By Angela Okune
A decade ago US internet company Yahoo agreed to set up a $17.3 million “Yahoo Human Rights Trust” as part of the settlement that followed intense Congressional scrutiny of Yahoo’s work with foreign governments. A news piece last month revealed a lawsuit against Yahoo, whose plaintiffs allege that the company has in fact only spent about four percent ($700,000 USD) of the fund on direct humanitarian aid.
This news highlights interesting questions that we have discussed previously on this Blog (see post on reconceptualizing charity here) about the role of transnational corporations in the human rights and humanitarianism sector. Does discourse of corporate social responsibility enable companies like Yahoo to accrue moral authority as agents of progress and development while still operating in the contemporary world of corporate capitalism? What is the role of citizens in holding such companies to account when they do not in fact make good on their “ethical work”?
Anthropologist Dinah Rajak writes that “not only do gifts [i.e. humanitarian aid] make friends … but the enduring moral bonds they create are much better at enlisting support, commanding allegiance and manufacturing consensus than the imagined cold rationality of the “free market” (2011: 236). I ask how to read the backlash when such “promised gifts,” as in this Yahoo example, do not in fact materialize? Can we expect corporations to be “held to account” in the same way governments are held to account? The boundaries of humanitarian aid offered by nation-states and increasingly by transnational corporations are being blurred, raising messy questions of responsibility and accountability. Another example of such blurring of philanthropy and corporate “aid” was a pledge in 2015 of $45 billion USD by Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan of Facebook to “make the world a better place” (1A.org). The 1A show highlights that, “as more mega-donors emerge, with any number of grand ambitions, we need to ask much harder questions about the accountability of philanthropy, which operates outside of familiar checks and balances.”