With infection rates falling and vaccination campaigns picking up, countries all over the globe are easing out of lockdown and lifting restrictions. Meanwhile, India is experiencing a devastating second wave. Supplies are dwindling, hospitals are overflowing and health care is notoriously short-staffed and under funded. As the devastation rages on with the month of May, the world is responding in various ways.
Foundations and charities all across the world are pulling together resources to make any dent, no matter how small, in supporting the country’s relief efforts. The relief efforts raise the question, how can donors make the most impact in such dire circumstances? This question is by no means a new dilemma, the tension between wealth and altruism is more apparent than ever. One recent statistic exhibits this tension perfectly – residents of high-income nations have gotten 47 percent of all vaccine doses, despite only making up 16 percent of the global population. Another report shows that from March 18th to the end of 2020, global billionaire wealth increased by $3.9 trillion, while global workers’ combined earnings fell by $3.7 trillion as millions lost their jobs. The income inequality gap in numbers is overwhelming, but how does one turn the feeling of overwhelm into action?
With so much injustice and suffering happening, taking action can quickly turn into disheartening paralysis. The effective altruism movement serves as a potential antidote to this paralysis. Created in the late 2000s by philosophers Toby Ord and William MacAskill, effective altruism works to combine evidence and reason in order to find ways to benefit others as much as possible and take action on that basis. One key misconception around effective altruism is that it is composed strictly of people in helping fields or nonprofit work. While these careers certainly are effective in impact, they are not for everyone. This is where the concept of “earning to give” comes into play. The concept essentially changes the paradigm around what society defines as an optimally ethical job by providing the facts – a philanthropic banker’s donations might indirectly help 10 times as many people as the direct benefit of a single non-profit worker. The idea that the source of income inequality, i.e. the highest paying jobs, could actually be considered just as ethical as nonprofit work seems counter-intuitive, but there are plenty of examples to support this theory.
One example is Vinod Gupta, an Indian-born American businessman, investor, and philanthropist whose donations have exceeded fifty million dollars. His philosophy is simple and echoes core principles seen in effective altruism, “we come into this world with nothing and we leave with nothing. After I die, everything will go to charity. I believe that the wealth should be given away to the society that gave it to us.” Undoubtedly, Gupta’s career is considered high-impact in the number of lives his donations have affected.
To support his value system, Gupta set up the Vinod Gupta Charitable Foundation, making access to quality education the primary focus of his charitable donations. In 1991, he set up the Vinod Gupta School of Management at IIT Kharagpur via a personal endowment of two million dollars. Fueled by a desire for future graduates to have a leadership curriculum in addition to technical education, Gupta sought to fill the growing demand for intellectual property attorneys by setting up the Rajiv Gandhi School of Intellectual Property Law through another endowment of two million dollars in 2006.
His passion for access to education is both personal and professional. Having come from an impoverished background himself, Gupta grew up with no electricity, roads, toilets, TVs, or cars. Despite these difficulties, Gupta found his launchpad at IIT Kharagpur, one of India’s top public universities, where he received his Bachelor’s degree in agricultural engineering. His hard work paid off in the form of a scholarship to University of Nebraska at Lincoln, where he earned a master’s degree in agricultural engineering and business. All together, Gupta’s education consists of a Bachelor’s, two Master’s, and three honorary doctorate degrees. After graduating in 1971, he entered the workforce as a Marketing Research Analyst for a well-established mobile home manufacturer, eventually breaking away to pursue his own endeavors. Now, he works as a General Partner at Everest Capital Partners, Inc. where he supports the development of start-ups with funding, relevant contacts, and management expertise. In short, it’s fair to say that Gupta’s relationship with philanthropic endeavors is a personal obligation and an opportunity to give back to the foundational pillars of his success.
Given his background, it follows that Gupta snapped into action at the onset of 2020’s global crisis. Pulling together his community of fellow alumni through the IIT Kharagpur Foundation USA, he pioneered the first-of-its-kind public outreach campaign by a higher educational institution to support temporary workers affected by the employment quandary that COVID-19 caused. The IIT Kharagpur Foundation USA connects the university’s alumni in the US and Canada, making it possible for its members to pull together their resources for relief efforts like this one.
Indeed, Gupta is exemplary of effective altruism in action. According to researchers in effective altruism, a cause is the most highly impactful when it is great in scale, highly neglected and highly solvable. IIT Kharagpur’s relief program checks all of these boxes. The program began in April 2020 with the mission of helping non-salaried workers that were previously dependent on the campus for their livelihood and found themselves destitute after the onset of COVID-19. The relief recipients included daily wagers, ward boys in halls, dhobi, small tea shops, rickshaw pullers, domestic help, construction workers, etc. The plight of temporary workers, like those relying on the IIT campus for work, was met with sheer indifference on behalf of the Indian government, despite the unavoidable predicament that the pandemic posed.
In this case, the cause is both great in scale and highly neglected. As for it being highly solvable, that’s where Gupta comes in. Gupta’s response to the pandemic’s total upheaval of normal life was to find solace in a sense of community, similar to many others. Gupta rallied together with his fellow alumni and was able to support more than half a lakh people residing in villages around the campus over the course of the past year. Talking about the campaign, Gupta remarks: “We felt particularly concerned about the non-salaried people living around the IIT Kharagpur campus. At the IIT Kharagpur Foundation USA, we raised about five hundred thousand dollars to help more than ten thousand workers with food supplies and even cash in some instances so that they could survive the pandemic. We truly appreciate the leadership at IIT Kharagpur. We Kgpians are what we are due to IIT Kharagpur and these workers like ward boys, rickshaw pullers played a very important role during our education.” The next phase of distribution is underway throughout May, surely needed now more than ever.