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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Antoin O Lachtnain on January 29, 2007  · 

Martin, have you read about Chuck Feeney? See for example http://www.irishabroad.com/irishworld/irishamericamag/decjan04/features/life.asp

Feeney has invested a lot of money in places he didn’t know that much about, and on the whole he and his team has done pretty well, although he has had some serious trouble along the way (http://www.ruthdudleyedwards.co.uk/Journalism05/IrInd05_41.htm)

I had cause to go out looking for cash for a particular cause in the last six months, and I was rather disappointed that a lot of these operations don’t really have an open process for dealing with applications. For example, Feeney’s charity ‘seeks out’ suitable grantees, rather than allowing deserving causes to come to them. Imagine if venture capital worked that way? Or if the local supermarket ‘sought out’ customers instead of having open doors.

Maybe it’s just a matter of opinion, but I think this is the wrong way to do things.

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jonas on January 29, 2007  · 

First of all Europeans still live in the past expecting their social democratic goverments do distribute funds between corporations and rich and poor citizens. Therefore private contributions to society are quite rare.

On a national level one of the problems is that European nations such as France, Germany and Russia also have their own agendas. Most often based on existing economic, strategic and historical relationships in various parts of the world. They can hardly be considered unbiased and as such it may be hard from a US perspective to grant them too much influence unless they put up the cash as well.

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Charbax on January 29, 2007  · 

If Bill Gates, Warren Buffet and a few other billionnaires can donate less than 5% of their stock value per year. 1-2 billion per year out of their Fortune of 30 or 50 billion dollars if they sold all their stocks today, which they might not really be able to..

So to what I understand, it’s kind of like that they are just donating the interests on their fortune to charity. Which is great. And since they have to sell off a billion or more of their stock to do that each year, that might be the most and the fastest they can do it.

The thing I’m trying to say is that if a few american billionnaires can be convinced to voluntarilly donate even 5% per year of their personal fortunes towards international Charity, that’s great. I don’t know if it’s gonna be enough to rapidly solve all the problems in the third world and in the developped countries themselves which is said to be caused by capitalism or bad governments.

Basically capitalism hasn’t cared for the poor since there is no fast return on investment when one invests in the poor. And the Governments haven’t cared much for the poor neigther because solving their problems and seeing the positive results on the actions take takes longer than the election cycle.

Although most people in our societies probably seriously care about the poor and really want the poors problems be resolved even if it has to take some industry-wide long term investment movements and some visionary multi-election cycle political action. Hopefully some individual philanthropists can convince the industries to get together and invest in the poor populations and hopefully some courageous politicians will take the initiative for some big governmental investments in getting rid of the miseries.

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African Entrepreneur on January 29, 2007  · 


Your comments are so true. I spent a long time in the US before returning to Africa. While in the US, most of my friends and colleagues were non-Americans so I definitely felt African. It is only when I moved back to Africa that I realized how American I had become, especially in this “do good” area.

I was surprised and shocked to see how Africans believed that I had a hidden agenda behind my non-profit endeavors. I just want to help. I just want to do good. My intentions are pure.

I wanted to organize a free seminar for C-level execs to introduce to them the importance of technology as an investment and not as a cost center. We brought our idea to the main business organization in the country. Despite the fact that our idea was not to sell any goods or services, they decided against it because the business people could not understand why we would do it for free if there was not something in it for us.

This disconnect between US culture and in my case, African culture, leads to the very debate that Martin raises. No one believes that Americans just want to do the right thing. It is assumed that there is a hidden agenda and that philanthropic efforts are a cover for more insiduous objectives.

Thanks for your post.

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killy-the-frog on January 29, 2007  · 

If they want to do good: I can give them a few idea, join global action against global warning instead of fighting any global action, stop starting war because of who know reason, sign (and respect) many international treaty about children, some forbidden weapons, etc… Stop trying to “fight” UN, really push Israel to solve in a peaceful way the Palestinian conflict instead of supporting the colonization,
And so on…

Or more easily, just read the various pools to know which americans actions annoy the most the world, and then think about it.

Ha Yes, stop thinking that all the world is only poor little countries who only dream to live like American live. Many do not want.

A French living in China.
(or arrogant surrender monkey… if you prefer)

PS: It is still good that many American spend money for many good project. Thanks to these people!

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Michael Halligan on January 29, 2007  · 

A recent post at BBC NEWS Health may be of interest

The research is being conducted at a U.S. University and published in Nature Neuroscience

In my opinion, wanted to do good is not uniquely “American”.

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Martin Varsavsky on January 29, 2007  · 


Two things. One is that I could have said anglo saxon instead of American, the British are also into philantropic endeavors and so are Australian, Canadians, New Zelanders. So I am willing to extend this concept to the anglo saxon culture. Now genetics? This really seems to be far fetched to me. How come non anglo saxon billionaires don´t have those genes then?

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Esme Vos on January 29, 2007  · 


Tax laws have a significant impact on charitable “giving”. US tax laws give wealthy people more opportunity for doing good — tax deductible contributions, foundations, etc. This is not necessarily true in most European countries’ tax codes. In addition, Europeans have more “social” systems where it’s the government that spreads the wealth, so to speak. High taxes, social contributions, generous unemployment benefits and national healthcare systems make people feel that they’ve done enough. Yet people in countries like the Netherlands donate a lot of money to developing countries and start a lot of projects in those countries (e.g. helping them get clean water). The press in the Netherlands does not publicize these efforts as much as the American press does for US-led charitable giving. Americans are much better at self-promotion.

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peter on January 29, 2007  · 

the basic answer seems very simple to me; because of a worse nation leadership – private initiatives try to fill the exisiting gaps – and do what they believe is right to do – and: they also may fell…

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Steve G on January 31, 2007  · 

Ironic, Martin. You think Christianity is (baseless / useless / wrong) yet you specifically go wanting for those traits that Christians espouse.

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Martin Varsavsky on January 31, 2007  · 

I don´t think Christianity is baseless, useless and wrong. I am Jewish though. I hope that is not a problem…

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Steve G on February 2, 2007  · 

Were you misquoted then?

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Martin Günther on February 5, 2007  · 

Asking “Why is it so American to want to do good?” is just wrong. It’s typical of the American ego-centric view of the world. I believe that ALL people want to do good, but only Americans believe that capitalism and invasions are the way to go about it.

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Shalomania on May 30, 2007  · 

We invite you to visit our site. There you’ll find Yiddish songs, video clips in Yiddish, and a Holocaust Cybernetic Memorial.

Our adress:

Music and videos


Holocaust Memorial



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