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When St. Thomas Aquinas reflected on charity, and in particular alms-giving, he stressed the immediacy and locality of it: charity requires intimate knowledge of its recipient, the proper selection of means, attendance to effects, the right motivations for the givers, and so forth. In part, he stressed charity as an individual virtue rather than a collective effort.

Under the best of circumstances, acts of charity often fail to accomplish what was hoped. In an age as abstract and monumental as our own, charity becomes systematized, collectivized, centralized, and sentimentalized, making it not only less effective but also more susceptible to unintended consequences. 

Here are two articles that highlight the weaknesses of Big Philanthropy in our times. Over at the Grey Lady, Peter Buffett describes the difficulties of large-scale charitable giving and its unintended consequences. He writes:

Early on in our philanthropic journey, my wife and I became aware of something I started to call Philanthropic Colonialism. 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.

Why does it occur? Often to salve the conscience of the wealthy, who get to feel good about themselves without having to worry about the actual effects in people’s lives:

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 he doesn’t pose any useful solutions that would stress the principles of localism and ownership, he might at least get people to think twice about how philanthropy works. Meanwhile, in a reprint over at TruthOut, Prashanth Kamalakanthan discusses the destructive effects of large-scale philanthropy. In a more cynical, but perhaps more accurate, vein he writes:

While pretending to fix inequality, contemporary philanthropy’s actual role has been to strengthen the arrangements that make gross inequality possible in the first place. It has become a weapon in the class warfare of the 1%, the carrot to win people over to their ideology complementing the stick of political spending to coerce them into the same.

And further:

For all its failures, today’s philanthropy continues to succeed as a form of self-therapy for the world’s rich. The philanthropic elite have won out in a not-so-pretty world of entrenched and widening inequality, and their charitable giving helps hide the ugly truth of the situation — from us as well as themselves. Ruinously for us, though, the ways in which our misanthrope philanthropists contribute are significantly deepening the crisis at hand.

Anyone engaged in the world of philanthropy ought to be required to read Summa 2.2.23-46.


This piece was originally published at the Front Porch Republic on August 20, 2013. It has been slightly modified for this publication.


Photo credit: Lawrence OP via VisualHunt / CC BY-NC-ND

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