Can the 1% Help Fight Poverty?

Synergos, a Rockefeller family NGO, seeks common ground with anti-poverty activists around the world. But do reformist groups funded by the rich help solve problems or perpetuate them a question addressed by Danny Schechter.

By Danny Schechter

Having just finished producing an investigative TV series on Who Rules America, inspired, in part, by the argument that sociologist C. Wright Mills made 50 years ago about how a small group of the rich and powerful run things, I was wondering how I would feel spending a night with the 1 percent of the 1 percent.

An Indonesian friend had invited me to join her at an annual event called University for a Night sponsored by an NGO named Synergos created 25 years ago by Peggy Dulany, the daughter of David Rockefeller, the now 97-year-old patriarch of what was once the richest and most powerful family in America.

Peggy Dulany, founder of Synergos and daughter of banker David Rockefeller.

This event concludes with dinner discussions that bring participants together with invited faculty – experts from around the world – for an exchange of ideas on specific topics. The organizers say they want “to provide opportunities for networking, brainstorming and inspiration.”

Rockefeller Sr., onetime head of the Chase Bank was there, in a wheel chair now, beaming as an award in his name for bridging and leadership was presented to former President Bill Clinton, who runs a foundation of his own, as well as a global “initiative.”

Clinton was also effusive in praising Peggy and her dad for the good works they do as philanthropists and problem-solvers. He singled them out for promoting partnerships through “sustainable and systems-changing collaborations to address poverty, equity and social justice.”

Unfortunately, my friend got the flu and couldn’t make it, so I was on my own. Fortunately, Occupy Wall Street was not outside protesting at the Millennium Hotel off Times Square, and I didn’t have to cross a picket line to join the folks inside.

Actually, the Occupy Movement might have appreciated Clinton’s engaging speech as he repeatedly indicted our hyper-polarized political system as dysfunctional and stalemated while calling for a new model of decision-making based on a more participatory democratic process.

He said that NGOs are more effective than governments because they try to solve problems with representation from all the stakeholders in a more bottom-up manner. He was dismissive of the standoff in Washington and believes that innovation cannot be imposed from above.

A master story-teller, Clinton explained how he got involved in trying to lower the costs of AIDS medicines at the urging of Nelson Mandela and that their partnership on the issue had an impact and saved thousands of lives by trying to find common ground among AIDS advocates and pharmaceutical companies.

Clearly, Clinton works with business, not against it, and is a proud reformer as opposed to an angry revolutionary. Synergos’ strategy aims at bringing together “people and institutions in government, business, nonprofits and local communities most affected by poverty and social injustice.”

Synergos works through partnerships, networks and knowledge-sharing with the goal of finding ways for people to act together worldwide, according to the group’s Website.

“Over more than 20 years, we have worked in over 30 countries and regions, including Brazil, Canada, Ecuador, Ethiopia, India, Mexico, including the U.S-Mexico border, the Middle East, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe,” it says.

The Rockefeller family has a long history of philanthropy and public service, although the cynics among us know that non-profit foundations can also be a way of sheltering wealth from taxation, and using PR and good deeds to blunt public criticism of the wealthy. Foundations also can increase benefactors’ influence within the society that does their bidding.

In many cases, the great wealth of families was amassed originally in the Robber Baron era. John D Rockefeller became a very controversial and negative symbol as I discovered, when I wrote the introduction to a new edition of the History of the Standard Oil Company by the muckraker Ida M. Tarbell who exposed how his great fortune was accumulated. (Cosimo Books.)

That doesn’t mean that the “sins” of the grandfather should be passed on to other generations. I first met Peggy when she was an active supporter of the freedom movement in South Africa. I was told that her influence, together with some of her cousins, successfully pressed the Rockefeller interests, including Chase, to not rollover debts and to divest from South Africa, actions that helped force the apartheid government to announce reforms and negotiations.

Everyone agrees that this was a form of pressure that persuaded the apartheid diehards to accept the inevitability of change. Perhaps that’s why the head of Nelson Mandela’s foundation works closely with Synergos.

Peggy is an old friend and supporter of Graca Machel, the Mozambican leader who later became Mandela’s third wife. She also promotes a circle of wealthy families worldwide to discuss how to use their wealth in socially responsible ways.

At my table, there was a moderated discussion about what constitutes personal leadership. There were other foundation heads there, a retired high-level UN official a real estate power broker, another TV producer and a banker at JP Morgan.

All seemed supportive of the values and projects that Synergos is promoting. The broker told me that he’s never been to a meeting of that size where the word love is used so freely.

That may be a reflection of Peggy’s new focus on the importance of personal transformation and internal growth as a key to the emergence of new leadership. In a paper circulated to the dinner, she offers revealing insights into her own personal journey in “Approaching the Heart of the Matter.”

Her insights share honestly about the personal journey that sustains her commitment to this innovative work after a quarter of a century. It may come off as a bit earnest for some who are more comfortable with objective facts than subjective feelings but her sincerity is unmistakable.

The day after the dinner, I began reading many articles criticizing Occupy Wall Street for being stuck in a rut. Forbes said the Occupy Movement was running out of new ideas. Progressive outlets raised similar concerns.

It occurred to me, then, that the activists in America pushing for economic fairness and equality could learn from the experience of the Synergos-linked global and local organizations that are struggling with many of these same issues in poorer countries the world over.

Yes, the 1 percent could learn a thing or two from the 99 percent but also vice-versa. Occupy could learn from projects that work and adopt best practices in other countries.

Occupy’s “university” may be in the parks and streets, not suites, but the movement has also been conducting classes and training sessions to share ideas and develop skills.

Occupy activists probably would feel uncomfortable consorting with Rockefellers that old fear of co-optation again but maybe there is more common ground here than meets the eye, even as activists are always more confrontational than conciliatory. They don’t do well in fancy hotels!

Both approaches have value. We need to get beyond mutual demonization. Maybe everyone can benefit from some more bridging even as politics becomes a battleground.

There’s plenty of room in the fight against global poverty and injustice for all of us.

News Dissector Danny Schechter blogs at He is the author of Occupy: Dissecting Occupy Wall Street and Blogothon (Cosimo Books.) Comments to [email protected]

8 comments for “Can the 1% Help Fight Poverty?

  1. Carax
    June 13, 2012 at 01:25

    This piece is a love letter to the 1%.

  2. Tom
    June 12, 2012 at 20:12

    There was the notion of “noblesse oblige” that held people of means as having an obligation
    To assist those who are poor. “Some” still hold this view though how many is another question.

  3. Gregory L Kruse
    June 12, 2012 at 16:23

    It seems that fascism is the default cultural system, and oligarchy is the default political system. If you are not affluent you will be effluent; unless you get close enough to a billionaire you might not be able to beg a little charity. It may be useful to reflect that one billion is a thousand million, and many of these people have hundreds of billions of dollars in “wealth”. Before the century is out we may see our first trillionaire. With that kind of security you can be generous, but our super-rich equate money with liberty, and they are willing to give a little liberty away for a good cause, but don’t try to take any of it.

  4. panoptic
    June 11, 2012 at 03:38

    Is Schechter losing it?

    The very idea that the 1% have anything to teach the 99% is really beyond belief. Let’s put things in perspective: wealth, like never before, is concentrated in fewer and fewer hands. Those who have access to this wealth, use it to amass monopoly positions in the open market. They also establish charities/foundations in order to hide money from the tax man (something Schechter thankfully makes note of). Aside from this, they invest in waging wars against sovereign nations. They buy media outlets and invest in surveillance networks. Nothing is left untouched. And all of this is the natural result of unchecked capitalist accumulation. It is not enough to say that we can learn from our oppressors – some of whom may well contribute to well-meaning charities. We must strive to change the system as it stands! This cannot be done when the 1% is using ever means at its disposal to stifle peaceful resistance movements and, in effect, the outbreak of genuine democracy!

  5. ssugawara
    June 9, 2012 at 19:54

    Though I think some of 1 %ers are not so bad people, in this article, I don’t see any objective observation about this organization’s action, policy, strategy etc. I wonder how far they can help people to change the society and system to be more just and fair what brings limitation to their system of power and wealth making? isn’t it just same old thing like sending humanitarian aid in one hand and killing and oppressing same people in other hand? Maybe he had good night of fine wine and trimmings with high society people made him think these people are not bad, but it doesn’t give me any source to think about it.

  6. Big Em
    June 9, 2012 at 15:41

    Schechter states (about 15 paragraphs down) that “… the cynics among us know that non-profit foundations can also be a way of sheltering wealth from taxation, and using PR and good deeds to blunt public criticism of the wealthy. Foundations also can increase benefactors’ influence within the society that does their bidding” but generally he almost seems enthralled by his experience hearing ‘Mr Triangulation’ (aka; Bill Clinton) spin a tale in person, and lets stand statements that these NGOs have helped ‘thousands’, when there are often literally millions or tens-of-millions that need help.

    I’ve followed DS’ writings and find them to be progressive, but here he seemed to take a seemingly neutral stance. I would’ve liked to have seen more discussion of the pros & cons of NGOs vs government action rather than a vague endorsement of their tactics and a call to ‘get along’. (My personal belief is that government action is USUALLY required to solve important problems and that NGOs are too often used by conservative politicians to assuage peoples’ guilt and then divert their attention back to rampant consumerism that has become our US culture. That being said, I do support 5 or 6 NGOs with modest donations.)

  7. Michael
    June 8, 2012 at 21:38

    I know how to solve the world’s problems, have a Renaissance Weekend.

  8. rosemerry
    June 8, 2012 at 16:19

    Wasn’t it daddy David Rockefeller whose bank and its importance in the US intrference that made such a difference during the removal of the Shah and the progress of the 1979 Revolution in Iran?

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