Bridging the gap

Dato Sri Dr Tahir has signed the Giving Pledge, the first billionaire from Indonesia to do so. He tells Philanthropy Age why he hopes other emerging market entrepreneurs will follow his lead

It is midday in Bandung, West Java, and the heavens have opened. In the grounds of Dr Hasan Sadikin hospital, patients and staff crowd noisily under red-tiled awnings, resigned to waiting out the worst of the deluge, or steeling themselves to brave the downpour in a bid for more permanent shelter.

Two men press on, striding through the rain and challenging a large group of less hardy souls to keep up. One is the hospital’s director, Dr H Bayu Wahyudi, dressed in a regulation white coat. The other, casually outfitted in a grey jacket and dark slacks, is the man who is blazing a new path between private philanthropy and  Indonesia’s creaking healthcare system.

In April last year, when Tahir donated more than $100m to the fight against some of Indonesia’s most pressing public health problems, the country’s most self-effacing billionaire became its most high-profile philanthropist. Today Tahir, as he is known, is in Bandung to witness first-hand the impact of his giving, to meet the men and women whose lives his largesse will prolong, and to draw national media attention to the ongoing battle against three of Indonesia’s most belligerent killers.

Home to around 45 million people, or 20 per cent of Indonesia’s total population, West Java is the most populous and most densely populated of the country’s 33 provinces. Its largest hospital, a sprawling Dutch-colonial maze, is at the forefront of Indonesia’s efforts to combat the spread of tuberculosis, HIV and malaria among its poorest citizens. Tahir’s money – directed to Dr Hasan Sadikin through the Global Fund, a Geneva-based non-profit – will enable that fight to continue for years to come.

“In the past, sick people used to come to me asking me to help them, and it was actually quite straightforward because I would just get the doctor and pay the expenses,” says Tahir. “If they were healed then I would feel joy and satisfaction, but if they were not healed or they died then there was nothing more I could have done.

“Now I am learning about prevention, and it’s on a totally different level,” he continues. “It was difficult to earn the money in the first place, and so you have to find someone you trust to spend it wisely. You have to hold them accountable for how effectively the money is spent. There is a greater responsibility on me now because I want proper investment that is of direct benefit to the end-user.”

Tahir’s 2013 donation was matched by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, establishing a war chest worth more than $200m. The first $50m was pledged to the global push to eradicate polio, a viral disease that as recently as 1998 killed or paralysed thousands of people each year. An additional $130m was donated to fight HIV, malaria and tuberculosis in Tahir’s home country, while $26.5m was set aside to improve access to family planning tools in Indonesia and wider Southeast Asia. For the Global Fund, it was the largest gift to date by a private foundation in an emerging economy.

“It’s incredibly important for us,” says Christoph Benn, head of external relations for the Global Fund. “Our efforts so far have been mainly funded by traditional donors in North America, Europe and Japan. And these economies have gone through, and in many cases are still facing, a budgetary crisis. They can’t carry the burden on their own any more.”

The fund has invested more than $650m into tackling Indonesia’s public health woes, helping to treat more than 1.3 million cases of tuberculosis, dole out more than 9 million mosquito nets and fund lifesaving HIV treatment for 30,000 citizens. With a population of more than 234 million people, more than half of which lives below the national poverty line, the Southeast Asian country has a heavy load to carry.

“If we want to eliminate the disease burden in these countries, we have to work together,” says Benn. “I honestly hope many will be inspired by Tahir and see this is a very effective way of channelling their money to those really in need. This money will save lives.”

“There is dignity in philanthropy. Success is not about how well educated, wealthy and respected you are. It’s about how you give back”

In December Tahir became the first Indonesian signatory of the Giving Pledge, joining the world’s most elite group by pledging publicly to give away at least half of his wealth before the end of his life, or in his will. It marked a sea change for a self-made billionaire who has long juggled philanthropy and capitalism in a low-key fashion, parlaying millions of dollars from his business empire to the Tahir Foundation to fund scholarships for poor students, pay medical bills for needy local families and aid universities in the US, Singapore, Indonesia, and China.

Now Tahir has stepped reluctantly into the spotlight in an effort to encourage others to do the same. Although the Indonesian government has ambitious plans for universal healthcare, total healthcare spending in the country still accounts for just 2.8 per cent of GDP and 5.3 per cent of the  government budget, according to the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU). Hospitals are overcrowded, with just 0.6 beds per 1,000 citizens. And although the EIU expects spending on healthcare to rise in the near future, by nearly 12% a year on average over the next five years, that will still push spending per head up to just $164 by end-2017.

At this point, a handful of donations from a handful of the country’s richest men and women could kickstart a new era in Indonesian healthcare. By bridging the funding gap between what the government can afford and what the people need, private individuals could bankroll new facilities, research and education programmes, stimulating a dramatic upswing in the prospects of everyday Indonesians.

“There is dignity in philanthropy. Success is not about how well educated, wealthy and respected you are,” says Tahir. “It’s about how you give back, and so it is nothing special for me to give back to a country that has given me so much.

“Philanthropy is very new in Asia, not just in Indonesia, and changing a culture is not easy,” he adds. “But I think that somebody must take the initiative and although it may take ten or 20 years, we can change that culture. I’ve learned that it’s shameful to die a rich man. I would hope to use any publicity to convince others here in Indonesia of the same thing.”