Foreign Policy Blogs

Are there philanthropic ethics?

I last asked, “Will the West let Asia rise?”  I was playing off a comment from Hans Rosling’s TED presentation – and was applying a similar notion to philanthropy and social innovation.

Writing for Alliance, Olga Alexeeva turned my thesis around in her article “The Gucci bag of New Philanthropy” to ask:

What if philanthropic tradition is set in the stone of centuries and only supports the status quo, and tradition is simply a justification for not changing anything, and not challenging current practices and approaches?

Her perspective examines that Western philanthropy has actually created a set of ethics that have not yet been discussed among the new donors of the non-West.  Not having examined these ethics or what ethics should exist, philanthropy remains tied to cultural norms that may contradict the act of giving.

It is normal practice to strike your servants in the morning or evict farmers from your land with laughable compensation, and then in the afternoon sign cheques to charities helping the poor.  It is absolutely acceptable to build a chemical plant in the delta of a life-saving river and the next day make an inspirational speech about global warming at an international conference.

Alexeeva’s example of these contradictions are not limited to the East and South, as she describes – and the example had me asking, does Western philanthropy have a set of ethics?  Not a set of practices around giving or tools on how to give better, but an actual set of ethics?

At one point in time, I found myself in the arguement that if you’ve made money through rotten business practices then giving it away would do nothing to absolve you.  Most recently, I’ve realized that setting aside the judgement has been more conducive to doing better work with the money available.  And more realistic.

Still in a conversation around ethics, we would need to ask ourselves where our philanthropic dollars come from – and if there is a better way to do business to accrue them?  Ethics may not be a topic that most folks would likely take on – when their concern is more often on when the next dollar will arrive?

It should not deter us from braving the conversation, but we must be careful to assume that we’ve progressed so-far ethically ahead of others – when really, we haven’t even scratched the surface.