What’s in a (Donation) Box?

I have just gotten back from a trip to Iran which once again reminded me of the country’s diverse population, regions and cities. However, if there is one thing – apart from the faces of Imam Khomeini and Supreme Leader Khamenei – that subtly marks urban everyday life across the country it is a blue and yellow donation box in various designs. During my visit to the central and eastern parts of the country I counted hundreds of these boxes in each city. If we extrapolate this figure onto the whole country we might be able to speak of thousands if not tens of thousands of these boxes throughout Iran. Yet what are these boxes for, why are they so widespread and what do they signify to people in Iran and elsewhere?

The official owner of the donation boxes is the Imam Khomeini Relief Foundation (Komite-ye Emdad-e Emam Khomeyni), Iran’s most important welfare organization. The Imam Khomeini Relief Foundation (IKRF) also acts as Iran’s primary channel for international aid. While the IKRF is not a state institution it is, however, closely affiliated with the country’s political and religious elite. The IKRF also receives khums – a specifically Shia tax – and zakat which is commonly known throughout the Muslim world. In contrast, the boxes on Iran’s streets are meant for a third category of giving: sadaqa which signifies a voluntary donation rather than a tax obligation.

The people I interacted with at and about the donation boxes had rather contrasting attitudes toward them. Some people defined alms-giving and the use of the boxes as their ethical and religious obligation. Many saw the boxes as an opportunity to get rid of undesirable small change and to “do good” at the same time. Others thought that the abundance of boxes throughout Iran was suspicious and they believed that some of them were fake. Further others did not trust that the money would go into the right hands. They also told me that their small change might perhaps support other purposes than helping children and the elderly (as the logo on the boxes suggests). Whatever “the truth” behind the simple act of dropping a toman (0.03 USD) into a metal box many people just did it, or not, without getting access to further information on what happens to their change after the gift has been given.

Apart from providing a striking insight into links between street design, giving and welfare within Iran, the donation boxes also point to the country’s transnational aid connections. When I worked in the development sector in Tajikistan around ten years ago, and subsequently during my years of research there, I encountered many people who had once received help from the Imam Khomeini Relief Foundation. The IKRF began its operations in Tajikistan during the country’s civil war in the 1990s and only stopped its projects in summer 2016. Apparently, the foundation’s withdrawal was closely linked to Iran’s and Tajikistan’s increasingly tense relations after the exiled Tajik opposition leader Muhiddin Kabiri was permitted to visit Iran. To be sure, people in the streets of Tehran, Qom, Mashhad or Kashan are not aware of such afterlives of their donations. At the same time, Iran’s colorful donation boxes provide us with the opportunity to think about invisible connections across countries, regions and continents that emerge from people and things involved in charitable giving.