31 December 2013

A Year in Review

Rather than collect favorite stories or topics, I am simply going to share some of my favorite pictures from the last year. It covers travels and stories covered, plus some friends in family.

Without further ado, this was my 2013, in pictures (well, mostly gifs):

16 December 2013

From Vietnam to Dorchester to Yale, George's Story

Boston Globe journalist Bill Baker reported the story of George and Johnny Huynh two years ago. The brothers the children of Vietnamese immigrants who live in Boston's worst neighborhood and face immense challenges in their day-to-day lives.

Today, Baker revealed some good news about George...

I never say this, but it is well worth your time to read about this story.

12 December 2013

Does the first rung out of poverty exist?

The following is a response from Gregory Gamble to a post from last month. Comments are off on this blog due to spam issues. Comments and ideas are always welcome here. I will gladly share responses and ideas that a post elicits.

On November 7, 2013 you detailed the story of Mary Anyango, a Kenyan woman who has received many different levels and types of aid from the Millennium Villages Project (MVP) and other aid sources, but still finds herself living in extreme poverty. Thanks for bringing this to the attention of the International Economic Development community, because although this is only one case there are probably many others just like Ms. Anyango, who despite receiving aid are still in a poverty trap. 

Ms. Anyango benefited from bed nets which help reduce the spread of malaria in her village; she also benefited from agriculture by way of improved seeds and fertilizer, and farming instruction; she benefited from microfinance loans to get seeds after free seeds were no longer available; she also received aid from the local community development fund; she received assistance from an NGO to help send her children to school; she received a sewing machine that allowed her to sell items for additional income, and also make clothes and uniforms for her children; and she also has a provided water pump on her farm. 

Sachs identified the many different types of capital that the poor lack, all of which Ms. Anyango was assisted with; it appears that all bases were covered. However, with all of this assistance Ms. Anyango still finds herself living in extreme poverty

In The End of Poverty, author Jeffery Sachs detailed what a poverty trap was, and how best to break the cycle of poverty to allow aid recipient countries or individuals get on the first rung of the development ladder. He stated “that when poverty is very extreme, the poor do not have the ability, by themselves to get out of the mess”. His recommendation to get out of poverty traps were to help the extreme poor get on the first rung of the ladder, by providing enough aid, not to make them rich, but enough to allow them to get on the ladder. He also stated that all good things tend to move together at each rising rung. 

This sounded great, and he gave some great examples such as India and China, where this has worked. But as we can see from Ms. Anyango’s story, even getting on the first rung may not get you out of a poverty trap, or that we may not know what the first rung is, or what happens when even the first rung is too high.

Maybe the next question for the development community is not whether poverty traps exist, but instead does the first rung exist?

Gregory Gamble is pursuing his PHD in Public Affairs at Rutgers University in Camden, NJ.

The effective altruist revolution is changing the philanthropy game

It’s the giving time of the year. 

A combination of the emerging winter and holiday season converge into a moment of fleeting caring in the US. It also happens to be the end of the tax year.

Charities make a significant amount of money during this time. An estimated 18% of all money raised during the year happens in December, that is more than double nearly every other month.

American University student Scott Weathers wants to know that his donations have the greatest impact possible.

The second year student (he shuns the label Sophomore since he plans to graduate in three years) began his philanthropic journey in high school.

His teacher would email leading humanitarians in order to engage his students. One such outreach to Howard G Buffett, son to Warren Buffett and agriculture philanthropist, led to an invite for Weathers and sixteen fellow students to fly out and discuss poverty with Buffett in person.

The experience of charitable giving inspired him to raise money for groups like Partners in Health. It also led to some questions about why he was supporting certain organizations. He wondered whether he was making an informed decision about his giving.

“I want people in high school to give the charity and do it to places that work,” he said.

There is an emerging trend in the business of doing good. Donors are starting to ask whether programs actually work. Charity raters are casting aside using administrative costs to evaluate charities, but donors are asking for more.

Some are going as far as to ask what is the most effective way to give. They want organizations to show that what they are doing is having an actual impact.

“A lot of people are excited about evidence-based giving,” said Michelle Hutchinson, executive director of Giving What We Can.

Giving What We Can brings together young people to create a life-lifelong culture of giving. Starting to think about giving away a certain percentage of one’s income at an early age makes it easier to continue doing so later in life, said Hutchinson.

An important part of the program is to encourage effective altruism. Giving to charities is one thing, but it is important to give in a way that maximizes impact. Doing so means that even the smallest donations can make a difference.

11 December 2013

Katz on what Kristof gets wrong about aid in Haiti

The often debated topic of whether or not foreign aid has done good reappeared in this weekend’s column by Nick Kristof for the New York Times.

By featuring the story of one young girl’s struggle to go to school, Kristof shows that aid works. Even in Haiti.

Jonathan Katz, he reported from Haiti during the earthquake and cholera outbreak, saysthe argument has some major holes.

“When you consider these facts, it gets pretty difficult to argue that whatever is going on right now in Haiti—including aid—is working, and much harder to dispute the claim that “dedicated and ethical” or any other foreigners are doing harm,” wrote Katz for the Beacon Reader.

Haiti, the poorest nation in the western hemisphere, as an example of where critics make their attacks and where he sees hope. Kristof uses the example of a Haitian-led private school called the SOPUDEP school. A total of 836 pre-K through twelve students are served by the school. Many come from low-income families who cannot always pay for tuition.

Enter foreign aid (or Exhibit A, as Kristof might say).

The school founder Rea Dol happened to have made friends with a teacher from Los Altos school in California. The students went on and raised $200,000 for SOPUDEP and its students. It all ties together with the story of a young girl named Darline who stopped going to her previous school due to high fees.

Thanks to SOPUDEP and its donors, Darline is back in school. The Haitian economy is outpacing the US, kidnappings are down, the infant mortality rate is down and the manufacturing industry is up. Because of these gains, concludes Kristof, aid works.

Also, read Katz's full piece here (paywall).

05 December 2013

Amazon is talkin' about Drones, the UN is using 'em

Amazon hopes drones may soon take over the retail world. The UN hopes drones will help peacekeeping work.

The UN’s first unmanned and unarmed aircraft took flight in the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of the Congo on Tuesday. They will patrol airspace over the region to track rebel groups along the border with Rwanda and Uganda.

Limited infrastructure and large forests have made it hard for Congolese and UN MONUSCO peacekeepers to patrol the region. The UN hopes the drones will help with their work in the Congo and elsewhere.

“One can observe the movements of the armed groups, movements of populations and can even see the arms carried by people on the ground, and it is also possible to see people in forested areas,” said MONUSCO Force Commander General Santos Cruz.

Continue reading on Humanosphere...

04 December 2013

It's Complicated: The history and research behind Cash Transfers

Decades ago, some of the biggest NGOs simply gave away money to individuals in communities. People lined up and were just given cash.

The once popular form of aid went out of fashion, but it is now making a comeback.

Over time, coordination became extremely difficult. Traveling from home to home costs time and money for the NGO and the same problem exists for recipients when they have to go to a central location. More significant was the shift in development thinking that said giving hand outs was causing long term damage.

The backlash against ‘welfare queens’ in the US, UK and elsewhere during the 1980s was reflected in international development programming. Problem was that it was all based on unproven theories of change and anecdotal evidence, rather than hard evidence.

Half a decade later, new research shows that just giving people money can be an effective way to build assets and even incomes. The findings were covered by major players like NPR and the Economist.

While exciting and promising, cash transfers are not a new tool in the development utility belt.

Various forms of transfers have emerged over the past decade. Food vouchers were used by the World Food Programme when responding to the 2011 famine in the Horn of Africa. Like food stamps in the US, people could go buy food from local markets and get exactly what they need while supporting the local economy.

The differences have sparked a sometimes heated debate within the development community as to what the findings about cash transfers mean going forward. A Technology Salon hosted conversation at ThoughtWorks in New York City last week, featured some of the leading researchers and players in the cash transfer sector.

The salon style conversation featured Columbia University and popular aid blogger Chris Blattman, GiveDirectly co-founder and UCSD researcher Paul Neihaus and Plan USA CEO Tessie San Martin. The ensuing discussion, operating under the Chatham House Rules of no attribution, featured representatives from large NGOs, microfinance organizations and UN agencies.

Research from Kenya, Uganda and Liberia show both the promise and shortcomings of cash transfers. For example, giving out cash in addition to training was successful in generating employment in Northern Uganda. Another program, with the backing of the Ugandan government, saw success with the cash alone.

Cash transfers have been argued as the new benchmark for development and aid programs. Advocates in the discussion made the case that programs should be evaluated in terms of impact and cost-effectiveness against just giving people cash.

Continue reading on Humanosphere...

Note: I am finally coming up for air after a many month deep dive into cash transfers. Expect more substantive pieces to come out in the near future.

02 December 2013

AIDS Tipping Point Nears Amid Flagging Support

We’re not there yet, but the fight against AIDS is reaching a tipping point.
The number of new cases of HIV are falling while the number of people receiving life-saving treatment is going up. If current trends holds, the two trends will meet by 2015, says a new report.

That is the tipping point for beating AIDS.

The 2.3 million new HIV infections recorded in 2012 is the lowest number since the 1990s, says the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS). The cost of treatment for AIDS is down dramatically from roughly $10,000 per person per year in the 1990s to $140 today.

However, Attention and financing for AIDS is wavering as the world nears this crucial moment. UNAIDS estimates that as much as $24 billion will be needed each year by 2015.

It is expected that The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria will not reach its goal of raising $15 billion next month. It should have more money than its last replenishment of $10 billion and Global Fund reforms will ensure it is better spent.
Beginning of the end of AIDS
The inflection point, called “the beginning of the end of AIDS” by advocates, could very well be the tipping point that will accelerate the world towards the defeat of AIDS. Reaching it will be a landmark moment.

“The disease is beating us essentially. Every year we have been outpaced by it,” said Erin Hohlfelder, Global Health Policy Director for ONE. “This will be the first time we will will get ahead of it.”

A report released ahead of World AIDS day by ONE uses updated data on infections and treatment to show that the estimated inflection point has moved up from 2022 to 2015.

The improvement is the result of new data that shows things were better than previously reported and the acceleration of progress by countries beset by AIDS, explained Hohlfelder.

Prevention has been a key part of why things are getting better. Male circumcision has proven to help reduce the spread of HIV, but it is only now starting to be pushed as a key intervention.

Continue reading on Humanosphere...