Philanthropic colonialism

Some good observations on modern charity, from Warren Buffett’s son.

Everyone ought to be just like us:

I noticed that a donor had the urge to “save the day” in some fashion. People (including me) who had very little knowledge of a particular place would think that they could solve a local problem. Whether it involved farming methods, education practices, job training or business development, over and over I would hear people discuss transplanting what worked in one setting directly into another with little regard for culture, geography or societal norms.

Even though we’re not just a part of the problem, we’re the source of the problem:

Inside any important philanthropy meeting, you witness heads of state meeting with investment managers and corporate leaders. All are searching for answers with their right hand to problems that others in the room have created with their left.

In a very fine essay, Samuel Wells points out that you can’t “give back” without having first taken what isn’t yours—and that the scale of most “giving back” doesn’t come close to matching what was originally taken.

As more lives and communities are destroyed by the system that creates vast amounts of wealth for the few, the more heroic it sounds to “give back.” It’s what I would call “conscience laundering” — feeling better about accumulating more than any one person could possibly need to live on by sprinkling a little around as an act of charity.

And how disturbing is it to think that this sort of charity may work to keep the giver in a privileged position?

But this just keeps the existing structure of inequality in place. The rich sleep better at night, while others get just enough to keep the pot from boiling over. Nearly every time someone feels better by doing good, on the other side of the world (or street), someone else is further locked into a system that will not allow the true flourishing of his or her nature or the opportunity to live a joyful and fulfilled life.

Or, even worse, serve as a means of expanding the market for our wicked way of life?

Microlending and financial literacy (now I’m going to upset people who are wonderful folks and a few dear friends) — what is this really about? People will certainly learn how to integrate into our system of debt and repayment with interest. People will rise above making $2 a day to enter our world of goods and services so they can buy more. But doesn’t all this just feed the beast?


3 thoughts on “Philanthropic colonialism

  1. Not enough can be done to right the wrongs of colonialism. The upheavals we see today in the Middle East, Africa, C and S America and Asia are all an aspect of those places seeking equilibrium after artificially imposed government and political boarders created by Western Powers.
    Helping isn’t wrong. We are responsible. If the current help isn’t working, we need to figure out what does. Otherwise, we are only trying to justify the neglect and our sticking our heads in the ground.

  2. Helping isn’t wrong. We are responsible. If the current help isn’t working, we need to figure out what does.


    Agreed. But what if the most helpful thing we could do for others is to stop hurting them? Here’s a powerful passage from Samuel Wells’s essay on how to serve others:

    I once was asked to do a bit of consultancy work for a college that was seeking to expand its student service programs. I talked to the board of the service initiative. “What are you looking for in the service projects you coordinate?” I asked them. “We want to see impact,” they said. “We want to see transformation. We want to make a difference.” Try as I might I could not get the members of that board to see that not all impact is welcomed by its recipients. Not all transformation is for the better, and a lot of people in the history of the world have made a difference, but not all of those differences have been beneficial ones. The kind of service that board was talking about did not seem to be serving anyone but themselves. It did not seem to occur to them that they might be affirming and exacerbating the social divisions and inequalities that they found.

    Like many professional people, they liked to use the phrase “give something back.” I tried gently to point out to them that such a phrase assumed the rather problematic premise that they and the student body would inevitably and rightly spend most of their careers taking something away. I suggested that perhaps they would do better to focus on stopping taking away rather than trying to give something back. What bothered me most about the whole conversation was that here were a bunch of thoughtful, successful people, but they did not seem to be going about giving something back with the same degree of thoughtfulness to which they had given the original taking away that had made them so successful in the first place.

  3. Believe it or not a friend of mine talked of something very like this at lunch today. Even though I am not wealthy I often give to ease my conscience and I am beginning to think that some of the ways I have given have caused more problems. Obviously, I am called on to give but I have got to do it with more wisdom.

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