What the work boils down to is this: promoting freedom of association and assembly. How it's done: by helping groups design laws that protect these freedoms.
"In too many countries we find that the legal framework actually restricts the ability of individuals to gather together to try to improve their societies," says Douglas Rutzen, president of The International Center for Not-for-Profit Law (ICNL) in Washington D.C. "We see in country after country the rights that we might take for granted in the United States are restricted."
The ICNL now works in more than 100 countries helping to establish the legal framework for enhancing individual rights. Last week the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation named the ICNL as one of 15 organizations in six countries that are receiving the MacArthur Award for Creative and Effective Institutions. The ICNL will be awarded $1 million. (A list of all the winners is here.)
Among the ICNL's accomplishments:
• Helping to organize a coalition of more than 7,000 organizations in Iraq to pass a law that supports freedom of association and assembly.
• Creating the idea for and helping to establish the first United Nations Special Rapporteur on the freedoms of assembly and association. A UN resolution was adopted in September 2010 and the UN Special Rapporteur now works to defend freedom of association and assembly around the world.
• Maintaining a database of 2,300 laws from more than 160 countries in 37 languages that can be used as source material to create new laws regarding civil freedoms.
The ICNL is currently working in Libya, in concert with the UN and other partners to expand the rights of citizens there. "In Qaddafi's Libya the death penalty could be imposed for someone who sought to set up an independent human rights group," Mr. Rutzen says.
In Mexico, the ICNL is helping local partners work to allow human rights organizations to receive tax deductible donations. In China, it's partnering with the Chinese government to create a legal framework for disaster response and clarify the role charities play in it.
"The magic of INCL is that we're really international," Rutzen says. "About 70 percent of our staff comes from the countries and regions in which they work. [For example] when you look at our Russian office, everybody is Russian."
The center is also active in Egypt, where nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) are under intense scrutiny from the new government. "It's really about Egyptian groups and their rights to receive foreign funding," he says.
But the situation in Egypt has broader implications, Rutzen adds.
"Our concern is that this is just the beginning of what may be a prelude to a broader crackdown on Egyptian civil society organizations," he says. "We've also noticed the contagion effect – that when one country does this and gets away with it other countries become emboldened and start to pass restrictive laws as well.
"Just within the last couple of weeks we're seen crackdowns in places like Zimbabwe. There's a draft law in Bangladesh that just emerged. There's been a media campaign against civil society organizations in Venezuela. And the list goes on and on.
"So we think that there is now a broad movement among a number of countries to restrict civic space."
That "civic space" represents a whole host of associations that are not family or business relationships but are based on common interests – from a soccer club to a parent-teacher organization to human rights groups.
"It's that whole collection of nonprofit organizations that enrich our lives," he says.
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No one needs a report to explain what "Arab Spring" youths continue to demonstrate for: jobs. But evidence that quantifies their sentiments could be the ticket to real policy change.
Rather than analyze a country’s problems by comparing traditional economic and demographic metrics – GDP and unemployment rate, age and level of education – Silatech and Gallup turn the opinions of Arab youth into comparable data.
Twice a year since 2008, the team has asked thousands of Arab youths their views about three areas the group sees as essential to driving change: job creation and availability, access to the resources they need to find meaningful employment, and the policies they see in the way of their success.
“The report offers a fresh approach to understanding how young people across the Arab world are being affected by, and are responding to, the global economic downturn. Further, this report offers a realistic view of how young people see their future, their prospects, and the paths they so earnestly wish to pursue," says Silatech CEO Rick Little.
With more than 100 million people between the ages of 15 and 29 in the Middle East and North Africa – 30 percent of the population – the region is experiencing an unprecedented “youth bulge.” We’ve already seen how the stability of the region depends on whether these educated, healthy young people have opportunities to be productive citizens. Policymakers have no choice but to get things right given current circumstances.
The latest Silatech/Gallup poll was conducted just before the uprisings in the region began, in late 2010, and found a mixed bag of progress. According to the report:
- Young Arabs are more optimistic about the direction of their local economies, while their perspective of national economies has soured. Policymakers should harness this sentiment by focusing economic interventions at the local level, aimed at individual cities instead of nationwide programs.
- Mobile phone access has soared among youths. Internet penetration remains low, but rising. Silatech notes that this development provides policymakers with new opportunities to communicate with this key demographic, as well as the strong potential for online- and mobile-based youth businesses.
- Fewer Arab youths perceive they can afford good housing, which correlates with limited GPD growth and skyrocketing property prices documented in the region. Youths see the lack of affordable housing as a barrier to achieving independence.
- In a number of countries, youths do not trust their government to allow new businesses to earn much money, significantly reducing their willingness to risk starting a new venture. Suggestions include policies to scale small- and medium-sized enterprises and streamline paperwork for transparency.
- In some countries, youth perception of the judicial system has improved, which helps youths feel confident that their assets and property will remain safe. Countries trailing behind in this indicator would do well to implement similar legal reforms to create the environment needed for healthy entrepreneurship.
Silatech and Gallup’s analysis of Arab League members’ progress toward creating a better climate for job creation and entrepreneurship results in realistic policy prescriptions. These course corrections could create the change these young people catalyzed and bring significant growth to the region. But the prescriptions cost money, money the region doesn’t have, especially during ongoing global financial crises.
If President Obama’s proposed 2013 budget request is approved, some governments in the region may benefit from an influx of more than $800 million to support “long-term economic, political, and trade reforms to countries in transition – and to countries prepared to make reforms proactively,” according to Reuters.
It’s hard to change policy based on anecdotes. But when emotions can be turned into cold, hard numbers, lawmakers can harness the world’s largest and most untapped resource – youths – with policies that create real change.
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Crisis Action likes to avoid the spotlight.
The nonprofit group considers the work it does to be like that of a football coach, an orchestra conductor, or a talent scout, says executive director Gemma Mortensen. Its job is to help the groups it works with – including some of the most well-known humanitarian aid organizations – be more effective by working together. Crisis Action works to "create a dream team" of experts and organizations to attack a particular problem, Ms. Mortensen says.
But, welcome or not, today Crisis Action is suddenly better known. Yesterday (Feb. 16) it was named by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation as one of 15 groups who will receive the 2012 MacArthur Award for Creative and Effective Institutions. The awards, in amounts ranging from $350,000 to $2.5 million, recognize "extraordinary organizations [who] demonstrate exceptional creativity and effectiveness" and whose "impact is altogether disproportionate to their size,” says MacArthur President Robert Gallucci. (Click here for a press release and a list of award winners.)
That's certainly the case with Crisis Action. Founded in 2004, it has a tiny budget of about $2 million a year and just over 20 employees situated in seven key locations around the world: Cairo; Nairobi, Kenya; New York; and Brussels, as well as in France, Germany, and Britain.
Crisis Action, together with its nongovernmental partners, has played an influential role in swaying the policies of governments on Sudan, Congo, Gaza, Afghanistan, Ivory Coast, Egypt, Libya, and Syria, MacArthur says. "Among other achievements, Crisis Action has coordinated joint campaigns to: secure one of the largest UN peacekeeping forces for Darfur; bring those accountable for mass rape in the Democratic Republic of Congo to justice; secure the first ever UN Security Council Presidential Statement on Burma; and support hundreds of Arab NGOs to convince the Arab League to respond to mass violence against civilians in Libya and Syria," a statement from MacArthur says.
Crisis Action was founded in 2004 by Guy Hughes, a passionate mountain climber who died in an accident. He was motivated in part by the 1990s genocides in Rwanda and the Balkans, says Mortensen in a phone interview from London, where she is based. Mr. Hughes saw there needed to be a way to "compel the world's most powerful decisionmakers to take action before it's too late," she says.
Crisis Action now exists, she says, "to create strategic coalitions, to influence government policy on conflict, and to ensure that there is a swift enough response from civil society – speaking with one voice – at times of crisis."
Recently Crisis Action's Cairo office, staffed by Egyptians, has worked "with hundreds of Arab organizations – I think it's 18 countries across the Middle East and North Africa" to help the Arab world speak with one voice against the violence in Syria, which then "can be represented to the League of Arab States, for example," she says.
Mortensen says she's "pretty confident" that Crisis Action has contributed to creating public sentiment in the Arab world that has caused the league to take some of its strongest actions ever, including condemning the violence in Syria, deciding to put targeted sanctions on the Syrian regime, and other measures.
Crisis Action's partners include "all the big human rights organizations," she says, including Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, Oxfam, Save the Children, and Mercy Corps, as well as the International Crisis Group and other think tanks.
"Effective work for us is increasing the impact of all the organizations that we work with by enabling them to achieve even more together than they would alone," Mortensen says. "We need to stay behind the scenes because that is the way in which partners will genuinely see that we are in it for the benefit of the collective work, not to promote ourselves."
Though Crisis Action keeps a low profile, its work often has very public results. "Even though we're quiet, the products of our labor can be very loud," she says. "We coordinate collective action that can be quiet diplomacy behind the scenes [or] can be massive media campaigns across 15 different countries."
Her interview with the Monitor, one of a very few Crisis Action has ever given, she says, provides an opportunity to thank MacArthur for its award, which includes a gift of $750,000.
"The award comes at a really pivotal moment for the organization," Mortensen says. "It's almost as if we're passing through our adolescence into our maturity. It's recognizing that this brave experiment is really making a difference."
• For more information on Crisis Action and its MacArthur award, including a video, click here.
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After the Durban talks last month, climate realists must face the reality that “shared sacrifice,” however necessary eventually, has proven a catastrophically bad starting point for global collaboration. Nations have already spent decades debating who was going to give up how much first in exchange for what. So we need to seek opportunities – arenas where there are advantages, not penalties, for those who first take action – both to achieve first-round emission reductions and to build trust and cooperation.
One of the major opportunities lies in providing energy access for the more than 1.2 billion people who don’t have electricity, most of whom, in business-as-usual scenarios, still won’t have it in 2030. These are the poorest people on the planet. Ironically, the world’s poorest can best afford the most sophisticated lighting – off-grid combinations of solar panels, power electronics, and LED lights. And this creates an opportunity for which the economics are compelling, the moral urgency profound, the development benefits enormous, and the potential leverage game changing.
As the accompanying graphs show, the cost of coal and copper – the ingredients of conventional grid power – are soaring. Meanwhile, the cost of solar panels and LEDs, the ingredients of distributed renewable power, are racing down even faster.
If we want the poor to benefit from electricity we cannot wait for the grid, and we cannot rely on fossil fuels. The International Energy Agency, historically a grid-centric, establishment voice, admits that half of those without electricity today will never be wired. The government of India estimates that two-thirds of its non-electrified households need distributed power.
Fortunately, the historic barriers to getting distributed renewable power to scale in poor villages and neighborhoods are rapidly being dismantled by progress in technology, finance, and business models. Getting 1.2 billion people local solar power they can afford is within grasp – if we only think about the problem in a different way. In fact, the world can finish this job by 2020.
The poor already pay for light. They pay for kerosene and candles. And they pay a lot. The poorest fifth of the world pays one-fifth of the world’s lighting bill – but receives only 0.1 percent of the lighting benefits. Over a decade, the average poor family spends $1,800 on energy expenditures. Replacing kerosene with a vastly superior 40 Wp (Watts peak) home solar system would cost only $300 and provide them not only light, but access to cell-phone charging, fans, computers, and even televisions.
Kerosene costs 25 to 30 percent of a family’s income – globally that amounts to $36 billion a year. The poor do not use kerosene because it is cheap – they are kept poor in significant part because they must rely on expensive, dirty kerosene.
And the poor pay in other ways. A room lit by kerosene typically can have concentrations of pollution 10 times safe levels. About 1.5 million people, mostly women, die of this pollution every year, in addition to those who die from burns in fires.
So why do the poor use kerosene? Because they can buy a single day’s worth in a bottle, if that is all they can afford. For the poor, affordability has three dimensions: total cost, up-front price, and payment flexibility. Solar power comes in a panel that will give 10, or even 20, years of light and power – but the poor cannot afford a 10-year investment up front. And many cannot handle conventional finance plans, which require fixed payments regardless of their income that month.
Nor, for the record, do the electrified middle class pay for electricity up front. When I moved into my house in San Francisco, I did not get a bill for my share of the power plants and transmission grid that give me power each month. I pay as I go, based on how many kwh’s I use that month.
So lighting the lives of 1.2 billion people with off-grid renewable electricity requires three ingredients:
- Capital to pay for solar or other renewable electrical generation for 400 million households that depend on kerosene;
- Business models for those households to pay for the electricity they use, at the price it really costs, which is a lot less than kerosene;
- Financing, public policy, and partnerships to create the supply chains and distribution networks capable of getting distributed electrical systems to every household that needs them. (These needs might require $6 billion in credits and loan guarantees.)
The money is on the table. It’s just on the wrong plates. Purchase and finance of solar power for 1.2 billion people would cost about $10 billion a year over a decade. The 11 countries with the largest number of households without electricity spent $80 billion each year subsidizing fossil fuel – only 17 percent of which benefits the poor. In 2010, the World Bank spent $8 billion on coal-fired power plants, few of which provided meaningful energy access to the poor. The UN’s Clean Development Mechanism is proposing to give $4 billion a year to anything-but-clean coal plants. So there is already far more capital in the system than is needed.
Even five years ago the business models did not exist to enable the poor to afford solar. Solar was much more expensive. The only alternative to buying a solar system with cash was a bank or micro-credit loan for which most of the poor could not qualify.
But the combination of dirt-cheap solar, the cell-phone revolution, and mobile phone banking has changed everything. There are almost 600 million cell-phone customers without electricity – using their phones very little, still spending $10 billion to charge them in town. There are hundreds of thousands of rural, off-grid cell towers powered by diesel – at a price of about $0.70/kilowatt hour. All over the world cell-phone towers are being converted from diesel to hybrid renewable power sources. So cell phone companies have a powerful motivation to get renewable power into rural areas, to get electricity to their customers, and to charge for electricity through their mobile phone payment systems.
At least three commercial models have been launched in the last several months. India’s Simpa Networks – in partnership with SELCO in India and DT-Power in Ghana, India, and Kenya – are testing models in which solar distributors can allow customers to pay for electricity through mobile banking “pay as you go” plans.
Zimbabwe’s Econet Power has launched an even more intriguing model, in which it provides its cell-phone customers with solar power as a customer benefit, charging them only $1 week to use a home solar system provided by Econet, with the bills tied to the customer’s cell phone account.
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has proclaimed 2012 the Year of Universal Energy Access. His initiative is keyed not to the UN climate talks, but to the Rio +20 Earth Summit talks scheduled for June.
Imagine that at Rio, instead of embracing business-as-usual solutions to energy access, the world decided to empower the poor with the electricity they can truly afford – distributed solar?
What would the benefits be? In carbon terms alone, kerosene for lighting emits almost as much greenhouse-gas pollution as the entire British economy. 1.5 million lives a year would be saved from respiratory ailments. The available income for the world’s poorest fifth would be increased by 25 to 30 percent – a pretty big development bang-for-the-buck. Numerous studies have shown that providing basic energy access increases household income by 50 percent or more by providing more time and opportunities for home-based income generation.
But the leverage is actually much greater. If one-fifth of the world is on solar, as these people prosper and can afford more electricity, they are going to expand solar systems, rather than turning to coal or nuclear. Their neighbors include the one-third of humanity with “spasmodic” electricity – wires that in rural areas work only at night, and in urban areas go down in the afternoon. These customers would find distributed solar far more reliable than the current grid. If we add those 2 billion to the 1.2 billion who are not on the grid, virtually half of humanity could be turning to renewable power as the cheapest, most reliable and most available form of energy. The fossil fuel interests would lose completely their current moral argument – that more carbon will power the poor.
That, I would argue is a phenomenal game-changer – and a powerful first step in building a trusting, low-carbon coalition of rich and poor nations. And that coalition could lay the groundwork for the more challenging global efforts that will be needed to stabilize and eventually restore the climate.
• Carl Pope, chairman and former executive director of the Sierra Club, has served on the boards for the National Clean Air Coalition, California Common Cause, and Public Interest Economics Inc. A regular contributor to the Huffington Post, he co-wrote the book "Strategic Ignorance: Why the Bush Administration Is Recklessly Destroying a Century of Environmental Progress," which was published in 2004.
Many for-profit enterprises have added a nonprofit division to their work, enabling them to use their private economic resources for public good.
Today, Nourishing the Planet highlights five private companies that are helping to reduce hunger around the world:
1. Kraft Foods Inc.: As one of the world’s largest food companies, Kraft Foods Inc. produces dozens of familiar brands, including Oreo, Nabisco, Kraft, Cadbury, and Maxwell House. Through its community involvement initiatives, Kraft Foods Inc. has donated more than $770 million worth of cash and food in the past 25 years and has also partnered with organizations such as Feeding America, INMED Partnerships for Children, and the National Latino Children’s Institute to bring about programs that encourage healthy lifestyles and community service. These programs include Salsa, Sabor, y Salud (Food, Fun & Fitness), a program that teaches Latino families about the importance of healthy food choices and physically active lifestyles, and Kraft’s 2010 Delicious Difference Week, in which Kraft employees in 56 different countries partnered with nonprofit organizations to plant community gardens, build playgrounds, serve the hungry, and more.
Kraft Foods Inc. in action: Kraft’s Health in Action (Ação Saudável) program (formed in 2010 through a partnership between Kraft Foods Foundation and INMED Partnerships for Children) is based in Brazil and plans to ultimately reach approximately 675,000 people by creating school gardens, helping families grow their own fruits and vegetables, and educating people on nutrition, hygiene, and active play. Nicole Robinson, vice president of the Kraft Foods Foundation, calls the program “truly transformative,” as “it empowers children, teachers, and the entire school. And it reaches into the community to help people address the issues around hunger and healthy lifestyles for themselves.”
2. Land O’ Lakes Inc.: The company is best known for its butter and other dairy products, but Land O’ Lakes Inc. is also the United States’ second-largest cooperative, having been member-owned and directed since 1921. The company’s nonprofit division, Land O’Lakes International Development, uses the company’s “practical experience and in-depth knowledge to facilitate market-driven business solutions that generate economic growth, improve health and nutrition, and alleviate poverty.”
Land O’ Lakes Inc. in action: Land O’ Lakes partners with Tillers International in the Mozambique Food for Progress Program. The purpose of the program, according to its website, is to “begin rebuilding Mozambique’s dairy industry to meet market demand and to increase incomes for smallholder farmers through participation in a sustainable dairy value chain.” The organization also trains farmers to teach other farmers about proper animal care, weeding systems, cart making, road building, and other important skills. As a result, farmers are learning how to raise and utilize livestock to improve their incomes, diets, and crop productivity.
3. PepsiCo: PepsiCo produces more than just soda. In fact, it manufactures hundreds of brands of food and beverages around the world, including Frito-Lay, Quaker, and Tropicana products. It also partners with the UN World Food Programme (WFP) and United States Agency for International Development (USAID) to “dramatically increase chickpea production and promote long-term nutritional and economic security in Ethiopia,” among other programs.
PepsiCo in action: PepsiCo’s chickpea initiative, Enterprise EthioPEA, is part of PepsiCo’s strategy to become a global leader in sustainable agriculture. The program plans to improve the quality of Ethiopia’s chickpeas and increase yields by introducing more modern agricultural practices and irrigation techniques, such as use of better-quality seeds and drip irrigation, and considering important factors such as seasonality and the need to optimize soil quality. It also aims to address malnutrition by developing a “locally sourced, nutrient-rich, ready-to-use supplementary food" and wants to “scale up and strengthen the Ethiopian chickpea supply chain to harness the potential of a domestic and export market and increase the availability of locally produced nutritious products for consumers.”
4. TNT Express: TNT Express, an international express and cargo delivery company headquartered in Hoofddorp, Netherlands, serves more than 200 countries and employs more than 160,000 people. This corporation uses its specialization in transport to aid the WFP.
TNT Express in action: Through its Moving the World program, TNT Express donates its skills, knowledge, and resources to the WFP. Since 2003, TNT has supported the WFP with $83 million worth of cash, in-kind contributions such as airlifts, and staff deployment to help make food transport missions more efficient. The company has also deployed 12 airplanes to Haiti, Pakistan, and the Philippines in times of emergency.
5. Cargill: As an international producer and marketer of food and agricultural, financial, and industrial products and services, Cargill employs 142,000 people in 66 different countries. Cargill’s community investment initiatives feature several programs focused on alleviating hunger around the globe.
Cargill in action: As part of its “Nourishing People” challenge, Cargill donated $3.3 million to combat hunger around the world, and on World Food Day it challenged its businesses to reach out and assist local hunger relief organizations. The businesses rose to the challenge and participated in activities ranging from restocking food bank shelves in the US to building school kitchens in Honduras. Cargill’s six-year, $5.5 million commitment to the WFP also brings “food, medication, improved hygiene, and new drinking water wells to more than 30,000 children in 130 schools in Indonesia.”
• Eleanor Fausold is a research intern with the Nourishing the Planet project.
For millions in the developing world who can’t just “Google it,” a box is providing the answers.
To begin, users push a green "talk" button on the metal intercom box and ask a question in their local language. An operator in a larger town with more Internet bandwidth will look up their questions online and relay the answers to the caller. The red button ends the call.
The Question Box was created by Open Mind, a nonprofit founded by Rose Shuman in partnership with the Grameen Foundation.
Internet access is not given a second thought in the developed world, but for billions around the globe, the Internet is far out of reach.
"Question Boxes leap over illiteracy, computer illiteracy, lack of networks, and language barriers," according to Shauman and fellow organizers. "They provide immediate, relevant information to people using their preferred mode of communication: speaking and listening."
For example, Uganda’s Internet connection is too slow. So Question Box scrapped the physical boxes and built a network of field agents with mobile phones, common throughout Uganda. The field agents either relay users' questions to a call center or let people ask the questions themselves.
Operators search local databases created by Ugandan company Appfrica Labs, which serves as host of the call center. In the database are diverse sources of information: government statistics, answers to past questions, research papers, and a repository of documents, all pertaining to the local area.
The Question Box is a powerful economic tool. With over 80 percent of Uganda's workforce employed in the agricultural sector, the ability to receive information regarding crops is essential.
“We are helping farmers make decisions regarding where to sell, what to plant, and how to best take care of their crops," said Schuman. “It’s all about giving communities the ability to help themselves.”
Technology comes in many different formats. Now, information comes in a box.
Valentine’s Day has long celebrated love with caring notes, decadent chocolates, and romantic arrangements of flowers. But this Valentine’s Day, perhaps it’s time to celebrate with a gift many of the world’s women desperately want and need: reproductive health.
According to the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), 1,000 women die every day due to pregnancy or childbirth, or one woman every 90 seconds. Ninety-nine percent of these deaths occur in the developing world, 90 percent in Africa and Asia. A handful of complications account for 80 percent of these maternal deaths – severe bleeding, infections, high blood pressure, obstructed labor, and unsafe abortion – and the bulk of these deaths are preventable.
Reproductive health, including access to the information and means to plan a family, is a human right the world’s nations have recognized in various forms since 1968. Access to family planning and other reproductive health services safeguard the lives of women and their children and promote families that are emotionally and economically healthy.
In my book, "More: Population, Nature, and What Women Want," I explore centuries of reproductive history and concludes that, if given the chance to do what they really want, women on average have smaller families, with childbirths later in their lives. This pattern is safer for women and children, and promotes environmental sustainability through the slower population growth that lower fertility rates and later births bring about.
The health of women and children
The UNFPA report "Women and Girls in a World of 7 Billion" notes that poverty, marginalization, and gender inequalities based on culture are key challenges to reproductive health. The report relays that women own less than 15 percent of the land worldwide; their wages, on average, are 17 percent lower than men’s; and they make up two-thirds of the world’s 776 million illiterate adults.
This means that women, particularly in the developing world, must often rely on men for financial support – creating situations in which women are subject to their partners’ views on contraception, feel trapped in physically or emotionally abusive relationships, and marry and have children young instead of pursuing further education or employment outside the home. In the developing world, one in seven girls will be married before she turns 15, and worldwide, complications from pregnancy and childbirth are the leading causes of death for girls 15–19.
Many women are not empowered to make their own decisions regarding if or when to have children, how many to have, and how long to wait in between them. Some 40 percent or more of pregnancies are unplanned, with more than 21 percent of all births resulting from such pregnancies worldwide, according to estimates of the Guttmacher Institute. If given access to family planning, and permission by their families and societies to use it, fewer women and children would die from unsafe abortions and high-risk pregnancies.
The health of the planet
The United Nations Foundation sponsors Girl Up, an organization that encourages a world where young girls can avoid the pitfalls of too-early marriage and childbearing and can instead go to school, enjoy health and safety, and grow into the next generation of leaders. In the Amhara region of Ethiopia, where half of adolescent girls are married, Girl Up is helping to promote education for young girls. The project offers basic literacy classes, family planning information, and agricultural training.
When women and girls are empowered with education and the capacity to make choices about sex, marriage, and childbearing, they have opportunities to realize futures as farmers, businesswomen, politicians, or whatever dream drives them. These benefits ripple out from the lives of individual women and girls to their families, their communities, their nations – and ultimately to the entire world.
In the Worldwatch report "Population, Climate Change, and Women’s Lives," I suggest that if women are given access to increased reproductive health, they are better able to more naturally control the size of their families and counterbalance the resource depletion and pollution that are exacerbated by unabated population increases. The importance of women and the autonomy they exercise may be far greater to the climate’s future than most experts and negotiators on climate change have realized.
What women really want
Reproductive health is not about state-mandated family sizes; it is about freeing women to make their own choices about when and how often to give birth. In all countries where affordable access is offered to family planning resources and women have the option of safe and legal abortions, women’s fertility rates drop to two or less children per woman. Such rates are normal for nearly half the world and are less than the “replacement fertility” rate of slightly more than two children per woman, that fuels present and future population growth.
When women are free to make their own choices, they improve their own health and that of their families. A study by the UNFPA and the Guttmacher Institute suggests that it would take $24 billion to fulfill unmet reproductive health needs in developing countries, several times what countries spend today. According to the report, such an investment would “provide every woman with the recommended standard of maternal and newborn care” and would “[r]educe unintended pregnancies by more than 66 percent, prevent 70 percent of maternal deaths, avert 44 percent of newborn deaths, and reduce unsafe abortion by 73 percent.”
• Robert Engelman is president of the Worldwatch Institute. Click here to purchase a copy of "More: Population, Nature, and What Women Want" and here for a copy of "Population, Climate Change, and Women’s Lives." This article originally appeared at Nourishing the Planet, a blog published by the Worldwatch Institute.
At the height of the dot-com boom in 1999, a few tech-savvy friends and I walked into a homeless shelter to give without any strings attached. Our motivation? We just wanted to serve, and quickly discovered that such a practice of selfless giving is something that we all have access to, no matter who we are or what we do.
Our trip to the homeless shelter led to us building a website for them at no charge. That experiment in giving blossomed into an organization called ServiceSpace, which went on to develop and gift websites to thousands of small nonprofits.
But the ripples didn't stop there. ServiceSpace has now evolved into a remarkable incubator for dozens of projects, including an online good news portal, "Smile Cards," that spread kindness, and a gift-economy restaurant in Berkeley and rickshaw in India – all touching millions of people.
It's not just what we do that matters, but the inner impetus behind our action that really counts.
While the external impact of these projects is tremendous, what is most striking is the fact that ServiceSpace doesn't fund-raise, has no staff, and remains 100 percent volunteer-run. Everyone involved is driven simply by the volition to grow in service.
In a world dominated by financial incentives that appeal to a consumption mindset, ServiceSpace is a counterculture invitation to engage in small acts of generosity, continually shifting towards a mindset of inspired contribution.
It's a beautiful fact that in practicing kindness, we can't help but deepen our understanding of how inner and outer change are fundamentally intertwined.
Here are five reasons to serve that we've discovered through our own journey.
1. Serve to discover abundance: the radical shift from 'me' to 'we.'
When you serve, you discover that often the most important things you have to offer are not things at all. You start to uncover the full range of resources at your disposal – your time, presence, attention – and recognize that the ability to give stems from a state of mind and heart, a place much deeper than the material. Inspired by the possibilities this opens up in every moment, you begin to discover humble opportunities to serve – everywhere.
This process begins a shift from a me-orientation to a we-orientation. You start to look at people and situations with an eye for what you can offer them, and not vice versa. You break the tiresome tyranny of questions like "What's in it for me?" The mindset shifts from consumption to contribution. Paradoxically, when serving in this way, you are no longer operating from a space of scarcity. Your cup fills and overflows.
2. Serve to express gratitude.
When you acknowledge the fullness of your life, you can manifest a heart of service in any situation. In that sense, service doesn't start when we have something to give – it blossoms naturally when we have nothing left to take. And that is a powerful place to be.
We begin to play our part – first, by becoming conscious of the offerings we receive, then by feeling gratitude for them, and finally by continuing to pay forward our gifts with a heart of joy.
Yes, external change is required for the world to progress, but when coupled with inner transformation, it can affect the world in a radically different way.
"We can do no great things – only small things with great love," maintained Mother Teresa, a woman who made a difference in the lives of millions. It's a matter of what we focus on. In other words, it's not just what we do that matters, but the inner impetus behind our action that really counts.
3. Serve to transform yourself.
Any time we practice the smallest act of service – even if it's only holding a door for somebody with a full heart that says, "May I be of use to this person" – that kind of giving changes the deeply embedded habit of self-centeredness.
In that brief moment, we experience other-centeredness. That other-centeredness relaxes the patterns of the ego, a collection of unexamined, self-oriented tendencies that subtly influence our choices. This is why no true act of service, however small, can ever really be wasted.
To serve unconditionally in this way takes practice and constant effort. But with time and sharpened awareness, we begin to brush against the potential for transformation that is embedded in every act of generosity.
It's a realization that when you give, you actually receive. You begin to internalize this, not at the intellectual level but by experience.
4. Serve to honor our profound interconnection.
Over time, all of those small acts, those small moments, lead to a different state of being – a state in which service becomes increasingly effortless. And as this awareness grows, you inevitably start to perceive beyond individualistic patterns: Each small act of service is an unending ripple that synergizes with countless others.
As Rachel Naomi Remen puts it, "When you help, you see life as weak. When you fix, you see life as broken. When you serve, you see life as whole."
With that understanding, we begin to play our part – first, by becoming conscious of the offerings we receive, then by feeling gratitude for them, and finally by continuing to pay forward our gifts with a heart of joy. Each of us has such gifts: skills, material resources, connections, presence – everything we consider ourselves privileged to have. And when we actually start to use our gifts as tools to facilitate giving, we deepen our understanding of relationships and start to sync up with this vast "inner-net."
5. Serve to align with a natural unfolding.
When we increasingly choose to remain in that space of service, we start to see new things. The needs of the current situation become clearer, we become instruments of a greater order and consequently our actions become more effortless.
When a group of people perform this kind of service as a practice, it creates an ecosystem that holds a space, allowing value to emerge organically. All of this indirect value, the ripple effect, has space and time to add up, synergize with other ripples, and multiply into something completely unexpected.
In humble fashion these ripples continue to seed unpredictable manifestations. Such an ecosystem can have its plans and strategies, but places more emphasis on emergent co-creation. So a lot of the ripples will remain unseen for years; some perhaps will be the basis for a seventh-generation philanthropy. It doesn't matter, because they are unconditional gifts.
What each of us can do, on a personal level, is make such small offerings of service that ultimately create the field for deeper change. The revolution starts with you and me.
• Nipun Mehta is the founder of Servicespace.org, an incubator of gift-economy projects that aims to shift our collective narrative toward greater generosity. This article is a result of a collaborative effort that included several ServiceSpace coordinators. Nipun was honored in the Winter 2012 issue of YES! Magazine as one of The YES! Breakthrough 15.
The schedule: Get up at first light. Wait for the sleeping bags to dry out from the dew. Paddle or float down the Colorado River until dark. Try to find a beach on which to camp out – not always an easy task, with some of the land along the river being privately owned. Read and write at night. Go to sleep and start over again the next day.
Will Stauffer-Norris and Zak Podmore followed this plan for 110 days for their Source to Sea project, a collaboration with the State of the Rockies Project. The State of the Rockies, which was created by Colorado College in Colorado Springs, Colo., studies issues that are facing the Rocky Mountain region.
Mr. Stauffer-Norris, who is from Blacksburg, Va., and Mr. Podmore, who is from Glenwood Springs, Colo., came up with the idea of kayaking down the entire Colorado River, starting in the Wind River Range in Wyoming and ending in Mexico's Sea of Cortez. The aim was to study the state of the river and how it will impact Americans in decades to come.
Both men graduated from Colorado College last May. Both have been on the water since childhood, kayaking and participating in other activities.
Stauffer-Norris in particular had wanted to do a longer-than-usual water voyage. “I just kind of wanted to see what would happen if you extended the trip over the entire river, being away from civilization,” he says.
When they mentioned the trip to a professor at Colorado College, he suggested they link it to the State of the Rockies Project, in which individuals work together to gather data about problems faced by the Rocky Mountain region and bring the problems to the public’s attention. The project for the 2011-2012 school year was to focus on the Colorado River Basin, an area of study that dovetailed with Stauffer-Norris and Podmore’s Source to Sea project.
One of the ideas they most want to impress upon people about the Colorado River, Stauffer-Norris says, is that the river is, in fact, a single body of water – a fact people often forget. “A lot of people don't think of the river as a whole,” he says.
As the two men paddled along they’d yell to people on shore about their plan to travel the entire river. They'd often get confused reactions from those who didn't realize that the river went as far as it does.
“You say, 'We're going to Mexico!' ” Stauffer-Norris says. “And people are like, 'What?' ”
They estimate they traveled 1,700 miles during their the four-month journey, with friends and their parents meeting them at a few spots. Their biggest discovery, Podmore says, was when they got further south.
“The findings were that there really wasn't a river anymore,” he says.
Stauffer-Norris says most of the water is visibly tainted as the river winds south. “It's pretty polluted,” he says. “There's not much left.”
The toughest part of the trip was when they reached Mexico and found there wasn’t any water to float on anymore, Stauffer-Norris says. “We had to load up all our water, our food, our rafts, and walk across the desert. We had to slog through knee-deep mud.”
During the trip, the two would sometimes stop and hike through areas on shore that looked particularly interesting. Boredom during their hours on the water wasn’t a problem, Podmore says. “We were at some of the most spectacular places in North America, in my opinion,” he says. “That was entertainment enough.”
“We ran out of things to talk about pretty quickly,” Stauffer-Norris adds, laughing.
They said that their biggest goal now that the journey is over is to inform people about what they saw. “We felt like we had the responsibility to get the message out there, that there was no water” in the southern Colorado River, Podmore says.
On Feb. 3, Stauffer-Norris and Podmore communicated by Skype with members of the US Department of the Interior about what they saw on their trip. The two will also present their findings at the yearly conference of the State of the Rockies Project in April.
They'd like those who live along the Colorado River to realize how their actions affect others, Stauffer-Norris says. If a person in Wyoming dumps garbage in the water, that will cause problems for someone living in Mexico.
“People will realize how interconnected the system is,” he says.
The thistle is the perfect symbol for Magdalene, a two-year private rehab facility for women with criminal histories of prostitution and drug addiction in Nashville, Tenn. The thistle flower, says Penny Hall, a former prostitute and resident of the facility, “comes up out of the concrete, and it transforms in to a beautiful flower.”
The thistle, it turns out, is also the perfect tool for helping women who live on the street improve their health and their livelihoods.
Founded in 1997 by Becca Stevens, an Episcopal priest, Magdalene provides housing, food, medical treatment, therapy, education, and job training to women who find their way to the facility from prison and the streets.
The six homes at Magdalene are managed by the residents themselves, who work together to create a clean, comfortable, and supportive living environment. The residents range in age from 20 to 50, and most have abused alcohol or drugs, been arrested more than once, and many have prostituted themselves for money and drugs.
And before coming to Magdalene, most of these women did not imagine that their situation could possibly change. This is where the thistle plant comes in.
One way Magdalene helps women go from living and working in the streets to gainful employment is Thistle Farms, the organization’s social enterprise. At Thistle Farms, the residents of Magdalene participate in therapeutic workshops where they learn to make bath and body oils, candles, and paper. The paper is made from thistle plants that the women collect on roadsides and fields, and every product that Thistle Farm produces is sold wrapped in it.
The products made by Thistle Farm are sold in stores in Nashville and across the country. All of the women are trained in manufacturing, packaging, marketing, and sales and administration, and employees have the option of putting a percentage of their earnings in a matched savings account.
Through the supportive working environment that puts an emphasis on learning practical skills, Thistle Farm aims to both rehabilitate women struggling with poverty and addiction, and provide them with the tools they need to earn a living wage in the future.
And the organization has become a model of success – roughly 75 percent of its graduates stay clean after leaving the facility – attracting attention from nonprofits and rehabilitation centers around the world who are interested in replicating its model of healing and empowerment.
• Molly Theobald was a research fellow for Nourishing the Planet and is now currently pursuing her Master of Laws and Master of Public Administration (L.L.M./M.P.A.) at American University.