The Philanthropy We Need

There seems to be something in the DNA of traditional foreign-aid programs that makes them of greater benefit to the benefactors and regimes in the developing world than to the poor. Very little development has resulted from the trillions of dollars the West has invested in foreign aid over the past half century, as development economists such as the late Peter Bauer and William Easterly have ably pointed out. Some initiatives have helped people, of course, butZambian economist Dambisa Moyo argues that it has actually done harm and should be abandoned (though charity will need to continue). After all, many countries with a long history of receiving aid remain immersed in poverty, while other countries became prosperous without such “aid.” For instance, recent market-based reforms have lifted millions out of poverty in India and China.

These realities make the prospect of intelligent, private philanthropy as a means of meeting human needs all the more appealing. The Gates Foundation, for example, cannot do much about bad governance abroad, but its officers are not bound to accept conventional wisdom or Washington’s conditions. They can be more innovative when it comes to improving global health – their chosen area of emphasis – and can apply proven measures independently even if they are unfashionable. Perhaps most importantly, they can take risks on unproven approaches, which most government bureaucrats would avoid, that just might have a significant impact.  

Warren Buffet has pledged to add several of his own billions to Gates’ billions in a new coalition to fight poverty. And other billionaires are getting in on the act; several of them met secretly last year to discuss their philanthropic agendas. Imagine the potential! But they settled on “family planning,” of all things, as a top priority. Like Paul Ehrlich in the 1970s, they remain deeply concerned about overpopulation. This is breathtaking in its wrongheadedness, and not only because Ehrlich’s book The Population Bomb has been so thoroughly discredited by subsequent history.  Progressives, by the way, are not alone in nursing neo-Malthusian anxieties. Henry Kissinger viewed distant populations in adversarial terms and stands among the architects of the population control movement. Recently declassified documents reveal he felt it prudent to “avoid the appearance of coercion” in the pursuit of his (and our national) agenda.  

The Gates Foundation has invested millions in Planned Parenthood over the years; Gates Sr. (co-chairman of his son’s foundation) served on Planned Parenthood’s board. Warren Buffet has been a veritable population control zealot – dishing out an astonishing $3 billion towards abortion, according to the New York Times.  All this raises a serious question that has gone unasked amidst all their accolades: Are they philanthropists?

Bill Gates: His generosity may have more phobia than philia

They give away lots of money. But that is not the same as “philanthropy,” a word with Greek roots which means: love of mankind. The word implies a worldview – a fraternal disposition towards the objective good of one’s fellow creatures. Gates’ quest to confront neglected diseases that have no market share in the West clearly qualifies as a philanthropic venture, as do their numerous other investments geared towards saving lives.  But funding abortion and population control simply is not the act of a true philanthropist.

Deploying great wealth in the pursuit of good ends can be intoxicating, and while it may not be fair to call Gates, Buffet, et al. misanthropes, they do Donate Under the Influence of bad anthropology. Proposing to achieve health or human development by controlling or eliminating human life is not only bad ethics, it is bad anthropology. It is more Kissinger than Aristotle – more phobia than philia. It is also bad development theory. You don’t get rid of hardship and disease, or develop economically, by getting rid of people. The bottom line, as Benedict XVI has regularly reminded us, is that if human dignity and moral truth are not placed front and center in all human development efforts, otherwise worthy pursuits become counterproductive and self-defeating. Notice, too, that abortion and population control initiatives, by whatever euphemism, are devoid of joy.

In contrast, the entire world was riveted recently by an exquisite example of hi-tech philanthropic action, which featured important contributions from both the public and private sectors: the rescue of those thirty-three Chilean miners. When they were first trapped, no one said: “opportunities for a worthwhile life in the Atacama – the most arid desert in the world – are as scarce as rain and trees; far better it is to spare them the misery of returning to a dreary existence.” To the contrary, vast human, financial, and technical resources were marshaled and directed with great competence towards a specific purpose: the preservation of human life.

Modern technology even gave us the ability to see remarkable images of human life stubbornly surviving deep within Mother Earth, which stirred great hope. Life is good, and death an evil. This is why there was great rejoicing – local and global exhilaration – when all thirty-three miners were finally retrieved.  

A philanthropist with access to ultrasound images of a baby developing in a mother’s womb would recognize human life and appreciate that, unlike the miners trapped underground, it has all the nutrients it needs to reach the light of day.  Philanthropists triggered a technical tsunami to save the thirty-three miners. Buffet’s and Gates’ abortion and “family planning” funding does the polar opposite; it exports technical methods of extinguishing human life.

When all, not just some, of Gates’ and his fellow billionaire’s initiatives aspire to the same reverence for life as the Chilean rescue effort, we will know they are true philanthropists. And wholeheartedly rejoice.

Matthew Hanley’s new book, Determining Death by Neurological Criteria: Current Practice and Ethics, is a joint publication of the National Catholic Bioethics Center and Catholic University of America Press.