Long-term thinkers, including in philanthropy, have been worried about the risks of a pandemic since long before Covid-19 broke out.
Jeff Skoll has famously focused on this issue for a decade, as has Bill Gates. In 2010, I was one of these philanthropists worried about the risk of a global pandemic. I was specifically concerned about the ability of diseases to spread rapidly through the reach of global aviation. I reached out to develop projects that would engage with the existing aviation regulation institutions to help prevent spread through travel. At the time, though, no institution was willing to take up the issue: the governments that supported the global governance systems didn’t have pandemic prevention as a priority, and the institutions were limited by their own individual mandates.
A decade later, the Covid-19 pandemic demonstrates just how fragile and unprepared our global responses were. This isn’t surprising when you consider the limitations of global institutions: modern global institutions of all kinds are creations of the state systems, and national governments remain the key actors in global governance. This means that global institutions are only subject to and limited by the incentives and pressures facing these national governments. Furthermore, governments often lack long-term planning and struggle with collective coordination. There’s a saying that in Washington, DC, ‘the definition of forever is until the next election.’ The relatively weak global institutions are also massively under-funded given their mandate. Former Australian Foreign Minister Gareth Evans pointed out that the budget of the entire core UN system was approximately that of the Tokyo city fire department.
Covid-19 shows us the dangerous limitations of this fragmented approach. Increasingly, challenges are becoming global and require global solutions. Unfortunately, the systems and structures we are building are inadequate to the challenges. Philanthropy operates under a different set of constraints and represents one of – if not the only – sectors of society able to truly think in the interests of the long term and the global. In order for this to happen, philanthropy needs to show up and lead the discussion and provide some of the seed funding.
Increasingly, challenges are becoming global and require global solutions.
Today, philanthropic giving is also fragmented and uncoordinated: each philanthropist has their own passions and priorities, furthermore those who have made their own wealth tend to be excessively independent. We’re much like the American colonies in the early 18th century: we share a common identity and to some extent we agree on goals and directions, but we prioritise our independence over any collective plan or any collective action. As Benjamin Franklin put it in 1754, philanthropy has to ‘join or die’ in the face of global common threats.
Humanity’s learning moment has arrived. Covid-19 is an example of an emergent global problem requiring global cooperation. A long-term view shows that there are many existential risks that would require better global solutions than the world has mounted to the current pandemic. Climate change, the risk posed by nuclear weapons, and other emerging threats will test our collective ability to develop coordinated long-term responses. The incentives of our current institutions undermine such a response, but the gap needs to be filled. Perhaps only philanthropy is free enough of these incentives to precipitate better long-term thinking and coordination.
I want to challenge philanthropists to take the privilege we enjoy to think in the long-term, emphasizing the need to coordinate developing global solutions to fit global challenges. Coordinated philanthropy can focus on the long term, identify emerging risks, and test potential solutions in ways that allow for an off-the shelf response when the rest of the global system catches up with the severity of the risk. I truly believe that such coordination, planning, and testing of new interventions is one of the best possible chances humanity has for addressing the challenges of the future. The call to ‘join or die’ wasn’t written for the global philanthropy of the 21st century, but the underlying challenge to us is nevertheless the same. I call for us all to take up the gauntlet.
I recently asked a group of epidemiologists if the next pandemic could be prevented. The experts said yes… with money and political will.
Marcel Arsenault is the Founder and CEO of the operating foundation One Earth Future and the co-Founder and Chair of the grantmaking foundation PAX sapiens. He is a member of the Giving Pledge and has had a longstanding philanthropic focus on long-term global issues with particular emphasis on global peace.