Warren Buffett’s son and grandson fight the politics of hunger

Warren Buffett told his oldest son Howard G. Buffett to “take some real risks” in philanthropy. “Don’t worry about swinging at the safe pitches.”


Howard G. Buffett

It was not always easy growing up as a son of one of the world’s wealthiest men. Yet, being Warren Buffett’s son also has had its advantages.

“By observing him, I think I had one of the great school rooms that anybody could ever provide, and it’s driven a lot of my thinking,” Howard G. said.

Howard G. and his son Howard W. have published the book FORTY CHANCES, Finding Hope in a Hungry World. As a professional photographer and Decatur, IL farmer, Howard G. has traveled to about 130 countries. What began as an interest in conservation and taking pictures of endangered species evolved into a concern for those starving – particularly children.

Beyond the developing world, there are about 50 million Americans who do not get enough to eat, and many are children. As I’ve written on this blog, the hungry in Chicago often are ignored, and local politicians fail to put hunger at the top of the agenda.

Howard G.’s Foundation, funded with some of Warren’s commitment to philanthropy, seeks results that change the world.

The market system has dynamics. “If a CEO doesn’t do well, he’s got shareholders to answer to, or he’s got a board to answer to. If you don’t produce what your customers want to buy, you go out of business,” Howard G. said. In philanthropy it’s different. “I have to go out and raise more money every year, so the only thing I want to show is success.”

Howard G. also is a businessman. He serves on corporate boards, including his father’s Berkshire Hathaway and Coca-Cola.

FORTY CHANCES refers to the 40, or so, growing seasons that a farmer has to get it right and learn from mistakes. Howard G. learned this perspective from a downstate Illinois educational session he attended in the early 1990s. “It should help you think about a sense of urgency,” he said.

“It’s very much like life in terms of the opportunities we have to reach our goals or change the things we want to change,” he said. “It makes you focus.”

And it makes a difference in the people hired at Buffett’s foundation. He asks: “What are they going to do right now?”

Warren told his son to try to change something. “We do a lot of risky things,” Howard G. said, because of Warren’s “support and backing.“

Howard G. Buffett has decades of experience as a farmer, and most politicians do not understand the issues. He says farming techniques that work in Central Illinois, cannot be just dropped into developing countries with an expectation of success.

Political conflict is the leading cause of hunger in most of the world because warlords use food and hunger to rule through force.

“In some regions of Mexico,” Howard G. writes, “families living in remote villages have been forced to convert their corn and bean crops to marijuana and are starving at the point of the drug lord’s guns.”

Growing up in Warren Buffett’s home, Howard G. learned to “draw a line in the sand, if that’s what you have to do. Stick with it. Take your losses. Be fair.”

Warren Buffett’s grandson Howard W., who helped write the compelling stories of people fighting back from poverty, said farming is a primary activity in the world, and he has learned to be optimistic by traveling with his father.

Howard G. also published a second book of his photographs – from his first trip to Czechoslovakia in 1969 to recent pictures of exploited and hungry children.

“Howie’s love of farming makes his work particularly helpful to the millions of abject poor whose only hope is the soil,” Warren Buffett wrote in the preface of the main FORTY CHANCES book. “Most of the world’s seven billion people found their destinies largely determined at the moment of birth.”

Howard G. Buffett returned to Prague, Czech Republic in 2012 to visit the former exchange student who invited him there amid the 1969 conflict. Upon his return, he found a modern city. “The same streets where people lined up for hours to buy stale bread and potatoes are now full of ice-cream parlors and sweet shops, internet cafés, and mobile phone stores.”

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