Billionaires, altruism and the rise of the ‘philanthrocapitalists’

Matthew Reisz reflects on the issues raised by Linsey McGoey’s new book on ‘philanthrocapitalism’

October 14, 2015
It is not always clear who benefits most from "charity"

There has been widespread debate about what it means for universities to become more like businesses.

But what about the charitable sector? Can and should altruism be combined with making a profit? What does it mean for a few huge foundations, typically controlled by people who’ve made a fortune in business, to be taking on far greater roles in education and health?

We may be broadly sympathetic to the goals of, for example, the Gates Foundation and the energy with which “the saint of Seattle” is pursuing them. But what are we to make of Bill Gates’ fellow billionaires who use their vast wealth to discredit ObamaCare or initiatives to combat climate change – and even, in one case, to try to abolish death? Is there any way we can hope to control them?

Those were just some of the questions that came up when I met Linsey McGoey, senior lecturer in sociology at the University of Essex, to discuss her forthcoming book No Such Thing as a Free Gift: The Gates Foundation and the Price of Philanthropy. The highlights of our conversation, where she explained why Gates is such a contentious figure, appear in a feature-length profile in this week’s magazine. But she was also happy to range far more widely about the paradoxes of “philanthrocapitalism”.

Take the whole phenomenon of microfinance, once much acclaimed as a spectacular new method for getting credit to those unable to access it before. McGoey accepts that it has provided – very modest – benefits to poor borrowers, yet also claims that “the major beneficiaries have been banks and for-profit institutions, many of whom received a lot of state and philanthropic support”.

Something similar applies to “the private education movement in the US” that McGoey fears may be transferred to the UK.

“It has allowed a lot of [hitherto] public space to be opened up to for-profit investment, though primary and secondary education might have been better left out of commodified space,” she explains. Yet although “people are getting rich through taxpayer-funded initiatives, the impact for students has not yet proved to justify such a level of public investment”.

As always, both the fun and the insights come from “following the money”.

Read Matthew Reisz’s feature from 15 October in our Features section.

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