John D. Rockefeller’s immense wealth made “rich as a Rockefeller” part of the lexicon. But his legacy rests not on what he earned. As the founder of Standard Oil and the richest person in history, Rockefeller donated so much money during his life that he needed a team of philanthropy specialists to distribute it. The result was the Rockefeller Foundation, chartered in 1913 “to promote the well-being of mankind throughout the world.”
Much as the Gilded Age in the United States created titans like Andrew Carnegie, Cornelius Vanderbilt and Rockefeller, the economic success of emerging powers has produced a new class of multimillionaires and multibillionaires. Brazil, Russia, India and China are home to 276 billionaires, according to the most recent Forbes list, almost a quarter of the world’s total. Many have begun to focus on what Carnegie called “the business of benevolence.” This nascent trend is poised to grow. But it requires support if philanthropy is to meet its potential to tackle the developing world’s socioeconomic challenges.
Philanthropy is a powerful tool because its contributions can go well beyond money. Many emerging donors are prominent citizens because of their business success. This gives them familiarity with their countries’ economic and policy issues as well as an ability to influence the national agenda. They can invest not just financial resources but also expertise and connections that can bolster the projects they support.
The need for both is great. The same growth that has produced remarkable wealth in emerging countries has left many behind. According to the latest World Bank data, 22 percent of rural Chinese live on less than $1.25 per day — far fewer than in the past, but still alarming. In India, 34 percent of people in rural areas and 29 percent in urban areas live below the same threshold. And in Brazil, while acclaimed programs such as Bolsa Familia have drastically reduced poverty, the poorest 10 percent continue to earn less than 1 percent of all income. The richest 10 percent earn some 55 times as much. Organized philanthropy can play a central role in helping those who remain poor in increasingly rich societies.
Small-scale individual and community charity has a long history in the Global South. What is unprecedented is the number of people with the wealth necessary to tackle the root causes of major socioeconomic problems on a transformational scale. This capacity has existed in the West since Rockefeller, but developing economies have produced this level of private wealth only in the past two decades.