Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

April 8, 2008

Darfur, microcredit loan-sharks and Woody Allen’s creepy son

Filed under: China,Darfur,economics — louisproyect @ 6:06 pm

Darfur activist Jill Savitt and Mia Farrow of “Rosemary’s Baby” renown

A couple of years ago I used to scratch my head in wonder at those nearly weekly full-page “Save Darfur” ads that appeared in the NY Times. Even if they were discounted in moveon.org fashion, they still cost $65,000. (The full price is about $180,000). My guess is that there were probably at least 20 of them back in 2005 or so. That would add up to a tidy sum, even at a discount: $1,300,000. Where the hell does that kind of money come from?

I finally found out in an article that appeared in the March 30, 2008 NY Times Sunday Magazine. Titled “Changing the Rules of the Game”, it is a profile of some of the “activists” who are involved with the movement, including Mia Farrow and her son Ronan Seamus Farrow. (This is Woody’s offspring. After he was born, Woody named him Satchel Farrow in honor of Satchel Paige, the legendary African-American baseball player, but Mia renamed him after their famous split-up.) Much of their activity seems to revolve around strong-arming their Hollywood pals who lent their name to the Olympics, including Stephen Spielberg.

Pierre Omidyar: eBay billionaire and Darfur funder

But I doubt that they could have gotten very far without the big bucks that helps to keep Darfur on the front-burner, largely through very expensive public relations campaigns. The article explains:

Around the same time, Savitt and Reeves connected with Humanity United, an unusual grant-making organization in Redwood City, Calif., underwritten by Pam Omidyar, the wife of the founder of eBay, Pierre Omidyar. It focuses on financing efforts to stop contemporary slavery and mass atrocities around the world and is committed to spending $100 million over five years. The organization takes its cue from Silicon Valley’s famed tolerance for failure, according to Randy Newcomb, Humanity United’s executive director. He says his strategy is to make big bets on game-changing ideas, a philosophy that “at best annoys the elite policy community; at worst, it threatens them.” Newcomb was talking on the phone from Richard Branson’s Caribbean estate, where he was participating, along with Nelson Mandela and Peter Gabriel, in a conference on conflict resolution. Newcomb drew a long breath and changed his tone: “But frankly, where were they? Where has the traditional foreign-policy establishment been in pressuring China in relation to the Olympics about Sudan? A lot of people tell me that we’re wasting our money on this kind of long-shot campaign. But our ethos is the willingness and ability to take a greater risk for the ultimate yield that will come from that risk. We aren’t saying that we do things without rigor. But we’re willing to absorb greater risk.”

Last spring, Humanity United wrote Dream for Darfur a check for $500,000. The financing followed publication of Farrow’s “Genocide Olympics” article — Reeves and the actress were already closely collaborating. “Now we had a campaign, a phrase and a target,” Reeves says. As Ruth Messinger explained to me: “Maybe China’s vulnerability on the Olympics is starting to look obvious to people now. But the amazing thing about this campaign — and the genius of Jill and Eric and Mia — was in making the connection. They were the first and for a long time the only ones to make it.”

Pierre Omidyar (a French-Iranian by birth) is the 120th richest man in the United States. Like many Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, his ideology is a curious mixture of Mother Jones type liberalism and Cato Institute libertarianism. He has set something up called the Omidyar Network that makes investments in both non-profit and for-profit enterprises. The for-profit enterprises are almost exclusively microcredit affairs in keeping with the vision of Nobel Prize winner Mohammad Yunus’s Grameen Bank–sort of. The October 30 2006 New Yorker Magazine reported on the connection between the two men:

Over the Labor Day weekend of 1995, a ponytailed, bearded young software engineer named Pierre Omidyar wrote a code that enabled people to buy and sell items on the Internet. In the first few weeks after the program was introduced, items ranging from a Maxx comic book to a 1952 Rolls-Royce Silver Dawn changed hands. That program eventually became eBay. Not long after the company went public, in 1998, Omidyar’s share of the stock offering was roughly ten billion dollars, and he became the richest thirty-two-year-old in the world. He found the experience slightly unsettling—he told friends that he had never planned to get rich—and he continued driving his Volkswagen Golf. With his wife, Pam, he started a foundation to give away large sums of money, but he was frustrated by the constraints and inefficiencies of the nonprofit world. Omidyar was searching for a way to change things on a grand scale, and, like many other highly successful young West Coast entrepreneurs, he became interested in a field called microfinance, or microcredit. In November, 2004, he and Sergey Brin and Larry Page, the co-founders of Google, and other leaders of the high-tech community gathered at the San Francisco home of the venture capitalist John Doerr for a weekend session with Muhammad Yunus, who is considered the godfather of microcredit.

The article explains how Omidyar viewed eBay as a confirmation of the wisdom of free markets and a model for doing business through microcredit:

A few years ago, Pierre Omidyar left Silicon Valley and moved his family to Henderson, Nevada, just outside Las Vegas. A slight, unprepossessing figure with hints of gray in his wavy black hair, he tends to think aloud, following desultory paths, looking for theoretical solutions to problems. If anything, his approach has become more abstract over the years. As a young software engineer, he solved problems as they arose, but now he likes to reflect on the nature of the eBay phenomenon and how it supports his philosophy. He often cites Adam Smith’s doctrine that unrestrained market forces and self-interest drive the most efficient—and socially beneficial—use of resources. Omidyar sees Smith’s principles at work in eBay; he believes that eBay’s commercial success was linked to a profound social good. “I did an early investors’ road show in the fall of 1997, and I went to New York and talked to some Wall Street folks, and I said, O.K., this is strangers from all over the country, sometimes internationally, and they’re doing business together over the Internet. And people were shaking their heads. ‘That’ll never work! It’s impossible! You can’t trust anybody—you’re going to get ripped off!’ ” Now, he says, eBay has taught “more than two hundred million people that they can trust a complete stranger.”

At a gathering for Yunus out in Silicon Valley, a bunch of billionaires decided to advance funds to the Grameen Bank. Omidyar was not one of them. He felt that Yunus lacked the entrepreneurial spirit that was necessary for transforming the Third World.

As much as he admired Yunus’s belief that anyone, provided the means, can become self-sufficient—even successful—he has a different idea about the future of microfinance. Yunus is now seen by Omidyar and many others as the archetypal founder, too wedded to his original vision. In recent years, younger and nimbler players have been taking microfinance—their preferred term—toward the idea of building a fully commercial, profit-making sector.

Through the Omidyar Network, the eBay magnate has invested in a host of small enterprises with the full expectation that he will make a profit. I guess the idea that you can do well by doing good. This profit-making do-goodism seems to have captured the imagination of Dell Computer’s Michael Dell, who according to the New Yorker, “has begun making grants to microfinance institutions in India, a country of 1.1 billion people, most of whom have no access to financial services.” How generous of him, this long-time financial backer of George W. Bush.

Despite the gushing over Mohammad Yunus’s microcredit model—not to speak of Pierre Omidyar and Michael Dell’s profit-making appropriation of it—there are signs that it is not all that it was cracked up to be:

MONEYLENDERS bad; microcredit good. That has been the common view about financial services in much of the Indian countryside. Traditional moneylenders charge extortionate interest rates to those in desperate need. Microcredit-providers, which are charities that lend tiny amounts to the poor without necessarily expecting to make a profit in return, are globally trendy and socially responsible. So it came as a shock earlier this year when the government of Andhra Pradesh, the Indian state where microcredit has spread fastest, accused some leading microfinance institutions (MFIs) of behaving no better than old-style usurers. The lenders say they are being defamed, in a row that raises questions about their future in the state.

The dispute centres on one poor rural district, Krishna. Some women were reported to have killed themselves because they could not repay the MFIs. In March a top government official in Krishna temporarily shut 50 branch offices of four MFIs, seized and destroyed their records and told their borrowers not to repay their loans. He accused the microfinance groups of charging exorbitant rates.

–The Economist, August 19, 2006

There is a certain logic to all this, of course. Apparently, Michael Dell set up help desks in India for the same reason he got involved in microcredit: to make a fast buck.

So behind all this high-minded philanthropy is the same old “what’s in it for me” attitude that motivated Andrew Carnegie and other tycoons to set up foundations in the first place. It is simply another way to control their wealth.

With financial backing like this, it is easy to understand why the “Save Darfur” movement has so little impact as a real movement. Back in September 2006, as I was jogging in Central Park, I ran smack dab into a rally. As far as I know, no other mass action has been organized by this movement since then. Mostly, it is all about expensive newspaper ads and public relations campaigns formulated by outfits such as Malkin and Ross.

Unlike most activism in the U.S., the “Save Darfur” movement is not directed against the policies of the American government. Such movements generally do not get funded by the likes of a Pierre Omidyar and are generally one step away from bankruptcy. On any campus, getting involved with protesting the war in Iraq is a generally thankless proposition but Darfur advocacy will most certainly open doors to a good NGO job after graduation.

Jill Savitt, the executive director of Dream for Darfur, the outfit that is spearheading these absolutely disgusting assaults on the Olympic torchlight ceremonies lately, clearly knew what side her bread would be buttered on when she discovered “genocide” as a hot button issue. She has had one job after another in this cottage industry since it got started practically. In addition to her job with Dream for Darfur, she is an adjunct professor in Columbia University’s School for International Affairs. The title of the course tells it all: U6020 — Public Sector Marketing.

Woody’s offspring and WSJ editorialist

Just a final word on Ronan Farrow, whose photo practically oozes sanctimony. The kid is some kind of genius apparently, having graduated from my alma mater Bard College 5 years ago at the age of 15, the youngest ever. (I thought I was something special when I became a freshman back in 1961 at the age of 16!) He was accepted at Yale Law School at the age of 16, but decided to defer admission until 2006 since he wanted to take a job with Richard Holbrooke, the former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations and Cruise Missile scourge of Yugoslavia. It is not surprising that he would find such a job attractive since the “Save Darfur” movement is riddled with State Department type liberals like Samantha Power.

Young Mr. Farrow seems to prefer the Wall Street Journal editorial page to other mainstream media venues, having appeared there no less than 4 times in the past 3 years. Only last January 29th, Woody’s offspring used the WSJ to lash out at the United Nations “Human-Rights” sham. He found it unconscionable that the U.N. Human Rights Council has passed 13 condemnations, 12 of them against Israel, since its inception 17 months earlier. And the obvious reason for this Jew hatred must be the miscreants who sit on the committee:

The problems begin with the council’s composition. Only 25 of its 47 members are classified as “free democracies,” according to Freedom House’s ranking of civil liberties. Nine are classified as “not free.” Four — China, Cuba, Russia and Saudi Arabia — are ranked as the “worst of the worst.” These nations are responsible for repeated violations of the U.N.’s own Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Yet it is they who dominate the council, leading a powerful bloc of predominantly Arab and African nations that consistently vote as a unit.

Now this might ring a bell, especially if you follow right-wing talk radio, Fox Cable News, the Murdoch press, or for that matter, the WSJ editorial pages. There has been an ongoing campaign against the U.N. Human Rights Council because it has the temerity to point out the obvious, namely that Israel is a thuggish and racist state. Too bad Woody Allen’s kid lacks his dad’s humor (well, at least the sense of humor he had 30 years ago) or otherwise he’d understand immediately what a rightwing joke he is.

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