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Conscience Over Consequences: Reassessing the Drive To End Philanthropy
A major charity is shutting down to avoid perpetuating ‘colonial capitalism,’ but this serves the conscience and moral standing of the charity more than it helps people
By Trish Nayna Schwerdtle
One of the biggest charitable foundations in the U.K. will shut down after concluding that philanthropy is a “function of colonial capitalism.” Despite its 60 years of experience as an independent charitable foundation, not to mention its £130 million endowment fortune, Lankelly Chase plans to redistribute all its assets and close within five years.
The foundation considers this a “necessary and inevitable” decision and acknowledges it will be an “uncertain and unsettling” phase, but it reassures its network by explaining that “it is only by opening the space for radical re-imagining that we can connect with the potential and possibility that lies beyond the dominant model.”
For years, the decolonization movement has sought to disrupt, defund and dismantle charitable organizations because of perceived structural racism, colonialism and white supremacy. Now, it looks like at least one has gone deep enough down the cynical rabbit hole that it concludes its own abolition is the best remedy. Perhaps unsurprisingly in our current cultural context, there has been almost no public criticism of this course of action.
The calls to dismantle philanthropy and charity reflect similar patterns observed in global health, humanitarian assistance and international development. The reasoning behind such requests focuses on historical legacies—especially the continuities between past and present-day oppressions. However, even if a charity was founded during a period of territorial colonialism or originally benefited from funds linked to colonialism (which does not seem to be the case for Lankelly Chase anyway), it does not follow that the charity continues to do harm today. On the contrary, the charitable mission of Lankelly Chase is to strive for social justice and economic equality.
So one might be justified in asking, what has brought about the sudden conclusion that the charity is perpetuating “colonial capitalism” to an extent that it might be doing more harm than good? And how is closing down the charity doing more good than harm?
An alternative explanation is that the charity is caught up in a powerful, radical, cultural and political trend whereby we tell the worst stories about ourselves. This trend, in combination with a preoccupation with power systems, leads us to misdiagnose the causes of our problems, pursue the wrong solutions and depress ourselves into a state of inaction, the worst version of which manifests here—nihilism.
Philanthropy and ‘Colonial Capitalism’
Decolonizers argue that all philanthropy originating from colonizing countries is inextricably tied to, and tainted by, “colonial capitalism.” This term refers to the economic system by which colonial powers exploited the resources, labor and markets of colonized territories for their own benefit. The accumulation of power and wealth by colonial states often led to significant disparities and inequalities. However, it is an oversimplification to view all such philanthropy solely as an attempt to mitigate the social consequences of colonialism. Philanthropy is a diverse and multifaceted practice that encompasses a wide range of motivations and intentions. Many philanthropic initiatives are driven by genuine altruism and a desire to address social, economic and environmental challenges, regardless of their historical context.
And even if some (surely not all) philanthropy by individuals or institutions now situated in former colonizing countries is essentially an apology for colonialism, why is that a bad thing? Many ethicists and political philosophers would argue that the apology is morally required—an obligation of reparations—rather than morally wrong. Considering the inadequacy of other mechanisms to redistribute wealth—which should also be encouraged and are by no means being crowded out by philanthropy—it seems imperative that these attempts to reduce the social consequences of colonialism (and other causes of inequality) should continue today. In fact, it is contradictory on one hand to emphasize (and in some cases overstate) the harms of colonial capitalism and on the other hand to prevent those harms from being addressed. Additionally, removing philanthropy will not do anything to abolish colonial capitalism, nor to reverse a country’s colonial history.
Decolonizers also argue that the financial resources for philanthropic endeavors come from wealth unjustly amassed through colonial capitalism. This is true in part, since many prominent philanthropists of the past, such as Andrew Carnegie and John Rockefeller, amassed their fortunes through industries closely tied to colonial exploitation, such as steel and oil. They used their wealth to establish philanthropic foundations and institutions, which became instrumental in funding various charitable causes. However, numerous individuals and institutions engage in philanthropic activities without direct ties to colonialism.
Critics view philanthropy as an attempt to focus on immediate social needs while failing to address the underlying systemic issues or challenge the power dynamics of colonial capitalism itself. However, it is not clear that by dismantling philanthropy and closing up charitable foundations, these systemic issues will be better addressed. On the contrary, this action is likely to harm the people and communities who previously benefited from charitable foundations. In fact, in the Lankelly Chase example, only ideological goals are cited for the shutdown, and no claim is made that abolishing the organization will help the vulnerable communities it once served. Furthermore, philanthropy has evolved over time, and contemporary philanthropic efforts often focus on systemic issues, such as poverty, education, healthcare and environmental sustainability, rather than simply addressing immediate social needs.
Finally, decolonizers argue that by engaging in philanthropic activities, former colonial powers and their elites hypocritically portray themselves as benefactors, masking the exploitative nature of their economic and political domination. It’s a stretch to conclude, however, that all charities based in countries with former colonies continue to function as colonial powers and that all wealth arising from those charities originates from colonial exploitation, rather than from a functional economic system.
The idea that philanthropy is used as a tool for reputation management is a simplistic, myopic analysis that uses power as the sole lens through which to understand the world. Yes, people and organizations are concerned with their reputations, but they can also genuinely want to do good for others. Virtue ethicists would argue we need to practice doing good things so that we’ll eventually like doing them. And if reputational concern nudges people to help others when they wouldn’t otherwise do so, that’s a good thing. There are numerous examples of philanthropy making a genuine and positive impact on society, independent of the motivations or intentions of specific individuals or groups—and sometimes despite them. The positive impacts of philanthropy should be recognized and evaluated independent of perceived motivations.
Cutting Down Trees and the Future of Philanthropy
If charitable foundations can be likened to a tree that distributes fruit to those doing good work, Lankelly Chase has decided to cut down the tree. But the thinking that ended Lankelly Chase is not just about the model of charitable foundations—it is about the idea of philanthropy and charity itself, especially from the West. While Lankelly Chase does not advocate that all charitable foundations take similar steps, it sets a dangerous precedent providing rationale for further divestment in charity at a time when the U.K. government has already reduced overseas development funding—by 21% in 2021.
A cultural and moral critique of philanthropy and charity, employing colonial capitalist reasoning, prompts intriguing questions. These questions should be subject to honest and open debate. For example:
How can any charitable funds be disentangled from “colonial capital”?
Is this money marked and “dirty” forever?
Isn’t all money traceable to colonialism, capitalism or some other unjust activity?
Does transferring “dirty” money to morally superior organizations clean the money?
Is this type of moral money laundering ethical?
How can wealth morally be transferred from the haves to the have-nots (both within and between countries)?
If wealthy private organizations and donors can no longer give to philanthropic organizations with links to colonial capitalism, what does this mean for the charity sector?
Perhaps the most chilling aspect of this development is that those moving to dismantle philanthropy seem not to have considered the possible effects on disadvantaged people and communities. In fact, the costs fall on vulnerable people, while the benefits go to the foundation in the form of moral superiority and public praise from decolonial adherents. It seems the leaders of Lankelly Chase are making a critical error: They are more concerned with purging their own feelings of wrongdoing than helping people. In short, the justification for shutting down should be less about the organization and more about how this move is going to better serve its charitable cause. Yet the endless problematization has led to no solution apart from “radical re-imagining,” for which there is no road map.
The fact that charities are often set up and run by elites may make them particularly susceptible to “elite ideas”—ideas that confer moral standing and status upon those who advance them while harming the people who are supposed to benefit from them. Ultimately, such ideas worsen inequality and act counter to the aims of social justice.
It is understandable that virtuous individuals and organizations who are deeply committed to ethical principles and values can overscrutinize their actions critically and hold themselves to very high standards. This tendency is inflamed by our current cultural moment of over-politicization, identity politics and applied postmodernism with its ambitious demolition project. However, perhaps we need to return to the fundamentals of what philanthropy actually is.
Philanthropy is the practice of promoting the welfare of others through charitable donations and actions aimed at improving society. It involves the voluntary contribution of resources, such as time, money or expertise, to address various social, cultural and environmental issues. It is an ancient human practice, common to all religious, ethnic, racial and geographically disparate societies and to every economic system. It is universal. Philanthropic initiatives have contributed to advancements in many domains, including healthcare, education, scientific research, poverty alleviation and environmental conservation.
Philanthropy, like any human endeavor that addresses complex challenges, can have both positive and negative aspects. It is important to accept our complicated human history, analyze complex problems through multiple lenses, balance idealism with pragmatism and honestly evaluate positive impacts as well as unintended harms. If we follow these principles, there is no need to abolish a human practice encompassing the concept of giving, generosity and assisting those in need.
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