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Raffique Shah


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Modern-day givers with new philosophy on wealth

July 02, 2006
By Raffique Shah

There was a time, not long ago, when I used to wonder: if someone has a million dollars, what more does he or she want in life? Today, with inflation having effectively devalued the TT dollar, I think in similar vein of someone who has, say, US$10 million, and who will do anything-lie, cheat, steal, rob his family-to keep on adding to that for nothing but personal gain.

Besides a decent house, maybe palatial at this level of wealth, a nice ride, and enough money to tour the world and leave something behind for one's children, what more can anyone ask for? Yet there are the filthy rich in our society, and elsewhere in the world, whose only goals seem to be to grab and grab as much as they can pocket, without regard to the rest of society, more so the destitute and infirm, for whom TT$10,000 may mean the difference between life and death.

Last week in the USA, the world's second richest man, Warren Buffet, 76, announced that he will give away 85 per cent of his US$44 billion fortune to a foundation set up by the world's richest man, Bill Gates. One week before that, Gates, the Harvard dropout who went on to found Microsoft and whose net worth today is US$50 billion, said that he would relieve himself of day-to-day activities at his company to devote his time to a foundation he and his wife Melinda set up back in 1987. Together, the Buffet-Gates foundation will be the largest in the world.

Some readers may well say, "So what the hell? These guys can afford to give away 99 per cent of their fortunes since they will still live in super-comfort!" True. I agree. And I hasten to add that on their journey to becoming the two wealthiest men on earth, they may have committed many a sin, like exploiting their workers, cutting down their competition, being ruthless and worse.

In fact, Gates' Microsoft has been in court many a time on monopoly-related charges. His management style has been described as "aggressive". Buffet, son of a Nebraska stockbroker, more than likely had a head-start, and some of his investments may well have been less than halal.

What counts, though, is that both men have recognised that wealth alone means little without giving back, and very generously in their cases, not just to their communities and country, but to the world. Already the Gates Foundation has dispensed billions, mainly in medical research aimed at eliminating diseases that continue to haunt this 21st century world. Gates is obsessed with ridding the world of polio, AIDS, malaria, tuberculosis, diphtheria, whooping cough, measles and yellow fever. When he came under fire from a group in Zambia for putting money into research in malaria instead of buying mosquito nets that could immediately save lives, he gave US$35 million to that country to do just that. Mindful of the almost esoteric value of medical research, his foundation has begun channelling funds into low-tech solutions to health problems in the world's poorest countries.

Committed to giving away 95 per cent of his fortune to the foundation, Gates has already given US$2 billion to education and learning projects in the USA and other countries. His critics said many of these were hinged on the donation of computers, which, of course, carry Microsoft programmes.

Again, this is true. Still, had Bill been a typical wealthy-but-greedy person, he could have simply hoarded his money. He gave US$1 billion to the United Negro College Fund, the biggest single donation ever. Some US$4 billion went to fighting diseases and another US$4 billion to charities in over 100 poor countries. Over the rest of his life, Bill and Melinda will oversee the disbursement of upwards of US$80 billion, more than even the US Government spends on health-related or charitable causes.

What impresses me about these two men is not just their generosity. It's their philosophy regarding wealth. Buffet said recently: "A very rich person should leave his kids enough to do anything, but not enough to do nothing." Then, in opposing President Bush's attempt to repeal the estate tax, which would have brought immense relief to the super-rich, he said: "Without the estate tax, you in effect will have an aristocracy of wealth, which means you pass down the ability to command the resources of the nation based on heredity rather than merit." And: "I love it when I am around the country club and I hear people talking about the debilitating effects of a welfare society. Yet, they leave their kids a lifetime and beyond of food stamps in stocks and bonds."

If only more of the wealthy in our country would note these new-era philanthropists, and try to emulate them, on however small a scale they can afford to. Bill and Buffet have proved that wealth need not be an obsession. Using it to help the dispossessed can be.