For me, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation won the race at filling the gap left by the Clinton Foundation on the side of the UNGA. The New York Times voted differently so I need to justify. First, it was fun to watch: speakers spoke in a TED-like engaging way; some, like Leymah Gbowee, were super inspiring; Stephen Fry was part-time MC; and they used cool animations and upbeat music as transitions between sessions (even Barack Obama noticed). Second, the content was tightly connected to Agenda 2030 from the website to new commitments made during the event to improve delivery. There was an emphasis on data, movements, technology, and gender equality across sessions. And the foundation walked the talk on the latter: 39% of their speakers were women compared to 28% and 22% for the WEF and Bloomberg events respectively. The Bloomberg Global Business Forum was more conservative: a lot of white men in dark suits speaking from seated panels. It brought many big personalities: Bill Clinton opened the show followed by Tim Cook, Emmanuel Macron, and Justin Trudeau. I liked the timely sessions on the future of the EU and the One Belt One Road initiative. The WEF’s Sustainable Development Impact Summit covered a lot of ground, had great speakers, and was connected to the SDGs as well but it was packed, long and held in dark rooms. The summit had the best streaming system and made videos quickly available per session. I am probably not giving them justice as I dropped out of a few panels when they felt too much like Davos coming to New York.
These events remind us of a well-documented trend we have unpacked for you before: the growing role of philanthropies in policy making. I recently enjoyed taking a peek behind the curtain of big philanthropies thanks to David Callahan’s “The givers: wealth, power, and philanthropy in a new gilded age”. The book describes the evolution of this industry over the past century. It nicely connects the personal stories of wealthy people to those of their foundations, beyond the names we all know. It illustrates the power of big philanthropy in influencing politics as well as in transforming cities, education systems, and science priorities. It draws a parallel between philanthropy’s ascent and the diminishing effectiveness of government. The tone of the book is rather neutral until the epilogue where Callahan’s personal views come out. He criticizes the growing power of an industry “that gets to act as it pleases, answering to no one”. He argues that the way out of plutocracy is to re-energize government and offers recommendations to make philanthropies more “transparent, accountable, and responsive”. It is an interesting read shedding light on a mostly silent yet increasingly powerful driver of societal change. It does focus on the US but the dynamics it describes could apply to other parts of the world where this industry is also on the rise.
Indeed, looking East, the just-published Global Chinese Philanthropy Initiative report tells us that the number of Chinese foundations has grown by 430% over the past decade, mainly driven by privately-led entities.
A recent survey with 100 influencers in philanthropy clearly shows that foundations do not have the willingness nor the means to act as substitutes of governments. Rather, one of their key objectives is topartner with public institutions to amplify their reach. In the words of former USAID-head and newly appointed Rockefeller Foundation President Rajiv Shah recently speaking at ODI: “instead of doing specific projects, being a big part of that policy and political dialogue is one path to having impact at scale”.