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The idea that the targeted largesse of the super-rich can unlock the problems of global development and progress is a potent influence in the world of philanthropy, business and government. How valid is it?
Michael Edwards opens a new debate with a searching scrutiny of the arguments for extending business principles into the worlds of civil society and social change.
Imagine you come across a small child who has fallen into a pond and is in danger of drowning. You know that you can easily and safely rescue him, but you are wearing an expensive pair of shoes that will be ruined if you do. We all think it would be seriously wrong to walk on past the pond, leaving the child to drown, because you don't want to have to buy a new pair of shoes - in fact, most people think that would be monstrous.
"Light the blue touch-paper and wait for the fireworks": that just about sums up the response to my book Just Another Emperor? The Myths and Realities of Philanthrocapitalism since its publication in March 2008. Not that I'm complaining.
The application of business principles to the world of civil society and social change has fashion, wealth, power and celebrity behind it. But where is the evidence that "philanthrocapitalism" works, and are there better ways to achieve urgently needed global social progress?
Michael Edwards, both in his openDemocracy essay "Philanthrocapitalism: after the goldrush" (19 March 2008) and in the book on which it draws, Just Another Emperor: the Myths and Realities of Philanthrocapitalism, is right: the new movement towards "philanthrocapitalism" may offer important opportunities – but not in its present formulation. One of its major underlying weaknesses as a paradigm for social change is that it ignores the critical contribution of mass movements to historical transformations.
Michael Edwards is right to be critical of entrepreneur philanthropy - both in his openDemocracy essay, "Philanthrocapitalism: after the goldrush" (19 March 2008) and in the book on which it draws, Just Another Emperor: the Myths and Realities of Philanthrocapitalism (Demos/Young Foundation, 2008).
In his article "Philanthrocapitalism: after the goldrush" (19 March 2008) Michael Edwards raises several serious questions about mixing business principles with philanthropic objectives and elevates the debate about the utility of a market-oriented approach to philanthropy. Edwards focuses particularly on the question of whether or not a focus on profits or business principles helps or hinders an organisation to successfully achieve longer-term social objectives, and he is quite critical of the potential outcomes.
Michael Edwards's essay "Philanthrocapitalism: after the goldrush" (19 March 2008) raises the alarm over what he sees as the hidden failures in applying the power of business to address pervasive social and environmental challenges. The core argument is that "philanthocapitalism" has been hyped too much and delivered too little; and that it undermines civil society, or at best distracts it from its historic task of using the structures and disciplines of democratically controlled governance to hold power to account.
Philanthrocapitalism isn't yet a major force in Europe - but it could become so. For now, the hype is far in advance of the reality. It is clear though that Europe too is undergoing the type of economic transition that in the United States has been associated with very large-scale philanthropy, funded by temporary monopolies, often controlled by individuals.
Michael Edwards, in his openDemocracy essay "Philanthrocapitalism: after the goldrush" (20 March 2008), raises an important and necessary voice of concern about trends in philanthropy that have received too little scrutiny to date - either because, as is often the case with donors of whatever variety, those hopeful for or dependent on their largesse fear to speak out, or because others are caught up in the latest vogue, hesitant to step away from the her