Its dark... still very dark. I’m on my way from the airport to the heart of Colombo city. I’m here in war-worn Sri Lanka as UNICEF’s special envoy to promote the corporate sector’s awareness of social responsibility and education.
The first thing I notice in Colombo is the children who are on their way to school with knapsacks, even before dawn breaks. Their body language indicates that they are happy.
“Do you know that while education opportunities are a serious problem in South Asia, in Sri Lanka school enrolments are around 98 percent for both boys and girls,” says the petite, pretty Japanese Communication officer from UNICEF, Junko Mitani.
Later that evening, as I sit down with the whose-who of Sri Lanka at a function honouring those corporates who have contributed to the field of education, I’m moved by their enthusiasm to invest in quality education. What is heartening is to see them engaged with the formidable task of re-structuring the education system to meet with the demands of the modern world; something we could do with here in India.
I am also struck by their desire to give back to society from which they have received so much. I’m reminded of what the Turkish mystic Rumi said, “My lamp was lit by another.”
Those who realise that what they flaunt as their own prized treasures, are in fact what they have been fortunate enough to receive from the world, are perhaps motivated to carry on the tradition of “giving”, and that was what was happening here in Sri Lanka.
Humans have a need to give, to show compassion, to comfort, to bestow healing and to help. Some scholars say this seemingly unselfish urge stems from a collective instinct of self preservation. A young CEO of a corporate house rightly said that the need to give connects us to the society we live in. Companies who give realize that they are getting as much out of giving as the receiver is. Do you know that McDonald’s has awarded over hundred and $50 million in grants to thousands of organisations serving children?
This is because the company wants to be thought of as an organisation that not only makes money, but also has its heart in the right place. And insiders say that this message is aimed not only at the customers but at the employees as well, so that every McDonald’s employee can take pride in knowing that his work goes way beyond making money for the share holders.
Marketers for a long time now have exploited the yearning in the human heart to give and to care. The care market alone is a multi-billion dollar industry. Experts say that the sales volume in the US pet market lies close to $12 billion! Do you know that they also have pet insurance?
My wife has not recovered from her obsession with the long haired Barbie doll that she cared for as a young girl, and that was re-ignited when she rushed out and bought the same doll for her daughters. The need in young children to care is also very apparent when little girls play with baby dolls and toy feeding bottles. The market in these goods is massive and becoming more “life-like” every year.
The global toy market is valued in the US alone at $30 billion. This market is built on the bedrock of the everlasting impulse in parents and grand parents to provide joy and experience it themselves through the delight of their children. These are the pivotal symbols of our care and our love for our offspring.
Showing care is an important part of life and of being a human being. All successful humanitarian organisations like the Red Cross are built around a simple principle and a firm belief that human beings are willing to provide care for those in distress.
The care market is also driven by the human need to receive. These are of course two aspects of the same thing. But it is important to distinguish among the compelling forces that create such a market. A leading film distributor who has invested crores of rupees recently in the digital theatre sector told me the other day - two businesses will boom in India in this century. entertainment and the health business.
The world health market is valued in excess of trillions of dollars. As affluence rises, and prosperity increases, people begin to spend less and less on basic requirements and more and more on purchasing entertainment and acquiring longevity for themselves.
We at times take it for granted that everyone simply wants a bigger piece of the pie. Sitting down amongst the movers and shakers of Sri Lanka I found myself thinking that the maxim that “he who dies with the most toys wins”, was not squaring up with the behaviour of those guys.
These people had perhaps realized that societies which only pursue self - gratification at the cost of the lower strata of society, is a society on the road to isolation, obesity and disease, and doomed to a feudalistic schism, where the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.
They have also realised that the home is not a castle or better, a fortress in which each filthy rich family barricades itself in, away from the squalor and poverty, venturing out only to buy more consumer goods to gratify and numb. They were stepping out and investing, perhaps realizsing that we all make it together, or none of us really does.
Maybe the 70,000 millionaires in India, along with the entrepreneurs and the middle classes, who are the engine drivers of our economy, and are euphoric about India’s so called prosperity, need to learn a thing or two from our Sri Lankan neighbours.
(This article appeared in the Indian Express written by the author, giving his impressions on Sri Lanka during a recent visit. He was in Colombo as UNICEF Special Envoy for the Community Leader Awards organised by CIMA-The Sunday Times Business Club. Awards were presented to companies that have excelled in supporting education in schools.)