Does giving free money work?

One of my students in my Nonprofit Management class pointed out  ‘Give a man a Fish’ by James Ferguson on the (controversial) idea of a universal basic income (UBI). This has been an ongoing debate in the world of development studies. The premise is simple : Give the poor enough money so they don’t have to worry about the basic necessities. This stems from the understanding that the poor need help and with enough food, money for living etc. they will focus on the higher needs of life – following Maslow’s hierarchy.

When I suggested this idea, the class was more or less bought in, except for one (or perhaps two) who thought that this would make people ‘lazy,’ and dependent. While in principle, this may seem possible; studies conducted in Kenya show promise in terms of how giving directly seems to be working. The speakers in the podcast point out that most people know how to spend money to become self-reliant. The field research project being conducted shows that money, given on a regular basis, to a while community ultimately helps them.

They also point out that US Founding fathers thought of this idea, so was the idea around during the French Revolution. With growing industrialization, fewer jobs; there seems to be a realization that such an income is the only way to take care people who don’t have jobs.

Of course, this has opposition from those who don’t believe in distribution of income, for no efforts from people.

From my own experience, of witnessing my (late) mother – a school teacher – help many of her students and nephews and nieces, who were poor; I think this idea works. My mother gave ‘directly’ to many families, for over 25-30 years, often sums of money that helped the families educate their kids, feed them and in many cases, helped them send them to school. The long-term effect of this strategy? I know at least three families that are doing significantly doing better, with the children having been educated at universities, many of them working in stable jobs and the entire family being lifted out of poverty.

Do I believe in UBI? I have reasons to, as I have seen the effects of such a measure. Will this become a policy in the West? That, I am not sure of. However, countries such as India, Kenya could be persuaded in this direction.

Civil society in Saudi Arabia?

Earlier this month, government officials, nonprofit professionals and donors got together at one of the most important gathering of nonprofit leaders in Saudi Arabia. If discussions there are any indication, the kingdom may be in for a major overhaul. Hosted by the Center of Excellence in Development of Nonprofit Organizations at the King Fahd University, the conference brought together ideas on how to involve the nonprofit sector in development and addressing issues of public health, education and housing- challenges that are facing the Kingdom.

There is a new momentum around nonprofit institutions in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, which could transform how we think of the ways in which people in the country dispense of their excess wealth. This could have implications in terms of how people think of their relationship with the state apparatus and also with each other.

What is the need for developing the nonprofit sector, where the state is so strong, one might ask? The answer to this question is both complex and multi-faceted. While there is increasing realization among the ruling class that the dependency on Oil cannot be continued forever, there is also a concurrent realization that there can and needs to be greater individual and group level participation by those who have wealth. Religious and cultural norms favor greater individual philanthropy.  Nonprofits are seen as potential agents that will bring about greater civic participation – both in terms of volunteering as well as setting up institutions that address key fundamental issues. While health, housing and education sectors will need significant inputs in the years and decades to come; this stress on increased funding and efforts is being put on nongovernmental entities. A new nonprofit law is being drafted to allow for potential tax-deductibility, according to sources.

In my conversation with foundation executives and legal experts, I found that the sector leaders see a greater need for clarity on regulations. Secondly, there is also a perceived need for clarity in terms of what the nonprofit sector is supposed to do. “The government should let us work” pointed out one senior executive, pointing to the need for greater freedom of action.

Regulations are being framed and put together as we speak. This will help in framing the identity of the nonprofit sector, which will be unique to the country. While the nonprofit sector needs to borrow ideas from the rest of the world, it also needs to adapt them to the realities of life in the Kingdom. This means an intelligent and thoughtful fine-tuning of ideas, concepts that have worked for decades or even centuries in the West.

Human capacity development is another area that needs focus. While there is a huge pool of young people who are being trained in areas of public policy, nonprofit management etc. this capacity should be mentored, channeled to work in the development sector in the Kingdom. “Young people don’t see this as a stable career choice,” pointed out another senior executive. He suggested that this needs to change and the government involvement in legitimizing the sector may help.

The need for greater women’s involvement in the sector came up time and again during the three-day conference. There was a healthy participation by women in the conference and all participants – both women and men stressed women’s involvement in developing Saudi society using all tools available to the third sector.

If discussions and exchanges during the three days are any indication, then there is great momentum and energy in the country. The future of nonprofits in KSA will depend on how the government and nonprofit leaders work with each other to collaborate, create norms and a culture of mutual respect and trust in their abilities to solve social problems.


News from ARNOVA 2017

This year’s ARNOVA was held in Grand Rapids, MI. As someone who has been a regular for the past five years, I was excited for this year’s conference also because I released a co-authored book (with Dr.Shariq Siddiqui) and also won the ARNOVA-Al Subaei Arab Philanthropy award. 

The book is available for purchase here.  While we are anticipating a good response, only time will tell whether it is received well. We have taken a unique perspective of using Public Administration and Nonprofit theories to test some hypothesis and also to build theory in terms of how Islamic schools gain legitimacy. While our findings indicate that most schools are using the nonprofit form, to gain legitimacy; we were surprised to find that they operate just as well (or badly) as other faith-based schools. The issues of governance, management and fundraising remain the same.


Small kindnesses, big impact

I watched the movie Sultan and the Saint over the weekend at the Bayan Claremont Graduate School of Theology in Claremont. While the movie was quite well made and it has a strong message of interfaith dialogue and courage, the point that stuck to me was not the central message; but rather a peripheral one : Small acts of kindnesses can have huge impacts.

In the movie, the Sultan, Sultan Al Kamil is shown to be kind to his aggressors,  the crusaders who have attacked Egypt. At a time when the aggressors are locked from all sides by water from the Nile, the Sultan sends food and other provisions so the crusaders dont die. This single act, argue some of the scholars interviewed in the movie changed the course of the war. In addition to getting the crusaders to giving up their war, which was getting too costly and fruitless, one can argue that this act could have had a transformative effect on them as well.

Kindness from a friend is to be expected, but from a sworn enemy can be transformative. This is the one lesson I took away from this movie.

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.

The trinity of nonprofit sector: Time to revisit some assumptions?

The trinity of transparency, accountability and efficiency are also at play in the world of public health. In the book Governing Global Health by Chelsea Clinton and Devi Sridhar, that I am reading now, this theme comes up time and again. They both argue that among the various organizations that they have studied in the book, including World Health Organization, Gates Foundation; WHO comes up short on transparency measures.

They point out that WHO does not have a transparency policy and also does not report to the International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI). They do point out to the presence of some measures such as livestreaming of Executive Board meetings as example of some transparency. While no one today would question the need for transparency, the question is how can people use it?  But does having more transparency really make all the difference? The assumption behind calling for more transparency is that it will enhance participation, questioning from all stakeholders and make the process more equitable. But what of the converse situation, where there may be more procedural transparency, but no substantive transparency; in that there is no actual recourse to using this information to correcting the perceived wrongs? This is an aspect that hasn’t been discussed in much depth.

Their recommendation is for the older institutions such as the WHO and World Bank to increase their stakeholder engagement and transparency to ‘regain their legitimacy and public trust.’ (p.160).

Big data, small data…

I work with small data primarily. This means that my research is largely interpretive, qualitative. However, I recently conducted a national survey of faith-based schools (for a book that is due to be released in Fall 2017) and used that in conjunction with semi-structured interviews. While the tension between qualitative and quantitative researchers remains – with each looking at the other with skepticism – I think we need to find a common language and mutual respect for each other’s methods.

As much as I believe in the value of big data to help us understand the big trends and nationally representative samples, there are reasons to be skeptical as well. Here is a short video on the dangers of ‘big data’.

Ms.Roy is talking about the national ID or Aadhar card that the government in India is trying to implement. The claim being made by the government is being questioned here. What she is pointing to is a pervasive problem. Especially with communities that don’t have access to data sciences or are unable to access them – due to high entry barrier, or costs.

What do you think?