A Challenge to Philanthropists
EDITORIAL, 21 May 2018
People are generally inclined to lend a helping hand. We see it all the time in daily life—countless acts of selfless generosity that can lift spirits, make someone’s day and reinforce our solidarity as human beings. Most of these good deeds are never directly rewarded and go unnoticed by those not involved. They just happen because it seems like the right thing to do.
When super-rich people make large gifts (even if they represent only a tiny fraction of their total net worth), their generosity tends to bring them fame, widespread accolades, and the honorific title of philanthropist.
Recent headlines applauded one of the world’s multi-billionaires for his pledge to give $158 million towards fighting poverty in America. A day later another headline praised a major NBA basketball star for providing four disadvantaged children with a college education (which could run close to $1 million these days). Many hospitals, schools, orphanages and animal shelters have been funded by and named after wealthy donors.
While such philanthropic gestures are certainly appreciated by their recipients, they too often instill in our consciousness the flawed notions that there will always be rich and poor, and that we depend on the rich for the common good.
Instead of bending over backwards to heap recognition on wealthy philanthropists, we should be asking why there is so much poverty in the first place. Why is any child lacking the means to complete their education? Why does anyone have to work in adverse conditions? Why aren’t we as a collective society taking care of our vulnerable residents? And why are super-rich allowed to accumulate all that private wealth in the first place?
In Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America, Barbara Ehrenreich turned the common understanding of philanthropy upside down:
When someone works for less pay than she can live on — when, for example, she goes hungry so that you can eat more cheaply and conveniently — then she has made a great sacrifice for you, she has made you a gift of some part of her abilities, her health, and her life. The ‘working poor,’ as they are approvingly termed, are in fact the major philanthropists of our society. They neglect their own children so that the children of others will be cared for; they live in substandard housing so that other homes will be shiny and perfect; they endure privation so that inflation will be low and stock prices high. To be a member of the working poor is to be an anonymous donor, a nameless benefactor, to everyone else.
Neither version of philanthropy, grandiose charitable giving on the one hand nor the sacrifices of exploitative labor on the other, can correct persistent social ills. In Haiti, for example, the proliferation of charitable NGO’s after the devastating 2010 earthquake has been a mixed blessing at best, with harmful side effects. Many aid dollars were tied to a neoliberal agenda of privatization and austerity, dubbed Plan Lanmó (Death Plan) by Haitians who would prefer to see more international support for their own grassroots efforts at building a healthy, thriving and truly democratic society, as evidenced by the achievements of the Lavalas movement prior to the US-backed coup d’état in 2004.
Instead of expressing admiration for rich people who give to the poor we should be challenging them to join us in demanding structural changes to ensure a decent and dignified life for everyone. The Greek root of the word philanthropy is love of humanity. So I invite those who truly love humanity to walk the talk, shoulder to shoulder with all our sisters and brothers, following these four principles.
- Value Every Human Being
Every person is born with the capacity to make positive contributions to their family and community. This capacity should be continuously nurtured, and every contribution–large or small, simple or complex–valued. People who feel deeply connected, empowered, appreciated and fairly compensated gladly unleash their varied talents to make others’ lives more wonderful.
Rather than viewing anyone as inherently good or bad, as a winner or loser, we should look at behaviors, correcting hurtful actions with restorative intervention. The world is experiencing excessive atrocities and acts of cruelty, not because some people are evil, but resulting from perpetrators’ past experiences of humiliation, isolation, abuse, betrayal and rage in a system that rewards greed. Hurt people hurt people. So let’s address the underlying damage in a systemic way and not give up on anyone.
- Acknowledge the Severe Pathology of the Current Global Economic System
Extraordinary wealth inequalities fueled by greed continue to plague much of humanity, leaving literally billions of people around the world distressed and destitute. I’ve witnessed too many squalid shantytowns and homeless encampments in other countries and in my own hometown. This is not healthy.
Greed is a disease. To suggest we have to accept that humans are inherently greedy would be like asserting humans are inherently cancerous or diabetic. Webster defines greed as “excessive desire for getting or having, especially wealth; desire for more than one needs or deserves” and greedy as “wanting or taking all that one can get, with no thought of others’ needs; desiring more than one needs or deserves.
Greedy implies an insatiable desire to possess or acquire something to an amount inordinately beyond what one needs or deserves.” Why don’t we offer individuals afflicted by greed treatment to heal them from their addiction to excessive wealth and power just as we do for other maladies?
- Establish an Upper Limit for Personal Wealth Accumulation
It took a while, but a broad consensus was finally reached that chattel slavery–once widely accepted as the norm and allowed by law–is unhealthy, immoral, unjust, and a scourge to humanity. Slavery has consequently been nearly universally abolished. If we talk about it and really think about what it means, surely we can eventually arrive at an equally broad consensus that the unlimited accumulation of personal wealth based on greed is unhealthy, immoral, unjust, and a scourge to humanity. It is already obvious to us at the micro-level. Any group of people gathered at a table for a meal would never allow a few to take most of the food for themselves, far more than they could possibly eat. So let’s similarly reign in the global hoarders of excessive wealth.
As outlined in an earlier TMS editorial, the house we can all live in has both a quality-of-life floor with a minimum living standard, and a ceiling of maximum personal material wealth.
- Commit to Galvanizing Our Collective Intelligence, Creativity, Energy and Resources towards Ensuring a Good Life for Everyone
A healthy desire for a decent, meaningful and dignified life is universal in human nature. Given the will, we surely possess the collective brainpower to figure out how to fulfill this desire for everyone without causing needless harm to others.
Social movements around the world can show us the way. Examples of efforts in this direction include countless indigenous communities on all continents, the ongoing Cuban socialist revolution, the global labor movement, the Lavalas movement in Haiti, the Bolivarian revolution in Venezuela, the Mondragon cooperatives in Spain, the liberation theology movement throughout Latin America, the Earth Charter (in 53 languages) the World Dignity University, TRANSCEND, and more. They all deserve support.
Money to achieve this goal should be seen as no object. During the 2008 financial crisis, the US figured out how to create enough money to bail out the major banks to the tune of over a trillion dollars, claiming the banks were “too big to fail”. Well, surely humanity is “too big to fail”!
It won’t be easy to convince a critical mass of people to join in the massive global movement needed to reclaim power for the people. Roy Eidelson explains how the 1% goes to great lengths to psychologically manipulate the 99% and distract them from fully recognizing and removing the menace of extreme wealth inequality. That’s why we need all hands on deck, including wealthy philanthropists who profess a love of humanity and desire to help.
They may be a rarity, but people do exist who are ready to let go of their material wealth beyond a modest amount for daily life. In A Truck Full of Money, Tracy Kidder introduces us to two real-life wealthy individuals who strive to make a difference by giving away all of their riches to charitable causes before they die. In the words of one, an old-money construction magnate:
I feel sorry for people that are wealthy and sitting there with millions—some of them billions—just making more money. I ask myself, ‘For what?’ Why don’t they… give it to the very poor and marginalized people all over the world who suffer so much, in great part because of the greed of the wealthy?
And the other, a software entrepreneur, expounded:
What else would you do with it? I’m a little bit communist in that I don’t think money ever really belongs to one person. Money’s supposed to move around… Money’s this fictitious thing created to facilitate trade and for building things, so I think hoarding it is a disaster…
They and others like them should be sought out and encouraged to take it to the next level and actively support social movements pushing for systemic change, as did Antoine Izméry, a wealthy Haitian businessman of Palestinian descent who actively backed Haiti’s Lavalas movement until his death in 1993.
Together, let’s eliminate both concentrated wealth and grinding poverty, and make expansive charity a thing of the past. Suffering will still occur from unresolved conflicts, accidents, injury and illness, but we’ll be much better equipped to help each other heal and move on. The more people’s basic needs are met, the more space we’ll have to be neighborly, kind, and generous in all those simple yet powerful ways that make us deeply human.
Marilyn Langlois is a member of TRANSCEND USA West Coast. She is a volunteer community organizer and international solidarity activist based in Richmond, California. A co-founder of the Richmond Progressive Alliance, member of Haiti Action Committee and Board member of Task Force on the Americas, she is retired from previous employment as a teacher, secretary, administrator, mediator and community advocate.
This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 21 May 2018.
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