This morning’s plenary was titled, The Global Impact of Rural Innovation.  Participants were Jacques Aigrain of Swiss Re, Wangari Muta Maathai of Kenya’s Green Belt Movement, Elsie Meeks of First Nations Oweesta Corporation, Rick Warren of Saddleback Church, Mohammad Yunus of Grameen Bank and moderated by Steve Gunderson of the Council on Foundations.

The discussion was about how to address the poverty, education, economic development and other vital challenges in areas of rural poverty.  All of the people involved have done a great deal to help bring assistance to people.  But there was a point in the discussion where I started to react in a very negative way to what they were saying.  I’m hoping I can stimulate some discussion here of the things that are bothering me.

My trouble began when Muhammed Yunnis was talking about how his micro lending ideas mean that philanthropy can "invest" in ways that bring a greater "return" than traditional models of giving.  He says that a dollar, given as a business, can become perpetual and circulate forever.  The dollar comes back and can be given again.  He said that you can see see philanthropy that way. he doesn’t expect a profit from his philanthropic investment but using a business model it can be extended.

Somewhere in there Wangari Muta Maathi was talking about bringing investment dollars to Kenya, and it occurred to me that she has adopted the language of investment bankers.  But of course she needs to do that for the same reason Willie Sutton robbed banks: it’s where the money is

Introducing the language of business into philanthropic culture might be necessary — because business is where the money is.  So attracting philanthropic partnerships to support an organization’s efforts requires adapting to the culture and therefore the language of the money.  It recognizes that governments are starved of resources but it does not address the root causes of this problem.  Shouldn’t philanthropy help get to the deeper roots of core problems, like governments being starved of resources even while a very few who control those businesses become ever wealthier? 

At some point in this discussion Rick Warren used the old line about giving someone a fish he (or she) eats for a day but he adds do not just teach someone how to fish but teach how to sell a fish.  Then you start to create a market economy.  Through local churches his organization teaches people how to set up a market economy.  He said that just giving to the poor makes them dependent.

I started thinking about this.  It kind of sounds like he thinks of people as some kind of animal, like squirrels.  You start giving a squirrel food and it might become dependent.  But people?  Don’t people have brains and ambition and independence and the power to decide to better themselves?  Doesn’t this view deny the power of the human spirit?  And doesn’t it place philanthropy in some kind of parental role instead of a partnering role?

So then I realized what was bothering me about what Yunus was saying.  His promise of a perpetual dollar, where you can "invest" a philanthropic dollar and it will just give again and again and again, seems to me to create an unrealistic expectation about giving.  I fear that using this kind of language for the idea of giving could make philanthropists dependent.

All of this it begs the question: why do you give?  Is giving an "investment" for which one should expect a "return?" Or is that something else?  Of course you want your work to be effective, so metrics and follow-up are important.  But "invest" and "return?"  Do those words reflect giving that comes from a love and respect for fellow humanity and the hope to alleviate suffering?  Does the language of business change the meaning and value to the giver of the gift?  I wonder if seeing people as economic units in a market diminishes their humanity?

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