Swans Commentary » swans.com August 9, 2010  



Bill Clinton's Philanthropic Propaganda


by Michael Barker





"Through their donations and work for voluntary organizations, the charitable rich exert enormous influence in society. As philanthropists, they acquire status within and outside of their class. Although private wealth is the basis of the hegemony of this group, philanthropy is essential to the maintenance and perpetuation of the upper class in the United States. In this sense, nonprofit activities are the nexus of a modern power elite."
—Teresa Odendahl, 1990. (1)


(Swans - August 9, 2010)   Philanthropic propaganda provides a powerful rhetorical discourse that is used to maximum effect to shield leading members of the ruling class from critical scrutiny. Through consuming such propaganda we find out that the people who organize Empire against the interests of the majority of humanity are just like the rest of us, except, that is, that they want to help make the world a safer place for capital, not humans. This murderous prioritization is however glossed over by unrelenting public relations campaigns that maintain just the opposite. Bill Clinton is a master of such propaganda and just a few years ago he published his own opus on this subject, Giving: How Each of Us Can Change the World (Knopf, 2007). Clinton is "convinced... that almost everyone -- regardless of income, available time, age, and skills -- can do something useful for others and, in the process, strengthen the fabric of our shared humanity." (2) Yet while he may be correct in stating that almost everyone can lend a hand, arguably the only people who should be excluded from intervening in this process are members of the power elite, like Clinton.

Clinton observes: "The modern world, for all its blessings, is unequal, unstable, and unsustainable." We can safely assume that Clinton is not stupid, so he must understand that capitalism is the primary reason why the minority of the world's population prosper while the majority face insecurity and poverty -- such that "millions die needlessly every year." So it is sickening that his counsel for the future is yet more capitalism. Indeed, the opening sentence of his book notes that while "all over the world, intelligence and energy are evenly distributed," the problem, he (lies), actually lies in the fact that "opportunity, investment, and effective organizations aren't" evenly distributed. The solution then is to "make market forces work better for the poor" by striving to "develop a more creative capitalism." He cynically adds: "If we can find approaches that meet the needs of the poor in ways that generate profits for business and votes for politicians, we will have found a sustainable way to reduce inequity in the world." (3) His solution thus resides within the mythical heart of the inhumane system that he himself identifies as "unequal, unstable, and unsustainable."

For Clinton, "One of the world's greatest full-time givers is Dr. Paul Farmer." Farmer is of course well known in progressive circles (see "Caring For Haiti"), and Clinton notes how:

In 1987, [Farmer] founded Partners In Health, along with fellow doctor Jim Yong Kim, his friend Ophelia Dahl, and Boston businessman Tom White, who put up the first $1 million to support the Zanmi Lasante Clinic that Farmer and Haitian colleagues opened in Cange in the central highlands of Haiti, the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere, long burdened by oppressive, corrupt, and violent rulers. (p.33)

Elsewhere (in The Boston Globe) one discovers that Farmer first met Tom White, the founder of a major construction company, in 1983 when he was working as a medical student in Haiti and had been tasked with picking White up from Port-au-Prince airport. White, a well-known philanthropist, was in Haiti because he "had been asked by Project Bread, one of his charities," to launch an aid project in Cange. (4) White recalls that Farmer's first impressions were not positive: "He'd hardly give me the time of day because he thought I was a member of the establishment." However, on the long journey from the airport to Cange, Farmer discovered that he had more in common with a leading member of the power elite than he first thought, as White was a Democrat and was in favor of unions. Consequently, as Farmer recalls: "The inspiration for Partners in Health was born right then and there." In subsequent years White "steadily funneled tens of millions of dollars into" Partners In Health, but later major funders like George Soros and Bill Gates (and his associated foundation) eventually stepped up to provide more significant long-term funding for Farmer's aid program in Haiti.

Needless to say, in Clinton's rendition of his involvement in Haiti's history, he does not draw attention to his own administration's malevolent support to Haiti's "oppressive, corrupt, and violent rulers" (his own words). In actual fact, under the cover of philanthropic propaganda Clinton has recast himself as the saviour of Haiti and is now one of the co-presidents of Haiti's Interim Recovery Commission. On Clinton's apparent about face on Haiti, Peter Hallward, in an interview conducted in July 2010, noted how:

The overall policy he's pushing is the same old neoliberal emphasis on sweatshops and trying to structure the Haitian economy in ways that will make money for foreign and local corporations, rather than investing in local agriculture, small scale agriculture in particular. He has not compromised on that. On the other hand, he's qualified it a little bit. He's working with some people who are more progressive. He has in fact appointed one of the most prominent progressive voices in international Haitian activist circles, Paul Farmer, of Partners in Health, who understands the situation as well as any foreigner does.

He apologised recently for the negative consequences of some of the neoliberal trade measures he imposed on Haitian farmers in the 1990s and he's not oblivious to some of the consequences of policies he himself implemented when he was president, but there is no clear sign yet he's prepared to take significant steps to really reverse them. I imagine if you asked him directly, he'd say if you did that it would be counterproductive, it would scare people away, you've got to be more pragmatic, you've got to work within the constraints of the international system. And that is what Clinton is. He is the incarnation of compromise and willingness to sell out principles in order to achieve a small amount within the constraints as they are.

While Clinton's book ignores his previous anti-democratic Haitian "aid" packages, it does acknowledge how in 2003 Clinton met with Farmer "to cement" his "foundation's partnership with the government to provide training and low-cost medicine to fight HIV/AIDS." The foundation referred to being the William J. Clinton Foundation, an elitist philanthropic body whose backers include the monarchy of the kingdom of Saudi Arabia, "Victor Pinchuk, the Ukrainian steel 'oligarch' who built his empire from the Soviet Union's asset sell-off, and Blackwater, the U.S. mercenary company under legal sanction for its killings in Iraq." The book also recalls how a "couple of years" after meeting Farmer for the first time, Ira Magaziner, who was a former senior advisor for policy development for President Clinton and served as the chair of his foundation, "persuaded Paul [Farmer] to try to implement the Partners In Health model in Rwanda." (5) Farmer accepted the challenge and in early 2005 Partners In Health launched their first health project in Africa with the major support of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

It is no surprise that Clinton's Giving book is effectively a list of his favourite charity groups that work to make the world safer for capitalism. (6) Clinton devotes an entire chapter to Heifer International, a group whose president and chief executive officer from 1992 to 2010 was Jo Luck, who in 1979 had been one of Clinton's first cabinet appointees. Likewise another program that Clinton "really like[s]" is Operation Christmas Child, run by Samaritan's Purse, (7) a Christian NGO that was co-founded in 1970 by Reverend Franklin Graham and Reverend Bob Pierce, the latter being the founder and former president of the imperialist evangelical charity, World Vision. In addition, another prominent humanitarian activist that Clinton adores is Greg Mortenson (author of the book Three Cups of Tea) and his Central Asia Institute that works in the remote regions of northern Pakistan and Afghanistan. According to Clinton, "No one has done it better and under more adverse circumstances" than Mortenson and his Institute. Indeed, Clinton writes that "One of the biggest challenges confronting any assistance effort in another country is adapting good intentions to the habits, values, and aspirations of the local culture." (8) However, the positioning of these "culturally sensitive" institutions within the local communities means that Mortenson has provided an excellent propaganda service for the US military, by "help[ing] translate the theory of counterinsurgency into tribal realities on the ground"; in this way Mortenson proved to be an unlikely tutor for General McChrystal, who had been running "what amounted to a very sophisticated, modernized Phoenix Program [in Afghanistan], the assassination program in Vietnam that has been widely discredited." (9)

Clinton has much to be happy about as capitalists are busy colonizing people's concern and the non-profit sector all over the world, and he concludes his book with a rousing call to action.

So much of modem culture is characterized by stories of self-indulgence and self-destruction. So much of modem politics is focused not on honest differences of policy but on personal attacks. So much of modern media is dominated by people who earn fortunes by demeaning others, defining them by their worst moments, exploiting their agonies. Who's happier? The miters or the dividers? The builders or the breakers? The givers or the takers?

I think you know the answer. There's a whole world out there that needs you, down the street or across the ocean. Give. (p.211)

The real question on my mind though, is "does Clinton know the answers to his own questions?" I suspect he does, but he simply doesn't like the answer, because the world's most powerful takers can never be the givers; as the world's plutocrats will not be the ones to create a more just egalitarian society. It is correct to point out that to change the world the majority of the world's population must act together, but ironically the act that is required is not one of giving -- especially not one of donating money or time to capitalist-friendly charities. Instead what we need to do is to become takers, in that we need to take power away from the ruling elites. Once we have decided on the importance of making this political step we can then start planning on how we might create a world that is premised on giving and not taking. This form of give and take will wipe the smile off capitalism's smug face and place it upon its rightful owners, the people of our planet. (10)


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Michael Barker is an independent researcher who currently resides in the UK. In addition to his work for Swans, which can be found in the 2008, 2009, and 2010 archives, his other articles can be accessed at michaeljamesbarker.wordpress.com. Please help fund his work.   (back)


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1.  Teresa Odendahl, Charity Begins at Home: Generosity and Self Interest Among the Philanthropic Elite (Basic Books, 1990), p.4. "A system of private charity is not in the interests of the disadvantaged. The material benefits and the extent of control over their own destinies that are provided them by philanthropy are considerably less than in the Social Democratic countries of Western Europe, the Communist East European states, and even some 'developing' nations. For example, in 1980, the United States ranked thirty-first in comparison to other countries on the percentage of national income received by the poorest 40 percent of the population." (p.11)  (back)

2.  Clinton, Giving, p.xi.  (back)

3.  Clinton, Giving, p.4, p.3, p.14, p.15. To be clear, Clinton concludes that "The same strategies businesses use to organize and expand markets that enhance the public good and empower their customers to do the same can be adopted by nongovernmental organizations involved in philanthropic work. By doing so, NGOs can help a lot more people and dramatically increase the impact of their donors' time and money." (p.178)  (back)

4.  Project Bread was founded in 1969 and is the "leading anti-hunger organization in Massachusetts dedicated to alleviating, preventing, and ultimately ending hunger in Massachusetts." Current major funders of their work include major defence contractor Raytheon, and Project Bread's most recent funding report even includes a statement from Raytheon's vice president of corporate affairs and communications that reads: "At Raytheon, it is tremendously satisfying to walk arm in arm with our colleagues and neighbors to fight hunger in the communities where we live and work. We are proud to be a corporate leader in this critical effort and see this not only as a challenge but an opportunity to help families in need."  (back)

5.  Clinton, Giving, p.35.  (back)

6.  For critical books that dealt with this phenomenon during Clinton's formative years, see Jeffry Galper, The Politics of Social Services (Prentice Hall, 1975); Philip Corrigan, Social Work Practice Under Capitalism: Critical Texts in Social Work and the Welfare State (Palgrave Macmillan, 1978); William Gaylin, Ira Glasser, Steven Marcus, and David Rothman, Doing Good: The Limits of Benevolence (Pantheon, 1978).  (back)

7.  Clinton, Giving, pp.64-5.  (back)

8.  Clinton, Giving, p.124, pp.123-4.  (back)

9.  Elisabeth Bumiller, "Unlikely Tutor Giving Military Afghan Advice," The New York Times, July 17, 2010; John Grant, "The Sociopathic General: It's the War Stupid," Counterpunch, June 24, 2010. For a more detailed critique of Greg Mortenson's Central Asia Institute, see Nosheen Ali, "Books vs Bombs? Humanitarian development and the narrative of terror in Northern Pakistan," Third World Quarterly, 31 (4), 2010, pp.541-59.  (back)

10.  With his obsession with giving, Clinton sees happiness everywhere. "When I was in Africa with Bill and Melinda Gates, watching them talk to villagers whose lives they had improved, they seemed happy." What did he seriously expect? "When Barbara Streisand and Rupert Murdoch, two highly public figures who disagree on nearly everything politically, stood together to give the first contributions to my foundation's fight against climate change, they seemed happy." (p.210)

What Clinton fails to remember is that capitalists like Bill Gates and Rupert Murdoch also smile when they exploit their employees, and when they read about their "good work" to help the needy in The New York Times. Justice is what is important, not happiness per se, and this may well mean that capitalist elites are not smiling when the people of the world eventually decide upon the need to eradicate capitalism. However happy thoughts will not be enough to prepare pave the way for the dismantling of the capitalist system, and we must engage with the very real and inhumane problems that capitalists pose to a just world order. As Barbara Ehrenreich reminds us, "A vigilant realism does not foreclose the pursuit of happiness; in fact, it makes it possible." Smile or Die: How Positive Thinking Fooled America and the World (Granta, 2009), p.205.  (back)


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Published August 9, 2010