Howard Buffett seeks lasting solutions to the world's food and water crises

The philanthropist and farmer travels the world looking for how his Howard G. Buffett Foundation can help solve the biggest challenges.

Laura Melo/The Howard G. Buffett Foundation
Farmer and philanthropist Howard Buffett meets with women in Cameroon who are part of a World Food Program farming cooperative.

Howard Buffett is a philanthropist and a farmer. The former requires traveling all over the world every few weeks, funding projects in marginalized regions where poverty and strife are rampant. The latter involves maintaining more than 5,000 acres in Illinois and Arizona during planting and harvesting seasons.

So he's busy. For relaxation, Mr. Buffett has a part-time duty he says brings focus to his day job. He is an auxiliary deputy sheriff in rural Illinois, responding to calls that take him into the homes and lives of ordinary Americans, many of them poor, who need help and are struggling.

Buffett calls it "the greatest learning experience in this country" he's ever had.

"You see everything about America, and some of it is really disappointing, to be honest with you. The amount of domestic violence, the abuse of children, the hunger, the drug use – you see it all," he says. "But you also see the best of people, too, in really tough circumstances. To me, it's been an incredible education."

Buffett thrives on getting his hands dirty. He is chairman and chief executive officer of the Howard G. Buffett Foundation, but he'll tell you the title is a formality.

He is the guy who writes checks for projects that require action: for example, a blackout in Congo that required power generators to pump clean water; a civil war in Sierra Leone that left amputees in desperate need of new water wells; a small group of farmers in Herat, Afghanistan, who needed irrigation systems to keep going in the midst of a conflict zone.

He's got money to spend: Thanks to his father, billionaire investor and philanthropist Warren Buffett, the foundation received $3 billion to fund projects that focus on three areas: food security, water security, and conflict resolution.

All the projects undertaken are unsolicited, which means that Buffett, a college dropout who sits on several corporate boards, including those of The Coca-Cola Co. and Berkshire Hathaway, operates by keeping an ear tuned to organizations and individuals on the ground in the world's most impoverished and battle-torn regions.

"For me, I gotta see it, I gotta feel it. I don't absorb a lot of knowledge through books," he says. "My way of learning is to go see it and meet the person."

That means logging hundreds of hours in airplanes – visiting 130 countries to date, including 53 of Africa's 54 – to meet activists, dignitaries, partnership organizations, and farmers. His goal is to establish what he describes as a new kind of philanthropy, investing in high-risk challenges and people who work on large-scale projects to create sustainable change (as opposed to conventional aid relief), and to change government policies to benefit the marginalized.

"The thing that is most important for us to do as a foundation is to take risks," he says. "We have this amazing opportunity. We don't have to worry about fundraisers; we don't have to worry about donors.

"If you're a public charity, you have to worry about all that stuff because you have to constantly make money because you have to constantly keep yourself in business. And I believe we should put ourselves out of business. I really do," he says.

By Dec. 31, 2045, he will be. That's the date that the foundation has set to run through the $3 billion, a scenario that is the theme of "40 Chances: Finding Hope in a Hungry World" (Simon & Schuster), a book Buffett co-wrote with his son, Howard W. Buffett, that documents 40 lessons he's learned in fighting hunger.

This approach means funding university research projects that examine new farming practices and water and soil conservation, examining the benefits of guest workers to the US farm economy, and partnering with organizations like Catholic Relief Services or the Africa Governance Initiative to build infrastructure and train farmers, Buffett says. He's also funding efforts in postconflict areas in Africa to rehabilitate child soldiers through vocational training and to help small farmers develop crops for soils depleted of nutrients.

"When you have a billion people hungry, you have to think big. You can't say, 'I'm going to take a project here or there,' because what you're doing is solving the problem for a very small amount of people," he says. "That's great for those people, but the truth is, half the time you're not really solving their problem, you're only solving it temporarily."

But Buffett is also conscious of responding to an immediate need. In November 2012, he received notice from Emmanuel de Merode, the director of Virunga National Park in the eastern part of Congo, who told him that M23, a rebel military group, had attacked the nearby city of Goma for three days, cutting power lines.

That meant the only water available in the city of 1 million people was dirty lake water, which could have resulted in a cholera outbreak. The power failure also meant that hospitals were shuttered, unable to attend to a growing number of war casualties.

Buffett responded that day by wiring $200,000. Four power generators were purchased and installed within 24 hours to restart the city's pumping stations and send clean water into the most-vulnerable neighborhoods.

"It had an extraordinary impact, and saved thousands of lives at the height of the civil war," Mr. de Merode says. "The key to the success … was the incredible speed at which Howard responded to a massive crisis … it was something nobody else in the humanitarian community was able to do."

That agility is a hallmark of a new wave of philanthropists who, like Buffett, "have emphasized personal involvement rather than writing checks," says Leslie Lenkowsky, who teaches philanthropy at the Indiana University School of Public and Environmental Affairs in Bloomington.

"What's unusual about Howard Buffett is he is getting out on the ground to see what's going on, and good philanthropy has emphasized you really do have to go beyond the pages of proposals you get and do site visits," Professor Lenkowsky says. "A lot of these people feel they have more to give than just money, so they want to be more directly involved in the projects they are working on."

Indeed, Buffett is more comfortable in work boots than business loafers. Captaining a combine on his central Illinois farm, south of Decatur, he talks enthusiastically about how the Tonka trucks he loved as a kid inspired him to drive their real-life equivalents doing sustainable farming. On a day in late September, he guides the combine through rows of cornstalks while explaining the factors that cause hunger in Africa: inadequate food storage, an inefficient infrastructure to distribute harvested crops, and war, which in some areas is omnipresent.

"It's that basic. So changing it is a huge undertaking; it's not just 'can you produce more food?' " Buffett says.

He does not fit the stereotype of the wealthy, especially those who inherit wealth, who may see their spoils as an entitlement. While a registered Republican, he is critical of Wall Street's 1 percent and the yawning wealth gap that continues to separate ordinary Americans from the super-rich. The No. 1 value his parents taught him and his two siblings, he says, was the importance of being "good citizens."

"I go to bed at night thinking 'how can anybody be this fortunate to have a mom and dad who gave us everything we needed,' " he says. "If you care about this country, you should care about not seeing that [wealth] gap grow; you should care about closing that gap. If you don't care about that, and you're very wealthy, then you're selfish. It's that simple.

"I don't know what the cutoff point is, but once you get to $100 million, you can do pretty much what you want to do in your life. And you earned the right to spend it.

"But the other side of that is, if you can afford to make sure your country does well and the people in your country do well, I would hope most people would choose that."

Help feed the hungry

UniversalGiving helps people give to and volunteer for top-performing charitable organizations worldwide. Projects are vetted by Universal Giving; 100 percent of each donation goes directly to the listed cause.

Below are groups selected by UniversalGiving that help provide food or improve agriculture:

Meals On Wheels West is dedicated to nourishing and enriching the lives of the homebound by delivering healthy meals and providing services. Project: Adopt a food-delivery route for a week.

Lambi Fund of Haiti helps strengthen civil society in Haiti as a necessary foundation for democracy and development. Project: Support sustainable agriculture in post-earthquake Haiti.

The Selamta Family Project creates small families for orphaned children and disenfranchised women. Project: Feed a child for a month.

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