Research and impact | By Chris Lines

Beware the benevolence of billionaires

Why it is important to question the seemingly unchecked power wielded by philanthropists during the Covid-19 pandemic.


Bill and Melinda Gates, longstanding champions of global health, committed funds during the coronavirus pandemic to research the disease and manufacture a vaccine. Indeed, the pandemic produced a surge in philanthropic giving from some of the world’s wealthiest people.


Take Jack Dorsey for example, the co-founder of Twitter, who pledged US $1 billion (£816 million) for ‘global Covid-19 relief’. Then there are George Soros and Jeff Bezos – other billionaires who gave eye-watering sums to help alleviate the suffering caused by the global crisis. It is not surprising then that they enjoyed widespread praise and acclaim.


Certainly, it is well deserved but the situation also illustrates a profound imbalance in society, one that has piqued the research interest of City’s Senior Lecturer in International Relations, Dr Gwilym David Blunt.


Dr Blunt holds a PhD in transnational philanthropy, justice, and domination and does not believe that most billionaire philanthropists have bad intentions – quite the opposite, in fact – but he sees that as irrelevant. As he argues in his book, Global Poverty, Injustice and Resistance, domination is a structural relationship. It is about the distribution of power between human beings.


In his own words: “Consider for a moment whether you would agree to be a slave. Let us say a kindly benefactor offered you a better standard of living than that which you currently enjoy, or can realistically aspire to, and credibly promises to treat you very well. The only condition is that they would own you. Would you accept the offer? My suspicion is that most people would not.”


While slavery is incontrovertibly wrong, Dr Blunt stresses that it is important to understand why.


“The depictions we see in popular culture often emphasise the cruelty and exploitation,” he says. “These are terrible, but they are not at the core of what is wrong with owning another person. If they were, then we would not have a problem with the idea of a kindly benefactor. The real problem with slavery lies in its structure as a social relationship, specifically with the distribution of power.”


Philosophers like Philip Pettit argue that the problem with slavery is not that the slave is interfered with in a cruel or exploitative way, more that their owner has the capacity to interfere in their choices at will.


“Well-treated slaves may be in an enviable condition compared with abused slaves, but they still have no control over an owner’s power to interfere. This is what it means to be dominated,” says Dr Blunt.


“Even in circumstances where an owner is benevolent, the slave will be aware that their choices are based on the master’s tacit permission. And if we are worried about domination, we must worry about billionaire philanthropy.”


Such worries become acute in times of crisis because it leaves matters of life and death in the hands of a few powerful individuals who lack any constraints on their power other than their own conscience. Freedom is at risk when the imbalance of wealth and power is so stark. How healthy can it be that so many people in the world are utterly dependent on the generosity of billionaires?


The provision of healthcare for millions of people rests on their goodwill and nothing else. They choose what to give, how to give it and to whom. They establish large organisations that have a profound influence on public bodies.


For example, The Gates Foundation’s influence shapes the global health agenda in a way that has been described as a ‘cartel’.


And where does justice come into the equation? Sometimes philanthropy functions as useful PR distraction to mask the wrongdoings of how the funds were accumulated in the first place. Did some of these philanthropists cause these problems in the first place? And, if so, should this temper our praise? And what associated tax benefits are they getting from running these philanthropic organisations alongside their core businesses?


Philanthropy is often able to bypass democracy. By offering a means for individuals to swerve the electoral system in order to exert influence on public debate and the direction of public policy, philanthropy can be argued to be clearly antidemocratic. Yet, on the flipside, some of the most effective philanthropy in the world could be seen as antidemocratic as it operates outside of incompetent or corrupt governments.


The pandemic laid bare the raw power of the state as millions of people were forced into quarantine and isolation. Even in such times of crisis, we try to minimise that arbitrary power through checks and balances, the rule of law and democracy. Yet few seem concerned about the power of private organisations. These are organisations that are as powerful as some states but lack constraints and accountability.


“In short,” says Dr Blunt, “too many people in the world have to rely on the generosity of philanthropists – it is a stark illustration of the gap between the very rich and the very poor, and the lack of freedom the very poor have.”


“These are not trivial issues. They will decide who lives and dies.”