Archive for March, 2010

The day the world’s richest man changed my life…

March 17, 2010

Shortly after a brief Wikipedia-extracted introduction by an eager to please American University of Beirut executive who brushed on his “altruism” — a trait he himself has never claimed nor pretended to have — the world’s richest man stood up to address a relatively small audience of mostly ancestral compatriots packed into a mini auditorium at what one student later described as the “Harvard” of the Middle East.

To his credit, no cliches came out of his speech during the one and a half hours that ensued, though several more popped up — mostly from the audience — in the generous Questions & Answers part — including one from a woman who swiftly presented a mini business plan for a recycling and green energy production project.

I was, I must say, beyond impressed by the world’s richest man — who it turns out is also a brilliant self-made humanist whose intellect and tact are likely worth every penny to his name and more.

Those who know me can probably attest to my generally lack of particular interest in people with money and power. A few specific chit-chats with two other members of Carlos Slim Helu’s exclusive club of world billionaires come to mind — both of which left me thinking I at least have been blessed with more wits and morality.

Not Slim though. This was someone whose persona one couldn’t but respect — and dare I say admire. Someone I felt I should learn a lesson or two from — at least in the art of straightforward diplomacy. Does the term exist or did he just inspire me to make it up?

Standing up to talk about “The New Civilization of Knowledge and Technology”, Slim managed to provide a brief history of how “monolithic societies” of the past which saw masses of poor and slaves serve the interests of few higher ups who drew their power from “divine” claims have now been replaced by a world where knowledge and wealth are required among the former poor in order to keep the world’s rich at the top of the economic chain.

I paraphrase of course, but that was the gist.

He repeated over and over how in the past, societies from those that emerged at the onslaught of agriculture — through technological advances of the Bronze, Iron and other industrial ages of their day — relied on the ignorance of the masses to fuel economic prosperity of the few — again alluding to religious domination of intellects, “morality” and overall power.

Two thousand years ago, he said, Christianity was needed to alleviate poverty that was required at the time because of the socio-cultural realities of the day. Now, “a new” culture of human rights, morality and mainly knowledge is necessary for post 20th Century globalized world to grow — not just socially but economically as well.

Knowledge and escaping poverty are no longer social goals, but economic ones imperative for the wheels of our globalized world to turn. “Education, Education, Education”, he repeated — stressing how it’s even necessary to start teaching children at the age of one maybe instead of five as is now customary.

Later brushing on how “our ancestors the Phoenicians” — no doubt to the dismay of several at Left-leaning AUB — were the first forces of globalization in history back when they globalized the Mediterranean with the ship — their era’s main communication tool.

Then he spoke to me directly. Ok, so I actually had to raise my hand, wait for the microphone and finally speak to him first…But what he did for me was probably life-altering. Carlos Slim Helu has taught me that I can probably achieve more if I manage a level of, what did I call it again, straightforward diplomacy. My parents, friends and anyone who ever cared about me has been trying to get that through my head for as long as I can remember. Mr. Slim has finally done it.

My question, to be clear, was something like this: Mr Slim, my name is Jean Akouri (mentioned to pay lip service to the politically correct era we live in where my signaled Catholic heritage would make my question a little less “offensive” to the audience at least) and I was quite impressed with what you said. I want to clarify though that I understood you correctly and did not simply hear what I want to hear. I’ll do that with a question. Do you believe organized religion and entities like the Catholic Church are blocking access to the knowledge you have explained is vital for the poor to lift themselves out of poverty with such positions as those against family planning?

The gist of his answer? Organized religion and the Catholic Church are no more negative forces than other establishments throughout history that have impacted human development. We also live in democracies today where people have the choice to follow whatever positions they want.

Straightforward Diplomacy…That will be my motto from now on. And I will make sure I remember it. Thank you Sir.