The Trouble with Philanthropy

Posted on November 20, 2011 by

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Summary: Private philanthropy (charity) is often presented as a free-market alternative to state welfare, and has been recently championed by the UK Conservative party as part of its ‘Big Society’. Charity is greater in countries where welfare provision is lower, but fundamental differences between charity and welfare make charity an inappropriate substitute for welfare. Philanthropy is focussed on the giver, not the recipient, with the giver able to attach conditions to it. Moreover, charity is not subject to democratic control and agreement. Charity and welfare also differ in that welfare is underlain by principles of universal justice and inviolable rights. From a pragmatic standpoint, charity can also be less effective at its aims.

In the months following the 2010 UK general election, there has been some discussion of Prime Minister Cameron’s “big society” model – if it can be sufficiently defined to really constitute a model. One of the central pillars of ‘big society’ is that where the state withdraws, civil society steps in. Community organizations can compete for state funding, rather than having it guaranteed via a centralized plan. And, funders are not only the state: private foundations and corporations should be stepping in as well.

At the core of the big society is really the American rightist anti-state model, which views government as inherently inefficient and clunky with its big bureaucracies; a threat to personal and private freedom, unlike the agility and consumer-responsiveness of the free market. Private philanthropy over state welfare is central to this, as well as local community organizing over participation in central state policies.

In many ways, the US is the big society. You walk around New York parks and museums and everywhere you see plaques dedicated to the wealthy private donors who have funded these public goods. The people of the US give a lot to charity – $290.80 billion in 2010. This is about 2% of GDP, far exceeding those in second place, Canada and Britain, at 0.7% of GDP.

That seems lovely, right? What good hearted, generous people. But there is something fundamentally different about giving that is based on charity and giving that is based on a sense of justice. Charity is fundamentally more about the giver than it is about the receiver. It’s your money, you don’t have to give it away – it’s your choice. You alone make the decision who to give to, why, and what conditions come with your charity. I’m sure we have all known (or been) someone who will refuse to give cash to homeless people. Instead we may prefer a food donation, sometimes only to have it turned down. You don’t want your donation going on their crack fund, right?

On the other hand, the welfare-state model takes an entirely different premise. It is based on a conception of rights, a conception of justice, a conception of need. And fundamentally, the conception of what is good for society – to fix social problems for the benefit of all. We do not deny healthcare to those we think are using it poorly – to the obese, to smokers, to drug addicts. Though there are some conditions on unemployment insurance, it is premised on the basic notion that no one without resources should be just left to die. Most importantly, though in terms of individual delivery the receiver might not have much say in the resources they receive, the welfare state system is democratically accountable to its population. And that population gives equal weight (at least in theory) to the poor and rich, to the healthy and unhealthy, alike. There is a principle of universal rights, universal access. For a given population, at least.

The enormous importance of this question came to my mind again when we discussed in class the role of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s efforts to address to problems of global health. The Gates Foundation is a hugely powerful player in the field. I don’t recall the exact stats, but its budget is much higher than that of the WHO. One author, Anne-Emmanuelle Birn[1], critiqued the technical, apolitical quick-fix rationale of the Gates Foundation’s strategy – favouring the development of technologies and vaccines over improving sanitation and public health systems in developing countries, and ignoring the question of access. 2/3 of adult deaths and 4/5 of child deaths in the developing world are in fact caused by diseases that are already preventable with current technologies; clearly, the biggest killers are political, not a failure of technology.

The argument was also made that, well, it’s their money, so they don’t have to give it away. They’re doing what they’re good at – why get involved in the messy politics that underlies global poverty, lack of sanitation and access to healthcare? They don’t, after all, know how to address political problems… But I answer that when a private foundation comes to constitute a fund that is larger than the public efforts to tackle a given issue, this is of no small importance. Why should programs that seek to address the problems of the world’s poor be decided on the basis of ‘we’re doing what we’re good at’ or ‘what we feel like doing’?

When the poor are treated as people with rights, their needs come first. When the poor are treated as objects of charity, the agendas of the donors come first, and the poor should be grateful for whatever they get. Of course, not all givers are so blind or inconsiderate to the needs of those they give to – and not all are so uncommitted as to drop their work or gift because it didn’t fit in with their idea of what the poor should want. There are many who strive to act in the interest of the poor. But the fact remains, charity is an act of goodwill, not of entitlement – it is by definition dependent upon the whims of the giver. And particularly in Anglo-American societies, we still live by the biblical tenet that it is ‘more blessed to give than to receive;’ to be an object of charity feels synonymous with failure. To the charitable giver, it is rarely the case that their giving would fit with the premise of ‘do unto others what you would have them do unto you.’ Giving is generally a one way street, and one givers are frequently ashamed to be on the other end of.

This is why we should be very, very wary of replacing an accountable democratic welfare system, however imperfect, with a system of private philanthropy. Because in that setting, the right to give trumps the right to receive. It replaces a sense of collective good, collective fate and collective purpose, in which benefits and failures are shared in the community, with an individualized, unequal relationship with no guaranteed stability, continuity, or accountability. For those which prefer more instrumental arguments, this is not just a question of rights but one of effectiveness. You may want to give poor people in Africa your old shoes and feel good about your generosity, but it may do more harm than good – hurting local economies and increasing dependence.

It is no coincidence that those who argued for the most brutal and Darwinian versions of capitalism at its inception were keen advocates of philanthropy. After all, philanthropy itself requires inequality. William Townsend, who believed that social security in the form of the poor laws in 18th century Britain were against the ‘laws of nature’, asks rhetorically: ‘Can in nature anything be more beautiful than the mild complacency of benevolence?’[2] In Townsend’s world, the misery of the poor serves the cultivation of noble sentiments of the rich, in love with their own sense of selflessness.

Think that’s outdated? Dom Hélder Pessoa Câmara, Roman Catholic archbishop in twentieth century Brazil, is famed for saying: ‘when I give food to the poor, they call me a Saint. When I ask why they are poor, they call me a communist.’ This kind of sentiment is still glaringly true in today’s world. What is the difference between giving to the poor and eradicating poverty through structural changes towards a principle of equal rights? It is admitting that the inequality itself is an injustice and not just a pity, transforming the moral position of the rich from one of benevolent bestower to unjust oppressor. And who wants to be an unjust oppressor?

That is the trouble with philanthropy: it transforms the poor into objects, bland, faceless, grateful receivers of whatever scraps the winners of this skewed global system choose to bestow upon them, while the rich revel in their material and moral high ground. In a just world, philanthropy would not exist. Which is why I want my society to be based on collective justice, not individual charity.


[1] Anne-Emanuelle Birn, “Gates’s grandest challenge: transcending technology as public health ideology.” The Lancet, March 11, 2005.

[2] Townsend, William, 1786, Dissertation on the Poor Laws 1786 by a Well-Wisher of Mankind, cited in Polanyi, 1944, The Great Transformation

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