Thursday, November 15, 2007

Philanthropists Wanted

As some one associated with the NGO sector, chasing funds is one of my responsibilities. It is not a pleasant job; at times one can feel a kindred spirit with a beggar though of course here one is not soliciting funds for one self but for a larger and nobler cause. Although most NGOs can trace their roots to small community initiatives, often usually religious ones, the scope and size of the work today means that the voluntary sector is no longer truly voluntary in nature.

Over many decades, the sector has become highly professionalized and needs sector specialists in all areas to deliver results and be effective. Also it means that the small resources that a typical voluntary agency would normally be able to raise are no longer sufficient to do the job. Voluntary Agencies have evolved into Non Governmental Agencies which are in turn part of an amorphous entity titled “civil society”

In the process of going around looking for funds from the “for profit” sector so that they can be transferred to the “not for profit” sector, the discovery that I have made is that we in India are short of folks like Bill Gates or Bill Clinton who actually earn money the hard way and they donate it all or most of it so that society, indeed humanity at large can benefit. Some like Warren Buffet have even chosen not to set up trusts named after themselves but rather contributed to existing set ups so that they could then save the start up money and the recurring administrative costs that they would otherwise incur. Because they do that ,charities around the world including those in India can take up pressing projects that might other wise never find takers.

Many projects NGOs take up would never find commercial viability. Initiatives like the Gates Foundation funding that has gone in to develop vaccines for diseases like malaria and AIDS survive largely because of these contributions given generously. Malaria is for instance largely a disease of the poor and the pharmaceutical giants invest next to nothing in researching malaria, tuberculosis and other diseases of the poor because they can never hope to recover the costs involved in such work.

Of course India has its foundations and charities. Some like the Tata Charities are over a century old and some of the other ones like the ones connected to the IT Majors are new. But the general culture seems to be that if you have got it, then flaunt it. So we have stories of Mukesh Ambani giving his wife an airplane for her birthday, a pan masala baron giving his daughter a Bentley or is it a BMW on hers or Lakshmi Mittal hiring a palace to celebrate his daughter’s wedding. And following behind in the ranks are hordes of other people on our Page 3 Lists who want one day to be able to buy planes and cars for their wives and daughters. The passion for philanthropy is missing.

As Pratap Bhanu Mehta of the Centre of Policy Research writes in the Indian Express, today, much of what passes as philanthropy is really setting up your own institutions, whose purposes you direct and control. He contrasts it with of the striking features of Indian philanthropy before independence was that it was genuinely philanthropic and some where that of the striking features of Indian philanthropy before Independence was that it was genuinely philanthropic. A lot of it was directed at creating public institutions that the donors did not control. That culture now seems to have passed away from the India scene. Even as we read about Indian industrialists getting wealthier and wealthier, and also read in the same vein about William Buffet giving away 85 percent of his fortune, the topmost question on my mind is whether we can expect to have in our amidst a man of the generosity of Buffet any time soon.

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