We keep discovering that Ghalib was ahead of his time. Here he is showing us how to do participant-observer research:
banaa kar faqiiroN kaa ham bhes Ghalib
tamaashaa-e ahl-e karam dekhte haiN
having put on the guise of faqirs, Ghalib
we observe the spectacle of the people of generosity
The meaning is clear: Ghalib is not in need of alms himself; he is disguising himself as an alms-seeker in order to observe and understand the behavior of alms-givers. (For a more detailed interpretation see Mehr-e-Niimroz.)
The question is: Why does Ghalib wish to undertake this exercise? Presumably, because he feels that the motivations of alms-givers are complex and all is not what it seems on the surface.
Let us explore this subject in the context of our times and in the context of South Asia.
In a number of posts on The South Asian Idea we have remarked on the fact that South Asia is a hierarchical society with deep divisions between the haves and the have-nots and a relationship of dependence between the two. How do we see the giving of alms in such a society?
In a hierarchical society the haves feel a deep need to do something for the have-nots – the desire to ‘do good’. But ‘doing good’ translates most of the time to ‘feeling good’ not to being effective. The outcome is an act of charity not a solution to the underlying problem.
Take the giving of alms to the poor as an example. The act of charity meets the need to ‘do good’ but is completely ineffective in addressing the prevalence of poverty in society.
When we look at these issues not at the level of the individual but at the level of society we notice the emergence of Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) as the vehicles designed to do something for the poor, the deprived, and the marginalized.
But here too, if we perform the kind of observation that Ghalib recommends, we find that the need to feel good outweighs the objective of being effective.
In another post (Are NGOs Relevant?) we have provided some examples of such unconscious behavior. For example, NGOs in the field of education set up targets for themselves that are centered round multiplying the number of their schools. The achievement of such targets yields them much satisfaction and accolades but are quite irrelevant to the scale of the problem. The outcome is quite akin to the giving of alms to a poor individual.
This is a phenomenon born out of the social psyche of a hierarchical society where the motivation for charity dominates the need to solve problems.
The mindset is quite different in societies characterized by social equality, the elimination of abject poverty, and comprised of haves and have-mores.
We have provided one example in the post mentioned earlier. When Ralph Nader found in the 1960s that automobiles in the US were unsafe, his NGO did not go into the business of making safe cars and doubling their number every year. He worked instead on the industry to ensure that all cars manufactured in the US met adequate safety standards.
Another interesting example from the field of health can be found in the work of a small non-profit called the Institute for Healthcare Improvement (IHI). In 2004, IHI was alerted to the phenomenon of unnecessary deaths in US hospitals because of preventable errors. IHI’s response was not to start a few ‘better’ hospitals (and feel good about them) but to convince existing hospitals to improve their practices. Within two years IHI had enrolled 3,000 hospitals in the campaign (representing over 75 percent of US hospital beds) and the initiative was responsible for saving 100,000 lives.
From Ghalib we learn that the nature of society unconsciously shapes our motivations, desires and actions. Unless we research and think about our responses consciously, as Ghalib did, we will not be able to address the issues that are important in our lives. We will feel good but not be effective.