America’s philanthropy problem?

170616141515-amazon-whole-foods-jeff-bezos-grocery-brick-and-mortar-00001001-1024x576A debate that is becoming salient, over the past few years is if philanthropic foundations are becoming powerful by the day? A recent article in The Huffington Post points this out. The writer points out, correctly, that Jeff Bezos solicited ideas for his philanthropy, just a few days before the purchase of Whole Foods. PR stunt? Astute move to buy some social capital? Or perhaps a combination of both?

For some, this is a problem – arguing, as does the Huff Post writer, Matt Stoller. But for others, this is nothing but a transactional idea. A means of buying some legitimacy in a world where raising questions such as this is moot. The battle of ideas over the legitimate use of power is over, in this other world-view. The capitalists have won and rightfully decide what needs to happen in our world. Whether it is by monopoly or other means is irrelevant.

A friend recently pointed out Hypernomalization, a documentary that also makes this point. The thesis in this documentary, that giving away of democratic power to those with wealth is dangerous and has brought us to the current state of affairs – with a climate change denying President and a world where the state is increasingly being made irrelevant and the real power resides in the handful of oligarchs around us.

This is not just a political problem but also a social problem. And in that sense, a philanthropic problem as well. For those of us who study (and practice) philanthropy, this should be disconcerting – simply because of the ramifications of how the act of philanthropy is perceived.  Whether it is a genuine act – aimed at bringing about social change or a PR stunt depends as much on one’s motivations and style of managing it. The current tilt towards hi-networth philanthropy makes it less egalitarian and ‘normal,’ it seems.

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.

Can Philanthropy help fix the refugee crisis?

Beyond the headlines, the noise and clamor that we hear about immigration is a rather simple question: How will we welcome the stranger? The one who is unknown, perhaps vulnerable?  The question of refugees is also ultimately about us, especially those living in countries where refugees come to. The U.S, Europe and the Gulf nations have come under intense scrutiny in the past few weeks and will continue to be questioned by media pundits and experts who pay attention to this issue. I believe that the way policy makers and politicians (and civil society) addresses these questions will ultimately define who ‘we’ are. It is as much a matter of self-definition, as it is about dealing with the problem ‘out there.’ Let me explain.

Photo credit : www.fleetfeetstuart.com
Photo credit : http://www.fleetfeetstuart.com

Robert Wuthnow, one of the most well-known Sociologist in the U.S. argues that the stories that we tell ourselves. For instance, he says that they narratives or the ‘American mythos’ often lead us to believe that we are more generous than we are. He adds ‘the deep meanings of these stories provide us with common ways of thinking about who we are. At the same time, they bias our perceptions. For instance, they encourage us to think that we are more religious than we really are. They result in ideas about how to escape from materialism and consumerism that are usually more wishful than effective.’ Wuthnow reminds us that since 1965, we have had over 22 million people enter the U.S. legally and about 8 million by other means. Consequently, this also has shaped the demographics of the country, bringing in more diversity. Our values regarding acceptance of people who are different from us have also changed. We are in a ‘New America’ of sorts – that is less white, less Protestant, more Hindu, more Muslim and more tolerant of these differences.

Speaking of civil society responses to the immigration issue, here is a recent write-up in the Wall Street Journal. In this piece, the author makes the claim that private, civil society responses to welcoming and taking care of immigrants has worked in the past. For about a decade, the State Department even allowed it in the U.S. but apparently the program was stopped due to lack of agreement on who should come. Also, I am assuming this changed after 9/11 and the scare of potential terrorists coming to the U.S. In my own personal experience, U.S. immigration is one of the hardest in the world and as a migrant from India, my own experience was quite difficult; even though I came through all the ‘proper’ channels, as an international student.

The WSJ article says that the delays in processing immigrants – and it can take upto 18 months for a refugee to get here involve paper work- for reasons that are entirely based on potential worse case scenarios, that the refugees are all potential terrorists. So, the framing of a refugee as a terrorist is in place and is extremely hard to combat, even if it is a three year old child. How can philanthropists overcome this framing, unless they spend enormous amount of money battling this policy framing? This is a question that the article does not address. Civil society has its limits, which are often defined by the state.

In Wuthnow’s view, the reason that we are unable to live to our promises is because our assumptions of who we are, often go unexamined. For instance, he argues that America is considered a ‘land of opportunities’ but at the same time, this myth goes unexamined. The stories we tell ourselves, about who we are he says ‘They are fundamentally about morality.’ He further points out that the very process of coming to the U.S . is one of renewal for those who come and also the society here. It has the potential to renew democracy, even.

If the process of immigration is about renewal and philanthropy is about individual values acting out in the public sphere, as Peter Frumkin argues, then there should be a role for philanthropists to address the refugee crisis. While there are pockets of groups in the U.S. and other countries, that are tackling the challenges, I would hazard a guess and say that current policies in place in EU and the U.S. restrict how much individuals and groups can participate in this process. Perhaps it is time to re-look at these policies and see if there is room for private intervention?

I will end with the question I started this article with: How we respond to the present crisis will be shaped by how we think of ourselves, as people. Also, equally importantly, this is a question of values and morality, as Wuthnow reminds us. It is not about pure rationality or logic.or this reason, I think philanthropy can have a huge impact on how refugees are rehabilitated and also find long-term opportunities. ACCESS, a MI based NGO, which has been working with recent immigrants for over 40 years offers an example of what can positively be accomplished. This is borrowing from Wuthnow’s insight that ultimately, many of our failures in solving social problems boil down to unexamined cultural assumptions. The assumption that is of interest to me is that governments should solve all of these problems. The second one is that the refugee is someone to be feared.  At the present moment, these two assumptions about how we treat the ‘stranger’ in our midst and our own philanthropic motives and its impact can shape what we end up doing, as a matter of policy.

Renewing Islam through service?

Popular discourses about Islam don’t normally include the ‘service’ component of the faith. Even though Islam considers charity to be central part of faith. Charity is very broadly defined in Islamic terms – for instance, there are prophetic Hadith that suggest that even a kind word or smile to a stranger can be considered an act of charity. Given this, how are we to understand contemporary discourses of volunteering, service within the context of Islam. And how can we make sense of the service component of movements like the Hizmet movement (also known as the Gulen movement)? This was the central discussion that was part of Prof. Pim Valkenberg’s talk at the Rumi Forum, yesterday.

His book titled Renewing Islam by Service is an investigation into why the volunteers who serve people through the Hizmet movement do so. Seems like a simple question to answer, but the answers that he found surprised Valkenberg.

Valkenberg spoke of the impressive volunteering done by the Hizmet movement followers. He said “I quickly realized that this is called Hizmet movement (volunteers) rather than Gulen movement, because even though it was inspired by the teachings of Fethullah Gulen, he is really not the center of attention.” Mr.Gulen would rather people focus on the groups or cemaats of volunteers. Speaking of his own interest and how he came to study the movement in Europe, he said that his earlier interactions with students who were part of this movement were his first introduction.  This motive of working for the ‘pleasure of Allah’ was the interpretive key to understanding the work of the Gulen movement volunteers, he pointed out. He pointed out to the massive amount of charity that occurs during Ramadhan and also throughout the year, among Turks as an illustration of this charity. The current efforts of the Turkish government to rehabilitate the Syrians can be (broadly speaking) understood from this perspective of hospitality for the stranger.

While most narratives of revival or reform of Islam usually center on discussions of Islamism or political Islam, this perspective of looking at practices to reexamine Islam is an interesting one. It was refreshing to hear Valkenberg address the theological understanding of charity among the members of Gulen movement. Several scholars, religious preachers and reformers have addressed this question of reform. Among the more controversial manifestations of this ‘reform’ is Salafism, which seems to get a lot of bad press. While politics and religion get entangled in this debate, Volkenberg’s work suggests that it is possible to focus on the ethical and religious dimensions of these practices, while examining why these volunteers do what they do.

Their very public charity and manifestation of their values may seem controversial in a society such as the U.S., given the discomfort many have about talking about religion in public, but Volkenberg doesn’t see this as a problem. “As a Catholic, I also see that there is role for religion in addressing public issues, so I am all for movements like the Hizmet movement,” he said; arguing that perhaps Christians can learn something from such groups.

During my own visit to Turkey 2007, I saw large volunteer groups raising money for charity. I have also been consistently impressed with the scale as well as commitment to service among the Turkish diaspora I have encountered in India and the U.S. This book will certainly add to our understanding of the motivations, both religious and civic, among the Hizmet movement followers.

Photo credit : The Rumi Forum
Photo credit : The Rumi Forum

Do we need accurate data about Nonprofits in the US ?

Last weekend, I attended a conference / brainstorm hosted by the American University, in partnership with the Urban Institute. Titled  ‘Nonprofit Panel Data Symposium,’ the two day event attracted some of the top brains in the country, working in the nonprofit/ civil society sector. As a young scholar who is interested in the sector and whose work intersects with the nonprofit sector quite strongly, I had a big incentive to be there. While it is hard for me to share all the details that were discussed, I will offer a few insights, in the hope of answering the question I have just raised : Do we need accurate data about

nonprofits in the U.S.? 1

The short answer to this question is : Yes. The longer answer is to explicate why this is so. I will use my own research as a starting point to answer this question. First off, there is no ‘accurate data’ out there. As one skeptical participant raised the question : ‘Is the data we have worth shit’? That is a good question to ask, to begin with. The fundamental reason is that any data that is publicly available usually comes with a few caveats and limitations – what is disclosed, how much of it is disclosed and how current is this data? While Form 990s tell us part of the story, they don’t tell us the whole story.

On a related note, while statistics can inform us about the trends in giving, the impact of certain policies on how nonprofits respond, they usually conceal as much as they reveal.

While there are some excellent initiatives that have been ongoing, in the field of nonprofit data collection – at Urban Institute, Lilly School of Philanthropy among other institutes, the felt need among researchers is that of an ongoing panel data-set. Such a dataset does not exist for the nonprofit sector. In my research, I came across this problem too. While the groups Iam interested in studying for my doctoral degree are American Muslims, there is a lot of ‘issue’ based data, but no real panel dataset – either in quantitative or qualitative terms – that can offer us an analysis of how the nonprofit sector has changed over time. This temporal element is important, in many contexts, to tell a story.

Research is usually about creating a narrative that is compelling and also ‘true.’ While the facts may vary over time, having a long time-duration analysis evens out the fluctuations that are inherent in any organizations’ lifecycle and they can be analyzed and understood more clearly, over a period of time. To this extent, yes, a panel data set is a good idea. As bad and imperfect as any data source is, having something tells us something. Not having any data and just speculating, based on pre-existing theories or worse still, on hypothesis is the worst form of research or scholarship. And I have seen this, when it comes to scholarship on Islam or even philanthropy. Better to let the data speak, rather than let one’s imagination run wild. As Danial Patrick Moynihan famously said “One may be entitled to one’s own opinions, but not one’s own facts.”

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.

Notes

[i] See http://www.irishcentral.com/roots/history/Little-known-tale-of-generous-Turkish-aid-to-the-Irish-during-the-Great-Hunger.html?signup-thank-you

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.

What can Islam offer to the World? Part 1

Most often, when journalists write about Islam, it is in connection with something negative. As Edward Said argued, many years ago in Orientalism, there is a tendency in the Western academia and media to focus on the stereotypes of Islam and the Muslim world, at the expense of the ‘reality’ that exists in the Muslim majority countries. At the same time, when groups such as ISIS and Al-Qaeda go about doing the most inhumane and barbaric acts in the name of Islam, it doesn’t help either. The ones bearing the brunt of these negative stereotypes are over a billion people – who for the most part – I would argue are not as blood thirsty, violent and bigoted as the media portrays them to be. In this vitiated and negative environment, where it is easy to blame everything on Islam and Muslims’ negative attitude towards progress, modernity; is it not necessary to step back and ask the question: What can Islam offer to the world? Not what it has offered, already, but what it can offer– in the here and now – and in the future. In this brief piece, I will focus on economic justice as one of the areas where Islam can offer some solutions.

social justice

Is a dispassionate debate possible and is it worth-while talking about the ‘benefits’ that the Islamic moral and economic system can bring about? While the debates about Islamic economics and its comparisons with the conventional economic system that is dominated by Neoliberal understandings is not possible in this short piece, I will focus specifically on the notion of economic resilience and community solidarity to bring home the thesis that I am proposing. In the context of the debates about inequality, poverty and violence, I am interested in finding out if Islamic systems of economics or social justice can offer some guidance to the world, at large?

            The question that I am interested in raising, and one that I heard in April, at the Association of American Geographers annual meeting is this : Can Islam offer anything to our world in the 21st century? And specifically, our economic world? This may offend some believers that is understandable. But for those who are not Muslim, the question of Islam’s relevance in today’s world is a very valid question. Especially, when there is an environment of extreme negative stereotyping of the faith – even those who are peaceful believers are forced to ask: What is going wrong? Are the political dynamics within Muslim majority countries so skewed that they cannot manage to live peacefully, or is something wrong with the cultural dynamics of these societies – following Samuel Huntington’s infamous ‘Clash of Civilizations’ hypothesis, that there is a perpetual tension between the ‘Muslim world’ and the rest of the world.

For those who are familiar with Islam’s glorious past, this question is not relevant; since Islam has already contributed much to current Science, Mathematics, Culture, Art, Music, Sports and every conceivable human enterprise. That is not the point. The point I am trying to raise is one of how Islam can continue to be a positive force in the world of 21st century. Given the popular and at times academic critiques of Islam as a ‘civilization’ that needs reform and one that needs to ‘catch up’ with the Western civilization, this question gains importance. I will borrow the concept that Dr. Jane Pollard, of the New Castle University used at the AAG presentation that she made: that of ‘Resilience’. She asked, and quite rightly, if the London’s financial district could learn something from the poor Somali refugees who inhabit the East side of London. These poor, displaced immigrants are hardly the paragons for financial literacy, but, she argued, their habits of philanthropy, supporting one another during times of distress, can teach us lessons in resilience. She shared results from her research that many of the 60 odd individuals that she interviewed give away about one third of their meagre salaries/earnings in tithing or charitable activities, often to help their relatives/friends who are in distress. This concept of resilience of poor individuals and communities can be applied to conceptualizing and building on how communities can survive and perhaps even thrive through trying times, harsh legal and other conditions, she argued.

            My question also gains salience in the context of growing globalization, growing heterogeneity as well as pluralism, around the world. What can Islam teach us about living amidst and with differences? For those who are not aware, Muslims are spread throughout the planet and in fact American Muslims are the most racially and ethnically diverse religious group in the U.S., according to research by the Pew Research group. Can Islam’s heterodoxy and pluralism be reinvigorated? Also, while pluralism within Islam is a fact in America, it may not be so evident in other countries, where there is more homogeneity and lack of diversity of opinion and tolerance.

 

Solidarity, community and faith

Using the notion of cosmopolitanism and cross-border territoriality, Pollard and her colleagues argue that “An alternative form of economic rationality is being constructed and practiced across diverse sociospatial contexts to produce what we term cosmopolitan financial geographies. Building from recent debates about territoriality, embeddedness, and relationality in economic geography, we respond to calls for a more complex treatment of agency, developing the concept of cosmopolitan legalities to capture the dynamic multiterritorial, relational governance of Islamic banking and finance (IBF) that melds Western and Islamic financial rules and practices through the embodied religious authority of Shari’a scholars.” This economic rationality is based on a global ethic of recognizing the Ummah or community of believers as one – irrespective of geographic boundaries. Taking a cue from her work, one can argue that globalization and flow of ideas, concepts and knowledge existed centuries before the term globalization emerged on the scene, with Western powers promoting it. Networks of knowledge and learning were already well established in the Muslim world, as I have written about, in my earlier post on Ibn Battuta, the peripatetic traveler. These networks were also, interestingly, networks of patronage, learning as well as charity. They formed an organic whole and the various parts of the Islamic system learnt, shared and benefited from the nodes of interaction that existed.

 

How can this exchange happen?

In our globally integrated and ‘embedded’ world, there are mechanisms for sharing of knowledge, insights and a genuine dialogue to occur, if parties are interested. This sort of exchange has been going on, at the level of nation-states, individuals, businesses and scholars. There are many scholars, who are working on comparative religion, sociology of knowledge, development studies and related disciplines that draw upon and build theories of knowledge, societal development and economic development that benefit all of mankind. As Abdullahi An’naim has argued in this short paper, Islamic concepts of zakat can be reimagined for addressing concerns of social justice. Issues of homelessness, poverty, extreme hunger and the like can be addressed through zakat and sadaqa, the religious norms of giving for Muslims throughout the world. In fact, Charity is the third ‘pillar’ of Islam and is fundamental to the practice of religion. With such a strong orientation towards social justice embedded in the faith and its practice, it may seem logical to see how Islamic economic and moral systems can be engaged in addressing some of the key problems before us. And this is precisely what thousands of NGOs, intellectuals and organizations are attempting, around the world.

As Lena Rethel has argued, if one were to look at purely the legitimacy aspects of Islamic finance, then there is no real difference between how Islamic finance tools are being built. They are just replacing the conventional tools, replicating one form of legitimacy with another, she says. This epistemological hegemony of legitimacy is counterproductive to producing a real alternative to the existing Neoliberal framework.

The key insight that Pollard’s research points to, is that we may perhaps have to focus more on microeconomics, looking at how small communities, individuals make decisions, rather than focusing solely on macroeconomic policies and programs. While there are lessons that macroeconomic planners may derive from these small scale projects, the key may be to look at the imbalances at the individual level and aim to build self-sustaining communities that are not as embedded in the current financial system.