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Giving back to society: Robert Smith’s example

PIONEERING American philanthropist, Andrew Carnegie once set the standard for giving back with these words: “No man can become rich without himself enriching others,” and “the man who dies rich dies disgraced.” In this wise, scores of the world’s wealthiest people have taken to his philosophy, donating their riches to hundreds of causes, with a growing number of philanthropists recognizing the tremendous importance of education, not only for their own success, but also for future generations. In line with this, not too long ago,  billionaire business man, Robert F. Smith in his commencement speech at Atlanta’s Morehouse College, pledged to pay off the graduating class entire students loan debt— a decision that would drastically change the trajectory of these graduates’ lives forever.  Student loans, though alien to our culture here in developing countries, are considered a liability and reduce students’ net worth especially immediately after graduation, given that such students come out burdened with debts. In short, large student loan debt can have a serious, long-term impact on the future of college graduates, making it difficult for them to start building careers, launching businesses, and investing. Yet, with Smith shifting the wealth of these 400 young men, there is no denying the positive impact of his pledge as it accelerates these young men’s financial equity to wealth building stage immediately.  Moving forward, those graduates are now free to pursue their different dreams without the shackles of debt overhang; to use Smith’s words, “you great Morehouse men are bound only by the limits of your own conviction and creativity.”

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To be sure, this is an action that is aimed at transforming the lives of a group of graduates from an institution that has a lot of history in creating and maintaining the black middle class. In comparison to  other gifts ever given in higher education philanthropy, Smith’s is incredibly stark, and points us to a smarter, better model of philanthropy where people’s lives are genuinely being transformed. Yet, Smith isn’t the only billionaire paying student loans. The Home Depot co-founder Ken Langone announced last year that he would pay tuition for every New York University medical student, a gift that totaled $100 million of his money. The school endowment now offers free tuition for every student regardless of need, – an issue other billionaires have begun tackling as well. Michael Bloomberg, for instance, the United States’ ninth-richest person according to Forbes, recently donated a record $1.8 billion to his alma mater, Johns Hopkins. Though the money did not go toward eliminating student debt like Robert Smith’s did, butt it was still aimed at  helping low-income students gain access to quality education. As a matter of fact, education is by far the most popular cause to which billionaires, especially American billionaires, give, by generously establishing scholarships, or funding a new university department or even a building.

Still, it has to be stated that Smith’s gift is sparking a conversation about how elites  give back as philanthropy to the society, much as it reflects the value placed on getting good education in civilized and more ennobling societies, a virtue that is obviously absent back here in Nigeria. Let’s face it, owing to the dearth of deliberate policy to lift the poor and the vulnerable in any sustained manner in this clime, Income inequality has become  one of Nigeria’s most serious but least talked about challenges. More so, we have politicians and so-called business moguls who have turned a blind eye to the situation of things, and would rather  live large, spending billions acquiring as much assets as possible, than contribute to the success of the people they are representing or to the welfare of the society at large. This is also  in line with the postulation of the late Professor Chinua Achebe who saw the Nigerian elite as largely blind and myopic, not having the depth of vision to know that it is in their ultimate interest to have a functional society that caters to the pressing needs of all in the society.  The Nigerian elite not only underestimate the impact of their  poor governance of society on the society in general, but believe they could live outside of that general impact to make good for themselves and their families alone.  Because they have access to medical treatments abroad, they think that the poor health system in the country will not affect them. Because they could send their children to school overseas, the political elite neglect the Nigerian education system that is characterized by poor physical facilities, inadequate sanitation, lack of textbooks and the number of unqualified teachers. Because  they could buy generators for electricity, public officials would not be concerned about developing the power sector. And because the elites could afford to sink boreholes in their homes, they failed and keep failing to build the required water facilities in the country.

The truth, however, is that the society is an organic whole as whatever affects a part would have implications for the rest. In which case, the elite would be mistaken to believe that they could have the good life outside of a general good life for everybody. It is therefore in the ultimate interest of even those who are rich to want to work to raise the profile of others and ensure that more people are able to find fulfillment in the society in order to have peace for everybody. In this wise, even as an increasing number of wealthy Africans raise their philanthropic profiles, there’s still much more to be done. For one, Smith’s uncanny example in the United States, emphasizes the need for the world’s great 1 per cent to inculcate the habit of giving back to the society, as such action  is a great contributor to national development and peace. Nigeria in particular would be a better place if the well-to-do members of  the society cultivate the habit of genuinely giving  back to the society that must have contributed to their own making. There are “about 150 private jets in Nigeria, and there are only about four registered philanthropies” in the country as noted by a former Rockefeller Foundation staffer now managing the Tony Elumelu Foundation, which provides financial and policy support to African businesses.

Imagine if we could get every one of those owning a private jet to create a philanthropy, this could be a basis and platform for a terrific transformation in  our country because the  people can only be as high as the entire society itself ultimately. If we make it a point of responsibility to develop and make life better for people in our  units, wards, constituencies, states, regions and country, we  will definitely have a great society, because more than the money we make, the awards, or recognition, or titles we earn, each of us will be measured by how much we contribute to the success of the people around us.

  • Yakubu is with the Department of Mass Communication, Kogi State University, Anyigba, Nigeria.
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