News / Asia

Gates, Buffet Bring Philanthropic Campaign to India

Microsoft Corp co-founder Bill Gates and his wife Melinda interact with slum dwellers during their visit to a slum area in Danapur near the eastern Indian city of Patna March 23, 2011
Microsoft Corp co-founder Bill Gates and his wife Melinda interact with slum dwellers during their visit to a slum area in Danapur near the eastern Indian city of Patna March 23, 2011

In their meeting Thursday with Indian billionaires, software tycoon Bill Gates and investor Warren Buffet will focus on their "Giving Pledge" initiative that urges the super rich to give away at least half of their wealth to charity.  Buffet says they plan to exchange ideas on their philanthropy efforts.

"It is a new idea.  It is less than two years old," explained Buffet. "And, we have found in the United States that a number of people like the idea of learning how they might not only give substantial sums, but do it more intelligently and we could all learn from each other."

But there is some skepticism about how successful this venture of the two American tycoons will be in India.

India’s booming economy has increased the wealth of the rich phenomenally.  Two of the world’s 10 richest men are Indians, according to Forbes magazine. And, the country’s pool of 55 billionaires is the third largest in the world.

But a study by global consultants Bain and Company found that organized, charitable giving by rich Indians and corporations has yet to have an impact. The study says charitable giving in India is much lower than in countries such as the United States or Britain.  And, it found that the wealthiest class has the lowest level of giving, donating a mere 1.6 percent of household income to charity.

The author of the study said that, because most of the wealth is newly-earned, it may be harder to give.  

Local media have often expressed surprise at the reluctance of the super wealthy to help alleviate poverty in a country where 455 million people live on less than $1.25 a day.    

But some change is taking place. In December, software tycoon Aziz Premji made a $2 billion donation to an education trust. A handful of others have also made large charitable pledges.  

Others point out that Indians have a long culture of giving, with people often helping household staff or donating to local community and religious organizations.             

And, although Gates and Buffet will urge the super rich to donate more, they will not push their own ideas on how it should be done.

Buffet says that charitable giving in India does not have to be done the same way as it is in the United States, but will happen in keeping with local culture.    

"We just hope to get a conversation like that started," he said. "But what the people in India do is entirely up to them.  We are not here to organize anything or anything of the sort.  We are just here to talk about what we have done. If it seems like a good idea to people or if some variation of it seems like a good idea to people, terrific, and if it does not, they have got the free dinner. [dinner provided to meeting participants]."

The meeting with Indian billionaires follows a similar interaction Gates and Buffet held in September with Chinese billionaires.

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