A New Year Wish – Charity and Justice for all

It is that time of the year when everyone is reaching out to everyone else, to seek support for their causes. Financial support, in-kind support, volunteer time, all of it is kosher. If you work in the nonprofit sector, you’d know. There are many things that are wrong with our world and activists, religious leaders, politicians are all working, in solving these- in their own way. That is not to say thIMG_0071 IMG_0205 IMG_0206at there aren’t others who are creating or adding to these problems. Surely, there are. But there is a growing awareness among people who are aware that one must align with people or organizations to seek justice for victims of violence and oppression.

On the other hand, there is a perspective that seeks to forgive, look at the grand scheme of things and realize that (as in some world religions) that this world is ephemeral or Maya – an illusion, that will soon pass. So, one’s role is to do one’s best karma and hope for the rewards in an afterlife or next life, depending on one’s belief system. Christianity, Hinduism, Judaism and Islam advocate one of these perspectives.

While these two approaches could be seen as two opposing views, with the first one being the radical activist one, and the latter a more pacifist, non-confrontational approach; the truth is that both are very active, engaged and conscious ways of living. The other extreme is to just not bother. To switch off what is going on around oneself, insulate oneself with one’s own pursuit of happiness, comfort for one’s family and live a life pursuing pleasure. This suits some of us, and more power to them. But to live the ‘good life’ as Aristotle taught and other great teachers demonstrated through their lives requires living an ‘examined life,’ one in which one’s actions, thoughts and ambitions are put under the microscope and examined for their impact.

I have been reading a lot about charity this year, since my research concerns looking at discourses of charity and how dominant discourses in America accommodate it or not. Also, I am interested in the religious dimensions of giving and how religious traditions shape our understanding of giving and if at all, it is changing. This seems like an innocuous question, but given the current debate in the American system about welfare reform, immigration and healthcare; they have proved to be an explosive mix. And there is the risk of losing track of what is significant, amidst all the noise one hears from pundits and news anchors. One of the most striking facts I realized is that ultimately, all of us (irrespective of party ideology) are seeking solutions to human problems – and this is based on the assumption that people are not entirely self-interested, in a zero-sum game way. Libertarianism is an entirely different story. I will deal with ‘enlightened self-interest’ in another blog. The way we may seek to arrive at the solution may be different – either government intervention or market mechanisms, but the higher goal is always to solve a problem and arrive at a solution to better others’ lives. And that is an admirable thing. The only caveat is that we must be guided by facts, not ideologies. As former New York Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan once said “You may be entitled to your own opinion, but not your own facts.” We must be watchful about this, as we formulate opinions on issues that we care about.

Reading the newspaper is a depressing act these days. Civil war in Syria, economic depression in Europe, sexual violence in India, Gangs going crazy in Central and South America and political instability in Africa; not to mention the crazy antics of Republicans and Tea Partiers in the U.S. This is the staple of our diet. On a daily basis. The daily dose of images coming our way has perhaps sensitized us. The other day I just read a headline about a certain number of people dying in the Middle East and I caught myself rushing to another story, as it just did not surprise me anymore. Ghastly images, news of dozens dying is so normal that we don’t even pause to think.

As the year is winding down and I am planning for the upcoming year, I wanted to jot down some ideas and ask myself and those who read this: Can our collective resolution in the New Year be to be more sensitive, aware and more charitable? Can we aspire for a more just world, where one person’s will does not decimate thousands and thousands of lives and the forces of greed, evil and hatred don’t work their way into people’s hearts- using words, labels and ideas that sound lofty? Can we all be more alert and vigilant against the use of words and ideas such as terrorism, welfare and realize that there is always more than one side to a story and how people deploy their narratives? Can we be more charitable and yet more firm in our resolve to not let politicians, our leaders and others bully or manipulate us?

I promise to at least try, this year. The year 2013 was very good for me. I traveled a lot, met wonderful people, read great books, had great conversations, and received much kindness from people I knew and from strangers. I hope this continues in the New Year and I hope that all of you have a great year and also make the effort to be kind to strangers, nice to people you like and don’t like, dignified in your anger and sensitive when dealing with those who are weaker than you are. And learn more. Read. Travel. Converse.

Here’s my wish list for the world, in no particular order of importance:

 

  1. End to violence in Syria – Yes, this tops my list. The sheer magnitude of violence and inhumanity that we are witnessing in Syria is unbelievable. What is even more unbelievable is how indifferent all of us are to it. I hope this violence ends, irrespective of whether Mr. Assad stays in power or not.
  2. Global economy picks up – Despite not being a huge fan of GDP driven model of growth, I do feel that the slump in global economic growth doesn’t portend well for billions of poor, around the world.
  3. Republicans in America realize the value of bi-partisanship – I am told that Republicans in the past were bi-partisan and could actually reason with their fellow Democrats. Apparently, those days are long gone. This should return and I hope 2014 is the year when there are more senators like Daniel Patrick Moynihan (though he was a democrat) he was a bi-partisan and perhaps the rare intellectual-politician that all countries so desperately need.
  4. Indian politicians (and bureaucrats) stop acting like little kids – And that our media grows up. This is in context of the recent incident involving the Deputy Consul General and the alleged ‘insults’ to India, when investigations into her misconduct were brought to fore. I also hope that Indian media learns that India is not the center of the world and is NOT a “super-power” as much as they would like it to be. It actually reminded me of this talk by Ramachandra Guha, on why India should not be a super-power.

5.  And above all, I wish that all of us rise above the walls that each one of us has built around us, consciously or unconsciously – walls of gender, race, religion, class consciousness, nationality or political affiliation. And this is possible, as some wise man said: “All prejudice begins in the head and that is where it should end.”

 

Do we really need nonprofits in America? : Five arguments for the sector’s existence

 

Are nonprofit organizations redundant? Can the for-profit sector solve all our problems and usher in a world where poverty, disease and deprivation are things of the past? I read an article on the Forbes website yesterday that argued for dismantling of the nonprofit sector. This piece by Mr. Freedman sought to show, using two elite universities as examples, of how the entire sector is not really contributing to our lives and at best, it is a benefit that the sector does not deserve. I believe that in the U.S. (and many parts of the world) the nonprofit sector plays a key role in society and holds together social bonds, provides opportunities to those who cannot be part of the for-profit sector and finally, offers an opportunity in democratic participation.

Photo courtesy : eder671nonprofit.pbworks.com
Photo courtesy : eder671nonprofit.pbworks.com

Let us look at some of the arguments that are made in the Forbes piece, before we move on to analyze why I think the nonprofit sector is so important to America. While pointing out that most students at Harvard and Stanford, two institutions Mr.Freedman picks for analysis – are rich, isn’t it a total waste of tax payers dollars to subsidize them? He says: “But Harvard’s philanthropy is clearly questionable. Most of Harvard’s students are rich. (For that matter,all on average four year nonprofit schools skew upward in the wealth distribution, although not as much as many of the most elite).” But it would help to remind Mr.Freedman that most students in America don’t go to Harvard and Stanford. They actually go to community colleges, for a start. As this recent U.S. News article points out, there are over eight million students enrolled in community colleges. And from a recent lecture at Virginia Tech, I learnt that as many as 40% of graduate students have spent some time at a community college, before moving onto graduate level study.

Here are a few arguments, spanning various sectors for why we need the nonprofit sector and how it enriches our lives, in concrete ways.

  1. Incentivizing community action – As Alexis De Tocqueville, the French Aristocrat keenly observed in Democracy in America, the form of association is key to progress in America. “ In democratic countries, the science of association is the mother of science. The progress of all the rest depends on the progress it has made.” Tocqueville, 1845 [1945]:1. Lester Salamon of Johns Hopkins University contextualizes this development in the ideology of voluntary action that existed since the founding of the country. Voluntary action in the 19th century was seen as a middle way between rampant individualism and monarchial tyranny. The arrival of immigrants around this time also led to the development of self-help societies and voluntary groups, that provided crucial services to the newly arrived immigrants, he points out. This continues, to this day and one sees that the nonprofit sector benefits people from across all segments of society – the very poor, the middle class to the rich ( The National Football League (NFL) is an egregious example of a nonprofit that ‘serves’ some very wealthy interests).

At the heart of this associationalism was a distrust of state authority and a belief that people are able to take care of their own needs, if left to their own devises. The legal status that nonprofits enjoy and the tax exemptions that they get is in part incentivization for this sort of associationalism.

2.Community Colleges – The surprisingly large number of students who attend community colleges is not well known. Their crucial role in preparing students for future education or work should not be discounted, nor is their funding mechanism, much of it modelled so that the fees don’t leave a big debt on those attending these institutions. As I have pointed out above, the sheer number of students who attend them is testimony to their continued relevance.

3. Employment in the nonprofit sector – As this recent article points out, millions of people are employed in the nonprofit sector and it contributes roughly five percent of the American GDP, every year. A recent report from the John Hopkins University’s Center on Nonprofits points out that about 10.1% of total America’s workforce is employed in the nonprofit sector. This is third in line, behind retail and manufacturing.

4. Democracy and philanthropy – Anyone familiar with American history will acknowledge the key role that civil society institutions have played in forming American democracy and sustaining it. Payton and Moody further argue that Philanthropy is crucial for Democracy. “The future of a free, vibrant society is linked to vitality of the philanthropic tradition,” they point out. (Payton and Moody, 2008. Pg.88). The advocacy and civic role of philanthropy are clearly essential in democracies, but other activities – helping to meet public needs and responding to human problems, shaping the moral agenda, and expressing cultural values are all part of building a stable democracy, they say. The notion that culturally, Philanthropy fosters democracy is an idea that has persisted since Alexis de Tocqueville pointed this out in his classic work Democracy in America. Payton and Moody build on Tocqueville’s argument in that Democracy needs philanthropy as it is also a cultural value, fostered by civic institutions

 

5.Cultural argument – One must also remember that individualism and freedom are at the heart of the American character, as Robert Bellah et al have argued in their book Habits of the Heart. In this book, they start off with case studies of four distinct individuals, leading very different lives. But what ties them together is how they make sense of their lives. As they say: “Brian Palmer finds meaning in marriage and family; Margaret in therapy. Thus both of them are primarily concerned with family life. Joe gives his life coherence his active concern for the life of his town; Wayne Bauer finds similar coherence in his involvement in political activism. Whether chiefly concerned with private or public life, all four are involved in caring for others. They are responsible and, in many ways, admirable adults. Yet when each of them uses the moral discourse they share, what we call the first language of individualism, they have difficulty articulating the richness of their commitments. In the language they use, their lives sound more isolated and arbitrary than as we have observed them, they actually are.”

As many keen observers of American society, from Alexis De Tocqueville to Robert Bellah and more currently Robert Wuthnow, have pointed out, civil society and its functioning is crucial for American democracy. The way in which individual agency has shaped American ethos is quite unique and offers all of us – should we choose to, to participate in making our ‘own world’ in our communities, both locally and at the national level; with limited interference from the state apparatus.

 

The libertarian argument against nonprofits in general is predicated on cutting back on any subsidies to those who ‘do not produce’. This is fallacious, as it defines productivity in a very narrow sense. Are the services of an NGO engaged in employment generation not valuable? What of the local community college or research institution? And I am not even bringing up the soup kitchens and other self-help groups that save lives, provide shelter and provide social services that many welfare states do. How does one quantify the results of some of the intangibles such as community action and mobilization, that several NGOs’ work towards?

Taking a cue from this, the discourse of ‘fixing the world’ through for-profits alone misses out on this sense of commitment, social bonding and cohesion that seems to exist in American society; and much of this exists in the nonprofit sector, where the motive to serve exists, even if in a flawed way. This social capital is the basis of how civil society has evolved in the U.S. Taking this away would mean taking away something at the heart of the American ethos. And unfortunately, much of this social capital is not “for-profit”.