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Philanthropy and Buffett Junior

November 05, 2013 16:47 IST

While his father has often been quoted on tips for investing, Buffett junior’s focus is on spreading the word about both self-improvement and ways in which to make a positive difference in the world – with a special focus on solving hunger, says Rajni Bakshi.

A new book by a philanthropist and farmer might further intensify the global debate about what kind of giving works best. 

It might also offer additional perspectives on how Indian companies might comply with the now virtually compulsory requirement to spend 2 per cent of profits on ‘corporate social responsibility’.

The author of 40 Chances: Finding Hope in a Hungry World is a billionaire by inheritance. Howard G. Buffett is the son of Warren Buffett who is reported to be the second richest person in the USA. 

Warren Buffett's other son, Peter, also made a splash some months back by writing an article in the New York Times which said that most philanthropy is not solving problems it claims to address.

Howard Buffett is drawing on his life as a farmer to find ways of meaningful action -- not just by billionaire philanthropists but by anyone. 

His premise is that a farmer can expect to have about 40 growing seasons in a life time. 

Applying that in a wider sense, Buffett says that most people have “40 productive years to do the best job we can, whatever our passions or goals may be.”

While his father has often been quoted on tips for investing, Buffett junior’s focus is on spreading the word about both self-improvement and ways in which to make a positive difference in the world – with a special focus on solving hunger.

Buffett’s list of 40 Principles are mostly self-improvement tips based on age-old wisdom, such as:  “Dig in: Am I acting with purpose and urgency in my life?” and “Grow Tall: Am I taking smart risks?”

But he is taking on various aspects of the US government policies regarding food – most of which is covered in the Farm Bill that is redrafted every four years. 

For instance, in a recent interview to National Public Radio (NPR), Buffett criticised the policy which dictates that 50 percent of what the US sends out as food aid has to be shipped on US vessels. 

Describing this as archaic and “pure politics” Buffett said such practices are neither in the interest of hungry people nor US taxpayers.

He has also criticised US farm subsidies which have taken the form of ‘gold-plated crop insurance’. Some of his neighboring farmers, Buffett said in the interview, have “…benefited more from the revenue from crop insurance than if they had had a good average crop. 

That’s a gold-plated policy and it’s not the right policy. Crop insurance should be a policy that keeps people from going broke, to make sure they can farm next year, but not to make them rich.”

One of the heroes in Buffett’s book is an American farmer who has improved the productivity of his farmland by 20 to 30 percent by building the organic material in the soil and improving the surrounding environment. 

Writes Buffett: “We need more leaders in the farming sector who continue to look at the value of their soil over time and what they can do to improve it, because it also has the return of increasing their revenue.”

On the controversial issue of Genetically Modified Organisims (GMOs) Buffett appears to be an agnostic. In the interview with NPR he accepted that “the biggest legitimate concern is what will we have in 20 or 30 years as a consequence of GMOs that we don’t understand today?...It’s pretty complex, and you have some very polarized opinions on it and different agendas on it and that makes it tough, particularly in the area of politics.”

An American activist organization known as Food Tank in support of Buffett’s approach has  circulated their own list of 40 inspiring farming organizations across the world that have answers on how to make the food system more environmentally, economically, and socially just.

Food Tank’s list includes, among others:

  • Argentine Tea Farmers Certified in Sustainability, which enables 200 small-scale farmers to adopt practices for social, economic, and environmental sustainability.
  • Basque Farmers Union in Spain which provides education and economic support to its 6,000 members and won the 2013 Food Sovereignty Prize for its support of small-scale ecologically sustainable  farming.
  • The World Vegetable Centre (AVRDC) in Taiwan, which has studied the impact that a lack of access to vegetables has on childhood malnutrition and childhood mortality. With successful pilot gardens in Lao PDR, Thailand, and the Philippines, AVRDC is also working to implement teaching gardens in elementary schools in Burkina Faso, Tanzania, Bhutan, and Nepal.
  • Fiji Ministry of Agriculture’s Rural and Outer Island Program – This government program helps smallholder farmers to diversify their agricultural products to increase income and move away from dependence on a single crop.
  • Haiti’s Group of Four (G4) – This coalition of the country’s largest peasant organisations has supported the conservation of native seeds and development of small-scale agriculture.

Speaking about his son’s book Warren Buffett has emphasised a challenge that many philanthropists face. 

In business success and failure is easy to track. But in philanthropy, Warren Buffett said in the NPR interview, there is a risk of continuing to do things that don’t work. But, added Buffett senior, since philanthropy usually tackles stubborn problems “…that have resisted intellect and money in the past…you’re doing important things, you have to expect mistakes.”

Often this cannot be done without taking a stand. For example, much of the grassroots activism in the sphere of agriculture is now focused on the rights of farmers to replant their seeds. In the USA replanting of some patented seeds is now illegal. Many developing countries are under pressure to adopt laws that would make seed replanting illegal.

The big question is how many philanthropists will take stands that will push back policies that undermine the livelihoods and resources of those at the lower rungs of the economic ladder. This will also be the toughest test for most CSR programs by Indian companies. 

It is easy enough to support welfare programs -- feeding the hungry or sending poor children to school. It is much more challenging to device philanthropic programmes that actually address the problems at the source. 

Rajni Bakshi