Philanthropy should work on putting itself out of business

Indian schoolchildren holds masks with the face of Microsoft founder and philanthropist Bill Gates to mark his 60th birthday, at a school in Chennai on October 28 last year. (AFP/Getty)

Indian schoolchildren holds masks with the face of Microsoft founder and philanthropist Bill Gates to mark his 60th birthday, at a school in Chennai on October 28 last year. (AFP/Getty)

Firstly, let me say that some of my best friends are philanthropists.

Those of you who are queer or black would know that this is a statement commonly made by people to insure themselves against an insult that then follows. And it seems fitting to mention ‘some of my best friends’ because what I am about to say might be taken as insult, but also because I am about to say that philanthropy is itself, all too often, a selfish form of insurance.

As a social phenomenon, managed philanthropic giving – which is what I will focus on – isn’t a product of immaculate conception. It is the outcome of global economic arrangements that have produced the wealthy who are an increasing minority, and the poor, who are all the rest.
This structure of human relations and relative resourcing is evident the world over. The accumulation of philanthropic resources is the result of the over-concentration of capital at the top of this economic pyramid, and is therefore a concrete manifestation of the excesses of both wealth and power. As Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek puts it; charity is a basic constituent of the economy of late capitalism.

Against this backdrop, how philanthropic resources are then wielded, operates as social, economic, political and personal insurance. The social and economic dimensions of this are about how philanthropy insures against the demise of an exclusionary system that enables the perpetuation of gross wealth on the one hand, and extreme poverty and suffering on the other.

This is not to say that some people aren’t doing some good with their excesses. But, wouldn’t the devastating consequences of free market fundamentalism be curbed, if and when such excesses weren’t deemed highly desirable and eminently possible in the first instance?

The personal insurance of philanthropy has to do with how ‘doing something for others’ makes you feel warm inside. Lots of giving, in particular more charitable forms, are characterised by such individual sentimentality in contexts that continue to keep most people out in the cold. Here the culture of individualised and often personality-driven and highly-publicised giving tends to make the giver seem more important than the gift. This enables powerful individuals, and the businesses they often lead, to mask their own exploitations. As Mathew Snow argues, “rather than creating an individualised ‘culture of giving,’ shouldn’t we be challenging capitalism’s ‘institutionalised taking’?”.

The philosophical roots of modern day philanthropy can be traced back to the use of the word itself – first coined as an adjective by the playwright Aeschylus in the 5th century BC. He used it to describe a character in one of his plays as “humanity loving” (philanthropos tropos). Interestingly, the character’s humanity was attributed to having given those who had no culture, both fire (symbolizing technological civilization) and hope (symbolizing optimism). So fire and hope were understood to improve the human condition and to save humankind from destruction. In the same period Socrates was said to have used the word philanthrôpía, as a noun, to describe the sharing of his thoughts freely – in other words, without charge.

I want to briefly explore what these definitions tell us about modern day philanthropy. Firstly, what does it means to be ‘humanity loving’ in a world in which some are still considered more human than others?

So which forms of humanity and of ‘being human’ are to be loved, and to be promoted and to be safeguarded? These questions cut to the heart of philanthropy as philosophy and ethic. Then there’s the definition of the word which is about sharing one’s thoughts without costs. Well, yes of course, we know that the worldviews of philanthropists are central to the making of philanthropic investments, in that how money is spent is fundamentally shaped by these views and the politics they either support or reject.

So philanthropy is a philosophy, a culture, a politics, and a comfortable habit. It is a way of seeing, understanding and responding to the world and to those who inhabit it. Peter Unger’s describes Western wealth-culture as “living high and letting die”. This culture permeates the worst extremes of global philanthro-capitalism. This does come in degrees of course. But at its core, philanthropy doesn’t refuse its own wealth and power and the damages they wrecks. Instead, it largely follows a politics of reformism. And in this, NGOs are its willing partners.

Both philanthropists and NGOs, in partnership, can work against the necessary rough and tumble of social transformation by domesticating social struggles into neatly packaged plans. Recipients of philanthropic largesse are required to translate bold social goals into very concrete, measurable objectives. This constrains the creativity and responsiveness of civil society, and narrows their ‘scopes of work’ to discreet measurable outcomes - despite that social change is an ongoing process. In this way, social justice aspirations are converted into commodifiable impacts on which money is then placed.  This underlying logic is one of transactional exchange, and is the basis of the relationship between philanthropy and its recipients. This tends to work in favour of larger, urban-based, more sophisticated NGOs to the detriment of smaller (often more innovative, but harder to measure) initiatives.

The economics of philanthropy promotes and entrenches the separation between public and private spending. This is particularly problematic because the push to grow philanthropic giving effectively means diverting money away from public coffers – which, even though they have their own set of problematics, remain in the hands of the public with built in checks and balances.

Moreover, a relatively small percentage of capital surplus is re-invested in trying to fix the social and environmental problems to which the business from which philanthropic monies originate, actively contribute. Donors receive sizable tax breaks that in turn diminish public spending on those very social and environmental problems. So, the monies for public good are redirected towards largely unaccountable private interests. This reduces state revenue and increasingly privatises development agendas.

Also, most philanthropic foundations invest their assets in the same companies that create the problems their Foundations seek to address. This illustrates the economies of suffering that some businesses are caught up in and which their philanthropies then set out to doctor.

For these reasons, economic equity isn’t an issue around which philanthropic institutions feel very comfortable. Yet there is a growing recognition that unchecked capitalism is antithetical to building more equitable societies across the globe. Despite these realisations, we see little philanthropic interest in projects that concern, for example: The development and promotion of more redistributive economic and budgetary models; anti-corruption efforts - not only in the state cos that’s easy pickings, but in the private sector too; and community organising to change policies that keep poor people locked out of the economy.

In failing to change societies systemically, and instead to palliatively attend to the impacts of continued inequalities, philanthropy cannot radically advance the course of justice – a course that must include an equalisation in resource distribution.

In essence I am arguing that philanthropy underwrites a status quo that protects the very inequities that give rise to the needs it then so fervently invests in.

The law of statistics says that several taxi drivers stop at red lights, that many pedestrians stop at level crossings, but that most philanthropists stop at nothing. So here’s a proposition: Let’s stamp out philanthropy – because to be radically disruptive it has to become redundant, together with the systems and structures that produce it. It needs to basically put itself out of business so that we have less philanthropy, not more. And this has to be done now. Now there’s a cutting-edge project to fund. Anyone?

Judge is a queer activist and scholar, and Adjunct Associate Professor in the law faculty at the University of Cape Town. This is an edited version of an Oxford debate on philanthropy, recently hosted by the Independent Philanthropy Association of South Africa.

Melanie Judge

Melanie Judge

Melanie Judge is a queer and feminist activist and adjunct associate professor in public law at the University of Cape Town. She is also the author of Blackwashing Homophobia: Violence and the Politics of Sexuality, Gender and Race Read more from Melanie Judge

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