An interesting debate on Radio 4’s Today Programme this morning about who can do the most good in tackling poverty: aid workers or bankers. The argument, put forward by Will Crouch, a DPhil student at Oxford University’s Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics, is (in its most simplistic form) that high earners can do more good, because through private philanthropy their earnings can achieve more good (saving lives, improving education, etc) than can the work of an individual aid worker. Leaving aside the rather worrying vagueness of the term ‘aid worker’ (also described as ‘charity worker’ and ‘charity sector’ in the Today Programme’s piece) is there anything in this?
Crouch has written an interesting paper on this, but as he requests for it not to be cited without permission, I’m basing this on his interview with the BBC, and Oxford University’s press release, neither of which do justice to the ideas, so do have a look at the paper.
Speaking to the BBC, Crouch said:
“The direct benefit a single aid worker can produce is limited, whereas the philanthropic banker’s donations might indirectly help 10 times as many people.”
It seems to me that there are a few obvious criticisms of the logic behind this argument.
Firstly, we have to look at the context in which the high earnings that underpin the philanthropy were made. To use the example of the banker: whilst bank profits are not necessarily a zero sum game – the gain of the bank being the inevitable loss to an individual or community – the growth and profits of the banking sector (and through this the high earnings to individuals in that sector) have not benefited all, and have been to the cost of some. This might be direct costs (those encouraged to borrow too much and unable to pay back, or deliberate fraud by banks in encouraging debt); or indirect (the closure of sure start centres, libraries, lowered inflation-linked increases in benefits, etc, following the economic crisis brought about in large part by the banking sector in pursuit of its high profits). If you want an example whereby economic crisis is literally endangering lives, look to the crisis in the Global Fund right now, where ongoing programmes look increasingly likely to close due to the failure of donors, experiencing their own financial pressures, to deliver on commitments.
Secondly, why is there an assumption that philanthropy itself inherently has a positive impact? It will if it is put to good use through effective programmes, but one of the characteristics of philanthropy is that there are fewer control and accountability mechanisms over dispersal – it is at the discretion of the owner of that wealth. The history of private philanthropy has shown that the pursuit of an individual’s ideals, beliefs and convictions about the way the world works through philanthropic giving has had both disastrous and positive outcomes. The Gates Foundation may be a particularly successful model (although it is not unproblematic), but it is not necessarily typical of what philanthropy has achieved. Moreover, what has made Gates successful is his willingness, his insistence even, that those engaged in work and research in the areas he funds (many of whom would fall under the category of ‘aid workers’) are central in deciding how and where the money is spent. Gates provides the money, and the overall direction to which his philanthropy is guided, but the success of the institution rests on so much more than that. It is not Gates’ alone to claim, and nor (I suspect) would he try to do so.
Thirdly, Crouch’s argument that because jobs in the aid sector are in demand they are easily replaceable (so that the individual’s ‘difference’ would simply be made by someone else, not adding anything in value), whereas the philanthropic-minded high earning banker is not so replaceable, doesn’t quite stack up. Not all aid workers are equally successful in the impact they make. They are not automated workers, implementing schemes without thought. The difference they make reflects not just their individual work (which, in theory, might be more replaceable), but their knowledge, their skills, their experience, their understanding of the particular contexts in which they are operating, their commitment to shared values and principles (which is surely not so easily replaceable). The argument ultimately rests on a deeply flawed understanding of development processes, one which focuses more on the money than on the type and impact of the interventions themselves.
This all reminds me of Oscar Wilde’s ‘The Soul of Man’. Private charity, he writes, ‘is not a solution: it is an aggravation of the difficulty’:
“It is immoral to use private property in order to alleviate the horrible evils that result from the institution of private property. It is both immoral and unfair.”
This is not the place for a dissection of philanthropy itself, but a relevant thought nonetheless to this debate.
The paper from which the argument is drawn is not, to be fair, a reflection on development itself, but an interesting argument in challenging commonly held notions of morality and ethics in relation to jobs. And it does present some interesting ideas. But as a commentary on the value of philanthropy, or the value of ‘aid’ sector interventions, it doesn’t quite stack up.