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PORTRAITS: The kindness of strangers

Featuring Debonair’s favourite philanthropists, we take an historic look at some of those who have used their wealth to give back to society

The results of philanthropy are always beyond calculation. ~Mary Ritter Beard

The history of the human race can be seen as a tale of two sides: of cruelty and kindness. It’s not always that the random acts of charity and altruism that get the headlines and the media spotlight. And consequently the attention they deserve.

The “kindness of strangers” — as Tennessee Williams’ oft-misquoted line at the end of A Street Car Named Desire puts it — is what so many hundreds of thousands of people rely on.

Those with the capital and clout to help the least fortunate in the world don't always do so. So it’s always pertinent to shine a light on the  selfless work they do as well as running the multi-billion dollar franchises that earn them their standings as the world's leading entrepreneurs, moguls and tycoons.

From Bill Gates spending tens of billions to eradicate polio all the way down to the unpaid post-graduate serving soup in homeless shelters seeking to help those most in need of help, the very act of philanthropy relies on these random acts of kindness that filter down to provide opportunities that benefit the less fortunate. We take an historic look at some of the men with big hearts and bigger, open wallets.

The results of philanthropy are always beyond calculation. ~Mary Ritter Beard

Howard Hughes

Aviator, playboy, patron of science. Once the richest man in the world, Hughes’ vast fortune is still making a powerful contribution to the world, especially through the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, which invests about $825 million in biomedical research every year. 

Andrew Carnegie

After retiring as the richest man in the world, Carnegie made it his primary occupation to give away his fortune (some $350 million, or 90 per cent). He lived and preached the Gospel of Wealth, and the moral economy that urges the rich to donate their money to advance society. Often recognised as America’s greatest philanthropist, his educational funding spans the globe. It’s hard to believe Carnegie started his business career as a child working in a cotton mill earning a weekly salary of $1.20. 

“I do not only want to be known as Africa’s richest man, but the biggest philanthropist.”

~ Aliko Dangote

Li Ka-shing

“To be able to contribute to society and help those in need to build a better life — that is the ultimate meaning in life,” the Hong Kong business magnate believes. He’s cited as having donated the third-highest amount to charity ($10.7 billion). Li even refers to his charity as his third child, which operates in the education, health and disaster-relief spheres. 

Prince Al Waleed Bin Talal

A member of the Saudi royal family, the businessman and investor announced three years ago he would donate $32 billion to philanthropic causes aimed at humanitarian projects including the empowerment of women and children. Educational initiatives to bridge gaps between Western and Islamic communities remains a key concern. However, the man Time has called the “Arabian Warren Buffett” dropped off Forbes’ World’s Billionaires list earlier this year following an internal shake-up in the country.  

Alfred Nobel

The man who invented dynamite is now associated with the most famous set of awards in the world, but it almost wasn’t to be. It took a premature obituary condemning him as the man who made it possible to kill more people more quickly than anyone else (it actually referred to him as “the merchant of death”) for him to realise that would be his legacy. Since that’s not how he wanted to be remembered, the arms dealer bequeathed his fortune of around $265 million to create the Nobel Prizes “for the Greatest Benefit to Mankind” — although some suggest only to restore his reputation. 

Mo Ibrahim

The Sudanese-British businessman with a net worth of $1.18 billion has signed the Warren Buffet and Bill Gates-led Giving Pledge, a commitment to donate at least half his wealth to charity. He remains concerned about Africa. Among other organisations focused on the continent, his Mo Ibrahim Prize for Achievement in African Leadership discourages dictatorships by giving African heads of state $5 million initially and $200,000 every year for as long as they live, as long as — and here’s the caveat — they deliver security, health, education and economic development in their countries and transfer power in a democratic way.

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Azim Premji

Informally known as the Czar of the Indian IT Industry, Premji is often named the most generous Indian in annual lists. His Azim Premji Foundation is focused on education initiatives in India. Another Giving Pledge signatory, more than two-thirds of his $19 billion fortune is said to be under the Azim Premji Trust.

Aliko Dangote

“I do not only want to be known as Africa’s richest man, but the biggest philanthropist,” Dangote said earlier this year. “I will continue to use my resources and my voice to help shape a better Nigeria, and Africa as a whole.” With a net worth estimated at $14.1 billion, his foundation is focused on the empowerment of women, aid relief, education, poverty alleviation and the eradication of diseases such as polio.

“To be able to contribute to society and help those in need to build a better life — that is the ultimate meaning in life.”

~ Li Ka-shing

Imran Khan

Named for his mother, the Pakistani politician and former cricketer founded the Shaukat Khanum Memorial Trust, which was behind the first cancer research institution in Pakistan. He raised funds globally to build two hospitals in the country, and remains committed to social justice causes. 

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Shahrukh Khan

In addition to being one of the most successful film stars in the world, King Khan works closely with the Make a Wish Foundation. A lot of his charity work is focused on cancer — the disease his mother died of. Earlier this year he was honoured with the Crystal Award, celebrating “his leadership in championing children’s and women’s rights in India”, the World Economic Forum said.

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