Archive for March, 2011

Dancing in the Dark

Tuesday, March 29th, 2011

Hopefully it’s not too disrespectful to begin back up with song-title-as-blog-post-title when writing about Japan. My friend Scott Kuhagen points out a fascinating NYT article about the challenges of post-disaster communication in a conflict-averse culture:

But as is often the case with cultural explanations (of which I have in the past been a fan, or at least not an automatic opponent), there are institutional factors close at hand. In this case, it’s a “leadership vacuum” created by a recent change in the ruling party after 50 years of LDP rule. The Times article is worth quoting at length, as there’s a lot of substance in the analysis:

“The close links between politicians and business executives have further complicated the management of the nuclear crisis. Powerful bureaucrats retire to better-paid jobs in the very industries they once oversaw, in a practice known as “amakudari.”…Postwar Japan flourished under a system in which political leaders left much of the nation’s foreign policy to the United States and domestic affairs to powerful bureaucrats…. But over the past decade or so, the bureaucrats’ authority has been greatly reduced…. Yet no strong political class has emerged to take their place. Four prime ministers have come and gone in less than four years; most political analysts had already written off the fifth, Mr. Kan, even before the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster. Two years ago, Mr. Kan’s Japan Democratic Party swept out the virtual one-party rule of the Liberal Democratic Party, which had dominated Japanese political life for 50 years. But the lack of continuity and inexperience in governing have hobbled Mr. Kan’s party. The only long-serving group within the government is the bureaucracy, which has been, at a minimum, mistrustful of the party. “It’s not in their DNA to work with anybody other than the Liberal Democrats,” said Noriko Hama, an economist at Doshisha University.”

There’s so much going on here that as a political scientist I don’t know where to start: the parallels to 70 years of PRI one-party rule in Mexico and it’s relationship with the civil service, the analogies to the revolving door between Congress and K Street in the US – and above all (and I think that’s where I’ll start), the question of Japan’s political economy and the idea of “varieties of capitalism” that I’ve written on extensively on this blog.

Coordinated market economies are good at generating high-quality, well-engineered products through a system that features close coordination between labor, capital, and education. In the Japanese version, they feature cozy relationships between companies, particularly in finance, with lots of overlapping board seats and other forms of governance that would look odd in the context of the US, a liberal market economy.

And here we see a dark side of that coordination – a lack of willingness to point the finger of blame, to name a problem and respond nimbly in the moment. And this has to do with the flow of information.

So when we’re thinking about “varieties of philanthropy” analogous to varieties of capitalism, an important piece to look at is the flow of information, and how different institutional arrangements incentivize different information flows. Given what problems philanthropy has with good public information flow, this question seems particularly relevant.


Helping Japan, continued

Thursday, March 17th, 2011

As my Argentine friend Sebastian would say, “FahseeNAting.” Felix Salmon over at Reuters titles a post, “Don’t donate money to Japan,” and the comments absolutely explode at him (hat tip to Tactical Philanthropy). Yet he’s making much the same point as the folks at GiveWell, whom I cited last time. What gives?

Part of it is that you’d expect an economist to have a better handle at the importance of signaling. Many of the comments take umbrage primarily at the title, finding it offensive in the extreme, poorly chosen, and poorly timed. Tyler Cowen at Marginal Revolution observes that it’s important to signal solidarity with one of the U.S.’s closest allies.

Which gets me thinking about giving as an expression of personal values – as opposed to giving as an effort to solve a particular social problem. The beauty of “small” philanthropy is that it’s a way for all of us to signal our allegiance with certain causes, whether our not our $10 makes a difference “at the margin,” as economists say.

The difference happens when hundreds of thousands of people make that choice at the margin to give. And what generates that – the aggregate of those hundreds of thousands of decisions – I feel is poorly understood. And yet, a valuable natural resource – not infinitely renewable, but pretty reliable in disaster situations.

There is much to be understood about motivations for giving and how to channel them. People are capable of such generosity and yet also such indifference. The furor over Salmon’s piece puts these issues into sharp relief for me.

Helping Japan

Tuesday, March 15th, 2011

No song-title-for-blog-post-title today…

Remember what we learned from Haiti last year about giving in disasters:

  • Give cash, not goods. (Because where do you store the goods, who decides who gets what – it adds another layer of complication for first responders and recovery workers who are overwhelmed enough as it is.)
  • Support organizations that have existing relationships on the ground. It makes the process more efficient and means that more relief gets their sooner.
  • Give to the long-term recovery effort, not just immediate relief.
  • Be OK with the fact that because of what it costs to have an effective on-the-ground response, your dollar now may get into the field weeks or even months later, or on another disaster. Relief orgs need revolving sources of funding, and it’s not like you’re going to say, “no, don’t help those other people in the next disaster.” It’s like providing general operating support, give the organization that’s proven its ability to get help to those who need it the latitude to use the funds in the most effective way.

GiveWell has an interesting take (hat tip to the Foundation Center, whose post is also worth reading). They’re saying (as of last Friday) “hold off on giving for now” because it’s not clear what the needs are. They also suggest that local presence is not as important in this disaster, because most international groups don’t set up shop in wealthy countries.

And here we come to the crux of disaster response as a field. (I did some research in this area for a client.) One important definition of a disaster is a situation that overwhelms the ability of the local authorities to respond. In the U.S., a disaster can be “declared” by the President, which allows federal resources to go in. But they have to be invited in; the governor of the state has to request that relief.

The American Red Cross has only just been asked to help. They made their first donation, of $10 million to the Japanese Red Cross Society, today. This is as it should be. It’s up to the local authorities to determine what help is needed and when.

And this brings us to another principle that may be emerging from the current situation:

  • Pay attention to what local authorities are asking for. Have they invited international organizations in? Are they asking for specific kinds of help? Who’s in a position to provide that help? (See the previous principles). Obvious caveat for non-democratic regimes; when Burma was hit by a cyclone, giving to NGOs with strong local presences made sense – local authorities weren’t necessarily trustworthy.

I know this doesn’t sound easy, but hey, how often is what’s right really easy?

Stay tuned, keep paying attention, look for the right opportunity to give. (But give!) You’ll be glad you did, and so will the people who benefit on the other end.

Don’t Stand So Close to Me

Wednesday, March 9th, 2011

Continuing from yesterday, I laid out different ways you could invest $1,000 of discretionary funds:

  • Contribute to a political campaign
  • Invest in a big business (through the stock market)
  • Invest in a small business (through Kickstarter)
  • Give to a nonprofit organization
  • Pool your money to give with others

What determines what’s right for you?

  • How much control you want: do you want to be able to have a say in how the funds are used? To what extent – one time (ask a favor of a politician one day), over time (direct a gift to a specific program at a nonprofit)?
  • How much proximity you want: do you want to be able to see the results of your investment directly, or are you OK with endorsing an interesting idea that happens somewhere other than you live?
  • How much visibility you want: do you want your name on a donor roll or an annual report? Do you want to be seen by other people as having given, like in a giving circle, and hang out with people who’ve done the same thing?

I’m trying to think of different ways to say “impact” without saying “how much impact you want.” Because of research is showing, maybe donors to nonprofits don’t want that.

What else?

    I’ve Got a Theory

    Tuesday, March 8th, 2011

    Continuing from last time about the false dichotomy of service vs. advocacy. Call this one, “Notes for a theory of social investment.”

    You have $1,000 of discretionary money. Your bills are paid, your family’s bills are paid, there are no emergencies in your life. You want to make the world a better place. What can you do with that money?

    • You can contribute to a political campaign: I’ve written about fundraising and campaigning before, wondering what it is the political donor gets out of their donation. Part of it in some (many?) cases is a hope that a certain kind of world come into being, or be preserved.
    • You can invest in a big business: put it in the stock market. There are lots of ways to do that. What does that accomplish? It may make you some money, it may lose you some money. Presumably, you help, um, create jobs or something. Keep the economy strong. But it’s all very abstract.
    • You can invest in a small business: you may want to help your local community. You like the local record store, or church, or coffee house. There aren’t good ways to plunk small, private, one-time change into such endeavors. That’s part of the reason why Kickstarter is so interesting; it opens up that space. I put down $50 to reopen the Parkway Theater in Oakland, a Bay Area favorite where I had many a fun time noshing pizza, drinking beer, and watching a movie or an NFL playoff game. I want the Parkway to exist, even if I don’t live in the Bay Area anymore, because I want the kind of world where it exists. So I do my little part. Through Kickstarter, they send me update on how it’s going (no lease yet – come on, Chengs), and I feel satisfied with that investment.
    • You can give to a nonprofit organization: can make a direct difference in people’s lives. But good luck with getting a sense of the difference the organization makes with it (hint: outputs – meals served – aren’t the same as outcomes – kids kept off the street). Good luck getting communications that tell you about the impact. And so many choices, with not many aggregating sites. No mutual funds, like in investing in business – other than things like community foundations, which in this light may be a good option.
    • You can pool your money to give with others: I’m in a giving circle, and my $365 (or so) per year are leveraged into an annual $10,000 grant. Without my part, that doesn’t happen. And it’s very concrete. I see who benefits, and why that matters.

    What determines which is the best course for you? Part of it is familiarity, knowing that this menu of options is actually available to it. Part of it may be your comfort level with abstractness. If you want more direct impact, a giving circle, hands-on, may be good for you. If abstract is fine, a political campaign or investing in the stock market may work. But the point is, we don’t have a good sector-agnostic theory for what makes a useful social investment.

    Another Brick in the Wall?

    Thursday, March 3rd, 2011

    Taking a brief break from all-Egypt-all-the-time here on DPQ…

    Great piece by my friend Ilyse Hogue in The Nation about what’s behind Wisconsin (and now Ohio, and sadly soon to be others). She makes a powerful point about the unfortunate dichotomy in nonprofits and philanthropy between “service” and “advocacy”:

    The nexus of service and advocacy is a powerful place to stand: simultaneously addressing direct needs and advocating for systemic redress of those needs is a winning equation for progressive power….

    As a young middle-class adult, my work at the local food bank or homeless shelter was commended. However, I was taught this was charity and completely separate from my political organizing. Each had a place in my life, and each had completely separate stories, peer groups and institutions associated with them.

    Even the word “service” is a damaging vestige that artificially separates providers from those seeking assistance.

    This is critically important: the dichotomy Ilyse puts her finger on is very real in the nonprofit world and among the foundations that support them. And yet, when Leslie Crutchfield and Heather McLeod Grant looked at 12 high-performing nonprofits (in what the Economist called “one of top 10 best business books of the year,” emphasis added), they found that the “service” organizations discovered that beyond a certain point, rather than expand (or “scale,” in the current parlance), what they needed to do was focus on changing the structural conditions that made their services necessary. Even within the most “mainstream” of texts, the link between service and advocacy – or the falseness of the dichotomy became evident?

    What would it look like for service and advocacy to not be so separated? As I’ve asked previously, what can fundraisers learn from political campaigners? The tools for breaking down silos are more prevalent than ever; let’s get to work…..

    Soldier of Love

    Wednesday, March 2nd, 2011

    Continuing from yesterday on some issues in the current news from the Middle East about which comparative political science has something to say. Today, more on the role of the security forces.

    Interesting article last week in the New Yorker about the unexpected link between Tahrir Square and the Army:

    On January 30th, I watched a column of tanks advance into the sequare. Protesters blocked their wa while two F-16 fighter jets buzzed, lout and intimidating overhead. ‘The people and the Army are one hand!” the crowd chanted, climbing on top of the tanks, scrawling “Mubarak Must Go!” on their flanks, and engaging the soldiers.

    “We are your brothers,” people said.

    “We will not harm you,” one soldier said.

    “Will you shoot at us?” people asked. “You will shoot at us if you are given the order.”

    “No,” a soldier replied. “I will never do that. Not even if I am given the order.”

    In the standoff between the regime and the protesters, the Army was bound to be crucial. The Egyptian Army commands enormous respect among civilians. The military establishment has long been the most powerful institution in the country and controls not just security and defense but also a huge economic sphere, including factories and road building and housing projects.

    “The people and the Army are one hand.” What can that possibly mean? Isn’t the military government the problem? Are people just delusional from having been under the military’s thumb for so long?

    Who knows – but there’s something more going on here. Two things: military service and citizenship actually have a long and complicated mutual history. In Western Europe, “states made war, and war made states” – the classic story of Western European state formation from Charles Tilly and others is that in a Darwinian struggle for territory, individual states needed soldiers, and to avoid mass desertion, incentivized people to join by giving them some basic citizenship (voting) rights. Citizenship in exchange for military service.

    The other thing is that a professional army doesn’t want to play a police role. This is part of what my dissertation’s about: the army and the police are both security forces, but they have very different roles, in principle. The army defends the nation against external enemies, while the police keeps the peace internally. But what happens, as in Latin America, when you don’t really have external enemies? Latin American countries haven’t fought each other very often, especially compared to Western European countries. So what does the army do if they don’t have foreign wars to fight? Unfortunately, they start to bleed over into police functions, and then everything gets screwy.

    So there’s something profound to that chant in Tahrir Square, “The people and the Army are one hand!” While a despotic regime has set them against each other, the behavior of the individual soldiers quoted in the New Yorker article suggest a potential bond that transcends such barriers.

    Again, the role of elite factions in elite-popular coalitions that can form a bridge to democracy looms large. Another quote from the New Yorker article is suggestive:

    “The military is a black box, and no one knows what happens inside,” [said George Ishak, the head of the opposition movement Kefaya].

    As we start to see inside the black box, the possibilities of coalition politics will become clearer….

    One of These Things is Not Like the Other

    Tuesday, March 1st, 2011

    …or maybe it is.

    I was in DC for work last night and stayed with a classmate from my political science doctoral program at UC Berkeley last night. We were talking about how the current moment is when comparative politics, which I was trained in, really has something to say. As I’ve observed based on a great piece published in Alliance magazine, there are a variety of factors that influence why certain regimes are toppling in the face of popular revolt and others aren’t.

    So let’s clarify a couple of issues in the current wave of revolt/potential democratization in the Middle East that poli sci can tell us something about:

    • The role of elite-popular coalitions in democratic transitions: Power isn’t given, it’s taken. And one of the ways it’s taken – and kept – is when there are fissures in the elite coalition that help a regime maintain power. Popular movements can ally with elite dissenters to form coalitions that can help democracy to emerge. What those elite factions might look like in Egypt, Libya, and elsewhere is an open question, as is what organizational forms their popular counterparts will take when the hard work of negotiating governance begins.
    • The difference between democratic transition and consolidation: When is a democratic transition “done?” “Consolidation” is the problematic but basically helpful concept that tries to describe this condition. It may be a certain numbers of peaceful transfers of power – in which case, we can’t tell what really will stick in the Middle East until we see a new post-Mubarak regime peacefully transfer power via elections. Or it may be an episode – like Argentina in 2001 – when the military could intervene during a democratic breakdown but elects not to do so. I think new chapters in the story of this concept will be written in the Middle East….
    • The varieties of authoritarian regimes: Some regimes are propped up by oil, others by superpower patrons because of their geopolitical importance. But not all dictatorships are of a piece, and not all authoritarian regimes are built the same way – which means that they don’t all fall apart the same way, or leave the same kinds of fragments behind. Understanding better the variety of authoritarian regimes in the region is important.
    • The role of security forces: They’re not unitary – the police and the army (not to mention navies or air forces) often developed differently, may have different institutional affiliations (Ministry of Defense vs. Ministry of the Interior – which is not about the environment like the U.S., but is more like a catchall domestic-governance portfolio in many countries), and may react differently to rebellion – see my conversation with Greg Hoadley about the role of the police vs. the army in Egypt.
    • The nature of political “contagion”: This is one of the most distinctive parts of the current situation – that rebellion has spread so quickly and so far from Tunisia in such a short time. Political science will be figuring this out for a while to come. Usually the study of “diffusion” or “contagion” – for example, of environmental standards – is of phenomena that evolve over years and decades. We’re talking weeks and months here. Much to be learned.

    So given that my two questions on this blog are about philanthropy and democracy, I’ll want to look at how philanthropy can play a role with respect to these different issues.

    To be continued….