Over the years I’ve talked about philanthropy a fair bit on the blog, from billionaire donors at The Giving Pledge, to more everyday generosity through Giving What We Can. I’ve explored the Effective Altruist movement, and the opportunities we all have to make a difference. I believe that the best use of wealth is to be generous with it, but I don’t want to be naive. Big philanthropy has its darker side too, and not just the black hatted villainry of people like the Koch Brothers. Even the most celebrated, most well meaning charitable interventions can have unintended consequences. In fact, the more celebrated philanthropists are the most likely to escape public scrutiny.
Hence Linsey McGoey’s book No Such Thing as a Free Gift: The Gates Foundation and the Price of Philanthropy, a thoughtful and balanced overview of global philanthrocapitalism, its origins and its consequences.
There’s a line in the introduction where McGoey, a sociologist and former journalist, writes about her intentions for the book. It does two things. First, she is out to “add historical nuance” to the claims of modern philanthropists; and second, to “explore the often unseen and unvoiced ramifications of how today’s grant dollars are spent.” I like the modest wisdom of a book that is out to ‘add nuance’. That’s a noble goal. The book is not a polemic or a diatribe, it’s not anti-philanthropy or out to condemn the Gates Foundation. It’s there to complicate simplistic views. And as such, it’s very good.
There are good reasons to be wary of big philanthropy. The biggest reason is that it’s fundamentally unaccountable. Stick your money in a foundation, and it can be spent wherever and however you please, on whatever problems you consider most pressing and/or glorious. As I described with the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative recently, this can lead to distorted priorities – going for the big historical cure rather than the patient dissemination of existing cures. Or with Bill Gates at the helm, exciting technology tends to win out over simpler solutions. With so much money to spend, big foundations can set the agenda, even if it’s not the one the experts would have chosen. Everybody plays along to get their slice of the pie, and funding evaporates from alternative approaches. McGoey gives some striking examples of big funders backing the wrong horse, especially in American education programmes.
Another problem is that when a big foundation arrives in a poorer country and sets up operations, it risks undermining local government provision of health or education. Good teachers and doctors leave the local schools or hospitals to join the new one. Since someone else is doing it, the government cuts funding for local services and lets the charity take the lead, but in doing so it misses out on the experience, the learning, and the control. The charities become “shadow ministries of education”, as McGoey puts it, not necessarily pulling in the same direction as national strategies. For example, the big push to eradicate polio is an ambitious and worthy goal. But the book describes incidents where there aren’t enough vaccination teams, and resources get diverted onto the polio drive from existing programmes. Children get a polio vaccine to protect them from a disease that they had a very small chance of contracting, and miss out on something more ordinary and more important. They should be getting both of course, but the overseas donors may not know of the effects, and are impossible to hold to account.
Governments can be undermined in wealthy countries too, in a slightly different way. Many of the big philanthropists take pride in how little tax they pay, seeing themselves as more enlightened and more efficient redistributors of wealth than the government. If they can do a better job of providing services to disadvantaged communities than the government does, then lower taxes and tax avoidance are a good thing. They will lobby for low tax, using philanthropy as justification. But again, the foundations are not accountable to anyone for their failures. They are unelected and opaque, and the richest get to keep control of all the spending. It’s a big mistake, says McGoey, to let philanthropy become a substitute for social justice.
The book dives into the history of big philanthropy, looking at Carnegie and Rockefeller and the early charitable trusts. For that generation of donors, charity was all about PR. It allowed them to gloss over the ethics of their business initiatives and re-write their own legacy. There’s a similar risk today, with donors who have “earned billions through business tactics that have compounded financial instability, eroded labour protections, and entrenched economic inequalities.” Bill Gates presided over the highly monopolistic Microsoft, after all. McGoey gives the Gates’ the benefit of the doubt and believes they’re genuine in their ambitions for the world, but their foundation still has some uncomfortable corporate partners, including Goldman Sachs and Monsanto.
Sometimes there are clear conflicts of interest with these partners. The Gates Foundation has historically been a huge investor in Coca Cola and McDonalds for example, with billions held in shares. When the foundation’s health initiatives focus entirely on communicable diseases and ignore problems like obesity and heart disease, public health experts get suspicious.
As I said, nuance is what you get here. The author recognises the good that the Gates Foundation does, and only highlights their work because they’re the biggest of the charitable trusts. Other figures come off less well, the easily dazzled ‘TED-heads’, or the showy givers competing for the biggest announcements at global summits. Both of McGoey’s careers come in handy over the course of the book, exploring the sociological phenomenon of the ‘big man’ donor in one section, in another tracking down a vaccination programme gone wrong with a journalistic nose for a story. If there’s a fault to the book it’s that we don’t get to hear much from the philanthropists themselves. Presumably they were busy saving the world. We hear a personal view from doctors in India or dissenting academics, but McGoey doesn’t get the opportunity to quiz any of the key figures for their perspective on the potential problems. I’d like to know how aware they are of the unintended effects of their actions. It would give us a better sense of how to improve the situation, and they’d get a right of reply to any criticism. Nevertheless, it feels like a fair treatment, especially when you consider how much the big philanthropists are admired, and how few critiques there are.