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Can Warren Buffett and Bill Gates save the world?

How the Giving Pledge, Bill Gates and Warren Buffett's quest to get billionaires to donate half their wealth to charity, will impact philanthropy and the world's needy.

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With its stunning successes in both business and philanthropy, the Rockefeller Foundation was a natural expression of a peculiar American tradition of voluntary associations to promote the public welfare, as well as a model, perhaps, for the most successful kind of altruism. In theory, at least, who better to run massive charity efforts than those who have demonstrated the know-how to run the world's most impressive businesses?

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"We don't even have to pay them," says Brett Wilmot, an ethics expert at Villanova University in Philadelphia. "Not only are they giving us their money, but also we're not paying for their expertise."

But underlying the benevolence and business acumen lie questions that have persisted since the Medicis helped spawn the Italian Renaissance: Are the super-rich the best to control who should get the money – and will their involvement really result in more giving?

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Years before Buffett and Gates began the Giving Pledge, scholar Jeffrey Sachs, director of The Earth Institute and professor at Columbia University in New York, had already suggested the world's billionaires pool their wealth for the common good. About 1,000 billionaires exist in the world today, with a combined wealth of over $3.5 trillion.

Dr. Sachs suggests that if they pool half this money and contribute just the interest gained on it every year – none of the principal – there would be more than enough to fund the basic needs of humanity: efforts to end disease pandemics, to provide clean water for most human beings, and to jump-start sustainable agriculture for billions of the world's poor.

But Sachs, who is also a special adviser to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, points out that funding for efforts like the UN's Millennium Development Goals, which he helped put together, are way behind. These eight goals, agreed to by the world's governments and leading development institutions, range from providing universal primary education to halving extreme poverty – all by the target date of 2015. But right now, the (voluntary) contributions member nations had agreed to have slowed.

Even so, he believes that foundations with massive endowments and world-class expertise can help supplement such efforts. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has already been a major partner.

"My message has been ... that these are achievable goals, and, indeed, there are many demonstration projects on how they can be achieved," says Sachs. "But they require a scaling-up of resources from the rich world in general to enable the poorest people in the world to gain access to the crucial breakthrough technologies, whether it's bed nets or vaccines or antiretroviral drugs and so forth."

Though Gates and Buffett have only convinced a fraction of the world's billionaires to commit to the Giving Pledge so far, experts say even a relatively modest expansion in the number of wealthy who give, or in the amount they donate, could have a transforming effect.

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