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Robert Smith’s Gift Is A Message To Nigeria

Tunde Odediran writes that Nigeria could do with a more participatory civil society and a thick layer of support from those who are blessed with much, not just the rich but also middle class.

Robert Smith / Photo credit: forbes.com
Robert Smith / Photo credit: forbes.com

Because we are enough to take care of our community, we are enough to ensure we have all the opportunities of the American Dream.” Robert F. Smith

The richest black person in the United States, Richard F. Smith, has delivered a strong message on charitable giving.

At the recent commencement of the Morehouse College, a historically black university in the United States, Smith committed to paying off an estimated $40 million of student loans for 400 graduating students.

The gift left students and most of America stunned for its blatant directness.

It was not the largest charitable donation by any measure, but it was an immediate and direct transfer of large cash from one to many that had rarely been seen in the philanthropy landscape.

Many times, people in need of help wait for too long for it to arrive; and when it does come, it is often too little or too late.

Robert Smith, knowing the problem and the sufferers, found a good moment and occasion to focus attention on a growing American problem – mounting student loans debt – and drive down a solution with enormous strength.

If Smith was only trying to get attention, he sure did with all that coverage; but he was a kind-hearted man who wanted to move things along faster.

In making his offer, Smith stated he was setting the graduates free to live their dreams and unlock their potential

Smith is worried that economic opportunities for young African Americans have narrowed, narrating that African American communities are as segregated today as in the 1950s, subjecting them to “economic underdevelopment” that doesn’t allow them to fully participate in the economy.

And he put his money where his mouth is. In his speech, he said the reason for making the commitment was that he believed there are enough rich men to take care of the others in the society.

It was not the first time Smith would show his philanthropic spirit.

He is the biggest private donor to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington and has partnered with Bill and Melinda Gates and Warren Buffett’s “Giving Pledge” initiative, where the rich pledged to contribute more than 50 per cent of their wealth to humanitarian causes during their lifetime.

It can be a little hard for an outsider to fully understand what the gift meant to the students of Morehouse College. Education is not free in America, but student loans are almost a right.

The loan is freely given but on the condition that it must be paid back, except in the case of death. Many students then run this tap for years, buying whatever they wished until they realize they should have been prudent.

Student debt crushes many American university graduates and sets them back for decades, at times. Even top income earners such as doctors and lawyers with loans exceeding $200,000 groan under the weight of student loans.

In making his offer, Smith stated he was setting the graduates free to live their dreams and unlock their potential.

Anywhere in the world, a gift of N32 million or above will set any graduate free from shackles. One of the beneficiaries of the Smith magnanimity will get about $90,000 written off.

Another is the first graduate in his family of nine, with a single mother, who can now dream of helping his mum.

How much did Smith give away in a single day?

It was about N14.5 billion. There is certainly one Nigeria who is richer than Smith and others who are equally or nearly as rich. However, not a single one of them is known to have given anywhere around N14.5 billion to any cause at once.

In fact, in our history, Nigeria has had only a few outstanding and notable givers but none was in the class of today’s philanthropists across the world.

The late former president of the Nigerian Stock Exchange, Mobolaji Bank-Anthony, is, perhaps, the one of the few we could readily point since most of our rich wait to will most of their acquisitions to their children.

In many Western nations, it is the little streams of giving from the middle of the society that sustain the big charitable organizations such as the Red Cross, Salvation Army, Planned Parenthood and political action groups

According to Forbes, while Africans in general are charitable, only a small fraction of its 40 richest people are noteworthy givers.

The most notable charitable billionaire in Nigeria is General Theophilus Danjuma, whose TY Danjuma Foundation provides grants to non-governmental organizations that champion free healthcare, education and poverty alleviation. Aliko Dangote, Foluso Alakija, and Hakeem Belo-Osagie got some mention, but none of them has come anywhere close to their potential.

For generations, the American rich have sought ways to ensure their material acquisitions are used for the good of mankind to tackle challenging problems such as disaster relief, human development and poverty.

Charitable foundations, from Carnegie to Ford, Robert Wood Johnson to Paul Getty, Hewlett to Kellogg, Pew to Packard, Mellon to Moore, MacArthur to Rockefeller, convey to us a profound sense of common heritage and destiny. Millions of Nigerians have benefited from these foundations without even knowing.

We are at a time when the possession of an air fleet and empty mansions has become the signature of the wealthy in Nigeria.

Our exclusive club of billionaires is only interested in the display of the trappings of wealth so that those who do not have can talk about them.

Those who have “made it,” among them bankers, entrepreneurs, politicians and religious leaders are only interested in flaunting their wealth and keeping it for their family, giving away only as much as required to give an impression of generosity.

Even religious leaders, who are under a mandate of charity, do not appear to care about the growing poverty among their flock.

Rarely does any religious leader give to make an impact on many.

Not one has proven to have the heart and will of Richard Smith.

Instead, they run universities that their church members cannot afford and store up their treasures on earth when the scriptures teach they should sell their possessions and give to charity.

Benevolence is a wind that moves everybody forward in a society.

Those with little get some helping hand from those with much. Accumulation of wealth, therefore, becomes a means and not an end. Wealth can become a force for good and an engine for human development.

The power of charity is that it spreads. Robert Smith understood this and charged the 400 students who benefit from his giving to remember to give back as they had received

The selfishness of the wealthy in most of Africa is a demonstration of the greed and selfishness that has saturated our society.

It is one of the root causes of the cycle of poverty in our midst.

There is nothing wrong with being rich, but everything is wrong with being rich just for the sake of it and being selfish. Apart from Smith, there are many other good examples of selfless giving.

The world’s richest man, Bill Gates has given away $27 billion of his $84 billion fortune. George Soros, founder of Soros Funds, has so far donated $8 billion from a net worth of $24 billion. Ted Turner, founder of Trinity

Broadcasting Network (TBN) has also seeded away $1.2 billion of his $2.1 billion wealth. Jon Huntsman, chairman of Huntsman Corporation, a chemical product manufacturer, has donated $1.2 billion, leaving him with $940 million. Founder of Intel Corporation, Gordon Moore, has given $5billion from a net worth of $6.5 billion.

Sulaiman bin Abdul Aziz Al Rajhi, co-founder of one of the largest Islamic banks, has just $590 left after giving away $5.7 billion.

If every working Nigerian can donate just one Naira to charity each year, that can raise as much N100m for a cause

The greatest in our generation is a man called the “James Bond of philanthropy,” retail magnate Chuck Feeney, who is about to give away his entire fortune with his current net worth down to $1.5 million, after giving $6.3 billion!

It is true that Nigeria is a nation that needs a more hard working and responsive government, a less corrupt bureaucracy and a transparent leadership.

But it is also true that Nigeria could do with a more participatory civil society and a thick layer of support from those who are blessed with much, not just the rich but also middle class.

In many Western nations, it is the little streams of giving from the middle of the society that sustain the big charitable organizations such as the Red Cross, Salvation Army, Planned Parenthood and political action groups.

It is unwise to expect that the gargantuan task of developing Nigeria will fit the back of the government alone.

The time has passed when our government alone can provide everything we need – it will take the participation of private citizens to turn Nigeria around.

The time is now for charity to take have a meaning in the Nigeria mind. The needs are towering but the responders are few.

Pioneering American philanthropist, Andrew Carnegie, one of those who set the standard for generosity said, “No man can become rich without himself enriching others,” adding that “the man who dies rich dies disgraced.”

Recently, I told the story of the forgotten Nigerians after a visit.

Richard Smith is showing us what we need to do as Nigerians to address problems in our society.

He has made it his life ambition to give as much as possible of his earthly acquisitions back to those who have less.

By doing what the government is unable to do along with others, he giving his people a better life.

The power of charity is that it spreads.

Robert Smith understood this and charged the 400 students who benefit from his giving to remember to give back as they had received.

He understands the infectiousness of giving. He knows he only has to light the fire.

He knows others will take the lead and try to outdo him as he advised the alumni to pick up the gauntlet to ensure that other sets enjoyed the same benefit.

This article is not a sermon but a call. However, my heart is grieved to see how much religion we have got when those who have no religion do much better.

God did not make everyone strong, neither did he guarantee that everyone will live a life without needing help. Will not there always be the poor among us?

Caring for those we don’t know is the hallmark of philanthropy; it should be the highest ideal of any man blessed.

We need to do more as a society to change the things that are indecent to the eyes – such as hunger, disease, child poverty, child abuse, street urchin, indigent student, inadequate facilities, corruption and the like

Almost all popular religions teach the importance of charity.

The Bible teaches us that if we have faith but lack good works, we are incomplete and unsatisfying to God.

Giving was best illustrated by the Methodist Church founder, John Wesley, when he said: ““Do you not know that God entrusted you with that money (all above what buys necessities for your families) to feed the hungry, to clothe the naked, to help the stranger, the widow, the fatherless; and, indeed, as far as it will go, to relieve the wants of all mankind? How can you, how dare you, defraud the Lord, by applying it to any other purpose?”

If every working Nigerian can donate just one Naira to charity each year, that can raise as much N100 million for a cause.

And if they do that every month, that is N1.2 bn in a single year.

Now think about one million Nigerians committing to a cause for N1,000 per month. That cause will be supported with N1bn per month. Imagine if any cause is backed by that much in a month what will be possible.

We need to do more as a society to change the things that are indecent to the eyes – such as hunger, disease, child poverty, child abuse, street urchin, indigent student, inadequate facilities, corruption and the like.

These problems can be tacked by the affluent standing at the front and the rest of us giving what we can.

The Smith example is there for Nigerians to consider.

As he said, we have enough among us to take care of our communities and provide the opportunities that can transform us individually and as a people.

It is simply insane to expect the government to do everything for us. We have to step out and step up. We have to give.

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