October 21, 2011

Personalities, please exit right

By Deacon Patrick Moynihan *

Early in my missionary career, I was invited to speak about our school in Haiti to a sixth grade class at Our Lady of Sorrows in Frayser, Tenn. Frayser is a largely blue-collar community of hard-working people who live north of Memphis. The school is encased in a positive moment of history. I remember being immediately impressed by the good behavior of the students.    

To help the kids understand the difference between Haiti and the U.S., I told them that the per capita income in the country was less than $500. Unsure if they understood what this meant, I explained that whole families in Haiti struggle to live on less than a paperboy makes in the U.S. I knew they got it when one student asked, “How do they divide up their money for things?”  

I also told the class that we could probably run our school for a day just on the lunch money they had in their pockets. This was not an exaggeration. Our school was smaller in those days, with a budget around $70 a day. With more than 25 students in the class, it was a good bet.

After the class ended, the students filed out. Each shook my hand politely and said thank you. The last young man in the line stopped. Once he got my attention, he handed me a couple of bills and some coins and said, “Here’s what was in my pocket.”

I often think of this fond memory. Most recently, I thought of it while reading an article in Forbes about another billionaire who has accepted the Buffet/Gates Challenge to give away half his super-wealth before dying. This particular article was about Facebook co-founder and the U.S.’s youngest billionaire, Dustin Moskovitz.

I remain more impressed with the sixth grader’s sense of philanthropy than many of the billionaires who have taken the Buffet-Gates challenge, for three reasons. First, the young man never gave his name. Second, he gave everything he had in his immediate control. Third, and possibly most important, he walked away, gave up control and trusted another human being to make good with what he gave. That’s genuine philanthropy. 

I am not trying to discourage authentic advocacy or celebrities using their notoriety to draw attention to the needs of the marginalized—this is extremely admirable and helpful. Rather, I want to suggest that the Mega-Personalities, like Mr. Gates and Mr. Clinton, follow the example of this sixth grader and let go. Specifically, let go of the foundations that amass money and reduce a world of ideas to the direction of one Personality.

Personality cults are no better in world development than they are in politics. When big Personalities are involved in poor countries, good ideas get overshadowed and bad ones get long legs to trample over people. Worst of all, local governments get ignored as do small, effective missions with actual track records of success.

Large eponymous foundations often focus millions of dollars on single issues at the behest of their omnipresent benefactors who are looking to make a legacy difference. This is problematic because many of the issues poor countries face require multi-faceted, layered social solutions, which are more easily achieved when money and resources are spread out among many players operating in an array of social endeavors. This needed shotgun approach does not happen when one person calls the shots.

I also get a bit of a twist in my stomach from the second commonly mentioned reason for this mega-wealth shedding: making sure the next generation is not de-motivated. In this recent Forbes article and in other interviews, Bill and Melinda Gates have stated that part of their reason for giving their billions away is to avoid “ruining” their children’s lives with the inheritance of mega-wealth. Does this concern really rank being mentioned in the same interview with malaria eradication?  

I am well acquainted with the adage, “It is better to light one candle than curse the darkness.” I am also well aware that blowing out the Olympic torch of a candle wielded by the likes of Bill Gates and Mr. Clinton would require Red Adair-like skill. So, I am simply going to make a request: Personalities, please exit right and trust that many heads are still better than one.

Deacon Patrick Moynihan graduated Culver Military Academy in 1983, from Brown University with BA in Sanskrit and Classics in 1987, and from Providence College with an MA in Religious Studies [Theology] in 1999.

He taught Latin and English in a Catholic High School from 1987 to 1990, traded commodities, futures and options for an international trading company from 1990 to 1995 and directed a free Catholic mission school in Haiti for academically gifted children from the poorest areas around Port au Prince from 1996 to 2006.

Deacon Moynihan was ordained in October of 2001 as a permanent deacon for the Diocese of Rockford [IL] where he was the director of formation and later the Office for the Permanent Diaconate from 2001 to 2006. He has since gone back to Haiti and is currently the president of The Haitian Project.

* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.


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