Billionaires Vow to Work With Governments on Poverty – Who Is Missing from the Picture?

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September 17, 2013; 4-Traders


The Forbes 400 summit on philanthropy took place at the UN headquarters in June of this year. It spurred a Forbes-Credit Suisse Global Survey of 317 high-net-worth individuals (HNWIs), which has just been released. One of its key findings is that the HNWI philanthropists harbor large ambitions toward the problem of global poverty. Coincidentally, in the week of the survey’s release another gathering, also at UN Headquarters, discussed global poverty and came to some similar conclusions.

As reported in Alliance magazine, a panel drawn from the charity world was convened to mark the UN’s inaugural Day of International Charity. It seems both philanthropists and these charity representatives agree on the importance of partnership. The Forbes-Credit Suisse report suggests philanthropists may accomplish more if they join forces with others. The UN charity panel heard about successful examples of partnerships. Partnerships work because each partner has something unique to bring.

Panelist Neelam Makhijani, CEO of the Resource Alliance, a global network of charity fundraisers, argued that philanthropists need to be at the center of development. Charities need to speak the same language as philanthropists and break out of their own silos. This thought is not a million miles away from the Forbes-Credit Suisse report recommendation that “the most effective approach for a philanthropist tackling global poverty may be to join forces with other experienced philanthropists or organizations” or to become a venture philanthropist, “seeding the initiatives of others.” To some charities, however, according to Makhijani, venture philanthropy “is just long words.” Traditional philanthropy remains important.

The elephant in both rooms, it seems, is government. Philanthropists, according to the survey want to effect systemic change through partnering with governments. Yet Matthew Bishop from The Economist, as moderator of the charity panel, noted there is a “clash of civilizations.” Government looks at philanthropists as deep pockets. Philanthropists and charities look at government as “stodgy.”

The main challenge, it would seem, will be getting different stakeholders to work together on an equal footing. Or, as Makhijani says, “We need to get people together at the same table if we are to maintain momentum.” Missing in this analysis, it seems, is the notion that there is a third partner that merits a prime seat at the table, the most fundamental stakeholder group in the equation—the people who have to live with and confront the problems of poverty in their villages, cities, and nations, the poor themselves. Presumably, they may also have some thoughts. When HNWI philanthropists conceive of themselves as stakeholders, they are substituting their interests and judgments for those of the populations who seem to be missing from Bishop’s “clash of civilizations.”—John Godfrey

  • Terry Fernsler

    “Missing in this analysis, it seems, is the notion that there is a third partner that merits a prime seat at the table, the most fundamental stakeholder group in the equation—the people who have to live with and confront the problems of poverty in their villages, cities, and nations, the poor themselves.”

    In agreeing with the writer of this article, I (sadly) acknowledge that poverty-alleviation organizations do not speak for, and often do not represent well, the poor. Too often, nonprofits have fallen down in their responsibility to include those they serve, and the most vulnerable among us are left without political voice. As a result, we have “leaders” who take such disgraceful actions as voting to eliminate programs that would help those constituents–in the case of poverty in this country, eliminating food stamps (SNAP).

    When our organizations become more egalitarian and stop spending their efforts trying to appease the wealthy (for funds), often becoming more like them than the people we are purporting serving, then we can truly begin efforts to resolve major social problems. Until then, we are simply supporting self-serving organizations more concerned with their employment than stewarding a slice of the commons.

    Third Sector Radio USA

  • Garth Watson

    Governments are the worst partners to have anything get accomplished. Philanthropists should deal directly with technology companies that can have an effect on poverty and relieve hunger. The creation of sustainable local economy through food production can “kill to birds with one stone”. We have the technology available on the planet to solve most of the needs to cure poverty, create economy in an environmentally sustainable way! “Feed a man a fish and feed him for a day…teach a man to fish and feed him for a lifetime…teach a man to grow fish and feed his community for a lifetime!”

  • Kurt Hoffman

    Way back in 2007 Bill Easterly’s book “White Man’s Burden:Why the West’s Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill And So Little Good” demonstrated comprehensively how and why 50 years of charitable effort and trillions of dollars of rich country government funded aid to overcome Third World poverty had failed to do just that and in many cases made things worse – precisely because, as John Godley rightly implies, measurably and permanently moving poor people out of poverty was never the real focus of government aid efforts. Unfortunately for the poor, since 2007 the philanthrocapitalists and all those big brand charities now loudly proclaiming (again) their determination to tackle global poverty, have demonstrated they can’t really do a better job of it than their governments. Witness the tsunamis of evidence provided on the serial failure of poverty-oriented charities to eliminate Third World poverty by Jonathan Glennie – one of the doyens of the pro-poor charity world in his book “The Trouble with Aid:Why Less Could Mean More for Africa” or by David Roodman d in “Due Diligence: An Impertinent Enquiry into MicroFinance” on the failure of microcredit (the now discredited poverty reduction engine philanthropists most love to support) to actually do what Mohammed Yunnus (the star turn at the Forbes philanthropy event highlighted in this article) promised – help the poorest on a large scale to escape poverty off of the success of sustainable small scale businesses set up with microloans. This is something that simply has not happened on anything like the scale needed to eliminate extreme poverty and is never likely to. If as John suggests, the poor were decisively represented at PR driven lovefests such as the Forbes summit (that the rich and the their pet charities spend so much time attending), the message would be rather that they just invest their investible surpluses in real businesses (not social enterprises) that create real jobs for us and channel your charity to those who really need it – like the legions of newly poor in the US and UK created by the same financial crisis that has so handsomely benefited the 1% Club of which most of the newly minted philanthropists attending the Forbes meeting – are fully paid up members.