Marching Orders From Martin

In a coincidence of history, President Obama took the oath of office on the Martin Luther King Holiday, January 21, 2013. He sounded a call for collective action, with his hand on Martin Luther King's bible.

Like King a half century ago in his "I Have a Dream" speech, Obama employed a language of citizenship, declaring that all must work together as citizens to advance the founding creed of the nation and to meet challenges of today. Obama has immersed himself in study of the black church tradition of call and response, which King brilliantly embodied. And in the citizen response to Obama's call, we can use lessons from the civil rights movement.

Martin Luther King is rightly remembered this anniversary year of his speech as a dreamer. But to see King only as a dreamer is to miss his greatness.

Stretched out on the floor in a sleeping bag in my father's hotel room, I heard King practice the speech in the early morning hours of August 28. My father had just gone on staff of King's organization, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the only white on the executive committee. Dad called me, hitch-hiking in California before college, and told me to come back. "We've planned a march to get the attention of the nation," he said.

In "I Have a Dream," King strikes a bold tone. "There will be neither rest nor tranquility in America until the Negro is granted his citizenship rights," King said. King's Dream speech was also a call to citizenship, to act with concern for the whole society:

"In the process of gaining our rightful place we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds. We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline. Again and again we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force."

King lived what community organizers describe as the tension between the world as it is and the world as it should be. This is hard to do. The strong tendency is to split the two. On the one hand we have our ideals and those who embody them. On the other there is the vicious, violent world and of course the evil doers who are its agents.

King refused this Manichean division of the world. He rooted his dream in the soil of human fallibility. He was fully aware of the propensities toward pettiness, jealousy and meanness in everyone -- including himself. It was his ability to dream coupled with his rootedness in the human condition with its full complexity which made Martin Luther King great.

This rootedness of King is often missing in today's tributes. The current controversy over the King Memorial in Washington illustrates the pattern.

In 2011, the poet Maya Angelou told the Washington Post she was upset at the paraphrase of a quote on the Memorial. The quote, from a sermon King gave on March 4, 1968, read: "If you want to say that I was a drum major say that I was a drum major for justice. Say that I was a drum major for peace. I was a drum major for righteousness." On the Memorial the inscription was shortened to read "I was a drum major for justice, peace, and righteousness."

Angelou said, "The quote makes Dr. Martin Luther King look like an arrogant twit. He never would have said that of himself. He said, 'you might say it.' It minimizes the man. It makes him seem less than the humanitarian he was." After a wave of such criticisms, the Park Service agreed to remove the inscription.

I have high regard for Maya Angelou and her writing. But she was wrong about King.

The sermon wasn't creating a hypothetical. King begins the sermon querying those who condemn James and John for their request, recounted in the 10th chapter of Mark, to sit at Jesus' left and right hands. King says:

Why would they make such a selfish request? Before we condemn them too quickly, let us look calmly and honestly at ourselves, and we will discover that we too have those same basic desires for recognition, for importance. There is deep down within all of us kind of a drum major instinct -- a desire to be out front, a desire to lead the parade, a desire to be first.

King continues that the problem is not the Drum Major Instinct. It's that the follow-up question, "for what?" is rarely asked. That's the meaning of the quote which was taken off the King Memorial.

King's "for what" drew deeply from conversations with co-workers in the movement. For instance, Bayard Rustin, organizer of the March on Washington and long-time adviser to King, was indispensable to creating the platform for "I Have a Dream." Rustin's question was always how to move from the world as it is to the world as it should be, or, put differently, how to put power behind vision.

By the mid-60s, Rustin had become alarmed about the growing tendency of young activists, both black and white, to substitute "posture and volume" for strategy and politics. In 1965 in an article in Commentary magazine, "From Protest to Politics," he challenged this tendency and proposed an alternative. "The civil rights movement must evolve from a protest movement into a full-fledged social movement -- an evolution calling its very name into question," he said. "It is now concerned not merely with removing the barriers to full opportunity but with achieving the fact of equality."

Rustin argued that the movement for equality will require institutional transformation, not simply moral exhortation. I see the civic transformations of colleges and universities, promoted by the American Commonwealth Partnership in partnership with the White House and the Department of Education, as examples .

Similarly, King also often visited the Dorchester Center in Georgia, where he heard stories and drew inspiration from those being trained by SCLC's Citizenship Education Program (CEP) to create citizenship schools. Septima Clark, an early teacher, developed CEP's vision statement: "to broaden the scope of democracy to include everyone and deepen the concept to include every relationship."

Such broadening involved transformation in identity from victim to agent of change, a story told vividly in the book by CEP director Dorothy Cotton, If Your Back's Not Bent: The Role of the Citizenship Education Program in the Civil Rights Movement<. I worked for CEP as a college student.

King is remembered in his last years for his fiery criticisms of the Vietnam War and poverty in America. But we need to recall that he was also a Drum Major -- and a co-worker -- in the movement for equality and for broadening the scope of democracy.

His marching orders have never been more relevant.

Harry C. Boyte, Director of the Center for Democracy and Citizenship at Augsburg College and Senior Fellow at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs, was a Field Secretary for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference as a young man in the civil rights movement.

A Leader in Cooperative Education: Profile of Lois Olson

One key to "integrating the three C's" -- college, career and citizenship -- is recalling those who kept alive traditions of work-centered education and civic learning. Lois Olson, an active participant and leader in Internships and Cooperative Education with strong citizenship interests, is a case in point.

Cooperative education is a method of combining academic study and classroom learning with practical work experience, for which students often receive academic credit. Co-op education and Internships, resembling John Dewey's concept that education should be connected "with real things and materials... and the knowledge of their social necessities and uses," was created by Dewey's contemporary, the engineer, architect, and educator Herman Schneider (1872-1939) in the early 20th century.

Lois Olson, recently retired director of the Strommen Center for Meaningful Work at Augsburg College in Minneapolis, was hired in 1985 to help implement a Cooperative Education grant from the Department of Education. In those years the Department's Cooperative Education program supported curricular innovation tying work experiences to academic learning. Olson, hired by Dr. Garry Hesser, the faculty co-op ed director, now Augsburg's Sabo Professor of Citizenship and long-time leader in experiential education, wrote at her retirement, "No one has contributed more than Lois to the deepening of Augsburg's experiential education and career development."


Boyte: Lois, throughout your career, you've stressed citizenship aspects of work-based learning. Where did that come from?

Olson: I grew up on a farm in Southwestern Minnesota where politics was everywhere. My grandfather and dad were active in local government and especially the farmers union. My dad often took me to the local pool hall, where the farmers and townspeople -- store owners, the town doctor and lawyer, the owners of the grain elevator and the car dealerships gathered for coffee, Democrats and Republicans.

It was the civic site for the town. Even at a young age, I was fascinated how the conversations intertwined politics, religion and economics. Later, I completed my undergraduate degree at the University of Minnesota's Department of Human Ecology, which was highly interdisciplinary. I remember taking a course in American Studies with David Noble, who described the populist movements of the 1930s, and railed against the growth of consumer culture. My graduate studies focused on leadership, experiential education and career development where I began to make meaning out of all this.

Boyte: How was Co-op Education set up at Augsburg?

Olson: We built upon the long tradition of Experiential Education begun in the 1960's, pioneered by sociology professor Joel Torstenson. We had a Faculty Advisory Council and an Employer Council. The faculty council had one representative -- often the department chair -- from every department. Their responsibility was to work with Garry and me to design learning outcomes and a reflection process related to their discipline. The student was responsible for negotiating learning goals and assessment plans. The Employer Council included businesses which hired students. My job was to connect students with departments and employers. I also helped students think broadly about their work. We gave them leads but they had to make the calls and set up interviews, preparing them for the "real" work world.

Boyte: After the Co-op Education grant ended you said you had some frustrations with the growing movement for service learning for not recognizing work as a civic site. Could you describe that?

Olson: I was a strong supporter of service-learning, but I thought something was missing. People said service learning was about citizenship, yet made a distinction between that and work experiences. I never agreed with the separation. When I talked with students I would ask, how can you be a citizen in your neighborhood, your family, your college, AND your workplace? How do these connect and intersect?

Boyte: You helped craft the "Augsburg Experience" for students at Augsburg focused on a required experiential education experience in the community, which included a "work connection" option. It included a question about the workplace as a "corporate citizen." Could you describe this?

Olson: I wanted to pull together elements that I believed students were compartmentalizing. They would take a course with a service learning component and then another focused on vocation. Many had work experience. Some were active in the community. However, the typical student seldom saw any connections. I wanted a reflection process that tied all these together -- academic, service, vocation, community and civic responsibility.

I worked one on one with students, asking them to think about their work experiences and also their community life and education. What are you learning about your strengths? How can you develop them? What else do you need to know? How are you going to learn what you know you don't know? One of the questions was about the job itself. I asked, "Do you or do you not believe that your organization is a good corporate citizen? Why or why not?" Students worked for businesses, schools, nonprofits, mom and pop stores, government... one of the best reflections I received was from a student working at a golf course.

I said, "Find out the mission, the vision, the goals, and practices of your organization. Describe the culture, policies, allocation of resources that might impact citizenship." Responses were very rich. Some said, 'I had no idea that my employer was doing all this.' Others said, 'I looked at the mission and realized it was mostly PR.' Some held discussions about this with their fellow workers.

"The struggle students had is how to act on what they learned. They said, 'What am I going to do about this?' By asking the question, they made a different meaning of their experience. My goal was to provide tools to make real and personal connections between their work life, their personal and public lives and their responsibility of being citizens who can make a difference."

Harry C. Boyte is director of the Center for Democracy and Citizenship at Augsburg College and a Senior Fellow at the University of Minnesota's Humphrey School of Public Affairs.

Me on Al-Jazeera on Who Can Think

Monument to Amilcar Cabral, Praia, Cape Verde by Xandu (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Monument to Amilcar Cabral, Praia, Cape Verde by Xandu (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

For context: I really like Al-Jazeera. They have better reporting on Africa than most other big news outlets (for general Africa news in English that won’t cost you over $1000/year, it’s pretty much them and the Christian Science Monitor – for specific countries, there’re other good sources).  I also love that they have columnists who talk seriously about philosophy, even if I don’t always (or, it seems often) agree.

But I wanted to say a couple quick things about a column that I read this morning there (published yesterday) that struck me as simply bizarre in a few respects.

The piece is called “Can Non-Europeans Think?”  It’s a response to an earlier column on Slavoj Zizek and takes that article – rightly, I think, this is where I agree – to task for this passage:

There are many important and active philosophers today: Judith Butler in the United States, Simon Critchley in England, Victoria Camps in Spain, Jean-Luc Nancy in France, Chantal Mouffe in Belgium, Gianni Vattimo in Italy, Peter Sloterdijk in Germany and in Slovenia, Slavoj Zizek, not to mention others working in Brazil, Australia and China.

Dabashi’s response is odd in two ways, I think, and contains a more serious error in a third.

First, the original column contains an implicit snub of basically all Anglo-American philosophy, that Dabashi does not correct. I suspect – though I don’t know the guy, so who knows – that he agrees that Anglo-American philosophy should be snubbed.

As Dabashi points out, the only American philosopher on the list is Butler, and she is very heavily influenced by 20th Century French philosophical thought. What’s bizarre about this for a philosopher working in the US is that, while I make extensive use of Butler in my book (and did in my dissertation), among many Anglo-American, “analytic” philosophers, this is considered at least slightly disreputable (not obviously among the colleagues I hold near and dear, but certainly among many in the profession). So the list is a sort of bizarro-world list of important philosophers, from the perspective of English-language academia – even if we’re limiting ourselves to living, reasonably-well-respected-among-philosophers thinkers who could plausibly be called “public intellectuals” (so no one like, say, Pettit, who is very influential within philosophy but mostly unknown outside academia), the list would probably include at least some of Martha Nussbaum, Richard Posner, Michael Ignatieff, Catherine MacKinnon, Michael Walzer, or Leon Kass (and that’s just off the top of my head, I’m sure there are other good candidates).

That’s annoying inside baseball for the philosophy profession, and doesn’t really undermine the main point of the reply, which is that the list is entirely European (with the exception of some unnamed philosophers in Brazil and China).

What’s more relevant to the point is that it leaves out important philosophers outside Europe. For instance, on Africa:

We can turn around and look at Africa. What about thinkers like Henry Odera Oruka, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Wole Soyinka, Chinua Achebe, Okot p’Bitek, Taban Lo Liyong, Achille Mbembe, Emmanuel Chukwudi Eze, Souleymane Bachir Diagne, V.Y. Mudimbe: Would they qualify for the term “philosopher” or “public intellectuals” perhaps, or is that also “ethnophilosophy”?

I love wa Thiong’o's The Wizard of the Crow. I am ashamed not to have read more Achebe. And he certainly counts as a fierce public intellectual. But they’re novelists, first and foremost. Soyinka is someone to greatly respect, but primarily a playwright/poet/activist. p’Bitek was a poet (and also died in 1982, which would seem to disqualify him from this particular conversation). Liyong was primarily a poet and literature critic.  Only half the list are thinkers who are recognizable as philosophers in a disciplinary sense. And of those, Oruka and Eze are dead, Diagne and Mudimbe aren’t based in straight-up philosophy programs (not fatal to their intellectual stature, by any means! It just reflects on the odd nature of the list) and only Mbembe teaches at a university in Africa, and he is at a major university in South Africa, which is uncommonly well-connected to the global profession for Africa.  Meanwhile, a number of living, prominent African philosophers could have been added, notably Appiah, who was president of the American Philosophical Association.  I might also suggest Gyeke, a prominent living Ghanaian philosopher.

[This whole next paragraph needs a big disclaimer: I AM NOT AN EXPERT ON AFRICAN PHILOSOPHY. I would welcome argument on this take! I am probably wrong, per the blog title!]

Though perhaps even more than Appiah, an odd lacuna from Dabashi’s list is Hountondji, for three reasons. First, his most famous book, African Philosophy: Myth & Reality specifically takes aim at the idea that Dabashi seems to be criticizing, that Africans cannot do “philosophy” but only “African philosophy.”  Hountondji’s whole schtick is that African philosophy is nothing other than philosophy done by people who live in Africa or are of African descent, and should engage with and can live up to the standards of philosophy of other origins. In fact, he makes a pretty persuasive argument that the “sage philosophy” movement exemplified by Oruka reinforces the relegation of African philosophy to “ethnophilosophy” by insisting that there is a different African tradition and way of thinking that should not be judged by the standards of Western philosophy. I think Dabashi’s article has a similar effect, though surely unintended – “I couldn’t find enough philosophers in Africa, but here are some poets and such who address some philosophical themes, that’s probably good enough, you know, for Africans.”

Second, less importantly, Hountondji certainly has the European pedigree that Dabashi values – he studied with Althusser and Derrida. Third, he certainly has public intellectual cred: he was a minister in the Beninois government and a high muckety-muck at CODESRIA.

I don’t have as much expertise [so, instead of minimal, zero] on philosophers from other non-European regions, but I would also just note: Sen isn’t on the list of Indian philosophers? WTF?

But in closing, I want to return to a different point that I think Dabashi gets wrong, and this one is important aside from who would be on our philosophical dream teams.

Dabashi uses his concerns about non-European philosophers not making lists as a springboard to talk about imperialism. He cites approvingly Gramsci’s misquote of Kant’s categorical imperative. Kant said that you should act only in such a way that you could will that everyone else act according to the same principle; Gramsci’s gloss adds everyone “in a similar situation.”

Dabashi uses this to go on a discussion of how the universalist aspirations of philosophy make it inherently imperialist, a shadow of Europe’s former(?) imperial reach.

This strikes me as a problematic take in two ways.

First, I think it represents a particularly destructive and unhelpful kind of critique. So Kant potentially substitutes his own views for those of everyone, in an “imperialist” way – this is probably true of him, as well as Rawls and Frances Kamm (zing!). So what? The question is what we are doing with him, and Kant has been used to good effect in very cosmopolitan and de-centered kinds of philosophy. For instance, I have in mind Korsgaard, who develops a theory based around mutual accommodation and reciprocity, but who is building on Kant and could probably not have written her book without doing it.  Maybe Dabashi does this when he’s not writing pieces for al-Jazeera, I don’t know, but the piece here strikes me as critique in its least helpful mode, finding an echo of something problematic in philosophical work and using it almost purely to dismiss.

Department of Philosophy and Classics at the University of Ghana, 2009

Department of Philosophy and Classics at the University of Ghana, 2009

Second, I think it risks missing the real imperialism and anglo-americo-eurocentrism for a focus on the intellectual problem. I spent the Fall of 2011 on a Fulbright to the Department of Philosophy and Classics at the University of Ghana. Aside from missing my family, it was a very interesting and stimulating experience – of course, I had my gripes about things, and became that white guy complaining about the water, but overall I had some great philosophical conversations with folks there, both at the department and in my research with the military.

But philosophers there are working at a serious disadvantage, in a way that reinforces a perception of African philosophy as “ethnophilosophy.” First, I think people don’t often appreciate the logistical challenges that African philosophers sometimes face. I was lucky, in that I retained many of my global connections. But my colleagues had to scrape to get access to many professional journals, and their access was often supported at the whim of external donors – access to things like journal archives is expensive!  That’s why I’m planning to try to publish as much as I can in open-access formats (I would release my book as Creative Commons if it wouldn’t make my tenure committee have a good laugh at my expense).  But if you can’t engage with the most current research, it’s going to hurt you when you go to try to get your own stuff published and become respected as a philosopher. Even books can be a problem – you might think that eBooks would be a great boon to folks working in a place where getting physical books shipped (no Amazon warehouse in Ghana!) can be slow and expensive, but I quickly learned when I suggested this that the problem is: good luck getting Amazon to take payment for that eBook in Ghana cedis. Plus, while I don’t get to conferences enough, that’s my own fault – my Ghanaian colleagues made pretty decent salaries for Ghana, but it made going abroad to conferences, relatively speaking, much more expensive for them – again, making it harder to gain recognition, other things equal.

Second, there’s a weird angle on this from the “metropole.” Take my own tenure case. Having the Fulbright to my name certainly will help me, but the opinion of my African colleagues while I was on it won’t. I have been told that, when I suggest references for my tenure case, I need to have almost all of them be from as-prominent-as-I-can-snag American and UK universities, because they are the ones that the promotion and tenure committee will know. On the one hand, this is largely reasonable – if the APT committee has no idea whether Emmanuel Ani is a smart dude (he is), they have no way of knowing whether his thinking I’m a smart dude matters. But on the other hand, this uncomfortably makes Western people’s assessment of whether I’m likely to be a good colleague to Africans more important than Africans’ assessment of whether I was. It gives me strong incentives not to spend my time engaging with African philosophers. And again, makes it harder than it should be for Africans – who will have an easier time, for the reasons above, interacting with other African scholars – to get recognition outside the African scholarly sphere. That reinforces the relegation of African philosophy to “ethnophilosophy” in the way that Dabashi rightly complains about. Even for me, it would be different probably if I was working on some area of philosophy where the African-ness of my interlocutors was important, not just their philosophical acumen, but that would basically mean I was working on…. drum roll… ethnophilosophy.

So in the end, I agree with Dabashi that relegating African (and other non-European) thinkers to “ethnophilosophy” is problematic – I want to be able to read, write about, and assign Cabral for reasons that have nothing to do with his happening to be from Cape Verde (I do not, no, use him enough in my work – I am part of the problem!). But I think focusing on the theoretical imperialism of the philosophical enterprise doesn’t help much, and in fact may blind us to the ways in which the marginalization of non-European philosophy has more to do with mundane, material barriers. U Ghana has some really smart Plato scholars and Eze and Wiredu had some great fights about deliberative democracy. I trust African philosophers to take a critical eye to Kant and Rawls and Quine and whoever – if, you know, we pay attention to the practical barriers we’ve put up to them engaging in that conversation with us Europeans.

OK, I’ve spent way too long on that.

Giving Well: Oxfam versus BRAC

"A Hindu Woman Giving Alms," by Raja Ravi Varma

“A Hindu Woman Giving Alms,” by Raja Ravi Varma

Daniel Levine has an interesting discussion of giving and giving well up today on whyiamwrongabouteverything:

When I got a “real” job at USIP, back in 2007, I resolved that I was going to donate 10 percent of the portion of my take-home pay that I kept for personal use (as opposed to what I contribute to the joint account I share with my wife). This is less than the Giving What We Can pledge, but more than the The Life You Can Save pledge, so I figure it’s at least a good start. (My wife and I also give 5% of the after-tax income we contribute to our joint account).

Some may think it impolite, but I actually really appreciate that Daniel laid out his giving budget. 5% of joint household funds and 10% of personal funds dominates my giving budget quite a bit: last year we gave about 3% of our total pre-tax income to Oxfam (which is similarly ignored by GiveWell) so his commitments and reasons are particularly impressive. My family will likely scale back this year to make room in the budget for my wife’s unpaid maternity leave, but now social competition will give us an incentive to increase it!

He also highlights his preferred charity, the Bangladesh Rehabilitation Assistance Commission. Despite the name, BRAC actually works in eleven different countries in Asia, Africa, and the Americas. Because they are primarily funded by micro-finance, they are able to fund 80% of their own charity work. Donors pay for the rest. Yet the charity rating service GiveWell refuses to rate it. Before I met Daniel, I’d never heard of BRAC, and since then I’ve been trying to do my homework. Two potential objections have emerged:

  • Microfinance often involves usurious interest rates. Should we worry that this charity is largely funded by some of the people who most need charity? Hugh Sinclair reports that BRAC charges women in South Sudan 88% interest! If this isn’t as much of a problem as it seems, then why shouldn’t we see the self-funding model as sufficient, and direct our donations to organizations that cannot self-fund?
  • Is there any reason beyond symbolism to prefer a South-South charity to a North-South charity? And is the symbolism worth potential inefficiencies or less-than-optimal life-saving?

All of my objections boil down to a simple concern: is BRAC better than Oxfam? Perhaps Wrongzo’s nom de plume is a misnomer or humblebrag, but perhaps he and I have a disagreement, after all.

Academics like to distinguish between two questions: whether we can know the right answer, and whether there can *be* a right answer. William Easterly rejected this kind of mythology of metrics when he told Peter Singer that “it is not at all clear that you (or anyone else) knows exactly what to do to save the lives of poor children or how to get them out of extreme poverty.”Perhaps Easterly is right to answer the first question with skepticism, but I believe we can answer the second question affirmatively: there is a “best” use for my money, some single expenditure that reduces suffering the most, even if we do not know what it is. People who criticize measurement efforts effectively admit that there’s such a thing as a right answer to the question of how to give, because they believe that Peter Singer and the metricians have the wrong answer!

If there’s a right answer, why not take a shot at figuring it out? So: is Wyclef Jean’s charity effective? A little research suggests not. The key here is that there may be many good answers, but there are certainly some bad answers, too. For instance: donating money to a church or to a museum doesn’t save lives, so those are demonstrably inferior kinds of charity. Even worse, sometimes our helpful efforts are actually harmful, as when we learned that some arsenic mitigation efforts may actually increase infant mortality! Whether microfinance at 88% interest is good or bad for a community is a matter that can be evaluated independently. And what’s more, it may be helpful even though it seems, to me, to be exploitative!

Yet it’s also possible that this is such a really hard problem that we’re better off with no information rather than some information. In donating to large charities with expansive internal research arms, we are essentially using part of our dollar to buy evidence about where the rest of the dollar should go. This seems wasteful! At some point, you reach diminishing returns in terms of the evidence-costs versus the marginal utility gains. Perhaps there really is no reason to believe that Oxfam’s or GiveWell’s internal metrics will help me direct my money better than traveling to a poor country and handing out twenty dollar bills! You may think I’m joking, yet I’ve actually seen this proposed by the economist Tyler Cowen. Perhaps we should skip airfare [overhead!] and simply mail the money to a random person!

That’s one reason I prefer larger institutional charities as informal indexers, in the portfolio sense: administrative/information costs are higher, but smaller as a percentage of total expenditures, while new money is always redirected to the best-informed current needs. Today’s best charities may not be tomorrow’s best charities. We know that, for instance, only about 50% of the population needs to be mosquito-netted to get almost all of the health effects. So at that point, it’s time to redirect the resources to a new cause, from malaria to diarrhea, say, or else new dollars could have no utility at all.

If we’re constantly analyzing the productivity of a charity, like GiveWell and Oxfam do, we’re likely to catch it. But if we’re sitting back and receiving the reassuring development letters from the charities’ staff, we’re likely to irrationally remain committed to the “less-than-best charity” for long after our donations have stopped having the optimal utility. That’s something Oxfam can do but VillageReach can’t. From the research I’ve done, I can’t tell whether BRAC is doing so or not; this was GiveWell’s problem in 2009 when they last evaluated BRAC.

You may well wonder: why even argue about charity? Shouldn’t we just give quietly and privately?

The various academics associated with Giving What We Can are engaging in a conscious effort to change the norms and standards of charitable giving. It’s true that donors mostly give for reasons of self-satisfaction, which is why consequentialists of various stripes are engaged in a quiet effort to change the conditions under which donors can successfully congratulate themselves. By working on the codes of honor and merit, they hope to have an outsized impact on the behavior of major givers and institutions. Academics recognize that we’re not rich and powerful, but we like to think that words and arguments can sometimes give us a bit of a multiplier effect.

To some extent, they’ve already succeeded, such that you see major criticisms of goals within global health and humanitarian aid communities for ineffective models, like the work of William Easterly, Dambisa Moyo, and David Rieff. More recently, some in the aid community have questioned the cost-benefit efficacy of the Gates Foundations’ attempts to eradicate polio.

But this requires a pretty strict consequentialism (though not utilitarianism) to which many retail donors object. Beyond the overall skepticism about knowledge and metrics, there’s an underlying fear that consequentialism levels the playing field between giving and consuming, and that this will become far too demanding for the average donor. Once you get started down this path, giving well goes from an analytic tool to a duty. It starts to sound overly demanding, and maybe even a bit melodramatic, like we’re all in the same position as Oskar Schindler:

This car. Goeth would have bought this car. Why did I keep the car? Ten people right there. Ten people. Ten more people. This pin. Two people. This is gold. Two more people. He would have given me two for it, at least one. One more person. A person, Stern. For this. I could have gotten one more person… and I didn’t! And I… I didn’t!

In the film, you’re supposed to think he’s being too hard on himself. But isn’t he right? Ten people died so some rich industrialist could drive around in luxury. How many died so that I could sit up late typing this post on my computer? How can that possibly be just?

It’s a common intuition: whenever we see a rich person spending lavishly on a boat or a sports car, don’t we sort of feel that they’re wasting their money, that there are folks in need who could use it better? Am I really a philistine for not appreciating the craftsmanship in a Porsche or the softness of 600-count Egyptian cotton? I like lots of luxury items, too: I’m not an ascetic. Right now, I’m lusting after the new suit, an expensive rowing machine, and lots of electronics that are totally unnecessary. I may even buy some of that stuff. But I think we should admit that it’s not particularly praiseworthy to spend my money on luxury goods while there are children dying from diarrhea and women living with obstetric fistulas. We could treat an obstetric fistula for $450 dollars. That’s less than an iPad! It seems like an easy choice, yet I’ve already spent more time dithering on the minute differences between BRAC and Oxfam than I do wondering whether to spend the next $450 I make on consumption or charity.

Why I’m Giving Money to BRAC


Lauren and me at the final “fancy pants” party, summer 2006. Photo by Lindsay Moore.

Hey, for anyone expecting another combative post, sorry! This is going to be a bit more personal and boosterish.

On 22 January 2011, my friend Lauren Fleming died. I’ve already said about everything I have to say about it to about everyone I know who knew her, so this isn’t really going to be a post about her.  It’s just a bit of context.

More context, but less important. When I got a “real” job at USIP, back in 2007, I resolved that I was going to donate 10 percent of the portion of my take-home pay that I kept for personal use (as opposed to what I contribute to the joint account I share with my wife). This is less than the Giving What We Can pledge, but more than the The Life You Can Save pledge, so I figure it’s at least a good start. (My wife and I also give 5% of the after-tax income we contribute to our joint account).

I used to make my charitable donation as a lump sum on or around my birthday (since charitable organizations incur transaction costs on donations, other things equal you’re better off donating in larger amounts to a smaller number of organizations). But since Lauren’s death, I’ve been donating on or about January 22, in memoriam.

"Loan Process" by IFPRI-IMAGES on Flickr.

“Loan Process” by IFPRI-IMAGES on Flickr.

This is really just context and prologue to what I really wanted to talk about here, though, which is the organization I’ll be making my donation to this year: BRAC.

BRAC was founded as the Bangladesh Rehabilitation Assistance Commission (though the acronym seems to have floated free of that particular meaning).  Apparently it was originally just their founder putting some persons displaced by the cyclone up in his offices at Shell, where he was an accountant.

They have since expanded their operations massively, becoming by some reports the largest NGO in the world, with operations well beyond Bangladesh – it is also believed to be the largest NGO operating in Afghanistan (for most of the empirical claims, see the linked Economist and SSIR articles, by the way), and has operations in Pakistan, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, Liberia, Sierra Leone, South Sudan, Tanzania, Uganda, and Haiti.

A big part of BRAC’s core operation is microfinance, but they follow a “microfinance-plus” approach.  That is, one of its core businesses is microfinance, but it also provides education services (including a university), some advocacy, community-building, health care, etc.

There are a few key reasons to like BRAC.

First, and in many ways foremost, “it is a [global] Southern organisation from a poor country expanding to other poor Southern countries.” (10)  This is important for moral and ideological reasons. It breaks up invidious tendencies to cast poor countries always in the victim, never in the agent role. It has less of a neo-colonial savor, which isn’t nothing. On a more direct, but still moral, level, it means giving money to aid workers who do not enter their work with the social and economic baggage that many Western aid workers do.  For instance, BRAC employees are paid wages that are high for locals, and for Bangladeshis, but much more in line with local wages and standards of living.  The Southern origin of BRAC is also practically important – it means that many of its workers will have a deeper understanding of the global poor live than even the best-informed and sincerest Westerner.

Second, it ranks high on sustainability. Though BRAC does accept donations (hence this post), about 80% of their operating budget comes from their own activities (like the microfinance and seed banks).  Thought I’d throw something in there for my more business-minded readers.

Third, BRAC is very much involved in “frontline” services. They have a small advocacy unit, but the bulk of their work is still service provision, in a time when lots of the big Western NGOs are moving towards policy influence. Your mileage may vary on this – I have some skepticism about the ability to influence policy from the top-down, plus it’s my day job (sort of), so when I give money to aid I like to give it to groups that are largely focused on service provision.

There’s a worry here that I may have more to say about later on this blog – doesn’t direct service provision create dependence or a parallel government (that gets the real government off the hook)?  I worry more about the latter than the former – I don’t really worry about the former at all – but at the same time aid conditionality has had a mixed track record at best. Where governments are bad, I don’t see a lot of evidence that starving them of aid makes them much better (not that we shouldn’t care about making them better), especially when the aid is direct service provision rather than support to the government’s own coffers.  And direct support loses much of its moral lustre when the government already isn’t accountable to its people.

Fourth, on the other hand, warming the cockles of my policy-analysis heart, BRAC has a strong internal committment to monitoring and evaluation, including having a well-respected in-house research arm.  Even groups critical of it – more on that in a sec – note its committment to evaluation. In addition, BRAC is pretty heavily studied – and generally found to have a positive impact on poverty and development – by outside academics.

Fifth, BRAC has, since 2002, been doing innovative work to help the “ultra-poor.”  In a nutshell, the problem is that people at the very bottom of the socio-economic ladder are often unable to benefit from the traditional development programs to get a leg up – e.g., microfinance or access to education may not help them much because they are too ill and malnourished, or too socially marginalized, to make effective use of them.  To my eye, one of the most intriguing components of their approach is the community involvement angle. When BRAC starts up a poverty targeting program, one of the first steps is to engage the community in a participatory process of identifying the community members most in need and strategies to help them.  Community involvement in the resources and the progress of those poor is then  part of the ongoing strategy for addressing poverty. In part, apparently, this comes from the founder’s sensitivity to the ways in which social stratification in Bangladesh interfered with people coming out of poverty, which shows real insight (or maybe I’m just biased since it fits with the view I articulate in my own book, that social domination is the ur-vulnerability).

BRAC is, of course, not without its critics. In particular, I was a bit surprised and disconcerted to learn that GiveWell, an aid-evaluation org that lots of “let’s give more of our money to the poor” projects (like the two I link above) rely heavily on, does not recommend giving to BRAC.

But I will be honest that I cannot really tell why. The stated reason on their assessment page is that the research arm of BRAC does not provide any public evaluations of their employment or income programs (at the time of the 2009 review). But this seems to be at least partly inaccurate.  For instance, BRAC’s research arm has a report on the employment impact of their grants to small and medium enterprises, dated 2005 (GiveWell claims they searched on relevant terms, but I found it with “employment”).

In addition, GiveWell seems to move the goalposts in their assessments.  The only one of their top three charities that focuses on poverty alleviation (as opposed to medical research and implementation) is GiveDirectly, an org that transfers money directly to poor people in Kenya. Now, I have no problem with GiveDirectly – and I like their model, too. But GiveWell counts them as effective because there is evidence that they do in fact distribute their money, and there is no strong evidence (they feel) that the presumably good impact of giving poor people money is either not as good as it might seem, or that it is undercut by other bad effects. Meanwhile, their bar for BRAC is higher – not just that they conduct their programs, but that they be able to prove they alleviate poverty.

I’m happy to chat more about aid assessment methodology – it’s not my direct area of expertise, and something I’m still learning myself. But it leaves me pretty comfortable that giving to BRAC is a pretty good use of my money.

Of course, it doesn’t bring Lauren back.

Why Daniel Levine is Wrong About Everything

war is overWell, he’s not. But that’s the title of his new blog. (Apparently he is challenging me for the title of “Most Contrite Fallibilist.” He’s even taken the nom de plume of “Wrongzo.” Bastard.)

For his first substantive post, “What should we mock about when we mock about guns?” he parodies my attempts to articulate a boring solution to the gun debates. He, rightly, turns the attention away from guns and towards inequality and precarity. Here’s the money quote:

“So, guns, whatever. Take away the fear and hatred that drives the hierarchical-individualist worldview (and its purity norms, on which a future discussion) and probably we have guns that police occasionally use against sociopaths and hunters use to get game meat, and boltcutters I only use on my back gate. The fight is with hierarchy, not guns.”

I can’t help but agree. (The wrongest thing about that blog is its title.) Some things that Wrongzo suggests but doesn’t say:

1. Wrongzo believes that value assessments and risk profiles are malleable. So, if we win the right political battles or transform our economy in appropriate ways, we might someday render individualists or hierarchists extinct. Even though I’ve spent a long time trying to work out and defend this thesis, I don’t know that I’m convinced it’s true. What if we’re just built differently, if not in the genetic and cogntive pluralism way, then in a way that leads to diverse cognitive styles being cultivated within any community? (For instance, a functioning community is always going to have some contrarians.)

But my suspicions and hopes here largely reflect a prejudice in favor of pluralism. As I say in my second post, “it’s important to acknowledge that they do see some facts more clearly we do.” And it’s true that the individualist notices different elements of the problem than the solidaridist: that’s why Radley Balko is such a boon to American political punditry. I’ve not yet figured out what hierarchists are good for, but I do worry that hierarchy and tradition are intrinsic to any account of solidarity, but we only notice the hierarchical and irrationally traditional elements when we see them in others with whom we disagree. But that’s what I do: worry.

2. Wrongzo believes that outsider derision can change things, citing Appiah. I was highly critical of this element of Appiah’s thought when I reviewed his book:

Here, then, is the problem that Appiah’s project must suppress in order to succeed: honor codes work best when they are unacknowledged, and they are best changed when they are not the object of direct study or overt deliberate manipulation by outsiders. Moral revolutions that are predicated on honor code changes are most likely to succeed when the transition does not appear to be the work of self-conscious elites, even if it probably is. This would probably help explain some other details suppressed in Appiah’s account, like why debates about slavery and racism did not end with the Atlantic slave trade or the American Civil War.

Again, I want to be wrong, but ultimately, you can only maintain the claim that “we mock because we love” so long as a reasonable person would see “hick-shaming” as a loving remonstration and not othering. Our chosen subalterns are the urban poor; conservatives pretend to represent the rural and suburban poor. Given the discourses and practices of coastal elites, I don’t see much evidence that hick-shaming will do anything other than tweak the subalterns of our competitor elites. In contrast, the evidence suggests that what Braman and Kahan call “identity vouching” is better able to get things done. That’s why “only Nixon can go to China” and why President Obama receives harsher criticism from African-Americans like Cornel West than he does from white progressives. What we need to engineer is a collaboration with gun owners.

There’s another serious core to the argument: what do we give up when we take up the cultural cognition attempt to negotiate a détente between gun owners and gun haters? I want to say more about this is a future post more critical of the “cultural cognition” perspective, but for now, go read Levine’s blog!

Update: Wrongzo responds:

But when we laugh with someone, we importantly laugh at our shared frailty and vulnerability and failure. We are saying that we are unwilling to give a charade of honor and weight to the human stupidity they have shown, but that ultimately that stupidity connects us, rather than dividing us.

…I am laughing because I ultimately want social reconciliation, for all the romance of class war. The hierarchs are hurting. So, for all the mean-ness of the last post, ultimately, laughter is the proposed weapon because it holds the hope of everyone saying, “wow, that was a fucked way of setting things up, let us do something different now.