My mother and the politics of giving directly

Ever since I learnt that money has value and it can buy things that can satisfy human needs, I have seen my mother (who lives in India) and uncle (who lives in the U.S) give money to my other poorer relatives. While in some cases these relatives have abused their trust, in many others, there has been a genuine need (emergency or situation that demanded a lot of money) during which they could not get access to credit, due to their financial standing. The loans (and other times, financial gifts) that my mother and uncle have given out have been life-savers for them. This ‘conditional cash transfer’ of sorts has worked, albeit with some flaws. This brings me to the discourse surrounding ‘conditional cash transfers’ (CCT) and also the ‘unconditional cash transfer’ (UCT) system pioneered by ‘Give Directly’ an American NGO and will show that what they are offering is not drastically new, though their approach seems new. This method simplifies the complex problem of addressing poverty and dumbs it down. I will treat both CCT and UCT together.

 Source: Google awards website

Source: Google awards website

Is this really new?

CCT and UCTs’ are not “new” by any means. They have been around since at least 2008, in their ‘modern’ form.  As this blog points out, “First launched in Mexico, Brazil, and Bangladesh over a decade ago, CCT programs had spread to about 23 developing countries by 2008. In Latin America alone, some 93 million people are said to be enrolled in CCT programs.”  The writer further elaborates that the program Bolsa Familia in Brazil has over 12 million families participating in it, with support from multilateral institutions. It has been credited for lifting 20 million Brazilians from absolute poverty and pushing 31 million into middle class. According to one report in the Guardian, “One of the biggest successes has been the enormous advances made to the school enrollment program. This is largely thanks to Bolsa Familia (“Family Fund”), which pays poor families if their children attend school. This fund has pushed children off the street and into the school room, while also providing the poorest with a well-needed form of income support.”

In India, there has been a Public Distribution System (for food) for decades now, and a recent move to introduce the Direct Benefits Transfer (DBT) for cash transfer for those below the poverty level. This is meant to transfer funds to the poor directly. As Amartya Sen pointed out recently, in an interview, “ However, the Direct Benefits Transfer (DBT) programme is a particular scheme of cash transfer, and we have to ask what it may be displacing and whether the losers will not be plunged into more poverty. It is not the modality of cash transfer that is the only issue, but also how much, and for whom, and also, instead of what. If, for example, it is instead of subsidized food, we have to make sure that the people who depend on cheaper food will have enough cash to buy the unsubsidised food.” He goes on to further point out that this system may be harmful to girls and women in particular.


Why this system works?

The preliminary results from Give Directly’s work are encouraging. The question is, why? The answer seems deceptively simple: if you trust people with their welfare, most of them will do what is good for them. Humans are exceedingly good at self-preservation and in most desperate situations, people do what is good for their material wellbeing.

There are a few reasons why this seems to work. I outline a few here:

  1. Efficiency – The money is given directly to the beneficiary. This removes all administrative and other related costs and this is extremely efficient, if one considers that other traditional NGOs’ have overhead costs ranging from 15% to over 50% of the entire program costs
  2. Knowing who needs help and targeting them directly– This is also significant, as the costs of doing business i.e., identifying recipients, ensuring they are the right candidates and screening them etc. takes overhead costs. Middle-men also take away precious dollars as in other systems of aid delivery.
  3. Use of technology – Giving directly uses mobile transfer of money and is very efficient. All it requires for implementation is a good mobile system and willing participants. The rest is upto the implementing organization to set up a method of evaluation.


Gaps in the system:

  1. CCTs are about poverty containment rather than poverty reductionAs several studies including a few at DFID have pointed out, CCTs are about poverty containment and not poverty alleviation or reduction. They help in desperate situations of poverty, but are not so good in conditions where the clear stated objective is poverty reduction. The latter process requires structural changes in the system that are macro-economic in scale and require large systems to be integrated – including financial, physical infrastructure, availability of transport, credit etc.
  1. Gender perspectiveIn a recent interview with The Hindu, Amartya Sen pointed out that Cash transfers may actually hurt women and girls.But when the subsidy is given as cash directly it may benefit adults and boys more due to biased social priorities in Indian society. Dr. Sen said the transition delays in cash transfer could cause extreme hardship to people, many of whom lead a hand-to-mouth existence,” he added.


Will it pay off?

Anecdotally, I would say that many of the individuals that my mother and uncle have supported have thrived. Two people I know have started small businesses and are (relatively) better off than they were. Many others still depend on support, in times of crisis. Given the lack of a ‘welfare-state’ relatives who are somewhat better-off become the support mechanism in India and other developing countries.

On a similar note, one of the reasons the ‘Give Directly’ model works is that there is an implicit trust in the recipient, that he/she will use the money wisely and with care. There is also a normative belief that giving money helps people and is in itself good (remember that this is NOT a loan). So, this does call for a leap of faith, rather than just a philanthropic instinct to give in order to see “results.” I believe that given our obsession with results, data, metrics and the need to see “results” this system is bound to fail. In the short-run, there may be successes, but the inherent contradiction that this system carries with itself will bring it down. This tension between giving to “help” versus the need of scientific philanthropists and “development experts” to see results will be too much for this method to bear.

A related concern that has not been stated is the value system behind this giving. Why would a multi-lateral bank or a philanthropist such as Bill Gates or Soros just hand out money to poor people? Given their proclivity for managing and running their philanthropies like businesses, I believe the large foundations are highly unlikely to adopt this mode of giving. It calls for a radically new (or rather old) way of thinking – i.e., giving because it is a “good” thing or because you believe in the goodness of mankind and want them to improve their lot, on their own terms.

Finally, one must remember that this model is not entirely “new” by any means. CCTs’ have been in existence since 2008 and are operational in many countries of the global south, particularly in South Asia, South East Asia and Latin America. So, the claims of ‘pioneering’ and ‘radically new’ are anything but that. As a reminder, one must ask whether the claims of ‘eradicating poverty’ that many of these organizations are making are exaggerations. While well-meaning philanthropists have been doling out billions for several decades now, this seems to have made a small dent in global poverty. The scale of poverty, disease and hunger in the world is so large that even philanthropists like Bill Gates have acknowledged that they cannot address them alone, and it calls for action from the government, private sector and wealthy individuals. So, how does one small NGO hope to revolutionize the field of development and eliminate poverty? The scale of the problem defies such simple explanations and the structural problems in these countries are far too many to be solved by just lending a few hundred or thousand dollars to one person.

So, does giving directly work?  Yes, it does – but only with many pre-conditions and in a limited context. While I am not referring to the NGO here, but rather the concept, as such.  Finally, I would say that what works for an individual may not work for an entire country. Keeping this in perspective will help future planners, nonprofit practitioners and policy makers from making obvious mistakes.

“We create Food for The Soul through Theatre”

“I have been doing theatre for a number of years in conflict zones, and have been asked more than once why they should support our work, when people don’t have enough to eat. Shouldn’t basic needs be prioritized over art? My reply is that we create food for the soul. Our work creates hope and opens the door for dialogue and in that sense is equally important,” pointed out Joanna Sherman, Artistic Director of New York based Bond Street Theatre. She was speaking along with Michael McGuigan, Managing Director of Bond Street Theatre at The Lyric Theatre, as part of the public dialogue organized by community Voices on October 24th.

Photo courtesy: Jackie Pontius


Opening her talk with a “pick your nose hand trick” that got the audience involved in demonstrating how flexible they were with their hands, they jumped right into showing the power of nonverbal communication in reaching out to people. Throughout their presentation that lasted for about an hour, both Joanna and Michael presented various examples of acrobatics, other body language tools that they use to break through the barrier with kids, who for many reasons may not be able to communicate with others. Language is a major barrier, since many of the kids do not speak English or even if they do, many of the kids in conflict zones are so traumatized that they do not trust others enough to open up, to speak, they pointed out. “In these contexts, we believe that theatre, in the form of opening up dialogue through non-verbal communication is key” they said, in tandem. The work they have put together with local theatre groups includes shows such as the Silent Romeo and Juliet that the group put up in collaboration with another theatre group in Bulgaria.

The duo enthralled the audience with their stories of working in remote parts of Burma, India, Afghanistan and over 40 other countries. While Bond Street Theatre has worked on its own in areas of conflict and provided a venue for spreading social messages such as the need for better hygiene, education for girls, among others, they believe that the work they do is also important in teaching local groups how to do theatre themselves. “We want to teach the local theatre groups to perform, to put up shows and also work with the local stakeholders. We see this capacity building component as being significant to our work too. We also teach them business skills, since that is so crucial to remaining afloat as an organization,” said Michael.

This goes in line with the local needs of the people in many remote parts of the world. With no access to TV, electricity, Radio or other forms of communication, many of these people have no other means of getting public messaging. Local community theatre becomes part of their entertainment, as well as news gathering mechanism. In this context, the power of theatre is multiplied manifold, the duo pointed out. In a brief chat before the official talk, Michael shared with me how they were overwhelmed with the positive response from villagers in Afghanistan, during their first trip there. Expecting to see about 50-100 people, they showed up at a local school. On being informed that this was the last day of school, the Bond group did not expect to see even that many people. “We were overwhelmed to see over 1000 people in the school backyard, when we went around. People were waiting anxiously to see us perform. It is one of the most overwhelmingly positive experiences I have had,” he said.

It is not all good news, all the time. There are definite challenges to their work, as well. Being American and working in a country where the Taliban still has some influence can be dangerous. While both Joanna and Michael pointed out that they have never felt threatened by the local people, in any way, there are times when one has to be cautious, they said. The recent controversy about the film on Prophet Muhammad created a lot of confusion, so we just lay low for a while, they said. Part of the solution to being safe and ensuring that their work is well received is to get the buy-in of the local Mullahs, or religious leaders. There is much wisdom in doing that and ensuring that they understand exactly what it is that we are doing, while respecting their local traditions and religious sensibilities, they both said.

Their mission is “restoring humanity through theatre”, in Joanna’s words. And from the stories they shared at The Lyric, they seem to be doing just that. As a parting thought, Joanna said “ If there is one thing I have learnt from all my travels and experiences, it is that people are people, everywhere. They all want to get up and have a good day.”


Is American Philanthropy exceptional?

Is American philanthropy exceptional? As the most generous country in the world (by some counts) is the U.S. unique in the way that it advocates and practices charity? While the U.S. remains one of the most creative, dynamic and trend-setting countries when it comes to charitable giving, is it truly that unique? On the surface, this seems to be true, but I will argue that this is not the case and perhaps while it seems to be the case the American philanthropy is exceptional, it is one of the ways in which philanthropy is conceptualized and perhaps its framing is exceptional, not its practice. Philanthropy in the U.S. is as much a ‘social relation’ and an act of fulfilling one’s obligation to one’s society as it in other cultures and societies, though neoliberalism and market-led forces may be individualizing and customizing philanthropy in ways that is somewhat conflicting with its intended purposes.



Let us see some arguments made for why American philanthropy is considered exceptional. I can think of four main ones. A brief examination of each and a short discussion follows: Firstly, Americans are the most generous people in the world –This is certainly true, if giving is measured in aggregate dollar terms and as a percent of giving voluntarily to causes of one’s choosing. Just looking at data from Giving USA 2013 points us to this fact. Americans gave more than $ 300 billion in 2012, to causes ranging from nonprofits, to churches, mosques, synagogues and homeless shelters. By all counts, this is staggering. Secondly, roughly $100 billion dollars were given to religious institutions in 2012. Of the total charitable donations, 1/3rd of the amount was given to churches, synagogues and other religious institutions, according to the Giving USA report. This is a drop from roughly ½ of the total charity to religious institutions, from a few decades. Despite this, the amount of religious giving is quite important and shows that Americans are still deeply religious people. Thirdly, consider tax exemption – The U.S. Internal Revenue Service (IRS) offers tax exemption for donations made to charity. While this is a controversial element of American tax policy, the incentivization has been in place to encourage people to donate to charities and participate in charitable endeavors. As Peter Frumkin points out in his book Strategic Giving, “Tax exemption is an acknowledgement of the independence and freedom of private action. Federal and state governments accept the desirability of having independent actors for the common good and shield them from taxation so they can operate without owing funds to the government.”(Pg.30). This is not without problems and comes up as a controversial topic in both scholarly and public discourses.

Finally, the focus on individual agency – While Americans are known for their group forming behavior, or colloquially known to be ‘joiners’, there is much debate on the decline in civil society and social capital, captured in works by Robert Putnam in Bowling alone, or Robert Bellah in Habits of the Heart – two books that are considered classics. Philanthropy is still seen as an individual endeavor or desire by individuals to shape the world around them. In this sense, it is a deeply individualistic act.


 Tensions in American philanthropy: What is not so exceptional about American philanthropy

While the philanthropic sector in the U.S. seems to be growing, despite the recent economic recession, it remains deeply contested. While critics on both the left and right of the political spectrum criticize it for various reasons, it does remain an inevitable part of American social life. Peter Frumkin, Associated Professor at University of Pennsylvania points out that the field of philanthropy is fractured and disorganized, in more ways than one. There is confusion at the level of actors, at the donor and receivers level, as well as at what stage should giving occur – before or after death. The mechanics of giving are under debate too, and there is no consensus on many aspects of giving (pg.27). He further adds that philanthropy as a field of activity exposes, rather than resolves deep-seated differences between individuals in terms of how they believe society should be organized and what public needs should take priority. The introduction of private resources into philanthropy the public domain that is a central feature of giving cannot help but create confusion and contention. (Pg.28).Philanthropy in this sense is problematic and has in the past created several public policy conflicts and continues to be debated, though not the extent of the heydays of the foundations, when they were questioned and interrogated, most famously by the Walsh commission, in 1919.

Consider for instance the notion among many Libertarians that the only responsibility that businesses have is to its share-holders and concepts such as Corporate Social Responsibility are not really relevant in a capitalist society such as the U.S. Coupled with other market-led notions of individual freedom and agency, philanthropic notions are being challenged, all the while undergoing a transformation of sorts. While newer technologies and ways of conceptualizing philanthropy – in the form of Philanthrocapitalism, giving circles are all making ‘giving’ more personal and commodifying it, I believe we are witnessing a new phase of philanthropy that is bringing individualism to the fore, at the expense of communitarianism, or group solidarity; one of the cardinal philosophical tenets of philanthropy.

At this level, I believe we are witnessing tensions that may radically alter how we view philanthropy and its role. These are tensions that exist across various countries and cultures, and not just in the U.S. The state, religion and individual’s conception of charity and philanthropy are at competition in each culture. One can also argue that the focus on efficiency and business-like running of nonprofits across the world is a fact that one needs to contend with, when analyzing the sector’s growth and proliferation. This, I argue is a direct result of neoliberal frameworks, that have spread around the world. Consumerism and branding are two other recent trends in philanthropy that seem to be influencing the growth of the field, in radically new ways. How will competition shape philanthropy, and in particular those benevolent forms of charities? Will UNICEF fight for dollars from Habitat for Humanity and how will this fight end?

These are deep philosophical questions as they are pragmatic ones. Considering how philanthropy is undergoing a shift in focus, from an ethics based norm (charity) to a more businesslike, efficiency driven ‘philanthropy,’ the world over; I believe that philanthropy in the U.S. is not exceptional and is witnessing the similar kinds of tensions that the sector is witnessing in other parts of the developed (and developing) world. The relationship of the individual and state is at stake here, so is the question of the role of wealthy donors and corporations, those who control the purse strings in an economy.


Frumkin Peter. Strategic Giving. University of Chicago Press. Chicago. 2006. Print.

“As researchers, you are all artists, not just reporters of facts” – Dr. John Cameron, ISS

Photo credit :Sabith Khan
Photo credit :Sabith Khan

IMG_2750 IMG_2757I presented my paper on Arab Diaspora giving at the 11th development dialogue, hosted by the International Institute of Social Studies (ISS), Erasmus University, Rotterdam on October 10, 11 in The Hague, Netherlands. The student conference brought together 120 young researchers from across the world and despite the numbers, two regions of the world were missing, rather conspicuously – North America and the Middle East. Given this, it was quite ironic that I represented North America, while presenting my paper on Arab diaspora giving. This confirmed what Joseph Stiglitz, the eminent economist shared a few months ago, at a speech at The World Bank that the U.S. is increasingly being isolated on the world scene, when it comes to issues of development.

The issues under discussion during the two day conference spanned the entire globe – from indigenous rights to community development and environmental issues. The thoughtful presentations from the young researchers raised more questions than they answered and most of the participants seemed to agree that this was the right approach – in keeping ideas open, and exploring them deeply rather than trying to get closure, too soon and reaching hasty decisions or conclusions that may not be entirely right.

During the keynote speech, Dr. John Cameron, Associate Professor at ISS pointed out that researchers are like artists, who produce an image of reality, and one that they imagine. “You are all artists, not just reporters. Your imagination is always at play during the process of knowledge creation and one must be aware of this.” He pointed out. He spoke of the responsibility of socially responsible scholarship and reflexivity. Bringing in his own background, he pointed out how his experience of witnessing the racism against Jamaican migrant workers in his native U.K in the early 1960s’ formed his mind about the need to fight these attitudes and ultimately led him on the path to scholarship in the area. Using the metaphor of bridges, he spoke of the three levels in research: epistemological, structural and human agency. He spoke passionately about the need to look at data critically and warned that if this has not produced surprises, then perhaps we haven’t carried out real research.


Student reflections

While I could not attend all of the presentations, given that there were many parallel sessions, I did participate in a few. Here are a few key points from some of the presentations made during the conference.

Indigenous rights in Indonesia : Cypri Jehan, from Indonesia spoke about the land-grabbing issue in Papua. He spoke poignantly about the government’s efforts to take over land and colonize large parts of the indigenous people’s land. This, he framed in the context of governmentality and hegemonic discourse of “development.” “Whose development are we looking at?” he asked, pointing to the hypocrisy in much of the debate surrounding development.


Fisheries management and community based fisheries in Cambodia: Soy Sok spoke about how efforts to form fishing cooperatives in Cambodia have failed in many cases. This, he explained, is because the notion of a ‘community’ is very limited in the country. “Every family is an island” he pointed out, as he outlined the strategies used by certain groups to encourage formation of a social unit larger than the family, in an effort to facilitate and encourage growth in fisheries. He pointed out that while there is the notion of offering a ‘helping hand’ during funerals or other calamities, most of the time, Cambodians tend to think of the family as their primary unit of society.

Communal councils in Venezuela: Juan Carlos Trivino from Spain spoke about the communal councils in Venezuela and their approach to democratization. His framework was participatory democracy. His work involves proposing indicators to evaluate and analyze invited spaces of participation in a state-led model of participation. He proposed four indicators that would measure: 1. Discourse 2. Mobility of community 3. Design of community and 4. Participation of the community.

                While the themes, topics and ideas presented during the two days were all very different, the unifying theme was one of applied research and the need to question the status quo. The notion that we are a communicative species and one that is also relational came up time and again. The need for social justice, equality of opportunity and reflexivity on the role of the researchers was also stressed.

Teaching kids about Philanthropy – Talk about it or show how it is done?


On a recent trip to Dearborn, MI, this summer, I witnessed what could be considered the only model of teaching philanthropy for young Arab Americans. I met the team from the Center for Arab American Philanthropy (CAAP), an organizational affiliate of  ACCESS in Dearborn, MI, the largest Arab-American philanthropic organization in the country. Titled Teen grant-making Initiative, this initiative aims to teach high school students how effective grant-making happens, by giving them access to grant-funds. “We give a group of high-school students $5000 and expert advice, along with ongoing mentoring, through the academic year, to ensure that they learn not only the skills in identifying, developing a relationship with potential grantees, but also skills in evaluation,” one of the office bearers of ACCESS pointed out. She further mentioned that this has become one of the most exciting and sought-after projects for youth, attracting praise, attention and funding from parents, foundations and the local beneficiaries.

Source: Lilly School,IUPUI Website.
Source: Lilly School,IUPUI Website.

In this brief article, I will look at the TGI and other recent research on giving, to shed light about teaching youngsters about giving, through doing – a hands-on approach that seems to be working rather well. This learning by doing methodology is proving effective and is drawing the attention of other schools and foundations that are interesting in implementing it. Against this is the notion of combining doing with talking about philanthropy is more effective.

A recent report titled Women Give 2013, produced by the Lilly School of Philanthropy points out that talking to kids is more effective than just showing kids how to do philanthropy. As the Website points out : “The IU Lilly Family School of Philanthropy study is among the first to analyze and compare what parents can do to encourage their children’s charitable behavior. It examines two approaches through which parents teach children about charitable giving: (1) talking to children about charitable giving and (2) role-modeling charitable giving. For this study, role-modeling is defined as parents giving to charity. The study also investigates whether girls and boys participate differently in giving and volunteering, expanding the Women’s Philanthropy Institute’s exploration of how gender affects charitable giving. It follows the same 903 children over two time periods, 2002-2003 and 2007-2008.”

My own research examines modernity and its impact on giving behavior among Arab Americans and American Muslims. I am deeply interested in learning how giving and philanthropic norms are understood and also passed on from one generation to another, in Western societies. What is the role of technology, how are family norms influencing giving and in what shape/form are religious and secular values in giving being re-imagined, are some of the questions that interest me.

The Arab American and American Muslim giving[i] landscape is quite rich. In particular, involvement by youth in giving is on the rise, with Muslim Student Associations, nonprofit volunteering and other forms of civic engagement providing the outlets and opportunities for youth to participate, give back to their communities (however broadly defined). This is evident when one takes a cursory look at organizations such as Muslims without Borders, Arab American Institute, Islamic Relief, and Zakatability.

Teaching moments all around us

Islamic Relief’s Vice President for Fundraising, Anwar Khan told me a few months ago that they try to teach young children about the value of giving by organizing informal “giving circles” in schools and also encourage them to organize fundraisers etc. “Even though they raise $2000 or so, this is an investment in their education, in terms of them becoming aware, responsible and caring individuals. The value of teaching them these core Islamic principles is in itself worth all the investment in time and talent,” he added.

Finally, one needs to remember that teaching by words and practice may be the most effective way to teach a value. As the Lilly School survey sums it up, nicely: “That finding holds true regardless of the child’s sex, age, race, and family income. Children whose parents talk to them about giving are 20 percent more likely to give to charity than children whose parents do not discuss giving with them. Many of the Arab-American children and youth I have interacted with seem to have an environment, where values of giving are spoken of, quite often.

Based on these new findings and also the ‘traditionally’ held wisdom, perhaps educators are better off both designing their curricula by talking about charity and philanthropy and being kind in real life – showing caritas and modelling it in their behavior- a difficult undertaking, indeed.


[i] One needs to distinguish between Arab Americans (not all of who are Muslims, in fact a majority of them are Christians) and American Muslims. Often, these are conflated, and I would like to point this out, upfront. The estimates for number of Arab Americans is in the range of about 6 million, roughly, the same as American Muslims.