Lionsgate, the producers of "The Hunger Games," the movie opening tonight that some think could be the next "Harry Potter" blockbuster series, knew that the title of the fantasy film aimed at teens and young adults would bring to mind the problem of hunger in the real world.
The film has made an official partnership with The World Food Programme (WFP) and, in the United States, the charity Feeding America. A special website, wfp.org/hungergames, features a brief video with "The Hunger Games" stars Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, and Liam Hemsworth urging the film's fans to fight hunger. The site also features a "hunger quiz" and ways to click and donate online.
A press release issued by the WFP and Feeding America last month notes that hunger affects 1 in 7 people – nearly 1 billion people worldwide. And in the United States alone, 1 in 6 Americans, nearly 49 million people, face hunger.
“This partnership will help us spread the word that hunger is the world’s greatest solvable problem,” says Nancy Roman, WFP's director of communications. “We want to tap into that excitement.... We are deeply grateful for the support of Suzanne Collins, [the author of 'The Hunger Games' books,] who writes as though she understands hunger in the world, as well as Lionsgate and 'The Hunger Games' cast – who have the power to change lives as they feed people worldwide.”
But fans are also spreading the word themselves. Imagine Better, an effort that originated with fans at the Harry Potter Alliance, has begun a "Hunger Is Not a Game" campaign, calling on fans to donate to Oxfam America's Grow project, which emphasizes helping people around the world grow more of their own food, rather than relying on imported food aid.
Imagine Better has asked fans to use the Twitter hashtag #NotAGame to raise awareness of Oxfam's Grow project and the issue of hunger.
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[Editor's note: Today, March 22, is World Water Day]
New engineering technologies look to quench the world’s thirst for clean drinking water through cheap, green self-powered purification mechanisms.
Cleaning dirty water generally requires high energy and capital, placing clean water out of reach for many of the world’s poor. But new innovations are making clean water more accessible by lowering the financial and environmental costs of purification.
Want energy with your water? Use bacteria. Engineer Bruce Logan of Penn State University is perfecting a process by which bacteria in wastewater generate the necessary electrical power to clean the water.
Most wastewater contains bacteria, and by altering the chemistry and physics of microbial fuel cell systems, Logan capitalized on the idea that bacteria can produce electric currents under anaerobic conditions where electrons link up with oxygen molecules.
“You and I eat food and generate energy,” Logan told GOOD. So do bacteria. And when those bacteria are deprived of oxygen in a microbial fuel cell, the electrons they produce flow to the other side of the cell to find oxygen protons, creating an electric current as they travel.
Over time, Logan has improved the technologies of the process, including by combining the microbial fuel cell system with reverse electrodialysis, which captures the energy of ions as they flow through membranes from salty to fresh water. The fuel cell gives the energy boost for the reverse electrodialysis system, allowing the process to operate with fewer membranes and making the system cheaper to produce. The result is purified water that is free of bacteria and safe to drink.
So far, the amount of energy Logan says he can generate “almost matches the amount needed to process it,” according to GOOD. That means Logan is closer to his goal of cost-effective clean energy wastewater treatment, and households, companies, and farms are closer to having cheaper, cleaner, greener water.
Canadian engineers harness African sun: In Angola, solar cells are already producing cleaner water. Canadian technology company Quest Water Solutions has teamed up with the Angolan government to develop and install drinking stations called “AQUAtaps,” which use solar energy to purify drinking water inside used shipping containers.
Quest hopes that after a successful pilot program, the AQUAtaps will be manufactured locally throughout Angola.
The technology is “really quite simple and very low maintenance,” according to Quest’s John Balanko. The shipping containers, with solar panels on top, contain large batteries which store energy. That electricity pumps water from a nearby river through sand and filters, then sterilizes the water with the same UV rays that feed the panels.
The AQUAtap fits nicely with the Angolan government’s “Agua para Todas” (water for all) initiative. Quest sells the equipment, and a two- year maintenance guarantee, to the government for a one-time fee, but it then belongs to the villagers. Once the program expands, Quest envisions local production jobs as well.
For Angolans, the AQUAtap project can bring clean water and local jobs with virtually no carbon emissions in the process. Now there’s a solution people can raise their glasses to.
RELATED CONTENT: “Cheers to clean drinking water”
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After years of neglect, a new generation of lenders is making microfinance work for Africa’s small farmers.
Traditional microfinance has never been particularly well suited to agriculture. With variable incomes that typically rise after harvests and taper off during the off-season, farmers are unable to keep up with the inflexible payment schedules that come with most microloans. Additionally, external factors such as weather, disease or price volatility can severely constrain farmers' incomes and ability to repay loans.
So, you're a poor farmer and want a flexible loan that fits your income? Too bad, most [microfinance institutions] MFIs say, try opening a kiosk.
The result has been an uneven expansion of financial services to "microentrepreneurs," even as access to credit has dried up for Africa’s small farmers. But the focus on providing credit to microenterprises is helping to fuel an unsustainable explosion of "traders and hawkers" in urban areas. With farming becoming less attractive, the migration of rural Africans to cities and towns in search of new opportunities is leading to overcrowding, unemployment, and conflict.
In response, the One Acre Fund is proposing a new type of microfinance designed specifically for Africa’s small farmers. Named this winter in The Global Journal's list of the Top 100 Best NGOs in the World, OAF works with farmers across Kenya, Rwanda, and Burundi to provide a package of agricultural goods and services that includes training, credit, access to inputs, and insurance.
"This is a comprehensive package that generates more income for the very poor," explained OAF employee Margaret Vernon. "With this spending power, farmers can choose for themselves how to improve their lives."
It works. The average OAF farm triples its harvest and doubles its profit after joining the program.
Far from being a handout, farmers that work with OAF must pay for its services. The organization provides flexible loans to farmers and supplies inputs to local markets, allowing farmers to purchase their own seeds and fertilizers. After providing training in cropping techniques and input utilization, OAF expects farmers to repay their loans at harvest time.
"Because we’re charging them for the good or service it means we can [ensure financial] sustainability as an organization," says Stephanie Hanson, director of policy and research at OAF.
The loan terms are what make the One Acre model work for farmers. Rather than forcing farmers to make regular payments, OAF allows farmers to repay loans at their own convenience. The only stipulation is that farmers must finish repaying their loans at harvest time. In the case of a major crop failure caused by drought, disease, or a natural disaster, OAF offers farmers the opportunity to purchase insurance. In extreme cases, the organization will even forgive the loan in order to allow farmers to feed their families.
Investments in African agriculture have the potential to spur rural development, but a lack of access to credit, inputs, training, and markets means small farmers continue to live in poverty. By designing its services specifically for smallholder agriculture in Africa, OAF hopes to change that.
"You can get a Coca-Cola, often cold, in nearly any rural village in Kenya," offers OAF founder Andrew Youn. "We want to make basic agriculture technologies, finance, and training every bit as ubiquitous."
Microfinance – when targeted to smallholder agriculture – can improve the lives of rural Africans, stem the tide of urbanization, and increase food security across the continent. OAF currently serves 75,000 farm families, and plans to expand to over 200,000 families in the next three years. With a 98 percent repayment rate on its loans in fall 2011 that rivals even the highest-performing MFIs, OAF is proving that microloans for agriculture are possible.
The question now is whether the One Acre Fund will inspire other MFIs to follow suit.
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Every year, the UN chooses a social or environmental issue of global importance – such as biodiversity (2010) or microcredit (2005) or sanitation (2008) – to bring attention to the issue or issues, and to drive resources toward solving them. This year, 2012, is the International Year of Sustainable Energy for All.
The UN estimates that 1.4 billion people have no access to electricity, either because energy services are not available or because they cannot afford to pay for them. While that sounds inconvenient to people who can switch on a light bulb or charge their cell phones at any time, the need for energy is about much more than convenience.
Access to energy affects how much time a child can spend on his or her homework; it determines how a family cooks (which has implications for health – traditional cookstoves, for example, are big contributors to respiratory illness) and how much time is spent on this task; and it impacts a person's ability to earn income, whether it's light to keep a shop open at night or fuel to operate an irrigation pump on a farm.
This last piece is the focus of Poor People's Energy Outlook, a new report from Practical Action, a UK-based organization that uses technology to challenge poverty and puts out a major report on various aspects of energy access annually or every other year. The 2010 report focused on energy in the home, an area that covers lighting, cooking, space heating and cooling, and information and communications. The 2012 report focuses on the impacts that access to energy has on the ability of the world’s poorest people to earn a decent living.
Ultimately, it argues that when poor people have the sustainable energy access that is necessary for enterprise activities, it becomes possible to escape the cycle of poverty that has trapped so many people around the world.
For examples of the crucial role that energy plays, the Practical Action report points to a grocery shop in Nepal where the owner makes his income from charging cell phones and selling, in addition to standard items like bread and candy, cold drinks from his refrigerator. But an energy crisis has brought cuts to the regional power supply, and the owner has had to close the shop early and cannot sell cold drinks, both of which have reduced his income.
Power cuts have also hurt Subash, who runs a small carpentry workshop in the same village as the grocery store. Since he can no longer support his family also because of power cuts, he said his wife and children have had to start rearing cattle and finding firewood to help out.
Stories just like this one are countless around the world, where if one piece in the larger puzzle of economic struggle is misplaced, the whole game is thrown off. If the income-generator of the family cannot make ends meet, responsibilities often fall to children, who then miss days of school, or an education entirely – one of the factors that makes poverty a hard-to-overcome cycle.
Albert Butare, Rwanda's former Minister of State for Infrastructure, drives this home further: East African economies are driven largely by agriculture and small enterprises, which are not major energy consumers.
"This makes it less attractive for private enterprises to offer services in this sector, which compounds the problem of having limited infrastructure available," he says in the report. "Without infrastructure (including clean energy services), it remains very difficult to persuade skilled people to move back into rural areas, leading to a shortage of trained teachers, nurses, engineers etc. in rural areas."
Drew Corbyn, energy consultant for Practical Action, explained that access to energy is not a miracle solution – that energy alone cannot solve people's problems, but that it's necessary before other steps can truly help.
"Energy is not the be-all and end-all. It is an enabler. To realize increased incomes, you need many other factors," he said, such as business skills, access to markets, appropriate policies, and regulations.
But the bottom line, he said, is "Energy access is a prerequisite for development. Energy is important for all development goals. It's required in the home, in enterprise, and community service."
And because energy is required in these different realms of life, Practical Action doesn't prioritize which energy needs should be met first. Instead, the organization advocates what it calls "total energy access."
This approach contrasts with that of other organizations that Corbyn said look at the supply side of the issue and define energy access in terms of grid electricity or use of kerosene, for example.
"If we only consider energy access as using, say, grid connection – so for example, you discount a solar lantern or a solar home system as having energy access – I think all of the money would then flow to areas which are easily connected to the grid," he said. "It would potentially mean that a lot of the efforts and resources aren't going into technologies which are actually a lot more appropriate for certain poor households and that can meet poor people's energy service needs.
"I think there is a danger if the definition of energy access is too narrow or too focused on grid electricity or just simply modern fuels – then the full range of benefits won't be realized," he added. "We're looking at the way that energy is used, in terms of the lighting and cooking, which actually brings you much closer to the potential development benefits."
Corbyn is optimistic that the UN's initiative this year will drive attention to the issue of energy access, which was not one of the Millennium Development Goals and has been left out of much of the global conversation around poverty and development. The Poor People's Energy Outlook report lays out a framework for action that Practical Action calls an energy access ecosystem. There are specific recommendations in the report for governments, civil society, international institutions, and the donor and private sectors.
It was something Pam Washek says she’d never experienced before.
When Ms. Washek was diagnosed with cancer in 2002, she was thrust into a cycle of daily radiation treatments. Cooking meals and getting her three daughters where they needed to go were suddenly much tougher tasks. But Washek says neighbors and friends immediately stepped forward and took care of meals every day for her children and organized rides to get them where they needed to go.
Her friend, Jean Seidon, was also going through cancer treatment and experiencing a similar outpouring of support. Together Washek and Ms. Seidon were inspired to create the Wayland Angel Food Network, an organization helping families who had suddenly been thrown into a crisis and needed help with everyday tasks.
Washek says the organization had 35 members when it first began, mostly people who had helped her family.
As services expanded beyond cooking, the name was changed to Wayland Angels. Then, when Seidon died in 2006 and the organization had spread to other communities, Washek decided to rename it Neighbor Brigade. She currently serves as the organization’s executive director.
Through the nonprofit Neighbor Brigade, volunteers members in each community chapter make meals, give rides, run errands, and occasionally do light household tasks like folding laundry or shoveling a driveway for families in crisis. The help is completely free of charge with no strings attached.
“We have many grateful recipients,” Washek says of the organization, which currently has 24 active chapters, all in Massachusetts, and 2,952 volunteers. “Often, recipients will become volunteers. It's their way of paying it forward.”
She said Neighbor Brigade is even more vital today when people may not know their next-door neighbors.
“People aren't as connected to neighbors as they were,” Washek says. “You're kind of on your own when you're hit with a crisis.”
Washek works to recruit leaders for new chapters and build relationships with hospitals, care centers, and other facilities in Massachusetts communities, so that doctors and staff members may recommend Neighbor Brigade to their patients. The organization has started receiving calls from patients at large hospitals like Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, she says. Neighbor Brigade plans to expand beyond Massachusetts this year, she adds.
Neighbor Brigade is unique because it provides other members of your community to help you, Washek says.
“I think that's different from some companies that provide these services, because it's a neighbor” who's doing the helping, she says. “It's like extended family.”
The Chronicle asked Michael Hoffman, chief executive of See3 Communications, a consulting company that helps nonprofits use video for advocacy and fundraising campaigns, to share lessons from the success of “Kony 2012,” the video about the African warlord Joseph Kony. His essay follows:
Invisible Children’s controversial “Kony 2012″ video has reached unprecedented heights for a social-cause video.
It has already received more than 100 million views on YouTube and Vimeo. The most amazing thing to many people is that the video is nearly 30 minutes long, which surely breaks the “rule” that online videos need to be short to be effective.
Starting From a Strong Base
It is important to understand that Invisible Children has been working for a decade building a strong, active, and passionate base of young supporters around the world. The San Diego advocacy group has one of the strongest social-media networks of any nonprofit in the world.
But Invisible Children also created a compelling video that inspired those supporters to watch it and share it. Why did it work?
Here are three reasons:
• The organization told its own story first, a story of how it developed passion for the issue, how its members came together, and why it is critical for its supporters to act. The video follows a storytelling pattern developed by Marshall Ganz, a lecturer at Harvard University and is taught by the New Organizing Institute. Mr. Ganz says this pattern uses three stories: the story of self, the story of us, and the story of now.
• It made the story simple. The issues in Northern Uganda are very complicated. But Invisible Children chose to simplify those issues by focusing the video on the story of one bad guy: Joseph Kony, head of the Lord’s Resistance Army, operating in Central Africa. The video places a strong focus on emotion, which, in turn, inspired many viewers to share it and take action.
• It made the viewer the hero. This video isn’t about Mr. Kony. It’s about the viewer and how that viewer can be the hero by taking action. In the video, Mr. Kony is portrayed as evil – as if he is a villain in a Batman movie. And if he is the evil villain, then you, the person fighting him, are the hero.
Running a city? Yeah, there’s an app for that.
Smart growth seems to have taken an evolutionary step in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. IBM has brought their Smart Cities concept to the former Brazilian capital, a model that uses information and communication technology to improve economic efficiency, thus enabling further development.
Services are carried out via the IBM Intelligent Operations Center. Think of it as a mission control for cities, white lab coats included. They are able to leverage real-time city information, anticipate problems, and coordinate available resources.
The system was originally integrated in Rio as a way to improve the city’s emergency response system following the 2010 floods. By using a forecasting system that synthesizes data from the river basin, topography surveys, historical rainfall logs, and radar feeds, the operations center is able to anticipate heavy rains, flash floods, landslides, power outages, and traffic hazards.
But the fun doesn’t stop there. IBM kicked things up a notch by fully integrating 30 city agencies into a single operations center, constantly tracking the pulse of city operations. By breaking down inter-organizational silos, they speed response and recovery time.
Residents can simply download an app to their smart phone or track city alerts via Facebook and Twitter. Car accident or traffic jam? Simply pull up the app and it will calculate the most efficient route based on current and predicted traffic patterns. City workers, meanwhile, can monitor emergency responses to the same event.
This prompts the questions: Why has this taken so long, and where else could it work?
Perhaps IBM's expertise made the difference in Rio. The computing giant is just one player in the expanding smart systems market, but the operations center (the only one of its kind) is its unique advantage. The logic is that if the Smart City model can work in a large city like Rio, especially during Carnaval, it can be applied anywhere. IBM has reported that it is already productizing the model and is able to scale it to small and medium-sized cities.
At the behest of IBM, Rio even installed a chief operating officer to oversee the operations center, allowing it to run autonomously.
Can you run a city like a business? Should you? Some residents of Rio are asking. Many are also concerned that smart technologies serve affluent neighborhoods better than Rio’s favelas, or slums.
With a price tag of $14 million for the IBM project, perhaps we should question whether cities should first invest in addressing basic infrastructure and economic disparities before installing a new operating system.
You can check out a demo of IBM’s Operation Center here.
In Zambia during the current planting season, a corn crop will go into the fields that begins the process of rapidly boosting vitamin A content by as much ten-fold – helping to address a nutritional deficiency that causes 250,000-500,000 children to go blind annually, most of them in Africa and Asia. In China, Kenya, and Madagascar, also this planting season, farmers will put out a crop of Artemisia annua that yields 20 to 30 percent more of the chemical compound artemisinin, the basis for what is now the world’s standard treatment for malaria.
Both improvements are happening because of fast-track breeding technology that promises to produce a 21st-century green revolution. It is already putting more food on tables – though it’s unclear whether it can add enough food to keep pace as the world’s human population booms to 9 billion people by 2050.
Fast-track breeding is also giving agronomists a remarkable tool for quickly adapting crops to climate change and the increasing challenges of drought, flooding, emerging diseases, and shifting agricultural zones. And it can help save lives: In the absence of prevention, half those victims of vitamin A deficiency now die shortly after going blind, according to the World Health Organization; and in 2010, lack of adequate treatment – meaning artemisinin – contributed to the deaths of 655,000 children from malaria.
The fast-track technology, called marker-assisted selection (MAS), or molecular breeding, takes advantage of rapid improvements in genetic sequencing, but avoids all the regulatory and political baggage of genetic engineering. Bill Freese, a science policy analyst with the Center for Food Safety, a nonprofit advocacy group, calls it “a perfectly acceptable tool. I don’t see any food safety issue. It can be a very useful technique if it’s used by breeders who are working in the public interest.”
Molecular breeding isn’t genetic engineering, a technology that has long alarmed critics on two counts. Its methods seem outlandish – taking genes from spiders and putting them in goats, or borrowing insect resistance from soil bacteria and transferring it into corn – and it has also seemed to benefit a handful of agribusiness giants armed with patents, at the expense of public interest.
By contrast, molecular breeding is merely a much faster and more efficient way of doing what nature and farmers have always done, by natural selection and artificial selection respectively: It takes existing genes that happen to be advantageous in a given situation and increases their frequency in a population.
In the past, farmers and breeders did it by walking around their fields and looking at individual plants or animals that seemed to have desirable traits, like greater productivity, or resistance to a particular disease. Then they went to work cross-breeding to see if they could tease out that trait and get it to appear reliably in subsequent generations. It could take decades, and success at breeding in one trait often meant bringing along some deleterious fellow traveler, or inadvertently breeding out some other essential trait.
Molecular breeding enables growers to get the improvements they want far more precisely, by zeroing in on the genes responsible for a given trait. If genetic engineering is a tool for “bludgeoning the genome,” as Cornell University researcher Susan McCouch puts it, what molecular breeding does instead is to “open a window” into how the genome works, enabling researchers to collaborate with it.
Sequencing the entire genome of a species is the first step, and this process, which cost millions of dollars a decade ago, is down now to the low thousands. Next, researchers sort out which genes are responsible for a given function, the bottleneck in the process so far, though McCouch says it becomes faster and cheaper with each new species that gets sequenced, because nature tends to employ the same mechanisms from one species to another. Finally, researchers map out markers – bits of genetic material that are linked to those genes, to flag whether or not the desired genes are present in a given individual.
“It’s not uncommon for a company to want to combine 10 or 20 traits in a variety,” says Harry Klee, a specialist in tomato breeding at the University of Florida in Gainesville. In the past, to get the perfect combination of traits using conventional methods, “you would have to put out millions of plants in the field.” Instead, breeders typically simplified, narrowing down their wish list to a few key traits.
With tomatoes, for instance, as many as 30 or 40 different genes influence taste – too many variables to juggle. So shelf life and appearance inevitably trumped taste. “But this is where molecular breeding really pays off,” says Klee. Breeders now use genetic markers to automatically screen one-inch-tall seedlings and immediately weed out the 99 percent they don’t want, cutting years off the breeding timetable. That makes it easier to get to desirable cross-breed quickly – and also stack up a complex array of traits in a single strain. As a result, says Klee, even mass-produced supermarket tomatoes should actually taste good five years from now.
In the two decades since researchers first proposed molecular breeding in 1989, high costs and the difficult work of discovery have largely confined the technology to big companies working in commodity crops like corn and soybeans. But as costs fall even faster than Moore’s Law would predict and genetic methods become routine, researchers are now also applying them to the so-called orphan crops on which much of the developing world depends. Molecular breeding is not as effective so far for crops that propagate clonally, including such tropical staples as cassava, sweet potato, yams, bananas, and plantains. But for rice and many other crops, it enables breeders to quickly tailor a plant to a particular environment or taste.
“Every village has its own favorite rice,” says Ian Graham, director of the University of York’s Centre for Novel Agricultural Products. “The challenge is if you come up with a great trait, how on earth do you put that trait into all these local varieties easily, economically, and quickly? Sequencing gives you the tool to do it. That’s the secret of really making molecular breeding work for the developing world.” There are still economic barriers, he says, but equipment to set up a basic laboratory in a developing country “is on the order of $100,000 instead of millions.” Thus genetic methods have the potential to make breeding more local, more democratic, and aimed at enhancing biological and agricultural diversity, instead of stripping it away.
The Green Revolution of the 1960s largely achieved its huge leap in productivity by streamlining plants and farming methods to work across hundreds of millions of hectares, regardless of local tastes or environments. It re-designed plants for high-input industrial agriculture, so they could respond to an intensive regimen of fertilizers, water, and pesticides, regardless of the environment. But the molecular Green Revolution will work, says McCouch, by fine-tuning crops to perform in a particular environment, minus additional input. Farmers are backing off growing rice in water, for instance, “because they can’t afford the water, there isn’t enough water in the world.”
Molecular breeding will also build crops, McCouch says, to “respond constructively to changes in the environment that we cannot predict,”like flooding and drought. “A really big challenge in discovery genetics right now,” she says, “is to understand how plants sense environments: How do they count number of days? How do they count the number hours of daylight? How do they know when to grow and when to hold their breath if they’re underwater? Once we make the discovery of which genes allow the plants to sense these things, then we can do marker-assisted selection” and move those genes into local varieties that already have the other traits farmers want.
The potential for molecular breeding to help farmers adapt to a rapidly changing world became evident last month when Nature Biotechnology published an article about rice breeding in Japan. Geneticists at the Iwate Biotechnology Research Center 130 miles north of Fukushima were already using molecular breeding to improve the cold-tolerant rice variety preferred by farmers there, when last year’s earthquake hit. The subsequent tsunami left a huge swath of rice paddies – 58,000 acres, representing almost a fifth of the nation’s rice supply – contaminated with too much salt for conventional farming. The researchers promptly switched their focus to salt-tolerant genes. Instead of taking five years to produce a suitable crossbreed by conventional methods, they now hope to deliver those seeds to affected farmers in just two years, for the 2014 growing season.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Richard Conniff, a 2012 Alicia Patterson Journalism Fellow, is a National Magazine Award-winning writer whose articles have appeared in Time, Smithsonian, The Atlantic, The New York Times Magazine, National Geographic, and other publications. He is the author of several books, including The Species Seekers: Heroes, Fools, and the Mad Pursuit of Life on Earth. In previous articles for Yale Environment 360, he has written about the decline of wildlife in Africa and about Namibia’s community-based wildlife management system.
These five women are fighting poverty in a serious way, but they’re not handing out aid. We hope to see them scale up their models this year and make an even bigger impact.
Leila Janah – Leila knows that what poor people really want is a job: steady income that pays for food, school, and medicine. But American companies that "outsource" work to poorer countries aren't exactly popular right now. To Leila, the concept of “microwork” isn’t exactly outsourcing, either. She founded Samasource, a social enterprise that takes simple, computer-based tasks from companies like Intuit, Google, and LinkedIn and turns them into jobs for poor people in places like Kenya, Haiti, and India. These are tasks that would have been done poorly by a machine or not at all. For example, tagging user-generated content would be difficult for a computer, but the job also wouldn’t pay enough for a US employee to make a comparable living. For Haitians who typically make $1 or $2 a day, a job that pays $5 a day can make all the difference in the world (and can buy a lot more in Port-Au-Prince, Haiti, than it can in New York City). Starting the year with a fresh grant from Google, watch Leila and Samasource scale the model this year. You might just see a meaningful way to reduce poverty and people rethinking what "outsourcing" means.
- Follow Leila Janah: @leila_c
- Follow Samasource: @Samasource
- Samasource website
- New York Times Opinionator blog: Outsourcing isn’t (always) evil
Esther Duflo - When you think of a wonky, numbers-obsessed economist, skeptically testing and retesting hypotheses, add a French accent and you’ve got Esther Duflo. When Esther spends hour upon hour with her nose in a stack of data, she’s not doing it to publish her work in a journal that will pick up dust on the shelf. She’s solving global poverty. Esther is a founder of the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL), an MIT-based think tank that says the only poverty solutions worth continuing are those that work. And we only know what works if we test it. That’s not to say it’s not worth pursuing new, innovative solutions. On the contrary, that’s exactly what we should try when Esther’s team finds evidence that a traditional policy isn’t actually working. 2011 saw the publication of Esther’s enthralling book, "Poor Economics," written with her partner in poverty-fighting crime, Abhijit V. Banerjee. We think 2012 is the year the Poverty Action Lab sees some serious action.
- Follow Esther’s team: @pooreconomics
- Poverty Action Lab website
- Check out Esther’s interactive book website
Jacqueline Novogratz - Jacqueline’s organization, Acumen Fund, has been around for a decade, but watch her this year because "slow money" is gaining speed. Where most traditional investors want to bet big with sure-fire wins, Jacqueline’s idea of "patient capital" means returns won’t be quick and they won’t be big, but they’ll transform how we fight poverty. Her group identifies smart entrepreneurs who see the poor as customers who can make choices for themselves rather than as recipients of aid, and invests up to $2.5 million over five to seven years in such projects. For example, Acumen Fund invested a cool million into Global Easy Water Products, a for-profit company that developed an inexpensive, water-saving drip irrigation system sold to poor farmers. The company used the funds to scale up its production and has sold 350,000 systems, creating jobs and significantly increasing farmers’ incomes. If you want to finance something worthwhile and get a big social impact (if a slightly smaller future return), the results of being patient are worth it.
- Follow Jacqueline: @jnovogratz and @acumenfund
- The Acumen Fund’s 10 year anniversary website
- Jacqueline's op-ed in BusinessWeek, The case for patient capital
Gabi Zedlmayer - You may know Hewlett-Packard for its information technology solutions, but soon you may know it for transforming the way companies leverage their expertise to alleviate poverty. It's been called "shared value," the "new capitalism," and "social investment." Gabi calls it her passion. She leads HP's global social innovations team, which combines its most innovative tech know-how with the brightest minds from nonprofit and government sectors to find real solutions to the world's most complex problems. Gabi's team is figuring out ways to bridge the so-called "digital divide" and intersect shareholder and social value. In concrete terms, Gabi's team has been working with small business entrepreneurs from Abujaq, Nigeria, to Tikamgarh, India, and recently figured out a way to instantly diagnose HIV in infants in Kenya. We're betting on Gabi to be this year's driving force in revolutionizing how private companies view people at the bottom of the wealth pyramid as partners in development.
- Follow Gabi's team: @hpglobalcitizen
- Watch Gabi speak at DLD-Women 2011
- HP's Global Social Innovation website
Shainoor Khoja - In a country with 34 ATMs, cash is king. But it's not secure. Shainoor most recently led the social responsibility team at Afghanistan's largest telecommunications company, Roshan, using the group's technology edge to address her country's massive poverty challenges. The company created the world's second mobile money platform (behind Kenya's M-PESA), which has revolutionized financial transparency: For example, police officers are being paid their salaries without fear of cash-related security risks or the books being "fixed." Mobile money also boosts women's empowerment: Women can now be employed as microloan officers since they don't have to carry cash. In a country known for its lack of transparency and an extremely conservative stance on women's rights, Shainoor's position is unprecedented on many levels.
- Watch Shainoor speak about inspiring peace through social entrepreneurship at Social Venture Network's 2011 Member Gathering
- Roshan's website
- Read about Roshan's innovative telemedicine project, linking rural communities with urban health centers via e-consultation, wireless video conferencing and mobile.
Anne Thomas is a teacher who was living in Sendai, Japan, at the time of the massive earthquake and tsunami. A letter that she sent to her friends and family, describing resilience and cooperation amid the devastation, went viral.
"If someone has water running in their home, they put out sign so people can come to fill up their jugs and buckets," she wrote. "People keep saying, 'Oh, this is how it used to be in the old days when everyone helped one another.' . . . Somehow as I experience the events happening now in Japan, I can feel my heart opening very wide. My brother asked me if I felt so small because of all that is happening. I don't. Rather, I feel as part of something happening that much larger than myself. This wave of birthing (worldwide) is hard, and yet magnificent."
Still in Sendai, Anne kept writing letters, which are now being published in a book. A year after the tsunami, she sends this update:
Dear Family and Friends,
It seems hard to believe it has been a year since the Great Japan Earthquake and Tsunami came rumbling through, causing so much havoc and dismay. So much has happened since that tumultuous time, and so much has yet to be done. But where are we now? How are things one year later?
Change is very uneven. So the way you would answer that depends on where you are. In Sendai, life bustles. Construction is going on everywhere. Old buildings are being torn down or repaired. New places are springing up. Water and sewage systems are being replaced and roads repaired. It is definitely a city rebuilding itself, and stands proud in the process.
The magnificent supportive beauty so overtly apparent a year ago is still with us. But the general feeling now is one of deep sadness, or of waiting.
But step outside the city proper or look deeper than physical reconstruction, and things can be very different. Last year, of course, there were seas and mountains of rubble, thousands of people in shelters, and rescue work in full swing. Now much, but not all, of the immediate debris has been cleared away, leaving huge tracts of empty space with only frames of houses left to show where thriving neighborhoods once stood. Evacuation centers have reverted to their original purposes – schools, hospitals, and community centers. And now temporary houses have sprung up along the entire coast and within cities. Some are in small groups with a few families, others almost like villages. But the clearing up of the debris continues almost non-stop, and the remains of bodies are still being uncovered.
Happily, ever so slowly people are being allowed to open temporary shops, housed in structures similar to the new homes. These small establishments are in clusters, making small restaurant alleys or teeny arcades of shops for fish, vegetables, or tea.
“We are so thankful for this opportunity to work again,” one man told me. “It gives us hope. But we can be here only two years. Then we have to stand more on our own. Can we do it? I don’t know. The entire backbone of our economy, fishing, has been broken. It will take a long time, say 10 years or more, before we are back to where we were. That is, if we ever get there. Our future is so uncertain. We have today. Only that. I have this shop. I hope it does well. I hope we all do well. We are supporting each other. But we need other people’s support, too. Thank you for coming to my shop today.”
Other people are not as fortunate. The economic situation in this region is very depressed. Thousands are still without work; hundreds are homeless. Displaced people from Fukushima have flocked to Sendai and live in rickety old dormitories, waiting, hoping to someday be allowed back home. But the fishing and farming industries, the basis of that once-welcoming prefecture, are in shambles. People just shake their heads and say, “poor souls” whenever Fukushima is mentioned.
Depression is on the rise, and suicides. So volunteers are being trained as “Listening Counselors.” They go and simply listen, lending support as people pour out their woes and try to work through the confusions of their current lives.
Everywhere there is still a strong urge to support and help others. The magnificent supportive beauty so overtly apparent a year ago is still with us. But the general feeling now is one of deep sadness, or of waiting. Sadness and wonder. Waiting and determination. And also hope that comes from the strong belief that if we try hard enough, we can make things better. And we make every effort to find the courage to accept what life gives us and find reasons to be grateful.
Coupled with the darkness and depression of these times, there is a sense of promise. Priorities have shifted. Values are more basic, more connected to people. Gratitude for small things once taken for granted finds a place in every home.
The other day I went to visit friends and their new baby. “She is our future,” they proudly said to me. “And she is our contribution to Japan’s future, too. That is why we named this teeny sparkle of hope what we did: Niina, “Encircled in a Rainbow.”
• This article originally appeared in YES! Magazine. Anne Thomas adapted this letter for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. Anne is the author of Letters from the Ground to the Heart – Beauty Amid Destruction, a collection of her letters in the days immediately following the Japan earthquake, and some of the responses she received from people around the world. Proceeds from the book go to the Sendai Yomawari Group, a long-established organization serving the needs of Japan’s homeless, a population which is now exploding.
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