A bolder approach to helping the world

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Deepak Chopra looks around at the chaos in the world - wars, terrorism, economic disparities, and social injustice - and sees nothing but potential. Indeed, to him the current state of humanity is like that of a caterpillar, which toward the end of its life eats so voraciously it destroys all the greenery around and becomes bloated and disfigured. But then the destructive insect uses those nutrients to transform into a magnificent butterfly.

Sound a bit too optimistic?

Maybe, but Mr. Chopra and a disparate group of international notables, from Puerto Rico's pop star Ricky Martin to Irish Nobel Peace Prize laureate Betty Williams, are convinced that humanity is on the verge of a similar transformation, and they're determined to help it along.

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This weekend, they will gather in Puerto Rico to begin the process of connecting what Chopra calls "peace cells" - grass-roots humanitarian organizations - around the world that are already building the butterfly's foundation. They're calling their endeavor the Alliance for the New Humanity. The goal is to create an umbrella organization that would raise money to fortify humanitarian work already under way. The group also has a more ambitious, albeit amorphous, goal of convincing the world's media to focus on solutions rather than problems.

"The chaos that we see all around us at the moment in the form of ecological disasters, economic disparities, social injustice, war and terrorism, this is the essential ingredient for the [caterpillar's] nutritive soup," says Chopra, the Indian writer, with unapologetic optimism. "The opportunity is absolutely at hand for the transformation of our species into something extraordinary."

While the rhetoric may seem unrealistic to many - with more than 800 million hungry people in the world and nearly 40 armed conflicts raging - what the alliance proposes to do impresses many experts in philanthropy, not just because of their proposals to raise money, but also for the international star power already committed to the effort. [Editor's note: The original version misstated the estimated number of hungry people.]

In addition to Chopra, Mr. Martin, and Ms. Williams, founding members include Oscar Arias, former president of Costa Rica and Nobel laureate, human rights activist Kerry Kennedy Cuomo, and the Italian founder of the Inter Press Agency, Roberto Salvio. At this weekend's launch event, former Vice President Al Gore will give the keynote address. So even before it gets started, some experts are putting it into a historical context.

"I think that this is another version of these periodic great awakenings," says Paul Schervish of the Boston College Social Welfare Research Institute. "This is a period in history when people are simultaneously aware of both the injuries and the debilitations of the current era, and see that the potential for transformation is as great as the injuries are deep."

The alliance's most concrete proposals involve giving individuals worldwide an easier way to support humanitarian causes. There will, of course, be the big-name celebrity concerts to raise money to support the infrastructure of the alliance. But the founders have also contracted the World Business Academy to design what's come to be called an "affinity card."

Credit card for charity

It's a credit card, but 1 percent of each purchase will be put into a "gift account" and matched by sponsoring retailers, hotels, and airlines. Then cardholders can go onto the alliance website and choose which grass-roots humanitarian organizations to donate to. "It's a very easy way to literally shift 2 to 3 percent of the wealth of affluent people to those in need from around the world," Chopra says.

By next year, Chopra predicts the alliance will have a catalogue of tens of thousands of humanitarian groups. It will include not only their work, but an analysis of their finances and an assessment of their performance over the last five years. Think of it as huge, international United Way that deals with everything from the orphans on the street of Calcutta to mediating the conflict in the Middle East.

That's a tall order, says Arthur Brooks, an expert on philanthropy at Syracuse University. Many local charities operate in a similar "pass-through" model, which allows individuals to donate to an umbrella organization and then choose how those dollars are used. But setting up the details of an international network - figuring out, say, which organizations qualify and how their progress will be measured - will pose a challenge for organizers, he adds. For example: How does one measure the success of a seemingly fruitless peacemaking effort in the Middle East compared with a temple in Bangalore, India, that feeds 40,000 children a day?

Refocusing the media

The alliance's other challenge - and goal - involves the commercial media. It aims to encourage solution-oriented media by highlighting the work of its grass-roots groups. But media, entertainment and news alike, often thrive on the very images of destruction and violence that the alliance is designed to counter. There are bottom-line pressures to account for, ads to sell. Like it or not, "Rambo" rates far higher than "Bambi," in almost every country. Chopra and Dr. Arias admit that's a problem, but both believe people want more substantive fare.

"Every day there are alternative news websites appearing ... a commentary of growing rejection of the frenetic style spread by CNN or Fox," Arias says. Even if that sounds optimistic, he's undaunted. "As the French statesman Francois Guizot once said, 'The world belongs to the optimists; pessimists are only spectators.' "

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