Posts Tagged ‘conflict/dispute resolution’

The Rising

Wednesday, February 9th, 2011

Continuing from yesterday on the uprising in Egypt and the role of philanthropy in democratic transitions: Transitions are actually an area where political science has a few things to say.

It’s important to understand the nature of the coalition that’s pushing for change, a coalition that needs to bridge the opposition and elements within the regime. It’s when you have that combination that a transition becomes more feasible. In studying the “third wave” of democratization that took place starting with Spain and Portugal in the mid-1970s and extended across Latin America and parts of Asia in the 80s and 90s, one of the concepts that was coined was “democraduras” and “dictablandas,” a play on the Spanish words “dictadura” (dictatorship), “dura” (hard), and “blanda” (soft). A dictablanda was a dictatorship that wasn’t so hard-line, and a democradura was a democracy that wasn’t so soft-and-fuzzy, but had authoritarian overtones.

It’s interesting how we’re looking at these kinds of grey zones in regimes like Egypt. (I’m totally out of my depth here, my region is Latin America.) There are nominally elections, but Mubarak always wins. There are multiple political parties, and some measure of civil society, philanthropy, etc. Pretty active, at first glance.

So what’s the role of philanthropy, both domestically and internationally, in that kind of a context? Yesterday, I looked at the role international foundations can play. But what about domestic foundations, those based in Egypt? Check out part of an abstract from Mona Atia, a Dissertation Scholar award-winner from the International Society for Third-Sector Research, “Philanthropy: A New Player in Egyptian Development“:

There are three main trends in Egyptian philanthropy: a geographical driven approach to giving, expanding networks and partnerships and finally professionalization of the sector. While the sector faces many hurdles in terms of government intervention, a lack of transparency and few mechanisms for accessing long-term impact, huge strides have been made in terms of thinking strategically about resource mobilization, breaking down barriers to cooperation with NGOs and using the web for advocacy. There remains a great deal of work in terms of actually mobilizing resources in a strategic manner, building capacity for grantees, assessing impact in nuanced ways that do not reduce NGO work to a number, communicating the important work being done in the sector and finally increasing transparency by accurate and open reporting of financial, operational and strategic plans.

These all sound like things NGOs and foundations in the U.S. deal with. Talk about professionalization of the sector….

So the question for me is, to what extent has philanthropy in Egypt been supporting the development of civil society, and what role have civil-society organizations played relative to political parties in current events. That relationship between NGOs and parties is complicated in the U.S., as well as in other countries. I’m interested to learn more about how it’s playing out in Egypt, to understand better the role of philanthropy in a democratic society – or in democratic transitions….


A moment of gratitude amidst the sadness

Tuesday, January 11th, 2011

Ucch, so sad and scary about the shooting of Representative Giffords. I think I’ll pass on the clever song title for this post. Interesting how the opinion page of the NYT yesterday had two opposed takes on the upswing that were telling in their difference. Krugman sounded the alarm that it’s time to wake up and realize that while the left has rhetorical excesses, it’s a false equivalency to say that they’re similar to what goes on on the right these days. And literally on the same page, their conclusions meeting side-by-side at the bottom of the column, Ross Douthat works hard to make that equivalency, even tilting blame not-so-subtly to the left side of the ledger (George Wallace’s assassin “had only a tenuous connection to left-wing politics”).

There’s something to be said for the printed layout of an editorial page, to make you marvel that such different takes can co-exist. But of course, that’s the point, that they can, and that we argue about them in reasonable terms. I like Krugman’s term, about getting rid of “eliminationist” rhetoric. (That’s of course an ironic sentence if you parse it literally.)

For today, let’s pause and be grateful for the existence of the nonprofit/charitable sector in which I’m lucky enough to work, where people pursue their conceptions of the good in different ways with (mostly) honest effort and good intentions, in a sphere at least conceptually distinct from politics and business. In all of the necessary critique of this sector, it’s important at a time like this to recognize that its very existence is a blessing.

Is the glass half cloudy?

Tuesday, January 4th, 2011

Happy New Year! My goal this year is to build an audience for the blog. I’ve been posting regularly for about six months, and have found a good rhythm, tone, and frequency. Now to get the word out there….

Last time, I made a passing reference to being ambivalent about transparency. The truth is, I’m ambivalent about a lot of good things, like democracy and free markets. That’s just how I’m built. But given how much in vogue transparency is, I guess I should elaborate.

  • WikiLeaks is a good example. I think I’m not off in saying that reasonable people can disagree in whether they’re a good thing. Take the latest release, of diplomatic cables. These embarrassed the U.S., particularly some of our allies. To the extent they made things more difficult for our diplomats abroad, that’s not necessarily a good thing. It might not be the end of the world, but it’s not unreservedly good.
  • Think of politicians as the canaries in the coal mine. Who would want to run for office given how expensive, invasive, and demeaning the process can be and usually is? Who wants to have their live put up for scrutiny like that? In a world where all your business is available online, eventually only the Tracy Flicks will be willing to put up with the hassle. Then where will we be, governed by control freaks and goody-goodies. And that’s just the beginning, what happens as that level of availability and potential for scrutiny becomes more generalized. Will it make us paradoxically less likely to be our full selves with others? I heard an interesting line the other day: “Facebook is where we go to lie to friends and Twitter is where we go to tell the truth to strangers.” The refracted self: many surfaces, all polished to a sheen, but how much light gets through?
  • Aren’t there some decisions that are better made in private? I wonder about the nature of decision-making. Sure, some decisions are better made with more than one person, but are there kinds of decisions that deteriorate in quality the more people are involved. A classic of American politics is Schattschneider’s The Semi-Sovereigh People; one of its central concepts is the idea that by increasing the number of people involved in an argument, you change the nature of the argument. Extrapolating from that idea, I’d say with more people watching, the arguers start to get self-conscious and perform more. Something is lost. I’m not sure what and I’m not sure how important it is – or under what kind of circumstances. But I can’t shake the feeling that not all group decisions should always be opened up as much as possible.

I imagine this is a theme to which I’ll return, given how important transparency is to one of my two questions, about the role of philanthropy in a democratic society.

The Imp in history

Tuesday, December 21st, 2010

I’ve written about The Imp of the Perverse, an image to describe the impulse in human nature to choose things that we know are bad for us, but choose them anyway. It has important implications for how we understand the implementation of social programs, particularly their uptake (or lack thereof). An unusually thoughtful and well-written piece in the Washington Post makes the point that the Imp operates in history as well:

[T]he Civil War legitimized something essential, and dark, that remains with us. Ultimately, the South was fighting for the right to be wrong, for the right to retain (and expand) something ugly and indefensible. It lost the war, and slavery was abolished. But the right to be wrong, the right to resist the progress of freedom, the right to say “no, thank you” to modernity, to leave the fences in disrepair and retreat into a world of private conviction, remains as much a part of the American character as the blood spilled to preserve the Union. Nothing great has been accomplished in America since the Civil War — not footsteps on the moon, or women’s suffrage, or the right (if not the reality) of equal, unsegregated education — without people also passionately fighting for that dark right, too.

“That dark right” – a chilling phrase. We would do well in philanthropy and the nonprofit sector to remember that in trying to encourage social change, “that dark right” will always be a feature of the landscape.

As a side note, to commemorate the sesquicentennial (love that I got to use that word in a sentence) of the Civil War, the New York Times has a blog, Disunion, that “reports” on events in the war on the day they happened 150 years later. (The economist Brad DeLong has been doing something similar for World War II seventy years later.)

Lighter posting schedule this week and next: Tuesdays and Wednesdays only. Happy Holidays!

Freedom isn’t free (part 2)

Wednesday, November 10th, 2010

Well, that was certainly an election. One of the things about the current political climate that’s most frustrating to me and I think ultimately most dangerous for the health of our democracy is the meme of free-market fundamentalism. I generally think of “meme” as kind of a lame term, and I’m leery of metaphors that equate ideas with viruses or diseases, but I think it’s fair to say that there’s a strain of free-market fundamentalism circulating in the body politics that certain groups, politicians, and parties are more or less susceptible to at different times and in different circumstances.

Only the latest example is kind of a silly one, but symptomatic. A group of Tea Party supporters in Fountain Hills, Arizona are upset about a proposed new method of municipal trash collection because it goes against free-market principles. Not because it costs too much, not because it’s inefficient, not because users weren’t consulted before the change was made (if any of those is even the case) – but on principle, because it consolidates from several carriers to one, and that smacks of “collectivism” or “socialism.” Again, kind of a silly example, but one that’s symptomatic of a broader tendency to view government vs. markets in simple, dichotomous, asymmetric terms, as essentially good vs. evil.

Now there are two things that always get my goat about this. One won’t surprise you given the content of this blog, the other may. The one is, governments and markets are not a dichotomy, they’re symbiotic. Markets need governments to establish and enforce the ground rules, including property rights, terms of trade, and a legal system. What’s more, governments often help markets get going by limiting the initial terms of competition and establishing a playing field in which market actors emerge. A view of the world in which “the market” is a timeless, placeless, yet omnipresent and naturally occurring phenomenon obscures the fact – the fact – that markets are made.

OK, that’s not too surprising given what I’ve been writing on this blog. But the other thought that these topics recurrently provoke for me is the way a form of market thinking can actually be liberating in its depersonalizing of conflict. The arm’s-length, transactional approach to human relations enacted in markets can sometimes be a corrective to the tribalist, hyper-personalized approach embodied in many traditional cultures and ways of life. This is the flip side of one of the undertheorized elements of market relations – how they corrode traditional customs and ways of life.

I say “undertheorized” because we have plenty of examples, so it’s not an understudied phenomenon – locavorism emerges as a reaction to the corporatization of agriculture, for instance. But we don’t often make the connection that it’s a way of viewing the world – in which markets are everywhere, and everyone is acting as a market actor, in every sphere of their lives, even personal life – that undermines many of the things we love most – loyalty, community, family, etc.

But what I’m getting at is one step beyond that: an ambivalence about that undermining, a gut feeling that in many contexts, it can actually be a good thing, because it liberates you from orthodoxy, from doing things a certain way because that’s the way we’ve always done them. And in particular, that depersonalizing conflict by putting it in market-actor terms – rather than nationalistic or tribalistic terms – may actually be a step toward resolution.

I’ll need to unpack these ideas further, but this is a start at laying out some thoughts that are ultimately closely connected to my two questions: what is the role of philanthropy in a democratic society, and what would it mean to democratize philanthropy?

Why does the New Yorker want me to stop trying to improve the world?

Tuesday, October 19th, 2010

Two interesting articles over the past few weeks about the difficulty of intentional action to improve the world. (And yes, I’m aware that I’m relying on them too much for material, but some things just cry out for comment.)

Philip Gourevitch on humanitarian aid and conflict. Does the presence of an international humanitarian aid “industry” incentivize actors in a conflict to increase their level of brutality so as to garner international aid, which ultimately benefits both sides because of the avowed neutrality of such sides?

Adam Gopnik on a new biography of Adam Smith. I learned from Jeff Weintraub back in the day that Smith was more complicated than the invisible hand, but now I’m sorry I never read Smith’s other masterpiece, “The Theory of Moral Sentiments.” The way Smith tends to get interpreted is that the invisible hand of the market orients social outcomes in a positive direction without anyone actually trying to make that happen: pursue your individual self-interest, and through the operation of the market, social welfare will be improved.

The upshot of these two pieces seems to be, “be very, very careful, oh ye who would improve the world through intentional action.” But Gopnik’s piece adds useful nuance to the conventional view of Smith, who didn’t say the invisible hand would always lead to better outcomes (direct quote of Smith below, emphasis added):

“Every individual necessarily labours to render the annual revenue of the society as great as he can. He generally, indeed, neither intends to promote the public interest, not knows how much he is promoting it. By preferring the support of domestic to that of foreign industry, he intends only his own security; and by directing that industry in such a manner as its produce may be of the greatest value, he intends only is own gain, and he is in this, as in many other cases, led by an invisible hand to promote an end which has no part in his intention. Nor is it always the worse for the society that it was no part of it. By pursuing his own interest he frequently promotes that of the society more effectually than when he really intends to promote it.”

If we accept this point of view (which is still debatable), what surely needs figuring out is when intentional action to promote the common good is and is not preferable to the pursuit of self-interest. It’s this consideration of incentives, particularly political and military ones, that may be useful to the humanitarian aid groups that Gourevitch writes about.

Don’t stop trying to improve the world, just be very, very aware of what kinds of ripples the stone you drop into the pond may cause.

Fall into the gap (local knowledge, part 6)

Thursday, September 30th, 2010

Foundations are good at funding where the private sector and the government aren’t. So they fill gaps.

But who fills the gaps in the places where foundations don’t fund?

Is there a way foundations could leverage local knowledge and local modes of dispute resolution to create a penumbra effect in places where they fund – reach a certain community directly, and then indirectly reach linked communities (perhaps via engagement in a rule-setting process)?

Local knowledge (part 5, Nobel Prize-winning edition continued)

Wednesday, September 29th, 2010

Yesterday I wondered about local modes of dispute resolution and what they might mean for philanthropy. Here’s the money quote from Nobel Prize-winner Elinor Ostrom:

When users are genuinely engaged in decisions regarding rules affecting their use, the likelihood of them following the rules and monitoring others is much greater than when an authority simply imposes rules.

She’s writing about how to protect forests from overharvesting, an example of the tragedy of the commons, where a resource that benefits all is gradually depleted because no one individual has enough of a disincentive to stop infringing upon it. But the language and the insight are much more general. And they’re based on “a long-term interdisciplinary, multiscale, international research program.”

What can foundations learn from this? The interesting term in the quote above is “rules.” Consciously or not, one of the ways that foundations exercise power is by establishing rules for who they will and won’t work with. That rule-setting power is an important part of foundations’ independence, but what if a foundation were willing to cede some or all of that power?

Where this gets into dispute resolution is in “monitoring others.” If a foundation wants to build a field, it may not be enough to create incentives for organizations to work together; there may need to be a joint rule-building activity that empowers organizations to engage in setting the rules and in monitoring them. Interesting to think about what this might look like….

Local knowledge (part 4, Nobel Prize-winning edition)

Tuesday, September 28th, 2010

One of the elements of local knowledge that’s most interesting is local modes of dispute resolution. As a political scientist, I’m fascinated by these because they’re about power exercised and order established within a legal framework but outside state authority. How local modes of dispute resolution interface (or not) with the formal legal system may be a key transition stage between failed state/anarchy/lawlessness and functional state/governability/law & order. (I know that the opposite of anarchy is not governability, but go with it for the moment.)

It may also be an important element of economic development, and I suppose of varieties of capitalism. Last year, Elinor Ostrom won the Nobel Prize in Economics for a lifetime of work on alternative modes of dispute resolution. Here’s a brief blurb on Marginal Revolution, one of my favorite blogs by a couple of small-c catholic economists.

Local knowledge is interesting in philanthropy because it’s a bipartisan issue that folks on the left and right would encourage foundations to privilege more than they do. Presumably this is because the people meant to benefit from foundation-supported programs should be involved in the development of the programs meant to benefit them. So in this case local knowledge is about how resources should be allocated, what problems and their solutions are. Ostrom’s work seems to suggest that local knowledge is also about how disputes can be resolved. What’s the lesson for philanthropy? Seems worth exploring….