At first blush I was: “Of course he should accede to this challenge.” As the world’s richest person, who is now estimated to be worth $311-billion, an amount that most people, including myself, cannot fathom in terms of access, power and spending potential, it didn’t seem like a huge ask.
Musk asserted that, should the director of the UN’s World Food Programme, David Beasley, be able to prove through transparent and open-source accounting the possibility of hunger being eradicated with $6-billion, he would liquidate some of his Tesla stock and hand the money over to help the hungry people.
This was after Beasley had thrown down a challenge on Twitter for Musk and the world’s second-richest man, Jeff Bezos, the Amazon founder who is worth more than $190-billion, to “step up now, on a one-time basis”.
After a brief discussion with a friend who raised two valid points, I decided to ruminate some more on the issue. First, it was doubtful that international aid organisations such as the World Food Programme have a real interest in eradicating hunger and poverty because that would effectively put them out of work. Second, it would make sense for Musk to ask for proof of where his money was going and how it would be spent so that he and the public could be satisfied that it would indeed be well spent, as an accountability measure.
Now, it seems to me that three things are at play here: First, that we live in a world where one man’s personal wealth can be many times the GDP of a lower-middle-income country and that seemingly is not alarming; second, that they would have to be petitioned and convinced to use their money to stop people from the indignity of hunger; and third, that not too many people are asking what the success measures for international aid organisations are.
We are living in an age in which we accept that obscene wealth is normalised and aspirational as opposed to questioned and repudiated in the face of the world’s poverty crisis – 9.2% of the world’s population lives in unimaginable poverty. What kind of broken system are we propping up that rewards the amassing of such money while other people literally have nothing?
We seem to have bought into the seduction of a capitalist system that coaxes us to participate in it on the off chance that we too might become billionaires. But the thing about capitalism is that it is at the expense of the poor: people hoard riches by snatching away the opportunities of others and keeping them to themselves.
About a year or two ago there was a reality show on Netflix called Bling Empire that flaunted the extravagance that billions of dollars afforded people – to the point of cutting ties with reality. Viewers loved it: each episode unveiled more and more just how the 1% of the world lived their caviar lifestyle.
Now, there is no doubt that the people who amass these riches probably work extremely hard; however, one wonders what goes through their minds as they float past the misery that is poverty. For example, looking at their employee records and salary statements and knowing that they could never get by on the lowest-earning employee’s salary, what becomes the justification in their minds of how that employee manages to live every month?
I remember once seeing someone posting on social media: “Stop humanizing billionaires. Elon Musk isn’t just some average guy. Do you have any idea how much money $253 billion really is? That’s not normal.” That really stuck with me, particularly when noting how the reality TV show was thriving on “lifting the veil” of how the super-rich live and making them a normal part of our lives, so that people felt their own riches were around the corner.
On the one hand, while asking for the billionaires to donate their money, the question that still remains is what measures will be put in place to ensure that the 42 million people do not slip right back into hunger once the $6-billion towards aid is released and spent.
And what is the sustainability case as opposed to the dependency case for the donation?
In a world in which the divide between rich and poor only gets wider, how do you ensure that yesterday’s billions are not tomorrow’s trillions?
I guess the real point here is that accountability must be applied consistently and even those who purport to be “do-gooders” must still do so transparently. DM168
This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for R25 at Pick n Pay, Exclusive Books and airport bookstores. For your nearest stockist, please click here.