|We also had the great honor of speaking to Kumi Naidoo, originally from South Africa and formally the head of Civicus, a world alliance for citizen participation. Kumi is now the Executive Director of Greenpeace International, based in Amsterdam.
We asked Kumi what inspired him to join the ranks of the nonprofit world. “Actually, I have not a very scientific answer to that question, but it’s a very clear answer,” he responded. “I became involved in the Struggle for Liberation in South Africa at the age of 14. I was expelled from school when I was 15 partly because I was involved in this struggle.” Kumi continued to be deeply engaged in the anti-apartheid movement and was forced to flee into exile, along with his best friend, Lenny, when they were all of 22 years old.
During the last conversation they had before the two friends fled, Lenny asked Kumi, “What is the biggest sacrifice we can make for the cost of humanity?”
“That’s an easy question,” Kumi replied. “Giving your life.”
“If you mean getting shot and killed and becoming a martyr then that’s the wrong answer,” Lenny said. “It’s not giving your life, but giving the <em>rest</em> of your life.”
Two years later, when Kumi was in exile in the comfort of Oxford University on a Rhodes Scholarship, he received a call telling him that Lenny and three young women from his home city had been brutally murdered by the apartheid regime. “There were so many bullets in the bodies their own parents couldn’t recognize them,” Kumi told us, sadness lingering. “So I had to think deeply about that conversation and what Lenny was trying to tell me, which is that the struggle for justice—the struggle for gender equity, environmental justice, political justice—it’s a marathon, not a sprint. And the biggest contribution one can make to the cause of trying to create a more just and fair world is making a lifetime of commitment. That’s what drove me into this and I’ll never get out.”
Kumi steered back to the present. “In the last three years, we’ve had a convergence of calamities coming to a head: poverty takes the lives of 50,000 men, women and children every single day, a global environmental crisis that is both manmade and caused by nature is upon us, and then there will be the impact of the financial crisis. We can’t conduct business as usual and we cannot have activism as usual.”
People are beginning to understand this now, he said. As evidence of this, Kumi told us that he has been attending the World Economic Forum for the past ten years and previously no one would meet with him to discuss some of these difficult issues. The last time he went, it was the complete opposite. One of the big companies Greenpeace is now speaking with is shifting their focus to be much more environmentally friendly. Kumi asked the CEO of the company why he was willing to meet with him now. The man said, “The reason we’re doing this is because we understand that it’s better to have you at the table than to be on your menu.”
|We further discussed the role of philanthropy in responding to the world’ crises. Kumi stated, “I feel there is too little philanthropy and too much ‘foolanthropy.’ If you’re lucky and all the stars are aligned, it typically takes at least 5 or 10 years to make any progress. When you look at potential shifts like the desperate need to democratize the world’s governments, the work takes much, much longer. Great perseverance is needed. So the culture of thinking that good philanthropy or social intervention can happen in short cycles, and the current obsession with metrics and showing impact, is in some ways misleading.” There’s an Albert Einstein quotation that says, “Not everything that counts can be measured, and not everything that can be measured counts.” Or as Kumi said, “Quite often we are measuring things that just don’t count. And some things are too difficult to measure.”
Kumi also pointed to another way in which he feels we are fundamental ignoring what history teaches us about how change happens. “If we are brutally honest with ourselves and we look at the biggest social injustices humanity has faced over time, such as slavery, human trafficking or domestic violence,” he said, “where you see the greatest breakthroughs is when decent men and women stood up and said ‘enough is enough and no more.’ People have gone to prison, they have put their lives on the line, they have engaged in civil disobedience, they have broken the law if necessary.”
Kumi strives to live by a philosophy he learned in the Philippines: “Go to the people, live with them, learn from them, start with what they know, build on what they understand—but operate in such a way that when the struggle has been won, victory has been achieved, the people will say, we have done it ourselves.”
In Kumi’s opinion, many of us, particularly in the developed countries, have “quite frankly become too fat and comfortable.” In truth, our current socio-economic systems are in many ways driven by a consumption paradigm. Kumi pointed out that if all the people in the world were to enjoy the level of material comfort that people in the United States and other developed countries do, we would need the equivalent of five to eight planets to sustain ourselves. “I think that nonprofits must serve as the heart and soul and conscience of society. They need to pose the difficult questions that will both outrage and enrage people. For example, can capitalism deliver gender equality?”
As smart, likable, committed and accomplished as he is, Kumi has been offered jobs with “obscene levels of compensation,” he said. And like any other human being, he has reached the point of temptation. At one time, he was offered a CEO position at a foundation for $450,000 a year. But Kumi believes he has to ‘walk the talk,’ so the organization he went to instead had the equivalent of $4 in the bank and he worked nine months without a salary. “Do I have any regrets? No.”