Howard G. Buffett offers insight, solutions, heart in 'Forty Chances'

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Posted: Sunday, October 27, 2013 12:00 am

Howard G. Buffett has photographed an African warlord at close range and witnessed 50 children bound in shackles in Senegal.

In Barranquilla, Colombia, he sat next to pop star Shakira in an SUV as kids banged on the windows until their idol emerged to sign autographs.

Buffett, son of the second-richest person in the U.S., could have written a vanity book to chronicle his philanthropic work battling world hunger. Instead, he offers insight, self-deprecation, solutions and heart in “Forty Chances: Finding Hope in a Hungry World.”

Warren Buffett and his late first wife, Susan, gave and pledged billions to each of their three children to fund charitable foundations. Howard, an Illinois farmer, picked global hunger as his target.

In the book's foreword, the elder Buffett describes “Forty Chances” as a “guidebook for intelligent philanthropy.”

It's more than that. Howard Buffett has figured out a way to tell 40 stories about hunger, farming, poverty and war while delivering a readable account of a formidable challenge.

Philanthropists will take much from “Forty Chances,” and the layperson will benefit, too, coming away wiser about the powerful forces that keep poverty and hunger alive — and ways to fight those forces.

The “forty chances” of the title are inspired by a talk Buffett heard in 2001 at a farm-equipment store in Assumption, Ill. Farmers tend to think of their job as a continual process of planting, fertilizing, harvesting and starting all over again, the speaker said. But it's actually something most farmers get only about forty shots at, he said, so they'd better make the most of every opportunity to get it right.

Forty “didn't seem like all that many chances,” Buffett writes. The lecture that day changed his thinking about both farming and life, and he began to question whether he was listening to people who had new ideas and learning the right lessons from his mistakes.

In the book, he shares many mistakes philanthropists make, including having the wrongheaded assumption that other cultures desire Western amenities.

Buffett's foundation built homes for several employees in South Africa; as he was driving by one day, he saw a new stove in the front yard of one of his workers. The family had removed the stove and replaced it with an open fire pit on the kitchen floor. “Nobody ever asked them if they wanted the stove,” he writes.

On a larger scale, Buffett cites preliminary data that suggest that while some kinds of foreign aid reduce conflict in a region — notably agricultural development and food aid — other assistance, such as projects for building infrastructure and improving government administration, can increase the risk of conflict.

Buffett says that as more-detailed data become available, the information will help groups like his “advocate for smarter ways to provide aid.”

There are many success stories. Efforts to support private seed companies in Africa feed hundreds of thousands of people a year. In Nicaragua, helping farmers with the legal work necessary to get title to their land provides an incentive for them to invest in long-term projects that enhance the soil.

Buffett doesn't overplay the marquee value of his family, but he tells us enough to understand how he wound up on a mission against hunger — and to entertain. He once went to see an Omaha businessman who owned a construction company and said he'd like to learn how to operate bulldozers and other big equipment.

The exchange was not warm: “Kid, you were born with a silver spoon in your mouth,” the man said. “You wouldn't last five minutes with my union guys. Get the hell out of my office.”

Buffett jokes that his last name got him in the door and then got him tossed out.

But he left that day “with an 'I'll show you' chip on my shoulder,” he writes. From the looks of things, that's exactly what Howard Buffett did.

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