It’s not often that a meeting of business and political leaders leaves you truly awed, but the awards ceremony for the Heroes of Polio Eradication did just that for me this week. I left the event profoundly humbled.
It was not the attendance of Bill Gates nor the presence of the leaders of the UAE that prompted such emotions, impressive though the gathering was. It was the brief interview I had with one of the award winners.
Bibi Malika – as she wanted to be identified because of understandable security concerns – is a mother of eight children in (I would guess) her mid-forties, who has spent the past decade combating the endemic spread of polio in her native Afghanistan.
At great risk to herself, in a country where women rarely put their heads above the parapet on any policy issue, she has tried to persuade and encourage her compatriots to overcome their fears about medical vaccinations for the good of the next generation of Afghans. It is a perilous task, as the deaths of many polio workers there and in Pakistan has shown.
Her words were reported at the time, but I think it’s worth repeating them here: “I am motivated by the thought that all Afghans could be like my own children. How would I feel if one of my children was sick with polio? When the last child is free of polio, my job will be done.”
That sentiment strikes me as the essence of philanthropy, and it should be borne in mind in the controversy over the decision by Mark Zuckerberg, the found of Facebook, to “donate 99 per cent of his personal wealth to charity”.
That, at least, is how the move was at first gushingly reported. Mr Zuckerberg’s transfer of shares worth $45 billion was called the biggest charitable donation in history, bigger than those of Mr Gates or of Warren Buffett, the other big American philanthropist. The “gift” was intended to “advance human potential and promote equality”.
The sheer vagueness of this aim should be enough to cause some disquiet, but after the initial media furore died down, other reservations about the scheme quickly emerged.
The assets to be transferred are in the form of Facebook equity, so their value can go down as well as up. It doesn’t require too much imagination to see a situation a decade from now when Facebook has been virtually taken out of the social media equation by some “innovative disrupter”, with inevitable negative results.
A lot less human potential would be advanced with the shares at, say $10, rather than $105 where they are today.
But the main reservations were about the nature of the vehicle Mr Zuckerberg was setting up. The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative is a limited liability company, rather than a traditional not-for-profit foundation (like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation which co-funded the polio campaign).
That means it can make profits, and invest them and other assets in other commercial schemes, without the obligation to disclose as much information as with a traditional foundation.
In fact Mr Zuckerberg has gone a long way to taking Facebook off the stock market altogether by putting his 25 per cent stake in a private vehicle.
The “giving” sector is changing rapidly. What used to be called “charity” is now “philanthrocapitalism”. There certainly are benefits to be earned from treating the whole business of raising money for good causes in a professional, financially effective way. But it is hard to see how Mr Zuckerberg’s financial engineering helps accomplish this.
Some businessmen, like the Mexican mobile billionaire Carlos Slim, do not believe in a reliance on charit- able contributions, arguing it is job of governments to use their considerable resources to solve social and economic problems.
That seems too hard-hearted.
But as the UAE alliance with the Gates Foundation has shown, if a philanthropic initiative has a clear and achievable aim, like the eradication of polio or some other specific challenge, it can make a material and immediate difference to the quality of human life.
I doubt Bibi Malika would grasp what it means to “advance human potential”. What she understands is how to save children’s lives, because that’s what she does every day.
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