The catalog for Heifer International has just landed in my mailbox, encouraging me to donate a sheep in honor of my nearest and dearest, to a family in need in Nepal, Romania, or Brazil. That family will in turn give away the sheep’s female offspring to other families in need, and so on — a benevolent pyramid scheme known as Passing on the Gift.
I get it. What’s more, as it’s All Saints’ Day, I sense I would feel considerably more beatific if I gifted a sheep on behalf of my loved ones than if I bought them yet another pair of Merino wool gloves they don’t really need. (Hey, but it wouldn’t have been any old gloves but a touchscreen pair from Muji, for using one’s iPhone in the dead of winter…)
Yet for some reason, the Heifer appeal doesn’t. Call me a hard-hearted skeptic, but I’ve always had trouble with the kind of philanthropy that poses simple solutions to complex, deep-seated problems — alleviating world hunger and poverty being at the top of the list.
A candid — or do I mean Candide? — appraisal
When it comes to philanthropy, I always wonder — is this more about you (and your need to assuage your guilt about having so much) or about them? And how much do you actually know about them?
That is probably why, when I went to live abroad, I didn’t go as an aid worker or a Peace Corps volunteer. In the UK I was a postgraduate student; in Japan, a trailing spouse.
That said, my expat life was never just about exotic travel. On the contrary, I aimed to broaden my horizons and educate myself about other cultures by becoming immersed in the everyday life. I got to know the “natives” — and even married a couple of them (in not-very-rapid succession). Ultimately, I tried to become more of an informed citizen — of the world as well as of my country (assuming I eventually returned — I did).
But saving the world? That wasn’t in my plan. Like Voltaire’s young man, Candide, I would start by cultivating my own garden and branch out (so to speak) from there.
The importance of being earnest
I suppose you could say I’ve never been that earnest.
Earnest people have a calling. They don’t have time for frivolity.
I always have time for frivolity. What’s more, I’m genetically predisposed toward light-hearted nonsense. (Despite what the Heifer International Catalog says, my mother is not the sort to enjoy having me donate a sheep to someone she’s never met. She’d rather I gave it to her as a pet!)
From my expat days in the UK, I remember a joke sometimes told of Princess Diana, that when she would arrive on one of her unannounced visits to a hospital, patients would hide beneath their beds, not wanting to be the next “victim” of her need for making the Grand Philanthropic Gesture.
I find that image amusing to this day.
Do you really want to make me cry?
But lest this post become all about me and my peculiar hang-ups, let’s move on to Richard Branson and TDN’s November theme.
Cue in 1980s Culture Club music. Rockstar businessman Sir Richard Branson has just now touched down on the shores of The Displaced Nation in his hot-air balloon, the Virgin Atlantic Flyer.
As the leading exemplar of a fun-loving philanthropist, he is about to disprove my theory that these two qualities, earnestness and fun, can’t be combined in one individual.
As anyone who’s had the privilege of traveling on Virgin Atlantic in upper class (as I did when I was a spoiled expat in Tokyo) will be aware, here is man who knows how to throw a good party.
But if letting the good times roll is a huge part of Sir Richard’s appeal, it’s not his whole story. As one of the world’s wealthiest people, Branson also believes in giving back:
Ridiculous yachts and private planes and big limousines won’t make people enjoy life more, and it sends out terrible messages to the people who work for [such people]. It would be so much better if that money was spent in Africa — and it’s about getting a balance.
Branson, of course, has spent has spent much of his adult life displaced in ways most of us can’t even imagine — in private jets, on a private island in the Caribbean, in boats and balloons in pursuit of daredevil adventure.
But then some years ago, with his 60th birthday approaching, he began diverting some of his formidable energy and funding resources to countries in need — particularly in Africa. He left behind rock bands to form a band of Elders — consisting of, among others, British rock musician and human-rights activist Peter Gabriel, Nelson Mandela, Jimmy Carter and Mary Robinson — to work on the African continent’s intractable problems.
At Ulusaba, the private game reserve that Branson now owns in South Africa, visitors are encouraged to get involved with the initiatives he has launched to help local villages that have been ravaged by unemployment, HIV and drought. As Branson told a Daily Mail reporter:
To come to Africa and not see Africans is just wrong. A lot of the game reserves don’t really allow you into the villages but I think it’s important.
In addition, Branson is using his business knowhow to incubate and seed promising business proposals from aspiring South African entrepreneurs.
Now, Sir Richard would have earned the right of entry to our Displaced Hall of Fame by virtue of his derring-do alone — have you heard of Virgin Galactic? (It’s not too late to book a seat on the first sub-orbital space flight.) But we’ve chosen this moment to honor him as we plan to spend November looking at the kind of global nomads with the courage and the fortitude to delve into global misery.
Such travelers have displaced themselves, often to far-flung corners of the globe, not for the sake of good times or narrow personal goals but for the sake of helping others — many of whom have been displaced from their homelands through tragic circumstances beyond their control.
Not the final word
The announcement of this month’s theme is not, however, tantamount to imposing a ban on skepticism — we skeptics still have a place at The Displaced Nation’s table. What’s more, our ranks will soon swell to include some of the very people who belong to the volunteer and aid communities. They, too, can have their doubts about the effectiveness of their work — and of the involvement of celebrities in global problems.
But for now, let’s save such issues for future posts.
Which means I can now go back to cultivating my little patch of grass. Hmmm… I wonder if it could use a sheep or two, after all?
STAY TUNED for Wednesday’s post, featuring the first of our philanthropic Random Nomads.
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