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Claudia Jacobs Headshot

Is There a Role for Philanthropy in a Socialist State?

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I recently boarded an airplane with five colleagues and friends headed for Havana, Cuba. While the trip was mainly a "people to people exchange" vacation, while traveling, I kept my investigative nose to the ground to sniff out whether philanthropy -- the 'organized' giving of personal and institutional resources to solve social problems, existed in this socialist country.

My questions about Cubans or Cuban foundations donating money to causes inside Cuba were met by puzzled looks. Whether it was a university professor, school leaders or program directors of the many sites we visited, the concept seemed alien.

On the surface then, the answer would be no; Cubans do not donate to charitable causes, though many organizations both private and public donate to Cuba for natural disaster relief or program support. This was evident from posters in the programs we observed which heralded the "donor agencies" that supported schools, senior centers and community centers.

Private charity or philanthropy as a concept was puzzling to the small number of people we had the opportunity to ask because the state has responsibility for providing education, health care, housing and nutrition. So my question morphed into: Could Cuba ever be ripe for a philanthropy sector in the future such as is developing in other countries -- such as Russia and China -- where some private enterprise has allowed wealth to amass?

Cuba has some seeds of that generosity, albeit at a government level, planted by Cuba's provision of humanitarian aid to the international community. Doctors are sent abroad by the government which many refer to as, "doctor diplomacy." While ideological objectives such as anti-colonialism are met by this kind of aid, needed direct care is provided to people in countries such as Honduras, Guatemala, Haiti, African countries and the former Soviet Union.

For example, medical help was provided after Hurricane Mitch and Hurricane Georges in the late '90s as well as to the 18,000 victims of the Chernobyl plant disaster in 1986. And after Hurricane Mitch, Cuba converted a formal Navy base on the outskirts of Havana into the Escuela Latinoamericana de Medicina to provide medical education to about 1,500 incoming students annually. Cuba and Venezuela educate more doctors than in all the U.S. medical schools combined. And, according to an article published in Health Policy and Planning in 2008, the number of Cuban doctors working abroad jumped from 5,000 in 2003 to over 20,000 in 2007 and that is in addition to other health care workers also sent.

Still these humanitarian efforts are government sponsored and not private. But there is a burgeoning private sector in Cuba that we observed and were told about; paladares (private restaurants) and some private retail establishments were being encouraged under President Raul Castro's reforms. Could it be that once private enterprise gains an even larger foothold, that wealth gaps could provide the same level of motivation for redistribution of some of that wealth to those who do not yet benefit? The real question may be what is the role of philanthropy in a socialist state when the government guarantees basic human needs for all its people. Is philanthropy only an artifact of the private enterprise system that compensates for and complements the inequitable distribution of resources that are inevitable? And maybe philanthropy is a shadow system that chimes in when government can no longer play the only role? I plan to watch this unfold as the landscape changes in Cuba and the confluence of factors that nurture this type of response perhaps reach critical mass.