Howard Buffett's foundation, known for its ag efforts, shifts to healing the scars of war

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Posted: Tuesday, April 30, 2013 12:00 am

Howard Buffett's foundation, known mostly for efforts to improve agriculture, is spending an increasing amount of time and money on “conflict mitigation” in troubled African countries.

Goals include encouraging child soldiers to lay down their arms, redeveloping communities destroyed by war and trying to resolve problems before they erupt into violence.

Of the $67.9 million in charitable spending by the Howard G. Buffett Foundation last year, $14.2million went for conflict mitigation. That's 21 percent of the total and triple what the foundation spent on similar problems in 2011.

The foundation gets its money from his father, Omaha investor Warren Buffett.

Howard Buffett said helping displaced people and damaged countries is a high-risk challenge but close to his heart because he has seen the human suffering caused by war.

“If anyone should be able to take risks with their funding, it is us,” Howard Buffett said. “We have an ability to be flexible, responsive, and we do not have donors that judge us by our success or failure.”

Buffett said he began his charitable efforts by working on conservation but discovered that “our challenge is more about human behavior than natural conditions. ... It has taught me that hunger is man-made, which means we have the power to end it.”

Howard Buffett

Most of last year's conflict-related grants were in Sierra Leone, Liberia, South Sudan and Africa's Great Lakes region, which includes Tanzania, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, the Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

For example, foundation support helped distribute pamphlets, some of them using photographs taken by Buffett, that encouraged 33 longtime members of the Lord's Resistance Army in the Central African Republic to surrender last year and begin rehabilitation.

Over the years, according to the 2012 report of the Howard G. Buffett Foundation, the army has abducted an estimated 25,000 children, turning them into soldiers, and killed tens of thousands of innocent people.

A photo in the report shows Buffett with troops of the African Union Mission in Somalia who are displaying weapons confiscated from the militant group al-Shabab, which is responsible for a 2011 famine that ravaged that country.

The foundation, based in Decatur, Ill., will increase its charitable spending in coming years. Warren Buffett, chairman and CEO of Berkshire Hathaway Inc., will double the amount of his annual contribution to about $100 million starting this year to each of three foundations headed by his children. He has told them, “Nothing important will be accomplished if you make only 'safe' decisions.”

“We take that to heart,” Howard Buffett said. “The poorest people live in the toughest conditions. So that's where you will find us.”

Countries during and after armed conflicts are the most difficult places to make charitable grants, he said, because governments are weak or ineffective and their economies have been disrupted or destroyed. His sense of frustration is clear in the report.

The foundation has spent more than $300 million since 2000 and has “learned some very tough lessons,” he said. Groups pursuing humanitarian causes have had some success, he said, but not in “reducing hunger, addressing poor nutrition or elevating smallholder farmers out of poverty.”

Despite years of failure, Buffett said, most nonprofit humanitarian groups do not “change their thinking and do everything in their power to improve results. Unfortunately ... there is too much acceptance of business as usual, which means people continue to starve, women are raped, young boys are recruited to kill, refugee camps swell and young girls are sold as slaves.”

Buffett said he has seen “intolerable living conditions” in his travels. “It becomes unacceptable to spend increasingly more time and money on the same problems, with little change.”

In many conflict-damaged countries, he said, people can't vote, money intended to benefit the public ends up being used for “personal gain,” leaders stay in power by keeping their people “fragmented and illiterate” and there is little agricultural improvement.

Today, he said, successful young entrepreneurs who have become philanthropists are trying new approaches, taking on “high-risk challenges” in hopes of bigger returns.

“When you witness unnecessary death, you can no longer accept complacency,” Buffett said. “When you talk to children who were drugged and turned into killers, you cannot pretend it is someone else's problem. And when you see a generation of children in a refugee camp who have their futures stolen from them, you cannot go home and forget that it exists.”

Buffett said he hopes to “influence the future” even if he can't control current conditions, pledging to “be smarter, more innovative and less tolerant of failure or even success that is limited in scale.”

Among projects supported by the foundation:

» Green House, which trains small-scale African farmers to grow cocoa to sell to commercial markets. Theo Chocolates of Seattle makes chocolate bars using the cocoa.

» Program for Africa Seed Systems, which works to increase farmers' yields.

» Africa Governance Initiative, with former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, which builds institutions that support democracy, especially in Sierra Leone and Liberia.

Buffett said recovering from war requires economic development, and that means agriculture in most of the countries where the foundation works.

“Conflict and hunger are inextricably linked,” he said. “Conflict breeds hunger and hunger fuels conflict. ... We invest in opportunities to develop communities that have been devastated by conflict.”

Buffett said he has stopped funding some farm-related programs after learning all that could be learned from them. “These kinds of projects are expensive on a per-farmer basis (but) they do not address fundamental deficiencies. ... This is why we approach our investments from the starting point of asking and answering the question of what happens when our foundation's money is no longer available.”

The foundation plans to spend all of its assets by Dec. 31, 2045.

“I believe that if we can find and use the best talent to address the biggest challenges, there is no reason to build a war chest and pass it along to the next generation,” Buffett said. “The problems exist now. We need to try to solve them now.”

After trying to make “the biggest impact on the world as possible,” he said, “then we go out of business.”

The Omaha World-Herald Co. is owned by Berkshire Hathaway Inc.

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