The black hole of philanthropy


Economic Times Reported that the high-profile pledging of most of their wealth to philanthropy by American billionaires Bill Gates and Warren Buffet , and the contribution by Azim Premji of 8,846 crore to his foundation for education, the largest-ever donation by an Indian, have directed the spotlight on philanthropy. This is welcome.

Though charity has a hoary past in India, there is little public discourse on it. The last time there was one, at the beginning of the 20th century, was because social reformers deemed existing practices of charity to be wasteful and inefficient and sought change. Thanks to the debate, charity became more secular, less sectarian and more oriented to human betterment.

The distribution and proper utilisation of wealth has engaged the human mind almost as much as its creation. How to ensure an equitable social order in which there is no exploitation and in which wealth is used not only to take care of the poor and needy, but also to bring beauty, art and knowledge to all, continues to be a vexed question. Philanthropy, defined as the creative use of wealth for the long-term benefit of society, without any expectation of a quid pro quo, has been considered a way to take the sting out of the inequitable distribution of wealth.

Philanthropy can now play a more visible role in assisting national transformation and reducing social inequity. For one, there is more money in the economy to give away. We are witnessing a wave of wealth creation. HNI wealth jumped by 53.8% to $477 billion in 2009, and there were 55 Indians on the Forbes billionaires list, many among the top global 100.

The concept of corporate social responsibility is more widespread than ever before, and many corporations equate social responsibility with philanthropy, rather than as a more comprehensive concept involving ethical and governance issues. This can swell philanthropic rupees. This is also an opportunity to bring some money directed towards religious charity into organised philanthropy.

Technology has provided tools for donors and would-be donors to learn about, and contribute to new developments and opportunities worldwide. Media has the power to motivate people and to mobilise resources for charity. This power can also be harnessed to ensure accountability in recipients.

The growth in wealth has increased the gap between the wealthy and the poor. Some 836 million people live on less than 20 a day. Indian statistics on health, infant mortality, malnutrition, and access to basic needs such as water and toilets are among the worst in the world.

Before Indian philanthropy can become a potent force for change, we need to know many things about it. Unfortunately, there’s too little information. There are no official statistics, and the contribution of charity or of volunteer effort to the national economy is unaccounted for. There is no systematic data on philanthropic preferences and how the philanthropic rupee gets divided up, or its impact on any field of activity.

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