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A Q&A With Michael Edwards, Author, 'Small Change: Why Business Won’t Save the World' (Part 2)

December 21, 2011

MikethirdsectorcroppedIn November, PND spoke with Michael Edwards, author of the 2010 book Small Change: Why Business Won't Save the World, which offered a sharp critique of the philanthrocapitalist worldview. In part two of our interview, Edwards talks about the impact of the Occupy Wall Street movement and shares his take on the recently established Bellagio Initiative, which seeks to establish "a new framework for philanthropic and international development collaboration in pursuit of human well-being in the twenty-first century."

To read part one, click here.

Philanthropy News Digest: Are you surprised the Occupy Wall Street movement has gained as much traction as it has? And do you think it will continue to have an impact on the income inequality debate in the United States, or in other countries, for that matter?

Michael Edwards: I'm not surprised that Occupy Wall Street has had an impact, especially when you consider that inequality in this country is at its highest level since records began to be kept. Something like one in four American children today live below the poverty line, and across a very broad swath of the American population people are feeling economically stressed, fed up, and want some change. Historically, that's precisely the kind of environment that spawns social movements. It just happened to be Occupy Wall Street, but it could have been something else. That said, the movement already has had an impact on the public debate, across party and ideological lines, and people are now talking about inequality in a way that they weren't even six months ago.

That's what social movements do. They may not have a direct impact on policy in the short term, but they give large numbers of people permission to talk about critical issues in a way they weren't able to before, and they tend to change the cultural conversation in ways which are important over the long term. In a sense, Occupy Wall Street is just a convenient platform for people, many of whom are somewhat suspicious of it, but who feel that something has gone terribly wrong. Whether it will continue to play that role in the future is the big question, and no one knows the answer. But I don't think that matters much right now, because, to give the movement its due, it has done something pretty remarkable in terms of changing the national, and in some ways international, debate about inequality. Will it be able to transform itself into something more formal, politically speaking? Will it develop a policy platform? Will it align itself with other existing movements for change? I don't know. But even if it disappeared tomorrow, its impact would continue to be felt.

PND: What is the appropriate role for foundations with respect to social movements? Should they be doing more to support a movement like OWS in its initial phase?

ME: Foundations have never been very important in supporting social movements in the United States or anywhere else, because that's not how social movements develop. Social movements are self-organized, self-created entities which largely run on their own firepower, including financial firepower raised through small donations, membership dues, labor contributions, and so on. Sure, if you look at the civil rights movement or the women's movement there were foundation dollars involved at various stages, but they were never particularly determinate, and the same holds true today, though maybe the Tea Party is an exception. Part of the reason I think -- and it's a good reason -- is that foundation funding comes with certain strings and accountability requirements attached. And that has an impact on the movement itself in terms of who makes decisions and how they're made. It implies a level of formality that people may not be comfortable with, and it can sometimes de-radicalize a movement in ways that are quite damaging.

It reminds me of the old battle cry "The revolution will not be funded." It might seem silly now, but it's based on something quite important, which is that you have to be sensitive when you introduce foundation funding into a spontaneous, democratic, disorganized movement space. That doesn't mean there isn't a role for foundations and foundation funding. But, generally speaking, what you typically find is that foundations are most effective in these situations when they take a back seat in the process of movement-building and focus on something very concrete where their funding can really make a difference. In the civil rights era, for example, foundations concentrated on supporting voting rights and voter registration, and I think there are parallels to that today.

PND: You've recently written a paper for the Bellagio Initiative, a collaborative project led by the Institute of Development Studies, the Resource Alliance, and the Rockefeller Foundation that aims to establish "a new framework for philanthropic and international development collaboration in pursuit of human well-being in the twenty-first century." How does the concept of human well-being differ from other measures of human development? And why is it the right measure to focus on at this particular moment?

ME: Well, the first thing I'd say is that it is a controversial thing and not everyone agrees it's the right way to go. Some people think well-being is too vague and abstract and un-measurable to be an effective guide to grant-making. The reason I believe it's potentially useful is that it forces us to focus on the bigger picture, on quality of life, on happiness, on empowerment -- the less material dimensions of how and why people feel fulfilled in their lives, which are equally important as having a job or house, receiving a microcredit loan, or any of the other more conventional things we measure. You know, the GDP data we use to measure economic progress in this country are virtually meaningless, for all sorts of reasons, so GDP is a fairly hopeless measure of welfare. And the well-being movement is saying, we can do better than that, we can measure all these different dimensions of how people are faring, and it will be a more effective and accurate guide to our decision making than relying on these outdated measures.

The problem is, how do you measure happiness? How do you measure fulfillment? How do you measure equality in social terms? It's very difficult. So the pushback is coming from people who want more solid, short-term metrics, which is where they feel most comfortable. The Bellagio Initiative was mounted against the backdrop of a debate in the international development community between people who are happy to support the infrastructure of problem solving and those who want to fix problems in a specified time frame -- a debate that's happening in philanthropy domestically as well. Traditionally, foundations followed the first approach; their focus was on creating strong institutions, governance processes, links between civil society and the private and public sectors, and so on, and not so much on "fixing" problems like endemic poverty or inadequate health care in the short term. The new generation of philanthropists, in contrast, is more impatient and very much wants to fix those problems in the short term. Bellagio is designed to advance that debate, to enable people to talk about the issues involved and see where they lead. A lot of different views are being expressed, and that's a good thing. The more diversity you have in the room, the more honesty in the room, the more likely you'll be able to generate a sense of direction that leads somewhere.

PND: Are you a fan of the type of globalization that has characterized the last few decades, with ever-tighter economic integration and new communications technologies shrinking the planet to the size of a village?

ME: Well, there are elements of globalization which are irreversible because of the way capitalism works and the way technology drives things. But the tacit understanding should be to try and make sure that globalization generates as many benefits -- and as few costs -- as possible. And that's a huge task. Market integration, technological innovation, and the accelerating speed of information flows don't by themselves solve the great questions that have always exercised human beings. They don't teach us how to live well together. They don't teach us how to cope with violence and division, discrimination and prejudice. They don't tell us how we can create some sort of common ground out of this huge diversity we are all experiencing.

Underlying all the razzmatazz of our high-speed, high-tech, globalized world are bigger philosophical questions. What grand purpose do we want technology to serve? What, in a social sense, is the purpose of markets -- simply to match buyers with sellers and feed a never ending spiral of consumption? I'm more interested in people who are talking about how we can use all this "stuff" to address those kinds of questions than I am in people who embrace technology and globalization enthusiastically and argue that if everyone has a cell phone, we'll solve the problems of poverty. That's daft and has never worked. And I see my role as constantly reminding people of those deeper philosophical questions, of asking, who are you, who are we, and how do we live well together? It's not a particularly popular conversation, because it slows things down and forces people to analyze their own role in the world, but it's a necessary one.

PND: A final question: Are you an optimist or a pessimist?

ME: Definitely an optimist. Given the current state of the world, I wouldn't be able to get out of bed in the morning if I wasn't. All my writings, even the critical ones, are trying to push people to create more change, to be more successful, to go much deeper. That's why I'm critical of some of the hype around social innovation and venture philanthropy and philanthrocapitalism. It's one thing to say we have lots of new opportunities; it's another thing to analyze them rigorously for their costs as well as their benefits. We can easily get lost in the hype and lose sight of the fact we face enormous challenges which will require every ounce of our critical imagination in order to address them. But you have to think, in a critically optimistic way, that we will rise to the challenge.

PND: Well, thanks for your time, Michael.

ME: Thank you.

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Posted by Michael Seltzer  |   December 23, 2011 at 11:37 AM

Michael.thank you for your excellent and insightful two-part interview. I certainly agree with many of your observations. One matter of historical record--There were a number of small progressive foundations, such as Norman, Taconic, Field, Stern, New World, and others that did extend valuable support at key junctures to the US civil rights movement and related efforts.. They were not "heavy-handed" in their support. Much of that support was unrestricted. While the size of the grants never approximated what their larger foundation cousins could provide, I would venture to assert that the grant recipients found these grant dollars valuable. For example, when I worked at the American Freedom from Hunger Foundation in the late 1960's and early 1970's, the foundation was a substantial supporter of Freedom Farm Coop in Ruleville, Mississippi (Sunflower County). Its founder and director was the famed civil rights leader-Fanny Lou Hamer. Fanny's parents were share-croppers. She was the youngest of 10+ children. The Foundation's support helped her maintain an income and further her civil rights work.

Posted by Mike Edwards  |   December 23, 2011 at 06:00 PM

Thanks Michael. You're right that foundations like those helped out, and I'm sure their support, small as it was, was appreciated, but I wouldn't want to overestimate their contribution overall. As is clear from histories of the period the Civil Rights movement was overwhelmingly financed from within, including large contributions from individuals like Harry Belafonte who mobilized resources quickly when they were really needed. Whether more foundation funding would have made a difference is an interesting question; how foundations can support social movements today an even better one. In that respect I think the points you make about small, unrestricted grants to individuals and training/organizing centers and "not being heavy-handed" are very important. Unfortunately I don't see many foundations following that advice. Thanks again for commenting.

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