that were completely unfit for publishing (another issue I feel very strongly about). They showed mangled bodies, raw flesh, something that again, certainly should not have been published. However, strangely, I was not moved to tears. I just stared blankly at the page. I asked myself why didn’t I feel more? Even though I was certainly shocked, I realized that in a world where beheadings, murders and suffering are commonly shown online and on news portals, I had become immune. I had become cynical. Clearly, I am not the only one who suffers from this affliction; we all tend to look at things and become completely indifferent or assume actions are taken for personal gain. However, the hurt experienced on that day was so profound I could not help but sympathize. Sometimes it takes a tragedy to enlighten us, to form bonds, to take risks for one another, to sacrifice. On that day, we saw that as a country, we cared. From the divers risking their lives to retrieve bodies, to the members of the public singing gospel songs to console bereaved loved ones – our immunity as a country was dissolved and with it, so was mine. From there on out I had one goal: to contribute in some way to the community of Fancy. I kept an open mind, I was not sure how this goal was going to manifest itself, but I kept focused and had faith in the universe. A few weeks later, I went to visit an investor with close ties to St Vincent and left there with a promise of purchasing a new bus for SVG.

In the Quran, not the grossly dissected version of the Islamic State, but the true version, it says blessed is the giver, but also the messenger. In other words, the one who gives, who is charitable, will be looked at kindly in the eyes of God (the God of Abraham whom all Christians, Muslims and Jews worship); the person who encourages charity and generosity will also be blessed. The investor truly responsible for the gift initially intended for Fancy, but now being put to equally good use in North Leeward is the same person who told me this. I look at my life and I agree that I have been blessed. Beside the obvious that I have 10 fingers and 10 toes, a caring family and some material possessions, where I have been truly blessed is that I have been put in a position where I can help. If all it takes is for me to highlight the plight of others, then that is the least I can do. The true glory goes to the investor, who presently chooses to remain anonymous.

As I mentioned before, you can be charitable in many ways, for instance, by volunteering your time, skill or resources for the good of others. By doing this, you are in effect behaving charitably and contributing to civil society. I would even argue that you can be charitable while pursuing your own economic interests. We can use the growing trend of social entrepreneurship as an example. All of this does not mean that you cannot be political. A strong civil society is not strong if political debate and activism do not exist. However, our intentions must be clear and true. Also, we should not question the charitable intention of others solely on simplistic political terms. It is counterproductive, generally harmful and may intimidate others who are charitable. If this happens, we will all lose out in the long run. For a long time, I thought politics was a dirty word, something that I would never want to get involved in. Today, I still don’t want to get involved in politics, but not because I am wary of it, but because I see that I can contribute more elsewhere.

For future reference, my strongest desire right now is to serve my community through the private sector. If I have learnt anything over the five years I have been living in the UK, it is that technology can be used to solve many of society’s problems. More efficient and cost effective approaches to finance, education, and governance are waiting to be discovered. We in the Caribbean are terribly behind when it comes to technology. We lose billions of dollars as a region every year purchasing technology from overseas. In the not-too-distant future, Caribbean countries are at risk of becoming technological slaves to technologically advanced regions. It is about time we kick-start an Indigenous Technological Revolution. There are several things holding us back presently and they are: inadequate banking infrastructure that prohibits e-commerce, lack of capital for technological business models, as well as the lack of access to the Internet. The high cost of Internet is the most immediate threat to our growth in the tech sector, yet easily fixable. This is why, in light of the present merger between Flow and Lime, I have been inspired to start my own Internet service provider. Watch this space in coming months.

Lastly, I would like to thank all those who volunteer to help make their country a better place. I would like to thank those who give without asking. To the local branches of the Salvation Army, the Red Cross, NGOs as well as local religious denominations: continue the good work, your contribution is valued!