Will our billionaires also make a 'giving pledge'? | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, August 19, 2010 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:00 AM, August 19, 2010

Will our billionaires also make a 'giving pledge'?

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Newspapers have been flooded with bad news in the recent past; labour unrest, load- shedding, train accident in India, floods in Pakistan, bomb blasts here and there are only a few examples. Among them, there was at least one very good news.
It was reported that forty wealthy families and individuals, worth a combined $230 billion, had responded to a call by Bill Gates, co-founder of Microsoft and the second richest man in the world, and Warren Buffett, Chairman of Berkshire Hathaway and the third richest man in the world, to give at least half of their wealth to charity. It took only six weeks of campaigning to motivate them to join the group and sign what is called the "giving pledge."
Warren Buffett decided in 2006 to give 99% of his wealth to charity. He was then worth about $ 44 billion. The campaign will continue and other billionaires, including those in China and India, are likely to be invited to join. Gates and Buffett estimate that they could generate $600 billion for charity. That is a lot of money. Bill Gates and Warren Buffett deserve our congratulations for their noble initiative. A pledge to give away half of one's asset is not a matter of joke. This is a rare example of philanthropy at its best.
Bill Gates and his wife Melinda Gates founded Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the largest private foundation in the world. The primary aims of the foundation, which is controlled by Bill Gates, Melinda Gates and Warren Buffett, are to enhance healthcare and reduce poverty globally, and to expand educational opportunities in America. It had an endowment of $33 billion by June 30 and had made commitments of grant totaling nearly $23 billion.
Apparently, Bill Gates and Warren Buffett realised that they had far more wealth than what they needed for themselves and their families. So it was time for them to make the "giving pledge" for those who badly need help. Their gesture is contrary to the common greed of many rich people who want to earn more for themselves, no matter how much they possess or how much they need.
This reminds us of Leo Tolstoy's famous story How much land does a man need? This is the story of a greedy peasant called Pahom who was offered an unusual deal to buy, for a nominal sum of one thousand rubles only, and own whatever land he could walk around and mark with a spade from sunrise to sunset. The only condition was that Pahom must return to the same spot, before sunset, from where he started in the morning.
This was a bargain of a lifetime he thought, and so he started a long walk, soon after sunrise, hoping to cover as much land as he could. By the end of the day he found himself far away from the starting point. So he began to run. Finally, he was able to reach his destination, just before sunset, but was so exhausted due to running that he dropped dead soon after arrival. He was later buried in a grave only six feet long.
Many of us have read the story but have we learned the lesson? Apparently, Bill Gates and Warren Buffett have. We also know about Haji Muhammad Mohsin, a renowned philanthropist, who donated his entire properties in 1806 for establishing a charitable endowment for the benefit of the Muslims in this region. Ranada Prasad Shaha established the Kumudini Welfare Trust of Bengal in early 1940's and founded a hospital and a school in a remote village in Mirzapur.
After independence, several booming sectors of our economy generated a new group of billionaires in Bangladesh. We have no statistics about their number or their assets. Looking at the numbers of the large business houses, private banks, insurance companies, universities and newspapers they own, one can easily conclude that their number is large and their assets are huge. Many of them are believed to own posh houses in Gulshan, Singapore, London, New York and other exotic places.
Do they really need all the assets they possess? Can't they donate a portion of their assets to charity like Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, Haji Mohsin and R. P. Shaha did? Is it not time for them to demonstrate that they too know how to give?
Some rich people have established a few foundations for charity in Bangladesh. Most of them, unfortunately, serve the purpose of public relationship rather than charity. If they know how to compete in business, they should also come forward to compete in charity to eradicate poverty and improve healthcare and education in rural Bangladesh.
Will the billionaires of Bangladesh take the initiative to donate some portions of their assets to charity, keeping in mind the lesson of the immortal story of Leo Tolstoy? If others can, why can't they?

Dr. Abdul Matin is a former Chief Engineer of Bangladesh Atomic Energy Commission.

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