Former Politicians' Influence as Global Philanthropists Questioned

The transformation of former political leaders into global statesmen who bring influence and fundraising prowess to philanthropic endeavors is raising concerns in some corners of the nonprofit world, the Thomson Reuters Foundation reports.

Former U.S. presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton and former UK prime minister Tony Blair, for instance, have set up foundations to drive their personal agendas, which range from the eradication of disease and poverty to addressing climate change and extremism. These "hyper-empowered individuals" have unmatched access to current and former national leaders around the globe as well as celebrities from the worlds of entertainment, business, and technology, said Andrew Cooper, a political science professor at University of Waterloo in Canada. And their willingness to leverage that access means that whereas public policy used to be shaped largely by national governments and, to a lesser extent, donors, United Nations agencies, and other multilateral organizations, "[n]ow you've got a whole array of actors that don't have classic legitimacy but are involved in health care, education, even to some extent environmental issues."

Which doesn't mean the new paradigm is without problems. While influential former politicians taking lucrative positions with private firms has long raised eyebrows, the recent furor over whether the Bill, Hillary & Chelsea Clinton Foundation has been sufficiently transparent in revealing its donors has thrown a spotlight on the charitable endeavors of many other political heavyweights. What's more, it is sometimes unclear whether ex-politicians like Clinton and Blair are working to advance the missions of their charitable organizations or to promote their own brands. "They know how governments work, they know such a wide variety of people, and yet they're released from those types of concerns, and they can operate in this freelance entrepreneurial way around the world without very many barriers," Cooper said, adding that it was a "somewhat worrisome" development.

There also are risks for the charitable organizations with which former leaders and politicians are associated, said Catherina Pharoah, co-director of the Centre for Charitable Giving and Philanthropy at City University London. "If they fall out of favor," she said, "then the organizations associated with them have to suffer the reputational damage." For instance, Save the Children formally apologized last March to people who were upset by the decision of its U.S. branch to give Tony Blair a "global legacy award" — despite Blair's role in launching the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Justin Forsyth, CEO of Save the Children UK, admitted to Thomson Reuters that the award had hurt the charity.

Having former politicians involved in humanitarian work in conflict zones also can create problems for aid agencies working to convince armed groups and governments that they operate independently of foreign political and military influence. In 2013, Médecins Sans Frontières expressed concern when former British foreign minister David Miliband became president of the International Rescue Committee and Save the Children appointed British prime minister David Cameron's wife, Samantha, as an ambassador. Such appointments make it even more difficult for aid agencies to negotiate with armed groups, said Michiel Hofman, senior humanitarian specialist at MSF. "These are very public appointments. You have to be careful of how this affects your image....Samantha Cameron is obviously not part of a government, but the public image it portrays is that the UK government is somehow sponsoring the actions of Save the Children, and therefore it becomes more difficult to say there is no political agenda behind our humanitarian action."