Q&A with Simon Flint
Taila Mueller (TM) chats with APC member Simon Flint (SF) on what started him on this journey of Effective Altruism and why he is so passionate in addressing the issue of stunting.
TM: What inspired you to get involved in philanthropy?
SF: Imagine what it’s like to be a man, a woman, or child; living on less than USD1.50 per day, who doesn’t have enough to eat, and has no access to clean water.
This is the situation faced by more than a billion people in the world right now. And, what accounts for the difference between me and these unfortunate people? Is it talent or hard work that sets us apart? Of course not! It’s almost entirely due to luck or relative opportunity. Where I was born and who my parents are accounts for much of the difference between me and these people living in abject poverty.
Therefore, it makes sense for me to do my best to help in every way I can.
TM: Can you tell us about your first philanthropic project or endeavour?
SF: Thirty years ago I met an eccentric but wonderful Professor of Politics. Professor Martin Dent was a staunch Christian, and a direct descendant of the leader of the Anti-Slavery Society, Sir Thomas Buxton. Martin taught me about the biblical concept of Jubilee. According to Leviticus – every 49 years a Jubilee was declared, freeing those enslaved because of unpayable debt. Not only did individuals and their families benefit, but society at large was healed through this act of forgiveness. At that time, much of the developing world was labouring under crushing debt repayments.
Martin & I thus founded the Jubilee 2000 movement – which campaigned for the cancellation of unpayable Third World Debt.The Jubilee 2000 campaign became very successful – although I should emphasise that all the success came after I’d left! The campaign garnered 22 million signatures in a worldwide petition, won the support of the Pope and Gordon Brown (who was then the UK’s Chancellor of the Exchequer), and was important in securing the cancellation of USD100bn in unpayable debt.
My modest involvement in Jubilee 2000 reminds me that, whilst financial support is hugely important, so too is challenging entrenched ways of looking at the world.
TM: With such a huge spectrum of philanthropic sectors and geographic regions that need assistance, how do you prioritise and hone your philanthropic priorities?
SF: I believe that Philanthropy should deliver the greatest benefit to the greatest number of people.
What does reason and evidence indicate that we do for maximum benefit? It suggests targeting the poorest of the poor at the earliest age.
In fact, we should first target the givers of life – young women of childbearing age. Then we should focus on the First 1000 Days of a child’s life. This period, from (pre)conception until the age of two, is the foundation for everything a person can achieve in life. As we discussed at the APC summit, the human brain reaches 80% of its adult weight by the age of two. By that time enormous and largely irreversible damage has been done to young, impoverished children and babies through malnutrition and neglect. And, don’t forget that almost one half of all child mortality is associated with malnutrition.
Geographically, the very poorest people – for whom it costs the least to help, are generally in Sub-Saharan Africa. Accordingly, my contributions had historically been directed there. However, there is also astonishing need in Asia. In Indonesia for example, despite high average per capita income relative to Sub-Saharan Africa, there are more than 28 million people living on less than USD1 per day. With respect to child stunting, the bellwether of malnutrition, the rate in Indonesia (37%), is higher than the average for Sub-Saharan Africa.
In addition, although less important than targeting the poorest and the youngest, the geographical proximity of South East Asia is a practical consideration for me. Philanthropy is most effective when one can work in concert with government, and other private sector actors – to identify areas of need, avoid duplication of efforts, and identify best practice.
TM: Why nutrition and why now? What do you believe would transform the problem of under-nutrition?
SF: Addressing the premise of your question – nutrition is a vital and necessary intervention, but it is not sufficient to save a child from stunting – with the lifetime mental and physical disadvantages, that it brings.
One needs a whole spectrum of interventions focused on the first 1000 days of a child’s life – nutrition is vital, but so are; adequate sanitation, clean water, women’s empowerment, and early social stimulation for the child. So, the best possible outcome for the first 1000 days requires a comprehensive package of measures. Focusing on a single intervention or single method will yield sharply inferior results.
Why now? The situation is urgent and dire. This year, 5 million children will be born in Indonesia – almost the equivalent of the entire population of Singapore. More than a third will become stunted because of neglect in the First 1000 Days. That’s 5,500 per day! So, every single day that we delay, 5,500 more kids are destined to suffer from stunting.
As these numbers suggest, this is a long neglected issue. It hasn’t attracted adequate funding for two reasons. Firstly, until recently, the importance of a comprehensive approach wasn’t widely understood. Secondly, ‘First 1000 Days’ lacks the immediate feedback mechanisms to satisfy a donor. In the typical case of Philanthropy – three years after giving a university scholarship the proud donor has his or her photo taken with a newly-minted graduate. In the case of 1000 days care – three years after an investment in First 1000 Days, the two-year old child is still stumbling over its first football. Ironically, this ‘1000 days child’ is likely be a more successful university graduate, but it’s not apparent in the short-term. So, whilst the benefits of tackling First 1000 Days are immense, the feedback mechanisms are less immediately tangible.
TM: Why do you want to give through APC? How do we compare to other organisations that you could engage in philanthropy with?
SF: Laurence’s New Year message was spot on – “diversity causes discomfort, but…can lead to superior results”.
In this spirit, I believe in APC’s vision – combined energy, diverse experience and pooled resources can make a much bigger difference than any individual effort.
This is especially important in First 1000 Days, which requires; significant resources, a broad spectrum of interventions, and strong coordination. This coordination needs to occur – not just within APC – but between APC and other private sector actors and governments. Again, the APC’s collective voice will make our contribution far greater than our individual efforts.
How does APC compare? APC’s a great mixture of; compassionate people driven to do an enormous amount of good – we have some genuine leaders in the field of Philanthropy, and extremely talented entrepreneurs and wealth creators. APC has so many people whose combined talents can make a big difference to the welfare of people throughout Asia.
TM: What are your most critical expectations from the 1000 Days Fund?
SF: It is within our grasp to become an example of best practice. We can create something so good that it attracts more financing for our fund, and generates imitators of the Fund or its programmes, both in Indonesia & beyond. The beauty of a template that works, is that it can easily scaled or replicated.
We should get to the point where APC is participating in the debate – with private sector practitioners and with governments – about how to best optimise the First 1000 Days of life, and thus provide the greatest possible boost to child welfare within Southeast Asia. We have an opportunity, with the ASEAN Philanthropy Dialogue, and the March meetings with ASEAN Social Welfare Ministers, to make our first contribution to this debate.
TM: Why should other members of APC and donors join this Fund?
SF: APC members are all hugely successful business people. All have sought, and succeeded in getting the highest returns for their money. Why should Philanthropy be any different? Why not give money to the cause that; saves the most lives, gives the greatest number of people the chance of a happy and productive life, and is critical in boosting the success of other Philanthropic programs?
Most APC members are (like it or not) public figures in their home countries and a number have deservedly been named ‘Heroes of Philanthropy’. The first 1000 Days Fund is a chance to build further on this legacy. We can be involved in something that is absolutely foundational to the welfare of Asia’s people and in years to come will surely be recognised as such.