Nauseous in Davos: The Philanthrocapitalism Debate, Part 2

Earlier this month I vented on the World Economic Forum in Davos, and in particular, on a session on the topic of “Philanthrocapitalism”.  Tony Blair and Bill Clinton were present and their photograph topped an article in the Times newspaper.  This post touched off a series of comments and counter-posts, some of which can be seen attached to the original from 5 February 2009 and was followed by a video.  I would like to reply to all of these, but owe my first reply to Matthew Bishop who, together with Michael Green, wrote the book and coined the term.  Matthew’s counter-blog can be seen here – as ever it is clever, but evades my key points.

He addresses two “serious” points I make in my first blog post.  The second is clear and I will address it shortly.  I cannot be sure which is the first point he is challenging.  If it is that I “dislike” his describing Clinton and Blair as philanthrocapitalists, fair enough.  But its not a question of what I “like”.  He and Green coined the ghastly phrase and can use it to describe anybody they please.  But the sort of people they provide in the book as examples of philanthrocapitalists are not like Blair and Clinton–they are entrepreneurs who are turning their skills to resolving social problems.  Thus based upon the Bishop/Green model, Clinton and Blair do not seem to fit.  But then it seems like Bishop accepts this point and he goes on to say these two are actually “celanthropists”–celebrity philanthropists.  As a wordsmith goes, Bishop is a genius–but he seems to accept the argument originally made.

If the first point Bishop objects to is that I have “no time for politicians in general”, well, that is not what I feel nor what I said in my posting.  This challenge is therefore puzzling.  If it is that I blame “economic policies pursued enthusiastically by Clinton and Blair for the current mess”–well yes, I certainly do.  But Bishop here seems to agree.  Matthew–please help me here!

The second point Bishop attacks is the more substantive.  I argue that the power of philanthrocapitalists derives from their influence over the much more substantial purse strings of givernment.  Here Bishop retorts that he sees “opportunities to leverage corporate and non-profit budgets, too”, but cleverly side-steps the main thrust of my point.  I argue that for these philanthrocapitalists to carry such influence is simply undemocratic–and on this point Bishop is silent–I think understandably.  And when he and Green speak of leverage throughout the book it is mostly with regard to government, not the corporate and non-profit budgets he mentions in his post.

He goes on to say that “Schwartz is actually a big fan of the vigorous support for social investment provided by the British Labour government”.  This is not the case–my views here are a matter of public record and elaborated in another post entitled, “Oooh, Lots of Lovely Government Money”.  I have been a staunch critic of this trend but must accept that recent Labour Governments have been serious about assisting the social sector–it is not however clear how helpful their assistance has been or will continue to be–but that is another story.

Jessica Brown, of Tellus Mater, (previously with NEF) and Peter Wheeler, a Trustee of New Philanthropy Capital (ex-Goldman Sachs) also make some excellent and thoughtful criticisms.  I hope to be able to reply to these in the coming days.  For observers who are more keenly interested in the subject of Philanthrocapitalism, I can recommend a pamphlet by Michael Edwards, of the Ford Foundation, who writes under the auspices of Demos and the Young Foundation in “Just Another Emperor: The Myths and Realities of Philanthrocapitalism”.  All of these are best described by what Bishop and Green refer to as “Friendly Fire”, the typically clever title of their reply post.

Let’s face it – we are all trying to advance a cause – and there is much more that unites us than divides us.  We seek to develop more entrepreneurial approaches to solving social, ethical and environmental problems, and our debate is about tactics and strategy – not direction.  This should not diminish our fervour to engage in a vigorous debate as it is only through this interchange in the “marketplace of ideas” that the wheat really can get separated from the chaff (to quote Wheeler).

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