philanthropy, mega-donors, democracy, super-rich, inequality, governments, governance, wealth, mega-philanthropy, capitalism, health, education

The crabbed millionaire’s puzzle (J.S. Pughe, Library of Congress)

Large charitable organizations are replacing governmental functions as the providers of social welfare, while their businesses often support economic instability and compound global inequalities. Unlike the old, low moving foundations dispensing of long-dead Americans’ fortunes in cautious policy interventions, the new generation of mega-donors is very much alive and involved in how their money is spent. They aren’t setting up old-style charitable trusts, but are operating instead through LLCs – limited liability companies. This reduces the tax breaks a charity would provide, but also frees them from the requirement to disburse 5% of the company’s assets every year. And, most importantly, it gives them more control over what’s done with their money. Universities, researchers, NGOs and governments are clamoring for a piece of the philanthropic pound.

Amid the headlong rush to raise and increase funds, questions about the power of donors to set the research agenda are being raised. In what human rights activist Ella Baker deemed the “foundation complex” in 1963, those with money usually call the shots. Typically, a foundation positions itself as the expert and judges the merits of a nonprofit to solve a particular problem, whether it’s childhood hunger, or deforestation, or homelessness. At the heart of “philanthropreneurship” – a new word for the much older notion of making a good deal appear as a good deed-  is the idea that the skills which enabled people to make their fortunes are often the ones required to solve apparently intractable problems. As I understand the world, all efforts to change the world must be measured by their advocate’s capacity to question the dominant and definitely failed development model, to seek the root causes of inequality, and to engage in a process of self-reflection that also seeks to expand its accountability to the broader public. But is this the case with modern mega-donors?

The reason why all academic discussion on whether philanthropy is making a difference or making a power statement has been sterile so far is understandable because it’s hard to argue against, say, polio vaccines distribution. But key- questions remain unanswered; One, what happens if Melinda Gates wakes up tomorrow and decides she is bored with HIV research not bearing any applicable fruit, possibly scrapping the long-term efforts required to deliver solutions to a so vital problem? Or who is going to own and commercialize the patents that will be produced through this type of philanthropy?  Two, how about the democratic parliaments and elected representatives of the people, who were supposed to provide healthcare and education for all, at least in theory? As long as they do not fund their priorities, they abandon the main policy tool which is “who sets the agenda”.  And three, what kind of a world still prioritizes the exchange value of polio vaccines instead of its use value, anyway? To be fair, people like Zuckerberg, or Gates before him, are not arms dealers and they are relatively angelic figures compared to John D. Rockefeller, Henry Ford and Andrew Carnegie, whose vast fortunes have been put to great and humane uses over the decades since they passed away.

philanthropy, mega-donors, democracy, super-rich, inequality, governments, governance, wealth, mega-philanthropy, capitalism, health, education

Imagine the consequences of the long-term established education reforms that are funded by mega-philanthropists in the USA. In her great book Policy Patrons, Megan E. Tompkins-Stangee explains how mega-foundations go about trying to reform K-12 education in the United States.The book asks whether the widespread acceptance of a strategic, outcome-oriented approach to funding education among foundations constitutes a worrisome intrusion into the democratic process. Although Tompkins-Stange is reluctant to make a judgment on this question, she sees that both the scale and the method of funding matter, and she hints that the public should be concerned. I guess that the questions, and the answers involved, are similar also for the health and environmental sector, the social policies etc.

Because they are mostly free to do what they want, mega-foundations threaten democratic governance and civil society (defined as the associational life of people outside the market and independent of the state). When a foundation project fails—when, say, high-yield seeds end up forcing farmers off the land or privately operated charter schools displace and then underperform traditional public schools—the subjects of the experiment suffer, as does the general public. Yet the do-gooders can simply move on to their next project. Without countervailing forces, wealth in capitalist societies already translates into political power; big philanthropy reinforces this tendency.

Mega-philanthropy seems much more a form of international and domestic policy privatization rather than a frank contribution to resolving the world’s problems

Critics of philanthropy are not really against the use of those funds for the social good. But definitely, they are opposed to the policymaking and agenda-setting powers that tend to accompany the new global elite.  From this point of view, mega-philanthropy seems much more a form of international and domestic policy privatization rather than a frank contribution to resolving the world’s problems.

Despite many good intentions, philanthropy seems poorly suited to resolve the world’s most deep-rooted problems. This is because it is enmeshed in two contradictions. The first is that the more unequal the world gets, the more the public is being invited to celebrate a cherished few who benefit from this condition of inequality. Indeed, we pour adulation on those among the elite who have chosen to use some of their almost unfathomable wealth to address “specific” problems with “measurable” outcomes in realistic, business –wise approaches. Half of Warren Buffet’s net worth would still leave him with $25 billion. What is missing in most discussions of the new mega-philanthropy is any deeper questioning about what ails a global economic system that seems to produce endemic inequality, crushing poverty, and food insecurity. The new philanthropy avoids exploring what is wrong at this systemic level—where a single individual’s net worth can become larger than the combined GDPs of some of the world’s poorest nations.

philanthropy, mega-donors, democracy, super-rich, inequality, governments, governance, wealth, mega-philanthropy, capitalism, health, education

The second contradiction is that even as the significant downsides of so-called “development” in the Western World become ever clearer (among them unsustainable consumption patterns and financial freefall caused by lack of regulation), philanthropy in its current form seeks to invest in efforts and initiatives that can bring the wonders of this model of development to people and communities around the globe. Remarkably, the more the West learns about the drawbacks of industrial agriculture, excessive dependence on fossil fuels, the fallibility of nuclear power, and the poor health outcomes related to current sedentary forms of life, the more determined it is to share its successful development strategies with others. And, the new super-elites of the developing world and the governments they influence are no less keen to adopt the patterns that seemed to work so well for Global North. Yet, as our world grows ever more interdependent—a fact that global climate change is making clear—communities and social movements across the world are seriously questioning the assumptions that underlie this new version of the “white man’s burden.”

Human beings should not have to depend upon a rich man’s whim for the right to life

As Bill Somerville puts it in his book, Grassroots Philanthropy; “We fail to realize that the chief benefits of working in a foundation – money, power, and privilege – also work as the three greatest obstacles to doing a good job”.  Robert Newman, on the other hand, a comedian frequently hosted throughout The Guardian’s pages, delivers his thoughts in a slightly poetic fashion explaining that philanthropy is the enemy of justice;

Free marketeers will spring to the defense of billionaire philanthropists with a remark like: “Oh, so you’d rather they spent all their money selfishly on golf courses and mansions, would you?” To which I reply: “Oh, you mean that trickle-down doesn’t work, after all?” But the point is that the poor are not begging us for charity, they are demanding justice. And when, on the occasion of his birthday, a sultan or emperor reprieved one thousand prisoners sentenced to death, no one ever called those pardons justice. Nor is it justice when a plutocrat decides to reprieve untold thousands from malaria. Human beings should not have to depend upon a rich man’s whim for the right to life”.


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