Can the World be a Better Place?

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Sunday, 23 November 2014 18:30 by 2353

‘Pay it forward’ is a concept where the beneficiary of a good deed repays the ‘debt’ by assisting others, who need some help and support into the future, rather than the initial benefactor. Wikipedia credits the terminology to a book written in 1916 by Lily Hardy Hammond entitled In the Garden of Delight.

On 10 October the Nobel Prize Committee announced the winners of the 2014 Nobel Peace Prize. They were Malala Yousafzai, a 17 year old Pakistani lady who promotes the rights of children to have an education and, as a result of her activism, was shot in the head two years ago by the Taliban while attending school in Pakistan’s Swat Valley, and Kailash Satyarthi, a 60 year old Indian gentleman who has campaigned for years against child slavery and child trafficking.

The Guardian reported that the two prize winners contacted each other soon after the announcement was made and decided to invite their respective prime ministers to the joint award ceremony in Oslo on 10 December 2014. There is a long history of dispute and mistrust between the two countries and it will be interesting to see if both prime ministers attend.

The Nobel Prize Committee stated in its press release:

The Nobel Committee regards it as an important point for a Hindu and a Muslim, an Indian and a Pakistani, to join in a common struggle for education and against extremism. Many other individuals and institutions in the international community have also contributed. It has been calculated that there are 168 million child labourers around the world today. In 2000 the figure was 78 million higher. The world has come closer to the goal of eliminating child labour.

Effectively what has happened here is that two people from different nations and religions have been awarded what is considered the ultimate prize for work to better the human race.

While some may argue that the Nobel Prize committees don’t always get it right, more often than not, they do. Usually the people or organisations that have been awarded a Nobel Prize have excelled in advancing the human condition in some way. In 2014, the committee acknowledged that the joint winners of the Nobel Peace Prize showed that different religions and different nationalities (India and Pakistan) can work together to achieve a common aim, despite the long history of distrust between those two countries at a national level. It is a powerful message.

Alfred Nobel made his fortune by invention. He successfully applied for 355 patents — including dynamite (which Alfred invented after his brother Emil was killed in an explosion). In 1888, another of his brothers, Ludvig, died and a French newspaper accidently published Alfred’s obituary, criticising the invention of dynamite. Nobel then rewrote his Will to:

… set aside a bulk of his estate to establish the Nobel Prizes to honour men and women for outstanding achievements in physics, chemistry, medicine and literature, and for working toward peace.

He died in 1895, and after his estate was settled, 31,255,000 kroner (around US$250 million in 2008 terms) was left for the establishment of prizes. Yousafzai and Satyarthi will share a cash award of around $1million from Nobel’s estate as well as the well deserved honour and glory.

Nobel hasn’t been the only person to ‘pay it forward’. Microsoft hasn’t had a reputation of being the most ethical of companies on the planet with a number of ‘anti-competitive behaviour’ judgments against it in various jurisdictions. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is headed by Bill Gates, one of the founders of Microsoft. According to its website, the Foundation has US$40billion in assets, has made US$30.1 billion in grants since inception, of which US$3.4 billion was granted in 2012 and US$3.6 billion was granted in 2013.

The Foundation’s website claims:

Our foundation is teaming up with partners around the world to take on some tough challenges: extreme poverty and poor health in developing countries, and the failures of America’s education system. We focus on only a few issues because we think that’s the best way to have great impact, and we focus on these issues in particular because we think they are the biggest barriers that prevent people from making the most of their lives.

While the program is based in the USA, there have been a number of grants to universities, hospital research organisations and even website design companies in Australia to further the aims of the Foundation.

Unfortunately for every Alfred Nobel or Bill and Melinda Gates, there are others like the Koch brothers in the USA and Rupert Murdoch.

There are a number of groups both here and in the USA that claim to be ‘grass roots’ organisations that are concerned about the government’s influence in every day lives. In the USA:

There’s just one element missing from these snapshots of America’s ostensibly spontaneous and leaderless populist uprising: the sugar daddies who are bankrolling it, and have been doing so since well before the “death panel” warm-up acts of last summer. Three heavy hitters rule. You’ve heard of one of them, Rupert Murdoch. The other two, the brothers David and Charles Koch, are even richer, with a combined wealth exceeded only by that of Bill Gates and Warren Buffett among Americans. But even those carrying the Kochs’ banner may not know who these brothers are.

In August 2010, The New Yorker magazine published a long article demonstrating a link between Koch Industries and ‘grass roots’ organisations such as ‘Americans for Prosperity’. Koch Industries is a company owned by David and Charles Koch that manufactures Lycra and other ‘household brand names’ and has significant interests in the oil and energy industry. The article claims:

During the 2000 election campaign, Koch Industries spent some nine hundred thousand dollars to support the candidacies of George W. Bush and other Republicans. During the Bush years, Koch Industries and other fossil-fuel companies enjoyed remarkable prosperity. The 2005 energy bill, which Hillary Clinton dubbed the Dick Cheney Lobbyist Energy Bill, offered enormous subsidies and tax breaks for energy companies. The Kochs have cast themselves as deficit hawks, but, according to a study by Media Matters, their companies have benefitted from nearly a hundred million dollars in government contracts since 2000.

Remember the ‘Global Financial Crisis’ of 2008? Australia’s reaction was a series of measures to stimulate the economy — namely the $900 cheques to families, the home insulation scheme and the ‘Building the Education Revolution’ where infrastructure was provided at thousands of schools across the country. On a macroeconomic level, the program was successful as Australia is one of the few countries in the world that can truthfully claim continual economic growth for a period that exceeds 20 years. The New Yorker reports, however, that in America:

Soon after Obama assumed office [in 2008], Americans for Prosperity launched “Porkulus” rallies against Obama’s stimulus-spending measures. Then the Mercatus Center released a report claiming that stimulus funds had been directed disproportionately toward Democratic districts; eventually, the author was forced to correct the report, but not before Rush Limbaugh, citing the paper, had labelled Obama’s program “a slush fund,” and Fox News and other conservative outlets had echoed the sentiment. (Phil Kerpen, the vice-president for policy at Americans for Prosperity, is a contributor to the Fox News Web site. Another officer at Americans for Prosperity, Walter Williams, often guest-hosts for Limbaugh.)

The New York Times reported Jane Mayer’s article in The New Yorker and correctly pointed out that David Koch had donated millions of dollars to the arts, cultural facilities and medical research in the USA. It also mentions:

As Mayer details, Koch-supported lobbyists, foundations and political operatives are at the center of climate-science denial — a cause that forestalls threats to Koch Industries’ vast fossil fuel business. While Koch foundations donate to cancer hospitals like Memorial Sloan-Kettering in New York, Koch Industries has been lobbying to stop the Environmental Protection Agency from classifying another product important to its bottom line, formaldehyde, as a “known carcinogen” in humans (which it is).

There seems to be a divide here between progressive and conservative. While not praising the businesses of Alfred Nobel or Bill Gates, both of whom were rightly criticised at times for their business practices, there seems to have been some element of ‘paying it forward’ through the establishment of a financial environment to celebrate and improve the human condition. Others such as the Koch brothers seem to devise methods to promote their own business interests while attempting to remain unseen. Australian Senator Cori Bernardi is proud of his links to the US ‘Tea Party’ which receives considerable funding from the Kochs according to Jane Meyer. Bernardi was sacked from the ‘front bench’ during the time Malcolm Turnbull was opposition leader and resigned from a junior ministry in the Abbott government for the promotion of views that were too conservative even for the Liberal Party. Ironically, one of the people promoted as a result of Bernardi leaving the ministry was Arthur Sininidos who became assistant treasurer — then ‘stood aside’ when questions were asked about his business ethics.

The Abbott government’s denial of climate change, dismissal of the human rights of the unemployed and refugees, and the claim to be managing a ‘debt crisis’ are straight from the ‘playbook’ of the US conservatives as detailed by Jane Meyer in The New Yorker magazine.

Australia also has a history of people who have ‘made good’ ‘paying it forward’. Two examples are Graham Wood and Clive Berghofer who both actively support causes they believe in.

Wood co-founded Wotif, a last minute accommodation booking website in 2000. It now operates internationally and is based in Brisbane, Australia. In a 2006 interview, Wood described how he became wealthy — coming up with the original idea and realising he had nothing to lose. Wood has given significant funds to University of Queensland, the Australian Greens, assisted in the bankrolling of two news websites (The Global Mail and The Guardian Australia) and with Jan Cameron (the founder of the Kathmandu clothing firm) purchased a timber mill in Tasmania to effectively shut it down and preserve the old growth forest.

Clive Berghofer comes from Toowoomba in Queensland and made considerable money through property development. He was Mayor of Toowoomba for ten years and for some of that time also a National Party state member of parliament prior to the law being changed so that people could not serve on two levels of government concurrently. As evidence that conservative political leanings do not automatically disqualify people from attempting to improve the human condition, Berghofer’s website claims he has made numerous donations to medical research as well as sporting and educational bodies. Berghofer is on record as donating $60 million to the Queensland Institute of Medical Research as well as significant funds to Careflight.

As Nobel Prize winners, both Yousafzai and Satyarthi have earned the right and deserve to be known as ‘The Honourable’. Demonstrably, both of them will make good use of the fame and fortune that comes from being judged the world’s best peacemakers according to the Nobel Prize Committee for 2014. You could argue that the Gates family, Warren Buffett, Graham Wood and Clive Berghofer are also ‘paying it forward’ by supporting causes that will improve the human condition. It’s a shame that conservatives such as the Koch brothers and Bernardi seem only to seek improvement to their own condition.

What do you think?