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Friday, 6 August 2010

Review: Philanthrocapitalism, Matthew Bishop and Michael Green (2008)

Giving money away rarely makes the news unless it's a story about a big lottery win. Or unless Bill Gates is involved. Gates makes many appearances in this book, as he does in the news, and for the same reasons. Since quitting as CEO of Microsoft in 2000, Gates has moved to improve quality of life in the developing world, mostly through donations to scientific research aimed at eradicating a few common diseases.

Many would class this as pure philanthropy, a recognised form of wealth distribution with a long history. The names of prominent foundations, especially in the United States, attests to its longevity. In writing this book, the authors decided to bundle in a few other things with this class of charity, such as corporate social responsibility and social return-on-investment. But the result is less than inspiring.

It's a problem of style, above all. Possibly a year attending creative writing classes would give the prose more flexibility and limberness. You have to wade your way through ugly collections of nouns and verbs snatched from the rulebook of corporate managerialism to get to the core information the book purports to contain. It's a struggle, and I think it's an unnecessary amount of effort.

Despite not being very good writers, the authors managed to get to a second edition. This is because these guys seem to know their stuff. And that's no minor achievement. The breadth of material covered in the book is pretty impressive. It contains in addition to the main narrative, a selection of 'capsules' that give more detail about particular concepts in philanthropy.

It's a pain to use their portmanteau coinage - 'philanthrocapitalism' - because it smacks just a wee bit of hype, which is a class of information I'm not drawn to.

Beyond the masses of detail the book contains, you do not come away with strong memories and in this sense it's a failure. Part of the problem is allied with the hype embedded in the blousy title. You get the feeling that no amount of scepticism about the motivations of rich people who decide to give away lots of money will uncouple the authors' instinct: to praise them.

Sure, the 'issues' are 'addressed' but not in any detail nor in any depth. Above the whole masquerade hangs the smiling face of a fat cat. Its features are changeable, they could belong to any number of wealthy individuals. But as with the Cheshire Cat, the broad, self-satisfied smile remains after everything else has blended in with the name of whichever mandarin is currently being talked about.

You yearn for a more critical angle, a sharper appraisal of the idea of wealth distribution whereby vast sums of money are given away by the few. And you desire more in-depth stories about specific institutions, such as Bill Gates' Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Just who is complaining about the way money is spent? How do we know they are trustworthy? What does the Foundation have to say about its detractors?

Perhaps a follow-up endeavour of merit for these two energetic writers would be a clinical investigation of this one institution. Because in the current book they do not impress from the point of view of exhaustiveness and transparency. It's as though they're afraid to upset powerful individuals who are liable to turn nasty when confronted with suggestions of unethical or improper dealing.

So for those who want a quick and easy overview of some of the main concepts in play in the world of philanthropy, this book can be recommended. For the rest of us, who desire a comprehensive look at the dynamics of a fairly shadowy industry, the book signally fails to impress.

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