Angelina and the business of charity

Article published on Dec. 20, 2006
Article published on Dec. 20, 2006

This article has not been vetted by an editor at Paris HQ

Private foundations and humanitarian organisations, otherwise known as the ‘organised charity sector’, are experiencing a boom. Welcome to the best world ever?

English charity ‘Good Gifts’ has an online catalogue of Christmas presents that you buy for family and friends, and which go to the Third World instead. You can choose between a bike for a vet (£35), a new dress for a mother (£12), or, if you’re rich, why not a model farm for Rwanda (£25,000)? With the click of a mouse, a generous customer can choose a gift and pay by credit card, and choose a charitable gift for a loved one, in the name of development.

Philanthropy is not only making waves on the Internet. It is also creating competition between billionaires and between celebrities, whilst spreading to the business world. Paris’ Stock Exchange launched ‘Actions à but caritatif’ (‘Helping those most in need’) three years ago. At a conference during the Davos summit in 2005, Sharon Stone announced that she would pledge $10,000 to buy mosquito nets to help stop the spread of malaria in Tanzania. The Basic Instinct actress challenged the audience to join her. Did it work? Yes, if you believed the CBS News headline that day: ‘Sharon Stone raises $1 million in 5 minutes.’ The Swiss daily le Courrier, however, revealed in January 2006 that only $140,000 of the sum promised had actually been paid, and the donated mosquito nets had disrupted local aid programmes.

Glamorous giving

The French sociologist Alain Caillé, author of ‘Donating, Interest and Altruism’, explains the boom in selfless acts as ‘the return of repressed instincts.’ According to him, the rise of utilitarian ideology and the system of personal interest in today’s society has been to the detriment of charitable donations. But man isn’t satisfied by maximising his personal financial gain: altruism, or generosity, is part of being human, and this explains the return of charity and philanthropy.

Bur altruists do benefit from their acts of kindness, we could counter. Such as Angelina Jolie, one of the new humanitarian high priestesses. She is upfront about how it is not her acting career that helps her sleep at night. ‘When I do something for other people, then I know my life has a purpose.’

If charitable acts seem to go against the capitalist drive to get rich, philanthropy (which concerns, after all, trust funds and the rich), sits very well alongside the most extreme economic liberalism. This basically states that voluntary charity is enough to fight poverty. It makes the redistribution of wealth and social protection unnecessary. This also explains why the disciples of Austrian economist F.A. Von Hayek rejoice at the sight of billionaire businessmen like Bill Gates and Warren Buffet transforming themselves into the new humanitarian crusaders.

Weak states

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation was created in 2000 to bring innovations in healthcare and information to the world’s poorest people. It is now worth $60 billion, since Warren Buffet, the USA’s second richest man, donated $30 billion last June (about two thirds of his estimated personal fortune of $45 billion). The sum of the Foundation’s payments has just surpassed the combined GDPs of Cameroon, Tanzania, Gabon, the Ivory Coast and the Republic of the Congo.

And so what if the Foundation provides schools with Microsoft computers… Some will hasten to point out the weakness of the system, insofar as education and healthcare are two fields considered to be up to state policy.

Millionaires, celebrities and good feelings are a veritable moneymaking cocktail for television channels. A sure-fire way to increase ratings. It isn’t surprising that charity television programmes have multiplied: Hungary’s ‘Aranyag,’ ‘Telethon’ in France and Italy have become institutions. Accusations of eugenics by some Catholic fundamentalists haven’t been able to derail the Telethon.

But there’s more: the media which collect the offerings at the new altars of Goodness, and especially private television channels, have become charitable themselves. Especially regarding NGOs, notes Bruno Davis, a communications consultant. ‘It is extremely common for a television channel to give advertising space to charities. But the charities suddenly find themselves subject to the good will of the advertising department, or the media director who decides which charity to support.’

And that is one instance of the limitations of charities: the donor makes the decisions, he or she holds the purse strings. This means the beneficiary is dependent on him or her and rarely has a say in the matter.

Furthermore, the millions of anonymous benefactors are defying the society that values impulse purchases of good conscience. Like it is a supermarket product.