The Barcelona Forum was again a wonderful occasion to meet so many friends and to hear so many new voices – under a new name and a new flag but with the same warm spirit as in the past. As always, it was impossible to attend even a fourth of all the sessions, unless you very impolitely rushed from one session to another after just 20 minutes. Thus, my impressions are partly based on similar experiences in previous EFC conferences since 2004.
Even if the topics have changed, I have always wondered how it is possible to gather in one place hundreds of people who seem to agree on everything. The members of a panel rarely question each other’s views, and there is hardly ever a counter-argument to be heard. Although this certainly makes the panels extremely friendly and pleasant experiences, one must admit that a sense of drama is lacking, perhaps even the feeling of a real dialogue.
Is it likely that in the world of philanthropy no targets are controversial? Is it only a matter of methods: how we can best convince the outside world of the unquestionable merits of our values, our aims and our performance? Is the only reason that the world is not going into the direction we would like, or at least not fast enough, that the outsiders have not yet seen the light? What mysterious forces stand in the way of our noble intentions: forces of evil, or just pure ignorance?
Well, these sarcastic questions already disclose that I am skeptical, and perhaps somewhat worried. If you want to change the world, and if you don’t have absolute power (which even Mr Putin does not seem to have), you must affect the way people think and behave. But then again it is very difficult to win over other people if you don’t know why they think the way they do, and if you are not prepared to engage in a dialogue. In fact, everything should begin from listening.
I don’t believe many philanthropists really disagree with the above reasoning. Then why is it that the EFC and now Philea conferences sound like huge safe spaces where the participants are protected from any ideas or values which might conflict with their own? Don’t we believe in liberal democracy where diverging ideas are permitted and even desired?
I truly don’t know the answer. Are we so polite that we don’t react even when we disagree with the speaker? Or are we just so hopelessly like-minded that we cannot even imagine a discordant voice whom we could invite to contest the dominant narratives? Perhaps we don’t know anyone who does not agree with us? Whatever the truth, it does not sound perfectly healthy.
To go one step further, I am not sure that we should speak so much about values. Values are precious, but they can also be dangerous. It is because people have different values (at least in a free democracy) and may be quite sensitive to the conflicts with other values. It is much easier to reach compromises on practical measures than on the values themselves, which are sometimes regarded as almost holy.
After all, philanthropy is not an ideology and not even a value, or at any rate not restricted to any particular set of values. Philanthropy is one very important and useful way of channeling resources to various beneficial purposes, alongside the other two channels, markets and the democratic system. To preserve its legitimacy, it should reflect the same variety of ideas and goals which is found in our societies as a whole.
Antti Arjava, Secretary General, Finnish Cultural Foundation