The Mantle – A Response to Buffett and Exley | August 21, 2013

November 8, 2013


Mr. Peter Buffett, Mr. Zack Exley

Thank you. Thank you for bringing charitable-industrial complexes and unglamorous truths about ending poverty out of the closet.

I thought it was important to bring a millennial voice into the discussion. After all, if science has it right (and it often does), this Millennial generation will have to save the day—or see the end of it all.

The three of us agree that many in (fancy) high-level philanthropic spaces create more problems than they try to solve. That’s what Mr. Buffett calls “conscience laundering”—philanthropy as a business that wants to survive as it is.

The solution proposed by Mr. Buffett is to avoid creating problems by using imagination—the necessary imagination to prevent business and philanthropic solutions to create more problems. This would avoid the Kafkaesque situation described by Mr. Buffett where philanthropists search for “answers with their right hand to problems that others in the room created with their left hand.“ The beginning of such imagination is a really check—and an admission. For Mr. Buffett, this might have been when he “sponsored the distribution of condoms to stop the spread of AIDS in a brothel area, which ended up creating a higher price for unprotected sex.”

When philanthropy is “conscience laundering,” it sustains inequality. When philanthropy is instrumentalist in the sense that it is a means to the control of the philanthropist’s environment—and “conscience laundering” is that, in my opinion at least—it might be expressed as a commitment to productivity and growth. But it largely serves an assumption for the right of capital to seek places and processes through which to maximize return on investment, and the necessity for all to be in it service. This cycle can be called “philanthropic colonialism.”

Mr. Buffett’s suggestion to break this cycle is a new philanthropic code, which he is open to discover, a code that gives everyone a chance at opportunity, joy, and fulfillment. In other words, he calls for systemic change with regards to the charitable-industrial complex. A change that puts humans—not financial returns on investment—first.

Ricky Martin attends a fundraiser for Save the Children and Artists for Peace and Justice in 2011, which was sponsored by the luxury goods company Bulgari (via)

Enter Mr. Exley and his identified issue: philanthropic adventurism characterized by innovation and imagination. In other words, the explosion of social entrepreneurship and its shortcomings. Nell Edgington has a particularly good piece on the shortcomings of social entrepreneurship, where he identifies elevating the individual, poor economies of scale, ignoring current efforts, lack of evidence, the commercial assumption, and the lack of an ethical framework as the sources of those shortcomings to an otherwise innovative field. But that does not mean, Mr. Exley, that there is no crisis of imagination and that technology is not a solution.

There is a crisis of imagination, and it has to do with an educational system designed for the industrial times of the past, an educational system that is not adapted to the challenges we face in the 21st century: pollution, climate change, food security, gender inequality, unemployment, poverty, modern slavery, war, and so on.  Our most profound problems tend to cross national boundaries, requiring not just interdisciplinary thought but also interlocking experiences. Also, we need technology, in part, to accelerate solutions to 21st century issues. There is not enough time to resolve them without technological innovations.

Take my example. I left home after graduating high school early and moved to the United States to attend college (International Relations). After some work experience in China, I went back for my graduate degree (Political Science). After more work over four continents, I completed an LLM (International Criminal Law). High marks, scholarships, and praised performance throughout. All in all, we’re talking 22 years of (by all recognized standards, quality) education and several years of international work experience. Yet. Yet before participating in creative leadership atTHNK: The Amsterdam School of Creative Leadership, I had no idea how to bring ideas (especially the humanist ones) to fruition in a sustainable manner. I wish it were just me, but really, looking around and researching the issue, it isn’t.

Mr. Exley makes an important point when he says that governments are necessary participants in the large scale changes that can end poverty and all its awful consequences, from war to diseases to lack of fulfillment, to cite a few. This is certainly true when it comes to necessary educational reform. But if we are talking about truly sustainable, transformative change, other sectors (private, nonprofit, citizen, academic) are just as important. That is especially the case if we truly want to avoid having the same Kafkaesque discussions at the same high-level meetings with no truly sustainable practical outputs.

What we need is talent versed in creative flows to be supported in trying out (and sometimes failing) and finding sustainable solutions to our unlivable challenges: poverty, war, diseases, modern slavery, our environment, our education systems, and more. Government support is needed, but governments without the talent powering them do not go anywhere. Philanthropists supporting talent and creative heroes outside of government are needed. And by support, I also mean compensation that allows talent to live on and raise families. According to the Institute for Economics and Peace, in 2012, violence cost USD 9.46 trillion. According to the same source, that’s 75 times more than the official aid that was given to countries in need last year. What we need is humanist action that shows how much we value work that prevents war, the spread of diseases, human trafficking, environmental degradation, and growing inequality and poverty.

In September, I am headed to one of those hero places, The Amani Institute in Kenya. The institute prepares next-generation talent to tackle global challenges by filling the gap between university and the workforce through a new approach to higher education. The Amani methodology (Learning by Doing, Building Professional Skills, The Leadership Journey, Acceleration, Time-Period, Location, Target Audience) and values (Vision, Courage, Empathy, Change-making) make up the core design of its work. I am still trying to figure out how to cover my travel expenses.

Perhaps, Mr. Buffett, your philanthropy can assist? 

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