Dale Dougherty of O´Reilly did a great job summarizing a session that I moderated at DLD entitled “How to be good?“. 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, and Gabriele Zedlmeyer , of Hewlett Packard, one of the largest corporations in the world involved in hundreds of projects to improve education.
Confronted with such an overwhelming American presence I felt compelled to ask the question: Why is it so American to want to do good?
Outside of my panel there were plenty of other examples of Americans with planetary “do good” ambitions including 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 George Soros the billionaire who probably donated the highest percentage of his personal wealth with the most impact. To these you can add well known American NGOs such as the Rockefeller Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the Human Rights Watch, Transparency International, the many overseas activities of American universities as well as the enormous philantropic 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 American government. American Presidents frequently choose to act in ways that they think will make the world a better place generally at the expense of the American taxpayer. Unfortunately not all of these global do good enterprises succeed and that´s why I think American philantropic efforts deserve a close look. In some cases, as in the Balkans a region that is hardly strategic for the United States 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 believe that US soldiers are mainly mercenaries without other opportunities who join the army to enrich themselves. 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 people who have choices (USA 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”. This desire to improve the planet is very American. So while I do think that there are some “evil” Americans who are supremacists who mostly care about defending what is perceived as US interests overseas I do believe that most Americans have a “cultural instinct” to do good each in his or her own way. And when trying to improve conditions around the world American are risk takers. They take unproven approaches which sometimes succeed sometimes fail (the military intervention record of the USA is mixed). 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? Personally I think that the most important issue here is to convince Americans not to fly “philantropic 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 riduculed 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 USA none of the foundation´s top managers are non American. I think this should quickly change as the Clinton Foundation is taking big risks in trying to improve the conditions of many in Africa. Can this really be accomplished without any Africans at the helm? To me the winning formula is one that combines American enthusiasm with the non American field experience to get a balanced outcome. I welcome the unique interest that Americans show in making the world a better place but we all know that if the America really succeeded in making the whole planet be an extension of the USA our environment would simply implode. A world that is 95% made of non Americans who adopts an American lifestyle is hardly a sustainable world. A lot of what should be done to improve the state of the world, like reducing resource depletion, has to take place first…in America. So while we non Americans welcome Americans enthusiasm to improve the world this may also be one of the cases in which the “Charity begins at home” may be applicable to those Americans who want to fix the world.
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