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Billionaire Chuck Feeney and his strong relationship with Vietnam

14:17 | 28/09/2020

Chuck Feeney is a living Buddha, said Phan Thanh Tung, one of hundreds of Vietnamese who had received scholarships from the US billionaire to study in Australia.

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billionaire chuck feeney and his strong relationship with vietnam
"To those wondering about Giving While Living: Try it, you'll like it." - Chuck Feeney. Photo: Atlantic Philanthropies

Chuck Feeney is a living Buddha, said Phan Thanh Tung, one of hundreds of Vietnamese who had received scholarships from the US billionaire to study in Australia.

Recalling his meeting with Feeney 15 years ago, Tung said “The meeting gave me a different perspective on the purpose of money. I had a number of questions in my mind: Who is Chuck Feeney? Why did he give strangers like me so much money to study? …”

The 89-year-old American billionaire has just achieved his greatest lifetime ambition of giving away his entire $8 billion fortune and leaving only $2 million for the rest of his life. Atlantic Philanthropies, which he set up in secrete in 1982, has finally run out of money earlier this month. Millions of people have benefited from the billionaire’s philanthropy of “Giving While Living.”

Laying foundations for change in Vietnam

billionaire chuck feeney and his strong relationship with vietnam
Atlantic has invested $13.5 million to help improve the hospital’s intensive care and obstetrics and gynecological departments, build a seven-story internal medicine unit, an emergency-care center and a waste-treatment system. Vietnam’s Ministry of Health upgraded the hospital to Level One, the nation’s highest rating. Photo: layingfoundationsforchange.org

Unlike other donors, Feeney, who made billions from a duty-free shopping empire, chose to run Atlantic Philanthropies completely anonymously while he was around to see the impact it has made.

The co-founder of the Duty-Free Shoppers Group managed to keep his charitable activities hidden from the public for 15 years, until his identity was revealed to the public in 1997 when he sold his shares in the company. The New York Times made a big headline: “He gave away $600 million, and no one knew.”

In 1997, while walking through the San Francisco airport, Feeney happened upon a newspaper story describing the financial struggles of the East Meets West Foundation (EMWF), a California-based humanitarian organization dedicated to improving the health and education of the poor in Vietnam.

Feeney reached out to Mark Stewart, the California-based organization’s then executive director and a veteran of the US war in Vietnam, to learn more about the work. By the end of their conversation, Feeney offered to write a $100,000 check.

That crucial initial donation—used to build and renovate elementary schools, and to install water systems—proved the precedent for a transformative relationship between the Atlantic Philanthropies and Vietnam. Since then, Atlantic has invested more than $178.8 million in health care and higher education initiatives throughout the nation in 40 capital projects and leveraged an additional $735 million in matching funds from the government and other donors.

billionaire chuck feeney and his strong relationship with vietnam
Chuck Feeney visits a hospital in Vietnam. Photo: Atlantic Philanthropies

Nurtured over nearly two decades, Atlantic’s strong relationships with Vietnamese officials, both provincial and national, have led to significant reforms and better health equity for disadvantaged people. An Atlantic-led initiative to rebuild and renovate more than 940 commune health centers (CHCs) in eight provinces has stimulated primary health reform and has become a model for primary and preventive health care, according to Truong Tan Minh, director of the health department in Khanh Hoa Province and a leading public-health expert.

Atlantic also built or reconstructed five Learning Resource Centers (LRCs), which reconceptualized the idea of libraries as cutting-edge educational and technology hubs.

Feeney sent a trusted emissary, Bob Matousek, to Vietnam following his meeting with Stewart to see how EMWF had used the initial funds. Impressed by his proxy’s findings, he flew to Vietnam himself to meet with Mark Conroy, EMWF’s Da Nang-based country director.

“We met for two hours in my office,” Conroy recalls. “Chuck made it clear that he felt Viet Nam got a bad deal from our country following the war. He wanted to see how he could help.”

On that same trip, Conroy took Feeney to see Da Nang General Hospital, one of two main tertiary hospitals for central Vietnam, where he observed an overburdened medical staff doing its best despite crumbling buildings, outdated equipment and such overcrowding that patients rested on mats lining the hallways due to a lack of beds.

“On our way back to the office, Chuck asked what the hospital’s most pressing needs were,” Conroy recalled. Soon after, EMWF received its second grant—$300,000—to renovate the hospital’s burn unit and pediatric wing.

Atlantic has invested $13.5 million to help improve the hospital’s intensive care and obstetrics and gynecological departments, build a seven-story internal medicine unit, an emergency-care center and a waste-treatment system. Vietnam’s Ministry of Health upgraded the hospital to Level One, the nation’s highest rating.

billionaire chuck feeney and his strong relationship with vietnam
TVietnam’s higher education system has been identified as the crucial sector in need of improvement. Photo: layingfoundationsforchange.org

But Feeney didn’t want only to address health care. He knew—from his own personal experience and Atlantic’s work with universities in the Republic of Ireland, Northern Ireland and the United States—that the key to sustaining systemic, long-lasting change was to empower people to produce change themselves, through education. First, he hired a journalist to do a six-month study of schooling in Vietnam, and then he visited the director’s office at Da Nang University. There, Feeney saw a half-finished concrete building that, he learned, was meant to be the school’s library. Another Atlantic initiative—building libraries that were inviting enough to encourage learning and inspire students to effect change—came into sharp focus.

Christopher G. Oechsli, president and CEO of Atlantic, was first invited by Feeney to Vietnam in 1999, when he was working as legal counsel for General Atlantic Group, the Feeney-led business subsidiary of the Atlantic Foundation. “I found myself at the breakfast table at our twenty-dollar-per-night hotel, with Chuck and Danny O’Hare and Ed Walsh, two presidents of Irish universities,” Oechsli recalled. “With Chuck, there are no expectations, just people talking, ‘What could we do to make this better?’”

That morning, the group identified Vietnam’s higher education system as the crucial sector in need of improvement. “Then, there was no global perspective being taught at public universities, or any significant information technology access to connect students to the rest of the world,” Oechsli said. “We were interested in supporting student-initiated learning, and thought, let’s make libraries an effective resource toward that goal.”

The moment was pivotal: Instead of building just one library, Atlantic “looked more systemically at the role of libraries in higher education in Vietnam,” Oechsli said. “We had just done that to great success in Ireland, and Chuck likes to work off winning concepts.”

Special meeting

billionaire chuck feeney and his strong relationship with vietnam
Tung decided to open a “bun cha” (rice noodles with grilled pork) restaurant with the aim of generating jobs for the community, including people hearing and speech impairment. Photo courtesy of Phan Thanh Tung

Tung cannot forget his first meeting with Feeney in 2005 when he and other Vietnamese students at the University of Queenland were busy preparing for a year-end party.

It was the first time Tung had learned about the name of Chuck Feeney and the source of his $56,000 scholarship.

“Feeney came with only one of his partners. He visited us quietly, shook our hands and talked to each of us,” Tung recalled.

The unexpected meeting has been in Tung’s mind even when he returned Vietnam and started his business. Feeney’s idea of “giving while living” has motived the man to do something for the community.

He then decided to open a “bun cha” (rice noodles with grilled pork) restaurant with the aim of generating jobs for the community, including people hearing and speech impairment.

Tung said the Ho Chi Minh City centre for people with disabilities has regularly contacted him to ask for jobs for its members.

“Feeney has influenced me a lot on the way of earning money and educating children. Without his support, I could not complete my study in Australia,” Tung said.

The man said he hopes that those who had received scholarships from Feeney would raise a charity fund to follow the billionaire’s idea of “giving while living.”/.

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