Why Study Philanthropy? – conversations in philanthropy #6

 Many people are asking me this question these days. While it may seem rhetorical, the answer is as plan at the question :  because it matters. Private philanthropy in the U.S is in the range of around $ 316.23 billion from individuals, corporations and foundations. This is more than the combined GDP of Nepal, Sri Lanka, Vietnam, Costa Rica and a few other countries in Latin America.

Image source: Restorechurch.net
Image source: Restorechurch.net

Charitable giving and Philanthropy are as much a sociological phenomenon in the U.S as they are economic ones. Philanthropy also lies at the intersection of social policy, economics, religion, and politics and not to forget entertainment (with all those celebrities lining up to start foundations). For the cynic, all I have to say is: Start believing in the power of philanthropy, lest you be left behind!

There are four key reasons why this field needs careful attention:

  1. Growing importance of philanthropy in society
  2. Decreasing role of the state
  3. Development goals: both local and international
  4. Increasing role of religion in the public sphere

1.      Growing importance of Philanthropy in Society

Given that I live and study in the U.S, I will talk a bit about American giving behavior. The country has been shaped by influences from various countries, cultures and religions. In this sense, it is truly a “melting pot” of philanthropy. One can see Native American influences, African American, Jewish, Protestant, Catholic and Muslim influences all around the country – if only one observes carefully. The spirit of generosity is quite high in the country, and this is in fact encouraged by the government, which gives tax incentives to formation of non-profits and also charitable giving – one of the more controversial aspects of this act.

With billions of dollars coming into the sector, with the world’s richest billionaires such as Warren Buffet, Bill Gates having pledged half of their wealth in philanthropy during their lifetime, this sector is all set to grow in the years to come.

2.      Decreasing role of the state

This is related to the point above. There is a ­­growing realization on part of those in power that resources are getting constrained and someone has to provide for the needs of the vulnerable. Since the Reagan era in the U.S and Thatcher in the U.K, social welfare policies have generally gone South. This has put enormous pressure on religious groups, nonprofits and others whose job it is to “care” for the less fortunate.

In a stinging critique of this phenomenon, Peter Buffet recently wrote an Op-Ed in the New York Times, that calls it the “Charity-Industrial complex,” an indictment of the corporate world and also the government. No matter what one’s position on this issue, politically or ideologically; everyone agrees that there has been a dramatic reduction in the role of the state and the social contract is undergoing a change. This calls for new actors to step up and take charge. Mr.Buffet here argues (has quite rightly, in my opinion) that the private sector (including philanthropists) simply don’t have the resources that the state apparatus has, at its disposal.

3.      Development goals, both local and international

Increasingly, development goals are being articulated in terms of private actors’ agency. An increase in charitable giving to further overseas development would help fund the attainment of the Millennium Development Goals, to which the world’s nations are committed.

Initiatives such as the Millennium Challenge Corporation, led by the U.S government have sprung up to help developing countries fight poverty. Corporations have also put their hat into the game. As a recent CECP report points out:

  • Median total giving in CECP’s sample was $21.02 million
  • 60% of companies gave more in 2011 than in 2009
  • 83% of companies offered at least one matching gift program
  • 85% of companies had a formal domestic employee volunteer program; 47% had a formal international volunteer program
  • 82% of companies reported having a corporate foundation
  • Health, education, and community and economic development were top priorities for the typical company
  • 46% of total giving was through direct cash

Increasingly, private foundations are doing what governments of countries are supposed to be doing – eradicating polio, handing out food packets in disaster zones or vaccinating against Malaria

4.      Growing role of religion in our society – Whether we like it or not, religion is making a come-back in the public sphere. This “de-secularization” of religion, as many scholars have called is being seen in the realm of faith-based nonprofits, increased interest in religious discourse (not among all segments of society) and there is a growing realization among both academics and policy makers that perhaps the rigid dichotomies that we hold about the religious and secular are not so rigid, after all. As John Rundell points out in his short essay : “It can be argued that the Durkheimian problem of the sacred is a way of suggesting that no society can “live” without a sense of its sacredness irrespective of whether this is couched in either ‘religious’ or ‘secular’ terms.” Indeed, one can argue that many of “secular” non-profits operating in our midst have a very religious orientation to their work, if one pays close attention to their work. This is reflected in the realm of philanthropy too, with Americans giving about 1/3 of their charitable giving to religious Institutions ( Giving USA 2013).

Final thoughts

The biggest contribution that a closer study of philanthropy can offer is by helping identify how both individuals and groups of individuals (organizations, societies) conceptualize, use and (sometimes abuse) charity. These insights can form the core learning process for articulating social policies, development paradigms and also social movements.

It is a fact that charity and philanthropy offers those involved in it a meaningful way to engage in society, and a sense of agency and empowerment. But the tensions between who is responsible for others welfare and whether charity is a right or an obligation (as scholars such as Abdullahi An’ Naim have pointed out) are not fully resolved.

Are we any wiser or better off with the involvement of the nonprofit sector in the development/social welfare debate? These are hard questions that have no right or wrong answers. As Mr. Buffet points out, (in the NY Times Op-Ed cited above): “Inside any important philanthropy meeting, you witness heads of state meeting with investment managers and corporate leaders. All are searching for answers with their right hand to problems that others in the room have created with their left. There are plenty of statistics that tell us that inequality is continually rising. At the same time, according to the Urban Institute, the nonprofit sector has been steadily growing. Between 2001 and 2011, the number of nonprofits increased 25 percent.”  This is the irony of the situation that we are facing.

Does it mean we should throw up our hands and start calling for just “market-led” solutions and ignore the power of goodwill, religious giving and good old-fashioned philanthropy or even questioning the role of the state in this mix? I think that will be unproductive, as well.

The solution, in my opinion is to identify creative projects, people and solutions that work. Not just in theory, but also in practice and build multiple networks of actors, across the board to solve these problems, because as Mr.Buffet and other thoughtful leaders have pointed out, the problem is us – and we need to solve it ourselves!

We are part of the problem and also the solution, and the ideas for solving these problems can come from our deepest held beliefs and convictions in working for a better world. I believe a deeper study of charity and philanthropy can offer us just that.


Is diversity bad for fund-raising? – Conversations in Philanthropy #5

Is diversity bad for fund-raising? Conventional wisdom says so. This is because of the difficulty in getting diverse group of people to agree on what is a “common good” and also the high transaction costs involved, in terms of time spent due to language and cultural barriers[i]. Anft quotes federal income tax data to point out that Hispanics and Blacks give more of their proportion of wealth, as compared to the general population (qtd. In Achieving Excellence in Fundraising 185).

IMG_2157 fundraising_21

Growing trends in fund-raising : Arab Americans and South Asian Americans

Given my research focus and experience with Arab-Americans and American Muslims, I will talk a bit about these two groups. A few things stand out in regards to these two groups

  1. Informality and emotion – Much of giving and philanthropy by Arab Americans and South Asian Americans can be considered informal and driven largely by emotions. This was shared by Maha Freij, the Deputy Executive Director of ACCESS, the largest Arab American NGO in the U.S in a recent conversation with her. While the younger generation may be become more organized about their giving practices, certainly the emotional appeal of a relative or friend in need gets a faster response than an appeal from an organization.
  2. Giving to civil society institutions is low[ii] – Given that many countries in the MENA and South Asia are not democracies (or where they are, civil society does not fully function as it does in other countries), the trust that people have in these institutions is rather low. Hence, Arab Americans and South Asian Americans tend to give lesser amounts of money to civil society institutions such as non-profits, think-tanks etc.
  3. Individual giving, rather than to institutions – Related to the point above, this is again a generalization, but something that holds true in almost all cases. There is greater recognition of individual needs rather than those of institutions. One can even argue that institution building is somewhat new phenomenon and one that is not fully appreciated by many people. This is not to generalize among all Arab Americans or South Asians but a trend that stands up to scrutiny, if one were to do some research.


What should fund-raisers do?

Approach each one distinctively, knowing their cultural norms and being mindful of what is acceptable behavior, in terms of asking behavior.  Recognizing that most ethnic giving is informal is important, and a few factors such as increased wealth, growing recognition of social needs and those of individuals in particular is growing. There is also much emotional giving in this space, in contrast to planned giving, which is done with the expectation of tax-benefits etc.

While most traditional fundraising principles still hold true, it may help to have people in the fundraising team who are sensitive to these issues and make appropriate strategic choices. There is also a need to craft a needs assessment that clarifies the organization’s perspectives on diversity.


[i]  Osili Una. Achieving Excellence in Fundraising. Josey Bass. 2011. Print.


[ii] This is based on my own research, anecdotal evidence and also some literature I have read in this space.

Political Institutions and Stability in Egypt: Can the Egyptians pull it off?

Much ink has been spilled since the start of the Arab Spring and the turn towards democratization in the Middle East and North Africa, but it turns out that we are still not too clear about the direction the region is headed towards. Despite all the scholarly insights, punditry and 24/7 news analysis and satire, we are as confused and clueless as we were in 2011. In this short piece, I will try to outlay some of the key arguments made about Political institutions, Modernization and  Democracy in the Middle East. I believe that arguments about Islam and Democracy not being compatible and facile, racist and fail to take into account the seismic changes taking place in these societies.

Source: latitude.blogs.nytimes.com
Source: latitude.blogs.nytimes.com

Political institutions, Modernization and Economic development

One of the key reasons that the Arab Spring began was the dissatisfaction with the status quo. i.e, in particular the economic disparities in countries that were under dictatorships. While the Persian Gulf countries remain awash in Oil money and are relatively immune, there is general agreement among scholars and analysts that the current revolts are a result of economic grievances, linked to lack of political reform and corruption.

            Samuel Huntington analyzed these issues in one of his earliest books, Political Order in Changing Societies[i] (in my opinion, his best and often, most unread book), where one of his key insights is that “Violence and instability are in a large part the product of rapid social change and the rapid mobilization of new groups into politics coupled with the slow development of political institutions (p. 4).” He goes on to point out that in the 1950s and 60s’, in many Asian, African, and Latin American countries “[t]he rates of social mobilization and the expansion of political participation are high; the rates of political organization and institutionalization are low. The result is political instability and disorder. The primary problem is the lag in the development of political institutions behind social and economic change (p. 5). By his own argument, those societies that are reaching towards “modernity,” may be unstable. As he points out : ““[i]t is not the absence of modernity but the efforts to achieve it which produce political disorder (p. 41).”

            The debate about “Islamism,” and fear of “radical Islam,” has overshadowed the real debate about challenges, or substantial needs of the populace, that those in power have to satisfy. Despite who is in power, the basics of life – jobs, security, opportunities for youth, a functional state and economy have to be provided for. Given that Egypt is a heterogeneous society, the fact that Muslim Brotherhood, ( MB) did not make an effort to reach out to the minorities’ i.e., Coptic Christians and others seems to have contributed to its fall from grace. Let us briefly look at the history of American political institutions, to look for some lessons in governance.

A page from American History: Institution building takes time!

I believe that Abraham Lincoln’s words ring true today, in the case of Egypt, as it did for America in 1838.  In one of the earlier speeches that he gave as a young 28 year old man ( His speech is known as the “Lyceum Address,”) he said: “I hope I am over wary; but if I am not, there is, even now, something of ill-omen, amongst us. I mean the increasing disregard for law which pervades the country; the growing disposition to substitute the wild and furious passions, in lieu of the sober judgment of Courts; and the worse than savage mobs, for the executive ministers of justice. This disposition is awfully fearful in any community; and that it now exists in ours, though grating to our feelings to admit, it would be a violation of truth, and an insult to our intelligence, to deny[ii].”

Lincoln’s Lyceum address in 1838 about the perpetuation of American political institutions. He was immediately concerned about the rash of violent actions, perpetuated by unruly mobs, which was spreading through much of the country But his greater concern was the difficulty of safeguarding the country’s free institutions, now that the burden of preserving had fallen to a generation that did not create them.

He was talking about the need for strong political institutions, rule of law and respect for life and property, so that no tyrant may rise from within the country. The same is true of Egypt’s condition today. The institutions that exist today are a handover of the Post-Mubarak regime and MB with its recent electoral victory was trying to come to grips with the fragile economy and an exuberant populace. While being a social solidarity movement, the MB has had no political experience, having been shunned out of the political sphere for decades. This chance to build institutions, to solidify its political credentials and also earn the respect and loyalty of those who brought them to power has been lost, perhaps by a few rash actions of Mr.Morsi and also greatly by the coup, instated by the Military.


             Despite the best analysis, scholarship and insights, no one can predict what the future of the region will hold. Will the next 50 years in Egypt resemble those under Mubarak? There are indications that this may not be true, but it is too early to say anything. What I would rather predict is that despite all the rhetoric and brouhaha about change, things haven’t really changed much, on the ground. It is not about the “mindset,” as David Brooks has argued.

            Not only is this deeply offensive and inaccurate, but is also hegemonic. While he brushes off America’s involvement in keeping Mubarak in power for decades, all in the name of stability, he goes to great lengths to argue against Muslim Brotherhood’s rule, which lasted just a year or so.

            As a parting thought, I would like to point to Turkey, Indonesia – two countries which are dealing with some of the challenges that a Muslim majority country faces, all the while balancing the needs of its minorities and ensuring there is representation and rule of law – two key ingredients of a democracy. Doesn’t this defeat the Democracy vs. Islam argument? And AKP party in Turkey is an “Islamist one,” to top it all. There are great examples and institutional and cultural norms which favor democracy, participation and upholding the rights of minorities in each of the Muslim countries. While talking of the “Muslim world,” does not help anyone, given the complexity and diversity of cultures, ways of living; it may help to draw upon some of the normative claims and examples from Islamic history, which are replete with democratic institutions and ways of consultation and Ijma, or consensus.

            I do agree with Dr.Juan Cole, when he says: “Egypt’s future stability and prosperity now depends on whether the officer corps and youth are mature enough to return to pluralist principals and cease persecuting the Muslim Brotherhood just because Morsi was high-handed. Their media has to be free and the 300 officials have to be released unless charged with really-existing crimes on the statute books. And it depends on whether the Muslim Brotherhood is wise and mature enough to roll with this punch and to reform itself, giving up its cliquish and cult-like internal solidarity in favor of truly becoming a nation-wide, center-right, democratic opposition party.”

So, a short answer to the question, can Muslim majority countries in the Middle East transition to democracies? In short: Yes. The long answer: It depends on the conditions, internal leadership and also the extent of foreign involvement in the country. There is also a need for greater humility and acknowledgment that no one really knows how things will pan out. And also, one must remember that the American civil war lasted for four years, between 1861-65. That’s about four years and over 750,000 dead in total.

I hope the pundits are listening.

[i] Huntington, Samuel. Political Order in Changing Societies. 1968. Yale Uni. Press.

[ii]  Lincoln, Abraham. The Lyceum Address. July 5, 2013. Accessible at: http://www.abrahamlincolnonline.org/lincoln/speeches/lyceum.htm

Conversations in Philanthropy – # 1

Daniel at the Library of philanthropy, IUPUI
Daniel at the Library of philanthropy, IUPUI







I arrived in Indianapolis almost two weeks ago, for a research internship at the School of Philanthropy, Indiana University in Indianapolis ( IUPUI). Since my arrival, it has been an intense foray into the world of Philanthropy and almost every experience is directly or indirectly related to philanthropy. I am amazed at the depth, breadth and strength of the school (and in some ways the city) to embrace philanthropic studies, in such a comprehensive way. Walk into downtown and you will notice the “Cultural trail,” endowed by the Eugene Glick Foundation, one of the larger philanthropic institutions in the city. The School of Philanthropy itself is endowed by the Lilly family and hence the school is now called the Lilly School of Philanthropy.

This is the first in series of “conversations in philanthropy,” posts that I plan on writing, during my stay here, throwing light on some aspect of the field of Philanthropic studies. In this post, I will try to give a big picture overview of how philanthropic giving has changed from last year to this year, based on Giving USA 2013 report and some insights into religious giving in the U.S.

I have already had some deep, insightful conversations with many people here covering philanthropy in religion, fund-raising, and also individual philanthropy. The research team here takes a “big picture,” view of philanthropy and studies it comprehensively. Some of the most impressive projects that I have come across are in the realm of trying to understand philanthropy in the context of larger societal discourse and also individual changes in behavior. My colleague Daniel, for instance is studying whether the ‘U-curve theory’ of philanthropy is true. i.e., that poorer people give more in philanthropy as compared to the middle class, in proportion to how much they earn and this percentage drops, as one’s income level increases.

            Giving USA 2013: The Giving USA Foundation and Lilly School of Philanthropy released Giving USA, the annual report, which takes stock of the field of Philanthropy in a “big-picture,” perspective. Here are some key findings of the survey, which uses data from Internal Revenue Service, other sources that publicly report giving and aggregates this information. This is the most trusted and comprehensive survey of giving in the country and has set a benchmark for reporting philanthropy. For more on methodology of how Giving USA compiles its data, look here.  Here are some key findings for this year:


  • Giving USA 2013 found that charitable contributions from foundations, corporations, and individuals totaled slightly more than $316B in 2012, which represents an increase of 3.5% from 2011. While this is no small sum, the Chronicle of Philanthropy notes that this is a “far cry from the $344B raised in 2007, before the recession hit, and a sign that unless the economy heats up — and giving along with it — it will be 2018 before charities and foundations can expect a full recovery.” After adjusting for inflation, donations from individuals, corporations, and foundations are still 8.2% below their peak just before the recession started in 2007.
  • Giving by individuals, foundations, and corporations increased in 2012 (+3.9%, +4.4%, and +12.2% estimated, respectively).  The sharp growth in corporate giving could be tied to record profits for companies in the second half of 2012.
  • Contributions to colleges, universities, and private schools rose by nearly 5%.
  • Billionaire donors giving at record levels: according to the Chronicle’s database that tracks donations of $1M or more, the number of gifts amounting to $100M or more to date in 2013 has already exceeded the number of gifts of this level made in both 2009 and 2010.
  • Nonprofits with the strongest fundraising projections for the coming years tend to be spending more on fundraising in this time when many are cutting back, and are making innovations in how they attract gifts and diversifying their sources of revenue.

The U.S is considered one of the most generous societies in the world, with very high levels of giving to civil society organizations. This goes back to the days of the founding of the country itself, given that there was suspicion of the government and also high levels of ‘self-reliance,’ among people to solve their own problems. This, has arguably continued and to this day, shapes the cultural landscape of giving in the country. The Charitable Choice provision of 1996 and subsequent neo-liberal policies that have sought to reduce the role of government has markedly increased the demand for social services and hence, there has been an increase in the number of nonprofits. The sheer expansion of foundations is staggering, considering there are over 75,000 foundations operating in the U.S today.

Individual giving is still very high in the U.S, as Giving USA 2013 points out. But the debates in the U.S today center on the role of the state versus individual action. This is not entirely settled, despite best efforts to find compromise, with the political parties espousing diametrically opposed views on issues such as Medicare and Medicaid, Social service provision etc. For more reading and in-depth analysis of who gives, to what and why, check out this paper by Schervish et al.

Religious giving: What does the future hold?

The U.S attracts an enormous amount of money towards is religious institutions and faith-based organizations. Giving to religion was virtually flat (a -0.02% decline) with contributions estimated to be $101.54 billion. Giving to religious organizations (mostly local houses of worship) represents the largest share of U.S. charitable giving at 32% in 2012. This is not surprising, given that congregations are disengaging with the church and there is reported drop in church attendance. This could also be a case where faith-based giving is on the rise (those not overtly religious, but inspired by humanitarian principles-which one could argue are rooted in faith). A classic case is Heifer International.

Given that religious institutions have witnessed a drop in giving (from about ½ of all giving a few decades ago to about 1/3 now) there are lessons for church and congregation leaders here, as well. The first could be to engage with the congregation more deeply, to utilize online fund-raising (Dr. Tim Seiler, the Director of Fund-raising school informed me that churches are considered to be lagging behind in technology adoption) and also focusing on the untold needs of the congregations. The biggest insight that I got into this segment is when he said that the pastors are perhaps not talking to the right people, and making appeals to those already giving – rather than reaching out to those who are free-loading.

Philanthropy is well and alive in the U.S and this is corroborated by the research in Giving USA 2013. It is undergoing a shift, albeit slowly and this is taking the shape of more partnerships, between foundations, private enterprises and faith-based and religious groups. Perhaps this is an indication of the changing needs of society and also how people are responding to these needs. Or perhaps, it is a reflection of desperately trying to fill in gaps that the state has left open – given the budget cuts and sequestration?



Book Review: Interventions – A life in War and Peace – Kofi Annan with Nader Mousavizadeh

As the civil war in Syria rages on, with close to 90,000 people having died so far, and United Nations Special Envoy Lakhdhar Brahimi having admitted failure of his mission, the notion of a UN or international “intervention,” seems to be all but dead. While there is a glimmer of hope in the situation, with the government willing to negotiate, the opposition is adamant that it will not have anything to do President Bashar Assad. This book gets to the heart of such “interventions,” as Kofi nterventions_300dpi_0Annan would have handled them. As a former Secretary-General of the world body and one of the well-respected international diplomats, Kofi Annan shares his deepest insights, fears as well as moments of truth in this riveting book, which is sure to keep you engrossed.

Annan tells the story of his career, which started off with him working for the Economic Commission for Africa in 1965, following three years with the WHO. This was followed by a Master’s degree at Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1971 and work for the UN in Geneva. He points out to his motivation for joining the UN and subsequent shift in his thinking from that of primarily serving Ghana, his home country to being a civil-servant to the rest of the world. He says:” Between the forces of bureaucratic inertia, bad governance and military rule, I saw little possibility of advancing the kind of change that was so necessary to Ghana’s- and Africa’s- progress. Today, forty years later, as a new generation is rebelling against this conspiracy of corrupt rule across the continent, I recognize that frustration and the power of such ideals in our own feelings from a generation ago.” This comment is telling and reveals a part of him which possibly pushed him into public service, to begin with.

The book moves back and forth easily between the various crises that have defined his career: Somalia, Rwanda, Bosnia, Iraq, Afghanistan, Iraq and of course 9/11. The tone is conversational and the prose flows well. His account also gives insider information on such key aspects as the development of Peacekeeping as an idea and how the UN came to embrace this notion. The 1990s’ brought a new optimism, an idealist view of how the international community would stand behind the oppressed and the weak. Speaking of this growth, he says :” Between 1987 and 1992, most operations had involved one hundred observers or fewer missions involving littler risk to peacekeepers. By early 1994, there would be a total of eighty thousand peacekeeping forces deployed in 17 operations worldwide.” This was by no means a triumphalism of the west- as the missions in Rwanda, Somalia quickly deteriorated and the UN couldn’t do much to prevent the genocide, violence in these regions. Annan acknowledges that Rwanda and Bosnia were the two biggest failures until that time and to rectify that he commissioned two reports to investigate why the UN failed in its duties. What followed was the Brahimi Report in 2000, which sought to correct several of the impediments that stood in the way of the UN doing its job effectively.

Responsibility to Protect ( RTP) is a legacy that Kofi Annan left behind. It is a powerful statement and a legacy that reflects his commitment to upholding the high moral principles of protecting the vulnerable and weak in the face of oppression. It is what came out of his experiences in the abovementioned conflicts. This called for re-imagining the notion of state sovereignty, one of the holy-grails in International Relations. His quote on this is telling:” We needed to convince the broader global community that sovereignty had to be understood as contingent and conditional on states’ taking responsibility for the security of their own people’s human rights.”(pg84). The struggle within the organization and also the cultural shift is captured in his quote:” What do you do when people are starving, dying, not because there is drought, but because people, a group of men, are stopping them from getting the food…what do you to? Sit? Negotiate? Or what? .”

The chapter on Kosovo, East Timor and Darfur is particularly striking in its focus on how mass violence was committed by the respective states against their own people and how at times, the world just stood by and watched these atrocities. Kosovo was the litmus test for UN’s credibility. The call for action to stop violence against ethnic Albanians, the Security Council resolution 1199, which demanded the withdrawal of Yugoslav forces from Kosovo and the subsequent NATO airstrikes, which ultimately had a decisive impact on how this situation ended. The East Timor’s case is particularly striking also because of the manner in which Annan was directly involved and this, one can argue, saved thousands of lives and also lead to the country eventually being recognized as a sovereign nation, following a popular referendum in 1999, which was mediated by the UN.

Darfur in Sudan presented another set of challenges and it seems that this tested his skills of negotiation, deal-making and diplomacy. The crisis in 2004, which was precipitated by the Sudanese government’s support of Janjaweed militia against the South had reached a tipping point. The crisis, which claimed over half a million lives has lead to an international campaign against Sudanese president Omar Bashar and also the formation of a new country, South Sudan.

By no means was his work easy or without risks. Annan mentions the many personal clashes with world-leaders, over how a problem should be approached, issues of parochial national interests coming in the way of reaching a just solution to a conflict and at times, pure ego being the deal-breaker. The struggle about defining the situation in Darfur as a genocide or not, involving the British, Americans and the UN itself is quite striking. This had enormous implications in how this situation was resolved and dealt with in the form of a UN mission sent in 2007.

United Nations and its role in today’s world

As the world becomes increasingly connected, both through movement of people as well as ideas, the challenges of governance increase. The role of the Secretary General itself is quite unique and Annan offers a sneak-peak into the running of an organization of $ 10 billion annual budget, and one invested with the hopes, aspirations of the entire world. The work requires tremendous tenacity, tact, energy as well as coordination skills. The 2001 Nobel Peace Prize to Annan and the UN was a confidence booster and legitimated his approach to running the organization.

While the post-WWII framework still operates in the form of permanent five of the Security Council, his 2003 call for reform aimed to expand the membership of permanent members; though this has not taken any concrete shape yet. His frustration of dealing with leaders in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is apparent, when he points out that both Arafat and Ariel Sharon were problematic people to deal with. This seems to be the classic position of being stuck between a rock and a hard place, and shows partly why the UN has not been very effective in playing a key role in this conflict, so far. The UN has been denied a proper role in the conflict and Annan admits it as being limiting and not very effective.

Middle East, MDGs and the future of our planet

Speaking of his diplomatic initiatives to redefine security, as security from hunger, disease and poverty; towards accomplishment of the Millennium Development Goals ( MDGs), Annan paints an interesting picture of his struggles with African leaders like Mugabe, who refused to acknowledge the use of condoms in the strategy to prevent the spread of AIDS. He captures this shifting in priorities quite well, when he says:” I spent most of my tenure as secretary-general in an international environment obsessed with the potential peril of weapons of mass destruction. But in HIV/AIDS, which never received anything like the same level of attention, we had a true WMD- and one that was actively unleashing itself in the world.” His lament about countries prioritizing violence over peace is clear when he says:” Member states willed the ends but rarely the means. The world, as ever, was happy to invest in the instruments of violence, but not the resources for peace.”

Despite the violence, chaos and destruction that has characterized the Arab Spring, Annan remains optimistic and believes that the demands for better governance that are being made are legitimate and reflect the aspirations of the younger generation.

While the book captures the career and life of Kofi Annan through the lens of a few events, it could have been organized better. Though it moves back and forth and captures the tension between the key people, at key moments in history; I believe the story could have been told in a more detailed manner. Despite its short-comings and skimming over certain key global events, the book is a fascinating read and a must-read for any student of International development or International Affairs.


Annan Kofi, Mousavizadeh Nader. Interventions – A life in War and Peace, The Penguin Press, 2012. Hardcover. $21.42 on Amazon.com 

Can Turkey, Egypt become “modern?”

The ongoing contestations, protests and debates in Egypt, Turkey between the people and the leaders  is being framed as one of clash of modernity vs. traditionalism. Enough ink has been spilled trying to explain how the Islamists (read those who believe there is space for Islam in the public sphere) are harmful, retrograde and generally bad for the country in question. While this fear of Islamists have some validity- in extreme cases such as the Taliban, on the whole, I believe this apprehension and fear about the “wave of Islamization,” in Egypt, Turkey is incorrect, exaggerated and at times blatantly wrong.

Mr.Morsi, President of Egypt
Mr.Morsi, President of Egypt

The government’s repression and tackling of protestors is quite another issue, and I will not get into that here. My point is to analyze the discourse surrounding the participation of Islamist parties in the public sphere. I believe that there is an exaggerated fear of these elements and also an Orientalist understanding of politics, that may well fall short of the kind of thinking needed to understand the role of Islam in the public sphere.  

Some background

The debate about modernity and secularism is particularly important as various developments in the Muslim world are re-defining “modernity,” but this is not the definition of modernity that fits the western mould, as well-known Anthropologist and scholar of Islam, Talal Asad points out. The Arab Spring uprisings are an example of the kind of modernity that is bringing to power regimes which the western powers see as “pre-modern”. Egypt, Tunisia stand as examples of such developments, which are considered by many analysts and a few academics as NOT representative of modernity.turkey-country

The classical definition of modernity and Secularism has the implicit notion of separation of Religion and Politics, but this does not neatly fit into the definition of how politics and life in general is conducted in many parts of the world. Asad points out that project of modernity in the Muslim world (and one can argue in many societies which are non-Muslim as well) that secularism and modernity should not be seen as exclusionary terms.

“Deprivatization of religion process depends on how religion becomes public. If it furthers democracy, as it did in Poland or promotes debate around liberal values, then it is entirely consistent with modernization,” says Talal Asad in Formations of the Secular[i]. Taking a cue from this, it seems that for Asad, modernity is not problematic, in so far as it is willing to embrace various versions of secularism and also makes space for religion in a manner which does not radically shift or distort societal balances.

“Modernity is a project or a series of projects that some of those in power seek to achieve…” and we forget that the notion of modernity in the west emerged at a time in history and there is an attempt from the Western powers to impose it on other societies. This is the reason there are so many problems in other parts of the world,” he adds. The fact that Asad believes that there cannot be one definition of Modernity, or Secularism or even Religion complicates matters for him and hence this can be a hegemonic discourse. This is often played out in discourses of belonging, national security and other areas impacting the state.

Elsewhere, Asad points out that he is very ambivalent and almost leery of the idea of modernity[1], since it presupposes just one form of modernity. In the introductory chapter of Formations of the Secular, he says:” Thus, although in France both the highly centralized state and its citizens are secular, in Britain the state is linked to the Established church and its inhabitants are largely nonreligious, and in America the population is largely religious but the federal state is secular…consequently, although the secularism in these three countries have much in common, the mediating character of the modern imaginary in each of them differs significantly.”

So, how is one to define Modernity? Doesn’t this view of modernity make it almost impossible to talk about Modernity or Secularism, in an objective sense? Perhaps not. Asad points out that: “The modern nation as an imagined constructed is mediated through imagined constructs, “says Asad in the introductory chapter[2]. One of the main symbols used is that of Secularism, as all other identities and symbols are relegated to secondary importance. The mediating character of religious symbols varies in each society, he goes on to say and this is quite different even within the Western world. Take the US, France and Britain. While the US still has a significant population which believes in fundamentalist ideals and tries to influence polity, France is at a different spectrum and with its Laicite, is quite insular in its approach to religion in the public sphere.

But it is key to remember that there are constant negotiations going on in every society and no society is ever static. While the French are adamantly nationalistic and define Secular in a very rigid way, they still have Catholic Schools in which one can cover oneself (Veil) as one chooses. It’s a mistake to think of secular and religious in binary term, there are lots of cross-cultural connections and transmutations of concepts, modes of behavior and organization. Let’s now look at the notion of civil society and modernity, as being understood specifically in Turkey and Egypt.


Notions of civil society and modernity in Egypt

Among the several assumptions about the Middle East and North Africa are that “civil society,” must flourish in order for democratic institutions to take root. While this assumption has been challenged on several grounds, both religious and cultural, the fact remains that there are vibrant pockets of civil society – the sort of networks and alliances that make governance and accountability possible in many parts of the region.

Steven Cook recently wrote about the “Islamization,” of the newly formed democracies in an insightful article for the Atlantic, in which he says :Egypt’s Muslim Brothers and Tunisia’s Ennahda have not declared alcohol forbidden, forced women to don the hijab, or instituted hudud punishments (i.e., specific punishments for specific crimes set forth in the Qur’an or hadiths). It was big news in Egypt several weeks ago when the Le Roi Hotel in the Red Sea resort of Hurghada poured out all its alcohol and established a female-only floor and swimming pool, but only because there have been so few incidents along these lines — observers tend to forget that what was Cairo’s Grand Nile Tower (formerly the Hyatt) went dry well before anyone ever contemplated Hosni Mubarak’s ignominious fall.” He clarifies what he means by “Islamized,” by adding: “By grounding certain institutions in Islamic tenets, Islamist elites create an environment in which religion plays a greater role in society, including in areas that have not been directly Islamized.” Implicit in this line of reasoning is that this is somehow bad, evil and inimical to the interests of minorities, although, there is very little proof to that effect.

As a proof to show that the country is Islamizing, he cites a new amendment to the December 2012 constitution: “Al-Azhar is an encompassing independent Islamic institution, with exclusive autonomy over its own affairs, responsible for preaching Islam, theology, and the Arabic language in Egypt and the world. Al-Azhar Senior Scholars are to be consulted in matters pertaining to Islamic law.” While this may seem true, it is a fact that given the strange relationship of the Ulema ( religious scholars at Al-Azhar) and the ruling establishment, over the centuries, there has been a tension built in – one that neither gives them absolute say, nor authority. One must only remember that Mubarak quite literally managed Al-Azhar on his own terms and before him Sadat coopted the Ulema. If the country’s constitution says that Shari’ah is the source of law, doesn’t it make sense that the scholars of the most well-known university be consulted?


Turkey’s case:

Speaking of Turkey’s reform efforts in Education, Steven Cook, in the same article, mentions :In March 2012, for example, the AKP paved the way for graduates of imam-hatip (preacher) schools to enter the bureaucracy by making it easier for them to matriculate at Turkey’s universities — a traditional feeder for public servants. In the context of Turkish politics and the Republic’s history of aggressive laicisme, the change was controversial. Turkey’s preacher schools are, as their name implies, intended to train prayer leaders for Turkey’s 82,693 mosques and, as such, about half the curriculum is devoted to religious subjects while the remainder of the curriculum coincides with what the Ministry of National Education prescribes for non-religious high school students.” What he does not mention is that these schools were severely repressed by the state, during the Ataturk era and today form one of the examples of every local community’s efforts to educate its youngsters. Students in Imam hatip schools get both religious and secular education and learn to become constructive members of society. There is again, nothing inherently wrong with this, as Cook and several other secularists assume. If anything, this move to help the graduates of these schools enter the public service is an effort to integrate these graduates, who often are poor and come from modest backgrounds.

As Fazlur Rahman, the late scholar of Islam has astutely pointed out: “The great sign of hope is the restlessness and remarkable upward mobility of intellectual life in the new educational adventure of Islam in Turkey. This is an inherent quality of the Turkish character and accrues directly from the circumstance that Turkey is starting over with a clean slate after a deliberate and extended experiment with pure secular Westernization[ii].”

One must not forget that the economy grew tremendously under Mr.Erdogan and the religious resurgence seems to be a reaction to the decades of repression by the state. It is the will of people that is being demonstrated, through the elected representatives. Here is an article from The Economist, that points to the economic growth that came under Mr.Erdogan and the need for further stability in the country. It points out: “A key selling-point for Recep Tayyip Erdogan to voters is Turkey’s economic performance. After a volatile 1990s and a huge bust in 2001, his Justice and Development (AK) government has presided over steady high growth and modest inflation. In 2010 and 2011 the economy grew by a China-like 9%, leading to serious fears of overheating.” Despite, this there are serious concerns about the AKP and Mr.Erdogan’s religious leanings. Criticism of the ruling party often seems to be from a political or ideological stance, often not taking into account the historical progress of the country, and the social and religious conditions that have shaped it.

Here is an egregious example of bashing of Mr.Erdogan, Prime Minister of Turkey. While the writer fails to acknowledge that the Turkish economy grew rapidly under his leadership, he goes on to say that the has nothing to show, but the growth of the economy – as if economic miracles happen in vacuum, without any planning or critical evaluation of the direction in which the country should head.

There are very many credible and respect scholars who have made the claim that the notions of modernity, religion and secularism are all western constructs, that emerged in the West in a specific context, under very specific time-periods and they have become a lens for the western world to look at the world. It is wrong to assume that every civilization and country should abide by these and imposing this on others is akin to hegemony. Jose Casanova, Peter Berger, Talal Asad have all made similar (if not the exact same arguments) in their books and there is good reason to believe this is the case.



What is to be done?

In conclusion, what H.A.R. Gibb, the great Orientalist scholar said about the Muslim religious leaders of medieval times, can be said equally about their secular opponents, in contemporary times: ““Modernism is, therefore, predominantly a movement of thought among educated laymen, if we leave aside the neo-Hanbalite Manar-modernists. But how is its theological content to be assessed or defined? It seldom finds direct expression in books or articles, and though, it may be reflected in the arguments and polemics of the Ulema against the spread of Secularism, we may be sure that, in the invariable habit of preachers and polemists, they exaggerate, misrepresent and distort the opinion and activities of which they disapprove[iii].”

Perhaps, journalists, analysts and students should read a bit more about the processes of modernization, the critiques of the same and also sensitize themselves to the various debates in the field before passing any judgments. While it is true that modernity is a difficult, painful and often destructive process, it need not be so. Turkey and Egypt are in a unique position to define for the Muslim world what modernity in the 21st century looks like. And I believe they should do it on their own terms – not on terms defined by others.

[i] Asad, Talal. 2003, Formations of the Secular: Christianity, Islam, Modernity,Stanford, California: Stanford University Press

[ii] Rahman, Fazlur. 1982. Islam and Modernity. Chicago, University of Chicago Press.

[iii] Gibb, H.A.R. 1947. Modern Trends in Islam, New York. Octagon Books. Pp.49.

Can there be “ethics of dissent”?

The most recent “leaks” involving the National Security Agency by Edward Snowden, the Booze Allen Hamilton employee goes to the heart of one of the debates in Public Administration: the perennial tension between democracy and bureaucracy. Snowden acted in a very democratic manner, calling into question the actions of the very agency that employed him, while retaining a bureaucratic role. Given the discourse surrounding securitization, post 9/11, this should not be as shocking as the media is making it out to be. Despite this, it is still a major PR disaster for the Obama administration, not to mention Booze. While interesting in and of itself, this incident also brings up another related issue that I will deal with here: that of the “ethics of dissent.” Were Snowden’s actions ethical? Did he cross any ethical line by leaking the information that was entrusted to him and if so, what exactly did he do wrong? Should he be tried for treason? What or whom did he betray? If not guilty of any wrong-doing, how are his actions justified? In this short essay, I will try to look at these tensions in the light of what is “ethical,” and in the context of a bureaucracy. I will also look at the tensions between democracy and bureaucracy, in this context.


 Ethics of dissent, an oxymoron?

While the very idea of dissent in a government and bureaucratic set up may seem un-ethical, it is a fact of life and one that must not be ignored. If not for Watergate and several lesser known cases such as the Nevada Wetlands case, three scientists from the US Dept. of Interior, and one from the Nevada Dept. of Wildlife who successfully got a bill passed through Congress to dedicate water to the Nevada Wetlands, legislation that their superiors testified against, much of the wrong-doing by leaders would not have been exposed. Needleman and Needleman (1974) have called these whistleblowers and “ethical renegades” as “guerillas in the bureaucracy.” The problem then, for public administrators and civil servants is: 1. How public administrators can manage dissent, chaos, and guerilla government 2. How are issues related to policy going to be affected by these choices – of being democratic in a bureaucratic setup?

The NSA case also brings up a central issue that has been addressed by scholars such as Prof. Rosemary O’Leary, Distinguished professor of Public Administration at Maxwell School of Syracuse University, who takes a step back and asks “Whose ethics are we talking about”. While in a democratic framework, dissent should not only tolerated, but even encouraged, it becomes problematic if someone who is a government employee does this. She has written extensively about this issue and her book The Ethics of Dissent: Managing Guerilla Government ( O’Leary, 2006) offers insights into how dissent originates and how it can be understood and managed. She argues persuasively, that the creativity of guerillas can be managed effectively, for positive change. O’Leary further points out that this process boils down to creating an organizational culture that fosters dissent, promotes communication and avoids groupthink through diversity of thought and intellectual curiosity.

As she points out, and is evident in many of the cases that one comes across, often there is a perceived wrong that the organization is doing, that the guerillas are trying to address or correct. This may take the form of exposing the wrong-doing to the press, emailing stakeholders, or other means of publicizing the wrongdoing that may lead to a shift in public opinion about the issue, towards what they perceive is right. The question remains: who defines what is right? O’Leary’s argument is that “doing the right thing,” is also linked to what is the meaning of “ethical.” This doesn’t mean there is no space for integrity, and that moral relativism should reign. O’Leary also points out that all the actions of guerillas are not from a sense of idealism. Some of them can be downright petty, as in a case when they were passed over for a promotion (O’Leary, 2010). As she points out to this tension in this poignant para,: “ Guerilla government is about the power of career bureaucrats; the tensions between career bureaucrats and political appointees; and organization culture and what it means to act responsibly, ethically and with integrity as a public servant.”

Whether these guerillas behaved rightly lies in whether they acted in “self-conscious reflection, honesty, self-disciplined ability to resist temptation and act upon beliefs and commitments.”( pg.95). Her insight towards managing dissent is by creating channels where it can be heard, and also of fostering a culture where it is not seen in an antagonistic way.

 She offers us three lenses to look at the issue of guerrilla government: Bureaucratic politics, Organizations and Management and Ethics. Bureaucratic politics literature points out that career public servants make policy, based on their discretion and that Public Administration is a political process ( Appleby, 1949), and that bureaucrats’ views tend to be influenced by the unique culture of their agencies (Halperin and Kanter 1973). On the other hand, organization theorists have argued that organizations both are shaped by and seek to shape the environment in which they operate (Trist, 1965; Katz and Kahn, 1966; March, 1963), where there is a constant give and take, and one in which the organizational boundaries are in flux. O’Leary points out that this perspective is key to understand guerilla government.

The ethics of public servants is the third lens, as O’Leary has pointed out and Waldo’s twelve ethical obligations offer a comprehensive framework in this regard. His key point is that different public servants will be motivated by different motivations and this makes any fixed, iron-clad judgments of the actions of the guerillas difficult. Also, added to this is the question of ambiguity (O’Leary, 2010; Dobel, 1999).

Democracy vs. bureaucracy?

The broader debate that the issue of dissent opens up is also one of the tension between democracy and bureaucracy. While the normative framework for democracy relies on what benefits the greater good, at the interest of the particular organization; the bureaucratic one is slightly more inward looking and asks for more “loyalty,” to the organization. This is a perennial tension that pioneers of Public Administration such as Dr.Dwight Waldo have sought to address. He has pointed out, quite clearly and forcefully in his book The Administrative State that Public Administration is value laden, and not an exact science, as many would like to believe. His quote: “Moral or ethical behavior in public administration is a complicated matter,” is something we should remember.

Content values of bureaucratic ethos:


Content values of democratic ethos
÷  Efficiency

÷  Efficacy

÷  Expertise

÷  Loyalty

÷  Accountability


÷  Regime values

÷  Citizenship

÷  Public interest

÷  Social equity


Fig: Ethical frameworks in public administration (Pugh, 1989[i])


While the bureaucratic model requires one to be obedient and overlook any wrongs or slights, in the interest of the organization; the democratic model seeks to assert the right to speak out, in public interest, as needed. One may never be able to find the right mix between the right amount of democracy and bureaucracy, but there can be an attempt to find a balance. As Dr.Dwight Waldo, the doyen of Public Administration once said:” ‘I accept democracy as desirable…I accept bureaucracy as not so much desirable as necessary.’

                In terms of actual ways to manage guerilla government, O’Leary’s (2006) suggestions may be helpful. She says that the seasoned managers she interviewed for her book offered her the following tips:

  1. Create an organization that accepts, welcomes and encourages candid dialogue and debate. Create a culture of questioning attitude by encouraging staff to challenge the assumptions and actions of the organization
  2. Listen
  3. Understand the organization both formally and informally
  4. Separate the people from the problem
  5. Create multiple channels for dissent
  6. Create dissent boundaries and know when to stop



Pugh, D. Professionalism in Public Administration: Problems, Perspectives, and the Role of ASPA. American Society for Public Admin.

Dobel, J.Patrick. 1999. Public Integrity. Baltimore. Johns Hopkins Uni press.

Katz, Daniel and Robert L.Kahn. 1978. The Social Psychology of Organizations. 2nd ed. NY: Wiley

Waldo, Dwight. 1988. The enterprise of public administration: A Summary view. Novato, CA: Chandler and Sharp.

O’Leary Rosemary.2010. Guerilla Employees: Should managers Nurture, Tolerate or Terminate them?, Public Administration Review

O’Leary Rosemary. 2006. The Ethics of Dissent: Managing Guerilla Employees. Washington D.C. CQ Press