IN the last few months alone, I have come across numerous appeals on Facebook for monetary help. Some have needed money for educational expenses for themselves, for their children and in some cases for friends in dire need. Others have needed funds for accessing healthcare for themselves or their loved ones. Almost all the appeals are serious and some are heartbreaking such as asking for funds required for the treatment of cancer. Some are successful in raising the funds they need, others are not but, ex-ante, it is hard to predict who will be able to raise the funds and who will not.
Comments under such posts speak volumes for the kind of concerns people have. The ‘genuineness’ of the case raises the most concerns: is the need genuine and is the person in question really in the tough spot she/he is portraying her/himself to be in? Some want to know if all other possible avenues for fund raising have been exhausted before they are approached or before they are asked to donate. And then there are concerns about how the funds are going to reach the concerned person. Is there a bank account mentioned? Who does the account belong to? If it is not of the concerned person, how will the donor know if the money has reached the intended recipient?
Not all are able to raise the money they need. Sometimes, people feel that the expressed need is not worthy of being funded. At other times, it takes a long while for people to have their questions answered satisfactorily. They need a trusted source to verify that the need is genuine and they are not being hoaxed, that the funds will reach the right person and in time and so on. But most needs expressed on social media are emergent situations. Medical cases are usually serious cases that require timely if not immediate interventions and college university fees need to be paid on schedule as well.
The Pakistan Centre for Philanthropy (PCP) has done a fair bit of research on philanthropic giving in Pakistan. Some of their broader, well-established conclusions are worth iterating. Pakistanis do give a substantial amount in philanthropy and in the areas of health and education as well. But there are few local institutions that accept philanthropy that are trusted by Pakistanis in general. These few institutions are able to raise substantial amounts. But most other institutions, largely due to lack of information and trust, are not able to do so. So, most Pakistanis prefer to give on the basis of individually acquired information and through personalised channels. People help those whose needs they themselves know are genuine or that can be established as such through a trusted intermediary.
Not having institutions that you can trust can certainly have, other things remaining the same, a dampening effect on the sum total of philanthropic giving. If you do not have people around you who need help, and if you cannot trust institutions that could reach out to people who need help but who are not known to you, you might decide to give less. It makes sense for the PCP to work on ways of ensuring that people have more information about certified institutions so that more avenues for institutional giving are opened up.
But the need for keeping channels of more personalised giving open and making them more efficient still remains. Institutions, by definition, have more rigid and standardised rules, and more bureaucratic and time-consuming ways of responding. While all this is necessary for institutions to function well, it also makes it more difficult for institutions to respond to emergent and more atypical requests. Personalised giving can be quick, idiosyncratic and tolerant of deviance.
But personalised giving requires a certain degree of information revelation and trustworthiness too. When personalised giving was restricted to more immediate circles, the knowledge and trust requirements were not difficult to meet. Social and audio/visual media has allowed us to increase the reach of personalised networks significantly. We can access acquaintances and even relative strangers quite easily now. This allows us much better and bigger possibilities of finding kindred spirits. But how do we extend truthful and trustworthy information revelation mechanisms across the social media as well?
Can an institution fill the gap? Could an institution that is trusted to authenticate information step in to address the information and trust issue highlighted here? Could this institution respond quickly to the needs of those who need help and to those who might be interested in helping? And could this institution do this on a sustainable basis? Or would it be too costly and non-sustainable for an institution to step into this space? Could a computer application be developed to help in this area? I do not have the answer for this. But this missing market does require an answer. Maybe readers can suggest solutions to the problem.
What is obvious is that a solution is needed. Given the weak health, education and welfare systems/institutions in Pakistan and the rampant income, wealth and power inequalities in the country, there will, for the foreseeable future, be many who will need help and we already know there are many who are willing and able to help. But lack of authentic information will continue to delay or muffle the response. This is clearly a welfare-reducing outcome. How can this be addressed?
If people do not want to step up and help out in a particular situation, that is up to them to decide. But where many are able and willing to help, and it can be the difference between life and death for those in need, not having the ability to access credible information to act on seems a really bad reason for not being able to do so. We need to think of ways of addressing this challenge.
From the Dawn, Pakistan, published Friday November 3rd, 2017.