Terence Blacker: The rich still try to buy their way in to heaven

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The Independent Online

For a true appreciation of the delicate balance which exists between contemporary wealth, conscience and poverty, the best place to start is at a prominent charity dinner and auction. At these fashionable events, various key players in the great soap opera of contemporary life are brought together.

The majority of guests will be people on mind-boggling salaries but there will also be a healthy smattering of good-egg celebrities (actors, models, TV presenters), there to show their caring sides. Glamorous PR folk will be circulating, socially lubricating, while a few media types will be on hand to ensure that no good deed goes unreported.

At a certain point in proceedings, the better-known bleeding-heart celebrities will earn their charity stripes by saying a few platitudinous words, perhaps offering some small personal item to be auctioned later. Just when you think it could not get any worse, Lord Archer will appear on stage and invite bids. The sums being offered will be jaw-dropping and the successful bidder will be warmly applauded.

At the end of the evening, everyone will be happy. The millionaires will have given something back in a visible way. The celebrities will have placed their portfolio of good deeds healthily in the black. The charity will have made money. The guests will go home with a warm feeling in the pit of the stomach which is only partially caused by the excellent food and wine.

The relationship between extreme wealth on one side of the world and abject misery on the other is morally complex. Only the most churlish would complain when the very rich offload a fraction of their wealth in the direction of the Third World, but now that giving has become big business, there is something exploitative about the process.

Recently, Oxfam has introduced a scheme whereby serious givers of £10,000 or more can sponsor a specific and named project, in return for which they will be given regular updates on what their money is providing, the chance to pay a visit and see at first-hand what is going on, and a plaque. For those with £100,000 burning a hole in their pocket, a scheme called The Big Give will help direct the money to the right charitable outlet. "It's not as easy as it seems to give money away intelligently," according to Alec Reed, the businessman behind the project.

The truth is that there is a pay-off when it comes to conspicuous giving. It is the early 21st-century equivalent of the Bible's rich man trying to buy his way into heaven. When Camila Batmanghelidjh, the founder and director of Kids Company, refers to the "boys' club" mentality that now surrounds the business of charity, she is on to something. Often giving, as she points out, is "using the vulnerability of other people to self-promote".

The rich are engaging in a financial version of carbon offsetting, buying moral credit to enable them to go on earning absurd, usually undeserved, sums of money. Under this arrangement, the poor of the Third World become a sort of ethical accessory, like a new house or business. Villages are visited by celebrity ambassadors and caring millionaires who pose, smiling, beside grateful, well-fed children. Now and then, a famous actress might even visit and adopt a child herself. The next step, perhaps, is to formalise the whole process and rename villages after those famous, rich people who have helped them. Welcome to Britneyville. You are now leaving Madonnatown.

Naomi's hard shell

Naomi Campbell is said to have put her anger issues aside and is now concentrating on her business interests. Many environmentalists, reading of her plans for Malindi in Kenya, will be wishing she had stuck to throwing mobile phones at her maid.

Campbell is a regular visitor to the area, in which a number of rare species of turtle have been protected, and has decided that the coastline lacks one thing: a multi-million dollar casino. Billionaire's Resort, as it is to be called, will undo years of conservation work, but the supermodel has different priorities. "You have fabulous beaches," she says. "But something needs to be put correct to attract big -time investors." Clearly, Naomi has a natural talent as a developer.

* Every day, the relationship between mankind and its computers becomes less practical and more personal.

The chat-room encouraged the idea of developing an alternative persona in cyberspace. The extraordinary phenomenon of Second Life, in which almost 10 million people have become living, shopping, money-spending residents of an alternative, virtual world, takes the idea of separate cyber-personalities a step further.

Now Professor Alan Marshall of Queen's University, Belfast, has invented the "haptic" or touch technology which will enable computers to convey touch, so that, according to the sweetly innocent press reports, people will now be able to shake hands across the globe. Computers' inner workings may be becoming more human, but the things themselves still look wrong. If in the future we are doomed to live on increasingly intimate terms with our computers, could someone try to make them rather more attractive?

terblacker@aol.com

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