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.


[i] See

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.

How to write about Islam?

Amidst all the noise about the end of the world scenarios being portrayed as a result of ISIS conquest of parts of Iraq and Syria and equally banal assertions that Islam is somehow inherently violent, and needs ‘reformation’, the common man out there is left confused. As someone studying Islam in America, I am at a loss for words, at times, and have to remind myself that unfortunately much of what we read and hear is from people who have no clue what they are talking about. Propaganda, vested interests, media hype make a clear political or sociological analysis of what is going on in the MiddleEast and the U.S. very hard, if not impossible.Blue mosque

What is the best way to write about Islam, then? Is it to be an ‘apologist’, and ‘defend’ Islam against all the attacks and criticisms? Though this approach is needed sometimes, it doesn’t sound very helpful, because there are genuine criticisms of Islam and Muslim societies that should be considered and weighted in, if one is writing in an honest manner. The alternative is to take a critical stance and call for a radical reform of Islam, as several atheists and former Muslims have done. The most egregious and distasteful manifestation are people like Irshad Manji and others like her, who are often seen coddling with the pro-Israeli or extreme Right-wingers in the U.S. It doesn’t take a whole lot of imagination to see how these two groups get along. The criticisms that they level are often steeped in broad stereotypes and an almost anti-intellectual approach to Islam and its rich intellectual and cultural heritage. The third way to write about Islam is to write it from a perspective of how Muslims themselves understand Islam and I will delve into this approach, in a bit of detail here.

For starters, what is Islam? Is it a ‘religion’, as we understand it? There is serious debate among scholars of religion about what constitutes religion. Is Islam a religion by the classical definition, or is it an ‘exceptional’ religion, in that many definitions of religion do not apply to it- by virtue of its origins, growth and universal appeal? A few scholars that have written extensively on Islam. Dr.Talal Asad is one such scholar, who I will quote extensively in this article. Asad reminds us that Islam has been studied by Anthropologists – he names Ernest Gellner in particular – as someone who has tried to present Islam as a totality. This Islamic totality, according to Gellner, is formed as a result of social forces, political ideas as well as historical facts. This view that is often informed by Orientalism, and is premised on an opposition between Islam and Christianity – with Christianity located in Europe, while Islam is situated in the Middle East, Asad contends. Even current media representations of Islam use these binaries to define a ‘modern’ West and a ‘backward’ ‘Muslim world’. There are several problems with this binary approach, not least of which is how does one speak of Muslims in the West? Are they ‘negotiating’ with modernity in the West, or are they excluded from modern notions by virtue of their religious beliefs? No easy answers to these questions. With this in mind, Asad reminds us that writing about just social interactions or social constructs such as ‘tribes’ is not very helpful, as this approach, adopted by scholars such as Gellner reifies the Islamic norms, social relations and other aspects.

Another problem with this approach that Gellner and others take is that religion, power and political authority are often represented as having fused in Islam, while this has not occurred in Christianity. This view is not wholly accurate since there is a vast diversity in how power and religion interacted, historically, argues Asad. The perspective that Gellner and Clifford Geertz take is not helpful in understanding the perspective of Islam as an analytical concept that is as much part of the present as it is a construction of the ‘past’. Further, this perspective grounded in history misses out on the diversity of Islamic practices in contemporary societies.

Asad’s key argument about Islam is that it should be treated as a ‘discursive tradition’. He says “No coherent anthropology of Islam can be founded on the notion of a determinate social blueprint, or on the idea of an integrated social totality in which social structure and religious ideology interact.” This means that all that Muslims do is not ‘Islam’. What Muslims around the world do is not necessarily a reflection of their religious traditions, just as much as all Christians’ actions are not a reflection of Christianity. He suggests that the only way for studying Islam and its Anthropology is how Muslims would do, i.e., examine how their actions relate or should relate to the founding texts – the Qur’an and Hadith. He further argues: “If one wants to write an anthropology of Islam one should begin, as Muslims do, from the concept of a discursive tradition that includes and relates itself to the founding texts of the Qur’an and the Hadith. Islam is neither a distinctive social structure nor a heterogeneous collection of beliefs, artifacts, customs, and morals. It is a tradition.” By tradition, he means: “A tradition consists essentially of discourses that seek to instruct practitioners regarding the correct form and purpose of a given practice that, precisely because it is established, has a history.”

Finally, it is helpful to remember that the ‘Muslim world’ is just a conceptual ideal, not a ‘social reality’. Asad reminds us that “It is too often forgotten that “the world of Islam” is a concept for organizing historical narratives, not the name for a self-contained collective agent. This is not to say that historical narratives have no social effect—on the contrary. But the integrity of the world of Islam is essentially ideological, a discursive representation.” This should be kept in mind, when we speak of a group of people that are over 1.6 billion in number and are present around the world – in every conceivable corner of every country.

One might also be tempted to ask: Why isn’t India a part of the ‘Muslim world’, since there are over 150 million Muslims there, despite being a minority? This is something every person who writes about Islam should consider. Broad generalizations, stereotyping and inaccurate analysis won’t help. On the contrary, such analysis will only confuse us, rather than clarify what we are seeking to study and understand. To quote Asad again, he says that the fatality of character among Muslims in Islamic society that Geertz and other invoke is the object of ‘of a professional writing, not the unconscious of a subject that writes itself as Islam for the Western scholar to read.’ As with Orientalist representations, what others write about Islam says as much about the author, as it does about the Islam or the actors they describe. A profound insight that should help us think critically before writing about a much misunderstood and misrepresented faith.

Which History Should We Remember?

Anwar Congo comes across as a fairly normal man – Until he starts to describe his sadistic ways of killing innocent people. He is the protagonist of an Oscar nominated documentary The Act of Killing, a film making, for depicting the 1965 Indonesian purge of Communists. An estimated one million people were killed during that period. Men like Congo were the ‘gangsters’ who carried out these killings. act-of-killing-trailer

            The killers who are captured in this film are free men today. They roam the streets, have access to national level politicians and are boastful of what they did. The narrative that they paint is one of ‘saving Indonesia’ from communism. My understanding of communism and the Cold War was limited only to Vietnam, the Non-Alignment movement and other Western interventions. But I had no idea that over a million people were killed in Indonesia in the guise of ‘spreading freedom’. Isaiah Berlin would be turning in his grave. Perhaps all liberal thinkers who rightfully defend liberty and liberal principles would be turning in their graves at this supposed intervention, to stop the spread of a totalitarian system.

            The question that is relevant to us now in 2014 is: How do we remember this history and what if, anything, do we do about it? Are these war crimes? Should Congo and his accomplices be prosecuted? And more importantly, how do we make sense of this history, that implicates directly the narrative of Western powers, who defended ‘freedom’ and ‘human dignity’ by standing up to totalitarian regimes during WWII, but very soon were fighting proxy wars that killed millions around the world. Indonesia, Vietnam, Latin America were all impacted by the Cold War. A related question to how we should make sense of evil is : How should we remember history and which part of it should we remember?

Nietzsche addressed this problem very well in his short essay On the Uses and Abuses of History for Life. He argued that there are three kinds of histories: Monumental, Antiquarian and Critical History. Monumental history is when we remember history through monumentalization. For instance building war memorial etc. Antiquarian history involves preserving traditions of the past while Critical History is taking a step back from our engagement with the characters and narratives and taking a close hard look at our history, through a critical lens. He argues that we need all three histories, to ‘serve life’, i.e., to ensure that we learn lessons from them and do not stagnate, as individuals or become unthinking creatures, who live in the glories of the past or are deluded with fantasies of the future.

What is at stake here? In the case mentioned above, a few things stand out: abuse of power by the powerful, the co-optation of others, who willingly helped those who were doing evil deeds and also the identities of all those involved. The victim’s identities were as crucial as those of the perpetrators. While in Indonesia, the ‘communists’ were the demons, in Germany it was the Jews. While the cliché that victors write history is true, it is also true that the losers remember it. And they valorize their loss in more ways than one. Consider the Confederate flag-hoisting ceremonies that occur in the American South, every so often. The group that organized this event said on their website “Our battles are all defensive…in defense of the honor and good name of our ancestors, and against actions taken to dishonor them and desecrate their monuments and memorials.” While their stated purpose may be true, what is really at stake in these actions seems to be political mobilization. Mobilization around an ideology and history that has long lost relevance. This ideology believed in slavery, denied minorities and the ‘others’ rights that were due and vehemently resisted joining the Union. This is also part of the rhetoric that believes that the federal government is ‘taking over our guns’ and believes in re-arming itself, should there be a revolution. Sounds rational? I am not too sure. Being able to look at the past and the mistakes that our ancestors have made, willingly or unwillingly is mark of a mature mind.

            Nietzsche argued for remembering our history, not just to memorialize it or merely to draw inspiration – though both can have their uses. He argued for remembering it critically. As he says: “Observe the herd which is grazing beside you. It does not know what yesterday or today is. It springs around, eats, rests, digests, jumps up again, and so from morning to night and from day to day, with its likes and dislikes closely tied to the peg of the moment, and thus neither melancholy nor weary.” Comparing human memory with that of cattle grazing, he points out “For the man says, “I remember,” and envies the beast, which immediately forgets and sees each moment really perish, sink back in cloud and night, and vanish forever.” Forgetting all one’s experiences, lessons in life is akin to living like a beast, he is saying. While this is not a tenable position, the alternative, i.e., to remember everything and live ‘historically’ would also rob man of his agency.

            Elaborating on this idea, Tariq Ali, Novelist and Writer talks about the ‘downgrading of history’ in this fascinating talk. He argues that in contemporary times, there is a trend to forget history or even think it is irrelevant. “The historical process is not linear. It is not a line going up, progress and all that. It goes up and down. Progress, rationalism, defeat, rise of irrationalism. This’s been the case for thousands of years. It is good to remember that there have been bad times before. There is nothing pre-ordained that we must move forwards.” Ali points out that the Western world fought the ‘monism’ of Communism that stifled differences in thinking, divergence from the norm. The very same thing seems to be happening, with those in power suppressing dissent.

 His thesis is that the current global crisis and the recession that started in 2008 showed that when the rich are being bailed out, why are not the poor being afforded this? To even ask this question is to invite wrath of the rulers, the rich and billionaires, says Ali. This is also an area where history has been forgotten, and the lessons are not being used. Forgetting history is altogether an abuse, Ali says.

            Coming back to the documentary, are not Congo and his accomplices’ actions despicable? And isn’t this documentary an attempt at critiquing this history, while monumentalizing it? Through the narrative in the film, Congo seems to be rather proud of his actions and he says that he was going ‘good’ for his country and that the Communists deserved to die. There are graphic accounts of how he killed the men, women and children and his friends describe other ghastly acts including rape of minor girls. All of this is surely sick and it is quite clear that we are dealing with a very dark and psychotic character here. But taking a close look at this part of Indonesia’s history and critically examining the facts also shows us how supposed wars for ‘freedom’ and ‘liberty’ have had terrible consequences. Remember that these were supposed to be the ‘good’ guys fighting the ‘bad’ Communists during the era of heightened Cold War. The Western world was involved in its own versions of such wars, though not so blatantly.

By remembering, altering history and “through the power of using the past for living and making history out of what has happened, does a person first become a person.” But for all of this to occur, it must occur critically, with conscious thought to what is being remembered and why. Aspects of history should be examined, critiqued and also used in all three forms that he has shown. Should this documentary shame the Indonesian government or the Western powers who supported them? Or rather should we, supporters of ‘freedom’ and ‘liberty’ in the West be more cautious when we claim to support these values and people who further them. This documentary certainly raises these profound questions and we are wise to heed the call and examine these issues critically. Not to do so would mean abusing history and our own intellect.





” Jamsetji Tata established his philanthropic foundation in India before even that of Carnegie,” – John Godfrey.

John Godfrey is a PhD Candidate at the Swinburne University of Technology, Australia, exploring High Net Worth Philanthropy in India. In this short interview, he explains how he got interested in studying Philanthropy in India, its dimensions – social, cultural and religions and how, if at all, it differs from Western notions of giving.


John Godfrey. Photo provided by Mr.Godfrey.
John Godfrey. Photo provided by Mr.Godfrey.

1. Please tell us a bit about how you got interested in High-net worth giving in India? 

 Like many Protestants I knew very little about traditions of giving other than the one in which I grew up – church collections on Sundays, occasional street day appeals and organized charity appeals for the likes of Oxfam, Red Cross and Save the Children.  Somehow I formed the impression that it was the West alone that provided relief and succour to the developing world.  I never read or heard discussions about indigenous traditions of charity or philanthropy other than my own – even in my early days as a professional fundraiser.

Around 2005 I was working for a firm of international fundraising consultants and through them met Major General Surat Sandhu, who had recently retired from Help Age India to become a fundraising consultant. Sometime later, knowing that I was visiting India, he invited me to give a workshop to some Indian fundraisers. For the first time I began to understand a little bit about NGOs and philanthropy in India. As time went on I became more a more struck by the scale and prevalence of philanthropy in India.

More recently when I was considering the focus of my research for the Ph.D. I wanted to do.  I was reading the extensive press coverage generated by Bill Gates and Warren Buffett’s first visit to India to promote the Giving Pledge. There was a great deal of discussion by Indian HNWIs themselves about their practice of philanthropy. I had never seen that in the West!  It seemed to me here was a fruitful area for further research.  Especially, of course,  because Ph.D. research is supposed to cover topics that haven’t been researched before. The sad fact is there has been almost no academic research on any aspect of Indian philanthropy.

 2. What is your background and experience ?

 As I mentioned briefly above, I am a fundraising consultant. I also train fundraisers. I began my career as an actor, then an arts administrator, then I became a fundraiser first in the arts and then in higher education – universities.

3. What have you uncovered so far about giving behaviors in the subcontinent?

 It’s hard to give a simple answer. The subcontinent is a complex mix of religions, castes, ethnic traditions, geographies, histories, politics and social class. All of these are reflected in one way or another in giving behaviors. However once again I would like to reiterate that there is, or are, strong traditions of giving.

4. Any surprises?

 No surprises other than the initial surprise that philanthropy and giving are so much a part of Indian culture.

 5. What is unique about Indian philanthropy, as compared to western notions of giving?

 I wouldn’t necessary claim that there is anything unique about Indian philanthropy, in comparison to Western philanthropy. One thing to remember is that Western philanthropy grew from traditions that were introduced from the East. The first endowed universities and hospitals in Europe were the result of Medieval Knights returning from the Islamic territories of the Middle East where they had been introduced to the tradition of Islamic philanthropy and waqf.

US philanthropy is an infant in comparison to the traditions of the Middle East and Asia having been imported from Europe in the 19th century.

Jamsetji Tata established his philanthropic foundation in India before even that of Carnegie.


6. Noam Chomsky said recently in an interview that most Indians are indifferent to others’ suffering? Do you agree with this, purely from a philanthropic perspective

I have great respect for Noam Chomsky as an intellectual and a great liberal. I don’t think the reported comment was particularly profound. He made an interesting observation about the reaction of someone else – Aruna Roy. And he tried to generalize it through his own sensibilities. I think he missed the mark and I hope that it isn’t held against him.

 7. What is the role of philanthropy in a society such as India? How does this intersect with the state’s responsibility? 

 There is much debate about the role of philanthropy in societies around the world. The philanthropic sector is sometimes called the third sector to distinguish it from the state sector and the business sector. There are some things that can be achieved by philanthropy which cannot be achieved either through the state or by business. There are also some things that can be done in partnerships of all three – the state, business and philanthropy. Of these, I suppose it would be fair to say, philanthropy has the most freedom to innovate and take risks. Certainly this appears to be a growing trend both in the West and in India.


8. How do you foresee the understanding of philanthropy growing in India, going beyond Corporate Social Responsibility? The field is pretty nascent in India, is that right? 

 As I have said already philanthropy is far from nascent in India. In fact, in comparison, it is American philanthropy that is nascent! There is much confusion about corporate social responsibility not just in India but all over the world. Corporate social responsibility and corporate philanthropy are not synonymous. In India the debate about corporate social responsibility has been renewed as a result of the government making it mandatory for some companies. However the definition of corporate social responsibility is still far from determined.

You may be alluding to the fact that there is a strong tradition of philanthropy within the business classes and industrial dynasties of India. There is in the public mind some confusion between corporate philanthropy, family philanthropy and CSR because of this. Similar confusion may even exist amongst those business families themselves.


9. Any concluding thoughts.

 A strong motivation for my undertaking this research into philanthropy in India is a belief that the world should recognize that there is much more to philanthropy than there is contained in Western philanthropy. Until now, 90% if not more, of the research that has been published has been published either by American or British scholars about American, British and Western European philanthropy. I was lucky enough to spend some time in the Middle East and was introduced to Islamic philanthropy. That began my curiosity and interest into other traditions of philanthropy.

India is remarkable because within one country there are so many different traditions. I think the world has a lot to learn from India.