The coffers of some of the world’s richest people opened wide over the last year. COVID-19 was such a strain that the world’s needs far exceeded governments’ ability to satisfy them. Filling the void were billionaires from all corners of the globe, but increasingly from the East.
This year, for example, the Hurun China Philanthropy List named thirty-nine Chinese billionaires, including five women, who donated a combined $4.8 billion in the past year alone. Their top charities assisted with education, poverty alleviation, and, of course, health care.
A study by the Asian Venture Philanthropy Network in 2018 predicted that China, whose philanthropy quadrupled in the previous decade, would grow into a “powerhouse that could shape the future of international giving.” This would be driven, the study said, by the private sector and a new generation of wealthy individuals.
Similarly, the number of wealthy people from India who contributed more than $100 million has doubled over the last two years. According to the recent EdelGive Hurun India Philanthropy List, the largest Indian donors gave a total of $1.28 billion in 2020. The Bain Philanthropy Report estimated that despite the pandemic philanthropic funds in India grew by 23 percent last year. These same funds increased fourfold over the previous decade.
More than $500 billion is expected to flow through philanthropic organizations in the coming decade. An increased portion of those contributions will come from outside the West, especially from Asia. The reason is simple: leaders in that part of the world are getting richer and are paying closer attention to socially important causes. According to the CAF’s World Giving Index, which has been tracking countries by their charitable giving since 2010, five of the top 10 countries with increases are now in Asia, with Indonesia leading the way.
The Giving Pledge, a campaign initiated by Bill and Melinda Gates and Warren Buffet to encourage the ultra-wealthy to give away most of their wealth, currently lists more than 200 signatories from 25 countries, including at least fourteen nations from outside the traditional West. When the Pledge went public back in 2010, it had only 40 signers, all from the U.S.
While Asia is home to many of the top global philanthropists, Russia has also become more prominent. The Sunday Times of London publishes its own list of top philanthropists, who are either based in the U.K. or who own property there. Its most recent report said that Alisher Usmanov, a tech mogul from Russia, had given away more than £4.2 billion to charity over the 20-year history of The Sunday Times Giving List, both personally and through his businesses. That made him the Sunday Times’ most generous Rich List philanthropist ever.
Usmanov’s donations to help to fight the pandemic also topped the Sunday Times list, with £134.2 million given out in Russia, Uzbekistan, and Italy. Recently, Uzbekistan reported that Usmanov funded 500,000 vaccines in the country.
Usmanov’s lifelong giving would surely have earned him a place in the upper tier of the Forbes’ Most Philanthropic Billionaires List, which now limits its scope to only Americans. Forbes ranks him 99th on its richest people list with an estimated wealth of $18.6 billion. He has adopted his own version of the Giving Pledge, promising to split his fortune between his family and his management, an uncommon practice in non-Western economies.
Usmanov is in good company in the East. Two years ago, the Indian tech mogul Azim Premji committed thirty-four percent of shares in his multibillion IT company, Wipro, to his own foundation’s endowment. When the pandemic broke out in 2020, Premji provided $134 million for humanitarian aid and healthcare support, which sealed his reputation as the most generous man in India. Premji topped the Forbes’ Most Generous Billionaires Outside of the US list in 2019.
Hong Kong’s Li Ka-shing was listed in Forbes’ Asia’s Heroes of Philanthropy - 2020 and is well known as one of the city’s leading philanthropists. He founded the Li Ka-shing Foundation in 1980 and promised to donate at least a third of his more than $30 billion fortune to it. During 2020, he allocated $43.4 million to various forms of aid fighting COVID-19, including $17 million to communities in Wuhan, the epicenter of the outbreak in China.
Gradually, charitable giving from mainland China is overshadowing the donations of Hong Kong’s billionaires. Huang Zheng, China’s most generous individual, made a $1.85 billion donation of shares of his company. Together with his partners, he donated 2.37% of Pinduoduo’s capital to a foundation to promote social responsibility construction and scientific research.
“It’s a misunderstanding that Asian people have not been philanthropic up to now,” says Johnny Hon, a Hong Kong-based philanthropist and investor. “The issues have been that, from the beginning of the 19th century until relatively recently, the region has been poor compared to the West and also, Eastern philanthropy has been more focused on one’s extended family, clansmen, village, or hometown.”
Philanthropy like Ka-shing’s and Zheng’s has a history in Eastern philosophy. One of the world’s most famous philanthropists was the Nepali prince Siddhartha (the Buddha) Gautama, the founder of Buddhism, who lived in 6th century BC. Islam too encourages its adherents to donate to charity a portion of an individual’s wealth.
Rising philanthropic contributions from the East are a welcome addition to the world of charitable giving, particularly at a time when governments around the globe struggle to keep up with financing demands. COVID-19 has shone on a light on the critical need for philanthropy, and to their credit, billionaires from the East have stepped into the breach.