It was in 2004 during a Commission for Africa consultation set up by Tony Blair to identify the continent’s problems and recommend remedies. I’d been asked to prepare a paper on religion and development. On my left was the then Liberal Democrat Treasury spokesman, Vince Cable, and across from me, Bob Geldof. I think he had his feet up on the table though that may be a false memory. I put what I thought would be an uncontentious proposition that secular Britain’s development aid wouldn’t work if it failed to take into account the importance of religion in Africa. Immediately, and to my surprise, this was contemptuously dismissed by Vince Cable. Geldof, of Live Aid fame and Dublin atheist, no less to my surprise, sat up and vigorously defended me: “he’s absolutely right” or a more expletive-laden version of the same.
I didn’t realise it at the time but I was in the midst of two pivotal changes in development aid. First this involved collaboration between four worlds to tackle global poverty: business, the State, universities, and Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) representing the world of philanthropy. Second the growing recognition that whoever was involved the State, academia, business or philanthropy, it paid to listen to the people whom you thought you were helping and to find out their priorities. These are two of the many insights in Paul Vallely’s important new book Philanthropy: from Aristotle to Zuckerberg, a monumental but highly readable study of 18 chapters and 743 pages. It took him six years to research and write.
Philanthropy’s scope is vast. Each chapter ends with an extended interview related to its particular topic (disclaimer: one is with me). Another unusual feature, Vallely diverts online the tidal wave of his academic references. It’s a pity that ‘magisterial’ is a cliché of book blurbs because his comprehensive blending of scholarly historical research, insights from his own and other’s experience, and the challenging questions of a diligent journalist make ‘magisterial’ a tempting description. There are two books here for the price of one: a history of philanthropy and an exploration of the ethics of philanthropy.
Mega-Philanthropy took off after 2004. A year after the Commission for Africa consultations, Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan pledged 99% of their Facebook shares, then worth $45 billion, to ‘preventing, curing or managing’ the world’s main diseases. Bill Gates’ Foundation which he founded in 2000, spends each year more than Germany on global health. His total annual budget is greater than each of 70% of the world’s nations. One result has been 2.5 billion children vaccinated against polio and the disease is almost eliminated. When Gates turned to malaria prevention the money available for anti-malaria work globally almost doubled. In 2006 Warren Buffet, one of world’s most successful investors, pledged $30 billion of his shares in Berkshire Hathaway to the Gates Foundation. Wealth of this kind inevitably carries great power and has been called philanthrocapitalism.
According to the 2018 Harvard Philanthropy report, three-quarters of the world’s 260,000 philanthropic Foundations, usually endowed by a single private benefactor or business, were started in the last 25 years. Together they give annually $150 billion from their overall holding of $1.5 trillion though only 10% of the very rich give sums even remotely commensurate with their wealth. While nations agonise about their GDP, this neglected economic reality is worth more than a cursory glance.
Vallely, like a judge clarifying the defence and prosecution cases for a jury, takes the reader through the ethical challenges and strategic issues raised by philanthrocapitalism and the utilitarian calculations of the school of ‘effective altruism’ concerned with what is the most efficient way of responding to poverty. Throughout the book Vallely is concerned to maintain a balance between the charitable giving of time and modest amounts of money by the ‘little platoons’, the response from below, the philanthropy of the heart, and the contribution from the commanding heights of philanthropy, the billionaire captains who prioritise value for money, technological fixes and massive mobilisation, the philanthropy of the head. Wisely he uses this binary opposition sparingly since the distinction between these two kinds of philanthropy is becoming less clear.
Influencing the role of governments in poverty alleviation, for example retaining our 0.7% of GDP commitment to development aid, NGO advocacy, is also a philanthropic endeavour. Vallely probes the merits of trying to get any government to meet their responsibilities to provide adequate health and educational systems for their citizens, and to reduce inequality. Should philanthropy help people to exert effective pressure on governments to defeat national or global poverty and for other worthy aims which may concern them? Does such lobbying provide a longer term solution than simple financial support from the different kinds of civil society organisations? No simple answers. Effective advocacy can promote the transmission of innovative measures to Ministries where political decisions are taken. But the Koch brothers one of the ‘big platoons’ poured millions into think-tanks and pressure groups blocking effective action against climate change and promoting measures which protected their profits from the oil industry.
Context is everything. Training Ugandans to promote social justice during the reign of Idi Amin, for example, would have been training for an early death. In Hungary where democracy is eroding, Prime Minister Viktor Orban rewarded Warren Buffet’s promotion of the ‘Open Society’ by shutting down his European University. NGO support for Gordon Brown to reduce child poverty in the UK and for Tony Blair to make the G8 meeting in Gleneagles in July 2005 a Summit on poverty in Africa, and to leverage debt relief, worked a treat. Though the impact of Bono and Geldof’s Live 8 concerts around the world and their face-to-face lobbying was critical, a prime example of ‘celebrity philanthropy’. The question is what sort of government is it before deciding on what to do to make things better.
Finally Vallely builds on his early chronological chapters about charity in the Middle Ages and does a little advocacy himself; he champions the tradition of religious giving. He puts it in the category ‘reciprocal philanthropy’: at its best “rooted in relationship, mutuality and partnership…focussed on people rather than product…process-driven rather than results oriented”. This approach reappeared in the Victorian charitable benevolence of public benefactors such as Angela Burdett-Coutts, so revered by the London poor that her name became Cockney rhyming slang for ‘boots’. The ‘little platoons’ retain the tradition today. The bigger ones can learn from it.
The relevant moral attitude for reciprocal philanthropy is solidarity, a term much used on the Left and by NGOs, what Pope John Paul II described as “not a feeling of vague compassion or shallow distress at the misfortunes of others” but “a firm and persevering determination to commit oneself to the common good… because we are all really responsible for all”. Catholic, humanist, socialist or not, that’s the best description of what philanthropy should be all about.
See TheArticle "Faith, Ethics & the Meaning of Philanthropy" 16/11/20
Britain, an island nation with a population density of 275 people per square kilometre and a population of 67 million, has passed one million COVID infections resulting in over 50,000 deaths. Taiwan, an overcrowded island nation off the coast of China with 671 people per square kilometre and a population of over 23 million, has recorded 553 cases and seven deaths. It hasn’t had a ‘domestic infection’ (locally transmitted) for six months. Why the huge difference?
Three main agencies combat the spread of the virus around the world: the State itself, its health system and its citizens. The State introduces measures to inhibit spread with more than an eye to protecting the economy from collapse. Health systems vary according to the role an insurance provision plays in them. But, without coercion — as in China’s authoritarian surveillance state — these measures will only be effective if citizens believe them to be necessary and find it financially feasible to comply. Looked at from another perspective, particularly before a vaccine is found, the intangible qualities of ‘social capital’ and confidence in government are as important as ‘the science’ and the capacity of the health care system to respond effectively to the pandemic.
“The big lesson from Asia”, Will Hutton wrote in a typically thoughtful piece in The Observer (1st November) “is that communitarian, more equal societies have the social capital…” - that allows them to mitigate and curtail the pandemic. He is not comparing authoritarian regimes with democratic societies and regimes. South Korea, for example, a functioning democracy with a population density of 511 people per square kilometre, with 13 million citizens fewer than UK, has recorded only 25,000 cases and 434 deaths at the time of writing.
True, some of the Asian countries Hutton highlights, such as Singapore, have an authoritarian past with some of its characteristics still remaining, and it’s true they derived valuable lessons from the 2002-2004 SARS outbreak. It’s also true that they achieved greater economic success than the UK. Is there something in the Asian cultures, perhaps trust in and respect for authority and for the old, perhaps appreciation of the tangible improvements in standards of living, or perhaps that the Enlightenment played a lesser role in their intellectual history, or even that capitalism arrived relatively fast and late compared with Europe which nurtures social cohesion? Hutton’s emphasis on equality and a communitarian spirit in civil society is worth serious consideration.
“We are intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich”, Peter Mandelson told executives in Silicon Valley in 1999, adding “provided they pay their taxes”. It was the heyday of New Labour. Twelve years later in the midst of Tory austerity measures post-banking crisis, Mandelson began recanting. In 2016 inequality emerged as the parent of BREXIT. But corporate executives are still on the whole filthy rich and aggressively deploy clever tax experts for tax avoidance. Now COVID infections are known to occur disproportionately, and shamefully, amongst the poor, no political party ought to be intensely relaxed about inequality and its impact on deaths from infections.
Governments whether in Asia or Europe play a role in encouraging or undermining social values. Margaret Thatcher’s assertion that there was no such thing as society only families and individuals bettering themselves through hard work heralded a distinct rise in elbows-out individualism and shameless greed. The present Prime Minister’s chosen mode of greeting since his infection, bumping elbows instead of shaking hands, is strangely appropriate. His repeated, almost plaintive appeals, ‘we are all in this together’, only highlights the reality that we aren’t; it is mainly the poor, the aged and the sick who face sickness and premature death.
‘You get the government you deserve’ is by definition more true than false in a democracy. A government that is basically reactive to its own baying back-benches and to upsurges of public anger on neuralgic issues, like the recent schools dinner fiasco, loses public trust. Our culture retains a strong sense of social responsibility towards children, especially if they are sick, hungry, abused or disabled. Even a three-year old knows that “one rule for us, one rule for them’, is unfair, is wrong. And when coupled with a belief that the private sector will invariably make a better job of things than the public, and after months of ignoring local government, public respect for national government evaporates. The practical steps to control the virus require a communitarian mind-set. But the necessary set of values to control COVID are a bad fit with individualism, let alone Johnson’s libertarianism. Thinking that freedom means doing whatever I want when I want becomes disastrous when the health of whole populations is at stake.
Does the communitarian spirit to which Hutton attributes success in the face of COVID, inevitably erode when leadership is weak and vacillating and trust in government is fading? Sadly, it seems to be so. The COVID second wave is evoking less public-spiritedness than the first. Though the faith communities have kept going feeding and helping the poor much as they have always done. The clapping has stopped. Self-assertion is expressed in the rise in speeding offences, increase in alcohol consumption and a cavalier attitude amongst some to social distancing. “We are losing our cherished freedoms”, cry the Tory back-benches.
Catholicism and Islam for historical reasons both sit towards the communitarian end of a line that has individualism at the other end. This can have its obvious downsides: conformity through inertia, defensive tribalism, ‘it’s God’s Will’ fatalism. But faith communities can also have vital insights into the changes, values and future structure of society and economy that will sustain the communitarian spirit and bring about social justice. These are not eccentric ideas outside the mainstream of political thinking. Will Hutton’s secular insights last week tally with Pope Francis’ concept of ‘social friendship’ in his recent encyclical Fratelli Tutti. As the Asian examples Hutton provides testify, this is not pie-in-the-sky utopianism, it is a matter of life and death during this pandemic. Do we, though, have the ability and humility to learn from the best in other cultures and ways of living?
See TheArticle 05/11/2020 "How can we learn from other cultures?"
“Pope Francis warns us against this phony populism that appeals to the basest and most selfish instinct. He goes on to say politics is more noble than posturing, marketing and media spin. These sow nothing but division, conflict and bleak cynicism…”
President- Elect Jo Biden
A month ago in Assisi Pope Francis launched his third encyclical Fratelli Tutti. It opens by explaining the significance of the title. “With these words St. Francis of Assisi addressed his brothers and sisters and proposed to them a way of life marked by the Gospel”. The Pope is undertaking the same endeavour for today’s world .
Francis was prompted by discussions in Abu Dhabi with the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar University, Cairo, Ahmed al-Tayyeb, which resulted in a joint document on fraternity in February 2019. Timely? Serendipitous? At a time of global pandemic Fratelli Tutti is much more than that.
Most people would agree that 2020 is a major historic turning point. Coronavirus has exposed the failure of contemporary political practice to engage with present reality and the limitations and dangers of how we live in the world with each other (one broad definition of politics). Pope Francis’ letter is long but, compared to most Vatican documents, easy to read though it does take time to digest. Its timing, in the midst of a global crisis, may spur people who are not Catholics to read it and consider what it says.
The world’s a stage on which national leaders strut, too often little people facing big problems by creating bigger ones. By coercing or manipulating their own citizens, the worst turn politics into a vehicle for furthering their own interests, power, and wealth. The corollary to this bleak picture is the commonly expressed opinion that politicians are ‘all the same’, ‘all liars’, ‘all in it for themselves’. It’s not true. But even the word ‘politics’ has become a pejorative term. This has encouraged a fatalistic retreat into private life. Fratelli Tutti is a powerful call to hope and public action.
The Pope’s begins his letter by focusing on values, communication and relationships. Politics, he writes, “often takes forms that hinder progress towards a different world”. “Political life no longer has to do with healthy debates about long-term plans to improve people’s lives and to advance the common good, but only with slick marketing techniques primarily aimed at discrediting others”. Inspired by the great 13th. century Dominican theologian, St. Thomas Aquinas, for whom the purpose of politics is the promotion of justice and the common good.
Francis’ aim is to promote the values and virtues that will create a “better kind of politics”. But the internal structure of the letter comes from a different no less venerable source, St. Augustine, the North African 4th. century bishop of Hippo, his reflections on the collapse of the Roman Empire. Augustine describes living in two worlds, what he called the Earthly City and the City of God; two different but interwoven mind-sets and milieux, with all humanity living in tension between them. Pope Francis describes how he sees these two cities today in a trenchant critique of populism and neo-liberalism and, implicitly, communism. In an encyclical that does not lend itself to headlines, the gulf he portrays between the two cities is more shocking than the openness and gentleness of his style at first suggests.
The encyclical rests on the Catholic concept of the Common Good, how to live with and for others to achieve the fulfillment of all people and ‘the whole person’. The ‘universal destination of goods’ is not a slogan for Amazon’s marketing. It’s Catholic code for saying that the ‘goods of creation’ are meant for all humanity not just the rich. In the 1992 edition of the Catholic catechism private property is to be recognized by the State for the purpose of supporting the common good. It is a secondary natural right. St. Ambrose, a 4th century bishop of Milan, put it more bluntly: "You are not making a gift of what is yours to the poor man, but you are giving him back what is his. You have been appropriating things that are meant to be for the common use of everyone. The earth belongs to everyone, not to the rich”.
In Francis’ usual warm and simple style, and in contrast to the Vaticanese of early social encyclicals, Fratelli Tutti sets out a comprehensive and comprehensible account of traditional Catholic social teaching. He also develops some of its fundamental ideas. Damaging, or in Christian terms sinful, systemic economic and social structures that create injustice were discussed in synods of bishops in the 1970s. Apartheid would be a good example of such a system where individuals are not necessarily fully responsible for the suffering caused by legal, economic or social structures. But, internally, there was anxiety that ‘structural sin’ might undermine the Church’s emphasis on individual sinful acts -for which each person is responsible - and, for Catholics, acts or thoughts that required sacramental confession.
Pope Francis refuses any sharp binary division between the individual and the social as expressed in extreme forms of individualism, libertarianism, or in communism. His vision is communitarian and he emphasizes personality-in-relationship. “Each of us is fully a person when we are part of a people; at the same time, there are no peoples without respect for the individuality of each person". This enables him to talk about solidarity and, uniquely, ‘social friendship’ his terms for linking change in structures and change of heart, for example towards migrants drawing on the parable of the Good Samaritan, the alien outsider pleasing to God, and moving from a ‘culture of walls’ to ‘a culture of encounter’.
In a letter which discusses peace-making, nationalism and war, inter-religious dialogue, and the impact of technology, Francis queries whether just war theory is still applicable in the 21st.century, and re-iterates the Church’s condemnation of the death penalty. His references to eleven Bishops’ Conferences around the world reflect the reality of a global Church and the beginning of the end for the old Roman Eurocentric model. But he fails to deal adequately with gender equality. As in his second encyclical Laudato Si about responsibility for the planet, the Pope is again addressing all people who ‘share our common home’ whom he wants seen and treated as brothers and sisters. But the sisters have cause to question why not one of the nearly 300 citations in the footnotes of Fratelli Tutti is from a female authority or theologian.
Fratelli Tutti offers a powerful global vision of a moral map of the world, what life, politics and society should be like. Criticism has tended to focus on lack of practical proposals for implementing its radical teaching. Describing a political vision as utopian is usually a way of closing down the conversation. On the contrary, the reconciliation of the ideal with the real is simply the dynamic of working for justice. As we watch a global pandemic undermine a world of secular certainties, and see societies debilitated by conflicts, the Pope’s message is plainly one to which we should listen. As President-Elect Jo Biden said “Pope Francis asked questions that anyone who seeks to lead this nation should be able to answer”.
See TheArticle 19/10/2020
A second perceptive letter from a friend in Oregon:
“Well, here’s hoping it’ll be all over soon. Biden has been doing his best to steer a delicate path between Progressives who would like 'Medicare for All' and moderates/independents who have no desire to lose their existing insurance, rotten and expensive though it might be. The real issue is will the Democrats be able, come the time, to implement any of their policies?
The first obstacle is that the Democrats need to win four additional Senate seats to take control - not so easy when you realize how skewed is Senate representation. Wyoming, with a population of less than one million, and other rural small states, is given two Senators to elect as does California with a population of just under 40 million, so the more urbanized States which typically support federal government programs are grossly under-represented. And not all Senate seats are up for election this year; senators serve for six years. If Republicans retain control of the Senate, under majority leader Mitch McConnell, then we are looking at another four years of gridlock and blocked legislation. So watch the states of Arizona, Colorado, Maine and North Carolina for election results.
The second obstacle is far worse, though slow acting. It's called the Supreme Court. In what I call a normal country, parliament debates and passes legislation which then becomes the law of the land; if you, the voter, do not like this legislation then, when the time comes, throw out the representatives and elect a different set. It is often said the ability to do just that gives democracy the edge over any other political system.
Unfortunately, in the U.S. it does not work that way because of the Constitution. An excellent example is the precarious fate of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), otherwise known as Obama Care. This health care insurance legislation was originally passed by the Democrats, after a huge struggle (won by one vote in the Senate). It benefits at least 20 million people by enabling them to have subsidized insurance and get medical care. After the Senate passed into Republican hands there were many efforts (about 50 attempts) made to repeal the law. John McCain, dying from a brain tumor a couple of years ago, once saved the ACA by voting against his Republican colleagues.
The ACA survived, although somewhat modified by the removal of something known as the individual mandate. Everyone lacking health insurance (any kind, private, public, whatever) had to pay a small fee to help support the costs of this provision. Congress cancelled this unpopular mandate.
Then certain Republican states which did not want to expand Medicaid, the program for the really poor, took the informal mandate to the courts claiming it was unconstitutional and won. How can that be? Article 1 of the Constitution, section 8, defines federal powers at some length: Congress can collect taxes, coin money, build roads, and establish rules for naturalization and so on, lots of good stuff. However, you will not be surprised to learn that this venerable document does not mention the regulation of health care insurance. The power to do this if you are a constitutional Originalist (a judge who holds that all statements in the constitution must be interpreted based on the original understanding "at the time it was adopted”) therefore devolves to the States. Chief Justice John Roberts saved the ACA a few years ago by declaring that the mandate is the same as a tax so falls under Article 1. But with the mandate eliminated, that argument is no longer valid.
All Democrats and fair thinking people are outraged by Trump’s recent nomination of Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court since Mitch McConnell refused to even consider Merrick Garland nominated by Obama nine months before the 2016 elections. Now a Republican Senate have used Trump’s last days to push Barrett onto the Supreme Court, replacing the progressive Ruth Bader Ginsberg, because they had the votes to do it.
Why do we care? Because Barrett is a dedicated conservative and, like her mentor Judge Scalia, an Originalist and a Textualist (someone who ignores the intention of the law, the problem it was intended to remedy, or significant questions regarding former legal judgements), so if the original document of 1787 does not mention a particular power of the federal government, then it doesn't exist, does it? The Senate held four days of hearings with Barrett but it was pretty pointless because she refused to give her views on anything, including previously decided cases. This got tedious: all the non- answers were along the lines of "I can't say because somebody might predict how I would rule". And, of course, she refused to express any views on climate change, which she described as a controversial political question.
I think you get the general picture: her conservative views will also be expressed in opposition to LBGTQ rights, environmental legislation etc. Her appointment to the Court will solidify a conservative majority of 6-3. The situation for Biden and the Democrats (if they win both houses) might be compared to that of Roosevelt in the 1930s when he was struggling to enact progressive legislation such as social security.
How did we end up in this situation? Congress has become very dysfunctional and has hardly passed any legislation in the past four years, apart from Trump's big tax cut. The Constitution (Article 1, section 8) states quite clearly that Congress shall "make all laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying into Execution the foregoing Powers". Yet it seems increasingly that Congress prefers not to make any laws and wait for the courts to decide critical issues such as gay marriage or immigration laws. There always exists a large minority of people or organizations who prefer to file a court case when they are unhappy with some outcome. This is not a happy way to run a country.
Personally, I think the social networks such as Facebook and Twitter share much of the blame. It used to be that opposing political sides got together informally, breakfast meetings, and hammered out some compromise about pending legislation. That useful activity does not occur anymore, because the mere fact that somebody was talking to the other side would get out and there would be cries of rage from the extremists on both sides.
Is anything fixable? It would take very radical action and a willingness to enact another couple of Amendments to the Constitution. State’s Electors in the Electoral College matter more than the popular vote for President in the election. They should be abolished as an anachronistic relic from the 18th century. Can you imagine, presidential candidates hardly visit, or care about, the issues of California's nearly 40 million people while they go to Ohio twice a week? The Senate composition should be changed to more closely represent the size and population of each state. For example, each state gets one Senator plus an additional number of Senators based on the size of the state.
P.S. I may send you a print copy of the Constitution, courtesy of the Oregon Historical Society”.
See also TheArticle 'Biden's Two Big Obstacles' 02/11/2020