EVEN in the United States, a country that’s no stranger to monumental acts of philanthropy, Azim Premji’s generous gift for primary education in India created a ripple, generating headlines such as “India’s Bill Gates donates $2 billion” and “India’s Warren Buffett…”

Although the money went into a trust to fund education with earned interest running at millions per year, it’s not something to be sniffed at, considering the government’s own school education budget is less than $1 billion. On the flip side,  $2 billion would be the endowment of a middling American university – an area where Harvard stands tall at $35 billion plus. So there’s some way to be go before the coffers of education in India are flush with private gifts. 

By a long shot, Indians – and Americans, for that matter – give more money to religious causes than to education. So much for Saraswati, the goddess of learning. Tirupati alone is estimated to have an annual income of more than $400 million.

Though, in fairness, some of it underwrites the various educational institutions run by the temple trust. This is probably true of many other large places of worship which also impart education (of what kind is another matter). But it’s hard not to believe that people proffer more money to the lords than to learning. Does that constitute philanthropy?

A  2010 study on the subject by Barclay’s wealth, a leading global wealth manager, put India among the top five countries in the world with a culture of giving. The report underlines that the concept of philanthropy is universal, with 44% of respondents more likely to make charity a spending priority when they retire, and the amount of time allocated to charity set to increase by 194%.

The survey identifies two distinct groups of givers: ‘Benefactors,’ who are the most generous with their financial spending, and ‘Volunteers,’ who are more inclined to devote their time to charity. USA tops the benefactors list, with 41% of respondents ready to pony up $$$ for charity; Americans also rank third in volunteer category, with 17% giving more than five hours a week or more to charity.

India ranked sixth in the benefactors category, with 26% of respondents who say donating money is one of their top three spending priority, and it is placed second in the volunteer category with 20% of respondents saying they spend five hours a week or more on charity. Did you say, “yeah, right…”?

It’s a dodgy survey. For one, you have to take the “benefactors” word that they will put their money where their mouth is; the survey does not count the money given, or slice and dice the gift to see if it meets the criteria for philanthropy (broadly defined as private initiatives for public good). And volunteering for what? The survey shows Australia ranking near the bottom of the 15 country survey in both categories. Does that make it among the more selfish countries in the world?

The culture of giving has long been written into the sub-continental ethos – as daan among Hindus and zakat among Muslims – although the word philanthropy is attributed to the Greek playwright Aeschylus, whose humanity-loving (“philanthropos tropos”) character Prometheus gave us fire and optimism.

But today, despite an occasional splash that Indian moguls make, the biggest acts of philanthropy are reported in the U.S., where the likes of Bill Gates and Warren Buffett are carrying on the great tradition of Andrew Carnegie and John D Rockefeller. Between them, the former two have given away more than $60billion of their wealth, leaving a few measly millions for their offspring (Buffett particularly has dispensed with 99% of his wealth while drawing a paltry salary of $100,000 per year despite being among the world’s three richest people).

Maybe because of abiding family ties or because of their belief in rebirth, most Indians are not given to extravagant acts of philanthropy.

But then there is a school of thought that believes philanthropy is inefficient, and makes the American argument that charity is decades behind business in applying rigorous thinking to the use of money. Mercifully, we have the likes of Premji and Buffett to take care of both sides of the debate.

This article was first published in The Times of India in December 2010. Figures have been updated.

Chidanand Rajghatta is The Times of India’s US-based Foreign Editor, long-time Washington DC scribe and sutradhar, and author – most recently of ‘Illiberal India: Gauri Lankesh and the Age of Unreason’.


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