Giving: How Each of Us Can Change the World

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 23 September, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 23 September, 2007, 12:00am

Giving: How Each of Us Can Change the World

by Bill Clinton

Knopf, HK$200

Philanthropy was a big part of political discourse in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It was used to fill the gaps in welfare and education left by governments. But after the second world war, citizens demanded better treatment from their governments and, by and large, got it. So philanthropy fell out of fashion. The argument against philanthropy was that if private donations were needed to fund the education and health care of citizens, then the state wasn't doing its job properly. Yet in the past 10 years, philanthropy has returned in a big way.

This book by former president Bill Clinton looks at why there's been a boom in philanthropy, why this is a good thing and how even those with moderate means can become involved. Its purpose is to inspire readers to give money to worthy causes by citing the experiences of prominent philanthropists.

Unfortunately, the long laundry lists of do-gooders and their efforts make it a laborious, often dull, read. It's certainly worthy. It's also surprisingly non-partisan. But the pedagogic style is unlikely to inspire readers to donate money and involve themselves in various causes.

Since leaving office, Clinton has become a keen philanthropist. He founded the charitable Clinton Foundation. He's been active in the global fight against Aids, and helped organise relief for the victims of Hurricane Katrina. So this book provides an insider's, rather than a journalistic, view of charitable organisations and what they can achieve.

Everything's spelled out in a schoolmasterly manner: chapters are headed Giving Time, Giving Things, Giving Skills, and so on. Clinton writes in an anecdotal way and shies away from statistics and theories. He lists the good works people do and says why readers should follow their examples.

The examples of giving range from rich to poor. Bill Gates and Warren Buffet - America's first and second richest people, respectively - are praised for giving away most of their fortunes to trusts for the needy. (Buffet donated his money to the Gates Foundation.) At the other end of the scale, Clinton writes about Oseola McCarty, an 87-year-old black woman of limited means who used her life savings to set up an African-American scholarship fund.

Philanthropy is expanding, says Clinton, because people are growing richer, there are more NGOs to donate to, and the internet makes it very easy to part with cash. What's more, unlike before, it's easy to donate directly to projects in impoverished places abroad.

It would be churlish to claim that Clinton only wrote this book to promote a positive image that will help his wife's presidential campaign. The book is too specific to be of any use as a campaign tool. Those who detest the Clintons wouldn't dream of buying it, and it doesn't hold much for undecided voters looking to make up their minds. At worst, it demonstrates that politicians have a psychotic need to be heard. If they're out of office, they'll find another channel for their opinions.

Giving to worthy causes is good. But it's no excuse for governments not doing more. In traumatised countries such as Rwanda, that's understandable. But Clinton points to a recent survey in which 12 million Americans said they were unable to feed themselves at one time or another. His solution? Charitable donations in the form of backpacks containing food.

But if 12 million people in the world's richest country have trouble feeding themselves, surely a political - rather than philanthropic - fix is needed. Philanthropy is a positive thing, but it's still no substitute for effective policy.