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© Frank


The Individual and the Institution

by Erica Bornstein
May 24, 2021

This interview with Erica Bornstein, author of Disquieting Gifts: Humanitarianism in New Delhi and professor, was conducted and condensed by franknews.

Erica | I am a Professor of Anthropology at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, with expertise in political and legal anthropology, nonprofit institutions, philanthropy, and humanitarianism. I teach classes on humanitarianism, human rights, global justice, and the ethnography of institutions. That's my repertoire.

My research is focused on non-governmental organizations (NGOs) working in development and humanitarianism, and on giving practices more broadly. I've conducted ethnographic fieldwork in Zimbabwe in Africa, and in New Delhi, India. For sociocultural anthropologists like me, ethnographic fieldwork is an important part of our research. We conduct long-term fieldwork, which offers a different perspective than that of other research methods, like surveys.

frank | As an anthropologist, how do you understand giving? And how do you think about the different ways it has taken shape?

I think about giving as both an individual and an institutional practice.

Giving can be an immediate act, an impulsive act, and one that is motivated by feeling. It can be an act of freedom, spontaneous and whimsical. Giving can be effectual, motivated by emotions. It can be traditional, determined by habit. Religious directives to give often fit in this category. All religious traditions have directives to give. It is one of the five pillars of Islam. Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, Christianity, and Judaism, all consider giving some version of good works. In India, I studied a particular type of giving – “dan” in Hinduism – that doesn’t require a return.

Giving can also be instrumentally rational. That means that as a condition of the gift, there are expectations. Giving can be a means to an end, for example, trying to end poverty.

In my book, Disquieting Gifts, I explored different motivations for giving in New Delhi. And I found that the impulse to give was tempered by its regulation. Charity organizations tend to bring giving under rational control. In some ways, the instrumentally rational world of institutions is both against the freedom of impulsive gifts, and it also tries to harness its momentum. Giving to institutions raises issues of accountability and questions of whether money has been well spent. 

What did you find to be the overwhelming motivation for giving in New Delhi?

As an anthropologist and an ethnographer, I am interested in the motivations of why people give. In my research in India in 2004, I studied people who gave informally outside the boundaries of institutional structures. I was interested in what motivated them, why they did what they did and how they thought about what they were doing. Most people didn't consider the work that they were doing humanitarian. They just thought it was dan. The idea behind dan, as I mentioned, is that it is a gift that doesn't require a return. Much of that informed the way people practiced giving.

But at the same time, in contemporary India, new wealth has produced arguments for harnessing charitable efforts into more instrumentally, rational forms. There is a movement to institutionalize Indian philanthropy. This is where the idea of the "worthy recipient" comes in. It can be used to govern philanthropy.

Donors want every dollar to go to the starving child or most needy person, but institutional apparatuses facilitate gifts and also need to be maintained and funded.

I was interested in the tension between the impulse to give and the regulation of the gift in that project.

What does it mean to regulate giving? What does that look like?

Legal frameworks can have great influence over the regulation of philanthropy. The fact that we have 501c3s in the United States encourages people to give through tax breaks. Some governments outsource their welfare programs to nonprofits. Governments often believe that nonprofits can travel the last mile in places that don't have a reliable infrastructure.

Regulating giving essentially refers to defining what is an acceptable donation practice. Governments can regulate nonprofit giving within their borders and across borders. Some governments feel threatened by the work of NGOs and they enact laws to restrict philanthropy. That can seem like a loss if an NGO is no longer able to operate in a certain place or receive donations.

Are there specific examples of that you’ve looked at?
Well, my current project is on the regulation of philanthropy in India. I'm looking at a decade of legal reform in India, that some civil society groups argue has really hurt human rights organizations, particularly those which have been targeted by the state. Some have had foreign donations restricted, funds frozen, and some foreign NGOs have had to leave the country. Anything considered “anti-national” is suspect.

What is the government's case for restricting aid?

Most cases have to do with what the government considers a threat – politically or to its legitimacy: when the government views the activities of a certain group as interfering with the political sovereignty of the nation-state.

Is there merit to that?

Sometimes yes, sometimes no. National laws govern how NGOs operate in specific settings. Some laws restrict philanthropy across national borders, others encourage it. Regulation doesn’t have to be a problem unless certain types of organizations get sanctioned and philanthropic funds restricted. Humanitarianism is a space of critique. NGOs can expose governmental failures, to provide social welfare or care for citizens, for example. 

That's what ethnographers and anthropologists, and social scientists like me study. We look at giving and it's regulation in a historical and political context. In the case of India, I am exploring how NGOs advocate for civil society to create an enabling environment for the charitable and nonprofit sector, and how the government restricts certain practices and encourages others.

How does this idea of international aid develop around the world?  
In the 1960s, the UN was tasked with preserving peace and security during the decolonization era. In the 1990s, during the early years of globalization, a global associational revolution took place. International aid was given to NGOs during this time instead of state governments. This was partly because states were considered unreliable recipients. Donors were wary of corrupt states and of clientelism internationally. The idea of giving to grassroots groups became very popular.

 Since then, there has been a new global trend. There has been a crackdown on NGOs. Some call it a global counter-associational movement. States have cracked down on civil society groups in Russia, Turkey, Brazil, Egypt, and India.

 In terms of the international legal framework for aid, international humanitarian laws guide when countries and institutions can step in and help others. New forms of international authority have emerged based on these humanitarian principles. For example, in response to NATO's intervention in Kosovo in 1999, which was considered the first “humanitarian war,” the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty wrote a report called the Responsibility to Protect (R2P). The report articulated that every state has a duty to protect its population. The inability to provide care for citizens justifies intervention by the international community. It was adopted by the UN General Assembly in 2005.

Right. And things continue to change. One major thing seems to be media coverage that brings all of these issues that are so far away right to us.

Absolutely. I completely agree. I mean, the media has brought human suffering into homes through technology. It has made it really easy to garner rapid support in emergencies. It facilitates donations with the click of the mouse. But the media also has the potential to produce what's called compassion fatigue.

When we're exposed to repeat images of suffering, we can potentially become paralyzed and no longer see ways to respond.

I'm particularly interested in the boundaries between institutionally mediated giving and philanthropic practices that fly under the radar or don't fit into the boundaries of institutions. Community social welfare occurs in this framework, which was heightened during the early months of the COVID pandemic. I noticed in my own community, neighborhood groups organized donations of food services like grocery shopping and even check-ins for the elderly.

This was completely outside of any organization or nonprofit, and it was very immediate and powerful. And this sort of giving potentially builds solidarity and is comparable to immediate responders in any emergency. It's usually done by people who are there, rather than institutions from afar.

It seems that increasingly, philanthropy is being critiqued. How do you think philanthropy will continue to evolve to respond to these more recent objections?

You are right. There are growing critiques about the capacity for big philanthropy to solve society's most pressing concerns. Some ask if philanthropy increases social inequality.

Philanthropic organizations may be set up to serve the public, but they're neither publicly governed nor elected.

They have increasing power in society. States have relinquished many of their responsibilities for social welfare, and this is where nonprofits and philanthropic groups step in to fill the gap.

Personally, I think that increased taxes and broad-based social welfare programs that help everyone instead of the patchwork approach of philanthropy might be a better solution to growing inequality. Nonprofits are a huge category that can include hospitals, schools, as well as foundations and charities. Philanthropy is also a large category. And it's good to distinguish between small-scale informal philanthropic responses and the work of much larger institutions, which is called big philanthropy.

Big philanthropy can influence social policy because of its financial resources. Money talks, so to speak. And it may maintain the status quo in the interests of the elites. Perhaps we need new democratic structures to regulate philanthropy, to ensure it serves the public broadly and not special interests. We should address the issue of how inequality is potentially perpetuated by philanthropy itself. There are some exciting ideas floating around in this arena of new structures. Basic income schemes are really a modern form of an institutionalized free gift that assumes that those in need will do the best to put resources where they see fit. Taxing large corporations for social welfare purposes is another form.

In India, there's a movement to create what's called a social stock exchange to support organizations that would include nonprofits and social enterprises, corporations that pride themselves on prioritizing social and environmental missions over profits. So, this creative thinking is of interest to me. Addressing questions about inequality and redistribution of wealth is essential to any conversation about contemporary philanthropy.