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Passed Down And Paid Forward

Posted: 02/10/2012 5:04 pm

By Adwoa Gyimah-Brempong

There's a man named Buffett who's devoted his life to reform in a big way. Relatable, unconventional, and extremely wealthy, his work is beginning to shape policy on a global scale. Howard Buffett, that is -- son of the outspoken billionaire who's been applying the family zeal for bucking convention to the fight against hunger and pervasive poverty (with suitably outsized results).

Buffett the younger has a much lower profile than his father. Where Warren made his fortune with investments, Howard literally plowed his money into the earth and became a farmer. That passion for farming, and by extension conservation, led him to South Africa in the late '90s.
While trying to snap a tricky aerial photo from a plane, he caught sight of scars in the earth from local farmers' slash and burn method of clearing land for crops. According to an interview with the Wall Street Journal, this was a pivotal moment. "It was an epiphany for me: The hungry can't worry about conservation. I realized you can't save the environment unless you give people a chance to feed themselves better."

His nascent foundation decided to focus first on the basics, partnering with NGOs around the world to improve conditions for the rural poor while empowering communities to be self-sustaining. Their Global Water Initiative, for example, makes clean drinking water a priority -- and a school feeding program provides rations to families who send their children to classes, incentivizing education and ameliorating hunger at the same time! The foundation is set to be dissolved in 2045, meaning that there's enough time to support a generation in their rise out of poverty.

For an example of how Buffett bucks overarching trends in favor of common sense, you need look no further than the foundation's approach to farming. In many areas of the more rapidly developing world, the so-called "Green Revolution" of the '60s and '70s revolutionized farming and dramatically raised crop yields. But it was a revolution that relied on monocultures, genetically modified seeds, and heavy application of expensive chemicals, fertilizer, and water.
In a much more geographically diverse region where water itself is already a precious commodity, Buffett feels adamant that teaching the world to farm like Americans is not the answer. The secret lies in working with the earth rather than against it. No-till farming treats fallen leaves and stems not like a nuisance, but as the boon they are. Planting through this layer allows this bio-debris to act as mulch -- which ultimately shields the land from erosion by discouraging soil runoff during irrigation. It also provides ground cover against weeds and protects nutrients, keeping them in the ground (and families in place) longer.

Their non-traditional approach appears to be working. Buffett was named a United Nations Goodwill Ambassador Against Hunger, and last year he won the World Ecology Award. Since the Buffett Foundation was formed, they have funded projects in 74 countries across all six inhabited continents. And in a world where 2.6 billion lack basic sanitation and 1.1 billion people remain without access to clean drinking water, there's an advantage to having a broad reach.

The foundation has begun thinking bigger about both the problems and the possibilities. The Global Water Initiative, for example, serves as a kind of aggregator: It combines seven of the world's leading NGOs who are able to provide results in the areas of water supply, sanitation and agriculture. There has also been an increase in scholarships, especially to students displaced by conflict. A particular area of focus has been those who want to study journalism -- the field has an outsize effect on spreading the word about the need for change and holding government accountable. In supporting these kinds of efforts, Buffett is embodying the definition of paying it forward: directly funding the future.