Philanthropic Colonialism

Someone sent me this thought-provoking article in the New York Times by Peter Buffett, the son of billionaire (and philanthropist) Warren Buffett.

I did a little research about this term: “philanthropic colonialism.”

According to this source, philanthropic colonialism means “barging in as outsiders and forcing… solutions on other people’s problems.”

I do wish Buffett had elaborated on a number of points to really hit home his message. But in a nutshell, he warns against participating in philanthropy just because it makes you feel good and eases your conscience. In this way, the giver remains in a “privileged” position. (Aside: Within this link there is a piece by someone named Samuel Wells that has some excellent points about doing things “for” people as opposed to “with” people- I recommend skimming most of it – and there are some religious references – but he has some great points in this essay)

Buffett said, “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.”

And it is true, there are nonprofits out there trying to “do good” by inserting what they think is the best solution into the problem they are trying to fix. And Buffett said they are doing more harm than good.

Working for USAID in Washington, D.C. (the “other” Washington) in the mid 1990’s coordinating reproductive health programs, I had the opportunity to travel several times to East Africa to evaluate reproductive health programs. We stayed at five-star hotels and we’d travel out to the villages, interview people about the impact of our programs, then we’d go back to D.C. and write up a report. The whole thing reeked of imperialism and I remember feeling uncomfortable but couldn’t quite put my finger on it then.

In my office, there was a working group devoted to the eradication of female genital mutilation (female circumcision). At the time, I remember thinking, “Who are we to tell other cultures that their practice is wrong?” And of course, it is a practice that is barbaric and oppresses girls, even kills them. But if we want to eradicate it, we must first go into the communities in which it is practiced, and make an effort to understand the social and cultural norms behind what is known as a momentous occasion in the lives of young girls. We must let the communities themselves come up with the alternatives as opposed to us imposing our own solutions.

And actually, it is not ideal for us, as Americans, whose role it is to be doing this, but really, individuals from within those communities where it is practiced who understand the health and social justice impact this custom has on girls in those communities.

A great example would be Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who wrote Infidel, a powerful memoir about her childhood and escape from forced marriage to the Netherlands. She wrote about her regret at being circumcised — her mother did not want her daughter circumcised, but while she was out one day, her grandmother forced Ali to go through with it. Ali would be the best kind of person to talk to her community about this practice and help them come up with alternatives.

So, that’s why it is worth doing your research before you participate in any kind of philanthropic action:

  • Why do you want to donate or give your time? What exactly do you hope to accomplish?
  • How does the person or organization do the work and have an impact? Is this impact truly beneficial?
  • Do you know how your dollars or your time will be used?
  • Ask yourself the fundamental questions: What are your values? Is it creating more wi-fi or consumer opportunities? Is it helping young girls escape trafficking and early marriage? Is it helping animals like snow leopards thrive instead of being an endangered species?

What do you think?

Thanks ASP for this great topic.

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