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JOURNEYS: Within Our Reach: A Starving World

Howard G. and Howard W. Buffett want people to know they can make a difference in a hungry world

The Wizard of Omaha's eldest son, Howard Graham Buffett,

heads a foundation focused on improving the standard of living and quality of life for the world’s most impoverished, marginalized populations. Food security is among the foundation's top priorities, not surprising given that its namesake chairman-CEO is a farmer with strong roots in his agriculture-rich native Nebraska. He's also a staunch conservationist and an accomplished photographer.

A former Douglas County Commissioner now living in Decatur, Illinois, where he farms, Howard G. traveled to developing nations as a youth. His late mother, Susie, cultivated a social justice bent in him and his siblings. Those experiences helped shape the work of his Howard G. Buffett Foundation. His travels and the foundation's work, told through the prism of experiences lived, relationships built and lessons learned, highlight his new book, 40 Chances: Finding Hope in a Hungry World. 

He co-authored the bestseller with his son and former foundation executive director Howard Warren Buffett, who has extensive experience dealing with international and domestic issues. As a U.S. Department of Defense official he.oversaw ag-based economic stabilization-redevelopment programs in Iraq and Afghanistan. As a White House policy advisor he co-wrote the President’s cross-sector partnership strategy. The Columbia University lecturer also worked for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the United Nations.  

Growing up he made many trips with his father to challenging places. Like his old man he is a farmer, too, with a spread near Tekamah. 

Now or never

The book by this father-son team calls readers to take action and do something good for the world, even if it's in your own backyard. The authors proffer principles for doing and giving and making a lasting impact with the limited chances you're granted in a lifetime.

"If there's an overriding thought it's that anybody can do something. It doesn't matter how big or small it is, it's just doing something" that counts," says Howard G. He adds, "Don't be afraid to take risks. Even going down to your local food pantry to volunteer might be a risk for somebody. Make a long-term commitment – don't just do it to see what it's like. That message is to NGOs and foundations and everybody who works in any kind of philanthropic area. 

"Figure it out, focus on it and then stick with it."

The Buffetts hope their book gives people a sense of urgency to act. 

"The truth is most of us just go through life," Howard G. says. "We don't think about the fact that by time we get out of college and get a little experience we've probably got 40 years to really make a positive impact. That's our prime. Just do it right. We cant take stuff back and eventually we do run out of time. That's what the title is about."

"That gets to the core of what 40 Chances is – about having a limited number of opportunities to do the best job we can in our life," Howard W. says. "And that can be being the best mother or father, being the best mentor, being the best resident of a neighborhood or community. It doesn't matter what it is, it's just that you seize those opportunities."

Lessons learned

Much of the Buffetts' work plays out overseas, where the West's expectations or assumptions don't hold much currency amid the developing world's harsh realities. Howard G.'s seen many entities try to come up with First World solutions for Third World problems, but the metrics don't always apply. The consequences of planting the wrong seed crop for a certain climate or soil in a vulnerable place like Eastern Congo, for example, can be disastrous. 

"Everywhere we go and work in the world life is not predictable," Howard G. says. "If you're a small farmer struggling feed your family, if one thing goes wrong you can have a child die, so the consequences of what can happen are so significant and magnified."

His foundation works in some tough environments, including Eastern Congo, Rwanda and Liberia, where food and water insecurity, poverty and conflict are constant threats. 

He supports a research farm in South Africa, where the foundation does conservation work returning cheetahs to the wild and supporting anti-poaching measures. The farm grows cover crops, with the goal of making these crops available to several countries on the African continent. He makes a point of visiting wherever his foundation's active, no matter how remote or unstable the site, in order to put his own eyes on a situation. 

"Each trip leads to something," he says. "I see something, I learn something. I would argue it is important to do it and I think other people need to do more of it. Anything I've ever learned that's stuck with me has been in part because I've gone somewhere and experienced it. I think it has to do with my being a photographer. It makes you pay attention to the detailed scene of what's happening. I absorb a lot of things by osmosis. As a photographer you have to be there to get the photograph. I think the same way with this, you have to be there. 

"When you see a lot of pain and see death it's very hard to deal with. I don't care who you are, you internalize that somehow. What a camera allows you to do is to take pictures of that to show the world what's happening. It gives you a whole new purpose of what you're trying to do, so photography's been a huge thing for me."

This "journalist at heart" has published several books of photography featuring what he's "seen and experienced" around the globe. 

He's learned the only way to truly appreciate the jeopardy people face is to go where they live and witness their peril. 

"You can't understand what people go through unless you see it for yourself. I can tell you what it's like to go into a landfill where kids are living and dying because I've been to where people literally live in trash. When you walk in there your eyes burn and you can't breathe. You have to experience that."

Want is as near as our own backyard

The Buffetts say even if you can't travel the world, opportunities to make a difference are as near as a local pantry or the Food Bank for the Heartland, where Howard W.'s volunteered. In the middle of America's Breadbasket people face hunger and malnutrition daily.

"The numbers have grown so much in this country of people who are food insecure," Howard G. says. "I think there are roughly 250,000 food insecure people in Neb. That's right in the heart of America. You have to say to yourself, That's not right, something's totally wrong with that."

Teaching people to grow their own food is part of building a secure, sustainable food culture. When Howard W. discovered all Omaha Public Schools' designated career academies had been fulfilled except one – urban agriculture – he helped establish an Urban Ag and Natural Resources career academy at Bryan High School, where he also helped form a Future Farmers of America club. Both are thriving there.

"I've been able to mentor some of the students at Bryan and have an impact on their lives," he says. "Those relationships and the gratification I get from being involved with very local things are extremely rewarding. It's so enriching what takes place there."

Father and son encourage folks to get out of their comfort zone and give time to worthy causes like these in their own community.

"I just think being there and showing up is so important," Howard G. says. "You don't have to have money to make a difference."

He says America's generosity and volunteerism stand it alone. 

"Nobody volunteers like Americans. Americans are great volunteers, and they're great volunteers right here in Omaha."

Staying focused

If he's learned anything, it's that mitigating problems like chronic hunger, food insecurity and poor nutrition is gradual at best in places without America's entrepreneurial-volunteer spirit.

"I'm very impatient and I've learned I have to be more patient. I'm a Type A personality, so I'm like, I'm going to go in there and figure it out when I get there. It doesn't work that way. One of the things you learn is there's no short-term fix or involvement. You have to be in this for the long haul. That changes how you do things. For us it means we have to stay very focused."

He may not have the legendary focus of his father but he's gotten better as he's learned to say no and to accept he can't do everything.

"I realized the consequences if I don't stay focused – I get distracted, I'm wasting money, I'm not making impact. That's just something I had to get better at. If I'm going to be focused and have impact I just have to say no to people, even very good friends. If I did all those things people come to me with I would get nothing done."

His advice for organizations and individuals is the same.

"Figure out what you want to do and just do that and don't get distracted, don't get sidetracked, don't try to save the world. If you're going to try to save the world you're going to save nobody. You've got to be focused. The more narrow you are the more impact you'll have."

Coming full circle

Doing the book brought many benefits.

"It helped the foundation itself gain additional focus and learn lessons from the past," Howard W. says. "It allowed us to start honing in and narrowing down where we wanted to go from there, whether multi-year crop-based research on new varieties of corn or better ways to reduce soil erosion over a decade of no till with cover crops." 

Or building a new hydroelectric plant in Eastern Congo that will bring light to the masses to catalyze investment in agribusiness that will in turn create jobs for people whose only alternative is conflict. Or reducing poaching as a way to cut off funds (from the sale of elephant tusks and rhino horns) to rebels.

"For me personally this retrospective and introspective look was almost like going through a whole other undergraduate degree," Howard W. says. "My dad and I hadn't as much time to travel together the last couple years, so working on this book together was a new kind of journey of taking everything we had done together in person and then analyzing it. It's been incredibly rewarding." 

The Howards were joined by family patriarch Warren, who wrote the book's foreword, for the launch in New York City. The paperback version from Simon & Schuster is out this fall.

"That was fun. It brought us all together," Howard G. says.

If there's one thing Howard G. wants people to take away from the book, it's for people to do something.

"I just feel like if we do these things it will make a difference. Even if it doesn't make a difference, we tried and we might learn something from that failure. My dad talks about staying in your circle of confidence. I know what I'm good at, I know what I'm not good at, so I stick with that. But that's a big enough circle for me to still step into things I'm not comfortable with. 

"Like I tell young people, 'Get uncomfortable, just go do some things that make you go, Holy crap.' That's what's going to make you grow, that's what's going to make you want to do more because you're going to gain some confidence. Some things might not work, but so what."

 

“Figure out what you want to do and just do that and don't get distracted, don't get sidetracked, don't try to save the world. If you're going to try to save the world you're going to save nobody. You've got to be focused. The more narrow you are the more impact you'll have.”
“My dad and I hadn't as much time to travel together the last couple years, so working on this book together was a new kind of journey of taking everything we had done together in person and then analyzing it. It's been incredibly rewarding.”

 

Read more of Leo Adam Biga's work at leoadambiga.wordpress.com.

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