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In an op-ed for the New York Times, song writer and philanthropist Peter Buffett calls for new ways of thinking about charitable intervention.

Previously, we had what Buffett calls Philanthropic Colonialism – when a wealthy person with an urge to save the day would presume to know how to solve a problem in a place in the world that he had no knowledge of by transplanting what worked in another setting, but without regard to the different culture.

“Often the results of our decisions had unintended consequences,” says Buffett. “Distributing condoms to stop the spread of AIDS in a brothel area ended up creating a higher price for unprotected sex.”

More recently, Buffett has noticed another phenomenon, what he calls Conscience Laundering: “Feeling better about accumulating more than any one person could possibly need to live on by sprinkling a little around as an act of charity.”

But is it a paradox that the nonprofit sector continues to grow while inequality continues to rise? Not when one realizes that charitable giving is a business.

“Business principles are trumpeted as an important element to add to the philanthropic sector,” says Buffett. “I now hear people ask, ’what’s the ROI?’ when it comes to alleviating human suffering, as if return on investment were the only measure of success. Microlending and financial literacy – what is this really about? People will rise above making $2 a day to enter our world of goods and services so they can buy more. But doesn’t all this just feed the beast?”

Firm in his belief that our charitable intervention practices only postpone the real problems instead of solving them, Buffet is calling for new ideas built from the ground up. “What we have is a crisis of imagination. Money should be spent trying out concepts that shatter current structures and systems that have turned much of the world into one vast market. Is progress really WiFi on every street corner? No. It’s when no 13-year-old girl on the planet gets sold for sex. It’s an old story; we really need a new one.”

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