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Philanthropic Colonialism and the Charitable-Industrial Complex

Shana Stine
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There’s lots of philanthropic money out there – but a dearth of new ideas. Charity needs more imagination.

All is not quite right in the prestigious world of big time philanthropy. This is something Peter Buffet gets right in his meandering op-ed in the New York Times. Having inherited a foundation from his billionaire father Warren in 2006, with no previous engagement in humanitarian endeavors, he has since come to discover that there is an awful lot of “philanthropic colonialism” in the “charitable-industrial complex”. Further to his credit, he acknowledges that he does not have all the answers to the world’s manifold and persistently vexing crises.

Philanthropy, he observes, has become big business, and is reeling from a “crisis of imagination”; an entirely fresh approach is needed.

These particular matters are worthy of serious amplification, even if a single op-ed can’t always provide sufficient elaboration. But many of Buffet’s pronouncements are so muddled that they are of little value in charting a coherent, navigable way forward. And that, as it so happens, is precisely what is most revealing about the current state of the “industry”: its Achilles heel is the lack of clear thinking about the human condition.

He contends that the “system that creates vast amounts of wealth for the few” is what, almost automatically, destroys lives and communities elsewhere. Shuffling donated money to the have-nots might make us feel better, but that “just keeps the existing structure of inequality in place”.

This lack of confidence in the moral agency of the materially poor (a common feature of the philanthropic colonialism he derides) becomes yet more evident as he goes on to claim that “nearly every time someone feels better by doing good, on the other side of the world (or street) someone else is further locked into” a stifling system.

He even goes so far as to dismiss the achievements of small microfinance initiatives. Those may enable the poor “to enter our world of goods and services so they can buy more”, but he asks, incredibly: “But doesn’t this just feed the beast?”

Misdiagnoses of this kind, packed into such a short piece, suggest the capability of philanthropic malpractice. 

On the other hand, he is on to something when he says that a real measurement of progress would not be “Wi-Fi access on every street corner” but “when no 13-year-old girl on the planet gets sold for sex.” Note that here he is taking a clear, absolute, and universal ethical stand that by nature is binding irrespective of technological or economic circumstances.

I know of no one who would disagree with him on that score.

But the fact of the matter is that young people need to be shielded from more than flagrant abuses such as this. One the professional accomplishments listed on Buffett’s Wikipedia page is advertising for MTV. I do not know exactly what that consisted of, nor do I intend to cast any aspersions on him. But I couldn’t help thinking that it is not hard to assess whether exposure to MTV’s toxic emissions is, on balance, conducive or detrimental to anyone’s human development, especially that of a 13-year-old girl.

The essential problem with capitalism is not inequality; the problem with capitalism is MTV. Problems with capitalism proliferate in proportion to its detachment from moral values.

In one sense, capitalism even has something in common with communism: its ideology of materialism. Not that capitalism is morally equivalent to the bloody inhumanity of its erstwhile rival, but it does corrode moral and cultural values.

This seems to escape Buffett’s attention in other ways as well. He seems prepared to acknowledge that things don’t always turn out as envisioned by the wealthy donors, writing: “distributing condoms to stop the spread of AIDS in a brothel area ended up creating a higher price for unprotected sex”. To a certain extent, this may be considered an open-minded concession.

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