Small kindnesses, big impact

I watched the movie Sultan and the Saint over the weekend at the Bayan Claremont Graduate School of Theology in Claremont. While the movie was quite well made and it has a strong message of interfaith dialogue and courage, the point that stuck to me was not the central message; but rather a peripheral one : Small acts of kindnesses can have huge impacts.

In the movie, the Sultan, Sultan Al Kamil is shown to be kind to his aggressors,  the crusaders who have attacked Egypt. At a time when the aggressors are locked from all sides by water from the Nile, the Sultan sends food and other provisions so the crusaders dont die. This single act, argue some of the scholars interviewed in the movie changed the course of the war. In addition to getting the crusaders to giving up their war, which was getting too costly and fruitless, one can argue that this act could have had a transformative effect on them as well.

Kindness from a friend is to be expected, but from a sworn enemy can be transformative. This is the one lesson I took away from this movie.

America’s philanthropy problem?

170616141515-amazon-whole-foods-jeff-bezos-grocery-brick-and-mortar-00001001-1024x576A debate that is becoming salient, over the past few years is if philanthropic foundations are becoming powerful by the day? A recent article in The Huffington Post points this out. The writer points out, correctly, that Jeff Bezos solicited ideas for his philanthropy, just a few days before the purchase of Whole Foods. PR stunt? Astute move to buy some social capital? Or perhaps a combination of both?

For some, this is a problem – arguing, as does the Huff Post writer, Matt Stoller. But for others, this is nothing but a transactional idea. A means of buying some legitimacy in a world where raising questions such as this is moot. The battle of ideas over the legitimate use of power is over, in this other world-view. The capitalists have won and rightfully decide what needs to happen in our world. Whether it is by monopoly or other means is irrelevant.

A friend recently pointed out Hypernomalization, a documentary that also makes this point. The thesis in this documentary, that giving away of democratic power to those with wealth is dangerous and has brought us to the current state of affairs – with a climate change denying President and a world where the state is increasingly being made irrelevant and the real power resides in the handful of oligarchs around us.

This is not just a political problem but also a social problem. And in that sense, a philanthropic problem as well. For those of us who study (and practice) philanthropy, this should be disconcerting – simply because of the ramifications of how the act of philanthropy is perceived.  Whether it is a genuine act – aimed at bringing about social change or a PR stunt depends as much on one’s motivations and style of managing it. The current tilt towards hi-networth philanthropy makes it less egalitarian and ‘normal,’ it seems.

The trinity of nonprofit sector: Time to revisit some assumptions?

The trinity of transparency, accountability and efficiency are also at play in the world of public health. In the book Governing Global Health by Chelsea Clinton and Devi Sridhar, that I am reading now, this theme comes up time and again. They both argue that among the various organizations that they have studied in the book, including World Health Organization, Gates Foundation; WHO comes up short on transparency measures.

They point out that WHO does not have a transparency policy and also does not report to the International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI). They do point out to the presence of some measures such as livestreaming of Executive Board meetings as example of some transparency. While no one today would question the need for transparency, the question is how can people use it?  But does having more transparency really make all the difference? The assumption behind calling for more transparency is that it will enhance participation, questioning from all stakeholders and make the process more equitable. But what of the converse situation, where there may be more procedural transparency, but no substantive transparency; in that there is no actual recourse to using this information to correcting the perceived wrongs? This is an aspect that hasn’t been discussed in much depth.

Their recommendation is for the older institutions such as the WHO and World Bank to increase their stakeholder engagement and transparency to ‘regain their legitimacy and public trust.’ (p.160).

Big data, small data…

I work with small data primarily. This means that my research is largely interpretive, qualitative. However, I recently conducted a national survey of faith-based schools (for a book that is due to be released in Fall 2017) and used that in conjunction with semi-structured interviews. While the tension between qualitative and quantitative researchers remains – with each looking at the other with skepticism – I think we need to find a common language and mutual respect for each other’s methods.

As much as I believe in the value of big data to help us understand the big trends and nationally representative samples, there are reasons to be skeptical as well. Here is a short video on the dangers of ‘big data’.

Ms.Roy is talking about the national ID or Aadhar card that the government in India is trying to implement. The claim being made by the government is being questioned here. What she is pointing to is a pervasive problem. Especially with communities that don’t have access to data sciences or are unable to access them – due to high entry barrier, or costs.

What do you think?

Does transparency in philanthropy matter?

David Fahrenthold won the Pulitzer for reporting this year, for reporting on Donald J Trump Foundation, the current President’s charity. His entry into this subject is interesting, as he points out in this video.

Transparency, accountability and efficiency are the new trinity of philanthropy it seems. With greater calls for accountability and transparency, the American public is asking for more. But is this call being met by donors or those who run foundations? I am not quite sure.

One of the biggest criticisms of foundations is their lack of transparency and lack of accountability to anyone. Foundations are started by wealthy individuals, who want to create a certain change in the world. Often, it is for good. However, there are instances, as we have seen in the current political climate, where individuals have gone against commonsense and scientific consensus to fund climate change deniers, anti-public school initiatives etc. How does this bode well for democracy?

The answer is all too clear. Not too well.

But the Pulitzer committee seems to have recognized the importance of this issue in choosing Fahrenthold as the winner.

Does philanthropy need to be re-framed?

When we use terms like philanthropy, usually it means giving away of the money by the wealthy to those who are well off. In recent times, this notion has come to be challenged. While the billionaires give money to causes both locally and internationally, it is often with a lot of fanfare and publicity.

On the other hand, there are also quite a lot of Hi-Networth individuals who give anonymously. This is a fact not well known. If you look up lists like the Million Dollar List, for instance, you will find many multi-million dollar gifts that are given away anonymously.

While the scholarship on philanthropy has predominantly focused on the giving practices of the rich, I ask : Is it time we started looking – with more seriousness – the giving practices of the not so rich. The middle class, the poor even. The Giving USA is one of the most comprehensive survey of its kind, that tracks nationally, the giving behavior of Americans, it does a great job of capturing what is going on in the country. At the same time, there needs to be greater attention to the philanthropy of the underdogs. Horizontal giving among the poor, to the poor is also a significant phenomenon.

Giving of charity from African Americans to other African Americans for instance, is an under-studied phenomenon. While there are some excellent biographical accounts of such individuals, a more careful analysis must be carried out. The same must be done across other minority and ethnic groups, where there is great community solidarity and attempts at helping each other. This fact has been documented by scholars such as Robert Wuthnow, among others.

Kambiz Ghaneabassiri writes in his book A History of Islam in America that Black slaves in GA practiced a form of giving of charity – giving of rice cakes – to their neighbors, as a form of ‘charity,’ which he traces to possible roots in Islamic practices of ‘Sadaka.’ This is an interesting finding and one that builds on our understanding of how inter-community relations are formed, through giving practices.

Similar practices exist among other communities as well, and these deserve greater attention. Especially, given that the election of Trump came about through the perceived and (to some extent) real disenfranchisement – primarily economic, though- of the working class Whites in the US, perhaps there needs to be greater focus on how poor communities, across all racial and ethnic communities practice giving and helping each other. Insights in these areas may actually help address some real problems that our country faces. This may well be one of the smaller solutions to building communal harmony and better understanding between the different people that make up this country.

Can celebrity philanthropy be harmful?

Remember the ads in which Angelina Jolie comes out and shames the world for ignoring the plight of refugees?  Or the Bono concert for helping AIDS victims? While each of them have done incredible good in the world, there is an argument out there; and it is a fairly strong one that goes like this : Since these celebrities are part of a governing regime of capitalism that causes this poverty in the first place; they are not doing anything substantive to address/ ameliorate poverty. They are just putting a bandage over a wound that is bleeding a patient to death.

Here is a scholarly paper by one of my PhD committee members, who helped me think about this aspect when I was a Phd candidate. I was aware of some of the negative influences of celebrity culture. This whole notion of attention seeking has never appealed to me. While attention seeking for a purpose is OK, most celebrities seek attention for  the sake of attention, that has never appealed to me.

Patricia Nickel says in her paper  “modern-day parables of philanthropic celebrities powerfully govern the oppositional impulse as they impart as sense of ‘benevolence’ in the form of an individualized disposition towards well-being and entitlement.” She further argues that this ‘governing regime’ which the celebrities sanitize with their appeals to charity is itself rotten.

In another paper, she, along with another scholar Angela Eikenberry argue that “However, this discourse (of celebrity philanthropy) falsely conveys a community of individuals with access to a venue for shaping social change. Rather than providing an open, discursive space for imagination, philanthropy as it has come to be defined, disguises its own discourse in its portrayal of the mediums of consumption, profit, and media celebration as the basis for benevolent human relations.” So, the issue that is problematic is one of relying on the market to manage relationships of benevolence. The buying of a laptop to eradicate AIDS (Red’s campaign) is problematic, according to Nickel and Eikenberry. This is also problematic given the ‘end of discourse’ that they suggest is going on.

This is also to suggest that while celebrities bring up certain problems, they don’t really talk about the structural problems that caused the crisis we are in, in the first place. This is the real issue with celebrity philanthropy.

While I agree with her assessment that there is an over-reliance of market mechanism for philanthropic activities, we seem to be enveloped in the market, the world over. There seems to be little space, if any for transactions or discourses to occur outside of the market mechanism. How does one impact lives outside of the market mechanism?

There are mechanisms and tools available to reach people and meet their needs. One is to explore traditional systems of charity, for instance religious giving to one’s place of worship or charitable organizations that are faith-affiliated. My dissertation work looked at some of these possibilities.

Indeed there needs to be greater space for personal benevolence and charity to occur, but the manner and speed with which celebrity philanthropy is occurring is not without its flaws.