Anna Matthiesen: Forging Philanthropic Citizenship — Domestic NGOs and Donors in Serbia

Forging Philanthropic Citizenship: Domestic NGOs and Donors in Serbia

Anna Matthiesen

Anna Matthiesen’s project investigates how the Western culture of philanthropy is being inculcated in post-socialist Serbia. She draws on a ten-month period of ethnographic research in Belgrade NGOs involved in constructing standards for philanthropic giving and lobbying the government to change tax law. Using historical and ethnographic research including participant observation, semi-structured interviews and discourse analysis, she argues that in performing this work, these groups are attempting to legitimize a significant shift in redistribution patterns. Philanthropy has long been criticized as a palliative for unequal societies, distributing just enough surplus wealth to maintain equilibrium. Theorists today critique a particular American brand of ‘philanthrocapitalism’, arguing that tax-subsidized foundations undermine democratic practices by reinforcing the wealth power of groups not subject to political controls. I hope to illustrate how different ideas of public and private, the role of government, corporation and non-profit, social welfare and civic duty that are bound up in Western fundraising practices are transformed, communicated and practiced in a post-socialist context. These ideas are particularly highlighted in attempts to create best practices for civil society organizations and lobby for government policy on taxation and fundraising. The project also explores how the newly wealthy in Serbia are persuaded to give, and changes in organizational political and cultural values required to court them. Through interrogating the rhetoric of social responsibility, charity and philanthropy and by understanding all parties, funders, organizations and donors, as participating in an effort to reconfigure what it means to be a citizen and take part in civil society—through donation and active cultivation of a ‘culture of philanthropy’—the project will hopefully provide an insight into how larger debates over forms of civic participation, social welfare and wealth redistribution in countries still ‘in transition’ are varyingly conducted, accepted and contested.

Anna Matthiesen is a PhD candidate in Sociology at The New School for Social Research, N.Y. City. She holds an MA in Eastern European Studies from the University of Bologna. Using in-depth interviews, participant observation and textual and visual analysis, her dissertation project investigates the movement of ideas about philanthropy from neoliberal West to post-socialist East. She is interested in exploring the political consequences of engaging in philanthropy, the role that untaxed private wealth institutions play in privatizing aid, and how altruism and morality can be employed to fortify structural inequalities.


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