Are Wealthy Philanthropists Modern Janus?

In March 2011, American billionaires Bill Gates and Warren Buffet visited India to persuade Indian billionaires to join The Giving Pledge, a campaign launched by the two in June 2010 to seek to get fellow billionaires to commit at least half of their wealth for philanthropy. Not surprisingly, there was a cold response from the Indians for the American tutorials on the “culture of giving”. The special visit of Gates and Buffet carries a condescending message. It implies somehow that Indian billionaires require the guidance of American billionaires to act responsibly and in the best interest of their society. What is deliberately ignored by the Americans is that philanthropy is neither a typical American concept nor an alien culture in India, although western media promote it otherwise. There is a rich tradition of giving in India that goes back centuries and still lives on. As Rahul Bajaj, chairman of Bajaj Group, says, “India has a very old culture of giving, since the time of Buddha. The concept of philanthropy is not new to us.”

It is true that wealthy people throughout the world are in some way involved in philanthropic activities. Gates foundation, the richest charity in the world with an annual income equal to that of a small country, has undoubtedly been helping a lot of people around the world. However, philanthropy on the scale we see now can only exist in a fundamentally unequal society where a small minority of businessmen owns or controls large parts of the productive forces entitling them to staggering profits. According to the 2011 annual report of the business magazine Forbes there are 1210 individuals with a net value of $1 billion dollars (or more). Their total net worth is $4.5 trillion dollars, greater than the combined worth of 4 billion people in the world. The three richest people in the world control more wealth than the combined wealth of the poorest 48 countries. The wealthiest 1% of the global population own 43% of global assets. The richest 10% of the world own 83% of global assets. The current concentration of wealth in a few hands exceeds any previous period in history.

The US has the most billionaires in the world (413). The net worth of Bill Gates is $56 billion and that of Warren Buffet $50 billion. In 1976 the top 1% of Americans held 20% of the total wealth of the US, whereas in 2011 they control 40% of total wealth. 80% of Americans own only 15% of the wealth. That means, 20% of Americans control 85% of total wealth.
India’s high economic growth over the past decade and the upsurge in billionaires upward to 55 by 2011 are linked to the neo-liberal policies of deregulation, privatisation and globalisation, which have concentrated wealth in the hands of a few, undermined small scale producers and dispossessed tens of millions of tribals, poor and small scale farmers. According to the Arjun Sengupta Committee, about 77% of Indians live on less than Rs. 20 a day.

The huge inequality reflects the stark differences in wealth between a handful of rich and the vast struggling masses. Does it mean that the accumulation of unimaginable amounts of wealth is intertwined with the appalling poverty of billions of people? At least this is what the annual budgets of many countries convey. Take, for example, the US budget proposal for 2012 that cuts more than $5.8 trillion in government spending over the next decade, meaning cuts on social spending which affects the poor and the old. The budget also calls for REDUCING the top corporate and individual tax rates to 25%. In his article of the 1%, by the 1%, for the 1% Joseph Stiglitz, the Nobel-winning American economist, deplores, “…one big part of the reason we have so much inequality is that the top 1 percent want it that way. The most obvious example involves tax policy. Lowering tax rates on capital gains, which is how the rich receive a large portion of their income, has given the wealthiest Americans close to a free ride. Monopolies and near monopolies have always been a source of economic power—from John D. Rockefeller at the beginning of the last century to Bill Gates at the end. Lax enforcement of anti-trust laws… has been a godsend to the top 1 percent. Much of today’s inequality is due to manipulation of the financial system, enabled by changes in the rules that have been bought and paid for by the financial industry itself…The government lent money to financial institutions at close to 0 percent interest and provided generous bailouts on favourable terms when all else failed. Regulators turned a blind eye to a lack of transparency and to conflict of interests.”
What is striking about the fortune of billionaires in the US (and elsewhere) is how dependent their accumulation of wealth is based on pillage of state resources, on neo-liberal policies which led to the take over at bargain prices of privatised public enterprises, deregulation that allows for plunder of the environment to extract natural resources at the highest rate of return, tax-cuts, and elimination of social programmes and labour rights.

It is absolutely clear that the state plays an essential role in facilitating the concentration of wealth in the hands of a few, whether in facilitating the plundering of the state treasury (i.e. public money) and the environment or in heightening the direct or indirect exploitation of labour. It also promotes the interests of the wealthy in other countries. It facilitates the entry of the big corporations into their markets, at times through arm-twisting or wars. WikiLeaks cable revealed that the US sought to retaliate against Europe on Genetically Modified Crops (GM Crops). In the 2007 leaked cable, then US ambassador to France Craig Stapleton wrote, “Europe is moving backwards not forwards on this issue with France playing a leading role, along with Austria, Italy and even the (European) Commission… Moving to retaliation will make clear that the current path has real costs to EU interests and could help strengthen European pro-biotech voice.” Stapleton recommended retaliations that would cause “some pain” across EU. It is evident that the US policy on genetically modified organisms is being influenced by the multinational corporations that profit from genetic engineering and the export-oriented agribusiness. The government has virtually become an agency for promoting the private interests of the Monsanto Corporation.

Monsanto and other biotech corporations have been pushing to find new market footholds in collaboration with USAID, the US State Department and the Gates Foundation Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA). According to Netline: “The collusion of the Gates Foundation with Monsanto Corporation is no accident, as high level officials leading AGRA are former Monsanto executives. The recent purchase by AGRA of $500,000 worth in Monsanto stocks was vivid proof of that close relationship. Despite many words by Gates officials since the inception of the AGRA agenda denying that GMO seeds would be used as part of AGRA, their close relationship with Monsanto has now been revealed to be a key element in their agronomic ‘new green revolution’ strategy.”

Speaking at the Commission in World Farming annual lecture, Samuel Jutzi, director of the animal production and health division of the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) bemoaned that powerful, large agri-business and food producing companies are blocking reforms which would improve human health and environment.

US has been waging wars, covertly or overtly, to open countries to US corporate and banking interests. The US economic neoliberalism and the shock doctrine of deconstruction and chaos can be seen around the world. For example, the capacity to control natural resources in Africa is enhanced by spreading terror, uprooting people, destroying families, and sowing distrust and hatred. Armed conflicts are sustained, and at times instigated, through supply of weapons. The armed conflicts in countries cause political chaos, destroy infrastructure and make a huge dent on their economies, which make them vulnerable. This provides an easy access for the transnational companies to their markets and natural resources.
The neighbouring countries of the Democratic Republic of Congo, and transnational companies with the active support of their respective governments, have been deeply involved in the plundering of coltan, a critical raw material in high-tech manufacturing, in the Congo. As a consequence of the pillaging of the natural resources in this country, more than 60 lakh Congolese died since 1996. The United Nations characterised the “resource war” in the Congo as the worst humanitarian crisis since the World War II.

The interconnectedness between wars and control of natural resources and markets is expressed by the former US Marine Smedley Butler, who participated in many wars in the Central and the South America. He said, “I spent 33 years and four months in active military service and during that period I spent most of my time as a high-class muscle man for Big Business, for Wall Street and the bankers. In short, I was a racketeer, a gangster for capitalism. I helped make Mexico and especially Tampico safe for the National City Bank boys to collect revenues in. I helped in the raping of half a dozen Central American republics for the benefit of Wall Street. I helped purify Nicaragua for the International Banking House of Brown Brothers in 1902-1912. I brought light to Dominican Republic for the American sugar interests in 1916. I helped make Honduras right for the American fruit companies in 1903. In China in 1927, I helped see to it that Standard Oil went on its way unmolested. Looking back on it, I might have given Al Capone a few hints. The best he could do was to operate his racket in three districts. I operated on three continents.”

Evo Morales, president of Bolivia, rightly said, “Capitalism has twins, the market and war. The market converts life into commodities, it converts land into a commodity. And when capitalists cannot sustain this economic model based on looting, on exploitation, on marginalisation, on exclusion and, above all, on the accumulation of capital, they rely on war, the arms race.” Wealthiest class feels no pinch from higher taxes when the country goes to war. Common citizen bears the cost by paying higher taxes. So the state, as a representative of the wealthy, can undertake any number of military adventures to further the reach of corporations. Corporations and contractors stand only to gain.

The collusion between political and business classes in furthering their self interests at the cost of majority of people has been exposed by the recent scandals in India. The leaked telephone conversations of Niira Radia, a prominent business lobbyist, reveal some of the country’s most powerful tycoons scheming to manipulate government appointments and influence regulatory decisions. On 5 April 2010 writing in the Indian newspaper DNA, activist-artist Mallika Sarabhai lambasted the government for failing to crack down on corruption and collusion, asking the pointed question: “Who will fight the robber barons pillaging India?”

One of the main reasons for the poverty, disease, death and destruction in the Democratic Republic of Congo is the “resource war”. The Congo is a storehouse of important minerals for the functioning of modern society, particularly as it relates to the mining and technology sectors. The key natural resources are: diamonds, gold, coltan, copper, uranium, tin, silver, cobalt, timber, manganese and petroleum. The Congo has a history of being pillaged and the people being used as fodder in a rush for natural resources. During the rule of the Belgian king, Leopold II, from 1885-1908, more than one crore Congolese died as a result of plundering of natural resources. The resources at the root of suffering of the Congolese were ivory and rubber. Today it is coltan, diamonds, gold, copper and tin, to name a few. Bill Gates’ Microsoft Office needs some of these “conflict minerals” such as coltan.

On 7 January 2007 Los Angeles Times published an investigation report on the activities of Gates Foundation in Niger Delta in Africa. Its staff Charles Piller, Edmund Sanders and Robyn Dixon wrote: “The Gates Foundation has poured $218 million into polio and measles immunization and research worldwide, including in the Niger Delta. At the same time that it is paying for inoculations to protect health, it has invested $423 million in Eni, Royal Dutch Shell, Exxon Mobil, Chevron and Total France—the companies responsible for most of the flares blanketing the delta with pollution, beyond anything permitted in the United States or Europe. A sampling of the Gates Foundation’s largest investments between $100 million and $1 billion: Abbott Laboratories, Archer Daniels Midland, British Petroleum, Canadian national Railway, Exxon Mobil, Freddie Mac, French Government, Japanese Government, Merck, Schering Plough, Tyco International, Waste Management… Indeed, local leaders blame oil developments for fostering some of the very afflictions that the foundation combats.”

The report in the LA Times points out, “Oil bore holes fill with stagnant water, which is ideal for mosquitoes that spread malaria, one of the diseases the foundation is fighting. Investigators for Dr. Nonyenim Solomon Enyidah, heath commissioner for Rivers State… cite an oil spill clogging rivers as a cause of cholera, another scourge the foundation is battling. The bright, sooty gas flares—which contain toxic byproducts such as benzene, mercury and chromium—lower immunity, Enyidah said, and make children more susceptible to polio and measles—the diseases that the Gates Foundation has helped to inoculate against.”

The Gates Foundation endowment had major holdings in:

  • Companies ranked among the worst US and Canadian polluters, including ConocoPhilips, Dow Chemicals Co., and Tyco International;
  • Many of the other major polluters, including companies that own oil refinery that cause sickness in children while the foundation tries to save their parents from AIDS;
  • Pharmaceutical companies that price drugs beyond the reach of AIDS patients the foundation is trying to treat;
  • This is “the dirty secret” of many large philanthropists, said Paul Hawken, an expert on socially beneficial investing who directs the Natural Capital Institute, an investment research group. “Foundations donate to groups trying to heal the future,” Hawken said in an interview, “but with their investments, they steal from the future.”

This report on Gates Foundation reminds me of Janus, a two-face Roman god. Janus was characterised by the blending of maleficent and beneficent. His one face represents war and the other peace.

It is time to see the OTHER FACE of the headline grabbing initiatives of billionaire philanthropists.

If the wealthy really want to create a better world through philanthropic activities, first they should meet other commitments such as paying more taxes, not pressing on laws and regulations, giving better benefits, job protection and work conditions to their employees, and manufacturing goods using environmentally friendly products and processes.
The billionaire philanthropists should also acknowledge the ineffectiveness of charity. We know that majority of charities, while well intentioned, have not radically impacted world’s greatest challenges. The problems of the deprived masses can not be solved by charity and patronage. Their misery can not be dealt with an economic system that is responsible for the unequal world which makes a small percentage of the people staggeringly rich and throws an overwhelming majority into poverty and despair. Ironically, the wealthy modern day philanthropists are precisely the ones who define the laws of the present system pushing majority into poverty, disease and death.

Kamalakar Duvvuru teaches the New Testament in India with an objective of promoting peace, justice, unity and love. He can be reached at: Read other articles by Kamalakar, or visit Kamalakar's website.