Just Another Emperor? The Myths and Realities of Philanthrocapitalism (2008)

Book Review
Reviewed by:
Publishing information: 
Michael Edwards New York: Demos and The Young Foundation, February 2008. 108pp. Paperback. ISBN 978-0-9816151-1-0 £7.95

The question mark in the title of this book is rather redundant as the author harbours no real doubts that the hype concerning philanthrocapitalism is as unwarranted as the lavish praise for the emperor’s non-existent new threads.

But, just as it was the swindling tailors, rather than the emperor himself, who persuaded the crowds to applaud their skills, so too it is arguable that any hype about new types of philanthropy has been whipped up by observers rather than rich donors themselves.

Edwards is extremely exercised by claims that “a new movement is afoot that promises to save the world”, yet the only people who could be accused of making such an arrogant statement are the journalists Matthew Bishop and Michael Green whose book ‘Philanthrocapitalism: How the rich are trying to save the world’ does at least contain the qualifier ‘trying’.

So at the heart of Edwards’ interesting, well-written and passionate argument is a straw man. Of course it would be presumptuous, over-blown and untrue to claim that business methods alone can save the world by creating large-scale social transformations – but who, apart from the critics, says it can?

Indeed, Edwards provides us with many examples of philanthrocapitalists who make far humbler claims. He quotes Melinda Gates acknowledging that, “we know we didn’t invent philanthropy…we have relied so much on those who came before us”. Ebay founder Pierre Omidyar concurs with Edward’s arguments about the limits of using the business approach in civil society saying, “I don’t believe there is a for-profit answer to everything”. And Bill Clinton is quoted as suggesting this approach should be used only “where it is appropriate”.

Perhaps this trio are the exception, and most American philanthrocapitalists do need to eat the slice of humble pie being served up by Edwards. But in the UK we are still in the phase of encouraging role models to put their heads above the philanthropic parapet, and should be in no rush to encourage a backlash.

In parts, Edwards’ conviction in his own critique is in doubt, as he appears fully aware of the significant impacts made by the targets of his ire. In addition to citing the successes of micro-finance and the new green revolution, he notes, “Given that someone dies from malaria every 30 seconds and that treated bed nets can be produced and distributed at very low costs, these investments are extremely important and there is every reason to think that business and markets can help bring them to fruition”.

This disjunction between Edwards’ scattergun assault on the motives and methods of modern donors and his cooler assessment of their many achievements, makes it appear that his true aim may be to ‘enliven the debate’, which he certainly accomplishes, given the amount of discussion the book has generated. Yet this enlivening process involves over-stating the case by slating the new rich and leaving no room for reconciliation between business and civil society values.

Much criticism that is ostensibly levelled at philanthropists (new, old, capitalist or otherwise) is, on closer examination, thinly veiled criticism of the possession of great wealth, not its distribution by whatever means. Edwards’ attack on those adhering to a philosophy ‘rooted in money and self interest’ reveals more about his anti-rich prejudices than it does about the ability of people who have made money in business being able to turn it to some public good.

Indeed, it is this aspect of his argument that I found most puzzling. Firstly the suggestion that money earnt in pursuit of capitalist values can only ever be part of the problem rather than the solution, is to cast doubt on the ability of anyone living, and earning a living, in free market societies to make charitable donations. Why should my tenner to Oxfam escape accusations of hypocrisy when, as a writer living in the UK, I clearly benefit from global inequalities?

Secondly, the chasm that Edwards sees between the values and actions of people leading civil society organisations and those leading businesses is depicted as unbridgeable, “in markets, we are customers… in civil society we are citizens”. But must people be either red-in-tooth-and-claw capitalists or co-operative participants in civil society? Our social roles are not like hats that we can wear only one at a time, people slip easily in and out of multiple roles every day. Businesspeople are also parents, opera appreciators, football fans, followers of religions and passionate about numerous causes.

In the same month this book was published, Bill Gates gave a talk at the University of Chicago in which he pointed out that "malaria kills one million people a year; baldness hasn't killed anyone yet," so he asks why it is that "less than 10 percent of the money spent on curing baldness is spent on fighting malaria”. To refuse to countenance giving Gates credit because he made his money in Microsoft, is to undermine a powerful advocate for change, who has ideas and the money to make them happen.

This book is worth reading as an interesting provocation, and it does a service in bringing debates about philanthropy to wider attention, but it is ultimately a counsel of despair. It suggests that philanthropy must wait until after the revolution and in the meantime lets those with the most to give off the hook by convincing them they are intractably part of the problem. However, as capitalism’s dominance shows no signs of abating, we can either bash those who succeed in this system or we can encourage and support them in making the most effective interventions in tackling social injustice.

Ultimately, Edwards’ bark is worse than the bite of his argument. Not only does he conclude that “Philanthrocapitalism offers one way of increasing the social value of the market” he also volunteers that if he were invited to address a gathering of the donors he has sought to demonise, he would begin by thanking them and acknowledging that without their efforts, “the world would be further from the commercial and technological advances required to cure malaria and get micro-credit to everyone who needs it”. Looks like Edwards can see the emperor’s shiny new suit after all.

Beth Breeze is Publications Editor of Philanthropy UK.

This book review is tagged under:

  • History of philanthropy
  • Understanding philanthropy