The Displaced Nation

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All hail Sir Richard Branson, along with global nomads who delve into global misery — and welcome to November

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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18 responses to “All hail Sir Richard Branson, along with global nomads who delve into global misery — and welcome to November

  1. Michelloui November 1, 2011 at 2:31 pm

    Really interesting points. Every Christmas after we open our presents we look through a website that does something very similar and ‘choose’ an animal or other item to gift. While I am aware this isn’t the solution, I am trying to encourage our kids to remember other people on the day they’re given presents many people will never have. Difficult.

    Great post.

    • ML Awanohara November 2, 2011 at 5:06 pm

      @Michelle
      Thanks for your comment. I live in New York City, a place where you can be excoriated and made to feel guilty for not adopting a dog from a shelter (I have two dogs, both breeds). For certain things (pets being one of them), one must always be seen to be doing a good deed nowadays!

      Speaking of animals brings me back to the Heifer Catalog. Whenever I look at it, I’m invariably struck by how cute all the livestock are — which is why, I presume, they are out front? It’s either that or kids, have you noticed? But with kids, you have to worry about the “pornography of poverty.” (Someone in England once told me that if you go out on the street with a dog or a kid, you get more money with the dog!)

      Since you live in England, I’ll tell you that in some ways this entire topic reminds me of Victorian times — when little waif-boys like Oliver Twist would be sent out to do the pickpocketing on behalf of professional thieves.

      Similarly, you never know exactly who or what’s behind these images that you see online or in these catalogs. I don’t meant to imply that Heifer Foundation is a sinister operation — it’s been going since 1944, and seems reasonably transparent. But even with an esteemed organization like that, it can be hard to determine how much of your gift actually ends up helping people, and to what extent. (I guess most of us would rationalize it as better than nothing…but what if your money might be better spent elsewhere, how would one know?)

      And what about Richard Branson and other philanthropists? When I read of their efforts, it makes me think of Kipling’s “The White Man’s Burden”:

      Take up the White Man’s burden–
      The savage wars of peace–
      Fill full the mouth of Famine
      And bid the sickness cease;

      In other words, the rich have a moral duty and an obligation to help “the poor” better themselves, whether the poor want the help or not.

      I’d like to think that as the world is now a smaller place, we can dismiss Kipling’s skepticism — we can really help the helpless in ways we couldn’t before. I’m sure that’s what Richard Branson would say if he were commenting on my post.

      But somehow I can’t seem to dispel these Victorian ghosts of mine. They keep whispering in my ear that we’re not as advanced and sophisticated as we think we are, that we should study their mistakes…

  2. Yumiko November 3, 2011 at 9:55 pm

    Great read, as always. We don’t get these catalogs here in Tokyo. However, I do get a lot of calls for donation for local causes( nursing homes, red cross) at the end of the year, which you are really obliged to donate a small sum as a good local citizen. The ladies who do the collection are neighborhood volunteers, so you have to be nice to them. Not global at all.

    • ML Awanohara November 5, 2011 at 11:55 am

      @Yumiko
      It’s interesting that the Heiffer catalog hasn’t reached Tokyo yet. I recall from my own days in Japan that Japanese youth were beginning to rally around global warming and other environmental causes — so you’d think you’d at least be receiving an “adopt a panda” catalog by now!

      But I’m aware that philanthropy isn’t as entrenched in Japan as it is in the West. I wonder if that has to do with Japan not having a Christian tradition. For better or for worse, I think you can draw a straight line between the West’s current efforts to “save” Africa and those made by Christian missionaries during Victorian times.

      I seem to be obsessed with the Heiffer catalog but the sheep on the cover caught my eye again this morning. I’ve decided it reminds me of the sheep you see in the nativity scene (because of the shepherds being in attendance at Christ’s birth). In which case, what a clever ploy! Sheep = nativity = Christ child = Christianity = saving others…

  3. amblerangel November 4, 2011 at 10:19 pm

    Good points all- hopefully day to day I can find a way to improve the place in which I live! Hmm- if we all did that instead of looking for the grand gesture…

    • ML Awanohara November 5, 2011 at 11:59 am

      @Emily aka amblerangel
      I sometimes wonder if some of us get involved in improving the lives of others as a way to avoid tending our own gardens… Since repatriating to this country, I’ve encountered on numerous occasions the kinds of people who’ve dedicated their entire lives to working on behalf of people elsewhere on the planet — while tolerating an abusive atmosphere in their offices. Apparently, they don’t perceive the irony!

      • ML Awanohara November 7, 2011 at 11:21 pm

        P.s. I am now reading Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible, and Orleanna Price, the wife of the preacher, makes a remark about their relationship that perfectly expresses what I was trying to say:

        I married a man who could never love me, probably. It would have trespassed on his devotion to all mankind.

      • Kate Allison November 9, 2011 at 7:58 am

        You should read Joanna Trollope’s “The Rector’s Wife” when you’re done with that, ML, and compare and contrast the two relationships…

  4. Piglet in Portugal November 9, 2011 at 4:41 am

    I am not sure about worrying about hunger on distant shores when you only have to look around you to see “genuine” homeless on the street. Or some who even if they are lucky enough to have a roof over their heads are struggling to pay the bills with little money left for food. These maybe families who have experienced the good times but now have reached rock bottom and are now fighting for survival. Old people dying of cold and starvation. It makes me feel so angry at the injustice.

    In fact reading your post has made me realise I should not be sitting here in front of my PC talking about this, I should find the notice I received awhile back asking for volunteers to join their support team. The support team basically encourage shoppers at supermarkets to part with just a couple of items of food for the needie.

    I’d love to work with the old people but I just don’t have the language skills to communicate. Their plight as I have already said makes me feel so sad. Loneliness is a terrible thing.

    Sorry if I’ve gone ranting off topic :)

    PiP

    • Kate Allison November 9, 2011 at 8:04 am

      Fair point, PiP. I wonder how much of that is to do with the portrayal of poverty in the media (see my Displaced Q post on November 8). Cute children in Africa, or old men on the streets in your own country? Different charities have different glamour ratings, it seems.

    • ML Awanohara November 10, 2011 at 1:15 pm

      @PiP @Kate
      The only thing holding me back from chiming “hear, hear!” to the idea of charity beginning at home is the thought of the gap between the Global North and the Global South. We who live in rich countries have sooooo much more than they do! And that, too, isn’t fair.

      In fact, you could make an analogy with the main claim of the Wall St protesters here in NYC. Just as it isn’t fair that the 1% get bailed out, continue to earn big bonuses and get their tax breaks extended — while the rest of us, the 99%, lose jobs and can hardly afford health care — it’s not fair that the countries in the Global North have such a higher standard of living than their brothers and sisters in Africa and other poor countries.

      For me, the problem is, figuring out how to rectify that — especially if you don’t have Richard Branson’s means. I can’t go jetting off to Africa, meet all the big players, and start up my own charity. So I have to trust someone else’s if I’m going to give, or give back.

      • Piglet in Portugal November 10, 2011 at 1:51 pm

        The thing is, WE can’t save the world.
        There is a saying – you can’t miss what you have never had and Africa has never had. IT’s not so much that I don’t care what happens on distant shores, I really do, but we as individuals have to be realistic as to what is in our control and what is not. Do what we can, where we can and when we can. Poverty in Africa needs to be addressed but doe we have more chance of standing on the shoreline and holding back the sea?

        This is why I say yes give to Africa but in the more practical terms -help the elderly who are abandoned, lonely and poor – they may just need company and a kind word. Help in homeless shelters by serving food on Christmas day. Join the Samaritans and become a councellor to help those who are suicidal. Work with abused children etc. All this is happening right on our doorstep. (Having said this It’s a bit more difficult for me in a country where I am unable to speak the language)

        Once, I was really stressed and under extreme pressure at work – I was at breaking point. A Jehoviahs witness (one of my co-workers) printed out a simple prayer on a card (see below) which he presented to me along with a cup of coffee…He touched my arm and then walked away. I have long forgotten the details of why I was under so much pressure but have never forgotten his kind actions in my moment of need.

        “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change. The courage to change the things I can. And the wisdom to know the difference”

        We can make a difference we just need to reach out.

        India, for example recieves mega handouts from Britain to help the poor. Yet I was horrified to read, India has it’s own space program. Governments need to spend their money more wisely and influence the countries leaders.

        Ho ho…I am in full rant mode so I will shut up LOL :)

        This is a topic VERY close to my heart as you can probably tell. LOL :)

      • ML Awanohara November 10, 2011 at 5:31 pm

        @PiP
        I admire your passion, especially when it comes to wanting to do something to help people suffering in offices — heaven knows, there’s a lot of it about nowadays with so many narcissistic bosses and so many workers struggling to do the jobs of five people — as well as the elderly. As far as the latter goes, I assume you know about the UK’s new Campaign to End Loneliness (started in 2010)? I actually hadn’t heard of it until I read this post on the Telegraph Expat blog, talking about lonely elderly British expats in Majorca. Elderly expats, like the elderly everywhere, usually get ignored. But there must be quite a few of them about, who get stuck living far away from home and then get dementia, break hips and so on? That strikes me as being very sad…especially if they don’t or can’t admit (out of pride or whatever) that they need help.

  5. Piglet in Portugal November 10, 2011 at 5:54 pm

    Hi ML,
    Not sure about helping people in offices. someone helped me once and I’ve never forgotten it. I will check out the Campaign to End Loneliness. No not heard of it but I may contact them as my Mother is suicidal with loneliness.
    Yep I am passionate… :)

  6. Sonia Marsh November 11, 2011 at 9:31 pm

    I donate to causes in Africa, as I lived in Nigeria as a child. I always research that most of the money goes to the cause, and not to administrative fees. I really want to experience helping in some African countries again, Like the DRC with Alissa Everett, who does work there and helps women (rape victims) start a business. I connected with her, an interview on my blog, as she’s a famous photographer and hope to help in person, soon.

    • ML Awanohara November 12, 2011 at 2:56 pm

      @Sonia
      What was it like to live in Africa as a kid? We must recruit you to do a guest post here!

      On giving: I agree that it helps to have some kind of personal connection to the cause in question. Kathleen Colson, who has contributed this month’s travel yarn about her frequent travels in Africa for the BOMA Project, is my cousin — so I know she’s trustworthy! I also approve of her approach of giving people the tools they need instead of telling them what to do.

      That said — and Kathleen will have to forgive me here — I can also see the argument that these various aid efforts should be more coordinated — that we need some sort of overarching policy or framework for what it is these various groups (governmental, nongovernmental, international) are trying to accomplish in Africa. Otherwise, some of the aid — however well intentioned — will be wasted or else could prove counterproductive.

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