Sunday, October 27, 2013

How Philanthropic Colonialism Feeds the System

Warren Buffett and his son Peter
Photo credit: Kevin Perry/Wireimages/Getty Images
Today is Monday, October 28, 2013.

Peter Buffett is a musician and composer who writes music for commercials, film and television. He's also an author and philanthropist.  He is the son of one of the richest men in the world: Warren Buffett.  Last July he wrote an op-ed piece for The New York Times that caused a great deal of discussion in certain circles, and made some very rich people very uncomfortable.  In the piece, he defined a phenomenon he called "philanthropic colonialism" as a tendency for the very rich to attempt to "save the day" in some way by donating large sums of money in such a way that the focus is on making the donor feel good, rather than on providing real solutions to social problems. 

Peter says he had never thought much about philanthropy until his father made good on a promise to give nearly all his accumulated wealth to charity to benefit society.  That was back in 2006.  One of the things Warren Buffet did at that time was to contribute money to some foundations that he and his wife had set up earlier, one for each of their children, with the expectation that the children would run the foundations.  Accordingly, Peter Buffett is co-chairman with his wife, Jennifer, of the NoVo Foundation, an organization which is dedicated to the transformation of global society from a focus on domination and exploitation to one of equality and partnership.  The foundation supports the development of capacities in people, both individually and collectively.  Specifically, they are working to educate and empower young girls, end violence against girls and women, teach boys and girls skills for cooperation and collaboration, and promote local living economies.

Peter says that the ways philanthropists have worked in the past are not really solving problems.  Philanthropists tried to transplant, wholesale, an idea or method that worked in one setting into a completely different setting, without regard for culture, geography, or societal norms.  The results were often unintended and regrettable.  More importantly, Peter says, big-money philanthropists are "searching for answers with their right hand that others in the room have created with their left."  In other words,  philanthropy does nothing to change the system of inequality whereby the rich get richer and the poor just keep on getting poorer.  Peter calls this "conscience laundering," and says that philanthropy is used to rationalize and justify making vast amounts of money by "sprinkling a little around as an act of charity."   Meanwhile, the recipients of the charity continue to be locked into a system that doesn't allow them to better themselves.  "As long as most folks are patting themselves on the back for charitable acts, we've got a perpetual poverty machine."

Did you know that between 2001 and 2011, the number of nonprofit organizations increased 25 percent, and that their growth now exceeds that of business and government sectors?  Approximately $316 billion was given away in 2012 in the U.S., alone.  More than 9.4 million are employed in the nonprofit sector.  That's one massive business!

Peter wrote, "Often I hear people say, 'if only they had what we have' (clean water, access to health products and free markets, better education, safer living conditions).  Yes these are all important. But no 'charitable' (I hate that word) intervention can solve any of these issues.  It can only kick the can down the road." 

According to Peter Buffett, money should be spent on projects that "shatter current structures and systems."  He says that people who work for nonprofits should think in terms of doing so much good that they do themselves right out of a job.  "It's time for a new operating system.  Not a 2.0 or a 3.0, but something built from the ground up.  New code," he says.  The key is "humanism," not materialism.  The goal is not for everyone to have more stuff, but for everyone to have a better quality of life.  New systems need to replace the old, and humans will need to learn new ways of behaving and relating to one another. He cites as an example of true progress "when no 13-year-old girl on the planet is sold for sex," or figuring out how all of humanity could "live on 2 dollars a day."   :-)

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