Billionaires bullying billionaires

By Gabrielle Pickard
0 CommentsPrint E-mail, September 14, 2010
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Refuse a charity-dinner invitation with Bill Gates? It may seem unlikely, but that's what several Chinese billionaires did. Now the Gates Foundation has accused China's wealthiest of being nervous about being asked to donate large amounts of their fortunes to charity. Gates, founder of Microsoft and the Gates Foundation, has managed to successfully persuade over 40 billionaires from the U.S. to donate half their fortunes to charity. But instead of criticizing and making accusations about China's stinking rich, should it perhaps be the Gates Foundation criticized for "bullying?"

According to organizers of the charity dinner, "dozens" of billionaires from China had been invited but had "nervously declined." Ye Lei, head of the foundation in China, said a number of people inquired if they'd be asked to donate at the function.

However, this doesn't provide evidence that Chinese billionaires were too nervous about being persuaded they have a moral obligation to depart with a massive chunk of their fortunes to help the world's most needy. In an attempt to put the apparently "panic stricken" wealthy entrepreneurs' minds at rest, the Gates Foundation said it will write to each guest personally to assure them that the gathering is not charity motivated but merely a chance to "get to know one another." A spokesman for the Gates Foundation said, "We understand the US model will not suit China."

But why would the "US model," which started as a campaign in June called the "Giving Pledge," and aimed to persuade the U.S.'s filthy rich to donate at least half their fortunes either during their lifetimes or after their deaths, not work in China? Or more interestingly, why is it proving so successful in the U.S.?

After the U.S., China has the largest proportion of billionaires in the world. Despite claims that tactics implemented by "The Giving Pledge" would not suit China, according to Jin Jingping, a professor at Peking University, more than 60 percent of extremely wealthy Chinese entrepreneurs have also donated large sums of money. Although the generosity coming from China is less well documented than in the U.S., it's because, as Jin Jingping puts it, China's billionaires tend to shun publicity and attention.

Bill Gates and other American philanthropists are not adept at shunning publicity, and his insistent approach in persuading America's billionaires to depart with their cash is proving to be a blinding success. Why? Because people with obscenely excessive bank accounts feel they have a moral duty to help those in need, especially when their fellow billionaires are doing so. How embarrassed would CNN's founder Ted Turner look if he refused to be involved at the next entrepreneurial dinner party?

How much money the stinking rich should give to charity always sparks debate. Many say there's no point in accumulating more than a few million or billion, so they may as well give the rest away. Others classify the recent "philanthrocapitalism" trend as a "halo-burnishing" exercise practiced by those with more money than sense. An even more cynical vision states the motive is tax write-offs. Professor Jin says that compared to the U.S., China's financial elite seem more concerned about the well being of their family.

In addition to the moral debate, there's also the question over how much impact donated money has on charities.

These high-exposure philanthropists tend to concert their efforts on the grand and obvious of the world's ills, such as financing the research of medicine for children living with HIV in Africa, while more local and less publicized problems, such as a child suffering at the hands of an abusive father in the UK tend to go overlooked. This tendency to concentrate on the toughest problems was famously declared by Warren Buffet, when he advised Bill Gates on matters of philanthropy. "Don't go for safe projects; take on the really tough problems," Buffet said. Too bad for those whose problems aren't deemed tough enough.

It was reported that in 2009 that donations made by the UK's top 100 philanthropists fell by approximately 11 percent due to the effects of the credit crunch. Bearing this in mind, in times of economic uncertainty solely relying on the super rich to smooth out the world's problems could prove highly problematic.

Then there is accountability. The cries that the Gates Foundation looks set to replace the United Nations will certainly never materialize. If it did, we would be basically handing over the world's most complex problems to a handful of billionaires, and in doing so would be abolishing public policy in favor of an unelected elite.

While they may be a degree of truth in the assumption that the Chinese billionaires who politely declined their invitations to the Gates Foundation dinner did so due to fear of being scare-mongered into becoming half as rich, perhaps given the ambiguous impact "philanthrocapitalism" has on rescuing the world from its social ills, the Chinese are right to practice caution.

We have to praise individuals such as Gates and Buffet, as not only are they responsible for the birth of the term "philanthrocapitalism," but their enormous generosity toward helping the poorest and most destitute in society. Not only this but their uncanny knack at persuading the likes of Barron Hilton to promise to give 97 percent of this assets to charity instead of financing his granddaughter Paris's non-stop partying habits means that the global economy might function better than if the huge wealth was concentrated in the hands of a few fortunate families. Despite the seemingly endless list of benefits "philanthrocapitalists" bring to the neediest, why do I continue to feel impulsively queasy about such do-gooders?

The author is a columnist with For more information please visit:



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