Recently, I have been a part of several conversations that were genuinely wrestling with the question, “Is philanthropy actually a distraction from what is truly needed in our world and therefore harmful?” The argument goes something like this: “In order to lift people out of poverty, it would be better for those with wealth to exclusively invest their wealth back into capitalist pursuits therefore providing jobs and economic growth for the targeted population. Economic growth lifts people out of poverty, brings social good with it and therefore should replace philanthropy.”
I do believe there is truth in this argument. Far too often economic development and job creation in poverty stricken areas take a back seat while philanthropically fueled sincere but misguided pursuits create dependency rather than empowerment. I am all for correcting this.
A recent rise of books, articles and blogs has begun to shine a light on the many faux pas of modern philanthropy and aid in general. These voices are certainly a helpful corrective; however, there are some who as a result are beginning to question the very idea of philanthropy. They as a result propose that creating a robust market is almost exclusively what is needed to address society’s problems. There is a need to swing the pendulum, but to continue with the colloquialisms, let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater.
While balance is needed, I would argue that it is not so much the idea of philanthropy that is the issue but how we do philanthropy, with whom, for whom and to what end. There are obvious problems with the idea of throwing out philanthropy. Here are a few reminders, (not an exhaustive list), of what philanthropy can best do:
1. Provide relief. Disasters, famines, wars, disease and other humanitarian crises are an ever-present reality in our world and are not going away.
2. Advocate for and stand with exploited, vulnerable and/or voiceless populations (such as orphaned and vulnerable children).
3. Encourage development where infrastructure has collapsed or is corrupt. The suggestion to do away with philanthropy assumes that all markets are at least minimally viable and somewhat attractive for the amount of economic investment that is needed to prime the pump out of poverty. In many third world situations there are severe limitations on infrastructure and complications that are not easily remedied (regardless of where you stand on Sachs vs. Easterly divide). In the meantime, grinding poverty takes it’s toll.
4. Protect, nurture and guide the next generation. One assumption that must be made according to the above scenario is that creating jobs and wealth solves societies ills. Unfortunately the commercially exploited children of Cambodia or the restavek child servants of Haiti for whom my organization advocates would beg to differ.
5. Concentrate and/or convene the necessary resources to problem solve and bring solutions to humanitarian and/or environmental issues.
6. Fund pursuits that are intrinsically but not directly economically valuable such as faith and the arts.