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Explosive violence in UkraineMilitarism examinedEnvironment and explosive violence

Howard G. Buffett talks to AOAV about high-impact philanthropy in conflict zones such as Ukraine

In this interview with AOAV’s executive director, Howard G. Buffett, with over two decades at the helm of his foundation, tells us how his focus is on conflict and post-conflict areas, with an emphasis on agriculture and food security. Having visited 154 countries, he believes in direct engagement and has a lean team of 22 at the foundation, which gave away $510 million in 2023. His agricultural expertise has led to significant work in conflict zones like Eastern Congo, Sudan, and recently Ukraine, with a particular emphasis on integrating ex-combatants into society to sustain peace. The foundation embraces risk and learns from failure to innovate, currently developing de-mining techniques to assist Ukraine’s recovery, especially in agriculture, vital for the country’s and the world’s food security. Buffett expresses concern over the long-term sustainability of Ukraine’s resistance. Photos below are taken by Howard G. Buffett and kindly published here with his permission.

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Iain Overton: Howard, could can you just tell us a little bit about yourself?

Howard Buffett: I’ve been operating the Howard G. Buffett Foundation for well over twenty years now; we work primarily in conflict and some post-conflict areas and focus on agriculture and food security. I’ve traveled to 154 countries and believe when we fund things, we need to show up and spend time on the ground. I try to meet people and build trust and understand first-hand the circumstances creating problems where we want to work. We have a small team of 22 people now at the foundation. In 2023 we gave away roughly $510 million.

Iain Overton: Why this particular focus on sort of conflict and food security?

Howard Buffett: I’ve been involved in agriculture most of my adult life and I’ve been farming for almost 40 years so agriculture is just what I know, what I understand, and what I love doing. The foundation started to look at how can we improve agriculture, especially for smallholder farmers living in places where they have very low productivity, farming is the main livelihood and where there are high rates of poverty.

As we got more and more into that, what we found was the biggest problems – and where there were the fewest outside resources being invested — were in conflict areas or post-conflict areas. So, we’ve done a lot of work in Eastern Congo, and Sudan, South Sudan, Burundi, El Salvador, Colombia. Oftentimes we’re working in areas where there’s very few private foundations, sometimes none. We feel like we can have more impact in these places.

Iain Overton: What main themes do you identify in the work that you’re doing globally?

Howard Buffett: A common theme is post-conflict development so that conflicts don’t re-emerge. The problem of integrating ex-combatants into society is a good example of something we’ve worked on — in Sierra Leone in the past and currently in Colombia. When a conflict has been somewhat resolved, typically by signing a peace accord with the people who fought in the conflict, working with ex-combatants is one of the most important things you can do to ensure peace is sustained. However, it’s tricky because you can’t come in and focus solely on the ex-combatants, you must find a way to do it while also providing support that benefits the rest of society. Otherwise, you risk creating a lot of new conflicts.

I think for us, we’re always trying to learn and adapt and change. So, we go in thinking one thing or we go in starting with one thing and we’ll end up doing something different, just because the circumstances drive us that way. We try all sorts of things where we fail. My motto is: the only way you succeed is to fail a lot because it’s how you learn and come up with better ideas. Failure also means you’re taking some risk, which we think is important to do in the places we work in if we want to solve big problems.

You should see how hard it is to go to our partners and say, “tell us why the money we gave you didn’t succeed in solving the problem?” No one wants to tell you why it didn’t work, right? For us it’s not about assigning blame, it’s about learning what works and what doesn’t so we can do better next time. Our attitude is: if the solutions were easy and obvious, you wouldn’t have so many problems in the world.

We’re now focusing on Ukraine. We’re trying, clearly, some things that aren’t going to work. To help innovate in the demining space, we’re sending a CAT bulldozer over to HALO and they’re going to put a TM-62 (Soviet anti-tank blast mine) under the tracks to blow it up, because we want to see what happens and if this equipment can be adapted for demining. We need to know how much it’s going to cost to fix it. It’s just one example of many ways we’re testing ideas in this area. Ukraine has a huge problem with land mines. Taking a traditional approach will take them hundreds of years to recover their land and economy. The Ukrainians – and the rest of the world – cannot afford the traditional approach here.

Iain Overton: So you seem to understand areas you’re investing in, and as a consequence, you are being able to offer this critical perspective where failure is actually rooted in the learning process?

Howard Buffett: Yes, we have a high tolerance for risk, and with risk-taking comes higher rates of failure – but as importantly, bigger returns when we have success. I should note that it’s informed risk-taking, not random risk-taking. I’ve been to the front lines in Ukraine now ten times. And I find that helps me make decisions even on our humanitarian work because I need to understand what level of risk should we take, where and when. What do I think is happening on the ground? We’re trying to build four different prototypes for demining – to make attachments for bulldozers – and we’re trying to do that in Kharkiv, at the Kharkiv tractor company. They’re concerned about what could happen being so close to the front line. My job as head of our foundation is to weigh the risk of partnering with this company that is in Ukraine and has the capability to be an important, long-term partner on the innovative manufacturing required for demining against the risk that this same company may get blown up because Russia keeps relentlessly bombing Kharkiv.

Iain Overton: Can you tell me a little bit about how you’ve seen an evolution of the conflict In Ukraine?

Howard Buffett: I think that it’s very clear in 2022 we missed a huge window to help Ukraine win quickly and decisively. We’ve adopted this approach where we give Ukraine enough to fight and die, but not enough to fight and win. I don’t understand it. I understand part of the narrative. The West is clearly afraid of escalating the war and pushing Putin towards the nuclear option. So, we’ve never given Ukraine what they need to win, not even close and the Ukrainians have paid a heavy price, even as they have been remarkable so far in preventing a Russian victory that many experts predicted would happen quickly.

When you’re on the front line and the commanders are saying we’re getting out-shelled five to one or six to one now by the Russians. When you’re there and you’re in Lyman or Kupiansk, you understand why they’re evacuating everyone.

The Russians may take back some of the territory that the Ukrainians regained at a heavy cost in 2022. That’s very real. You can’t ignore it. I’m very worried about what’s going to happen and how long the Ukrainians can continue to defy the odds against the world’s second strongest military.

Iain Overton: What observations have you made in Ukraine from the perspective of your own interests between agriculture and conflict?

Howard Buffett: Going forward over the next few years, I think that demining on agricultural land is the thing we’ll spend most money on. Agriculture must come back as strong and fast as it can because that is what will help rebuild Ukraine and help feed the world. It’s the area we would focus on because it’s the area we understand and on which we spent decades working.

It will take lots of work to rebuild the economy. But the demining is so significant across the agricultural areas that it’s the most important starting point. We get stories nearly every week about a farmer who’s hit a landmine or somebody who was trying to clean up landmines on their own land and got killed. So, I think that for us, our long-term focus will be de-mining on agricultural land. I think that’s one of the largest contributions we can make to Ukraine now and for their post-war recovery.

Iain Overton: Ukraine is described by some as the ‘breadbasket’ of the world, and it has a major influence on the global price of wheat, which in turn has an impact on the stability of political systems and communities. So, this has reverberations far beyond the borders of Ukraine, I imagine?

Howard Buffett: Yes, and we’ve already seen that play out in some of the countries we work in Africa. The ‘basic food basket’ has gone up significantly in price and the World Food Programme has had to cut rations to the people they feed. Getting grain out of Ukraine can’t change overnight, getting agricultural land back into production can’t change overnight. But the good news is if you look historically at yield trends and production trends in Ukraine, they have just gradually and steadily increased and improved, which bodes well for Ukraine’s post-war potential. They still have a lot of room to improve in terms of using better production techniques, better equipment, better seeds, better application of fertilizers, using precision application, better irrigation.

I think as you can get more ground back into production, if you can combine it with those changes and improvements, then you can see Ukraine start to really rebuild their agriculture.

Iain Overton: In your recent trip to Ukraine, was there anything else that you saw that you felt was a real concern that may snowball into something far bigger or is already at breaking point?

Howard Buffett: It’s so hard to get people to understand something when they don’t see it themselves and don’t feel it. The unrelenting nature of Russia’s assault is hard to convey to people who have never been to Ukraine since the full-scale invasion. For example, starting on the 14th, 15th of December, Russia started sending a few more missiles into Kyiv and drones. And then they really started hitting it hard, you know, right after Christmas. It is so hard to get across to Western countries the impact this is having on society, on civilians and on children. It’s just this complete disruption of society, which is part of Putin’s plan. He’s trying to wear people out and create fatigue. You see some of that now. You didn’t see it six months ago.

Ukraine is now fighting really three enemies: Iran, North Korea and Russia. Those are not just Ukraine’s enemies, they are enemies to every democracy in the world. Russia is just the one that’s delivering the weapons. But Iran has become a great trading partner with Russia and North Korea is now providing train loads of ammunition and now likely ballistic missiles. Ukraine is incredibly resourceful and resilient. They are making the world safer by the damage they are doing to Russia’s resources. But how long can they keep this up? They may last way longer than people think they will. But at the end of the day, if they don’t have support from Europe and from the United States, they can’t win this. Putin is counting on his ability to be more patient than the West on the war in Ukraine.

Iain Overton: Are you driven by a particular philosophy?

Howard Buffett: What drives me is the fact that there is so much pain and suffering and injustice in this world. I have this unbelievable opportunity with our foundation to try to help address that. In Ukraine, I like to focus our resources on mitigating the impact on civilian populations because it’s the most blatant criminal activity that Putin and his army are engaged in. It’s brutal stuff. Some of those stories must be told.

Iain Overton: It feels like all roads at the moment lead to Kyiv. That there are lots of things at stake here, not just for European and American security, but also food security across vast regions.

Howard Buffett: Globally, absolutely. I think we’re in a very scary time if you want to look at where we’re sitting today with some of the big conflicts. There is a lot of attention on Israel and Ukraine relative to other conflicts, and you hear about some of the related instability like with the Houthis in Yemen. But you rarely hear people talk about the conflict in Sudan or the escalating instability in the Eastern DRC, which could have a big impact on the entire region. There is so much going on that most people don’t even know about, and they certainly don’t care about it. People forget that our two world wars started out as regional conflicts and localized skirmishes that eventually escalated to become global conflicts. History suggests that when we fail to stop regional conflicts instigated by bad actors like Putin early, they will eventually reach our shores, at a much higher cost in lives and money. The Europeans seem to understand that probably because of their proximity. I hope Americans wakes up to this reality soon.