“I think people sometimes think that poverty is an intractable problem that cannot be solved. I completely disagree with that,” says David Sutherland. In January this year, Sutherland quit his role as Chief Financial Officer for Morgan Stanley to dedicate himself full-time to poverty alleviation work.
“I think that overwhelmingly the most important issue in the world has to do with global poverty”, he says. Globally, more than 1.2 billion people live in extreme poverty, and in developing regions 22 per cent of people live on an income of less than US$1 per day, according to the United Nations.
At university in the early 1980s, Sutherland competed in debating on a national level in his native United States. Preparation for debate topics forced Sutherland to research and consider many of the world’s big problems. “Back then, we were talking about apartheid and the Soviet Union and a lot of other ills that, many of them, seem to have evaporated over time.” When it came to global poverty, Sutherland was impassioned by the scale of the problem. “If you’re talking about of billions of people, it just dwarfs anything else”, he says. . For him, it was a clear-cut decision to focus his work on the issue.
“The only reason that everybody doesn’t do poverty is because they can’t figure out how to do it. We’re business people and so we figure out solutions to that. I just felt like if somebody smart and driven was able to spend time doing it, and especially get with a group of people, that you can actually think about solutions to these sorts of problems. You could use those same skills that we use in business to actually make a difference”, Sutherland says.
Sutherland set his sights on Asia. He spent a few years collecting a toolbox of skills that would help him make a real difference, during which time he worked for the Clinton administration, taught English in Beijing and worked with Vietnamese refugees in Hong Kong. He finally arrived in Hong Kong permanently in 1997, for a job with Morgan Stanley. Sutherland and his wife became involved with International Care Ministries, an NGO that serves the Philippines’ poor with training and resources. Sutherland is now the chairman of the board.
“From my point of view, having Hong Kong help the Philippines is quite powerful because it’s the second biggest ethnicity we have”, says Sutherland. “So many people that we work with in the Philippines are only able to eat two meals a day. We ask: ‘How often do you go to bed hungry?’, 50 per cent of them say more than once a week. Well that has never happened to me. People don’t need to live like that and there’s no reason to believe that as a developed society we should allow this to continue”.
Between 2011 and last year, the organisation reached almost 100,000 Filipinos, provided more than three million meals and educated more than 3,000 kindergarten students from marginalised families.
Sutherland uses his experience and business skills to assist two other Hong Kong based non-profits working to combat poverty. Asian Charity Services provides business consulting and training to Hong Kong charities working with the city’s poorest. “They basically get investment bankers, all these big guys who have been reasonably successful in life, and now they want to give back”, says Sutherland.
Friends of Hong Kong Charities is an organisation that facilitates donations to local charities by US citizens, helping them to overcome a taxation complication that might otherwise act as a disincentive. If a US citizen based in Hong Kong wants to make a charitable donation, the US system requires tax be paid on this. Friends of Hong Kong Charities is a dual-registered charity that Sutherland created “so that an American citizen that is paying taxes in two countries can get a deduction in both countries if he makes a contribution”, says Sutherland. Friends of Hong Kong Charities funnels these donations to local charities.
Sutherland firmly believes that global poverty is a problem with real solutions. “When I got married 30 years ago, 50 per cent of the world’s population lived on less than US$1 a day. Now it’s about 25 per cent, so the incidence of ultra poverty in the world has been cut in half. And that’s in our lifetime”.