Can celebrity philanthropy be harmful?

Remember the ads in which Angelina Jolie comes out and shames the world for ignoring the plight of refugees?  Or the Bono concert for helping AIDS victims? While each of them have done incredible good in the world, there is an argument out there; and it is a fairly strong one that goes like this : Since these celebrities are part of a governing regime of capitalism that causes this poverty in the first place; they are not doing anything substantive to address/ ameliorate poverty. They are just putting a bandage over a wound that is bleeding a patient to death.

Here is a scholarly paper by one of my PhD committee members, who helped me think about this aspect when I was a Phd candidate. I was aware of some of the negative influences of celebrity culture. This whole notion of attention seeking has never appealed to me. While attention seeking for a purpose is OK, most celebrities seek attention for  the sake of attention, that has never appealed to me.

Patricia Nickel says in her paper  “modern-day parables of philanthropic celebrities powerfully govern the oppositional impulse as they impart as sense of ‘benevolence’ in the form of an individualized disposition towards well-being and entitlement.” She further argues that this ‘governing regime’ which the celebrities sanitize with their appeals to charity is itself rotten.

In another paper, she, along with another scholar Angela Eikenberry argue that “However, this discourse (of celebrity philanthropy) falsely conveys a community of individuals with access to a venue for shaping social change. Rather than providing an open, discursive space for imagination, philanthropy as it has come to be defined, disguises its own discourse in its portrayal of the mediums of consumption, profit, and media celebration as the basis for benevolent human relations.” So, the issue that is problematic is one of relying on the market to manage relationships of benevolence. The buying of a laptop to eradicate AIDS (Red’s campaign) is problematic, according to Nickel and Eikenberry. This is also problematic given the ‘end of discourse’ that they suggest is going on.

This is also to suggest that while celebrities bring up certain problems, they don’t really talk about the structural problems that caused the crisis we are in, in the first place. This is the real issue with celebrity philanthropy.

While I agree with her assessment that there is an over-reliance of market mechanism for philanthropic activities, we seem to be enveloped in the market, the world over. There seems to be little space, if any for transactions or discourses to occur outside of the market mechanism. How does one impact lives outside of the market mechanism?

There are mechanisms and tools available to reach people and meet their needs. One is to explore traditional systems of charity, for instance religious giving to one’s place of worship or charitable organizations that are faith-affiliated. My dissertation work looked at some of these possibilities.

Indeed there needs to be greater space for personal benevolence and charity to occur, but the manner and speed with which celebrity philanthropy is occurring is not without its flaws.

Are corporations going to save America?

With the recent Executive Order banning entry of people from seven Middle Eastern countries, the nation is in uproar. This order also includes refugees, who were fleeing violence and oppression in Syria, among other countries.

The fact that several companies such as Lyft and Starbucks have stepped up and spoken out against this order is heart-warming. While Lyft donated a million dollars to ACLU, Starbucks has announced that it will hire 10,000 refugees over the next five years, globally. Others such as Uber, have stood by the government’s decision – either by inaction or by remaining silent. And for this, many of their customers are punishing them.

What does this mean, fundamentally? At the surface level, it looks like a bunch of corporations standing up to the President of the US.

At a deeper level it could mean that even the President of the US cannot stop globalization. It also means that corporations are interested in keeping diversity intact, especially in a country such as the US, which was built by immigrants and refugees.

What does this signal for the future of Corporate Social Responsibility? We will have to wait and watch, as this could mean a new era of social justice issues taking forefront, rather than other forms of CSR activities being pursued.

At least for now, this is a welcome sign that some of the biggest and most influential firms will not stand by when the fundamental values of their business are threatened.  They may at least contribute to the ‘saving of America’ from forces that want to make it exclusive, mean and small.

What role do U.S. foundations play abroad?

The role of American foundations – those that dole out money to causes – has been controversial for a long time. For those who know the history, it is a well-known fact that private foundations arose from the wealth of wealthy industrialists, who wanted to use their wealth for ‘common good.’

The ‘Robber barons’ of the 19th century were scrutinized for their use of wealth and often criticized for how they made their wealth, often by not paying their workers enough and suppressing labor unions. This trend seems to have changed, for foundations are universally accepted as being forces for ‘good.’ While there is some criticism among academics, there seems to be  an emerging consensus among academics and even nonprofit professionals that private foundations are necessary – even if they end up distorting ground realities in societies where they function.

Recently released book ‘Unequal Partners’ by Fabrice Jaumont examines the role of American foundations in the space of Higher education in Africa. Jaumont offers a nuanced perspective of how American foundations have operated in the continent. While there is a clear understanding that each foundation comes with its own cultural understanding of what is relevant and what is not, the book takes a hard look at the operating conditions of these foundations and the countries where they work.

An observation he makes is relevant : He suggests that there seems to be a bias towards English speaking projects/ countries, where American foundations operate and among French speaking countries, there is a greater influence/ support from France/ Francophone foundations, reflecting a bias from the days of the colonial powers.

An area of conflict is when research priorities of the universities receiving the grants dont match those of the grantees. For instance, Jaumont points out “Grantees must compete for grants and although their research agendas do not always match those of donors, their priorities are realigned in order to access the available funds.” (p.125). This also complicates issues of ownership and priorities of national development, emanating from the local governments. All these are terribly complex situations and the reason for much confusion. He suggests that many of the foundations contributed positively by increasing the capacity of these universities to carry out work, both by training and increasing the IT infrastructure.

Jaumont also enforces the idea that collaboration is needed, between the foundations; given that no single foundation can solve the complex problems that are before the nation.


Is American philanthropy exceptional?

In discussions I have had with some friends in the past few weeks, a theme has emerged. This theme is one of how Americans view their own giving or philanthropy.  While  a friend suggested that Americans viewed their own philanthropic practices as being exceptional, it is worthwhile to see if this is true or not.

By ‘exceptional’ I mean one that is uniquely its own and one that cannot be understood by the logics of another framework of philanthropy.

For sure, American philanthropy has its origins in how American civil society emerged – with its own neighborhood associations and societies for self-help. Alexis Tocqueville, the French aristocrat who documented the American society during his visit in his Democracy in America gives a good overview of how this society functioned and operated.

In the book, Tocqueville wrote of the equality that Americans had – while noting that slavery still existed and also that native-Americans were mistreated. These points are worthy of mention, given that American civil society has always had this tension and battle of ideas. And of course, the contradictions inherent within this system.

As we observe MLK Day, we are witnessing the same tension in American society, almost two hundred years ago. We celebrate the life of an icon, who spearheaded the civil rights movement and gave new meaning to ‘service’ and effortless giving to the cause of one’s nation and community, while days away from inaugurating a President who not only believes in American exceptionalism, but has also won his election based on many falsehoods and a divisive agenda.

While we can compare American philanthropy with that of other countries and find much that is exceptional – indeed there are elements that make American philanthropy stand out. There is also much that ties American philanthropy to that in other parts of the world , especially given that even today more than one-third of giving is to religious institutions and causes. This is a global trend and one can see religious giving as being very high on the giving radar of most people around the world, with the exception of Western Europe.


Generosity of the Poor – II : African Americans in Antebellum America

Continuing the theme from my previous post, here are some more observations on charity by the poor, but this time; from the U.S.

I came across an unusual story by Dr. Kambiz Ghaneabassiri, who is a professor at Reed College, USA. In his book, A History of Islam in America, he talks about the charity of slaves in Antebellum America, who gave charity to their neighbors, in the form of Rice Cakes. This tradition, which was uncovered among African Americans in Georgia, the Southern State was considered to be part of ‘Saraka’, or charity, given by the women to their neighbors.

Looking closely at this act, Ghaneabassiri suggests that this is perhaps the Islamic notion of ‘Sadaqa’ that survived among the enslaved Africans who came to the U.S, largely from West Africa. Given that there is a large Muslim population in West Africa.

The traditions of charity stayed with the African slaves, even though the practices of Islam died out, in their long and painful (not to mention, humiliating) journey across the seas, as these slaves were transported, branded and sold.

The history of slavery is one of loss and pain. At the same time, it is also one of remembrance.  As the exhibits at the National African American Museum of History and Culture show, slavery was a profound event that was tragic and deliberate. At the same time, it bound regions, people and communities; in ways that few things could. The charity of the slaves created new communities, as well; binding blacks with their non-black neighbors and friends.



Generosity of the poor

A few days ago, we visited a village in South India. As part of our travels in Karnataka, we planned  day trip to Tumkur district, where my uncle is from.

We drove for about an hour from Bangalore, the IT capital of India; my hometown to Tumkur, stopping on the way to drink fresh coconut water. We saw fields of Ragi, Maize and other crops. A lazy cow ambled the highway. A careless driver threw used polythene bag from the car he was driving.

On our way to the village – named ‘Koli Halli’ literally meaning ‘Hen village’, we stopped by a field, where farmers were growing maize and other crops. Arecanut was drying on the fields. Women worked in the field and two women looked at us, curiously.

My uncle, our tour-guide for the day went up to them and asked them to show us ‘Ragi Mudde’ or a ball of ground Ragi Millet. Since my wife hadnt seen this local food, he was keen on showing this to her.

The woman went in, brought in a ball of Ragi and offered it to my uncle and my wife. ‘Please eat this,’ she offered.

In a moment, we had another woman walk up with a Chapati (bread) of Ragi, a flat piece to eat. ‘No.’ said my wife. Not sure how to respond to this sudden generosity. Perhaps this was the meal that they had made, and were offering to us – strangers from the city.

We witnessed several other instances of generosity throughout our day in the village, but this was the first and most impressive one. It made me re-think the generosity of the rich and also that of the poor.

Charity in Qatar – how distinctive?

I am in Doha, Qatar, visiting for the first time. While the tiny Arab country is literally a dot on the map, for those from larger countries such as India or the U.S., Qatar punches way beyond its weight in international affairs of the Middle East, and arguably the world.

For starters, Qatar is one of the few countries that has given its media a lot of freedom, if Al Jazeera’s success is any indication. While there have been recent criticisms of recent media crackdowns, there is a general understanding that the small kingdom is quite open, by the standards of the Middle East. The freedom to inform the public of certain developments and also to shape public discourse is part of this freedom. While media is one part of the spectrum of ‘freedoms’ there are others as well – charitable giving being the other. In fact, scholars such as Bruce Sievers have called this freedom to participate in charitable giving as one of the ‘pillars of civil society.’

As I sat down to eat dinner with a prominent professional working in the field of charity in Qatar, I was not sure what to expect, in terms of the practice and even theorizing of philanthropy and charity in the region. From my own research, I have learnt that giving (charity and philanthropy) is largely motivated by religious motives. My friend pointed out that in his survey of over a thousand donors in the country, religious motives have been largely stated as the guiding motive for charitable giving.

This motive also is in tandem with motivations for giving among Americans – who give about a third of their charity to religious causes or institutions, according to Giving USA.

So, what makes Qatari charity distinctive? I would say the similarities between Qatari giving and giving in the West are quite large. At the same time, there are a few unique distinctions.

  1. Qataris give to strictly regulated channels – such as foundations or government regulated charities.
  2. The motive to give for ‘tax-incentives’ is very small.
  3. There are no foundations or charities that lobby for policies that go against the government policies. While in a Western style democracy, this is a common notion – think of Soros’ charities or those of other hundreds of foundations that take adversarial position with the ruling government, this is not a feature in the region.
  4. The motive to give to religious institutions is widely perceived as the leading motive
  5. The giving towards humanitarian needs dominates as the leading type of giving that is practiced. This is not surprising given the turmoil that the region is going through.