Jeff Bezos: mass-Adoption is the Key to Giving at the Intersection of Urgent Need and Lasting Impact

If anyone has been following this blog at all, they would realize that the common thread in all the articles is Anthony Bourdain’s show, Parts Unknown. In the opening sequence of the Manila episode, Bourdain’s narration goes like, “Filipinos are the most giving people in the world. You think I’m talking sh*t? Keep watching.” The episode goes on to state the case of the Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs), and the impact they have on their extended families, communities and the overall GDP of the Philippines. It’s a powerful thing to watch. That brings me to Philanthropy. Some of the better known names in this field include Tech billionaires, like Mark and Chan Zuckerberg, Bill and Melinda Gates, the Ballmers, and Warren Buffet who is more of a Wall Street kingpin. Last year, Jeff Bezos, now considered the richest man in the world with a net worth of about $85 billion, hinted at wanting to throw his hat in the ring with a “request for ideas” tweet in which he wrote, “I’m thinking I want much of my philanthropic strategy to be about helping people in the here and now- short term – at the intersection of urgent need and lasting impact.” I’m no expert, but it sounds like Jeff Bezos wants to help real people whose current suffering has been well documented in the news of the day. Almost everywhere you turn, there are the hungry, the poor, the homeless, the displaced, the sick, the injured, and the alarming numbers in Africa and elsewhere that don’t make it out of scientifically manageable natural processes, like pregnancy and childbirth alive. The help from governments, International organizations, and charities is simply not enough. Yet almost every year, there has been another billionaire taking the “giving pledge.” It’s not uncommon to hear about already large school endowments enhanced by the 100s of millions of USDs often by single donations from individual donors. Others have invested heavily in cancer research, alternative education, and basic sciences. It’s all very nobel and impactful work, but the problem is that whenever disaster strikes, brooding different kinds of human crises, this same money which is often in the bilions, is not available to alleviate the situation. A lot of it is tied up in foundations with drawn-out planning processes, lacking the nimbleness and incentive to quickly shift strategies and direct the money where it’s most needed. Having said that, this is where I gotta stop myself. Say what you want about the billionaire philanthropist of today; it’s still their hard-earned money we are talking about here. Some might question the “hard-earned” bit because they argue that these billionaires, often the corporate CEOs, earn their fortunes at the expense of the everyday worker. And I gotta agree with the consensus here because the income inequality gap in this country is growing ever so wide with each passing day. Exploitation aside, the money to be made through superficial stock market gains is bananas. This in turn drives up the prices for basically everything, including basic goods and services, and housing while the median household income for most of America stays put. For better or worse, this is capitalism at its best.

In Africa, where I’m from, the levers of capitalism don’t work so smoothly. There might be grotesque income inequality, but it’s not a result of a full fledged capitalist system that America swears by. The problems with most African economies are rooted in corruption and deep tribal divisions. However, there are quite a number of people that manage to get by with the support of one or two somewhat successful matriarchs or patriarchs in a large extended family. I’m an American citizen today, and can write this article on Google Docs, using high speed internet provided by both my cable company and the cell phone company because my Mom left us as kids to make a living in this country – our own version of the OFW. And I have met many an African who will tell that same story. Mom had three boys, including myself, and we are all living in the US now, married with kids of our own. It’s been 18 years since she made that sacrifice, and she’s still working hard for us, and for the numerous cousins, uncles, aunts, along with their own families back home in Uganda. That’s the way it goes in a society with family values that bend a little closer to socialism rather than capitalism. When you google the words mass adoption, chances are that you will get information about adoption agencies in the State of Massachusetts. But this is far from what I intend to propose to Amazon’s Jeff Bezos. For as far as I know, Amazon might own all the adoption agencies in Massachusetts. I don’t even know squat about the adoption process in this State. But I’m talking about adopting hundreds, even thousands of kids, older kids. I don’t claim to know what Bezos would get away with, but imagine if he could adopt one kid in every household in a city like Oakland. How about one kid for every two houses, or three, or four? I would even consider that ratio widening to an apartment building floor, a building, or even a city block. If we are talking about impactful giving, however, the smaller ratio would do the trick. If that kid went ahead and got the best education, and met the World’s smartest people, can you imagine how much change they would bring to their nucleus and extended family? Can you imagine how much more resourceful they would be in their community? They may uproot and leave the community all together, but at least they would harbor a connection, however miniscule, that could potentially build bridges between affluent America and the America that’s left behind. In all seriousness though, this whole idea of mass-adoption is probably illegal in all 50 States. It might not even sit well with both the parents, and the would be adopted kids themselves. However, there are thousands of kids in foster homes today that would greatly benefit from adoption. Many of them that age out of foster care go on to face homelessness, unemployment, addiction, and incarceration. With the Amazon infrastructure in place, Bezos can potentially take over the foster care system. He can subsidize all the goods that the foster families buy from amazon and even provide some version of the WIC program using Whole Foods groceries. Alright, I’m probably confusing individual giving with corporate giving. But still, Bezos can definitely write a check for a billion or so to provide these kids with a good private high school education, and in true capitalist fashion reap the benefits of those who make it to college on merit, and abandon the others that drop out. He doesn’t have to commit to college enrollment every year. He can just follow one class of students and set the end goal of his giving in the year in which they go to college. It shouldn’t cost more than a billion, I think, I guess. I truly think though that foster care would be that solid intersection of urgent need, and lasting impact.

Giving at its core strengthens families, and builds communities which are the pillars of civilization and healthy democracies. It has been said that humans adapted the concept of civilization from insects, and how they build their communities. At the risk of sounding like a self-righteous extreme socialist, I think billionaire philanthropists who are pursuing the ever so elusive impactful selfless philanthropy, should take a leaf from the life of the Japanese red bug as documented on BBC’s Life series. The offspring of this bug feed on only fallen fruit from a particularly rare kind of tree. The mother bug leaves the young bugs in the nest, goes out to find food. She probs lots of fruit, testing for the perfect ripeness. This could take hours. When at last she finds the right fruit, a thief comes along; another mother looking to feed her own brood. It’s easier for her to steal than to find her own fruit. A fight ensues, the outcome of which will change both bugs’ lives. Alas, the thief wins, and she takes the fruit. The loser continues her search for another fruit, not knowing that the bugs back in the nest have grown impatient. They leave their nest to look for another provider, and they find the thief’s nest. The loser returns home to an empty nest, having lost her chance at motherhood forever. The thief on the other hand returns with the stolen fruit to find that she has twice as many mouths to feed. The food doesn’t last nearly as long as it would otherwise. Moments pass, and the young bugs are still hungry. They clamber over the mother, bugging her for more food. She has to go out to find more fruit. She works continuously for days feeding her insatiable brood. Eventually the bugs get big enough to fend for themselves, but it comes at a terrible cost. The mother dies from exhaustion. So they feed on her lifeless body as their last meal before they leave the nest.

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