How to overcome cultural barriers to philanthropy?

Doing good is not easy. In today’s globalized world, where different values, norms, cultural attitudes towards life are coming together and interacting there is bound to be friction, misunderstanding when it comes to what it means to do good, and the intentionality of the acts themselves. In the field of philanthropy, this is markedly so, and listening to a few speakers during the MENA Social good, an online conference that brought in speakers from around the MENA region, I was reminded of this reality. Doing good may mean vastly different things to different people and finding the ‘common ground’ is not as easy as it sounds._12865_kuwait-charity-2-3-2005

                So, what are the challenges to doing global philanthropy or philanthropy with people of different norms and values from that of our own? For starters, the very idea of philanthropy and ‘common good’ may be different across cultures. In the U.S., one can argue that there is a broader definition of ‘common good’ and there is a vibrant civil society, as evidenced by the number of nongovernment organizations, political action committees and other forms of “civil society” institutions, that provide services to the public. The ‘self-help’ ethic can be said to be ingrained in the American psyche that is deeply suspicious of too much government intervention in their private lives. The ongoing debate about Obama care or the Affordable Healthcare Act is an example of this phenomenon.

On the other hand, there are countries in the Middle East that have, for historic and geo-political reasons relied on state patronage to people and suppressed civil society formation. This is a different model of philanthropic giving and one that has strong networks with the religious institutions in the region. While religious giving is also high in the U.S. and according to Giving USA, it is about roughly one third of all individual giving in the country, the fact that much of giving occurs through ‘secular institutions’ is a differentiator. Secondly, when it comes to philanthropy across borders, there is a question of power relations, hegemony and unequal access to knowledge, resources and mutual perception of the ‘other’ that becomes a barrier. As Muna AbuSulayman, Media personality from the UAE pointed out: “We want to be treated as partners, even if we are not equal. We are tired of being treated as victims, and the Western world treating us as subjects to be colonized and need saving. We need to understand that these are complex issues, and need to be taken into account. We need dignity for all stake holders and this needs to be considered, as global partnerships are created.”

Institutionalization of philanthropy is another important factor that is underdeveloped in the MENA region. Especially in the Gulf countries, that are cash-rich, there is a lack of systems of measurement of philanthropy and also only now are NGOs’ in the region starting to look at accountability and transparency.  As Abu Sulayman further added: “We still suffer from a lack of institutionalization, and there is a missing link of societal needs and planning. One of this is low-cost housing. Either open-source housing or other models such as Dr. David Smith is advocating. We need to bring this into the Arab world. We need an actionable plan and how look at funds are going into projects. In CSR, we are seeing this as part of money being spent, but much of the decision making happens based on what CSR administrator thinks what a society needs. A lot of it revolves around Public Relations, and not genuine needs of the people.”

The other main problem is the notion of “doing good” and “doing well while doing good”, i.e., looking at philanthropy through the lens of business thinking. The notion of “Philanthrocapitalism” is new even in the west, but is being rapidly adopted in the MENA region, according to Ahmed Ashkar, CEO of the Hult Prize. He pointed out that the barriers to entry must be low for start-ups and also that doing good and doing well can and should go together. These are not contradictory things in themselves, added. When the cost of doing business is low and all the extra profits earned go back into the business, then we are looking at a “socially conscious business,” he said.

Criticisms of Philanthrocapitalism

One of the biggest criticisms of philanthrocapitalism is that when people get involved in what are essentially political issues, it is easy for everyone else to fear the worst. Today’s democratic freedoms have been hard-won; votes don’t want to trade their rights for plutocracy. “For traditional-minded Americans, George Soros is public enemy number one,” thunders TV pundit Bill O’Reilly in Culture Warrior,” say Bishop and Greene in their book Philanthrocapitalism.  They point out that a liberal like him can raise troubling questions such as why should the rich determine society’s priorities? Tom Wolfe, author of The Bonfire of the Vanities argues that much of philanthropy is ego-driven. “Pride and vanity have built more hospitals that all the virtues together.”

Another criticism is that most giving in the USA is  tax-driven and if the money is in a foundation, the taxman cannot touch it, at least in America.  The same is not true in the MENA, however. This also creates different incentives in both systems for giving – one a highly professionalized and almost ‘business-like’ attitude, while the other encourages a rather personal and  charitable attitude. This is extremely significant and should not be overlooked, when analyzing the differences between the two systems.

While both speakers brought up relevant concerns and seemed to be pointing to some of the challenges to doing business and philanthropy in the MENA region, there are structural issues to deal with. How does the bureaucracy of the country deal with start-ups and nonprofit organizations? What are the cultural attitudes towards charity? How does this intersect with what the entrepreneurial “do-gooders” come up with? These are some basic questions that need to be addressed, as well. I am not proposing any solutions, nor are any simplistic ones possible. These are deep questions that need to be worked out, on a case by case basis, as there are many moving parts to this problem. While power-dynamics, access to knowledge, capital and networks are key to address them, one must be sensitive to the fact that history, culture, religion and relations of the individual and state need to be factored in, before proposing any solution.

This is a necessary first step towards finding any common ground, without which, all “doing good” may actually backfire and cause more heartburn and damage.


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