You might have thought that a bold plan backed by a Nobel Prize winning economist to raise over $75 billion to help the developing world would shake Britons from their knee-jerk cynicism about philanthropy. You would be wrong, sadly.
Yesterday London’s Dorchester Hotel hosted the Fortune Forum’s launch of a scheme devised by the economist James Mirrlees to get governments to offer match funding to encourage the world’s billionaires to stump up big donations to support the United Nation’s Millennium Development Goals. this is not a bad idea, since the global economic slump is reversing a lot of the progress made in recent years in reducing poverty and is squeezing public and private aid programmes.
Before the event took place Guardian columnist Marina Hyde went on the attack, taking a sideswipe at aid campaigner Bono on the way. We know that the Guardian is no fan of the rich in general and of philanthropy in particular; earlier this year another of its columnists, Polly Toynbee, was almost gleeful that Scottish philanthropist Sir Tom Hunter, who had made headlines in 2007 with a pledge to earn and give away a billion pounds, was going to have to scale back his giving.
While we agree with our friends at the Guardian that the rich should pay their taxes, we think they miss the point when saying that screwing more tax out of the rich is better than philanthropy. The paper kindly gave us a platform to defend philanthrocapitalism yesterday. Most of the reaction from Guardian readers was, unsurprisingly, hostile such as “Noblesse oblige is bullshit. They should just pay their taxes.” Or “These people are not charitable, they are sick, they should be shot.”
A minority did rally to philanthropy’s defence, however, pointing out that railing against uncharitable, tax-dodging billionaires is one thing while “resenting a billionaire for donating billions to charity seems rather twisted.”
We applaud the Fortune Forum for coming up with new ideas to stimulate giving in Britain, even if the scheme is a bit sketchy. But it is going to be a hard slog to persuade more of the super-rich to cough up as long as generosity provokes so much resentment. It may be less glamorous initiatives such as the Big Give that will be more effective in restoring Britain’s philanthropic tradition.