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So You Want to Be a "Radical" Philanthropist?

05/04/2015 10:55 am ET | Updated May 04, 2016
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"You have $8 billion," a recent article by Dylan Matthews of Vox supposes. "You want to do as much good as possible. What do you do?" Matthews recommends the approach taken by Open Philanthropy, a project of the charitable organization GiveWell, and Good Ventures, the foundation belonging to Facebook co-founder Dustin Moskovitz and his wife Cari Tuna. Open Phil seeks to "figure out how, exactly, they should spend their billions to do the most good as possible." Using a "radical" and "heavily empirical approach," they measure the importance of each issue and the impact of each dollar on the key problems identified.

This method, which they call "effective altruism," is inspired by Peter Singer, a professor who teaches at Princeton University, where I went to graduate school. Singer is a utilitarian who believes that one should seek to create the greatest good for the greatest number. As long as there are children dying in Africa, he says, doing anything other than dedicating one's life to saving those lives is unjustifiable. So, among other research and policy initiatives aimed reducing the maximum volume of suffering for the minimum philanthropic investment, GiveWell is sending mosquito nets to Africa, hoping to save children from malaria.

I appreciate very much this sense of moral urgency. We live in a time of deep crisis and devastation and we need to take action. And Singer rightly criticizes such common charitable practices as giving to support opera companies and art museums as frivolous and self-centered.

But Singer's model of giving has problems of its own. As practiced by GiveWell, Singer-style philanthropy is palliative, an attempt to reduce suffering that leaves untouched the question of what generated the suffering in the first place, and what long-term solutions there might be to end its continual reproduction. It offers nets to help individual Africans avoid malaria while ignoring the structural, political, and economic reasons malaria is rampant. It prunes around the edges of a poison tree, rather than grasping at its roots.

Matthews curiously describes GiveWell and Open Phil's approach as "radical" -- from radix, or "root" -- citing "their commitment to do substantial empirical research before deciding on causes." But for all its qualitative and quantitative analysis, the model remains superficial, missing some of the most important data that reveal how and why poverty, sickness and suffering are perpetuated. According to the non-profit The Rules, though rich countries give aid to poorer countries on the order of around $130 billion per year, they are simultaneously taking about $900 billion dollars out of poor countries each year in through trade mispricing, $600 billion in debt services, and about $500 billion through trade rules that give them access to cheap labor and raw materials. Altogether, that is $2 trillion dollars that are extracted from some of the poorest countries and exported to some of the richest. Global systemic exploitation is the root problem of which malaria is just one expression, and while mosquito nets are certainly needed, they do not constitute radical philanthropy.

We can see a similar phenomenon at the Clinton Global Foundation. Though it boasts of enormous success in its efforts to combat HIV/AIDS, it notes on its own website that "Two-thirds of people who need treatment in the developing world are still not receiving it." The chief impediment to making life-saving antiretroviral therapies available is a patent regime that allows pharmaceutical companies to hold prices far above what is affordable among the most afflicted populations. These intellectual property were written into trade laws that have been upheld by the Clintons themselves. This lays bare the circular way in which we create problems and mass suffering through the political choices we make that uphold corporate power, and then use philanthropy to seek a solution to the mess we have made, wiping our consciences clean while distracting attention from root causes.

Love of people -- philanthropy -- demands more of us.

I never would have chosen to work in the world of philanthropy, but my family circumstances have landed me here, surrounded by a do-gooders diligently paving roads with good intentions. And while I don't have $8 billion to distribute, I do face the challenge of determining the best use for the money I'm due to inherit--a version of the same dilemma faced by everyone with some resources to donate. I've chosen to be part of a community of individual donors called Solidaire, which is advancing a different model of philanthropy--one that grasps at the root causes of suffering.

At the heart of Solidaire's model is a completely different understanding of the word radical. The most pressing crises of our time are products of our political-economic system. They are deeply historical, rooted in capitalism and imperialism, compounded by racism and sexism. We must be attuned to the complexity and gravity of these dynamics, and understand the systemic nature of the problems we face. Philanthropic giving is necessary in this time of vast wealth inequality, but we cannot do philanthropy with our left hand, while we perpetuate inequality with our right.

To achieve GiveWell co-founder Holden Karnofsky's goal to "give people more power to live the life they want to live," we cannot simply temper suffering on an individual level. What is required is the political strength to achieve systemic change. We need to unravel our compulsion towards maximizing return on investments, our economic system based on exploitation and extraction, and a corporate culture that is unhinged from any ethical bearings. We need a political system that is actually responsive to and reflective of the people, rather than one which is controlled by the wealthiest few.

In our pursuit of economic and political change, Solidaire's fundamental commitment is to social movements, which seek to contest, disrupt and transform these systems. We believe in investing in movements generated and led by individuals who are most affected by the problems for which they are seeking solutions. To this end, we have funded groups like Idle No More, a First Nations movement in Canada that aims to defend the land from corporate takeover, the Dream Defenders and the Movement for Black Lives who continue to fight for racial justice and Black liberation in this country, and the Debt Collective, which supports people entrapped by predatory student loans and offers a vision of debt-free higher education. We are also supporting the bail fund of Baltimore United for Change, driven by our belief that the protestors are reacting to the violence of the police, racism, and poverty, and need to be heard.

Economic and political inequality is the root of our most pressing social problems, allowing the wealthy few to determine the agenda of our country and the world. But if we are true to the ideals of our American heritage, we should stand by the commitment that it is for a democracy, not donors, to decide what issues are most important to solve and how to solve them. Funding social movements empowers communities to fight for their own needs, growing our society's democratic forces.

The best philanthropy is the type that seeks to end the system that perpetually generates the need for philanthropy.