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.

An artist as philanthropist : Umm Kulthum as an exemplar

For those who know Umm Kulthum , the Egyptian singer and iconoclast, they are also familiar with her role in rallying the entire Arab world together, in times of great need. Her role as the ‘voice of Egypt’ is well known. Not so well known may be her role as a philanthropist.

Umm Kulthum
Photo credit : Al bustan culture center, Philadelphia

 

We recently  attended an event honoring Umm Kulthum in Washington D.C. organized by the National Museum of Women in the Arts, that organized an event as an homage to the great artist. Here are some interesting vignettes from the panel discussion that discussed not just her philanthropy, but also her life, her  career and the forces that shaped it.

  • Umm Kulthum was a peasant girl, who made the transition to Cairo, the big city, with a lot of grace
  • As she did this, she remained true to her roots, often referring to her humble origins
  • While maintaining a dignified presence, Umm Kulthum was a trendsetter of sorts – both in terms of style of singing and her own image
  • She contributed to the post-six day war period through her own salary  and her own wealth, towards the Egyptian state, which needed all the money, for its war efforts
  • She also encouraged women to donate jewelry, towards the war efforts
  • Her greatest contribution was to showcase Arab unity, when it was most needed, through Art
  • She was a businesswoman, diplomat and an artist.

As an exemplar of the value of giving oneself, and one’s time, Umm Kulthum demonstrates that an artist can make a difference. And it is perhaps fitting that she is celebrated, to this day; almost 40 years after her death, as one of the most important singers in Arabic language.

More Charity, less Philanthropy?

Do we need more ‘Charity’ (unorganized, personal giving) and less of ‘philanthropy’ (organized, scientific philanthropy)? While scholarship in the last 25 years of so indicates that there is a growing trend towards philanthropy, we are witnessing new arguments that what we need is really more ‘charity’. Bureaucratized and ‘scientific’ ways of giving don’t really work. Don’t believe me? Look at Give Directly, one of the leading proponents of charity. They do claim, however, to be doing ‘scientific’ philanthropy, but in reality, it is direct one-to-one giving, and per one definition, would count as ‘charity.’

Their argument is simple: give the poor money directly, unconditionally and they will figure out how to use it. To the best of their knowledge. There is some wisdom in that. This is not traditional charity or caritas, which focused on ‘character development.’ The assumption in this model of thinking of the individual was that the poor were poor because they were lazy, drunks or just stupid. This is the traditional Christian view of caritas, practiced in the settler colonies in the founding days of America or any traditional society. But there are other ways to imagine how the poor live and work. Poverty is a complex topic, and I will not attempt to analyze it here. But let’s just say that the poor have a bad reputation. Most poor people I know – and have dealt with – are decent, hardworking people. Many of them have not had opportunities to advance, in some cases, they have been dealt with heavy financial blows that keep them poor and in some cases, they are victims of structural issues. So, how does on help the poor, overcome their poverty? There are several possibilities – one is to fund ‘strucutral’ changes in the system and the other is to fund the individual directly.

When it comes to immediate impact and results that can manifest themselves, there is nothing faster than individual giving. While there are limitations (and many assumptions) on how this works, it is a model that seems to have attracted a lot of attention, especially given the criticism of large international NGOs that spend a lot of money, on overheads. As Paul Niehaus, President of GiveDirectly argues in this paper, the donors usually are concerned with ‘warm glow’ or don’t really care about learning what happened after the donations were made. The cost of such learning is high, he argues. “The well-intentioned benefactor has a limited desire to learn. He always prefers to avoid ex-post feedback as this constrains his beliefs.”  This means that the intermediaries – i.e., NGOs create a ‘need’ for the service and attract donations. This is not a case of misleading donors, but one of asymmetric information and also a different theory of change. GiveDirectly offers one model of giving that is direct, (seemingly) impactful and something worth a try. My mom did this for many decades and it seems to have worked – at least in the case of many of my cousins, who have better jobs, education, thanks to my mother’s ‘giving’ directly.

Creating a positive ‘identity’ for refugees?

In most media discourses, Refugees are constructed  as pathological creatures. The entire discourse of refugees and their plight is portrayed as something of a ‘problem to be fixed.’ While it is true that most refugees are in need of desperate help and do, over a short period of time, burden the economy of any host country; but research has shown – and common sense should tell us – that over a long period of time, refugees are a boon to any place where they go.

As this OpEd in NY Times points out, refugees contribute to the revitalization of economies. As a former resident of upstate NY, I saw the impact of this phenomenon. Most of the refugees settled there are independent, self-sufficient and actually quite wealthy, all in a matter of less than 20 years. That is just one generation. Bosnians fleeing the Balkan war are among the refugees who live in this region and are among the prosperous communities there.

photo credit : womenoftheworld.org
photo credit : womenoftheworld.org

Similarly, when media accounts of refugees portray them as helpless victims, who are in perpetual need of assistance, the reality is quite different. As they are fleeing persecution, they are also deeply conscious of the need to re-build their lives and are eager to take up any opportunity that comes their way. As the NYT OpEd mentioned earlier points out “A 2003 survey by the University of Michigan of 1,016 members of this community (58 percent of whom were Christian, and 42 percent Muslim) found that 19 percent were entrepreneurs and that the median household income was $50,000 to $75,000 per year.” This goes against our popular understandings of what refugees do, and how ‘dependent’ they are on welfare.

This bias is not only present in media discourses, but also scholarly literature on Arab-Americans in general and refugees in particular. I came across this phenomenon, as I was researching the issue for a policy brief, that I am writing, as part of my work at ACCESS. Why is this cognitive bias present? Is it because the dominant framing of refugees is set? It is set – in terms of framing them as helpless, without agency and will power? – as essentially victims who are not capable of shaping their destiny? While this is part of the story, it is not the entire story. True, they are helpless ( for the time-being) but are not without agency or will power. The Syrian refugees, for instance, are taking enormous risks, putting their lives in danger, to move to a safer area, to live and prosper. This shows not only their resilience and determination to fight against all odds, but also their imagination and ability to think outside of the box.

America should embrace this positive energy and will to live. It is what has made the U.S . a great country and it is what drives innovation and change. It is time we all re-examine the dominant narratives of the refugees as a burden and look at them for what they are – victims of circumstances, who will thrive, in the right environment. It is our duty, as decent human beings to help them find this environment.

Should you give ‘Directly,’ for impact? Lessons from my mom’s charitable experiments

What is the best way to help people? Is it to let the market forces determine who should survive and who should sink, or should there be intervention from the state or other players? How should philanthropy be directed towards individuals and communities? These questions have neither clear-cut answers, nor a good way of being resolved. At least not anytime soon. While these questions come up in the context of discussion of both domestic welfare programs as well as international development, we often hear talk of ‘impact evaluation,’ and the need to see results.

photo credit : Give Directly
photo credit : Give Directly

So, how does one think of the ‘right ‘answer? Is it ‘Giving Directly,’ i.e., giving cash transfers to the poor, to let them decide what is best for them? Or is it a more targeted and  specific program – like school scholarships, loans to purchase cattle or agricultural equipment? I suggest that this debate is not so much about the right metrics or longer duration of measuring them, but rather about ‘charity’ and ‘philanthropy,’ and which one is more effective.

For the uninitiated, charity is any form of giving that aims to save or transform the individual and is short-term and driven by emotions or a ‘higher’ calling. Philanthropy, on the other hand, is a more ‘scientific,’ way of doing charity, which aims to change the social structures – education, healthcare or others – that make people poor. This ‘scientific’ movement emerged in the 19th century, with the mega-rich such as Rockefellers, Carnegie and Ford – who sought to use their enormous wealth to rectify some social ills. A similar thinking permeates the international development sector too, where there is an increasing demand for showing ‘results,’ for the money spent.

As those who study or practice International Development know, there is an almost obsessive urge on the part of organizations carrying out the ‘development,’ to prove that what they are doing is indeed working. Combined with this, there is also a huge amount of resistance to any form of international aid from certain political groups and ideologues in the West – the Republicans, for instance, who think that the U.S. is spending way too much on aid, than it should. There is an entire discourse of how countries should ‘help themselves,’ and not depend on the U.S. or others – whereas the U.S. spends about one percent of its annual budget on aid, globally. This too, serves as a ‘soft-power’ tool, rather than being wasteful. This helpful chart outlines how much the U.S. spent on aid in the year 2012.

So, American aid to the world is seen not so much as charity, but rather as ‘philanthropy,’ a scientific tool and a measured response to how the U.S. should be perceived by the world. Since WWII, as the only super power in the world, all eyes have been on the U.S., in terms of looking for how it would behave. With Marshall Plan, the U.S. set off a very successful model of development that has continued to be seen as a gold standard.

While there are other discourses of charity and philanthropy out there, that do not privilege or prefer ‘outcomes’ and ‘impact measurement,’ over other aspects of ‘why’ we give aid the meaning making processes that lie underneath these actions. Religious understandings of charity and philanthropy can be seen as the alternate to our obsessive quantification. While Give Directly has received a lot of praise for initial results and successes, critics point out that it is precisely that, the initial results from a trial experiment. Reality, they argue is far more complex and convoluted. And in this, they are partially, if not fully, right.

My (late) mother’s model of doing charity was surprisingly similar to that of Give directly. As a financially independent person (my mother worked as a high school teacher), she made many big and small decisions about money on her own – after taking care of her own family’s needs. This meant she identified the poor both within our extended family and also others, who came to her, for help. In her lifetime, I have seen my mother help at least four families in a substantial manner – to the extent that they are actually better off, in many ways., The kids are better educated, better fed and now, almost 20 or 25 years, after she started helping them, are in better jobs – because of their education or other opportunities – than they would have been otherwise. This, to me, is the power of giving directly. It works. But, with many caveats. Life is never as simple or linear as it seems!

In analyzing the effectiveness of giving directly, there is also the bigger problem of the ‘problematization of poverty,’ as Arturo Escobar has pointed out. This means that we tend to define, measure and position poverty in the third-world, sitting in the first world, not knowing and not fully appreciating how people understand poverty themselves, the strategies they use for survival and what means are available to them. This, I think is the bigger problem in this debate, as much as it is about charity and philanthropy. Until we find more details and more long-term results of what transpired with the families that Give Directly has helped, we must deal with the confusion that exists and the lack of ensuring clarity.

Philanthropy: Where Marxism and Islam agree

Marxism can be considered the exact mirror opposite of Islamic values, when it comes to ideas of materialism. On surface, this statement seems true. While Karl Marx’s idea of society can be considered purely materialistic, and his notions of political economy deeply rooted in notions of wealth, Islam is a more egalitarian and ‘socialist’ system, as far as wealth is concerned. Also, the relationship between wealth and social relations is expounded differently in Islam and Marxism. Yet, despite these obvious differences between a totally materialist ideology and a spiritual system, there seem to be some points of intersection, as well. In the area of how both Islam and Marxism views philanthropy – and specifically, how they critique philanthropy- they both seem to converge.

philanthropy  One area where both Marxism and Islam agree on critiquing philanthropy – especially that carried out by hi-net worth donors – The Bill Gates and Warren Buffets of the world is in legitimizing their wealth. As this article points out, the Marxist critique of such wealthy donors is simple: they ask questions such as: “How did these billionaires earn their money in the first place? Why is it that they do not know what to do with their wealth while ordinary working men and women find it hard to pay their bills at the end of the month and while more than a billion people live on less than a dollar a day and 3 billion on less than 2 dollars a day?” These questions, the article argues, tell us the whole story, and offer us a big picture of what is going on, in the economic system that we live in, that makes us so rich or on the other extreme, so poor, that we don’t have enough to pay our bills. One of the contradictions in their approach is that these seemingly benevolent philanthropists actually behave just like any other capitalists – they cut costs, fire people, squeeze as much out of people, as they can – all fair, according to business practices. This means, they often don’t worry too much about the ‘welfare’ of their employees. This double-speak is what is problematic, the authors seem to suggest.

Are we to commend these rich folk, who ‘take care’ of the poor folk, or are we to question their generosity, as a fig-leaf for de-politicizing their work, as scholars Patricia Nickel and Eikenberry have argued. They argue that when public problems become private crusades, then we fail to appreciate the politics behind these issues and the inequalities of power that exist, in these scenarios. This capacity for ‘global governance,’ also implies that these philanthropists can determine ‘which lives to save and which ones to not,’ they further suggest.

Islamic critique of philanthropy (or generally of wealth) are similar, in that Islam views wealth as a ‘trust from God,’ to be used for the benefit of one’s own self and that of those around oneself.  As this article points out, the hoarding of wealth is discouraged in Islam and there are injunctions to share it, with those who are less fortunate – both in the Qur’an and the prophetic traditions (Hadith). Further, the article suggests that ‘Islam considers wealth the life-blood of a community which must be in constant circulation,’ (Qur’an 9:34-35). In fact, in my own upbringing, my mother (who was by many measures the most generous person I knew) used the analogy of wealth being like a river, it should keep flowing; lest it stagnate. The health of the water in the river is guaranteed, when it keeps flowing, my mom advised. She also lived accordingly and I don’t remember her turning down anyone who came to her for financial assistance – and there were many who came to her – quite regularly. Charity and philanthropy are seen as ways to ‘cleanse’ one’s wealth. While some scholars have argued that this can be seen as a ‘social justice,’ mechanism, others have argued that this is more of a personal injunction, on those who are well-off, rather than as a social measure of justice.

While Islam rejects the Marxist materialism, there are certainly areas of congruence, when it calls upon the wealthy to distribute their wealth. While Marxists actively distrust wealth accumulation, Islamic ideals of wealth are closer to a mercantilist attitude, of doing good, while doing well for oneself. So, to that extent, Capitalism is compatible with Islam, but not in the current speculative, Wall-Street manner.

Top ten books I read this year

I read a lot of books this year. Like a LOT. Part of the reason is that I am preparing for my prelim exams (part of the PhD process) where you prove to your committee that you know your stuff. Additionally, I presented a few papers at a few conferences, many of them outside my ‘field’ of research. This meant reading new scholars, people that I didn’t know much about. Also, I went back to some books that I had read in the past, to revisit them and have a ‘conversation’ with them, so to say. Here is a short list of about ten books I read – all of them related to religion and philanthropy – two areas of intersection, that come together in my own work. In no particular order of importance, I list them here, with a short blurb. Good books are like a good conversation with a person you wouldn’t (normally) meet. Also, the fact that some of these books have endured the test of time are a

testament to the wisdom they contain.beyond the veil

  1. Beyond the Veil – This is one of the most provocative, mind-bending books I read this year. I was also fortunate to meet Dr. Fatima Mernissi in Morocco, during my visit this summer. She is considered the pioneer of Islamic Feminism and she makes some ground-breaking arguments in this book. The key argument is that Islam is an egalitarian religion, with respect to women’s rights and it gives them equal opportunities to partake in public life. The problem of women’s rights seem to have arisen with the manipulation of hadith and sacred texts by later day scholars, who sought to keep the patriarchic societal framework ongoing. She argues that Islam views gender segregation as a key component of maintaining social harmony, as female sexuality is viewed as an active ingredient, rather than as a passive one.
  2. Zealot – This is a fascinating book that offers a perspective that is not well known to most people, except scholars of religion – that Jesus the man was a political figure, who was made apolitical by Christians, after his death, to make his message more acceptable. This is an interesting book by Reza Aslan that also generated quite a bit of controversy, after an interview on Fox news. In case you missed it, you can watch it here. My connection with Reza is also that I did some research for him last year, and also got to meet him in person.
  3. The Conservative Soul – If you are looking for a book that explains the current debates in American conservatism, pick up this book. Andrew Sullivan is one of the most prominent bloggers in the U.S., who initially supported George W Bush and his war on Iraq, but later became critical of it. The book is a conversation with the reader on where conservatism stands today, and what its future looks like. While the book is a bit polemical, it could have done with a bit wider reporting of the conservative movement and more nuanced scholarship. He could have looked at Red State Religion, a fascinating book by Robert Wuthnow, for instance. Overall, this is a popular book that brings a lot of discussions to the fore, but there are flaws in it, as the NYT review point out. Would I still recommend it? Absolutely yet.
  4. The Sociological Imagination – This book, written by C Wright Mills, a motorbike riding Sociologist from the 1960s is sure to make you pause and re-think the way much Social science analysis is carried out. Mills’ key argument in the book is that we need more ‘Sociological imagination’ in analyzing our society. A purely ‘rational’ model of analyzing situations won’t work, he suggests.

The key argument of the book is that Social Sciences must evolve a new lens or a vision for analyzing the world and this must include History, biography (of the individual) as well as social conditions. A merely one-dimensional analysis or study of the individual does not yield the right picture or a complete understanding of what is going on in the world.

He argues that for a complete and true picture of social reality, one must try to connect the personal struggles of the individual with that of the broader society. While not many people do this, he believes that this is the right way to study social sciences. Pointing towards the need for this he says: “What they need, and what they feel they need, is a quality of mind that will help them to use information and develop reason in order to achieve lucid summations of what is going on in the world and what may be happening within themselves. It is this quality, I am going to contend that journalists and scholars, artists and scientists and editors are coming to expect of what may be called the Sociological Imagination”. Inter-disciplinary research, which is a mantra on college campuses nowadays, was what Mills called for.

  1. Habits of the Heart – This book is considered a classic in American Sociology by Robert Bellah et al. Habits of the heart tells us the story of four Americans – Brian Palmer: the corporate exec. Joe Gorman: The communitarian in MA, Margaret Oldham, a therapist and Wayne Bauer: Community organizer in CA- a hippie of the 60s’.

He says “Brian, Joe, Margaret, Wayne each represent American voices familiar to all of us. One of the reasons for the arguments they would have is that they draw from different traditions. Yet beneath the sharp disagreements, there is more than a little consensus about the relationship between the individual and society, between private and public good. This is because, in spite of their differences, they all to some degree share a common vocabulary, which we propose to call the “first language” of American individualism in contrast to alternative “second languages” which most of us also have.( P.20). Based on over 200 interviews, they offer a typology, based on four types of character among Americans: the independent citizen, the entrepreneur, the manager, and the therapist.

The book complicates the notion of individualism and suggests that is it not all bad. The individualism of a Cowboy or that of a firefighter may be seen as being purely selfish, but it is selfishness at the service of others, argue Bellah et al. “One accepts the necessity of remaining alone in order to serve the values of the group. And this obligation to aloneness is an important key to the American moral imagination.” The growing sense of individualism and lack of collective identity among Americans is a problem, the authors suggest. In response to this, a number of scholars such as Amitai Etzioni and others have come up with models for working out ‘communitarian’ ideals that would ultimately bind people, together

6. The Ulama in Contemporary Islam – This book is a new interpretation of the role of Ulema, or religious scholars in Islam. Mohammed Zaman offers us an insight into the ways and means that the Ulema in India used, to resist colonial occupation in pre-Independence India. He makes the case by looking at archives, historical work as well as commentaries of the Qur’an, written by various scholars, belonging to different strands of Islamic thought – the Ahl I Hadith, the Tablighi Jamat etc.. each one of which approached the Qur’an and Sunnah in a particular way.

7.A History of Islam in America – This is a scholarly examination of a topic that has been written about, from many perspectives. Ghaneabassiri offers an in-depth look at the origins and growth of the American Muslim community and places their history in relation to that of America. As a scholar of religion, his perspective is quite nuanced and he offers a penetrating analysis, which is hard to dispute. He argues that there are three million Muslims in the U.S, per Pew and Gallup poll results (pg.2). Given the enormous diversity found within the Muslim population in the U.S, no one narrative can capture the varying experiences of American Muslims, as there is no single American Muslim experience. “Muslims who found themselves in this country whether as slaves, immigrants, or converts have had to define themselves and to interpret their varying religious undertakings and practices in relation to the dominant laws, conceptions of religion, and political and cultural structures that have shaped American society through the years.” ( pg.3

8. Islam and the Blackamerican – Sherman Jackson’s Islam and the Blackamerican is a tour de force for understanding the question of Black Americans in America. He offers a compelling narrative, grounded in American History, Qur’an, Hadith and other Islamic texts that offer us the story of what he calls the ‘ideological encounter between Islam and Blackamericans, from the proto-Islamic black-nationalistic spin-off movements of the early twentieth century through the rise and preponderance of orthodox Sunni Islam by the century’s end.’ Jackson offers us insights into how issues of racial inequality in early period of development of Blackamerican consciousness were replaced with concerns of problems of the Muslim world – Palestine, Kashmir and Egypt. He does a nice job of tracing the relations between ‘immigrant’ Muslims and the Blackamerican Muslims, while placing it in the context of theological debates and the power relations that emerged out of ‘orthodoxy’ in Islamic tradition.

9.Making Social science Matter – This book by Bent Flyvbjerg offers a compelling reason to reject completely ‘rational’ explanations in favor of those that are intuitive. He calls this methodology as ‘phronesis’, based upon the methods of intuitive and arational analysis developed by Aristotle. This style of reasoning is needed in today’s world, as it is becoming increasingly complex, multi-layered. Further, this method of analysis is important, as the main strength of social science is its reflexivity and ability to offer a critical perspective. This does not necessarily include prediction, which is what pure science is supposed to do, he suggests.

10.Strategic Giving – This is a great book if you want to understand the transformation of philanthropy in America, both from a donor and recipient’s perspective. I was privileged to attend a summer fellowship with Dr. Peter Frumkin, who teaches at Upenn, so also know the backstory to how this book was written. This is a great study of the growth and transformation of American philanthropy and in the book, Frumkin offers an in-depth investigation of how foundations changed, over a period of time, and how this can be seen as a part of the change of American landscape of giving. His argument is that one should look at philanthropy as a value driven enterprise, rather than just purely instrumental. Hence the use of the word ‘strategic’. His framework in suggesting this is a prism of giving, a five point mantra, if you will of giving. These five elements of giving include: deciding which vehicle to use for giving away the donor’s money; clarifying the purpose of the gift; setting a time frame for giving; choosing the level of donor engagement with grant recipients; and assessing the impact the contributions will have.