“The Charitable Industrial Complex”

This is probably the best op-ed on international development I’ve ever read. It’s from last Friday’s Times, and is by scion Peter Buffett (ironically enough). I can’t say that a man with enough money to buy everyone in my family a house (and a pony) is the first person I would turn to for sensible, thoughtful commentary on the backhanded “charity” which is so commonly practiced by the wealthy, but… okay. Anyone who writes about Philanthropic Colonialism and has enough clout to get it printed in one of the world’s most widely read newspapers gets a thumbs-up from me.So, I used to work for an international development organization, I studied economic development and political economy, all I wanted to do was to actually go out there and leverage that privilege that I and my peers had been given to actually solve, or at least ameliorate, some of the problems I saw in places like Nicaragua and South Africa – as well as in America. Not just the begging in the streets and children living in garbage dumps, but the people who die because their water is polluted and microbial, the lack of opportunity, the oppression of struggling to meet basic needs, the way that struggle can turn you into someone hollow, who feeds on exploitation because hurting others is a kind of narcotic that dulls your own sense of entrapment, shame, and fear. I was idealistic, and naive, but I was also lucky enough to begin learning about poverty through the lens of solidarity and humility, rather than charity.

People (including me) who had very little knowledge of a particular place would think that they could solve a local problem. Whether it involved farming methods, education practices, job training or business development, over and over I would hear people discuss transplanting what worked in one setting directly into another with little regard for culture, geography or societal norms.

This was the first thing I saw, once I began building a concept of my noble future as an aid worker. I was determined to only work for organizations that wouldn’t do this, that engaged in genuine equal partnership with the people receiving their “help”. And to a certain extent, I did. I still think the agency I worked for is pretty stellar in the development field, at least in terms of awareness, understanding, and the minimizing of unfortunate side effects.

(As it turns out, it’s very difficult to start working in the field “on spec” as it were, without being able to, in advance, prove yourself a special mzungu or chele who could brave foreign languages, pit toilets, dysentery, and chicken buses for an extended period of time, say the 8-12 months that in wealthy countries connotes “expertise” in the daily reality of Chandigarh or Maputo or whichever “post”-colonial locale you had chosen to visit. Bonus points awarded for rural areas, old colonial capitals in advanced states of decrepitude, language skills (the obscurer, the better), familiarity with the local bathtub liquor, and getting sick enough to be hospitalized in the country’s first- or second-best hospital. Obviously, even if the local currency has been downgraded multiple times that building of expertise will cost some serious money, particularly if you want really good insurance and language lessons. So the fieldworker route was not immediately available to me.)

Like I said, I’d still stand by my old organization, and I really liked working for them. But I wasn’t working on aid projects, I was working with grassroots fundraising, with those who were offering their charity to help others. The nature of the job precluded talking about some of the tougher issues – the self-satisfaction of charity, the othering of people whose misfortune was to be poor and brown, the limitations of aid, the hubris of underinformed donors dictating how money is or is not spent. I was not in a position to talk about the nausea I experienced whenever I saw an “adopt-a-child” ad (literally buying the human object of your charity, a commodity which only has value if the image of the purchased human is small, cute, and degraded). And I was not in a position to talk about the real causes of international poverty.

As more lives and communities are destroyed by the system that creates vast amounts of wealth for the few, the more heroic it sounds to “give back.” It’s what I would call “conscience laundering” — feeling better about accumulating more than any one person could possibly need to live on by sprinkling a little around as an act of charity.

But this just keeps the existing structure of inequality in place. The rich sleep better at night, while others get just enough to keep the pot from boiling over. Nearly every time someone feels better by doing good, on the other side of the world (or street), someone else is further locked into a system that will not allow the true flourishing of his or her nature or the opportunity to live a joyful and fulfilled life.

Charity (those in comfort offering alms to those in need) is a very different thing than partnership or solidarity. The former says “I am helping you because I am a nice person, not out of any obligation, and you should be grateful to me”. The latter says “I am helping you because I am a human being and you are a human being and on the basis of our shared humanity it pains me to see you suffer. To alleviate my pain, and because it is my duty to do so as a human, I want to try to help you.” One is a relationship between givers and receivers, the other is a relationship between moral equals.

More insidious is the way that the self-satisfaction of charity (masquerading as good character, because everyone pretends that they offer charity to “help”, not because it makes you feel like a better person) perpetuates poverty. Charity treats the symptom, poverty and want, but not the disease, the exploitation of some human beings by other human beings. The “conscience laundering” Buffett refers to makes people feel better about their participation in and perpetuation of exploitation. It helps the exploitative classes ignore the fact they they are offering tokens of their benevolence to those they have made poor.

More importantly, charity – or rather, the hierarchy between giver and receiver – helps the givers to believe that they are different than the receivers. It is a performative act for oneself and others; it helps the givers to feel that their benevolence and kindness justifies the fact that they have so much while the receivers have so much less. Because if they weren’t better, smarter, people, how is it that they are in a position to offer charity rather than being the recipient of it? It is so much less fun to actually identify with the person receiving your handout, to genuinely believe that there but for the grace of god go you. I mean, where is the satisfaction of showing others how very righteous and good you are, if it’s something you have to do? Nobody looks at the person doing court-ordered community service and admires their sense of civic duty.

The insidious truth of charity is that it frames poverty as a distribution problem – i.e. “some people don’t have enough stuff, giving them more stuff is the solution”. But poverty is built into the economic social order, because the economic social order is built upon dehumanization that enables exploitation. How can you morally justify paying your workers a minimum wage salary, knowing how grotesquely little that amount is, if you genuinely see them as human beings with needs equivalent to yours? I genuinely believe that 99% of people responsible for these kinds of exploitative choices genuinely see the people whose lives they are impacting as people. (If they did, they would be sociopaths – although naturally there’s a strong overlap between sociopaths and CEOs.) Charity doesn’t force us to see the recipients as equals; or, rather, to rehumanize them. So it also doesn’t force us to fight the inequality and exploitation that causes poverty. It lets us, the wealthy, close our eyes to the ways that exploitation is manifested in an endless kaleidoscopic cascade of economic bullying, manufacturing poverty in some places to secure comfort in others. It helps us to pretend that our riches are not built on top of the fundamental exploitation of global capitalism and the inequality which is both the input and the output of an amoral, dehumanized social order. The Global Development Industry, the Charitable-Industrial Complex is in many ways the crowning achievement of this, a sort of economic confessional and false penance for those who create the poverty in the first place.

And with more business-minded folks getting into the act, business principles are trumpeted as an important element to add to the philanthropic sector. I now hear people ask, “what’s the R.O.I.?” when it comes to alleviating human suffering, as if return on investment were the only measure of success. Microlending and financial literacy (now I’m going to upset people who are wonderful folks and a few dear friends) — what is this really about? People will certainly learn how to integrate into our system of debt and repayment with interest. People will rise above making $2 a day to enter our world of goods and services so they can buy more. But doesn’t all this just feed the beast?

Finally, Buffett says he’s not calling for an end to capitalism, he’s calling for humanism. The difference, to me, is minimal, but this is assuming that he realizes that capitalism and the market are two different things. The market is a means to exchange goods which can be both empowering and efficient; markets can be used to level playing fields and build prosperity. This is what Adam Smith was advocating when he talked about an end to mercantilism, this is his invisible hand. But capitalism is something else entirely. It’s an economic system whose logic and purpose is the deliberate construction of inequality of power between those who labor and those who get the profit, a separation between those two constituencies. Without this separation you don’t have capitalism as we know it. This is why cooperative businesses (for example, The Cheeseboard, John Lewis, or Cabot Creamery*) can integrate perfectly well with the market itself while still being, arguably, a radical manifestation of anticapitalist values.

In capitalist businesses, the goal is to produce value for owners – shareholders if the company is publicly owned. In US corporate law, a publicly owned company must value profit for shareholders above all other considerations. So if the directors of a public company wanted to, say, sacrifice a year of earnings because they wanted to pay their workers more – not because a union was forcing them to do it, but just out of general decency – they would be breaking the law and a shareholder could sue them. Private companies can do whatever the owners want, so a lot of the most humanistic companies choose not to go public. Cooperatives avoid this entirely by making the workers owners. So benefiting the owners and benefiting the workers become the same thing. I see this as Not Capitalism. Buffett would probably disagree. I’d be happy to debate it with him; the separation of worker and owner is exactly what Marx describes, it’s what capitalist profit is built on. Worker-owners own the capital, thus it’s not capitalism as we know it. It is, instead, the sort of humanism that Buffett calls for. And it’s the only way to value an end to poverty above the comfort and complacence of the wealthy.

* Intriguing, this link between co-ops and delicious dairy products.

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