Philanthropy is no get-out clause for immorality

Philanthropy is no get-out clause for immorality
Illustration by Daisy Harrison-Broninski, 2020

The current zeitgeist over statues in the wake of Black Lives Matter protests should serve as a warning to contemporary ‘philanthropists’, says Jake Smaje.

At the time of writing (the 8th June, 2020), the first sentence of the infamous Edward Colston’s Wikipedia page reads, “Edward Colston was an English merchant, slave trader, Tory member of Parliament, and philanthropist”. This combination of slave trader and philanthropist seems like a strange oxymoron that has become a polarising factor in the debates about his legacy after his statue was dropped into the Bristol quay during recent Black Lives Matter protests. The ability to be both an important part of a system of oppression and remembered for your benevolence leads to questions concerning the role of philanthropy within society, and the potential motivations behind it. 

Where charity aims to alleviate a problem, philanthropy is an action that seeks to address the causes of the problem. It has a long history, but for most invokes benevolent and powerful business leaders – in the modern day, people such as Warren Buffet, George Soros and Bill Gates. All three are arguably now as famous for their philanthropy as their business ventures. However, their business is not without controversy and has human costs, costs which are often not addressed by their philanthropy. Infamously, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation attempts to maximize return on its endowment, an approach which does not address the ethical considerations of investments. This leads to glaring inconsistencies, such as the Foundation having a $2.2 million investment in a company that profits from running private prisons in the US, some of which hold migrants. The source of wealth is inextricably linked to the cause it is spent on. Despite some inconsistencies in the sources of his foundations funds I don’t doubt that Bill Gates wants to change the world. I may disagree with the philosophy and methods of his, Soros or Buffet’s philanthropy, but I believe in their intentions to have an impact. 

There is, however, another type of philanthropist…

There is, however, another type of philanthropist, the type who consciously uses philanthropy to offset the immoral source of their wealth. A contemporary example is the Sackler family, whose company Purdue Pharma has been sued for their role in promoting opioid treatments that have led to the opioid epidemic in the United States. The family’s company continued to aggressively market opioids, such as Oxycontine, after admitting in court that they had misrepresented its addictive qualities. However, their name is still memorialised in institutions throughout the world, such as the Sackler library at the University of Oxford. While many institutions, such as The National Portrait Gallery and The Tate galleries, will not accept donations from the family, others will allow them to whitewash their name through association to famous and prestigious institutions. Academic libraries seem to be a fashionable choice for dubious philanthropy, another example being The University of Leeds naming their recently completed library the Laidlaw Library after the tax exile and donor Irvine Laidlaw. This association of one’s name with an institution is a way of creating a legacy, intertwining your name with its prestigious history.

Another way to ‘philanthropise’ your brand is to attach your name to a particular event. Jeff Bezos donated $100,000,000 to US food banks in response to the COVID-19 crisis, a seemingly eye wateringly large amount of money. It becomes a tiny sum when you consider that his estimated net worth increased by $32 billion between January and May of this year as a direct result of COVID-19 increasing the value of Amazon. He profited from COVID-19 and people’s isolation while getting reputational credit for a donation that, while huge, is small against the scale of the misery and fear that has recently spread across the globe. This is to say nothing of Amazon’s tax avoidance, lack of workplace safety, union busting and unfair trading practises against small businesses. Does $100,000,000 coming from the CEO of a corporation which has benefitted from a global crisis to the tune of $32,000,000,000 really allow them to purchase the term philanthropist? 

More than a just hobby of the wealthy, philanthropy becomes a branding exercise curated by PR executives. 

If you are part of the world’s ultra-wealthy class, philanthropy becomes an important tool in maintaining your personal brand. If you pay for a prestigious building at a top university, associate your name with the relief of an ongoing crisis or create an organisation which combines your name with some words that signify your virtue, such as The Tony Blair Institute for Global Change, then you can become a philanthropist lauded for your generosity with little investigation into how and why you became so powerful and wealthy in the first place. More than a just hobby of the wealthy, philanthropy becomes a branding exercise curated by PR executives. 

It seems that what is missing is a step that addresses motivation, that signifies an actual desire to change the world. If the Sackler family wanted to improve the livelihoods of people across the world they could withdraw OxyContin or recommend new guidance on its prescription, Laidlaw could pay his taxes and Jeff Bezos could change the business practises of Amazon. Instead, they memorialize their philanthropy in high profile spaces, while continuing damaging business practises elsewhere in their empires. Soros, Buffet and Gates should not be absolved of criticism, but their philanthropy is of an altogether different nature, and is often invested in social and technological innovations designed to address the root causes of problems. Alleged ‘philanthropy’ such as the Sacklers’, Laidlaw’s, or, historically, Colston’s, is instead just an act of PR set across a backdrop of immoral profiteering. 

The current tearing-down of statues should serve as a warning to contemporary ‘philanthropists’

Philanthropy should not absolve immoral legacies from criticism. This encourages insubstantial acts of philanthropy as an exercise in branding. The current tearing-down of statues should serve as a warning to contemporary ‘philanthropists’ hoping to capitalise on this. The plaque on Colston’s statue commemorated his philanthropy reading, ‘’Erected by citizens of Bristol as a memorial of one of the most virtuous and wise sons of their city AD 1895’’. For critics who feign worry about historical erasure as statues fall, I suggest a plaque should be placed above where Coulston rested at the bottom of the Bristol quay that reads ‘’Sunk here by the citizens of Bristol was one of Bristol’s wiliest sons, whose attempt at virtue failed to hide his atrocities AD 2020’’. This may just be the antidote needed to the dubious philanthropists of the future, and the present.


Jake Smaje works in data governance for a large INGO in the WASH sector and is the trustee of United Social Ventures, a livelihood charity in Uganda, having previously worked in a range of roles in the charity sector in Rwanda, Kenya and Bangladesh. Since completing his BA in History at the University of Leeds in 2016 with a specialism in African History, he’s held a continued interest in the political economy of the Global South.


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Evaluating Universal Basic Income

Evaluating Universal Basic Income

By Sara Dube

The concept of universal basic income has policymakers and influencers around the world hotly divided. Those in favour frequently have a clear argument centred on the claim that there is less need for traditional nine-to-five jobs due to the impact of automation on society, opening up time for people to pursue creative or entrepreneurial interests while being paid a certain amount of money by the government to cover their basic needs. Not only does the scheme reduce poverty by providing a minimum level of income to everyone, it also has the potential to increase levels of happiness and well-being in society as there is more time and flexibility to explore one’s genuine interests, potentially increasing economic productivity.

Those against the implementation of a basic income often deliver a polar opposite argument painting the idea as overly idealistic and impractical. They respond to the claim of poverty alleviation by emphasising the negative effect on taxpayers and on the government: not only does it place an immense burden on these stakeholders to pay for the basic income, it also draws money away from projects that are specifically targeted to increase the welfare of citizens, such as medical care, education or health insurance. There is no guarantee that everyone granted a basic income would spend it on such services, creating the potential for a downward spiral into lower productivity and poorer health if the money is used on substances such as alcohol or drugs. The claim that people will explore their entrepreneurship, and thus contribute to increased economic productivity, is dismissed as too unrealistic: again, not everyone may choose to invest their newfound free time in productive pursuits and many may choose to stop contributing to the economy and the rest of society altogether, devaluing community life for the promotion of more individualistic projects.

While the issue may seem like a relatively black-and-white one, it is crucial to consider the nuances that surround it – such as, for instance, the specific impact on women of the implementation of a universal basic income. A universal basic income would offer women who stay at home to raise children a minimum level of economic security, freeing them from dependence on their partners to earn a living wage and granting them economic security and independence. Instead of being perceived as ‘free money,’ a feminist point of view regards basic income in the context of it being paid to stay-at-home women as a reward for the unpaid work they do at home that, in the long run, contributes to society and to the economy by ensuring the upbringing of their children and the running of a household. It creates the perception of this work and this care for others as something with value and as something that deserves pay, as opposed to a wage-less, and thus value-less, job in a society that places so much importance on money. The implementation of a basic income would particularly benefit the situation of women stuck in unhealthy relationships where they are dependent on their partners to pay for their basic needs, thus removing a huge barrier that, in many cases, prevents women from leaving abusive relationships.

On the other hand, there are those that argue that a basic income would in fact act to the detriment of a woman’s position in society, encouraging more women to stay at home and widening the gender pay gap as women with lower qualifications would have less incentive to acquire the increased training and skills to find work on the job market. A particularly unique and in-depth perspective considers the impact specifically on migrant women, who are predicted to seemingly suffer the most under the implementation of a universal basic income scheme, as they will have less of an incentive than ever to find work, lowering the rate of their language acquisition, social mobility, and thus integration into the host society.

These perspectives indicate that a crucial factor in determining the success of a basic income scheme is the manner in which the society in which it is implemented will respond to the policy: in a society that has already achieved a high level of gender equality, the scheme would empower women in allowing them to use the money to more efficiently balance household with professional work. In a more patriarchal society, it could lead to further stifling of a woman’s potential in encouraging her more than ever to stay at home, as there might be less of an incentive to find work.

The best way to determine how a society will respond to the implementation of such a system is, quite simply, to conduct a trial, as was done in Finland. This project, in which 2,000 randomly selected unemployed Finns received 560 euros per month for a year, was ended after two years in order to explore alternative welfare schemes , despite reports of greater flexibility and less bureaucracy. Critics commented that the trial was far too narrow and took place over too short a time period.

This is not to say that a universal basic income would not work in any country – some see this policy as a tool for development, to be implemented in developing nations as opposed to developed ones such as Finland.  If it were to be provided in developing countries, it would have the potential to cover the basic needs of their citizens, leading to better nutrition and health with the population, if the income is used wisely. Eventually the beneficiaries of the program may rise above poverty to contribute to the program instead of being on the receiving end of it. This vision is, admittedly, an idealistic one that depends heavily on global cooperation in providing developing countries with the resources to be able to implement such a policy and in raising awareness amongst the general population on how to most effectively utilise the basic income.

Universal basic income is an idea that certainly has the potential to change the world, but its implementation is extremely nuanced and depends on several socioeconomic factors that must be taken into account before pronouncing a final judgement on its value.

 

Sara is an undergraduate reading Philosophy, Politics and Economics (PPE) at the University of Oxford. She is very interested in human rights and plans to pursue a career of law.

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