Universal House of Justice: Results of By-Election

The Universal House of Justice held a by-election a few days ago and two new members were elected to replace the retiring members: Hooper Dunbar and Peter Khan. The new members were, surprise! both members of the International Teaching Center: Stephen Birkland and Stephen Hall.

Here is the official announcement from the Baha’i News website:

HAIFA, Israel — The Universal House of Justice has announced the results of a by-election for two of its nine members.

The new members are Stephen Birkland and Stephen Hall, elected in balloting in which members of national Baha’i governing bodies around the world serve as electors. The voting was done by mail, and results were conveyed today to all Baha’i National Spiritual Assemblies.

The Universal House of Justice is the head of the Baha’i Faith. Its permanent seat is at the Baha’i World Centre in Haifa, and all members reside here for the duration of their service.

The regular election of the nine members of the House of Justice occurs every five years at an international convention, held in Haifa. The most recent election was in 2008.

The by-election was necessary to fill two vacancies created when the House of Justice approved the request of two members, Mr. Hooper Dunbar and Dr. Peter Khan, to relinquish their positions owing to their advanced age and the heavy burden of work involved in membership.

The previous change in membership was when two other members chose to retire in 2007. There was no by-election since they stayed on until the regular election scheduled for April 2008. Since the House of Justice is elected every 5 years, it seems that Dunbar and Khan decided to leave ‘early’ rather than wait another few years until April 2013.

As you might recall, Hartmut Grossmann and Glenford E. Mitchell were replaced by Shahriar Razavi and Gustavo Correa – both members of the ITC (naturally). Back in late 2007 I had predicted the election of Stephen Hall to the House but I was just a bit too early. By the way, Grossmann ties L. Hakim for the distinction of the shortest membership duration.

This trend to retire (while still alive) is rather new. When the UHJ was first instituted there was no such policy and 4 members actually passed away while still serving. Finally the UHJ relented and allowed its members to withdraw voluntarily and enjoy retirement. The first member to do so was David Hoffman.

The most important trend is that we have, since 2008, a membership drawn completely from the ITC – which itself is appointed by the Universal House of Justice. So in essence, there is a closed loop with the UHJ appointing its future candidates (of couse, only the male members of the ITC are qualified for election).

This is certainly worthy of note but does this matter? ultimately, does it make a difference if the UHJ is drawn from a small pool of candidates that they themselves have ‘vetted’? Some would argue that it doesn’t. Personally, I believe that the organizational framework through which the Baha’i institutions are elected (or appointed) does matter. Not only does it markedly stray from the Baha’i administrative structure outlined by Abdu’l-Baha, it can also lead to an ossification through group think.

Hopefully I will find some time in the near future to explain a bit further why I am concerned about the UHJ being melded in effect with the ITC. For now though, I would welcome your thoughts, especially if you disagree with me.

To help you visualize the data, here is an updated infographic showing the complete history of the membership of the Universal House of Justice:

NSA of Canada Funds Report For 2009

Sunlight is the best disinfectant so let’s see if we can allow some to fall onto a topic rather dank and musty for most Baha’is. The National Spiritual Assembly of the Baha’is of Canada has submitted their tax returns to the government of Canada and since this information is in turn public, let’s take a look to see what we can learn about how the NSA is spending the funds donated to them.

Please don’t take my word for anything and double check the numbers for yourself. You can see the T3010 Charities Tax Return filled out by the NSA by visiting the CRA charities website. Unfortunately Baha’is like me have to rely on this information because the NSA does not share information with them via normal Baha’i channels.

As you’ll see below, even within this legally enforced format, their disclosure leaves much to be desired and rather than provide answers, it delivers new questions. Below you’ll find some of the things that jumped out at me. Perhaps you’ll notice other points and if so, I’d welcome your comments.

Revenues
In the Revenue section of the “Statement of Operations” there is a clumsy error showing that simple arithmetic continues to challenge the Treasury department at the NSA of Canada.

(Statement of Operations)
Revenue:
T3010 Line #Total ($)
Total eligible amount of all gifts for which the charity issued tax receipts4500$6,688,533
Total amount received from other registered charities (excluding specified gifts and enduring property)4510$4,201,533
Total specified gifts from other registered charities 4520$89,124
Total other gifts received for which a tax receipt was not issued by the charity4530$1,086,582
Total interest and investment income received or earned4580$83,700
Gross proceeds from disposition of assets4590$3,280,443
Net proceeds from disposition of assets (show a negative amount with brackets)4600-MISSING-
Other revenue not already included in the amounts above4650$13,374
Total revenue (add line 4500, 4510 to 4580, and 4600 to 4650)4700$12,284,818
Total Revenue (est. by assuming net approximates gross proceeds)$14,267,583

Line 4600 is simply missing (empty cell rather than the word MISSING that I wrote above). If we assume that the total number ($12,284,818) entered in the T3010 is correct, then that implies a net proceed of $1,175,706 from the gross proceed of $3,280,443 – less than half. Of course, you and I are not privy to the actual accounting ledgers but can only go by what we’re given from the NSA. But that implied amount for the net proceeds is highly improbable as it would require an unfathomably exorbitant expense related to the sale of the assets. Much more likely is a clerical or human error.

So either the person who filled out this form made a mistake by calculating the net amount incorrectly and then compounded that mistake by excluding it from the form (only allowing us to calculate the amount via inference by deducting it out of the sum) or they made the mistake of not adding the net proceed amount correctly to approximate the gross proceed (somewhere close to $3 million) and then forgot to add it to the net revenue. In either case, the key word here is mistake and somewhere, someone made either one or several.

The next interesting tidbit is that total donations (however we finally calculate it) were significantly lower than the previous year – in 2008 the NSA reported total revenue of $16,277,836. For the past 10 years or so, the NSA built up quite a war-chest as almost every single year had positive net inflows (I know, I know, during those same years they were continuously screaming about deficits and shortfalls – that’s another story). To make up for the shortfall in 2009, it seems that the NSA dipped into its coffers and sold about $3 million worth of investments. This represents about 13% of its total 2008 liquid assets.

Chile Baha’i Temple
So what did they do with the money raised by donations from Baha’is and from the sale of their long term investments? The NSA decided to step up big time (or they were directed to by the UHJ/ITC) and sent the vast majority of their donations (and then some!) to help build the temple in Chile. In total, $12,988,273 was sent outside of Canada:

OrganizationAmount ($)
Total Activities outside Canada$12,988,273
NSA Baha'is of the US$59,150
NSA Baha'is of Chile$12,538,058
Various NSA's, Pioneering & Teaching$391,065

This is much more than the average ($4 million) for expenditures sent outside of Canada for the past 12 years and close to the highest amount sent outside Canada in 2004 – $14 million. But those funds were sent to Haifa. The fact that the NSA sold off a significant amount of their investment assets implies that this was done to pay for the ongoing construction costs and that they did so as directed by Haifa. This isn’t surprising as usually the most well off countries pay much more than the average share of such projects.

Compensation
There are several important issues here with compensation. First of all, this is the first time ever that the NSA has actually followed the CRA laws and disclosed the total amount that it is paying in salaries and like compensation. They have also gone back and re-submitted this for the 2008 and 2007 returns (but not the previous years). For example, in the T3010 filings for the fiscal year 2004 there is $43,746 under “Management & Administrative Expenses” even though in another location they cite the total number of compensated employees at 45!

In any case, now that we finally have the information, it is very interesting. In total, the NSA spent $2,431,889 on compensation for the fiscal year 2009. That is a significant amount relative to the total donations received. Using their own total amount for donations received, then the NSA of Canada spent 20% of their total revenue on compensation.

The sum comes up to a huge amount if we divide by the 20 or so people who work full time or part time in Baha’i administration in Canada. Why 20? To start, we have 9 people on the NSA itself and then about 10 others who work at the National offices and other ancillary administrative work. It is a rough estimate, I’ll concede, but it will do for a back of the napkin calculation. So $2,431,889 divided by 20 is $121,594 – that’s a lot of money! That’s more than $10,000 every single month for one year, for 20 people. Wow.

Fortunately, the CRA requires charities to provide some more information regarding their compensation expenditures. They do not have to detail their compensation expenditures but only have to disclose how many full-time employees are within certain ranges:

Salary (Min)Salary (Max)Salary (Median)# PersonsTotal
Discrepancy$1,621,889
$1$39,999$20,0001$40,000
$40,000$79,999$40,0009$720,000
(NA)(NA)Part-Time3$50,000
Total Compensation$810,000
Total Compensation Reported to CRA$2,431,889

In the salary range of $1 – $39,999 the NSA has 1 full time employee. In the salary range of $40,000 – $79,999 the NSA has 9 employees (quite possibly the NSA members). And finally, there are 3 part time employees who received a total of $50,000 compensation in aggregate.

Let’s assume the maximum for each salary range. So for we have $40,000 plus 9 full time employees at $80,000 each and finally, $50,000. That is a total of $810,000.

Hmmmm…. notice anything? The total compensation for the salaried workers is $810,000 – giving them the benefit of the doubt and assuming the maximum point in the range – but the total compensation is $2,431,889. So there is more than $1,600,000 unaccounted for.

If we assume the median, rather than the maximum for the salary range, the difference is even larger. A very large amount of money is spent via expense accounts (including travel, short term accommodation, etc.) as well as salaries relative to the total budget of the NSA. Unfortunately, the NSA is not only reticent to share information when it comes to the annual report submitted to delegates at the National Convention, it is also reluctant to accurately fill out the CRA charities report as you can see. Or perhaps they are just incompetent and the calculator was being used by someone that day.

Well, that’s about it. If I notice anything else of import, I’ll mention it. But for now, let me know what you think. If you’re a Baha’i in Canada, have you ever tried to contact the NSA requesting more detailed financial information? I’ve spoken to a few Baha’is who tell me that their experiences with the Treasury department are slightly less interesting and fruitful than talking to sheetrock.

Oh and if any fellow Baha’i from the US knows how or where to access the 990 form for the NSA of the US, let me know. Thank you.

No One Knows About Persian Cats

Last year’s charade election in Iran laid bare the stark reality in that country for not only the rest of the world but also for many of the usually apathetic Iranians inside Iran. The friction between the oppressed and their oppressors reached a climax with street protests and violent clashes.

After a few weeks of shocking dismay, the powerful control apparatus put in place by the Basiji, the Revolutionary Guards and Ahmadinejad clamped down and eventually snuffed out the protests. But don’t mistake the tranquility on Tehran streets as a sign that everything is back to normal. The turmoil in Iran is simmering under the surface, ready to boil over at a moment’s notice. This is far from over.

Amidst this historic upheaval, the acclaimed film director Bahman Ghobadi made his latest work: “No One Knows About Persian Cats”. Like most Iranian cinema it defies classification being more a documentary than film. It chronicles the lives of a group of young Iranian musicians struggling against the stiffing oppression that prevents them from even playing the music they like.

The film was the winner of the Special Jury Prize at Cannes Film Festival and was written in collaboration with Roxana Saberi (Ghobadi’s fiance), who as you might recall, was arrested and imprisoned on charges of espionage. I haven’t watched the movie yet but this clip featuring a Persian rapper is mesmerizing (pause if you need to, to be able to read what he is saying):

The ruling mullahs are afraid of the power of music like this. And for good reason. The video above is just one of the musicians featured in the film. All of them decided to leave Iran (and not to return from Cannes) expect the man rapping in this clip. Click to watch the trailer for “No One Knows About Persian Cats” or this alternative trailer:

This theme of leaving Iran to the decrepit cleptocracy is one that I’ve written about more than a few times already. Iran is bursting at the seams with youth who are brimming with potential. The problem is that the country has been organized in such a way to snuff out any and all hope and progress. Your average Iranian youth, like the ones above, have no qualms about leaving Iran in order to create a better life. Even Baha’is are doing so every day in groups.

My only bone to pick is with the Baha’i administration that actively pursues a policy to keep as many Baha’is inside Iran as possible. No matter how dangerous the consequences may be for them. Anyway, if you can catch Ghobadi’s latest work in your local cinema, don’t miss the chance.