Agnes and Diana: Two models of charity
Twenty years ago, on August 31, Diana Spencer, aged 31, died in a car crash in France after a high-speed chase with the paparazzi. Her death attracted 24X7 coverage for almost a week, no less for the sensational circumstances of her end than the right royal drama -literally - that was her adult life.
As breathless commentators reflected on the life of a woman whose life and death were the epitome of luxury, a frail 87- year old Albanian nun, for whom austerity was a lifestyle choice, lay dying in a Kolkata hospital. Agnes Gonxhe Bojaxhiu, known to the world as Mother Teresa, died on September 5, five days after the former Princess of Wales, from a long-standing heart ailment.
She was accorded politically correct and respectful coverage by the media, the honour of a state funeral, and all foreign leaders dutifully praised her devotion to the poor. But her passing attracted nothing like the maudlin wall-to-wall coverage of the former princess of Wales' last journey.
Last week marked the 20th death anniversary of both women. Compare and contrast the media coverage including in India, the country Mother Teresa made her home and whose poor she served.
Diana. We knew all about her sons' touching reminiscences in a documentary. A former voice coach released tapes of revelations that drew widespread prurient interest. Assessments tumbled out about her relations with the stoic queen, the BBC interview in which she revealed the presence of another in her marriage to Charles, Prince of Wales, her controversial death (her boyfriend's father, the dubious Egyptian magnate Mohamed Al Fayed, persists in his theory of an MI6 plot to bump them off), her style, her charity work, her. Even the US media left off its obsession with Donald Trump to join in the frenzied coverage of a famous beauty of no great intelligence or imagination.
Mother Teresa? Pretty much zip.
Dutifully canonised by the pope in 2016, an event that (understandably) excited only devout Catholics, her temporal legacy remains visible in the nuns in their white saris with blue borders who quietly go about their work among India's poor and destitute.
***Last week marked the 20th death anniversary of both women. Compare and contrast the media coverage including in India, the country Mother Teresa made her home and whose poor she served.***
The cynics will say Diana wins in the publicity stakes because her glamour quotient trumps diminutive, wrinkled, Mother Teresa's formidable personal righteousness. Let's set that meaningless comparison aside and consider the two women on a level playing field, so to speak. In a world in which the art of giving is becoming a big business, both women deserve assessment for the two models of charity that they represent.
Diana's tumultuous personal life makes it easy to forget that her public life involved a wide array of charity work - much more than most of the royal family. This wasn't the unglamorous work of the dedicated social worker.
She may, as she drolly admitted, have been as "thick as two short planks" but she certainly had a shrewd appreciation of her star power. An assiduous press following brought in its wake a tidal wave of the rich, famous and arrivistes to fund-raising events, eagerly signing off on large donations to the charities she endorsed.
In her scattershot efforts, it is fair to say that she helped highlight two significant causes. One autism, that little-understood and-known neurodevelopmental disorder. The other was to focus world attention on the crisis of unexploded mines in the killing fields of Cambodia.
Diana's legacy to both causes does not match the hype but it is interesting that the established model of charity that she glamorised is dominant in the global charity-industrial complex. Powered by generous tax breaks, USD 1000-a-plate dinners and celebrity-attended events, from auctions to sports tournaments to concerts, have become critical social events on A-List calendars.
***Their fund-raising utility is directly proportionate to the opportunities they offer to schmooze with the great and the good. It's a proxy business, of course: Of the ground-level NGO workers or their beneficiaries there is often little sign.***
Their fund-raising utility is directly proportionate to the opportunities they offer to schmooze with the great and the good. It's a proxy business, of course: Of the ground-level NGO workers or their beneficiaries there is often little sign.
No doubt, the enormous sums that fund-raisers mobilise in this mode have a beneficial impact but it has also contributed in no small part to a high-cost model in which administrative outlays consume disproportionately large proportions of NGO budgets.
Mother Teresa, on the other hand, represented the non-trendy, low-cost model of charity that combined fund-raising with the grunt work of hands-on social work. Even if we assume that her motives were driven by some self-declared devotion to Jesus, it is hard to ignore the hardy selflessness that drove her and the nuns of the order she founded to bring succour to people -lepers, the indigent, the destitute dying on the roadside - from whom most of us would cringe.
Sure, she accepted money from all manner of people, but Christopher Hitchens got it wrong when he said she offered criminals the equivalent of an Indulgence. Today no one recalls Enver Hoxha for his large donation to the Missionaries of Charity; history will surely remember him as a ruthless Albanian dictator.
Mother Teresa's model of social work is hard to emulate but the Missionaries of Charity continue their work whether the economy grows or shrinks. Not so much the cheque-book charity of the Diana model. The CAF World Giving Index for 2017 unwittingly highlights the difference: Donating money and helping a stranger were down 1.8 percentage points and volunteering fell 0.8 percentage age points.
This article was published in Business Standard on September 7, 2017