By Sheshu Babu
Many celebrities, artists or religious heads have their own ‘non- profit’ institutions or donate huge wealth to service organisations to maintain their popularity. Whether people like Ambani, Amitabh Bachchan family or the godman Baba Ramdev – they are invariably associated with public service.
Wealth and charity
According to Wikpedia, the wealthiest donor, with endowment valuing $40.3 billion, was made by the Bill and Mellinda Gates Foundation since 1994. The Azim Premji Foundation of India is in the 6th position with $12.0 billion. The list also includes Wellcome Trust (UK) and Stichting INGKA foundation of the Netherlands, among others. Forbes philanthropy list, released in 2013, includes Mayor Bloomberg and ‘ the oracle of Omaha’ Warren Buffet as some of the most generous billionaires who donated wealth (“Forbes Philanthropy unveils most generous people”, (Ginger Adams Ottis, November, 18, 2013, nydailynews.com). Forty of the of the fifty ranked donors were also on the Forbes Billionaire list.
Corporate philanthropy has become a way to cover up clandestine operations. “Corporate philanthropy, business leaders would have us believe, is the ringing voice of company’s social conscience”, says Eduardo Porter (April 3, 2018, nytimes.com). He cites the example of Exxon Mobil, which stands accused of “misleading investors and shareholders about what it knew about climate change… The Exxon Mobil Foundation’s multimillion-dollar contribution to end deaths from malaria and to train women in developing countries should, executives hope, balance the ethical ledger”.
In the article “Charitable Giving by Corporations Is also About Getting, a New Study Finds’, the author cites Walmart Foundation contributing to reduce carbon emissions in China or wilderness in US, and Dow Chemical Foundation’s contribution for habitat to humanity. These companies might be ruthless in their work — fighting against environmental regulations or implementing stringent labour laws — but their foundations seek to do “good” to the world. Researchers have analyzed contributions of the corporations and link these to political leaders lobbying to break the rules.
A study by a UK-based social justice group, Global Justice Now, takes a specific look at the Bill and Malinda Gates Foundation ( BMGF), assessing the impact of the world’s largest philanthropic charity, and how large-scale private giving may be ‘skewing’ international aid works’ (Common Dreams, Jan 21, 2016, ecowatch.com). In its conclusion, the report argues that what may look like altruism on a grand scale may actually mask a sinister reality about how billionaires of the world insulate their personal fortunes while using their out-sized influence to project their private ideologies and further financial interests.
The result, the report suggests, is that many of the people and communities, whom such charities purport to be helping, may actually be worse off in the long run. With $43 billion assets, the Gates foundation is lauded as a global force with a mission to ‘help all the people lead healthy, productive lives’, but the report ‘Gated Development: Is the Gates Foundation Always a Force for Good?’ argues that, regardless of the intentions, the Foundation’s “concentration of power is undemocratically and unaccountably skewing the international development”, which in turn is ‘exacerbating global inequality and entrenching corporate power internationally.’
As Mark Curtis, the author of the report, explains, the BMGF’s programme shows that it is promoting multinational corporate interests at the expense of economic and social justice. Polly Jones, head of campaigns and policy at the Global Justice Now, also highlights the foundation’s unique role and trouble it gives as a private corporation. It is promoting big business-based industrial agriculture and private education, which do not serve the purpose of common people. The foundation is actually supporting controversial companies like Monsanto and DuPont.
Small losses and huge gains
Industrialists and business persons give a small portion of their earnings as charity and expect profits on their ‘charitable investment’. A 2012 report by the US Senate found that Microsoft ‘s use of offshore subsidies enabled it to avoid taxes of 4.5$ billion — a sum greater than BMGF’s annual grant making ($3.6 billion in 2014). Jeff Beroz has given less than 0.1% of his almost $80 billion as charity (published 21 Sept 2017, cnbc.com). Ranked third, Bloomberg said he gave away 10% of his $45 billion as charity to organisations.
The real reason behind this charity is to serve the moneyed establishment behind Wall Street. As Damon Vrabel (‘PR vs Truth: Corporate Charity and Billionaires’s Ruse’, June 21 2010, canadafreepress.com) says, on the surface, this is noble, but this is sort of an ‘orchestrated billionaire PR campaign’ against the rage of the lower classes from broken monetary system.
There are about 174 people like Richard and Joan Branson, Barron Hilton and David Rockefeller, the world’s richest, who want to simply give money for charity. This all amounts to what human geographers Iain Hay and Samantha Muller refer as ‘golden age of philanthropy’ which from 1990s has escalated billions of dollars as charity. These new philanthropists bring to charity an ‘entrepreneurial disposition’ (2014 paper). This is ‘diverting attention and resources away from the failings of contemporary manifestations of capitalism’ and may also serve as a substitute to public spending withdrawn by state.
Carl Rhodes and Peter Bloom in an article (“The trouble with charitable billionaires”, May 24, 2018, theguardian.com) point out, “Essentially what we are witnessing is the transfer of responsibility for public goods and services from the democratic institutions to the wealthy, to be administered by executive class. In the CEO society, the exercise of social responsibility is no longer debated in terms of whether corporations should or shouldn’t be responsible for more than their own business interests. Instead, about how philanthropy can be used to reinforce a politico- economic system that enables such a small number of people to accumulate obscene amounts of wealth”. Zuckerberg’s investment in the solutions of Bay Area housing crisis is an example of this broader trend.
The reliance on billionaire business people’s charity to support public projects is part of what has been called ‘ philanthrocapitalism’. This resolves the antimony between charity associated with tradition of giving and the capitalism based on the pursuit of economic self- interest. As Mikkel Thorup explains, it rests on the claim that “capitalist mechanisms are superior to all others (especially the state) when it comes to not only creating economic but also human progress , and that the market and market actors are or should be made the prime creators of good society”. The charity not only attempts to legitimize capitalism but also extends further into social, cultural and political activity.
Philanthrocapitalism is becoming increasingly popular in corporate circles. Charity to the cause of public good may help them to be socially irresponsible or flaunt norms of company ethics including labor laws, taxes and environmental concerns. ‘Good work’ gives them social acceptance even if there are financial and moral violations committed by the CEO or the company. Public uproar against their questionable stance can be subsided showing their huge ‘ generosity’ towards humanity.
CSR and celebrities
To encourage donations for public institutes and social reforms, the concept of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) is gaining rapid traction over the world. Well-established commercial firms ‘ donate ‘ money to public utilities like schools, colleges or hospitals and appoint famous personalities as brand ambassadors. Salman Khan, who is accused in mowing footpath dwellers while driving and the blackbuck case in Rajasthan, is famous for his charitable trust ‘Being Human’. Sonam Kapoor, a style icon, is the brand ambassador of Cuddles Foundation which helps children to fight cancer and also to Tata Memorial Hospital (April 15 2017, Chavi Pande, bookmyshow.com).
Priyanka Chopra has also worked with UNICEF as a goodwill ambassador as has Aamir Khan. The Panama papers have listed about 1,100 Indians, including Amitabh Bachchan, who donated the Yash Bharatee Award of a monthly pension sum of Rs.50,000 to benefit the poor in UP and also Rs 25 lakh towards uplifting girl child in India (Viji Athreye, ‘People with big hands and generous hands’, mapsofindia.com).
Aishwarya Rai, who has also been named in Panama papers, is a goodwill ambassador to Smile Train, an international organization of charity which performs free surgery to cleft lip and palate to children. Amitabh is also an active member of Polio Campaign, UNICEF. The godman Ramdev is associated with yoga and spiritual teachings and also Patanjali business. Many of these persons also promote commercial products through ads that are aired on TV channels.
Rich people supporting charity is becoming a new endeavor to sustain popularity. As sociologist Linsey McGoey explains about this trend, it is “an openness that deliberately collapses the distinction between public and private interests, in order to justify increasingly concentrated levels of private gain”.
In the CEO society, logic such as this rules supreme and ensures that any activities thought of as generous and socially responsible ultimately have a pay off in term of self-interest. CEOs have started sharing the Giving Pledge website, where more and more rich people inclined towards donations are welcomed. This is a new form of logic by the wealthy to take up responsibility of reducing inequality, which has been created by themselves.
While inequality, poverty and diseases cause increasing suffering to the downtrodden, corporates, industrialists and rich celebrities engage themselves in the benevolent work of charity sponsoring various NGOs and government programmes to cover their malpractices, violating rules, etc. to accumulate increasing amount of wealth and remain on top of the ‘Forbes list of rich and wealthy people’ .
Vast majority would remain exploited and forced to work in firms and factories with unethical and excruciating working conditions with meagre salaries and wages. Corporates and the rich find ways to evade and avoid taxes by whatever means possible, and ‘charity’ is one of the means to save the bounty while common people are burdened with taxes deducted at source and on the goods and services they use. The danger of philanthrocapitalism is that it further cements the survival of capitalism controlled by private self- centred rich elite.