The Power of Global Networks - Blog Series

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Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Is "The Philanthropist" Good for Philanthropy?

Last night the third episode of NBC's new show The Philanthropist aired. One would think that a prime time TV show focusing on philanthropy would be good for promoting the work of foundations and funds around the world who generally struggle to make their work seem exciting to a wide audience. However, the show really misses the mark and in fact provides a rather counterproductive depiction of today's philanthropy.

Where to begin...

The show has already been labeled racist and neocolonial, and I think it can also be called sexist and comes off as an unrealistic and unsustainable model of "philanthropy" -- which is portrayed on the show as random acts of charity rather than social change philanthropy. I am hoping that the story and characters develop out of this macho and imperialistic form of giving, but from the first couple of episodes I am not convinced.

Here are some of my reactions to the first couple of episodes:

  • The show reinforces a very patriarchal model of philanthropy (white man giving to poor people). The philanthropy is not democratized and it fails to lift up voices and solutions besides those of the western world.
  • It upholds what I consider an “old model” of charity -- where solutions come top down and are not necessarily sustainable (all of the “philanthropy” that the show actually depicts is very much random acts of charity rather than sustainable systemic philanthropy, like getting a little girl in Burma/Myanmar a kidney transplant, or delivering vaccines to a village in Nigeria).
  • It also portrays a linear model of development where the global north is “saving” or “helping” the global south, not lifting up and providing resources for solutions from on the ground. The show also reinforces very negative stereotypes of the global south, portraying countries like Nigeria and Burma/Myanmar as dangerous, primitive, corrupt and unable to help their own people, which perpetuating a negative view of these places.
  • And the show seemed sexist to me. The women who were in the show were all secondary characters and didn’t offer much in the way of solutions to the problems the main character faced. The story line also continually circled back to the achievements/concerns/emotions of the main male lead.
It is also rather disappointing because the work of Bobby Sager, who the main character is based off of, is really inspiring work. Lets hope that NBC takes The Philanthropist away from this James Bond type charity and focuses on sustainable philanthropy.

Have you seen the show yet? What is your take?

1 comment:

  1. I watched the episode on Nigeria and although I agree with the points made in the blog, the dilemma here is more complex. Yes, this series is racist and imperialistic but then how do we change the popular discourse? Particularly when many from the western world engage in philanthropy in this way (images of children with bloated bellies etc.) How do we make social justice philanthropy appealing to the masses so that it can be truly democratized?