Money Money Money

Warning: The blog will pose more questions rather than approach any answers.

The concept of money in our lives is inescapable, and I understand how privileged I am when it comes to my current work and position. Often times when I’ve thought about money and how it relates to my work and my life in India, I think about an over-simplified line from one of my favorite MCs — “Make Money but please don’t waste Money / We don’t love Money but we don’t hate money.” Living in Mumbai provides a window into India’s starkest disparities. I’m not writing about how much I understand “the bottom of the pyramid” or India’s “One-Percenters,” but over the past year I’ve found myself in situations at extreme ends of the spectrum. As a result, it has forced me to question my choices, actions, and surroundings.

At orientation, we had an impassioned session discussing the merits of money, and if “greed” was good for in the development sector. We run on money, and the development sector depends too on money. How is that different from philanthropy? Does it have to be? Should people in the development sector act any differently than people in the private sector? Is all money coming in any form towards the development sector inherently good? Obviously, none of these are simple, straightforward concepts.

 

Fame, What’s your Name?

In Mumbai, I’ve attended a few fancy events using celebrity as a means to raise funds, by no means a new phenomenon. I’ve been a giddy schoolboy excited to see beautiful stars up close in India – from Priyanka Chopra to Sharon Stone, and awed to be in the same room as powerful families in industry and film (Ambanis, Bachans, etc). While it sounds fun and interesting, and sure it was cool to have pictures of celebs up close, it had me wonder about their motivations. Was it any different from mine? What is the proper role of fame in relation to charity/development? Is India’s obsession with the cult of personality of its Bollywood stars, cricket, politicians, and industrialists different from the rest of the world?

In the West, celebrity involvement like Bono, Angelina Jolie, Ben Affleck, and Sean Penn are too-often dismissed as liberal or ridiculous involvement of people who should just make movies. I do respect that many times, though, whether they are coached or truly know the topic they claim to care about, sound educated and committed to their causes. On the other hand, I appreciate parodies like Team America or Matt Damon’s consistent ability to parody himself while serving causes he cares about.

What role can we expect celebrities to realistically play? Name recognition can bring necessary money, but does more money mean a better intervention? Is their advocacy to policy makers meaningful? Is it forced? Does it matter? Galas and Fundraisers should be taken with a grain of salt, but can’t we hope they lead to good? Are serious causes allowed to be creative or add elements of fun? Celebrities certainly add excitement and “buzz” to campaigns.

I find myself tending to compare the influx of large amount of money and charity for “development” to mimic my current Gym strategy – “something is better than nothing.” It cannot go without mentioning the obvious fears of those rare, corrupt charities that controversially pocket all of the money they raiseBut, is that where the bar should be set? Is anything else better than that? Sure we can think about these big issues of effectiveness, cost-effectiveness, sustainability — Does scale matter? Is effectiveness more important? How do you really measure “impact” of money spent? What are the best metrics? Does everything need a baseline study? Should celebrities get paid for charity appearances? What should development sector people get paid? I don’t have answers about what is appropriate for salaries and lifestyles of employees at organizations working in the development space. Can’t people still enjoy luxuries without seeming disingenuous?

Are we really expected general public to always think of altruistic causes? Of course it would be great for celebrities to be well-educated about their causes and truly help solve these world problems, but aren’t they most effective in raising money? Isn’t that okay to have large galas and publicity campaigns? Does it matter that it also can be self-serving because isn’t it all in some way or another self-serving? I think about doing what we want to do for development/service in India, and I don’t forget that I’m here for my own desires and personal growth and figuring out my life. Is it obnoxious for me to spend a day working in a slum community, but then have a nice meal out at a restaurant? So, who am I to judge? Are people not allowed to live their achieved lifestyle or disregard what they enjoy while helping others? It is easy to complain about hypocrisy, but would you rather have a person who is willing to do just a little “for the greater good” in whatever capacity that person can do, or do nothing and ignore important issues?

 

Corporate Social Responsibility and Big Money

With the implementation of the Companies Bill in India, crores on crores of rupees from corporations have started to and will increasingly flood the market of development in India (under the guise of Corporate Social Responsibility). However, many unresolved questions and issues exist as a result. Is it perfect? No. Will Corporates use CSR funds essentially as a function of branding and marketing? Will there be transparency and third-party oversight of dispersing funds? Will efforts be at the whim of certain leaders, or will there exist a coherent strategy?

When you look at these health campaigns and fundraisers, a lot of the money won’t return to donors (they ARE donors). Public Health causes and interventions could be at risk becoming less sexy than CSR and Social Enterprise (increasingly popular as the best approach to development). But health depends on monetary investment with little immediate return. Is it okay? I don’t see “sustainability” as relevant of a concept for public health projects as it is being used today. At least the focus isn’t as important, because aren’t there some causes you need to raise money from, and can’t “earn” money in the traditional sense to keep the program afloat without outside help? On the other hand, governments and corporations have money allocated that HAS to be spent, but should it be spent for the sake of it being spent?

The most recent annual Gates Letter, coming from an organization that has sunk millions into the Millennium Development Goals, debunked the myth that “foreign aid is a big waste” and explains why more money is needed. According to Gates, the 1 % U.S. budget marked for aid consists of about $30 billion a year. “Of that, roughly $11 billion is spent on health: vaccines, bed nets, family planning, drugs to keep people with HIV alive, and so on.” That seems like a LOT of money, and a high potential for inefficiency and waste, right? He continues, “I added up all the money spent by donors on health-related aid since 1980. Then I divided by the number of children’s deaths that have been prevented in that same time. It comes to less than $5,000 per child saved (and that doesn’t include the improvements in health that go beyond saving the lives of young children). $5,000 may sound expensive, but keep in mind that U.S. government agencies typically value the life of an American at several million dollars.” Isn’t that worth it…“at all costs”?

It is a common theme that a healthier population leads to a stronger and more productive community, and in the “long-run” money spent on health, pays off. Gates points out that governments need to invest, but aid from the generosity of donors is particularly important from “health-related R&D.”

At the end of the day, anything someone does could be interpreted as “a good service” and any cause could theoretically be defended. Sure there are many things that make me uncomfortable, but I don’t want to focus so much of my time in the inevitable cynicism and frustration that can come with the territory of working in development.  It is still alarming to see large amount of waste or backwards operations in the development sector, but for the large part, I am over the controversy of money – it takes away the focus from the work.

Author

  • Ashwin Advani

    Ashwin has extended his Fellowship with SNEHA, which focuses on the health of women and children in the informal settlements of Mumbai. His work will enhance SNEHA's integrated health center model and life-cycle approach. He will also continue a project developing a crowd-sourced notification, data collection, mapping, and response coordination system for incidents of domestic violence. He moved to India to learn about systemic issues in the context of sustainable and capacity-building solutions, and initially worked with AIF's Maternal and Newborn Survival Initiative (MANSI). He started his Fellowship with ICICI Foundation's project on truckers' health before moving to SNEHA. Previously, Ashwin spent nearly five years consulting in healthcare informatics and emerging markets security in Washington DC, with roles in project management, communications, and training. In addition, Ashwin committed himself to many volunteer projects on community outreach, fundraising, youth sports, and social enterprise.

Ashwin has extended his Fellowship with SNEHA, which focuses on the health of women and children in the informal settlements of Mumbai. His work will enhance SNEHA's integrated health center model and life-cycle approach. He will also continue a project developing a crowd-sourced notification, data collection, mapping, and response coordination system for incidents of domestic violence. He moved to India to learn about systemic issues in the context of sustainable and capacity-building solutions, and initially worked with AIF's Maternal and Newborn Survival Initiative (MANSI). He started his Fellowship with ICICI Foundation's project on truckers' health before moving to SNEHA. Previously, Ashwin spent nearly five years consulting in healthcare informatics and emerging markets security in Washington DC, with roles in project management, communications, and training. In addition, Ashwin committed himself to many volunteer projects on community outreach, fundraising, youth sports, and social enterprise.

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