My daughter wants to go to South America to build houses for indigenous people. I don’t really think that kind of charity works. I’m trying to convince her it’s better to support our own family and community, and if she goes overseas, it better be for lasting change, a leg up – not a hand out.
We recently hosted a group of high-powered, opinionated, definitely impressive, and thoroughly Republican chief executive officers from the United States earlier this summer with their children to build a schoolroom in Kenya.
Taking jabs at President Barack Obama was sport for these tycoons. When they learned barack means “blessings” in Swahili, they quipped, “Well, he sure wasn’t a blessing for America.” Leather belts emblazoned with the face of Obama, whose dad was Kenyan, are for sale all over the country. None of our guests could bring themselves to wear one, but they could imagine Republican presidential contender Mitt Romney using one to “whip Obama’s butt.” And so on.
They also felt pretty much exactly as you do about the working-overseas type of charity. They weren’t convinced that building a schoolroom abroad was practical or a good use of their time. Most of them had financed the build and come to help, only because their children had asked them.
To the CEOs, this kind of charity was a handout with no lasting return on investment. It’s something they said was practised by the left: doing good for the sake of doing good. They questioned the value of investing time and dollars a world away when there are significant domestic needs . They also worried about their kids’ enthusiasm for work overseas, and felt they should dedicate themselves to issues at home.
One of the CEOs on the trip told an anecdote: His child’s school was giving an award to an outstanding citizen in their community. The faculty put forward two candidates: One was a corporate leader who had started many businesses, gave modestly to charitable causes, and was a prominent employer in the community. The other candidate had built a school in Nepal. Who do you think the kids picked? The guy who built the school. The CEO worried that this sent the wrong message, that helping a world away had more value than helping at home.
During the week, as they stood shoulder to shoulder with their children laying bricks, we spent a lot of time talking about what building a schoolroom thousands of miles away from their home communities might mean.
An educated child can elevate his or her family, and community, offering solutions – such as new ways to irrigate crops or run small businesses – and earning an income beyond the subsistence farming on which most rely. Basic education is an investment that pays dividends in increased standards of living. Africa is all too often home to political strife. Decreasing poverty in a continent with abundant resources, as well as the world’s fastest growing population of young people, will benefit the global community.
Many of the CEOs admitted they couldn’t quibble with the benefits of education, no matter where in the world. Their children also saw that business leaders create jobs that lift people out of poverty and allow projects like schools to exist.
And at day’s end, left or right, parent or child, we found a common language around service. Every business leader in the group believed deeply in serving his community and country by creating employment, providing for his family, serving in the military or taking a leadership role in his church.
That week, we watched type-A business leaders and their children, each skeptical of the others’ beliefs, achieve the most humble of détentes through service.
Craig and Marc Kielburger co-founded Free the Children. Follow Craig at facebook.com/craigkielburger and @craigkielburger on Twitter. Send questions to Livebetter@globeandmail.com.