Forty Chances

If we’re lucky, writes Howard Buffett, we have about forty chances in our working lives to “get it right.”

Howard Buffett is the son of Warren Buffett—not as well known as his father, but a man who is also making his mark upon the world. For Buffett the son—and for his son, too—the “work” is primarily  agriculture and the arena is the world. Buffett’s foundation funds projects related to food and water security, conflict resolution in developing countries, and a few other projects of special interest such as cheetah and mountain gorilla conservation. For Howard, getting it right means using the 26.5 million dollars his father gave to him for philanthropic purposes wisely, strategically, and effectively.

Fundamentally, Howard G. Buffett is a farmer—he lives and farms in Decatur, Illinois. He’s an accomplished photographer, too, so 40 Chances is illustrated with photographs he’s taken all over the world. He’s also the author of Fragile: The Human Condition, a collection of photographs of and essays about vulnerable places he’s been in the world—130 countries—and the people he’s seen there. Published in 2009 by National Geographic, the book is immense, beautiful, and eye-opening. So Howard Buffett’s commitment to issues of food insecurity is long-standing and substantial: He’s not a celebrity flirting with a cause.

The title—and the concept—of 40 Chances originated from a spiel Buffett heard at the farm implement company in Decatur. The owner was showcasing a new line of John Deere equipment; the pitch was that the company realized their clients had about forty opportunities to perfect their business before their working time was up. The company wanted to supply the farmers with the best possible equipment and advise them on how to use it to advantage.  The idea of “forty chances” stuck with Buffett and brought not only his farming but his philanthropic efforts into sharp focus.

The stories in the book (forty of them) are about the problems he’s witnessed in specific countries, other problems that are more general, and the specific solutions that have worked in those countries—and some that haven’t and why. From these experiences, Buffett has evolved his ethic of funding.  He’s careful about the projects he funds and the people he invests in, and he’s learned to pay attention to these principles:

  1. What we think we know doesn’t automatically transfer to other parts of the world. You have to pay attention to the local geography, customs, and culture.
  2. Policy matters. You can’t get the right results if you don’t have the right policies.
  3. Dream big—but be realistic. Set reachable goals.
  4. Believe in people. Find amazing people and fund them to do the work they propose.

I took the wording of those principles straight from Buffett himself. I heard him speak at the Borlaug Dialogue in Des Moines, Iowa, in October 2013.  The book provides amplification of these guiding principles and sets forth a few others.

Buffet writes in his book about ineffective practices—such as funding projects that aren’t sustainable—and he goes into detail about some that are just plain wrong-headed—like  monetization. That’s the practice, authorized by the 1985 Food Security Act, of NGOs or recipient countries reselling a percentage of direct food aid to generate cash for other development projects. Sending our food surpluses to food insecure countries for monetization drives the prices down for locally produced food and creates a marketing problem for farmers in the country that the food was supposed to help. Food that is monetized may even end up on the plates of tourists rather than in the stomachs of food insecure individuals.

In emergencies—such as natural disasters—or in situations where procuring food locally is cost-prohibitive—situations, for example, where transportation costs make local purchases uneconomical—direct food aid is critical. However, sending direct food aid often removes the incentive for local solutions to long-standing problems of food insecurity. In many cases, Buffett favors direct cash aid in the first place; he believes the US should at least reexamine its policies about the mix of cash and food we send to food insecure countries.

More of Buffett’s basic beliefs:  Good governance in developing countries is critical to success in solving issues of food insecurity.  Land ownership motivates good stewardship—so he’s in favor of land rights for farmers and reform of land laws in countries where women especially are marginalized. He stresses the importance of the value chain—everything from farm to market has to work or the project may fail. Farmers might harvest an improved crop due to technical assistance, but if the roads are so bad they can’t get their crop to market, what has been gained?

Howard Buffett will make some American farmers uneasy. He favors no-till methods and doesn’t believe in subsidies the way they currently work. He’s not opposed to genetically-modified seed. He practices what he calls “conservation farming,” but that doesn’t mean organic farming.  He doesn’t think organic farming can be practiced on a large enough scale to feed the world.

And that’s his mission: To feed the world.

Right now, according to the organization “Feeding America,” one-sixth of the people in the USA—50 million Americans—are “food insecure.”  That means they don’t  know for sure where the next meal is coming from.  According to the United Nations, that number worldwide is 870 million people.  It’s no surprise then that the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization projection for 2050 is grim:  Food production will have to increase worldwide by 70 percent to feed us all.

Whether you agree with all of Buffett’s views, you have to give the man credit. He is the recipient of many awards—for example, he’s been named a United Nations Goodwill Ambassador Against Hunger; he was the recipient of the World Ecology Award and the Triumph of Agriculture Exposition Agri Award. ColumbiaUniversity honored him with the Global Leadership Award. And that’s just the beginning of the kudos and accolades. He’s doing about as much as anyone can in his crusade against hunger, in his effort to feed the world. Money well spent, a life well lived, forty chances not gone to waste.

I started out, as I sat down to write this, to apply the “forty chances” concept to us as teachers. It does apply, of course. Forty years is about the span of our working lives, too, and most of us are still perfecting our art, polishing our skills, trying “to get it right,” right up to the very last day.

But I couldn’t stop writing about the book. 40 Chances, now on the New York Times non-fiction best-seller list. It is an unusual book to have fallen into my hands. I am usually reading literary classics or recent fiction, even literary non-fiction, but not a book about agriculture.  However, my interest in international issues is deep—especially international education efforts.  I heard Buffett speak at the World Food Prize Conference I attended in October, the conference also known as the Borlaug Dialogue. And the obvious struck me: If children are food insecure, if they’re hungry literally, their hunger for learning can’t be fed.

So I’m impressed with what I’ve read and I am recommending 40 Chances to you.  Let us hope that Howard Buffett continues to use his remaining chances wisely and that he has many more. As for us, the same: We have forty chances. Let’s use them well.

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