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Cure All Diseases - Is This The End Of Philanthropy As We Know It?

Mega philanthropy can successfully co-exist with public support, and in joining up resources we are likely to be able to achieve more, allowing for a more democratic and competitive access to funds, and perhaps most importantly in the areas of poverty and inequality.

We've got well used to the concept of 'fix it' philanthropy. Entrepreneurs with the brains, grit and determination to take on the seemingly impossible, and with the money to do it, often champion the concept sometimes known as 'philanthrocapitalism'. Bill Gates is the best known proponent of such giving, with his Foundation being cited as the largest privately-owned Foundation in the world with an endowment of over $40bn. The charity is committed to finding cures or solutions to a number of seemingly intractable problems, such as ending malaria. The approach is that we can 'cure or solve' issues through employing a solutions-based focus, which might not only save capitalism, but which will also allow new ideas and talent to rise.

And last week, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg with his wife Priscilla Chan sought to go one step further, or possibly one step better, in 'fix it' style philanthropy. In a demonstration of one up man ship fuelled by huge Silicon Valley-style ambition - the Zuckerbergs pledged to 'cure, prevent or manage all human disease before the end of the century' underpinned by an initial donation of $3bn.

Of course, the jury is out as to whether this is simply a ridiculous notion, hubris or a combination of both. But I for one am no naysayer of either the approach or the concept - in catalytic style, philanthropy boldness is the biggest virtue. And right now, there has never been a greater need for leaders who can set such a vision, with an aim to alleviate suffering throughout the world. Through this one gift alone, enormous progress could be made.

However, what concerns me is that we are seeing a shift in the concept of philanthropy that may in fact make the rendering of traditional charitable support obsolete in the next decade if we are not careful.

If we consider the etymology of the world philanthropy from the original Greek, it means love of humanity, where both benefactor, in the identifying of values, and the beneficiary, in the receipt of the benefit provided, have some equality. As it has evolved, the view might be considered less balanced where a philanthropist undertakes private endeavor for public good - or at its most basic a 'rich person gives to a poor person in need', perhaps in a more patronizing concept of handout.

However, the Gates and Zuckerberg philanthropic model, which could be argued comes directly from their experiences of building global tech companies; lends us to believe that intractable issues of mankind can simply be 'fixed'. Just as we can fix and develop a global operating system, then perhaps so we can eradicate malaria. Of course we need to believe that if we put our minds to it, anything is possible, and areas of social, environmental need require the best minds, resources and funding to make progress - but fixing world problems is considerably more nuanced than building a company, and so is a philanthropic response to addressing global inequality.

According to current figures from Oxfam, just 80 people own as much wealth as half the world's population, whilst nearly a billion people can barely afford to feed their families. The facts are staggering. And issues of inequality continue to rise; Oxfam predicts that the combined wealth of the richest 1 per cent will overtake that of the other 99 per cent of people just next year.

And this is the point. In wealth terms, this initial gift from the Zuckerbergs is not so high. The Wellcome Trust will spend £5bn on biomedical research in the next five years alone. But what is different in the aspirations of the Zuckerbergs is the hope to grow a 'movement' to fund science where wealthy individuals follow. This is where I get concerned, there is not 'one way' to tackle philanthropy, and in so doing we could destabilize philanthropic models and could end up actually causing harm.

For example, the Zuckerberg concept will start with the four types of disease from the Western world that cause the most deaths in the world: heart disease, cancer, neurological diseases and infectious diseases. The programme includes well-worked through models such as the $600m "Biohub" that will draw scientists and engineers from the Bay Area's leading institutions: Stanford et al to create amongst other things The Human Cell Atlas which will map out the internal workings of every cell type in the body and the Infectious Disease Initiative which aims to bring fresh thinking to drug design, diagnostic tests and vaccines.

Undoubtedly, these projects will open up huge avenues in medicine in the West. However, what about the needs of low-income countries? In these countries preventing deaths is not just about scientific breakthrough - it's about supporting an infrastructure, nurses, community health workers etc. Let's not forget that according to the World Health Organisation, 800 women a day still die through complications of pregnancy and childbirth. So whilst I applaud the Zuckerbergs I don't advocate for this type of a 'movement' as we might displace a huge amount of funding from other areas where just as many lives might be saved, albeit potentially in a less obviously impactful way. Overall, we need a range of options for charitable investment for the wider good and not just investment in programmes that are popular with the rich.

The new Gates-Zuckerberg type of philanthropy is built on the premise that the very, very wealthy--not just the top 1 percent, but the top .01 percent--are uniquely positioned to create social change by using their resources and networks to leverage public money and to create a new infrastructure for public-policy design and delivery. It's more than conscious absolving for the mega-wealthy - it's fundamental to the development of social programmes.

But this system raises many questions about whose interests the system serves. What are the pros and cons of a system built on this kind of largesse? It undoubtedly puts decision-making in the hands of the elite and by its very nature is anti-democratic. But what happens when things go wrong? Entrepreneurs are not always right, and issues of humanitarian development are complex. How do we hold these new types of philanthropist to account?

Billionaires can't solve the world's ills single-handedly. They can only help fill the gaps in research that other organisations, mainly the National Institutes of Health, can't cover. And I also worry that with further hyperbole of this type of giving, we also potentially let our Governments off the hook, philanthropy alone can only do so much.

And we also shouldn't forget that however much we focus on these mega philanthropists, giving by the ultra-rich still makes up only a tiny proportion of total giving. A recent report puts total annual giving by individuals in the U.S. at around two hundred and thirty billion dollars--about thirty times the amount given last year by the people on the Philanthropy 50 list.

Similarly, the Philanthropy 50 list suggests that rich donors spend less on causes having to do directly with poverty alleviation than on other areas. The categories that received the greatest amounts of funding from the fifty highest givers were foundations, colleges and universities, followed by hospitals and medical centres. It seems, in fact, that less wealthy people tend to give more to causes focused on the poor than their wealthier counterparts. So at face value it's the poorest amongst us that give to the issues most steeped in addressing global inequality.

We have an urgent need to encourage many different shapes, types and levels of philanthropy - there is not just one way of approaching the world's social needs. So hats off to Zuckerberg but where he could really help is in encouraging others to give to causes that are important to them, in areas that might be different to his, in a type of set up that could help to see the charitable ecology thrive. Mega philanthropy can successfully co-exist with public support, and in joining up resources we are likely to be able to achieve more, allowing for a more democratic and competitive access to funds, and perhaps most importantly in the areas of poverty and inequality.