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(2019-2020) Rethinking Philanthropy Within Development

by | Dec 6, 2019 |

By Alexandra Cain, Alexander Kidd, Lydia King, Yolanda Lindsey-Clark, Gemma Mountain, Jack Wallace, and Sorrel Wilson

Philanthropy is a highly debated topic within aid and development. As discussed in a leading article by The Economist (2006), increasing social inequality has led to a surge in wealth disparity between the rich and the general population. This has increased the need (and demand) for philanthropy. The current climate of aid research is increasingly hostile to internal state-based options, with an ever-increasing number of anti-aid texts from respected authors such as Hancock’s (1989) ‘Lords of Poverty’ and Moyo’s (2009) ‘Dead Aid’. This has been coupled with a steady decrease in faith from the public about the efficacy of planned state-based aid (Harrison, 2013: 271). In contrast to the negative perspectives against planned state-based aid, philanthropy and corporate donation appear to be undergoing a reverse trend, gaining salience as a viable alternative to more traditional forms of aid (Gautier & Pache, 2015: 343). With billionaires on the rise, there is no denying the space for philanthropy. For example, Forbes (2019) reported that Bill Gates has donated an estimated $35.8 billion of Microsoft stock to The Gates Foundation to date. The Gates Foundation has been involved in a number of excellent social change projects within global health. Despite this, there is a number of undeniable criticisms that exist within the sphere of philanthropy. These must be examined if we are to increase the impact of philanthropic efforts and decrease social inequalities. To begin, there has been a call for change in the way the ultra-wealthy donate. Consequently, we can explore how there is a fundamental issue with philanthropy.

Only 20% of over $10 billion-dollar donations were donated to ‘social change projects’, as the preference for giving tends to lie within institutions (such as universities and hospitals) where results are visible and measurable (The Bridgespan Group, 2018). Considering the growing rates of inequality, philanthropic efforts should be directed towards projects which deliver the most effective change within society. Donating towards institutions does not focus on the most pressing problems people face today, although the results are more noticeable. As Holmes tells us, the ‘trans-national elite’ philanthropists often give funding based on their idea of development, which is not always in line with the ideas of those they are seeking to help (Holmes, 2012: 195). This is a symptom of ‘philanthrocapitalism’ (The Economist, 2006), a method of giving in which for-profit business and charity operate in similar ways. This approach is questionable for a number of reasons:

  1. Donating to programmes which address the symptoms of poverty whilst the catalysts are allowed to continue seems illogical. For example, British rapper ‘Stormzy’ offering scholarships to two black UK students to study at Cambridge University (2019) does little to address the socioeconomic deprivation issues that often prohibit black students from accessing university-level education.
  2. Celebrating philanthropists encourage this type of limited investment further, detracting attention from the actual needs of aid recipients. The relationship created by reciprocity can explain the unequal power dynamic which is established and sustained through the act of philanthropy. Elite donors, through public displays of giving, reaffirm their power by redistributing their financial surplus to only have it be returned to them as enhanced personal prestige (Hanson, 2015). If we are to avoid the issues of accountability and private interests of ‘vertical’ foreign-donor style development initiatives, perhaps a change to ‘community philanthropy’ is needed (Harrow & Jung, 2016). This is seen through projects such as ‘The Global Fund for Community Foundations’ (2019) who give grants to ‘community philanthropy organisations’ based on the fundamental idea that all communities have local, valuable assets which can promote a more horizontal power dynamic. This leads to increased agency and inclusion for the recipients of aid, which promotes long-lasting success of aid and development projects.
  3. Philanthropic efforts are directed towards projects which do not threaten the economic system where billionaires thrive. A focus on spending to stimulate the market and relive poverty will further entrench philanthropy as another element in an unequal capitalist system. Advocates of philanthropy do not fully consider whether marketisation would benefit an already struggling population. If donations are not directed to tackle the root causes of inequality, then philanthrocapitalism exists in a contradictory state.

Perhaps instead of asking philanthropists how they can give better, it may be worthwhile to consider if anthropologists should assess how the social and environmental damage caused by the ultra-rich can be mitigated, thus reducing the need for philanthropic donations. For example, we can examine the case of Martin Shkreli, the CEO of Turing Pharmaceuticals, who was criticised for raising the price of Daraprim (a drug key in treating parasitic infections, malaria and HIV/AIDS) by 5000%. In response, he tweeted “I donated a total of $5,000,000 to various causes recently. Looking forward to telling you all about it” (McGoey, 2015). It is clear that Shkreli’s dominant attitude (reminiscent of many philanthropists today) is that acts of generosity cancel out the negative methods of reaping the means for such generosity. This doesn’t consider people suffering with soaring medical bills as a result of his greed. Another example may be witnessed with Walmart, who recently donated $1 million to help the homeless, whilst simultaneously not paying the majority of their 2.2 million workers a living wage, despite the company making around $500 billion in annual revenue. Had mother-of-two Madeleine Chambers received a living wage (Sainato, 2018), would she have still been homeless in the two-year duration she was working at Walmart?

It seems clear that the anthropology of development could be expanded through an investigation into the everyday lives of those who are affected by the actions of profit-driven millionaire businesspeople. Whilst it’s important to critically investigate all aspects of philanthropy in order to make it as effective as possible, we should not forget to consider the exploitative practises many of the rich undertake that allow them the means to donate in the first place. Philanthropic efforts, although not always ill-meaning, have not done enough in the fight against inequality. If nothing can be done to change the very core of our economic system and how we view philanthropy, we should focus our efforts on directing donations to social change projects which have the most impact for the greatest number and refocusing attention on the beneficiaries of aid.


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Gautier, A. & Pache, A. (2015). Research on Corporate Philanthropy: A Review and Assessment. Journal of Business Ethics, 126(3), pp.343-369.

Global Fund for Community Foundations (2019) What We Stand For. Available at: [Accessed 5th Dec 2019].

Hancock G (1989) Lords of Poverty. The Power, Prestige and Corruption of the International Aid Business. Boston MA: Atlantic Monthly Press.

Hanson, J.G. (2015) The Anthropology of Giving: Toward A Cultural Logic of Charity, Journal of Cultural Economy, 8(4), pp. 501-520. DOI: 10.1080/17530350.2014.949284.

Harrow, J. and Jung, T. (2016). Philanthropy and community development: the vital signs of community foundation? Community Development Journal, 51(1), pp.132-152.

Harrison, E. (2013). Beyond the looking glass? ‘Aidland’ reconsidered. Critique of Anthropology, 33(3), pp.263–279.

Holmes, G. (2012). Biodiversity for billionaires: capitalism, conservation and the role of philanthropy in saving/selling nature. Development and Change, 43(1), pp.185-203.

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Moyo D (2009) Dead Aid: Why Aid Is Not Working and How There Is Another Way for Africa. London: Penguin Books.

Sainato, M. (2018). ‘They Obviously Can Afford to’: Workers Call On Walmart To Raise Minimum Wage to $15 an Hour. Common Dreams. Available at: [Accessed 2nd Dec 2019].

The Bridgespan Group. (2018). Four Pathways to Greater Giving: What will it take to unlock dramatically more philanthropy from America’s wealthiest families? Available at: [Accessed 2nd Dec 2019].

The Economist. (2006). The Business of Giving: A survey of wealth and philanthropy. Available at: [Accessed 2nd Dec 2019].

Walmart and the Walmart Foundation Increase Commitment to California Wildfire Relief and Announce Funding for Homeless Services. (2018). Walmart. Available at: [Accessed 2nd Dec 2019].