Thursday, June 29, 2006

Charity of the Heart

“I believe that with great wealth comes great responsibility.”

So said Bill Gates on June 15 as he announced plans to phase himself out of Microsoft by 2008 to focus full-time on philanthropy and tackle the vast challenges of child mortality and disease control throughout the world.

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, founded in 2000 and with assets valued at $30 billion, has already made its mark financing projects to eradicate deadly diseases like malaria, tuberculosis, diarrhea and AIDS in Asia and Africa.

From Bangladesh to Botswana, the Gateses have funded programs driven by cutting-edge science to develop, test, and manufacture drugs and vaccines for diseases that kill millions of children every year.

One good thing begets another. In this case, did it ever!

Investment guru Warren Buffett, the second-richest man on the planet and a close friend of Numero Uno Bill Gates, pledged $30 billion dollars to the Gates Foundation, overnight doubling its assets to $60 billion dollars.

That’s the kind of cash that can transform the world. Yet the history of philanthropy is littered with huge endowments gone horribly awry. Why should this be different?

Two words: Bill and Melinda.

The couple has turned traditional philanthropy on its head by marrying charity to accountability, management, rigor, research and result. The traits that allowed Gates to build Microsoft into what it is today are also qualities that animate the foundation: curiosity, attention to details, business savvy and a desire to confront the most intractable problems head-on.

But reducing social inequities and improving lives around the world are not the same as solving engineering and mathematical problems, however complex.

Still, applying scientific rigor on unwieldy issues of global health and universal education can only lead to more insights, as various projects that the Foundation has undertaken in the direst regions of Africa show. And more insights often mean a greater chance of success in these thorny human issues, even if the initial approaches fail.

Gates modeled his philanthropic philosophy after a mathematician. In the year 1900, the great German mathematician David Hilbert outlined 23 major mathematical problems that he believed would dictate research in the field in the twentieth century. (About half of these problems are still unsolved.) Taking a cue from Hilbert, Gates challenged scientists, physicians and health-care professionals in 2003 from around the world to draw up a list of grand challenges in global health.

After intense research and debate, investigators produced a list of 14 “global challenges” in seven categories: improve childhood vaccines (3), create new vaccines (3), control insects that transmit agents of disease (2), improve nutrition to promote health (1), improve drug treatment of infectious diseases (1), cure latent and chronic infections (2), and measure disease and health status accurately and economically in developing countries (2).

It is this laser-sharp focus on priorities that persuaded Warren Buffett to entrust his wealth to Bill and Melinda Gates, instead of creating his own foundation.

There are many high-profile personalities who by example are ushering in a golden and dynamic era of philanthropy. The actress Angeline Jolie, for example, donates one-third of her income to charitable causes in the poorest nations of the earth. As a goodwill ambassador for the U.N. Refugee Agency, she has traveled to Afghanistan, Pakistan, Sierra Leone, Sudan, Rwanda, and Ethiopia to stir the world’s conscience about the plight of the hungry, the vulnerable and the homeless.

But what about the rest of us, neither famous nor millionaires? Is there anything we can do to touch lives less fortunate than ours?

I will take Bangladesh as an example, my birthplace. There are millions of Bangladeshis, including many of us living abroad, who are doing precisely that: sponsoring a child, pooling resources to build schools and hospitals, donating books to libraries, buying textbooks for orphans, creating scholarships for poor but meritorious students. The means of charity are endless, tangible and intangible. What counts is that we make the extra effort to do the best we can, to lift a burden here and bring a smile there, to forgive a debt, to give hope to a beaten spirit, to …

Fill in the blanks and just do it. No charity is too small and no giving from the heart leads to poverty.

The tragedy is that millions of us are also materialists and narcissists who have no margin in our lives for others, who remain adamantly blind to the inequity around us. This, in spite of Zakat being a pillar of our faith! It is never too late to change.

In a visit to Bangladesh last December, Bill Gates described his meeting with seamstresses and other women entrepreneurs in a village on the outskirts of Dhaka as “a religious experience.” He was particularly impressed by how micro-credit, pioneered by economist Dr. Muhammad Yunus and his Grameen (Village-based) Bank, and promoted by Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee (BRAC) and similar organizations around the world, is transforming the lives of women. This first-hand observation undoubtedly played a pivotal role in his recent decision to make micro-credit a salient feature of his foundation.

Perhaps one of the greatest gifts of the new era of philanthropy we are now witnessing will be to curb all types of extremism. When people are freed from the ancient curses of ill-health, poverty, ignorance and debt, and their children survive to lead productive lives, the world will become a better place for all.

Currently, Bangladesh seems to be in the grips of a particularly venal form of religious extremism in which a minority of zealots are persecuting Ahmadiyyas. To these zealots we say: It is up to God, and God alone, to decide who is a Muslim and who is not. You commit the gravest of sins if you attempt to usurp the right that is uniquely God’s. Back off. Use your energy to do good to your fellow humans. Do it out of the charity of your heart, even if you cannot do it in the name of God.

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