Voices

Is philanthropy a part of the solution?

2016-07-14 11:45

Although philanthropy comes under much criticism, it has a role to play in driving development, write Sello Hatang and Khalil Goga

Microsoft founder Bill Gates will deliver the Nelson Mandela Foundation’s 14th Annual Lecture on July 17.

Each year, prominent leaders in their fields are invited to drive debates on social issues, and the theme for this year’s lecture is “living together”.

As we navigate an increasingly fractious world divided by race, class, religion and opportunity, at the core of much of the discontent in South Africa has been rampant inequality in our economic system.

Over the past few years, one of the Nelson Mandela Foundation’s key priorities has been to use data-driven research, grass-roots knowledge and stakeholder dialogues to look for ways to reduce poverty and inequality, and to fundamentally shift unjust structures of power.

While more sustained solutions are driven through our dialogue and outreach programmes, as well as through partnerships such as the Mandela Initiative, the annual lecture is key in challenging and reframing our national discourse.

This was evident last year, when the foundation welcomed French economist Thomas Piketty to deliver the annual lecture.

Piketty and Gates have been involved in various approaches to reducing poverty and inequality.

While Piketty has advocated for a wide range of state-driven solutions, Gates has used his fortune and network to advocate for businesslike approaches to problems, and to inspire a culture, among the ultrawealthy, of giving.

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is the largest philanthropic organisation in the world, reaching out to millions in need of healthcare, research, education and financial services.

An example of the foundation’s achievements over the years has been its involvement in reducing deaths caused by malaria by 60%, and almost eradicating polio.

Other approaches include leveraging technology-driven solutions in providing the poor with savings and payment solutions, and supporting teacher education to build capacity for students entering tertiary institutions.

These projects have changed millions of lives and have created platforms for people to progress without being reliant on aid.

But, like many philanthropic organisations, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is not without criticism, most notably for promoting genetically modified organisms in farming, having close ties with pharmaceutical companies, the investment choices of its endowment, and that much of Gates’ fortune was amassed through Microsoft against the “common good”.

The foundation has also been accused of setting development agendas contrary to public interest, while some have questioned the foundation’s accountability.

As state aid dries up, private philanthropic organisations have become more integral to poverty alleviation, thereby increasing the power of these organisations.

The questions faced by the Nelson Mandela Foundation resonate across the globe. How do we effect positive changes to make people’s lives better in an unequal and imperfect system? How do we effect this change in a globalised world?

How do we develop solutions that include the state and society, and how do we make sure that those at the grass-roots level are included in development solutions?

Most importantly, how do we fundamentally shift the structures of power to make the world more equal without causing irreparable harm due to our own hubris?

Philanthropic organisations and philanthropists such as Gates are not saviours.

Instead, they form part of a solution as they will be a part of society for many years to come. Solutions to the inequalities of our time must include the ultrawealthy, especially in the short term.

We must also be cognisant of the immense successes philanthropic organisations have had in many of their projects.

Rather than bifurcating our endeavours along ideological lines, we need to find common solutions and goals. In “living together”, we need to not only listen but to critique, advocate and work together in creating a better tomorrow.

Hatang is CEO of the Nelson Mandela Foundation, where Goga is a senior researcher

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