A matter of rights

Caroline Hartnell

I’m going to admit it, this has been a difficult issue to edit, mainly because most of the articles in the special feature went through several iterations. Why was this? Was it because the contributors were somehow less competent than usual? Of course not! I think it was because they were trying to pin down what exactly distinguishes social justice philanthropy from ‘other’ philanthropy, and this is no easy task.

Why are we doing this? Does it matter whether a funder is or isn’t really practising social justice philanthropy as long as they are helping the poor and marginalized? The obvious answer relates to root causes: we could be funding soup kitchens for ever if we don’t tackle the underlying causes of poverty.

Related to this is the issue of rights vs charity. Even if people are getting what they need, it’s better for them to have it as a right than as a handout. This is a matter of human dignity, of knowing you will continue to receive what you need, of not being dependent on the whims of those who hold the purse strings. Of course, a right can be denied, but there are at least grounds for resisting the denial.

This issue of rights is also the issue about who provides for people’s basic needs – state, business or philanthropy. It isn’t just an issue of effective use of resources, an empirical question of whether business-savvy philanthrocapitalists will make better use of limited resources than bureaucratic governments. What comes from the state can be seen as a right, enshrined in legislation – as long as the legislation is in place. What comes from philanthropists comes because they have chosen to give it.

Lucy Bernholz put this beautifully in a response to a comment on her Philanthropy 2173 blog: ‘Planned giving and philanthropic leadership are the need of the hour as many countries are crisis-ridden.’ ‘Sigh,’ went her response. ‘… I think it is a fallacy to equate anything you would describe as “crisis ridden” with “philanthropy” as a solution. Philanthropy is – by design – episodic, donor directed, temporal, fragmented, decentralized and disaggregated. Not what any people, society, institution, community should expect to be responsible in “crisis ridden” situations.’ 

No one should have to rely for their long-term basic needs on something that is by its very nature ‘episodic, donor directed, temporal, fragmented, decentralized and disaggregated’. No one can force foundations or philanthropists to act in a particular way over the long term. If we want to do that, we can tax the wealthy more. Social justice philanthropy doesn’t aim to meet people’s basic needs but to support marginalized groups to change the conditions that make them marginalized and to ensure that their long-term needs are met by the state as a matter of right. That’s why it matters that foundations and philanthropists should choose to practise philanthropy for social justice, and that they should get it right.

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