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Feb / Mar 2012
Giving it all Away

Writer: Joseph Ghandour / Illustration: Gina Abou Hamad

Maybe you were lucky enough to be born into the right family, or better yet, you’ve worked hard your whole life. You’ve got more money than you could spend in a lifetime. Possibly two. What do you do with it after you’re gone?

Buy the biggest, blingiest house/car/plane/ yacht/island you can afford? Surely you’re over that phase. Build a hospital, a public library or endow a university? Haven’t you done that already?

You could set up a foundation to care for abandoned camels in Sana’a, ageing cats in Cairo or penniless writers in Beirut. Or you could follow tradition and leave it to your children, but let’s face it, tradition didn’t make you that first billion. Anyway, leaving it to little Mo just is too obvious.

Besides, when we’re talking billionaires - and there’s apparently 1,210 of you - a percentage or three would still keep the kids in the style to which they have become all too accustomed. No, for gazillionaires with gumption, there’s a more interesting alternative; give it away. 

As a path, it isn’t entirely untrodden. Karl Rabeder, Raghunathat Daswami and Andrew Carnegie have been there and done that But they were acting alone. Today’s billionaire renunciants are doing it together. 

It’s a movement known as the Giving Pledge and its mission is to get as many of the world’s billionaires as possible to publically pledge to leave the majority of their wealth to philanthropy. With close to 150 billion USD in IOU’s so far, the Pledge represents the single largest (voluntary) donation of private wealth in history. 

Blame Bill Gates (net worth: 56 billion USD). He’s used to being blamed and he’d probably be relieved that this time, it’s not for glitchy software. Blame Warren Buffet (net worth: 39 billion USD) too. It was the product of a series of conversations the two men had regarding their wealth that the Pledge was born.

Since it was first unveiled in 2010, 69 billionaires have signed up. To date, all are U.S. citizens because until recently, the Pledge’s focus has been American but persistent rumours in the financial press suggest that this year, several South American and Asian billionaires will join the list. Given that Russia, India, China and Brazil account for 25 per cent of the world’s billionaires between them alone, that’s no surprise.

Bolstering this perception, Taiwanese tycoon Samuel Yin (net worth: 3.2 billion USD) announced last year that he intended to give 95 per cent of his wealth away, while in India, Azim Premji (net worth: 18 billion USD and currently the world’s 36th richest person), set up the country’s largest educational foundation with a 2 billion USD endowment.

As for our own fair region, which is said to be home to 57 billionaires (only 29 of whom publicly list their wealth) and which has a long history and cherished tradition of philanthropy, there are no takers so far. 

Perhaps once the first Asian billionaire signs up, competitive spirit, if nothing else, will encourage one of our own to step forward. For the true genius of Bill and Warren’s Pledge is the Machiavellian understanding that just as the tree that falls in the forest isn’t heard, the donation made in private goes unappreciated. If it is good for the soul to give, it’s even better for the ego when that gift gets attention.

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