ReadMeme: Superb case-study critique of transnational philanthropy

Title: Globalization, Philanthropy, and Civil Society: Projecting Institutional Logics Abroad
Authors: David Hammack and Steven Heydemann, eds. (Indiana University Press, 2009)
My Rating: 5 out of 5

This is easily one of the top 10 books I have read on international philanthropy, development and civil society.  I was lucky to discover it a few weeks ago while doing the last round of research for the last essay of my masters program. As I began reading I tell you the clouds parted, the angels sang. It’s that good. Hammack and Heydemann (H&H) use a deeply thoughtful sociological, organizational behavior frame to eloquently explore the complex potential and perils of transnational philanthropy.

This collection of case studies goes right to the heart of the latest critiques of philanthropy and development.  I know you’re busy, but if nothing else read the introduction which frames their key arguments, and go to the chapters relevant to a region or issue you’re working on (examples: AIDS initiatives in East Africa, ecosystem protection in the Amazon, the spread of social entrepreneurship via Rotary clubs, etc.).

In my work, I’m looking at the spread of private philanthropy as a form of meme or viral paradigm which is changing and being changed as it’s applied in different cultures and contexts. In their intro, H&H address the spread of philanthropy in the following terms:

  1. The relationship between organizational forms and the modes of international intercultural projection,
  2. The mechanics of that projection, agents of projection (i.e. NGO’s, foundations) and the varying degree to which these agents and logics are allied or aligned with “existing political, social, or economic hierarchies,” and finally
  3. The reception and processes through which these charitable institutional norms are transformed, translated and mutated as they enter local contexts and communities.

There are many dualities which inform the critique of development and philanthropy (donor-recipient, global-local, capitalist-socialist, hegemon-subaltern, etc). However, H&H argue that the entire critique should move beyond a zero-sum discourse because,

“processes of reception…are not unambiguous expressions of subordination, resistance, assimilation, or hierarchy. They do not produce consistent coalitions of support and opposition, of altruism and opportunism.”

Hammack and Heydemann set out to develop analytically rigorous, “narratives of reception…the economics, politics, and cultures of reception have themselves become increasingly global frame of reference for individuals and social groups struggling to define their responses to the globalization of ideas about the organization of civic life and philanthropy.”

Their intuition is that globalization is an endless process of mutual adaptation which cannot always be directly or simply linked to directional intentional design.

Having seen first hand how philanthropy plays out on the ground in different cultures and communities ranging from Detroit to Monrovia, my conclusion is that Hammack and Heydeman’s book is spot on. This is a vital contribution to the literature and thinking on the philanthropic meme.

Link to Social Sciences Research Council review and inside scoop:

Link to online excerpt:

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