By Antonio Olmedo, University of Roehampton
Coinciding with this year’s World Social Forum in Davos, Oxfam released a report based on Credit Suisse Global Wealth Databook , denouncing that the top 1% richest people have gained more income than the poorest 50% altogether. The tendency seems to be worsening.
In 2010, the combined assets of the 388 multibillionaires were required in order to equal the wealth of the 50% at the bottom, however, in 2016 only 8 of them would be needed to reach the same situation.
The counter narrative claims that, while the richest become richer, the average wellbeing of the population increases correspondingly. However, even the friendliest statistics (ie. the Brookings Institution has recalibrated poverty indicators according to new data available on prices for goods and services [Purchasing Power Parities] in every country in the world) show that while in some regions the new calculations seem to suggest an improvement in the percentage of people living in extreme poverty, that is not the case in other areas, where such proportions seem to aggravate.
Moreover, the think tank signals that there is a large concentration of people whose living standards are virtually similar to the global poverty line, which epitomises the fragility of such estimates.
All in all, the situation seems far from resolved and the number of deadlines missed by international declarations, multilateral agreements, development goals, etc. continues to amass.
Capitalism, the elephant in the room
Nevertheless, far from engulfing policy makers in a deep and self-reflexive critical exercise, within mainstream politics Capitalism remains as the solution to such stagnant social and economic crisis, rather than its central cause. The fact that the richest are even richer seems to be a good news rather than cause for concern.
As Bill Clinton (2010) acknowledges: “The 21st century has given people with wealth unprecedented opportunities, and commensurate responsibilities, to advance the public good”.
Back in 2008, right after the latest global collapse of the capitalist system, Bishop and Green published their Ode to (what they baptised as) the Philanthrocapitalism. In the preface of the 2nd edition of the volume, the authors celebrate the fact that the global economic crisis does not seem to have endangered, but rather fortified, the wealth of the wealthiest on Earth:
The world has changed since the financial meltdown of September 2009, but in ways that make the ideas in Philanthrocapitalism more relevant than ever. According to the annual rich list compiled by Forbes magazine, the collapse of the stock and other asset prices reduced the global number of billionaires by over 300, nearly one-third, from 2008 to 2009. The average charitable foundation saw its assets shrink by at least one-quarter. Yet the world still has plenty of super-rich people. Indeed, overall, the super rich are likely to emerge from the crisis in better financial shape than anyone else. The reservoir of wealth to fund Philanthrocapitalism is still there. [emphasis added] (Bishop & Green, 2010, p. xii)
The book preaches the renaissance of giving and philanthropy. It portrays how a group of new philanthropists give, by applying business techniques and ways of thinking to their philanthropy and also describes the growing recognition by the leaders of capitalism that are giving back much of their fortune to improve society is as much a part of the system as making the money in the first place (2010, p. xii).
A study commissioned by Education International (the final report will be publicly released later this year) considers the general implications of the involvement of new philanthropists in global education policy communities in different countries across the world.
The Venture Philanthropy neoliberal ecosystem
More concretely, this piece of work concentrates in tracking the investments and agendas of a group of Venture Philanthropic organisations, which openly promote market-based solution and dynamics of privatisation of education at all levels: funding of private and charter schools, developing new public management schemes, incubating new edu-tech businesses, advocating for new forms and methods of accountability and evaluation, etc.
When brought together, their portfolios configure a full neoliberal ecosystem. From chains of private schools operating within public-private partnerships or fully independent, teacher training programmes and countless tools for evaluation and school management, to curriculum development, electronic materials, new funding channels for both school providers and students and families, the options are all-encompassing.
It would not be an overstatement to say that the sum of investments of the philanthropic ventures analysed above offers the possibility of running a complete educational system through the services that their investees offer.
Moreover, though most of those tools and models and programs have been designed for specific countries or continental regions, it is also clear that they are ready to be scalable. As the case of Bridge International Academies shows:
The first Bridge International Academy opened in the Mukuru slum in Nairobi, Kenya in 2009. Today there are hundreds and Bridge continues to expand across Africa and Asia. With a mission of Knowledge for all, Bridge plans to educate 10,000,000 children across a dozen countries by 2025.
As a result of the detailed selection processes of their scrupulous funders, the majority of the companies in their portfolios are prepared to follow similar pathways. Varthana, for instance, started as a microcredit venture operating in India, but they are already examining the possibilities to go beyond their current field of operations reaching new markets:
We see the loan as the starting point of a long association and believe in working with those school owners who are committed to quality. In the future, we plan to hold seminars and workshops for the school owners; get people in the field of teacher training to engage with the schools and connect them with vendors and solution providers who have innovative, state of the art solutions for schools. By nurturing a long term relationship with our clients and working with the school entrepreneurs and teachers as a team, Varthana believes we can create value and make a difference.
There are multiple examples of companies that are looking into expanding their operations, either by moving into new geographies, adventuring into new markets, or targeting new populations.
They are the icebreakers at the forefront of privatisation dynamics, paving the way for deeper and more significant changes. In a clinical exploratory way, they are testing the temperature of national and local governments, of politicians and civil society groups, of individual citizens and consumers. They bring new ways of doing things into the public policy arena, new solutions and techniques, but more importantly a new vocabulary based on new forms of knowledge.