What does $32bn buy a philanthropist?

With news that Saudi Arabian billionaire Prince Alwaleed bin Talal has pledged to give $32bn to charity; what impact could a donation of that size achieve?

As founder and chairman of Riyadh-based Kingdom Holding Company (KHC), Alwaleed has amassed the funds through decades of successful business dealings and the amount he has pledged to give away through Alwaleed Philanthropies - the prince’s personal philanthropic group - is equivalent to his entire wealth.

For this kind of spend he might expect to help eradicate disease. Alwaleed Philanthropies pledged $30m to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in 2013, with the aim of helping to wipe out polio. The Gates Foundation is the top grant maker in the US by a wide margin, giving a total of $3.3bn away in 2013 alone, nearly $2.5bn clear of its nearest rival for top spot. The money goes quickly though, with global vaccination campaigns costing upward of a $1bn per year worldwide.

Malaria has also been a top target for large-scale funding, with the potential to eat up billions in pursuit of eradicating the disease. One estimate from the Malaria Elimination Initiative puts the cost at $8.5bn, but that figure excludes research and development, not to mention the impact of drug resistance. Malaria No More, an advocacy group, estimates the annual cost of protecting people simply from the spread of the disease at $5.1bn, and that’s without the development of a robust vaccine.

Hunger too is a pervasive problem threatening the health of millions. Last week, the UN reported that it needed $4.5bn in top-up funding to support Syrian refugees and ensure its aid agencies, such as the World Food Programme (WFP), could keep feeding them. So far this year it has achieved less than 25 per cent of the required funding. This has led the WFP to halve the values of food vouchers given to Syrian refugees in Lebanon, and it may yet slash all assistance to the more than 400,000 Syrian refugees currently in Jordan.

WFP has said it needs another $139m to keep its programme to help Syrian refugees running until September. In 2008 the UN estimated that $30bn per year was needed to end world hunger, a figure that has been oft repeated since.

More could certainly be spent on furthering the rights of women. UN Women reports that in 2014 it received just $322m in funding from 143 government core donors. The UN secretary-general, Ban Ki-moon, has set a modest target of $500m in funding for the organisation that works to advance the cause of women. There are many other foundations working in the sphere and the 2015 International Women’s Day highlighted some of their key targets, including educating the 31 million girls worldwide who are not enrolled in school, and eliminating child marriage for the 1 in 9 girls in the developing world who is married before adulthood.

Alwaleed’s donation is enormous and marks a leadership moment for Arab philanthropists. With careful investment, it could make significant inroads in tackling some of the world’s toughest challenges.      

Photo credit: WFP/Deepesh Shrestha