Philanthropy, from the Greek philanthropia, for loving mankind - the word and the very concept seem momentarily threatened by the specter of terrorism. Yet the animating spirit of philanthropy may provide a moral compass at the very moment we risk becoming lost in a storm of fear, anger, and hatred.
On one level, charitable giving has increased as Americans donate money, goods, time and their own blood to support emergency relief efforts. But the spirit of philanthropy has been shaken. The concept of "loving mankind" is a lofty principle, and like a towering skyscraper it is vulnerable to those who would bring it down. We are at risk of turning in on and encapsulating ourselves just as we think we are building international coalitions and a new level of global consensus. The circle of mankind that we care for is in jeopardy of shrinking, constricting, and then strangling us.
Charitable giving at home will help to relieve the pain and suffering of the moment. But only philanthropy without borders will help us to come to terms with the long-term causes of terrorism. The spirit of philanthropy insists that we ask: what it is in the human experience of some that drives them to such hateful desperation? Now is the time to fund more study and exchange programs and virtual electronic exchange projects creating scholarly and people to people bridges across cultural divides. In particular, we need to reach out to Islamic societies.
Today, while listening to news about September 11, I reviewed a colleague's proposal for a sanitation project in Tadjikistan. This Islamic country borders Afghanistan and recently experienced years of civil war. The war destroyed already scarce water supplies such that normal sanitation practices were undermined . Consequently, Tadjikistan is in need of funds for educating a generation of children about washing their hands with soap and water. Ikram, the director of such a sanitation project is a colleague of some five years. He wrote some weeks ago with a proposal to expand his work. Last week, in the aftermath of September 11, Ikram was the first to write to me, expressing sadness and shock.
When last I walked with Ikram two years ago on the streets of Manhattan in the remaining hours of his visit to the US, he reluctantly made a request for material aid. He wanted to know if I could get him six flags with our ECOLOGIA name and LOGO on them. With these flags, he could drive his UNICEF jeep through the deserts of southern Tadjikistan and avoid being taken hostage by the many warring factions in the region. ECOLOGIA was known locally as an organization that was non-partisan and concerned with helping people. We provided the flags. Ikram and his colleagues continued to teach tens of thousands of school children about sanitation and thereby saved hundreds of lives. In addition, healthier Tadjik students who feel that someone "out there"cares about them have an increased ability and motivation to learn.
Ikram represents the spirit of philanthropy. He gives us faith and reason to affirm our ability to transform ourselves and perhaps even our enemies. A generation of aid workers like Ikram knows that foreign donors' generosity can help to cure blinding and embittering poverty and inequality. Now is the time to tell their story and reinvigorate their work.
The vicious cycle of terror and retaliation can be broken by the spirit of philanthropy.
Randy Kritkausky is the Executive Director of the international environmental organization ECOLOGIA, and founder of the online philanthropy initiative The Virtual Foundation, headquartered in Middlebury, Vermont, USA.