Didier Le Menestrel

Giving while living

In spring 2009 (2), a series of secret encounters brought together the richest men and women in the US: fantastic entrepreneurs (Bill Gates, Michael Bloomberg), world-renowned investors (Warren Buffett, David Rockfeller), media personalities (Ted Turner, Oprah Winfrey) and some of the most famous speculators on the planet (George Soros, Julian Robertson).

What was the aim of these meetings? Was it to attack Greek debt or to launch a takeover bid on a major company? No, the subject was far more original and ambitious, namely to reflect on the best way to give all or part of their fortunes to a philanthropic foundation. The idea came from Warren Buffett and Bill Gates, both of whom have long since committed themselves (3) to signing over the majority of their fortunes to a foundation and who are now trying to convince their billionaire friends that “huge financial comfort is accompanied by an immense responsibility, the responsibility of giving back to society, the responsibility of making sure that all resources placed at its disposal are done so in the best way to help those that need them most”.

Fortune magazine estimates that the combined wealth of the 400 richest people in the US present in their category totals $1,200bn. If these happy few took part in the Gates/Buffet project, the foundations would find themselves awarded an impressive $600bn. The engine behind this hitherto unseen commitment, Warren Buffet, has already pledged to hand out 99% of his total fortune and has already given $6.4bn to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The main themes underpinned by this foundation are education, culture, environment and health. In the health sector alone, these annual donations would exceed annual spending by the World Health Organisation!

So much to say that roles can be inversed. At a time when state powers have had to substitute themselves for a defaulting private financial sector in a number of countries, private foundations endowed with as much wealth, can have a significant impact in the state realm. Indeed, the Gates foundation has pledged to invest $10bn in research campaigns and vaccines over the next 10 years, a level as worthy as a state budget and commitment.

A year ago in this same letter (The call of 17 June), we thought it was “logical that state powers reflect regularly on piloting the distribution of wealth created by the national economy”. However, we noted that the organised redistribution of wealth in France resulted in extremely low growth in wages directly received by employees.

The clear aim of super-rich people to take over from our institutions (only partly..) and invest in fields that are vital for the future such as health and education, provides a glimmer of hope for all those who believe that individual initiatives can also contribute to developing a common good.

Let’s hope that this liberal idea that is very new to our European universe gradually sinks in. Maybe a partial wiping out of “the provident state” is not such a bad thing! On the contrary, the taking over by philanthropic foundations is clearly a guarantee that money will not be thrown out of the window. More than a guarantee of results, this clearly provides a guarantee of a more responsible and balanced functioning of the redistribution of wealth.

Clearly, Bill and Warren (3) have clearly understood it all!

(1) Chuck Feeney, former head of DFS, founder of Atlantic Philanthropies
(2) Fortune, European edition July 2010
(3) Letter of 7 July 2006