Philanthropy Isn’t Just Problematic – It’s Harmful

by Nathalie Olah

17 June 2020

Composite: Bill and Melina Gates, and Stacey Dooley

After protestors removed the statue of Edward Colston two weeks ago, defenders of the slave trader’s legacy piled in to raise the point about Bristol owing much of its cultural heritage to his philanthropic contributions. It wasn’t quite the gotcha they had hoped for. Rather than reifying Colston’s image as a generous benefactor, it served to highlight many of the more absurd aspects of philanthropy in general.

Like Jeffrey Epstein, who famously funded a whole plethora of scientific discoveries, Colston had also funded schools, almshouses, hospitals and churches. But in a climate where more and more people are becoming aware of the hypocrisies of empire, this could no longer serve to erase Colston’s part in the shipment in the 17th century of 80,000 men, women and children from Africa.

Unwittingly, the pro-statue, anti-anti-racism factions had served to highlight one of the most longest-standing and most urgent problems with the third sector. For starters, philanthropy has existed for centuries to provide positive PR to some of the greediest and most disreputable people on earth – not to mention, off-setting their tax liability. But there are many other harmful permutations of the charity model that now seem ripe for discussion.

In a tradition first pioneered by the likes of Du Bois and Foucault, historians and economists have long considered the idea that colonialism and global development are really two sides of the same coin, and that the former is certainly to blame for much of the poverty that the latter takes to be inevitable and only solvable through the extension of market logic. But on a domestic level, and not forgetting the fact that we now live in a society that the UN declared in 2018 to have been plunged into ‘great misery’ by Tory austerity, a similar dynamic is also at play.

It’s not just that charity of this sort presents a cosmetic fix for the ills wrought by capitalism. It’s that it is almost a pre-requisite and enabler of market logic. It is part and parcel of a neoliberal system whose injustices must necessarily be passed off as inevitable, or natural, for the sake of maintaining a veneer of a meritocracy, while carefully concealing the excesses and greed of its main profiteers. Whether it’s ending famine in sub-Saharan Africa then, or donating to food banks and mutual aid groups up and down the country, suffering is often framed by the charity sector not as a consequence of a financial system that necessarily creates losers, but a natural reality that can only be solved through the altruism of the generous father figure.

Mark Fisher accurately distils the phenomenon in his description of the Live 8 concerts organised by Bob Geldof, Bono and Richard Curtis – some of the more conspicuous philanthropists of recent times. In Capitalist Realism, Fisher’s seminal text on the stagecraft of neoliberalism, he writes:

“Live 8 was a strange kind of protest; a protest that everyone could agree with: who is it who actually wants poverty?… one of the successes of the current global elite has been their avoidance of identification with the figure of the hoarding Father, even though the ‘reality’ they impose on the young is substantially harsher than the conditions they protested against in the 60s. Indeed, it was of course the global elite itself – in the form of entertainers such as Richard Curtis and Bono – which organised the Live 8 event.

“The ideological blackmail that has been in place since the original Live Aid concerts in 1985 has insisted that ‘caring individuals’ could end famine directly, without the need for any kind of political solution or systemic reorganisation.”

The reconfiguration of the arch-capitalist into a generous benefactor serves to deny the urgent necessity of systemic change. Going beyond the obvious absurdity of this being presented by rich popstars and one-hit-wonders, it is also writ large in multi-billion-dollar entities such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the (slightly) smaller Clinton Foundations, specifically aimed at extending the logic of the market into the global south and making enterprises out of local trades and practices. In the constant march to corporatise communities that either lack the infrastructure, or the will, the veracity of these efforts is often dubious. Criticisms encircle the altruistic framing of allowing global corporations to replace local agriculture, for example.

But the harm doesn’t just stop there. As Professor Dylan Rodriquez has been keen to point out, philanthropy often perpetuates the notion of liberal white supremacy. Citing Robert L Allen’s book, Black Awakening on Capitalist America, he argues, “that it was precisely because of philanthropy’s overtures toward the [civil rights movement’s] more moderate and explicitly reformist elements – especially those advocating versions of ‘black capitalism’ and ‘political self-determination’ through participation in electoral politics – that radical black liberationists and revolutionaries were more easily criminalised and liquidated”.

Despite never actively seeking to dismantle the systems whose limitations it is designed to fix, the non-profit model of the third-sector often allows it to present as something more closely aligned to protest and social justice movements. It can therefore serve as something of a Trojan horse, preserving all of the assumptions and prejudices of the market, but in the more altruistic clothing of a caregiver.

In its tendency to conceal structural inequalities and their origins, philanthropy makes a hallowed figure of the white saviour, and a miscreant of anyone who does not comply with its objectives, which in Rodriquez’s case refers to the groups that actively resisted the prison-industrial-complex and its overwhelming oppression of black people. Like the civilising missions that were used to justify colonialism, philanthropy often exists to inculcate its subjects, not into Christianity as in previous centuries, but into a free-market system.

In preserving the logic of capitalism, and protecting the public image of those who have profited from its exploitative mechanisms, philanthropy and public displays of charity aren’t just problematic then, but can also be seen to be actively harmful. It is why, when a debate blew up a few years ago between TV presenter Stacey Dooley and MP David Lammy about the politics of celebrity charity drives, Dooley’s response seemed so naïve and offensive.

But the point is, that the awareness that needs to be raised isn’t about this terrible plight of poverty that has mysteriously gripped sub-Saharan Africa for centuries. It is about the exploitative mechanisms that allowed for that to happen, and allowed for someone like Dooley, and to a lesser extent myself and any other white relatively secure person living in the western hemisphere, to profit from it.

As the Black Lives Matter protests unfold, and awareness grows of the structural biases and histories that underscore these trends, noble intentions alone can not be given a free pass. Failure to engage with the historical and political dimensions of wealth distribution must necessarily become a taboo if we’re to have any hope of changing things for the better.

Nathalie Olah is a journalist and writer. Her book, Steal as Much as You Can, is available from Repeater.

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