P O S T E D B Y A L B E R T
In his lovely essay, “The Evolving American Foundation,” James Allen Smith describes how the germ metaphor ignited the imaginations of many who worked in the foundation field at the turn of the last century. This metaphor was especially seductive because it suggested we might understand and address our social ills the way we diagnose and cure disease. According to Smith, the germ metaphor fell out of favor some time later and was supplanted by others that more accurately reflected social complexities.
But the use of the germ metaphor has stuck with us. It’s clearly related to the metaphor of the root cause which persists in the parlance and thinking of philanthropy. We still hear of organizations that aim, for example, to address the root causes of poverty in America. A casual Google search on the phrase “root cause(s)” will turn up many examples. The metaphor of the root cause has many cousins in philanthropy, among them the lever and the key (as in the “key to the puzzle”).
Nowadays we recognize, as others did long ago, that there are conceptual difficulties in identifying anything like a root cause of poverty, beyond the condition of not having any money. The phenomenon of poverty is part of a dynamic system of many parts, interacting in complicated ways. This complex system has no discernible root that we can yank out of the ground as we might the root of a noxious weed.
We shouldn’t let ourselves be too awed by the image of the complex system. Physicists, economists, electrical engineers, and others have been successful in modeling very complex systems and using these models to predict the behavior of these systems over time. Jay Forrester, for example, used one such model to analyze industrial business cycles and another to analyze the behavior of the stock market. What’s unusual about these models is that they lack a point of origin—there’s no discernible “root.” What you have instead are “feedback loops” and entities called “stocks” and “flows.” These constructs enable you to predict how a system will respond when you change one of its properties.
The figure below, taken from a May 2009 Scientific American article, traces the causes of food shortages in developing states. This model suggests that while food shortages have multiple proximate causes (e.g., loss of topsoil, spreading water shortages, and reduction in crop yield), these causes can themselves be traced back to a single root cause: population growth, which itself has multiple causes not shown in the diagram. Assuming this analysis is correct, a funder attempting to address food shortages without addressing population growth would appear to be on a fool’s errand.
As foundation professionals we talk about complex systems, yet we don’t often apply the tools developed in other domains to study them. In our weaker moments, we might even invoke the complexity of a system as an excuse for our inability to make any headway on a given problem.
One of the most thoughtful opponents of “root causes” philanthropy has been William Schambra, director of the Bradley Center for Philanthropy and Civic Renewal. In a series of op-eds and articles he makes sport of “prideful” donors and foundation professionals who are swept up by the “implacable logic” of root causes:
…[A]fter a century of trying one approach after another, it would be difficult to identify a single significant social problem to the roots of which philanthropy has penetrated, thereby finally resolving it.
Perhaps it is an easy thing, when you’re riding a galloping horse at the front of a crusade, to forget philanthropy’s contributions to the Green Revolution in Mexico, to ending forced segregation in the United States, and to developing the Salk vaccine, among other accomplishments. “[A]fter a century of frantic and futile pursuit of ultimate answers,” argues Mr. Schambra, “it’s time to reconsider charity as a more sensible alternative.” Yet I submit that the problem of food production in Mexico would not have been effectively addressed by providing soup kitchens for Mexican peasants. We would still have forced segregation in the United States if instead of demanding justice our African American neighbors had collected donations to spruce up their “separate but equal” schools. And similarly, Jonas Salk’s work would not have been possible if donors had insisted on buying crutches rather than vaccine research.
It’s true that these efforts have not ended hunger or racism or disease once and for all, but that is not what “root causes” philanthropists have claimed.
While many of our social problems do not have clearly discernible “roots,” they have multiple causes, and it’s possible to analyze and address these multiple causes. Try as we might we cannot argue away our embeddedness in the causal nexus. It’s frankly bizarre that what for centuries has been a source of comfort to many rational creatures can appear so threatening to at least one observer in the field of philanthropy. Moreover, the philosophical underpinnings of causal explanations in the law, in the social sciences, and in other domains have long been well understood.*
Have philanthropists made mistakes in applying the logic of root causes? Of course they have. But they’ve also made mistakes balancing their checkbooks, and nobody would suggest on these grounds that they jettison arithmetic.
III. Root Causes Philanthropy and Social Justice
There is an obvious link between so-called “root causes philanthropy” in its broadest sense and social justice grantmaking. Effective social justice philanthropy aims to end, to whatever degree possible, the injustices suffered by one group of people at the hands of another. These injustices often result in social, economic, and political inequalities. But rather than focus on the effects of unjust treatment, good social justice grantmakers attempt to undo the causes of oppression. Uncovering these causes often requires an analysis that considers:
(a) The forces that contribute to injustice. An effective social justice grantmaker bases her work on a sound analysis of the historical forces that contributed to shaping the current reality she wishes to change, the forces that help maintain the status quo, and the likely future evolution of these forces.
(b) The effects of membership in oppressed classes of people. She examines the current context and her own work through the lenses of gender, race, ethnicity, class, age, sexual orientation, religious affiliation, country of origin, and membership in other social categories that experience unjust treatment.
(c) Structural injustice. Because the mechanism of oppression sometimes appears faceless, she analyzes the myriad ways in which institutional structures—the policies that govern institutions, their practices, their cultures, their relationships with one another and with the communities they’re meant to serve—contribute to injustice. The category of “institutions” studied is broad and might include, for example, the local school system, the church, the military, local and national governments, NGOs, the business sector or individual businesses, etc.
(d) Power relationships. One of the goals of an effective social justice grantmaker is to shift power from those who perpetrate injustice to those who suffer it. To this end she examines how power in its various forms (wealth, political influence, etc.) is acquired, held, and brokered in the current context.
This kind of analysis, I submit, needs to be an essential part of any serious attempt to uncover the root causes of many of our social problems. To attempt public education reform in the United States, for example, without understanding the historical and contemporary effects of race is simply to invite failure.
I would go one step further and suggest that in many important domains of philanthropic activity, effectiveness requires attention to the social justice dimensions of a given problem. This seems to me a matter of brute fact, rather than of ideology.
* Cf. H.L.A. Hart and A.M. Honoré, Causation in the Law; Georg Henrik von Wright, Explanation and Understanding; and Donald Davidson, Actions & Events.
Image source: The Green Man