Philanthropy on a global scale

At a recent gathering of the United Nations Association where he was to receive an award, Ted Turner, founder of CNN, though better known as Jane Fonda’s husband, jolted his audience by announcing that he was donating $1 billion to the United Nations.  The money will be turned over to the financially-strapped UN over ten years, not to support its huge bureaucracy, but to be used specifically in support of three of its programs: land mines, children, and refugees.

Turner’s donation is the largest donation from one individual that the world of philanthropy has ever known.  Yet, Turner seems aware that the amount is a mere drop in the bucket compared to the enormity of the UN’s requirements, even if one considers only the  three programs he named.  That is why he wants his contribution to serve as a challenge to other tycoons.  “I’m putting every rich person in the world on notice,” Newsweek reports him as saying.  “They’re going to be hearing from me about giving money away.”

Interestingly, the big question that the media and other potential donors are asking is how Turner stands to profit ultimately from this manifest act of selflessness and altruism.  In a world where selfseeking accumulation is the norm, it seems that every form of giving is automatically suspect.  The tax benefits that are claimed by the donor are weighed against the actual value of the contribution, and every effort is made to unmask the business decision that is thought to be masquerading as an act of charity.

Turner may well reap tax benefits as a result of this singular act of altruism.  It may well be shown in the final analysis that he never intended to sell any of his assets to make good his pledge, for that would subject him to taxes.  And CNN, his company, may well harvest from this identification with UN causes not only good will but maybe even exclusive coverage of important global events.  But so what?

Turner, owner of what is today the world’s all-seeing eye, obviously looks at things from a global perspective.  He must have realized that all the wealth in the world means nothing for as long as large patches of the earth’s surface, sites of previous wars, are rendered uninhabitable by land mines, and as long as entire communities and nations are made unproductive and resentful by displacements induced by war.   He must have been scandalized by the sight of children all over the world wasted by poverty, neglect, and abuse, and must have wondered whether the next generation that will inherit all the world’s wealth can ever feel secure under these circumstances.

I should think that, from this perspective, every act of sharing is ultimately a conscious act of survival.  That one gives not only to affirm one’s abundance, but more importantly, to lessen the social suffering that drives people all over the world to acts of desperation that threaten the survival of the human species itself.  The forest fires raging uncontrollably in the mountains of Indonesia, whose oppressive smoke now shrouds all of Southeast Asia provide a timely example of what this desperation means.

These brush fires follow the seasonal clearing of marginal land through slash-and-burn or kaingin.  The millions of poor peasants who eke out a living in this manner were dumped on these mountainous islands by  Indonesia’s tyrannical transmigration policy that sought to reduce the concentration of people in Java and Bali.   If Jakarta looks pretty and modern today, every bit the symbol of the new tiger that Indonesia aspires to be, it is largely because most of the poor have been forcibly rounded up and resettled in distant islands where they cannot be seen.  The smoke signals to us their miserable existence.

Yet, Indonesia, like the Philippines, has more than its share of local billionaires.  Curiously, they never seem to graduate from primitive accumulation.  In both countries, local philanthropy remains minimal. When they are not just covers for dubious operations, most private foundations are plainly tax dodges.  Social problems arising from glaring disparities in wealth are completely left to the government to manage.  There is an over-dependence on foreign charity to fill up the gap between societal need and public sector capability.

The absence of private sector philanthropy in our country is often rationalized as a protest against the corruption and mismanagement of government funds.  The corruption is serious and real, but to protest against it by failing to share one’s resources is to wrongly interpret society’s problems as solely the task of government. We tend to forget that collective life is a responsibility we all share, and that neither markets nor the state can function well in the absence of a healthy society.

Beyond his $1billion dollar donation to the United Nations, therefore, we can  thank Ted Turner for reminding us that our survival as human beings  depends on the ability of each one of us to contribute to making the world a healthy place to live in.  This means primarily, for the French author Georges Bataille, the obligation to use the surplus in the hands of the few to help reduce the general disparity of the world’s  standards of living.  “If nothing along such lines were to take place,” Bataille warned in his path-breaking book The Accursed Share (Zone Books, 1991), “war would soon be unavoidable.”  I think it is not farfetched to think that in crime-ridden societies like ours, that war is already raging.  


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