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Archive for January, 2011

The Obligations that Giving Entails: Europe’s Infrastructure, Haiti’s Disaster, Sticky-Fingered “NGO”s, Reining-In Israel, and My Own Misguided Contribution to the Perpetuation of Stalinism

Posted by Stephen Lewis on January 26, 2011

Some year-end notes that I have just gotten around to posting …

Christmas — or at least so says the advertising business — is the season of giving.  Thus, in the spirit of the season, a blog post about giving, not about the obligation to give but rather about the obligations that giving entails.   To start, I’ll jump from a Christian holiday to a Jewish text. In the two-millenia-old book of aphorisms, Pirkei Avos, a sage is quoted as saying that the highest form of giving is that in which “the giver does not know the recipient nor the recipient the giver.”  While this might work as a prescription against hubris on one side and embarrassment on the other, I’d suggest there is an even higher form of giving, one in which the giver takes responsibility for all that his/her generosity enables and entails.

Europe’s Infrastructure

By chance, the obligations of giving became clearer to me in my recent work for a European-Commission-sponsored lending institution, a funder of infrastructural development within the EU and adjacent lands.  The institution is divided into two main divisions, one with the mission to dish money out and the second with the mission to ensure the integrity and intended outcomes of the projects it funds.  Not infrequently, the politically-driven mission and budgets of the lending side outpace the real-world tasks of the project side, thus giving primacy to the act and volume of lending rather than to the effective realization of the objectives thereof.  Once politics are pandered to and bureaucrats fulfill their mandates, real world impact is an afterthought.

Haiti’s Disaster

Last year’s disaster in Haiti underscored the dangers of giving without taking responsibility for outcomes.  Over the years, foreign aid to Haiti, and the presence in the country of foreign-funded NGOs (“Non-Governmental Organizations”), created much work for foreign-aid- and NGO-types but contributed far less to the development of physical and service delivery infrastructure within Haiti that could  survive and mitigate the effects of natural disasters.  During the hellish weeks that followed the earthquake, an estimated 10,000 NGOs were active in Haiti, adding little and squandering much on small, overlapping, and, in the end, uncompleted projects.  The presence of NGOs served their own consciences, organizational agendas, project designs, and pocketbooks but little more.  Last May, the NPR radio program “This American Life” dug into the ineffectiveness of aid before and after the disaster in a special broadcast entitled Island Time.

Sticky-Fingered NGOs

I was first exposed to NGOs in the Balkans following the collapse of Soviet Bloc regimes.  At the time, American and European embassies, government agencies, and foundations tripped over one another in their haste to fund “non-governmental organizations” in order to kick-start “civil society” and/or “minority rights”  (the latter something that, in belief and practice, I usually am far from cynical about).  The name “NGO” itself seemed a misnomer in that most of such organizations were directly funded by agencies of foreign governments, invariably to propagate their country’s interests, ideologies, and visions of what formerly-Communist societies should now be.  Many NGOs lacked any semblance of grass-roots constituencies but provided launch-pads for political, business, and overseas careers of local privileged English-speaking academics and administrative types who founded and ran them.  Indeed, no small number of NGOs were set up and run by the savvy children of parents well-positioned under Communist regimes specifically to mirror the objectives and criteria to which the cornucopia of donors were linked.  In turn, foreign institutions that funded NGOs often were evaluated by their own financers according to the quantities of money they gave out rather than by what their beneficiaries achieved.  Even when productive and successful, the impact of NGOs backfired by taking pressure off of governments and elected officials in the region to govern comprehensively, openly, and effectively.

My favorite NGO of the period, the recipient of multiple “NGO of The Year” awards from foreign embassies, was founded by a relatively dark-complected ethnic-Bulgarian who spuriously passed herself off as a Gypsy so as to cash in on European and American funding for minorities.  As often as not, the failed well-funded projects of this particular NGO were followed-up by equally lucrative grants for evaluation studies.  Thus, the NGO was covered, their funders were covered, but society-at-large and, in this case, Gypsies in particular, were no better off than before. Like many NGOs of that time, almost half of this one’s revenues went to “administrative functions”, i.e. salaries, equipment, travel, pin money, and perquisites for its management and staff, a figure absurdly out of line with international guidelines.  Eventually, the NGO was exposed and taken to task by a European parliamentarian with the rare courage and integrity to see through the NGO game.

Reining-In Israel

The State of Israel is supported in large part by subventions from the US government and from private Jewish organizations in the US.  Increasingly, a fair proportion of American Jews have grown tired of Israel’s rightward drift, heavy-handed military misadventures, and waffling on the peace process.  This trend and the increasing decline in identification with Israel amongst America’s younger secular Jews were documented in May in Peter Beinert’s now influential article The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment, a compulsory read for anyone with an interest in Jewish or Middle Eastern affairs.  Organizations like J-Street or far smaller ones such as Jewish Voice for Peace are trying to harness the clout of those who give to and do business with Israel in order to bring the country’s actions in line with politics and morality rooted in Jewish history and ethics rather than in revanchism, braggadocio, and messianism of the Israeli right.  As such, J-Street and its like pose frontal challenges to big lobbying organizations such as AIPAC that push unquestioning loyalty to the politics and actions of the present Israeli government.  The responses of the Israeli government and major Jewish organizations to such upstart attempts have been confrontational, acrimonious, and ad hominem.  Jews who attempt to tighten the reins on Israel are labelled “self-hating Jews”, “not really Jews”, or “agents of Hamas and Hezbollah.”  The strategy of the Israeli government and mainstream US Jewish organizations is to push their new opponents outside of the pale.  And, in the case of this writer, they are having exactly the effect they desire … and it’s their loss.

My Own Misguided Contribution to the Perpetuation of Stalinism

My own misadventures in the realm of Jewish philanthropy helped prolong the legacy of Stalinism (or, maybe better said, Lazar-Kaganovich-ism).  In 1990, in Sofia, I attended a meeting on the future of a Jewish community newspaper inherited from the Communist period.  I was impressed by the debate. A few hundred local Jews (and people of part-Jewish origin) of all stripe — secular and religious, pro-Communist and anti-, young and old, influential and powerless, reasonable and apoplectic — hammered together compromises in order to keep the newspaper going.  In the end, all they needed was funds for paper, printing, and distribution.  I took it upon myself to make contact with and push their case amongst Jewish charitable organizations in the West and, in the end, got them a grant large enough to keep the paper going for three years.

The grant opened a trickle of funding from the US Jewish organizations that eventually turned into a river of support that financed social services, community activities, educational and health programs, and junkets to Israel that few American Jews have access to or can afford.  Worse, the control of community institutions and the control of incoming funds were placed the hands of a very few unelected communal officials who, as long as their books were balanced and foreign visitors were treated personably, could solidify their positions, run their own shows, vet community membership, and grant or deny services and “pieces of the pie” as they wished.  Nepotism became rife and, as per the NGO mentioned above, “administrative” budgets rose far above international norms. If a person spoke out against the community’s powers-that-be the price could be denial of a patronage job, healthcare, or even a future place in the community’s old age home.  Independent rabbis, home-grown and foreign, who gained the loyalty of young people were chased out of town; fledgeling competing organizations were crushed.  Innuendo, denunciations to the police and the country’s office of religious affairs, and even fisticuffs were and continued to be the order of the day in maintaining a monopoly over incoming funds.

Some members of this now-monolithic community grumble about the state of affairs but none do more than complain.  Sadly, they’ve chosen a free-ride over self-determination and self-reliance, in no small part out of fear of having to support their community our of their own pockets.  The tragedy is that flamboyant fulfillment by foreign donors of the obligation to give but side-stepping of the less-glamorous obligations that giving entails brought into being what is at best old-school club-house cronyism and at worse neo-Stalinist totalitarianism.  And, it has also deprived members of the community in question of the richness of experiencing and fulfilling the obligation of selfless giving that is the core of righteousness not only for Jews but for Muslims and many Christians alike.  I apologize, thus, for my part in depriving them of the opportunity to give and to take responsibility for their own affairs.

(Note:  It was recently reported to me that in Serbia, a former bonz of the Jewish communal organization in Bulgaria now charged with distributing American Jewish funds to Serbian Jews, threatens local Jews who patronize competing Jewish institutions with cancellation of whatever social services they receive through the budgets he controls.)

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Europe’s Babel, America’s Moral Divide

Posted by Stephen Lewis on January 16, 2011

Coverage of European economic news in The Wall Street Journal is usually tinged with schadenfreude and tinted by its right-of-center ideology.  Crises in Greece, Spain, and Ireland, pressures on the banking systems of France and Germany, and the lose administration of the Euro are portrayed by the Journal as signs of the naivete of Europe’s commitment to community and the inappropriateness of its ongoing adherence to social democracy.  Yet a quick look at the daily lives of ordinary Europeans — in terms of health care, housing, education, and even vacations — reveals living standards and levels of security and opportunity beyond the horizons of most people living in the inequitable neo-liberal society America has become. More important, the Journal and other critics of the European Union always overlook the most obvious of all successes of Europe’s seemingly bumbling policies and jerry-built institutions. For 66 years, there have been no violent confrontations between France and Germany nor between any other EU member states — a revolutionary change in a continent whose history was one of near continuous warfare between its major powers.

Occasionally, however, the Wall Street Journal does “get it right.”  In an article entitled Better Communications tops Europe’s 2011 Resolutions, the Journal pointed to a tendency of European politicians to say one thing in their native languages when speaking to their local and national constituencies and another in English when speaking within the context of the EU at large.  This may involve duplicity and the balancing of local and collective interests, but it is also in part linguistic.

Transcending Babel

Over the course of 2010, I took on a series of small assignments aimed at improving operational processes at a major EU institution through bettering the articulation and communication of organizational know-how and experience.  European institutions are managed and staffed by people drawn from all of the EU’s member states.  Increasingly, the only language this diverse bunch share is English — of a sort.  While many EU functionaries speak English extremely well, others speak it more as re-lexified versions of their native tongues. (Admission: I confess to doing the same in at least three of the languages I speak).  Adding to the confusion, very few people (including native speakers) write English as well as they speak it.  This subverts organizational memory and causes policies and projects to wobble on foundations of imprecise language and resultant degrees of misunderstanding.  Such dangers are relatively easy to rectify when working face to face, but in interactions between departments and institutions and over the course of projects the impact of linguistic ambiguity is magnified.

Going on “Mission” and “Subtracting Added Value-Added”

One European organization for which I have worked has seen the rise of two Towers of Babels in its near-60-year history.  From its founding early in the post-war period until the accelerated enlargement of the EU that began a decade ago, the official and defacto language of the institution was French.  To accommodate new member states, however, at the turn of the present millennium the institution switched its language from French to English.  At its worse, this created and perpetuates operational inefficiencies and crises in project implementation.  At its most innocuous, it is the source of an occasional chuckle.  My own favorite is the carry-over  from the organization’s francophone past into its anglophone present of the word “mission” (assignment in the field).  This lends a James Bond-like cachet of adventure to the dispatch of accountants to the offices of grant recipients and 1930s-cinema-like imagery of European friars navigating crocodile infested African or South American rivers to routine inspection visits at project sites.  In the same organization, linguistic imprecision creates referents that have no existence and  infuses work processes with an atmosphere reminsicent of Andersen’s tale of the Emperor’s New Clothes.  A misuse of the tired back-formation “value-added” is an example.  Employees at the institution are routinely evaluated according to whether and to what degree they contribute to the achievement of the organization’s objectives.  In the parlance of the organization such contribution is mis-labled as “value-added,” thus turning monthly and quarterly evaluation sessions into discussions of whether an individual has “added value-added” or “subtracted value-added” or “added negative value-added” rather than “adding positive value-added.”  The result is confusion as to how objectives are achieved and what the roles and efficacy of individuals are in expediting the processes their work supposedly comprises parts of.

Me vs. Us

The Wall Street Journal dislikes Europe as much because of what it accomplishes as for its inefficiencies.  America mumbles about improving infrastructure, Europe invests in it massively and redevelops infrastructure to transcend (and remove as sources of discord) national and regional boundaries.  America turns to off-shore drilling to ensure energy security, Europe turns to energy efficiency.  America talks about being a land of opportunity, Europe ensures equal access to education, housing, and health, the real basis for meritocracy.  The US bails out banks, Europe bails out entire countries so as not to abandon the security of multi-national community.

Fortunately there are other voices in the US mainstream press than the Wall Street Journal.  In A Tale of Two Moralities, Paul Krugman sketches the lines of a chasm that divides America — and, by extension, articulates a societal chasm between America and Europe that the Wall Street Journal overlooks — i.e. the divide between those who willingly invest in the societies that sustain them and those who see their gains as theirs and theirs alone and to be defended even with violence. In the wake of the attempted assassination and murders in Arizona last week, Krugman promises to continue on this theme: “I will no doubt spend a lot of time pointing out the hypocrisy and logical fallacies of the ‘I earned it and I have the right to keep it’ crowd. And I’ll also have a lot to say about how far we really are from being a society of equal opportunity, in which success depends solely on one’s own efforts.”  In my own way, I hope to explore in subsequent posts manifestations and implications of this theme in the realms of cities and infrastructure.

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