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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.

Environmental activists promoting the use of solar and wind energy engage with locals on a Durban, South Africa, beach last November during a UN conference on climate change. Little by little Africans are finding alternative ways to meet urgent demands for electricity. (Mike Hutchings/Reuters/File)

Three ways Africans are making cheap do-it-yourself electricity

By Erik MandellGlobal Envision / 04.12.12

Across Africa, simple carbon-free technologies and local creative partnerships have the electrical juices flowing, expanding grid access and prosperity.

In countries like Kenya and Tanzania, 80 to 90 percent of the population lacks access to electricity from an established grid, according to Fast Company. Although electric grids exist in most urban areas, connecting to them and paying monthly bills is too expensive for most residents. And in rural areas, access is even rarer.

For the 580 million people without grid access on the continent, that means resorting to kerosene lamps that harm health and the environment for meager amounts of light, and walking long distances for simple tasks like charging mobile phones. And as mobile technology use skyrockets in Africa, it's increasingly recognized as an important anti-poverty tool. Being off the grid not only keeps people in the dark. It also keeps people poor.

IN PICTURES: Solar power: Harnessing the sun's energy

But three innovative approaches aim to brighten the future by expanding affordable grid access and harnessing renewable energy sources with minimal carbon emissions:

1. Turbines from scrap give new meaning to "local power." A Kenyan company is finding power in scrapyards. While solar energy is abundant in Africa, and solar panels are generally cheaper than wind turbines, Kenya-based Access:energy is making wind power work in rural regions. Its trick? Funded by NGOs, donors, and consumers, Access:energy teaches locals to build reliable turbines using existing scrap metal and car parts already present in communities.

That means no need to import or transport materials, and it creates design and manufacturing jobs in rural communities. Turbines are built where they are needed, minimizing the cost of tapping into existing electric grids or transporting solar panels over long distances. And replacement parts, when needed, are easily accessible.

For the 30 million Kenyans lacking electricity, Access:energy believes “the easiest way to get that power to residents is to teach them to make it,” according to Fast Company. So the organization is training local technicians to build the Night Heron turbine. One turbine can cheaply power up to 50 rural homes.

With fully local sourcing, Access:energy says it has created “the first commercially viable zero-import wind turbine,” while creating jobs, reducing waste, and increasing off-the-grid energy.

2. Solar partnership aims to brighten the future of R&D. Despite abundant sunshine on the energy-starved continent, a lack of funding and coordination has slowed African solar research to a crawl. But a new research-oriented network that now includes close to 200 scientists from 22 African and 10 non-African nations hopes to build the connections to turn that around.

ANSOLE (the African Network for Solar Energy) launched following a 2010 conference in Tunisia when scientist Daniel Egbe of Cameroon introduced unacquainted colleagues working on solar energy research in different African countries. "I said, 'let's see if us Africans can sit down and work together'," Egbe told the Science and Development Network. "We realised that we are working in related fields of solar energy, and that's how ANSOLE materialised."

According to Mammo Muchie, founding editor of the African Journal of Science, Technology, Innovation, and Development, “solar power will become the major renewable energy source on the continent only by organised research, training, design, and engineering.”

That’s where ANSOLE comes in. “Connecting researchers is key, especially in a field where the continent's scientists have little interaction with those in richer countries, a continent which is expensive and time-consuming to traverse,” according to the Science and Development network. The ANSOLE website now allows scientists to start new collaborations online, join together on funding proposals, and offers webinars at African universities.

"ANSOLE can help the movement of students from one country to the other, from poor countries to rich countries – in this way information will start to circulate between institutions," Egbe says.

3. "Netflix for batteries" delivers power where it’s needed. Sometimes, the cheapest way to get electricity into a home is to carry it. Tanzanian entrepreneur Solomon Faraji of EGG-energy has worked with co-founder Jamie Yeng to develop a low-cost subscription service for small, rechargeable batteries to provide electricity for individual homes and businesses.

"We want to move power in an inexpensive way from the grid and into homes and businesses," Yeng told the BBC. And the subscription service is inexpensive, costing around $80 for the initial installation and $60 for a yearly subscription, compared to between $400 and $800 to be connected to the existing grid. The installation includes wiring a home or business for full power access, and then allows the occupants to buy the subscription for the battery, which connects directly to the newly wired power system. 

EGG, like Netflix, enables customers to exchange a drained battery for a fully charged one at charging and distribution stations as its charge runs out after three to 10 days. Then, returned batteries are recharged and re-distributed to other subscribers.

Two of the three existing EGG charging stations are connected to existing grid transmission lines, while the other is solar-powered. While the company hopes to increase the number of solar charging stations, using existing transmission networks allows EGG to “bridge that last-mile gap” between the grid and disconnected homes and businesses, according to the BBC.

And for a fraction of the cost of traditional grid access, this Netflix-like battery-sharing system is helping more people with limited connectivity see the light.

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

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Lauren Bush Lauren founded the Feed Projects, which uses the sale of fashion accessories to promote the UN World Food Programme, Unicef, and other charities. (Chris Council/The Aspen Daily News/AP/FILE)

Young entrepreneurs do good - and make a profit

By Scott HendersonThe Chronicle of Philanthropy / 04.11.12

The growth of new business models that both turn a profit and do good gives those who are entering the professional world a new choice.

College graduates, for example, no longer have to choose between a career path of making profits and one of doing good. They can choose to do both.

I attended the recent Social Enterprise Conference at Harvard University to meet with young entrepreneurs who have started hybrid ventures that combine business principles with social good. I was particularly struck by the young social entrepreneurs who were a part of a keynote panel.

All of them have created interesting ventures that seek to address problems they’ve encountered in their efforts to make a difference. And their stories offer an interesting look at how and why some people are turning their passion for changing the world into for-profit ventures.

The panel’s moderator was Daniel Epstein, founder of the Unreasonable Institute, which gathers 25 entrepreneurs from around the globe in Boulder, Colo., for an intensive six-week summer program that aims to accelerate their social ventures.

Mr. Epstein is an avid believer in entrepreneurship – he had already created three ventures by the time he got his undergraduate degree. He started two others before creating the Unreasonable Institute, a social venture to gather others like him who wanted to use profit to drive change.

Joining him on the panel were three other social entrepreneurs:

Kavita Shukla, an inventor and the founder Fenugreen, the producer of FreshPaper, a product that extends the freshness of produce. Revenues generated through sales help to support the research and development of more solutions to further reduce the global issue of food spoilage.

Taylor Conroy, the creator of a turnkey online fundraising platform that has been successfully tested and will be made available for any individual or charity to use when it’s completed.

Lauren Bush Lauren, co-founder of Feed Projects, a company that makes and sells luxury fashion handbags and other items to help raise awareness and money for the UN World Food Program, Unicef, and other charities.

In listening to their panel conversation and speaking with each of them afterward, I was struck by the fact that none of them followed a traditional route to address problems. Specifically, Ms. Shukla initially wanted to give FreshPaper away as a charitable venture. But she couldn’t find any organizations interested in supporting it. 

Ms. Lauren, a fashion design student, had the original idea for the Feed 1 bag while she was an ambassador for the World Food Program, but she found the organization wasn’t equipped to lead the effort.

In both cases, they found more success selling their products and using the proceeds to help promote change. 

While some bemoan the continual growth of the number of nonprofits and others are suspicious of the motives of for-profit social enterprises, these young entrepreneurs’ stories paint a different picture.

All of these ventures share the same desire: to create a positive social impact. While the routes are different, the goal is the same.

Perhaps it’s time for us to recognize that the proliferation of new nonprofits and social ventures is more a reflection of increasing social needs and the incumbent organizations’ inability to meet those needs using existing structures.

What do you think? What role can social entrepreneurs play in solving social issues? Is it possible to create social impact if you also want to make a profit?

This article originally appeared at The Chronicle of Philanthropy.

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Environmental activists dressed as what they called 'toxic beauties' protest against unsafe cosmetics during a demonstration in Manila, The Philippines, last year. The activists donned umbrella hats with boxes of recalled skin bleaching products to dramatize the health effects caused by the use of hazardous cosmetics such as mercury-laced skin whitening creams, according to the organizers. (Romeo Ranoco/Reuters/File)

GoodGuide and others use technology to help turn consumers green

By Marc GuntherYale Environment 360 / 04.10.12

The way Dara O’Rourke tells the story, the idea for GoodGuide came to him when he was slathering some suntan lotion onto his three-year-old daughter’s face.

O’Rourke, an associate professor of environmental and labor policy at University of California, Berkeley, wondered about the ingredients in Coppertone Water Babies; he did some research and learned it contained oxybenzone, a potential skin irritant. Later, O’Rourke found out that Johnson’s Baby Shampoo contained trace amounts of 1,4-dioxane, a probable human carcinogen.

“It shocked me,” he says, “that I basically knew nothing about the products I was bringing into my own house.”

O’Rourke started GoodGuide to plug that information gap. A five-year-old company backed by $10 million in venture capital, GoodGuide employs about 20 people, including environmental scientists, chemists, toxicologists, and nutritionists, who rate more than 165,000 products, including personal care items, household cleaners, food, toys, appliances, and electronics. Each product gets a numerical rating from 1 to 10 in three categories – health, environment, and society; the ratings are then made available on GoodGuide’s website, on Facebook, and on smartphones.

O’Rourke describes GoodGuide as a social enterprise, meaning the firm has a purpose that goes beyond making money: It aims to persuade consumers to vote with their wallets for environmentally friendly products and companies, and thereby help tackle big problems, including climate change, biodiversity loss, and industrial pollution.

“There definitely is a growing percentage of consumers who are aware and who care and who are seeking out products that have better environmental, social, and health attributes,” O’Rourke says. “We view those consumers who care as point of leverage over these big, big systems.” These “conscious consumers,” as they’re sometimes called, are important to the work of activist groups who bring pressure on corporations to reform their environmental or social practices; companies feel compelled to respond because they don’t want to alienate even a small share of their customers or potential customers.

It’s a reasonable theory of change. But does it work? Are there enough conscious consumers to make an impact? Shoppers may tell market researchers that they want to buy “greener” products – but can they be motivated to act?

Questions like those face not just O’Rourke and GoodGuide, but many companies and nonprofits that are betting on the power of green consumers. Greenpeace, for example, rates the world’s largest electronics companies on their sustainability practices with the hope that consumers will reward leaders and punish laggards. (This tactic is known in the NGO world as “rank ‘em and spank ‘em.”) Similarly, nonprofit Climate Counts scores big corporations on their efforts to mitigate climate change and urges consumers “to use their choices and voices” to pressure more companies to act. Taking a slightly different approach, is a shopping website that positions itself a “trusted source for green products.”

The most ambitious effort of all, a global initiative known as The Sustainability Consortium – which received startup money from Walmart and now includes retailers, consumer products companies, and universities – is building scientific tools to measure and report on the lifecycle impact of thousands of products; but its progress has been painfully slow.

No one doubts that green consumers can make difference. They can be credited for the success of a slew of small and mid-sized U. companies like Annie’s Homegrown, Seventh Generation, and Stonyfield Farm that have built brands imbued with environmental goodness. (Annie’s, best known for its organic mac and cheese, had sales of nearly $120 million in 2011 and had a successful IPO last month.)

Jeffrey Hollender, the former CEO of green-cleaning company Seventh Generation, says the success of these socially responsible insurgents has changed the practices of big companies. SC Johnson, for instance, listed all of the ingredients in its products only after Seventh Generation had done so. “Successful companies have learned to be incredibly sensitive to consumers,” Hollender says.

Since the launch of GoodGuide in 2007, O’Rourke says, more than 12 million people have visited the company’s website and used its mobile applications. Companies are paying attention, too, and taking steps to improve their product scores. “Basically, all of the consumer products companies are calling us up and want to interact,” O’Rourke says. While it’s difficult to trace any specific change to GoodGuide, Johnson & Johnson and Procter & Gamble have reformulated their shampoos to reduce toxins, including 1,4-dioxane. And Clorox created Green Works, a line of cleaning products on which it has partnered with the Sierra Club.

In opinion surveys, large majorities of consumers consistently tell researchers that they care about environmental and social issues. But the numbers that really count – those at the cash register – tell a different tale. While hybrid cars are trendy, their market share peaked in 2009, at less than 3 percent of all new vehicles sold. Green laundry detergents and household cleaners make up less than 5 percent of sales in their categories, industry insiders say. Organic foods provide an impressive growth story – their sales have ramped up from $1 billion in 1990 to $26.7 billion in 2010, according to the Organic Trade Association; but their popularity is driven more by health concerns than by environmental awareness.

This debate isn’t new. Joel Makower, the founder of media company GreenBiz, is skeptical about the power of green consumers – to whom he has been paying close attention since 1991 when he was co-author of a book, The Green Consumer. “A small percentage of consumers, by changing their habits, can move markets,” Makower says. “It’s an incredibly compelling notion. I just haven’t seen it in the market.”

The idea of buying green simply doesn’t seem to drive consumer behavior, Makower notes. “Why we can’t move people to a greener household cleaner or a recycled bathroom tissue or an energy efficient light bulb in greater numbers than we’ve seen so far is one of those enduring mysteries,” he says.

In an interview at GoodGuide’s offices in San Francisco, O’Rourke admits that the company still has a lot to prove. (The 44-year-old academic is now chief sustainability officer at GoodGuide; the board hired George Consagra, a longtime technology executive, as CEO last year.) “I want to be honest about hard this is,” O’Rourke tells me. “Originally we thought that information will set you free. But we’re going up against millions of dollars of marketing.”

And yet marketing isn’t what it used to be, he notes. No longer can companies control their message. More than a decade ago, O’Rourke learned firsthand how putting a spotlight on corporate malfeasance can drive change. As a graduate student at Berkeley in 1997, he was researching pollution from factories in Vietnam when he came across a leaked internal document about a Nike shoe supplier. It showed that workers were exposed to carcinogens that exceeded legal standards, suffered from respiratory problems, and were forced to work 65 hours for just $10 a week. He provided his findings to The New York Times and posted a report on the Internet, setting off a controversy that led to a turnaround at Nike, which is now seen as a corporate leader on environmental and social issues.

His experience with Nike “showed both the potential of a new way to distribute information, and, for me, how important it is to get my research out to the public,” O’Rourke says. “GoodGuide is basically an extension of that.” 

GoodGuide began with a mobile phone app that required consumers to photograph bar codes to get data on individual products. It then posted reams of information on its website. Now it offers a popular iPhone app, as well as software called a Transparency Toolbar that attaches to a Web browser. When shopping online at Amazon, Walmart, Target, and other sites, shoppers can see how products perform, according to GoodGuide, on issues they care about. A GoodGuide app can also ride atop Facebook, rating the products and companies in any ads that appear. GoodGuide intends to make money by providing specialized data to retailers or institutional buyers, such as hospitals; it currently generates revenues when consumers go through GoodGuide’s website or toolbar to make purchases on Amazon.

The company’s goal is to “get into the flow of the shopping experience and try to provide the right information at the right moment,” O’Rourke says. GoodGuide has offered to make its data available for display on supermarket and drugstore shelves, but so far it has found no takers. Some retailers may worry about how their store brands would perform; others make money by selling prime shelf space to specific brands, so negative ratings could get in the way of that business.

Still, it’s only going to get harder to keep consumers in the dark. Environmental groups and consumers are pressing to learn more about how and where things are made. Campaigns around palm oil in Kit-Kat bars, BPA in baby bottles, and, most recently, the ammonia-treated ground beef extender known as “pink slime” have all triggered rapid reactions from business.

“Spikes of information, or misinformation, in social media can pressure business practices in a big way,” says Jonathan Yohannan, an executive vice president at Cone Communications.
 In such instances, the consumer doesn’t need to act. Merely the fear of exposure and a backlash can spur change. Says O’Rourke: “Transparency is moving forward. That’s unstoppable. Our big bet is that transparency is going to motivate change.” It’s too soon to say whether that bet will pay off.

Marc Gunther is a contributing editor at Fortune, a senior writer at and a blogger at His book, "Suck It Up: How Capturing Carbon From the Air Can Help Solve the Climate Crisis," is available as an Amazon Kindle Single.

This article originally appeared at the blog Yale Environment 360.

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Greeks wait to receive free onions and other vegetables offered by farmers in Syntagma Square in Athens last January. In the US, many organizations work to share leftover fruits and vegetables with those in need, based on the ancient idea known as gleaning. (Yannis Behrakis/Reuters/File)

Gleaning for good: an old idea is new again

By Sarah HenryShareable / 04.09.12

Foraging for food – whether it's ferreting rare mushrooms in the woods, picking abundant lemons from an overlooked tree, or gathering berries from an abandoned lot – is all the rage among the culinary crowd and the D.I.Y. set, who share their finds with fellow food lovers in fancy restaurant meals or humble home suppers.

But an old-fashioned concept – gleaning for the greater good by harvesting unwanted or leftover produce from farms or family gardens–  is also making a comeback during these continued lean economic times.

In cities, rural communities, and suburbs across the country, volunteer pickers join forces to collect bags and boxes of fruits and vegetables that find their way to homeless shelters, soup kitchens, and food pantries, as well as senior centers, low-income homes, and school lunch programs.

 IN PICTURES: Urban gardens

Where some may see excess, others see opportunity – the chance to make a difference, feed the hungry, and avoid waste. It's a win-win-win all round: Growers who have surplus or seconds find a good home for these edibles beyond the compost pile; financially strapped aid organizations get much-needed fresh food for free for their patrons; and the gleaners get to give back in their communities.

"I've been surprised at how emotionally rewarding this is," says Andrew Sigal, an avid gardener in Oakland, Calif., who started Food Pool last summer to share the abundance from his prolific 800-square-foot garden with local food pantries. "It's one thing to give someone in need a dollar or a donation, but seeing someone get excited about beans from my backyard has been deeply fulfilling."

Some gleaners have even made a national name for themselves. Take The Lemon Lady, aka Anna Chan, a stay-at-home mom who began collecting excess fruit in suburban Clayton, Calif., while driving her then-baby daughter around to nap. Ms. Chan, who knew hunger as a child and how it felt to wait in food lines for canned goods, was shocked to see so much fresh fruit – such as oranges, apricots, and apples – left rotting in her neighbors' front yards. So she started a single-handed campaign to do something about it.

Three years on, and hundreds of tons of produce later, Chan, who is now a regular fixture at local farmers' markets where she collects unsold fruits and vegetables that she hauls to a local food pantry and Salvation Army site, has been featured in People, The Huffington Post, and Civil Eats. While the press attention has helped her cause, she keeps a laser-like focus on her mission to feed those in need.

“Many people don’t know where their local food pantry is located and don’t realize that food banks will gladly take fresh produce,” says Chan, who encourages people to get started by picking excess fruits and veggies in their immediate area and passing it on.

From California to New York and places in between, communities are finding creative, local ways to get fresh food to the residents who have the most challenges accessing such food. Glean for the City in Washington, D.C., for example, has a three-pronged approach: picking surplus produce from regional farms, gathering leftover greens from farmers' markets, and harvesting excess residential edibles.

Since 1988, Friendship Donations Network (FDN) in Ithaca, N.Y., has worked with local farmers to "rescue" thousands of pounds of produce that would otherwise go to waste and distribute it to low-wage workers, the elderly, and the young. Gleaned produce donated by the organization serves 24 programs that feed more than 2,000 people a week. The model just makes sense, says FDN program coordinator Meaghan Sheehan Rosen, who points out that there's no reason perfectly good food should go uneaten if farmers are willing and people are needy.

Some gleaning efforts have grown out of religious organizations – not surprising, since the term has Biblical origins. In the Book of Ruth, for instance, the poor are permitted to pick grain leftover from the harvest. The Society of St. Andrews, based in Virginia, has gleaning groups in several states including Arkansas, Illinois, Michigan, Ohio, and Pennsylvania that have collectively gleaned millions of pounds of produce.

Faith Feeds, a Lexington, Ky., gleaning group that grew out of a church meeting, has picked up more than 111,000 pounds of produce since the summer of 2010, from farmers' markets, farms, and private residences.

"It is not hard to feed the hungry," says Jennifer Erena of Faith Feeds, an interfaith group not affiliated with any particular religion or church. "The word is spreading, and there's a wonderful energy among different people and organizations that is both collaborative and community oriented."

There are gleaning programs that connect homeowners overwhelmed by an abundant harvest with volunteers willing to pick produce and take it to local food banks, such as Portland Fruit in Oregon. But many gleaning efforts are simply started by an individual who sees a need and wants to fill it.

"I particularly like picking fruit for seniors, many of whom can no longer climb a ladder or aren’t able to do physical labor anymore," says North Berkeley Harvest founder Natasha Boissier, who started solo but now works with a group of volunteers. "They come out and talk with me while I work, and I appreciate and respect their wisdom and experience, and hearing about the ups and downs of having lived life. These moments of connection have brought me – and I hope them – a great deal of unexpected joy."

Ms. Bossier's first stop with fresh food is often the local men’s shelter.

"These men are often blamed for what’s wrong with them," says the clinical social worker. "I see them early in the morning standing out in the cold after enduring a night of who knows what, and I want to give them a piece of fruit to offer a moment’s respite from their pain and suffering. That’s my hope: to provide something tangible, simple, and sweet in their lives."

Some gleaning programs have become an integral part of their community. Take the Novato Unified School District Gleaning Program. Every week for the past six years, parents, students, and members of this Marin County, Calif., community glean excess organic produce from a participating local farm. (There are about 15 in the program.) Through a partnership with Marin Organic, a cooperative association of local growers, that fresh chard picked by a volunteer on Monday finds it way into school pasta sauce later in the week.

The gleaned fruits and vegetables now offsets up to 25 percent of the district's weekly produce, according to Miguel Villarreal, the director of food and nutrition services for the small school district, where some 4,000 meals a day are dished up at 13 schools.

For Mr. Villarreal, who has worked in school food for 30 years and grew up helping pick crops with his parents in the fields, the program is a no-brainer.

"There is so much beautiful abundance in this area, and our school food program can use all the help it can get," says Villarreal, who sees educational and community-building benefits to the program, as well. 

Others raise some unexpected benefits of gleaning. Melita Love, of Farm to Pantry in Healdsburg, Calif., found a community of people in her new hometown when she started gleaning. Ms. Love has collaborated with local preservers to extend the shelf life of the bounty she and her crew harvest in such staples as applesauce and tomato sauce – think canning for a cause – that food pantry patrons can pick up along with gleaned fresh goods.

She's also worked with local groups to explain to patrons how to use produce that may be unfamiliar.

"The first time we dropped off kale to a food pantry nobody took it because they didn't know what to do with it," Love says. "So we did cooking demos for kale salad, kale chips, and a winter soup with kale, and we handed out recipes, too. Education is an important part of any gleaning effort."

Food Pool's Mr. Sigal points out that a group of gardeners who share their backyard bounty with less fortunate folk in his community have gone a step further, funding and constructing a community garden at a local food pantry where there was once an unused piece of land.

"A year ago, most of these people didn’t even know there was a food pantry there," he says. "There's this incredible value in creating community that goes beyond just sharing surplus fresh food."

This article originally appeared at, a nonprofit online magazine that tells the story of how sharing can promote the common good.

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Tiffany Easthom (far right), Nonviolent Peaceforce's country director in South Sudan, addressed a high-level briefing on 'Broadening the Concept of Peacekeeping' at the United Nations in March. The NGO has 65 workers in South Sudan, where conflict, poverty, and a lack of education present strong challenges to the new East African nation. (Doug Hostetter)

Nonviolent Peaceforce helps protect women, children in South Sudan

By Staff Writer / 04.06.12

With the threat of armed conflict with Sudan on its northern border, and Joseph Kony's Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) raiding its southern border, the new country of South Sudan – formed only last year – is facing a hard task in finding the peace it so desperately needs.

Nonviolent Peaceforce is quickly becoming a growing presence there among the international nongovernmental organizations trying to help. In just three years the Brussels-based NGO has grown to 65 people based in eight field sites around the struggling East African nation.

On the southern border with Uganda Nonviolent Peaceforce is working to assist those who flee from the LRA and those who live within striking distance of its forces.

RELATED: 7 excellent books about Kony and the LRA

Some of those conscripted into the LRA "have been gone for many years," says Tiffany Easthom, country director for Nonviolent Peaceforce in South Sudan in a phone interview. "We help them track their families."

The LRA's influence seems to be waning in South Sudan, she says.

"They're very fragmented now," Ms. Easthom says. "They are a lot smaller and more disbanded than they used to be. Basically, at this point they're attacking for their own survival. They're looking for supplies, primarily food. They do some recruiting [but] nothing on the scale it was in the past."

Attacks on border villages are "fairly predictable," she says, often tied to crops ripening for harvest. "They'll attack for food," she says.

So far none of the Nonviolent Peaceforce workers in South Sudan have been captured or harmed. Its workers constantly build good relationships with community and government leaders, the military, police, and even cattle keepers, who in South Sudan are armed groups themselves.

"Our first rule of operation," Easthom says, "is that we can't offer protection to others if we can't keep ourselves safe.... We work on safety and security every day."

Nonviolent Peaceforce, whose mission is to foster dialogue among parties in conflict and provide a protective presence for threatened civilians, also works in Sri Lanka and the Philippines.

In South Sudan, it is present at a refugee camp just a few miles from the northern border with Sudan.

"There's been a steady increase in the fighting" along the Sudan border, she says. It looks like there is going to be "an actual armed battle" to control oil fields on the South Sudan side of the border.

"The tensions around that area are really heightening," Easthom says. "There's no declaration of war, but there are acts of war....The next six to eight weeks are going to be quite tense" until the rainy season arrives to restrict the movement of heavy equipment, such as tanks, she says.

One of Nonviolent Peaceforce's roles at the refugee camp has been to help children who've come across the border from Sudan unaccompanied by parents. Sometimes this happens when teachers flee Sudan with their students. Other times children become separated from their parents.

Nonviolent Peaceforce helps protect them in the camp, as well as helps them document their identities and assists in trying to trace their families. 

It also helps women refugees of all ages learn how to live in the camps – "how do they raise alarms, how do they go get water, how do they go to the marketplace without being vulnerable," Easthom says. In some cases, it can help them move away from the camp and farther from the border.

The international humanitarian response to the situation in South Sudan has been "very strong," she says. But the challenges of building a new country in the midst of poverty and conflict, and with a population that is largely uneducated, are daunting. "It's a little bit like the Stone Age meets the 21st century."

Even ending the region's wars will not solve everything.

"The reality is that peace is as complicated as conflict," she says.

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Girls fill plastic basins at a free water tap operated by a charity in a neighborhood of Bissau, Guinea-Bissau, where houses rarely receive water. Water supplies are insufficient to meet even the capital city's needs, and contaminated drinking water leads to epidemics. Scott Harrison's Charity:Water hopes to raise $2 billion to get clean water to 100 million more people. (Rebecca Blackwell/AP/File)

Unconventional Charity: Water aims to raise $2 billion for clean water

By Cody SwitzerThe Chronicle of Philanthropy / 04.05.12

Scott Harrison, who founded Charity: Water, has been seeking a director of development for two years. But every applicant fails to meet his ambitious plans, he told the Association of Fundraising Professionals annual meeting on Sunday [April 1].

Mr. Harrison says the conversation always goes something like this, with him starting out by asking, “How much money did you raise last year?” The answer is usually something like “$10 million.” “How many people are on your staff?” “10.” “That just doesn’t work for us,” he says.

Mr. Harrison, whose organization employs only two fundraisers, is looking for someone who can generate a much higher return.

IN PICTURES: World Water Day 2011

Doing things differently has been Mr. Harrison’s goal since he started his nonprofit. Mr. Harrison, a former nightclub promoter, decided at age 28 he wanted a career in working for humanitarian organizations. None accepted his applications except Mercy Ships, which hired him as a photographer. What he saw on his two trips to Africa inspired him to found Charity: Water, a group that digs wells and provides other aid to help people in poor countries access to clean water.

Since the charity was founded in 2006, it has been held up as a prime example of a modern organization, achieving much of its popularity by raising money online with video, social media, and celebrity endorsements.

Mr. Harrison’s shared these secrets to his organization’s success:

• Demonstrate results. Since his first fundraising event, Mr. Harrison said he has been dedicated to showing donors where their money is going through photo documentation and GPS coordinates. Today, donors and volunteer fundraisers for the group can see exactly which water projects their money has supported.

• Good design and branding. Mr. Harrison wanted his charity’s image to focus on its mission to provide clean water to people in poor countries. He believed that he didn’t need much money to do this, just “good taste.”

• Not charging donors for overhead. Mr. Harrison created two accounts when he founded the organization: one for operating expenses and one for programs so that 100 percent of donor money would go to water projects. To get enough money to pay for overhead, the charity recently adopted a membership plan for people who want to support the day-to-day operations of the organization. He treats them like “shareholders,” he says. But the approach has been challenging. In its early years the organization depended on irregular donations to pay administrative and other costs, including one gift of $1 million.

• Broadcast your failures. Every year, Charity: Water drills a well during a live broadcast. One year, that drilling found no water. To confront the issue head on, Mr. Harrison filmed a video of the failed drilling and sent it to all of the organization’s supporters. He now considers that one of the most compelling things the organization has done. “People just want to hear the truth,” he said.

• ”You are what you eat.” Mr. Harrison says his organization doesn’t spend much time with other nonprofits because it doesn’t want to operate like other nonprofits. He spends much more time talking to entrepreneurs, especially those in the technology world, because those are the organizations he most wants to emulate.

Mr. Harrison has another secret as well: He aims high. He’s hoping to raise $2 billion to help provide access to clean water to 100 million people in the next decade.

He closed his speech with the story of a woman who had to walk eight hours a day for water and committed suicide one night after dropping and breaking her clay pot as she returned to her village. As he finished the anecdote, a woman near the front of the conference hall yelled out, wanting right then to give $20 to dig a new well.

That’s the power of fund raising.

This blog post originally appeared at The Chronicle of Philanthropy.

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This computer-generated image shows a model of a new hospital in Bangkok, Thailand. Work has begun on the 300-bed hospital above a flooded area near Bangkok that is also subject to tides from the nearby Gulf of Thailand. Concrete stilts will raise its first floor about 13 feet above average water levels. Around the world architects and city planners are exploring ways humans and oceans may be able to coexist as oceans rise. (Dymaxion Studio/AP)

A growing answer to rising seas: floating homes

By Denis D. GrayAssociated Press / 04.04.12

A floating mosque and golf course for the submerging Maldives islands. Amphibious homes in the Netherlands lifted to safety as waters surge beneath them. A hospital perched on 400 stilts to protect patients from Thailand's devastating floods and the encroaching sea.

Around the world, architects and city planners are exploring ways mankind and water may be able to coexist as oceans rise and other phenomenon induced by climate change, including extreme, erratic floods, threaten land-rooted living.

With the Dutch at the helm, projects in the cutting-edge field of aqua-architecture are already in place, including a maritime housing development, floating prison, and greenhouses in the Netherlands. An increasing number are coming on stream, and while earlier blueprints appeared to be the stuff of science fiction, advocates say leaps of imagination are still needed given the magnitude of the danger.

IN PICTURES: Rising seas

"The focus on floating solutions has grown enormously. It has shifted from freak architecture to more sustainable, flexible alternatives," says Dutch architect Koen Olthuis, citing growing support by governments and interest among private investors in Asia and Russia.

"We will have to live with a more watery environment. There is no choice," says Danai Thaitakoo, a Thai landscape architect whose own Bangkok house was swamped last year as the country suffered its worst floods of modern times.

The Thai capital is also among the mega coastal cities projected by the end of this century to lie totally or partially under water as global warming boosts sea levels, according to the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Others include Tokyo, London, Jakarta, Sydney, and Shanghai – an apocalyptic prospect of mass migrations and economic crises.

While in earlier decades architects and planners, particularly Japanese and Americans, dreamed of entire marine cities housing millions, most today are proposing a mix of defending communities with barriers and building on water using floating platforms, raised or amphibious structures, and solutions still being devised.

"Climate change will require a radical shift within design practice from the solid-state view of landscape urbanism to the more dynamic, liquid-state view of waterscape urbanism," says Mr. Danai, who is involved in several projects based on this principle. "Instead of embodying permanence, solidity, and longevity, liquid perception will emphasize change, adaptation."

In a study for low-lying New York, Mr. Olthuis says he envisioned Manhattan ringed by a sea wall with outlying boroughs allowing water to enter and adapting. The world's Londons and Bangkoks, he says, may become "hydro-cities," their historic hearts and concentrated core development waterproofed and other areas "going with the flow."

The Netherlands, a third of which lies below sea level, has been managing water since the Middle Ages and is thus a pioneer in the field. It has exported its expertise to Indonesia, China, Thailand, Dubai, and the Republic of the Maldives, an Indian Ocean archipelago that with a maximum elevation of about eight feet is the world's lowest country. The sea-battered city of New Orleans has also sought advice from Olthuis's Waterstudio.

In the Maldives, Waterstudio has designed a network of floating islands, the first to be put in place next year, to accommodate hotels, a convention center, yacht club, and villas. The "islands," secured by steel cables, are made up of pontoons with a foam core encased in concrete that can be joined together like Lego blocks. An 18-hole golf course will also be set on such platforms, each with two to three holes, connected by underwater tunnels. The $500 million project, paid for by the Maldivian government and private investors, is slated for completion in 2015.

A floating mosque, originally destined for Dubai before an economic downturn hit, is also part of the master plan, Olthuis said in an interview.

Following the principles of "water will always find its way" and "collaborating with nature," the Dutch have reversed some of their earlier strategy of tightly defending their land with dikes by allowing the sea to penetrate some areas on which housing has been constructed.

One pioneering effort was the placement of amphibious and floating homes on the River Maas in 2005. All survived major 2011 floods that forced the evacuation of villages along rain-swollen rivers.

Construction recently began on the Olthuis-designed New Water estate, 600 homes and a luxury apartment complex on land purposely inundated. Interest in water-based living and work space has accelerated over the past decade, he says, and Waterstudio's drawing boards are stacked with plans for local and international projects.

Typical amphibious houses, like the two-story ones on the Maas, consist of a structure that slides into a steel framework over a hollow foundation which, like the hull of a ship, buoys up the building when water enters.

The Maas houses sell from $310,000, about 25 percent more than equivalent homes, in part due to the cost of connecting them to utilities and drainage. But Olthuis says such linkages are simple and present no inconvenience to owners.

"Just proven technology of plug-and-play systems. All tested and used for years in Holland," he says.

"The only time you will see a difference between a floating house and the traditional one is during floods — when your house rises above the water and your neighbor's stays put," Olthuis says.

Along similar lines will be Britain's first amphibious house, recently granted planning permission along the banks of the Thames River in Buckinghamshire. The 225-square-meter (2,421-square-foot) home will be able to rise 8.2 feet in the event of flooding.

Thai architect Chutayaves Sinthuphan, who will be unveiling a pilot amphibious house for the Thai government in September, says interest in such projects has grown since last year's floods, which killed more than 600 people and affected more than a fifth of the country's 64 million people.

"We have had proposals out for some time, but nobody paid much attention to them until the floods came," he says.

His Site-Specific Company has already built such houses for private clients, using modern techniques and materials but like other architects in Asia looking to a past when communities adapted well to annual monsoon season inundations.

They point to a riverside village in the southern province of Surat Thani, where everyone lived on homes atop bamboo rafts until all but three families moved on land. Those three homes were the only ones that survived last year's floods.

In the mid-19th century, almost all of Bangkok lived on houses built atop stilts or rafts. Since then, most canals have been paved over and the stilt houses replaced by a concrete urbanscape that holds back water instead of allowing it to flow through.

Architect Prisdha Jumsai has borrowed from traditional methods to design Thailand's first hospital for the aged. Work has begun on the 300-bed hospital over a permanently flooded area near Bangkok that is also subject to tides from the nearby Gulf of Thailand. Concrete stilts will raise its first floor about 13 feet above average water levels.

"We hope this will influence people not to just fill in land but to build on water. I think it will open up new ideas for Thais who can look to traditional architecture and make it more up-to-date in design," Mr. Prisdha says.

But this still appears to be a minority view.

"Most Thais look to Western, land-based models, and most architects still don't talk about environmental concerns. They talk about how a house will look and make you feel good," says Danai. "But this will have to change. It's about survival."

 Associated Press writer Mike Corder in The Hague contributed to this story.

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LIz Squibb (far left) helps children who grow up in foster care prepare for life on their own. 'Finding employment is hard enough at this time for young people, let alone children from foster care,' she says. (Courtesy of the Jim Casey Youth Opportunities Initiative)

Liz Squibb knows how to help foster children - she was one herself

By Contributor / 04.03.12

A car is a possession many people probably take for granted.

But for many former foster children, it’s a necessity that’s often out of their reach, says Liz Squibb, the senior associate director for the Jim Casey Youth Opportunities Initiative.

“Our young people are saying to us, 'I needed the car to get to school, I needed the car to get to work,” Ms. Squibb says.

Saving for a big purchase, such as a car, isn't easy for teens and young adults. But as part of the Jim Casey Youth Opportunities Initiative, based in St. Louis, former foster children can sign up for the Opportunity Passport program, which allows them to open a matched savings account. For every dollar the youth deposits, the initiative matches it.

“We'll increase the amount of opportunity a young person has to save – to participate in mainstream banking,” Squibb says of the program.

Though a car was the most popular purchase in the Opportunity Passport program, participants also often use the funds to pay for rent or education costs, according to data published by the initiative in 2009.

While Opportunity Passport is one of its main programs, the Jim Casey Youth Opportunities Initiative addresses many other challenges facing former foster children. Founded in 2001 and named after the founder of United Parcel Service, the initiative has a long-term goal for every former foster child: that as they leave foster care they successfully move into adulthood.

The initiative  works with organizations and agencies in 15 states that serve children in foster care. It focuses its work on young adults between the ages of 14 and 25 who are leaving their foster homes and facing life on their own.

Squibb joined the initiative in 2001. She was inspired to do this kind of work after living as a foster child in a home where her foster parents took in many other children.

“It was me growing up with other kids who didn't look like me, who had sometimes worse problems than me,” she says. “It was second nature to me to help those who couldn't help themselves.”

One of the biggest goals of the initiative is to ensure that foster children attend school, Squibb says. “They're challenged because they're moving around a lot.”

For many former foster children, the biggest problem is getting a job, she says. “Finding employment is hard enough at this time for young people, let alone children from foster care.”

In addition to its matching funds program, Opportunity Passport also allows participants to open a debit account and gives them “door openers.” These can vary from community to community but often consist of being introduced to staff members at the bank or other young adults in the Opportunity Passport program, Squibb says. The aim is for former foster children who may feel alone to establish connections.

Opportunity Passport is funded by various foundations, including the Annie E. Casey Foundation, which was established by Annie’s son, Jim Casey. It is the Initiative’s lead funder.

[Editor's note: The original version of the previous paragraph misstated the relationship between Jim Casey and Annie Casey. Jim Casey is Annie Casey's son.]

Money for Opportunity Passport also comes from grants and donations, though the organization does not take unsolicited grants, Squibb says.

Current and former foster children learn about Opportunity Passport through the initiative’s partner organizations. If a young adult chooses to participate, he or she will be enrolled in a financial literacy class. Participants can begin their matched savings account once they’ve presented the local partner organization with a clear goal that shows how they will use their funds.

Organizations that have partnered with the Initiative include the Goodwill Industries of North Carolina and EPIC ’Ohana in Honolulu, which works to make connections between local families with foster children.

The Jim Casey Youth Opportunities Initiative has many other long-term goals, including ensuring that every foster child who leaves the system has built lasting relationships.

“Permanence is a huge issue,” Squibb says. “We want every child to leave foster care with an adult they can count on for a lifetime.”

The Initiative also seeks to help states examine their local foster-care programs for problems that need addressing.

Building a relationship with state governments isn’t always easy, she concedes. “It's often a touchy subject to say, 'We can help you with your foster care,’ ” Squibb says.

The initiative is looking to expand into more states in the future, she says. Its goals are far from being accomplished.

“This is not easy, quick work,” Squibb says.

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A worker unloads processed cheese from a pressure cooker at Amul satellite dairy in the Indian state of Gujarat. Amul, one of the popular Indian dairy brands, is owned and marketed by Gujarat Cooperative Milk Marketing Federation. The United Nations has named 2012 as the International Year of Cooperatives. (Amit Dave/Reuters/File)

Cooperative businesses provide a new-old model for job growth

By Jessica ReederSharable Magazine / 04.02.12

What do coffee growers in Ethiopia, hardware store owners in America, and Basque entrepreneurs have in common? For one thing, many of them belong to cooperatives. By pooling their money and resources, and voting democratically on how those resources will be used, they can compete in business and reinvest the benefits in their communities.

The United Nations has named 2012 as the International Year of Cooperatives, and indeed, co-ops seem poised to become a dominant business model around the world. Today, nearly 1 billion people worldwide are cooperative member-owners. That’s one in five adults over 15 – and it could soon be you.

Why cooperatives?

Cooperatives have been around in one form or another throughout human history, but modern models began popping up about 150 years ago. Today’s co-ops are collaboratively owned by their members, who also control the enterprise collaboratively by democratic vote. This means that decisions made in cooperatives are balanced between the pursuit of profit and the needs of members and their communities. Most co-ops also follow the Seven Cooperative Principles, a unique set of guidelines that help maintain their member-driven nature.

RELATED: 10 entrepreneurs who changed the world

From their beginnings in England, cooperatives have spread throughout the world. In Ethiopia, cooperation helps women and men rise above poverty. In Germany, half of renewable energy is owned by citizens. In America, 93 million credit union member-owners control $920 billion in assets. In Japan, a sixth of the population belongs to a consumer co-op. And in Basque Country, a 50-year-old worker co-op has grown to become a multinational, cooperative corporation.

If a “multinational cooperative corporation” sounds strange to you, you’re not alone. The past century’s multinational corporations, in most cases, were anything but cooperative. During the 19th and 20th centuries, the business landscape was dominated by large, private corporations controlled by a small number of people; those corporations tended to pursue profit without consideration for people, the environment, and in many cases, ethics.

While 20th-century corporations were good at making money, the 21st century finds humanity in need of new business models that value sustainable growth and community benefit. The UN stands behind cooperative models, and in 2012 will dedicate its efforts to raising awareness of co-ops, helping them grow and influencing governments to support them legislatively.

Raising cooperative awareness

Cooperatives are more widespread than you might think. From banks and credit unions to apartment buildings to worker-owned businesses, co-ops appear in every facet of today’s economy. In most cases, they formed in response to economic crises like the Great Depression, or to let small groups compete in monopolized markets. In 2012, both of those conditions exist – and unsurprisingly, so do cooperatives.

Far from being limited to grocery stores, modern American co-ops also include agricultural marketing groups like Land O’Lakes and Florida’s Natural; retail outlets like R.E.I.; electrical utilities in the Southeast; housing cooperatives in New York; credit unions; and countless local farm-to-store programs. Purchasing co-ops like ACE, True Value Hardware, and Carpet One let independent stores compete with chain outlets.

Yet, in many cases, Americans don’t think of these well-known brands as cooperatives. In fact, the United States is full of co-ops – around 30,000 of them with nearly 900,000 members. Thirty percent of Americans belong to cooperatively owned credit unions, the largest of which serves 3.4 million Department of Defense employees and has $45 billion in assets. In 2004, the 10 largest co-ops in America earned over $12 billion in revenues.

If you knew how many successful cooperatives surrounded you, and what a positive impact cooperative enterprise can have on the world, would you be more likely to join or start your own co-op? The UN believes you might. This is one of the primary goals of both the UN and the International Cooperative Alliance: to make you aware of the cooperatives in your own backyard, as well as their potential to influence your life and future.

“Cooperatives, in their various forms, promote the fullest possible participation in the economic and social development of all people, including women, youth, older persons, persons with disabilities and indigenous peoples, are becoming a major factor of economic and social development and contribute to the eradication of poverty,” says UN Resolution 64/136, 2010.

The UN officially launched the Year of the Cooperative campaign in October 2011. The preparations continued in November, when the International Cooperative Association held a General Assembly in Cancun, Mexico. There, Mexican President Felipe Calderón hailed co-ops as “a great opportunity” to create jobs and help Mexico recover from the economic crisis.

Cooperative-related events will continue throughout 2012, highlighted by two major summits in Venice, Italy, and Quebec City, Canada. Meanwhile, individual countries and independent groups will throw events, publish new research, and celebrate the possibilities cooperation brings to a 21st-century world economy.

Promoting cooperative growth

In the developing world, cooperatives often function as building blocks for stronger, more stable economies. One of the most fertile breeding grounds for co-ops has been sub-Saharan Africa. Since the economy was liberalized in the 1990s, Africa has entered a renaissance of cooperative enterprise.

Most of these cooperatives start small. Poverty in Africa is still high, and, as in many parts of the world, women and older or younger people have traditionally received much lower wages for their work. A cooperative like the coffee growers’ group at Indido in Ethiopia allows all workers to receive equal wages while selling their coffee at better market rates.

In Kenya, cooperative banks and credit unions are revolutionizing the economy, making small loans available to farmers and growers at affordable rates. But the cooperative model is still controversial. During the global economic downturn that followed 2008’s food shortages, co-ops were forced to cut back on the number of loans they offered to members, while taking infusions of cash from external sources.

In 2012, the UN will focus on how cooperatives can grow and thrive. The trend is well-established: The cooperative model is expected to be the world’s fastest-growing business model by 2025. However, there are still some inconsistencies holding co-ops back. In many cases, cooperative models are still under development and each company must come up with its own self-sustaining plan.

Dr. Joni Carley, a values-driven leadership expert, believes that the cooperative model’s perceived newness is one of its greatest challenges to widespread adoption.

“While cooperation is really our oldest model of work, it feels brand new, and we don't have the systems down yet. It also usually takes much longer than anyone thinks it should to make some decisions, to develop infrastructure, and to create the kind of cooperative alignments that serve for the long haul ... Although we now have some excellent tools to quantify culture, few leaders understand the value of deploying those tools and few see themselves as able to devote the time and attention required.”

In other cases, a lack of regulation and legislative support can undermine co-ops. During the recent crisis in Africa, pyramid schemes in the Savings and Credit Cooperatives led to a serious thinning out of available capital. With better regulation, that situation could have been avoided and the money kept inside the member-owner community it was intended for.

Developing cooperative legislation

One of the greatest cooperative success stories is that of Mondragón Corporation. Founded in 1956 by a Catholic priest in the autonomous Basque region of Spain, Mondragón (named after the town of Mondragón where it is based) began as a cooperative trade school and a group of five workers selling paraffin heaters.

Less than 50 years later, Mondragón is the world’s largest cooperative, and Spain’s seventh-largest business. A paragon of co-ops, Mondragón has operations in 19 countries and employs 83,000 worker-owners. Yet for every international job the company creates, it employs two people in Spain.

What has allowed Mondragón to grow steadily without abandoning its cooperative principles? For one thing, it has embraced innovation, and worker-owners have repeatedly chosen to reinvest in the future of the corporation. It's also based in the Basque community, known for its strength and cooperative nature.

Mondragón also got a head start with early support from the Spanish government. In the years after Franco, Spain created a framework of loans designed to help farmers and small businesses recover financially; meanwhile, the Spanish economy remained relatively insular, protecting the same businesses from external competition. Mondragón benefited from that governmental support, without governmental interference in the company's autonomy.

The UN’s third objective in 2012 is to influence governments and regulatory bodies to develop frameworks that will support cooperatives in their various forms. This can be a delicate procedure: One of the seven Cooperative Principles states that cooperatives can’t make agreements that would interfere with their autonomy and democratic control.

European nations, for the most part, have developed a system that supports cooperative business without interference. Canada has also been highly successful at fostering cooperative growth. But for many nations, co-ops can appear risky, regulation can be lacking – or, quite simply, the government may have an interest in controlling its citizens’ actions.

A cooperative future

UN Secretary General Ban-Ki Moon calls cooperatives “a unique and invaluable presence in today’s world. Cooperatives are a reminder to the international community that it is possible to pursue both economic viability and social responsibility.”

Nowhere is that statement more apt than in the United States, where cooperatives are etched into the public consciousness as hippie grocery stores.

According to Dr. Carley, this is a dangerous misconception: “Unfortunately, in the US, there is a highly vested interest in maintaining the mythology that values have to be compromised to make money and that they have no place in the workplace. What we know now is that when personal and organizational values are aligned, profits, share prices, stakeholder loyalty, innovation, and more go up.”

The UN's goal for the United States is to rebrand cooperatives – and it may get some help. In 2009, the United Steelworkers (USW), North America’s largest industrial trade union, announced a new affiliation with Mondragón. The goal: to help steelworkers purchase and run their own mills cooperatively, focusing on sustainable business and environmentally sound practices.

In 2000, poverty expert Barbara Peters visited the town of Mondragón. She labeled it a “town without poverty” – and also noted the absence of “extreme wealth.” Peters immediately made the connection between this small town in Spain’s industrial region and the suffering Rust Belt of North America. If the USW’s new plan succeeds, cooperatives may be able to reinvent faltering towns, even as they reinvent their own image for American workers.

Ultimately, the key to equal employment and fair wages may be as simple as taking control of our own economic realities, stepping up and sharing the responsibility for our future. The United Nations thinks you’d be a great boss – don’t you?

• Jessica Reeder is the cofounder and managing editor of Love and Trash, and a contributor to Burning Blog and, where this article originally appeared.

This article was originally published at Sharable Magazine.

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People install solar panels on the Saint-Michel health center and a fish hatchery in Boucan Carre, Haiti. The panels will provide the town with a dependable electricity supply for the first time. Only a quarter of Haiti's 10 million people has regular access to electricity. In 28 countries, Barefoot College is teaching people to harness solar power for electricity. (Dieu Nalio Chery/AP/File)

Barefoot College and Microformers shine as innovative power solutions

By Pete MercouriouGlobal Envision / 03.30.12

Wherever you live, electricity is an increasing expense. In the developing world, communities have seen this challenge and taken their energy needs into their own hands.

Long-term planning for lightning energy change:
 According to The Guardian,  Barefoot College in India has educated people to harness the sun’s power so their communities become more sustainable and self-sufficient.

Barefoot College launched its solar power course for women in 2005, and already more than 150 women from 28 countries have been trained in electrical and solar engineering. Over 10,000 homes in 100 villages have been solar electrified, saving 1.5 million liters (396,258 gallons) of kerosene and minimizing its negative health effects in homes.

Barefoot College uses technology that is simple so people with low levels of education can use it and earn an income by assisting their fellow community members in installing the solar panels.

Entrepreneurship for collaborative power energy change:
 At the University of Wisconsin at Madison, three budding entrepreneurs – Dan Ludois, Jonathan Lee, and Patricio Medoza Araya – are using recycled parts of old household microwaves to create the “Microformer” – a device that can multiply the low-wattage from a developing country's electrical grid and provide enough electricity to power a few lights, a small refrigerator, and other small electronics on an ongoing basis.

But, there’s a problem: cost. Though this mini-transformer cuts the price tag of a traditional transformer by a great deal, the $60 price tag may still be a tough sell in some ares. For middle-income families in developing countries, it may be affordable. For most people living in poverty, it's out of reach.

But, these young inventors from Wisconsin are committed to furthering their research, tweaking their design, and offering free online instruction seminars to ensure that as many people as possible can benefit from their work. One way they can do that is by collaborating with institutions like Barefoot College and others working on energy access to nurture their shared passions – pulling people out of poverty.

In the right light, the right partnership can create something extraordinary.

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

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