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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 19 June 2018

Society must step up to help those mired by debt

Those who find themselves in financial straits should be shown leniency

Since 2008, Dubai-based Indian philanthropist Firoz Merchant has helped over 15,000 prisoners reunite with their families.  Satish Kumar / The National
Since 2008, Dubai-based Indian philanthropist Firoz Merchant has helped over 15,000 prisoners reunite with their families.  Satish Kumar / The National

The name of Firoz Merchant's charity says it all: Forgotten Society. The philanthropist's magnanimity in paying off the debts of 560 prisoners and flying them home not only upholds the spirit of this holy month but also serves as a reminder that not all those who find themselves in financial difficulties should be treated in the same way as hardened criminals. Those freed by Mr Merchant's benevolence were languishing in jails even after having spent their conviction because of outstanding debts. Mr Merchant's Dh650,000 endowment to clear their financial liabilities comes in the wake of his charity helping more than 15,000 prisoners since 2008.

Many people who are in prison for debt-related offences have landed in jail for not being able to pay small fines or for failing to repay loans because of circumstances beyond their control, such as an unexpected job loss. Earlier this month, the Arab Hope Makers initiative recognised the work of Egyptian journalist Nawal Mustafa, who helped female inmates rebuild their lives after being released from prison, where many were incarcerated for accumulating debts they could not pay off.

There are undoubtedly those for whom the temptation of easy credit proves too much or who borrow to provide for their families but are then overwhelmed by spiralling debt. It is up to society to help prevent such scenarios – as well as institutions such as banks and authorities – before they escalate to such a point. Dubai Courts recently introduced fines for bouncing cheques instead of jail terms. That is one step in the right direction. The National's Debt Panel has sought to give expert guidance to help people from falling into seemingly intractable financial crises. A progressive approach is to be welcomed. Society, too, must step up to help those who have fallen on bad times.