In an airy room filled with green plants and with windows open to the mild Bangalore weather, the new movers of social change philanthropy are gathered. It is a family – parents and two young adult sons – meeting with representatives of other foundations and family trusts. Open, curious, eager to absorb lessons from those who have walked this path before and wondering how to best to share their good fortune for the larger wellbeing of society, the distinguished patriarch and his wife are soft spoken and thoughtful but incisive in their inquiry. This is the Premji family focused in their exploration of what works to shift the balance in the favour of those who have few opportunities, little or no access to education, and are often silenced in the great experiment called Indian democracy.
Two years ago, with no public announcement and little fanfare, Azim Premji, founder of Wipro, one of the world’s most successful software companies, established the Azim Premji Philanthropic Initiatives (AAPI)). This was his second major investment in philanthropy. Prior to this, nudged in part by Bill Gates and Warren Buffet’s famous Giving Pledge tour of India, Premji had created the Azim Premji Education Foundation. That foundation has chosen to take on no less an ambitious project than the total transformation of India’s K-12 public education system. The foundation also created the Azim Premji University, spurred by the realization that India was inadequately equipped to offer quality teacher training preparation in its institutes of higher education.
The AAPI is a bold statement of commitment by one of India’s leading philanthropists to use private resources for the public good. While AAPI has chosen not to take any tax benefits from the Indian government, it is estimated that the endowment hovers at around $8 billion suggesting that grants worth $250 million each year could be its annual contribution to India’s social benefit sector. This year the Times of India announced that Premji’s annual giving was 27,514 crore more than doubling what he gave the previous year. Premji has chosen a down to earth and no-nonsense leader for this effort, Ananth Padmanabhan. After years of service with Amnesty International India and Greenpeace, Ananth has a deep reservoir of experience with India’s multi-faceted, notoriously disorganized, yet often creative and courageous social justice and innovation sector. AAPI has been quietly, yet effectively building out its professional team, working with both Indian and non-Indian colleagues in philanthropy and beginning to make investments in the fields of rural development, sustainable agriculture and livelihoods; inclusive urban planning and the wellbeing of women of girls. In the long run, these investments may succeed in addressing some of the most pressing challenges facing the world’s second largest nation.
While few donors in the world may match the scale of AAPI, it is high time we acknowledged the reach, scope and influence of these new global players in philanthropy. No longer can we neatly divide the world into “developed” or “developing” categories. Globalization has created billionaires who are no longer primarily natives of Europe or America but hail from places like China, India, Indonesia, Russia, Mexico, Brazil, Nigeria, Kenya, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and South Africa. Over the course of my three years working for the Ford Foundation in South Asia, I have had the privilege of getting to know some of the these new players in the philanthropic space. Just as the world is being pushed to renegotiate the rules of global governance in the United Nations, so too it is being forced to acknowledge that global players in industry and commerce are having an impact.
These new actors do not merely affect economic growth and development, but increasingly (by way of their own philanthropy) also seek to influence or support social movements, civil society and other forces for social transformation. For many, as in the case of their counterparts in Europe and America some 100 years ago, their philanthropy begins with traditional charitable giving: orphanages, hospitals, schools and clinics. But, unlike the relatively long trajectory it took the Carnegies and Rockefellers to move to what might be called “strategic philanthropy”, many “Global South” donors are moving rapidly into spaces like social innovation and entrepreneurship; impact investing; and utilizing prize money as incentive for social engineering. In New Delhi, Shiv and Urvashi Khemka are seeking to develop a culture of global citizenship in young people; others have shifted the boundaries between arts and society like Feroze and Mohit Gujral’s foundation that recently underwrote and funded an Indo-Pak Pavilion, the first of its kind in history, at the Venice Bienale. Chinese philanthropists have come together to fund the Blue Sky Fund in an effort to address the abysmal pollution levels across China and partnered with the Rockefeller Brothers Fund to begin a program to nurture a next generation of young philanthropists who will benefit by exposure to philanthropy in the United States. Mo Ibrahim’s foundation in the African continent has already become a major player in improving governance and leadership and Nigeria, Kenya and South Africa all have equally entrepreneurial leaders in the philanthropic space.
So far, most of these philanthropic efforts have been focused close to home, with the exception of supporting prestigious universities where the scions of industrial giants have acquired a world class education or where the brand of the university appeals to the billionaire in question. The Said Business School in Oxford, or the Ambani Auditorium at the Wharton Business School are well known examples.
Yet, we must face the blunt truth that until very recently “global philanthropy” consisted primarily of Western donors engaged in what were considered the “poor, underdeveloped or undemocratic” nations of the world. Now, the political leadership in some of those nations are defying both the dominant western definitions of terms like democracy, human rights and civil society and the right of Western philanthropists to fund social movements, non-profit organizations and individual activists pursuing those goals in those countries. Of course, many legitimate social change leaders and human rights advocates are now trapped in this dilemma: should we take funding from foreign sources and risk being cast as “stooges or puppets of the West” or do we slog it out without resources and risk becoming ineffective or even more vulnerable to government intimidation and pressure? These are real quandaries facing civil society leaders across the globe. The answers may need to come in the form of philanthropic resources from progressive, democratically inclined, privileged families like the Premjis. Their decisions and those of others like them may well determine the future funding, but more importantly, the legitimacy of human rights struggles, equitable development agendas, and women’s movements both within their own countries, but also across the globe.