Observations on Sam Bankman-Fried, philanthropy and fishing
By Calvin Ayre | 31 May 2023
As a prominent backer of the BSV Blockchain and its legion of utility-focused and legally-compliant applications, the criminal escapades of the ‘crypto casino’ community never cease to amaze me. Even senior citizens with no blockchain experience whatsoever are now familiar with FTX and its mop-headed ringleader Sam Bankman-Fried (SBF), who presided over one of the largest frauds in American history.
For this article, I want to focus on SBF’s efforts to mask his mendacity through philanthropy. Specifically, his highly public embrace of the so-called Effective Altruism (EA) movement. Like most things about SBF, his preferred version of altruism appears to be both self-aggrandizing and seriously suspect.
I’ll say right off the top that my understanding of EA is in no way encyclopedic. EA purports to be ‘utility-based,’ so given my focus on BSV’s utility, EA should be right up my alley. But from where I sit, a lot of EA proponents seem to spend more time philosophizing about how to help others rather than actually helping, i.e., engaging in interminable debates over the most optimal solution rather than just getting on with it.
In SBF’s case, his efforts were all the more suspect in that he appears to have used other people’s money to fund his charitable charade. Also, I don’t quite get how buying a multi-million-dollar castle as a retreat for EA big shots was supposed to benefit anyone other than these individuals.
SBF is hardly the first public figure to be accused of using philanthropy as a form of reputation-washing. For public figures, even the most noble intentions can be misconstrued. Like Bruce Lee said—and yes, I know he wasn’t the first to say it—you’re pointing at the moon, but everyone’s staring at your finger.
This has always been the subject of some debate, namely, whether it’s better to publicize one’s philanthropic efforts in the hopes of drawing attention to a problem and motivating others to give/help, or to do it quietly with no reward other than the satisfaction of having identified a problem and done what you could to make the situation better.
I was raised with the understanding that if you were fortunate enough to experience great success in your life, you had a duty to give something back to those who hadn’t been as fortunate. As a broke-ass student at university, my charitable efforts were limited to making donations to large organizations such as Greenpeace. This made me feel like I was doing something, but I soon grew disenchanted with this approach.
For one thing, these groups would regularly inundate me with fancy four-color brochures asking me to buy hats or shirts emblazoned with their logos. In time, I started to wonder what portion of my donations was funding all these revenue-generating/publicity-seeking efforts instead of the actual causes I was hoping to support.
When I finally started making some real money, my philanthropic options expanded. Along the way, I’d met a few individuals with the intelligence and energy to make something of themselves, but lacking the wherewithal to pay for the education they needed to take that next step. Providing them with the funds they needed, then having them reward my faith by excelling in their studies reaffirmed my view that education is a great way to help individuals. Like the old adage about teaching a man to fish, education gives people the tools with which to overcome their current limitations.
Sometimes its entire institutions that need a leg up. Years ago, when I was living in Costa Rica, I decided to formalize my philanthropic efforts by launching the Calvin Ayre Foundation. One of its first actions was what we called our Adopt-a-School program, based on one of my local employees detailing the dire conditions of many of the region’s smaller schools.
We solicited some feedback from principals on what we could do to help their particular schools. While some asked for new computers or athletic equipment, we ultimately chose a school where the principal asked for a simple meal program so that the impoverished kids—many of whom went to school without much more than a cup of coffee and a tortilla in their bellies—would be able to focus on their studies. We felt this principal truly had his students’ interests at heart, and so this is where we decided to plant our flag. Later, when I moved to Antigua, the Foundation brought these education-focused efforts with us.
In 2017, Antigua’s sister island of Barbuda was nearly flattened by Hurricane Irma, and the Foundation embarked on a relief effort, as it had following natural disasters in a number of other locations, including Haiti and the Philippines. In these situations, it’s sometimes better to provide money and supplies and let experienced relief organizations handle the logistics, but we still try to exert some oversight of how our donations are allocated.
Most recipients of charity are proud people who, while welcoming help in times of need, would nonetheless prefer to do something in return for the assistance they receive. Accordingly, philanthropy doesn’t have to involve pure handouts. It can be as simple as expressing confidence that individuals already have what it takes to improve their situation, provided they’re presented with the right opportunities.
I was born in Canada, a nation with a long history of welcoming immigrants. As a transplanted citizen of Antigua, which has been my principal residence for nearly two decades, I have some understanding of what it’s like to be a guest in someone else’s land.
I’ve launched some major real estate development projects in recent years and have primarily chosen Antigua as the place where shovels meet Earth. There are any number of places that I could have chosen to locate these operations, but the Antiguan people—from government representatives to the guys selling fruit on the side of the road and everyone in between—have always made me feel right at home and I’ve never doubted their ability to help make my projects successful.
Later this year, we’ll start work on a new $250 million Nikki Beach resort property in Antigua’s Jolly Harbour area. The project will require the efforts of a significant number of local workers, and it’s my hope that the finished resort will serve as a beacon for both international tourists and foreign companies eager to explore all that Antigua has to offer.
If we can retrace our steps back to SBF for a moment, I would humbly suggest that empowering others is by far the most effective form of altruism. The time spent in my adopted homeland has left me with no doubt that the Antiguan and Barbudan people are sharp, capable, and eager to make the most of any and all opportunities that come their way.
I was fortunate enough to catch the odd break here and there along my entrepreneurial journey. I hope that my commercial endeavors will offer not only jobs during construction and operation, but also similar breaks to budding entrepreneurs looking to gain valuable on-the-job experience as they reach for the next rung up this ladder.
Who knows? Maybe I’ll even make some new fishing buddies.