Monday, February 14, 2011

Thoughts on Global Philanthropy

A friend went to a UNICEF function and gave me the event publication.  It’s full of the picture of a little girl from Guatemala staring at the camera with sorrowful eyes.  The cause is for the essential vitamin and minerals for children in Guatemala.  My colleague from Columbia immediately commented: “I just hate those pictures”.  I know what she meant.  

It reminds me of a story in I-Ching.  One day the ancient philosopher Zhuang Tzu and his friend are strolling on a bridge over a pond of fishes. Zhuang Tzu said: “Ah the little white fishes are so free…How happy are the fishes indeed!”  His friend said: “Well you’re not a fish, how do you know that the fishes are happy?”  Zhuang Tzu said; “You are not me how would you know that I don’t know the fishes are happy?”  

The Guatemalan children may live in conditions not as good as those in the developed world, but it doesn’t mean that they are not happy.  What’s the point to depict them as poor and sad? So that people in North America can give out of sympathy?  Is sympathy a good motivation for us to give?  Isn’t it true that such sympathy came from our own sense of superiority over other cultures or countries?  I am not arguing against the cause.  I am just saying the little Guatamalan girl has the right to be respected not pitted as what the picture was abviously set to evoke.   

As philanthropy extends globally, fundraisers in the developed world need to be careful not to apply our value systems onto other cultures.  We have to realize that cultures around the world exist in different space and time then us.   It’s easy to understand spacial differences.  But we are also living in different times in different parts of the world.  A lot of the developing countries also have a time-lag in their realization of modernity hence are not on the same page with us in understanding social and political issues.  An example would be the controversial Three Gorges projects in China where old towns are submerged and people are forced to migrate to other lands.  There are quite a lot of protests from the West  about the destroyed ecological system, the historical relics, and the migration of people.  While those are all true, did people ever consider what the locals think?  Journalist Peter Hessler in his book “River Town” had followed families who had migrated to higher lands.  They were surprisingly positive about the change.  The new apartment has modern facilities such as built-in bathrooms and plumbing where the hundred-year old houses they used to occupy lacked.  Again, if you are not them, how would you know that they are not happy?

On a different but related subject, there has been a great hype about philanthropy in China among North American fundraisers.  We are tracking wealth and much of them now come from Asia.  However, as someone who’s born and raised in China, I would like to offer a word of caution.  Before we get too excited about helping China to create a philanthropic practice, we have to understand a few things about China such as: Will this philanthropic practice be efficient under a different political system? While some of the government aids can’t even get into people’s hand due to corruption, how could non-profit organization distribute their fund into the hand of the needy?  China might be rich but there are a lot of things that need to happen to the social and political environment before true philanthropy system can be put in place.  We should also be aware of reports from the official government controlled media about the “great improvement in philanthropy” as most government media reports are more or less propaganda and cannot be taken in at face value.  

As our world evolves with globalization, we as a community of fundraisers and donors should be talking about the implications of global philanthropy not just out of sympathy or excitement but based on more educated knowledge without trying to apply our judgment and own value systems.  

More on Relationship Mapping in the next blog.

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