Business

Super-rich gather for charity

Dame Vivienne Westwood and her son Joe Corre
Image caption Dame Vivienne Westwood was accompanied by her son entrepreneur Joe Corre

A fancy five-star hotel on Park Lane in London, photographers snapping guests as they arrived, champagne flowing - you'd be forgiven for thinking this was an awards ceremony or a young royal's birthday celebrations.

In fact, the occasion was the fourth Fortune Forum Summit - a dinner event aimed at promoting philanthropy and getting the very rich to sign up to make charitable donations to foreign aid.

It may seem strange to be holding such an event encouraging people to give to international causes when so many people are struggling financially in this country, but the organisers of the 2012 summit would argue that tackling global poverty, climate change and disease should never be ignored.

Past speakers at the summit include former US President Bill Clinton and former UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown, while previous celebrity attendees include actress and supermodel Milla Jovavich, singer Jon Bon Jovi and actors Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta Jones.

This year's guest list may not have been quite as star-studded but it did not disappoint.

Fashion designer Dame Vivienne Westwood welcomed guests to the event, and spoke of her conversations with Prince Charles about saving rainforests before going on to brand world leaders "psychopaths".

"If you can convince the general public that climate change is caused by the terrible financial system we have got, that's one of the messages that I'm trying to get over," she said.

Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales introduced Ken Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, and billionaire investor and philanthropist George Soros.

Mr Soros highlighted the importance of long-term commitment to a cause.

"When you look at the results in Russia it doesn't look a success but I'm very glad we [his foundation Open Society] made the effort, and I think in the long run you will see the results," he said and also pointed to his support of Aung San Suu Kyi in Burma.

Matching donations

The Fortune Forum was set up in 2006 as a "convening and campaigning organisation" which aims to bring together wealthy individuals with humanitarian organisations.

The charities it "showcases" include the British Red Cross, Water Aid and clean energy promoters Ice Circle.

Image caption George Soros said philanthropy now takes up 95% of his time

Its glamorous founder, socialite and former model Renu Mehta, says that over the past six years her goals have changed.

"I've gone from helping projects through charities or NGOs (non-governmental organisations) to look at crafting policy," she told the BBC website.

She has worked with Nobel Prize-winning economist Sir James Mirrlees to set up the forum's big initiative - the Mehta-Mirrlees (MM) aid model, which aims to raise an additional $100bn (£62bn) a year in real aid.

The MM model encourages (richer) governments to match donations from individuals and businesses, with the government money coming from their existing aid budgets. The hope is that this will give private donors more confidence that their money is being put to the best possible use and therefore lead to more donations.

The UK government has already agreed to match private sector contributions and Ms Mehta says this has already raised about £100m for international causes.

She believes that by scaling up the proposals, the scheme has the potential to raise an extra £5bn.

Taxpayer's choice

But with the event taking place just a matter of hours before the chancellor delivers his Autumn Statement, with more public spending cuts possible and many people feeling the economic pinch, is now really the best time to be trying to drum up support for aid programmes?

Ms Mehta admits that foreign aid might not be top of the public's agenda right now.

"We must recognise that some people are not in favour of spending money on aid and I get that," she told the BBC. "They're interested in education or welfare."

But she goes on: "Whatever happens, the beauty about the MM Model is that it allows the taxpayer to make the choice.

"This £5bn is made from voluntary donations. It's no extra cost because the taxpayer is choosing to donate."

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