The question of giving is best addressed between a man and his maker. But how much to give and to whom are questions decided to a large extent by the social reality that confronts a philanthrope. A society of single mothers would need charity directed in a way far removed from a nation of poor but strong families. Again, endowments for life-saving medical research will deliver a bigger bang for the buck in a technologically advanced country than in one where the bigger challenge is public hygiene. Finally, donation to any individual good cause in an economy that is functioning far below its potential must be weighed against the benefits of ploughing profits back into businesses that create jobs and sustainable prosperity. When the world’s two richest men and the biggest philanthropists of their generation — Bill Gates and Warren Buffett — ask India’s rising tribe of billionaires to open their fist, the appeal is indeed a strong one. But India’s social good might not be best served by the American penchant for writing away fortunes.
Every society builds into itself a mechanism to transfer wealth from the haves to the have-nots. Cultural, religious, political and economic institutions define how a nation goes about being charitable. Increasingly, the Indian State’s role in delivering welfare is coming into view through a raft of entitlements on food, livelihood, education and health. This is, however, predicated on the productive parts of the economy growing fast enough to pick up the tab. Individual initiatives, while welcome, can’t hope to match the scope or scale of the government’s welfare undertaking up ahead. On the other hand, capacity needs to be built in industry if the rights India is legislating for its citizens are to be meaningful. Yet, there exists myriad opportunities for corporations to exercise social responsibility where the State’s delivery pipeline does not reach. And it is also in the corporate sector’s best interests to improve the immediate ecosystem they operate in.
Comparisons of generosity are meaningless in a multi-cultural world. But the evangelism of Messrs Buffett and Gates has been greeted with enthusiasm in India even as we wait to see whether they actually encourage potential philanthropists in our neck of the woods. While the world at large may have switched to varying shades of a capitalism that has matured in the US, the rest of us, even as we reserve the right to decide how we show we care, could take up the business of doing charity more skillfully, more efficiently.