THE LIMITS OF CHARITY. Warren Buffett's plan to give most of his money to the already giant foundation Bill Gates started is, of course, going to make the foundation super-large. Word on the street is that it will allow the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to approximately double its current $1.4 billion in annual grant-making, which is mostly focused on the important and under-served cause of fighting third world disease. Still, one thing that I think contemplating the prospect of this super-foundation does is simply demonstrate the limits of direct charitable work as opposed to spending money on policy work aimed at systemic change. If the foundation really does double its grant-making, that would come to about $1.7 billion per year on global health issues.
By contrast, were the United States government to live up to the commitment it's already made to the United Nations Millenium Development Goals that would involve spending about $77 billion on third world development issues in the first year with disbursements growing proportionately to American GDP. That, obviously, is a lot more than $1.7 billion. At the same time, it's a lot less than the $450 billion or so that we spend on the military. Which is to say that one really, really, really great way to improve global public health would be to do something like get Congress to shift about 10-15 percent of the Pentagon budget over to international development assistance. That would generate a pool of funds that totally dwarfs anything the Gates Foundation can spend. What's more, it would almost certainly inspire Europe and Japan to raise their levels of development assistance, since as everyone knows European governments like to be more generous than the USA in order to better sneer at us.
But how could you possibly convince Congress to shift 10-15 percent of the DOD budget to development assistance? Well, it'd be very difficult. Among other things, there's a wealthy and powerful defense contractor lobby and, tragically, no "help poor children not die in Chad" lobby. On the other hand, if you gave me, say, $1.7 billion dollars per year to spend on influencing the American political system, it'd be relatively easy to generate large-scale political change. Indeed, $1.7 billion annually is probably way more than you'd need to launch a successful domestic campaign to get the United States to meet the millennium targets -- the 2004 presidential campaign cost about a billion in aggregate for both sides.