Social Change Leaders: Sandro Calvani (Mae Fah Luang Foundation)

“The stars are not afraid to appear like fireflies.” (R. Tagore)

There are only some men who, for their capacities and opportunities, can have a profound vision of the World and of its problems; amongst them, just a smaller amount, who also has the capacities, the will and means to intervene and try actively to solve these problems.

Sandro Calvani surely is one of them, long term collaborator and inspiration for the Social Change School (President of the Scientific Committee and Strategic Adviser). Sandro has been in Bangkok for a long time, and has now become a Senior Advisor on Strategic Planning for the Mae Fah Luang Foundation (under Royal Patronage). Second Italian ever having the highest grade in the United Nations, 135 countries ‘visited’ for official missions, amongst his many roles, we cannot forget the one as Director General of the United Nations Interregional Crime and Justice Research Institute (UNICRI), conferred directly from the Secretary of the United Nations, Ban Ki-Moon.

We tried to get to know him better, and to have from him, some precious suggestion on the world of the work in the non-profit, also thanks to the words of some of his cultural reference points.

Let’s read then what he wants to tell us!


Q.: Sandro Calvani, a view from above on our world…

A.: «The world became a colossal Rubik’s cube, where in order to put every piece at its place, we need to move others. It is a huge novelty. It never happened before in the history of humanity, for this, many people cannot understand its complexity.

For example, we cannot stop the serious drift of the American democracy, without revolutionizing its primary and secondary education systems. But in order to have the money to do that, we should stop the arms race, and the wars that have drained the American economy. But a world without conflicts, needs the education of dozens of other peoples in countries with failed governments. 

Thousands of those global shacklings, they are also tangled by serious mistakes of the past, like the environmental crisis and the  unrestrained capitalistic economy, that became absolutely unsustainable. It is improbable that we find a key to the problem by looking for it in debates of the United Nations of with the national parliaments amongst the billions of pages that they produce and that no one could understand. Nobody will ever understand the mistakes of a confused mosaic made of over seven and a half billion of pieces (how many of us today in the world), if everyone looks at one or at 10 pieces at the time. Instead, we need to look to it as a whole, just like we do when we solve the Rubik’s cube.

The science of global survival should be the absolute priority on the millions of charlatans, above all amongst the politicians, who talk without knowing anything. It is curious how we look for absolute excellence in every profession that provides us a desired good, either as a pizza maker or a surgeon. But when we look for a political leader, we are happy with chatter without checking and expecting the competences. This change of paradigm is the most urgent of all.”


Q.: Amongst the toughs and words that you chose as a reference,  there is this famous sentence of Nelson Mandela: “After all, if I cannot change when the circumstances demand it, how can I expect others to?”

A.: “For me it has been the most difficult change to understand and to achieve. Amongst my colleagues and my students, I noticed the same great difficulty. We all tend to be willing and commit to change the others, whilst the only possible change and absolutely necessary, because no one else can do it, is to change ourselves.

It is a transformation that does not just require an open and careful mind, with a strong self conscience and knowledge; it also needs an emotional conscience and intelligence able to increase our own happiness through the full realisation of others rather than with our own success,”


Q.: 135 countries. From Genova to Bangkok. Life is a great journey…

A.: “A bit for vocation, a bit for luck, I became a professional for the international civil service. The aspirations, tragedies, hope of the people that I had visited, and of the countries where I lived with my family, became my everyday. Since the first years, I learned to find myself at ease amongst any contradiction, inequality or conflict, without ever risking to lose the level and quality of attention for each person or to fall into the indifference. Living and analysing every day the facts, not the theories, step by step, I really convinced myself that the world and humanity are a unique and coherent book, every new page helps understand the ones before and the ones that will come.

“The world is a book and who doesn’t travel only knows one page of it” (S. Agostino). It is absolutely true also in our everyday life. In reality, all the big dramas of humanity, included small and big conflicts, are born from the bigotry of those who only know one page and who do not want to know anything about the ones coming before and after. In this way, also the knowledge of a page is deeply deformed.”


Q.: A stage, a ‘page’, an episode that you particularly remember?

A.: “A reunion of G8 experts, the group of the biggest economies in the world, that was held in Osaka, in the South of Japan. The Sherpa, that is the main adviser of the first minister of one of the main world economies, showed total indifference towards the scientific consequences of some policies of food and environmental security of which they were discussing. I made him notice that with courtesy. He replied with a gripping toneYou that you are from the United Nations, you must be amongst the ones who believe in the rights of future generations”. Shocked, I confirmed his quick diagnosis. And without thinking one second he replied: “all of us here, we represent governments democratically elected. But whether you like it or not, next generations do not vote for us or for the opposition. Therefore, they have to stay out of this discussion”. That day, I realised how there cannot be a better future if the political leaders, as chosen nearly everywhere, are the ones designing it.”


Q.: Sandro Calvani, was there a hard time, really critical, in your career, involving you personally? And what did you learn? 

A.: “This is hell”, This is the description of the humanitarian situation, which I found at Makallè in 1984 when I arrived with two Italian Air Force military aircraft and 40 tonnes of food aid. To give me the picture of the situation was Gabriel, one of the young volunteers among the victims. It was the clearest and concise report which I heard in a severe humanitarian crisis. 120,000 people at risk of death from famine due to lost crops because of drought and war.

I was 32 years old responsible for a large and complex international humanitarian operation for the first time.
“Every morning we find 60 dead people outside the tents,” said Gabriel. “But if the aid will arrive, we will arrange it for distribution, and you’ll see that we’ll make it,” he encouraged.

To reach with enough food each of villages remained without food in the mountains we put in action the most powerful air forces in the world. Called “Operation St. Bernard” It was the largest air rescue operation in the history of the world, after the airlift carried out to feed the people of West Berlin. But this time spontaneously – without any previous negotiations – the powers on both sides of the Berlin Wall were collaborating: the Soviet Union and its allies in the Warsaw Pact, together with the British Royal Air Force, the French Armée de l’Air and the ‘ Italian Air Force. Nations and armed forces protagonist of the of the so-called Cold War, who fought in various scenarios in the world, worked together, in sincere and trustful cooperation and under a unified command in each area. Under the banner of the United Nations the powerful four-engine Lockheed C-130 Hercules armed forces with crosses of Caritas and the International Red Cross together with the Iron Cross of the Luftwaffe of West Germany, alongside the Antonov-12 with the hammer and compass of the Luftstreitkräfte of the communist east Germany, or the red star, hammer and sickle of Voyenno-Vozdushnye Sily, the Soviet air army.

In addition, to the military budgets of the Ministries of Defense, to finance the expenditure of food aid also the entertainment world was supporting, inspired by the most successful song of the century “We Are the World”, a cheerful and genial musical campaign of conversion of the hearts conceived by Bob Geldof, Michael Jackson and Quincy Jones: “We are the world, we are the children; we are the ones who make a brighter day. So let’s start giving. There’s a choice we’re making. We’re saving our own lives. ” We are making the choice to save our own lives. It was for all a correct interpretation of the sense of world brotherhood. In January 1985 in the recording studio, Quincy Jones confided that by highlighting the fact that “WE are the children, WE are the world”, they could be able to give birth to a new sense of shared responsibility.

For us humanitarian workers in the villages of Tigray, each child found dead in the morning in the refugee camps was an incentive to speed the efficiency of aid. And every landing deafening roar in Makallè of two or three C-130 or Antonov-12 was an injection of dopamine and happiness for our daily success: at least 60 tons of food aid to save “our children.” Personally, I met hundreds of these children victims of famine and dozens of aid workers, at the time unanimous in thinking that the right answer were the food and agricultural aid: I still have so many pictures today of that human cooperation without frontiers. Some of them still remember those moments, although now they are happy adults living in different countries of the world.

For example, Gabriel, then fled to Canada, he is now a high school teacher.
The global collaboration of air rescue was called Operation St. Bernard but the name was not popular with everyone.
The morning when the first C-130 aircraft had to leave, I received by radio the angry protests of the general commander of the Red Army in Ethiopia: “I will never give my consent to our aviation for an operation under the name of a Christian saint” he called out . For me it was a moment of panic, but I had  the inspiration. “But St. Bernard is not a saint, is a dog that brings relief to the victims of snow avalanches in the Alps,” I replied immediately.
“Then, we are coming as well” decided the Russian, who apparently was a militant atheist, but fortunately a merciful atheist.

That humanitarian operation left in me, as in many other colleagues, such a deep impression that my wife and I decided to adopt in our family, just from these land, an abandoned child, with a belly swollen from malnutrition, orphaned because the mother had died in give him birth, for lack of health care. Another star was added in the house together with our other three children. That desire of convinced co-responsibility, -like that of a father-  entered in my blood, heart, brain, and I still believe it’s the right solution.
Therefore, I learned as a young man that really “Love moves the sun and other stars …” But sometimes poetry is not written and read. It is done.
Even in hell.

 Calvani N°2



Q.: Another great journey was from being a researcher in genetics and microbiology to being Senior Advisor on Strategic Planning, at the Mae Fah Luang Foundation (under Royal Patronage). How did you move from single-celled organisms to the great problems of humanity?

A.: “When we start a journey, we know from where we start but not where it will really end. I have not any change of route, or made any U-turn. There is a global network, and perhaps even universal, that unites all life on this planet and on the others in the universe. When you spend hours to observe carefully what is seen in an electron microscope, you see that there must be a common origin and destination for all that lives. To get out of the maze of complexities of globalization, you have to follow one by one each of Ariadne’s thread that binds us to those who are around every corner of our journey. When you see how viruses, bacteria, protozoa, and then the ants and bees collaborate with great success, which have a microscopic brain compared to ours, it becomes certain that it should be possible also for the seven and a half billion brains and minds of Homo sapiens sapiens (species sapiens = smart, subspecies sapiens = wise). It is a scientific, anthropological and economic certainty: there is no salvation, there is no hope without a strong and widespread collaboration among billions of human beings. And the world’s largest waste is just the one of brains, billions of missed acts of cooperation that would be possible every day.

To better understand this truth I suggest you to read quietly and ponder on the last two Yuval Harari books: “Sapiens [1] and Homo Deus [2]”


Q.:  We have taken some words of Mandela as a reference, let’s now turn to those of one of the greatest creative minds ever created by humanity, Michelangelo Buonarroti: “The greater danger for most of us lies not in setting our aim too high and falling short; but it lies in setting our aim too low, and achieving our mark.”

A.: “Yes, of course that’s a widespread danger and little recognized: to aim low, to the low profile, a few minor values, a grind quiet for life and then succeeding in our aspirations, this is the path chosen by millions of young people in every continent. I remember, for example, one of my American student. At 30, he had already done four years on the front lines in Afghanistan. His original calling was to serve for the security of the American people. He had seen a good sampling of the possible atrocities of the modern world. He was convinced that behind the facts there was such a complexity that he would be totally unable to understand and help to unravel, remaining serene and without the enormous stress he had suffered in the war. His plan was to go back to Colorado and work as a Ranger for the rest of his life. He hoped that he would find happiness in the midst of the forest and the animals that live there. But then he happened to know and fall in love with a girl who loved nature and the mountains, but she wanted to see beyond the horizon and “leaving” to devote herself to the service of the weakest in the world’s suburbs. They joined together a non-profit international organisation,they began first in Cambodia, he to seek and eliminate anti-personnel mines that cause hundreds of disabled children and she dealt with education of orphans and disabled.
Last time I heard from them, after three years of service, they were about to leave for a suburb of Salvador Bahia in Brazil. He only told me that aiming higher and farther gave him a much more solid foundation for his happiness and that of the couple.”


Q.: The Southeast Asia is one of the ‘hot spot’ for contemporary global problems and potential: as a privileged observer what you think are the developments and job opportunities for the non-profit sector in the area?

A: “It’s a very large region. The third in the world as the population, the fifth market that becomes the first if you see the whole, integrated at its borders with China, India and Japan. There are big countries with an annual growth of over 7% and particular areas that grow over 9% a year.
Obviously it is going strong even social innovation where the nonprofit is the protagonist. However, the nonprofit is based on traditional fund-raising to be done in ways adapted to local cultures. As happens everywhere in the world, in business and governance, it is evident a strong acceleration of disintermediation, which revolutionizes the nonprofit and fundraising turning them into
thru-profit, where the profit is only a tool and not a goal.

The crowd-funding, for example, shortens the distance between recipient and donor. But also the corporate social responsibility is overtaken by peer-to-peer social enterprise collaborations. Even banks and credit unions lag behind the mini-networks of micro-credit. In Southeast Asia the present of non-profit, fund-raising and certainly their future is based and built on shared values much more than on grants and donations. This will reduce the wall or the difference between non-profit and business, and between donor and recipient; at the same time it greatly widens the space where the evolutionary economy operates.”


Q.: In the past maybe there were challenges but at least very clear. Today, many are struggling to find a reliable map to go into a world where everything seems very confusing, with uncertain risks and results, and poorly defined. How could we reprogram their navigation system?

A.: “Yes, it is true, the new complexity crosses all disciplines from economics to politics, from the environment to human rights, creating a lot of fog and reduced visibility. Who sees unclear or feels unfit can maximize its capabilities by comparing with others and working or thinking more in the net, what now is made easier by the new social media communication technologies.  It is possible today to find a more experienced coach in another part of the world, to communicate with those who are already engaged in new areas of work for peace, justice, inclusive economy.

In mid-February I attended the Asia-Pacific Forum of Enterprises for Sustainable Development which was held in Dhaka, capital of Bangladesh. 17 million people live there, with a density of 24 thousand persons per square km. The challenges caused by poverty in a country with 157 million inhabitants are enormous. But Bangladesh is considered a miracle of economic growth with a GDP growth rate in 2015 that exceeded 7% per annum.

In the entrance of the hall that hosted 700 executives from dozens of Asian countries, a large billboard proposed some central points for discussion: “… In the end, it is always about values. We want the world that our children will inherit defined by the values ​​enshrined in the Charter of the United Nations: peace, justice, respect, human rights, tolerance and solidarity. All major religions embrace them, and we all strive to reflect them in our daily lives. Very often the threats to these values ​​are caused more by fear than by poverty. Our duty to the people we serve is to work together in order to move from the fear of each other, to have faith in each other. Confidence in the values ​​that bind us and trust in the institutions that serve us and protect us. “(First official declaration of António Guterres, the tenth Secretary General of the United Nations from January 1, 2017).

At lunch I met two young Bangladesh entrepreneurs, two brothers, Rezaul and Ekamul. They told me that, as soon as finished university, they have discussed for weeks about the type of company to create. Rezaul wanted to put into practice the principles learned at business school, the profit must be the objective of the enterprise. Ekamul instead wanted to dedicate life to the poor and the common good. Two opposing views: for profit or for the common good? Together they have realized that, looking beyond the wall of misunderstanding between them, they could be successful with a mixed view, using the profits for the common good. Today Rezaul and Ekamul own, along with ten women their friends, a social enterprise that makes educational services to savings and facilitates a form of micro-credit called ‘people-e-wallet’, that is to say, a self-financing community for small development projects, based on an app for mobile phones.

Guterres, that I mentioned before, is right: the borders to overcome for young people today go beyond the mere economic and environmental sustainability of our planet. The essential challenge, the real social innovation needed, is that of ‘thrivability’, which perhaps could be translated with the neologism ‘progressability’, ie a widespread ability to see the professional challenges without fear of one another, building instead every day, trust in each other. Confidence in the values that bind us and trust in the institutions that serve us and protect us. So that everyone can help to revive happiness and successful collaboration, key thrivability concepts.
Without fear of being insufficient, without ever being ashamed, following the example of… ‘the stars that are not ashamed to look like fireflies. ” [Nd.R .: Rabindranath Tagore]


By Guido Pacifici


 Read other articles by Sandro Calvani for the Social Change School.


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Source of the photos:  Dr. Sandro Calvani – official website 


[1] Yuval Noah Harari: Sapiens, a brief history of humankind, Vintage Books, London, 2011

[2] Yuval Noah Harari: Homo Deus, a brief history of tomorrow, Harvill Secker, London, 2016



Do you want to work in the NGOs? Apply now for the Admission and Professional Potential Evaluation Interview, one hour of in-depth dialogue with the managers and HRM of our partner NGOs! 

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