Pap Ndiaye is a historian specializing in North American history and a pioneer of Black Studies in France. After being made director of the Palais de la Porte Dorée, home of the National Museum of the History of Immigration and the Tropical Aquarium, he was recently named Minister of Education and Youth. He shares his view of philanthropy with us.
How do you see philanthropy in France?
Historically, philanthropy has been less developed in France than in countries like Great Britain or the United States. This is due to the centrality of the state, which the French consider the sole protector of the public interest and obliged to provide for the common good. What’s more, the social justice ethic of Protestants, so central to the creation of the major philanthropic organizations, does not have the same weight in France as in the countries I just mentioned. Finally, there is still criticism of philanthropy on the radical left, as it is seen as an easy way for a few billionaires to give themselves a good image. Even if things are changing, a mistrust, or at least a misunderstanding of philanthropy persists in France.
As an expert on the United States, what parallels or differences do you see between French philanthropy and American philanthropy?
American philanthropy constitutes a huge economic and social sector that is very well known and long-established. The major foundations, which were created at the beginning of the 20th century, like the Carnegie Foundation and Rockefeller Foundation, had a big impact on the evolution of the social sciences, the development of social policies, medical and scientific research and even political struggles, such as the case of the Ford Foundation and the civil rights movement. But beyond multimillionaires who donate part of their fortune, millions of Americans have invested in what has become, since the 1950s, a philanthropy of the masses, as Olivier Zunz showed in his seminal work, Philanthropy in America: A History. We are nowhere near this in France, though over the last 15 years philanthropy has developed here as well. The multiplication of foundations (currently 2,700) bears witness to this development, but they do not have the same key position in society as American foundations, which number 76,000 and distribute some 47 billion dollars every year.
How can philanthropy work in a way that complements public action?
Fondation de France is studying this subject in depth, as are members of parliament. The report “Philanthropie à la Française,” published on June 9, 2020, contains 35 proposals to promote a “culture of giving.” I’m not going to talk about the proposals that were made, since I am not an expert on certain legal and financial questions that aim to encourage philanthropy. Philanthropy is already making a substantial contribution, and the health crisis has only confirmed its importance. We still need to develop this famous “culture of giving,” which has deep roots in certain countries, less so in France.
What role can civil society play in the fight against discrimination?
Let us agree that the struggle against discrimination is not only the job of the state or its institutions, as valuable as they are (I’m thinking of the Defender of Rights). Civil society too must mobilize to fight discrimination. To this end, philanthropy can support organizations that are working on a daily basis to help victims, to inform, to raise awareness on issues that are sometimes less visible. Access to health care, for example, can deteriorate due to the discriminatory factors that were made evident during the health crisis.
What about the question of migrants? How can civil society take action?
First and foremost, by supporting the nonprofits that help migrants, be they at sea or on land. To put it simply, it’s a question of saving the lives of thousands of human beings. It is also possible to support institutions like the National Museum of the History of Immigration, whose mission, aided by scientific research, is to shed light on the migratory history of France and in doing so, refute the false information that swirls around immigration. Philanthropy can be useful in supporting our scientific and civic mission in the public interest.
Inside the Palais de la Porte Dorée, where up until recently you were the director, lies the Tropical Aquarium, a space for raising awareness about the environment and the importance of protecting it. How can philanthropy take action to promote the ecological transition?
The Tropical Aquarium allows visitors to understand in a direct, visual way certain issues that are crucial to the aquatic environment, which we know has been seriously impacted by climate change. To this end, philanthropy can be a powerful force in helping to raise this awareness. There are several ways of doing this, but the visual experience of ecosystems is one of the best. As our visitors young and old keep telling us, a film or a book does not replace a visit to the aquarium.
Recently, you contributed to the discussion on the redesign of Fondation de France’s current social missions. According to you, what should be the priorities of an organization like ours?
One priority task is promoting philanthropy. Its development does not just rely on the goodwill of the ultra-rich, but also on mobilizing millions of citizens. There is even good reason to think that the renewal of democracy in France and elsewhere depends on, among other things, the rise of philanthropy. It’s not about charity, but collective mobilization, a social form that is precious in this age of individualism, and one that is in no way a barrier to public action. What’s more, philanthropy is not just a donation; it’s an investment in the future. Fondation de France must convince others that philanthropy is an essential part of living in a democracy.
What causes mobilize you personally?
Everything that has to do with alleviating injustice and suffering, especially of those most vulnerable, affects me on a very personal level. Everything that concerns children touches me and mobilizes me, sometimes in a way that is so emotional I can’t even think straight!