Philanthropy, foundations and the harm they do

Last Updated : 27 February 2019, 20:49 IST

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Can philanthropy be bad? If someone is donating money from his/her pocket, we all know that it cannot be bad. If so, then there is some good news, because in the last two decades globally philanthropy has increased and has been under the lens of both the media and human right activists.

Globally, during the year 2013–14, philanthropy reached an astonishing figure of $23.9 billion, and it has since increased substantially. According to a report, 81% of these donations have been contributed by only 20 foundations, though globally there are more than two lakh foundations. Among them, the largest by far is the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Much of the Gates Foundation’s interventions have been focussed on areas like health, education and poverty eradication related issues.

No doubt all this has attracted much attention. Social scientists have examined in detail the consequence of all the activities of these foundations and have expressed grave concern. In fact, the current boom has even got a new name. It’s being derisively called “philanthrocapitalism” (or still better as ‘venture philanthropy’). The major area of concern is that this boom of the big foundations and donations has excessive influence over government policy-making. In addition, there has risen a great threat to workers’ rights. The philanthropy has deep hidden agendas and that is the relentless corporate drive to maximise returns to shareholders. Many of the Public Private Partnership (PPP) initiatives that we see around us are a manifestation of this philanthrocapitalism.

While governments all over the world claim this to be a successful model, economists consider this to be a sign of failing economic systems as governments have failed in their social responsibilities to deliver healthcare, education and other welfare schemes that form the backbone of any country.

Philanthrocapitalism is best explained as Gramsci theory in practice, which proposes that both the State and the philanthropists use all such tools to maintain power so as to maintain class distinction. Antonio Gramsci was an Italian revolutionary thinker who died at the age of 46 years in 1937 due to poor health following 11 years of imprisonment. The current nexus that we see between governments and the foundations is best explained through Gramsci’s writings. As aptly explained by Gramsci, philanthropists use such foundations to prevent further radical and structural changes.

In the name of modernisation, the foundations have brought in a culture of “technological fixes” as solutions through programmes like ‘food fortification’ and ‘food supplementation’ as a panacea to the nutritional problems of several countries. Many of these quick fixes have been promoted through vertical programmes by none other than United Nation agencies like United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF), Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) and World Health Organisation (WHO).

A vertical health programme has specific, defined objectives and relates to a single condition, often totally neglecting and, in fact, at the cost of the larger fundamental health and nutrition issues. If one examines and analyses the various programmes of UNICEF, it is evident that most of them are vertical programmes linked to one or the other foundation, with several conditions imposed on the participating governments.

At best, these vertical nutrition programmes promote the philanthropists’ profit-driven companies. The foundations utterly fail to address the social, commercial and environmental determinants of health. If they were to be addressed by the governments’ coherent policies by including strategies for disease prevention and health promotion, they would have much-needed and sustained influence on their populations. The foundations and their philanthropists’ ideologies have never supported small farmers for food production in domestic market set-ups.

Lack of transparency, accountability

The philanthropists and their foundations lack accountability mechanisms and, in addition, there is absolute absence of transparency. They have further blurred governments’ responsibilities by portraying themselves as deliverers. In short, they are hijacking the very underlying democratic processes of countries across the world.

Most of the programmes of the philanthropists have further enhanced the unequal distribution of power in fields relating to access to food and health. Despite all these major negative impacts, the foundations and their philanthropists have established deep roots and will continue to play an ever-increasing role, more so in the field of nutrition and health. One must never forget that both these fields are human rights issues. In view of these long-term implications, there is an urgent need to examine the impact of the foundations by scientific bodies that are unbiased. There is also a need to bring in policies that will prevent United Nation bodies like WHO, FAO and UNICEF from being dependent upon funds for their own programmes.

According to a report by Oxfam, the wealth of the world’s billionaires has increased by $900 billion in 2018 alone. At the same time, the wealth of the poorest half, consisting of 3.8 billion people, saw a fall by 11%. In 2017, the 43 richest people owned the same as the poorest half of the world’s population. In 2018, only 26 of the world’s richest owned the same as the poorest half of the world.

So, it is obvious that while the rich are getting richer, the poor are further impoverished and are unable to achieve even elementary life necessities like food, health and education. While the poor continue their struggle for their very survival, the rich continue with their philanthropy gimmicks through foundations.

(The writer is President, Drug Action Forum, Karnataka)

Published 27 February 2019, 18:11 IST

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