The James Bond of Philanthropy

In my view, with great wealth comes great responsibility. It gives you the capacity to do tremendous good or harm in the world, far more than the overwhelming majority of fellow humans. A little-known Irish-American businessman named Chuck Feeney exemplifies the incredible moral potential that the world’s richest can exercise if they so choose. Forbes did a piece on this amazing philanthropist in 2012, likening him to James Bond for his uniquely low-key and strategic approach to charitable giving:

Over the last 30 years he’s crisscrossed the globe conducting a clandestine operation to give away a $7.5 billion fortune derived from hawking cognac, perfume and cigarettes in his empire of duty-free shops. His foundation, the Atlantic Philanthropies, has funneled $6.2 billion into education, science, health care, aging and civil rights in the U.S., Australia, Vietnam, Bermuda, South Africa and Ireland. Few living people have given away more, and no one at his wealth level has ever given their fortune away so completely during their lifetime. The remaining $1.3 billion will be spent by 2016, and the foundation will be shuttered in 2020. While the business world’s titans obsess over piling up as many riches as possible, Feeney is working double time to die broke.

Feeney embarked on this mission in 1984, in the middle of a decade marked by wealth creation–and conspicuous consumption–when he slyly transferred his entire 38.75% ownership stake in Duty Free Shoppers to what became the Atlantic Philanthropies. “I concluded that if you hung on to a piece of the action for yourself you’d always be worrying about that piece,” says Feeney, who estimates his current net worth at $2 million (with an “m”). “People used to ask me how I got my jollies, and I guess I’m happy when what I’m doing is helping people and unhappy when what I’m doing isn’t helping people.”

What Feeney does is give big money to big problems–whether bringing peace to Northern Ireland, modernizing Vietnam’s health care system or seeding $350 million to turn New York’s long-neglected Roosevelt Island into a technology hub. He’s not waiting to grant gifts after he’s gone nor to set up a legacy fund that annually tosses pennies at a $10 problem. He hunts for causes where he can have dramatic impact and goes all-in. “Chuck Feeney is a remarkable role model,” Bill Gates tells FORBES, “and the ultimate example of giving while living.”

I highly recommend you read the rest of the article, as it eventually discusses the nuances of Feeny’s character and his rather sophisticated philanthropic methods. The amount of wealth he is donating in both proportional and absolute terms is staggering enough without the added humility and strategic approach.

It is unfortunate that amid ever-higher rates of inequality — best epitomized by the fact that a mere 85 individuals own more wealth than around half of the world’s poorest people (3.5 billion) – most of the world’s elites aren’t following in Feeny’s footsteps, or at the very least donating more than a mere percentage of their assets. There’s a lot of untapped potential out there, and even a number of us who are comfortably well-off could be doing more.

The Rice Terraces of the Philippine Cordilleras

This is going to be the first of many posts that highlight UNESCO World Heritage Sites, cultural and natural landmarks that are identified for their incredible value for humanity. 

The Rice Terraces of the Philippine Cordilleras — which span five sites — was the first property to be included in the cultural landscape category of the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1995.

Built 2,000 years ago and passed on from generation to generation, the Ifugao Rice Terraces are a marvel of engineering, built on steeper slopes and reaching a higher altitude than most other terraces. The terrace pond fields were created using stone or mud walls, and were carved carefully to follow the natural contours of the hills and mountains. They’re irrigated through an intricate system that harvests water from the forests of the mountain tops. The rice terraces are incorporated almost seamlessly into nature.The maintenance of these living rice terraces require a cooperative approach among the entire community. They rely on detailed knowledge of the rich diversity of biological resources existing in the Ifugao ecosystem, a finely tuned annual system respecting lunar cycles, meticulous zoning and planning, extensive soil conservation, and mastery of a complex pest control based on the careful processing of a variety of herbs, all accompanied by religious rituals.

Archaeological evidence reveals that these techniques have been used in the region virtually unchanged for 2,000 years. Because they illustrate the persistence of cultural traditions and remarkable continuity and endurance, they were included in a list reserved for sites of profound global importance to humanity — rightfully so, in my opinion.

The Man Who Cultivated Malala

By now most readers no doubt know of Malala Yousafzai, the brave teen activist who advocated for education and women’s rights in a Taliban-dominated part of Pakistan before nearly dying  at the hands of a Taliban gunman. The assassination attempt — which has done little to silence her — rightly elevated her to international attention while highlighting the plight of women and girls in Pakistan and the brave efforts of reformers like Malala to change the status quo.

Now the man who has been most fundamental to Malala’s courage, her father Ziauddin, is entering the spotlight for his uniquely progressive role in helping his daughter realize her remarkable potential on her own terms. “Why is my daughter so strong?” Yousafzai asks. “Because I didn’t clip her wings.” A simple but profound point about the role that parents should play in their children’s lives, especially within societies that seek to oppress and stifle them.

Check out his incredible and inspiring TED Talk below. It’s well worth your time.

It’s beautiful to see how much this son and daughter team have managed to defy stereotypes and societal pressure to become mutually reinforcing and supportive of each other, leading as much by example as through activism. I can’t wait to see what amazing things they’ll accomplish in the future, especially as Malala begins to realize her dream of continuing her education and no doubt learning more about how she can help the world.

 

Building With Compassion

As I was editing Wikipedia, I came across an update on the news section of its homepage: Shigeru Ban, a Japanese architect, just won the Pritzker Architecture Prize, the most prestigious award in the field. I’ve heard of the prize before, but never its newest recipient. After looking him up, I came across an excellent TED Talk he gave about creating emergency structures out of sustainable and recycled material (he’s apparently the only architect that works regularly with paper as a medium). It’s quite a treat, so check it out below.

Ban’s unique approach to structure and materials, as well as the humanitarian underpinnings of work, were cited in his recent prize. Personally, I think it’s well deserved.

Here is the sample work highlighted for his prize, the Centre Pompidou-Metz, a museum located in France and completed in 2010. Personally, I find it to be a striking and effective combination of elegance and functionality; what say you?

 

 

Lessons of Hope from

Life is beautiful, extremely beautiful. And when you are old you appreciate it more. When you are older you think, you remember, you care and you appreciate. You are thankful for everything. For everything.”

My temperament. This optimism and this discipline. Punctually, at 10 a.m., I am sitting there at the piano, with everything in order around me. For 30 years, I have eaten the same — fish or chicken. Good soup, and this is all. I don’t drink — not tea, not coffee, not alcohol. Hot water. I walk a lot with terrible pains, but after 20 minutes it is much better. Sitting or lying is not good.

That was Alice Herz-Sommer, the world’s oldest-known Holocaust survivor, in a 2006 interview with the Guardian. died in London this past Sunday at the age of 110. Most people her age (or even younger) would hardly be as sprightly and enthusiastic, yet despite both her years and her tremendous personal tragedy, she remained this way to the end. As NPR noted:

Bear in mind: In 1943, Herz-Sommer and her husband, Leopold Sommer, and their son, Raphael, were sent from Prague to a Nazi camp for Jews in the Czech city of Terezin. According to The Guardian, “she never saw her husband again after he was moved to Auschwitz in 1944 and many in her extended family and most of the friends she had grown up with were also lost in the Holocaust.”

According to the BBC, Herz-Sommer and her son “were among fewer than 20,000 people who were freed when Terezin was liberated by the Soviet army in May 1945. An estimated 140,000 Jews were sent there and 33,430 died there. About 88,000 were transported on to Auschwitz and other death camps, where most were killed.”

Even amid the unspeakable misery and despair of a concentration camp, she did everything in her power to keep hope alive. As shown in the Oscar-nominated documentaryThe Lady in Number 6: Music Saved My Life, Herz-Sommer, then already a pianist, joined others to perform music in order to lift the spirits of prisoners.

On the film’s website, Herz-Sommer was quoted about the role music played in her life:

She speaks with great pride and passion of playing more than 100 concerts inside the concentration camp and she likens that experience, both for the performers and their imprisoned audience as being close to the divine. Alice is unequivocal in stating that music preserved her sanity and her life — while bringing hope into the lives of countless others. To this day Alice never tires of saying ‘music saved my life and music saves me still.’ “

The film’s creators added an even more remarkable observation:

Despite all that has befallen her, Alice insists that she has never, ever hated the Nazis, and she never will. Some see in her tolerance and compassion a secular saint who has been blessed with the gift of forgiveness, but Alice is far more pragmatic — she has seen enough in her life to know all too well that hatred eats the soul of the hater, not the hated.

I’m at a loss on how someone can be so liberated of hate and despair despite so much tragedy (indeed, her son had died abruptly in 2001, but years later she remained no less positive about life). Even as she approached the end of her 110-year-long life, she remained a passionate and accomplished musician — in fact, she was also the oldest pianist. Here is a brief but touching video of how she was still touching lives even at a 109.

Project 562

That’s the name of an excellent project up on Kickstarter launched by Matika Wilbur, who aims to collect photographic stories from citizens of every federally recognized tribe in the United States. Not only will this gather the vital narratives and perspectives of a marginalized and under-appreciated group,  but it will result in books, exhibitions, and curricula that will educate generations for years to come. Here’s a great summary of this initiative by the ambitious Wilbur herself:

Last December, I sold everything in my Seattle apartment, packed a few essentials into my war pony, and hit the open road. Since then, I’ve been embarking on an epic adventure: Project 562.

For the past year I have been fulfilling the project’s goal of photographing citizens of each federally recognized tribe in the United States (there are now 566). Most of the time, I’ve been invited to geographically remote reservations to take portraits and hear stories from a myriad of tribes, while at other times I’ve photographed members of the 70 percent of Native Americans living in urban settings. My hope, is that when the project is complete, it will serve to educate the nation and shift the collective consciousness toward recognizing our own indigenous communities.

Imagine walking through an exhibit and realizing the complex variety of contemporary Native America. Imagine experiencing a website or book, that offered insight into every Tribal Nation in the United States. What if you could download previously untold histories and stories from Apaches, Swinomish, Hualapai, Northern Cheyenne, Tlingit, Pomo, Lumbee, and other first peoples? What if you had heard those stories in grade school?

Such a task hasn’t been undertaken since 1906, so we’re long overdue for a contemporary and vital recollection of America’s misunderstood indigenous heritage. Indeed, as the project’s official mission statement notes:

Project 562 creatively addresses and remedies historical inaccuracies, stereotypical representations, and the absence of Native American images and voices in mass media and the national consciousness.  I believe that there is an open space that is yet to be filled- that space is authentic images and stories from within Native America. My work aims to humanize, the otherwise “vanishing race”, and share the stories that our people would like told. In this respectful way, I have been welcomed into hundreds of tribal communities, and I have found that people welcome Project 562, because they are ready to see things change. Conversations about tribal sovereignty, self-determination, wellness, recovery from historical trauma, and revitalization of culture will accompany the photos in captions, video, and audio recordings.

The time of sharing, building cultural bridges, abolishing racism and honoring the legacy that this country is built on is among us. Project 562 is that platform.

You can learn more about the project on Upworthy or visit the official Kickstater page here, where to can see more videos, photos, and details, and donate whatever you can before February 21st. Thankfully, Project 352 has already garnered nearly three times its funding goals, which means we can expect an even more beautiful and in-depth collection of stories and photos.

The Small Christmas Truce

Many readers have probably already heard of the famous Christmas Truce that occurred on the Western Front of the First World War in 1914. Although largely overshadowed by the sheer scale of death and brutality that characterized this first truly global conflict, it nonetheless continues to inspire people generations later with its message of hope and humanity amidst even the most unlikely circumstances.

As we all know, the Second World War would eventually outdo its predecessor by an unspeakable margin, both in death and barbarism. Given the existential nature of that conflict, a similar truce on the scale of World War I’s was unlikely, and indeed there’s no record of any such good will having occurred — except for one small but powerful event.

On a snowy Christmas Eve in 1944, a German woman named Elisabeth Vincken, who lived on the Belgian-German border, was preparing Christmas dinner with her 12-year-old son Fritz, when they heard a surprising knock on the door: three American soldiers, one of whom was badly injured, had gotten lost in the midst of the brutal Battle of the Bulge, the last major conflict on the Western Front.

Although they were armed, the soldiers, who looked no older than their mid-teens, didn’t burst in. She took pity on them and invited them in from the cold for Christmas dinner — an offense punishable by death (neither side spoke the other’s language, but they got by on broken French).

As she and her son prepared their food, there was another knock at the door; a 23-year-old German corporal and three other soldiers (two only sixteen) wanted to wish her a Merry Christmas, but were lost and hungry. Despite the incredible risk, Elisabeth told them that they were welcome to come, but there were others inside who they would not consider friends. The corporal asked sharply if there were Americans inside and she said there were — and they were lost, cold, and hungry like they were. When he stared her down, she stood her ground and asserted: “It is the Holy Night and there will be no shooting here.” She then asked both the Germans and the Americans to leave their guns outside and come together for dinner, which they all surprisingly did.

Despite the initial (and understandable) tension, relations between the men became cordial after dinner, with both sides shedding tears when Elisabeth said grace. The Germans even provided some wine and bread, and one of them, an ex-medical student, tended to the wounded America. This truce lasted through the night and into the morning. The German corporal told the Americans the best way to get back to their lines and provided them with a map and compass; he even told them how to avoid German territory. In the morning, all the soldiers took their respective weapons, shook hands, and left in opposite directions.

Elisabeth, her son, and her husband survived the war, although all three have since passed away. The fate of all but one of the soldiers is unknown: Ralph Bank, an American, still kept the compass and map provided by the corporal that saved his life. Bank would eventually meet up with an older Frtiz decades later, thanking him and his mother for taking them in.

Though this was a mere flicker of hope and goodwill relative to the massive level of death and suffering that transpired before and after, it’s nonetheless an important reminder of the capacity for human beings to transcend violence and hatred even in the most unlikely circumstances.

What Martin Luther King Jr. Stood For

Martin Luther King Jr. remains one of the most enduring and popular figures in American history, and rightfully so: his brilliant oratory, moral integrity, and steadfast dedication to social justice make him a timeless role model for people across the world.

But like most prominent figures, especially those who promoted such ambitious goals, many have come to challenge King’s contributions; namely, whether his goals were ultimately achieved. Given the persistence of racial inequality — highlighted by disproportional rates of poverty, imprisonment, and the like — it’s easy, if not understandable, to consider King’s dream a failure (or at least a work in progress).

While I sadly don’t have the time to share my own thoughts on the matter, I’ve found a great piece on DailyKos that more or less echoes my views as well. I recommend you read the whole article, but the following excerpt represents the crux of it:

So yes, Dr. King had many other goals, many other more transcendent, non-racial, policy goals, goals that apply to white people too, like ending poverty, reducing the war-like aspects of our foreign policy, promoting the New Deal goal of universal employment, and so on. But his main accomplishment was ending 200 years of racial terrorism, by getting black people to confront their fears. So please don’t tell me that Martin Luther King’s dream has not been achieved, unless you knew what racial terrorism was like back then and can make a convincing case you still feel it today. If you did not go through that transition, you’re not qualified to say that the dream was not accomplished.

That is what Dr. King did—not march, not give good speeches. He crisscrossed the south organizing people, helping them not be afraid, and encouraging them, like Gandhi did in India, to take the beating that they had been trying to avoid all their lives.

Once the beating was over, we were free.

It wasn’t the Civil Rights Act, or the Voting Rights Act or the Fair Housing Act that freed us. It was taking the beating and thereafter not being afraid. So, sorry Mrs. Clinton, as much as I admire you, you were wrong on this one. Our people freed ourselves and those Acts, as important as they were, were only white people officially recognizing what we had done.

What are your thoughts?

The Amazing Hero Rat

A “hero rat” being trained to detect landmines by a member of APOPO, a Belgian NGO with its operational headquarters in Tanzania. Numerous landmines remain live and undetected in dozens of countries, reportedly claiming several lives daily (generally children). Mine detection remains costly and difficult, but rats remain surprisingly ideal for the task.

For starters, they are hardy, adaptable, and found all over the world. They are also cheap to acquire and easy to breed and care for. Most importantly, however, rats are intelligent, sociable, and quick learners. With one of the most sensitive olfactory systems of any mammal, they are capable of detecting trace amounts of TNT and mine casing. After around nine months of training involving clickers and rewards, the rates prove incredible efficient: in a mere 20 minutes, they cover around 100 square meters — over 1,000 square feet — which would take an entire day for conventional detectors.

Thankfully, the rats are too lightweight to set off the mines, and none have reportedly died thus far. They’ve cleared thousands of mines in such hotbeds as Thailand, Mozambique, and Tanzania itself, with programs being primed in Angola (with Norwegian assistance) and Cambodia.

As if all this weren’t amazing enough, the aptly named hero rats are also trained to detect tuberculosis, which infects millions of people worldwide, mostly in poor countries lacking healthcare facilities. They can determine who is infected by this chronic disease in just ten minutes; it would take a medical lab at least one day.

Learn more by checking out the official website. It’s remarkable what human innovation can develop, especially in combination with the amazing natural ability of animals.

Around The World On Foot

NPR had a fascinating interview with Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Paul Salopek, who is engaging on a fascinating journey that I’ve long dreamed about: traveling the world by foot. 

“There’s something about moving across the surface of the earth at 3 miles per hour that feels really good,” he tells NPR’s Steve Inskeep.

Salopek plans to walk 21,000 miles total — from Africa to the Middle East, across Asia, down through Alaska and all the way to Tierra del Fuego. He calls it the “Out of Eden Walk” because the idea is to follow the path of human migration.

Along the way, he’s documenting the journey for National Geographic magazine. In fact, his journey is the cover story in this month’s issue, with photos by John Stanmeyer.

Salopek is currently 10 months into the voyage, and just crossed the border into Jordan from Saudi Arabia. He has faced numerous obstacles, he says, like extreme temperatures and dust devils. As well as manmade obstacles that are vastly different from what early Homo sapiens might have encountered.

It’s remarkable to imagine just how much our early ancestors went through. If we think traveling is difficult and expensive now, imagine being the very first to have done so without the benefit of knowledge or technology? I hope to engage in this life-changing pursuit myself some day. If the fifty-one year-old Salopek can do it, I’m sure I can pull it off — that leaves me plenty of time to save money.

Read more about his journey, and see gorgeous photos, on the official website.