Posts Tagged ‘international’

Chain Chain Chain

Thursday, May 8th, 2014

While on vacation last month (go to Colombia, it’s fabulous), I finished reading Teju Cole’s Open City. Well worth the read. I especially enjoyed it because the narrator lives near my neighborhood in northern Manhattan and spends much of his time walking around the city; I liked being able to picture his itinerary. I found Cole very thoughtful and attentive to the variety of immigrant experiences in the city. Like his protagonist, Cole was raised in Nigeria and came to the U.S. in the early 90s. So I was interested to see that he’s had some provocative things to say (yes, on Twitter) about the #bringourgirlsback campaign.

#BringBackOurGirls, but to where? In Gamboru Ngala, 3 1/2 hours away from Chibok, 336 people were killed last night.

Much as we might wish this to be a single issue with a clear solution, it isn’t, and it cannot be. It never was.

Boko Haram killed more human beings yesterday than the total number of girls they kidnapped three weeks ago. Horrifying, and unhashtagable.

For four years, Nigerians have tried to understand these homicidal monsters. Your new interest (thanks) simplifies nothing, solves nothing.

Do good work, support good work, find whatever in the inferno is not infernal, but do it from a place of understanding, that is all.

Remember: #bringbackourgirls, a vital moment for Nigerian democracy, is not the same as #bringbackourgirls, a wave of global sentimentality.

This got me thinking about a favorite topic, the nature of causal thinking in philanthropy. A lot of what I do is help funders think through their assumptions about how the work they do (their strategies) is actually expected to result in the changes they hope to see in the world (their outcomes). How realistic are those assumptions? How grounded are they in an understanding of the environment in which you’re operating, and in your own capacity to do the work?

A favorite tool for doing this work is the “pathway to impact,” a set of statements about how strategies lead to outcomes lead to impact that are meant to be linked logically. Marvelous word, that last one. It imparts objectivity, but as I think about it and I experience this work, it should probably be replaced with “empirically.” A pathway to impact is a set of statements about how strategies lead to outcomes lead to impact that are meant to be linked empirically – that there’s some evidence that it’s reasonable to expect on thing to lead to another. Improving curricula for teacher education leads to better trained teachers leads to more effective classroom instruction leads to better educational outcomes for kids. Better understanding of the needs of low-wage workers leads to more tailored employment training programs leads to improved skills leads to greater ability to access jobs leads to greater likelihood of applying for a job leads to greater likelihood of getting one…to keeping one…to improving family income sustainably. And so on, for whatever issue you’re working on.

What I see Teju Cole saying is that our assumptions about how hashtagging “bringbackourgirls” will help, you know, bring them back, are fuzzy and based somewhat on wishful thinking. Other commentators go further and say that this social media campaigning is actually harming Nigeria in the long run, because the most direct thing it can lead to is justifying U.S. military intervention. This tweet is pretty eerie in that light:

@JohnKerry: On behalf of #POTUS spoke w/ #Nigeria’s Pres GJ earlier. US will send security team to help #BringBackOurGirls safely

So one thing to do in these cases is to ask, what are the most likely direct results of what I’m doing here? Whose cause will I help by doing this? There are likely to be multiple answers. But it’s useful to weigh them in the balance. Helps draw attention in the West to a part of the world experiencing issues that should get more attention. Cool. Builds North-South solidarity and causes people to identify with others very distant from themselves geographically, culturally, and economically. Awesomesauce. Helps justify intervention by US forces that can have negative side effects. Jeepers.

Doesn’t mean you shouldn’t engage in this way. But play out the chain, imagine the pathway(s)…which probably means learning more about circumstances on the ground. And that can never be a bad thing.

Is #bringbackourgirls the new #kony2012? Or does it represent a genuine advance over that experience? (I remember that one of the things I liked about the video was that they did a really good job of laying out a pathway to impact…but it turned out to be wrong, or incomplete, or misguided – perhaps. A topic for another time, maybe.) What do you think?

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99 Problems

Thursday, January 23rd, 2014

…but foreign aid ain’t one?

I’m wondering whether we’re too problem-oriented in philanthropy. Are we so focused on figuring out things that need to be fixed about the world that we have a hard time seeing the way that things have improved?

Bill Gates published his annual letter about the Gates Foundation’s work this week, and it focused on countering “3 myths about foreign aid.” The crux of his argument is that within his lifetime (he was born in 1955), billions of people worldwide have been elevated from extreme poverty, and that in a bit more than 20 years (2035), he expects that there will be “almost no poor countries” in the world – meaning, almost no country will be as poor as the 35 countries classified as low-income today, after adjusting for inflation.

Put this alongside the recent news that India has all but eradicated polio, and it’s important to remember – things are actually getting better for huge numbers of people across the world. Gates also cites the rise of middle-income countries like China, India, and Brazil, which contain huge portions of the global population. Their economic development, while unequally distributed, has led to a notable decrease in human misery. There are still more than a billion people in extreme poverty, “so it’s not time to celebrate.” But it is time to recognize, Gates argues, that a lot of aid has worked.

The value and effectiveness of foreign aid is a whole other topic of discussion. But I’m struck by the notion that problem-oriented philanthropy may at least partly blind us to the progress that has been made in addressing problems. It’s like we get so focused on our particular problem, our theory of change, that we forget to look up and see that some pretty major collective problems have actually gotten better. No one needs to give up on problem solving anytime soon (though I’ll be glad when there are no longer any Indian doctors who have a memory of treating a polio case), but a virtual high-five to those who’ve made real progress, even if not in our field, is a good idea.

What sign of progress NOT in your own area of focus are you most excited about? Bonus points if it affects people nothing like you and whom you’ll never meet.

Does Anybody Really Know what Time it Is?

Thursday, April 11th, 2013

Which is the title of a classic song from the band Chicago. I’m just back from there, having spent several days at the Council on Foundations conference. I tweeted up a storm, met some great people, and wrote a couple of posts for the conference blog:

Welcome to the (Global) Accountability Class
About self-motivated accountability in philanthropy

Learning: The “Third Heat” of Impact Investing—and All Grantmaking?
About the idea of a “learning return” in impact investing, and how it may apply to all of grantmaking

Save Me?

Thursday, March 29th, 2012

Teju Cole has a great piece on the Atlantic website about “The White Savior Industrial Complex,” inspired by KONY 2012 and other international do-gooder efforts. (He’s also in tomorrow’s final of the 2012 Tournament of Books.) It’s an evocative phrase, let’s break it down.

That the saviors are white matters because of the white man’s burden, the legacy of colonialism, and unexamined white privilege.

That they frame themselves as saviors (if that’s what they’re doing) matters because that denies agency to the people who are being nominally saved.

That it’s an industrial complex matters…why? Because do-gooding should be an artisanal craft? Because it should be a monastic calling? Because it should be divine inspiration? Because…. Hmm. The original term “military-industrial complex” pointed out that two apparently unrelated areas were related that shouldn’t be related, because they concentrated too much material and political power. What power do would-be white saviors wield? And why should their professionalization be worth calling out as a danger?

Could it be because the power to call attention to an issue or problem, particularly one as previously obscure as the Lord’s Resistance Army, turns out to matter after all? And that the innocence and disintermediation that were the public face of KONY 2012 supporters somehow confirm our prejudices about what do-gooding should look like – non-industrialized, organic, idealistic?

The truth is, white saviors have a pittance of the Pentagon’s budget. Not much of an industrial complex – more like a set of competing and fractious medieval guilds. So it shouldn’t be surprising that they try to leverage the hell out of soft power.

There are many kinds of complex that white saviors could be ascribed: superiority, inferiority, Cassandra – but industrial? Nah. They wish.

#Kony #Kony the remix

Thursday, March 15th, 2012

Can’t stop thinking about #Kony2012, I’m surprised not to see more about it in the philanthropy blogosphere. Anyway, a few pieces have cleared things up for me. Somewhat.

Communicopia educated me about the work that Invisible Children has been doing over the past eight years to build their constituency that made the video go so viral. Though they appear to have come out of nowhere, IC have actually been slogging in the trenches for years. This article is pure gold, the insight-to-length ratio is off the charts. Go read it.

You’re back? Good. Now, this puts it all into perspective. Girls 13-24 are the ones sending around the video because they’re the ones that IC has been targeting and seeking to empower.

Ethan Zuckerman brought me up to speed on the most thoughtful critiques of IC’s strategy, and they are many and persuasive. Go read that one, too, but wait a minute, because it’ll take a while, and you should especially read the comments, which are bubbling with vitriol. Drama!

Which brings us to Dan Pallotta, who in typical pugnacious style, comes out swinging. A friend pointed out that Jason Russell of IC was going to be on Lawrence O’Donnell, so I DVR’d it. OMG – So. Smarmy. I had a viscerally negative stylistic reaction. I do it myself sometimes, but male upspeak is not a great look for anyone. Again, maybe he’s speaking the language, literally, of the people he works with, but it grated with me. But Pallotta takes it to another level, accusing – particularly in the comments on his post – critics of being jealous of IC’s success. “The criticism is largely based in envy at Invisible Children’s success.” Yeah, that’s gotta be there, but “largely based in envy”? Come on now.

And this gets to one of the things I found troubling in both sets of comments section (Ethan’s and Pallotta’s): the *extreme* thin-skinnedness of IC supporters. Any critique is to be not only repudiated but denounced as mean-spirited, unfair, or futile. “Go fix things in Uganda if you’re so smart” is the essence of one refrain in the comments. Really? The message is that delicate that it needs to be protected from any negativity? It’s one thing to pulsate with the energy of youth, it’s another to quaver with its fragility and, well, insecurity.

But then I watched the actual Kony2012 video. (Except the parts where he explains Kony to his 5-year-old. I find that nauseatingly manipulative, and skipped over those few minutes.) The first several minutes aren’t even about Uganda, or Kony. They’re about this moment in time, about what can be achieved by the many coming together on Facebook. He explicitly talks about this being an experiment, to see if something huge can be achieved. God love ’em, there’s even a visual depiction of a theory of change that’s as clear and simple as I’ve ever seen. (That’s the kind of thing I do all day at work, and I have to say, pace Dan Pallotta, that my emotion on watching it was excitement – there’s a way to do what I do better! Awesome! Let me learn how!)

I for one am really excited to see the first Kony2012 copycats that actually have success. Because that’ll be one of the true measures of impact, is if this does prove a successful experiment, and shows a different way of doing things.

A final note: I also learned from a website I hadn’t heard of before called Talk2Action that Invisible Children is funded by a number of evangelical Christian organizations. Knowing this, seeing the part of the Kony2012 video where the student activists are chanting IC slogans in unison made perfect sense, and also sent a little shiver up my spine. Perhaps it also explains the fervor of some IC defenders in the comments section? (Yes, that was upspeak.) I don’t really know how to parse the intersection of evangelical Christian missionary impulses, social-media wizardry, youthquake mobilization, and working on the front lines of international human rights work. Yet another reason this is fascinating and worth watching as it evolves.

#Kony #Kony

Thursday, March 8th, 2012

There’s so much going on with #StopKony I barely know where to start.

I spoke with a funder once whose range of investments included support for private security forces seeking out a war criminal. Philanthropy is institutional but it’s strangely chained to the raging id. You have the money, you have the autonomy – let’s see what you can do. Most wouldn’t do go that far, but some small number do. In some cases, no one knows, you like it that way, you keep it that way. In the case of Invisible Children, an NGO that raises money, you decide after years toiling in the shadows (well, relatively speaking, they’re actually fairly known on the international NGO scene) that it’s time to go viral. The theory of change is that you need political will to keep U.S. military advisers in country to keep the hunt for Kony on, so you tap your skills in video/media production and create a video designed to go viral.

And the cycle of backlash is just so fast. One of the people on my blogroll, Chris Blattman, has come out against the campaign, as have others. (Nice compilation here.) Invisible Children seems to have done an exhaustive job of responding to critiques, worth a read. Any opportunity to give a wider audience more nuance about how to think about NGO effectiveness is a positive in my book. For example, IC talks about how they get a two-star rating from Charity Navigator on transparency because they don’t have at least five independent board members. They have four, and say they’re interviewing for a fifth. It’s like buying a car, people, do your homework. But look beyond the rating systems, dig into the assumptions, learn some of the lingo. If you can spend 29 minutes watching the video….

Then again, as the caption says on a slide on my corkboard at work, “There is no such thing as boring information; there is only boring presentation.” Maybe someday someone’ll find a way to sex up the nuance of NGO accountability ratings. Until that day, put on your green accountants’ visor and start clicking. And if you have questions, I’m always here; this is what I do for a living….

It’s a Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall

Wednesday, September 28th, 2011

“As Scorn for Vote Grows, Protests Surge Around Globe”

So goes the front-page headline in today’s NYT. The gist is that Millennials around the world, from Spain to Israel to India, are rising up in direct protests within regimes that were meant to have afforded democracy. “They are taking to the streets, in part, because they have little faith in the ballot box.”

All right, it’s time to review the difference between procedural and substantive democracy. Procedural democracy means that the rules are in place that can guarantee fair outcomes, substantive democracy means that fair outcomes do happen. It’s no accident that procedural democracy is the version that people have in mind when they talk about “democratic capitalism,” as the NYT article does. The heart of procedural democracy is free and fair elections. (Don’t get me wrong – this is a huge achievement in human history. The voting booth is like a pew, you should be reverent and grateful in there.) Freedom of expression, freedom of religion. But that’s basically it.

It’s a sham. When the outcomes don’t go your way, that is. Substantive democracy means that the rules point in a certain direction. (You know, toward justice.) There’s an analogy to dimensions of human rights. Just as democratization has generally meant the installation of procedural democracy, the most progress on human rights has been on civil and political rights – the right to vote, etc. But many human rights advocates have been pushing for while for a further dimension of human rights: economic and social rights – the right to a living wage, health care, etc. These are part of substantive democracy.

Again, don’t get me wrong – go procedural democracy. One thing at a time, gradualism, politics as the art of the possible, etc.

Except, bullshit. That’s what the people on Wall Street and in the tent cities in Israel and Spain, and the hunger striker in India are saying. Bullshit. Why wait? Justice now, economic and social rights now, substantive democracy now. Especially when the capitalism side of “democratic capitalism” is so manifestly rigged. Makes the other side feel rigged too.

Who are we to say any different?

My Own Worst Enemy

Thursday, August 4th, 2011

I had lunch with a colleague in philanthropy today, and she posed an interesting question: Would you wish the U.S. system of philanthropy – specifically, the ability of individuals to shelter assets from taxes by setting up a private foundation that in exchange is required to pay out at least 5% annually to charitable causes – on a country that was setting up its tax code? Our system is fairly unique; would we wish to replicate it in other countries, or would we not wish it on our own worst enemy?

The easy thing to do would be to be flip: “Of course not!” And there’s a kernel of truth there; Lord knows there’s a lot of dysfunction in the sector: Underperformance as a natural state, data clamoring to be free, both too much strategy and not enough.

But as ever, I have more questions than answers.

With the dust settling (for the moment) on the debt ceiling debate, economic inequality is front of mind. I saw a headline today that Neiman Marcus’ profits rose even more than expected in the last quarter. Clearly someone’s making out fine in this not-really-a-recovery, and it’s not your average Josefina.

So I would say, look at the Gini coefficient – countries with our level of inequality probably aren’t candidates for our version of philanthropy, which doesn’t seem able to mitigate that inequality – and may in fact exacerbate it. (Of course, there’s a whole other realm of charitable giving that’s not tied to tax exemption and the the private foundation form, which is a whole ‘nother question to be considered in comparative context.) In somewhere more equal, like, I dunno, Scandinavia, letting some folks pull their otherwise-taxable dollars out of public purview to advance private conceptions of the public good might not be so problematic.

The other thing to look at is levels of tax compliance. Part of the problem with Greece is that no one pays their taxes. In places like that, perhaps a tax shelter that ties those funds to at least some expectation of advancing public welfare would bring some assets into the semi-public realm instead of having them practically all be in the private realm. In other words, if there’s no public realm to speak of, perhaps a US-style philanthropic tax exemption could help to create one.

Problem is, high levels of inequality and lack of tax compliance tend to go together. So a US-style philanthropic tax exemption could cut both ways, positive and negative. In that case, I think the thing that should break the tie is the presence of civil society. If not much of one exists, then a philanthropic tax shelter could – could! – be a tool to help bring one about. But learning from the US example, you’d want to think carefully about the kinds of accountability for public benefit you build into that system. If civil society is already strong, you may care more about ensuring that the public sector is strong and can provide safety net services, rather than promoting private philanthropic initiative.

This gets to the heart of one of my two questions – what is the role of philanthropy in a democratic society? Which is the greater good – a robust public sector or the thousand points of light of private philanthropic impulse? Under what conditions do we favor one or the other? Would we wish the US philanthropic system on our own worst enemy?

Get Out the Map

Thursday, May 5th, 2011

Brief post today to flag a couple of comments I made on the always-essential Tactical Philanthropy blog about the concept of a “Philanthropy Compass” that helps donors map out their values:

The Value of Mapping Philanthropic Beliefs

The Philanthropy Compass Version One

One topic I’d like to tease out on this blog is from the second comment, about how a Philanthropy Compass might relate to the varieties-of-capitalism/varieties-of-philanthropy concept I’ve written about at various points here.

Time After Time

Friday, April 29th, 2011

So it’s been a year since I started blogging. I read over my posts from that past year last night, and thought about threads I’d like to continue in the coming year, and those that I’d like to summarize and try to say something more definitive on.

To continue:

To summarize:

To possibly begin exploring:

  • The role of philanthropy in a democratic society based on prior international experiences like Eastern Europe and Latin America, amid the lessons they hold for the Middle East.

And there’ll be more in the last category, for sure….

Sounds like a plan!