Philanthropy podcast: Emma Turner speaks to Paul Vallely
Hear about the fascinating history of philanthropy and its relevance today. In this episode, Paul Vallely, who has an international reputation as a commentator, journalist and author on religion, society and ethical issues speaks to Emma Turner, Director of Barclays Private Bank Philanthropy Service.
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Emma Turner (ET) Welcome to the Barclays Private Bank Philanthropy podcast, a series that tries to understand what drives leading philanthropists and what they've learnt along the way.
My name is Emma Turner and I run the Private Bank’s Philanthropy Service. And today I'm joined by Paul Vallely, who has an international reputation as a commentator, journalist and author on religion, society and ethical issues, amongst many other commitments.
As a journalist, he produced award-winning reporting from 30 countries over three decades for which he was nominated for the UN Media Peace Prize. He was commended as International Reporter of the Year for his report for the Times in Ethiopia during the famine of 1984 to 85.
As a writer, his books include Bad Samaritans: First World Ethics and Third World Debt, Pope Francis: Untying the Knots, and he co-wrote Bob Geldof’s autobiography, Is That It? And his most recent book has just been published. A mere 743 pages entitled Philanthropy: From Aristotle to Zuckerberg.
Hi Paul, how are you doing today?
Paul Vallely (PV) I'm fine, thanks. How are you?
ET: I'm great, actually. It's an absolute pleasure to be interviewing you this afternoon. And I'm going to kick off with a question, which I always find, I get really varied answers on.
So was it nature or nurture that led you along your path to writing both as a journalist and author? And what role has your family played in this journey?
PV: Well, you'd have to ask others about my nature, but nurture, certainly. I grew up in the North East in Middlesbrough, which was then still a thriving industrial town. I was part of a big Catholic family, went to Catholic grammar school; was in the local scout troop.
And I guess that I learnt something about the care of others and the idea of service there and at university I did philosophy and that teaches you something about going beyond the surface and asking deeper questions. And I became a journalist and asking questions is key to that.
ET: So was there a trigger event that made you choose the path that you've taken?
PV: Well, in 1985, I was working for the Times of London, as they call it now, as a reporter. And I was sent to Ethiopia to cover the terrible famine there and discovering how people lived in poorer parts of the world was a real profound shock.
I mean, just the baseline of how people lived was a shock without the terrible traumatising things that you saw in the refugee camps. And a million people died there, they reckon.
And one of the readers of the Times, unbeknown to me, was Bob Geldof, and he just raised £150m for famine relief and he wasn't sure how to spend it. And he'd read my stuff in the paper and he liked it.
And out of the blue, he just got in touch with me and asked if I'd like to go with him across Africa to decide where the money should go.
In those days, he had a suspicion of the existing aid agencies and he wanted to decide everything himself. It was…that was reinventing the wheel, of course, which he swiftly discovered.
So over the next 20 years, I became one of his advisers. And when he persuaded Tony Blair to set up the Commission for Africa, I took a year off from journalism to work with him and a group of Western and African politicians and a lot of top-flight British civil servants who put together an amazing statistical analysis under the guidance of Nick Stern, who later became Lord Stern, [of] the [Grantham Research Institute on] Climate Change.
And I wrote the Penguin edition of the Commission’s report. And that became the blueprint which led world leaders at the G8 summit to deliver a significant package of aid and debt relief that was at Gleneagles.
So looking back, I can say I had two parallel careers. One was in straightforward journalism, reporting, analysing, writing opinion pieces, but the other was a parallel tracking in activism, trying to make the world a better place.
I chaired a number of development agencies, the fair trade organisation, Traidcraft, the Catholic Institute for International Relations (CAFOD). I worked with Christian Aid and CAFOD. So the answer to your question is that I've taken not one path, but two.
ET: Well, that's amazing, though, that…that piece of reporting then led to quite remarkable and extraordinary things. I actually didn't quite appreciate how much of that came out of that.
You've travelled to some very tough parts of the world. I was going to ask you the original question. Had you ever been, you know, really terrified? But I, I rephrase it to ask you, does any single incident stand out?
PV: Well, I've been shot at and asked to hand over the film for my binoculars by security men who didn't understand there is no film with binoculars. But no, the incident, which stands out, the formative moment, was very early on.
I went to visit yet another refugee camp at a place called Bati in Ethiopia, and it used to be the second-largest market in all Ethiopia. People came from the Highlands and the lowland plains and they met there for this giant market.
But now it was a giant refugee camp and there were 30,000 people there. And I went round interviewing people to get their stories, designed to tug at the heart-strings of people back home, to encourage individuals to give and also to press the government into action, and I ask these people the same question over and over again.
It's quite a painful business working through one or even sometimes two translators. So, you know, where are you from? What made you leave your village to come here and how many children do you have?
And most people answered pretty dutifully. But there was one woman called Fátima and I remember her. She had her 18-month-old child between us as we spoke on a bed in the camp hospital.
And the child was like a grotesque puppet with a huge head and limbs like twigs that flopped uselessly around her. But this child had huge eyes that stared at me with great ferocity.
And it seemed like a completely inane thing to ask. “How is the child?” And the mother just replied, “Oh, she's dying. Soon I'll be able to go back to my village to see my son. He's four years old.”
And I told her I was sorry and I hope the boy was well. And then she smiled and she said something else.
And I said to the interpreter, “What was the extra thing she said?” She said, “Oh she said, ‘thank you’ and she said, ‘How are you and how is your family?’”
And that moment was something that, like, changed me forever because I'd been dealing with people out of a sense of pity and horror at the situation. But I've been really treating them like objects, you know, examples, not statistics, but examples.
And here was this woman, Fátima, treating me like an equal. “How are you? How is your family?” And it taught me something about the need for respect and that human relationships are mutual and reciprocal. And that's key in this book.
ET: How amazing, it completely silenced me, that story. So you’ve tackled some pretty big topics in your previous two books. So what drove you to write the most recent one? Philanthropy from Aristotle to Zuckerberg?
PV: Well, after my experience in Ethiopia, I went to Sudan and Niger and Mali and Burkina Faso, all across the African Sahel, and everywhere people had the same problems. And it wasn't just drought produced by famine.
It was that these countries were all in debt, to the International Monetary Fund and they all had economies which depended on an international trade system which was inherently biased against poor countries and biased in favour of the rich.
And I was shocked about this. And I wrote a book called Bad Samaritans: First World Ethics and Third World Debt. And I've written a few books on similar or tangential themes. I did a kid's book on Ethiopia called Daniel and the Mischief Boy.
And as you said, I co-wrote Bob Geldof's autobiography with him. And the last book I did was a biography of Pope Francis. And he's another man who's changing things around him.
But philanthropy from Aristotle to Zuckerberg came about because I was approached by philanthropist, Sir Trevor Pears and he said, “Oh, there hasn't been any history of English philanthropy for more than 50 years.”
And he offered me a two-year research grant to write it. And, well, I was intrigued by this offer because I knew that philanthropy was having a big and an increasing influence on the world that I'd been working in.
And I was interested to see how this charitable giving, fitted into a picture, which I always thought was about injustice. And I don't know if you remember the Live 8 concert.
That was seen, by you know, by 3.8 billion people, more than half the population of the planet. And when Bono was singing there, there was a slogan across the top of the stage, and that slogan was my slogan: From Charity to Justice.
That was the journey from Live Aid to Live 8. And so when Trevor approached me, I was interested to explore how philanthropy fitted into this journey from charity to justice and whether philanthropy was a retrograde force or whether it could be a progressive one.
ET: OK, that makes complete sense to me. And actually it is. I mean, it is the most extraordinary book. I have not read all of it. I confessed that to you the other day, but I've dipped in and out of it.
And I think it's a book that I will dip in and out of probably for the rest of my life. And hopefully I can… I'll be able to say in a few years’ time that I've turned every page. What made you choose the case study format going back as far as Aristotle?
PV: Well, when Trevor talked about the history of English philanthropy, I did a bit of basic research and I began to see pretty quickly that you couldn't isolate English philanthropy in a meaningful way because, today philanthropy is globalised.
But even going back to its roots, you couldn't treat of, that without going back further than English philanthropy. Back to classical times. I realised that the canvas had to begin with Aristotle and go right through to Zuckerberg today.
And when I went back, I realised that from the very outset there had been two different ways of looking at philanthropy. The ancient Greeks who coined the word, philanthropy lover of humankind.
For the Greeks, it was about society and the place of the rich in society, the duty of the rich to it, but it was about what we'd now call social cohesion or perhaps social control, but it was about the rich, not the poor. And it was top-down.
But at the same era, 40 days journey to the east, there was a parallel tradition of philanthropy growing up and that was being developed by the ancient Hebrews. And it was a religious vision.
God had been generous in his creation, and so men and women had a duty to be generous to one another. And everyone had that duty, not just the rich.
So it wasn't about society, it was about community. And it wasn't top-down. It was two-way. Very interesting that the Hebrew word for charity, Tzedakah is the same as the Hebrew word for justice.
So these two traditions that can be traced through the next 2000 years of philanthropy right up to the present day. And that's what the book does.
ET: Wow. I'm learning more and more just by listening to you today, which is absolutely fascinating. So I'm sure there were many. But was there one standout fact, if you like, or surprising fact that you discovered while you were researching this?
PV: Well, not one. There were loads. How long have you got? Let me give you one. The first man in England to be called a philanthropist was not a rich man who gave away a lot of money.
It was John Howard, the prison reformer, whose name lives on in the Howard League for Penal Reform. And he didn't give money. He dedicated his whole life to prison-visiting and improving conditions in prisons not just in England, but all across Europe.
And after the Enlightenment, in the 18th century, a philanthropist was a social activist, not a rich donor. William Wilberforce, the anti-slavery campaigner, he was called a philanthropist in his day.
And, what was interesting tracing it through the years is that that tradition of the philanthropist as activist or as agitator lives on today in people like Geldof, Bono, Angelina Jolie, or even today, the footballer Marcus Rashford, with his campaign to persuade the government to give free meals to the poorest schoolchildren.
So philanthropy, there's a lot more to it than we just assume when we think, oh, it's about rich people giving money.
ET: I love the idea about philanthropists actually being activists. I'd never… I'd never made that connection. So which chapter and or case study, one or both, is most personal to you, do you think, in the book?
PV: Well, the one about the Black Death, which is ironic considering we're now living in another pandemic. Those two traditions I was talking about - when Christianity arrived at first it tried to merge the Greek and the Jewish.
But the Jewish tradition of two-way communitarian kind of philanthropy soon came to dominate the Christian vision and dominated throughout Christendom. You know, for a 1000 years from the fourth century to the fourteenth, we forget how long that is. It's a millennium.
But then there was a switch and the Greek tradition of social control took over as the state got involved with philanthropy.
So the chapter on the Elizabethan Poor Law, deals with that. Previous histories of English philanthropy said that this change came about because of the Reformation and Protestant theology, which made philanthropy more scientific and more modern.
But what my book shows for the first time is that this change came about 100 years before the Reformation, and it was as a result of the demographic, social, economic changes which followed the Black Death.
So, it was nothing to do with religion. Charity passed from the control of the church to lay people. As a result of the first stirrings of capitalism, there's an agricultural revolution. It created surpluses of food and wool for trading, and the rise of the merchant classes brought the growth of towns and they became a new philanthropic class.
The economy became monetised. You know, the feudal society was giving way to a capitalist one so pandemics can bring huge change. And that's something that we need to bear in mind today and the book charts every era and deals with contemporary philanthropy and debt, and ends with an epilogue on philanthropy after the pandemic.
And interestingly, philanthropists today are doing better on COVID than many governments.
For a long time, I couldn't decide how to write this book, whether to take a thematic approach or a chronological one, because the themes I wanted to deal with were philanthropy and religion; philanthropy and the state; philanthropy and activism and morality; philanthropy and self-interest; the welfare state and philanthropy as reputation laundering; philanthropy and politics.
I wanted to ask whether philanthropy and democracy pulled in different directions sometimes, but that all sounded very abstract. So what I've done is I've told it as a story, a very long story with different historical periods reflecting those different themes.
So at the end of each chapter, I've got an interview with a contemporary philanthropist or a thinker, which reflects upon the history the chapter deals with, but brings out a contemporary dimension of it. So, for example, at the end of the chapter about the Elizabethan Poor Law, which is when the state in its modern sense, first enters into a relationship with philanthropy.
That's where I have the interview with David Sainsbury. Lord Sainsbury, the first man in Britain to give away a billion pounds, and as well as working in the Sainsbury's supermarket empire and being a major philanthropist, he's also been a government minister.
So it's really interesting to talk to him about the relative strengths and weaknesses of business, philanthropy, politics, what each does best and what each is not so good at.
ET: I think the case studies, I mean, for me, that, I mean, I just, I haven't read them all, but I absolutely love the ones I've read. And I'm looking forward to the ones that I haven’t and I will do. But I'm not very good on big books. I get a bit nervous when I see something.
PV: Well, part of the advantage of this book is that you don't have to read it all at once. It’s free-standing. You could just read the interviews or each chapter begins with a story told in some depth, which illustrates an aspect of the theme, which then follows.
There are lots of different ways of reading the book, and I'm sure some people will only read the chapters on modern philanthropy and some people will, you know, be more interested in the historical stuff. And but it's like a kind of a rich pot that you can dip into.
ET: But I think what's nice is that whatever end of the book you start, you're going to be drawn to the other side of it. So if you start at the modern bit, because it's so fascinating, you'll want to go back to the beginning.
If you start at the beginning, you're going to desperately want to get to the end.
So what would you, what would you hope, given what we've just been talking about, pandemics and, you know, the world the way that it is today, you know, somewhat unknown, you know, going forward. What would you love the outcome of this book to be on philanthropy as we know it today?
PV: Well, I hope the book will help bring these two traditions, the Greek and the Hebrew together and bring a new balance to philanthropy today, because the book examines the strengths and weaknesses of both these approaches through history and, as they surface in today's world.
And what I hope is that the book will empower the modern reader to work out how to bring together the precision of strategic philanthropy, which grows out of the Greek tradition and the empathy of what I call in the book reciprocal philanthropy, which grows out of the Jewish tradition.
And it's about bringing those two into balance, the heart and the head.
ET: Of which, there is often, quite a very long journey, as we all know. I've got a couple of more questions just to wrap up with now. Now you've worked with some extraordinary people. Do you have a hero or heroes?
PV: Well, in terms of this philanthropy book, so many. Chuck Feeney was called the James Bond of philanthropy because he gave away his money undercover. He invented the philosophy of giving while living, which is what inspired Bill Gates. And he's lived it out.
Just last month, he closed his foundation after giving away his entire $8bn fortune. He always says he wants his last check to bounce. He's a great figure.
Jonathan Ruffer, the city financier who came top of the 2019 Sunday Times Giving List. He's an interesting figure because he charts a development which is typical of lots of philanthropists. He set off by trying to buy some 17th century Spanish paintings that the Church of England were threatening to sell to a foreign buyer.
And he wanted to keep them in this country because, Rococo art was his special interest. But that led him not just to buy the paintings, but to refurbish the place where they were being kept, Auckland Castle, and then make that part of a major regeneration project which has brought new life to a part of England, badly hit by the collapse of the mining industry and now employs hundreds of local people and thousands of local people volunteer at it.
Then, obviously, Bill Gates, of course, not just for having vaccinated 2.5 billion children and contributed majorly to the eradication of polio, but also what's admirable about Bill is that he's learnt along the way.
He made a lot of mistakes early on, but he's learnt from them and thanks in particular to the influence of his wife, Melinda. He's moved from a kind of data-driven, technology-obsessed vision of philanthropy into one which is more respectful of the partners on the ground.
So he's a good example of bringing the two traditions together. But there's loads.
ET: Well, that's three case studies for a start that we all should go straight to read in the book. I've actually read all of them. So apart from doing a revised version of this book, maybe in five years time, what's next?
Because I don't know how you pack it all in, but what's your next thing on your to-do list?
PV: Well, this book is written, but there's still a lot to do to spread the message of the vision it embodies. So I'm going to be keeping up to date with philanthropy and seeing what I can do to assist that.
But first of all, since it took me six years to write this and not the two years I planned, I think before anything else, I'm going to have a bit of a rest.
ET: Paul Vallely, it was absolutely wonderful to chat with you today. Thank you for giving us your time.
And I'm just going to round off with a couple of closing remarks for our listeners. So thank you for listening.
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