The World Food Prize Foundation

Bufett: Another View - Finding Hope in a Hungry World

01/05/2014

We have the ability to grow more food, but we need leaders and the will to make it happen.

Published in The Des Moines Register 
Guest Column By Howard G. Buffett
Jan. 5, 2014

I look at the world through a photographer’s lens. Over the last 30 years, I have shot tens of thousands of photographs in over 130 countries. The decisions a photographer makes about what to include or to leave out can make or break the shot. I learned that rule applies in philanthropy as well, including the challenge of addressing global hunger.

When I started out in photography and philanthropy, I focused mainly on endangered species and incredible natural landscapes in Africa, and both Central and North America. In the process, I was charged by bears, bitten by a cheetah and confronted by an elephant. I was often strapped into helicopters without doors while shooting photos of migrating zebras and wildebeests on the Serengeti plains or polar bears floating on ice islands in Canada.
 
But it took me a number of years and thousands of photographs to realize that just focusing on the mountain gorillas or cheetahs — with my camera or with philanthropic grants — was not going to save them. Local people were suffering, many barely surviving their fragile circumstances, and as a friend of mine once said to me, “No one will starve to save a tree.”
 
This realization — combined with my extensive experience as a farmer and an extraordinary gift of philanthropic resources from my father — completely changed my focus. It turns out there are a lot of parallels between what makes a great photograph and what makes foreffective philanthropy. In both pursuits, it matters very much how you frame the subject.
 
On one hand, close-ups are powerful. They stir our emotions. They can make people care. I was on a trip a number of years ago in Senegal reviewing agricultural projects and I took two portraits that I will never forget.
 
The first is of a beautiful young girl in a bright green and purple scarf. She was among a group of children who had surrounded our vehicle, which had stopped for a rest break in a hot, dry area of the country. When she saw my camera, she positioned herself apart from the group so I could take her photograph. I focused on her expression. She looked proud, as if to say “I may be poor and live in a difficult place, but I am worthy of your attention. Remember me!” I find this photograph and the memory of this little girl hopeful, even inspiring. My mother always said that every human life has equal value; this little girl’s determination and spirit testify to that.
 
But the photograph I took minutes later conveys a very different message. We entered the compound of a local “school,” and there was a young boy sitting on the ground with a book in his hand. There was nothing around him but dry, sandy dirt and his expression was blank. What made me care about this boy (enough to risk photographing him even though an angry crowd began to gather), was that his ankles were shackled.
 
Many local people in this region of Senegal could not afford to feed their own families. A powerful man ran this facility, and I was told he promised parents he would feed and educate their children. Children here were expected to beg; the master would turn them loose in crowded areas and they had to bring back money to support this man who drove around in a new Mercedes. The children were miserable and some would try to run away, so the adults in this compound chained them to trees, and sometimes to each other. Or, as with this boy, they shackled his ankles so he could only hobble.
 
He did not fill me with hope as the little girl had. My memory of him is a reminder of suffering and modern-day slavery. We subsequently used this photograph to get the government to investigate this operation, but the boy’s expression and the conditions within this place still haunt me.
 
When it comes to trying to craft solutions to complex global problems like hunger or conservation, close-ups often don’t tell the whole story. In many places where animals are endangered, local people are starving or suffering terrible consequences of conflict. They are left without options, and that desperation can lead to animal poaching and self-defeating practices such as slash-and-burn agriculture.
 
Right now, there is widespread slaughter of elephants and rhinos going on across the African continent, with some of the proceeds from the stolen ivory fueling terrorism and armed conflict. That’s not a story that can be told in only one or two close-ups. We cannot separate the economic despair of local people and the impact of armed groups from the safety and protection of wildlife.
 
We need to view this tragedy with a wide-angle lens. We can’t possibly hire enough rangers to stop ivory poachers. We can’t fence in mountain gorillas. We cannot solve animal and habitat problems without also addressing the people problems. It’s why our foundation that formerly worked only in conservation now focuses primarily on global food security and conflict mitigation.
 
We seek out bold ideas to create sustainable economic development that give people better options. Our foundation is investing in development efforts with broader reach, more ambitious goals, and longer, more realistic time frames. They are designed to improve local economies in sustainable ways.
 
Some are agricultural initiatives, such as educating farmers in better soil management practices, or helping build processing plants so local crops can be sold on more profitable terms. Others, such as the construction of a hydroelectric dam to create electricity and boost local industry in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo, are designed to create alternatives to the enduring conflicts that keep people hungry and cause them to consume natural resources only to meet immediate needs.
 
One of the most valuable gifts my parents gave me was the way they framed what they considered our obligation to help other people. My father has always maintained that success in life is largely shaped by the circumstances into which we are born. He calls that “the ovarian lottery.” If you are born in a crowded, dangerous refugee camp dependent on uncertain forms of aid from others; if you have dreams but no resources to pursue them; if you are raised in shackles by a manipulative con man who purports to “educate” you in exchange for food, your prospects for thriving are grim.
 
In light of that, my parents urged us to share our good fortune and the resources my dad had amassed in life with those who struggle for reasons beyond their own making. He told my sister, brother and me to focus on the toughest problems and to recognize that failure would be part of the picture.
 
Photography has been a powerful tool in my mission. It individualizes and humanizes the daily challenges that nearly a billion of the world’s most vulnerable and marginalized people face. I recently wrote a book called “40 Chances: Finding Hope in a Hungry World,” about how my views on philanthropy have evolved and also about the people and ideas I think hold promise to battle hunger more effectively. It’s also about the urgency I feel as a farmer who realizes each of us has only about 40 growing seasons, or 40 years, to make a difference in the world and accomplish our goals.
 
In combination with the book, we put together an exhibition of my photography at the World Food Prize Hall of Laureates in Des Moines so I could cast in sharper detail the images and the people who have made such an impression on me and who motivate me every day. I want to frame the hunger challenge in a more realistic and useful way; to convey to people the complexity of factors that cause and exacerbate food insecurity; and to call into question the bureaucracies and recipes that have been failing for years but that still mostly represent the status quo.
 
To reduce hunger, we have to raise the standard of living of hundreds of millions of poor farmers. The good news is, for the most part, we have the knowledge and resources to transform smallholder farming in a way that is sustainable. The bad news is we too frequently lack the leadership and political will to translate ideas and know-how into solutions at large scale. Yet I remain hopeful, because in my travels I see and meet individuals who possess the leadership, will, and ideas, and who are creating change around them, often despite enormous odds.
 
If our focus remains too narrow and if we continue to frame the hunger challenge as figuring out where to drop off bags of aid, then we must be prepared to keep doing that forever, as we are not helping communities become self-sufficient. As these photographs show, individuals are remarkably resilient and determined. But hundreds of millions of people today have been born into circumstances and systems that stack the odds against them.
 
We have to apply the lessons of the past to empowering local people to determine their own, brighter future, armed with new ideas and the good will of a caring world.
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Learn more about Howard G. Buffett's 40 Chances project and see his photography at www.40chances.com

 

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