Good Reads: From rethinking foreign aid, to homeless children, to privatized space

This week's roundup of Good Reads includes a new approach to foreign aid, an epic walk across the planet, the plight of homeless children in New York, how technology advances compassion, and the launch of private space rockets.

Dieu Nalio Chery/AP
US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan visits a high school in Pétionville, Haiti.

What is the key to making foreign aid more effective and ending extreme poverty? According to Paul Farmer, a physician and anthropologist known for his work in Haiti, donors fail to adequately invest in improving local systems that ultimately bear the responsibility for implementing national aid.

“Despite agreements on aid effectiveness reached in Rome, Paris, Accra, and Busan over the last decade, 80 percent of aid from major bilateral and multilateral donors to fragile countries still bypasses the systems of local public institutions,” Dr. Farmer writes in Foreign Affairs. “But the aspiration to improve the lives of those living in extreme poverty through better public health, public education, and public works by definition requires public-sector capacity.”

Farmer points to post-earthquake Haiti as an example of how aid institutions fail to build local capacity. Less than 10 percent of funding went directly to the Haitian government, perpetuating a trap of dependency on foreign aid. For 2014, Farmer recommends that aid institutions instead focus on new ways to involve local partners in every step of project development in order to reduce the need for foreign assistance altogether.

Retracing early humankind’s footsteps

Journalist Paul Salopek has almost completed one year of a seven-year journey: walking 21,000 miles to retrace the migration of Earth’s early Homo sapiens. From the Great Rift Valley in East Africa to the tip of South America, he is following a trail that dates back at least 60,000 years.

Mr. Salopek described the first leg of his journey – crossing paths with nomads, asphalt highways, cities, and multimillion-dollar sugar production plants – for National Geographic, which is supporting his “Out of Eden Walk.”

What does he hope to learn during a walk through 2,500 generations of human history? Many things, he writes: “to relearn the contours of our planet at the human pace of three miles an hour. To slow down. To think. To write. To render current events as a form of pilgrimage. I hope to repair certain important connections burned through by artificial speed, by inattentiveness. I walk, as everyone does, to see what lies ahead. I walk to remember.”

Invisible children

Beyond New York’s new commuter bike lanes and upgraded parks, there is a disturbing sign of the city’s growing inequality: More than 22,000 children are homeless, the highest number since the Great Depression.

Andrea Elliott, an investigative reporter for The New York Times, spent more than a year with 12-year-old Dasani and her family (her mom, dad, and six siblings), all of whom sleep in a room in one of Brooklyn’s most decrepit shelters. Five blocks away from the shelter are brownstones selling for more than a million dollars. Mayor Michael Bloomberg brought renovation and gentrification to the city’s boroughs, but Dasani’s family has been pushed further into society’s margins.

“In the shadows of this renewal, it is Dasani’s population who have been left behind. The ranks of the poor have risen, with almost half of New Yorkers living near or below the poverty line,” Ms. Elliott writes. “Their traditional anchors – affordable housing and jobs that pay a living wage – have weakened as the city reorders itself around the whims of the wealthy.”

Bill Gates’s advice for saving the world

As the guest editor for Wired magazine’s December issue, Bill Gates collected stories about this year’s best technology, design, and innovations aimed at solving the world’s problems. But the billionaire also shared his personal history and philosophy, called “catalytic philanthropy,” for investing in issues like global health and education in the United States.

“Technology is unlocking the innate compassion we have for our fellow human beings,” Mr. Gates writes. “In the end, that combination – the advances of science together with our emerging global conscience – may be the most powerful tool we have for improving the world.”

Elon Musk’s space race

Another one of the world’s richest men is also scheming about innovations that can change the world, but he’s looking to the sky instead of Earth. In Foreign Policy magazine, Michael Belfiore examines the drive behind Elon Musk’s mission to reduce the cost of space exploration. Will Mr. Musk, the multimillionaire cofounder of PayPal and chief executive officer of Tesla Motors, do for space travel what he has done for the electric car?

With Space Exploration Technologies, or SpaceX, Musk developed a rocket that drastically reduces the price of space launches, becoming the first private company to send its own vehicle into orbit and back.

“All this adds up to the linchpin of an industry in the making, which will encompass not just the odd government contract or high-end satellite launch, but also many other activities that Musk hopes will follow the advent of affordable launch vehicles,” Mr. Belfiore writes.

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