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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.

Farmer Karim Traore surveys his cotton field outside Koutiala, Mali, in August. He planned to sell his crop to the Malian national cotton company. Many small farmers could benefit from having a contract with a buyer in place before they plant. (Joe Penney/Reuters/File)

Four ways to help 'contract farming' benefit the very poor

By Andy FraserGlobal Envision / 12.14.12

Will contract farming, done right, serve as the missing link between small farmers and markets?

Contract farming, an agreement between a farmer and a buyer, can offer many benefits to smallholder farmers. They guarantee a buyer and often provide extra perks like better access to yield-boosting inputs.

Anti-poverty organizations, as well as large grocery-store chains, are looking to contracts as a “win-win” solution that fights poverty while guaranteeing a reliable, year-round flow of organic and niche produce to national and international markets.

Here's the potential problem: Contract farming, in itself, doesn’t directly reach or benefit the farmers who need help most.

Corporations view farmers at the bottom of the income bracket as liabilities — likely to fail in meeting obligations. According to a study last year by AgWater Solutions (pdf), contract farming “is unlikely to reach the poorest farmers … Schemes tend to select better-off farmers who can bear risks or pay an initial commitment fee."

Additionally, poor farmers are smallholder farmers. Corporations are less likely to enter a contract with farmers who own small tracts of land and who are scattered and isolated geographically — the transportation costs are too high and the communication too unpredictable and difficult.

Then there’s the issue of power inequality and “information asymmetry.” Small farmers who aren’t members of a cooperative or farmer’s association lack the bargaining power, lawyers, and sophisticated technology of big buyers.

Here’s the beginning of a solution: The Rural Livelihoods Development Programme and AgWater Solutions are two great examples of organizations trying to find ways of using contract farming to fight rural poverty. RLDC's most recent annual report (pdf) and AgWater's website both offer guidelines for how investors and antipoverty organizations can ensure both the small farmer and the corporation fully realize the “win-win” of contract farming: They include:

  • Offer legal education and institutional frameworks that let both the smallholder farmer and the corporation understand the terms of the contract and any local legal resources available.
  • Support farmer organizations' and cooperatives' efforts to understand the risks and benefits of contract farming in general.
  • Ensure poor farmers can participate in contract farming. An example: Buyers and processors could issue micro-loans, crop insurance, and agricultural inputs as a term of contract with poorer farmers.
  • Identify some sort of incentive for companies to invest in poor smallholder farmers.

Contract farming offers a way for smallholder farmers to enter the marketplace. It can link an isolated rural economy to a globe full of potential buyers.

But contracts aren’t a silver bullet. A contract between vulnerable farmers and powerful agribusinesses is inherently risky for farmers, so it’s crucial they have access to education and legal services.

It’s also essential that contract farming is encouraged alongside established farmer cooperatives or another association that has access to market information.

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

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Three volunteers share a laugh while they serve home-cooked meal to residents of Memphis Towers, an independent living community for the elderly and disabled in Memphis, Tenn, Dec. 10, 2012. In 2011 more Americans volunteered to help others than in any year since 2005. (Mike Brown/The Commercial Appeal/AP)

Number of volunteers in US hits highest level since 2005

By Doug DonovanThe Chronicle of Philanthropy / 12.13.12

More Americans volunteered in 2011 than in any year since 2005, a new study finds. Approximately 64.3 million Americans volunteered at charities last year, providing 7.9 billion hours of service valued at $171 billion.

The 1.5 million additional volunteers boosted the national rate to 26.8 percent of the population, a half percentage point higher than 2010. But the dollar value dipped by $2 billion, as the average number of hours Americans volunteered in a year dropped to 32.7 from 33.9, the Corporation for National and Community Service reported.

Robert Grimm, director of the Center for Philanthropy and Nonprofit Leadership at the University of Maryland, said the increase was mainly the result of the growth in the American population, not a response to the economy or other factors.

National volunteer rates hit their peak of nearly 29 percent from 2003 to 2005 but have been stuck at around 26 percent ever since, according to a survey of about 100,000 people age 16 and older conducted by the US Census Bureau for the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The number of volunteers is down from a 2005 high of 65.4 million.

The average number of hours has declined from a high of nearly 38 in 2004. Researchers say the dip may not be a sign that volunteers are actually spending fewer hours at charities, but that they might not be accurately remembering every year exactly how much time they give.

Utah outpaced all states last year with the highest percentage of residents who volunteer. However, the volunteer rate for the heavily Mormon state fell from 44.5 percent in 2010 to 40.9 percent last year, and the hours per resident dropped by 19 to an average of 70.3 hours.

Iowa, which had ranked second for the past two years, dropped to third place as Idaho jumped eight spots in state rankings to take the No. 2 position.

But Iowans appear to have taken seriously a plea from the state’s governor, Terry Branstad, for every resident to volunteer at least 50 hours a year. The state average for volunteer hours in Iowa was 41.9 last year, up nearly eight hours from the state’s reported average of 34.2 in 2010.

In Idaho, the growth in volunteerism comes in part because tutoring services and employment assistance centers were pushing people to give their time, according to officials at the Serve Idaho commission on volunteering and service.

“Parents are volunteering much more in schools,” said Renee Cox, a Serve Idaho program manager. She said the commission had also gotten better at collecting data on volunteering trends, which could explain the increase as well.

Utah also tops all states in “doing favors for and helping out neighbors,” called “informal volunteering,” the study finds.

Two out of three citizens helped their neighbors in 2011, an increase of 9.5 percent. The most neighborly states were Utah, West Virginia, New Hampshire, Montana, Vermont and Iowa (tied), and Idaho.

Among other key findings:

• Volunteer rates were higher in rural areas (27.7 percent) and suburban areas (27.5 percent) than in urban areas (23.4 percent).

Religion, education, and social services attracted a bigger share of volunteers than other causes.

• Volunteers said they spent most of their time fundraising, collecting and distributing food, providing labor or transportation, and tutoring.

This article originally appeared at The Chronicle of Philanthropy.

A homeless man begs for money on a street in New York City. Whether to give money to street beggars is a personal and often complicated decision. (Lucas Jackson/Reuters/File)

Give to people on the street? In cities, it's a daily dilemma

By Jocelyn NoveckAssociated Press / 12.12.12

During her two decades living in Houston, Caroline Oliver, like any urban dweller, frequently encountered people in the streets asking for money. She struggled with how to respond. She wanted to help, but in a useful way.

And so when Ms. Oliver, a consultant and mother of two who recently moved to Austin, Texas, read about the New York police officer who was photographed giving a new pair of all-weather boots to a barefoot man on a cold street, she was moved.

"He saw a need and he provided for that need," she says. "He couldn't just walk away."

And when the story, which went viral thanks to a photograph snapped by a tourist, turned out to be more complicated, as they often do, Oliver admired the officer's gesture just as much. Sure, the man may not have actually been homeless, as many had first presumed. And yes, he turned up on the streets soon after, shoeless again, telling The New York Times he'd hidden the boots because they were "worth a lot of money."

But still, the officer, Lawrence DePrimo, "saw a need and fulfilled it," Oliver says. "Even though from his experience, he probably knew it might not necessarily work out the way he hoped."

One might think that advocates for the homeless and the poor would say the complicated shoeless-man saga shows precisely why people should give money to organizations, and not randomly on the streets. But two prominent advocates for the homeless, interviewed for this article, felt that giving on the street is a highly personal and sometimes deeply rewarding act — something they occasionally do themselves, and would never discourage others from doing.

"I probably am as conflicted as anyone about giving people money on the streets, and I've been doing this for 32 years," says Neil Donovan, a longtime advocate for the homeless and now executive director of the National Coalition for the Homeless. "I give as often as I don't give, and it's not connected to my financial state at the time."

Mr. Donovan applauds the NYPD officer for what he calls "an act of love" — regardless of the complications. "What motivates a person is important," he says. "What we find out later is less important. And I think we can nod to the fact that if someone's sitting without shoes on the street at night, something has gone wrong. If it turns out they have a place to live, it's a longer conversation."

Donovan notes that a number of municipalities across the country have tried to discourage panhandling by setting parking meters to accept donations for the homeless. But there's something important missing in that transaction, he notes.

"There's something very intimate about being asked for money," Donovan says. "The idea of leaving money at a parking meter strips us of the whole opportunity to give and receive, which are both great acts."

Donovan thinks so many have seized on the NYPD officer's story because he did what they hope they would do in the same circumstances. Oliver, the Texas consultant, agrees. "I wish I could say I would have done the same," she says. "I'm not sure, because I'm jaded. But I hope I would have."

She herself struggles to find the right balance. Living until recently in Houston, she encountered many homeless people near an underpass she drove by frequently. She wanted to know the money was going somewhere useful — not to drugs, for example. So she would stop her car and ask people to meet her in front of a 7-Eleven, where she would buy them food.

But often, she says, the food was rejected. "I once reached into my grocery bag in a parking lot and pulled out meat and milk," she says. "But the woman ran away."

Like her fellow New Yorkers, Kathy Zimmer constantly encounters people asking for money on the streets or in the subway — daily if not hourly. And this is the season — the holiday months, as temperatures drop — when she tends to give more.

And yet like others confronted with such a decision, Ms. Zimmer has a litmus test of sorts. She's sympathetic if someone is displaying a talent, such as singing a song or playing an instrument in the subway. "There are people who really have talent to lend," says Zimmer, a musician herself. "And I know how hard it is to make a living as a musician."

What inspires Mirko Todorovic, who owns a tie and accessories shop at Penn Station, is a little different. He feels more like giving when the person isn't asking. There's a guy he's seen for years, over on First Avenue on the East side, sitting near a garage. "He sits in a chair there, with all his stuff, and never asks for anything," says Todorovic. "I've given him something about 20 times" — maybe two or three dollars.

There's a common desire to help people who help themselves, says Nan Roman, president and CEO of the National Alliance to End Homelessness. "A lot of people think one shouldn't give on the street because it's enabling," Roman says. "They're afraid people will make a bad choice about what to do with the money."

But Mr. Roman, like Donovan, would not advise people to avoid giving. "It's a personal decision as to whether you want to help or not," she says. "Most people, I think, make a decision based on how they feel. That's what I do."

Roman understands how some people may have been disappointed at reading of the complicated circumstances of the NYPD case. But she points out that most cases involving people living persistently on the streets are, well, complicated.

"People don't generally live on the streets unless they have complicated problems," Roman says. "The majority of people would enter some program until they got back on their feet. If it's a chronic case, they have other problems too, like a disabling condition of some sort."

But even if the shoeless man had complex circumstances, she points out, he still was sitting on the street with no shoes on, in the cold. "He wasn't making the wisest decision — but he still needed help," Roman says. "What are you going to do, interview him? Ask 90 questions?"

Roman sees the public's response to the NYPD story as a need for simple, quick solutions.

"A lot of times we want the solutions to be simple — but they're not," she says. "Usually there's a long story. And it takes some persistent help to get people to a place where they can be safe." 

And so she suggests giving to advocacy organizations, which she does herself. "I think that's the longer-term answer," she says. Adds Donovan, of the National Coalition for the Homeless: "Maybe this [NYPD story] will be something that causes people to say, 'Hey, why don't I give to the shelter this year?'"

But still there will be the spontaneous, daily calculations of people like Zimmer, the New York musician who favors giving to musicians like herself. She also tends to be generous, she says, "when I see someone with an obvious physical impairment." If they look healthy and more able to work, she says, she's less likely to give.

When reminded of the NYPD officer's story, she shrugged and smiled. She said it hadn't affected her calculations. It was just another odd story in the big city.

"You never know in New York what the real story is," she said.

• Associated Press writer Verena Dobnik contributed to this story.

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President Cristina Fernandez, right, applauds as Susana Trimarco, left, lifts a human rights prize given by the president on the eve of Human Rights Day in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Dec. 9. Ms. Trimarco is known for her crusade to find her daughter, who disappeared in 2002 and who is believed to have been kidnapped by human traffickers. (Victor R. Caivano/AP)

Mom in Argentina rescues hundreds of sex slaves

By Emily SchmallAssociated Press / 12.11.12

Susana Trimarco was a housewife who fussed over her family and paid scant attention to the news until her daughter left for a doctor's appointment and never came back.

After getting little help from police, Ms. Trimarco launched her own investigation into a tip that the 23-year-old was abducted and forced into sex slavery. Soon, Trimarco was visiting brothels seeking clues about her daughter and the search took an additional goal: rescuing sex slaves and helping them start new lives.

What began as a one-woman campaign a decade ago developed into a movement and Trimarco today is a hero to hundreds of women she's rescued from Argentine prostitution rings. She's been honored with the "Women of Courage" award by the US State Department and was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize Nov. 28. On Dec. 9, Argentina's president, Cristina Fernandez, gave her a human rights award before hundreds of thousands of people in the Plaza de Mayo.

RELATED: 10 women making history today

But years of exploring the decadent criminal underground haven't led Trimarco to her daughter, Maria de los Angeles "Marita" Veron, who was 23 in 2002 when she disappeared from their hometown in provincial Tucuman, leaving behind her own 3-year-old daughter, Micaela.

"I live for this," the 58-year-old Trimarco told The Associated Press of her ongoing quest. "I have no other life, and the truth is, it is a very sad, very grim life that I wouldn't wish on anyone."

Her painful journey has now reached a milestone.

Publicity over Trimarco's efforts prompted Argentine authorities to make a high-profile example of her daughter's case by putting 13 people on trial for allegedly kidnapping Ms. Veron and holding her as a sex slave in a family-run operation of illegal brothels. Prostitution is not illegal in Argentina, but the exploitation of women for sex is.

A verdict is expected Tuesday after a nearly year-long trial.

The seven men and six women have pleaded innocent and their lawyers have said there's no physical proof supporting the charges against them. The alleged ringleaders denied knowing Veron and said that women who work in their brothels do so willingly. Prosecutors have asked for up to 25 years imprisonment for those convicted.

Trimarco was the primary witness during the trial, testifying for six straight days about her search for her daughter.

The road to trial was a long one.

Frustrated by seeming indifference to her daughter's disappearance, Trimarco began her own probe and found a taxi driver who told of delivering Veron to a brothel where she was beaten and forced into prostitution. The driver is among the defendants.

With her husband and granddaughter in tow, Trimarco disguised herself as a recruiter of prostitutes and entered brothel after brothel searching for clues. She soon found herself immersed in the dangerous and grim world of organized crime, gathering evidence against police, politicians, and gangsters.

"For the first time, I really understood what was happening to my daughter," she said. "I was with my husband and with Micaela, asleep in the backseat of the car because she was still very small and I had no one to leave her with."

The very first woman Trimarco rescued taught her to be strong, she said.

"It stuck with me forever: She told me not to let them see me cry, because these shameless people who had my daughter would laugh at me, and at my pain," Trimarco said. "Since then I don't cry anymore. I've made myself strong, and when I feel that a tear might drop, I remember these words and I keep my composure."

Micaela, now 13, has been by her grandmother's side throughout, contributing to publicity campaigns against human trafficking and keeping her mother's memory alive.

More than 150 witnesses testified in the trial, including a dozen former sex slaves who described brutal conditions in the brothels.

Veron may have been kidnapped twice, with the complicity of the very authorities who should have protected her, according to Julio Fernandez, who now runs a Tucuman police department devoted to investigating human trafficking. He testified that witnesses reported seeing Veron at a bus station three days after she initially disappeared, and that a police officer from La Rioja, Domingo Pascual Andrada, delivered her to a brothel there. Mr. Andrada, now among the defendants, denied knowing any of the other defendants, let alone Veron.

Other Tucuman police testified that when they sought permission in 2002 to search La Rioja brothels, a judge made them wait for hours, enabling Veron's captors to move her. That version was supported by a woman who had been a prostitute at the brothel: She testified that Veron was moved just before police arrived. The judge, Daniel Moreno, is not on trial. He denied delaying the raid or having anything to do with the defendants.

Some of the former prostitutes said they had seen Veron drugged and haggard. One testified Veron felt trapped and missed her daughter. Another said she spotted Veron with dyed-blonde hair and an infant boy she was forced to conceive in a rape by a ringleader. A third thought Veron had been sold to a brothel in Spain — a lead reported to Interpol.

Trimarco's campaign to find her daughter led the State Department to provide seed money for a foundation in Veron's name. To date, it has rescued more than 900 women and girls from sex trafficking. The foundation also provides housing and medical and psychological aid, and it helps victims sue former captors.

Argentina outlawed human trafficking in 2008, thanks in large part to the foundation's work. A new force dedicated to combating human trafficking has liberated nearly 3,000 more victims in two years, said Security Minister Nilda Garre, who wrote a newspaper commentary saying the trial's verdict should set an example.

Whatever the verdict, Trimarco's lawyer, Carlos Garmendia, says, the case has already made a difference.

"Human trafficking was an invisible problem until the Marita [Veron] case," Mr. Garmendia said. "The case has put it on the national agenda."

But Trimarco wants more. "I had hoped they would break down and say what they'd done with Marita," she said.

"I feel here in my breast that she is alive, and I'm not going to stop until I find her," Trimarco said. "If she's no longer in this world, I want her body."

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A customer scans an item at a Target store in Burbank, Calif. Consumers are buying products that have charitable tie-ins, shopping through web portals that send savings to nonprofits, donating at the check out at physical stores, or buying products like Newman's Own, which channels profits to a foundation. (Jonathan Alcorn/Reuters/File)

Shoppers add charitable giving to their lists

By Mitch LipkaReuters / 12.10.12

At the peak of the shopping and giving season, consumers are increasingly combining both activities.

They are buying products that have charitable tie-ins, shopping through web portals that send savings to nonprofits, and donating at the registers when they check out at physical stores. They're buying product lines like Newman's Own, which channels profits to a foundation, and TOMS Shoes, which gives a pair of shoes to a needy child for every pair the company sells.

These charity-linked purchases might give consumers a good feeling, but are they good for charities? And for shoppers?

Laura Brooks is a stay-at-home mom and lives in St. Louis with her husband, Steve. After one of her three children asked for a pair of TOMS shoes last year, it occurred to her that she could incorporate giving into her regular shopping. She now also buys most of her children's books through the Kohl's Cares programs, which donates 100 percent of proceeds to children's causes.

"I bought all these things before – shoes or salad dressing – but now it feels like I am doing good, too," Brooks said.

Maybe so, but only if those shopping decisions aren't taking the place of her other charitable giving, say some experts.

Charitable shopping "undermines the philanthropy of a nonprofit through diminished charitable donations," said Sondra Dellaripa, principal consultant for the nonprofit consultancy Harvest Development Group.

In fundraising development for charities, she said, it is important to build a relationship with a donor – something that doesn't happen in these transactions.

So, how can you make your shopping turn into giving while keeping in mind how much you're really giving to charity?

Direct donations at merchants are one of the biggest cash generators. For instance, St. Jude's Children's Research Hospital's holiday season has a "Thanks and Giving" campaign that collects dollars at cash registers – and is now its single largest fundraiser.

More than 60 companies, mostly retailers, participate in the two-month drive that raised nearly $65 million for St. Jude's last year – up from $8.4 million in 2004, when the program started.

Rick Shadyac, CEO of ALSAC/St. Jude, the fundraising organization of the hospital, said connecting with consumers when they're shopping has been extremely successful, both in terms of dollars raised and awareness. The ease of making a contribution while a transaction is already under way is likely why it has worked, he said.

"It is a very easy thing to do when you're going through that process anyway," Mr. Shadyac said. Generous consumers should remember that they can take a charitable deduction for their at-register contributions if they remember to get a receipt that details the gift.

One step removed from this are consumer products that give a portion of profits to specific charities. This is soaring – from pink ribbons during Breast Cancer Awareness Month to campaigns that donate loyalty rewards from companies like Inc and airlines.

The broad array of products makes it difficult to tally the overall retail impact, but companies will spend about $1.7 billion this year on sponsoring causes – more than double their spending a decade ago, according to IEG Sponsorship Report. And, increasingly, retailers are trying to connect with shoppers by aligning their brands with charities.

"It's been proven that working with a charity enhances your favorability," said Joe Waters, who writes the Selfish Giving blog and is the author of "Cause Marketing for Dummies."

"While most marketing gives you visibility, cause marketing gives you favorability that gives you a competitive edge that goes beyond product and price," Mr. Waters said.

Not all products with charity tie-ins are created equal. Some deliver no money to charity at all – they're just for awareness. Consumers can check this, before they buy, on the product's website or by reading the tiny print on the product's packaging.

Others yield a percentage of the purchase price or a fixed amount to a specific charity. For instance, when you mail in or enter a code from a pink lid on a Yoplait yogurt container (or several other General Mills Inc. products), between now and June 30, 2013, 10 cents will be donated to Susan G. Komen for the Cure.

For those shopping online, there are pass-through sites where a charity get money every time a consumer makes a purchase. For sites like,,, the Social Good Network, the user picks the charity, which could be as small as their local school, and donations are not regarded as tax deductible.

The donated percentage of the purchase price varies from 1 percent to 25 percent. Major retailers, such as Nordstrom Inc. and Lands' End are at 2 percent on So, a $250 purchase from one of those retailers would result in a $5 donation to a charity. Magazine and newspaper subscriptions tend to have the highest returns, sometimes in excess of 20 percent., one of the largest sites, offers access to 2,600 merchants and has about 1,000 charity beneficiaries.

"Consumers want to help, and buying something that has a donation built in is easy and makes them feel good," Waters said.

We-Care said it raised more than $500,000 in the 2011 holiday shopping season. Its top recipient is the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

"Our relationship with We-Care has been a particularly successful one, with a contribution of over $2 million to the ASPCA over the last two years," said Jim Echikson, senior director of corporate partnerships for the ASPCA. That's not a large percentage of the more than $100 million a year the ASPCA raises, but the contributions are noticed.

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Kids Helping Kids is literally run by kids – and for kids – as a way to give back to their community in Connecticut. (Courtesy of Kids Helping Kids)

Kids Helping Kids is run by kids – and for kids

By Cathryn J. PrinceContributor / 12.07.12

Kids Helping Kids (KHK) is about turning passion into action, whether its baking bread to raise money for a playground or collecting thousands of used shoes.

That KHK is literally run by kids and for kids sets this Connecticut nonprofit apart, says Jennifer Kelley, the group’s founder and director.

“All kids have the ability to help. The goal of Kids Helping Kids is to get every kid to realize they can help make a difference and impact the lives of those around them,” Ms. Kelley says.

The members, all middle school and high school students, develop and implement projects to fill needs as near as their hometown of New Canaan, Conn., and as far away as the Sudan.

The group started because of Kelley’s daughter Lexi. Now 14, Lexi was seriously injured in a car accident several years ago. The support she received from other children deeply affected her, her mother says.

Giving back is part of who Lexi is, Kelley says. When she was small Lexi loved running lemonade and brownie stands, or making and selling bracelets. She always gave the money to local charities.

Today dozens of tweens and teens belong to the group, which can be found online at Together they brainstorm project ideas. Kelley facilitates the meetings and guides the group on how best to make the idea come to fruition. She also helps find reputable organizations that KHK can connect with, preferably local ones.

Kelley draws on her experience as a certified teacher in grades K-6. She has worked in both private and public elementary schools in Fairfield County, Conn. She also lived in China for five years, where she taught English as a second language. She and her husband returned to the United States after their daughter Lexi was born.

KHK has no membership dues and the organization is open to any middle school or high school student. Members can be involved as little or as much as they want. They can participate in just one event or, through the group’s ambassador program, students can become the KHK point person in their school.

“What’s remarkable is they are involved in an organization that lets them make all the decisions. They can go off and do it in any shape or form,” Kelley says.
Sometimes a simple question leads to a project. That was the case for KHK’s annual shoe drive.

A few years ago at the New Balance sneaker store in New Canaan, someone asked if there was a place to donate old sneakers. From that question, KHK came up with the idea to collect shoes for organizations such as the Norwalk (Conn.) Emergency Shelter, which often have shoe shortages. To date more than 13,000 shoes have been collected.

Kelley says she wants the children involved to take the skills with them, whether they start their own business someday or launch their own nonprofit.

“It’s not just fundraising and giving money to something. That’s not what we’re about,” Kelley says.

Other projects include Cuts for a Cause and the Thanksgiving bread bake. Cuts for a Cause raises money to buy wigs for children who have lost hair because of disease.

Proceeds from last year’s bread bake helped refurbish a playground at a homeless shelter. This year KHK baked 1,000 loaves. Each loaf sold for $10. The children decided to use the money to fund future projects so they don’t have to rely on fundraising, Kelley says.

“The kids involved see there is much more need than they could ever imagine. They also see they can really make a difference,” Kelley says. “Most importantly they develop leadership skills through service.”

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A worker sews shirts in a factory in Bogota, Columbia. Clothing production often migrates to where wages are lowest. But the Alta Gracia factory in the Dominican Republic works with college students in the US to provide college-themed clothing that is made by unionized workers who receive good wages and have good working conditions. (John Vizcaino/Reuters/File)

Alta Gracia factory produces fair-trade clothing

By Peter DreierYES! Magazine / 12.06.12

Aracelis "Kuky" Upia, a 39-year-old factory worker in the Dominican Republic, is participating in an experiment that, if successful, could help end sweatshops as a staple of the global economy.

A single mother of four, Upia has been sewing in factories since she was 15. For years she earned less than $50 a week. Some employers simply refused to pay her. At one point she was so deeply in debt, the local market stopped extending her credit.

Today, Upia sews T-shirts for $3.02 an hour, a huge leap in income and nearly three times the country's minimum wage. She has paid off her loans and can shop again at the grocery store. She has purchased a refrigerator, plans to add rooms to her home to rent out for additional income, and has paid for her son Nisael's long-postponed dental work. Her son Yacer is studying accounting at the university.pia was among the first workers hired by Alta Gracia, an apparel company named after the town where she has lived all her life and where the factory is based. Alta Gracia's T-shirts and sweatshirts are sold mainly at colleges and universities in the United States at about the same prices as clothing made by Nike, Russell, and other brands.

Beginning in the mid-1990s, students on American campuses used various forms of protest to pressure universities to adopt "codes of conduct" as a condition of allowing companies the rights to use their names, mascots, and logos. These codes looked good on college websites, but universities had no capacity to implement these standards until human-rights activists formed the Workers Rights Consortium (WRC) in 2000, providing colleges with an independent watchdog group that had contacts across the globe and could monitor factory conditions in response to worker complaints. About 180 universities have now affiliated with the WRC by paying annual dues to help fund its investigations. The WRC is independent of companies in their governance and funding.

College-bound goods are just a small fraction of the products made by the thousands of apparel factories around the world, but they form a highly visible niche within the industry, targeted to a customer base who can be persuaded to think about the working conditions and ethical standards surrounding the clothing they purchase. These factors give students considerable leverage in shaping the reputations of major clothing brands, and thus make apparel companies wary of offending them. If students pressure their universities to sever their business relationship with a major clothing label, the bad publicity can have damaging ripple effects in the wider apparel marketplace.

The WRC is an established way that students can do this. The consortium's global network of in-country field representatives monitors factory conditions in response to workers' complaints; the WRC then publishes its reports online. Unlike other organizations that claim to certify and monitor factory conditions overseas, the WRC refuses to accept funding from any company, including Alta Gracia. This avoids the conflict-of-interest that can lead other organizations to favor management (who often pay the certifier fees) over workers.

The WRC views its role as holding companies accountable by shining the light of publicity on them. It operates on the basis that workers are the best source of information about the day-in day-out realities of their workplaces. WRC works closely with a network of human rights groups around the world who get information about working conditions directly from employees. This is preferable to having corporate accounting firms and other business-oriented consultants parachute into countries to examine clothing factories, often after alerting management that they are on their way.

"Fairness is not a marketing label you can buy, slap on a product, and call it good," explained Eliza Kopetchne, a sophomore at Northeastern University and an activist with the United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS) affiliate on her campus. Kopetchne visited the Alta Gracia factory in January with a delegation led by Fair World Project. "Real fairness is a living, breathing power dynamic – an ongoing effort that is played out every day in the treatment of workers in a workplace. Consumers should support workers' own voices and aspirations for fairness rather than trusting companies to do so. This is why USAS has always stood beside democratic local unions."

Paralleled by pressure from USAS, WRC's investigations have forced many brands to improve conditions at some factories making clothing for the college market. In 2009 and 2010, USAS achieved unprecedented victories with two of the largest companies—Russell and Nike—by pressuring their schools and even retailers to cut contracts with brands. This student-led boycott cost the corporations millions in sales until they came into compliance with the campus' codes of conduct.

This hard-won progress is promising. But it has not been easy. "This is an industry obsessed with pennies," says Scott Nova, WRC's executive director. "We've had tremendous resistance from the big labels."

 RELATED: Top 5 nations working the most hours

USAS's victories in their campaigns against Russell and Nike suggested that college students were ready to throw their weight behind a living-wage union-made option in their purchases as well as their actions. If students were prepared to fight against brands that abused workers' rights, wouldn't they rally behind brands that respected them? That's how the idea for the Alta Gracia brand started.

For years, USAS refused to support companies claiming to make "sweatshop free" clothing because they couldn't be sure the companies would keep their commitment. Today, however, USAS, as well as the WRC, have embraced Alta Gracia as a model that proves that socially responsible clothing production is not only possible but profitable.

Alta Gracia is the first apparel company in the college market to work closely with unionized employees and pay them a living wage. It is an unusual collaboration between student, labor, and human rights activists and Knights Apparel, the nation's leading producer of college clothing, which beats Nike and Adidas in the $4 billion collegiate market.

Two key players in the creation of Alta Gracia were Joe Bozich, the CEO of Knights Apparel, and Donnie Hodge, the company president. "We started thinking that we wanted to do something more important with our business than worry just about winning market share," Bozich explained in an interview.

Student activists and labor experts began conversations with Knights executives about whether the economics of clothing production allowed for "the perfect factory," one that could produce well-made items in a safe workplace and pay workers decent wages and benefits. Worker abuse surfaces on factory floors, but it is rooted in the dynamics of the global apparel industry, in which so-called manufacturers—in reality, design and marketing firms such as Nike—outsource the fabrication of clothing to independent contractors worldwide. In this labor-intensive industry where capital requirements are minimal, it is relatively easy to open a clothing factory. This has led to a global race to the bottom: There is always someplace where clothing can be made still more cheaply. Today more than 90 percent of the clothing in U.S. retail stores is imported.

Bozich and Hodge selected a site in the Dominican Republican where a Korean-owned plant had once made clothing for Nike and Reebok. The company, BJ&B, had shut the factory down after its employees unionized. But its workers had forged ties with American activists, and USAS leaders convinced the Knights executives that students would encourage their peers to buy clothing produced there. In February 2010, after a $500,000 renovation based on recommendations from the Maquiladora Health and Safety Support Network, the Alta Gracia facility opened for business.

The new factory is far livelier than other nearby workplaces. Bachata music and workers' chatter are constant background noise. The factory has good ventilation, plenty of windows, and overhead lighting help workers avoid eye strain.

But the biggest difference, says Upia, are the chairs. In most Dominican sewing factories, workers sit on hard metal seats with no back support, leaning awkwardly to operate their sewing machines. "We would try to make cushions on the chairs from the scraps of leftover clothes," she recalls. "Your body would hurt all day." Soon after the Alta Gracia factory opened, the workers noticed some nice-looking office chairs being unloaded from a truck. "They must be for the managers," Upia thought. But they had been ordered for the workers, at a cost of about $50 apiece. "Now," says Upia, "I don't have the back pain anymore."

At Alta Gracia, workers have a union, which gives them a voice on the job. In the Free Trade Zones of the Dominican Republic and around the world, unions are often the only hope garment workers have of enforcing basic rights of labor, including water breaks, bathroom breaks, not being fired for being pregnant, and the ability to fight back against sexual harassment and discrimination.

While workers at Alta Gracia don't face these challenges, Sitralpro, Alta Gracia's independent union, serves as one more democratic check on management. During its formation, the vote took place in front of the factory with no opposition from management. In fact, the company and the union jointly sponsor employee workshops about workers' rights on company time, which are conducted by the Dominican Labor Foundation. The union and management have a joint health and safety committee, and the union conducts vaccination programs, free courses in financial management and the English language, and HIV prevention workshops. The union and management meet regularly to discuss production, employee morale, and potential improvements to the facility.

"Alta Gracia is the kind of workplace every worker dreams of," observes Maritza Vargas, a leader of Alta Gracia's union. She noted that both union and management at Alta Gracia are largely led by women – uncharacteristic in the Dominican Republic. "We're showing the world what is possible."

The survival of Alta Gracia will largely hinge on whether stateside consumers are aware of the brand and its message. On many campuses efforts to promote it are in full swing. At the University of Maryland, students have circulated fliers reading, "Your sweatshirt can be a force for change in the world."

Other campuses have held fashion shows of union-made clothing. USAS sponsored two Alta Gracia workers who toured 14 campuses from North Carolina to Boston. At Yale and the University of Houston, the visit inspired a student petition to get the university to purchase Alta Gracia T-shirts to distribute to incoming freshmen, at alumni reunions, and other special events.

Whether campus bookstores prominently display Alta Gracia apparel makes a big difference. Some managers are reluctant to promote the label because it competes with brands like Nike, which pay universities huge licensing fees for the right to use their names, logos, and mascots on the clothing they produce, mostly in Asian sweatshops.

But others, like Jim Wilkerson, who runs Duke University's 27 campus stores, have championed the Alta Gracia brand with great success. At Duke's flagship store, Alta Gracia merchandise is prominently displayed and stocked, and a large flat-screen TV plays a video of smiling workers. Such efforts have paid off: Since August 2010, Duke has sold more than $600,000 of Alta Gracia's clothing.

"A t-shirt is a t-shirt – except this one is made with dignified conditions for workers," says Maria Louzon, a University of Maryland student and national coordinator of United Students for Fair Trade.

"Unlike other apparel companies and certifications, Alta Gracia upholds a standard worthy of the term 'Fair Trade'," Louzon elaborated. "That's why USFT has taken Alta Gracia on as one of our national priorities."

So far, it's thriving. Large schools like the universities of Missouri, North Carolina, Washington, and Wisconsin, as well as NYU and UCLA, carry sizable orders of Alta Gracia. With great fanfare, students at Notre Dame selected Alta Gracia as "The Shirt" that fans, alumni, and students wear to the first football game of the year and whose sales proceeds are donated to charity.

If such success builds, says Bozich, "then we can take the next steps, including expanding outside college bookstores and selling our brand to other retailers."

Alta Gracia contracts with Ethix Merch, a distributor of socially responsible merchandise, to sell custom-printed T-shirts to social justice groups, faith communities, workplaces, and others, so everyday consumers can join the effort outside the college arena.

"The only guarantee we have to keep the factory operating in our community, and as a model for the industry, is support from students and other consumers in the US," says Alta Gracia union leader Pablo Tolentino.

Can the Alta Gracia label compete with Nike's swoosh? Are consumers willing to look for the Alta Gracia union label?

If Alta Gracia can make profitable merchandise under humane conditions and sell it at competitive prices, it will challenge the widespread race-to-the-bottom economics of the apparel industry and prove that conscientious consumers can have an impact on humanizing the forces of global capitalism.

 • Peter Dreier is the E.P. Clapp Distinguished Professor Politics, and chair of the Urban & Environmental Policy Department, at Occidental College. His book, "The 100 Greatest Americans of the 2oth Century: A Social Justice Hall of Fame," was published in July by Nation Books.

This article originally appeared at YES! Magazine.

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Customers wait in line at a Hertz rental car counter at San Jose International Airport in San Jose, Calif. One man saved $17,000 in a year by using sharing services, including peer-to-peer car rentals, instead of conventional businesses. (Paul Sakuma/AP/File)

How one man learned to share – and saved $17,000 in one year

By Neal GorenfloShareable / 12.05.12

This article originally appeared on and is reprinted with permission.

September 17, 2010. At a monthly gathering of 50 executives, I listened to a one-minute piece of advice from each about Shareable, the nonprofit online magazine I cofounded a year earlier. We believe that sharing our resources is more fulfilling than our outdated earn-and-spend MO and that sharing can address issues like poverty and global warming.

Due, in part, to the recession, a wave of sharing platforms have cropped up, making it possible to create an entire lifestyle based on sharing cars, housing, nannies — even money. In that meeting of the minds, one message broke through: If I want to lead a movement toward a new sharing economy, I need to show the world how I, myself, share in everyday life.

So began my year of living the shareable life, which I chronicled on Unsure at the outset whether my experiment would make a difference, I began in January of 2011, armed with the knowledge of several Bay Area-based services that help people share. I tried about 30 ways to share and saved a ton of money.

IN PICTURES: The sharing economy

Here are the highlights:

Experiment No. 1: Sharing Cars
I donated my beloved 1986 Volvo surf wagon to charity back in 2009. For the most part, I rely on my bike and public transportation and use my wife’s car on weekends. But, when her car isn’t available, I rent cars the old-fashioned way — at Enterprise. Each time I rent, I’m forced to endure the robotic corporate ritual of being pitched insurance. I say no every time. Finally at my wit's end, I decided to rent my next car from a human.

Enter Getaround, an online peer-to-peer car-sharing service that helps you find a car in your neighborhood or rent out your own by the hour or day. I’ve been able to find cars at half off the price of major rental companies, and Getaround handles the details. Of course, sharing isn’t always easy; Getaround is only available in a few places (SF Bay Area and Portland), and the process can be inconvenient. Once you make your rental request, the car owners must accept before you get the keys. They might not check their email. And they can turn you down.

My first Getaround rental was from Sara, an eco-minded paralegal who lived near my house. After storing my bike in her garage and eating strawberries from her aquaponic garden, she handed over the keys to her Toyota Scion, known as DaffodilPickle on Getaround. As I got in the driver's seat, I thought of my nightmare scenario — wrecking the car of this sweet person who is trying to do something nice for the environment. Assured that the car was insured by Getaround, I drove away thinking, “Holy #@%*. I just rented a car from a stranger!”

The bottom line: Going car-free saves money. AAA estimates that driving a big car costs 92.6 cents per mile in all. At the national average of 10,000 miles a year, that’s more than $9,000. By sharing cars in 2011, I saved $4,000.

Experiment No. 2: Breaking Up with the Bank
After a long, tumultuous relationship with Wall Street, I broke it off permanently in 2011. The abuse was just too much. Our bank, Wells Fargo, had skimmed $1.8 billion in unnecessary overdraft charges from its clients, and my wife and I lost $10,000 in stocks thanks to mismanagement by our retirement fund manager.

So we cashed in everything we could. We sold stocks or bonds that seemed risky and decided to give LendingClub a try. Why not lend money to strangers? It may not sound like the safest bet, but the advantages of social lending are compelling.

Social lenders broker online deals between individual borrowers and lenders at better rates than what banks offer. For instance, instead of the sub-1-percent return I used to get from my savings account, I’m now earning 9 percent, LendingClub’s average. This is within spitting distance of long-term stock market returns (around 12 percent if you invest passively in an index), but with much less risk and volatility. LendingClub makes it safe to invest, sorting loans by risk, return, and term. The service encouraged me to make small $25 loans to many people. I found the loans I wanted in 30 minutes.

In one year, I’ve invested about 5 percent of our retirement savings in LendingClub. No defaults yet. One late payment. Investing this way is more work than a savings account or a mutual fund — I have to regularly reinvest — but it’s worth it. In 2011, my LendingClub income was $508 at a 9.2 percent annual return. That’s $148 more than I earned in the stock market in 2010. (I’m a horrible stock market investor.)

Experiment No. 3: Redefining the Rental

I needed a hotel for five nights in New York. After searching first on and finding a string of rooms all priced at more than $300 a night, I decided to check out Airbnb, the San Francisco-based peer-to-peer service where you can find private vacation rentals and short-term stays or host travelers in your own home. It was there that I booked a one-of-a-kind stay in a cabin inside a loft — you heard right — for $75 a night in Brooklyn.

When I arrived at my cabin-in-a-loft, my architect-host Terri served me a frosty beer and her delicious, homemade organic vegetable chili. Sitting at her kitchen table, Terri told me how she hoped the cabin would be a cozy little getaway inside her big open space. She also shared her tips for local restaurants and offered me a homemade brownie for dessert.

Terri’s warm welcome set the tone for my stay, and I went home feeling uplifted. I felt good about the world. And I saved more than $1,000.

Experiment No. 4: Coworking
 In March of 2011, my nonprofit, Shareable, moved into Hub SoMa, a 20,000-square-foot open-plan office shared by companies including The Biomimicry Institute and For folks who would otherwise work at home or in a coffee shop, the Hub is appealing because of its community-focused coworking space that brings a certain amount of serendipity to the office. On any given day, opportunity may meet you on the spiral staircase — that’s where I scored from Hub CEO Cory Smith a rubber stamp that says, “This once belonged to:” (perfect for a swap) — or at the host desk, where Roe Cummings gave me a great tip for a story on Shareable. I even landed a $6,000 grant for Shareable on a lead from a fellow member.

Here’s how it works: Pricing is structured much like a gym membership, letting you pay based on your level of use, from 25 hours a month to a full-time private suite. Next year, Shareable will pay just $4,700 for our three employees (who have memberships ranging from 25 to 50 hours a month). My membership is $119 — $56 less a month than my old desk in a depressing office.

Working out of Hub is flexible, low-cost, and has no administrative overhead. Plus Shareable doesn’t have to negotiate a lease or worry about utilities, cleaning, or security. It’s all included. Approximate savings: $2,000 a year.

Experiment No. 5: The Nanny
My biggest savings came when our son, Jake, was born. We’re two working parents, and the idea of leaving him, just a tiny child a few months old, alone with strangers repulsed us. And we couldn’t afford a private nanny, which would cost us around $35,000 a year. We decided to investigate nanny sharing.

The trick is to find the nanny first. Once we had her, other parents felt more comfortable because they could see what they were getting into. For two years now, we’ve shared our nanny, Vilma, with two other families. She’s great. She stays with Jake on weekdays at our house. Our friends, Tam and Stuart, drop off their daughter, Taryn, three days a week. Maryann and Mark drop off Kayla on the remaining days.

I think we’ve been lucky. The arrangement is more flexible than daycare, and we found a nanny Jake loves. She provides a high level of care and is perfectly reliable. Of course, if Vilma calls in sick, one of us has to call in sick. But we’re not responsible for the other family’s childcare in case of a last-minute cancellation. We all save money, and our nanny makes more than she would working for just one family. It’s a win-win-win. Savings in 2011: $10,800. Plus, we’ve made new friends for potluck dinners, and I get to spend time with Jake on days that I’m working from home. Priceless.

My year of living the shareable life taught me some surprising lessons. The toughest to swallow is that the modern world isn’t designed for sharing — yet. In most states, renting your car to a neighbor may put you at risk of losing your insurance should your neighbor wreck it. And, in New York, it’s actually illegal to rent your apartment for stays longer than 30 days. Change is difficult. I’m no Pollyanna.

But the architect Buckminster Fuller once said, “You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”

Those 50 executives were right: The world needs role models in order to make change. I hadn’t thought my blog would make a difference, but I was wrong. My story was picked up by Fast Company, Sunset, and NBC Nightly News, reaching tens of millions of people with the message that sharing is both good for the soul and a savvy financial move. At the end of the day, I reaped the personal reward of sharing with my neighbors.

And I have an extra $17,000 in my pocket.

This article was originally published by 7x7 and Shareable, a nonprofit online magazine that tells the story of how sharing can promote the common good.

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A police officer walks among the debris of homes destroyed by superstorm Sandy Nov. 29, one month after the hurricane made landfall in Mantoloking, N.J. The superstorm knocked out power in many areas along the Northeastern US coast. (Andrew Burton/Reuters)

Would the lights go out if superstorm Sandy hit the Netherlands? Nope.

By Jack RodolicoLatitude News / 12.04.12

In Wessel Bakker’s hometown of Gouda, the Netherlands (like the cheese), there are wooden utility poles like the ones downed by Hurricane Sandy. But in Gouda, the structures are more nostalgia than infrastructure.

“In my neighborhood — it’s a small, nice town — there are the last remaining wooden poles,” said Bakker, Regional Director of Electricity Transmission and Distribution for DNV KEMA, an energy consulting, testing, and certification company. “[The poles] have been marked as a landscape monument.”

These are not simply the last remaining utility poles in Gouda. They are just about “the only poles left in the country,” said Bakker. “Maybe there are two or three more locations.”

RELATED: 4 smart ways to rebuild after superstorm Sandy

Nearly three weeks after Hurricane Sandy hit the East Coast, thousands of people still don’t have power. Many are living in shelters because their homes lack heat, hot water, and electricity, while thousands more have completely lost their homes. The storm took more than 100 lives.

But as utility workers repair an aging American grid — and as climate change promises to bring stronger storms more frequently — Latitude News wonders what the U.S. can learn from the Netherlands’ modern, disaster-resistant power grid.

I asked Wessel Bakker what would happen to power supplies if a storm like Sandy hit the Dutch coast, a storm that comes ashore with 30-foot waves and 80-mile-per-hour winds.

He paused for a long moment, then said: “In the worst case scenario, I think nothing will happen.”

The electrical grid in the Netherlands has some similarities to its American counterpart. Both are composed of a transmission grid — big, high-voltage lines, like the ones you might see while driving along a major highway — and a distribution grid — small, low-voltage lines which comprise the patchwork of cables running through cities and neighborhoods.

But here’s one major difference: The Netherlands’ distribution grid is largely underground. That’s one less thing cluttering up the country’s picturesque landscape, and one less hazard if the wind hits 80 m.p.h.

When Hurricane Sandy barreled through New Jersey and New York, strong winds ravaged local distribution grids — tree limbs became projectiles, power lines snapped, and utility poles were uprooted.

It is physically impossible for this kind of damage to happen to the Netherlands’ distribution grid. The wind may blow, but the power lines are safe underground.

But flooding was equally damaging to the electrical infrastructure during the superstorm. Bakker points to lower Manhattan, where many substations, transformers, and switchboards — the machinery that regulates the electricity in cables — are built at ground level.

“What happened in Manhattan is a peculiar situation,” Bakker said. “The flooding was 14 feet above normal level. That’s extremely high. That is the root cause behind the failure.”

Even if severe flooding hit the Netherlands, damage to underground cables would be minimal. However, it is possible that a flood could damage ground-level substations and other infrastructure in the Netherlands. But that is assuming the Netherlands actually experienced a major flood, a disaster for which the country has been preparing for more than  half a century.

Much of the Netherlands would be underwater if not for the nation’s 10,000-plus miles of dikes, dams, and other structures. Major flooding was an accepted part of life in the Netherlands until 1953, when a deluge of cold seawater destroyed infrastructure and killed 1,800 people. After that tragic event, the Netherlands got serious about natural disasters, embarking on a 50-year, $14.7-billion flood-control project.

The Netherlands flood-resistant infrastructure is built to withstand a 10,000-year flood, a flood so large and powerful it could only happen once in 10,000 years. By way of contrast, the levees built in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina are designed to withstand a 100-year storm.

In addition to a grid infrastructure designed to withstand heavy winds and flooding, the layout of the Dutch grid also makes it far more reliable than the American grid.

Much of the U.S. grid is designed in star patterns, meaning power lines fan out in straight lines toward homes and communities. That means if a power line connecting a community to the bulk grid goes down, the power won’t come back on until that line is repaired.

But in the Netherlands, the grid is laid out in a circular formation. If you lose power from one direction, you can quickly receive it from the other direction. And, increasingly, the Dutch grid is interconnected with neighboring Germany, Norway, Belgium, and the UK. Inter-connectivity improves reliability.

All of these factors — a massive infrastructure designed to resist floods, an extensive network of underground power lines, and a highly interconnected grid — make the Dutch grid far more reliable than the American grid.

“In Holland,” said Bakker, “we have about average 24 minutes outage annually.”

Bakker points to a 2008 study of the American grid, which came to very different conclusions.

“Some of the most reliable utilities are in the heartland states of Iowa, Minnesota, Missouri, the Dakotas, Nebraska, and Kansas,” Bakker said. “In those states, the power is out an average of 92 minutes per year. On the other end of the spectrum, utilities in New York, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey averaged 214 minutes of total interruptions each year. These figures don’t include power outages blamed on tornadoes or other disasters.”

I asked Bakker when was the last time the Netherlands experienced a big power outage. Again, he paused for a long moment: “It depends what you call ‘big.’ There was a large one in the western region about 15 years ago.”

More than 1 million people lost power — for about an hour.

In some ways, comparing the American and Dutch grids isn’t quite fair. The Netherlands is about the size of a densely populated Maryland, whereas the U.S. is enormous with a widely distributed power grid. The Netherlands’ unique topography has effectively required it to build major flood infrastructure, whereas building thousands of miles of dikes might be an expensive overreaction to Hurricane Sandy. Plus the American grid is overseen and maintained by a patchwork of federal, regional, and local bodies. Most power generation companies in the Netherlands are privately owned, just like American utility operators.

Having said that, it’s also the case that the country is much smaller than the U.S., making management, oversight, and distribution of power far more streamlined.

But here are some sobering statistics. A recent report to Congress (entitled “Weather-Related Power Outages and Electric System Resiliency”) estimated that each year storms cost the U.S. $20 billion to $55 billion in damages and lost economic productivity. However, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo estimated that Hurricane Sandy, one single storm, caused $50 billion in damage, most of it in New York state. That means in 2012, the US hit its annual quota in one day. The report, written two months before Sandy hit the coast, also noted that “the trend of outages from weather-related events is increasing.”

Wessel Bakker doesn’t envy the American situation.

“You have large challenges ahead of you,” said Bakker. He says the U.S. must “identify the optimum road map to improve the reliability for [the American] grid.” 

But can the U.S. really do what the Netherlands has done — pump billions, if not trillions, into smart-grid technologies and disaster-resistant infrastructure?

The U.S. might not have a choice, according to the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE). In a 2011 report called “Failure to Act: The Economic Impact of Current Investment Trends in Electricity Infrastructure,” ASCE called the American grid a “patchwork system” that could break down without a $673 billion investment by 2020. At current rates of investment, the ASCE report says, the economy will grow more slowly and be more susceptible to fits and starts induced by nasty weather.

The report to Congress makes a few seemingly “Dutch” suggestions: trimming trees, laying distribution and some transmission lines underground, investing in a modern Smart Grid, and focusing utility maintenance practices on power-system reliability. Essentially, doing what the Netherlands has done, but on a much larger scale.

But Bakker points to a cultural shift that may be necessary as well. He says the Dutch public and government have simply developed a lower tolerance for power outages.

After three weeks without power, some Americans are certainly feeling less tolerant too.

This article originally appeared at Latitude News, an online news site that covers stories showing the links between American communities and the rest of the world.

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A woman sells clams in the main market of Maputo, Mozambique, in 2011. A consortium of groups is working to provide women with cleaner-burning cook stoves. (Matthew Tostevin/Reuters/File)

Clean cookstoves in Mozambique lure big investors

By Erin ButlerGlobal Envision / 12.03.12

When it comes to investing in a clean cookstoves project, Triple Pundit reports that maybe there's no such thing as too many cooks in the kitchen.

Cooked up in 2010, CleanStar Mozambique is a combined effort among a mix of investors, financial and research institutions, and NGOs, including CleanStar Ventures, Novozymes, ICM, Zoe Enterprises, Dometic, Impact Carbon, and Bank of America Merrill Lynch. The project:

"Simultaneously addresses the issues of deforestation, land degradation, hunger, poverty, indoor pollution and carbon emissions, on a small scale, all through a for-profit business structure. The program ... is centered around the replacement of traditional charcoal cooking stoves with alcohol-fired stoves that can be fueled by sustainably produced bio-ethanol."

 IN PICTURES: Food security in Africa

Triple Pundit reports that the Soros Economic Development Fund and Industrialization Fund for Developing Countries funding "will allow CleanStar and its partners to now focus fully on implementation, rather than the time-consuming process of fundraising.”

The Wall Street Journal reports that Soros’ $6 million investment:

"Will give it a 19% stake in the $20 million project... The project has also received a $3 million investment from the Denmark-backed Industrialization Fund for Developing Countries, while Danish industrial enzymes company Novozymes has provided $1 million and a number of loans. Bank of America Merrill Lynch is also assisting with the selling of carbon credits."

CleanStar seems to be making a huge impact on Mozambique in a number of challenging arenas, but implications for other cities in Africa are exciting if the project is implemented successfully:

"They expect that their retail fuel distribution infrastructure will reach 80,000 customers in Maputo, the capital of Mozambique, by 2014. This looks to be the next chapter in a great story. With a $10 billion market for charcoal-based cooking across the rapidly-urbanizing continent, CleanStar’s business model is likely to be feasible in over 40 major African cities."

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

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