Beyond Trafficking and Slavery: Feature

How has philanthrocapitalism helped or hurt the anti-trafficking movement?

The injection of billions of dollars of private capital into anti-trafficking work has changed the field. Is that a good thing?

Elena Shih Janie Chuang
1 February 2021, 10.44am
Artwork by Carys Boughton. All rights reserved.

Last year, MacKenzie Scott, an award-winning novelist and the former wife of Amazon’s founder Jeff Bezos, donated nearly $6 billion to some 500 organisations in the span of five months. She made headlines for her swift, generous, and unconditional giving. Not only was she giving away wealth faster than anybody else attached to the Giving Pledge – a scheme where billionaires promise to donate the majority of their wealth to philanthropy – but Scott had upended modern philanthropical practices with how she gave. Rather than creating a foundation to manage the redistribution of her wealth, Scott made “unsolicited and unexpected gifts given with full trust and no strings attached” based on the recommendations of a trusted group of advisers. In essence, Scott gave, and then got out of the way.

This sort of hands-off approach isn’t common for large donors. It’s a more traditional form of philanthropy, which, animated by a recognition that wealth production can generate severe inequalities that threaten the basis of democratic governance, aims to give back to the community to help atone for the sins of business. In contrast, the dominant form of philanthropy today, known as venture philanthropy or philanthrocapitalism, does not simply offer compensation for the system’s flaws. It demands conversion to that same system’s philosophy.

Philanthrocapitalism incorporates a deep, ideological commitment to market-based solutions to the world’s problems. The assumption at its core is that the same techniques, management styles, and value systems that enable corporations to amass tremendous wealth can and should be used to correct the world’s social problems. Rather than simply funding third-party initiatives, today’s philanthrocapitalists create and manage ventures based on their own ideas of how to fix the world. They invest rather than give, and fully expect to see a return on their investment. As such they are far more hands-on than Scott has been, and are heavily reliant on metrics and benchmarks to identify impact and scale up successful programmes.

Because philanthrocapitalists are not beholden to an electorate, they exercise power without many of the accountability mechanisms that keep others in check.

Moreover, with their vast capital and networking capabilities, philanthrocapitalists often assume an outsized role in policymaking with respect to their chosen issues. Governments – particularly adherents to neoliberalism – and international institutions have embraced ‘philanthro-policymaking’. The resulting ‘public-private partnerships’ promise not only an infusion of funds, but a convenient vehicle for outsourcing state responsibility to private do-gooders. And yet, because philanthrocapitalists are not beholden to an electorate, a membership list, or a donor, they exercise power without many of the accountability mechanisms that keep others in check.

Philanthrocapitalism has, of course, attracted plenty of criticism. In addition to accountability concerns, critics question the wisdom of trying to fix problems with the same methods that created the problems in the first place. They argue that philanthrocapitalism is far too wedded to the current economic and political status quo of global capitalism to explore or challenge its systemic problems. As the philanthropist Peter Buffett has said, the current “charitable-industrial complex” offers “conscience laundering” for the ultra-wealthy while also keeping the existing structure of inequality in place. And as Anand Giridharadas, the author ‘Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World’, has argued, philanthrocapitalists tend to fight social problems in ways that do not disrupt the “people at the top”. By this he means that foundations spend millions of dollars dealing with the symptoms of an unfair economy, yet refrain from tackling the rules and policies that allow the rich to accumulate evermore wealth in the first place. Moreover, as one of our contributors, Kavita Ramdas, has argued elsewhere, the “metrics-driven, efficiency-seeking, technology-focused approach to social change” lends itself to a fix-the-problem mentality that is ultimately ill-equipped to address the messy and multifaceted realities of complex social problems.

Philanthrocapitalists first discovered human trafficking as an area of intervention in the late 2000s, and since then trafficking has drawn in dozens of large donors ranging from long-established foundations to venture capital funds and new tech firms. Their money and influence are now central to the work of the hundreds of organisations operating in this field, and as their funding prerogatives shift they are able to shape and reshape the nature of anti-trafficking interventions.

Such power comes with opportunities as well as risks. As observers of the “anti-trafficking industrial complex” and “rescue industry” like Carol Leigh and Laura Agustín have shown, the work of anti-trafficking often perpetuates grave inequalities along the vectors of nation, morality, race and ethnicity. Philanthrocapitalists can either fuel this dynamic or counteract it depending on how they choose to give out their dollars. Focusing on priorities that are furthest removed from survivor voices, for example, risks entrenching existing inequalities. At the same time, philanthrocapitalists enjoy the freedom and resources to think long-term, to go against conventional wisdom, and to try something new – something potentially transformative. As some have argued, maximising philanthrocapitalist potential in this regard requires “a measure of humility often elusive among those accustomed to power”. For philanthrocapitalists to affect real change they must recognise and build upon the deep expertise that already exists on the ground, especially that of survivors and those who work with them.

This new policy debate, which will appear over the next several weeks, asks whether and how philanthrocapitalism has helped or hurt global anti-trafficking efforts. The contributors represent a range of stakeholders, including staff at large foundations, anti-trafficking advocates who have born witness to philanthrocapitalism’s effects on the ground, and small NGOs who have benefited from or contended with philanthrocapitalism’s largess. The debate also includes authors who offer insights into new forms of giving and cultures of mutual aid that offer alternatives to the philanthrocapital model. And last, but most certainly not least, this debate includes the perspective of a trafficking survivor, offering her/his views on what philanthrocapitalists could do to make good on their promise eradicate trafficking worldwide.

This debate has been financially supported by Humanity United.

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