Bill Gates is journeying down the road of philanthropy (Gates Foundation), but he does not travel alone. He has been joined recently by the prestige of former president Bill Clinton, the celebrity of Oprah Winfrey, and the enormous wealth of Warren Buffett. Warren Buffett has sweetened the philanthropy pot by a cool 37.5 billion dollars (potentially). This, when added to the millions pledged from the Gates Foundation, is easily greater than the GNP of many countries put together.
In the movie Out of Africa, the character played by Meryl Streep utters these pivotal words: “The world is round so that we don’t see too far down the road.” Her statement was made parallel to the discovery in her own life of a syphilitic infection she acquired from her husband. And anyone who knows anything about STDs knows that they facilitate the transmission of the H.I.V. and AIDS virus.
In the early days (1920s) when genteel Europeans ruled East Africa there was no AIDS, H.I.V. or TB crises to fret over. The colonialists were welcomed, wealthy, and lived a life worthy of royalty. But the horizon on that road was clearly changing even during Isak Dinesen’s time. The Africa of today is still rife with political problems that began in the last centuries. That was then, this is now, and syphilis and STDs are endemic in Africa and the proliferation of highways, trucks, and job-related travel have helped, in my opinion, to make H.I.V. and AIDS the modern-day equivalent of the Black Death.
One of the main criticisms of this foray by Bill, Bill, Oprah, and now Warren into the huge continent that is Africa is that for all the billions in wealth and power that this foursome yields, they are up against a political impracticality and corruptness in Africa that makes their task as awesome as their monetary offerings. Africa is a populous country and this is not by accident. It is a natural population explosion common to Third World countries such as those of Africa.
Africa is a disaster that is not waiting to happen, but has happened — Bill Gates is aware of this when he says in an article in the Seattle Post Intelligencer, “In Africa, we have the potential for some worst-case scenarios. It could completely come apart here… It could be horrific.”
In the same article, author Tom Paulson also noted The Economist’s outlook on Africa when it recently called Africa “the Hopeless Continent.” I don’t think hopeless is too strong a word. Many pundits see the greatest obstacle to success for this charity as Africa and her problems. Why? Americans are notorious for ignoring the culture of a country and I don’t think that this huge charity outlay is any exception. The news media uses the word philanthropy to describe the work of these entrepreneurial giants, but the word charity more accurately describes what they are attempting.
As Rob Reich points out in “A Failure of Philanthropy“:
…a primary motivation for charity has always been to provide for the poor and disadvantaged, and to attack the root causes of poverty and disadvantage. Certainly this is true of the world’s traditions of charity… One of the world’s first laws concerning philanthropy, the Charitable Uses Act of 1601 in Elizabethan England, also strongly connected philanthropy with relief for the poor.
The work that Oprah, and the two Bills, and now Buffett are trying to do with more money than the GNP of many small nations put together is laudable. But is it believable? There is a reason for Africa’s continual malaise in the face of overwhelming resources and an at-one-time extremely populous nation. In fact, because of the practice of polygamy (West coast of Africa) and rife sub-Saharan poverty, it at one time had one of highest birthrates in the world. It might still have the highest birthrate.
The greatest population count belongs to China, but India is a close second, and is expected to be number one by the year 2050. A good way to pass the H.I.V. and AIDS viruses along an increasingly well-documented Trans-African heterosexual highway is to have the “three P’s” in place: promiscuity, polygamy and prostitution, a route that has taken a bumpy turn in many South African countries as well as the world.
Can Bill Gates teach Africans to live and think differently when it comes to their health and to their sexual practices? I don’t think that there is enough light in the world to change the clothes on that elephant. But they can try.
And the biggest question that should arise in the mind of those of us who are mere spectators of spectacular wealth should be: How does it benefit the giver, the receiver, and our economy? Space does not allow me to elaborate on these questions, but it is a fact that charitable contributions are one hell of a write-off for the well off. To better put this mountain of charity in perspective let’s see what economists tell us about this lucrative business:
Rob Reich quotes “Evelyn Brody, a legal scholar, [who] estimates that in 2000 the charitable deduction alone cost the U.S. Treasury nearly $26 billion in forgone income tax.” The cost of charitable deductions in the year 2000 was $26 billion dollars, according to Brody. If we fast-forward to projected figures for 2005 Brody says “[t]hat amount is expected to jump to $36 billion in 2005, according to the 2005 U.S. federal budget.” This is the money that comes directly out of the U.S. treasury (read our pockets) into other countries and multiple charities. The problem with this giving is that when it comes from organizations and large non-profit groups they stand to have greater write-offs than the individual taxpayer who gives to charity.
Finally, the Stanford Study compares government spending and charitable subsidies. AFDC (Aid to Families With Dependent Children, now replaced by TANF Temporary Assistance for Needy Families—by virtue of the welfare reform of the 1990s) has, according to the Stanford study, netted $25.4 billion in the year 2002! Translation: subsidized charity has outstripped in-house charity. Americans also need to keep in mind that we are talking about 2002 and projected 2005 subsidy. We will not know the impact of the huge ongoing gifts of the Gates Foundation, the multi-billion dollar gift of Warren Buffett, and the work of Oprah Winfrey.
As if this is not stunning enough, on June 25, 2006, Warren Buffett announced the giving away of his entire fortune. According to Fortune magazine, Buffett’s fortune is worth 44 billion dollars and he plans to give 85% of it away, according to an article by Carol J. Loomis. Most of that, she reports, will go to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Buffett’s fortune giveaway would actually be a cool 37.4 billion dollars, give or take a few million. And some percentage of that will be added to the 1.1 billion in charity that will go directly to Africa.
I went directly to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation website, pulled out my calculator and began adding up the millions in African direct-aid in each category. The final tally: 1.1 billion — it does not include the 1.5 billion that will go directly to the GAVI (Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunizations). Can someone say wow — who’s babysitting all that money? This is where things on the philanthropy road get bumpy. Why? Because one of the greatest problems facing Africa is the management within African countries of its resources and its people. This writer would be remiss if she did not to restate the obvious: How will the drain of these billions of dollars from the U.S. economy in 2006 affect the charity that should begin at home?
On a Goodwill forum years ago we debated AIDS and Africa and I offered my conclusion to the group that in the final analysis it is the color of AIDS – black and green – that will make it a deeply unrelenting problem. Black for the color of the skin of those most affected and green for the money it would take to eradiate and/or alleviate this continental scourge. Statistics cited in a February, 2006 article in the New York Times that put this into sharper focus: The current HIV/AIDS infection-rate for blacks (in New York) is now at 50% of new cases. This possible pandemic yet remains a problem. When I wrote that I believed it was still a non-winnable war; but it was before I looked and saw Bill, Bill, Oprah, and Warren walking down that road together.