Thursday, December 13, 2007

Emerging-market billionaires turn to philanthropy

Stuck in the snarl of a traffic jam in his bullet-proof BMW, the richest man in Turkey lets loose with a satisfied grin.

Since 2000, Husnu Ozyegin has spent more than $50 million of his own money building 36 primary schools and girls' dormitories in the poorest parts of Turkey. Next to the Turkish government, Ozyegin is the biggest individual supporter of schools in the country - and an official from the Education Ministry has told him that his market share is increasing.

"Not bad," he says in his gruff, cigarette-scarred voice as he pockets his mobile phone. "If I can have an impact on one million Turkish people in the next 10 years, I will be happy."

The global wealth boom has created a new breed of billionaire in countries like Turkey, India, Mexico and Russia. Propelled by their surging economies, robust currencies and globally competitive companies, they have ridden a boom in local stock markets that have reached previously untouchable heights in the past five years. Now, a number of them are using their wealth to bolster their standing and push for social changes.

These entrepreneurs, who have made their billions in private-sector industries like telecommunications, petrochemicals and finance, are distinct from a past generation of international billionaires, most with ties to Middle Eastern oil or valuable land holdings. Not only have they become the richest people in their countries, but rank among the wealthiest in the world.

For these emerging economies, where loose regulation, opaque privatization processes and monopolistic business practices abound, this extraordinary and uneven creation of wealth rivals in many ways the great American fortunes made at the turn of the 20th century. While such countries have long been used to vast disparities between a tiny wealthy elite and impoverished masses, the new elites share some characteristics with their counterparts in the United States.

And just as Rockefellers, Carnegies and Morgans once used philanthropy to sooth the rough edges of their cutthroat business reputations - as have a current generation of wealthy Americans like Bill Gates of Microsoft and Sanford Weill of Citigroup - local billionaires in emerging markets are trying to do the same.

Carlos Slim, the telecommunications entrepreneur in Mexico who is worth more than $50 billion, has pledged billions to his two foundations that will target health and education. The richest man in Russia, Roman Abramovich, with a net worth of $18 billion, has channeled more than $1 billion into the poor Arctic province of Chukotka, where he also serves as governor, building schools and hospitals.

To be sure, the sums donated are relatively small in light of the pressing social needs these countries face. But as targeted, return-driven philanthropy has gained in popularity through the efforts of Gates and others, emerging-market billionaires are applying similar bottom-line lessons at home.

"What we are seeing in these countries," Jane Wales, president of the Global Philanthropy Forum, said, "are people emerging from the private sector with tremendous wealth who are attracted to highly strategic philanthropy."

In Turkey, Ozyegin, 62, with a net worth of $3.5 billion, did not secure his wealth by buying government assets on the cheap or by belonging to a rich family with control of a monopoly - two traditional routes to great wealth in the developing world.

As founder of the midtier corporate bank, Finansbank, he cashed in on a rush of interest from foreign financial institutions in Turkish banks last year and sold a controlling stake in his bank to National Bank of Greece, receiving $2.7 billion in cash.

Flush with money and ambition, he decided to do all that he could to lift Turkish educational standards at the primary school and university level.

Sitting in his personal conference room in the Finansbank headquarters, Ozyegin recalls Aug. 18, 2006, the date that the sale of his 49 percent stake officially closed.

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