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Martin Varsavsky Headshot

Do You Have to be American to Want to do Good?

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Dale Dougherty of O´Reilly did a great job summarizing a session that I moderated at DLD entitled "How to be good?". In this session three do-good global ventures were presented. Now here´s the paradox: although DLD is a European conference, I was surprised to see that every do-good venture on my panel was American. These included Nicholas Negroponte´s OLPC aiming at supplying a laptop to every student in less developed countries, Steve Mariotti´s NEFTE, who is doing a great job teaching entrepreneurship to teenagers around the world, and Gabriele Zedlmeyer of Hewlet Packard´s Global Philanthropy. But studying the matter further I saw that my panel was not American-biased as there are plenty of other examples of Americans with planetary do-good intentions. Some are Ted Turner who donated a billion dollars to the United Nations, Bill Gates and do-good partner Warren Buffet who have jointly put together the largest pool of social capital in the world, and naturalized US citizen George Soros the billionaire who probably donated the highest percentage of his personal wealth with the most impact in Eastern Europe. To these you can add well known American NGOs such as the Rockefeller Foundation, the Ford Foundation, as well as the enormous philanthropic and sometimes questionable efforts of American religious organizations. And not only are American non-governmental organizations trying to improve the state of the world but so is the US Government.

American presidents frequently choose to act in ways that they think will make the world a better place at the expense of the American taxpayer who seems to go along with these efforts. Unfortunately not all of these global do-good enterprises succeed and that´s why I think American philanthropic efforts deserve a close look. Let´s look at the US government´s interventions. In some cases, as in the Balkans, the use of force to promote peace worked very well. In other cases, such as Iraq, the use of force to promote democracy has been an enormous and costly failure. Of course there are the cynics who argue that America just wants to rule the world and will only try to do-good in places where it can make money. These people also believe that US soldiers are mainly mercenaries without other opportunities. But as David Graeber argues in the last issue of Harpers this view does not stand close scrutiny. There´s no money in the world that can explain why US citizens who have many other choices (the US has one of the lowest unemployment rates in the world) would choose to serve and die at a far corner of the world for anything other than a desire to do good. Same can be said of the American billionaires, who as opposed to most billionaires in the world, seem to compete not only in making money but more importantly in how much they give away and how successful they are at improving the world. Long gone are the times when a wealthy person in America had to do something good for their community. Now without a global imprint American entrepreneurs do not really "make it". Americans seem to have a unique "cultural instinct" to do good. And because Americans are by nature risk-takers, when trying to improve conditions around the world Americans tend to take risky approaches. These strategies sometimes succeed and sometimes fail. Now considering that Americans are uniquely prone to risk their time, lives and money to do what they perceive is best for others around the world...What should non Americans recipients of this help do to help American do-gooders to succeed?

I think that the most important issue here is for foreigners to work with Americans so they don´t end up flying "philanthropic solo missions". If we look at the causes of the biggest American do-good failure, the Iraqi invasion, an invasion that so far has resulted in over 100 thousand dead and over $300 billion dollars wasted we can see that this horror would have been prevented if President Bush had heard most of the global voices who opposed the invasion. While some, like Tony Blair, reluctantly bought into the story of the "unique opportunity to spread democracy in the heart of the Middle East" most in Europe did not and should have been heard. Instead the American government ridiculed French/German criticism of this risky venture, flew solo and failed. In the future the American government or American do-good global private and public entrepreneurs should make sure that non Americans are present when key global decisions are made. I am an Argentine/Spanish dual citizen and serve as a trustee of the Clinton Foundation. During our last board of trustees meeting in December in NYC I was surprised to see that while most of the activities of the Clinton Foundation are outside of the US, none of the foundation´s top managers are non-American. I think this should change as the Clinton Foundation is taking risks and doing phenomenal work in trying to improve health conditions of many in Africa but can these objectives be accomplished without top African managers at the helm? To me the winning formula is one that combines American enthusiasm with the non-American field experience.

Lastly I would like to point out a significant risk of American´s campaigns to improve the state of the world. While I welcome the unique interest that Americans show in making the world a better place I see a significant risk if the conception of "a better place" means "an extension of the American lifestyle". Regardless of what each one of us thinks of the American lifestyle in a world that is made 95% of non American people, to ask non-Americans to adopt the American rate of natural resource consumption per capita, is tantamount to planetary suicide. Indeed as much as many Americans feel compelled to improve the world, the world would greatly improve if Americans themselves changed many of their habits which are endangering the sustainability of the planet.

A week after posting this I received information that the Clinton Foundation actually has citizens of African countries managing its operations in Africa but that a decision was made not to spend Foundation resources to fly them to NYC to present to the board.