In Democracy in America Alexis de Tocqueville remarked on ‘the general equality of conditions’ in the United States. He didn’t travel to Latin America. If he had, he would have seen a very different picture: a sub-continent in the aftermath of the struggle for independence from Spanish and Portuguese rule, led by an oligarchic elite and supported by the Church that was laying the basis for one of the most unequal societies on earth.
With few exceptions, democracy, the rule of law and equality of conditions are still in the making today and experiencing many setbacks. Recently, however, a new force – community philanthropy – has appeared in the region and is helping to spearhead progress towards these ideals.
Historically, Latin American ‘philanthropy’ was the province of the Church or of the very rich, and in either case was more to do with charity than social change. Only in the late 20th century did institutional philanthropy begin to develop, alongside the growth of civil society during the process of democratization after a long period of military rule in several countries. However, because it was dominated by corporations in whose interest it is to maintain the status quo, it, too, sought to palliate, rather than solve social problems.
In contrast with corporate philanthropy, these funds are strongly political in the broader sense: they have a more comprehensive approach to sustainable development that questions economic growth as its engine and puts the protection of the environment at the centre.