Who cares what celebrities think?
On 1st December 2015, Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan announced the intention to set up the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, a limited liability company financed by infusions of shares from Facebook. A signatory of the ‘giving pledge’ (founded by Warren Buffet and Bill Gates) which encourages the super-wealthy to donate at least half of their wealth within their lifetime, Zuckerberg’s initiative represents another media-intense event in the rise of ‘philanthrocapitalism’. Philanthrocapitalism encompasses a set of overlaps, between super-wealthy individuals, political agents within global development organisations, some academics and scientists (but by no means a majority), and those celebrities who have committed themselves to some poverty- or welfare-related cause.
A prominent response to announcements like Zuckerberg’s or the media-prominent statements of Bill Gates or Bono is to debate the merits of their motives. Is he doing this for publicity reasons? Is this a way of avoiding tax? Or, conversely: isn’t Mark Zuckerberg nice? Good for him; we need more like him. This debate is rather limited and distracting because it falls into the trap that so much public discussion about celebrity does: an obsessional focus on the personalities of the celebrity.
In 2013, when teaching African Politics, I asked students for their response to the legal and ethical controversy surrounding Madonna’s attempts to adopt a Malawian child. I was expecting some thoughts or questions about the dubious legalities of her actions, the symbolism (even written into her name!) of the White Saviour that the public act provoked, or perhaps something about whether the act of ‘saving’ an individual has any relevance to Malawi’s pervasive poverty. Instead, students spontaneously started discussing the content of Madonna’s soul: ‘she means well…’; ‘she’s been doing this kind of thing for years so she must be serious’; ‘I hope she succeeds’ and so on.
This is what the phenomenon of celebrity is based in. A kind of emotional sovereignty in which the feelings of these individuals seem to have far broader social and political meaning. In some cases – most notably Bono – celebrity seems to entitle individuals to strive to ‘feel’ on the part of mass publics, to represent them emotionally. You might notice how effusive Bono always is about his feelings, even when doing so in ways that seem ostensibly modest or self-deprecating. He sometimes seems almost in pain in his efforts to broadcast his sentiments not only as heart-felt but also as a way to make great swathes of public opinion empathise. Once one is discussing the personality or the celebrity it does not matter if you wish to claim that they are being vainglorious or virtuous; you have already conceded the ground to the celebrity episteme: how can we judge the feelings of these people and thus make sense of a moral or political issue?
In this spirit, I want to say: forget you, Zuckerberg; I am not interested in you ‘as a person’ in the slightest. There is only one very obvious point to draw from the altruism of those on the spectrum of Bono, Madonna, Zuckerberg, Branson, Gates, Buffet and others: that they possess such massive amounts of wealth that they have it in their hands to influence the world in ways that now outweigh the agency of many states and even intergovernmental organisations. They vastly outweigh the collectivities and projects of labouring classes, civil society and social movements: those sources of democratic and progressive politics. In light of this, rather than concerning oneself with the moral motivations of philanthrocapitalists, we should rather address something more obvious and important: the broader structures of power that they create and the ways in which it influences how we understand mass poverty and development.
The corporate developmental Weltanschauung
The Foundations and Limited Liability Companies, wealthy donors, advisory groups of ‘experts’, and celebrity endorsers have constructed a global social project of philanthrocapitalism and they command a considerable amount of resource. The Gates Foundation has an annual spend in excess of that of the World Health Organisation. By virtue of their celebrity benefactors, they also have considerable influence over politicians, institutions, and broader publics. This influence is exercised through social events (private and public), connections to major international development campaigns, lobbying, and close connections to individual politicians. Philanthrocapitalism is also closely connected to a bundle of transnational corporations that have created ‘development projects’, given (small) amounts of money to ‘socially responsible’ activities and (less highly publicised on their glossy webpages) received public money from development budgets. Structurally, philanthrocapitalism looks as oligarchic and Putinesque as any Russian oil and property dynasty, or the military-industrial complex of the Cold War.
This oligarchy shares a broad vision of the meaning of development which can be summarised as follows.
- Development is about the release of economic activities within free markets which promotes both growth and a reduction in poverty.
- This process can be galvanised by ‘smart’ and ‘incentivised’ grant giving by privately-supported and managed foundations and companies. These organisations – contrasted with a supposed ‘bureaucratic’ intergovernmental institutionalism within the UN – use ‘business models’ to generate ‘value for money’ and ‘impact’.
- Private business has the key – and up to recently neglected – role in promoting this kind of development.
Taken together, this development framing is a radical departure from previous development practices. It contrasts strongly with what one might call the liberal intergovernmentalism development practice which emerged in the mid 1950s under the auspices of the United Nations and World Bank, coming to be supported by a raft of governments and development agencies. It reformulates development as best promoted by private foundations and businesses. It is garbed in an ideology that profit and ‘good’ development are mutually-supportive: ‘frictionless development’ in Bill Gates’s phrase. It also argues that change is best achieved through the dynamism of entrepreneurialism, and that the technologies and expertise of large transnational corporations are the key to ‘unleashing’ development. To be clear: this is not simply the oft-repeated argument that a country needs to attract foreign private investment in order to grow. It is rather that foreign companies and private foundations should run the development project itself.
Good examples of this shift can be found in East and Southern Africa agriculture. Under initiatives like AGRA and the related Southern Agricultural Growth Corridor (SAGC) in Tanzania, one can easily identify heavy corporate involvement in what is increasingly rather misleadingly labelled as ‘development aid’ and ‘development projects’, both of which tend to suggest ‘official’ or governmental projects and programmes.
The UK government’s development agency, DFID, supports the SAGC by providing co-financing projects run by Unilever, Diageo, SAB Miller, Monsanto, Syngenta, Du Pont, and Yara. These are large international companies involved in chemical inputs into agriculture and brewing (the latter being a major demand for grass crops). They exercise immense power in global ‘chains’ of commodity production through their scale, control of retail, branding, and control of high value technologies.
The vision of SAGC is to transform agriculture into large-scale commercial farms to supply inputs into global industries, and to re-make smallholder farmers into contracted producers of specifically-selected cash crops. In the process, these smallholders become more strongly locked into the purchase of chemical inputs, proprietorial seeds (rather than seeds from their own crops) and fertilisers (which might be designed to ‘fit’ with the seeds). Genetic modification is the perfect instantiation of the commodification of agriculture: replacing a seed crop on-farm with an ‘intellectual property right’ encapsulated in a seed. Within the AGRA programme the Gates Foundation is supporting efforts to disseminate genetically modified seeds through the African Agricultural Technology Foundation. Private money goes into a rolling show of workshops and events to proselytise the model of entrepreneurial farmer investing in new seeds. This ideological work is based on the belief that, in the words of the Director of Communications at DSM (an health and nutrition chemical company), ‘we care about people, planet, and profit. We believe we possess the capacity to help others solve the world’s greatest issues.’ This world vision is now entirely accepted throughout elite development circles, as one could see in all of the announcements that emanated from the UK government hosted and revealingly titled Nutrition for Growth: Beating Hunger through Business and Science in 2013.
One can easily find a raft of messianic statements about the potential of philanthropcapitalism, a queasy mixture of aspirational business-speak and ersatz hippie-discourse. This is a discourse of dreams, hope, new tomorrows, an end to poverty forever. It is the discourse of a TED talk soundbite. In one sense these statements are easily critiqued or satirised; in another, they are the building blocks for a dominating corporate development strategy. In an age of relentless and vacuous irony, perhaps the strongest ideologies are those most easily laughed at.
Neoliberalism and the dynamics of indirect and direct rule
Neoliberalism is a term based in a critique of governance that highlights how public authorities have based their policies and programmes on the promotion of liberal capitalism. The sense of the concept is that governments and other intergovernmental organisations increasingly try to conform to market logic and the promotion of transnational capitalism. That a shift of this nature has taken place over the last thirty years or so is now so obvious as to be unremarkable and politicians happily declare that this is what the ‘business’ of government is about: more market in the economy and within government.
But, there is a potential shift in the governance of development implied in the philanthrocapitalist model. Private foundations and companies promote transnational companies as the key agent in global development, and they directly fund projects devised and managed by those companies. So do major Western donor states. Those international companies that declare that they have a developmental mission have become increasing habituated to intervening in the livelihoods of the poor. These are the practices of corporate social responsibility and partnership between companies, aid donors, and foundations. Private foundations, companies and governments also put money into nationally-based advocates of the corporate development model: think tanks, research centres, universities.
The trend is away from the indirect rule of neoliberalism in which governments allocate aid and loans to promote market-friendly macroeconomic policy and programmes, and towards a set of practices within which private companies are directly involved in development. Governments are still responsible for the promotion of capitalist development, but it is increasingly the case that transnational capitalists are also directly responsible for capitalist development. There is in the present-day a combination of indirect (policy-based) and direct (‘philanthropic’ investment-based) neoliberal rule.
What’s the problem?
The Great Global Governmental-Philanthrocapitalist-Corporate Development Project exists and is growing. And, it is not modest. Celebrity donors, politicians, and spokespeople from the development industry – notably some economists who have become public intellectuals – all offer praise for the new model. They do so because the article of faith that underpins this venture capitalism to transform the poor is that development is win-win. It is not people before profits but people and profits. Corporations get into new markets, development agencies get financial leverage and ‘value for money’, and the poor get new opportunities to improve their livelihoods. To use the hackneyed cliché: doing good by doing well.
To entrust the fates of the world’s poorest to the world’s wealthiest seems – to put it mildly – naïve: like trusting the welfare of lambs to eagles. Here are some reasons why the win-win logic needs to be questioned.
- In agriculture, corporately-owned technologies and production contracts where smallholders commit to supply crops to transnational agricultural traders introduce substantial risk and market exposure to farmers. The evidence that GM seeds improve productivity and livelihoods is weak. The model of agrarian transition that ‘solving malnutrition through business and science’ relies upon is as generalised and abstract as the most vulgar state-based villagisation or modernisation programme.
- Corporations remain motivated by profit seeking and as such will aim to generate as much cheap produce or advantageous contracts for services provided as possible. Within the ‘partnership’ logic that pervades the philanthrocapitalist approach, there is little space for governments of poor countries to push companies beyond voluntary ‘social responsibility’ commitments which are weakly monitored and not connected to a strong process of accountability. Also, in spite of the pizzazz about risk taking and dynamism, large corporations are risk-averse, often commit very small proportions of revenue, and have no intrinsic commitment to a project because they are accountable to no-one but their shareholders, credit-rating agencies, and boards of directors.
- The development model itself assumes that properly-integrated small-scale livelihoods can thrive and promote development. This ignores the plain fact that small-scale livelihoods are structurally vulnerable and unlikely to generate the kinds of economic growth that transform economies. The kinds of processes that create the possibility (but no more) of transformational development have historically been based in state intervention and the rise of new ‘national capitalists’. Both of these possibilities are anathema to the philanthrocapitalist project. They want their happy and globally-disciplined mini-entrepreneurs in the countryside buying their chemical ‘property right’ inputs and growing their cash crops for corporately-dominated commodity chains. The result is that poor communities are locked into a life of contracted production, microfinanced small-scale investments, and social projects that aim for healthy and appropriately skilled workers.
- The Great Global Governmental-Philanthrocapitalist-Corporate Development Project is only accountable to whom it wishes, in the ways it wishes, and for as long as it wishes. It is entirely based in a kind of naïve and fatalistic trust that foundations and companies have the ‘vision’ to re-energise the global development project. Unlike governments or intergovernmental organisations, there is no public deliberation about development practice, not external auditing or review of the institutions of development, and no clearly-defined constituency that can clearly endorse or reject its activities. If profit margins fall, share prices dive-bomb, or property bubbles burst, philanthrocapitalists and companies can simply change their minds.
As this development model expands, the practice of development becomes indistinguishable from the strategising of large international companies who have some interest in agriculture, health, and nutrition. This is the meaning of neoliberal direct rule. To call this a new development model is not only to define away issues of redistribution, social justice, and economic transformation; it is also to assume that many of the woes created by indirect neoliberalism are best resolved by encouraging a more direct version of the same.