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
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