01 Dec Saint Martin revisited: not half a cloak but half a fortune
by Vincenzina Santoro
On November 11th the Christian calendar marks the celebration of St. Martin of Tours. He is best remembered for sharing half his cloak with a freezing beggar he met along the road. The saint is usually pictured in military garb, sitting on a beautiful white horse, gallantly and majestically slicing the garment with his fancy sharp sword. Just as half a loaf is better than none, so too must be half a cloak.
In today’s world there is another, but altogether different, “half” story of generosity to tell. This is the so-called “giving pledge” whereby billionaires of the world are called upon to pledge to give away at least half of their wealth during their lifetime. The notion arose a few years ago at a tripartite meeting of Bill Gates, Warren Buffett and David Rockefeller – billionaires all. Buffett was the first to step to the plate and fork over half his fortune or around $35 billion to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, thus fulfilling his pledge and setting an example.
This upscale form of benevolence has some rules so the multi-rich do not give directly to the needy but to charities, non-profits, foundations and the like who in turn will improve the lot of the less fortunate beneficiaries through one of their programs. The main force behind such a bold move, Bill Gates and his wife Melinda, recently spoke openly about their wealth and commitments in a televised interview with famed US talk show host, Charlie Rose.
In the interview, at one point Rose asked how the Gates Foundation got started. Even before they were married – both worked at Microsoft – they discussed how someday they would share their abundance. After years of thought and when they had accumulated some 20 billion dollars, Bill and Melinda started their foundation and partnered with Bill Gates Sr who had been the director of the local Planned Parenthood in Washington State.
Bill and Melinda first got involved in spreading their wealth in the reproductive health area then expanded to other health matters outside the United States. They indicated a lot of disease could be conquered if there were better education and so they have funded projects in this area. According to Melinda, if mothers in poor countries were educated they could make better decisions for their families and, she added, “a child is 50% less likely to die if the mother is educated.”
In their travels to poor countries the Gates noticed that malnutrition could be reduced by families “having more chickens” for eggs and meat which help provide nutrition in a community. Melinda even paid tribute to the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals, that they had “made a huge difference” and that NGOs – presuming even their Foundation – played a role in reducing poverty. According to the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals Report for 2015, “more than 1 billion people have been lifted out of extreme poverty since 2000.”
They mentioned the success of the GAVI Alliance that set goals to reduce HIV, tuberculosis and malaria in which the Gates Foundation is a major partner. Greater progress has been made in polio eradication but despite its persistence in such countries as Afghanistan and Pakistan, with the Gates Foundation penetrating deep into rural areas, Bill believed eradication is still possible by 2020.There was no discussion of the some of the controversial items peddled in poor countries such as the anti-conception chip implants the Gates Foundation has funded for distribution in African countries in particular.
Not mentioned in the conversation but an interesting footnote is that the Gates Foundation had assets of $43.5 billion at the end of 2014 and made grants of $3.4 billion last year.
After setting an example with their generosity formula, Bill Gates and Warren Buffett decided to challenge all the super-rich of the world to follow their example. Today 138 pledges, by individuals and couples, have been made by billionaires from 14 countries. They have yearly gatherings where they all feel they are “among friends” according to Warren Buffett, and compare notes, learn from one another and “bring out the best in everyone.”
Both Buffett and Gates believe that philanthropy is a very American phenomenon as some of the earliest American super-rich (robber barons?) started charitable foundations including Rockefeller, Carnegie and Ford. Today’s top billionaires hold untold wealth – which of course fluctuates according to the whims of financial markets. At the same time there are still over one billion people living in poverty in every country on earth.
In the United States and elsewhere one need not be a billionaire to engage in philanthropy. All can share and give. For example, few years ago the idea was generated that the first Tuesday after Thanksgiving Day should be designated as “Giving Tuesday”….the day for giving back to the community after the consumer frenzy that consumes shoppers on Black Friday and Cyber Monday.
Giving part of one’s treasure is not all. Volunteering is also widespread in the United States, so much so that the Bureau of Labor Statistics conducts an annual survey to measure its extent. In “Volunteering in the United States – 2014” nearly 63 million people of 16 years and up volunteered in some way in the year ended September 2014, a volunteer rate of just over 25% of the population. Even the United Nations has recognized the value of people who willingly give of themselves to improve the lot of others. December 5th is designated International Volunteer Day.
In New York, Giving Tuesday occurs on December 1st this year and coincides with the start of the annual “New York Cares Coat Drive” to collect new or gently used coats for distribution to the indigent as winter gets under way. Every year the same ad appears in subways, buses and elsewhere showing a shivering Statue of Liberty tugging at a warm coat. The collection is usually abundant. Thus, while centuries ago St Martin spared half a cloak and modern billionaires spare half their fortunes, today’s New York poor at least can look forward to a whole outer garment.
*Vincenzina Santoro is an international economist. She represents the American Family Association of New York at the United Nations.