Archive for the 'Service' Category

We Pay, They Play. What’s So “Gift Economy” About Notional Space?

notional-space-letterhead-logo-mbj-white-on-black-copy-2

Notional Space, the name we give to our living room when it is transformed into a gathering place, is a gift economy project. Our aim is to provide a space where the people who are building community – artists, activists, nonprofits – can come together with those who are hungry for community and eager to support those working toward a more beautiful, meaningful, just world.

Frequently, this takes the form of “house concerts”, where you have a chance to see and hear outstanding performers representing a wide variety of musical genres. So I’ll discuss the gift economy dynamics in that context; but this analysis applies to any of the give as you wish events we host.

What’s the diff?
Many people wonder: what’s so “gift economy” about these events, when they are giving money to be in the audience? How is this any different than any other commercial performance, where one buys a ticket to hear the music? It is easy to overlook the distinctions and it’s easy to see this as just another exchange of money for service; but this is to miss an important dynamic in these evenings.

Continue reading ‘We Pay, They Play. What’s So “Gift Economy” About Notional Space?’

Visiting the Forest

Awakin.org, home of the ServiceSpace Global Forest Call

On Saturday morning I set an alarm (something I do only rarely), and made the beautiful early-morning drive from Tuolumne Meadows in the Yosemite high country, down Tioga Pass, to the little town of Lee Vining in search of either an internet connection or mobile phone coverage. I had a date. Over my strenuous protest, the ServiceSpace volunteer team known as the Forest Farmers of had scheduled me as the guest on the weekly “Global Forest Call”, an hour-and-a-half of inspirational sharing from the frontlines of generosity.

Those of you who know me will also know that I am an utterly appalling choice for this honor, lacking in both notable accomplishment and the spiritual bonafides most Forest Call participants usually tune-in for. Sure, I can talk a blue-streak; but I even bore myself.

And, in the end, that’s all that was required of me: talk and bore, bore and talk. The session was expertly mediated with questions posed by the always-brilliant Rahul Brown. He asked about the early days of ServiceSpace, my ideas about certain key concepts of service, my staunch atheism, and my feelings about ethics and garbage. When the questions opened-up to the audience, they became more biographical: about my aches and pains, my affection for India, and the like. Talk and bore, bore and talk.

Masochists can find a summary here, written by the irrepressible Audrey Lin, whose optimism and joyful outlook on life certainly color the retelling of the call, as they color so much for all who encounter her.

Remembering Ishwarbhai Patel

Ishwarbhai Patel

Ishwarbhai Patel was the role model to my role models. Today, on the first anniversary of his death, we remember him fondly.

In a country where ritual hygiene is sacrosanct and actual hygiene is observed mostly in the breach, Ishwarbhai devoted his life to the rational, hygienic management of human waste. Recipient of India’s Padma Shri for distinguished service to the country, among many other national and international awards, Ishwarbhai’s greatness and achievements were certainly widely admired. But, true to his modesty and good humor, he got more pleasure from his more humble nickname, “Mr. Toilet”.

Ishwarbhai was as matter-of-fact as could be about all matters of human waste. Within the first five minutes of the first time we met, he advised me how much my average daily dump weighed in grams – I forget the number – and added that it was likely more dense than the average Indian feces, because the Western diet includes more refined and processed foods. This was typical conversation, and there was nothing casual about it. It was part of Ishwarbhai’s mission. Having made sanitation his life’s work, he could hardly afford to be abashed in discussing these things. Moreover, he understood that the polite refusal of most people to talk about human waste entailed a pernicious complicity in the epidemic of debilitating and frequently lethal diarrheal diseases in India. “How can we solve a problem people are too embarrassed to talk about sensibly?” he complained.

Continue reading ‘Remembering Ishwarbhai Patel’

Incredible Vision

Book Cover: Infinite Vision by Pavithra Metha and Suchitra Shenoy

Pavi Mehta and Suchi Shenoy have just published an outrageous book, Infinite Vision: How Aravind Became the World’s Greatest Business Case for Compassion. These are two women not usually given to prevarication;* but the inventiveness, thoroughness, and depth of their deceit in Infinite Vision is really quite breathtaking.

The book makes the following absurd claims:

1. That a doctor hailing from a tiny, rural village in South India, whose hands were so badly gnarled with rheumatoid arthritis he had to specially train himself to hold surgical implements, became perhaps the most important eye surgeon in history.

2. That this man, Dr. Govindappa Venkataswamy, following his retirement from government service, started an eleven-bed eye clinic, called Aravind, which grew within his lifetime to become the largest eye-care hospital system in the world.

3. That Dr. V and his Aravind colleagues revolutionized cataract surgery, allowing massive numbers of patients suffering from the leading cause of needless blindness to have their sight restored.

4. That ophthalmology residents from the leading medical institutions in Europe and the United States come in droves to train at Aravind, and that Aravind openly and actively teaches its methods to administrators of public and private health care from around the developed and developing world.

5. That, in order to make cataract surgery affordable to the world’s poor, Aravind developed world-class manufacturing capability to deliver intraocular replacement lenses and other surgical supplies at a tiny fraction of the cost at which they were available from American and European manufacturers.

6. That Aravind operates an extensive, well-coordinated mobile outreach program to ensure that its services reach into the poorest districts and most remote villages.

7. That Aravind is the subject of a famous case study at Harvard Business School.

8. That Aravind sees more than 7,500 patients a day and performs more than 300,000 sight-restoring surgeries each year.

Finally, in a coup de grace of imaginary thinking, the book makes the preposterous claim that Aravind provides two-thirds of its services absolutely free-of-charge.

Continue reading ‘Incredible Vision’

The End of an Era in Cleanliness

Shuddham Door-to-Door Watse Collectors

Shuddham, the remarkable volunteer-run NGO doing solid waste management in the heart of Pondicherry’s French Colonial district, has ceased operations, effective 1 January 2011. After eight years of going door-to-door, teaching households and businesses the importance of segregating waste streams into compostables and recyclables at the source – and slowly building compliance to an astonishing 80% among households – Shuddham has fallen victim to the incessant corruption of local officials and the negligence and callous indifference with which the government performs its obligations to the public.

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A Warrior’s Salute to Young Peacemakers

Pakistan Defense Blog: Web's Authoritative Source on Pakistani Security & Strategic Affairs

In its brief, brilliant two years of merrymaking, Friends Without Borders attracted attention far and wide. Our projects were covered in every significant newspaper in India and Pakistan, on every major television network, in the major news magazines, on radio, and of course on the web. But, as the project fades into the past, ripples in the media have been fewer and fewer. Sure, we were proud when the Times of India and the Jang Newspaper Group adopted our ideas to form their new Aman ki Asha project; but, as with most ideas lifted by the every-slimy TOI, this sincere form of flattery proceeded without attribution or notice.

But recently FWB received a bit of retrospective acclaim – and from a very unlikely source. To celebrate the 1000th post on the Pakistan Defense blog, which describes itself as the “Web’s Authoritative Source on Pakistani Security & Strategic Affairs”, the site cribbed photos and a bit of explanatory text about our “Love Letter” friendship project. Check it out.

And, after a brief celebration of peace, the blog resumed its bellicose themes. Crazy. But we’ll take it.

Remembering Walt Ratterman

Walt Ratterman

Late yesterday, the body of an extraordinary man was identified in the rubble of the Hôtel Montana in Port-au-Prince. Walt Ratterman had been in Haiti doing what he did best: providing humanitarian assistance to those least able to help themselves. When the 12 January earthquake struck, Walt was interred beneath the massive hotel that served as base for many foreign aid missions.

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Aman ki Asha: Now Why Didn’t We Think of That!

The Dil se Dil and Aman ki Asha Logos

Sometimes an idea just takes a while to germinate. Sometimes the big guys simply need to feel that the brainchild was all theirs before they’ll really run with it. Whatever the reason, it seems that the time has finally come for a serious effort at an Indo-Pak peace initiative based on simple people-to-people interactions and cultural exchange.

The proponents of this undertaking are two of South Asia’s largest media outlets, the Times of India and the Jang Group in Pakistan. In the garbled, half-literate language of the writers at the TOI: “Starting with a series of cross-border cultural interactions, business seminars, music & literary festivals and citizens meet that will give the bonds of humanity a chance to survive outside the battlefields of politics, terrorism and fundamentalism.”

The project is being called “Aman ki Asha”, Hope for Peace. Shiv Sena suck-up Amitabh Bachchan, no less, is promoting the as-yet vaguely defined bridge-building. The one program they have articulated is a concert (or series of concerts) featuring both Indian and Pakistani pop musicians.

If this sounds familiar, it is because it appears to be based on our lovely Friends Without Borders project and its not-quite-successful sequel, Dil se Dil, both the brainchildren of service wizard John Silliphant.

Continue reading ‘Aman ki Asha: Now Why Didn’t We Think of That!’

Experiments with Truth

Gandhi and Vinoba Bhave

“When a thing is true, there is no need to use any arguments to substantiate it,” wrote Vinoba Bhave. Oh really?

Like so many of the wonderful aphorisms spun by Gandhians about the nature of truth (and, principally, by Gandhi-ji himself) this inspiring line from Vinoba-ji is itself true only in the most metaphysical and therefore trivial sense. Truth, it seems, isn’t a requirement for a socially, politically, or spiritually stirring catch-phrase, even when the very subject is truth.

Naturally, we give guys like Gandhi-ji and Vinoba-ji the benefit of the doubt. They were not only among the most brilliant men of the twentieth century, but were impressive in both the purity of their motivations and clarity of their ethics. The moral certitude of the line quoted above would, however, feel quite a bit sketchier were if it were attributed to, say, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, or George W. Bush, all of whom might be equally plausible authors.

There are good reasons not to be too hard on Vinoba-ji. Sure, he failed to recognize that almost all the fun lies in the argument and very little of it resides in the ultimate truth of the matter. But fun wasn’t really his big thing. And we must readily acknowledge that it is convenient to be able to offer the occasional pronouncement without having to “show your work”, as though all of life were a high school math exam.

I spew this kind of unsubstantiated crap all the time. Sometimes I get called on it; often, when the things I say have the veneer (if not the deep resonance) of truth, I get away with it. Which brings us back to Vinoba-ji – and to our story.

Continue reading ‘Experiments with Truth’

Understanding the Gift Economy, II

Gift Economy by Manoj Pavithran

When I was preparing to write my piece on the gift economy for the Dictionary of Ethical Politics, I read a few essays by others but quickly abandoned that approach to ensuring that I was fully up-to-speed on the current thinking. As I explained with my customary lack of sensitivity, diplomacy, and fairness:

Unsurprisingly, [the gift economy] is a topic that appeals to well-meaning, good-natured, spiritually curious people. Unfortunately, this results in treatments that are often long on fuzzy-headed feel-good and short on rigor. I’m sure there are some very good essays on the gift economy to be found with a simple Google search; but I really had no stomach for a needle-in-haystack exercise that would subject me to the level of penetrating analysis found in the average Hallmark greeting card.

After I published my synopsis of the gift economy, I received a superb essay from my good friend, Manoj Pavithran, with a very different approach to the subject. Manoj is that rare and spectacular combination of deeply thoughtful and utterly brilliant; and his careful analysis is constructed with the considerable philosophical rigor one might expect from him. It represents a significant contribution to the growing, evolving appreciation of the gift economy.

Manoj is not simply a theorist of the gift economy; he is a practitioner. He lives in Auroville, a community founded, in part, on both collectivist and cooperativist gift economy ideals. He also played a direct and influential role in the gift economization of two significant product initiatives of Upasana Design Studio: the Tsunamika dolls and the Small Steps cloth shopping bags.

With his permission, I offer Manoj’s essay for your consumption and reflection.

Continue reading ‘Understanding the Gift Economy, II’


Blasts from the Past

Man Up!
Man up you pussy!

... because the idiocy of manliness is an evergreen topic.

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Talking Turkey
how to cook a perfect turkey in half the time

... because Canada and the US will celebrate their Thanksgiving holidays and, regrettably and preventably, not 1-cook-in-10 will serve a decent turkey.

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Filial Piety Awareness Day
Kaki Tusler, Mother's Day Celebrant

... because everyday is Mother's Day.

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America Dreaming Small
American Dream

... because the American Dream seems but a distant memory, given the country's dominant ethos of small-mindedness.

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Serenity and Gratitude to Bring in the New Year
New Year's Eve at Tibetan Pavillion

... to remind us that not every mix of Tibetans and Western spiritual seekers has to be nauseating.

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Incredible Vision
Infinite Vision

... to celebrate the new edition of Infinite Vision published in India.

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Expelliarmus! Harry Potter and the Path to Gandhian Nonviolence
Expelliarmus, Potter, Gandhi, Nonviolence

... reprised because military strategy seems more cruel and less effective than ever -- and certainly there is a better way.

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India Going Nowhere Fast
Nano in Flames

... because cars are ruining Pondicherry, where I live. How badly are they fucking up your Indian town?

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Understanding the Gift Economy
Gift Economy Explained

... reprinted because more-and-more people seem want to understand the gift economy. (Yeah!)

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