Beware the pitfalls of playing a blame game

Charles Keidan

As philanthropists gain greater visibility, a wider philanthropic ecosystem is evolving to develop their practice and represent their interests. No doubt a major driver of this trend is a surge of wealth creation – and wealth concentration – in emerging economies. But there is also a growing recognition that, when done correctly and with good intentions, philanthropy can help to solve challenging social problems alongside others. 

As philanthropy globalises, Alliance has been proud to appoint its first group of regional representatives in Africa, South Asia, Latin America and the Arab region with support from Emirati philanthropist, Badr Jafar and the Mott Foundation. Alliance’s regional representatives are already expanding our sources, networks and knowledge helping us to reflect the dynamism of philanthropy in emerging countries – something featured across every issue we publish. 

But will the globalisation of philanthropy lead to a more progressive field or a continuation of the status quo? 

Certainly, a call to decolonise philanthropy has become an animating force in progressive philanthropy circles. Like many terms which crystallise an idea and capture the imagination, it carries both broad and specific meanings. Broadly, it reflects a view that philanthropy has been complicit in economic, social, political and cultural systems of exploitation which need to be uprooted. And specifically, decolonising philanthropy should lead to interrogating sources of philanthropic wealth, ending extractive investment practices, making reparations, diversifying boards, and building more participatory, equity centred, and trust-based philanthropy, all of which shifts power from the wealthy to the poor and from funder to grantee. 

Many Alliance readers will share these aspirations to decolonise philanthropy. 

But how achievable is the goal? And does it unfairly pin too much blame on the Global North? 

Given its record, it is by no means unfair to highlight negative aspects of elite philanthropy in the north. But is contrasting an unflattering picture of northern philanthropy with an idealised version of philanthropy in the Global South actually helpful to the development of southern philanthropy? The idea of decolonising philanthropy suggests that the south and, by extension, southern philanthropy needs to be liberated to fulfil its innate potential – an inherently more democratic and egalitarian tradition drawing on powerful Indigenous co-operative modes of solidarity which already exist as philanthropy in all but name. 

But does such a counterposing of northern vice and southern virtue obscure as much as it reveals? Can we safely assume that elite philanthropy in the Global South won’t demonstrate the same defects as its northern counterpart? That seems unlikely given that billionaires in the Gulf, Africa, Asia and Latin America dip into many of the same pools of global capital as their counterparts in the Global North. In philanthropy terms, that translates into attending the same gatherings, sharing the same knowledge, building the same networks and adopting the same practices. Witness the elite dealing of gatherings at Davos, for example, or the globalisation of the Gates giving pledge which explicitly seeks to foster a global community of philanthropists dedicated to doing good. 

The idea of decolonising philanthropy suggests that the south and, by extension, southern philanthropy needs to be liberated to fulfil its innate potential.

Some are alive to these dangers. Writing in this issue’s special feature on Decolonising Philanthropy, guest editors Shonali Banerjee and Urvi Shriram point out that ‘truly decolonised philanthropy calls for more than just an increased number of representative non-white philanthropists, if these individuals are potentially recreating harmful practices in their home countries.’ 

Similar concerns have been asserted by Halima Mahomed and Ndana Bofu-Tawamba in Alliance online: ‘We must demand pan-African philanthropic fora decentralise money as a source of coercive power, and root power in people as primary agents of what change is needed’.  

But what is missing is a clear plan to realise these demands and, perhaps, there is a too convenient tendency to blame the history of colonisation when homegrown philanthropy inevitably falls short. 

Can we safely assume that elite philanthropy in the Global South won’t demonstrate the same defects as its northern counterpart?

It’s also worth remembering that while debate rages in progressive circles about how to decolonise philanthropy, such a call is likely to be met with a lukewarm response by some prominent voices. 

One example is Elise Westhoff, CEO of the conservative Philanthropy Roundtable. Talking to Alliance, Westhoff says that decolonising philanthropy has a ‘very charged’ meaning and she would need ‘to better understand the arguments that underlie the terminology in order to really respond to it’. That’s hardly a ringing endorsement. 

Westhoff also calls for more debate in philanthropy across political and cultural divides. ‘It would be interesting to explore the term {decolonising philanthropy} with the people who have coined it, and see where there are areas where we can agree.’

As the debate about, and processes of, decolonisation wear on, Alliance readers should take Westhoff up on her invitation, even if it’s ultimately to repudiate her views. 

Charles Keidan is Executive Editor at Alliance magazine.
Twitter: @charleskeidan

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