Almost immediately after people around the globe watched and mourned as the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris erupted in flames last week, donations began pouring in and fundraisers were established to rebuild the cathedral.
Three of France’s wealthiest families in the fashion industry, combined with donations from other companies, pledged a total of $700 million, U.S. President Donald Trump offered assistance and New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan started a fundraiser called “From St. Patrick’s to Notre Dame.”
Restoring the Notre Dame is a worthy cause — the cathedral is not only a symbol of France, but an incredible feat of humanity and a testament to European art and history.
But it’s awfully depressing that the world’s wealthiest individuals jumped to support the reconstruction of a building rather than fund the alleviation of real instances of human suffering.
In France, economic inequality has been a major issue recently. The “Yellow Vest” movement that occurs on a weekly basis is in protest of rising gas taxes, and homelessness in Paris has risen by 21 percent this past year.
None of these issues have been properly addressed and the protests rage on — yet soon after the fire, an influx of donations raised more than $1 billion. This has sparked national discourse on whether the money would be better donated to France’s poor.
Consider also Puerto Rico, which was ravaged by Hurricane Maria in 2017. The response from the U.S. government was infamously slow and relief was paltry — it has sent just $11 billion so far. The island continues to struggle to rebuild its badly damaged electrical system, and nearly 3,000 lives were lost.
And though some American billionaires, such as Elon Musk and Citadel CEO Ken Griffin, have donated to the cause, the response to Puerto Rico seemed lackluster compared to the way the wealthiest jumped to donate to Notre Dame’s repair fund.
Many people pointed out this hypocrisy in connection with the burning of three black churches this month in Louisiana. After a GoFundMe page was spread online, more than $2 million was raised for the cause.
Notre Dame may be a cause that French billionaires feel especially moved to support because it’s one of the country’s defining symbols. However, I would argue if one is so lucky to be so immensely wealthy, one should be more generous with that wealth.
In our world, money equals power, and that power means being able to change people’s lives in basically an instant.
Instead of waiting for money to trickle in through donations, a billionaire has the power to deliver the entire sum needed to save lives and rebuild from destruction all at once. Given how rich these billionaires are, they’d be able to donate to Notre Dame and several relief funds while still having more money than most people will have in their lifetimes.
At the heart of the matter is that these billionaires ultimately don’t feel they have any obligation to share their money. Human rights activist Qasim Rashid summed up this idea neatly in a recent tweet:
It would cost billionaires a small portion of their wealth to contribute to ending some of the world’s greatest problems, and yet they can’t be bothered. If that doesn’t spell the absence of empathy, I don’t know what does.