Don’t shoot the philanthropist

Beth Breeze

It is time to disentangle critiques of philanthropy from critiques of wealth and inequality

Rutger Bregman: ‘stupid philanthropy schemes’. Credit: Marla Aufmuth/TEDRutger Bregman: ‘stupid philanthropy schemes’. Credit: Marla Aufmuth/TED

When the Dutch historian Rutger Bregman talked about ‘stupid philanthropy schemes’ during his now-famous appearance at Davos in 2019, he was making a much broader point about the damage being done by unrestrained capitalism, tax avoidance, and prioritising profits over people. Yet the resulting spotlight has shone most intensely upon the practice of philanthropy. As a result, elite philanthropy has become emblematic of wider concerns about wealth and inequality, resulting in the curious situation that large philanthropic donations spark a debate about the merits of capitalism whereas buying a superyacht does not.

Given the evident diversity of both donors and the causes supported by philanthropy, a simple, unqualified characterisation of philanthropy as either a cause or effect of inequality is reductive and misleading.

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