Is Hi-net worth philanthropy good for our society?


They say a rich man’s joke is always funny and his/her ideas for public issues are always spot on. I say a rich man’s (policy) ideas are not always good for everyone.

Many a time, actually, a rich philanthropist / giver’s ideas can actually work against public good.

Don’t believe me?

Look at various examples in the recent past.  Bill Gates, Oprah Winfrey are the most visible ones, who have bungled through their philanthropic endeavors.

Their failures are framed as “lessons” to be learned, but never acknowledged as failures.

The current furore around firing of Harvard University President, Dr. Claudine Gay was also led by a Hi Networth donor, Bill Ackman, who has contributed millions of dollars to Harvard University.

Despite the “no-strings attached” claim that many donors make, there are usually strings attached and in times of ideological battles, such strings are pulled, as we have seen with the assault on Dr. Gay.

This follows a pattern of extremely wealthy people exerting undue influence over our public spaces and shared resources.

Be it healthcare, education, environment or a million other issues, the ultra-wealthy have always gotten politicians to do their bidding by a combination of lobbying, influence peddling in many ways or outright bribery.

This is not a new argument, but one that is just getting more attention, in the public sphere.

Let’s look at some famous examples of Hi-Networth giving, gone wrong.

Oprah Winfrey is a celebrity who has pursued philanthropy and has advocated for the idea of “pulling one’s self from the bootstraps,” a noble idea that has some basis in reality, at the individual level, but as a social policy, it falls short of offering a valid model for building public policies.

Tying welfare to full time work is a flawed policy idea that has been pushed by many rich donors. We see this played out during the past few decades, across the U.S. Some scholars have also pointed out that this is tied to the Protestant work-ethic that has continued to shape American cultural landscape and our understandings of who is deserving of wealth and welfare.

As this article in the Guardian points out, Oprah has pushed hard against social welfare policies. This in itself is dangerous, as SNAP and other welfare programs are the life-line that can mean the difference between eating and starvation for some desperately poor families. Oprah’s model of philanthropy and advocacy is problematic, in many ways.

The author, Priyamvada Gopal says “Endless consumption is encouraged by personal recommendations and lavish freebies from iPods to jewellery. At the same time, disciples can practice tasteful austerity with “debt diets” reminding us that “we are all responsible for everything that happens to us”. The poor, too, are responsible both for their condition and for overcoming it. Buying things for the deserving poor – and Winfrey is clear that they are not all deserving – must be seen as “giving them bootstraps”.

Some of her critics point to her alignment with political philosophies such as Bill Clinton’s “war on poverty,” and his 1996 welfare reforms, which further reduced government spending on welfare.  Here’s an NPR report on how these reforms hurt, rather than help the poor.

Gopal further points out that “Her grand philanthropic acts, such as the failed experiment to move 100 Chicago families into private housing during Bill Clinton’s “welfare reform” efforts, are accompanied by politically welcomed criticism of public assistance as dependence. Yet as psychologist Bruce Levine notes, it is precisely “fundamentalist consumerism” which destroys self-reliance. Winfrey has been justifiably accused by activists of “reinforcing the US war on the poor” by blaming victims.”

Good intentions and PR can only go so far – if the solutions proposed are not rooted in the reality of the recipients or their circumstances.

Bill Gates giving is also mired in several problems. For one, his philanthropy is seen by many in the global south as interfering with the local policies – be it in public health or agriculture. This headline “Bill Gates should stop telling Africans what kind of agriculture Africans need,” tells you the kind of reception his policies have had.

The Scientific American article points to the fact that Bill Gates and his foundation promote Genetically Modified (GM) crops, while a vast majority of Africans have advocated for non-GMO crops. The authors say “ In contrast, the Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa (AFSA), which represents more than 200 million farmers, fishers, pastoralists, indigenous peoples, women, consumers and others across all but five African countries, holds that agroecology is what our continent needs. Small-scale, ecofriendly cultivation methods using indigenous knowledge and inputs and cutting-edge science increase the variety, nutritive value and quantity of foods produced on farms while stabilizing rural economies, promoting gender equity and protecting biodiversity.” The authors point out that GM crops are promoted, as they benefit multi-national corporations, rather than promoting indigenous methods of growing crops. The goal seems to be, to promote these companies, rather than to help Africans, as they claim.

Both Winfrey and Bill Gates have positioned themselves as “experts” on education and tried to interfere with the public-school systems, often attacking them and influencing policies – that reduce funding to public schools. At a time when public school teachers are struggling to make ends meet and are quitting the profession in droves, what we need is MORE funding in public education system, not less.

  So, are all celebrities bad? Is all Hi Networth giving harmful for public good? Not really. There are hundreds of thousands of individuals doing good with their money – educating people, helping in emergencies and being good stewards of the wealth given to them. There are as many good uses of money as there are mis-uses.

 In the field of philanthropic studies, there is also the criticism of how these rich people got rich, and the need for critically examining the structures that make them rich. That is a separate debate, that we can deal with, separately.

  However, it would be wrong to characterize all Hi Networth giving as bad or ill-intentioned. There have been many recent ultra-wealthy people who have gone the extra mile to empower those who receive their money – either by giving unrestricted funding or by funding research and advocacy for causes and issues that they don’t know much about.

It does take either personal knowledge and experience of issues at hand or the humility to know that despite of one’s wealth, one may not have all the answers to the problems facing humanity.

There have been, in the recent past, many efforts to democratize philanthropy.

Giving circles, online fund raising platforms and the like are examples.

Here is Matt Damon’s defense of paying public school teachers and offering them more job security. He spoke openly about funding public school teachers and the need for tenure.

One of the reasons he was able to do that, genuinely and authentically: His mother was a public-school teacher.


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