Charity Begins At Home
March 03, 2013
What can Britain's old monarcy and India's new royalty do for South Asia's poor?
It's not everyday you get the opportunity to rub shoulders with British royalty or mingle with Indian billionaires. So when you get the chance to do both, instead of rushing out to buy an expensive new outfit, you can be left in a strange quandary... to go or not to go?
Earlier this month I received an invitation to attend a dinner at Windsor Castle to celebrate the fifth anniversary of The British Asian Trust, a charity founded in 2007 by British Asian business leaders at the suggestion of His Royal Highness The Prince of Wales. Not only would the heir to the throne be in attendance, but so would a VIP guest, namely Indian business magnate, Mukesh Ambani.
If I went would I be condoning several hundred years of oppressive colonial rule? Would my republican friends disown me and accuse me of taking one step closer to becoming part of the establishment? On the other hand, would my Indian friends think I was crazy for hanging onto the past and forgoing the fortune to sip champagne with one of India's richest and most influential men?
Giving in to peer pressure, and a sense of curiosity, I dusted off my glad-rags and headed down the M4 towards the Royal County of Berkshire. Pulling up to the gates and parking inside the castle grounds, I followed a long line of guests and fellow media representatives into the royal residence. Passing actor/comedian Sanjeev Bhaskar on a grand staircase and bumping into filmmaker Gurinder Chadha in the line for the cloakroom, I knew I was in for an interesting evening.
As two of a number of ambassadors for The British Asian Trust, Bhaskar and Chadha were amongst a large guest list of famous personalities and well-connected, high net worth individuals. Besides stars from the world of entertainment, others includes key British and South Asian businessman, sportsmen and rather surprisingly German tennis champion, Boris Becker.
Expecting to be one of hundreds pushed to the back of pre-dinner reception in St. George’s Hall, it came as some shock to be ushered by the Prince's Secretary into the magnificent, octagonal, oak-lined Lantern Lobby. There under strict instructions, I and a handful of other journalists waited as safe distance to witness the main event - Prince Charles welcoming Indian business tycoon Mukesh Ambani as Chair of the newly launched India Advisory Council.
As Britain's old monarchy met and shook hands with India's new royalty, a few pleasantries and photo opportunities later, the pair walked out into the reception where HRH took the time to greet each and every guest before making the key note speech ahead of dinner in the flower-filled Waterloo Chamber.
Invited to take the role of Chair by The Prince of Wales, Mr. Ambani joins the likes of Arif Naqvi, founder and CEO of Abraaj Capital and Chair of the Trust's Pakistan Advisory Council and Tom Singh OBE, founder of New Look Fashion and Chair of the Trust's UK Advisory Council. As the newest member of the council, Ambani will provide in-country leadership in all of the countries the Trust works in and further assist with their rigorous selection of future projects.
Since the launch of The British Asian Trust five years ago, the charity has raised £5million and touched 1 million lives across Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and the UK. The Trust has strived to support the 'many faces of poverty' - causes as wide-ranging as providing education for girls, empowering women to start business and equipping young people with critical skills so that they can find employment.
On his appointment as Chair of the India Advisory Council, Mukesh Ambani said, "I am greatly honoured by this appointment and to be actively involved in realising the vision of The Prince of Wales. It is a privilege to be working with an organisation that understands the importance of genuine impact and sustainability. I am confident that the work we will undertake together will make a lasting and a big difference."
As I inched closer to Ambani and his glamourous wife, Nita, I grabbed my fleeting chance to engage in conversation. "I have met Prince Charles in London before but it's the first time I have been to Windsor Castle," admitted Mr Ambani openly. "His Highness invited me and I thought it was a privilege. He's very excited about the work the British Asian trust is doing in India. We think we can all work together and form a coalition. Right now I will chair the advisory committee and we will look at specific programmes. Let's see how it goes."
As the head of Dhirubhai Ambani Foundation and also part of Reliance Industries and UNAIDS partnership, aimed towards halting and reversing the HIV epidemic in India, Mrs. Ambani is a high profile figure in her own right. Speaking on the topic of charity she said, "There are a lot of synergies between the focuses of our foundation and the British Asian Trust, such as education. I think they are doing remarkable work." Expanding on her work with her family's foundation, she explained, "We go to NGOs and do a lot of work in rural areas working with marginalised farmers. In the last many years I've also been working on female infanticide, going to villages saying welcome the girl child into your home. She's precious, let's educate and skill her. Education is the key. You educate the mothers and they would want to educate the daughters. It's a one time investment and then you try and see if they can sustain that child."
As the Managing Director and Chairman of Reliance Industries, the largest private sector firm in India, Ambani's wealth (estimated $21 billion), expertise and influence will undoubtedly help The British Asian Trust create more awareness besides raising funds for more good causes. But should British Asians, rich or not, give money to South Asia's poor before looking at charitable causes closer to home?
Surely the likes of the Ambanis, Tatas and Birlas of India (and their Pakistani, Bangladeshi and Sri Lankan counterparts), can take care of their country's needy communities whilst we British Asians help our own in Britain.
While an NRI's wish to donate money to charities helping their country-folks back home is in no way a bad thing, it is often at the expense of issues closer to home. This is a concern shared by actor Nitin Ganatra, a cast member of the iconic British soap, Eastenders. Speaking to BBC at the British Asian Trust event he said, "They (India) have more millionaires than anywhere else in the world and yet I watch British Asians working very hard to fund schools and charities. I think British Asians should have a look at their own troubles in this country. We have a lot of disaffected youth and they need help and guidance. I think you have a look at your own back yard first."
It's a thought worth pondering over. Wouldn't funds raised by British Asians be better utilised at home for causes related to improving education, mental health, child and substance abuse? These issues affect a growing numbers of South Asian men, women and children in Britain as much as they do abroad. Charities tackling domestic abuse or honour killings, both of which are matters of growing concern amongst South Asian communities in the UK, are often overlooked and depend on government funds.
On a related note, with some Indians welcoming the UK government's decision to end aid for India in 2015 on grounds of national pride, Ganatra's point seems salient. Similarly, with Prime Minister David Cameron's recent trip to India to attract new business investment from its former 'Jewel In The Crown', it's plain to see the tables are turning, slowly but gradually.
Maybe, for now, it's time charity began and stayed at home.