A quick response to “The Charitable-Industrial Complex”

Peter Buffett’s “The Charitable-Industrial Complex” op-ed is notable because only rarely do wealthy people admit there’s something deeply morally wrong about accumulating wealth and the widespread existence of poverty:

As more lives and communities are destroyed by the system that creates vast amounts of wealth for the few, the more heroic it sounds to “give back.” It’s what I would call “conscience laundering” — feeling better about accumulating more than any one person could possibly need to live on by sprinkling a little around as an act of charity.

But this just keeps the existing structure of inequality in place. The rich sleep better at night, while others get just enough to keep the pot from boiling over. Nearly every time someone feels better by doing good, on the other side of the world (or street), someone else is further locked into a system that will not allow the true flourishing of his or her nature or the opportunity to live a joyful and fulfilled life.

While I’m happy to hear this critique and glad that it’s passed into the mainstream media so that elites are paying attention, I wish there was more of a direction here about where to go next.

What I like about it: Pointing out big problems: the classist misimpression that the wealthy know best about how to improve the lives of the poor, the idea that managerial and capitalist logic can easily be applied to problems that are essentially about public goods, the unwillingness of donors to give up control when they give their money, the notion that unconscionable gathering of wealth can be laundered by “giving back.”

What I worry about, especially among US-based radicals: The idea that simply abandoning or destroying these institutions or the flow of wealth they represent will solve things. This is why I’m resistant to naming this an “industrial complex”—something that must be destroyed.

The reality is that resources are wrongly distributed from the global South to a rich few every day, leaving behind both injustice and unmet needs. We can, and should, attack the injustice head-on, and fight the looting of the world by corporations and their corrupt associates in governments. But, we also need to build an infrastructure that provides public goods, like the eradication of polio, equitable titling of land, ambulances in rural communities, and emergency food assistance. The struggle is not to stop the institutions that distribute resources from northern donors to such ends, but to make them functional and to make them accountable to the people they serve.

Frankly, both liberals and radicals in the US are bad at putting their money where their heart is in challenging third world poverty. When I visited the Zapatistas, I saw desperately needed ambulances funded by Italian squatters. In Bolivia, left parties from Scandinavia run their own alternatives to the official aid system, while US Americans just complain about USAID without building alternatives. Indigenous and small farmer titles under agrarian reform there happened through official development assistance funds paired with a radical government.

Bottom line: change can cost money, and we need to think seriously about how to insist that it flows where its most needed.