When Less is More

8 Dec
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Photo Courtesy thethreesisters via Creative Commons

It may all be very nice of Facebook’s young Sun King to donate a big swack of cash – some $45 billion at current market value in company shares – to charity. It might encourage others to think about donating something, or to at least think about the very issue of inequality. It might even annoy Bill Gates that his $41-billion philanthropy earmark is no longer the largest such donation ever.

Yet somehow Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan’s announcement brings out not only the skeptic in me but also the critic. And that’s because previous flashy donations of big money designated to in some way confront poverty often seem to miss the whole point.

I realize that other observers of billionaire philanthropy have come out with criticisms already. One of them, Linsey McGoey was recently interviewed here on CBC Radio. She wrote a book about the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, called No Such Thing as a Free Gift, which exposes the way its vast trove of funding actually ends up enhancing the same systems that made these philanthrocapitalists billionaires in the first place.

In a recent Guardian column, she pointed out how the three items wealthy people like Gates tend to fund – microfinance, impact investing and growing grants to corporations – “there is little direct evidence of positive outcomes for the global poor and considerable evidence that such trends tend to enrich the wealthy at the poor’s expense.”

In fact, the Zuckerberg billions aren’t even going to a charity as such, or even into a foundation, but into a limited liability company. It will, presumably, disburse funding to efforts the young couple deem worthy – not that you and I will ever know necessarily what those efforts are and whether or not they achieve anything. That’s the way such companies are set up.

And for me, this is the point.

When wealthy donors choose to support certain projects and initiatives, those choices are always based on their on their world views. It is, after all, their money.

It may provide medical care or save lives, but it won’t do anything to ensure that the poor will have a more permanent system, a state system, to provide such essential services.

Or it may, like the Gates foundation has, push a lot of investment into charter schools for American children. But it fails to consider the fact that maybe disadvantaged kids would have better educational opportunities if their parents earned a decent wage.

It’s clearly not the priorities of poor people that inform the choices made by these wealthy donors, business tycoons who have little idea of what it’s like to live as a disenfranchised person in a Third World country – or even in a rich country.

In my new book, The Anatomy of Giving, I devote less time that I would have liked to the fact that the Gates Foundation initially supported, then withdrew their support from, a very worthy organization – Slum/Shack Dwellers International, or SDI.

I write about the SDI in my previous book about grassroots social movements. Their affiliates in places of desperate urban poverty like India and South Africa work to empower the urban poor within grassroots social movements to demand tenure rights, land and better services, and also to recognize the capabilities and responsibilities of the poor. In fact, organizations like SDI, or the Indian Alliance, are not charities at all. So I was surprised when I learned that, some eight years ago, they got a big boost from the Gates’.

I felt less surprised and more cynical when I learned that, a few years later, the foundation decided to place their funding elsewhere. No real explanation for that from Melanie Walker, who directed that project: Mr. Gates and his board had simply decided that it “was no longer the best use of foundation resources for the kinds of poverty alleviation we were seeking.”

For people who consider themselves on the cutting edge of technological innovation it is disheartening to see how un-innovative their ideas on poverty, and the causes of poverty, are. They may talk about inequality, as Zuckerberg and Chan do in their announcement. But they don’t seem to understand that poverty has political roots. Change means changing the system. And changing the system means changing the way people think, and the relations between poor people and local elites.

The thing is: there are many movements and approaches that do make a difference in the lives of the poor. But they don’t seem to get much attention, or support, from the world’s billionaires.

Rather, each new super-donor comes to the table with not just a lot of money but with his or her own ideas of what needs to be done with it.

In that sense, would it not be a lot more helpful, a lot more revolutionary and innovative, if philanthrocapitalists actually gave away less money, but did so in ways that recognize the notion that there are already a lot of great solutions out there?

Those solutions don’t usually include the inflation of some important person’s ego, however. Maybe that’s why they don’t get the support they deserve from people like the Zuckerbergs or the Gates.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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