“Philanthropic Colonialism.” That’s the accusation Peter Buffett, son of famed financier Warren Buffett, levels against large-scale donors on Saturday’s New York Times Op Ed page. When he first got into philanthropy, Buffett writes,
I noticed that a donor had the urge to "save the day" in some fashion. People (including me) who had very little knowledge of a particular place would think that they could solve a local problem. Whether it involved farming methods, education practices, job training or business development, over and over I would hear people discuss transplanting what worked in one setting directly into another with little regard for culture, geography or societal norms.
In fact, it’s worse than that, says Buffett. Philanthropy is actually increasing “inequality” in the world. Businesspeople go out and make oodles of money and then make themselves feel better by giving some small amount to charity. He writes:
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.
Talk about seeing the world economy as a fixed pie. Buffett seems to think that every time one person on this side of the world gets wealthier, someone on the other side gets poorer. The idea that the real problem for the world’s poor is that people somewhere else are trying to get rich is laughable. (And so, for that matter, is his use of the the phrase “the system.” If Peter Buffett isn’t part of the system, who is?)
If you want to know the difference between the West and the developing world the answer is the rule of law, free markets, and property rights. We have them. They don’t. But rather than sharing the knowledge we have gained—the secrets of our success—Buffett would like us to be more sensitive to “culture,” “geography,” and “societal norms.” You know, just because free enterprise works here doesn’t mean it will work somewhere else where the cultural norms are different.
This kind of patronizing nonsense would be deeply upsetting if it were spouted by anyone. But the fact that it is being offered as truth by a child of one of the most influential philanthropists on earth is just depressing.
Buffett is right when he says that philanthropy can’t simply be run like a business—that just focusing on the ROI (return on investment) that each grant brings can be shortsighted. But the problem is not that people in the West are too business-oriented. The problem is that donors don’t think about how they made their money—about the conditions that made their businesses thrive.
What communities in the developing world need more than a handout or even a cleverly designed philanthropic program is the rule of law, the free market and property rights. Peter Buffett says: “I’m really not calling for an end to capitalism; I’m calling for humanism.” The connection between the two seems to escape him.