TEXCOCO, Mexico — Microsoft chairman Bill Gates is famed for his philanthropy. Carlos Slim Helu, the Mexican tycoon, is not. This week, they stood together at a research center here, drawing attention to their different approaches to giving their wealth away.
Gates believes in philanthropy as gospel and urges the rich to donate much of their fortunes. Slim has been called a philanthro-skeptic. He is wary of charity.
Despite those views, they have much in common, including mind-boggling wealth. Slim has a net worth that Bloomberg Markets magazine estimated late last year at $77.5 billion, making him the world’s wealthiest man. Gates’ riches trail only slightly at $64.4 billion.
They also share a history of relentless – even predatory – business practices that helped them amass their fortunes.
But Gates has seen his image morph since the late 1990s by committing assets of $30 billion to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which targets problems of disease and hunger that afflict the world’s poorest. As frequently as not, he’s on a jet to Africa or Asia bringing attention to humanitarian issues.
A little more than a decade ago, recalled Michael Layton, director of the philanthropy and civil society project at the Autonomous Institute of Technology of Mexico, “There were still mean-spirited jokes about Gates, and Microsoft was being challenged in the courts over its monopolistic practices.”
“Now, you see a magazine cover with the question, ‘Can Bill Gates save the world?’”
Slim, 73, lives in a nation with little tradition of philanthropic giving. Slowly, he’s overcoming a reluctance to donate money, but he still voices doubts about whether giving simply breeds dependency.
“We have seen donations for 100 years,” the telecommunications tycoon told The Chronicle of Philanthropy in September. “We have seen thousands of people working in nonprofits, and the problems and poverty are bigger. They have not solved anything.”
When he does give, Slim funds environmental, health and educational programs, but he avoids projects to strengthen democracy or civic participation.
“For many years, he said, ‘I think the most important thing I can do with my money is create jobs,’” said Joel L. Fleishman, a Duke University law professor and author of “The Foundation: A Great American Secret; How Private Wealth is Changing the World.”
Slim, who owns Mexico’s primary fixed line and cellphone networks, is far from uncharitable. He’s financed his Carlos Slim Foundation and the separate Telmex Foundation to the tune of some $5 billion. He recently built a museum in Mexico City to house his $100 million collection of art by Auguste Rodin, Salvador Dali and others. Entry is free.
Among his other endeavors are programs to post bail for first-time offenders, provide access to broadband for hundreds of thousands of students, and pay for research into genetic factors that may lead to cancer and diabetes.
On two occasions since 2010, Slim has partnered in projects with Gates.
What brought the mega-titans together in Texcoco, 30 miles northeast of Mexico City, was their support for the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center, a research station that half a century ago was at the heart of the global “green revolution” that saved an estimated 1 billion lives from starvation.
Slim put up $25 million for a new bioscience laboratory to bring world-class scientists to the station, which seeks to improve crop yields for poor farmers.
Speaking at a news conference with Slim, Gates said large U.S. foundations were at the core of work by Norman Borlaug, the agronomist and humanitarian who won the 1970 Nobel Peace Prize for developing high-yield cereal crop hybrids.
“Norman Borlaug’s salary came from that Rockefeller philanthropy,” Gates said, referring to the foundation set up by the family that made a fortune in oil. “Foundation funding has been key. It’s a wonderful thing to have a huge impact.”
Gates, still relatively young at 57, is fond of looking back at the work of the Rockefellers, Fords, Mellons and Carnegies. He often gives away copies of “The Gospel of Wealth,” an 1889 article by steel magnate Andrew Carnegie that suggests a rich man who dies without giving his wealth away dies in disgrace.
The Gates Foundation has set lofty goals, such as eradicating polio by 2018. It has done more to combat malaria, AIDS and tuberculosis in Africa than any other group in history. Its annual spending of some $3 billion to $4 billion is comparable to the budget this year of the World Health Organization at $3.9 billion.
“He has been very strategic in tackling a relatively small number of issues to try to have a big impact,” said Patrick Rooney of Indiana University’s School of Philanthropy.
Gates has pushed fellow billionaires to sign his “Giving Pledge,” which commits them to donate at least half of their wealth to philanthropic causes. He’s won over scores of adherents, including Warren Buffett, the world’s third-richest man, who in 2006 committed $31 billion to the Gates Foundation.
Among those who haven’t signed on, though, is Slim, who says that tycoons should keep running their empires and employing workers.
“Why half?” Slim asked on CNBC in January 2011. “What we need to do as businessmen is to help solve the social problems. To fight poverty, but not by charity.”
Even so, Slim has found some causes that he likes, including giving $50 million to the Mexican branch of the World Wildlife Fund, in part for its work in restoring and protecting habitat of the migratory monarch butterfly.
His foundations also have given $100 million to the Alas Foundation set up by Colombian rock star Shakira to provide education to young people and to the William J. Clinton Foundation to help small- and medium-sized businesses in Haiti.
Layton, the philanthropy scholar in Mexico City, said he sees little strategic vision to Slim’s giving.
“The donations seem almost random in terms of their amounts and their recipients,” he said. “In his public statements, he has repeatedly held that philanthropy can do little to promote development, yet he has sought out opportunities to join with Bill Gates, Shakira and Bill Clinton in their initiatives.
“This gives the impression that image and perception matter more than vision and substance in Slim’s giving.”
While Slim’s foundations are giving money, Layton said, “his heart’s just not in this.”
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