|Philanthropy in Action
Part 1 of 2
From the book, Philanthropy: Voluntary Action for the Public Good, by
Robert L. Payton
The Social Philosophy and Policy Conference (SPPQ)
was the first time that professional philosophers had convened for a
comprehensive discussion of philanthropy. My purpose was to present some of the
situations and problems that confront philanthropy in action that could be
illuminated by moral philosophy.
Ethiopian Famine Relief Effort
Few things have more effectively captured the
public sentiment in recent decades than the televised news reports about the
Ethiopian famine first broadcast in the United States in 1984. The images
dramatized suffering on a large scale among innocent people, particularly among
defenseless children. The reports themselves indicated that literally millions
of lives were in jeopardy, and that beyond immediate death by starvation there
was also the prospect of large numbers of people mentally and physically maimed
for life by lack of protein
The surrounding conditions
were shown to be almost unbelievably harsh: large numbers of people crowded into
even worse, unable to get into those camps at all. Thousands of people were
reported to have died en route to the relief centers.
The political environment
was also one of civil disorder. A government that described itself as
Marxist-Leninist was engaged in drastic social and economic reform, including
relocation of large numbers of people. A civil war between the central
government in Addis Ababa and the secessionist rebel forces in Eritrea greatly
complicated the situation. Public resources were diverted to weapons and warfare
rather than to relief efforts, and the central government attempted to block
relief shipments to rebel territory as part of its military strategy.
The neighboring countries of
the Sudan and Somalia, also suffering severely from the drought, were drawn into
the Ethiopian crisis. Somalia has been engaged in sporadic warfare with the
government of Ethiopia for some years; the two sides have exchanged
international sponsors (the U.S. and USSR). Sudan, divided by ethnic conflict
north and south, proclaimed a policy of sanctuary for refugees fleeing from
Ethiopia, even though its own resources to assist the refugees were critically
needed by its own people.
The philanthropic constant
in this situation might for present purposes be identified as the international
relief community, led largely by American private voluntary organizations
(PVOs), but also including international agencies such as the UN refugee
commission and other private agencies such as the French organization called
Doctors Without Borders. The PVO community had warned of the impending crisis
long before it became headline television news. A few American agencies were
already in Ethiopia when the news story broke in the United States, even though
the Ethiopian government's relations with the United States were at the lowest
The Ethiopian crisis continues—deaths are estimated at 2,000 a day after a year of
exceptional international effort although the attention given to the crisis by
the media has diminished sharply and shifted to other issues (most notably South
Africa). What are some of the questions that have occurred in the course of the
philanthropic response to the Ethiopian famine? Are they issues that might apply
to similar crises elsewhere in the world?
• Is civil disorder the key?
Drought in other African countries (most notably Botswana) has not resulted in
suffering comparable to that in Ethiopia. To what extent should governments be
held accountable for the suffering of their people in such circumstances? Does
international relief ease the political burden on a bad government in
• What is the true role of
the famine relief effort? The sums raised, although historic in terms of
voluntary giving for relief purposes, are a small fraction of the sums and
supplies provided by governments. Is the role of private philanthropy that of
consciousness-raising rather than the actual relief of suffering?
• To what extent should
these problems be dealt with by voluntary giving? The scale of the financial
need and the high levels of political action necessary to stabilize the country
and the region exceed the grasp of voluntary action. Does voluntary giving
obscure the need for more drastic and costly political action?
• On what basis can
governments justify assistance to peoples where no significant political
interest or benefit can be served? Our political "ally" in the region is
Somalia; why should we help Somalia's principal enemy? Ethiopia has no
importance to American economic interests; why invest a billion dollars in
short-term refugee relief when the problem is likely to recur and there will be
no discernible or measurable benefit to the United States?
• Finally, what is the role
of the news media? By extension, what are the appropriate uses of the media by
entertainers acting as volunteers to raise money for famine relief? What impact
will fund raising initiatives launched in behalf of Ethiopian famine relief have
on large-scale fund raising for similar or even different purposes? Will
international communication make international fund raising a new force in
societies where private giving has been modest or non-existent?
Revolution in Central America
The emergence of a
Sandinista-dominated Marxist government out of the revolution against the Somoza
government of Nicaragua has led to a strongly negative response from the
government of the United States. The Reagan administration has given active
support to rebel forces in opposition to the Sandinistas. At the same time, U.S.
policy has supported the government of El Salvador against rebels that
reportedly receive support from Nicaragua. Similar civil and international
military action, polarizing forces around extremes of left and right at the cost
of moderate influences, is taking place in Honduras. Peace initiatives have been
sponsored by other governments (the Contadora group) as well as by the United
States (the so-called Kissinger commission), and by a wide range of private
To a much greater extent
than in Ethiopia, religious groups have sought to influence public policy toward
Administration policy as well as opposing it. Voluntary action by church groups
to provide "sanctuary" for refugees fleeing Central America has challenged
immigration and refugee policy directly. Highly publicized legal action
initiated against church groups has generated increased financial as well as
moral support. other religious groups that support Administration policies have
raised funds for humanitarian aid for the Nicaraguan rebels—funds
that the Administration has been unable to extract from Congress. (The IRS
classification of some of these nonprofit organizations is not made clear in
• The essential question is
the freedom of action claimed by and accorded to voluntary nonprofit
organizations seeking to influence or change U.S. foreign policy-by direct
action outside the United States.
• Can "humanitarian aid" be kept humanitarian in
military situations? Are private contributions in fact fungible? Do they free up
other funds for military purposes?
• Should boundaries be
placed around the activities of church groups in foreign affairs? Is the
separation of church and state jeopardized by the roles played by church groups
in Central America?
• Does political action by
churches and others undermine philanthropic behavior? How might we draw the line
between politics and philanthropy?
Controlling Nuclear Weapons
This is the title of a new
book by Robert Dahl which examines the question in terms of the trade-off
between "democracy and guardianship." At what point does a
democracy yield its democratic processes to the decision of experts when the
consequences of error are catastrophic?
No issue is more familiar.
Philosophers and others have engaged in extended discussions about it: A recent
issue of Ethics was devoted to the
In terms of philanthropic
action, the range of activities has spread across vast public rallies in Central
Park in behalf of the nuclear freeze; teach-ins and student referenda at Brown
University; the development and distribution of course materials and teacher
guides by the Institute for World Order; and investment in academic research at
a cluster of leading universities and research centers by the Carnegie
Many have called for a
massive effort to concentrate philanthropic resources and energies on this
issue. The actual amount of funds currently allocated is probably small, in the
total scheme of philanthropic giving. The numbers of people called to the
debate, however, by educational and religious institutions, appears to run into
To what extent should
private voluntary organizations influence U.S. nuclear policy? To what extent
should U.S.-based organizations attempt to influence the policies of other
governments? To what extent is direct action of the kind most dramatically
illustrated by Greenpeace justified within the framework of the philanthropic
tradition? What is the role of the media in this issue? Are philanthropic
organizations accorded different editorial treatment from that given to
governmental and private economic points of view?
South Africa (For more on South Africa, see "Tainted Money.")
Seldom has an issue become
so intertwined among the three sectors. Private voluntary action has led to
effective pressures on business corporations and on inter-governmental
relations.. Religious organizations have again played a leading role, along with
civil rights groups.
South Africa appears to have
drawn attention away from the Ethiopian famine as the leading issue of African
affairs pressing on the public consciousness. Voluntary efforts have become
linked with political as well as religious and social groups within South
Africa. The principal multinational corporation effort to improve the lot of
South African blacks has been led by a black American clergyman (Leon Sullivan).
Business corporations and philanthropic foundations have been the principal
sponsors of black South Africans studying in the United States under a program
managed by the institute for International Education. The American Chamber of
Commerce in South Africa was the focal point of a South African fund-raising
effort, supplemented by funds from the United States, to build a vocational
school in Soweto. Colleges and universities with African studies and
Afro-American studies programs have been the campus focal point for debate about
• What are the rights of private voluntary groups
outside South Africa in supportinganti-apartheid protest that lead to violence and
death of South Africans?
• Is the strategy of disinvestment justified by
religious organizations and educational institutions if the consequences are
harmful to their own financial stability?
• Should philanthropic efforts in South Africa
aim at long-term reform or short-term disruption?
• Are the philanthropic interventions in support
of apartheid in South Africa (Jerry Falwell) or in opposition to it (almost everyone
else) examples of American cultural imperialism? How do they differ?
Center for the Performing Arts
The arts present the most
permeable boundaries among the three sectors. Not only do for-profit and
not-for-profit interests co-exist with a variety of public agencies, initiatives
that begin in one sector mature in another. Foundation-supported artists make
recordings with for-profit recording companies; tax-exempt theaters become the
home of subsidized productions that eventually become highly profitable.
Individuals are supported by sales of their work, by foundation grants, and by
grants from public agencies (such as the state arts councils and the National
Endowment for the Arts).
Lincoln Center is a familiar
and symbolic hub of such activity, but many similar institutions have been
established across the country.
• Should public and philanthropic funds be used to
support activities that becomeprofit-making?
• Should philanthropic funds, by definition
not-for-profit, be permitted to result inprivate benefit? Should distinctions be drawn among
artists, producers, and others in thisregard?
• Does philanthropy subsidize elite culture with
public money? Should public opinion be enlisted to validate or even guide the arts when
public and philanthropic monies are involved?
• Should not-for-profit philanthropic enterprises
be permitted to supplement their base income with resources earned by profit-making activity?
• Should access to the arts be free? Does the
right to education have a cultural counterpart in
Robert Dahl, Controlling Nuclear Weapons, The Frank
W, Abrams Lectures, Syracuse University Press, 1985.
Back to Text
Issue on Ethics and Nuclear Deterrance, Ethics, vol. 95,no.3,1985. Back to