An Accident of Geography: Compassion, Innovation and the Fight Against Poverty

An Accident of Geography: Compassion, Innovation and the Fight Against Poverty


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An Accident of Geography: Compassion, Innovation and the Fight Against Poverty by Richard C. Blum

Advances in global development have helped lift hundreds of millions of people from poverty in recent decades, but major challenges in fighting poverty remain. Billions of people continue to have little or no access to the basic necessities of life: clean water, food, shelter, education, and medical care. 

The random location of their birthplace limited much of what is possible in many of their lives. 

Yet legions of dedicated people today are proving that with the right approaches and resources, disciplined efforts to fight poverty can succeed—and with greater scale and impact than ever. 

In An Accident of Geography, author Richard C. Blum profiles many of them while narrating his inspiring personal story—accomplished private-equity investor especially in Asia, humanitarian, public policy advocate, and creator of an unprecedented, multidisciplinary curriculum in poverty and development studies that has attracted thousands of students on the ten campuses of the University of California and beyond. 

Blum offers practical guidance on what works best: giving poor people a greater voice in the field and applying key principles of 21st-century management, engineering, and development philanthropy. Put your accident of geography to work in helping others, and yourself Be the change maker you see in the mirror. 

​All author proceeds from the sale of An Accident of Geography will be donated to projects advancing global development.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781626343344
Publisher: Greenleaf Book Group Press
Publication date: 10/11/2016
Pages: 368
Sales rank: 845,870
Product dimensions: 6.40(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.60(d)

About the Author

Richard C. Blum
Richard C. Blum is a San Francisco-based private-equity investor and philanthropist. He has combined these twin passions over several decades, applying his core concepts and acumen to build companies for long-term growth at Blum Capital Partners, Newbridge Capital, and other firms, and to myriad humanitarian, higher education, and public policy projects to fight poverty and advance global development.

Among these is the Blum Center for Developing Economies at the University of California, Berkeley, with branches throughout the UC system. The Center combines studies and cutting edge research to train students, sources innovations, and develops scalable solutions to address poverty. Richard also founded and chairs the American Himalayan Foundation, a humanitarian group that works in Nepal and throughout the Himalaya to improve education and health, preserve Tibetan culture, and prevent girl trafficking.

A member and former chair of the University of California's Board of Regents, he is married to US Senator Dianne Feinstein.

Thomas C. Hayes
Thomas C. Hayes is a principal with Finsbury, a global consulting firm in strategic communications, and a former award-winning New York Times economic correspondent. This is his fourth book, collaborating on each as writer with authors in business, investing, management and philanthropy. He and his wife live in Bethel, Connecticut. 

Read an Excerpt

An Accident of Geography

Compassion, Innovation, and the Fight Against Poverty

By Richard C. Blum, Thomas C. Hayes

Greenleaf Book Group Press

Copyright © 2016 Richard C. Blum
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-62634-334-4


Life's Inspiration

"Nothing for me has been more rewarding in life than the result of our climb on Everest, when we have devoted ourselves to the welfare of our Sherpa friends."

— Sir Edmund Hillary

When I was a boy, one of my most treasured possessions was Richard Halliburton's Book of Marvels. I read and reread his stories — of riding an elephant across the Alps like Hannibal, of swimming the fifty-mile length of the Panama Canal, of flying in a small aircraft close to Mount Everest in 120-mile-an-hour winds. Halliburton wrote with awe about the three attempts by George Mallory to scale Everest and the mystery surrounding the disappearance of Mallory and his partner, Andrew Irvine, on the third try. I pored over the pages again and again, until the book's large black-and-white photographs and drawings of the world's great wonders were smudged by years of fingerprints.

So you might imagine how I felt when, in my final year at Lowell High School in San Francisco, I heard the news that Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay had reached the summit of Mount Everest.

It was May 29, 1953. The impact was stunning — a mix of awe and astonishment around the world. For at least thirty years, millions of people like me had wondered, If someone ever reached the top of the world, what would they see? Would they be able to breathe, to survive? How would they get there, and how would they get back? I read some of the answers in the morning San Francisco Chronicle.

I was thrilled these two men had made it to the summit, but I was also a little jealous — my opportunity to get there first was gone. Nearly thirty years after their triumph, though, I was excited to lead the first foreign expedition on the only side of Everest that had yet to be climbed, the forbidding Kangs-hung Face on the east, in Tibet. Sir Ed was with our team, a great honor for me and the last time he ever was on Everest. (Bad weather forced our lead climbers to abandon this historic attempt, as I describe in chapter 11, but two years later six members of that team completed the ascent, aided by the same rope lines they had secured before on Kangshung and by warmer El Niño wind currents.)

When you carry a deep passion, what might seem like magical thinking can lead to something very real. My passion as a young man was trekking in the beautiful lands of the Himalaya. As the years passed, inspired by Sir Ed; my Sherpa guide, Pasang Kami; and other people I met on my journeys there, that passion evolved into finding ways to help the people of Nepal, Tibet, and elsewhere in those mountain ranges improve their lives. Now those activities have expanded dramatically into a much wider ambition and joining with legions of others in the fight against poverty.

Poverty problems are complex. They have to be addressed on multiple fronts to make a lasting impact. Ours include developing multidisciplinary studies with a strong connection to engineering; helping fund and advise on scores of local projects for poor people in isolated towns and villages in South Asia, such as keeping fifteen thousand Nepali girls in school and safe from sex traffickers, and supporting Tibetan refugees; and assisting former presidents Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter in the work of their nonprofit organizations. We also fund policy research on poverty and development at the Brookings Institution and advise government organizations such as the US Agency for International Development (USAID) and the President's Global Development Council, which I helped design and initiate.

Pasang Kami

After that astonishing news of Sir Ed and Tenzing's success, it took me fifteen years to make my first trip to the Himalaya, in 1968 — and it was exactly the kind of life-changing experience I expected it would be.

Still carrying my dream of seeing Mount Everest and the breathtaking surrounds, I found a way to extend my first business trip in Asia to include Nepal. At the time, it was far from a common destination. When I asked a travel agent in San Francisco about flights to Kathmandu, he replied, "I'm sorry. Our expert on Africa is out to lunch."

In the four weeks I spent backpacking through rhododendron forests, giant bamboo ranges, and otherworldly vistas to reach Annapurna (the tenth-highest peak in the world) and beyond, I never saw another Westerner (other than the two friends who joined me for the first two weeks). It would take another decade for Nepal's reputation as a prized destination for trekkers and climbers to grow.

Our head Sherpa, or sirdar, was a polite, generous man named Pasang Kami. He was short and wore glasses but was also strong. He spoke only when he needed to. On our journey, he looked after everyone, paying careful attention to how I labored through some of the narrow trails, high passes, and deep valleys. He was motivated not by the money we were paying but by the dedication of a devout Buddhist to show compassion for another human being. I liked him immediately.

We shared an obvious desire to learn what we could about each other. Everyone called him P. K. — including his wife, I discovered. He had first worked on trekking expeditions as a cook boy, rising in time to porter, guide, and finally sirdar. Trekking or climbing with foreigners offered a better opportunity to support his family than being an assistant cook in the Indian army, where he had earned a pittance of less than fifty cents a day. There were no schools in the mountains where he grew up, so he never had any formal education. But he had ambition and was a hard worker. He had taught himself to read, speak, and write in Nepali and English.

I didn't realize at the time that he would become one of the most important people in my life.

An Epiphany about Destiny, Opportunity

We started our trek from Pokhara, then a quiet town and today a tourist hub with a population of more than 250,000. We spent our first night at a Tibetan refugee camp called Hyangja. People living there and in many similar settlements in Nepal and northern India were among the many thousands who had fled Tibet with little money and few possessions after troops sent by the Chinese government mounted an increasingly ruthless invasion starting in 1950.

The camp resembled a small Tibetan village, with stone buildings, flat roofs, and a small temple. People were incredibly friendly, in a way that, especially given their circumstances, wasspellbinding for a Westerner like me. Small children came and sat in our laps. Some even spoke to us in English. Many had been born in Hyangja or carried there over the mountains on somebody's back. Beneath the smiles and laughter that night, I felt uneasy, inadequate. Here in this isolated encampment was stark evidence of how the hand of fate works randomly across the human race, especially in shaping the lives of the very rich and the very poor, with absolutely no respect for innate talent or potential.

These bright, cheerful kids and their parents seemed trapped in the most forbidding circumstances. In contrast, I had had opportunities for a strong public education and career success, all within twenty miles of the middle-class neighborhood in southwest San Francisco where I had grown up. Barely scratching out an existence as subsistence farmers, the families here often were denied even the most basic needs — access to health care, education, clean water, and especially the wisdom that had passed down through their ancient Tibetan Buddhist traditions. Of course, I had never had to worry about any of these issues. I had accumulated many resources and other advantages by the young age of thirty-two. These children had been born into a place where poverty and isolation from the post-Renaissance world were simply a way of life.

This is all just an accident of geography, I thought. I was certain of that as Scot Macbeth, Ron Lawrence, and I stretched out for the night in our sleeping bags. I was tired after the day's trek from Pokhara and in need of some serious, restful sleep, but restful sleep was not in the cards that night. Many questions raced through my mind: How can I possibly help these people? How soon can I get started? Who might join me?

This simple altruistic reflex had been ingrained in me from a young age by two strong-minded women: my mother and my grandmother. Both were good women who were active with local charities. Donating our time and sharing what we could was always a given in our house. My mother, Louise, known to most everyone as "Lou," was our Cub Scout den mother when my brother, Bob, and I were young. When we were grown, she volunteered at various art museums and ran the gift shop at the local hospital.

During World War II, my grandmother, Cleveland Heil Hirsch, decided to do her duty and joined the American Women's Voluntary Services. She was assigned to repairing airplane instruments at McClellan Air Force Base in Sacramento. I can just imagine my five-foot-tall, highly proper grandmother wearing blue jeans or coveralls, lying on her back under an instrument panel for hours every day. She was sixty years old. The grandmother Cleve I knew had never worked outside the home, yet once she signed up for the war effort, it wasn't long before she won an award for suggesting how a cockpit instrument could be improved.

To me, that first night of the Himalaya trek, "signing up" seemed the obvious thing to do.

My understanding of the situation in the Himalaya was primitive, though. I couldn't even speculate about plausible answers or solutions. This was the first of many, many fitful nights thinking about these people and their struggles. The injustices were baffling to me. I could not accept them. I do not accept them now.

Khumbu, Land of the Sherpas

I was enthralled by what I saw of Nepal on that first trip and anxious to return to the Himalaya. I had always wanted to see the Everest area, where most Sherpas live — in the Khumbu part, within what is known as the Solukhumbu District — even more so now because of our new connection with P. K.

The Sherpas originally migrated from eastern Tibet — the name in Tibetan literally means "people of the east" — several hundred years ago through what is known as the Nangpa La, a pass at an elevation of more than nineteen thousand feet into Solukhumbu. They share the Tibetan heritage in language, clothing, and Tibetan Buddhism. Sherpa guides and porters were vital to the success of the early Western explorers in the Himalaya. Their mountaineering skills and ability to tolerate extreme altitudes are emblematic traits of the singular Sherpa culture. So is their adaptability.

In 1970, two years after our first trip, Scot Macbeth and I found ourselves hiking up the mountainside from tiny Lukla Airport toward P. K.'s village, an ancient trading center known as Namche Bazaar. We trekked along the fast-flowing Dudh Kosi River and through the Himalayan forest, passing small Sherpa huts and villages, each with dome-shaped Buddhist meditation and worship houses known as gompas. We saw prayer wheels — small cylinders bearing sacred written prayers that, when spun, are believed to bring the same benefits as prayers recited orally, and strings of colorful prayer flags rippling and snapping in the breeze.

Himalayan Buddhists believe spiritual beneficences etched on the prayer flags, known as lungtas or "wind horses," are received by all who are touched by the winds that animate the flags. The most important mantra in Buddhism, Om Mani Padme Hum, is a prayer for protection from danger and a call to compassion, "the Jewel in the Heart of the Lotus." You see it in Tibetan script adorning prayer flags, prayer wheels, and mani stones — large, smooth stones with this or other mantras etched into the surface — wherever you go in the Himalaya, but especially in the Khumbu. His Holiness the Dalai Lama tells us the mantra is best understood as six syllables embodying Buddha's teachings on the six realms of existence in suffering.

As we neared Namche Bazaar, we could see Mount Everest for the first time through the trees. Chomolungma, "Mother Goddess of the World" in Tibetan, or "Sagarmatha," as Nepalis have called it for centuries, was more exciting than I had anticipated. We stood on a ridge above the village, enthralled by the wonderful vistas before us. Everest was in the distance; closer at hand were the soaring, snow-covered peaks of Thamserku, Kangtega, Ama Dablam, and Lhotse, the world's fourth-highest mountain at nearly twenty-eight thousand feet. Glancing downward, we saw verdant forests and, thousands of feet below, rivers in the deep gorges of two canyons.

For us, arriving in Namche Bazaar was like traveling into the past. The tableau was rough and rustic. There were no hotels then. Most people lived in little huts — sheds, really — with holes in the ceiling for smoke to rise from fires lighted daily for cooking and heat. The rooms were smoky. Tuberculosis was widespread. Food was scarce.

P. K. invited us to stay with him, his wife, Namdu, and the four children they had at that time. As I came to learn, P. K. was known around the Khumbu villages as ambitious, even a bit wily, when it came to latching on to foreign trekkers. He was eager for the business at a time when there weren't many Western visitors. Maybe that is why his homestead was better than most.

The family lived in a two-story house made of stone and coated with a plaster of mud and dung to fill in the cracks for warmth. The door was about five feet high and nearly as wide, making it easy for their livestock — a cross between yaks and cattle — to enter. The animals spent their nights downstairs; the family used the living area upstairs. Typical of the Sherpas and other Himalayan mountain dwellers, the family cooked indoors over an open fire. There was no chimney. Smoke filled the house, not to mention our nostrils, clothing, and hair. We retrieved water from a nearby stream and used the outhouse outside the front door.

Everything used in Namche Bazaar was either grown nearby or carried by yaks or porters long distances through the mountains. P. K.'s house was constructed in Bhutanese style without a single nail, and the two windows had no glass. Instead, a wooden lattice holding two dozen small squares of thin paper filled each opening. These paper "windows" softened the wind and the cold, and allowed a little light in. The walls were built from rough, dark wood secured by jute rope. There was no electricity or interior lighting. We went to bed soon after dark fell, on Tibetan carpets rolled out in the main room. And we were deeply grateful for the hospitality.

During my early treks in the Himalaya, I quickly came to appreciate, as many Westerners have before and since, that Sherpas are exceptional people. Generosity and kindness are revered in their Buddhist tradition — essential conduct for ever-higher rebirth on the spiritual journey toward nirvana. The sacred nature of these traits no doubt is closely linked to, and magnified by, the harsh conditions of the high mountains. Years later, recalling our journeys in the Khumbu, Jimmy Carter said to me, "I have never met any people as admirable in their friendship, their unselfishness, and their eagerness to do what is right than the Sherpas who helped us in the Himalayan region."

Your Daughters Are My Daughters

Over the years, P. K. was my guide on many trips in Nepal. More than that, he was my close friend, and I was welcomed always as a member of his extended family.

P. K. eventually had six children — one son and five daughters — in an era when it was rare for any Sherpa girl, or Sherpani, to have an education beyond grammar school. The odds were not much better for Sherpa boys. One day in the early '70s, about to board a plane back to Nepal after a trip to the United States, P. K. said to me, "Dick, if my daughters don't get an education, and they don't get married, they'll spend their lives carrying loads up and down their mountain." For P. K., enrolling his children in school would mean having to send them to boarding school in Kathmandu. This was not something he could afford.

"P. K., from today on, your daughters are my daughters," I promised him. "You get them into school. We'll help educate them."


Excerpted from An Accident of Geography by Richard C. Blum, Thomas C. Hayes. Copyright © 2016 Richard C. Blum. Excerpted by permission of Greenleaf Book Group Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Foreword Jimmy Carter xiii

Introduction xvii

Part 1 The Passionate and Inspired 1

Chapter 1 Life's Inspiration 3

Chapter 2 Respecting Culture, Reviving Community 22

Chapter 3 To Protect, Educate, and Heal Children 40

Chapter 4 Partnering with Jimmy 59

Part 2 What Smart Investing Teaches Us about Development 75

Chapter 5 Risks and Rewards 77

Chapter 6 Innovation and Value: A Long-Term Commitment 104

Chapter 7 Capital and Finance in Developing Communities 120

Part 3 Policy and Practice to Bridge Divides 145

Chapter 8 Poise and the Middle Path in Local Matters 147

Chapter 9 Higher Education and the Case for Efficiency in Public Institutions 166

Chapter 10 Peace, Democracy, and Development 190

Chapter 11 What Can We Learn from China and Tibet? 205

Part 4 Enabling Others to Solve the Problems of Poverty 235

Chapter 12 Merging Disciplines to Fight Poverty 237

Chapter 13 Proof of Progress 260

Conclusion: Finding Your Path 277

Acknowledgments 283

Notes 287

Bibliography and Resources 309

Index 315

About the Authors 329

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