By GAUTAM ADHIKARI
WASHINGTON DC: Politically and ideologically this country is polarised. Conservatives and liberals, Republicans and Democrats are barely on speaking terms. They dislike, even fear, one another with an intensity unmatched in the decades since the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and ’60s.
Yet, in the wake of the hurricanes Harvey and Irma disasters that inundated swathes of Texas and Florida and left the states reeling in their wake, a kinder, gentler face of America appeared amidst the chaos.
Other Face Of America
It’s the face of generosity. Strangers, many from distant states, waded or paddled through the flood waters in droves to help stranded folk who they had never met. A mattress store owner threw his shop open to shelter the distressed, especially children. Burly men rescued victims of the deluge totally unmindful of skin colour or race. Those who had motor boats sailed through the waters searching for poor people and children to rescue.
It was that other face of America, the one that is known for its readiness to help the needy, the one which reflects philanthropy on a scale that surpasses the efforts of any other nation on earth.
Individuals, corporations, estates and foundations contributed an estimated $390.05 billion to US charities in 2016, says Giving USA’s annual report on philanthropy in America. It was a 2.7 per cent rise from the previous year. The rise was largely driven by individual giving, which increased nearly 4 per cent. Giving by corporations and foundations also rose by 3.5 per cent.
Deductibles from taxable income, along with religious as well as secularised humanitarian impulses, play a key role in keeping the size of charitable giving large in this country. But can the American model of philanthropy be replicated in other environments?
The Giving Pledge
Two of the richest individuals in the world, Bill Gates and Warren Buffet, have been trying to export formalised, systematic and professionalised American-style philanthropy but so far they’ve had mixed results.
After convincing many of their co-billionaires to pledge more than half their fortunes to philanthropy, they redirected their efforts to potential givers overseas.
Gates made it a mission to urge non-Western billionaires to commit to the cause of giving. He had significant success but also ran into criticism and resistance.
He, however, has not backed down and has expanded his efforts to include debates over inequality, democracy and philanthropy.
A May 2014 issue of The Atlantic magazine narrates how Gates and Buffet travelled to China, and a few months later to India, in 2010 to present their case to billionaires there. Resistance to American efforts to export their model of giving was the most obvious in these two countries, though higher in China than in India.
Suspicion of American attempts to impose Western values and condescension hovered under the surface of the conversations they had. Nevertheless, the two and their fellow signers of The Giving Pledge have continued their efforts.
In China, a major success came with billionaire Jack Ma’s announcement that he was ready to devote a large part of his fortune to a philanthropic trust and explained that he had been inspired by Gates.
In India, Gates and Buffett held a closed door discussion with 70 high net worth citizens. They succeeded in persuading a few partners to promote The Giving Pledge. When Gates visited India again shortly thereafter, Ratan Tata and Azim Premji got together to indicate they would lead attempts to establish an informal Indian network of wealthy individuals and families.
Apart from Gates and Buffett, other wealthy families and individuals in America have been working at promoting philanthropy worldwide. David Rockefeller’s family established the Global Philanthropists Circle in 2001. It includes more than 200 participants from over 20 countries.
A very different model of giving, if it can be called that, has been promoted by those who believe that charity can be spread through for-profit units instead of non-profit foundations.
Lauren Bush Lauren, for example, created a tote bag the price of which covers the cost of school meals in Rwanda through the UN’s World Food Program.
Critics say that this kind of market philanthropy undermines traditional motives such as concern for humanity’s future, creation of social capital and the sense of responsibility to give back to society, which are degraded by consumerism.
To make philanthropy a globalised phenomenon might take many decades, to say nothing of creating models of giving that would suit the socio-political situation of each country.
But the continuing success of the American model is worth careful study even as emerging markets accumulate wealth, along with a growing number of the seriously rich.
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Gautam Adhikari, former executive editor of The Times of India and founding editor of Daily News & Analysis (DNA), is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, Washington DC.