Do Bill Gates and Osama bin Laden have anything in common?
They're both rich. They both use their wealth to act as agents of change worldwide. But any similarities end there. Mr. Gate's foundation is putting more money into healthcare around the world than the US government, while Mr. Bin Laden, son of a Saudi prince, puts money into trying to terrorize the US.
Increased prosperity and the ease of global finance have created an era in which the wealthy can more easily influence trends and events across borders. Most of it is for the good, and worth watching to see if other rich folks follow and to see what directions such private giving takes.
Gates, along with media magnate Ted Turner and American financier George Soros, are the most visible of the modern-day John D. Rockefellers in what's being called "strategic philanthropy." These business titans use their wealth to leverage both social and political progress in the neediest parts of the world - and of the US.
Last year, Mr. Turner gave $34 million to the United Nations to help make up for dues owed by the US. (One ambassador to the UN quipped that the world can now recognize Ted Turner as a government.) That was on top of $1 billion Turner is spending to help UN humanitarian programs. He's also pledged $250 million to reduce the risk of nuclear war and accidents.
And Turner and Soros are teaming up to save press freedom in Russia with an attempt to buy into the NTV television network before government agents take control.
Soros, who was born in Hungary, is credited for his decade-long effort to build up democracy in 27 former communist countries by funding private civil institutions. His funding in Yugoslavia may have helped oust Slobodan Milosevic last year.
Such global philanthropists are much freer than governments to support a variety of causes. So far, their generosity has brought more thank-you's than suspicions.
But in no way should such giving be seen as a substitute for international action by governments. Rather, private money can work with local nonprofit groups and governments to create effective change. That's the real "strategic" part of today's philanthropy.
More people are watching to see if the wealthiest people as well as richest companies use their money to create genuine social benefits - and not just for public relations.
Gates, Turner, and Soros serve as role models for others in showing how wealth is really an opportunity to give.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society