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Amazon fires expose the weakness of government and the power of philanthropy

29 August 2019 at 8:41 am
Krystian Seibert
World leaders are caught in a spat over money while philanthropy is starting to flow, showing how philanthropy can be nimble and responsive where government has failed and why being “undemocratic” is actually what we need more of in a democracy, writes Krystian Seibert.

Krystian Seibert | 29 August 2019 at 8:41 am


Amazon fires expose the weakness of government and the power of philanthropy
29 August 2019 at 8:41 am

World leaders are caught in a spat over money while philanthropy is starting to flow, showing how philanthropy can be nimble and responsive where government has failed and why being “undemocratic” is actually what we need more of in a democracy, writes Krystian Seibert.

We’ve all seen the images of the Amazon rainforest burning, and people around the world are reacting with shock and concern. And rightly so.

The Amazon is the largest remaining tropical rainforest in the world. It’s home to at least 10 per cent of the world’s biodiversity, produces 6 per cent of the world’s oxygen and helps regulate the temperature of the whole planet.

One thing the disaster does is provide insights into the weaknesses of government, on a number of levels.

The fires are at least partly the product of the massive deforestation that is happening in the region, with trees being cut down to create more land for agriculture. And Brazil’s democratically elected president is allowing and even encouraging such practices, by cutting the budgets of the agencies responsible for enforcing environmental laws, because he believes that this can promote more development.

That’s the first failure.

So how are foreign governments responding? Well at the recent G7 summit in Biarritz, France, leaders pledged US$20 million towards a fund to support Amazon countries to fight the fires. This group of countries have a combined GDP of nearly US$34 trillion and that’s the best they could do. The actual G7 summit itself is reported to have cost US$40 million!

That’s the second failure.

In response, the Brazilian government initially rejected that offer. Then it looked like it may accept it, but that was subject to the French president apologising for remarks he made which offended the Brazilian president. Then the Brazilian government said that it may accept the funds, provided they can administer them. So it looks like a spat between two politicians is holding up the flow of funds, meanwhile, the fires continue to burn.

That’s the third failure.

So what is philanthropy doing?

Well, a new environmental organisation created by Leonardo DiCaprio has pledged US$5 million to a new emergency fund, to be dispersed between five local organisations that are combating the fires, protecting Indigenous lands, and providing relief to the communities impacted.

Others are acting too. Interestingly, the French conglomerate LVMH has pledged US$11 million – it’s owned by the billionaire Bernard Arnault, who copped a lot of criticism earlier this year when he pledged funds for the rebuilding of Notre Dame cathedral. It’s good to see that this criticism didn’t put him off philanthropy, and I actually wonder if it may have even been a factor that positively influenced the decision to make this new funding announcement?

So between those two pledges, philanthropy is already approaching the amount of funds that the G7 governments have offered. That doesn’t even count the other pledges we don’t know about, plus the smaller donations likely flowing to charities which are supporting efforts to tackle the fires – you can see a list of them on the Charity Navigator website.

So governments, collectively, are responsible for 1) lax regulation, 2) pulling together what for them amounts to “chump change” to help tackle the fires, and 3) are mired in the spat about whether or not to accept the money and what the conditions of accepting it are.

Meanwhile, NGOs are on the ground, working with communities to tackle the fires, and support from philanthropy is starting to flow.

Good government can be a powerful tool for achieving positive change, and for responding to challenges be they fires or the myriad other challenges facing our societies. But good government can often be in short supply, and in cases of government failure, the ability of philanthropy to be quick and responsive demonstrates what a powerful tool it can be.

This raises another important question. As I wrote about in my column last month, philanthropy is increasingly being criticised as undemocratic by some. I generally disagree with this critique.

I wonder how this debate would play out in the case of the Amazon fires? 

We have a democratically elected president of Brazil, who wants to promote development and is encouraging deforestation through lax enforcement of regulations. This is partly to blame for the fires.

The philanthropy that’s starting to flow into Brazil in response to the Amazon fires isn’t controlled by a democratically elected government that periodically faces the Brazilian people at elections. So it’s not accountable in the same way that the Brazilian government nor the Brazilian president are. In fact, it may actually be supporting NGOs which are seeking to challenge Brazilian government policy.

But not just that, the philanthropy flowing into Brazil is also a source of “foreign influence” (a term we hear about a lot in Australia now as well), because it’s coming from the US and Europe. So one could argue that technically it’s an undemocratic source of foreign influence!

Once again, this shows a major flaw with the “philanthropy is undemocratic” critique. 

Governments may be “democratic” in that they face elections every so often. But they often fail to act when they need to act, or they act in the wrong way. They can tend to represent the interests of more powerful groups, and I suspect that those engaging in land clearing in the Amazon may wield quite a bit of influence with the Brazilian government. This power can often be wielded at the expense of less powerful and minority groups, for example, the Indigenous people of the Amazon.

In these instances, I want philanthropy to be nimble and responsive where government has failed, I want it to support those challenging government to be better, and I want it to amplify the voices of those who may otherwise not be heard.

Philanthropy isn’t perfect, makes mistakes, and needs to be judged on its actions. But sometimes what some may regard as “undemocratic” is actually what we need more of in a democracy. 

I certainly think we need even more philanthropy to flow into Brazil to support the NGOs responding to the Amazon fires, and I hope to see even more pledges being made towards those efforts.

Krystian Seibert  |  @ProBonoNews

Krystian Seibert is an industry fellow at the Centre for Social Impact at Swinburne University of Technology, and the policy and regulatory specialist at Philanthropy Australia.

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