How can philanthropists help to tackle inequality?

 

Danny Sriskandarajah

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Asking the richest people in the world to use their philanthropy to tackle rising inequality might sound like a crazy strategy. Crazier still that someone from Oxfam – the organisation that has campaigned on the injustice of the world’s richest 26 people owning the same wealth as the poorest half of the world’s population – would be proposing such a strategy. And yet, this is exactly what I think should happen.

We’re living in an era of dramatically rising economic inequality. Last year, the poorest half of the world became 11per cent poorer, while billionaires’ fortunes rose 12per cent – or $2.5 billion every day. Our campaigning has showcased extreme wealth, not to blame individuals, but to highlight the urgent need to reform an unequal, unjust system.

Philanthropy can never be an alternative to progressive economics – raising revenues from fair taxes to invest in public services and ensuring that people come before profit – but I do believe that philanthropy can play a critical role in achieving system change for at least three reasons:

  1. Trusts and foundations enjoy a unique, privileged vantage point. Able to take a helicopter view of complex global problems like inequality, they can identify patterns and make connections in a way that individual organisations working on the ground often cannot.
  2. Private philanthropy can take risks. It can take on important but unpopular issues – as it did on campaigning for the abolition of the slave trade, or, more recently, child marriage. It can take on the issues that governments can, or will, not.
  3. Philanthropists have the freedom to think long-term. Most CSOs who want to work on structural issues like inequality struggle to raise funds: it’s less tangible than installing a safe water system in the aftermath of a cyclone; it yields less quantifiable impact for grant managers. Yet inequality is a fundamental driver of poverty. It is keeping poor people poor and powerless. It is shortening lives and increasing violence and insecurity. It is one of the most pressing global issues of our time.

Relationships between private philanthropy and civil society need to be based on much more than funding. Oxfam’s work on inequality has focused, for the last few years, on three key areas: tax, public services, and labour conditions. In each of these areas, we need more research, new policy proposals, and better advocacy strategies. Private philanthropy is well-placed to support, incubate, connect, and open doors.

We know, for example, that while there is growing awareness of rising inequality, there is little public engagement on the issue. This year, we’ll be launching a series of ‘Inequality Hearings’ across the UK: conversations between citizens and decision-makers about the gap between rich and poor, its causes and solutions. Further down the line, we’ll use Citizen’s Assemblies to connect the local impacts of inequality with their global structural causes and catalyse a public mandate for greater action on inequality.

We’ll also look to do more work behind the scenes to shape policy change. One business leader is currently funding some research that will inform our ongoing work on tax reform. We know tax avoidance costs poor countries and regions some $170 billion a year and we know the legal loopholes and profit pressures that incentivise it, but there is still so much more work to be done.

Investment in public services, funded by fairer taxes, is one political and policy argument that is waiting to be won. On issues like this, voices from the world of private philanthropy are often seen as more credible by decision-makers than those of NGOs. In the US, the Patriotic Millionaires initiative is helping to push tax reform up the agenda. Perhaps the time is right for something similar in the UK?

Back in 1904, when Joseph Rowntree set out his original vision, he cast philanthropy, not as a means to alleviate the manifestations of poverty, but as a means to remedy its underlying causes. 115 years later, the President of the Ford Foundation, Darren Walker, agreed that the fundamental calling of philanthropy is not generosity, but justice.

Perhaps the idea of private philanthropy tackling inequality isn’t quite so crazy after all.

Dr Danny Sriskandarajah is Chief Executive of Oxfam GB in January 2019. Read more about the his keynote address at 2019 European Foundation Centre: ‘Inequality is plural’: Day two at the EFC Conference, ‘Égalité’ Plenary


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