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Is Michael Edwards Wearing Any Clothes?

Our old sparring partner Michael Edwards has been banging the drum against philanthrocapitalism again. We actually agree on more than Michael admits – particularly that philanthrocapitalism needs transparency and accountability to succeed. And he is willing to give some grudging credit to Bill Gates for his recent pledge of $10 billion to develop vaccines against diseases that kill the poor. Yet Michael is still in Cloud Cuckoo Land when he presents his alternatives to philanthrocapitalism.

“Investing in new vaccines against malaria is great, but there’s no vaccine against poverty, inequality, violence or corruption,” Michael complains. He bemoans the focus on the easiest, most immediate problems. Instead he wants to “pour the generosity of the rich and famous into national development funds under democratic control.” (As well as backing the fundamentally flawed Robin Hood Tax).

This is all good, crowd-pleasing stuff for Michael’s supporters who don’t like capitalism but it is inaccurate and empty. Inaccurate, because philanthrocapitalists are working not just on vaccines but also on the fundamental issues of citizen empowerment, democracy, transparency, accountability, peace-building and anti-corruption that are so dear to his heart. (He even approvingly cites a report from the Center for Global Development, which relies heavily on funding from philanthrocapitalists, including its co-founder Ed Scott, who also partnered with Bill Gates and George Soros to seed-finance Bono’s campaigning organisation.) Empty, because he fails to acknowledge the flaws in the government and NGO-led aid model that he champions – the system that has manifestly failed over the last fifty years.

Tackling poverty needs more than warm words about the importance of civil society. It needs innovation and implementation. We are optimistic about philanthrocapitalism (which, in contrast to Michael’s caricature of it as all about the rich and business, is often manifested in partnerships betwen the wealthy, government, business and social entrpreneurs and non-profits) because we think it can deliver in those areas, bringing new ideas, testing them, and making them work in a way that has not been possible in the past. Philanthrocapitalism needs challenge to succeed, but that challenge should be based on evidence not tired old polemics.

Michael likes to describe philanthrocapitalism as “Just Another Emperor” sporting non-existent new clothes, but increasingly the evidence suggests it is he who is naked.

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