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Philantrocapitalism: the new tyranny of giving

published 12 October 2016 updated 12 October 2016

By Antonio OImedo, University of Roehampton & Stephen Ball, UCL

In 2008, in their Ode to philanthrocapitalism, Bishop and Green claimed that philanthrocapitalists are “ hyperagents who have the capacity to do some essential things far better than anyone else”. Apparently, the fact that they “do not face elections every few years, like politicians, or suffer the tyranny of shareholder demands for ever-increasing quarterly profits, like CEOs of most private companies” or that they do not have to devote “vast amounts of time and resources to raising money, like most heads of NGOs”, situates them in a privileged position to “think long term”, to go “against conventional wisdom”, to take up ideas “too risky for government” and to deploy “substantial resources quickly when the situation demands it”. These new super agents can solve the problems of the world, and do it fast, cleanly, and absolutely.

Behind Bishop and Green’s philanthrocapitalim, Bill Gates’ creative capitalism, and David Cameron’s Big Society, which are closely related conceptions, is a new relation of ‘giving’ and enacting policy. This relation is based on a more direct involvement of givers in policy communities, that is a more ‘hands on’ approach to the use of donations. In previous writings we have referred to this new political landscape as philanthropic governance, that is the ways in which, through their philanthropic action, these actors are able to modify meanings, mobilise assets, generate new policy technologies and exert pressure on, or even decide, the direction of policy in specific contexts.

Democratic deficit

The problem here, or the problem for some of us, is that the claims and practices of new philanthropy are premised on the residualisation of established methods and traditions of democracy. They see no need to respond to or be accountable for their philanthropic investments to anyone else but themselves. This is what Horne indicates when he claimed that new philanthropists operate in a ‘para-political sphere’ [1] within which they can develop their own policy agenda untrammelled by the vicissitudes of politics. What we are facing here is more than just givers who ‘vote with their dollars’ [2]. As Parmar puts it: “the foundation-state relationship, therefore, is not a conspiracy – it may be quite secretive and operate behind the scenes, but it is not criminal enterprise. It is, however, strongly undemocratic, because it privileges the right people, usually those with the right social backgrounds and/or attitudes”. The direct involvement of new philanthropists in the para-political sphere enables “some individuals to act as their own private governments, whose power can be used to challenge that of the state and force it to re-examine its priorities and policies” [3].

Gambling with children's future

Essentially this is a simplification of policy, a cutting out of the messy compromises, dissensus and accommodations that attend ‘normal’ policymaking. But perhaps change is less simple than it seems initially from the perspective of great wealth! In a recent public letter from of Sue Desmond-Hellmann, CEO of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, there is a frank recognition that single-mindedness and a deliberate circumvention of traditional policy actors may not actually be constructive or effective in getting change done

“… we’re facing the fact that it is a real struggle to make system-wide change.(…) Unfortunately, our foundation underestimated the level of resources and support required for our public education systems to be well-equipped to implement the standards. We missed an early opportunity to sufficiently engage educators – particularly teachers – but also parents and communities so that the benefits of the standards could take flight from the beginning.

This has been a challenging lesson for us to absorb, but we take it to heart. The mission of improving education in America is both vast and complicated, and the Gates Foundation doesn’t have all the answers.

But every tough lesson only reinforces our commitment to teachers and student success.”

In other words, maybe ‘what works’ – the discursively elegant silver bullet solutions, which draw upon business methods to reform education - doesn’t work; maybe such solutions that ignore what teachers know, that ridicule experience, that deliberately avoid debate and listening to practitioners and teacher organisations and academics are just not good enough.

This is a hard lesson, learned at great cost to children and to schools. In cities like Memphis, New Orleans, New York and Los Angeles the money and monopoly of Gates and his cohorts have fundamentally changed the landscape of education, children’s school experience, and patterns of access to school, and now we are being told ‘sorry it was a mistake’, we need to start again! Well, the problem is that such starting point will not be the same. Teachers are even more tired and breathless, students and their families feel lost and do not know who or what to wait for -now that Superman has accepted defeat-, local communities have been diminished and disempowered… And this is only the very beginning… what about Kenya, and Uganda, and Ghana, and India, and England, and the Philippines, and…

[1]  Horne, 2002

[2] Saltman, 2010

[3] Frumkin 2006, 14

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The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect any official policies or positions of Education International.