YOU can get asked tricky questions when you are out and about publicising a new book. Perhaps the toughest and most personal last week was this: “How has someone who was for so long an advocate of social justice now retreated into the soft option of philanthropy?”
The call for “justice rather than charity” has, indeed, been a constant thread in my public life. It was a principle woven into much of my journalism from the developing world. It was central to my activism through Christian Aid, CAFOD, Traidcraft, the Catholic Institute for International Relations, and the year during which I was seconded to Tony Blair’s Commission for Africa, which laid the groundwork for huge progress on debt and aid at the Gleneagles Summit in 2005.
It was a proud moment when, working with Bono and Bob Geldof to lobby the Gleneagles summit, I saw my slogan “From charity to justice” emblazoned across the stage at the Live8 concert, which was watched by two billion people.
But is philanthropy necessarily a retreat from that? Six long years of research and writing Philanthropy: From Aristotle to Zuckerberg (Feature, 18 September, Books, 11 September) have given me time to consider this in some depth.
When I first began writing on development, prompted by the experience of reporting from Ethiopia during the terrible famine of 1984-85, I soon perceived that there were massive issues of unjust distribution of the fruits of creation. We have a system of international trade which is stacked against the world’s poor. Yet, over the years, I came to realise that, despite the exploitative depredations of many transnational corporations in the developing world, business also had a crucial part to play in lifting people out of poverty.
Small business is not just a creator of wealth: it is a creator of human dignity. The great Jewish sage Maimonides devised a hierarchy of giving often known as Rambam’s Ladder. its highest rung is charity, which allows the recipient to become self-sufficient, “entering into partnership with him, or finding him work, so that his hand will be fortified so that he will not have to ask others”.
There is, in such giving, a recognition of the importance of mutual respect. It can be there at a higher level, too, as in the eight-year partnership between GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) and Save the Children to combine the expertise of the business and voluntary sectors to save the lives of the poor. Together, they have reformulated a GSK mouthwash and turned it into a gel that can be applied to the umbilical stump to prevent the sepsis that kills 400,000 newborn babies a year in developing countries.
There are other examples. Danone teamed up with Grameen Bank, in Bangladesh, to develop a low-cost yogurt that provides 30 per cent of a poor child’s recommended daily nutrients.
Discovering shared values can create win-win results. It can compensate for market failures and government short-termism. It can fund grass-roots organisations to mediate between individuals and the market and the State. Critical thinking about philanthropy can make bad philanthropy good — and good philanthropy better.