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.

How to measure what matters : Nonprofit management 101

The nonprofit industry is obsessed with one thing : measurement. For those who do research or are involved in actual program delivery in the nonprofit sector, this desire to ‘measure spoons’ as Alnoor Ebrahim, a Harvard University professor calls it, can translate into a variety of things. There are a great many metrics that are often considered, when evaluating if a nonprofit is doing its job. For instance, people ask if the proportion of money spent on programs versus program administration (overheads) is ‘reasonable’. There are industry norms, suggesting that if an organization spends ‘too much’ then it is wasting people’s money. We base many of these arguments on the fact that they are the ‘rational’ thing to do. In a world, where philanthropy i.e., scientific way of doing charity has overtaken all other forms, this call for rationality and scientific ways of measuring this is but natural. But the really rational or ‘substantively rational’ question should be: what should we measure. And why? What impact does this have, in the long term.

Max Weber was one of the more prominent thinkers who write largely about rationality and how it is shaping our world. This short paper offers an in-depth discussion of the different types of rationalities that Weber expounded, upon. To summarize it, he posited there being four different types of rationalities: practical, theoretical, substantive and formal.

The ‘disenchantment’ of the world that leads to greater ‘rationalities’ of the formal, practical and theoretical type are evident in the field of philanthropy, as well. By this, I mean, there is a move away from ‘feeling’ or ‘reasoning based on an other-worldly’ sense of why we do charity or philanthropy. There is a growing sense that an act is justified or carried out towards an end. As Kalberg (1980) points out, the four types of social actions: affectual, traditional, value- rational, and means-end rational action are the core traits of ‘human’ actions and are outside of historical man.

Substantitive rationality ‘directly orders action into pattern.’ In seeking this form of rationality, one asks, not “what good is there at the end of the action” but rather, “should one even carry this out” and “what good will come out of this action,” in other words, this form of thinking is based on an ethical disposition of what is right and wrong.

Coming back to our initial discussion, if one were to use a substantive rational dispositions, one might : what is being measured and why? Does what we measure matter? And if so, how?

Ebrahim warns us in his piece Let’s be realistic about measuring impact, that “ It is crucial to identify when it makes sense to measure impacts and when it might be best to stick with outputs — especially when an organization’s control over results is limited, and causality remains poorly understood.”He suggests that simply repeating the mantra that measurement matters won’t get us there. There needs to be a long-term commitment to research and collaboration.


As Dan Pallotta argues in his book The Uncharitable that how we measure overheads is problematic. He gives the example of two soup kitchens: Kitchen A and Kitchen B. Assuming that Kitchen A spends only 10% of their revenues on overheads and Kitchen B spends about 30%. If this were all one knew, then one would judge Kitchen B harshly, saying they are producing a lot of waste. However, if one discovers that Kitchen A offers very bad quality soup, in poor conditions, while Kitchen B produces very high quality soup, at a great environment, then our perception of the services may change. This is a classic example of using substantive rationality, in making decisions.

There is a strong argument to be made for measuring only a few things, but asking more hard-nosed questions that get to the heart of why we are measuring a thing and at what point in time of the project life-cycle. Not to do so may actually lead to bad and hasty decision making.




Do we Need to Re-examine the History of Humanitarian Aid?

I recently came across an article about the Ottoman Empire’s aid to Ireland during the great Potato Famine[i] in the 1840s. The article points out that the Ottoman sultan, Sultan Khaleefah Abdul-Majid I declared his intention to send £10,000 to aid Ireland’s farmers. However, the British did not like this idea and even forced the ships that had food and other aid to take a diversion, before they could reach Ireland. This little known fact in history not only challenges our assumption about Humanitarian aid’s origins – it is assumed that World War I was the precursor to global humanitarian aid, as we know it – and also challenges us to re-think ideas of cooperation between ‘nations,’ before ‘nation-states’ emerged.

Photo courtesy : Today's zaman
Photo courtesy : Today’s zaman

This inspiring story of aid from a Muslim country to a predominantly Catholic nation is not only a great example of ecnumenism in history, but also an example of how creatively people in the past (and in the present day, as well) think of charity as a great leveler between people. Charity can not only expand boundaries of cooperation, build goodwill; but also aid in ‘soft-power’ as we know it.  With this example, one is forced to ask: are our ideas of the evolution of international humanitarianism in the West – in particular, in the development of Red Cross Movement in the 19th century – in need of revision? Second, a related question: Do we also need to re-think the supposed benefits of this ‘aid,’ and question whether it is beneficial, in all cases?

In my own research on religious and ethnic based giving in the U.S., I have seen examples of what Amy Singer in her book Charity in Islamic Societies (2008) has called a ‘Mixed-economy of charity,’ meaning a collaboration between wealthy individuals, government as well as groups of organizations or NGOs addressing specific issues. Private Foundations have become important, especially in the modern era, with the rise of mega-millionaires and billionaires, who have enormous amounts of disposable incomes. Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Ford Foundation and others like these have contributed enormously to addressing issues of global health, poverty and education. While their impact is also questioned by those who call into question the manner in which they work, the power-relations between them and the local governments/ recipients; it is an empirical reality that they have an impact, which for the most part is helping address some key challenges in these regions. However, this narrative is clearly one-sided and reinforces our stereotypes of the ‘under-developed,’ third-world, in need of constant attention and ‘help,’ from the West. While true to a limited extent, this narrative of ‘development,’ assistance does not take into account the local efforts, resources and strategies that are being deployed by local organizations and foundations in the countries where they operate. Can this example of Ottoman generosity in the 19th century help us re-think this narrative?

We are certainly living in an inter-connected world, where flow of capital, people and ideas is truly global. But this globalized view of the world does put in place certain dynamics of power and discourses of how and who needs ‘help,’ that can skew the ‘reality,’ of what is going on, in our world. As critical theorists like Arturo Escobar in Encountering Development (1996) and others have pointed out, this ‘development narrative,’ needs a close examination. I would suggest that we re-examine this narrative with the perspective of those who are at the ‘receiving end,’ of the beneficence or generosity, rather than the one who is doing the donating. This discourse, Escobar argues has led to the ‘debt crisis, massive underdevelopment and impoverishment, untold exploitation and oppression.’ (p.4). While I do not share his pessimism fully, I do think that we need to re-think the amount of ‘good,’ that discourse of aid, development etc. The promise of aid must be measured in real terms, in terms of the impacts that it has had on the people it supposedly serves.

Escobar places this dynamic in the politics of ‘representation,’ and argues that there has been a ‘colonization of reality,’ using Orientalism, Africanism and Developmentalism – three strategies to represent the ‘developing,’ world. The ways that the under-developed world is supposed to ‘develop,’ have been defined, outlined and strategized by ‘experts,’ who wield inordinate power in terms of defining the discourse. The problem with this is that the Western discourses do not take into account (in most cases) the local dynamics, cultural knowledge systems and ways of organizing life, which may not fit the epistemology of the West. Local forms of philanthropy, charity and solidarity – through faith-based giving or ethnic solidarity and mobilization could be considered another area where there needs to be greater appreciation and lesser ‘intervention.’

Finally, on a related note, I think a better understanding of faith-based giving can also help us tackle some of the assumptions we have about what this form of giving can and cannot do. While it is preposterous to assume that faith-based giving can ‘fix all our problems,’ it would be imprudent to also shut it out of the public sphere, for fear of contaminating the ‘secular,’ public sphere with religious values. Given that our world is witnessing a ‘return to religion,’ as Jonathan Benthall has called it; with greater religious symbolism in the public sphere, it would be wise to accept this reality and manage the consequences of how this philanthropy can play out.

As regards Islamic philanthropy, while one Caliphate in the Middle East (ISIS) claims to be ‘Islamic,’ yet, commits acts that are clearly anti-Islamic in spirit and form; there is a much better example in the Ottoman Empire, which did allow for the creative and productive use of charity and philanthropy. While by no means perfect, it did follow many of the common-sense principles that made life liveable for most of its citizens. A fact well attested to by scholars and beneficiaries of the aid to Ireland.


[i] See

Escobar, A (1996). Encountering Development – Making and unmaking of the third-world. Princeton University Press

Singer, A (2008). Charity in Islamic Societies. Cambridge University Press.