I’ve spent the last decade documenting large-scale, privately-funded efforts to improve public health and sanitation in India and Kenya. Based on that experience, I find Anand Giridharadas’s Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World refreshingly candid and insightful. The book is a courageous, in-depth critique of the social reform and international development efforts of billionaire philanthropists and corporations. Giridharadas calls such efforts a charade because they don’t address the causes of inequality. He writes, “when elites assume leadership of social change, they are able to reshape what social change is—above all, to present it as something that should never threaten winners.” (p. 8) Quoting OECD leader Angel Gurria, Giridharadas writes, “Elites have found myriad ways to change things on the surface so that in practice nothing changes at all.” (p. 9) To explain and illustrate why the elites’ efforts fail to address structural causes of poverty and inequality, Giridharadas examines the methods that foundations and corporations use. He describes a meeting of the Open Society Foundations’ Economic Advancement Program’s advisers in which, “the issues . . . would be presented in the business way, in the form of slides with graphs and charts. The question of building more inclusive economies would be atomized into endless subcategories, until the human reality all but vanished. The fundamental problems would grow almost unrecognizable. Justice and inequality would be converted into problems the private equity executive was preeminently qualified to solve.”(p. 132) Giridharadas explains that the protocols by which McKinsey consultants help corporations to become more competitive are now commonly viewed by foundations and NGOs as essential for analysing and addressing social problems. He writes, “Our age of market supremacy has blessed the protocols with a remarkable change of fortune: They have evolved from being a specialized way of solving particular business problems to being, in the view of many, the essential toolkit for solving anything.” (p. 139) The problem, according to Giridharadas, with using the protocols for analysing and addressing social problems is that, “problems reformatted according to the protocols were recast in the light of the winner’s gaze. After all, the definition of the problem is done by the problem-solver and crowds out other ways of seeing it.” (p. 142) “The protocols’ spread to social questions also gave elites a chance to limit the range of possible answers.” (p. 152) Giridharadas’s cites the final Clinton Global Initiative’s one-sided panel discussions to demonstrate that private social reform efforts fail to understand and address the causes of poverty and inequality because they exclude divergent perspectives and voices: “The organizers of this final CGI, held in the throes of the antiglobalist revolt, decided that a panel on the topic was a must. And the organizers evidently concluded that the panel should consist entirely of globalists, with no one representing the other side.” (p. 214) Giridharadas devotes Chapter 4 to examining the sycophancy of thought leaders, to show how the elites reward the generation and promotion of winner-safe prescriptions for social change. Frank Giustra of the Giustra Foundation wrongly accuses Giridharadas of not offering solutions to the problems presented in Winners Take All. Giridharadas does propose solutions. To more equitably distribute the gains from the increasing productivity of the workforce, Giridharadas calls for “tighter regulations on trading, higher taxes on financiers, stronger labor protections to protect workers from layoffs and pension raiding by private equity owners, and incentives favouring job-creating investment over mere speculation.” (pp. 40-41) I strongly recommend Winners Take All to anyone working in philanthropy or CSR.
It is a wonderful analysis of the contradictions through which most of the modern states in general and United Satates in particular are passing at present. Although the book is set out in U.S. socio-political milieu yet it beautifully reflects on the reactions of common man in societies undergoing structural & institutional transformations across the world.
The author provides an original, hard look at our world driven & shaped by increasingly more powerful capitalists. Pertinent, sensitising read for corporate workers like me. 4/5, as the narrative feels repetitive and ranting at times.