Generosity doesn’t equal justice

I heard a thought provoking piece on NPR this afternoon. At times I agreed with the discussion, and at times I disagreed. Either way, it got me thinking. The author, Anand Giridharadas, the author of a new book, Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World, was interviewed and highlighted several arguments from the book that explores how the global elite’s propensity towards charity sometimes create (or perpetuate) the very social problems they are trying to “help.” In an interview with Time he states, “A lot of philanthropists cause problems with their left hand and then try to fix those problems with their right hand.” He continues, “They underpay workers and then try to rebuild, through their foundation, the American opportunity structure.” For this reason, Giridharadas doesn’t think that real solutions to our national problems, from wage stagnation to education inequality, will come from the country’s wealthy and powerful but rather a return to America’s foundational public institutions. “It is we the people who actually need to take change back from these pretenders of change,” he said.

Full disclosure – I haven’t read the book and I’m not going to elaborate on the tax code and the ability to deduct charitable donations, or the fact that non-profit organizations do have positive impacts and can spur innovation in many places around the world. This would be a very lengthy blog post to truly respond and reflect on the entire interview.

So, the piece that resonated with me was when he said, “Generosity does not equal justice,” or something to that effect (the audio of the show isn’t yet available for me to double check the quote). As I started thinking about it, I thought about the often used meme “equality, equity, justice” (figure 1 below) that encourages us uncover the root causes of issues and then address the systemic barriers that exist. The generosity of millionaires and billionaires does not simply result in equity for those who need additional supports to do whatever short-term circumstances and sources of systemic oppression impact them.

Screen Shot 2018-09-10 at 3.29.08 PM

Figure 1: Equality, Equity, Justice Meme

The problem right now is that based on the decades of inefficiencies, oppression (racial, gender, sexual orientation, language, etc) that the very systems that are supposed to turn around outcomes (i.e. health, education, social) continue to perpetuate them. Even when we receive a significant influx of philanthropic dollars to implement a program to target a need (i.e. an afterschool program for low-income students), we continue to tinker around the edges of the system, as opposed to truly changing the entire system (i.e. a longer school day with extracurriculars and academics combined and accessible for all students, combining the work of community partners and the school district into one cohesive effort). We are in an endless cycle of needing philanthropic dollars to improve outcomes, yet the very presences of those dollars sometimes pushes us to not rethink the broader infrastructure and systems. We become reliant on those dollars as it often seems too difficult or cumbersome to truly change the system.

This all said, there are numerous organizations and funders that are still doing great work and we should not stop those programs, strategies, and efforts. And, we should do so, while keeping an eye out for true innovation. We must pushing ourselves and our elected, appointed, and hired government leaders to truly address the root causes of social issues and work together to remove those historic and systemic barriers.

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