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Osama bin-Laden – Philanthropist?

The late and unlamented terror chief may not be anyone’s idea of a philanthropist, least of all ours. Yet, however offensive it may seem, the horrible thought does raise some important questions, so please bear with us on this one…

First of all, Osama bin-Laden had plenty of cash – inheriting a pile from his father’s construction business and growing it through shrewd investments, according to the BBC obituary.

Second, in common with politically-focused philanthropists from George Soros to David Koch, he was a rich man using his fortune to try to bring about his personal vision of a better world. (A vision, lest we forget, that briefly overlapped to a degree with the West’s when he was fighting to eject Soviet forces from Afghanistan in the 1980s.) Bin-Laden’s approach was described as “revolutionary philanthropy” in 2003 by Bruce Hoffman of the RAND Corporation in a fascinating article in The Atlantic , “The Leadership Secrets of Osama bin-Laden”. This included supporting conventional acts of charity, such as providing humanitarian assistance after last year’s floods in Pakistan. And, according to Hoffman, it also included “arms, material, and other assistance in order to further the cause of global jihad.”

Third, as Hoffman pointed out, this “revolutionary philanthropy” was very much results oriented: “Such philanthropy is designed not only to harness the energy of geographically scattered, disparate movements but also to ensure that al Qaeda operatives can, in turn, call on these local groups for logistical services and manpower.”

Even the terroristic killing of thousands of innocent civilians was justified on a “what works” basis, according to Hoffman: because, he believed, “the United States cannot bear the pain or the losses inflicted by terrorist attacks”, “In bin-Laden’s view, terrorism against the United States – and allied Western countries – therefore works.” We can only hope that the killing of bin-Laden will be taken as evidence that, in fact, terrorism does not work.

On the face of it, a willingness to deal in death should automatically disqualify any claim to be a philanthropist. Yet, in practice, this has sometimes been a grey area even for the greatest institutions of Western philanthropy. For instance, the Rockefeller-funded researchers who led the Tuskegee medical trials in the 1950s and 1960s must have thought a few deaths were a price worth paying to create a better world when they withheld potentially life-saving penicillin from patients with syphilis so that they could continue their medical experiments on a group of poor, rural African-Americans.

That’s an easy one to deal with, of course, since the consensus today is that what the Tuskegee doctors did was a major ethical breach. But, before we get too smug, what about donors who are causing deaths by failing to make sure that their money is well used? In our last post we highlighted the argument by aid evaluation expert Howard White that without rigorous impact assessment donors simply do not know if they are wasting resources that could be saving lives.

Of course, there is a big difference between sins of omission and sins of commission. Could it ever be right for a philanthropist to deliberately kill? No? Never? What if the killing was of someone like bin-Laden?

The persistent rumour that an un-named American philanthropist has put a bounty on the head of Joseph Kony, the leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army in Northern Uganda, provides an interesting test. Kony has been indicted by the International Criminal Court for acts of unspeakable cruelty to thousands of people. His twisted messianic movement is also destabilising much of the Great Lakes region of Africa, not just Uganda, which causes much greater suffering as people are deprived of basic health and education services as a result. Yet, despite his infamy, not enough is being done by the governments of the world to bring Kony to justice. No less than Kenneth Roth of Human Rights Watch urged President Obama to do more to arrest the LRA leader last year, apparently to no avail.

If governments have failed to deliver, would it be so wrong for a philanthropist to put some money on the table to kill Mr Kony? (Africa specialists will grumble about gross over-simplification of the conflicts in the Great Lakes region. Agreed. But that’s not the point.)

One argument against this bounty – let’s call it the Ex-Prize – might be based on the objection that it is not up to a private individual to decide who is and is not a war criminal. The idea of billionaires, or the gathered high priests of capitalism at Davos, or, indeed, bin-Laden, issuing death warrants is repellent. But that is not the issue in this particular case. Mr Kony’s indictment by the International Criminal Court (ICC) partly covers off that objection – nabbing him would not be about private whim, but delivering on the decision of a legitimate organ of global (outside America anyway…) justice reached by due process. But that still leaves the problem that the ICC only wants to arrest and try him. Is it a step too far to have him killed?

Which takes us back to Mr bin-Laden, a man that President George W Bush said he wanted ‘dead or alive’. Would we feel differently if our donor had put a bounty on the head of the al-Qaeda boss rather than Kony?

That question is somewhat academic, not just because bin-Laden is now dead but also because of the enormous resources that the U.S. government and its allies committed to taking out this most wanted of the wanted. A bounty of a few million, or even a few hundred million, dollars from a philanthropist probably wouldn’t have made much of a difference. But doesn’t this just highlight a flaw in our system of global governance? Threats to rich countries, like those from bin-Laden, are relentlessly pursued, while the Joseph Konys of this world, whose victims are largely in poor countries, largely provoke UN resolutions that proclaim something must be done without providing the resources to make that happen? If the governments of the world are discriminating against the poor by failing to deliver on their promises about global justice, would it really be so wrong for philanthropists to level the playing field in their favour? Private armies, provided by companies such as Blackwater (now Xe Services), are increasingly used by governments and multilateral agencies; should the likes of Bill Gates make use of their services, too, on behalf of the poor?

These questions have taken us a long way from that merciless killer of civilians, bin-Laden, who in the end did the opposite of the true meaning of philanthropy, which is the love of humanity. Yet it troubles us that we cannot dismiss them all out of hand, though we think they are at best premature as a justification for action. One part of our vision of the world is that it should be governed by states that enjoy a monopoly of violence, and use that monopoly sparingly. And whilst we recognise that there are parts of the world where the state is too weak to enforce its monopoly or lacks the legitimacy to do so, we believe that there is a vast number of yet-to-be-taken opportunities for philanthropists to invest in addressing those problems by peaceful means before they need to consider the alternative.

For a visual take on some of these issues, this strikes us as an excellent moment to watch again the movie “Charlie Wilson’s War“, and in particular the sad, disastrous twist at the the end where, having funded military action in Afghanistan, the taps are turned off when it comes to paying for the long-term investment needed to build a better country, such as by providing a decent education. With bin-Laden dead, there are many who would like to walk away from Afghanistan and Pakistan, but (as we will explain in our next post) there is no better time for philanthrocapitalists to take a lead in fixing these failing states.

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