As the great US civil rights leader, Martin Luther King, once observed, “Philanthropy is commendable, but it must not cause the philanthropist to overlook the circumstances of economic injustice that make it necessary in the first place.” Fifty years later, King’s words still ring true: can philanthropy ever be more than capitalism’s guilty conscience, the product of rising inequality but rarely an effective component of the cure?
Despite the large scale and long history of charitable giving in America—now redoubled through the giving pledge of Warren Buffett and Bill Gates—the US has never found a satisfactory answer to this question, so can India do any better? I think it can, but not by mimicking developments in the US, which are increasingly problematic. Instead, why not build on India’s own experience and traditions to change the whole trajectory of philanthropy as it continues to expand? In the US, philanthropic donations have increased year by year for a generation or more, but so have inequality, violence and social division, and in recent years, extreme poverty has also grown despite an explosion in the size and number of new donors. So, if philanthropy is supposed to tackle problems like these, then there is clearly something very wrong.
In response to this gloomy situation, many American philanthropists have turned to business and technology to improve the impact of giving, and this approach works well when the problems are amenable to the reach of science and market incentives—like getting financial services to those who need them, or finding new vaccines for malaria and HIV. But there is no vaccine against injustice, whose roots are so deeply embedded in society and politics, and whose remedies are so complex.
Injustice has no silver bullet, no solutions that can be manufactured to bring success. Advances in social justice only come through a long, hard struggle to alter the balance of power in society; develop institutions that give poor people more security and a voice; strengthen values of equality, sacrifice and sharing; and imbue philanthropy with more humility and patience, so that donors can work with and not for those who are struggling to secure their rights. None of these things are easy for business-minded donors who want quick, material results from their investments, and who are used to exercising strong control over supply chains and other aspects of their operations. And only the most visionary of philanthropists will spend money to transform a system that has already made them rich.
In the US, this mismatch between the approach of the new philanthropists and the demands of social justice is already triggering a backlash, from those who see it as too top-down, technocratic, and ultimately ineffective. The billionaire boys club, as it is disparagingly known, is under fire for supplanting democratic policy processes in areas such as secondary education, where the Gates, Broad and other foundations are investing heavily in their own preferred solutions to the problems of public schools. Such attention is welcome, since everyone wants to improve American education, but most people want this to be a collective effort in which teachers, children, parents, the government and the private sector work together—not a playground for the rich and famous. After all, why should Bill Gates decide the future of my children’s schooling?
So what is the alternative? The best place to start in answering that question is to step back, take a fresh look at what philanthropy could be, not just what it is, and learn from your own experience and history, especially the history of those who have already tried to transform Indian society for the better.
India has many rich resources in this respect, including a vibrant civil society and high levels of participation in democracy, a long tradition of struggles for social justice and government guarantees for human rights (however imperfectly applied in practice), successful campaigns for freedom of information and the like that are changing the balance of power in politics and communications, and a long chain of spiritual leaders who have taught the world that social and personal transformation are inseparable. “We must be the change we want to see,” as Gandhi once famously put it.
The implications of Gandhi’s message for philanthropy are profound—if the goal is social transformation, philanthropy must also transform itself into a shared resource for the public good in areas that will never attract funding from the government or the market. If we want it to deepen democracy and advance social justice, then philanthropy must also become more just and democratic in its own internal workings, by sharing decision making with the subjects of social change and pulling back from the boasting and bluster that are so often associated with big donations. Philanthropy works best as a support, not a control system, for broad-based participation in social change.
There are plenty of ways in which these reforms could be advanced. Indian philanthropists could diversify their boards and include some representation from the groups they seek to support. They could encourage ordinary citizens to become philanthropists and make the whole field more inclusive and democratic. They could inject resources into philanthropies such as the Dalit Foundation that are run by disadvantaged groups. And they could concentrate attention on long-term changes that will never generate short-term returns. Instead of giving back from an unjust economic system, why not give forward to create a new one with fewer costs and inequalities? The giving pledge is welcome because it is generating new excitement and resources, but it offers little guidance or encouragement on crucial questions such as these. By accepting Buffett’s challenge but rejecting predetermined answers, India’s growing band of philanthropists can invent something better that is shaped by their own history and traditions. And that’s a pledge we can all sign up to.
Demos is a non-partisan public policy research and advocacy organization headquartered in New York City. Edwards is also the author of Small Change: Why Business Won’t Save the World.