Sunday, August 1, 2010

Charity begins at home

At about the time when Indian government had shut door on some of the leading development donor agencies, philanthrocapitalists of all hues had mushroomed to fill the gap. Driven by corporate profits, such foundations promise to save the world by bringing the magic of the market to philanthropy. That business-is-best philosophy has been seductively presented to remove the messiness of social change. And no one seems to be complaining.

But Michael Edwards considers it an attractive proposition that is also a dangerous mirage. After all, if business wants to save the world, there are plenty of opportunities to do so at the heart of their operations: pay taxes; pay decent wages; don't produce goods that kill; and follow government regulations. Ironically, businesses evade $385 billion a year of corporate tax in developing countries, far more than what flows as foreign aid.

Small Change is a tiny volume filled with incredible insights on philanthropy, civil society and social change. A must read for all those engaged in the business of social change, the book argues that solutions to complex social and political problems have to be fought for and negotiated - not produced, packaged and sold. Unless a social space free of external influences is preserved, people cannot hold government and business accountable for their action.

The non-profit sector may be getting larger, but it is becoming weaker due to increasing corporatization of non-profit groups. By reducing non-profits to the role of service providers, businesses have not only avoided areas that are essentially unprofitable for them but have also distanced the non-profits from their prime role of addressing inequality and individual alienation, which has essentially been the creation of capitalism.

Having spent three decades in the nonprofit sector, Edward backs up his argument with some clear logic that holds one's attention with a lot of interesting stories. The metrics-driven methodologies of the business world have failed more than once. For instance, the Gates Foundation has admitted that its $258 million investment in AIDS control in India has achieved none of its goals and is too expensive to be handed over to the government.

However, the story doesn't end here. A World Health Organization official had complained in 2008 that it was no longer possible to find independent reviewers for research proposals because they were all on the payroll of the Gates Foundation. It is no accident but part of a deeper conspiracy. By violating regulations and evading taxes the capitalists amass wealth, a portion of which is directed for social causes that in turn helps appropriate policies. A win-win scenario!

Digging deeper into the world of corporate philanthropy, Edwards contests the dubious claims of the 'philanthrocapitalism' espoused by Michael Bishop, the so-called 'creative capitalism' offered by Bill Gates, the 'fortune at the bottom of the pyramid' of C K Prahalad as guises to legitimise window dressing by corporate social responsibility and social entrepreneurship that address symptoms rather than root causes.

If you wish to get insights on how businesses are corrupting governments and the civil society, Small Change could make a thoughtful beginning.....Link

Small Change: Why Business Won't Save the World
by Michael Edwards 

Tata McGraw Hill Edition, New Delhi, 125 pages, Rs 299.

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