Powerful companies and individuals with something to hide often try to avoid having to defend the indefensible by deflecting unwanted attention, usually by pointing to the jobs they create or their philanthropic works. From the get-go King Leopold of Belgium’s invasion and plunder of the Congo was dressed up as a philanthropic exercise; Google virtually any oligarch and the laudatory achievements of their charitable foundation will leap out of the page.
And so it was at this morning’s 2019 Global Philanthropy Forum plenary as Charles Koch and the President of his foundation, Brian Hooks, waxed eloquent about their social vision, maximising benefits for others, and creating value for all of their constituencies including society as a whole.
All the while, members of the audience were trying to dodge the massive and rather out of control elephant that was charging around the Redwood Shores Ballroom. The Koch Brothers’ wielding of their disproportionate influence and wealth to block any meaningful action on climate change is what they’re infamous for, but it barely got a mention. Jane Wales’ neatly put question on the subject was enthusiastically leapt upon by Hooks, and immediately kicked into some very long grass, never to reappear.
Listening to the discussion in isolation you could be forgiven for thinking that Charles Koch is a nice chap and the acceptable face of capitalism; I don’t know if he’s a nice chap but he is about as far away as you can get from being the acceptable face of capitalism. His use of money and power to wield influence undermines democracy, and his climate change denying activities undoubtedly pose a threat to humanity itself.
How different from yesterday morning’s plenary on pluralism, when Peter Laugharn, President of the Conrad N Hilton Foundation, and his counterpart Larry Kramer at the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, unequivocally placed democracy and climate change as the top priorities for philanthropy. And they’re right. If climate change isn’t addressed, then the efforts of all the philanthropists and the NGOs in the room will be for nothing.
I wanted to ask Charles Koch a question, but there was no Q&A. I would have asked him what he would he like his legacy to be? Does he really believe that the efforts of the Charles Koch Foundation won’t be totally eclipsed by the Koch Brothers’ efforts to suppress action on climate change, which makes them complicit in what is arguably the greatest human rights abuse of all time?
I guess we’ll have to wait for the judgement of history, and hope that there’s someone left to write it.
Patrick Alley is director and co-founder of Global Witness