International crisis mediator, economist, political columnist and author Laurence Brahm (MA ’87, JD ’87 Mānoa) says the University of Hawaiʻi helped develop his career aspirations.
“This was the foundation. The atmosphere of community and the atmosphere of a multiethnic, really harmonious society—that was what I think made a very deep impression on me and the way I wanted to live my life,” he says with an intensity that hints at the fire compelling him to make the world a better place.
Captivated by Asian culture while studying in China, Brahm graduated from Duke University in 1982 and decided a law degree might prepare him to participate in the burgeoning economic reforms in China. Few U.S. law schools offered an Asian focus; at UH Mānoa’s William S. Richardson School of Law, he was able to earn a master’s in Asian studies along with his juris doctorate.
He also gained new perspective, practicing his Mandarin with Chinese students, interacting with classmates from Asia and the Pacific, studying with a Japanese karate master and forming lasting friendships.
After graduation, he returned to Hong Kong on a midnight flight. “A bunch of classmates and friends sent me to the airport, and I remember getting on this plane, leis piled up to my eyes! I felt very sentimental about leaving Hawaiʻi. I left the leis on for the whole flight.”
In China, Brahm was a foreigner, working from the outside to effect change. “In Asia, politics and economics, politics and business, are totally intertwined. So the entrée into policy and influencing public change was through business,” he says.
Throughout the 1990s, he promoted economic development as a commercial lawyer, restructuring companies for multi-national corporate investment. Government officials and policymakers he worked with sought his advice on changes in legislation, monetary policy and enterprise reform. He advised the central banks of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia and worked with the Mongolian government.
By 2002, major reforms in China largely accomplished, he became more interested in spiritual/ideological aspects of human change and policy. He was concerned with whether China would become more Westernized or develop a unique identity drawn from its cultural roots.
That led him to Tibet and his own views on cultural sustainability, combining business sense and experience with a humanitarian mission. He became involved with mediation between the 14th Dalai Lama and Beijing and the peace process in Nepal. While traveling throughout the Himalayas, he developed the Himalayan Consensus, an economic model for empowering indigenous peoples to sustain their culture and communities.
In 2005 he established Shambhala, an organization dedicated to mitigating poverty through grass-roots initiatives that include artisan communes, schools, medical clinics and architectural restoration projects.
The principles are demonstrated in his Himalayan Consensus Communities. Built around heritage restoration and ecotourism, the hotels at the Great Wall use sustainable tourism to support integrated programs of micro-finance and medical care. For example, at the House of Shambhala, a 10-suite Tibetan heritage boutique hotel in the heart of old Lhasa, spa visitors enjoy massage oils and incense made at a Tibetan monastery; proceeds fund the monastery’s medical clinic, which offers care to villagers at affordable prices.
“It’s something that totally integrates with the culture and works with it,” Brahm says. Everything from lanterns to linens to pottery is made by local Tibetans through micro-equity programs that empower women and the handicapped, “to give them not only employment, but identity.” In the commune that makes rugs for the hotels, women are encouraged to bring their children to work.
“We can have all the material possessions in the world, but it doesn’t necessarily make us happy,” Brahm reflects. “Spirituality, ultimately, is more powerful than materialism. We should learn to preserve ethnicity, to find our roots and go back to our identity, before it’s too late.”
Editor’s note: Columnist and commentator for the South China Morning Post and ReviewAsia and author of more than 20 books, Brahm expands on his theory of culturally sustainable economic development in The Anti-Globalization Breakfast Club: Manifesto for a Peaceful Revolution (Wiley). In 2009, he was invited to become a member of the United Nations Theme Group on Poverty Alleviation and Inequality.