There is “no greater mistake … than that of trying to make charity do the work of justice”. ~ William Jewett Tucker
There are more philanthropists than ever before. Each year they give tens of billions to charitable causes. So how come inequality keeps rising? asks Paul Vallely in this recent Guardian Newspaper article – How philanthropy benefits the super rich
“The common assumption that philanthropy automatically results in a redistribution of money is wrong. A lot of elite philanthropy is about elite causes. Rather than making the world a better place, it largely reinforces the world as it is”.
Vallelly goes on to explain that there are a number of tensions inherent in the relationship between philanthropy and democracy. So that for all the huge benefits modern philanthropy can bring, the sheer scale of contemporary giving can skew spending in areas such as education and healthcare, to the extent that it can overwhelm the priorities of democratically elected governments and local authorities.
The result has been what the late German billionaire shipping magnate and philanthropist Peter Kramer called “a bad transfer of power”, from democratically elected politicians to billionaires, so that it is no longer “the state that determines what is good for the people, but rather the rich who decide”.
It’s my money to use
The idea that a philanthropist’s money is their own to do with as they please is deep-rooted. Some philosophers argue that each individual has full ownership rights over their resources – and that a rich person’s only responsibility is to use their resources wisely. John Rawls, one of the most influential philosophers of the 20th century, saw justice as a matter of fairness. He argued that citizens discharge their moral responsibility when they contribute their fair share of the taxes which governments use to take care of the poor and vulnerable. The better-off are then free to dispose of the rest of their income as they like.
But, Vallely writes, what the rich are giving away in their philanthropy is not entirely their own money. Tax relief adds the money of ordinary citizens to the causes chosen by rich individuals.
The problem comes in finding a mechanism that would better align charitable giving with generally agreed conceptions of the common good. Of course, it could be left to the state. But as Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, said: “That’s giving the state a dangerously high level of discretion. The more the state takes on a role of moral scrutiny, the more I worry … and the history of the last 100 years ought to tell us that a hyper-activist state with lots of moral convictions is pretty bad for everybody.”
The growth in philanthropy in recent decades has failed to curb the growth in social and economic inequality.
Can philanthropy be compatible with justice?
Philanthropy can be compatible with justice. But it requires a conscious effort on behalf of philanthropists to make it so. The default inclines in the opposite direction. Reinhold Niebuhr, in his 1932 book Moral Man and Immoral Society, suggests why: “Philanthropy combines genuine pity with the display of power [which] explains why the powerful are more inclined to be generous than to grant social justice.”
Philanthropy can recover a genuine sense of altruism only by understanding that it cannot do the job of either government or business. For it belongs not to the political or commercial realm, but to civil society and the world of social institutions that mediate between individuals, the market and the state. It is true that philanthropy can weaken elected governments, especially in the developing world, by bypassing national systems or declining to nurture them. And it can favour causes that only reflect the interests of the wealthy. But where philanthropists support community organisations, parent-teacher associations, co-operatives, faith groups, environmentalists or human rights activists – or where they give directly to charities that address inequality and specialise in advocacy for disadvantaged groups – they can help empower ordinary people to challenge authoritarian or overweening governments. In those circumstances, philanthropy can strengthen rather than weaken democracy.
But to do this, philanthropists need to be cannier about their analysis and tactics. At present, most philanthropists with concerns about disadvantage tend to focus on alleviating its symptoms rather than addressing its causes. They fund projects to feed the hungry, create jobs, build housing and improve services. But all that good work can be wiped out by public spending cuts, predatory lending or exploitative low levels of pay.
Addressing inequality justly?
And there is a deeper problem. When it comes to addressing inequality, a well intentioned philanthropist might finance educational bursaries for children from disadvantaged backgrounds, or fund training schemes to equip low-paid workers for better jobs. That allows a few people to exit bad circumstances, but it leaves countless others stuck in under-performing schools or low-paid insecure work at the bottom of the labour market. Very few concerned philanthropists think of financing research or advocacy to address why so many schools are poor or so many jobs are exploitative. Such an approach, says David Callahan of Inside Philanthropy, is like “nurturing saplings while the forest is being cleared”.
Vallely suggests that many of the new generation of big givers come out of a highly entrepreneurial business world, and are disinclined to back groups that challenge how capitalism operates. They are reluctant to back groups lobbying to promote the empowerment of the disadvantaged people whom these same philanthropists declare they intend to assist. They tend not to fund initiatives to change tax and fiscal policies that are tilted in favour of the wealthy, or to strengthen regulatory oversight of the financial industry, or to change corporate culture to favour greater sharing of the fruits of prosperity.
They rarely think of investing in the media, legal and academic networks of key opinion-formers in order to shift social and corporate culture and redress the influence of conservative philanthropy.
Something to think about?
Read full Guardian Article HERE
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