Philanthropic Colonialism, Conscience Laundering, and Larry Summers

Peter Buffett in Liberia

Peter Buffett in Liberia

New Orleans   Buried in my stacks of old papers have been some nuggets of gold, and one was an op-ed written by Peter Buffett in the Times entitled “The Charitable-Industrial Complex.”  Buffett is identified as “a composer and a chairman of the NoVo Foundation,” but is clear that what gets him a seat at the table and a voice to be heard – or silenced – is the “big bang” of his father, Warren Buffett, unloading billions of his immense wealth, including his endowment of he and his siblings foundations.  Buffett, being new to the game of the super rich, hasn’t been able to swallow the Kool-Aid yet, so he sounds a lot less like a donor and more like the rest of us on the other side of the table.

            He accurately talks about “Philanthropic Colonialism” where donors, usually urged on by their know-everything-do-nothing staffs believe that despite “very little knowledge of a particular place would think that they could solve a local problem.”  In the small space allowed he said little more about the colonialism part of that critique, but there’s a mountain of permanent damage that has been done by such a disempowering and damaging system.  Talking about his rich comrades he marvels at their blindness to “lives and communities…destroyed by the system that creates vast wealth for the few” and then allowing the drivers and winners of such a system to engage in “conscience laundering” by “feeling better…by sprinkling a little around as an act of charity.”   He seems to be catching on, so he will probably not be surprised that at the same charitable-industrial complex that has added 25% more nonprofits in the last 10 years while the wealth gap has accelerated, most of them will ignore what he writes here except for the few who will whisper support to only his ears in the standard MO of that world.

            ACORN International has written entire reports on the fundamental fallacy of microlending and so-called financial literacy programs for the global poor trying to promote a “buy a job” program based on debt and often predatory interest rates as a poverty reduction strategy, so it was marvelous to see Buffett gingerly try to point out the obvious to the emperors sitting next to him naked.  So, Peter Buffett, go forward as the bull in this china shop and do some damage.  Maybe it will change some minds.

            And, speaking of “I told you so,” I can’t help but share my pleasure at reading that Bette Milder has also been tweeting the terrible irony that Larry Summers might be qualified to run the Federal Reserve after his role in the banking deregulation that crippled the economy.  Here’s a big shout out to Maureen Dowd, the Times columnist who wasn’t reading my blogs the other day, but thankfully is saying almost the exact same things about Summers and all of the good reasons he should stay put at Harvard.

            I bet Peter Buffett has been around the same tables with Larry Summers as well, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he wouldn’t line up with us too.   Heck, if we get enough fellow travelers, we’ll start ordering more buses for the march.

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