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Book Review: Philanthropy - Can the rich save the world?

  • Ellen Teague

Ellen Teague

Ellen Teague

This has to be the weightiest book I have ever reviewed at more than 700 pages, and the length is the reason I have delayed reading. However, Christmas and New Year is a good time to look into altruism, and there can be no better resource than Paul Vallely's 'Philanthropy: From Aristotle to Zuckerberg'. There is no surprise that this book, which is nothing short of a 'magnus opus', is the result of five years of research.

Clearly, philanthropy - private initiatives for the public good - is a complex issue, interweaving all manner of motivations and intentions, personal and social, political and economic. We hear that both altruism and egoism are at work in philanthropy.

We learn of the scale of wealth of the world's richest people and the philanthropy of some of them. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation alone has a bigger budget than 70 percent of the world's nations. I was surprised how few of the super-rich donate substantial wealth - around nine percent - and those that do get perks out of it, from privileged access to tickets for prestigious events to having a major say on the boards of charities and even at the highest level political gatherings.

A fascinating chapter, 'Survival of the Fattest' starts with a focus on Andrew Carnegie, the rags-to riches philanthropist who was the wealthiest man in the world in the late nineteenth century. Yet, he once said, "he who dies rich, dies disgraced". Carnegie eventually gave away some $350 million, the bulk of his wealth, but it was built on ruthless tactics such as cutting the wages of his steelworkers to increase profits. He built a network of nearly 3,000 libraries and other institutions to help the poor elevate their aspirations, but social justice was absent from his agenda. Then, as now, wealth was concentrated in the hands of a few, almost completely untouched by tax and regulation. Carnegie and his associates, their critics say, neglected the great ethical question of the day, which centred on, "the distribution rather than the redistribution of wealth". Paul asks, "can epic acts of benevolence ever compensate for a lifetime of callous exploitation?"

There was a change in thinking with the founders of the Quaker confectionary companies: Cadbury's, Fry's, and Rowntree's. During the Victorian era, the popularity of chocolate catapulted the three Quaker confectioners into public prominence and they adopted innovative approaches to business. George and Richard Cadbury believed that benevolence was a quality that should inform the whole way a good life is led. They built houses, parks and recreation centres in Bourneville, Birmingham, so that their workers had comfortable accommodation away from city smog. Quaker employers also pioneered pension schemes and lobbied for improved labour laws. They founded charities and philanthropic foundations that continue today. Yet, they realised that philanthropy on its own cannot deliver social justice.

I found myself most fascinated by the sections about today's philanthropists. Philanthropy, it is popularly supposed, transfers money from the rich to the poor. However, in the US barely a fifth of the money donated by big givers goes to the poor. Much goes to the arts, sports teams and other cultural pursuits, and half goes to education and healthcare. The biggest donations in education in 2019 went to the elite universities and schools that the rich themselves had attended. In the UK, in the 10-year period to 2017, more than two-thirds of all millionaire donations - £4.79bn - went to higher education, and half to just two universities: Oxford and Cambridge. When the rich and the middle classes give to schools, they give more to those attended by their own children than to those of the poor. British millionaires in that same decade gave £1.04bn to the arts, and £222m to alleviating poverty.

Much elite philanthropy is about elite causes. It is always an expression of power and giving is often based on the personal whims of super-rich individuals. The philanthropy of Microsoft's Bill Gates has brought huge advances in tackling Malaria, for example, and his knowledge of health threats led him to warn prophetically in 2015 about the dangers of viral pandemics. However, many radical grassroots groups based in the global south question the unaccountability of his power. They suggest there has been an overwhelming focus on developing and promoting new vaccines at the expense of supporting local public health systems. Also, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has invested heavily in genetically modified organism (GMO) research and advocated for genetically modified crops - also a favourite beneficiary of the Sainsbury family - over local agroecology practices to meet food security goals. Indian ecologist Vandana Shiva has challenged "philanthro-imperialism" and said in 2019 that "industrial agriculture is inefficient, unproductive, creates dependency on corporations for eternal inputs, and dependency on global supply chains which impose uniformity on farms."

Paul explores the argument that public goods and services should remain within democratic institutions. The Global Policy Forum, an independent policy watchdog that monitors the work of the United Nations general assembly, warned in 2015, about, "the unpredictable and insufficient financing of public goods, the lack of monitoring and accountability mechanisms, and the prevailing practice of applying business logic to the provision of public goods". Perhaps philanthropists' money might be put to better use if it was collected as taxes and spent according to the priorities of a democratically elected government. In which case, Paul reflects, should the state be giving tax relief to philanthropists at all? The Facebook empire, for example, is one of the top five tech companies in the UK that avoided £1.3 billion in tax in 2018. Paul suggests that, "if Mark Zuckerberg wants to demonstrate the moral seriousness of his philanthropism he should pay more tax." Disposal of power should go alongside disposing of wealth.

A 2017 report by Oxfam called 'An Economy for the 99%' highlighted the injustice and unsustainability of a world suffering from widening levels of inequality: for since the early 1990s, the top 1% of the world's wealthy people have gained more income than the entire bottom 50%. Oxfam's report places the blame firmly with corporations and the global market economies in which they operate. Some kinds of philanthropy may have become not just undemocratic, but anti-democratic. Charles Koch and his late brother, David, are undoubtedly the most prominent example of rightwing philanthropy at work, with the secret funding of climate denial groups by Koch industries. Should philanthropists have so much power to advance their own vision of a better society?

A chapter on celebrity philanthrophy drew heavily on Paul's insights into Bob Geldof's outlook after accompanying him to Africa following the success of LiveAid. He admires how pop stars Geldof and Bono both informed themselves of the structural injustices within the issue of international debt and trade. And yet, he also documents the unease that celebrities were heard at the G8 summit in Gleneagles in July 2015 at the expense of voices from the global south. As one of the half a million people attending 'Make Poverty History' in Scotland a decade earlier who could find only Geldof being interviewed on the television news that evening, I am sympathetic to this, but undoubtedly celebrities helped make Jubilee 2000 in particular the success that it was. Geldof explained to Paul that he has continued his commitment over more than three decades, "because it works".

Of course, Jubilee 2000, Make Poverty History and today's Climate campaigns have a backbone of support from the churches. Church altruism goes back a long way: from Saints Basil the Great and Ambrose in the fourth century talking about almsgiving being redemptive, to Thomas Aquinas endorsing charitable outreach, to the growth in the Caritas network in the 1980s, to Pope Francis calling climate stability a common good and urging action to protect it. Work towards social, economic and environmental justice is firmly on the agenda of the churches. Fossil fuel disinvestment, for example, is a growing area for Christian campaigning, along with positive impact investing in such areas as renewable energy, which will first help poor communities most impacted by a warming world.

The very first question in the book is, "Can the rich save the world?"

There are more philanthropists than ever before, giving tens of billions annually to charitable causes. So how come inequality keeps rising? Paul suggests that fears are growing amongst the super-rich that further growth in inequality, "could lead to the kind of anti-capitalist unrest which might threaten the social order to such a degree that could render philanthropy quite irrelevant." He urges them to abandon top-down initiatives and pet projects and think afresh - forging partnerships with one another, with governments, with the business sector and with communities at the grassroots.

Paul's long-term experience of justice and peace networks, knowledge of the architecture of philanthropy, considerable writing skills and perception have made him the perfect person to write this fascinating book.

Philanthropy: From Aristotle to Zuckerberg
Tablet bookshop price £25 Tel 020 7799 4064


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