Tag Archive: specific example

Trends in Diaspora Philanthropy as represented by The Optimists of Bangladesh and USA

By Doug Bennet

The pictures are horrifying… the sort that newspaper editors decide not to publish, for reasons of taste and human dignity (and subscriber backlash).

Faces of lifeless children caked in concrete dust, bodies buried in rubble. Female arms and legs protruding from pancaked concrete floors of the crumpled factory, colourful clothing contrasting against the grey ruins. Rescuers tugging heroically, too often fruitlessly. Sudden, catastrophic death everywhere.

The collapse of the eight-storey Rana Plaza clothing factory in the Savar district of Dhaka, Bangladesh on April 24, 2013, killed 1,129 people, most of them young women. Another 2,515 were injured or maimed. The event shocked the world and put a searing spotlight on the worst excesses of global capitalism and blind consumerism.

For The Optimists, a Bangladesh-focused diaspora charity formed in 2000, Rana Plaza was just the latest call to action, if the most tragic in scale. The organization quickly posted graphic photos on its website as it reached out to supporters for donations.

The Optimists (not to be confused with Optimist International clubs) was established by ex-pat professional Bangladeshis living in New York City. Most of the founders have finance, medicine, or business backgrounds. They represent an increasingly mobile global professional class that has greatly influenced the modern evolution of diaspora philanthropy.

“During the information revolution of the 1980s and 1990s, a new generation of philanthropists emerged from the booming finance and information technology industries,” note the authors of Diaspora Philanthropy: Private Giving and Public Policy, a 2010 study published by Washington, D.C.-based Migration Policy Institute. “In the first decade of the twenty-first century, strong economic growth in emerging economies (particularly in South and East Asia) led to the emergence of new philanthropists with direct ties to the developing world.”

Helping The Optimists and diaspora philanthropists everywhere is a powerful tool that an early ex-pat philanthropist, the Scot-American Andrew Carnegie, could not possibly have imagined: the Internet. The charity maintains a website, offers online donations, runs a Facebook page, operates a blog, and publishes online videos. Material is published in both English and Bengali. The Internet “is making it possible for dispersed populations to organize, collaborate, and nurture ties across borders,” observe the authors of Diaspora Philanthropy.

The goal of The Optimists is to both address the symptoms of poverty and also its causes. The group provides underprivileged students with the means to continue their education. The Child Sponsorship Program, for a $135 USD annual donation, funds a student from grade 6 through grade 10. The Special Sponsorship Program is similar. A $310 annual donation supports a student from grade 11 through to a bachelor degree. Candidate students must show promise and must be from “underprivileged, distressed, dispossessed, orphaned, deprived, broken and/or vulnerable families,” according to the group’s website.

“Many children from rural areas in Bangladesh are unable to attend school in their villages because their parents can’t afford it,” says Fahmida (Farah) Ahmed, a New York-based volunteer for The Optimists. “They barely have enough money to sustain life. Most people barely even make a dollar a day in those areas. So sending their kids to school is luxury, not a priority.”

After the Rana Plaza disaster, The Optimists focused on supporting students directly affected by the loss or maiming of mothers or sisters who supported them. On January 17, 2014, the organization announced at an event in Dhaka that it had raised funds to support 81 students in its “Rescue Savar’s Future” program.

Something to think about on the next shopping trip.

Works Cited

E-mail interview with Fahmida (Farah) Ahmed, a New York-based volunteer for The Optimists.

The Optimists website


Asian American Federation, Census Information Center
Profile of New York City’s Bangladeshi Americans: 2013 Edition


Bangladesh history


Savar (Rana Plaza) Building Collapse


World Movement for Democracy
Report on Laws and Regulations Governing Civil Society Organizations in Bangladesh


Newland, Kathleen, Aaron Terrazas, and Roberto Munster. 2010.
Diaspora Philanthrophy: Private Giving and Public Policy.
Washington, DC: Migration Policy Institute


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Shah Dola’s Rats—Deformed Messengers of God

Nazia sits guarding the shoes of the worshippers at the shrine of Shah Dola. She places a palm on the head of anyone who comes up to her, giving benediction as they pass her money to put into the shrine’s collection box. Twenty-five year old Nazia lives with microcephaly—a genetic condition in which the skull circumference is several sizes smaller than is normal for the person’s age and sex and is generally associated with some level of mental incapacitation. In local parlance, a microcephalic like Nazia is known as “Shah Dolay ka chua” (Shah Dola’s rat)—an indelicate allusion to the physical symptoms of her condition, a small skull with a receding forehead, pronounced ears and teeth.

Chuas have had a famous association with the shrine of Shah Dola in the small town of Gujrat in Pakistan. According to legend, the holy man Shah Dola was able to cure infertility in women. The price was for the first-born to be given to him (or his shrine following his death), failing which all subsequent children would be born as chuas. There is varying opinion on whether and how the shrine of Shah Dola has or has not exploited microcephalic children, people’s religious sentiments and superstitious beliefs to bring resources to the shrine and its administrators. While it may well be that, over the centuries, Shah Dola’s shrine has provided sanctuary for children with microcephaly, accusations are widespread that shrine administrators intentionally deformed firstborns given to them by fertility-challenged couples by clamping the heads of the babies in metal caps, restricting their growth and thereby inducing microcephaly. The intentionally-deformed children, it is claimed, were then used or leased out for begging. It seems that this has not been substantiated through evidence, but enough pressure built up through these claims that the shrine was taken over by a government department that administers awqaf, the traditional Islamic charitable trust. The government refutes claims that there is or was any practice of intentional deforming of children or that the shrine has ever exploited microcephalics. Accusations are rife about criminally-organized “begging mafias” associated with the shrine and the collusion of government administrators with these gangs who traffic in people with deformities.

It is easy to see why such claims abound. Chuas are “high-value beggers”, able to solicit twice the amount in daily alms than a civil servant would earn in a day. Their high earning power as beggers is linked to the fact that the deformed have a special status in the minds of the Pakistani rural classes. They are seen as being closer to God, with privileged access to His ear. In one online documentary about the phenomenon, a “chua-master” (a person who “owns” a chua as a means of income) refers to the microcephalic child he begs with as “sain-ji” (a reverent way of addressing a guru) and “malang” (a roving spiritual mendicant). As he roams the streets with his chua, he exhorts people to “give him charity and say a prayer.” Giving to a chua increases your chances of being heard by God because the deformed are “God’s people” – those who are provided for solely in fortuitous ways, like the generosity of strangers. Giving charity to the deformed and associating with them is therefore a trade to attain closeness to God. There is also an element of fear and self-protection to this giving—because they are heard more closely by God, the deformed and the renunciate also have the power to plague you. If you repudiate them or turn your back on them, God in turn may well turn his back on you.
There is a widespread belief in rural Pakistani culture that “providence is written”; everyone comes into the world with an allocation of means and resources and a fortune already accorded by the will of God. That is why a new child in the family is rarely seen as stretching limited resources—it is believed that the child brings resources with them, because God provides for all. The deformed perform a function as God’s messengers; they are incarnate reminders to people about fortune and God’s will. In giving charity to the deformed the givers affirm their faith in providence by becoming instruments of it.

Works Cited



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Nizamiyah: An Madrasa in the History of Islamic Philanthropy

sduncan post on January 28th, 2015
Posted in Middle East Tags: , ,

By Janice McMurray

Islamic history has seen many philanthropic conventions and traditions over time. Although some of these customs are no longer existent or have been significantly altered from their original structure, there continues to be many philanthropic practices that prevail in current Islamic culture.

One such tradition that has been closely connected to Islamic philanthropy for many centuries is the construction and support of madrasas (Blanchard, 2007). A historic Islamic madrasa can be defined as an institution in which male Muslim students go to receive higher education chiefly on the topic of religion among many other subject areas (Hefner & Qasim Zaman, 2007). Madrasas were typically founded and supported by Islamic elites who offered funding through religious endowments to sustain services offered to students by the institution (Blanchard, 2007). This paper will specifically examine Nizamiyah; one of the earliest madrasas established in Islamic history.

Nazamiyah was founded by Seljuq vizier, Nizam al-Mulk, in Baghdad, Iraq during the middle of the eleventh century (Blanchard, 2007). The institution was made up specifically of male students who practiced Muslim faith (Makdisi, 1970). Attendees of Nizamiyah were not required to provide any payment to the founder or the institution itself (Makdisi, 1970). During their time receiving higher education at Nizamiyah, students had access to educational services, learning facilities, dormitories, dining halls, libraries, and medical services (Blanchard, 2007). They were also granted with scholarships and supplementary allowances to compensate for any further living costs they encountered (Makdisi, 1970). Much of what was taught at Nizamiyah was based on Muslim faith and focused on religious sciences, architecture, and literature (Hefner & Qasim Zaman, 2007).

Madrasas were constructed from the wakf of an elite family, which typically consisted of a building, piece of property, or funds that were donated specifically for the charitable purpose of helping others in need (Lapidus, 1984). Although madrasas possessed many benefits for students, founders of these institutions also received reward for their generosity on a social and spiritual level. During the eleventh century, when Nizamiyah was an operational madrasa in Iraq, funding and supporting these institutions enhanced the familial status of the founder and was thought to bring them close to their higher power (Lapidus, 1984).

Political in nature, the overall goal of Nizamiyah was to produce educated men who were capable of contributing to the bureaucratic class in Islamic culture (Blanchard, 2007). Although Nizamiyah had many immediate philanthropic notions, such as providing food and medical care, it also aimed to promote social mobility for Muslim men (Hefner & Qasim Zaman, 2007). Essentially, Nizamiyah has played an instrumental role shaping and perpetuating modern forms of education and philanthropy in modern Islamic society.

Works Cited

Blanchard, C. (2007). Islamic religious schools, madrasas: Background.

Hefner, R. & Qasim Zaman, M. (2007). Schooling Islam: The culture and politics of modern Muslim education. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Lapidus, I. (1984). Muslim cities in the later middle ages. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.

Makdisi, G. (1970). Madrasa and university in the middle ages. Studia Islamica, 32, 255-264. Retrieved from http://www.studiaislamica.com

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The Smile Foundation: Giving the Gift of a Smile

sduncan post on January 28th, 2015
Posted in Africa Tags: , ,

by: Giuseppina Marchese

“A smile is the light in your window that tells others that there is a caring, sharing person inside.” – Denis Waitley

South Africa is a nation with a rich history of philanthropy. Many charities in South Africa are based around the idea of Ubuntu. Ubuntu is a word used to describe the notion that a person cannot exist without the help of their community; “I am; because of you” (May). Although the concept of Ubuntu has been around for centuries, it was introduced to the Western world in the 1990’s through the writings of Cape Town archbishop Desmond Tutu. Nelson Mandela was asked to define Ubuntu in a 2006 interview where he described it as being a traveler passing through a village and not having to ask for food or water because, just by stopping in a village, the villagers would give him the nourishment that he needed (May). Ubuntu reminds me of the saying “It takes a village to raise a child” in the sense that if a child is to grow and mature they will need the help of family and friends, teachers and principals, doctors and many other members of their community. The child will be because of the help of these people, Ubuntu.

The Smile Foundation is one of many South African charities that are based on the concept of Ubuntu. Started in 2000 as the Smile Fund, it came about when a parent wrote many letters to Nelson Mandela asking for his help to send their child overseas for Facial Reanimation surgery to correct the child’s facial paralysis (“How Smile Foundation Began” 2014). The Lubner family became involved and saw a potential for growth in the South African medical community. They brought the doctors who were performing these surgeries to South Africa to train South African doctors so that other children could benefit from the cosmetic procedure (“How Smile Foundation Began” 2014). The non-profit organization was renamed in 2013 as the Smile Foundation. Working with many South African doctors and nurses, the Smile Foundation literally puts smiles on the faces of children (“How Smile Foundation Began” 2014). They are allowing these children the gift to enjoy their childhood without being teased and tormented for their physical appearance. Because of this, I believe the Smile Foundation embodies the idea of Ubuntu. In a world that puts so much emphasis on physical beauty, these children would probably not be able to blossom to their full potential if not for the work of this foundation. They are saving the children from a lifetime of being teased and bullied, therefore helping them build their self-esteem and one day growing up to be successful adults.
Ubuntu has helped to make South Africa a better place. This concept of philanthropy was the basis to the Smile Foundation and who knows how many other South African charities. All nations should adopt the concept of Ubuntu: “I am; because of you.” People would be more inclined to give if they saw their donation as a thank you for all the work the community has done for them.

Works Cited
How smile foundation began. (2014). The Smile Foundation. Retrieved September 22, 2014, from http://www.smilefoundationsa.org/about-us/how-smile-foundation-began/
May, K.T. (2013, December 9). I am, because of you: Further reading on Ubuntu. Tedblog. Retrieved September 22, 2014 from http://blog.ted.com/2013/12/09/further-reading-on-ubuntu/

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Feeding the Monks: Pindapata ~ Alms Food Collection

sduncan post on February 25th, 2013
Posted in South East Asia Tags: ,

by Leah Tanner

Pindapata or Alms giving is a practice in which Buddhist monks walk through their village every morning to collect donations of food from the general population for their daily meals. The tradition began with the ritual that the monks are to simplify their lives by not preparing or cooking their own meals and to rely on the generosity of the lay people. The alms round was, for the Buddha, a key feature of the monastic life and the alms bowl is, for all Buddhists, a symbol of the monastic order. Read the rest of this entry >>

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sduncan post on February 5th, 2013
Posted in North America Tags: ,

By Natalie Maxwell

The Potlatch idea came from the sharing of one’s wealth with others. Whoever led the potlatch was to “give away most, if not all, of their wealth and material goods in order to show goodwill to the rest of the tribal members and maintain their social status” (Kwakiutl Indian Band). During a Potlatch the family of the person hosting it would assist them in gathering food to feed everyone, gifts were brought together and items were carved with crests (Kwakiutl Indian Band). Read the rest of this entry >>

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African Ubuntu and Its Influence on South African philanthropy

sduncan post on February 4th, 2013
Posted in South Africa Tags: ,

By Aleksandra D. Nikolic

Today South Africa (SA) is considered “the second-most charitable country, behind the United States.” In the post-Apartheid era wealthy South Africans have become both “Benefactor” and “Volunteer” donors – giving time and money to charities.

The reasons philanthropists in SA give, are varied. However, a belief in the African philosophy of ‘ubuntu’ is said to underlay the need to give. Read the rest of this entry >>

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The Ultimate Act of Giving: The Skilled Veterans Corp

sduncan post on February 1st, 2013
Posted in Japan and Korea Tags: , ,

By Melissa Tan

The Japanese people, historically influenced by ethical and religious beliefs of Buddhism, have responded as a collective community and remained altruistic in spite of recent devastations in their country. These characteristics have been personified by a group of elderly citizens who have volunteered to risk their lives in Read the rest of this entry >>

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The Emergence of Hospitals in Byzantium

sduncan post on February 1st, 2013
Posted in Middle East Tags: , ,

By Iain Newbigin

A hospital is a building that houses sick and diseased individuals so that they can be treated and, ideally, cured by specialized medical staff. Absolutely central to the sophisticated medical care offered by modern societies, hospitals in fact evolved at a specific time and place – during the 4th century in Constantinople, Read the rest of this entry >>

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sduncan post on February 1st, 2013
Posted in Diaspora communities Tags: , ,

By Krishna Mistry

Tzedakah, a Hebrew term, translates to the English word charity. However, while charity can be defined as, “generosity and helpfulness especially toward the needy or suffering” or, “aid given to those in need” many people have argued that there is a large difference between tzedakah and charity. Tzedakah is a fundamental value of the Jewish culture and is a way of life followed by many Jewish people. Read the rest of this entry >>

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