It’s astonishing how even at this point, when multibillionaires have reached apocalyptic levels of wealth and power, “philanthropy” is still seen as a valid form of charity. Both Jeff Bezos and Bill Gates are on track to become the world’s first trillionaires in the next 25 years—an unimaginable amount of money that would take 16 million years to amass with the U.S. median income of just under 60,000 dollars without any spending. The idea of one person holding that amount of wealth is so inconceivable that it’s hard to contextualize the significance of philanthropy among the ultra-rich within their actual material resources. In actuality, the philanthropic efforts of the extremely rich just function to distract the public from the devastatingly absurd amounts of wealth they’ve accrued, not to mention the fact that this class also created most of the problems they now claim to address. The optics of goodwill and generosity are simply easier for people to accept than the ultra-rich’s inconceivable, morally reprehensible accumulation of wealth.
The modern term of philanthropy refers to helping others through monetary donations, generally seen as a top-down system. The actual process of philanthropy isn’t as simple as just giving money away—the inner machinations of “charitable” foundations generally safeguard money and offer lower tax liabilities for the donors. Even further, these foundations reflect the private interests of their donors, exerting undue influence on the world and not necessarily addressing the issues that are most important to the people who supposedly benefit from philanthropy. Personally, I think it’s pretty ridiculous to assume that someone who has built a career off of exploitation and the unethical accruition of wealth has others’ best interests at heart. But these philanthropists continue to be praised in the media for their generosity. These acts of charity are barely that. As the philosopher Slavoj Zizek describes the billionaire philanthropist George Soros in “The Reality of the Virtual”: “half the day he engages in the most ruthless financial exploitations, ruining the lives of hundreds of thousands, even millions. The other half [of the day] he just gives part of it back.”
The Gates Foundation is another clear example of influence without accountability, although there’s rarely anything but praise for Bill Gates’ philanthropy. In his efforts to curb the impacts of infectious diseases and bolster worldwide immunization rates, his foundation spends more money on global health causes than the World Health Organization. Any private interest that has this amount of power should cause concern. Some experts have expressed concern over both Gates’ outsized influence and the priorities of his foundation, citing that most of its grants go to rich countries or don’t reflect the most pressing issues of the population. Even Gates’ popular fight against polio deserves a reassessment; Vox describes that “key stakeholders” in some of the countries impacted express that the issue of polio eradication was “a priority for wealthy nations and not necessarily developing ones,” which were focused on other, more locally pressing health crises. If communities aren’t being included in the process of aid, their priorities will be misconstrued. Another damning example of this arrogant approach to aid came at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. The Gates Foundation got involved in the race for a vaccine and discouraged any open, collective research and resource pooling to instead maintain exclusive rights. This refusal to let go of intellectual property for the greater good has led to limited access for poorer countries and thus a much longer global timeline for the pandemic, a predictable catastrophe that could have been curbed if it wasn’t for capitalist ego and profit. It’s telling that even for one of the largest and most venerated philanthropic foundations in the world, personal interest comes before genuine aid.
The efficacy of philanthropy is similar to that of trickle-down economics. Instead of redistributing wealth, private philanthropy often prioritizes elite issues, thus further strengthening existing structures. Even if these efforts actually benefit society in meaningful ways, the process creates a worrying dependency on wealthy donors and ignores the structural problems that allow millionaires to exert influence like this in the first place. At its core, philanthropy is about exerting power and disguising the ultra-rich’s role in the problems they address. In the context of a billionaire’s actual wealth, philanthropy is barely substantial—only genuine wealth redistribution and toppling the systems that support them can achieve the goals they claim to strive for.