Should we be afraid? We need to keep asking

 

Anthony Tomei

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Congratulations to Andrew Milner and colleagues at Alliance for taking on some big questions, and for addressing them in an imaginative and thought-provoking way.  The issues raised in David Callahan’s blog and in the responses from around the world are perennially important. At heart the questions are about the purpose of philanthropy: what is it for and how should it be practised? Those are questions that all societies have to ask themselves, and keep asking.  It comes as no surprise that there is no common view, or that the responses from the different countries vary widely.  Nor should we be surprised if the answers within a society change over time.

I hope this article will lead to reflection and debate and that Alliance will continue to take a lead in that debate. As a contribution here are some connected thoughts prompted by reading the article.

First, Charles Keidan is surely correct to highlight the problem of hypocrisy. It has always seemed to me untenable to criticize right-wing foundations in the US for what they have done to promote the neoliberal agenda while at the same time praising the progressive foundations that have used the same methods (arguably less effectively) to promote social justice. If we assert the right (some might say the duty) to use legitimate means to promote arguments or policies we believe in, we must surely accept the right of others to use similar means to promote arguments we disagree with. Gara LaMarche’s recent article in Democracy, ‘Democracy and the Donor Class’, gives an interesting exposition of the issues.

Second, it seems to me important to separate out arguments about the causes organizations seek to promote from the methods they use to promote them. At the heart of the debate are questions about which kinds of actions are legitimate and which are not. That takes us to regulation and thence to its underpinning in the law. Most societies have a rule that using philanthropic money for directly political purposes is not legitimate; certainly in the UK one can’t use charitable money to fund political parties, for example.  But at some level most (possibly all?) philanthropic activity is political. As Bhekinkosi Moyo says: ‘One cannot support social justice and avoid politics.’  To me that looks unarguable. Arguably you could say the same about education, about poverty, about support for the environment or the arts – indeed about almost any of the activities that ‘progressive’ foundations care about.

In principle there is a boundary that sits between activities that are recognized as legitimate (for example research) and those that are not (for example the direct funding of political parties).  The problem is that in the real world the boundary is fuzzy and contested.  Research may be OK, but how far can a charity go in using the results of research to lobby for its cause? What would we make of a foundation that commissioned research specifically to help make a case, or that suppressed results that were inconvenient? And if we disapprove of such actions how can they be policed? What sanctions are there? In reality this takes us far beyond the reach of regulators and into the court of public opinion and everyday politics. Maybe that is as it should be.

Third, I was not persuaded by Melissa Berman’s ‘alternative view’ from the USA. Melissa’s response is that ‘twas ever thus. Nothing much changes, and in any case things were worse in Rockefeller’s and Carnegie’s day. I think this ducks the question. It may well be true that our forebears faced similar problems 100 years ago, or 50 years ago, or 10 years ago. But the world changes and the problems change with it. I agree that we should learn from the experience of the past. But each generation faces a set of issues that are unique to itself; each needs to come to its own understanding and find its own solutions. That’s why David Callahan’s challenge and the responses to it are so important.

Anthony Tomei is a trustee of the Bell Foundation and a visiting professor at King’s College, London.


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