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Philanthropy is usually supposed to be a matter of moral virtue rather than intellectual disposition.

Bill Gates, however, recently remarked upon the intellectual requirements of philanthropy, particularly the capacity to visualize the impact of philanthropy either by seeing it up close or imaginatively:

For most people, the first philanthropic thing they’ll do will be something in their neighborhood where they can go and, you know, put their hands on it, meet the kids at the charter school where they’re volunteering their time, meet the kids that they’re mentoring and see the progress that they’re making. If you could connect up with the poor countries, the marginal impact of your time or even pretty small resources is higher in many cases than anywhere else you’re going to look, but it’s harder to access that and figure out how you’re going to, you know, stay involved in a sustained way.

Gates clearly implies a moral judgment in favor of philanthropy directed toward poor countries than toward local causes in wealthy countries, and he connects the ability to be a greater philanthropist with possessing the intellectual wherewithal to judge success without need to see results in person.

For most people, who don’t have the opportunity to travel around the globe, philanthropy directed to poor countries means writing a check and relying on the second-hand knowledge of experts who will deliver development programs and measure their success. Gates’s intellectually gifted philanthropist will trust the experts and their metrics in order to achieve a greater marginal impact than the person whose philanthropy is directly locally.

Economist Bill Easterly, now a New York University professor but who spent the better part of two decades at the World Bank, could hardly disagree more sharply about the intellectual disposition required of development officers and philanthropists.

According to Easterly, the requisite intellectual disposition is a deep respect for up-close and personal knowledge of the community to be helped. As he argues in his new book, The Tyranny of Experts: Economists, Dictators, and The Forgotten Rights of the Poor, “the ‘right’ answer keeps changing and is known only to those on the scene.” What is required intellectually of the philanthropist is not trust in outside experts and their metrics but respect for local people on the spot who understand their own circumstances and needs and can propose what Easterly calls locally generated “spontaneous solutions.”

If Easterly is correct, someone in a far-off land cannot easily know, or perhaps cannot know at all, what programs will work in poorer countries and therefore if his philanthropic gifts will make a difference. This doesn’t mean throwing up one’s hands and giving up trying to relieve the terrible poverty in the developing world, but it does require a modest estimate of the ability of foreign experts, development programs, and metrics of success to determine the best policies.

Like Bill Gates, whom Easterly criticizes, Easterly connects his theory about the intellectual disposition required by philanthropy with a moral judgment. Easterly offers both a defense of those who champion the reliance on experts and who believe that’s the only way to “do something” when faced with terrible poverty, as well as a defense of those who favor locally generated spontaneous solutions, who are not simply hard-hearted in the face of poverty but modest about their ability to find and impose an effective solution:

Many who cared . . . about global poverty may have feared that theories of spontaneous solutions may support an immoral indifference or inaction on poverty. The moral motivation is problematic, however. . . . It may be that a theory of development as spontaneous solutions by individuals will lead to insights that form a stronger moral case. . . .

Easterly’s arguments suggest we should be deeply moved by the plight of those in developing countries and eager to help but modest in our own ability to prescribe remedies for poverty. And, those “philanthrolocalists” who direct their philanthropy to neighborhood causes are not to be snubbed by Gates or others as intellectual or moral second-raters, but those who are making a wise, well-informed decision to give time and money where they can know for themselves the impact of their philanthropy.

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