Meg Whitman, Turkish Flotillas and the Limits of Philanthropy

What do the victory of billionaire Meg Whitman in the recent primary to be the Republican candidate for governor of California, and the controversial Gaza aid flotilla have in common? Both these recent new stories highlight the difficult questions that arise when philanthropy merges into politics.

At first glance this is a bit of non-question. Doing good for others by giving seems a million miles away from murky party politics or violent clashes on the high seas. Indeed, the tax-exempt status of US foundations is clearly defined on the basis that they stay out of party politics. Yet dig a bit deeper and lines between philanthropy and politics quickly start to blur.

By giving to certain causes rather than others, philanthropists are pushing their vision of what makes a good society. California billionaire Eli Broad, for example, gives substantial amounts to the arts, a decision he explained to us on the grounds that “to have a productive, inventive, creative populace, the arts have a role to play”. For some, this is a matter for the donor alone. Others, however, would argue that, given the tax subsidy to giving, the public should have more say on the causes philanthropists give to (this debate is live in Britain at the moment, where elite private schools, such as Eton College, where Princes William and Harry and Prime Minister David Cameron were all educated, are being leaned on by the charity regulator to show that they are helping poor kids as well as those born in with silver spoons in their mouths).

One might also grumble that giving crosses the line into politics when it directly distorts public policy choices over how taxpayers’ money is spent. Take Andrew Carnegie’s massive library-building programme across America and other countries more than a century ago – if local governments were not willing to commit public money to pay for the upkeep of the steel baron’s gift, they did not get a library. Or look at the giving by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to tackle diseases of the developing world. This generosity has been used, for example, to lever matching commitments from governments to new aid agencies like the the Global Fund for AIDS, TB and malaria, which critics could argue has distorted international priorities in financing for development.

A more fundamental concern may be that some charitable causes are objectionable in their own right – at least to those who disagree with them. The high priest of atheism, Richard Dawkins, for example, blasted the Templeton Prize in his book The God Delusion as “a very large sum of money given…usually to a scientist who is prepared to say something nice about religion”.

This type of criticism gets even more intense when philanthropists stray from metaphysics into politically sensitive areas. Conservatives, for example, love to rail at George Soros’ donations to what he calls ‘open societies’, labelling him ‘Dr Evil’, ‘Soros the beastman’ and even ‘Dr Evil’. Liberals, for their part, less colourfully, bridle at the influence of the Olin Foundation (brilliantly profiled by John J. Miller in his book A Gift of Freedom), which sowed the intellectual seeds of the renaissance of conservative thinking in America.

This is all good knockabout stuff, as one group accuses the other of using rich donors’ cash to win the upper hand in the public debate. If anything the volume of accusations and counter-accusations shows how philanthropy adds to the richness of debate, rather than favouring one side or the other. Yet when the super-rich cross the line into electoral politics, this raises some more profound questions.

Getting stuck into politics for real may be the most direct route for a philanthropist to achieve their goals. That’s what the billionaire mayor of New York Michael Bloomberg thinks. As an ex-smoker he has given generously to the anti-smoking cause but rates the influence of the ban on smoking in public places that he introduced in New York as having much more impact. As a self-funded politician he also thinks he can govern without the dependence on funders that hamstrings other politicians.

If Bloomberg is the acceptable face of the billionaire politician, his fellow media tycoon and scandal-ridden prime minister of Italy, Silvio Berlusconi, is surely the unacceptable face, highlighting that there are dangers when the super-rich start to dabble in politics. The lesson here, however, seems to be that the strength of the rules and institutions preventing abuse of the system are crucial. On that basis, we are relaxed that Meg Whitman, formerly the CEO at eBay, wants to use part of her fortune to pursue a political career. Her money will not allow her to buy votes or distort the media – in the end it is the people of California who will decide whether she is the right person for the job. (Although we note that she hasn’t yet blazed much of a trail in philanthropy, except dropping a $30 million gift on her alma mater, Princeton University, in 2002).

So what about the flotilla? In a recent post on her Wonderment Woman blog, Turkish-American Elmira Bayrasli drills down into the back story behind Insani Yardim Vakifi (known as IHH), the Turkish charity behind the flotilla. She argues that IHH is too glibly dismissed as a “terrorist organisation”, when it is, in fact, a product of a philanthropic humanitarian awakening among the Turkish middle class, and she calls for a more informed debate about Muslim philanthropy.

While others would vigorously contest such a characterisation of IHH, Bayrasli is making an important call. Certainly some Muslim charities have been used and continue to be used to project extremist messages, including calls to violence (indeed, in the book we discuss whether the wealthy Osama bin Laden might see himself as a philanthrocapitalist, though the terrorist leader certainly doesn’t meet the criteria we set out). This is clearly morally repugnant. Yet other Muslim charities which have no interest in violence will see their humanitarian mission in terms of projecting their religious values (just as many Christian charities do), or their political values (just like Soros’s open society or Olin’s freedom agenda), and, according to one interpretation of what the flotilla was up to, may even stray into illegal activity to get their message across (just like Greenpeace, according to the Japanese Whaling Association).

To argue that philanthropy and politics are separate spheres that should never touch is simply unreal. In a multitude of ways philanthropists are contributing to the political process, directly and indirectly. In America, the rules and boundaries have been debated constantly for more than a century because of worries about the influence of the rich on politics. Whether it is Broad, Gates, Templeton, Soros, Olin, Bloomberg, or Whitman, there are precedents to guide whether these western philanthrocapitalists have crossed the line. As Bayrasli argues, by the same measure vibrant Muslim philanthropy will inevitably sometimes challenge Western policies – we need a more informed debate to decide whether organisations like IHH are pushing the boundaries or crossing the line.

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