Monday, September 25, 2006

I was talking with Reiner this weekend about philanthropy. Another article also reminded me of this, and describes the situation in Russia, where philanthropists are setting up charities to give back, but steering clear of promoting a more democratic society.

It seems that the new philanthropy is on a scale that we haven't seen since the Rockefellers or Carnegies. Gates and Buffett on health, and Branson on climate change set their own priorities of what they see as the major problems in the world, and design detailed ways of achieving those goals, ways that are probably more coordinated and less susceptible to bureaucracy than the work of governments and existing institutions. But the jury is definitely still out on the mega-contributions, and whether they really will be better at achieving results.

But what is the purpose of such mega-giving? They are part therapy for the billionaire who has everything, part corporate social responsibility and marketing, and part real honest to god do-gooding.

But in Russia, as the article in the Washington Post says, some corporations use charitable organizations to launder money and avoid taxes. And there have been others who have suspected that there need to be more controls on NGOs and where they get and use their money. Surely, this has increased since September 11th, because there has been a realization of how dangerous charities can be in getting funds to terrorists. Some Islamic charities have functioned very well as channels for money to flow from diaspora to their respective "freedom fighters" at home. This was true in the Balkans, in Afghanistan, and elsewhere. So there is room for suspicion.

Silvana Koch-Mehrin in the European Parliament has tried to raise awareness of how NGOs should be controlled, especially because they often receive funds from the European Commission, only to turn around and lobby the Commission for their policy goals. This was also one of the reasons for Commissioner Kallas to start his European Transparency Initiative. But focussing only on NGO governance seems misplaced when it's governance and lobbying in general that needs to be regulated, for any body who is representing an interest.

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