Can philanthropy step in where government can't?

Posted at 4:22 PM, Oct 31, 2014

Is philanthropy the answer to public health needs?

Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen seems to think so. The billionaire technologist announced recently that he will pledge $100 million to help fight the spread of Ebola.

Allen also launched #TackleEbola, a website that enables people to donate to specific projects.

Allen is the latest one percent-er to make a donation to fight the disease following Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan, who gave $25 million and Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates and his wife Melinda gave $50 million through their foundation last month.

The Centers for Disease Control alone has received $44 million dollars through its CDC Foundation, an independent, nonprofit organization established by Congress to connect the agency with private-sector organizations. The foundation said that it is vital for the public and private sectors to work together to respond to the needs created by the Ebola epidemic.

“The epidemic is growing quickly and immediate use of public sector resources as well as an influx of flexible support is needed. Philanthropy can be essential in providing these flexible resources,” a CDC spokesperson told DecodeDC.

So why are philanthropic donations so important?

One reason, according to experts, is that government funding is taking too long to reach West Africa. Private donations can fill in the gap, according to Richard G. Marlink, professor of immunology and infectious diseases at the Harvard School of Public Health.

“It’s like you paying your bills. If you have the money to write that check, you can pay your bills. If you have to go through committees to get permission to write that check, it’s going to be slower,” he told DecodeDC.

Regine A. Webster, vice president of the Center for Disaster Philanthropy, says that philanthropy has the potential to fill chronic gaps not only in public health but also education, housing, and women and children’s rights. In addressing global health problems, Webster says private money allows foundations to experiment with different solutions much more freely than if they were working with taxpayers’ money.

“Private philanthropy has the unique ability to take risks and say for example, ‘we’re going to try to figure out how to take malaria out of a mosquito.’ It can be nimble and move resources, both human, technical, and financial, very quickly,” says Webster.

While these millions of dollars sounds like a lot of money, they are unfortunately only short-term fixes to health systems that need drastic improvements.

“It’s an emergency short term solution to some immediate problems but the long term solutions will require the b-word—billions of dollars,” says Marlink. “The kind of change needed to strengthen these health systems requires a multi-billion dollar investment per year over many years. But it’ll be cheaper in the long run because it’ll prevent the next outbreak from spreading.”