Philanthropy in the twenty-first century

Global health advocate and critical thinker Alex Jadad dares policymakers to place love at the root of helping others
By: /
March 19, 2015
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While journalist Naomi Klein and economist Thomas Piketty have garnered accolades for their critiques of capitalism, Colombian-Canadian physician and humanist Alex Jadad has been quietly sharing his own biting criticism of the failure of current models at conferences around the world.

The founding director of Toronto’s Centre for Global eHealth Innovation and Professor at the University of Toronto has also worked as a senior advisor to several governments, participating on high-level policy meetings with major figures such as Mikhail Gorbachev, Bob Geldof, Kofi Annan, and Al Gore.

Jadad spoke to OpenCanada on how a disproportionate value on money is having disastrous effects around the globe, and how the simple suggestion of promoting love — a concept often ignored in official circles — could transform policies in Canada and beyond.

You are known for making the strong case for a more holistic, inclusive meaning of ‘health.’ How are you applying a similar philosophy in your approach to ‘philanthropy’?

We need to pay a lot of attention to words. We tend to get very impatient with words because we are not used to thinking conceptually. When it comes to philanthropy or when it comes to wealth and money, I think it’s very important to pause and to reflect upon the meaning of the words. This is why I start by reminding people that philanthropy literally means humanity loving. Anything that reflects a love for humanity is philanthropic. What should drive philanthropy is love.

What are the risks when words like philanthropy are misinterpreted?

You go to a modern dictionary and philanthropy is described in relation to the donation of money to good causes. The definition goes straight to money. Somehow the origin, the meaning of the word, morphed into a transactional activity in which money is the main entity that is transferred from one place of abundance to one place of scarcity. So philanthropy is now based on an imbalanced picture in which some people or organizations or countries or entities that have money beyond the level at which they need it, transact and transfer that money to a group that is in deficit with the assumption that money will make things right.

Is that related to the way we measure, say, humanitarian aid primarily in financial terms as opposed to valuing other kinds of aid?

Of course it is. This comes to the notion of the difference between money and wealth. So when money is the main gimmick or the main indicator or the driving force, then it’s an issue of scarcity. The risk is always not to have enough. Money was invented by us; it is one of the few things with which humans cannot be satiated. I can eat a beautiful meal, but if you give me 10 times the amount of that beautiful meal I would tell you ‘Thank you very much, I don’t want more.’ I love to exercise, but I have a limit. I need to sleep. There is a limit. There is pretty much a limit for everything else, sex, whatever. But money is one of those very few things for which there is no limit, unless the limit is set. So there is always a risk for scarcity. Even those who have a lot would like more.

Who are we leaving out when we define philanthropy in monetary terms?

Everything but money is being left out of the equation. This ignores the abundance — of talent, vital energy and other types of resources — that exists in almost every community in the world, regardless of how much money they have available.

We are giving more value to the symbol than to what it represents. Then when the symbol gets disconnected from what it represents and becomes the dominant thing for a system that promotes its accumulation, then we see what is happening now — the widest income gap in the history of the species, to the point that the World Economic Forum, the group that is most interested in nurturing a neoliberal approach to everything, identified income inequity as the second most important threat to the world now after armed conflict and terrorism.

We are now seeing powerful mechanisms to generate money out of money. So the financial system, led by banks, is becoming a self-feeding machine that gets disconnected from value and disenfranchises most of the population. So it then gets translated in millions of missed opportunities for the expression of love for humanity by humanity. So we are sacrificing a lot of wealth, represented by people with knowledge and energy who want to use their time as a resource to do good. We are missing a lot of opportunities to harness abundant resources that do not depend on money to energize those with knowledge, or time, or networks to do things. So we devalue everything that is not monetarily represented, falling into a trap of scarcity.

If we measure inequality by income on one hand and then say people’s worth should not be measured by a monetary value — are those ideas in conflict?

No. I think that we use income inequality because it’s possible to do it; it is relatively easy to do it. Money is a symbol. Just as we use inches or kilometers to describe the length of a road, money is useful to assess one aspect of wealth. But to focus on income as the dominant marker of inequality carries its own risks, as it dismisses everything else that humans value and that money cannot buy. Again, we are over-focusing on the symbol rather than on value. The stigmatization of those who are disadvantaged enforces power imbalances.

In general, are you simply promoting thinking deeper on these issues?

Are you loving the world as much as you can? That is the question that should be at the heart of philanthropy. Yes, I might have money, but I have many other things. When you just give money when you could be loving more — then you are doing a half-assed job.

How can these expanded definitions be incorporated into policy?

Why don’t we dare policymakers to use love as the means and the goal of philanthropy?

So if we cut our carbon emissions in Canada that would be a philanthropic act. Because what we are doing now is loving humanity more. Cutting our carbon emissions would be an act of love much more powerful than donating money to a country perceived as poor.

We are wasting food in Canada worth more than what would be needed to feed the billion people in the world who are hungry every year. By the way, the number of people visiting food banks even within Canada — we’re not talking about foreign aid — is skyrocketing and 30 percent are children. Using the food we already have in abundance to eradicate hunger would be an act of love.

Providing volunteers with greater recognition would be an act of love, too. We reinforce the money-giving behavior through tax breaks and social accolades, which is a form of expressing love for those who have money. That money enables things to happen. Recognizing volunteer work would create a leveled playing field for acts of love that require time, dedication and compassion for those who are suffering. So if you don’t have money but you have other things and you give them to others, you should be appreciated, rewarded, recognized and not punished which is happening in many cases now. Most volunteers are doing their work of love despite the system.

This philosophy could easily be applied to development work at large, whether that is at home or abroad.

I dislike the word ‘development’ because it was created, in the sense we use it today, in the 1940s as a means to emphasize the need to live like we do in North America or Western Europe. So again it’s highly ideologically charged. What are you implying by ‘development’?

That those in need are not developed.

Yes. And it ends up with a comparison between those who have material goods that money can buy and those who do not. You need money for roads, you need money for houses, you need a car like mine. When you get enough money and get these things, and are able to live like me, then you become ‘developed’ like me. Otherwise, you remain ‘underdeveloped’.

The notion of development, which some question as a valuable term, should entail much more than material possessions or economic growth, which reinforce the power of scarcity. It should also take into account the need to be creative and engage in efforts to promote health as the ability to cope with physical, mental and social challenges, while reducing the medicalization of society; to ensure that resources are fairly distributed to get rid of hunger, homelessness and violence; to re-embed learning into each culture, beyond what we call now education. In short, development should point towards human flourishing through the elimination of suffering, while harnessing the power of our creativity and diversity as individuals or communities.

Can you elaborate on ‘what we call now education’?

Education should lead to the enrichment of our minds so we can use them to promote the flourishing of the species in a sustainable world. What we are doing now is turning people docile, with limited critical thinking skills who are steered towards cubicles or repetitive activities that reject creativity.

Those who challenge the current neoliberal models, which are guiding our health, education and political systems, put themselves at risk every day. They are harassed all the time.

Do you get the feeling others do not want you to express these kinds of ideas?

Of course. This is dangerous. I am taking a risk here, saying this and being recorded. This is an act of love, even though I’m a hypocrite, as I’m part of the problem. As a professor, I am contributing to a system that is making people vulnerable because most of our students leave without basic skills to survive outside a highly controlled machine of employment that forces most people to behave like slaves, prostitutes or mercenaries. As a physician, I am also part of a system that feeds from disease, rather than from the promotion of health. As a citizen, I vote in a political system that is not truly representative or accountable, and that is in fact oppressing us everywhere. And I could go on. For instance, I am not doing enough to change an alimentary system that is starving or stuffing us, or to protect our environment.

And conceiving philanthropy as loving humanity would help?

For sure. We in Canada need to look at ourselves more and more with humility. That is very hard to do. We were meant to be a generous, conciliatory country building peace around the world, generous, welcoming and all that. I don’t know what has happened to us.

I am not a saint. I am not humanity-loving enough. This is one of my big issues now, what kind of life should I live? What kind of life should you live?

Any examples of positive programs either in Canada or around the world that can serve as an example?

A beautiful example that inspires me a lot is that of Cristobal Colon a psychiatrist from Catalonia [Spain]. He created a cooperative in which 75 percent of the owners, and workers, are people living with major mental conditions or disabilities. He was working in a psychiatric hospital medicating people, drugging people, keeping people behind bars (most mental institutions continue to be close to jails). He said ‘I cannot do this any more.’ So he left the hospital and created La Fageda. He employed every person with disabilities and mental illness in the town, in the factory. And as a cooperative, each person has the same amount of shares of the company and the same opportunities to use their knowledge and skills. By looking at the abundance of talent among people with mental illnesses and disabilities, he managed to eliminate unemployment among those who experience it in more than 90 percent of cases almost anywhere else in the world.

So it’s possible. That is an act of philanthropy, a magnificent act of love. How could we have policies that reinforce that, which encourage the employment of people with disability and that reward behaviors that focus on what we have in abundance?

How can policies recognize the immense value that we are ignoring and sacrificing or underplaying by overemphasizing the role of money in philanthropy?

I’m not sure if this is a positive or negative message.

Philanthropy should always be a message of love. How about considering large-scale philanthropy, based on the harnessing of every person’s surplus of knowledge, skill and talent to the service of others, as a revolution of love? Going back to the origin, to the starting point; this is what ‘revolution’ also means.

When people laugh when I talk about love I say, ‘Why are you laughing? Do you want it in your life? Yes? Okay, can you imagine something more serious than this?’ Then people stop in their tracks. Then they start asking me all these practical questions. Then we are in a good position, we can talk about it whereas five minutes before they were just poking fun at me.

It’s not easy to talk about love in our society publically. But guess what? I don’t care, I’m going to do it. I’m studying love formally, with a brilliant team of scholars.

Let’s talk about love more. I cannot imagine a better opportunity to do it than while discussing philanthropy, which has it at its heart.

 This interview has been edited and condensed.