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Sunday, 23 January 2011

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A helping hand

Sri Lanka is known as a land of smiling people. It is difficult to find a Sri Lankan who does not care to flash a smile despite being assailed by various rigours of life. Sri Lankans are also known for their hospitality. It is said that a Sri Lankan would entertain even an enemy who visits his or her home, with a cup of tea. As if these two attributes were not enough, Sri Lankans take the time to genuinely care for others and help those in need.

Sri Lanka was earlier placed high in a list of countries with 'happy' people. Now Sri Lanka has earned the rare distinction of being ranked eighth in a Gallup poll of civic engagement in 130 countries, measuring individuals' likelihood to volunteer their time and assistance to others.

Sri Lanka scored 51 percent while India which ranked 48th scored 28 percent in the global list topped by the United States at 60 percent followed by Ireland with the same score and Australia in the third place with 59 percent. Pakistan was ranked 27th with a score of 42 percent while Nepal was placed 40th with 30 percent.

The Gallup poll showed people with high civic engagement are positive about the communities where they live and actively give back to them. Respondents were asked whether they have done any of the following in the past month: donated money to a charity, volunteered time to an organization, or helped a stranger or someone they didn't know who needed help.

This is a remarkable achievement that confirms what we have known all along - that Sri Lankans are literally on the top of the world when it comes to helping others. Philanthropy and altruism are at the very heart of Sri Lankan culture. Buddhism itself and a civilization based on Buddhism have played a major role in shaping our society to come together in a time of crisis or distress.

Sri Lankans feel the pain of others and somehow try to help, within their financial constraints. If they cannot help financially, they will strive to help in some other manner.

One need not be rich to help others - we have seen even the poorest of the poor volunteering their time and energy for a good cause. This is the very core of the 'Shramadana' (spending one's energy for a worthy social cause) concept, which is very popular at village level. In a Shramadana, virtually all the villagers would gather together to volunteer their time and energy for a given cause - to build a road, clear a shrub jungle, repair a house etc.

The villagers would share the local gossip and a home-cooked meal, not to mention several pots of steaming hot tea, and get the job done with no effort at all.

A prime example of Sri Lankans' propensity to help others was the 2004 tsunami where Sri Lankans shed all differences to help their brethren in distress. The humanitarian response was indeed massive, as Sri Lankans collected relief materials swiftly and volunteered to help the victims. There was no monetary gain whatsoever to the people who volunteered to help those in distress - only the sheer satisfaction that they had done something good.

The very same response is being seen at the moment when many districts of the country are facing heavy floods. Truckloads of various items donated by generous members of the public were swiftly sent to the affected areas. There is no publicity for the donors, for they remain anonymous, but there are no words to describe their happiness.

Sri Lankans do go out of the way to help total strangers, sometimes risking their own lives. Such individuals are recognized and rewarded at the Annual Civilian Bravery Awards. One of the winners last year was a nine-year-old boy who had saved four people from drowning in a raging river. He himself could have been drowned while trying to help others, but that thought had apparently never entered his mind. Ordinary individuals do extraordinary things everyday to help others - mostly people they do not even know.

On an individual level, there is always a good response to newspaper notices seeking financial help for surgeries. Again, the donors get no publicity in the press but it is all for the noble cause of saving a life or restoring someone's sight or hearing. We have even seen instances when the affected party has to publish another notice in the newspapers, announcing that funds are no longer needed as the operation has been successfully conducted.

Apart from donating funds, a large number of Sri Lankans donate blood regularly and many have signed up to donate corneas and organs.

There is also a good response in the case of live donor transplants especially for kidneys. Many companies and individuals regularly donate equipment and other materials to hospitals.

Sri Lanka does not have an endless list of charities like some other countries do. But there are healthy contributions to the active charities and institutions that care for the elderly, destitute and orphaned children. For example, donors line up months in advance to provide meals for inmates of such institutions.

If there is a lacuna, it is that Sri Lanka needs more charities that work in the field of animal welfare which may enable us to save certain endangered species and stop cruelty to domesticated/work animals.

There must be a proper mechanism to register all charities and monitor their work, to ensure that public contributions are channeled towards the intended purpose(s). There should also be a clear line of differentiation between Non Governmental Organisations and charities. There may be instances where the two may be one and the same, but overall, they must be treated as different entities.

Civic engagement may be a new term, but its meaning has been known to Sri Lankans for thousands of years. The streak for helping others is in their very blood. It doesn't always cost money to help other people and when it does, it is always for a worthy cause.

As per the laws of life, you gain something (material or spiritual) when you give and share. It would not be surprising if Sri Lanka makes it to the very top of this important list.

 

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