Originally, goodwill ambassadors would mobilise to support a noble cause, a diplomatic mission or, in most cases, to booster fundraising initiatives for any given organisation. Charity, on the other hand, has always existed and so have philanthropists. They existed before the advertisement industry created the figure of the testimonial and the role of brand-promoting sponsors and well before humanitarian organisations were suggested to follow the same path. In recent times, however, things have changed. Goodwill ambassadors, promoting a sense of trust and fostering civic engagement, have been supported by philanthropists. The debate around individuals’ private commitment to humanitarian causes has benefited the humanitarian arena, specifically considering the recent climate of funding depreciations which has led humanitarian actors to look for alternative sources of funding. All considered, Sir Henry Dunant, the Swiss funding father of the idea of humanitarian action, contributed to the fight against humanitarian crises as a private individual: entrepreneur and philanthropist, Dunant was awarded the first ever Nobel Peace Prize. It was the year 1901 and Dunant, who had created the Red Cross after having bearded witness to the horrors of the Battle of Solferino, was awarded Alfred Nobel’s prize and entrusted with the recognition of having laid the key governing principle at the hearth of humanitarian interventions: independency, neutrality, impartiality.
A century later, albeit changes in certain elements, humanitarian actors have remained the same: regional, national and international organisations, nation states and the private individuals.
Referring to governments’ yearly global expenses (2016), 97% of all humanitarian aid is supported by 20 countries, with the United States, the largest donor, accounting for 31% of all international aid. Yet, if these estimates are matched against gross domestic products, the United States drops to the eighteenth position while Arab countries rise to the top. According to the United Nations, notwithstanding a global increase in humanitarian funding – of which the agencies of the United Nations are the principal beneficiary – the gap between the available resources and the needed humanitarian interventions continues to grow, with 40% of all humanitarian needs remaining unanswered. The slow increase of institutional humanitarian funding is balanced by the contributions of private donors which, in financial terms, have provided 6.9 out of the 27.2 billion dollars of current humanitarian aid. Almost a quarter of the total amount.
The army of private donors, has highlighted by the case of Myanmar, is highly heterogenous. From those contributing with one dollar from their thin salary to those offering one billion dollars form excesses in entrepreneurial revenues. Business Insider’s chart of the top 20 most generous people in the world is mainly dominated by North American citizens – Bill Gates, Warren Buffet, the young Mark Zuckerberg and Ted Turner, to mention a few – or naturalised Americas (the Hungarian George Soros or the Franco-Iranian Pierre Omidyar) who have embodied the motto of the father of all philanthropists, the Scottish-American Andrew Carnegie (1835 - 1919). He famously stated: “no man can become rich without himself enriching others". The chart also points to the Indian Azim Premji, the Sauid Sulaiman bin Abdoul Aziz Al Rajhi, the Mexican Carlos Slime Helú and the Chinese Li Ka-shing. Yet, it is crucial to go beyond the magnitude of individual generosity and account for how such generosity is channelled. Quality, method and choices beyond quantity. Should charity be deregulated? Should the poor be helped directly or should development processes be supported to impede that poverty increases?
A publication by Jens Martens and Karolin Seitz - Philanthropic Power and Development. Who shapes the agenda? – deals with the relationship between humanitarian aid and philanthropy narrating the difficulties of an approach which is yet to fully develop. Over the last decades, claim the researchers, globalisation, deregulation and privatisation have augmented the strengths of private actors, specifically of large multinational corporations. Firms operating in several countries - continue Jens Martens and Karolin Seitz - and accumulating enormous revenues have already gained political and economic status. Their influence, continues the Report, has also grown vis-a-vis global political debates, poverty eradication, sustainable development, climate change and human rights. When national governments appear unable to meet national challenges, these new emerging actors portray themselves as the operative solution: as a model that, theoretically, should be more flexible, effective and non-bureaucratic.
Despite large financial numbers, building a relationship of trust between institutions, individuals and the civil society requires engagement and joint work. A lot needs to be done to continue building upon what Henry Dunant and Andrew Carnegie started at the beginning of the 20th century.
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