Summit participants discuss how partnerships can better tackle issues like climate, education gap

Senior Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam speaking at the Philanthropy Asia Summit on Nov 15, 2021. PHOTO: TEMASEK FOUNDATION

SINGAPORE - The challenges facing the world today are too large and complex for governments and the social sector to tackle alone, said participants at the inaugural Philanthropy Asia Summit on Monday (Nov 15).

They added that partnerships between the public and private sectors as well as donors and philanthropic groups have become increasingly important.

To this end, donors and philanthropic groups will need to move away from simply issuing cheques to using their large resources to bring about change.

The one-day event, organised by Temasek Foundation and held in a hybrid format at the Ritz-Carlton, Millenia Singapore, brought together philanthropists and non-profit organisations from around the world to help them form partnerships to address some of the world's most pressing problems.

This year's focus is on climate change, pandemic security and the widening education gap within and across countries, and groups pitched projects from protecting the world's mangrove systems to harnessing artificial intelligence to close the education gap, to building a global early-warning system for pathogens that can cause pandemics.

Swiss bank UBS announced a US$2 million (S$2.7 million) donation to The Mangrove 40 initiative, which aims to design nature-based solutions for mangrove conservation and restoration. It will invest an additional 10 per cent as a matching contribution to other donors.

In a keynote speech, Senior Minister and Coordinating Minister for Social Policies Tharman Shanmugaratnam said a shift is needed to see philanthropy not in terms of charity, but as risk capital that can help to mobilise and channel resources from business and and even government sources.

Citing climate action, he said technologies that can mitigate the impact of climate change are sometimes seen as too risky for traditional investors.

In such instances, philanthropies can step in to plug the market gap by investing in a portfolio of nascent technologies, and even a few breakthrough successes will bring immense social returns, he added.

"We need philanthropies because they do have a different risk absorption capacity. They who do have the ability to take risks where the private sector can't. And they do have the ability to fail, which we must expect as we now invest in the technologies and the innovations of the future," Mr Tharman said.

At the same time, large institutional investors together with family offices and foundations, goaded by public opinion, can also be a very effective force in persuading companies to switch to greener ways of doing things, he added.

These sentiments were echoed by Mr Michael Bloomberg, the founder of a financial information and media company, whose Bloomberg Philanthropies is guided by the principle of investing in untested ideas that others may find too risky to take on for fear that they will not work.

Michael Bloomberg at the Temasek Foundation Inaugural Philanthropy Asia Summit in Singapore on Nov 15, 2021. PHOTO: BLOOMBERG

Speaking at a later session moderated by Temasek Foundation's head, philanthropy advocate Jennifer Lewis, he described how his foundation had worked to close coal-fired power plants by getting employees, consumers and stockholders to see their common interest so that they would put pressure on the owners of the plants to act.

Noting that there was often not enough political will for countries to do what is necessary, Mr Bloomberg, a former mayor of New York City, said: "A lot of the times, the government can't do things. In government, you have to sort of guarantee to the public that what you're spending their money on is going to work.

"And you can't do that if you're going to innovate. Some things are going to work, some things are not going to work."

The role of government, meanwhile, is to provide incentives through taxes and regulation, and also provide the political leadership required to promote trust, said Mr Tharman.

Describing trust as a critical ingredient within societies and globally, he added that societies and communities where everyone plays by the rules, and where people feel a little shamed when they do not do so, are the ones that will do better.

Participants at the summit also spoke about how the Covid-19 pandemic has shown just how effective this three-way partnership can be, pointing to how philanthropies had worked with governments and businesses to deliver supplies of personal protective equipment and oxygen to countries that needed them.

Tanoto Foundation trustee Anderson Tanoto and Vanke Foundation chairman Wang Shi spoke about how their foundations had leveraged business powers and connections to help deliver such aid.

Mr Bloomberg, as well as Mr Tanoto and Mr Wang, also spoke about how it was not easy to give away money, emphasising that foundations had to do their homework to decide which issues to bring their large financial resources to bear.

While Covid-19 had been an obvious flashpoint that sparked record philanthropic giving, participants said they hoped it would not take another cataclysm to spark such generosity.

Temasek executive director and chief executive officer Dilhan Pillay said: "Covid-19 showed us how, when humanity really needs to tackle a challenge, it can muster the indomitable human spirit to do so. So, we must do it again and again."

He called on participants to develop new models of philanthropy that can multiply impact and be a force for good, noting how since 2003, the Singapore investment company has set aside a portion of its returns to be shared with the wider community, at home as well as in the region.

Mr Pillay said Temasek sees itself as a provider of catalytic capital, deploying its financial capital to stimulate innovation and growth and developing human capital by training and upskilling its staff, for instance.

"This is because, in everything we do with our capital, we see our capital as a force for good. While we aspire to do well, we are also determined to do right and do good in all that we do," he added.

Urging philanthropies to continue with the momentum of giving gained during the pandemic, Mr Tharman said: "The more that is done voluntarily, by those who have wealth and those who are better off, the less you need for government to step into the game eventually, through a more formal tax and transfer system.

"You need both, but I think leadership on the part of philanthropies and corporates to do the right thing leads to not just an alternative way of transferring monies, it leads to a better culture. It leads to a culture that people can see and feel, that's quite different from simply having governments collect taxes and then finding the best way of distributing it to the right people."

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