A history of failed philanthropy in Africa? | 

World Economic Forum, 2005. (L to R) Bill Clinton, Bill Gates, Thabo Mbeki, Tony Blair, Bono, Olusegun Obasango.
World Economic Forum, 2005. (L to R) Bill Clinton, Bill Gates, Thabo Mbeki, Tony Blair, Bono, Olusegun Obasango.

Philanthropic efforts have existed for centuries in order to improve Africa. Has it failed for centuries?

Author Paul Theroux says philanthropic efforts trace back from from Sir Thomas Buxton in the 18th Century to Bill Gates today. He argues in a column for Barrons that billions have been spent in Africa to little effect.

“Africa receives roughly $50 billion in aid annually from foreign governments, and perhaps $13 billion more from private philanthropic institutions, according to Penta’s estimate,” he writes.

“I can testify that Africa is much worse off than when I first went there 50 years ago to teach English: poorer, sicker, less educated, and more badly governed. It seems that much of the aid has made things worse.”

The supposed new ideas, like microfinance, are just new versions of the same thing done 173 years ago. The piece is heavy on Theroux’s personal experiences in Africa as a teacher and a visitor. He shares the story of foreign professionals working in Kenya and Malawi. By working in remote or rural places in a given countries, the local professionals have no incentive to pursue jobs where they are filled by foreigners.

“My experience with the teachers in Malawi might explain this paradox,” he writes. “With so many outsiders willing to travel upcountry to improve the state of health care, African doctors tend to stay in better-paying jobs in urban areas, or simply leave the country altogether for places where doctors are held in high esteem and amply rewarded.” Continue reading

Forbes champions philanthropists and markets, then helps Liberia | 

Forbes, the news source for all things wealth, released its first ever list of fifty biggest givers in the US. Bill and Melinda Gates top the list  after giving away $1.9 billion in 2012. They are followed by Gates Foundation supporter Warren Buffett, George Soros, Mark Zukerberg and Walmart owners, the Walton family.

Click to use interactive list.

It is a straight list of how much money individuals or families give away each year. Included in the numbers is the percentage of net worth that was given away by the top fifty.  Gerry and Marguerite Lenfest rank number thirty-seven by giving away $44.5 million, nearly nine percent of their total wealth. Larry Ellison ranks just a tad higher, but he gave away only 0.1% of his $43.1 billion net worth.

One of the features is an interview with Bill Gates and Bono. Lane hosted a discussion between the two at the Forbes 400 Philanthropy Summit. There he discussed how the two initially met, Bono’s self-declared ‘factivist’ streak and how Gates is using numbers to change US education.

It was a representative conversation for the totality of the coverage by Forbes on philanthropy. Market-based ideas were touted with no information to back them or historical context. Important people were profiled without a single question about the efficacy of their work and the tired dynamic of the US helping Africa continued. Continue reading

Charity Navigator CEO battles for the soul of the nonprofit world | 

We often cover aid critics here at Humanosphere and often, they raise great points. But there’s something that gets tedious about constantly criticizing the people who are actively engaged in very difficult development work.

A few big things, though, distinguish Ken Berger from those critics. First, he worked for thirty years with charities that helped the homeless in New Jersey. Second, he’s focused on the American context – the state of nonprofits here in the United States – not the Global South.

Ken Berger
Ken Berger

Most importantly, he’s not an author hawking a book, a professor or anything resembling an armchair critic. As the CEO of Charity Navigator, the best-known ratings index of nonprofits out there, evaluating and scrutinizing charities is his full-time job. Berger was in Seattle this week for the annual meeting of Global Washington.

So when Berger says things like this, we think people should pay attention:

  • “Why are there are so many [charity] CEOs who are ripoff artists?”
  • “We really need a rethink of what the nonprofit sector is and what a public charity is in this country. It’s really out of control.”
  • “The nonprofit sector takes in $1.5 trillion a year. It’s the largest nonprofit sector in the world… And the amount of oversight is pathetic.”
  • “We would like to change the paradigm from, the nonprofit that does the best marketing wins, to one where the nonprofit that helps the most people, is the most effective, gets the best results, wins.”
  • “If they had a more robust system of measuring and managing what they were doing, a lot of those people would be alive today.”

Everyone should listen to this. Before we talk with Berger, East Coast correspondent Tom Murphy and I discuss the scope of Typhoon Haiyan’s impact on the Philippines, what to watch out for in media coverage, and suggest some Filipino organizations worth supporting. And we’d love to hear your reactions to our analysis and to Berger’s incendiary remarks in the comments.

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Charity is a broken concept, says Warren Buffett’s Son | 

bio-picPeter Buffett, son to billionaire Warren Buffett, describes how he came to understand the nature of and the problems with philanthropy and charity. He describes in the a New York Times OpEd how he was introduced to the sector when his father established three foundations for his children to run.

The musician had little experience in charity work, but soon learned of what he called ‘Philanthropic Colonialism.’ Donors act on an urge to save other people that often involves implementing solutions without regard for social norms, culture or even physical location. This can lead to problems or actually make matters worse for the people who are supposedly being helped, says Buffett.

However the problems of charity go much deeper. He makes the case that philanthropy and charity perpetuate the very systems that allow for widespread poverty. The very people who benefit from a warped global system are the ones who later turn around and give away their money without ever really changing the fundamental reasons that massive inequalities exist.

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.

Continue reading

Nathan Myhrvold: Patent Troll, Inventor and now Global Do-Gooder | 

When folks talk about Nathan Myhrvold, they seldom use muted terms.

Tom Paulson

Nathan Myhrvold, speaking at Social Innovations Fast Pitch 2012

The former chief technologist for Microsoft is a close associate of Bill Gates and now CEO of a business, Intellectual Ventures, which some say holds more patents (about 40,000) than any other company in the United States.

I wanted to talk to Myhrvold about his recent ventures into philanthropy, into humanitarianism, which his firm has dubbed its “Global Good” project.

But first, I should disclose that I once worked for Nathan as one of a number of assisting writers on his mega-cookbook Modernist Cuisine. I helped write the meat chapter. (We sometimes argued over the words. He was difficult, I would say. He might say the same about me. But I think we’re all happy with the book.)

I should also note Myhrvold is frequently accused of being a patent troll — meaning he and his firm buy up patents and then use them to, uh, encourage (some use different words) other companies to pay them royalties or licensing fees. Here’s one such recent news post on GigaOm that talks about the Bellevue-based firm “bleeding billions from creative companies” using threats of litigation and disguised “shell companies.”

The writer goes on to say Myhrvold runs a ‘dark empire’ that stalks its victims! Is this Lord of the Rings or something? Like I said, he does tend to provoke strong feelings.

Myhrvold also provokes strong praise. He is frequently described as a master inventor in his own right, a brilliant polymath, an accomplished paleontologist (as this New Yorker profile noted) and, of course, a gourmet chef.

But the Nathan Myhrvold I’m most interested in is a fairly new one — Nathan the humanitarian technologist. Continue reading

Seattle talk: Philanthro-capitalism and the politics behind the global health agenda | 

On Friday, 3:30-6 pm, UW Health Sciences Hogness Auditorium, historian Anne-Emanuelle Birn gave the Stephen Stewart Gloyd endowed lecture, “Philanthrocapitalism, Cooption and the Politics of Global Health Agenda-Setting.”


The words “global health” usually conjure images of health workers vaccinating children in Africa, major initiatives aimed at getting anti-HIV drugs or anti-malaria bed nets out to people in poor communities across the globe or any number of other noble efforts aimed at fighting diseases of poverty.

Most don’t think of global health as a means to also advance corporate or political agendas.

Anne-Emanuelle Birn

But Anne-Emanuelle Birn does and on Friday, at a UW symposium, she explained why.

Birn’s a historian who literally wrote the book on global health! (Well, okay, she’s first author on the 3rd edition of it … known as the Textbook of International Health). The popular narrative of global health, she says, is too often a simplistic portrayal of the field as a charitable enterprise largely devoid of political and economic power or social conflict.

“There’s an incredible amount of naivete and lack of knowledge about all this,” said Birn. “To begin with, it’s important to recognize that philanthropy emerged in the United States in the early 20th century as an alternative to the welfare state.”

That’s important, she explained, because it provides a lens through which to evaluate the strategies and choices made by philanthropists to advance their goals. Continue reading

Update on Greg Mortenson and ‘Three Cups of Deceit’ | 


Greg Mortenson

Author and philanthropist Greg “Three Cups of Tea” Mortenson is back in the news with his attorneys asking a judge to toss out a lawsuit that accuses him of defrauding readers and donors.

For a quick reminder of what Mortenson is accused of, you can read Jon Krakauer’s devastating critique and online booklet Three Cups of Deceit – or my synopsis of it, Ten Sips from Three Cups of Deceit.

According to the Associated Press, Mortenson is basing his defense on another author, James Frey, who was made infamous on the Oprah Winfrey Show where he was first celebrated and then later exposed for fabricating much of his story.

“Plaintiffs should not be allowed to create a world where authors are exposed to the debilitating expense of class action litigation just because someone believes a book contains inaccuracies,” contends Mortenson’s attorney John Kauffman.

In Mortenson’s case, however, the alleged fictional accounts in his books were used to not just sell the books but also to raise funds for his philanthropy, the Central Asia Institute, which builds schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan. As stated in the AP story:

The lawsuit accuses the Montana resident of being involved in a racketeering scheme to turn him into a false hero, defraud millions of people out of the price of the books and raise millions in donations to the charity. The other defendants allegedly in on the scheme are co-author David Relin, publisher Penguin Group and Mortenson’s Bozeman-based charity, Central Asia Institute.


China: Philanthropy on the rise but human rights on the decline? | 

Flickr, Peter Fuchs

Two stories out of China:

Bill Gates lauds the Chinese for becoming more philanthropic, though many might say they could hardly have become less so. In Xinhua, Gates says:

Many people he met in China acknowledged that philanthropy was still in its early stages of development in the country, but they already had ideas about things they wanted to do, he recalled, adding that this impressed him very much.

Meanwhile, former Washington state governor and now U.S. Ambassador to China Gary Locke says China’s human rights track record is getting worse lately. On the Charlie Rose Show, Locke said:

Locke told Rose that the human rights “climate has always ebbed and flowed in China, up and down, but we seem to be in a down period and it’s getting worse.”