Philanthropy: a History. Kevin Watkins reviews a big new book

December 9, 2020

     By Duncan Green     

Guest post from Kevin Watkins

Have you ever wondered what links Bono and Bill Gates to Moses, Socrates, Basil the Great, a 4th Century AD bishop in Asia Minor, and the ‘gilded age’ industrialist Andrew Carnegie? Me neither. But Paul Vallely’s magisterial book Philanthropyprovides the answer. Tracing the ties that bind contemporary philanthropists to the Ancient world, the book raises questions that go to the heart of debates on international development, charitable giving, and social justice.

Vallely weaves a spell-binding chronicle of a long philanthropic journey stretching, as the sub-title suggests, ‘from Aristotle to Zuckerberg’. Weighing in at just under 800 pages (without the on-line footnotes), this is a hefty and meticulously researched tome. Luckily Vallely is an accomplished journalist as well as serious academic – and he has delivered an eminently readable insight into the social, cultural, and political history of philanthropy.

In the Greek and Roman world, where Vallely starts his story, the interests of the poor were something less than an afterthought. Aristotle saw philanthropy as a route to character development for the giver. Baser motives also figured. Xenophon (370 BC) lauded the emperor of Persia’s ‘philanthropic soul’, partly because it would diminish the threat of people plotting against him (note to self: remember that line next time you’re pitching for philanthropic support). Roman emperors spent lavishly on ‘bread and circuses’ to maintain their power, wealth and status – a hubristic tradition Anand Giridharadas and other critics argue digital billionaires have revived.

Enter Moses. For Judaism compassion towards the poor was a religious duty mirroring God’s own compassion, and associated strictures. The word tzedakah, which is used in the Torah to describe an act of giving to the poor, also carries a meaning of fairness and justice. Similarly, the Islamic tradition of zakat is grounded in religious obligation and social solidarity. But it fell to St. Basil the Great and his near contemporary Ambrose of Milan to codify and synthesise an approach to philanthropy that made giving to the poor a matter of honour, civic responsibility, and religious duty.

Vallely tracks the history of western philanthropy from Jesus the Jew, through Medieval Europe and the Reformation to the Victorian social reformers, and Quaker capitalism. There are some powerful recurrent themes. Is charitable giving a spiritual entry ticket for a good seat in the afterlife? Does it create dependency? What is the right balance between paternalistic action and the agency of the poor? Where does the responsibility of the state end, and the sphere of philanthropy start? Spoiler alert: there are no easy answers.

A key figure in Vallely’s story is the ‘gilded age’ philanthropist Andrew Carnegie. It was Carnegie, a Scot who settled in America and became the world’s richest man, who coined the phrase which has launched a thousand philanthropic blogs: ‘he who dies rich, dies disgraced.’ Taking time out from his core business activity of violating anti-trust laws, price gouging, busting unions, and bribing politicians, Carnegie spent lavishly on health commissions, public libraries, and recreation facilities, which he saw as the route to social mobility for the poor.

‘Gilded age’ philanthropy was defined, in Vallely’s account, by a profound rupture. Whereas earlier ideas on philanthropic giving were based on the idea of “a bond between those who give and those who receive,” Carnegie and others prescribed solutions based on their business instincts, whims, and priorities of rich individuals. It’s a small step from there to the 21st Century of generation Zuckerberg philathrocapitalism, which “see benevolence in terms of an investment targeted at a specific problem to which it can bring a specific solution.”

Rightly in my view, Vallely acknowledges the many positive aspects of solution-oriented philanthropy. Since 2000, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF) has catalysed health programmes which, on any credible metric, have vastly improved the human condition. Since 2000 its investments have contributed to the halving of deaths from malaria, the near eradication of polio, immunisation programmes delivered through Gavi that have saved 13 million lives, and the response to Covid-19.

‘Taking time out from his core business activity of violating anti-trust laws, price gouging, busting unions, and bribing politicians, Carnegie spent lavishly.’

There have, though, been some unintended consequences. Disease-specific investments have sometimes skewed resources away from the strengthening of health systems and universal health coverage. Last year I visited health clinics in Jigawa state, north-west Nigeria. Facilities were invariably well-stocked with anti-malarial kit and health workers had been trained to diagnose and treat malaria. By contrast, few facilities were equipped to diagnose or treat childhood pneumonia  – the leading cause of child mortality in Nigeria – and the misdiagnosis of pneumonia as malaria is common (often with fatal consequences).

Pneumonia is today simultaneously the biggest killer of children and the most neglected global public health challenge, partly because most of its victims are poor, but also because only universal health coverage with a focus on the most disadvantaged children would offer an effective response.

Some of Valley’s most potent fire is directed at the democratic deficit that comes with philanthropy. Charitable donations in the US and the UK enjoy extensive tax incentives. That matters because most philanthropic spending is geared not towards the poor, but elite institutions like Ivy League universities and private schools serving the very wealthy. The choices made by billionaire philanthropists are reinforcing inequalities with public finance, and without the public having any say in the matter.

Personally, I would like the book to have gone further in exploring the tensions between philanthropic charity and core business. Companies like Amazon, Facebook and Google have built business models which drive a concentration of wealth that might have embarrassed Andrew Carnegie, with tax levels that would impress authorities on the British Virgin Islands. During a pandemic year in which US unemployment and child poverty surged, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, secured a windfall increase of $70bn in his personal wealth.

Extreme inequality is actively undermining poverty reduction and the stated purposes of philanthropy. The antidote to that inequality is a wealth tax along the lines proposed for the US by the economists Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman.  The French government has been calling for international digital service taxes to circumvent the under-reporting of profits. Philanthropists concerned to advance social justice should be supporting such measures, not lobbying governments to obstruct them.

Valley offers a compelling vision for reform.  He wants philanthropy to ‘recover its lost soul’ by returning to the foundational principles of Reciprocal Philanthropy laid down by Jewish, early Christian and Islamic teaching and remembering “that the act of giving creates a three-way relationship between the giver, the receiver, and the society in which they live.” Harnessed to this ethical underpinning, Vallely believes, the business models and problem-solving drive of strategic philanthropy could deliver better results.

Critics might argue that this is a bit woolly, but I think Vallely is on to something important. Working in Save the Children, I’m often struck by the kindness, compassion, and humility of our philanthropic partners, and by the depth of their engagement with the communities they want to serve. They live the reciprocal philanthropy Vallely advocates. And let’s be honest: it’s not just billionaire philanthropists who need to dial down the ‘save the poor’ mind-set. International NGOs, aid donors, and UN agencies have a long history of hubristic narratives. Remember how we were going to halve poverty by doubling aid?

Philanthropy has a critical role to play. It can fill gaps left by government indifference or incompetence. When pharmaceutical markets fail to develop and deliver life-saving medicines, philanthropists can make a difference: witness the critical role played by philanthropists in the Covid-19 response. Some of the most effective philanthropy actively supports communities and social groups living with social injustice, human rights abuse, or discrimination.

Valley’s book provides an invaluable window on the complex world pf philanthropic practice, motivation, and achievement. There is plenty to fix in that world. But the charitable giving at its core is rooted – deeply rooted – in what it means to be part of a human community.

December 9, 2020
Duncan Green