“Foundations” is a series of informal question-and-answer sessions with employees and others affiliated with The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation to give them an opportunity to explain their work. Koh Boon Hwee is the newest member of the Hewlett Foundation’s Board of Directors. Mr. Koh, 57, is a business entrepreneur with broad experience in Asia. He spent the early years of his career with the Hewlett-Packard Co., where ultimately he served as Asia Pacific director of manufacturing and business development. As someone who knew HP founders William Hewlett and David Packard and is familiar with the workings of contemporary Asia, he represents both the Foundation’s roots and its future as it expands its global grantmaking.
Mr. Koh holds a degree with honors in mechanical engineering from the Imperial College of Science and Technology, University of London, and an M.B.A. from the Harvard Business School.
How do you think philanthropy is perceived in Asia, and China in particular?
Generally speaking, the attitude toward philanthropy is different in Asia than in the United States. There is less of it in general and less among wealthy people. Traditionally, there is a greater propensity for wealthy families to pass their fortune on to their descendants. That is beginning to change, in part because in the last decade or so philanthropy in the United States has become quite visible, and that has had some influence on immensely wealthy Asians to give more back to the societies they live in. For example, people of conscience in India have become aware that there are pressing issues in their country, like the environment, that are not being solved by their government because its budgets are already stretched.
What are the greatest opportunities for U.S. philanthropy in Asia, and what are the greatest dangers?
I think the United States has a big role to play, especially in areas like helping to eradicate poverty. But by that I don’t mean in the form of subsidies. The best way is to help people who otherwise can’t afford education, as in the Hewlett Foundation’s work to improve K-12 education in Africa. I think efforts like this, rather than giving scholarships to individual students, make the most difference.
Another important area of concern for all of Asia is the environment. No one is focusing on it, and the impact is global. The Foundation’s programs to help China provide urban transportation alternatives—those kinds of things are important.
There is a danger in that you don’t want to be seen as political. You need to keep the agenda for philanthropy really free from any perception that you might be involved in politics. I think understanding of not-for-profit organizations and foundations is relatively new in Asia. The idea you that can have entities that are largely altruistic in their ambitions also is relatively new. So there is a degree of skepticism that accompanies philanthropic efforts until they are proven. A lot depends on the people who are representing philanthropic organizations and how they work with local communities.
What are the most important things that a U.S. philanthropy should know about working in Asia?
I think number one is that these are really large countries, so there needs to be a degree of patience and perseverance because they don’t operate in the U.S. way. You need to be prepared to encounter more bureaucracy. In many of the countries, a U.S. foundation or nonprofit needs to be pretty savvy to ensure that benefits get to the intended recipients without being siphoned off by the different levels of bureaucracy.
Given China’s rapid development, can it avoid contributing to global warming?
That’s a real challenge. Part of the problem is that China can’t afford to slow its growth by very much without causing massive unemployment. The biggest risk for China is societal rather than economic. If you have too many people without jobs, it threatens the credibility of the government and the party in power.
So given that imperative, Chinese leaders are very concerned about the environment, but there are limits to what they can do. Having said that, I think they are very serious about the environment. They just haven’t gotten it all together yet.
Having enough expertise is another issue. They are a long way from having all the people they need to understand all the environmental implications of rapid development. And, even if they did and enacted regulations to manage it, China is such a vast country that enforcing and policing regulations leaves a lot to be desired.
China now ranks number two worldwide in its number of billionaires. With new fortunes being made in China, do you see interest in developing indigenous philanthropy?
Not yet. I think the reason is that many wealthy Chinese have made money only in the past decade. Many are relatively young, in their thirties or forties. The philanthropy that you’re starting to see emerging is from the people of Hong Kong because they are older and have been wealthy for much longer.
In many cases, their support has tended to go into education, primarily for people in mainland China. Many people in Hong Kong originally came from China, so it’s to help out their hometowns. It’s obviously welcomed by the Chinese government, and so if Hong Kong benefactors have any business in China, it’s also a positive. So it’s not completely altruistic.
I think philanthropy will grow in the coming years, but it’s difficult to know how fast the growth will be. The record keeping and tracking of philanthropy isn’t as sophisticated as it is here.