Friday, December 26, 2008


Philanthropy is a powerful force in our modern world. Why? Because people need people--and even the most powerful agragates of people--governments and businesses--cannot always take care of peoples' needs.

Some few people live, survive--even thrive--alone, perhaps as hermits, monks, hunters and trappers following their callings in the wilderness, or the insane extruded from their homes and hearths. But most people live in groups, often in many levels of groups such as families (and extended families), communities, villages and towns, cities, regions (geographical or political), nations, even alliances of nations, and--these days--the international, global "community."

People live in groups because groups can provide services for the collective that individuals cannot provide for themselves. Defense is the first and most obvious of these. A large group can, if necessary, forcefully overcome an individual or a smaller group; and the bigger a group is, the better it can afford bigger and better weapons, and more highly trained police and military forces.

Another reason people aggregate into groups is to share specialized skills. Although a farmer or hunter/gatherer with good health and skills might survive alone, an iron smith or carpenter just can't go it alone (much less an accountant or a computer programmer).

Benjamin Franklin invented and promoted several kinds of shared, community resources: a post office system, a public library system, a patent system (so people could share and profit from their inventive ideas), and a public fire department (most prior fire services were private, like the Roman companies that rushed to the scene of a burning house and gave the owner a choice between selling it at a cut-throat price and watching it burn to the ground).

Banking, welfare, law and order--these are other traditional services better provided by a community than by an individual. Even education and health care may work better if they are "massified" (to borrow a term from Alvin Toffler).

In addition to government programs, private businesses often satisfy group needs. For example, news organizations with newspaper, radio, and TV outlets can afford to send reporters and news-gathering equipment and resources around the world (although in recent years these news-gathering and reporting functions have been increasingly taken over by the Internet). Transportation, communications, and shipping have also commonly been done not by individuals for their own needs, but by private businesses (or governments) for groups.

But there are always circumstances in which some unmet human needs fall between the cracks of government and private businesses. And this has called for the development of the third major way that resources are communally reallocated: philanthropy. The beggar by the side of the road presents a picture of a traditional human activity that is older than history itself. Religious- and state-run orphanages and poor houses also date from far back in antiquity. But the complexities of the modern world have spawned ever more grand and sophisticated philanthropic endeavors. The Red Cross and Red Crescent and hundreds of other beneficent, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) attend to overwhelmed, suffering, and forgotten peoples around the world.

Why do philanthropists give? John D. Rockefeller made a fortune developing the petroleum industry in the last few decades of the 19th century. He was the first American billionaire and the richest man in the world--he is sometimes regarded as the richest person in history. And he asked himself, what does one do when one has amassed enormous wealth? His conclusion: one gives it away--carefully, thoughtfully, supporting social activities and causes that cannot be funded in any other way. Rockefeller developed the philanthropic foundation system that has been used by many wealthy people since Rockefeller's day. Through his philanthropic foundation he had a major effect on medicine, education, and scientific research.

Henry Ford of automobile-manufacturing fame--the inventor of assembly-line techniques and mass production--was another very wealthy man, a contemporary of Rockefeller, who turned his wealth toward philanthropy.

Consider this scenario: In 1961 India was on the brink of mass famine. But during the previous decade and a half Norman Borlaug's work developing genetically superior varieties of wheat had rescued Mexico from a similar disaster--in 1943, when Borlaug began his work there, Mexico imported half of its wheat and was facing national famine and economic collapse; by 1964 Mexico exported half a million tons of wheat annually. India needed Borlaug's help, but the government was politically prevented from soliciting it and funding his activities. The Rockefeller and Ford Foundations stepped in where government could not, and private enterprise would not, tread. They funded programs of agricultural research, extension, and infrastructure development. Over the next decade India's rice yields rose from two tons per acre to ten tons per acre; millions of people were saved from starvation.

Or this scenario: Bill Gates, the Microsoft-computer billionaire, and his wife Melinda, through their foundation, responded to a tragic flaw in the health-care systems for the impoverished masses of Africa. Western pharmaceutical companies cannot afford to research or produce drugs for which there is no paying population. Furthermore, although in wealthy Western nations, diseases like malaria and tuberculosis can be cured--even the symptoms and progression of Aids can be significantly ameliorated--these diseases debilitate and kill millions in the less affluent developing world. The philanthropic work of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation funding health care in (and pharmaceutical research for) developing nations has saved millions of lives.

Philanthropy plays an important part in providing for needs to which government and business activities cannot--or do not--attend.