The importance of being charitable
Conventional wisdom in India has it that the West is all about conspicuous consumption and having a good time. Perhaps it is, but it is also about giving. Some years ago, Ted Turner donated $ 1 billion to the UN for its activities. In his typical style Mr Turner reportedly said, “My hands shook when I wrote that cheque. I had just blown away the chance to become the richest man in the world.” He summed up the heart-stopping dilemma of money-makers who decide to become money-givers. At the time, the irrepressible Mr Turner also taunted Bill Gates for hanging on to his fortune. But Mr Gates has taken up the gauntlet of competitive giving. He is to give up executive control of his corporation and look after the activities of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, whose corpus stands at $ 29.2 billion. Last week, his friend and the world’s second richest man, Warren Buffett, decided that the time had come to start giving away money and he did it with a spectacular announcement that he would give away $ 37.4 billion of his fortune, the largest-ever grant to charity by an individual. The bulk of this $ 31 billion would go to the Gates foundation. As a perspective on these amounts -- the UN’s annual budget is $ 12 billion.
Critics may ascribe ulterior motives to corporate giving -- self-aggrandisement, tax evasion, indirect benefits to business, political benefits, etc. But few can deny the life-transforming role they have played in history. Andrew Carnegie’s fortune helped create the great American public library system and Rockefeller Foundation funding helped provide mankind with our first usable antibiotics as well as hybrid seeds that led to what is called the Green Revolution.
The tradition of giving is part of almost every culture. Christians were once enjoined to give a tenth (tithe) of their income, Muslims are supposed to give away 2.5 per cent as zakat. Indeed, all faiths stress the importance of charity and giving. India also has a tradition of corporate philanthropy, perhaps not so grand as that of the US. From being a largely religious institution, it evolved into a more secular and inclusive one from the 19th century when top corporates changed the face of Indian charity with donations to orphanages and old-age homes, to contributions to larger causes like social equity and education. But what the Americans have taught the world is not just the art of giving, but the ability to run their foundations on industrial scale, with the efficiency of a modern corporation.