Mission impossible? – Part 1

The recent news of the John Allen Chau, the American missionary who was killed by tribals in India’s Andaman Islands prompted a lot of writing. Much ink has been spilled and many perspectives shared. One perspective suggests that since his actions – of wanting to spread Christianity- are part of the older narrative of wanting to ‘civilize’ the native, his actions are reprehensible. Another perspective – shared by his fellow missionaries is that he was just doing what he was supposed to do – spread the word of god. He died in his cause, as a martyr, according to them.

Which one is correct? Where does his ‘charitable’ act of trying to bring faith to a supposedly ‘godless’ people  fall? It depends, in my opinion, on where you stand. This is one of those questions that has more grey than black and white. While a commonsense explanation of his action would be that he should have left the poor tribals alone, to do what they have been doing, for ages; others might disagree.

For a bit of history on this phenomenon, have a look at this report, prepared in 1932, titled ‘Rethinking Missions,‘  a report prepared in the aftermath of similar situations that arose in the developing world.

As the report says in the foreward “One of the chief advantages enjoyed by this Commission has been the circumstance that it includes contrasting views in the interpretation of Christianity and therefore of Christian missions. With less of a gamut it would have been by so much less representative of the membership of American churches. These differences are to some extent differences of expression, to some extent differences of substance. Such differences are not unimportant.” The commission that prepared this report points out that missions as they exist may continue to exist, though some of them ‘deserve to perish. (p.6)’ They consider the value of missions to be important, given that they are driven by one’s desire to share one’s faith.

‘By what standards should missions be judged’ the authors ask, before answering it saying that ‘objective’ criterion is impossible.

The criterion for judging the success or failure of a mission cannot be solely determined by any one perspective.

What about those who are at the receiving end of these missions, one might ask? What if they don’t want these missions showing up, like the tribals, in India?

These are some big questions that one has to deal with.



Work – Do we need to redefine it?

I finished teaching Public Administration Theory class this week (for a 11 week term)and one of the themes in this course was ‘The Future of PA’. Given the talk of Artificial Intelligence and challenges of governance, I touched upon the issue of work and how that is likely to change, in the future.

With more productivity, less work and fewer jobs, perhaps there will be unemployment. There is also likely to be different kinds of (newer) jobs created, as a result of technological shifts.

What this means is that work as we may know may not exist. I don’t mean to exaggerate, but at its extreme, we may need to redefine how and what we mean by work. Of course, there will be teachers, lawyers, doctors, engineers, barbers, masseuse etc. but their work will most likely be aided by or in some case replaced by intelligent robots or technologies.15621

In a short book titled ‘Social policy and social justice,’ that I am reading, the authors make a case for expanding the definition of work to include non-labor market jobs such as caring for one’s parents, volunteering etc. as ‘work.’ There may be a greater demand for such jobs in the future, as populations age, life expectancy increases etc.

Thinking of work as only income producing activities is a limiting idea, they argue. In this ‘post work society’ we may need a different currency such as ‘civic money’ rather than just hard cash, as a means of exchange.

What do you think?

Government & the future of welfare in a world of AI

Earlier this year, PK Agarwal, a well-respected technocrat from California was a keynote speaker at the American Society for Public Administration’s conference. Among other issues, he talked about how the future of government will change. Using e-services as an example, he illustrated how customer centric work will be the norm in government agencies. He also hinted at the role of government as one becoming a facilitator of services.

While all of this is positive, what remains unclear is how work and the nature of governance related to it will be impacted. With technologies such as automation, machine learning and the like are likely to make millions unemployed, by replacing people with machines, this trend is likely to also create new jobs, perhaps by the millions too. What does this mean in terms of jobs, full-time, ‘good jobs,’ that pay beyond the minimum wage? What does it mean for the future of taxation – one of the major sources of government revenue?

Differing visions of the role of work

As Richard Hall says in his book ‘Sociology of Work,’ there is a paradigm shift in how technology is impacting work. “The dimensions of time and space are altered, least where information is concerned,” he reminds us. To this, we may add that there is also the element of shift of productivity, which increases enormously; thus freeing humans from working very hard or long. While this may be a positive, the obvious negative is the loss of work for humans, who may be replaced by machines for routine work.

Hall argues that robots will not entirely replace humans, there is also the question of affordability. “Robots can take over repetitive assembly work only if the assembly organization can afford to purchase them” (p.351). He suggests that if people can’t afford to buy them, then humans will still be at the core of the work, with robots working at the periphery.

The lesson from the Anatomy of Revolution, a classic book of history by Craig Brinton is that all the four major revolutions: American, French, English and Russian originated when people felt unfairly taxed. They revolted against what they felt was an unjust order. We must make sure that our societies donot end up that way!

UBI: Experiments in social equality?

There is a lot of debate about Universal Basic Income (UBI) and other forms of ‘welfare’ provision, around the world. The assumption is that with increased productivity, we can produce more with less resources and we may reach a point when there may be no need to work – with machines producing most of all we need. With minimal work, we may be able to enjoy life and what it has to offer – with a model of UBI that guarantees us all a basic income to live, comfortably.

One such model that is being experimented is that of ‘Direct Cash transfers,’ or giving of money directly to the poor, so they can use it for consumption or invest it in bettering their lives. Giving Directly, a nonprofit based in New York seems to be one of the major advocates of this approach, in addition to many academics, who have amassed data that points to the utility of such a system, for improving the quality of life of the poor.

However, not everyone is excited about UBI and direct cash transfers: visionaries such as Mohammed Yunus, the founder of the Grameen Bank has opposed this, saying such measures sap initiatives and can turn people dependent on the handouts. He seems unhappy with the current financial system, where the poor are underserved by banks, which were designed to serve the middle class and the rich.

With welfare being one of the tenets of the social contract, are we witnessing a configuration in terms of what welfare means, in 21st century America? While welfare has always had a slightly ‘market’ orientation in the US, unlike in Western Europe, which has been ‘state led’, this shift in the social contract is to be expected, with the government expecting people to defend themselves and figure out their lives (Spiker, 2017). While Spiker makes 26 arguments for welfare, listing them alphabetically from A-Z, other scholars and practitioners are not as enthusiastic.

However, with wage stagnation, increased income inequality and growing use of technology in our society, will such mechanisms as Direct Cash Transfers and UBI become a necessity? Only time will tell. But for sure, we know that if unaddressed, this situation could spiral out of control and perhaps lead to social unrest.



Agarwal, P.K. 2016. Rethinking government in the age of AI and bots. Accessible at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UgY_zVyDljs

Brinton, C. 1938. Anatomy of Revolution. Vintage Press.

Hall, R. Sociology of Work. 1994. Pine Forge Press.

Nelson. H. 2018. Nobel Prize winner wants two economic systems. Accessible at https://qz.com/1430076/nobel-winner-muhammad-yunus-wants-two-financial-systems-one-for-the-rich-and-one-for-the-poor/

Spiker, P. 2017. Arguments for Welfare. Rowman & Littlefield.

On social entrepreneurship…

A few months ago, I had a conversation with someone at a university, who runs an entrepreneurship center. During our conversation, I brought up social entrepreneurship, stewardship etc. ideas that are becoming mainstream.

He argued that there is no such distinctions are artificial. All entrepreneurship is about creating value and social change. So, by this logic, all forms of entrepreneurship should be seen as ‘social entrepreneurship.’

While I am still mulling this, months later, I am beginning to see how this might be wrong.

Entrepreneurs of course want to create value. And this value may not always be socially beneficial. Those who turn perishable commodities and other depleting resources – think fossil fuels etc. into profit are obviously only interested in profits and shareholder value.

What about tech geeks who claim to hold the moral high ground, as Silicon Valley folks are wont to. Even there, if the investments are from people who are not very ethical or are hurting freedoms, human rights or the environment; then how ‘socially responsible’ are they? Think of the recent debate about the Saudi investments in Silicon Valley.

While this debate rages on, I am still not too sure of the original argument that was made.

What do you think?

On Remittances…

Recently, I spoke at the local Rotary Club in the Oxnard area. I shared some data and a few insights, gained from my research on this phenomenon.

More than $466 billion were sent from countries around the world. This number, which the World Bank estimates to be a slight improvement over the previous year, is three times the size of international development aid.

In today’s world, where Western powers are becoming more inward looking and focused on their own national priorities, the appetite for helping others, who are poorer seems to be decreasing.

A lady at the event asked me “Isn’t this a net negative cash flow from the US?” referring to remittances flow from the US.

Perhaps so. But isn’t an entire chain of  Americans benefiting from the work of these migrants? Many migrants are creating new businesses, contributing to the economy, paying taxes and only THEN, are they sending money back to the countries of their origin. Even in this process, an entire chain of people are making money off these remittances – the banks, the money transfer companies involved and others who are in this business.

Besides, the goodwill that the US earns, by virtue of these migrants being able to live, work and improve the lives of those across the border is incalculable. The word I was thinking of was ‘Soft power.’

Remittances are indeed a form of soft-power for the US.


The New American Community?

I am working on a project, that could potentially become larger than what it is currently. The central idea is to map out how philanthropy is shaping community : An idea I have argued for, in my dissertation.

Given that the past year or so has been spectacularly chaotic, both socially and politically in the US; the idea that America is being reshaped fundamentally, is something worth exploring. Whether this is true is something I would like to examine.

Steve Almond in his provocative book Bad Stories argues that Trumpism is a “bad outcome arising directly from the bad stories we tell ourselves. To understand how we got here, we have to confront our cultural delusions: our obsession with entertainment, sports, and political parody, the degeneration of our free press into a for-profit industry, our enduring pathologies of race, class, immigration, and tribalism.”

What this means in other words is also that we have become a people who form communities around these bad stories and are excluding those who dont believe in our versions of reality. This is potentially dangerous, as a society.

I see this occurring in India as well, another country that is beset with right-wing ideologues, who want to make ‘India great again’ though in a slightly different form. They want to make ‘India Hindu again,’ harking back to an era of supposed purity where the undesirables : Muslims, Christians and the secularists were not around.

I wonder if this new idea of what America means will radically alter what America will become, both legally and socially. This project aims to dig deeper, using philanthropy as a lens. If you would like to talk – to be interviewed – or even just pass on an idea to me, feel free to get in touch!

Insights into refugee resettlement in Germany

Last week, I was in Munich, attending a conference organized by the Institut fur Politisch Bildung, a German think-tank and Virginia Tech (my alma mater). The three day visit was overwhelmingly positive, except for a visit to the Dachau Concentration camp, which left me drained, emotionally.  Regardless, here is a quick synopsis of some of the key points made by Kelly T Clemens, Depy. Director, UNHCR, who was one of the speakers.

  • “Statistics are stories with tears dried off.” Stats do tell a story. Just 8 yrs ago, there were 42 mn forcibly displaced people. Afghan and Iraqi were about half (doesn’t include Palestinians). 75% resided in the neighboring countries of origin. Two years later, in 2012, this went up to 45 mn- by 2014, 60 mn and some of the same populations. We just published mid-year trends in 2017. 67 million now. The trends we have seen are clear and unambiguous. Old conflicts have festered and Somalia and Afghanistan have been major senders. New conflicts have erupted, including Syria, which led to new displacements. 2017 saw Myanmar’s Rohingya leaving. The situation in 2018 is not different.
  • Millions leave and are struggling in the margins. Minara, who I met in Bangladesh; walked for three weeks (1 yr old baby). Had lost her husband. The story of her flight is terrible. She and her husband were chilli farmers. It’ll be challenging for her to restart her life. This is a lesson we have learnt. Apart from physical safety, it impacts their ability to begin to reestablish socio-economically. Refugee crisis in 2015, it is impossible not to refer to Syria.
  • UNHCR, working with over 1000 partners, registerd 1 mn March 2015 and 4 mn by 2015. Today, its over 5.5 mn refugees. By hosting countries, neighbours provided global good (Syria’s neighbors). They granted people to enter local and national job opps. In most cases, they are not partners of 1959 Geneva conventions . We helped with setting up camps only where necessary and provided support shelter, aid and sanitation.
  • We also gave cash registration instead of in kind. Innovative solutions, in addition to traditional. We work with World Bank and other partners, to identify the most in need and embraced digital platforms, web based systems and other platforms.
  • Faith- based groups run by refugee groups are modern day echo of megaphones to refugees. Alongside, there is recognition of challenges to countries.
  • We work with UNDP, regional local UN resilience plan. With World Bank, Poverty and Welfare study.
  • Turkey has spent $8bn. UNHCR advocated funding to host countries. Can we provide concessional financing to Jordan, other countries? Concessional financing facilities. Inspite of generous response, at least to allow partial funding.
  • The appeal we have launched, only 41% support. Cuts in food aid for thousands. Thousands left out of cash funds. Lost access to healthcare. Many adults were forced to beg, etc.
  • In Jordan, new identity docs required too much money to pay. Limited education opps, were also factor. 90K students unable to access education in school. Lack of security for people in their own country was the major cause to leave.
  • ElSalvador and Honduras unspeakable violence. Gang violence and extortions. Flee to Mexico. Cash based support from UNHCR. What was clear from dozens of stories, we heard that they needed protection and aid. Their stories were not separated from socio-eco lives.
  • People resort to different and more dangerous routes. How do we advise asylees to seek help? It was one of the most frustration operations have experienced.
  • The 2015-16 left a profound impact on European systems. We can speak of pre-and post 2016. Populatinos have shown commitment to host refugees. New partners have been formed, down to municipalities, NGOs and govt. A broad commitment has provided a holistic system. A contribution to help refugees, designed to make their lives better.
  • NY Declaration– 129 countries adopted a declaration to protect people from all countries. It helps support people. Through this declaration, states have adopted robust measures to help fleeing people and a call for global solidarity. Intl responsibility sharing. Incorporates strong calling for solutions and need to address root causes and help resolve conflicts through peaceful means. Annex 1 mandated us to have a comprehensive refugee response network.
  • Four aims in 13 countries, to ease pressure on hosts and expand access to third country. Voluntary return in safety and dignity and covers entire cycle.
  • We have central lab in Central America who are driving the cause and strong network of countries in Horn of Africa, who want to take this on and interest from Asia as well. Applied from diverse range of actors and NGO actors. Our work in these countries has led to inclusion of eco. For refugees. Taking a step back, what’s diff now? First, it’s a political statement that we should engage more comprehensively and secondly, this response clarifies that humanitarianKelly.JPG action alone is not enough We need political and development efforts. Addresses root causes and requires us to consider refugees not in isolation but as part of communities.
  • Calls upon us to rely on private sector. Particularly, since 2015, engagement of World Bank and $2bn for refugees has been monumental.
  • Djibouti – new refugee law  – to settlement approach. Ethiopia too, to implement programs A roadmap driven by PM around large-scale employment. Removing encampment policies to have free movement of people.
  • Somali region – 200,000 people in Ethiopia – local community was struggling. Ethiopian govt has kept borders open and this has happened over decades and inspite of difficulties, hosts and refugee countries are working together to grow crops and help themselves. Private sector, through IKEA foundation, to irrigate farm lands etc. they have built schools that include both hosts and refugee kids. Also, renewal energy to save planet. Excellent example.
  • Uganda – coordinating mechanism place. Key role, to help sustainable response. Help other stakeholders in place. In addition to philanthropy, private sector are being tapped.
  • 3 countries accounting for major refugees hosting, other countries in the global North and South need to do more.