13th Forum 2000 Conference: Panel Discussion on Philanthropy

Prague, Czech Republic

Let me tell you about the experience of a seven-year-old boy. One day, his city was hit by an air raid and countless bombs were dropped. Amid the explosions and the flames, the boy and his mother fled for their lives. The whole city was devastated. Bodies piled up and many of his neighbors and friends were among the dead. On a single night, more than 100,000 people died. After the air raid, the boy was haunted by fear and sorrow, and endured severe hunger.

This is something I experienced in Tokyo during World War II. It has remained in my memory throughout my life. It has pushed me to engage in philanthropy. I can say it was the starting point of my desire to remove fear and sorrow and alleviate poverty from the world.

More than 60 years have passed since then. My country has long since recovered from the war. The problems of hunger and poverty of the early postwar period are all but gone from Japan. However, there are still many people in the world who suffer from hunger and who live in fear of war — just as I did as a seven-year-old boy.

In addressing poverty, disease and conflict, governments of industrialized countries and international organizations play a major role. But they are often hampered by a bureaucratic mindset that affects what they do. As a result, they are not always able to provide the support truly needed by local people. People whose cultures and circumstances differ from region to region.

This is where private individuals and organizations have a role to play. They are bound by fewer constraints and can deal with problems more swiftly and flexibly. In the early 1980s, a serious famine hit sub-Saharan Africa. Many governments and private organizations offered assistance. Our foundation airlifted emergency food aid to Ethiopia. This was essential aid for starving people.

But all this assistance raised a serious question. “What happens to people when the aid stops?” And of course, the aid did eventually stop.

When we give bread to hungry children or drugs to the sick, we feel that we have done some good. But once we leave they will start suffering again and naturally seek more help. This has made me wonder. Is aid provided out of genuine consideration for those in need? Is it really designed to solve the problems?

Even when aid continues, there are problems. When I visited a certain country and saw the large list of things they wanted from us, I began to wonder if we had made them dependent on aid. I wondered if we were deluding ourselves that we were helping them. Seeing abandoned medical equipment that had been provided by other countries, or aid supplies being resold in markets, has also made me question the purpose of our own giving.

As aid providers, I think sometimes we are too self-satisfied. We congratulate ourselves on the good we are doing, and fail to look deeply enough into the circumstances of the aid recipients. We can become overconfident, and assume that “our way is best.” This can prevent us from providing the kind of aid truly needed by local people. We need to be humble and listen to the people in need of aid. We need to improve what we do by being critical of our own work. We also need to have a long-term vision, patience and enthusiasm.

As philanthropists, we must do more than just giving away money, supplies and technologies. We must also help the recipients to become self-sufficient by understanding their true needs and encouraging them to take action themselves.

After many countries and organizations withdrew aid from Africa, our foundation decided to focus on agricultural development. This seemed to be the key to solving poverty in Africa, so that “not one child would go to sleep hungry.”

Sasakawa Global 2000 was a collaboration between our foundation and the late Dr. Norman Borlaug, the Nobel peace prize laureate who started the “green revolution.” The object was to teach local farmers farming methods well-designed to their circumstances.

The farmers were initially skeptical, but when they saw the larger harvests that resulted, their attitude gradually changed. Soon, many began to join our project. In time, some farmers said they wanted to have technical advisors with advanced knowledge in order to help their fellow farmers. That led us set up agricultural extension departments in African universities.

In over 20 years of activity, it is true that some countries have become dependent on our aid. But despite various difficulties, we continue to plow the land of Africa to this day. There is an Asian proverb that says, “Crops take one year to grow. Trees take ten years. But people take a hundred.” It is not possible to create a green revolution in Africa overnight. It involves trial and error. But I think we can expect gradual success as local farmers are educated to become instructors and start to think and act for themselves.

In philanthropy, the scale of the program or the amount given is not important. What matters is to keep on plowing with the humbleness and willingness to listen to others. To work with the passion to build a better future. And to maintain the conviction that we can make a difference. These, I believe, are the ingredients that eventually bring forth success.

Let me close by wishing all of you success in your endeavors.