Sunday, March 11, 2007

Philosophy on philanthropy

This Peter Singer article on giving has challenged me for years. Comments on it are very welcome!

I have been meaning to post on this since I came across another thought-provoker by Singer in December - "What Should a Billionaire Give - And what should you?" He seems to have been sparked by the New Year giving season and the huge philanthropic gesture in 2006 by Warren Buffet, who added $31 million to the Gates Foundations already healthy coffers.
Philanthropy on this scale raises many ethical questions: Why are the people who are giving doing so? Does it do any good? Should we praise them for giving so much or criticize them for not giving still more? Is it troubling that such momentous decisions are made by a few extremely wealthy individuals? And how do our judgments about them reflect on our own way of living?

Good questions, so thanks for the reminder. But I have to say, my thoughts have changed on Singer and I no longer seriously think the difference between my homemade tuna sandwich and a boozy lunch out could be the difference between a hungry and a healthy child somewhere. I still greatly appreciate his work and wrestle with his ideas, but his examples assume straight forward action and result. Giving money doesn't always save a life. Giving large amounts of money - particularly to countries with poor governance structures - can actually make new problems.

Singer's calculates that 10% of the richest families in the US could generate $404 billion giving away only a portion of their incomes. This would easily pay for the changes Jeffery Sachs has estimated the world needs to meet the Millennium Development Goals.

But is the UN the best set up to use $404 billion? What if we took all $404 billion and put it in micro-enterprise? Peacebuilding? Democratization? Capacity building? Security? Gender rights? Human rights? Education? Climate change? And those pesky incentives and disincentives created by giving will not go away.

Mercy, we all need to do more, me included, but the debate on aid effectiveness has to go beyond the idea of giving money to get rid of a problem. The fact is, we won't get a grand slam result with a grand slam philanthropic donation.

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