Posts Tagged ‘freedom’

Help! I Need Somebody, Not Just Anybody

Thursday, August 11th, 2011

I haven’t read The Help, but I’m interested in the discussion surrounding the film’s release. I think of Colorlines as my go-to place for acute, well-informed critique on the politics of race and racial equity. So it’s intriguing to see a take there by Akiba Solomon, timed to the film’s release, that quotes as “the best review…I’ve read so far” a piece that appeared in…Entertainment Weekly. That’s remarkable! Colorlines seal of approval on a piece of critique that appeared in as mainstream a publication as you can get.

That’s no knock on Solomon. As a longtime loyal EW subscriber, I had been pleasantly surprised to Martha Southgate’s on-point rebuttal of the film’s presumption to tell the story of a key element of the civil-rights struggle from the perspective of those who were ultimately on the sidelines. Money line from Southgate: “the structure of narratives like The Help underscores the failure of pop culture to acknowledge a central truth: Within the civil rights movement, white people were the help.” The point that needed to be made gets made in a place where a sizable part of the film’s audience is likely to see it. Nice.

Now, there are several layers going on here, obviously. (And I promise one of them has to do with philanthropy.)

  • Who’s the dummy now? Or, the politics of literary and cinematic ventriloquism. I should probably dig up my college texts and re-read Gayatri Spivak’s, “Who Speaks for the Subaltern?” But the question of well-meaning members of an elite who sympathize with the downtrodden seeking to help them by “speaking for” them is a vexed and long-standing one. (Although really, any of the parody 60s protest songs in Walk Hard put it to rest.) Who has the right to represent another’s experience – no matter what the intention? One of the most controversial elements of the book of The Help is that Aibileen and Minnie’s voices are written in dialect. Are there any circumstances in which this is OK? Is it ventriloquism or empathy? Apparently while in the book, there are three voices including Skeeter’s, in the movie the voice-over is only Aibileen’s. That’s at least a step in the right direction. I don’t know if I buy the idea that it makes it easier to hear subaltern voices if someone from the elite channels them first. In such an unmediated (and yet entirely mediated) world, why not just hear from people directly – why does someone need to bring us the voice of the unheard, make it more palatable? Ultimately, I think the value of the book – and of its ventriloquism – is that it gives readers the feeling that they’re being exposed to the inner life of people they would probably never think about otherwise. So I imagine it feels like a deep and moving experience, even humbling. On some level, that can’t be a bad thing. To be humbled – and then chastened by the realization that even the story that was enlightening you needs enlightening of its own: that feels like a meaningful, and socially useful experience.
  • The “women’s picture.” What I haven’t seen anyone talk about yet in this summer of successful female-led comedies like Bridesmaids and Bad Teacher is that here we have a movie that’s all about women where men are the help in getting the story on the screen – the male director was handpicked by the female author of the book, a true rarity in Hollywood. (J.K. Rowling surely had some input on who directed the first Harry Potter movie, but it’s not like she said, “it has to be this person who grew up with me and gets the very English world I tried to portray in the books,” as happened with director Kathryn Stockett and director Tate Taylor.)
  • Voice, the gift that keeps on giving. There are texts and performances that explode their boundaries. I get the feeling that Octavia Spencer and especially the divine, regal Viola Davis have done such a good job with their characters that no matter who presents their story, it’ll be their voices and their experiences that remain in the viewer’s minds.

And it’s that last point that resonates with the concept of philanthropy. Sometimes the gift of voice is the gift that keeps on giving, well beyond the giver’s intentions or frames of reference. Ultimately, giving voice to the disenfranchised and then stepping the hell to the side, may be the best thing a philanthropist – whether an individual like the Skeeter character in The Help or a foundation making grants – can do in some situations. Once again, the Beatles get it right – “help! I need somebody, not just anybody” – there are good ways and better ways that donors can be…wait for it…The Help.

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Isn’t It Ironic? On “Democratic Capitalism”

Thursday, July 7th, 2011

Carl Schramm, head of the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, has a piece in Forbes arguing philanthropy exists to advance and perfect democratic capitalism. In response, Albert Ruesga, head of the Greater New Orleans Foundation, laments that if this is why foundations exist, “could there possibly be a better reason for dismantling the private foundation as an institution?” Ooh, CEO throwdown!

Less flippantly, what’s going unexamined here, I think, is the term “democratic capitalism.” My guess is that Schramm sees that adjective, which goes unexplained, as significant. Capitalism within the context of a democratic system presumably is different than unmodified, raw capitalism. But here’s where I think the difference lies. My hunch is that Ruesga’s image of democracy and Schramm’s may be different in one significant way.

As I’ve written about, and I owe this insight to my mentor Jeff Weintraub, in one respect democracy and the “free” market are fundamentally at odds. The invisible hand of the market aggregates the individual pursuit of self-interest into social welfare (or so the story goes). But this aggregation is strangely delicate. Try intentionally to generate social welfare, and the aggregation falls apart. This is some of the thinking behind mistrust of government.

Do you see what’s going on here? To avoid suboptimal outcomes, you have to give up the ability to consciously pursue the collective good. So the free market is really unfree, in an important respect.

And democracy is actually, in one version I happen to like, about a community consciously defining and intentionally pursuing the collective good (what Tocqueville called “self-interest properly understood”). Which is the opposite of letting the free market operate through the individual pursuit of self-interest. So democracy and the market are in one respect fundamentally at odds.

This is if you define democracy as I just have. It’s sometimes called “participatory” democracy, and associated with Isaiah Berlin’s vision of “positive freedom” – the freedom to do X or Y.

But there’s another version of democracy – a “procedural” one, associated with Berlin’s other vision – “negative freedom,” or freedom from X or Y. This version of democracy is not about the outcomes but about the rules and fair play – freedom of expression, and free elections. There’s a lot to recommend this version! And its achievement and sustainment are to be celebrated.

But for many people, I assume Ruesga included, it’s not enough. “Democratic capitalism” based on procedural democracy and negative freedom is sadly perfectly compatible with high levels of inequality and unjust economic outcomes. In fact, it probably encourages them. But for a vision of the good based on positive freedom and participatory democracy – what you might call social justice – “democratic capitalism” would need to look pretty different than it currently does to make that phrase other than a cruel irony.

And whether philanthropy can contribute to that effort – or whether the most it can and should aspire to is supporting “democratic capitalism” as Schramm might have it – is the real question. One of two, you might say.

Seems Like Old Times

Thursday, June 16th, 2011

Philanthropy is often about solving problems. Which sounds future-oriented: make a better tomorrow.

But sometimes the problem is loss: a way of life, a community, is falling apart, and needs preservation.

Is there a nostalgic mode of philanthropy?

Historic preservation, cultural continuity – is this inherently conservative? Or is there something progressive in fighting the worst tendencies of the day? We’ve become accustomed, in the current political discourse, to think of fighting the future (demographic change, diversification, growing immigration) as hearkening back to a distant past (the 50s). But what if there’s a way of fighting the future, of seeking to conserve, that’s about preserving elements of the current social contract that deserve to endure? (Like, I dunno, Medicare.)

Everything old is new again, but some things that were new deserve to become old – and constant.

Midnight in Paris, Woody Allen’s well-reviewed new movie, is about a struggling author whose first novel is about a man who runs a nostalgia shop. The arc is that the writer has to learn to live in the present – by understanding that every age has a time about which it’s nostalgic, so there’s no point living in the past. But is that the lesson? Or is it that there are elements of the past that are worth preserving, even against the tide of the constantly new.

What’s different about the current moment is we have more power to preserve than ever. Our Facebook accounts, our cameraphones – this blog – capture moments, feelings, thoughts, that were once ephemeral. I wonder if the artists of this new medium will be the nostalgists, the ones who find a way to extract the solid core from the swirl of data and hold on to it, even for a little while….

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….

Don’t Fence Me In

Wednesday, February 23rd, 2011

If it’s Tuesday, Wednesday, or Thursday, it must be Egypt here on DPQ. Back with more from Molly Schultz Hafid, whose 2009 piece on social-justice philanthropy has gotten some nice exposure on PhilanTopic, the Foundation Center’s blog. Here’s more from my interview with Molly on what foundation folk outside of Egypt can do to support the movement for democracy.

It’s important for those of us who support democracy to support open and pluralistic values. There are a lot of configurations of what it could look like; to use our simple US labels of young, establishment, religious, etc. – it’ll be more complicated than that. If we’re not of Egypt, the best thing we can do is to support the development of an open space for the organizing of an agenda to happen – hopefully a social justice one. If we do too many shortcuts, we’ll get something that preserves too much of what people were protesting.

As people in philanthropy, we should be talking about and thinking about how to distribute resources in what in the US we’d call a nonpartisan way. It’s going to look different than the nonprofit infrastructure in the US, or the political party infrastructure – there may be hybrids. We need that opening up and that space – for people to try different things, and to try corrective action. If we commit to something too quickly…there has to be room to make adjustments.

[One of the key points Molly makes in her paper is that the NGO sector in Egypt faces a lot of obstacles, including a lack of public legitimacy.]

The one caveat to this, which is very important, is that the aid infrastructure and the US support have used a civil society framework – there’s a lot of mistrust of that framework in Egypt…. I think we have to be careful about what we call the youth movement. Billions and billions of dollars have been poured into Egypt to build “civil society,” and most of it ended up in Mubarak’s pocket. If people reading your blog are wanting to reach out, don’t worry if people flinch when they say “civil society.”

So much of what’s challenging about wanting to help Egyptian youth capitalize on this movement is concern about how such outside support will be viewed. Molly’s sage advice about the difficulty of applying the labels we’re used to in US political discourse is well-taken. But as the heartwarming and amusing story about an Egyptian ordering pizza for the protesters in Wisconsin reminds us, along with Molly’s final comment, the prospect of solidarity across borders is encouraging.

Thanks again Molly for sharing your insights!

Come Together, Right Now

Tuesday, February 22nd, 2011

All Egypt, all the time continues here on TBBKA”DP?”, or if you like, DPQ (Q for questionmark). Interesting piece on The Monkey Cage (hat tip to Marginal Revolution) asking, “why do protests topple regimes?” Here’s Professor Graeme Robinson, via Joshua Tucker:

Why do protests bring down authoritarian regimes?…The key to answer this question, I think, is to understand the basic nature of authoritarian rule. While the news media focus on “the dictator”, almost all authoritarian regimes are really coalitions involving a range of players with different resources, including incumbent politicians but also other elites like businessmen, bureaucrats, leaders of mass organizations like labor unions and political parties, and, of course, specialists in coercion like the military or the security forces. These elites are pivotal in deciding the fate of the regime and as long as they continue to ally themselves with the incumbent leadership, the regime is likely to remain stable. By contrast, when these elites split and some defect and decide to throw in their lot with the opposition, then the incumbents are in danger….

So where do protests come in? The problem is that in authoritarian regimes there are few sources of reliable information that can help these pivotal elites decide whom to back….In this context, protests are excellent opportunities for communication….Broadly, there are two types of messages being sent. The one that gets the most scholarly attention is at the level of protesters trying to convince other citizens that “people like them” hate the incumbents and are willing to act….However, the other kind of message is the one that protests send to pivotal elites, who are weighing staying the course against the potential costs and benefits from switching sides.

In the Egyptian case, the pivotal elites seemed to have included, on the one side, “national capitalists” associated with part of the military, and, on the other side, the beneficiaries of privatization and Mubarak’s economic “reforms”, associated with his son Gamal. When the “swing voters”, the semi-autonomous Intelligence Services (mukhabarat), moved behind the national capitalist faction, Mubarak was finished. Much of the action in the last days of January seems to have consisted of various high profile figures using the protest to signal their allegiance to or defection from Mubarak.

As I was talking about last week, the key element to understand is the nature of the coalition pushing for change. And the real challenge is once a dictator has been toppled, who steps in to fill the vacuum? One piece of the puzzle is to understand which elite faction emerges victorious. Another is to look at who within the opposition might be able and willing to form a coalition to govern with them.

And it’s here that the “leaderless” nature of the revolt becomes a challenge. As Greg Hoadley points out, “who wins the revolution is an open question.” And as Molly Schultz Hafid observes, one of the key challenges for Egyptian youth trying to organize are the severe limits on raising funds for nonprofit efforts in a legal context where the government needs to approve all fundraising appeals.

What this adds up to is a challenge for philanthropy. Coalitional politics appear key to how the transition, if that’s what this is (fingers crossed), will play out. And the opposition needs to find a way to organize itself credibly, in a way that will be legitimate in the eyes of the people. Youth have a critical role to play; can philanthropy within and outside of Egypt help the youth who drove the January 25 movement to get the knowledge and resources they need to organize in a way that will allow them to form a stable, democratic coalition with elite factions that would be willing to work with them? That to me seems the crux of how philanthropy could help usher in a more democratic society in Egypt.

Circle in the Sand

Thursday, February 10th, 2011

Continuing from yesterday on Egypt, philanthropy, and transitions. Been doing some reading about philanthropy and politics in the region, it’s fascinating stuff. The way the diffusion of revolt has been happening is impressive. This piece from the indispensable Alliance magazine is well worth a read, especially the fuller document linked within it, which has brief vignettes on more than a dozen countries in the region and the status of their current political uprisings, all inspired by Tunisia.

Now you see why comparative politics is so exciting! What explains the different rates of diffusion of revolt in these different countries? Common languages, similar cultural and religious backgrounds, but very different manifestations and levels of revolt. The thoughtful full piece by Ebba Augustin linked in the Alliance lays out a few different possible variables:

  • Bottom of the pyramid. This may be a worse pun than the one in today’s song-title-as-blog-post-title, but the demographics of these countries, with high levels of youth who have high levels of unemployment, crop up recurrently in the country vignettes.
  • The resource curse. My former Berkeley classmate Thad Dunning and many others have written about the paradoxical impact of having a lot of natural resources on a developing country. On the one hand, you have the potential to lift a lot of your people out of poverty; on the other hand, government control of the resource is an overwhelming temptation for corruption, and discovering a resource can lock in bad regimes because they become unassailable.
  • Factionalism. This familiar concept from early U.S. history plays out along ethnic and religious lines. Divided countries have fault lines that are more or less susceptible to political pressure and demagoguery.
  • The power of the public purse. Strategic government spending to provide needed social services to a population afflicted by high unemployment and stubborn poverty is used to foreclose revolt in some countries.

The particular combination of these variables in different countries makes the situation complicated and hard to predict. One thing I learned from comparative politics is that timing and sequencing matter. It made a difference for the development of Latin America and Africa that Western Europe developed first and colonized in the way that it did: European priorities shaped the parameters of subsequent state development, opening up some paths and closing off others. In a much shorter timeframe, sequencing will matter in what is hopefully part of a fourth wave of democratization.

Augustin alludes to the lessons Iraq has learned from a legacy of protests in the early 1990s that were not heeded internationally; that experience will color Iraqis’ take on these issues, and the speed with which they take up the torch of widespread revolt. Their attitude will in turn shape how other governments respond, etc., etc.

Back on Tuesday with some thoughts about where philanthropy fits into this rapidly evolving picture, and hopefully some special guest stars….

Fire in Cairo

Tuesday, February 8th, 2011

I’m a big fan of The Cure, but that was an obscure song to use for a blog post title.

“What is the role of philanthropy in a democratic society?” is one of my two questions behind this blog. I started writing in the fall about the CIVETS, emerging economies that may be the next BRICs – lo and behold, the E in CIVETS is for Egypt. Time to start paying attention to Egypt!

Brad Smith has a post on the Foundation Center’s blog about the role of philanthropy in supporting the institutions that are helping this potential-regime-change happen and that will support the country in the long term, specifically the press. This reminds me that in thinking about philanthropy internationally, we need to remember that many of the things we take for granted in the U.S. as having been “solved” many years ago – free press, infrastructure, relatively open elections – are still being “figured out” in other parts of the world. Granted, our own solutions may be falling apart, but the point remains that you go to a newsstand and buy a newspaper, and you turn on the faucet and water comes out. Provision of water, for example, was solved here and in Western Europe through public investment; in other parts of the world, it may need to be a mix of public and private investment – the nature of the solution will be different, the incentives of the actors to arrive at that solution will also be different.

So it is with building the institutions that, as Brad points out, can be a helpful role for philanthropy. Not just promoting a free press, but supporting universities to supply the human capital a growing economy needs. We take institutions like the press and academia so much for granted in the U.S. that we look for innovations at the margin, in the start-up business or the grassroots nonprofit. Those are indeed important sources of innovation, but in a developing-world context, where formal institutions are thinner on the ground and less closely linked to each other, it’s important to have those centers of intellectual life doing the meat-and-potatoes work of keeping people informed and getting them educated.

Doesn’t sound glamorous, but in a pre-democratic context, it can be hugely empowering, and can build a base for an eventual transition without explicitly attempting to do so. In other words, it’s a long-term investment that’s not about control and wanting to see immediate-term results. The theory of change is, this society needs skilled, educated people for its economic and political future, and we’re going to invest in helping them achieve that tool, to whatever end it ends up getting used.

If many foundations are reluctant to be intentionally “on the edge,” as Brad puts it, it’s important to remember that supporting institutions and infrastructure can help build the conditions for a larger-scale change when the time is right – and to make it possible for those in the midst of the change to imagine what a post-transition world looks like, and fight for it.

(Not to mention the fact that what it means for “the time to be right” for this kind of a democratic potential-transition to happen keeps changing – the phenomenon of diffusion (or spillover, contagion, whatever you want to call it) from Algeria to Egypt is fascinating, and worth exploring in another post….)

Viva la Vida

Friday, February 4th, 2011

“I see culture as enabling, not constraining. It’s something we build, not just something we inhabit.”

Has it come to this, that I’m quoting myself? (Actually, I think worse than that is using a Coldplay song for the title of this post.) Anyway, continuing from yesterday on culture and causation: I’m trying to articulate a positive vision of culture-as-causal-factor – not something that constrains our choices, not something that explains away our inadequacies or inequality, but something that can be constructed actively, something that sets people free.

You have to start with multiplicity, or as I gather it’s now being called, intersectionality: we all inhabit multiple traditions, our identities emerge at the intersection of many cultural narratives: child, student, citizen, racial/ethnic tradition, religion (or absence thereof), gender, etc., etc. No one of these defines us completely. To me, this is structure: that you come into the world connected (or not) to all these other networks, and not by choice. You’re entangled in multiple strands. Not just entangled: held aloft – supported. Identity is the fabric each of us weaves from these multiple strands. Some of us try harder at it than others, reaching beyond what we’re given to weave in different strands – we leave the place we’re born, we take different kinds of jobs, we study different things, we take on new activities and networks. Others take what they’re given and say thank you, weaving an identity and a life from the strands they were born into.

These individual choices aren’t random, or at least they don’t add up to chaos; there are patterns. Cultures are the patterns different groups collectively weave from the strands they’re given. They make a new reality of the raw material of daily existence. This is another way of saying, civilization happened. We’re not still Paleolithic cave-dwellers, we made fire and language and all the rest of it. This process of individual and collective weaving of identities and cultures from the networks and narratives into which we’re born is a continual and active process.

To me, that’s a very hopeful and encouraging thing. We’re not fated; we can and do change things through the choices we make, even if we’re working with materials from birth that we haven’t chosen. We do something with those, and we bring in new strands through the choices we make in life, the networks we join, the relationships we cultivate or cut off.

Anyway, when I talk about “culture” on this blog, or find myself defending the notion of culture as a causal factor, that’s where I’m coming from.

Won’t Get Fooled Again

Thursday, January 27th, 2011

“Meet the new boss…same as the old boss” (go to about 7:35 in the video)

Continuing this week’s series on China and innovation, I suggested yesterday that among the varieties of capitalism, China will be good at innovation that requires lots of people acting in coordination – massive, massive amounts of people. What are the implications for philanthropy and the social sector?

The thing to think about is what philanthropy looks like in a non-democratic, semi-capitalist context. You’re building on a strong tradition of local-level generosity within communities – mutual aid and such. There’s no tax incentives, so foundations are set up with different incentives and for different reasons if at all. The “independent” sector isn’t particularly independent, it’s monitored closely by the government. The government is closely involved in regulating – in a way that the associations that word brings up in an American context can’t really capture – business activity, with state-owned enterprises and non-state-owned enterprises starting in the last 10 or 15 years. If you stay within the lines, you can build your business.

So this is a context where philanthropy is most likely going to be about advancing and to a degree complementing economic progress. It may also be about preserving traditional arts and cultures. Interesting question about whether those cultures will include ethnic minorities within the country – which ones get their stories told, in an officially-sanctioned way.

In its own way, the approach would be progressive – in that it’s oriented single-mindedly toward economic progress of the country, and bringing the most number of people out of poverty. Hard to argue with the numbers generated in the last 30 years. This is very troubling! It’s the Chile question all over again: would they have been able to generate those kinds of poverty-reduction numbers without an authoritarian government ramming policy change down the people’s throats? And who benefits, what’s the change in economic inequality? (Chile is one of the most economically unequal countries on earth.)

So in a context where innovation is about leveraging the power of massive numbers of coordinated people to solve problems that can only be solved that way, philanthropy becomes less about letting a thousand flowers bloom like in the U.S., but in harnessing the power of coordinated voluntary effort to promote cultural and social practices that reinforce and support economic growth. It’s just not any kind of independent sector.

That’s where this train of thought leads me…time to look into how things have played out in practice in Chinese philanthropy….