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Change Agent

Charitable works, NGOs, nonprofits, social entrepreneurs, and ordinary people with great ideas on how to make a positive change in their communities and around the globe.

A worker carries a load during construction at the BeLikeBrit Orphanage and Mission of Hope School in Grand Goave, Haiti, near the 2010 earthquake’s epicenter. The project merged American engineering with local Haitian capability. (Paul E. Fallon)

In Haiti, laws of physics meet a culture of magic

By Paul E. FallonContributor / 02.06.13

[Editor's note: Paul E. Fallon is a Boston-area architect who has made 17 trips to Haiti since the 2010 earthquake to design and supervise construction of a school and orphanage. He blogs at and is publishing a book of essays about his experience.]

Creating earthquake-resistant buildings demands sound engineering and careful construction, but in Haiti construction is enlivened by a culture that requires everyone reach d’accord before placing the first shovel, equating noise with effort, and embracing magic more easily than physics.

Since 2010 I have designed and supervised construction of the BeLikeBrit Orphanage and Mission of Hope School in Grand Goave, near the earthquake’s epicenter. Both buildings opened in January; two small contributions to Haiti’s reconstruction. Building in Haiti illustrates many cultural differences, provides perspective on why so many reconstruction efforts fail, and highlights Haiti’s charms.

Post-earthquake construction in Haiti must address the dichotomy of efficiency versus tradition.

Earthquake-resistant structures are typically built of wood or steel, materials that flex when the earth trembles. Many new buildings in Haiti adopt this approach as erection is quick, but these materials must be imported, and few Haitians possess the requisite construction skills.

We chose traditional concrete construction, engineered with integrated reinforcing, in order to boost employment and provide local tradesmen the opportunity to use familiar materials in an earthquake-resistant manner.

I am accustomed to locating a building using surveys and geometry. Instead, we established property lines through negotiation with neighbors, and laborers set string at eyeballed right angles to establish the building’s corner. They were incredulous when I doubted their accuracy and insisted we measure the floor plan’s full diagonals. It took half a day for Pythagoras and Haitians to agree.

Although shoddy construction elevated the earthquake’s death toll, local building is dominated by bosses as recalcitrant to change as people in power everywhere, reinforced by a predisposition to attribute the earthquake to angry gods rather than shifting plates. Though we demonstrated how to lay out reinforcing bars, overlaps, bends, and ties, and fabricated templates to guarantee spacing, the bosses bucked until we singled out workers receptive to accuracy and alignment, praised them, and gave them bonuses. Eventually the bosses realized this new mode of construction was not going away, and understand it or not, they followed.

Concrete is the construction material of choice in Haiti because aggregate is readily available, but I also believe it is popular because it satisfies the Haitian dictum that work requires "banging.” Haitians are remarkably strong, work site camaraderie is deep, and displays of physical prowess abundant. This justifies an intentional lack of craftsmanship that I came to appreciate.

Concrete buildings are essentially built twice. Wood forms are erected inverse of the final shape, then reinforcing steel and concrete are placed. Once the concrete hardens, the forms are removed.

There is nothing praiseworthy in the carpenter who cuts formwork with such precision that it slides into place, but if the plywood is too long and the carpenter can poise a mallet over his head, swing a giant arc and force it into submission, that is work. Similarly, if the plywood is cut short, the carpenter has the gratuitous opportunity to bang shims into the gap.

Setting steel into forms provides additional opportunities for banging. Time and again, benignly stubborn Haitians force fit oversized steel into undersized forms. Whenever I identified locations of insufficient clearance, the workers argued my claim from a "no-lose" position. If I capitulated, they triumphed; if I prevailed; they got to bang some more.

A rule of thumb in the United States posits that labor represents two-thirds the cost of construction; materials one-third. In developing countries these figures are often reversed.

In Haiti, they are reversed, then doubled. Even with many materials donated from the United States, labor still amounted to less than 15 percent of our total cost; $6.50 a day buys a lot of muscle in a land of few machines and expensive materials.

Due to this inequity, unfathomable construction techniques make sense here. Every site has a guy who sits on a pile of boulders and chips them into aggregate. Workers spent 1,250 hours hand carrying 2,500 pieces of rebar, 40 feet long, up the orphanage’s dirt road because delivery trucks could not maneuver the climb. Concrete crews had 80 men.

We mixed concrete in troughs where guys in hip boots shoveled it to bucket brigades that stretched up stairs and across suspended reinforcing. Initially we poured 20 cubic yards a day. When we built temporary ramps and introduced wheelbarrows, productivity more than doubled. Larger pours required multiple crews working continuously.

We reached the limit of hand-poured concrete when 240 men placed 160 cubic yards in 39 hours straight.

Although we envisioned our construction as establishing new standards, our buildings have not become prototypes. They contain more than 10 times the reinforcing found in a typical house, and even with the knowledge that rebar saves lives, people install inadequate steel.

Reinforcing is the most expensive component of concrete construction; with no codes to ensure quality, and hungry mouths pressing all around, the desire to reconstruct better is eclipsed by poverty.

Instead, we have set a new standard of Haitian capability. Visitors marvel at the structural integrity and high-quality finishes. Though 66 orphans and 500 school children represent a tiny fraction of those who deserve protection from the next quake, I have learned that prototype solutions are inappropriate for Haiti.

Haitians are the most independent people on earth. When they gained their freedom, and the rest of the world shunned them, they created a unique, insular society. True, the society is backward, corrupt, and poor when measured by any developed standards. True, Haitians would like to improve their condition. But they will not condescend to conditions imposed by others, or improvements that reflect someone else’s understanding of their needs.

Even though it took more time, and probably more money, to build these buildings as hybrid efforts of American engineering and Haitian capability, I believe we followed the right course.

The buildings are safe and durable yet undeniably Haitian. They represent a successful mingling of physics and magic; a combination that can help Haiti become more stable while retaining its unique place in our world.

Two boys laugh as they pose for a photo in a neighborhood of Monrovia, Liberia. Aids groups such as Oxfam would like to portray the people they help as trustworthy partners capable of helping themselves, and not as victims. But publicity campaigns that show a suffering 'poster child' remain more effective in eliciting donations. (Thierry Gouegnon/Reuters)

Changing the face of aid, literally

By Lindsay / 02.05.13

In TV commercials 25 years ago, Sally Struthers held starving orphans and begged American viewers to help them. A new campaign by Oxfam America portrays aid recipients in a different light – as entrepreneurs who are helping themselves.

Oxfam’s campaign hit Washington D.C. this month, appearing in airports, on billboards, and in various publications. It depicts local leaders and entrepreneurs in developing countries, their photos superimposed with titles like “job creator” and “beltway outsider,” descriptors pulled from the Hill’s vernacular.

Greg Adams, Oxfam’s director of aid effectiveness, said the ads are aimed at raising awareness among the Washington establishment amid debates about the budget and fiscal austerity.

“[The campaign] is motivated by a theory of change that Congress will be much more willing to invest when they see aid is going to trustworthy partners,” he said. “We thought, let’s put the end users of aid in a situation where they can assert what they are doing and tell their own story. The goal is to make people protagonists rather than just aid recipients.”

Although this strategy seems to be a rational approach, some evidence suggests that donors are less likely to give to organizations that take a positive tone in their advertising.

Deborah Small, associate professor of marketing and psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, has studied how the images of victims influence sympathy and giving. Her research indicated that donors are more likely to spend on causes that portray a single individual expressing sadness than a group appearing happy. Sad depictions caused respondents to feel the victim’s pain, producing empathy, and, ultimately, more donations.

“We coded a bunch of [nonprofit] websites and found that there was a mix of expressions; the most common was a smile," she says. "When we talked to charities, they wanted to maintain an upbeat message, but to us, this was the wrong intuition of what works.”

Small believed the strength of the Oxfam campaign was its portrayal of a single individual. She calls this the “identifiable victim effect,” in which one person is used as a “poster child” to represent a cause. “Focusing on a particular individual is more compelling to the viewer,” she said. “It’s telling an individual story and personalizing it. Storytelling is critical and works really well.”

Dan Portnoy, author of “The Nonprofit Narrative: How Stories Can Save the World,” concurred that storytelling is a powerful way to raise awareness. However, he believed Oxfam fell short in delivering its message.

“I don’t know that this is making people ask questions," he said. "They’re telling me a fact, they’re not telling me part of a fact that makes me want to know more. I want to give you enough information that you’re asking questions, that you’re going to get a lean in.”

But Adams and Portnoy agree that one of the biggest challenges in garnering support for development initiatives is reversing the ways that people in the United States have traditionally viewed aid projects.

“There was the white-guilt thing, which was usually very negative and had the implication that we will solve all the world’s problems.” Portnoy said. “Twenty-five to 30 years later, that’s not really working.”

Adams believes that donors feel “aid fatigue” when poverty, hunger, and disease persist despite decades of their charitable giving.

“The problem with the way Americans look at aid is that they see it as a transfer of stuff," he said. "There’s a belief that if we give enough stuff, people won’t be poor anymore.”

Donors too sense that the old ways aren’t effective. Adams said that the concept behind the campaign grew out of a series of focus groups in which several participants stressed the need for “teaching a man how to fish” rather than just giving charity to the needy.

In response, Oxfam hopes to depict the “fishermen” of the developing world, who are looking for investment, not a handout.

“Humans have been fishing for 400,000 years,” Adams said. “No one needs to teach them how to fish.”

This article originally appeared at

Rakesh Agarwal stands in his store in Asheville, N.C. Nearly 30 years ago, he arrived in the US with $20 in his pocket. Now the owner and CEO of a rug and home store, Agarwal has created a nonprofit to help the poorest of the poor in his native India. (Patrick Sullivan/AP Photo/The Times-News)

Indian-American looks homeward to help the needy

By Joey MillwoodAssociated Press / 02.04.13

Nearly 30 years ago, Rakesh Agarwal arrived in America with $20 in his pocket. Now a Hendersonville, N.C., resident and the owner and CEO of Rug and Home, Mr. Agarwal has created a nonprofit organization to help the poorest of the poor in his native India.

When Agarwal flew into the country all those years ago, he had no clue where he was going. He couldn't find a map in the New Delhi area that had Hendersonville, in western North Carolina, on it. Once in the United States, he scraped and scratched for more than two decades before fulfilling the "American Dream."

His nonprofit grew out of Agarwal's desire to help the people in remote parts of his home country. Agarwal financed a trip to India last year for eight people from Hendersonville and nearby Asheville, N.C.

"I come from an area where 50 to 60 percent of the people don't have running water or electricity," he says. "I wanted to go back and do something for that area."

The team traveled to Bahuti, India, in December of 2011 on a medical excursion. They weren't sure what the pressing needs were, but took antibiotics and other medical supplies to treat a variety of illnesses.

Expecting hundreds, the team was greeted by nearly 4,000 people seeking help. They encountered everything from gastric illnesses to mental illnesses and simple wounds. The most pressing need, however, was one that surprised the team.

"The longest lines were for eye care," Agarwal says. "Women outnumbered men 5-to-1 in those lines."

The biggest issue for women was cataracts, he says.

"I realized women's health care was nonexistent in these parts," he adds. "They are the lost priority when it comes to health care. They are made to understand they have a life of sacrifice. That's how Vision Express was born."

After communicating with doctors in India, Agarwal decided that Vision Express will begin to offer cataract surgeries. The procedure, which can cost thousands of dollars in the US, will cost $25 per eye in India.

Correcting the women's vision will be a major improvement for the region, Vision Express board member Carol Talbot says. "The impact is great because it lets the woman take her role back again," she adds.

The Vision Express team will return in March with more medical supplies and to begin setting up the surgeries. Every donation to Vision Express will be used solely for the surgeries. Any other trip expenses by the team will be paid for out of pocket, not from the nonprofit's funds.

"We're very adamant about that," Talbot says.

For Agarwal, the trips have two benefits. People in India need medical attention, but on the flip side, the visits provide cultural awareness. Agarwal wants those involved to experience the culture he grew up in.

"It's certainly a health-care initiative, but equally as important to me is building bridges," he says.

Agarwal came to the US in 1985 as a production manager for Spinning Wheel Rugs in Hendersonville. His wife, Dolly, and daughter, Aanchal, made the trip with him. He later began working at World of Clothing, where he introduced the company's rug line.

He eventually became the CEO at World of Clothing, before starting Rug and Home in 1995. The store has three locations.

It wasn't an easy road to find that success, he said.

"We were close to bankrupt in the first two years," he says. Long hours and hard work paid off, and now Agarwal is able to do things that he's only dreamed about.

He's donated $100,000 to Four Seasons Hospice in Hendersonville and has been a major contributor to the local nonprofit professional theater company, the Flat Rock Playhouse. Many times a year his stores sends bouquets of flowers to every resident in local nursing homes, he says.

"My thing has always been touching people's lives," he says. "As many people as I can. We just do it quietly."

Vision Express, however, takes his giving to another level. Agarwal's been back to India to visit his family, but now he can help some of the most impoverished people in his native country.

"Doing this was very emotional," he says. "I never thought I'd be in a position to do it."

It was that trip to the US with hardly any money that changed his life.

"This is the only country [in which] I could have done what I've done," he says. "People took us in with open arms."

• Information from: Times-News of Hendersonville,

A woman carries coffee to sell as she passes by a house destroyed by the January 2010 earthquake in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, a year after its catastrophic earthquake. A Haitian coffee co-op is a bright spot among the Caribbean nation's recovery efforts. (Kena Betancur/Reuters/File)

As aid to Haiti slows, a private coffee co-op scores loans and turns heads

By Daniel JensenGlobal Envision / 02.01.13

On the third anniversary of the quake that killed nearly 300,000, a growing coffee co-op is writing its own success story with loans and homegrown management.

Haiti can seem like a place where relief efforts lead only to more disasters, especially in the agricultural sector. Though 70 percent of Haitians are farmers, 60 to 70 percent of the country’s food is imported due to reduced tariffs designed to lower food prices. Meanwhile, further natural disasters have hindered recovery efforts and the Clinton Bush Haiti Fund has announced that it is winding down operations, removing an important source of funding.

At the same time, American lawmakers recently extended farm legislation, including subsidies that allow U.S. agricultural imports to undercut the prices of local Haitian products, which are often produced using centuries-old farming techniques.

This is why agricultural lender Root Capital is providing loans and consulting expertise to COOPCAB, a Haitian coffee co-op that markets its products internationally while investing money in local reforestation efforts that improve its own production. The cooperative, which has expanded six-fold under Root Capital’s guidance, now includes 5,000 members and has attracted the attention of dignitaries such as Paul Altidor, U.S. ambassador to Haiti.

Managing COOPCAB comes with its own set of challenges. Meeting them requires a model that creates local business leaders rather than simply employing foreign relief workers. Root Capital’s Willy Foote explains:

"COOPCAB ... is managed by local Haitian farmers with little formal training in financial management and accounting. ... As a consequence, we’ve had to innovate and hone our business model in Haiti, slowing our lending in the short term while accelerating and deepening our financial advisory services program."

Perhaps it is this emphasis on training that has made COOPCAB more successful than similar efforts. Critics complain that Haitian farmers focus too heavily on short-term projects, preventing long-term success. They point to the Federation des Associations Cafetieres Natives, a coffee co-op that received $10 million in investment but failed to produce sustainable profits. The brand now exists on paper only.

Government bureaucracy and outdated farming methods also stand between Haitians and their success. There is the story of Steeve Khawly, a rice importer who tried to bring commercial rice milling to Haiti. Because Haitian farming is less efficient than modern practices in developed countries, local farms did not produce enough local rice to make Khawly's effort profitable, so he packed up his mill and sent it back to Guyana.

He still believes that rice production in Haiti could exceed 160,000 tons per season if agricultural practices were modernized, but this would require large inflows of capital and the strengthening of supply chains. However, when commercial producers Riceland Foods tried to move production to Haiti, they ran up against impenetrable red tape, foreign policy reports, and eventually gave up.

There are signs of hope, however. Soon, Haitian entrepreneurs may find new opportunities to replicate COOPCAB’s model, as Ambassador Altidor has asked Foote to help advise formal policy decisions. Haitian minister of agriculture Thomas Jacques also plans to create a rice commission focused on increasing domestic production through the creation of "technology packages” for farmers.

Without further access to capital and a government that simplifies the investment process, agriculture in Haiti can’t succeed. However, to transform Haiti from an aid-dependent economy to a market-driven one, startups also need to have good business sense. COOPCAB’s emphasis on training producers to be businessmen and letting local Haitians take the lead points to a model that other startups and social enterprises could emulate.

• Learn more about COOPCAB at its website.

This article originally appeared at Global Envision, a blog published by Mercy Corps.

Ngaiyok Legilisho Kipainoi shows off his motorcycle, bought with earnings from his improved cattle herd. Cattle herders in Tanzania are cutting the size of their herds and breeding for more resilience as climate change leads to more intense droughts. (AlertNet/Lucas Liganga)

Maasai herders breed fewer, stronger cattle to resist climate change

By Lucas LigangaAlertNet / 01.31.13

The loss of more than half their livestock in the 2009 drought has led Maasai pastoralists in northern Tanzania’s Arusha region to breed fewer, stronger cattle and end their traditional focus on numbers alone as symbols of wealth and status.

The impact of that devastating drought, which dealt a blow to the whole nation’s economy, is still visible in the small number of cattle in many villages of Engarenaibor in Arusha’s Longido district.

The district’s cattle breeders and owners lost at least 120,000 cattle, more than half the total herd of 200,000, as a result of the drought, which plunged the region into poverty and threatened the pastoralists’ traditional livelihood.

The good news emerging from this blow to their way of life is that breeders have realized that in a time of climate change their wealth lies not in the size of their herd but in its quality.

“The days of keeping many head of cattle for prestige are gone thanks to the 2009 drought. It has taught us a lesson. A lesson to adapt to climate change,” says cattle owner Ngaiyok Legilisho Kipainoi.

For many years, Maasai pastoralists had resisted government pressure to reduce the size of their herds, until the drought made clear the need to adapt to the changing environment.

Reducing their herds has allowed herders to use less water and reduce the degradation of grazing land.

As Kipainoi sees it, his fellow villagers are “graduating from the culture of keeping livestock for fame to increasing the productivity of their animals in a well-managed manner.”

 “We have started selling our animals and we use the proceeds to build decent homes or pay school fees for our children,” says Kipainoi, a 35-year-old who has two wives and six children. All his children attend primary school.

At the onset of the drought Kipainoi boasted a herd of 480 cattle, but he emerged from the catastrophe with less than half as many.

“After the drought we realized that our local Zebu breed can withstand adverse weather conditions and are well adapted to the environment. So if we are to improve earnings from livestock, without risking another loss to drought, we must practice proper animal husbandry,” says Kipainoi, standing beside his new motorcycle at the site of his new house, bought with earnings from his cattle herd.

Other local cattle farmers have also started selective breeding to build up a productive stock that is resilient to climate change, he says.

“This involves selling cattle that are weak and cross-breeding new stock from animals that display strong characteristics of high productivity and resilience. Preferred animals are those that feed selectively on the range, can trek long distances, and are resistant to local diseases,” he says.

Ongoing experiments concentrate on cross-breeding exotic cattle varieties with local Zebu and Borana cattle and popularization of the hardy Gabra breed of goats.

“Our plan is to ensure that calving takes place at the start of the short rainy season, when fresh pastures enable cows to yield more milk. In that way calves stay healthy enough to survive their first dry spell and then benefit from the long rains before the long dry season sets in,” Kipainoi explains.

To back up the pastoralists’ efforts, the Arusha-based Tanzania Natural Resource Forum has come up with a climate change adaptation project that focuses on the drylands of Longido, Monduli, and Ngorongoro districts in the Arusha region.

Similar projects are under way in Ethiopia, Kenya, and Nepal, according to Ced Hesse, a drylands development researcher with the London-based International Institute for Environment and Development, which is backing the Tanzania adaptation effort.

• Lucas Liganga is a reporter based in Dar es Salaam Tanzania.

This article originally appeared at AlertNet, a humanitarian news site operated by the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

A woman practices searching for landmines during a training session involving mock landmines in El Retiro, Colombia. The HALO Trust is establishing a program to begin clearing large areas of the country of mines that have been set by both the government and rebels during a long civil war. (Albeiro Lopera/Reuters)

Removing Colombia's landmines, one by one

By Anastasia MoloneyAlertNet / 01.30.13

Civilian demining organizations are training staff to start clearance in Colombia, one of the most mine-scarred countries in the world.

Two years ago, Colombia passed a law allowing local and international nongovernment organizations (NGOs) to carry out demining operations employing civilians.

Before then, insecurity and violence stemming from nearly five decades of armed conflict meant only the Colombian military was allowed to carry out mine clearance.

The British-based Halo Trust, a demining group, expects to be one of the first international NGOs to start mine clearance within the next several months, employing civilians using mine detectors.

“We are only going to work in areas that are considered safe by the government,” Grant Salisbury, Colombia program manager for HALO, told AlertNet.

“The first group of 14 Colombian civilians has been trained. We hope to increase that figure by 200 by the end of year.”

It is expected that humanitarian demining groups from Switzerland, Denmark, and Norway will also start operations in Colombia within a year.

Colombia has one of the highest rates of landmine victims in the world.

Since 1990, more than 10,000 Colombians have been either wounded or killed by landmines, of which 982 have been children, according to the latest government figures.

The government says Colombia’s largest rebel group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), is responsible for planting the majority of landmines and unexploded ordnance littered across the country, mostly in rural areas.

Using a tin of tuna and costing just $5 each, the rebels often use homemade mines as a cheap weapon of war to repel government troops. The drug-running FARC rebels also plant mines in and around coca fields – the raw ingredient of cocaine – to protect their valuable crop.

Colombia's challenging terrain makes mine clearance slow going.

“The terrain is going to be difficult. It’s mountainous and jungle. The daily clearance rate will be slow because of the terrain. It’s slow, but it’s essential work, and it’s possible,” said Salisbury.

Another big challenge facing demining operations in Colombia is a lack of information about where and how many mines are planted, meaning it is impossible to gauge the size of Colombia's mine problem.

As a signatory of the Mine Ban Treaty, Colombia has agreed to clear the country of mines by 2021.

“It’s way too early to say whether that obligation can be met and how much terrain remains to be cleared,” said Salisbury.

In recent years, demining in Colombia has focused on clearing all mines placed by the state military around 35 of their bases to hold off rebel groups.

Humanitarian demining in Colombia is still in its early stages and is largely confined to areas where government troops have secure territorial control.

Despite these challenges, the Colombian government is looking to step up demining operations across the country.

Under historic laws passed in 2011, the government hopes to return millions of hectares of land stolen by armed groups to their rightful owners and to encourage the return of up to 4 million Colombians forced off their land because of the conflict.

However, a key obstacle in giving back stolen land and encouraging uprooted families to return is that some of it remains mined and therefore unsafe for people to return to.

“Both danger and perception of mines is a major obstacle in Colombia’s development. A government plan that envisions the return of IDPs [internally displaced persons] will have to take into account demining,” Salisbury said.

In addition, with peace talks between the Colombian government and FARC rebels under way in the Cuban capital, Havana, the issue of demining is becoming ever more urgent.

If the two sides reach an agreement, demand for humanitarian demining operations run by the Colombian military and foreign and local NGOs will grow significantly.

This article originally appeared at AlertNet, a humanitarian news site operated by the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

A drain pipe empties into Jamaica Bay along the Gateway National Recreation Area National Park in the Brooklyn section of New York City. Cities are investing billions of dollars to try to capture storm runoff from streets before it reaches sensitive waterways by using 'green' infrastructure techniques. (Mike Segar/Reuters/File)

To tackle polluted runoff, cities turn to 'green' strategies

By Dave LevitanYale Environment 360 / 01.29.13

In Northeast Philadelphia, along busy Kensington Avenue, sits a small park. What used to be flat ground is now sloping terrain that contains a low-lying area intended to gather and funnel storm water. At the park’s southern end is a depression lined with well-arranged plants — a new landscape carefully engineered to change how water flows through the area.

This is Womrath Park, one of a handful of “green infrastructure” projects Philadelphia has begun — with many more to come — aimed at tackling a widespread urban environment problem. Ten trillion gallons of rainwater per year flow over rooftops and roads around the U.S., picking up contaminants that include bacteria, oil and grease, metals, pesticides, and many others. When a rainstorm is big enough, the runoff causes overflows from outdated sewer systems that combine both raw sewage and stormwater in a single pipe. This tide of pollutants ends up in surrounding waterways that serve as drinking water sources and recreational areas.

“Stormwater runoff is one of the largest water pollution issues facing the U.S. today,” says Larry Levine, a senior attorney in the Natural Resource Defense Council’s water program.

Now, however, numerous cities around the country — including Philadelphia, New York, Washington, Portland, and Seattle — have embarked on innovative stormwater runoff fixes that rely not so much on the old “gray infrastructure” of huge, piped systems and sewage treatment plants, but rather on new green infrastructure techniques to collect and treat stormwater at the street level.

Green infrastructure mimics how nature handles rainwater through the use of porous surfaces, rather than impervious surfaces like roadways. These techniques are decentralized. Instead of one facility or large underground tank to store water when a big storm hits, the idea is to eliminate the need for such storage through the use of green rooftops, roadside plantings, carefully landscaped parks, rain gardens, rain barrels, and other swatches of nature dropped down inside the landscape of modern cities.

The plants and soils collect water during a storm, preventing it from either running into sewer systems at all, or at least slowing it down to prevent overflows. Green infrastructure can also help clean some pollution from the water and can even be used to gather water for re-use.

“The green infrastructure approach says, ‘Let’s get the water out of those sewer systems in the first place before it has a chance to convey all that pollution into our waterways,’” says Levine. “And the way to do that is to put back into our built environment features that mimic the way nature handles rainwater in the natural water cycle. It doesn’t necessarily mean replacing a paved street with a park, but it means putting enough green space into the design of your roadway that you can capture runoff from that paved space.”

These types of green projects carry numerous ancillary benefits, Levine notes, from improving surrounding property values, to reducing in the urban heat island effect, to lowering asthma rates.

Green stormwater infrastructure means thousands of individual projects in big cities like New York or Philadelphia. The price tag — Philadelphia is spending around $3 billion, and the country as a whole needs something like $63 billion just in fixes to stormwater-related sewage overflows — is high. But advocates say going green is eventually a far more cost-effective method than constructing large wastewater treatment plants. Philadelphia and other cities are using city and federal funding to finance these green infrastructure projects.

Valessa Souter-Kline, a representative of the Philadelphia Water Department, says the decentralized concept of green infrastructure development represents a major challenge. “No one is saying ‘no’ to the idea,” says Souter-Kline, standing at the bottom of the rain garden in Womrath Park. “The issue is the scale. You just need so much of this.” On any given project, she says, the Philadelphia Water Department will likely have to work with the streets department, parks and recreation, utility companies, and other stakeholders.

Levine and others say the new methods of stormwater runoff control deal with a key flaw in the landmark 1972 Clean Water Act — “nonpoint source” pollution.
“It is a very different way of approaching water infrastructure than we have typically had in this country,” Levine says. “We’re talking about thousands of rain gardens and green roofs, and pavement installations, and street trees, and that’s a different sort of a public works project to manage, administer, and maintain. That brings all sorts of challenges along with it that cities are really rapidly having to adapt to and learn the best ways to deal with.”

Despite the difficulties, these projects are gaining momentum. “To a greater or lesser degree, cities everywhere are starting to look at this,” says Ed McMahon, a senior resident fellow at the Urban Land Institute in Washington D.C., and the co-author of a 2006 book on green infrastructure. “One of the things that they’ve started to recognize is that using natural systems oftentimes can be less costly than the structural approach to stormwater management.”

While Eastern cities have recently launched large projects to address stormwater, some cities on the West Coast have been making incremental progress for far longer. Seattle and Portland have strong programs, including incentives in Seattle to install rain barrels on private property within watersheds served by combined sewer systems. Portland is planning to build 2,200 green infrastructure installations around the city and has a runoff retention standard that applies to building projects with even small amounts of impervious surfaces.

But on the East Coast, Philadelphia is the clear frontrunner. In June 2011, the city approved the Green City, Clean Waters program, a 25-year, $3 billion plan to reduce combined sewer overflows. In April 2012, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) signed off on the project, and EPA administrator Lisa Jackson said she hoped the city would serve as a model for the rest of the country. Philadelphia was the only city to meet all the requirements for “Emerald” status in the NRDC’s latest “Rooftop to Rivers” report on stormwater management.

So far, Philadelphia’s program has yielded stormwater tree trenches, planters and water basins, 40 rain gardens, rain barrel pilot projects, 10 swales (low-lying areas that collect runoff), and a few dozen other projects. In Womrath Park, completed in 2012, stormwater flows through a swale and into a depression at the end, a rain garden. Some water infiltrates directly into the soil and groundwater, while the rest is held up and released slowly into the sewers to avoid overflows into Frankford Creek, only a few blocks away. Citywide, the idea is to be able to capture an inch of rainfall during storms and reduce combined sewage overflows by 7.9 billion gallons per year, or about 85 percent.

Elsewhere, the EPA signed an agreement with Washington, D.C. in December 2012 that closely resembles the Philadelphia program. Washington will start with a series of green infrastructure projects in the Potomac and Rock Creek watersheds. On a federal scale, the EPA is partnering with many other municipalities and watersheds to provide funding and assistance with stormwater infrastructure improvements.

New York City represents perhaps the biggest challenge. Levine says New York has 30 billion gallons of combined sewage overflow every year, and impervious surfaces cover 72 percent of the city. The city has committed to providing green infrastructure for 10 percent of the impervious surface area over the next 20 years, capable of capturing one inch of rain during storms. Roughly $730 million in public funding will be spent on green infrastructure over the next 10 years. “So any one-inch rainstorm or less, there is going to be a place for that water to go without making it into the sewer system,” Levine says.

Other ideas are in the works as well. Ate Atema, an architect, is working on an initiative called Street Creeks intended to reduce pollution flowing from the notorious Gowanus Canal area in Brooklyn, N.Y. Built in 1869, the Gowanus was lined by chemical plants and other industrial sites that spent a century dumping toxic waste products into the water. As a result, it is among the most polluted urban waterways in the country, and was named a Superfund site in 2010. The canal also receives stormwater runoff from the hilly neighborhoods of Park Slope and Cobble Hill on either side.

Atema’s Street Creeks is a simple, modular way of capturing the “first flush” of stormwater that flows down the hill from Prospect Park toward the Gowanus.

To minimize costs, Atema says the plan would aim to install the “street creeks” on blocks undergoing other types of maintenance. In the Gowanus area, the project could eventually cover 250 blocks that flow toward the canal. The cost of the project has not yet been calculated. Atema says the idea is still in the design phase, but talks with the city have begun.

These projects demonstrate a realization that nature is often very good at things we humans find hard to accomplish through classic, straight-line engineering.

“When people start really thinking about how a natural approach to the management of water, the cleaning of air, and so forth, can actually reduce costs and increase value at the same time,” says McMahon of the Urban Land Institute, “I just think that it’s inevitable that we’re going to see this as a much more preferred approach going forward.”

• Dave Levitan is a freelance journalist based in Philadelphia who writes about energy, the environment, and health. His articles have been published by Reuters, SolveClimate, IEEE Spectrum, and Psychology Today. In previous articles for Yale Environment 360, he has written about the potential of self-driving cars and about vehicle-to-grid technology involving electric cars.

This article originally appeared at Yale Environment 360, an online magazine offering opinion, analysis, reporting, and debate on global environmental issues.

A woman riding a bicycle carries firewood in Burkina Faso. The burning of wood from forests has contributed to the creep of the Sahara Desert into the country. Yacouba Sawadogo has spent decades replanting forests using an ancient method called zai, which has helped to hold back the desert. (George Mulala/Reuters/File)

The man who stopped the desert

By Devon EricksenNourishing the Planet / 01.28.13

In the documentary film, “The Man Who Stopped the Desert,” a farmer named Yacouba Sawadogo struggles to maintain his livelihood in the increasingly harsh land of northern Burkina Faso. Part of Africa’s semi-arid Sahel region, Burkina Faso has suffered from desertification as over-farming, overgrazing, and overpopulation resulted in heavy soil erosion and drying. Desertification has affected many countries in the Sahel, including Senegal, Mali, Niger, and Chad.

In 1980, Yacouba decided to fight the desert’s spread by reviving an ancient farming technique called zai, which led to forest growth and increased soil quality.

Zai is a very simple and low-cost method, involving using a shovel or axe to break up the ground and dig small holes, which are then filled with compost and planted with seeds of trees, millet, or sorghum. The holes or pits catch water during the rainy season and, when filled with compost, retain moisture and nutrients through the dry season.

Yacouba’s story attracted international attention when Mark Dodd of 1080 Films created the documentary in 2010, and the African farmer has since told his story around the world, including at an October 2012 United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) meeting in South Korea. 1080 Films recently released a short follow-up film about Yacouba’s life since the original film, called “What Yacouba Did Next…,” describing what Yacouba has done since the film’s release and giving an idea of the respect he has received from the international community.

In the follow-up film, UNCCD Executive Secretary Luc Gnacadja discusses the powerful impact of Yacouba’s simple methods. According to Gnacadja, “Almost out of nothing he has generated the change we need…. If we could disseminate and scale up his example, then certainly we can do a lot in advancing the fight against desertification.”

One direct benefit of the documentary has been the donations Yacouba has received in support of his reforestation efforts. As a result, he has been able to fund a new training program, where he travels to other villages teaching the zai technique. Yacouba hopes to spread this knowledge across the region, and has already visited 13 villages.

He also hosts workshops at his own farm, teaching visitors and “bringing people together in a spirit of friendship.” “I want the training program to be the starting point for many fruitful exchanges across the region,” says Yacouba.

Yacouba’s reforestation work not only helps farmers restore the local biodiversity by improving the soil, but it helps them prepare for an uncertain future. Chris Reij of the World Resources Institute and an author of the Worldwatch Institute’s State of the World 2011: Innovations that Nourish the Planet believes in Yacouba’s work and frequently visits the farm.

Reij understands the long-term importance of Yacouba’s work, stating, “what Yacouba has done can also be done by many other farmers across the Sahel. The big challenge is that in the next 5 to 10 years, we will have to try to motivate millions of farmers to invest in trees because it will help them to improve their food security, and at the same time it will also help them adapt to climate change.”

Since the film, however, life has not been easy for Yacouba. A recent urban expansion project annexed the forest he spent years growing, and homes are already being built on his land without any compensation except small parcels of land for Yacouba’s family. He is currently attempting to raise $20,000 to purchase the forest back.

Despite these setbacks, Yacouba knows the importance of his work and has doubled his cultivation efforts, expanding into the degraded lands next to the forest. Restoring soil and improving the future of the Sahel will not be easy, but Yacouba’s work provides one model for communities across Africa to adopt in fighting desertification and preparing for future climate uncertainties.

• To read the original Nourishing the Planet post on Yacouba Sawadogo, click here.

• Devon Ericksen is a former media and communications intern with the Worldwatch Institute’s Food & Agriculture Program.

• This article first appeared at Nourishing the Planet, a blog published by the Worldwatch Institute.

Anne Marsen performs in a scene from the dance-music film 'Girl Walk // All Day.' The source of much of the movie's funding is the crowd-financing website Nonprofit groups are using such crowdsourcing sites more and more, including recruiting volunteers who can help out without leaving their homes. (Wild Combination/AP/File)

Four seriously cool ways nonprofits are using crowdsourcing

By Casey / 01.25.13

Crowdsourcing comes in many forms. All of them represent an opportunity to get work done in a new and often better way. Nonprofits are getting wise to this fast. Why? Because they’re challenged to do more with less on a daily basis.

Here are four ways modern nonprofits are using crowdsourcing to get their good deeds done:

1. Volunteers don’t have to be in the room anymore to physically volunteer:

As far as fun volunteering opportunities go, playing with kittens at an animal shelter is probably unequaled. It’s no wonder that the option to do this over the internet is a popular one. The Oregon Humane Society gives volunteers the chance to control robotic arms wielding toys for bored cats waiting to be adopted. This opportunity is not only good for the cats and volunteers, but it’s a great way to encourage donations and adoptions.

And, if you look beyond the surface, this is more than just a stunt. It proves a concept: Volunteering can be done from anywhere by anyone if you accommodate it with the right technology. From there, you can crowdsource all the help you need. Plus, doesn’t cyber-volunteer sound kind of cool? Check out if you’re interested in setting up your own robot volunteer opportunity.

2. It’s not just fundraising; it’s crowdfunding.

Not to say anything bad about fundraising or that nonprofits aren’t already creative fundraisers, but crowdfunding can help nonprofits pull off a fundraiser with a bang!

What’s better? Pitching in $5 to help a local community garden after reading a brochure about being closer to the earth, or watching a video from someone passionate about gardening telling you they will give you the first batch of tomatoes from that garden in exchange for a $5 pledge?

The video, the timeline, the prizes, the goal, the sense of community ... all these ingredients of a crowdfunding campaign are helping nonprofits succeed. See, for example, this quilt fundraiser to stop gun violence and this successful project encouraging the creation of a ton of memes to shift the debate on climate change.

Check out Shareable’s tips on how to run a crowdfunding campaign here.

3. Micro-actions add up to mega-good

People are learning you can use tiny actions done by the crowd online and turn them into meaningful change. Here are a few examples:

Sparked has an open call for volunteers to help nonprofits on small tasks to be completed online. From advice, to logos, to video editing, this is where wall between people and their causes is broken down.

Help from Home is home to a database of tons of microvolunteering actions you can do to make the world a better place. Register and keep track of your impact.

Fold-It: Help cure diseases and understand biological processes by playing a video game that simulates protein folding, a process that dictates almost everything about you as a living thing.

Duolingo: Learn a new language while translating the web. Make the world’s information available to everyone.

4. Gigantic staff? Nope ... just great content.

Every nonprofit needs great content. That can include grant applications, donor appeals, blog posts, and more. Nonprofits need to tell their story almost all the time or risk being forgotten. These sites help get it done:

Blogmutt: Get your blog posts from an expert crowd for a monthly fee.

Mturk: Get content, test headlines, and do web research quickly and inexpensively.

Pluralis: Test your landing pages, improve their conversion rate, and make sure that your audience is engaged.

The truth is that crowdsourcing is not magic, but it brings automation to everybody. It can be used in innumerable ways. It’s just that nonprofits, who must do world-changing stuff with limited resources, are flocking to it for all the advantages it offers.

• Casey Armstrong is the founder of VineStove, a crowdsourcing site that is currently crowdsourcing its startup. You can support VineStove here.

This article was originally published by Shareable, a nonprofit online magazine that tells the story of how sharing can promote the common good.

A barber trims the hair of a customer using light from a solar-powered lantern in Shirva north of Mangalore, India. Rural Indian women are learning to install and maintain solar equipment at India's Barefoot College. (Rafiq Maqbool/AP/File)

'Solar Mamas': Barefoot College women turn on the lights in off-grid villages

By Erin ButlerGlobal Envision / 01.24.13

“Train a grandmother, change the world” – so says Barefoot College’s motto. This school says nobody's better suited to bring solar power to the rural poor.

Last year, the New York Times reported on the unlikeliest of heroes: African women who travel to the Barefoot College in India to learn to become solar engineers. This year, a BBC documentary Solar Mamas recounted the story of one Bedouin woman who makes the trek from Jordan and eventually electrifies her village and her life.

The video, which aired on PBS Nov. 5, depicts the hurdles one rural woman faces in pursuit of educating herself and bettering her community. Extrapolate this story to the 700 stories from women across the globe and the map of impact is impressive.

Founded in 1972 on Ghandian principles of grass-roots change, Barefoot College is the brainchild of Bunker Roy. The NGO is built around a crucial insight that rural women are less likely than men to leave their families and communities, and more likely to implement the knowledge and skills they learn at school. Solar electrification is only one area of training; others include clean water, education and livelihood development, health care, rural handicrafts, and communication.

Although Roy never envisioned the college to expand beyond India, the Sierra Club reports that “since 2004, the Barefoot College, in Tilonia, India, has trained ... illiterate and semi-literate women from rural, unelectrified villages in 41 [now 48] countries to be solar engineers.”

An April 2011 article from Wired tells the story of one woman from Namibia:

"Susanna Huis arrived back in Namibia in September and waited for her solar-engineering equipment to arrive by ship from India.... The next year looked to be busy but financially stable: Local people will each pay her $5 per month for the power, which is roughly what they would spend on kerosene or firewood. If she needs spare parts they will be sent from India. While her husband continues to farm their smallholding, she is now the family breadwinner.... She has signed a contract that commits her to electrifying 100 homes and maintaining them for the next five years. And she will teach others how to do it. This means that she can't move away from her village, which is fine with her: she doesn't want to go anywhere else."

As of Dec. 1, there were 700 more women graduates turning the lights on in 1,015 formerly unelectrified villages around the world, claims Barefoot’s webpage.

The program is partially funded by the government of India, and it’s provided under the Colombo Plan for Cooperative Economic and Social Development in Asia and the Pacific.

The Times reports, "Grants from the United Nations Development Program and active partnerships with nongovernmental sustainable development organizations, including the Skoll Foundation in the United States, the Fondation Ensemble in France, and the Het Groene Woudt in the Netherlands, have also increased the program’s reach."

Currently, Barefoot works in 48 countries with 64 partners, including NGOs, community trusts, and government programs, to implement the college’s program, “Nongovernmental organizations are playing a central role in spreading word of the program and implementing it outside India,” the Times explains.

According to Wired, Roy's experience has made him extremely critical of the approach of certain development organizations:

"Roy firmly believes that the approach adopted by the government of Sierra Leone – low-cost, decentralized, community-driven – is the most productive and efficient way of eradicating extreme poverty in the developing world and that top-down solutions are wasteful and not scalable. Roy's prime target is the Millennium Village Project (MVP), a collaboration between Jeffrey Sachs' Earth Institute at Columbia University and the UN. 'Jeff Sachs has the Millennium Villages,' Roy says. 'He spends $2.5 million in one village. It's an absolutely ridiculous model, because I've said that if you gave me $2.5 million I can train 100 grandmothers, solar electrify 100 villages – 10,000 houses – and save you 100,000 liters of kerosene. Look at the amount of money being wasted on one Millennium Village just because Angelina Jolie goes with him for one day.' "

Strong words. There’s no doubt that the Barefoot model is making an impact in the communities it touches, and it's seductive to other government officials trying to help off-grid communities because “it is about developing know-how, not giving handouts,” reports the New York Times.

However, so far the model's fundamentally based on government and charitable support, rather than a purely market-driven approach, which would seem a logical next step for the college if it could uncover financially sustainable mechanisms to continue and scale its success.

This article originally appeared at Global Envision, a blog published by Mercy Corps.

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