How the US Congress can make friends and help people

A panel discussion at the Center for Strategic and International Studies sought to answer this fundamental question, as part of the Global Development Forum meetings.

While the question and its answer seem simple, it does have enormous implications on how foreign aid impacts various levels of development – both domestically and internationally. It shows us how we think of America’s role in the world.

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This question is also important, as it reflects the attitudes that American publics have towards helping those who are vulnerable and weak. It goes to the deeply held beliefs of what the United States is about, its ‘manifest destiny’ is and how other nations are to interact with it. Looking at this question from the inside-out, one can gain incredible insights into what the future of multi-lateral relations will be.

So, who does this question impact? Immediately, in the D.C circles, it impacts the ‘belt-way bandits’, those organizations that are the direct beneficiaries of the government contracts – whether in the International Development space or other indirect forms of ‘capacity building’ through International NGOs. It also impacts foreign governments, whether they are those such as Pakistan, Israel or Egypt, that get a substantial chunk of their aid – to the tunes of billions of dollars from the U.S. or others, such as India, that have sought a more technical partnership and have moved away from accepting large aid.

Looking at the current political climate, where the focus is on ‘making America great’ again and this reluctance to ‘help’ other poorer nations is frowned upon. At the same time, one must not forget that US Aid has been a key part of not only US foreign policy, but also one of its diplomacy or ‘soft-power’ as Joseph Nye has argued.

They key tensions that the panel debated revolved around: Presidential authority vs. congressional mandates, ideological rigidity vs. bipartisanship and focus on alliance building ( abroad) vs. focusing on a domestic agenda. There is no movement purely in one direction, as all members of the panel, which comprised of Michael Millere, Diana Ohlbaum, Les Munson and Talia Dubovi – all veterans of Capitol Hill.

Munson argued that there is bi-partisanship in action, even today; despite what the media headlines say. He pointed to several bills such as Global food security Act, Power Africa Act and others, which have been carried to passage, through sheer bi-partisan support.

On the other hand, the gridlock between both parties is visible in the fact that the Foreign Aid Assistance Act has not been revised in over 30 yrs, pointed out Ohlbaum. At the outset, the Act recognizes that “Furthermore, the Congress reaffirms the traditional humanitarian ideals of the American people and renews its commitment to assist people in developing countries to eliminate hunger, poverty, illness, and ignorance.” This is not surprising that post WWII, the U.S. emerged as the sole superpower, and in this role, was also saw itself as an upholder of greater and nobler humanitarian principles, of which humanitarian aid is a key part.

This humanitarian impulse is seen in the event of major natural disasters that occur. Americans gave, for instance over $350 billion, in philanthropy, in 2015, according to Giving USA. Speaking about giving to International Affairs, Dr. Una Osili points out that the slight drop, by 3.4 % compared to previous years could be because of increasing attention to domestic causes. Also, there hasn’t been a huge natural disaster, that has occurred internationally; for Americans to be involved, she added.

Development, as anyone who studies it, or is involved in, knows,  is a complicated business. There are several intervening factors that go into making a country develop and grow out of poverty. There are also movements and ideas that call for ‘de-growth’ and for reexamining the current modes of ‘development.’

Not least of which is political stability and a responsible government, at the helm. The U.S. being a country that has a lot of leverage in many areas that impact global trade, commerce and flow of goods does have a big say in how the processes that impact development are conducted.  The next presidency will determine if foreign aid will just amount to charity, or if the U.S. Congress, working with the next President, will create an enabling environment for all countries to participate, in the global community of nations.



How to make a political statement by learning Spanish

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We are living in interesting times. Times when xenophobia, racism and suspicion of the ‘other’ are going mainstream, at least at the level of political rhetoric. While one can excuse this as the misguided logic leading up to the primaries, one cannot ignore the amount of confusion this is causing- both domestically and across the world. President Obama had to clarify recently at a high level ASEAN leaders’ summit that this trend of xenophobia does not represent America and it will pass[i].

Culturally, this phenomenon of xenophobia also challenges the very idea of what the U.S. is about – the ‘land of opportunities,’ an enduring myth that has survived centuries[ii]. The complexity in the idea of ‘land of opportunities’ is that it is true under certain circumstances, for certain people. While being challenged by nativists and others, who resisted immigration, this idea has survived; thanks to the generosity, wisdom and plain common sense of the American people and (some of) their law makers.

Additionally, this 2016 Political campaign is challenging the very idea of a culturally plural America. This divisive campaign is also bringing up a lot of issues that I deeply care about, both culturally and politically. I am both surprised and shocked at the level of bigotry against ‘Hispanic’ people, in particular. Language is at the heart of this battle, as well.

Let me clarify: My wife is a Spanish speaker –she is Mexican-American- and I was only vaguely familiar with the language. When we dated for four years, before getting married, I would add ‘o’ to every English word, to make it ‘Spanish’ sounding. Initially, I thought it was funny, but later on realized that I was being facetious and outright ignorant, not to mention offensive, as well. I love my (new) Mexican family as much as my (inherited) Indian one and it pains me to see the kind of narrow-mindedness that is characterizing American public sphere.

So, how does a brown, Indian born Muslim, with a Catholic Mexican-American wife tackle such bigotry? By learning Spanish, of course.

Keeping in mind the common wisdom of ‘happy wife, happy life’, I decided to learn the language. Well, that wasn’t the only motivation. I have always wanted to learn Spanish. As someone who knows four other languages – I grew up in India: where being a polyglot is the norm, rather than the exception- I thought that learning Spanish couldn’t be that hard. But boy! have I been wrong. Spanish grammar is hard. And tricky. And extremely nuanced. But it is a challenge worth overcoming and I am enjoying the journey. This process is also helping me map my own limits, of learning as well as expanding my skills of observation.

I have no delusions of grandeur and no great ambitions of mapping the cultural and administrative landscape of the U.S. like Alexis De Tocqueville did, when he wrote Democracy in America[iii]in 1835. But I do think there is a need for closely examining the changing contours of what America is ‘becoming.’ Tocqueville, who, until today is cited in scholarly and popular books and articles is considered one of the great chroniclers of American life. His greatest insight was that America was very ‘equal’ in many ways. The trends of aristocracy were long over, given that Americans resisted the ‘old world’ ways of doing this. He says “ Men are there seen on a greater equality in point of fortune and intellect, or, in other words, more equal in their strength, than in any other country of the world, or in any age of which history has preserved the remembrance[iv].”

Tocqueville went on to argue that equality of social condition translates into equality in political opportunities. The equal political rights that are given to everyone are a gift of democracy and it also means that everyone who is in this country ought to be treated in a similar manner. The current political rhetoric by Mr. Trump seems to be challenging this very idea – by clubbing blacks, gays, Muslims, Mexicans and others are ‘undesirables’ and shutting them out of ‘respectable’ American society. Even if it means doing so, rhetorically.

For me, learning Spanish is also proving to be a ‘border crossing’ phenomenon – quite literally. You can reach across and touch people’s hearts with the language and make them feel that you are ‘one of them.’ Partaking in a ‘linguistic community’ is being part of a culture, a way of life and a way of thinking. It goes merely beyond the ability to string a few words, together. I am learning this, each day. I did visit Mexico City with my wife, over Thanksgiving and learnt that my Spanish flows much better in Mexico, for some reason. Something about ‘full immersion’ perhaps?

At the same time, Spanish is proving to be my inspiration and a test of what I can push myself through. It is also teaching me that we are constantly borrowing and learning from one another. Look at words such as ‘Bastante’ (enough) and ‘Alfil (Chess piece) among others; which have been borrowed from Arabic. Besides, Spanish itself has Latin roots and shares ‘family resemblances’ with many other European languages.  There is an inherent cosmopolitanism in Spanish. This language of the conquerors – yes, let’s not forget the Spanish colonial history – did assimilate from other cultures and languages. In this regard, Spanish is very open and embracing. In addition, I am able to appreciate the intermingling of the other part of my heritage – the Muslim one – when I watch Destinos and look at the architecture and linguistic influences of the Moors on Spain[v].

Language, like other aspects of life is not insular. As a student of Spanish I am learning this and appreciating the increasing complexity of thought, learning. ‘Effort’ has taken on a new meaning – though I learnt that lesson well, when I was finishing up my dissertation writing. Nuance – both in thought and in speech-is another aspect of language that I am learning. Just a small change of accent or word can make a lot of difference.

Learning a language as an adventure ? One of the bigger insights I have gained personally since I started learning Spanish is that one needs to have a sense of adventure and also courage, to succeed. While the rudiments of a language, its grammar may be known, a learner does not know ‘all’ the rules or even the words necessary to form a fully coherent sentence. At the beginning stages at least! As one progresses, with trial and error; one’s confidence grows. It happened with me too. I am at what my teacher; Claudia calls ‘basic-intermediate’ level, where I am forming some coherent sentences and am beginning to understand much more than 50% of all words spoken to me.

Language in use – What Wittgenstein tells us about language? He is considered the greatest philosopher of the modern era. As this BBC podcast says “the limits of my language are the limits of our world[vi]”. While I will not indulge in the intricacies of Tractacus Logicus Philosophicus, his magnum opus; I will however, point to one of his key arguments – that language must be understood in how it is used. Not merely in terms of the symbolism that it denotes. ‘Language and logic also point to the limits of our world’ would be a good way to summarize one of his key arguments. I would argue, by way of Wittgenstein that having a broader ‘spectrum of logic’ can open up more ways of seeing the world. Better linguistic skills can enhance reasoning and ways of imagining the world.

Finally, language can unite us more than divide us. Just look around the world – there are more than 400 million Spanish speakers around the world[vii]. That is more than the population of the U.S. Learning Spanish can also diminish the world’s ignorance a little bit. Adding an additional speaker of another language is a good thing – and I say this as the son of two language teachers, who grew up in India, that has more than 23 ‘official languages[viii].’

With over 41 million native speakers of Spanish, the U.S. has more Spanish speakers than in Spain, according to a study by Instituto Cervantes[ix]. Besides, there are 11.6 million bi-lingual speakers. This is not counting people like me, who are learning their fifth language. So, how can one ignore or at worse malign these people, who speak other languages? By 2050, there are going to be an estimated 150 million Spanish speakers, making it the largest Spanish speaking country in the world. How can one fight this natural diversity of languages and cultures? If the founding fathers had the wisdom to avoid this issue, keeping in mind the diversity, why should we tinker with the existing order? Why fix something that is not broken and also why fight against the order of how our world is becoming global – through trade, commerce, better communication technologies? And of course, the growth of appreciation of Latin American culture. As my wife asks ‘Why hate Mexicans, when you love Mexican tacos’?

On that note, it makes sense to ask: Does the ‘English only’ movement even make any logical sense? Obviously, Wittgenstein would disagree[x].  Such racist and rhetoric narratives are the border-line where logic stops and bigotry begins.






[iv] Chp.3







What is wrong with the ‘Islam and the West’ discourse

First things first : I am happy that Sadiq Khan is the Mayor of London. Nothing could be cooler than having someone who shares your last name become the Mayor of a global city.

This incident has been commented upon, quite a lot. Well meaning people point out that this is an indication that the ‘West’ is tolerant of Muslims and Islam. And that forces of intolerance have been defeated.



What I do have a problem with, is the simplistic characterization of his win as somehow mainstreaming of Muslims .  The second problem I see with this discourse is a lot of focus on Mr.Khan’s identity as a Muslim ( ok, I get it – he didn’t bring it up, but was rather attacked for being a Muslim, and an extremist). This identification of him – a Muslim- as an ‘outsider’ who has somehow been ‘accepted’ by the establishment is problematic to me.

He is not an outsider, but a London born Brit. Secondly, Islam has centuries of history in Britain and is certainly not a ‘new’ entrant into the nation.

Just as much as those claiming that ‘Islam’ is out ‘there’ and we in the ‘West’ are ‘here.’ This is patently false. Mr.Khan is part of the West; indeed, he is the new West, as he has claimed. The West and Islam are not only compatible, but are intertwined to such an extent that it is not fair to talk about these two as different categories. Conceptually, Islam and West should be seen as co-existing and co-equal, not two separate or distinct entities – in opposition.

Orientalists have always spoken of Islam as the ‘other’ that is somehow inferior to the West. This discourse of ‘Islam and the West’ perpetuates this Orientalist stereotyping.

On the other hand, Muslims in the West do occupy this ‘liminal’, in-between space, which makes them unique. As Kambiz Ghaneabassiri argues, in his analysis of the History of Islam in America – this space between White and Black America, has made American Muslims unique. To some extent, this argument can be used for Muslims in Europe, as well; though the history of Muslims on that continent has been markedly different.

May be it is a nuance that many don’t care about, or may be it comes across as not being celebratory of his victory; but it is far from true. I am indeed happy that someone like him could become a leader in a cosmopolitan society. It is a proud moment for all minorities. Indeed, not many Christians or Hindus will get to lead a city in a Muslim majority country, such as Pakistan, for instance.

So, yes, Western Liberalism is good and mighty and powerful. But at the same time, this Liberalism should also not reduce complex subjects such as Mr.Khan to a mere symbol – a symbol of the ‘West’s tolerance’. Nor should it perpetuate the ‘Islam and the West’ discourse.

Do politicians and bureaucrats need to be creative?

While it is not a good idea for accountants to be creative with balance sheets – and that can quickly escalate into trouble for everyone – I have been reading and discussing with people, the idea that politicians and bureaucrats need to be creative. Just ‘following the rule book’ will not help us solve the intractable and complex problems before us.

One of the key areas where this creativity is needed is in re-framing the existing laws into ones that will work for all of us, including those who are vulnerable and powerless.

Burundian refugee Larson talks with a customer at his pharmacy in Nakivale refugee settlement in Uganda. Photo credit : UNHCR

Dwight Waldo, one of the pioneering and original thinkers of Public Administration has argued that there is reason to believe that P.A. is more of an ‘ethical’ field than is made out to be. It is not a purely ‘scientific’ one, he has suggested. What this also means is that  that bureaucrats should not aim to run their division like a business, as there is a clear tension between efficiency and democratic governance and due process. He also examined one of the key tensions in implementing laws : that between bureaucracy and democracy.

Lets take one example, to illustrate how there is a need for greater creativity and original thinking among politicians and bureaucrats : managing forced migration and resettling refugees.

I watched this talk by  Alexander Betts, in which he points out how refugees need not be seen as a perpetual burden who either : a. need to stay  in refugee camps, which are often not helpful to long-term rehabilitation of refugees  b. Head to an urban area, where they are destitute, with no economic opportunities; as laws of the land don’t have the right to work. c. risk their lives to go to Europe, by taking dangerous journeys.

What is the problem with the current situation and laws?. In short, there are a few, as Betts argues : the old laws, written post WWII don’t work anymore. Given the realities of our globalized world, where travel is cheap, labor is in demand in Europe and there is a willingness on part of refugees to work; these laws don’t match up to the daily realities of the refugees. They need to be updated.

There are examples of creativity and originality among bureaucrats and politicians in addressing this issue. Betts points to Uganda, where the government has offered greater access to jobs for refugees and also created opportunities for them to create jobs for locals. As UNHCR reports, “Refugees have access to the same services as Ugandan nationals, have the right to work and to establish their own businesses. They enjoy freedom of movement and are given land for agricultural use, reducing dependency on humanitarian aid.”

What this means is that refugees can become an asset to the economy, helping it grow; rather than become passive recipients of aid.

This also ultimately boil down to the view of human nature one system takes, over the other. At the same time, there is the issue of politics. In the case of Syrian refugees, fear is trumping all manner of rational and other thinking. Creativity requires a calm mind, that is focused on the problem at hand. Unfortunately, this doesn’t seem to be happening in the Western world.

It seems like the only solution to this quagmire would be to learn to re-learn to think without fear and prejudice. And the ones who should start this are those in power. Because, ultimately they are defining the reality, before us.


Has social media made us lazy?

I have been thinking about social media and how it has made us lazy. Yes, social media allows us to sit on our backsides, click a few cat pictures (potentially cats in distress) and makes us feel like we have ‘saved the world’. Or if you are a bit more gifted, perhaps you’ll write about something – like I am attempting – post it on your blog, share it on twitter and Face Book and think you’ve done your part.

But have you? Really? Have you ‘changed the world’, one tweet at a time?

soc media
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Do hash tag campaigns really do much, apart from bring people’s short-attention spans to focus on one thing, even if it is for a few hours? What happens after this? Did #bringbackkourgirls do much? In this case, as this Guardian article argues, this campaign only solidified America’s military involvement, and intervention – an unintended consequence of a well-intentioned campaign.

As this journalist, writing about racists in Britain points out, “Hell, in a world where the video of a man singing in Korean and doing that strangely iconic horse-riding dance can get 2.5 billion views on YouTube, 1.3 million becomes a bit of an empty number, doesn’t it? Pressing like on a Facebook page requires less thought, less commitment and less accountability than signing up to a political party.” Her point is that real political change takes time, effort and actual on-the-ground mobilization. And not just social media activism.

If the mere spectacle of social change is what we are after, then perhaps social media helps us get there – but real change, lasting change takes time. And effort. Real effort.

If you’ve been trying to lose 20 pounds of fat on your body, you’ll know exactly what I am talking about.

How to make academic work relevant?

It costs about a million dollars to produce a Ph.D, in the U.S.

One of my mentors shared this interesting fact, as I was about to finish my doctoral education. While I was trying to finish a decently-written dissertation, this fact kept nagging me. I had to justify that million dollar investment made on me by the state of Virginia ( I went to Virginia Tech, a public school) for my Ph.D. At the same time, I had this nagging suspicion in my mind that academic research, for the most part is not perceived as being relevant outside the confines of academe. Is this a problem that needs fixing? For sure. As demands to increase the ‘efficiency’ of dollars put into the higher education system grow, this question of relevance will become more salient.

Georgetown Uni
Georgetown University, photo credit :

In the market-place of ideas, academic research  (especially in the Social Sciences) stands out as the effete snob. Unless one works in applied research – i.e., STEM or Economics, most people don’t understand what we social scientists do, or how we do it. And sadly, most don’t care.

Should this be the case? How can we change this? How can I justify that million dollar investment, made on me, as a scholar?  I think about this regularly – and have been mulling this over – even as I work on an academic book and two other articles.

Bent Flyvbjerg (2001), a social scientist offers some answers. Here are his key arguments:

  • We must stop pretending that social sciences can emulate the success of natural sciences, in producing ‘predictive theories’.This is not the strength or even focus of social sciences and we must accept that, as a given
  • Social scientists must produce research that matters ‘to groups in the local, national and global communities in which we live, and we must do it in ways that matter; we
    must focus on issues of context, values and power, as advocated by great social scientists from Aristotle and Machiavelli to Max Weber and Pierre Bourdieu.’
  • Finally, he says we must establish greater dialogic capacity – i.e., communicate our results to the public and solicit feedback and incorporate it in our work. In other words, we must become ‘public scholars’ rather than be cloistered in offices on unreachable university campuses

In other words, what Flyvbjerg is saying is that academics must produce work that speaks to the condition of people around us, it addresses their daily concerns as well as listens to them, carefully and respectfully. To this, I would add a final point : Write in ways that are understandable to the vast majority of non-academics and show genuine empathy for the lives of those around us. Most academics tend to forget this, and write for an academic audience – which is usually those who are peer-reviewing their publications ( ranging from four to five people). ‘The rest of the world be damned’, is their attitude.

If we start to do this, perhaps our work may be taken more seriously by a non-academic audience. And perhaps it may even be relevant to those not within our own narrow disciplines.



Flyvbjerg(2001) Making Social science matter, why social inquiry fails and how it can succeed again.  

Do we need theory?

Of late, I have been having a lot of conversations with people in the nonprofit sector. And one clear divide I am noticing is between those who ‘do’ stuff and those who ‘think’ about stuff and theorize about it. The assumption is that those who can, do and those who don’t, teach. You may have heard this cliché many times over. But is it true? And is it valid? Are all practitioners, heroes; who just show up, to sacrifice their time, energy, reputations and sometimes, their lives just based on how they ‘feel,’ or are they also operating on a model of the world that seems coherent and a narrative of how things work – in other words, a ‘theory.’ I think all of us theorize, to some extent and theorizing is an essential part of the meaning making process.

CW Mills
CW Mills. Source

So, what is theory? It is nothing but a general explanation for a phenomenon at hand, using language and ideas that are mutually agreed upon. In various disciplines, the conventions are particular to that discipline, so theorizing is done in a particular way. For instance, in ‘pure’ sciences, such as Physics or Chemistry, empirically testing a theory is the gold-standard, while in Social Sciences, where such experimentation is not possible – you can’t dissect living people or go back in history to perform a certain thought experiment, with someone who is dead – theorizing happens in other ways[i].

Broadly speaking, one can theorize based on one’s methodological orientation – i.e., if one is a ‘positivist[ii]’, i.e., whether one believes in just empirical data and what it ‘tells us’ about the phenomenon being studied. On the other hand, there are those who theorize normatively, i.e., considering the value frameworks involved. While the philosophical debates about what constitutes ‘knowledge’ and ‘truth’ are complex and I cannot explain them fully here, suffice it to say that knowledge is nothing but ‘agreement’ among competent people.

While grand-theories of the kind that Talcott Parsons and others came up with may not help you understand your own immediate life or your surroundings, other kinds of theorizing; based on sociological analysis of your immediate life may actually be very beneficial. This ‘grand-theory’ is a universalizing effort to understand the whole world or a big portion of it, through one or two key ideas or concepts. One can see this in play when uses words such as ‘reason’ or ‘rationality’ or Enlightenment thinking to understand the lack of democracy in the Middle East, for example. Is it helpful? I am not too sure. And C Wright Mills, the celebrated Sociologist was suspicious of it. Instead, he called for greater ‘empirical based’ theorizing, based on observing the particulars of each case/ society and theorizing for that particular case, while drawing out some general principles[iii].

And this brings me to the important point – why do we need theory and those who theorize, i.e., professors and ‘thinkers’? Wouldn’t just practice based work and tacit knowledge of the phenomenon or industry, be enough? The answer is, no.  I think we need theory for the following three reasons. There are many others, but for now; these three will suffice.

  • It helps us go beyond the immediate situation and help learn general principles, that may be applied in other situations
  • It helps build a body of knowledge, so others can apply it to build an understanding of their world
  • It advances human thinking and our ‘knowledge’ of our own selves and the world around us

So, the next time some hustler, who knows nothing about the field of study/ work you are engaged in tells you that you are wasting time, producing knowledge or ‘learning’ the theories, you know what to tell him/her.

We need hustlers, but we also need theorists. The world would be much poorer without either of them!

[i] For more see Sendberg –


[iii] See The Sociological Imagination ( CW Mills, 1959) for more.