How Can Geography Help us Understand Philanthropy?

I attended the annual meeting of the Association of American Geographers (AAG) in Tampa, FL last week. As the premier go-to meeting of its kind, this conference brings together some of the brightest minds in the world, every year. And this was evident in the two panels on philanthropy that were organized. Covering a wide range of issues from feminist geography, cultural geography and economic geography; the panel was a resounding success in bringing the various fields together to address some of the key debates in philanthropy and ways of theorizing them. I will share a few key ideas here, as presented by some of the scholars and offer my analysis of how the two disciplines can enrich each other.

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Photo credit :

Elyse Gordon of Washington University is researching current ways of theorizing philanthropy, and is using Gibson-Graham’s ‘politics of possibility’ to explore the dimensions of philanthropy that are often not framed as such in critiques of the sector, that tend to rely on Neoliberal understandings of the industry. She said: “While my dissertation work explores geographies of philanthropy in the American North West more broadly, today’s talk works through a specific theoretical engagement to help expand our theoretical engagement beyond a neoliberal starting point. Rather than the tendency to critique the nonprofit and philanthropic sector through neoliberalization, I use the notion of ‘politics of possibility’ to offer new ways of theorizing philanthropy.” Gordon used notions of space and relatedness drawn from the work of Marie Loiuse Pratt to push her research agenda forward. Pratt (1991) defines ‘contact zones’, as “social spaces where cultures meet, clash and grapple with each other, often in asymmetrical relations of power defined by colonialism, or their aftermaths. I use this concept to reconsider the model of community that we use to theorize and that are under challenge today.[i]” As Pratt says that ethnographers have used the concept of transculturation to describe the ways in which members of subjugated groups select and incorporate materials from a dominant culture transmitted to them. This term, she reminds us was coined by Cuban scholar Fernando Ortiz to go beyond the simplistic and reductionist tropes of assimilation and acculturation. Similarly, the notion of a nation as an imagined community is also a theoretical construct that is the basis of much theorizing. This notion of a community is almost utopian, Pratt argues and points out that this abstracted sense of utopian community is assumed to be the norm in various fields, be it in linguistics, sociology or related fields. The notion of contact zones is a useful way to contrast this utopia of our imagination, she says. This seems to be very similar to the notion of liminality in Anthropology, where people and ideas are seen as an in-between, not fully here nor there. The slaves of Antebellum America were such liminal figures, argues Kambiz Ghaneabassiri (2010). In many cases, they were not fully Muslim, not Christian, not fully American nor fully African; and hence were co-opted by some missionaries to preach Christianity in Africa.


Moving from physical geography to that of the digital space, Roberta Hawkins of the University of Guelph in Canada spoke about ‘Slacktivism’, and how ‘caring at a distance’ can be conceptualized, in an increasingly digitized world. By some estimates, about 40% of all donations to large nonprofits occur online through the Internet, she said, pointing to the increasing importance of the digital and internet medium. But does this also mean that passing on information or just sharing it on Face Book or other social media amount to actually doing something. Not quite, she added, showcasing some campaigns by UNICEF and other agencies that sought to show the difference between just sharing information versus sharing it and actually doing something concrete, like donating money or volunteering time. She also used case examples of Join my Village, a nonprofit that raises money through unconventional means. She showed both the pros and cons of the model and argued that digital activism is in need of serious reconsideration, lest we lose focus of what is at stake, when it comes to nonprofits fulfilling their mission. In the drive to gain more ‘likes’, nonprofits end up doing some unprofessional tactics that may not be directly related to their mission, she argued.

Among the other presenters, Jane Pollard of the Queen Mary University, London shared her research on the Somali residents of East side London. Her research was framed around resilience, and what the city of London and perhaps the whole of the financial world can learn from the example of these poor, often dispossessed immigrants. Her research, which was largely qualitative, involving survey of database of Islamic banks, interviews with about 60 participants and a partnership with the local mosque yielded rich insights into how these immigrants help one another, in times of trouble, share their often limited incomes. “These immigrants learnt charitable practices on the journeys they undertook and internalized them. Once ‘settled’ in somewhat better conditions, these Somalis believe that it is their duty to help their fellow Clans men/women. This tradition is rooted in both the religious tradition of sadaqa and zakat as well as that of local clan based giving tradition called Baho”, Pollard said. While the scale of this giving is small and almost a fraction of the entire GDP of London city, the lessons we can learn from them are large, she argued. Especially, looking at the framework of resilience, I believe that these small local communities can teach us a thing or two about financial resilience, community cohesion.

In a related paper on Islamic Finance[ii], she, along with her co-author argues that :“Building from recent debates about territoriality, embeddedness, and relationality in economic geography, we respond to calls for a more complex treatment of agency, developing the concept of cosmopolitan legalities to capture the dynamic multiterritorial, relational governance of Islamic banking and finance (IBF) that melds Western and Islamic financial rules and practices through the embodied religious authority of Shari’a scholars. These complex legalities demonstrate the significance of postcolonial and religious sociospatial contexts in the formation of financial markets suggestive of an evolving postcolonial political economy of “south-driven” alliances in a financial landscape dominated by neoliberal rationalities and subjectivities.” This idea builds on the notion that Islamic finance and concepts of community do pose a challenge to the concepts of nation-state, community as defined by territoriality etc, given that the Islamic notion of Ummah, is centered on faith/belief, rather than strict national boundaries. The same is true of the understanding of what constitutes a right or a duty. While one can argue that the Western legal tradition is based on the ‘rights’ of citizens, much of Islamic law is based on ‘duties’ of citizens to the state and the ruler, at the same time holding him/her accountable. These debates have become salient in the aftermath of the great recession of 2008, which shook the capitalist system we are a part of, to the core. While those economies and systems that are tied in intimately to the Neoliberal framework suffered, those that were at the periphery did not suffer, as much; Pollard argued. This includes banks, institutions and societies that used Islamic Finance.

In my own research of American Muslim faith-based organizations (FBOs), I am finding that there is enormous plurality of interpretation of how philanthropy occurs. And this is manifest across the board, in terms of how the messaging for attracting donors occurs and how zakat and sadaqa are being re-imagined. Pratt’s notion of contact zones is certainly applicable here too. As Kambiz Ghaneabassiri argues in his book A History of Islam in America, many of the practices of African American slaves, many of whom were Muslim survived in the new environment in Antebellum America in a new form. He points to the idea of Saraka, or the giving of Rice Cakes among women in Georgia, that extended the boundary of a ‘community’ and built a new imagined community through the act of charitable giving. These practices point to the transculturation of philanthropy among American Muslims. And this is also evident in how many of the practices of Cause marketing and consumer philanthropy are being incorporated by the FBOs. Also, given the plurality of interpretation of giving norms within the Muslim community, these are being shaped in ways that are both distinct and resonating with the particular ethnic, racial group. The narrative of a ‘one-dimensional’ notion of giving is simplistic and false and I hope to build on the notion of plurality, that is inherent in the Islamic interpretive norms, to demonstrate how these notions of giving are evolving and informing mainstream notions of giving, as well. Especially, post 9/11, the notion of Islamic giving linked to security issues and trans-national purposes has become hegemonic and as eclipsed all other discourses of giving. I hope to delve into the ways in which the FBOs under study cross boundaries, borders – both physical and otherwise, to define and redefine what philanthropy is, and what its purposes can be. Given that over 40% of Islamic Relief’s funds are used in domestic US projects and about 60% are spent on international projects, this discourse of internationalization of giving among American Muslims is ever-present. American Muslims are also unique in the sense that they inhabit several spaces, all at once. As part of the Islamic community, that is truly global, they have affiliations or attachments with the rest of the world, as part of members of their nation-state, they have affiliations with their particular nation states. This is also an interesting dimension, as American Muslims are perhaps the most diverse (racially and ethnically) religious community in the U.S. according to a recent Pew Research study.

Geography can be very useful in my research as well. As seen in the work of Gordon, Pratt, Pollard and Hawkins, philanthropy meets and intersects with geography in many interesting ways. While culture and its study is always seen in territorial terms, this intersection offers us an interesting and possibly ground-breaking way to look at the impact of giving and its relationship with how we think of ‘community’, ‘society’ and ‘culture’. While globalization and its discontents have forced scholars around the world to re-examine the value of a ‘shrinking global village’, philanthropy may offer us hope, as well as some empirical examples of goodwill, faith and the enduring value of thinking of the world as one. The plurality of our world may be visible if we see the world through the lens of Geography.


[i] Pratt Marie Louise (1991). Art of Contact Zones. Professions. MLA

[ii] Pollard JS, Samers M, (2013) Governing Islamic Finance: Territory, Agency, and the Making of Cosmopolitan Financial Geographies. Annals of the Association of American Geographers. P.710-726

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