Don’t Question the Billionaires, Question the System

Two days ago, I was glued to my screen together with millions of people worldwide wondering if Notre Dame will survive the fire or collapse. Like so many others I was sad – to me more than anything else, Notre Dame is a piece of art, created by thousands of best craftsmen and artists who worked on it for centuries and gave it millions of hours of dedication and hard labour. It is a monument to the history, artistry and hard work of our western civilization.

But having been in a war, watching it burn I felt strangely “content” that it was only a building. The fact that people weren’t hurt mixed my sadness with happiness. Buildings can be rebuilt, even the historic ones – look at the St Stephen’s Cathedral in Vienna (bombarded during the WWII), Teatro La Fenice in Venice (burned twice), Frauenkirche in Dresden (WWII), Greek Temples, the list goes on.

I was amazed and very excited that within 24h, French millionaires pledged €600 million for the reconstruction. What I loved about their reaction is that they didn’t need to be asked. I just loved the gesture and the respect for history and art. But now people are angry.

Why can we collect almost a billion dollars within few hours for a building when we have so many people in this world starving or living in abominable conditions, everyone is asking.

I believe this is a wrong question to ask. Because the problem is, as history and experience have shown, that the fact that so many people need help is a systematic (and climatic) failure. Putting money, even a billion dollars, on this problem will not solve it. (Just ask BIll and Melinda Gates.) I will never forget how disheartened my mother was, who for years was trying to help hungry children in Sudan. This was 40 years ago and not much has changed. I will also never forget how disappointed a friend was after her two years of working as an aide in Mozambique – the way things were set up, we just couldn’t help make things better, she explained.

The real question is what kind of a system allows a few companies to accumulate such wealth while the planet is dying and people are still starving. The billionaires aren’t the problem. The Notre Dame isn’t the problem (alas, let’s rebuild it!). The problem is the system.

So let’s not ask why we have so much money to rebuild a building. Let’s ask how we can change the system so that instead of conglomerates having hundreds of millions to donate, the earth is cleaned up and all people live in dignity.

That of course is a much harder (if not impossible?) problem to solve. It’s way easier to ask for donations.

 But solve it we must.

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