Is equality really on the menu?

Tobias Jung

On the shelf of philanthropic playthings, community philanthropy sits like a teddy bear. Next to the die-cast action figures of scientific and venture philanthropy, it feels soft, flexible and comforting; compared to the precious and fragile porcelain dolls of antique philanthropy, it feels sturdy and huggable. However, as anybody who has seen Toy Story 3 will know, the cuddly image of a teddy bear can be deceptive. Thus, when community philanthropy evokes images of equality, equity and inclusiveness, how far do these reflect reality?

Notwithstanding the definitional challenges surrounding community philanthropy, there is an overarching feeling that it encourages equality. It moves philanthropy from a top-down perspective towards a horizontal, inclusive and reciprocal approach; it mobilizes a community’s own resources to promote, build, empower and improve that community. That an emphasis on horizontal and reciprocal philanthropy necessarily leads to more equality seems, however, to be an overly romanticized perspective.

While equality focuses on similarity and sameness, equity stresses fairness and the appropriateness of provisions and opportunities.

As Feierman’s Reciprocity and Assistance in Precolonial Africa shows, reciprocity, caring and community frequently sit alongside dominance and the maintaining and reinforcing of inequalities. Similarly, Layton[1], examining practices of community philanthropy in different countries, questions the extent to which those practices actually differ from more traditional philanthropy: in the end, both appear to entrench established social relations.

Next Special feature to read

Managing natural resources: how far can community philanthropy go?

Mary Fifield