July 25, 2014 4:25 pm

The tragedy that led a countess to spend $100m fighting poverty

Albina du Boisrouvray talks about her efforts to lift millions out of poverty and the tragedy that drives her on
Albina du Boisrouvray in Sion, Switzerland, in front of a picture of her son François-Xavier, who died in a helicopter crash©Niels Ackermann/rezo

Albina du Boisrouvray in Sion, Switzerland, in front of a picture of her son François-Xavier, who died in a helicopter crash

Countess Albina du Boisrouvray prefers not to be called by her title. She would rather that FXB International, the foundation she set up 25 years ago, was not described as a charity but as a non-governmental development organisation. And while her passport defines her as French, du Boisrouvray is really a global citizen.

“I grew up in New York and, as it was the first place that I was uprooted from, I feel that I am an expat from there,” she says. “But I lived in many different places after that: one year in Argentina, one year in Switzerland, four years in Morocco and I went to boarding school in France.”

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This early “nomadic” life experience has given du Boisrouvray the ability to feel comfortable living almost anywhere – she has homes in Paris, Portugal, midtown New York and near Sion in Le Valais, Switzerland.

Her CV is also diverse, dotted with job titles that include model, journalist and film producer. She remains a highly regarded writer and movie executive. She co-founded the literary magazine Libre, where she worked with Gabriel García Márquez and Carlos Fuentes and went on to produce 22 films. She now chairs and manages her Swiss-based real estate and hotel properties group SEGH, but FXB International remains the focus of her attention.

Du Boisrouvray, who is the granddaughter of the Bolivian industrialist Simon Patino, invested $100m – nearly everything she had – to set up FXB, named in memory of her only child François-Xavier Bagnoud, a rescue helicopter pilot, who died in 1986 aged 24 in a helicopter accident in Mali.

“FXB is about continuing François’s commitment to rescuing. It’s not a charity,” she says. “Charity has something paternalistic about it – we enable people to develop their own lives for the better, without constant help.”

FXB International works in 100 countries to rescue people from extreme poverty through its FXB-Village programme. This involves helping families who support Aids orphans and vulnerable children by offering them a health, welfare and education package and, crucially, the capital to launch a business so that at the end of the three-year programme they can keep themselves above the poverty line. All participants receive vocational, financial and project management training.

Since it was founded in 1989, FXB has become a phenomenal rescue operation and claims to have helped 17m people living in extreme poverty.

It’s important to expose yourselves and your children to the realities of the country you are living in

In recognition of this, du Boisrouvray has been showered with honours and awards. Most notably, in 2001, the French government presented her with the Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur, for her pioneering work in palliative care projects, while in 2009 she received the insignia of Officer in l’Ordre National du Mérite from Nicolas Sarkozy, the then French president, in recognition that her NGO had become a model “throughout the world”.

To build on FXB’s success in tackling poverty, in 1993 du Boisrouvray founded the FXB Center for Health and Human Rights at Harvard University. Its aim is to advance the rights and wellbeing of children, young people and their families living in extreme circumstances worldwide.

Du Boisrouvray prides herself on being closely involved with all the FXB projects, from Massachusetts to Myanmar. Nevertheless, she still manages to walk through one of her own front doors every few weeks, although unusually she has no main home. “I don’t have a favourite home and I don’t say I must go to this place or that one next,” she says. “I am drawn to my different homes depending on the season and my mood.

“I love Portugal in the summer and Switzerland in the winter. While Manhattan is where I go to remember my childhood: just walking around Central Park brings back memories. I have close family and friends in France, so that draws me to Paris. And my son is buried in Le Valais in Switzerland, so it’s important for me to go there. I reconnect with him there. I think about all the work we’ve done in 25 years, all the lives we have touched and I become inspired and reenergised to go back and do more.”

Technology is what makes it possible for global citizens to work anywhere, says du Boisrouvray. “Thanks to the internet, I can be in touch with the rest of the organisation from wherever I am in the world. It just takes planning.”

When she is working in the west, du Boisrouvray likes to be based somewhere with good transport links. She spends a few weeks each summer in her coastal home in Portugal, for example. It is where she goes to unwind from the stresses of her job, but it is also a great place from which to get to other parts of the world.

“I am a short drive from Lisbon, which is a wonderful place to commute from. Planes go directly to Brazil from there, you can fly to several African countries and all over Europe and the US. It’s a hub to all of the places that FXB is running in.”

I am drawn to my different homes depending on the season and my mood

On a personal level, du Boisrouvray doesn’t like to feel cut off from anywhere either. “I have lived in all these different countries where life goes on all around in souks and markets, so when I’m choosing a home I try to avoid areas where you are surrounded by other houses. I live in the 7th arrondissement in Paris at the moment, but I find now it’s an area where not enough happens, so I am looking to move to the 6th where there are more shops, busy little restaurants and more ‘life’.”

All expats should seek to understand and become involved in “life” in their new locality, says du Boisrouvray. “Too often people live in expat bubbles and spend time only with their affluent expat friends,” she says, “but it’s important to expose yourselves and your children to the realities of the country you are living in.

“I’ve heard about expat children who have been taken around favelas or townships. Children feel compassion. They get interested and it probably changes their values and their outlook on society for the rest of their lives.”

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Inside knowledge

Du Boisrouvray’s verdict on Le Valais . . . 

Pros

● Great skiing and beautiful scenery

● Calm atmosphere, making it a great place to think and write

Cons

● Lack of a buzzy, modern culture; cinemas and theatres in short supply

● Winding mountain roads make driving fairly dicey

● The area is becoming increasingly built-up, with power lines going up like spiders’ web

L’Ecurie in Verbier A good, little restaurant in the popular ski resort

Mountain walks La Fouly is a village on the Italian border with great walks and magnificent alpine landscape

The Alpine Museum in Verbier A great insight into the valley’s history

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Buying guide

What you can buy for . . . 

£500,000 A three-bedroom, furnished apartment in Veysonnaz

£1m A four-bedroom detached chalet in Grimentz

£2m A four-bedroom penthouse in the popular resort of Saas Fee

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