Philanthropy for the 96% — Part I

giving-usa-8-5-x-11-infographicMissoula     Giving USA recently issued a report on philanthropic giving accompanied by numerous back pats that giving is once again up and has finally exceeded the pre-recession levels. This giving aggregates individuals, foundations, and corporations. No doubt the absolute sum ponied up by the 1% is a pile of this, but 72% of the giving was by individuals, and historically it is well documented that the rich give a smaller percentage to charity than those with considerably less.

Sadly, as a New York Times columnist, Ron Lieber, noted, the darkest cloud in what was intended to be a feel-good press release on the increased generosity of the American people is in the area of international giving, where people are inarguably poorer and in more desperate need. Such giving was down by 3% and of the $358 billion given, only 4% when to international work and projects. The Princeton philosopher, Paul Singer, was quoted as disappointed since he has argued “the case that individuals have a moral obligation to do much more for people in faraway places” and has challenged us all to “tilt our charitable allocations heavily toward the global and less toward the local.”

Directing ACORN International and working in many of these areas, I know too well how true this can be. For months an item will come and go on my “to do” list about sending out an e-blast or some kind of appeal for support, but the marginal success of such efforts has pushed it off the list for several years running. So why is this? What is this antipathy or inability to empathize globally all about? Is it something people around the world have done to make our grips tighten on our dollars or is it something undone on the part of those working globally?

Most compellingly, and most understandably I think, it is natural that people want to give to outfits they can see and where they might even personally benefit, even if indirectly, through community favor, praise, or participation, and given the limited language facility and the expense and narrow structure of most people’s travel in the warp of industrial tourism, malls, cruises, and manufactured authenticity, how can anyone be surprised at the limited range of international philanthropy. I also think many Americans, partially because of the steady roar from the rightwing, believe they have already given through their tax dollars and foreign aid, despite the facts on how little we really give as a percentage of our budget and how limited the gifts really are in terms of eligible countries and in ways that might be constructed as truly philanthropic nationally as opposed to in our national, ideological or commercial interests. None of that benefits the poorest populations of the world or perhaps more importantly the poorest populations of countries that are now ranked as “middle income” even though continuing to contain shocking levels of deprivation for hundreds of millions.

We also see huge philanthropies like the Gates Foundation and many others give to the big ticket world health problems like malaria, AIDS, and so forth, rather than overall prevention or poverty alleviation, which is confusing to smaller donors wanting to make a difference and maintain a voice. The frequent embrace of disaster philanthropy by too many of the world’s largest charities is also confounding, like the scandals at the Red Cross and recent reports on how few houses were built compared to promises in places like Haiti. Many of the world’s largest NGOs are also publicly funded sending a message once again that failure means a waste of tax money rather than an urgent call for more personal donations.

The largest gifts internationally continue to be remittances from migrant workers and immigrant families back to their home countries, communities, and relatives, yet, tragically, there are few policy initiatives helping magnify such lifeline contributions that exceed the $16 billion given internationally as charity, but do not even count as philanthropy in such totals or even as tax deductions, allowing these small, regular contributions and their givers to be prey for financial institutions and money transfer organizations rather than honored guests at any community’s annual charity ball.

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Pro-Development Indian Government Cracking Down on NGOs

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credit: Greenpeace

Bengaluru       Arriving at my lodging in Bengaluru after 2 AM in the morning holds some surprises.  One is the emptiness and quiet of the streets, normally full of horns blaring and the constant jockeying of cars, motorcycles, carts, cows, and hapless pedestrians braving all.  The other is how much is going on in the relative quiet with stores selling, factories cranking, and workers on other time clocks pressing forward in the dark of the night.

In the light of the day with bleary eyes, one of the first pieces of news to hit me was the report of the US Ambassador’s speech chiding the Indian government on its crackdown on nonprofits and reminding the “world’s largest democracy,” as India constantly calls itself, perhaps protesting too much, that NGOs have a vital role in civil society.  Certainly crackdowns on NGOs are not uncommon in the world today in notoriously repressive governments.  For example the Organizers’ Forum delegations have seen Russia and Egypt on a tear in recent years to peel back the work of any nonprofits, usually claiming reporting violations as the excuse.  This repression of NGOs almost a year into the new government of the BJP’s Prime Minister Modi may finally answer the question of his true colors.

The Ambassadors’ remarks may be news, but the emerging campaign against nonprofits has been building for months now.  In October 2014, the Home Ministry had given more than 10000 NGOs that had licenses to receive contributions under the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act (FCRA) a month to file financial reports with the government alleging that they had not done so for three consecutive years from 2009 to 2012. According to newspaper reports of the 10,344 NGOs so notified only 229 replied. The Outlook reported:

There was no reply from the remaining NGOs leading to cancellation of their registration issued under FCRA….   Among the registration’s cancelled 8,975 NGOs include 510 NGOs against whom notices were sent but returned undelivered.

At one level this might seem reasonable.  After all India will no doubt allege that the USA is the pot calling the kettle black since the IRS has similarly suspended the 501c3 classifications of thousands of nonprofits as well for failure to file annual 990 reports for three consecutive years.

The rationalization is punctured though by the revelation early in the Modi Government of a secret report.  As reported by the Centre for Civil Society, a respected Indian nonprofit:

The controversial leaked report on NGOs was prepared for the new government by the Intelligence Bureau, an internal security agency. It called out several international organizations, including Amnesty International, Action Aid, and the Netherlands’ CORDAID for harming developmental projects relating to coal plants, oil exploration, nuclear plants, steel, and mining.  The report singled out Greenpeace India, which was mentioned 15 times. It alleges that Greenpeace India is using foreign funds to hurt economic progress by campaigning against power projects, mining, and genetically modified food. The home ministry has asked India’s central bank to stop processing foreign contributions to Greenpeace.

The report claimed that activism by foreign funded and Indian licensed NGOs who were blocking development projects was contributing to a “2 to 3 percent drop in the Indian economy.”  For Modi, that was probably more than enough given his long record of economic boosterism from Gujarat that led to his sweeping election victory.

Greenpeace India has announced that it may have to close operations within the month.  Though they claim they are now bringing in 60% of their revenue from donations inside of India, they believe their inability to fully pay staff could force them to shutdown.  Not only advocacy groups, but even the US-office of the Ford Foundation in India has been told it cannot issue any grants in India without governmental approval.  This crackdown is hardly trivial.  The Centre for Civil Society also reports that…

In the year ending in March 2011, the most recent period for which data is available, about 22,000 Indian NGOs received a total of more than $2 billion from abroad, of which $650 million came from the US.

In New York, in a conference of environmentalists listening to glowing reports of the Modi government’s claim to be decreasing India’s dependence on coal, people were excited about Modi.  When asked my opinion of the prospects for the new government, I would only say, “We’re skeptical, so we’ll wait and see.”

What we’re seeing of the government’s attack on nonprofits augurs very poorly for the future under Modi.

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Please enjoy Jeff Beck’s Going Down, Thanks to Kabf.

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