The politics of being really, really rich: (Part 2) When a luxury yacht won’t do

[In part 1 to this post, I asked if the shared human experience and occupying the same planet as everybody else is enough to convince the super rich (who have disproportionate resources and political influence) that social justice and equality are pursuits worthy of the time and innumerable resources. I will attempt to answer that now.  **read the entire biblical post (parts 1 & 2) together —–> here.**]

In what was subsequently called a “meeting of colleagues”, Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, George Soros, Oprah, Michael Bloomberg and other luminaries on Forbes 400 rich Americans list got together for dinner in May 2009 and decided to use their wealth to save the world. The organisers of the dinner, Gates and Buffet, gathered their peers with the express intention of convincing them to give away at least 50% of their wealth to charities during their lifetimes or at death. Some quick and dirty maths based on the 2010 Forbes top 10 rich list shows that if Gates and Buffett managed convince their contemporaries on the top 10 list to do as asked, $135.5 billion would make its way to charitable causes. This is almost half of the amount recorded for total private giving by Americans to charitable causes in 2009 – a number which no doubt included contributions from these very people.

Gates and Buffett didn’t stop there. They held two other similar dinners with more of America’s super rich, and jetted across the ocean to host similar events in London, India and China. They also inspired at least one Russian billionaire to also pledge his fortune to charitable causes upon his death.

This deluge of funding, riding in on the seemingly irreconcilable concept of philanthrocapitalism, will go toward charitable causes focused on health, education, poverty eradication, human rights, the environment and other millennium development goal sounding causes. Poor people problems, basically. And most of the organisations dealing with these causes work where they are needed most, in the developing world.

So the rich, it would appear then, get it. They need no convincing further convincing, or is something else going on here?

With the amount of money being doled out and assuming that, all things being equal, money buys resources and resources get things done, the super rich have a significant say in which causes receive the most attention and more significantly, how those causes are to reach their objectives (if not what the very objectives should be). That is after all one of the core principles of philanthrocapitalism – to apply business principles to giving including serving on the board to influence policy direction, stipulating business-like performance obligations (failing which funding is redirected or stopped), and that prized cherry, the right to brand the activities undertaken with your name. Recognising this, Chrystia Freeland writes in her article for The Atlantic, “arguably the most coveted status symbol isn’t a yacht, a racehorse, or a knighthood; it’s a philanthropic foundation—and, more than that, one actively managed in ways that show its sponsor has big ideas for reshaping the world.” She goes on to suggest that more than impacting lives or the environment, the super rich engaging in philanthrocapitalism seek to leave behind an indelible legacy. They seek to achieve the immortality that the likes of Andrew Carnegie and Alfred Nobel have achieved.

At first sight, these may not seem like competing interests but often, they are. Any programme director who works in the third sector will tell you that funding designated toward specific programmes is problematic, mainly due to the funders’ reporting requirements which are admittedly necessary but often inflexible, onerous and far removed from the reality of events at the coalface. Organisations however are seldom in a position to refuse this funding. Even more potentially problematic then would be a funder who not only has a significant say in what the programmes and objectives should be but also in what the programmes should be doing to achieve their objectives.

It may not be an exaggeration to say that the war for the soul of the non-profit sector has gone up a notch thanks to Gates and Buffett, and while not necessarily saying no good will from this, it certainly gives me pause when once again this small sect of the population have, for no reason other than having accumulated massive wealth, a say that far exceeds their numbers.

It is clear (to me anyway) that not only is the fate of the rich set apart from that of the poor, the fate of the poor is in the hands of the rich. One can only hope then that the accusation leveled at the super rich – that of displaying self-interested motives and casual indifference to anyone outside their rarefied bubble – is unfounded.


Further reading:


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