Giving back to the society: the role of Rich and Capable

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Chandan Kumar's picture

Giving back to the society: the role of Rich and Capable

Giving back to society is a complex thought. What do we mean by giving back? What are we going to give?  Is it money, time or ability? As the topic says ‘all wealthy people’, perhaps it would be safe to assume that we are talking about wealth or money. We can resort to the other possibilities later.

If all the wealthy people are to give back to the society, the question arises, why should they? Have they taken something from the society? Do we say that the money they have earned has society to give credit for?  Are we asking them to pay for the luxuries they have enjoyed?  Have they not paid for them already?

It is perhaps more about the luxuries they have enjoyed with the money. Money has no value by itself. If at all we are going to talk in terms of money, it would be because that’s the best way we can measure the extent of these luxuries.

Can a person with all his talents and efforts produce all those goodies and enjoy the same luxuries on an island which no one visits? Clearly, the answer would be ‘NO’.  In fact talent itself is a relative term, defined in the context of society. So, money earned is not just a function of your effort and talent. For every other factor like education, luck or chance etc., you have society to give credit for. Luck because you are lucky relative to someone. One lucky person always means a few unlucky ones. One wins money at the cost of others losing it. If others decided not to participate at all, nobody would be winning anything. If I become filthy rich by producing and selling a product to the people, perhaps my margins were high. In fact the notion of profit wasn’t even accepted in ancient world. Of course, no one forced these people to pay this price, a person might say, but he should be termed narrow-minded at best. An offer you can’t refuse doesn’t necessarily mean that you have a gun pointed to your head.

Another argument against giving back could be that everyone was given equal chance. I turned out to be the winner and hence I have earned the right to retain all the wealth. The issue remains, was there an equal starting point?  I definitely started ahead of some others. Even the basic factors like education, healthcare are not available equally, talking about earning money and business is a luxury. A person who started very low and ended up very rich might say that he prevailed because of his talent. What if the society had chosen to ignore talent and focus on equal distribution?

Every person should give back to the society. We talk about the wealthy because they have surplus and hence they can give back. For some people, giving back might itself bring the joy which cannot be bought. On the other hand, a person of average means cannot be expected to give back much, however justified the act of giving may be.

How much should be given? Is it just money that one should be extending? Digging the pages of history does provide some very good examples but their relevance in the world, as it is now, is questionable.

Andrew Carnegie believed in an idea that access to education could be the game changer. He went on to set up libraries and institutes of higher studies across the country.  John D. Rockefeller thought that education and healthcare are of utmost importance. He helped setup some elite academic institutions. Rockefeller even setup medical institutes which helped eradicate the yellow fever disease. These institutions indeed changed the face of the world. Now we know that there is enough scope for people to pursue higher studies. The general healthcare standard has improved a lot. Even now, the extremely well funded Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation works extensively in the healthcare sector. Yet, we are missing the main problem, wealth disparity. The services are not affordable to a good part of the world because there is so much income inequality. Has the inequality decreased because of the efforts put by these gentlemen? It has even surpassed the Gilded Age. If we could address this issue, we would not have to look up to the extremely wealthy for their generous giving in order to extend these services to the underprivileged ones.

How can we decrease income inequality?  The answer again is education, school education. Ability to earn is definitely related to access to education.  The kids from good financial background have access to quality school education. The state run schools are in totters. The quality of instruction is appalling. Obviously, the kids from good background score over those from modest ones when it comes to higher education, which directly leads to future earnings. This is a vicious circle which needs to be broken. Its effects are not just limited to rich kids remaining rich. What’s more worrying is that if poor kids can’t have access to higher education, they can’t become rich. It reduces the credibility of school education altogether. Poor kids don’t even want to put enough effort in studying when they know that it is no good to them in future. When the students are not interested in learning, the teachers lose their interest in teaching after some time.

How do we improve this system and break this vicious circle? Do we setup systems which are parallel to the state run facilities? Do we stop paying the state and take care of these needs ourselves? If we do so, it would be another state in itself and no one can ensure that corruption and inaction won’t handicap this new system. What is needed is probably a complementary system which ensures that quality is independent of affordability. This is where people with wealth fit in.

A very good example is what has been done by Mr. Azim Premzi. The Azim Premzi Foundation works in the area of elementary education to bring about a systemic change in India's 1.3 million government-run schools. The focus lies in the rural areas. Mr. Premzi promised to spend 2 billion dollars on this project.

At the face of it, the efforts of these gentlemen look commendable. However, it’s not enough. A lot depends upon the ability of people commanding the strategies of these organisations. With time, such foundations lose focus and intensity. Having started something doesn’t mean it will be successful.  Mr. Bill Gates needs to be admired for his decision of working full- time with Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Having a visionary leader, whose skills and abilities have been accepted brings a dramatic shift in the success probability of any organisation and a philanthropic organisation is no exception. It’s no wonder that Mr. Warren Buffet’s contribution was conditional to Bill or Melinda being alive and active with the organisation.

In the future to come, money might not be the problem that philanthropy faces. In fact, even people with modest wealth have started giving back, arguably more than the rich. However, it so happens that the wealthy normally wield more power and command. They possess the necessary acumen to lead an organisation. This would be the most valuable resource for any organisation. The world is becoming more complicated every passing day. A utopian view to the social causes might not be sufficient to take the boat ahead. Not everyone possesses the ability to take the boat ashore when it has started for unfathomed waters. It’s high time that the people with abilities start contributing their time too, not just money.


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