Can Philanthropy Deliver Social Justice?

city rich and poor

Inequality is one of the biggest challenges of our time. In the past few years, the world has seen the wage gap widen as the rich become richer and the poor become poorer. 

The question that arises is whether the rich have any obligation to share their wealth with those who may not have much wealth or resources of their own. Is philanthropy the answer to economic injustice? What are the limitations in being philanthropic and engaging in charitable acts? 

The lecture on Philanthropy and Social Justice from the SOAS Director’s Lecture Series held on 14th February aimed to get the conversation started and answer such questions. It featured SOAS’s Director Professor Adam Habib in conversation with Mark Malloch-Brown, President of the Open Society Foundations and Darren Walker, President of the Ford Foundation.

Philanthropy as a Byproduct of Capitalism and Inequality

Professor Habib initiated the dialogue by laying the groundwork for understanding the word ‘inequality’. Understanding inequality is the first step in understanding the ideas behind social justice. In simple terms, inequality means not being treated equally regarding rights, opportunities and status. Inequality can arise in terms of wealth, gender, race and colour, and much more. This makes it one of the biggest challenges we face in modern times.

Additionally, Mr Walker argued that philanthropy exists because there is inequality. Philanthropy can be seen as a byproduct of capitalism in the way that people make big bucks and accumulate their wealth over time. Some of those people realise they could use their wealth to benefit society. Many legacy institutions, such as Carnegie in the United States of America, arose as a result of inequality before they could inherently give back to society. 

Inequality and Political Polarisation

Philanthropy is also connected with the idea of democracy. Democracy is more than just the phrase ‘of the people, by the people, for the people’. It represents the hope, aspirations and dreams of every member of society. A democracy is supposed to give an identity and voice to the most marginalised sections of society and be the equaliser between all forms of inequality.

This is where the role of philanthropy comes in. The act of philanthropy is the financier who helps achieve the hopes, dreams and aspirations of people from the lowest rungs of society.

However, an increase in inequality everywhere is giving rise to right-wing policies and governance. The institution of philanthropy sometimes sees itself in opposition to democratically elected authoritative regimes. 

Empowerment and Democracy

Mr Brown commented how it is difficult for organisations to dissociate from the government entirely. At the end of the day, the government’s relationship with a philanthropic venture is symbiotic to a certain extent. The challenge for organisations such as OSF and Ford Foundation is not to exonerate the government of its responsibility towards its people but to think about how to fill the gaps that governments are unable to do, or don’t cover in their policymaking. Through the generous act of philanthropy, one empowers those who were not given the proper resources to make their voices heard. When the disempowered become empowered, the ideals of a democratic government are strengthened, and that is how philanthropic organisations contribute towards the building and solidifying of democracy.

Be a Partner, Not Just a Funder

Organisations have a duty and obligation to represent those they claim to work with and for. One way is to employ people from those parts of the society most affected, who have genuinely been at the grassroots and know the system inside out. Another way is through funding. 

On the issue of funding, Mr Walker commented how it is essential to keep in mind that one needs to invest in the ideas of those people rather than putting forth the agenda of the company. The relationship between the philanthropist and the benefiter must be that of partners and not one where you cut the cheque and you are done. 

Finally, organisations must be accountable. One needs to be honest and transparent about the process, the grants, usage, and results to all the stakeholders involved. The ultimate display of accountability is achieved through the impact and the results of the philanthropic ventures.

Adam Habib ends the lecture with the point that giving has to go beyond the norm of what has previously been done: “giving in a way that empowers, giving in a way that disrupts, giving in a way that changes the very structural dimensions of our society” to make a more equitable world.

Watch the whole lecture here.

Surabhi Sanghi is a SOAS Digital Ambassador, pursuing a master’s degree in South Asian Studies and Intensive Language (which also means she gets to be in London for one whole extra year). She has a background in history and is interested in the religions of South Asia. She is a dog person and her only wish is to be able to pet all the dogs in London.

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