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January 04, 2005

Why Philanthropy?

I've been wondering the past few days why it is that there is no giant organization in the world that has done all the things people who want to save the world want to do. I think part of the reason is that once the do-gooders got a snootful of their own artifice, they'd chuck it all. And perhaps that is the legacy of do-gooder organizations everywhere - they can only grow so big.

On the other hand, Americans still seem to believe that we can cure cancer, all we need are enough... stem cells. Like UFO fanatics, people who believe in utopia believe that the answer is out there somewhere. If only we had enough... money, then the solution would be obvious. Just like those people who knew that GWBush was a total idiot, the world would be better off if only they had enough... votes.

It must be said that the natural order of things is that things fall apart. There is never enough... whatever. Scarcity. I think we are going back to econ 101.

On Charlie Rose last week, a UN assistant to Kofi Annan was explaining that for 100 billion per year, we could cut world poverty in half. He explained patiently that half the civilized world (outside of the US) had pledged to do a great deal towards funding some Millenial Principles on the way to ending half the world's poverty somewhere around 2015. If we only had 100 billion dollars per year.

The poor chap was exasperated and confounded by our President's lack of following up on promises made in 1999, and offered a soundbite from Colin Powell to suggest that it all ought to make sense to our national security interests to do all those things Steve Miller sung about in 1978.

But it hasn't happened. It might be an organizational thing.

You see, if I have my way, smartmobs could become something of the next generation of organizing principles of global significance. We're on the verge of it. We're on the verge of philes and when the DNA stuff is done. (I'm thinking of opening a new topic 'Philes & Panoptics' but I need to read some more sci-fi first.) The point is that this new organization will be the way that humans begin to organize their interests. According to my theory, Nazi Germany was the last nation and demonstrated the end of nationalism. The US is not really a nation. So aside from transnational corporations, CIA-like proprietaries, publically funded NGOs, governments, and the Churches there are no other ways of harnessing the desires and resources of millions. Such organizations have no interest in eliminating world poverty. Regardless of whether they are capable of doing so (which I doubt, not because of capacity, but because of political logistics) the principles of hierarchical organizations require certain abstractions that constrain their ability to reach. And I have the distinct impression that the elimination of poverty works by hooking people up to the grid. But that is best accomplished one on one and hierarchical orgs don't do that well. My point is that there's a problem with institutional philanthropy and I believe it is an inherently structural one.

These structural and response deficiencies can be overcome via new communications and organizational technologies, but will they end up reducing poverty? I don't think so. I believe that the more affluent world is going to start slumming, and that as we get more electronically connected, the importance of the metropolis will decline. Like superheroes and villians of comic lore, we will have remote underground headquarters (where the real estate is cheap) and still be able to save (or dominate) the world.

In the meantime, I find the lack of will to solve the world's problems something of an indication of what actually is a problem. Remote suffering, so long as we are not substantially interconnected, remains remote. Out of sight, out of mind, out of funds.

I also want to drop in a bit of propaganda against coersion in the interests of private property. Well meaning gents like the UN attache, tend to believe that doing best cannot be harmful and that any means to establish that end are worth it. Fortunately, the UN is not in a position to coerce, or we'd all be slaves to UNICEF.

Posted by mbowen at January 4, 2005 09:38 PM

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Tracked on January 19, 2005 05:54 PM


Nice blog!

I've been in quite a few discussions concerning this topic. You made some good points, however, I don't think there is a "lack of will" to solve all the world's problems, I think it's a general understanding among many that it's impossible so we just have to do the best we can.

This is my first visit to your blog and won't be the last! What I get from your writing is that you have sort of libertarian/centrist view with a little Liberalism sprinkled in. I could be wrong.
Mom is a staunch Libertarian as was my Dad. Somehow I turned out to be Conservative who leans to some Libertarian ideas.

Here is a little story, can't remember where I got it:

A liberal and a conservative are sitting on a park bench when they see an elderly woman struggling to cross the street. The liberal says, "You know, we should enact a law that would provide funding for street assistance who could help the elderly cross the street." The conservative, unfortunately, doesn't hear what the liberal says because he's busy helping the lady cross the street.

Thanks, and keep up the good work!

Posted by: Donna W. at January 8, 2005 12:49 PM