We Shouldn’t Expect Philanthropists to Fund Activism

Philanthropists who are genuine givers are not able to explain clearly why they don’t fund ‘activist-y’ work | Photo courtesy: Pexels

Philanthropists who are genuine givers are not able to explain clearly why they don’t fund ‘activist-y’ work | Photo courtesy: Pexels

By Anurag Behar
Nov 22 2019 – Since philanthropists are unlikely to fund anything that destabilises their businesses, building independent institutions can be an effective approach to create lasting impact.

The vibrancy of a democracy, and the health of a society, is significantly influenced by civil society. It comprises an entire spectrum from community-based collectives and voluntary organisations to NGOs and nonprofits of other sorts. Philanthropy plays a critical role in supporting that space, building it, keeping it alive, and growing it.


What is the role of civil society?

What is civil society’s specific contribution? One part of it is keeping the market and state honest. It is a counterbalance to the market and the state, and it must act as one.

Civil society is the champion of the social and public good. On the other side, civil society also tries to work with the market and the state to make them more effective and useful to society. Both functions co-exist—not as a dichotomy but as a spectrum.

Philanthropy can play a specific role in this spectrum, by taking the kinds of risks that the state system finds hard to take because of operational reasons, and by helping develop civil society institutions.

To keep the state and market balanced, civil society should—and it doesn’t do enough of it right now—build institutions. This has to be supported by philanthropy. India doesn’t have enough civil society driven institutions, but if it did, they would play a very important role in balancing the market and the state

For instance, the state is likely to find it difficult to recruit good, highly-capable people at the beginning of an initiative, or when something is at an experimental stage, because of the its large systems, which have their internal logic. To help solve for this, the state can collaborate with civil society.

If you look at many sectors—health, education, environment—we’ve seen that very often civil society leads in motivating people to take risks and/or championing the public good. Once proven, accepted or established, that gets taken up by the government in some sense or the other.

This is because civil society by its very nature is focused on the public good (or should be). It can be more flexible and can engage people in a way that the state cannot. It’s not a lacuna on part of the government system; it’s just the way the system is structured.

To keep the state and market balanced,  civil society should—and it doesn’t do enough of it right now—build institutions. This has to be supported by philanthropy. India doesn’t have enough civil society driven institutions, but if it did, they would play a very important role in balancing the market and the state.


Philanthropy in India isn’t playing an adequate enough role

There is certainly some philanthropy happening in India, we know that; people are giving money–some are giving a lot, and some are giving smaller amounts, but it’s still a significant percentage of their wealth. And all this is good.

But it is clearly not at the scale that the country needs, or comparable to that in some other countries or what the wealthy of India could be giving.

Consider an example from the USA: If you look at the strength of the American higher education system, not just as a teaching powerhouse but also as a place of intellectual ferment and knowledge creation, that keeps society on a certain path, it has been significantly funded by philanthropy.

We don’t have anything like that in India. One can count on one’s fingertips the significant universities or research institutions that have been funded by Indian philanthropy.

One big reason is that they just don’t want to do it. It’s not merely a question of needing large amounts of money to support higher education; it certainly can be done with smaller amounts of money, in interesting ways like setting up a research chair at a university or funding a research program. But all this presumes that someone actually and genuinely wants to give for such matters. Those who do, find ways of doing it.

Today, when people do give, they prefer to give money for tangible things like scholarships, grants for buildings, donations to hospitals, because they believe that they can see the direct benefit. It seems simple and clear. Funding institutions, on the other hand, takes more patience, understanding, and perspective. And not many philanthropists seem interested in going down that path.

India hasn’t always been like this. We’ve had remarkable philanthropists in the first several decades of the 20th century—the Tatas, Birlas, Sarabhais, people like Jamnalal Bajaj, and other lesser known names—who built institutions, and helped build the nation with their social capital and a version of Gandhian trusteeship.

When you compare what they did to what today’s wealthy are doing—from the perspective of the wealth that they have generated in the past 20-30 years—are they giving enough? And are they supporting development of institutions? If you take corporate social responsibility (CSR) out of the equation—because CSR is not philanthropy—the answer is probably no.


Business money is likely to be risk-averse

Business money of any sort—including money that has created wealth for individuals—is likely to be risk-averse. This is sensible, and the wealth owners cannot be faulted for this.

To put it simply, business money will find it hard to fund ‘activist-y’ things. This is because activist-driven work by its very nature destabilises the socio-political status-quo. And business money will not want to do that.

That is just the nature of the beast. There were perhaps unusual times, as during the Indian independence movement, when this general principle did not hold true—but those were exceptions.

Since business money will not fund activist-driven work, the alternative is for institutions to do this. When you help create an institution and you let go—because you have to let go—it becomes an important player in civil society, and over time, not in one generation but in the next generation and for generations to come, it truly becomes an independent voice and force that can question, or contribute to upending the status-quo.

Therefore, one of the most powerful routes to complement markets and state in any society is through building institutions.

The Tatas are a good example of this. Early on, they built many institutions. Today, Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR), Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), Indian Institute of Science (IISc), and other smaller institutions are not bound by the commitments that any individual, or organisation that has business money, would otherwise be.

They will do whatever it takes to fund innovation, cutting edge research, and so on. This is our own live history that clearly demonstrates what institution building can help achieve versus the ‘project funding’ approaches that are currently generally supported by philanthropists.

It’s illogical and unfair to expect philanthropists to fund any sharp forms of activism. Why would they fund anything that destabilises their existing business and its social fabric? The question they need to ponder over is why aren’t they funding and building institutions.

It will not happen in their generation, but there will come a time in 20-30 years when such institutions will be separated from any business interests and will become very important players in civil society. And that’s what philanthropists today aren’t doing enough.

Today, the philanthropists who are genuine givers—and there are many of them—are not able to explain clearly why they don’t fund ‘activist-y’ work. They get defensive. But the rationale is clear. They should do what is right for them, and for the source of the money (their business), which is what allows them to be philanthropic. Nonetheless they should also fund institutions that outlive them and support the range of roles that civil society must play.

This article has been written based on an interview conducted by IDR with Anurag Behar.


Anurag Behar is CEO of Azim Premji Foundation and the founding Vice Chancellor of the Azim Premji University. He has been a vocal advocate for the critical importance of public systems, in particular the public education system. Anurag is also closely involved with Azim Premji Philanthropic Initiatives, a grant-making organization supporting not-for-profit organizations working on certain specific issues in the social sector.

80 Percent of Adolescents Do Less than 60 Minutes of Activity per Day, UN Health Agency Warns

According to the study, the Philippines had the highest inactivity levels among boys, at 93 per cent, while in South Korea, researchers found that 97 per cent of girls failed to do enough exercise. Credit: Jorge Luis Baños/IPS

According to the study, the Philippines had the highest inactivity levels among boys, at 93 per cent, while in South Korea, researchers found that 97 per cent of girls failed to do enough exercise. Credit: Jorge Luis Baños/IPS

By External Source
UNITED NATIONS, Nov 22 2019 – An alarming lack of exercise among adolescents across the world risks seriously compromising their health into adulthood, the UN said on Thursday.

In the first study of its kind on global and regional trends among 11 to 17-year-olds, the World Health Organization (WHO) said that around 80 percent of them do less than 60 minutes of activity per day – the minimum daily recommendation.


Philippines boys and South Korean girls ‘least active’

According to the study, the Philippines had the highest inactivity levels among boys, at 93 per cent, while in South Korea, researchers found that 97 percent of girls failed to do enough exercise.

In gender terms on average, 85 per of girls failed to do enough globally, only slightly worse than boys (78 percent).

“From 2001 to 2016 we found that there’s been no improvement in patterns of activity in this age group…one hour out of their lives each day to be physically active and to get a health benefit from being physically active”…“That can be made up of different small chunks of their time, anything that adds up to 60 minutes.”

Dr. Leanne Riley, WHO study co-author

“From 2001 to 2016 we found that there’s been no improvement in patterns of activity in this age group…one hour out of their lives each day to be physically active and to get a health benefit from being physically active,” said the WHO study co-author Dr. Leanne Riley. “That can be made up of different small chunks of their time, anything that adds up to 60 minutes.”


No need to push it to get health benefits

Insisting that physical activity needn’t be overly strenuous or vigorous for it to be beneficial, Dr. Riley explained that jogging, walking, cycling or “just trying to be active” can all make a positive difference.

In the long-term, failing to do enough exercise leaves people vulnerable to a range of non-communicable and preventable illnesses, WHO has repeatedly warned.

These non-communicable diseases include heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, breast and colon cancer.


Healthier body – and mind – from exercise

An additional benefit of physical activity is improved mental health, Dr. Riley insisted, highlighting that exercise also promotes learning, delays the onset of dementia and can help maintain a healthy weight.

“If they do it…they’re likely to be healthier adults too,” said the WHO study lead co-author Dr. Regina Guthold, insisting on the importance of establishing healthy habits early on.

According to the study of 1.6 million school-going students from 146 countries, girls were less active than boys in all but four of them: Tonga, Samoa, Afghanistan and Zambia.

The difference between the amount of exercise between boys and girls was greater than 10 per cent in almost a third of countries in 2016, and this trend became more pronounced in almost three-quarters of nations surveyed between 2001 and 2016.


Bangladesh, Singapore, Thailand – most improvements

The countries showing the most improvement in activity levels among boys were Bangladesh (from 73 percent to 63 percent), Singapore and Thailand (78 to 70), Benin (79 to 71) and the U.S. and Ireland (71 to 64).

In the case of the US, the study authors noted the likely positive impact of national sports promotion initiatives, although these appeared to have had more success with boys than girls, they said.

Among girls in general the changes in activity levels were small over the review period, the WHO study found, ranging from a two percent increase in Singapore – from 85 percent to 83 percent – to a one percent increase in Afghanistan (87 percent to 88 percent).

Under the 2030 Global Goals Agenda for Sustainable Development adopted in  2015 by the international community, Governments agreed to a 15 per cent improvement in activity levels by 2030.

“We are off-track; this target will not be met if these trends continue,” Dr. Guthold insisted.


This story was originally published by UN News

Saudi UNESCO Win Riles Khashoggi Standard-Bearers

Saudi Arabia was elected to the United Nations cultural agency UNESCO’s top board. However, human rights activists say that the Saudi government, which has been implicated in the murder of journalist and government critic Jamal Khashoggi (pictured) in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul last year, has been pursuing an ongoing crackdown on political freedoms. Many questioned the Saudi government’s appointment to the UNESCO board. Courtesy: POMED/CC by 2.0

By James Reinl
UNITED NATIONS, Nov 22 2019 – Human rights campaigners have reacted angrily to the election of Saudi Arabia to the United Nations cultural agency UNESCO’s top board, highlighting the kingdom’s ongoing crackdowns on political freedoms and critics.

On Wednesday, Saudi culture minister Prince Badr bin Abdullah bin Farhan celebrated Riyadh winning a four-year term on UNESCO’s 58-nation executive board, telling state-backed media of the kingdom’s global “role in building peace” and of promoting culture and science.

Critics, however, decried “hypocrisy” at UNESCO, saying the Paris-based agency should instead distance itself from Riyadh, which has been implicated in the murder of Saudi journalist and government critic Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul last year.

Josh Ruebner, an author on two books on the Middle East and board member of the anti-autocrat campaign outfit Freedom Forward, also bashed UNESCO’s multimillion-dollar tie-up with Saudi youth charity the MiSK Foundation.

“UNESCO is supposed to be an advocate for press freedom,” Ruebner told IPS.

“But now the same Saudi dictatorship that assassinated Khashoggi is on UNESCO’s executive board. UNESCO was already taking money from the Saudi dictatorship via the fake Saudi charity MiSK. Now the hypocrisy has grown even worse.”

In recent months, the U.N. has faced mounting pressure over its cooperation deals with MiSK, the private charity of Saudi Arabia’s crown prince and de facto ruler Mohamed bin Salman, an ambitious moderniser who is better known as MbS.

UNESCO, which advocates for free speech and protecting journalists, inked a $5 million cooperation deal with MiSK in 2016, and the two groups have worked together on several events, including a Nov. 18-19 youth forum at the U.N. agency’s headquarters in Paris.

As delegates met in Paris, Ken Roth, executive director of the New York-based pressure group Human Rights Watch, accused UNESCO of “letting the Saudi crown prince whitewash his reputation by co-sponsoring” the two-day parley.


Meanwhile, some 6,500 people have signed an online petition against the UNESCO-MiSk tie-up, which describes the Saudi charity as a “propaganda” vehicle aimed at obscuring Riyadh’s rights abuses at home and during its military operations in neighbouring Yemen.

In a tweet this week, Agnes Callamard, the U.N. official who investigated Khashoggi’s murder, criticized UNESCO, saying the “agency responsible for #pressfreedom” was too cozy with the Saudi officials responsible for the journalist’s death.

UNESCO spokesman Matthieu Guevel told IPS that the agency is “currently re-evaluating its partnership strategy”. Saudi Arabia was elected to the board by member governments, and was not a decision by agency officials, he added.

Saudi Arabia’s mission to the U.N. did not respond to requests for comment from IPS.

It was not the first scandal over U.N.-MiSK tie-ups.

Street protests over a separate deal between MiSK and the U.N.’s youth envoy, Jayathma Wickramanayake, led to a fancy panel session that was planned to take place in New York in September being canceled and relocated at short notice.

Critics highlight the murder of Khashoggi, who was killed and dismembered by a Saudi hit squad in Turkey in October 2018, which the CIA has reportedly concluded was ordered by MbS, though the young prince denies his direct involvement.

This month, the FBI indicted three men with being part of a Saudi government spying operation, which saw Riyadh pay Twitter employees to access accounts of users who criticised the kingdom online and relay their private details back to headquarters.

Bader al-Asaker, who runs MbS’ private office and acts as secretary-general of his MiSK charity, reportedly received phone calls from Khashoggi’s hit squad in Istanbul and masterminded the Twitter spying ring for his royal boss.


A 650 Million Dollar Pledge Aimed at Eradicating Extreme Hunger by 2030

Villagers grow rain-fed rice in Beung Kiat Ngong wetlands, Lao People’s Democratic Republic. Credit: FAO/Xavier Bouan

By Thalif Deen
UNITED NATIONS, Nov 22 2019 – When a coalition of international donors pledged more than $650 million to provide assistance to over 300 million smallholder farmers in developing countries, the primary aim was to help increase agricultural and livestock production besieged by droughts, floods and other natural disasters triggered by climate change– mostly in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia.

The pledges– which came from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the World Bank, UK, the Netherlands, the European Commission, Switzerland, Sweden and Germany– followed the UN’s Climate Action Summit last September

Asked if the ultimate aim is to help eradicate extreme hunger by 2030, as spelled out in the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), Sonja Vermeulen, Director of Programs, CGIAR System Organization, told IPS that hunger is very highly concentrated – with higher per capita in Africa and South Asia, and in rural areas.

She said hungry people are largely dependent on rural economies, especially agriculture, to improve their welfare and nutrition.

That’s why investments in targeted agricultural research to benefit these exact people can go much further than alternatives, she noted.

SDG2 on ending hunger has five targets.

She said CGIAR, described as the world’s largest global agricultural innovation network, is actively working towards all of these targets: bringing people over the minimum calorie line, improving micronutrient nutrition, getting agriculture back within environmental limits, doubling smallholders’ productivity and incomes, and maintaining ex-situ genetic diversity of crops, livestock, fish and their wild relatives.

“Given the complexity of the problem, it’s a massive challenge to get there by 2030. But, with partners, it’s a challenge we want to rise to.”

CGIAR, which is the recipient of the $650 million funding, and formerly known as the Consultative Group for International Agricultural Research, has an annual research portfolio of just over $900 million with 11,000 staff working in more than 70 countries around the world.

“The global Sustainable Development Goals made a solemn promise to eradicate hunger and extreme poverty by 2030, and that simply cannot be achieved unless the world’s smallholder farmers can adapt to climate change,” said Elwyn Grainger-Jones, Executive Director of the CGIAR System Organization.

The new investments, he said, “are a recognition that we have just 11 growing seasons between now and 2030 and farmers need a host of new innovations to overcome a growing array of climate threats. This new funding is an important start towards a global effort to substantially increase support for CGIAR activities.”

A beneficiary of a groundnut upscaling project in Mali. Credit: CGIAR

According to CGIAR, it’s climate-focused innovations include:

    • Dozens of new varieties of drought-tolerant maize for farmers in sub-Saharan Africa that are increasing farmers’ yields by 20-30 percent. In Zimbabwe, maize farmers already are harvesting an additional 600 kilos or more than 1,300 pounds per hectare. Further adoption across the region will benefit 30-40 million people in 13 countries and provide added grain worth US $160-200 million per year in drought-affected areas, generating up to $1.5 billion in benefits for producers and consumers.

    Climate change-ready rice, including new “scuba rice” varieties that survive underwater for up to 17 days could benefit 18 million farming households and save millions more from hunger. In Bangladesh and India alone, rice lost to flooding each year could feed 30 million people.

    • In Nigeria, improved varieties of cassava developed by CGIAR scientists already have helped 1.8 million farmers escape poverty. CGIAR breeders are now developing even better varieties of this naturally hardy crop that offer disease-resistance and higher levels of Vitamin A, a nutrient especially critical to childhood development.

    • New varieties of orange-fleshed sweet potatoes developed to match a host of different farming conditions are rapidly gaining popularity in sub-Saharan Africa. They also offer high levels of Vitamin A and can survive climate stress that kills other crops. CGIAR is delivering a host of other climate-smart crop varieties, including heat- and drought-tolerant beans and improved varieties of neglected grains like pearl millet and sorghum.

    • CGIAR experts are developing solar-powered irrigation pumps for large-scale distribution in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. The pumps are to be deployed alongside advanced information systems to ensure they can help farmers sustainably adapt to increasingly unreliable rains, but without stressing available water resources.

Asked how devastating are climate-related threats to agriculture and food security, CGIAR’s Vermeulen told IPS: “Climate threats are already massive – and with current increases in emissions, only going to get worse”.

Also problematic, she said is that “we are not very good yet at forecasting what will happen – tipping points etc. What we do know is that uncertainty will increase (e.g. year-on-year variability in rainfall) making farming a much tougher business.”

She pointed out that CGIAR’s critical work in this area includes a step change in the availability of diverse, climate-resilient crop, livestock and fish varieties for farmers (with public sector research and distribution working hand-in-hand with private sector).

It also includes harnessing inexpensive information technologies to get real-time data and advice into the hands of farmers, and improved institutional solutions for climate-affected farmers – such as cooperative-run solar irrigation systems, community-based underground water storage, affordable index-based crop insurance schemes, and management systems for human health threats like Aflatoxin, which infection level increases with climate change in staple crops like maize and groundnuts.

“These threats are global – but hurt low-income rural farming communities the most – because they don’t have the capital to invest in adaptation, and are most dependent on rainfed farming at the mercy of the climate. These are CGIAR’s clients.”

IPS: The UN says hunger– far from declining– is on the rise, primarily due to two factors: military conflicts and natural disasters triggered by climate change. Is this a fair assessment of the current state of affairs?

Vermeulen: Yes, global numbers of hungry people have been on the rise again since 2016. The UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction reports that low income countries face losses equivalent to 20-60% of their annual social expenditure through natural disasters annually.

For food and agriculture, droughts are the most important disaster – and are on the increase. Fire, storms, floods too are devastating. They can send poor farmers into downward spirals of under-investment and failure to recover.

IPS: With a predicted rise in population, from the current 7.5 billion to 10 billion in 2050, will the world be able to meet the demand for food as we move forward? What would be CGIAR’s contribution in this field?

Vermeulen: We know now, from reports like EAT-Lancet and others, that it is possible to feed 10 billion people healthily in 2050. CGIAR’s research covers the whole package of how to get there – from the perspective of poorer people, communities and countries.

This means three big areas: improving the diets of the poorest people (including more animal products, of which they consume tiny amounts, as well as a diversity of plant foods including (non-GMO) biofortified crops to help with specific micro-nutrient deficiencies), improving food production efficiency on farms – more crop / more milk / more fish per unit of water / fertilizer / energy / land, and managing post-harvest losses and waste (for human health as well as environmental benefits).