Book Review: Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World by Anand Giridharadas

The key to understanding the motivation for this book is found in the acknowledgement section at the end. The author explains that he himself has been part of the charity networks on which he reports, but he began to develop nagging suspicions that something was wrong. He delivered a speech expressing his doubts during a high-profile event full of rich philanthropists and “thought leaders,” although it was all but unheard-of to dwell so much on the negative, and was derided by some and praised by others. The text of the speech went viral, and the book in a sense is an expansion of it. Giridharadas says, “It is a letter, written with love and concern, to people whom I see yielding to a new New Faith, many of whom I know to be decent. It is also a letter to the public, urging them to reclaim world-changing from those who have co-opted it.”

This book identifies those who have co-opted world-changing, who have yielded to a New Faith, as people and corporations who espouse and participate in charitable giving on a massive scale. However, these mega-entities make no attempt to repair the underlying problems that have caused such a disparity between rich and poor, between those with abundance and those who are deprived, between the healthy and long-lived and unhealthy and short-lived. Instead, they seek to ignore, minimize, and even cover up the fact that their own egregious and harmful business practices caused the problems in the first place that they are now magnanimously attempting to solve. If their organizations are not directly responsible for the problems, they capitalize on the problems to primarily make money and only secondarily address the difficulties upon which they are supposed to be focusing.

I have to admit that even before I came across this book, I have wondered about these matters. Here are these immense corporations that due to their practices of charging high prices, paying starvation wages, ignoring environmental concerns, and negatively impacting entire communities have accumulated vast fortunes. Now they turn around and construct multi-million dollar offices for their charitable organizations, hire expensive speakers who are purportedly “thought leaders” to entertain them while they dine, and offer to preempt the government in caring for the multitudes – as long as their corporate iniquities are ignored and they have full say over how their donations are to be spent.

Giridharadas writes of a peculiar culture of giving in which the givers pat themselves on the back, absolve themselves of all wrongdoing, say nothing of root causes such as gender and racial inequality in the workplace, and instead focus only on solutions that favor the corporations involved and the overall marketplace. It leads up to an explanation of the reactions that provoked the surprise results of the 2016 election but the book is not mainly political in intent. The author primarily seeks to buck the trend and criticize this takeover of major charitable institutions by the super-rich in the hope that readers will look for and implement alternate solutions.

All in all, this is a thought-provoking, important book. It illuminates the hypocritical compromise of so-called charities that are motivated more by self-interest than a genuine desire to serve.

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