Philanthrocapitalism: How to Legitimize the Hegemony of the Rich with a “Good Vibes” Discourse

Melinda Gates speaking at DFID. Photo: DFID.

Is philanthrocapitalism a vehicle for so-called “development”? In an article recently released in Globalizations (here), Juanjo Mediavilla (University of Valladolid, Spain) and I analysed the phenomenon of philanthrocapitalism as a financing for development (FfD) instrument from the perspective of Critical Development Studies and Discourse Theory. We argue that we are witnessing the deepening of a neoliberal development agenda, where philanthrocapitalism and the elites play a key role.

Reinforcing a neoliberal development agenda…

The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development (the 2030 Agenda) constitutes the institutional framework in which international development will be unfolding in the coming years. It is often presented as the expression of a complex, universal and holistic vision of development, profoundly inclusive (“leaving no one behind”), agreed upon after an open and horizontal negotiation process, and capable of making development and environmental sustainability compatible.

Without denying some of the progress made with the 2030 Agenda, critical academic literature has been de-constructing this candid vision of it, showing that the Agenda is the result of a process of technification and de-politization of development (Gabay & Ilcan 2017), which aims to present the neoliberal perspective of development as the only possible one. Also, being solidly anchored in a market episteme (Weber 2017), it constitutes one more step towards the commodification, privatization and deep marketization process of development (Carroll & Jarvis 2015), and contributes in different ways to the reinforcement of a neoliberal development agenda (see here for a collection of papers).

In addition, there is the limited possibility of fulfilling the objectives within the Agenda (e.g. end poverty in all its forms everywhere), the resounding absence of other options and approaches to “development”, the incompatibility between several of the goals and targets, the lack of progress we have seen in the first few years of the Agenda, or the absence of an explanation based on evidence of how the Agenda will unify this form of development with environmental sustainability.

… and a privatized and financialized FfD system

In this process of constructing and consolidating the neoliberal agenda, the financing model that accompanies the 2030 Agenda, mainly the Addis Ababa Action Agenda (AAAA), plays a key role.

Critical development literature (Garcia-Arias 2013) has shown that without a stable and predictable funding system, which generates sufficient resources and adopts a ‘holistic approach’ to the issue, it is not possible to establish a fair, coherent and effective development model capable of providing well-being for all and, simultaneously, of addressing the civilizing crisis which, in ecological and socio-metabolic terms, our planet confronts.

In contrast, the AAAA promotes a neoliberal and financialized FfD system in (almost) all possible ways. For example, it does not introduce effective measures against illicit capital flows or the functioning of tax havens; nor does it critically analyse the actual impact of the dysfunctional financial liberalization process on developing economies; nor does it propose solutions to the tax competition process that hinders the real possibility of establishing optimal, efficient and fair tax systems —also in developing economies; nor does it suggest sound measures to reform the global financial architecture or to achieve international fiscal coordination.

What it does achieve is to boost the generation of funds of a neo-extractive nature, private and public-private financing instruments, and a process of ‘center/periphery financialization(Garcia-Arias 2015), which has had important consequences for the Global South (Bortz & Kaltenbrunner 2018), for example, with the role given to international finance (blended finance, green bonds), to public-private partnerships (PPPs) and their more than dubious results in terms of development (Laguille 2017), or to ‘financial inclusion’ and its consequences in terms of financialization (Gabor & Brooks 2017).

Philanthrocapitalists’ place in the 2030 Agenda

Within the framework of neoliberal capitalism, ‘philanthropy’ loses the sense of giving altruistically (if it ever had it) and reconfigures itself as a hybrid concept in which it is understood as ‘investment’, transmuting itself into ‘philanthrocapitalism’, and converting self-proclaimed ‘philanthropic foundations’ into authentic ‘philanthrocapitalist institutions’.

The 2030 Agenda has created spaces for these philanthrocapitalist institutions to play an active role in financing development. Thereby, philanthrocapitalism has not only been legitimized as a financing tool but its role has been expanded with the neoliberalization of international development. As philanthrocapitalism reinforces the dialectical relationship between those who “aid” and those “aided”, it becomes an instrument to achieve ethical leadership (Liu and Baker 2016) and moral and cultural hegemony, promoting a situation of supremacy and domination that implies giving more power of decision and control to the richest, in the simple logic that they are the ones that own the capital (Thorup 2013).

In our work we analyse the context and the inherent concept of development generated from the discourses of a set of philanthrocapitalist institutions and international organizations, in which philanthrocapitalism stands as a key element of the financing for development system.

Philanthrocapitalism as a ‘neoliberal development artefact’. Plutocracy and hegemony

Under the surface of a seemingly well-intentioned discourse, philanthrocapitalist institutions and international organizations play a hegemonic role in the field of financing for development, derived from their ability to control the agenda, generate dominant discourses, and promote a univocal vision of international development. As a result, philanthrocapitalism becomes a neoliberal artefact of control and political, social and cultural hegemony.

The consequences are predictable, both in developed and developing countries: fetishism of the ‘private’, loss of legitimacy of states, political decisions based on ‘entrepreneurial’ and individualist approaches, hegemony of the rich, a plutocratic drift, and so on.

Jorge Garcia-Arias is an Associate Professor at the Department of Economics, University of Leon, Spain, and a Research Associate at the Department of Development Studies at SOAS, University of London, Uk.


Bortz, P. & Kaltenbrunner, A. (2018). The international dimension of financialization in developing and emerging economies. Development and Change, 49(2): 375-393.

Carroll, T & Jarvis, D. (2015). The new politics of development: Citizens, civil society, and the evolution of neoliberal development policy. Globalizations, 12(3): 281-304.

Gabay, C., & Ilcan, S. (2017). Leaving no-one behind? The politics of destination in the 2030 sustainable development goals. Globalizations, 14(3): 337–342.

Gabor, D. & Brooks, S. (2017). The digital revolution in financial inclusion: international development in the fintech era. New Political Economy, 22(4): 423-436.

Garcia-Arias, J. (2013). The systemic approach to international financing for development and the need for a World Tax and Financial Organization. European Journal of Development Research, 25(1): 60–77.

Garcia-Arias, J. (2015). International financialization and the systemic approach to international financing for development. Global Policy, 6(1): 24-33.

Languille, S. (2017). Public Private Partnerships in education and health in the global South: a literature review. Journal of International and Comparative Social Policy, 33(2): 142-165.

Liu, H. & Baker, C. (2016). Ordinary aristocrats. The discursive construction of philanthropists as ethical leaders. Journal of Business Ethics, 133(2): 261-277.

Mediavilla, J. & Garcia-Arias, J. (2019). Philanthrocapitalism as a Neoliberal (Development Agenda) artefact: philanthropic discourse and hegemony in (financing for) international development. Globalizations, DOI:

Thorup, M. (2013). Pro Bono? On philanthrocapitalism as ideological answer to inequality. Ephemera: Theory & Politics in Organization, 13(3): 555-576.

Weber, H. (2017). Politics of ‘leaving no one behind’: Contesting the 2030 sustainable development goals agenda. Globalizations, 14(3): 399–414.

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