Forbes champions philanthropists and markets, then helps Liberia

Forbes, the news source for all things wealth, released its first ever list of fifty biggest givers in the US. Bill and Melinda Gates top the list  after giving away $1.9 billion in 2012. They are followed by Gates Foundation supporter Warren Buffett, George Soros, Mark Zukerberg and Walmart owners, the Walton family.

Click to use interactive list.

It is a straight list of how much money individuals or families give away each year. Included in the numbers is the percentage of net worth that was given away by the top fifty.  Gerry and Marguerite Lenfest rank number thirty-seven by giving away $44.5 million, nearly nine percent of their total wealth. Larry Ellison ranks just a tad higher, but he gave away only 0.1% of his $43.1 billion net worth.

One of the features is an interview with Bill Gates and Bono. Lane hosted a discussion between the two at the Forbes 400 Philanthropy Summit. There he discussed how the two initially met, Bono’s self-declared ‘factivist’ streak and how Gates is using numbers to change US education.

It was a representative conversation for the totality of the coverage by Forbes on philanthropy. Market-based ideas were touted with no information to back them or historical context. Important people were profiled without a single question about the efficacy of their work and the tired dynamic of the US helping Africa continued.

“I’ve learned to be an evidence-based activist, to cut through the crap, find out what works and find out what doesn’t work,” says Bono to Lane. “Repeat what works, increase it and stop doing what doesn’t work.”

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He also touted transparency, something that critics have pointed out Bono has not practiced himself with his payment of taxes in Ireland. A few light questions paved the way for an uncritical conversation between the two important figures in international aid and advocacy.

The accompanying materials are all boast the accomplishments and giving of uber rich Americans. Light touch videos profile the likes of former supermodel Christy Turlington Burns, who’s Every Mother Counts is held in high regard in the maternal health world. And there is even a trip to Liberia narrated by editor Randall Lane.

He describes the American connections to Liberia, only mentioning in passing that it is where the US returned slaves to Africa, to build the case for business leaders helping out the West African nation. With little evidence or information, he manages to swiftly take a dig at foreign aid and champion the transformative change that business can deliver in the eighth poorest country in the world.

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“This is a country that needs our help,” says Lane. “They finally have a government that is worthy of it.”

He then heaps praise in President and Nobel Peace Prize winner Ellen Johnson Sirleaf for her desire to work with the private sector and move Liberia away from international aid.

“[She] is trying to use capitalism, the private sector, entrepreneurship and philanthropy to solve the problems – aid won’t solve the problems it will delay the solutions – and she realizes that it is business and market based solutions that are the solutions,” he says.

The video continues in the same vein. Lane describes the trip as it shows Americans traveling around slums, visiting remote villages and hearing children sing. It all ends with a conference linking together entrepreneurs from the US and Liberia. The logos that appear in the background include the usual suspects like the government of Liberia and the United States Agency for International Development.

The backs of philanthropists are patted, the private sector is championed and Liberia is a basket case that can be solved thanks to US entrepreneurs. At least that is how Forbes sees things.

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About Author

Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.