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The Business of Giving

Exploring philanthropy, non-profits and socially motivated business, from the Gates Foundation to your donation. A fresh look at the economy of good intentions.

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July 26, 2010 4:19 PM

The mother forging path ahead for Ultra Rice

Posted by Kristi Heim

Ultra Rice has been in the cooker, so to speak, for a couple of decades, but the product invented in Bellingham and developed by PATH is starting to gain some traction around the world.

Ultra Rice is a fortified pasta that looks, smells and tastes like rice, but packs a variety of micronutrients and was designed to address malnutrition among the more than two billion people for whom rice is a daily staple. It's blended at a ratio of one grain of Ultra Rice to 100 grains of ordinary rice.


Dipika Matthias, project director for Ultra Rice at PATH.

At this point its future seems more a question of economics than science -- seeding the market for local manufacturers to produce it and governments or other institutions to buy it. The price is 2 to 5 percent higher than regular rice. If the product becomes part of national food programs, research shows, it can start to make a dent in problems such as iron deficiency.

The person leading that effort is Dipika Matthias, project director for Ultra Rice at Seattle global health non-profit PATH, who has a background in health and management. She was previously director of business analysis of Medco Health Systems and Merck Medco.

But what motivates her is thinking about the efforts of mothers to give their kids the food to grow up healthy, she said. She has three kids of her own -- the oldest daughter dreams of becoming a lawyer, her son of playing in the NFL and her youngest daughter of working with animals.


Dipika Matthias holds grains of Ultra Rice, a pasta made with rice flour, vitamins and minerals, and squeezed through a rice-shaped mold.

"As a mother, my goal is to nurture my children's minds, bodies, and spirits to help them attain their dreams," she writes. "It's my passion to give other moms the power to do the same."

Last month the Health Ministry in Nicaragua passed a resolution to mandate rice fortification, and it's currently assessing how Ultra Rice compares to other fortified products, with results expected soon. Malnutrition early in life has been linked to weaker brain function later on.

With hunger and malnutrition making a comeback here in the U.S., I wonder if some elements of the science that went into Ultra Rice or other such global health solutions can be applied to boost the health of kids in poverty.

On that theme, CityClub will tackle the question of whether global health efforts of Seattle organizations can be used to improve public health in our region in September. Dan Dixon of Swedish Health Services, Seattle Children's Hospital CEO Thomas Hansen, and David Fleming, director of Public Health - Seattle & King County, are among the panelists. More information is here.

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July 16, 2010 5:16 PM

Unitus board chair discusses reasons behind closure

Posted by Kristi Heim

Seattle nonprofit Unitus' operating cost of between $600,000 and $700,000 a month was a factor in the board's decision to shutter operations, said Joseph Grenny, Unitus board chairman.

The abrupt announcement two weeks ago stunned employees and supporters, and has prompted some donors to question the decision.

Grenny said the decision was made by a unanimous vote of the five- member board of directors in Utah days before the announcement, but the discussion about changing direction had gone on for more than a year.

Next month the board will announce more specifically what its plans for the new direction will be, Grenny said.

When it was clear that Unitus would be pursuing a different strategy, the board asked, "Do we need an organization that has this kind of expense rate to pursue those options?" Grenny said. "To continue on for months and slowly drip that out would be fiscally irresponsible."

Unitus supports 22 microfinance institutions and plans to "quickly wind down any ongoing engagements in a prudent manner that prioritizes the best interests of their clients," Grenny said.


Vikram Akula, founder and CEO of SKS Microfinance in India, appeared at a Unitus reception and fundraiser in Seattle.

As for foundations and individuals that have funded its work, such as the Omidyar Foundation, "the board takes its stewardship very seriously to ensure those funds are deployed for their original purpose -- philanthropic purposes that help the poor gain economic self-reliance," Grenny said. On its latest financial report, Unitus had about $11 million in net assets.

"We will have conversations with Omidyar and every one of our significant supporters about what funds are remaining and what those will use to accomplish," he said.

Today is the last day of work for most of Unitus' 45 employees; about a dozen will remain through end of August and a few through the end of the year.

SKS Microfinance, one of the earliest lenders to the poor that Unitus backed, plans its initial public offering in India in the next weeks.

Unitus Equity Fund, the for-profit arm of the Seattle organization, has a stake in SKS, which could end up benefiting Unitus.

Grenny called the SKS IPO "a validation of what we set out to do," in accelerating the amount of capital devoted to microfinance.

"The willingness to stop when something is accomplished isn't done much in the nonprofit field... organizations that don't contribute much continue on," he said. "Painful as it is, we're trying to do the right thing by the donors' intentions."

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June 17, 2010 4:51 PM

Income inequality and philanthropy

Posted by Kristi Heim

The Gates/Buffett billionaire pledge drive provoked some thoughtful analysis as well as barbed commentary. Among the more interesting questions raised was this: why now? Why are wealthy Americans more interested in philanthropy, and if not, why do their peers think they should be? One answer is that they have a lot more money to give away.

The United States has seen a rise in income inequality over the past several decades. The sheer number of billionaires has also increased steeply. Take a look at this chart from Gapminder to watch the yellow billionaire balloon shoot to the top.

The U.S. has one of the best business environments for people like Buffett and Gates to make their fortunes. Yet when you look at wealth per person, several countries are doing better than the U.S. without many billionaires. Norway's GDP per capita, for example, is $49,000 compared to $43,000 for the U.S., and it has 4 billionaires compared to 415 in the U.S.


By the middle of this last decade, the U.S. had one of the highest levels of income inequality of any developed country, measured by something called the Gini coefficient. Since 1975, that number has steadily increased here, from .35 then to .45 today, according to OECD figures. (Click on the map to see more detail)

Arul Menezes, a principal architect at Microsoft Research, grew up in India and came to the United States in 1988. He told me an anecdote about his experience living here that I found striking.

One of the things that drew him to the U.S. initially was the relative equality and meritocracy of the society, education system and economy, he said.

"There wasn't an entrenched elite with all the power and wealth," he said. "It was a society where there was opportunity to almost anyone from almost any background to achieve almost anything."

Houses built 40 years ago were much more modest than the mansions of Medina today. And yet on comparably less, people found the money to pay for infrastructure and community centers, he said.

Of course, Microsoft has helped produced quite a few of those Medina millionaires and several billionaires, but Menezes speaks to a broader trend.

"People didn't have granite counters but they had good roads, good schools and good universities," he said. "Instead we have 6,000 square foot houses -- time will tell whether that was a good choice."

Lack of money for education, a jobless recovery and massive public debt is creating whole new problems for philanthropy to solve. No matter how laudable the personal causes of billionaire philanthropists, the upshot is that too much decision making power is concentrated in the hands of a few.

"A lot of countries have settled into long periods of time into the status quo of an endemic elite and disenfranchised majority with little movement between the two," Menezes said. " I don't think the U.S. is anywhere near there, but I can see the risk."

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June 7, 2010 9:00 AM

Gates Foundation commits $1.5 billion for mother and child health

Posted by Kristi Heim

Calling on world health leaders to do more to prevent deaths of mothers and their newborn babies, Melinda Gates said today the Gates Foundation is pledging $1.5 billion over the next five years for family planning, maternal and child health and nutrition in developing countries.

It's the second largest donation in the foundation's history, after a $10 billion pledge over 10 years for vaccine development and delivery made in January, and indicates a new direction for the foundation, which has focused on diseases such as malaria and HIV/AIDS. The foundation announced today initial grants of $94 million in India and $60 million in Ethiopia.


UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon talks with Melinda Gates at the Women Deliver conference in Washington. Ban urged an end to the "silent scandal of women dying in childbirth."

Among the grants for India, Seattle-based PATH received $24.3 million to demonstrate a model for health services that will save lives of newborns and reduce illness and death of mothers.

Gates challenged the idea that "large numbers of maternal and child deaths are inevitable, or even acceptable, in poor countries."

"It is not that the world doesn't know how to save the 350,000 mothers and 3 million newborns who die every year," she said, speaking at a women's health conference in Washington D.C. "It is that we haven't tried hard enough."

Gates said she would make the health of women and children her personal priority as co-chair of the world's largest charitable foundation. The foundation will alter its model from one focused on specialized diseases to a more integrated approach.

Women and children "aren't conditions or procedures or treatment models," she said. "They are human beings."

Over the past 30 years, the overall picture has been improving, Gates said, citing recent studies from the University of Washington's Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation and collaborators in Australia that found the number of women dying from pregnancy-related causes has dropped by more than 35 percent -- from more than 500,000 annually in 1980 to about 343,000 in 2008.

She called the next several months "a critical window of opportunity to secure new global action," as Canada will urge donor countries to endorse a major maternal and child health initiative when it hosts the G8 summit in Ontario later this month.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, also speaking at the conference, said women's health "must be front and center in the push to meet the Millennium Development Goals," and are among the most cost effective investments for future generations.

According to the UW study of maternal mortality in 181 countries, developing nations have made substantial progress, particularly Egypt, China, Ecuador, and Bolivia.

Nearly 80 percent of all maternal deaths are concentrated in 21 countries, and six countries account for more than half of them. Maternal death rates are highest in India, Nigeria, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Ethiopia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

The death rates also rose in a few high-income countries, including the United States, though changes in reporting practices may have contributed to the increase. (Looking at maternal mortality rates globally, the U.S. currently ranks number 39, between Macedonia and Lithuania.)

"We haven't made as much progress as we should have, especially since so many solutions are simple and just need to be available to all women and children," said Steve Gloyd, executive director of Seattle-based nonprofit Health Alliance International.

Gloyd, also a professor and associate chair in UW's Department of Global Health, said the funding should help strengthen the ability of governments to provide "much-needed basic health services."

"Training more health workers in a full package of services for women will be essential" for it to succeed, he said.

Gates said family planning could reduce deaths of mothers by 30 percent and newborns by 20 percent, but more than 200 million women have no access to contraception.

The largest of Gates initial grants, $38.7 million, is going to North Carolina-based Family Health International to develop cost-effective ways to increase access to voluntary contraception in poor urban areas of India.

"As a woman, I can't imagine being denied access to the tools I need to plan," she said. "It is my basic right to be able to choose when to have children."

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May 26, 2010 1:49 PM

PATH raises $550,000 aimed at catalyzing health projects

Posted by Kristi Heim

It wasn't the parking garage, but there were plenty of catalytic converters.

For PATH, a Seattle non-profit focused on global health threats such as HIV/AIDS, malaria and TB, Tuesday's annual breakfast to raise money and showcase its work marked a turning point for an organization that had outgrown its Ballard digs and parking garage fundraisers.

Now one of the best funded global health non-profits in the world, PATH brought in more than $550,000 as 776 people attended the event at the Bell Harbor Conference Center turned Africa-themed pavilion. That exceeded last year's total when supporters gathered inside PATH's parking garage and donated more than $525,000.

The event also produced 24 new "Catalyst Circle" members, who pledged at least $1,000 a year for five years, and one new $25,000 donor. The money is used to jump start experimental projects that don't have funding from larger grants.

PATH was the number one recipient of foundation grants in the state in 2008 and the third largest recipient in the country, according to the Foundation Center.

Its growing ambition is evident at the organization's new headquarters inside a gleaming South Lake Union office tower.

"The world is entering a pivotal time," PATH CEO Chris Elias and Chair Molly Joel Coye write in a letter preceding the 2009 annual report. "Never before have we seen such tremendous political and financial support." And along with that support come expectations that are higher than ever, too.

PATH has made big bets on what could be the first malaria vaccine, a redesigned female condom, a fortified pasta called Ultra Rice to boost nutrition and a "one size fits most" diaphragm, among other projects.

About 10,000 children are now enrolled in malaria vaccine trials under PATH's Malaria Vaccine Initiative. The PATH Woman's Condom is also in final regulatory studies to pave the way for FDA approval. Ultra Rice is being introduced into school lunch programs in India and other countries.

And yet some health problems are so challenging they defy any single solution. PATH Kenya program officer June Omollo told the story of her adopted daughter Poline, who died last year at the age of 18.

Poline's mother killed herself when she found out she had HIV. Her father died of AIDS several months later, but not before he raped 12-year-old Poline, infecting her with the virus.

She became an outcast and the virus went undetected until it made her so thin and weak she couldn't lift her shoes. Her teacher contacted Omollo, who took Poline under her wing. With the right medicine she became healthier, attended school and taught a youth group at her church. Despite her incredible progress, she contracted tuberculosis, and her compromised immune system couldn't survive it. She died in the hospital with her school exams on the table, Omollo said.

"I lost a person that inspired me a lot in life," she said. "She made me realize there's so much in life that you can give to someone."

HIV/AIDS and TB are preventable and manageable, so no child should die of them, she said.

For other girls, teenage pregnancy is practically a death sentence. A 15-year-old girl named Eunice who became pregnant was asked to leave school and then forced to leave home. Without job skills or family support, such vulnerable girls often turn to selling their bodies to buy food and eventually contract HIV, Omollo said.

Eunice's parents got in touch with one of PATH's peer support programs, which help families overcome their aversion to talking openly about issues like sex, pregnancy and HIV, and teach problem-solving. Over time, they changed their attitude and asked their daughter to come home, she said.

"We cry with communities, we sing with them, we eat with them and have them reflect on their own situation so they can overcome their own problems," Omollo said.

Many young girls in places like Kenya face an almost impossible burden, one that's very hard to solve if they're abused by their own families and shunned by their schools and communities.

In that broader sense, effective solutions often mean new ideas and approaches that address the cultural, political and economic problems threatening health.

Perhaps this complexity is one reason why speakers at PATH's annual event didn't talk a lot about technology. In fact, I hardly heard the word mentioned. Elias called the group's vision "health within reach through innovation."

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April 21, 2010 7:17 AM

UW conference to explore the impact of war on health

Posted by Kristi Heim

Organizations in Seattle are advancing research into emerging and neglected diseases, but what about neglected threats to public health?

The University of Washington aims to take the lead in shedding light on a fundamental issue for the field of global health -- war.

This week UW will tackle that theme as host of the 8th Annual Western Regional International Health Conference, beginning Friday, which blends academic work with a social change mission.

Beyond direct military casualties, the conference will look at indirect impacts on health, which cause more deaths and illnesses than many major diseases.

Co-sponsored by Physicians for Social Responsibility, the conference will define preventing war and reducing violence as an emerging area of study and practice for people in the global health field, how students and professionals can promote peace, and how to develop new global health leaders who are focused on that goal.

Speakers include Chris Hedges, author of "War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning;"
Alfred McCoy, author of "A Question of Torture;" and Janet Johnson Bryant, the Liberian journalist featured in the film "Pray the Devil Back to Hell."·

Kavita Ramdas, CEO of the Global Fund for Women, has been speaking out on the issue of war and its relationship to health.

At a global philanthropy conference in Seattle recently, Ramdas singled out violence as one of the biggest barriers to women's advancement, a new hurdle beyond the traditional issues of poverty, lack of economic opportunity and access to education.

"What has changed in the last 10 years," she said, "is the additional barrier of growing militarization of their society, the increased presence of arms and weapons in almost every part of every person's life."

The world has seen a surge in conflict and violence in all corners, she said, from ongoing civil strife in the Democratic Republic of Congo to crime on the south side of Chicago.

The effect has been "stunningly high levels of violence against women all over the globe, she said. "The scale of this violence is an epidemic."

Part of the problem is that resources in the U.S. and elsewhere that were once used for education, health and domestic infrastructure have been diverted to military budgets, Ramdas said.

Somewhat related to that is an interesting study about the effects on African-American women of the high incarceration rates of black men.

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April 6, 2010 12:01 PM

On the ground in Haiti: A child dresses up for rare occasion -- visit to doctor

Posted by Kristi Heim


Jacqueline Koch, a Seattle-based writer, photographer and native French speaker, is senior communications officer for the non-profit Merlin USA, an international medical relief organization. Since 2005, she has documented and reported on Merlin health programs and medical emergency response in Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Myanmar and Kenya. She is now in Haiti, where she wrote this post describing the health situation in a rural village a few months after the Jan. 12 earthquake.


We're headed to Petit Goave, a town 70 kilometers west of Port-au-Prince, to meet a team of health workers operating a mobile clinic for eight rural villages. I pass Leogane on the way, where some of the earthquake's greatest damage is on display: 80 percent of the buildings are destroyed or damaged, reduced to piles of dusty cement blocks and mortar.

The streets are busy, filled with vendors and the to-and-fro of the local public transport called "tap tap." Like poppies growing along a stretch of asphalt, local crews in bright red and blue UNDP (United Nations Development Program) t-shirts line the side of the road, removing debris with brooms and shovels. A sign of promise amidst the grey, gritty rubble.


An elderly woman washes clothes in a plastic tub, gathering water from a leaking pipe at the church behind her, damaged in the earthquake.

The coordination of the mobile clinics is done out of a small hotel room. The team--one French project coordinator, one British country health director and the Haitian health staff of two doctors and four nurses--camp on hotel grounds in tents.

From my tent, I can smell the sea, but I have yet to see it. We are busy packing and organizing medicines and supplies to leave at 7:30 a.m., while the day is still cool. In a three-car convoy we trade the commercial hustle of Petit Goave for the quiet foothills overlooking the tranquil waters of √Čtang Miragoane.

On a rocky track, better fit for the increasing number of donkeys I see, people carry jerry cans of water past decidedly smaller homes. The local version of wattle and daub gives them a gingerbread-house quality. Some are painted pink and white, others green and red. Outdoor kitchens dot the yards defended by strutting roosters. We still have another hour and a half to go, but we have already reached rural Haiti.


Patients seeking health care at Merlin's weekly mobile clinic in Arnoux. About 200 people arrived and 160 patients were seen over the course of the day.

We arrive at Arnoux, a village of 10,000 people likely to be isolated again by landslides or floods when the rainy season hits. It has suffered minor earthquake damage but is definitely feeling the impact. More than 1,000 displaced people from urban areas have returned to this community, living on very thin margins.

"We have many health problems because of the lack of food," Val Dieux-Sauveur, the health agent for a local farmers' group, explains. "If you announced you were giving away free food, everyone from the village would turn up."

Arnoux's "main square" is a dusty lot for the few cars that survive the treacherous journey here. It is anchored by the health clinic (dispensary), a building that has lost its purpose. There is no electricity, no running water, no staff. Dieux-Saveur tells me that once a government nurse visited regularly to see patients here. But six months ago, he stopped coming. He found a paying position abroad.


Drs. Antoine Bruneau and Carolle Alexandra Steriling examine Rosena Felix, 14. Haiti has a very young population--40 percent are under 14 years of age.

Mothers, children and elderly people walk several hours to get basic health care or to a hospital if serious illness strikes-- if they can afford to go. Many cannot. So they live with chronic ailments that might seem simple, but without diagnosis or treatment can become life-threatening. Many kids here have scabies. Should bites get infected, they can abscess, developing into deadly septicemia. A feverish child might have the flu, or it could be the onset of malaria. Plasmodium falciparum, commonly known as "cerebral malaria," is the most common strain here.

We set up a nurses' station, a doctors' consultation room, an area for the dressings nurse and a pharmacy outside. Among the 200 or more people that turn up over the course of the day, most are dressed as if they are going to church for Easter Sunday. Girls parade in fluffy pink dresses, toddlers march around in shiny patent leather Mary Janes, mothers cradling their infants have donned colorful hats and brightly colored bead necklaces.

"You can tell it's a big deal to them," said our Haitian translator Augusta Paul, who used to manage a Wendy's in New Jersey. "They don't often get to see a doctor, so it's a special occasion. They want to dress for it."

A quiet girl stands out from the crowd of patients. Rosena Felix, 14, is tiny for her age. Weak and clearly malnourished, she also complains of severe migraines that make her vomit and unable to keep any food down. Her symptoms puzzle the doctors, who become completely perplexed when she faints during her consultation and seems to have a small seizure. The medical team refers her to Notre Dame Hospital in Petit Goave. Supported by medical aid organizations, doctors there can assess her condition, order tests and provide the necessary treatment.

We transport Rosena and her mother, Roselaine. She lost her husband in the quake and put her three other children, including a nursing baby, in the care of a neighbor during her absence. When we get to the hospital and coordinate Rosena's admission to the pediatric ward, I notice the girl has changed her clothes. She traded a red t-shirt and shorts for an empire-waist dress, brown with colorful circles on it, tied back with a sash. She too has dressed for the occasion: meeting a doctor who might help put an end to the painful migraines that are robbing her of her health.

The next day, country health director Lizzy Berryman, who is also a nurse, visits Rosena and gives me an update "They've run tests and done an X-ray," she reports. "They found that she had suffered a skull fracture in the recent past, most likely the cause of her symptoms." Rosena will be put on a nutritional plan, given anti-convulsants, and then monitored weekly by the mobile clinic to see if she responds to the medication and gains weight.

Lizzy says she feels hopeful that Rosena's health will soon be back on track. And all it took was an X-ray.

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April 5, 2010 1:55 PM

Microfinance programs gain interest, local forum planned tomorrow

Posted by Kristi Heim

If you're curious about microcredit, tomorrow evening looks like a good opportunity to learn more about it from an interesting mix of speakers, in one of the first such forums to be held in Snohomish County.

While government aid and grants from large foundations goes into programs to relieve poverty, a growing channel of unofficial support comes from individuals in Puget Sound, who are contributing small donations and even investments from retirement funds into pools of money that reach individuals all over the world in the form of small loans.

A free public Microcredit Forum -- with Global Partnerships CEO Rick Beckett, Fabric of Life Foundation Founder Carol Schillios and U.S. Representative Rick Larsen is planned to discuss how microcredit works as a solution to poverty.


Carol Schillios, owner of the Fabric of Life store in downtown Edmonds.

Several local non-profits engaged in microfinance, which includes credit, savings, insurance and other financial tools, have announced partnerships recently with commercial banks and technology companies. Locally Washington CASH has seen a surge of interest in its training programs and small loans for entrepreneurs since the recession.

Seattle nonprofit Unitus signed a deal with the Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC), and Citi to set up a $15 million credit facility for microfinance institutions (MFIs) -- the local partners that actually loan funds to borrowers.

The money will go toward helping institutions that aren't big or established enough to attract commercial capital to grow and provide more loans.

The Grameen Foundation, which has a Technology Center in Seattle, received $1.23 million from the MasterCard Foundation and $500,000 from the Cisco Foundation to expand an open source software platform designed specifically for microfinance institutions. That software, called Mifos, was developed in Seattle to help providers of microcredit automate their loan operations.

The grants will help institutions using Mifos connect to mobile payment systems and track progress.

Vittana, a Seattle non-profit that applies the concept of micro lending to student loans, reached important milestones this month -- people lending $25 or $50 at a time through Vittana made more than $150,000 in loans to nearly 200 students around the world. A group from online real estate company Redfin, for example, has loaned $893 to six students in Paraguay.

Created by two former employees, Vittana helps fill a niche that for all its success, microcredit had not addressed. Micro loans typically go to people operating small businesses, but loans for college had no such source of funding. Some students have already landed jobs and started to repay the loans, said CEO Kushal Chakrabarti.

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April 1, 2010 1:15 PM

On the ground in Haiti: Mending limbs in a shattered landscape

Posted by Kristi Heim


Jacqueline Koch, a Seattle-based writer, photographer and native French speaker, is senior communications officer for the non-profit Merlin USA, an international medical relief organization. Since 2005, she has documented and reported on Merlin health programs and medical emergency response in Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Myanmar and Kenya. She is now in Haiti, where she wrote this post describing efforts to rebuild from the perspective of a local field hospital.


Each day, we are 12 people cramming into a little minibus that leaves the office/housing base located at Delmas 83 on the edge of Port-au-Prince. Departure time is 7:15 am, an early start to avoid getting stuck in the city's infamous and stultifying traffic. I've joined the medical and surgical team who've come to treat emergency trauma patients, injured in Haiti's January 12 earthquake. They are working at a field hospital that opened January 20 and was established on abandoned tennis courts.

We make our way through a dusty urban landscape radically redefined by the earthquake's seismic spasms. The landmarks of our daily journey to the hospital reflect the scale of disaster and the start-and-stop pace of recovery: a four story building flattened to resemble a stack of plates; a neighborhood blanketed in the flimsy patchwork of blue and white plastic tarps, and a side street housing a colony of tents, baking under the hot tropical sun.


A large chunk of concrete tore away much of the tissue from Claudine Souffrant's wrist. The 15-year-old needed specialized treatment at Merlin's surgical field hospital, including a skin graft to try to restore function to her hand.

Now two and a half months since the earthquake, the dissonance between the utter destruction and the push toward rebuilding a stronger Haiti leaves me overwhelmed at the enormity of the task ahead.

Red spray paint announces a call for help alongside the new address for thousands of homeless people: "S.O.S. Refugee Camp Delmas 40-B." Yet on the same sidewalk, street vendors are spearheading a rebound in the economy. At a brisk pace they sell burgundy red sugar cane sticks, fried bananas, button-down shirts, and an expansive collection of oil paintings. The paintings are perhaps the most ironic among the goods for sale, illustrating scenes of a serene, pastoral and verdant Haiti. There's no hint of the nation's spiral to the near-bottom of the Human Development Index. There's no evidence of the 1.2 million people who are now out of their homes, struggling to cope with the lack of clean water, food, and shelter--or the new misery the approaching rainy season will bring.

When we get to the field hospital, the medical team fans out to various ward tents for morning rounds. The facility is fully equipped with one operating theater--housing two tables allowing the team to operate on up to two people at a time-- four ward tents with beds for 40 in-patients, and a separate area for out-patient treatment services providing basic health care for as many as 300 people a day.

The specialized surgical team, an orthopedic and plastic surgeon, have the combined skills to better treat the grave but common injuries that result from earthquake disasters: complex bone fractures, severe crush injuries and extensive tissue loss. Each of these injuries can lead to secondary, life-threatening infections, so the aim is to save lives and limbs. It's a nascent approach for medical emergency response sector, but has clearly led to better outcomes. With restored function and mobility in their limbs or hands, patients will have a better quality of life once they fully recover.


Emmanuel Etienne, 21, lost his right leg in the earthquake. His family lives about three hours from Port-au-Prince, but he's staying in the capital to await a prosthetic and physical rehabilitation from Merlin and Handicap International.

While trying to avoid unnecessary amputations, the surgical team is also working with a number of amputees who need ongoing follow-up care so their wounds can heal properly and in such a way that it works well with a prosthetic limb. Upon opening, the Delmas 33 field hospital filled rapidly with patients transferred from city hospitals that were damaged, overwhelmed and under-resourced. Many patients had already undergone amputation surgeries under extreme emergency conditions, as did the mother of one of our staff. Trapped in the rubble and unable to get out, her husband was forced to cut off her leg with a machete to save her life. She is just one of thousands of people who were teetering between life and death in the immediate aftermath of the earthquake. While Haiti's government estimates that there are 4,000 new amputees in this country, other organizations working here put it higher.

At the field hospital, we have amputee patients ranging in age from 2 years old to 52 years old. Emmanuel Etienne, 21, was transferred after he lost his right leg just below the knee. Plastic surgeons have performed a skin graft to make sure the wound closes and heals nicely in order to fit well into a prosthetic leg. Emmanuel understands that having prosthesis will be key to living something closer to a normal life without his right leg.

"I just got into high school (secondary school) and I have two more years to go before I can go onto university," he said, adding that he'd like to study medicine. But he worries that the earthquake tragedy has stolen these hopes.

We've been working closely with partner organizations to help each patient rebuild their lives amidst great uncertainty. For each patient like Emmanuel, there is a considerable coordination effort to ensure they have a plan for follow-up treatment, physical therapy, rehabilitation and the prosthetic limb they need. In Haiti, already the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere and grappling with high unemployment, young men like Emmanuel will be vulnerable in the scramble for a job and resources.

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March 30, 2010 3:52 PM

Melinda Gates: Foundation investing more in mothers and newborns

Posted by Kristi Heim

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is boosting its investments in the health of mothers and newborns, which saves lives at a much lower cost than treating diseases later on, Melinda Gates said. The world's largest private foundation is also stepping up its efforts to fund contraception, she said.

At a time when effects of the recession are straining budgets worldwide, Gates urged governments to maintain their commitments to global health and pointed out how donors can "get more bang for your buck."

Gates, who is co-chair of the foundation, spoke on a call Monday evening with members of the organization ONE along with Melanne Verveer, the U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women's Issues.


Melinda Gates visits a hospital in Benin with French First Lady Carla Bruni-Sarkozy and AIDS World Fund Director Michel Kazatchkine in January.

Promoting breast feeding for the first six months of life, for example, boosts a child's immunity and reduces exposure to disease, Gates said.

"To do that costs about $2 to $7 dollars to save a life, versus tens or even hundreds of dollars per life to treat something like malaria and AIDS," she said.

"I'm not saying we shouldn't do malaria and AIDS, but I'm trying to point out how inexpensive it is to save these newborn lives."

The emphasis on maternal health is interesting in the context of a study and editorial by the medical journal The Lancet last year, which cited an "alarmingly poor correlation between the [Gates] Foundation's funding and childhood disease priorities," saying specific diseases like malaria and HIV dominated the foundation's focus.

The amount the Gates Foundation gave to maternal, newborn and child health increased from about $46 million in 2008 to more than $128 million last year, according to a grant search on the foundation's Web site. Last year the foundation also gave $16.5 million for family planning. Its funding for malaria reached nearly $350 million.

Gates talked about teaching a method known as "Kangaroo Mother Care," which encourages mothers to wrap and hold their babies until they can maintain their own body temperature. (In fact a study published this week found that "kangaroo mother care" cut newborn deaths by more than 50 percent and was more effective than incubators). Inexpensive drugs can also prevent mothers from hemorrhaging in childbirth.

Such a comprehensive program, together with contraception, could cut maternal deaths by 75 percent and reduce newborn deaths by 44 percent, she said. More than half a million women a year die in childbirth, and 4 million babies die in their first month of life, according to the World Health Organization.

Gates said she often gets asked "Aren't these moms going to overpopulate the world?" but in fact the opposite is true. "When moms know their babies are going to live into adulthood, they naturally bring down their population. And they're thrilled because they have the chance to feed two or three children versus five or six or seven."

Women also need access to contraception, she said.

In a visit to Malawi earlier this year, "I was pretty blown away with how many women were asking for family planning" but don't have it, she said. "They are clamoring for modern science."

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March 26, 2010 12:50 PM

Seattle BioMed moves from tiny lab to research powerhouse

Posted by Kristi Heim

From its beginnings as a tiny lab in Issaquah with a staff of five, the Seattle Biomedical Research Institute has grown to more than 300 people and is about to test one of the world's first vaccines for malaria on a group of volunteers.

"It's stunning to me we have been able to come so far so quickly," said Ken Stuart, who founded the private lab in 1976 as Seattle's first global health organization and now heads the largest independent non-profit dedicated to infectious disease research. (The non-profit known as SBRI is now officially acronym-free after re-branding itself Seattle BioMed.)


Malaria researcher Stefan Kappe stands in the "warm room" where mosquitoes are raised in the lab at the Seattle Biomedical Research Institute.

Advances have come in "small, imperceptible steps," he said, addressing a crowd of more than 500 at the annual Passport to Global Health event last night.

Now the institute is about to embark on a big one. In a few months, volunteers will be bitten by mosquitoes carrying a cloned strain of malaria to test a malaria vaccine candidate developed by Seattle BioMed researcher Stefan Kappe.

The malaria project started in 2000 and now is the sole focus of 100 scientists, Kappe said. The German native who studied at Notre Dame and taught at New York University said he came to Seattle in 2003 with a dream to succeed where others had failed.

A $50,000 grant from private donations helped him sort infected liver cells, and $32.5 million in funding from the Gates Foundation helped him take the concept from mice to humans.

His approach to the vaccine is using genetic engineering to remove two key genes and make the malaria parasites harmless. The first part of the human trials is a safety phase to make sure the vaccine doesn't make anyone sick. The next part involves infecting the vaccinated group with malaria later this year. The trial, to be held at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research, involves 26 people. Results will be announced in early 2011.

Later the team will need to test the vaccine in Africa and identify strains that protect for the longest time at the lowest dose, Kappe said.

In the future, inside its South Lake Union building, Seattle BioMed will be able to use its own newly built Malaria Clinical Trials Center (MCTC), one of four facilities in the world that can test new malaria treatments and vaccines in humans. More than 300 people in the Seattle area have already signed up as volunteers for trials of malaria drugs and vaccines, which could begin later this spring or summer.

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March 24, 2010 9:52 AM

TB cases rise in Washington, including drug resistant strains

Posted by Kristi Heim

It's a sign of the air we share -- drug-resistant tuberculosis has reached a record high in the world, and cases are showing up in Washington state.

In fact, the number of overall TB cases in 2009 rose 12 percent in Washington state, one of the few states that saw an increase. Nationally the number of TB cases has been dropping for 17 years.

There were 256 cases of tuberculosis reported in Washington last year, including two cases of multidrug-resistant TB (MDR-TB) and three deaths. More than half of the cases were in King County.

To find out what's behind those numbers, I asked Kim Field, a registered nurse who manages TB services at the state Department of Health and has 17 years of experience in TB control.

It's hard to pinpoint exactly what's behind the increase, but Washington does have more immigrants and refugees from places where the burden of TB is high, mainly Southeast Asia and Africa, she said. More than 75 percent of the state's cases last year were in foreign born populations. Thirty-four patients were from the Philippines and 25 from Mexico.

But that doesn't fully explain it. Minnesota has as similar refugee and immigrant population and yet saw a drop in TB cases. Delayed diagnosis may also play a role, she said, since people with TB may unknowingly spread the infection to others.

And what may be contributing to that delay is a lack of funding for public health. As this report notes, because of budget cuts, Snohomish Health District "significantly decreased public health nursing case management for the tuberculosis control program as of January 2009," according to Barbara Bly, a public health nurse in the district. Local health authorities no longer provide TB prevention and can only respond to active cases, she said, even though "careful prevention as well as management of individuals with tuberculosis is vital to preventing the spread of tuberculosis in our community."

In a case late last year, a man with symptoms of TB arrived in a hospital in eastern Washington. The emergency room doctor suspected TB, and called the county public health department, which is responsible for handling TB cases. He couldn't reach anyone because they were on furlough, Field said.

"You're left with this ER doctor and myself on the phone trying to fight TB," she said.

The doctor ran tests and collected information but the man left before he could be diagnosed, saying he was headed to California. The Washington authorities sent a report on the possible TB case to California, and a month later the man turned up there, tested positive for TB and finally got on treatment.

The two cases of multidrug-resistant TB in Washington are currently being treated and are doing well, Field said. But treatment is expensive -- the total cost per patient nearly $100,000, she said. The drugs alone cost more than $27,000.

The disease disproportionally affects the poor and homeless, and many patients don't have insurance, Field said. Even if they do, insurance generally doesn't cover second-line TB treatment, which often involves intravenous drugs and longer hospital stays or visits by a case manager.

Prompt diagnosis and treatment with proper antibiotics is key. If a TB patient starts treatment but doesn't finish it, that can increase drug resistance.

The local cases are part of a larger global TB epidemic that kills almost two million people a year.

Seattle-based research institutes are major players in developing new tools to diagnose and fight TB. The Gates Foundation has donated close to $900 million to fund those and other TB efforts in the last decade.

One of the programs, a TB control project in China, includes new ways to monitor treatment using cell phones.

Besides improving the screening of people who apply to come in to the Unites States as immigrants or refugees, said Dr. Ken Castro, director of TB elimination at the CDC, the U.S. needs to invest in improving programs in countries where TB is hitting hardest. Such an investment would reduce the U.S. future spending on TB by millions, he said.

Tonight a free public forum on TB is being held at the Olympic Sculpture Park in downtown Seattle. Details are here.

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March 23, 2010 11:04 AM

Hans Rosling to reveal the Zen of statistics in Seattle

Posted by Kristi Heim

Hans Rosling, who will be in town Thursday to speak at the Seattle Biomedical Research Institute's annual Passport to Global Health event, is a physician from Sweden who has created a unique way of visualizing data to make sense out of global trends.

In the process, the rumpled hair professor has become a kind of rock star in tech and global health circles whose fans include Bill Gates.

With his non-profit Gapminder, Rosling's mission is "converting boring numbers into enjoyable, animated and interactive graphics."


Hans Rosling teaches global health and uses data animation to bust common myths about development.

Gapminder depicts countries as bubbles and they move along a chart tracking things like incomes, literacy rates, child mortality and life expectancy. The bubbles are colored according to geographic regions of the world, and each expands along with a country's population growth. Watching the moving bubbles over the decades gives a real sense of how the world has changed and what factors have made a difference.

The data shows that it makes sense for countries to invest in reducing child mortality because "you can move much faster if you're healthy first than if you're wealthy first," he said.

Rosling made a presentation on the tool at the TED conference, and I'm eager to see what he has in store for the Seattle audience.

The library of available data is vast. Some of the more interesting comparisons I've found: plotting the way China is projected to narrow the gap with the UK in the five years after the global economic crisis, and comparing Washington state's income and infant mortality against the rest of the world (you have to check the box for Washington state to see it highlighted in the graph). Any way you slice it, compressing hundreds of years of history into a five-minute video graph seems perfect for the Internet generation.

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March 17, 2010 8:44 AM

USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah outlines priorities, role for business

Posted by Kristi Heim

Moving from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to the head of a government agency with 8,000 employees in 82 countries is no small shift.

But Rajiv Shah is using his experience at the Gates Foundation to reshape the way America's development arm works, from narrowing the focus of its programs and emphasizing science and technology, to creating a new Global Health Initiative with specific goals to reduce deaths from preventable diseases.


After working for the Gates Foundation in various roles for eight years, Rajiv Shah was sworn in as USAID administrator just five days before the earthquake struck Haiti.

Shah returned to Seattle from Washington D.C., where he is administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development, to speak at the Life Science Innovation Northwest annual conference. He later stopped by the Times for an interview.

In January he arrived at an agency that had lost half of its staff and much of its clout over the past 15 years.

Development work had been shifted to private contractors or to the Department of Defense, and many of the best people left USAID, diminishing its "intellectual leadership," he said.

As the new USAID administrator, his job is to help turn that around. The Obama Administration has pledged to double foreign aid, and the agency is now hiring 400 foreign service officers a year, Shah said.

Shah said he will call on companies working in life sciences to focus some of their energy on global health. USAID is spending $63 billion over six years on a Global Health Initiative and is looking for solutions including:

--Vaccines for HIV, TB and malaria
--Longer lasting contraception and microbicides
--Simple diagnostic tools for TB and malaria
--Solutions for transferring health data from remote sites
--Technologies to eliminate the need for temperature control of vaccines

The Global Health Initiative's goals include:

--Reducing pregnancy-related deaths by 30 percent, saving the lives of 360,000 women
--Preventing three million child deaths a year
--Preventing one million deaths from tuberculosis
--Cutting malaria cases by half in sub-Saharan Africa

Five days after he was sworn in, a catastrophic earthquake struck Haiti, killing an estimated 230,000 people, and Shah was charged with coordinating the massive U.S. relief effort.

Haiti has become a testing ground for whether USAID can overcome challenges of a dysfunctional bureaucracy, and for the larger project of "rebranding America across the world."

Problems over food aid, procurement and trade policy have been some of the agency's biggest challenges.

Last week Haitian President Rene Preval said Haiti needs help with job creation and less donated food, which can undermine local producers.

Shah said USAID was able to source the first 6,500 metric tons of rice for emergency aid to Haiti from local producers.

"It just created a mindset that these are capable resilient communities and we need to respect and work with them," he said.

Building local capacity means giving more contracts to local NGOs, rather than requiring U.S. contractors to do the development work. Shah said contracts above $75 million are now subject to review to try to break them into smaller pieces, and distribute work locally.

In some poor countries, trade and aid work at cross purposes. In 2006 the U.S. gave $120 million in aid to Bangladesh and Cambodia and collected $853 million from them in import duties, according to a report by the Initiative for Global Development.

The model of wealthy countries sending money to poor ones is outdated, Shah said.

New global realities require partnerships with emerging countries such as China, India, Brazil and Russia. They are starting to play a role as donors and taking on development work in places like Africa. If Chinese can build roads and other infrastructure more cheaply, it's smarter for the U.S. to contribute something else, he said.

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March 15, 2010 11:34 AM

Elevar raises $70 million to invest in microfinance

Posted by Kristi Heim

An equity fund focused on poverty? Sounds odd, I know. But Chris Brookfield, who managed funds for Unitus, and his partners at Elevar said today they have raised $70 million to invest in companies providing services to people at the bottom of the economic ladder. Elevar told me a bit about the fund last June.

Seattle-based Elevar will invest in companies involved in microfinance and other services targeted at the working poor in countries such as India, Mexico, the Philippines and Peru.


Chris Brookfield, left, then Unitus Equity Fund's investment director, with Veena Mankar, director of Swadhaar FinAccess, at a 2007 reception in Seattle.

Elevar is the second fund of Unitus Equity Fund, initially run as a for-profit arm of Unitus, a Seattle-based non-profit organization. Elevar is now independent of Unitus, though it remains a strategic partner, Brookfield said.

Besides microfinance, Brookfield said Elevar will also seek to invest in financing low income housing, agriculture and information services. The idea is to bring more commercial capital into development.

Improving incomes of billions of poor people -- the so-called "Next 4 Billion" -- has benefits for companies here, too. Economic growth in developing countries "is the strongest opportunity for long-term business growth," according to this report by the IGD, since the poorest two-thirds of the world's population represent $5 trillion in purchasing power. The more development can be supported through investment, the less dependent countries will be on foreign aid. The majority of poor countries don't attract much private investment, so it will be interesting to see whether a socially motivated fund can create a path for it.

"Our strategy is to challenge discrimination and democratize the distribution of opportunity by investing in companies providing high volume, low cost services to the poor and their communities," Sandeep Farias, managing director at Elevar, said in a statement.

The anchors of the new fund are Legatum and Omidyar Network.

Elevar's portfolio includes microfinance institutions SKS Microfinance, Ujjivan, Grama Vidiyal, Madura Microfinance and Swadhaar in India; Grupo Crediexpress in Mexico and FINSOL in Brazil.

Elevar has also invested two non-financial services companies in India: Moksha Yug Access, which builds trading infrastructure and market links between rural communities and larger commercial markets, and Comat Technologies, which provides Internet connectivity in rural areas for government services and education.

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February 1, 2010 9:28 AM

Haitian diaspora thousands of miles away lie awake, grieving

Posted by Kristi Heim

Martine Pierre-Louis hasn't been getting much sleep, and she suspects that other members of the Haitian diaspora are having the same problem.

She moved to the United States as a teenager 35 years ago but left a large extended family behind in Haiti. After the earthquake, her emotions traveled back in an instant to her loved ones and her childhood home.

"Literally we are traumatized thousands of miles away," she said.

She was fortunate that her family survived, but the immensity of the tragedy haunts her.

"What I keep saying to myself is that one lifetime is not going to be enough to grieve," she said. "I know that no matter when I die I'll still be grieving this."

Now director of interpreter services and community house calls at Harborview Medical Center, Pierre-Louis has been thinking about the about longer-term challenges of putting the country back together.

"The interest and energy and willingness to give that's present right now -- how can we harness that in the long run once all of the bodies have been cleared and all of the people who can be saved have been saved?"

People in Haiti have a kind of dignity that makes it difficult to accept so much outside help, she said.


Parishioners during Sunday Mass in Miami's Little Haiti pray in support of the earthquake victims.

"There's a sense of self that we feel, at least I feel, is lost. In everything that is going on there's a sense of loss that is so great we feel we're losing ourselves. It's a fear.

Pierre-Louis received an email from a Seattle friend who had moved to Haiti to do relief work before the disaster. She read the letter to me.

"Today we don't ask where do you live, it is more likely name of the street, or public place where you are sleeping. We don't say anymore so and so is dead; instead, so and so is lucky to be alive. I ran into a man who used to work for us. He lost nine members of his family, but he said he is lucky.

I met a couple who lost an 18 year-old daughter, yet open up their yard to the quake victims.
I have a co-worker who is still waiting for his wife to come back home from downtown. She went to run an errand and never made it back.
How can we ever be OK? But we must move ahead.
Haiti is a country made of people, and those who are still standing must do everything to continue."

Then she told me about a childhood friend who made it through the first earthquake unscathed and went in search of food for her family. She was struck in the leg by an object that fell in one of the many aftershocks, and her crushed leg was immediately amputated.

"People's nerves are frayed, and they are really, really traumatized," Pierre-Louis said. "There's great need for psychological support."

Pierre-Louis is working with a team in Seattle to prepare information and services to help survivors of psychological trauma, translating it into Creole and making it suitable for Haitian culture. She has been a Haitian Creole and French interpreter for over a decade, and is a founding member and past board member of the Society of Medical Interpreters and the National Council on Interpreting in Health Care. She also sings Haitian lullabies.

"Haiti will need all of the good energy and resources and time that donors can give," she said.

At Harborview she works with people from all over the world, "people who have experienced their own national tragedies," she said. Recently her colleagues have begun to share more about their own stories of living through war and disasters.

"I work with these colleagues daily, but for them to let me know that they also have had the experience of devastating loss and that is something we share. For me it's just one example of the amazing kindness I've experienced."

She's also been finding that there are more Haitians in the local community than she ever thought. "People are getting in touch with each other. The week of the earthquake, she got a call from a nurse who works in the King County tuberculosis clinic. She said 'I'm from Haiti. I'm a nurse. Can we talk?' When she came over she gave me a hug that lasted such a long time."

People like Pierre-Louis, who have medical expertise as well as an ability to bridge language and cultural gaps, will be needed more than ever before.

"What I would like to provide support with is in caring for the community I can care for right now -- the local Haitian American community," she said. Because in the future, she adds, "We will each be needed to step up in one way or another to serve Haiti."

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January 28, 2010 8:45 AM

Update on Haiti donations and events

Posted by Kristi Heim

Local fund-raising events, volunteer drives, non-profit campaigns and other efforts to help Haiti continued this week.

Tonight Seattle Greendrinks, SeaMo, ReVision Labs and Global Washington will jointly host a benefit for Fonkoze, a microfinance and development organization in Haiti working on emergency relief and long term reconstruction. A suggested donation of $20 includes live music, 6 to 9 p.m. at the Pike Brewery. Details are here.

Fonkoze board member Melanie Howard, Charlene Balick of the Grameen Foundation and a volunteer recently returned from Haiti will talk about the current situation and ongoing relief efforts. The brewery is donating 25 percent of its receipts from food and drink to Fonkoze.

Seattle non-profit InterConnection is looking for donations of used laptops with Pentium 3 or Pentium 4 chips and accepting them by mail or drop off (shipping is free for donors). InterConnection is working with World Concern to get the equipment into schools, hospitals and NGOs in Haiti that have lost hard drives and laptops and have no resources to replace them.


Wide receiver Pierre Garcon of the Indianapolis Colts celebrates with the Haitian flag after the Colts defeated the New York Jets.

The non-profit NetHope managed to bring Internet connections to NGOs working on the ground in Haiti this week through a long-distance WiFi network it set up in Port-au-Prince. Frank Schott, NetHope's global program director, operated a kind of command center from his home in Bellevue to coordinate efforts. NetHope is now providing Internet access through a shared hub to CARE, Save the Children, Concern and Catholic Relief Services, among others. The group is made up of 28 of the world's largest humanitarian organizations.

Brown Paper Tickets, a company based in Fremont that donates five percent of its profits to charities, added a microfinance partner in Haiti to its list of beneficiaries. Ticket buyers can direct part of the ticketing fee to one of three categories, and FINCA, which operates village banking in Haiti, will receive a portion of the proceeds.

The Mobile Giving Foundation announced that mobile donations have surpassed $33 million. The foundation has continued to add non-profits to its platform and now enables mobile phone users to send donations to 25 different organizations in the U.S. and Canada that are working on relief to Haiti.

Corporate donations surpassed $122 million two weeks after the earthquake, according to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce's Business Civic Leadership Center. About 300 companies have contributed to relief efforts, and 49 of them have donated $1 million or more.

Today the Chronicle of Philanthropy reported that more than $528 million has been raised in total for U.S.-based non-profits. Here's a list of relief groups and the amounts they've received.

Mercy Corps created a new way for people to raise money with personal fund-raising pages, designed by donors with personal messages and photos and used by schools, companies and other groups to give together. Mercy Corps said it has raised more than $500,000 from the pages so far.

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January 20, 2010 4:22 PM

Buy the world a Coke: Gates links poor farmers to soft drink giant

Posted by Kristi Heim

Coca-Cola is easily one of the most recognized brands in the world. Could linking some of the most impoverished people in Africa to the corporate giant's supply chain be a win-win for both?

The Gates Foundation is funding a project to help farmers in Kenya and Uganda produce fruit for Coca-Cola. Coca-Cola says the farmers can help it meet a critical need to increase production as global and local demand for fruit juice grows.


The ubiquitous Coca-Cola brand reaches every corner of the world.

The $7.5 million Gates grant will go to TechnoServe, a U.S.-based nonprofit, to train mango and passion-fruit farmers to improve their quality and increase production, and to provide the farmers with credit.

TechnoServe works with large corporations like Coca-Cola, using a private sector approach to align corporate interests with those of small enterprises in developing countries, and increase profits for both.

The project aims to bring 50,000 farmers into Coca-Cola's supply chain for the first time and to double their incomes by 2014.

For some perspective on this new partnership, I asked Chris MacDonald, a business ethics expert who teaches at Saint Mary's University in Halifax, Canada and is a Senior Fellow at Duke University. He has written about Coca-Cola's work in developing countries, including this report on an African water project.

"This clearly seems like a positive thing, over all," he said in an email about the new Gates-funded partnership. But the way it's set up makes all the difference. "It would be best if these farmers are being brought into Coca Cola's supply chain in a way that doesn't leave them dependent on it," he said. "Being dependent on the purchasing whims of any particular company seems dangerous, maybe a mixed blessing."

I also checked the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre, which keeps track of the record of many companies, including Coca-Cola. The company has come under fire for its water use in India. Yet it has also taken steps to build or repair water infrastructure in African countries.

Coca-Cola said the partnership will also serve as a model for the way it approaches other developing country markets where it does business.The four-year, $11.5 million partnership includes a $3 million contribution by Coca-Cola and $1 million from its bottling partner Coca-Cola Sabco.

Including loans to farmers as part of the project also raises some questions. "Anything that requires farmers to go into debt is at least a little worrisome," MacDonald said. While debt can be useful for people expecting incomes to rise, "I hope those farmers are getting some good, impartial advice about their financial planning."

The Gates Foundation's longer term goals for African agricultural development are eradicating poverty and improving food security. With a company whose main product isn't healthy, "there's reason to be worried about the company extending its reach, and hence its market, into more and poorer countries," MacDonald said.

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January 19, 2010 11:59 AM

United We Can's social business gets set for Winter Olympics

Posted by Kristi Heim

In the heart of Vancouver's poorest neighborhood, a thriving business is helping homeless and low-income people earn money by cleaning up the environment.

United We Can pays about 700 people a day deposits on recyclable containers they've collected, distributing more than $2 million a year to "binners" who eke out a living rummaging through garbage. I profiled the non-profit and its founder Ken Lyotier in this story today.


United We Can safety trainer James Hance, who grew up in Vancouver's tough Downtown Eastside, says he'd rather stay and help the community than work elsewhere. He stands in front of a T-shirt with a corner chewed off by rats in the organization's aging warehouse.

In addition, the non-profit employs 150 part-time and full-time workers to pick up from local businesses, sort bottles and cans in its warehouse, and haul them to a recycling center. United We Can earns a handling fee from beverage producers, who are required by law to ensure that their containers are refilled or recycled. The handling fee supports United We Can's operations, making it a sustainable business.

United We Can will be able to expand its work during the Olympics, hiring 60 additional people to help collect containers around downtown and at local hotels and restaurants.


People line up with carts full of recyclables outside United We Can's bottle depot along East Hastings Street. The average "binner" earns about $10 a day.

Lyotier, who battled homelessness, alcoholism and drug addiction himself, said he has never turned away anyone who wanted to work.

"Many of the people working at United We Can came from the streets," he said.

"I personally believe that when people who have had obstacles discover they do have value," Lyotier said, "they sometimes make the choice to move on to a more normal model of what success means."

Vancouver's Downtown Eastside is notorious for a concentration of social problems such as open drug dealing, homelessness, mental illness and prostitution. Blocks away from Olympics venues, the neighborhood will face a global spotlight next month as the focus of protests by activists who are frustrated by a lack of progress on social issues. And yet people at the busy bottle depot see a resilient community underneath.

"You hear a lot of bad stuff but I see so many good things," said United We Can safety trainer James Hance. "Everyone says all you find is misery here, but I find more kindness here than lots of other areas."

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January 19, 2010 10:07 AM

Local benefits get under way for Haiti relief

Posted by Kristi Heim

Groups from soccer fans to music lovers and microfinance supporters are organizing events around Puget Sound to raise money for Haiti relief efforts.

On Thursday, Jan. 21, Casuelitas Caribbean Cafe in Belltown will serve Caribbean snacks and Haitian rum punch from 6-10 p.m. Proceeds go to to earthquake relief in Haiti through the Florida Association for Volunteer Action in the Caribbean and the Americas (FAVACA), a nonprofit helping people in the region for more than 25 years. Benefit includes sale of Haitian steel oil drums and a raffle. Details are here.

On Saturday, Jan. 23, Sounders FC fan club Gorilla FC will host a fund-raising event at the George & Dragon pub in Fremont with midfielder Steve Zakuani and defender James Riley as a benefit for Wyclef Jean's Yele Haiti Earthquake Fund. Details are here.

On Sunday, Jan. 24, Seattle restaurants are teaming up to hold a dine around Seattle event to raise money for NetHope and other relief organizations. More details are here.

On Thursday, Jan. 28, Seattle Greendrinks, SeaMo, ReVision Labs and Global Washington will jointly host a benefit for Fonkoze, a microfinance and development organization in Haiti working on emergency relief and long term reconstruction. Suggested donation of $20 includes live music, 6 to 9 p.m. at the Pike Brewery. Details are here.

On Thursday, Jan. 28, a benefit concert and auction called "Seattle Helping Haiti" will be held at the Moore Theater with proceeds going to the American Red Cross. Details are here.

I'll be updating this post as I learn of other events.

Do you have a story to share about Haiti? We're putting together a collection of first person accounts here.


Previous events

On Monday, Jan. 18, the Nectar Lounge will host a benefit party, "Haiti We Stand," for Convoy of Hope.

On Tuesday, Jan. 19, Seattle-based World Concern and radio stations SPIRIT 105.3 and PRAISE 106.7 are holding a drive and looking for volunteers to take calls from the broadcast studios in Shoreline. Training will be provided. Contact Jacinta Tegman at World Concern (206) 546-7524 or

On Wednesday, Jan. 20, Re-Bar will present "One World: A Benefit for the Victims of the Earthquake in Haiti," to benefit the American Red Cross and Wyclef Jean's Yele Haiti. More details are here.

On Wednesday, Jan. 20, Lucid Live Jazz Lounge and other venues along University Avenue in the U District will hold a benefit with live music to support the efforts of Lucid owner David Pierre-Louis. With help from Seattle's jazz community, Pierre-Louis traveled to Haiti last Thursday to locate his mother in Port-au-Prince and bring emergency supplies. He's expected to be at the Seattle benefit to raise more funds for relief efforts. Details are here.

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January 14, 2010 1:39 PM

Gates Foundation makes first Haiti relief grant

Posted by Kristi Heim

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is making its first grant in response to the earthquake in Haiti -- $1 million to Catholic Relief Services (CRS) to aid its initial relief efforts, including immediate food, shelter, water, sanitation, health and other needs of people affected by Tuesday's earthquake.

UPDATE: On Friday, the foundation made a second grant -- $500,000 to Partners in Health (PIH) for immediate- and medium-term medical care through its existing 10 health facilities and temporary mobile clinics. The grant will also help pay for medical supplies, tents, blankets, water, and other essential items. Partners in Health has worked in Haiti for more than 20 years to bring medical care to poor communities.

CRS "has experienced personnel and a stock of emergency supplies in Haiti," the Gates Foundation said in a statement today. Catholic Relief Services personnel in Haiti were struggling to make sure that their 300 staff members are safe and accounted for, as well as beginning relief operations by preparing food supplies to be brought in Friday from the Dominican Republic. The CRS blog has some details about the situation on the ground.

"The humanitarian conditions are catastrophic, and much more will need to be done to address the immediate situation, as well as support the sustained recovery efforts in the weeks and months ahead so that people can rebuild their lives," the Gates Foundation statement said. "The foundation is continuing to monitor the situation and exploring additional opportunities to provide support for the relief efforts."

The largest private charitable foundation says it approaches emergency relief by trying to assist organizations that deliver food and clean water, improve sanitation, provide medical attention and shelter, and prevent or minimize outbreaks of disease.

It listed 10 relief groups actively working in Haiti for people looking for organizations to support.

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January 14, 2010 7:30 AM

The biggest challenges ahead for USAID chief Rajiv Shah

Posted by Kristi Heim

The new face of U.S. foreign assistance stared into my living room from the TV screen, looking very familiar. There was Rajiv Shah, the former Gates Foundation agricultural development director, being interviewed by Jim Lehrer about Haiti.

Just when I was getting ready to write about how Shah must prepare to tackle things like streamlining bureaucracy, localizing programs and funding, and strengthening support for democratic governance (no pressure), along comes the biggest disaster in two centuries, striking an already fragile nation 700 miles from Miami. Now Shah, 36, is leading U.S. relief efforts just six days after being sworn into office.


Rajiv Shah is sworn in as USAID Administrator as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Shah's family look on. Shah had supported her presidential campaign.

It's interesting to think that Shah was chosen to head the organization after the humanitarian physician Paul Farmer pulled out of the running last summer. Farmer, chairman of Harvard Medical School's Department of Global Health and Social Medicine, had dedicated so much of his life to improving health conditions in Haiti through Partners in Health that he would have seemed almost destined for that moment.

At Shah's swearing in ceremony, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton lauded his passion, vision and quiet humility, his degrees in medicine and business and experience with the Gates Foundation. "He brings determination and an unwavering belief that anything is possible," she said.

Shah, in turn, said that belief "was founded on our country's rich experience turning crisis into progress."

Shah talked about the necessity of reforming USAID to create stronger local systems in the countries it helps, staying focused on tracking progress and elevating the position of women and girls. Now more than ever the world has the ability -- and the technology -- to create massive improvements in the human condition, he said.

"We find ourselves in a unique moment of opportunity," he said. "A powerful consensus has formed that development is vital both to our national security and the shared interests of an interconnected world."

On TV tonight Shah looked like he hadn't slept in a long time. He talked about President Obama's commitment to focus U.S. efforts around saving lives in the first 72 hours after the quake, working with various branches of the federal government and in partnership with other countries to be as effective as possible. He projected a steady, smart and genuine presence.

Shah's first major test is also an opportunity for the country to show a struggling neighbor how it intends to redefine its role in the world.

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January 13, 2010 11:41 AM

Haiti humanitarian efforts linked by mobile connections

Posted by Kristi Heim

It was clear the earthquake wrought devastation on a massive scale. Time saved meant lives saved. Two wireless companies in Bellevue went straight to work, one to repair its mobile network in Haiti and the other to channel funds to relief workers using text messaging.

In a country where traditional landline service is almost non-existent, more than a million Haitians rely on the mobile service Voilà for communications. That service is provided by Bellevue-based Trilogy International Partners, which received an award this year from the U.S. State Department for its decade of work in the impoverished country.


Haitians carry injured in Port-au-Prince, as planeloads of rescuers and relief supplies headed there in a massive relief operation.

Trilogy said members of its crisis task force were one of the first aircraft to land this morning at the Port-au-Prince airport to assist on-the-ground efforts.The earthquake wiped out much of the infrastructure in the most densely populated part of the country. Its local team could travel only by foot because roads were so heavily damaged.

Senior management of Trilogy, its Haitian wireless operation (Voilà) and its Dominican Republic operation (Trilogy Dominicana/Viva) began a disaster recovery plan and formed a special task force to secure the safety of its 500 local employees and assess damages, the company said in a post today on its Web site. Within hours the team determined its buildings were intact and its staff located.

"Voilà's network continued to operate for several hours through the aftershocks before we were forced to shut down the switch to maintain its integrity until our generators and cooling systems were back online," the company said in its post. "We have restarted our generators at the main switch and are in the process of bringing our network back up. Once this has occurred, we will be focused on managing traffic and adding capacity as rapidly as possible to aid the humanitarian efforts in Haiti."


Trilogy Chairman John Stanton was given a global citizenship award from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for his company's work in Haiti, including a micro-enterprise that helps local entrepreneurs earn money and a partnership with musician Wyclef Jean's Yele Haiti foundation to support education.

In Bellevue, Jim Manis at the Mobile Giving Foundation quickly worked to roll out text message- based fundraising efforts. Manis founded the non-profit to help other non-profit organizations receive donations through text messaging campaigns. I profiled the foundation here.

People can text a keyword to a designated short code and make a donation of $5 or $10 to any of several organizations working to help Haiti. Every penny of the donation goes to the charity, and the amount appears later as a charge on the donor's mobile phone bill.

The Mobile Giving Foundation said it has already raised about $375,000 today, through the following campaigns:

  • Text the word "Yele" to 501501 to donate $5 to the Yele Foundation, the leading contributor to rebuilding Haiti founded by Wyclef Jean.

  • Text the word "Haiti" to 25383 to donate $5 to the International Rescue Committee

  • Text the word "Haiti" to 90999 to donate $10 to the American Red Cross.

  • Text the word "Haiti" to 45678 (In Canada Only) to assist the Salvation Army in Canada.

  • established a box on its homepage today where customers can contribute to Mercy Corps' relief efforts.

    Other groups engaged in ongoing relief efforts in Haiti include:

    Partners In Health, Boston,
    Mercy Corps, Portland, 800-852-2100 or
    Medical Teams International, Portland, 800-959-4325 or
    American Red Cross, 800-733-2767 or
    World Concern, Seattle, 800-755-5022 or
    World Vision, Federal Way, 888-511-6548 or

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January 13, 2010 12:27 AM

Gates Foundation makes $38 million in grants to spur savings

Posted by Kristi Heim

With the success of microcredit, poor people have access to more loans than ever before. But many are still stashing savings in a lock box, storing it with a "money guard" or pooling it in an informal savings club because they have no other options.

Many banks and other institutions don't make savings accounts available to the poorest borrowers.

Today the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is contributing $38 million in grants in a push to help leading microfinance institutions (MFIs) offer clients safe and affordable places to save money.

"We see it as a major step to drive change and help broaden the microfinance business model to include savings," said Bob Christen, the foundation's director of Financial Services for the Poor.


Members do banking at ACSI, a microfinance institution in Ethiopia's Amhara region, which depends largely on agriculture. ACSI provides savings accounts for more than 586,000 people.

Six grants will help 18 institutions expand their portfolios and make savings accounts available to 11 million people in Africa, Asia, and Latin America over the next five years. The challenge of finding ways to reach poor savers is being met with the help of motorcycles, PDAs, mobile phones and even soap operas.

The largest grant, $9.8 million, will go to the Grameen Foundation to begin a Microsavings Initiative with partners in Ethiopia, India and the Philippines to test and fine tune models for savings for people at the bottom of the economic ladder -- those living on about $1.25 per day.

Even at that level, people are putting away small amounts -- often pennies at a time -- and using sophisticated balancing acts to stretch their capability. But the informal savings methods often lead to financial losses.

Many of the poorest people live far from cities, so the cost of traveling to a bank is too high. It's also expensive for banks to create branches in remote areas where the number of clients is limited and their deposits small.

A $5.8 million grant to ACCION International will focus on agent banking, mobile banks, and access to savings accounts over mobile phones. A $3.3 million grant to World Vision will help it offer savings accounts to rural farmers and poor people in Ethiopia through mobile technologies, including equipping savings offers with PDAs and motorbikes to travel to clients in outlying communities.

Collecting more savings deposits from local customers could help the microfinance institutions reduce their reliance on external funding from commercial banks, becoming more like community banks in the United States, said Kate Druschel Griffin, director of the solutions for the poorest initiative at the Grameen Foundation.


The microfinance institution ACSI holds a meeting for clients in Ethiopia's rural Amhara region.

"For us it's how do we make sure we are enabling the poor households to have tools they need to work their way out of poverty," she said. Grameen's initiative aims to reach 1.45 million new savers over three years. Besides a safer place to store assets, clients can earn interest -- ACSI, Grameen's partner in Ethiopia, provides 5 percent interest on regular savings accounts, and between 5.25 and 5.5 percent on time deposits.

The Grameen Foundation has begun using a tool called the "progress out of poverty index" to measure the impact of credit and savings programs on borrowers. The index measures a range of non financial indicators, such as housing type and sanitation type to see whether living conditions improve.

An $8.5 million grant will go to Women's World Banking (WWB), a network of leading microfinance institutions and banks dedicated to the economic empowerment of women.

The grant will help WWB to create new savings products and services for nearly seven million low-income people in Latin America, Africa and Asia.

WWB will use the money to support its network members invest in market research, product design, marketing and sales and service delivery methods. The members are Banco ADOPEM in the Dominican Republic, WWB Colombia, Kenya Women Finance Trust, and Kashf Microfinance Bank in Pakistan.

"As the microfinance industry matures, we are seeing the beginning of a major shift from a focus on credit to an emphasis on savings," said WWB president and CEO Mary Ellen Iskenderian, adding that demand for savings among the poor is increasing.

WWB found that poor people save between 10 to 15 percent of their monthly household income, using it to pay for childrens' education, health emergencies, housing and marriage.

Since women tend to be the savers in a poor household, designing savings products for them is critical, WWB said.

Using a creative approach, WWB will launch a TV soap opera in the Dominican Republic, part of a financial literacy campaign to bring attention to the benefits of savings. WWB said it seeks to change cultural attitudes and behaviors related to money and will work with Puntos de Encuentro, a Nicaraguan NGO that has used TV serial drama to successfully affect social change.

"Loans or credit were the model for the first 30 years of microfinance," said Iskenderian. "Savings is the future."

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December 30, 2009 12:45 PM

Tax deduction appeals from non-profits as 2009 comes to a close

Posted by Kristi Heim

If the flood of email this week is any indication, non-profits are working hard to capture any donations in the last few days of the year from people seeking a 2009 tax deduction.

In fact, Dec. 31 is the busiest time of the year for online giving, according to this story in the New York Times, based on data from Convio. In 2008 it found that charities raised 22.5 times more money on the last day of the year than on an average day, and the gift size was 57 percent larger in the last week than the average week.

Locally, Gov. Chris Gregoire sent out an appeal for donations to food banks, including
Second Harvest Inland Northwest, which provides more than 1 million pounds of donated food a month to neighborhood food banks in Eastern Washington; Northwest Harvest, which serves more than 300 food programs across the state; and Food Lifeline, which served more than 675,000 hungry people across Western Washington last year.

The Society of St. Vincent de Paul appealed for year-end donations, citing a doubling of demand at its Food Bank and a 53 percent increase in demand for general assistance.

Some companies transformed the holiday parties of the past into end-of-year charity drives. PricewaterhouseCoopers in Seattle invited people from three charities into its office for a reception with more than 75 of the firm's employees, and gave each non-profit a $10,000 check. PricewaterhouseCoopers partners and staff chose Childhaven, Northwest Harvest and Treehouse as the recipients of their holiday giving campaign.

Olive Crest, which serves abused and at-risk children, said it received a last minute gift from the federal government of $500,000, which represents 13 percent of its total annual budget. The appropriations funds will go toward supporting programs in Washington State focusing on child abuse prevention and training for young teens and adults to live and work on their own and transition out of the child welfare system.

Some non-profits are making year-end donating go even further. The global health organization PATH said every donation to its Catalyst Fund will be matched up to a total of $116,000, thanks to support from the McKinstry Charitable Foundation and an anonymous donor.

Radio station KEXP challenged listeners to help with its year-end fundraising by pairing donations with a pledge from its Volunteer Leadership Boards. The board members committed an additional $85,000 if donors can raise $130,000 by Dec. 31.

For people evaluating charities as they consider donating, GreatNonprofits CEO Perla Ni had a few tips:

1. Don't look at the proportion of the budget that goes to programs. Ni considers focusing on overhead the worst way to pick a charity. "They tell you nothing about the impact that the charity has, and actually encourage charities to make decisions that make them less effective," she said.

2. Look for opinions and information from people who have had direct experience with the charity. and GuideStar are two sources.

3. Listen to what experts have to say about the charity. Philanthropedia provides access to opinions of experts who evaluate charities.

4. Find direct evidence of impact. Ask the charity how it evaluates the effectiveness of its programs. GiveWell has reviews on hundreds of charities based on impact.

5. See for yourself. Take a donor tour or sign up to volunteer and experience firsthand what the nonprofit does.

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December 24, 2009 10:44 AM

Stoves aim to curb violence against women and the environment

Posted by Kristi Heim

Cassandra Nelson is no stranger to conflict and crisis, having worked for Mercy Corps in hot spots all over the world, including Afghanistan, Iraq, Gaza, Pakistan and Darfur.

But as she spent November in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, she was immediately struck by two things: how much violence is still raging there, and how rich the potential is if the country can move beyond it.


Women in the Democratic Republic of the Congo build stoves out of clay for cooking more efficiently and reducing the use of firewood, which contributes to deforestation and is dangerous for the women traveling greater distances from camps to gather wood.

"It's a spectacular country," she said, "lush and mountainous and everywhere you look are flowers. One moment you see that vista, and then you turn your head the other direction and see some of the worst human suffering you've seen in your life... you just think how can this all be in one place?"

More than a decade of fighting has claimed at least 5 million lives and left more than a million people displaced, pushed into makeshift camps to seek refuge. The war has caused nearly seven times the number of deaths of the 1994 genocide in neighboring Rwanda, according to the Portland-based humanitarian group. The worst violence has been in eastern Congo, near Goma, the capital of Nord-Kivu province.

Recently "there's been a real perception that things have stabilized," Nelson said, but "the moment you leave Goma, things have not changed one bit. Every night there are gunfights and people getting killed."

Women and girls in eastern Congo have paid a terrible price.

Rape has become so common "it is almost a fact of life," Nelson said. "They're terrified of it but sometimes I get the sense they think it's unavoidable. It's happened to everyone."

As women go out to collect firewood for light, heat and cooking, they risk attacks by militia in the jungles and sometimes by government soldiers, too, she said. "Out in those woods there are a lot men with guns. It's either rape or it's harassment -- people stealing their wood or beating them."

The conflict has also taken a heavy toll on the environment. A recent UN study estimated that two thirds of the Congo Basin Forest will have disappeared within 30 years if the present rate of deforestation continues. Illegal logging and charcoal production remain a lucrative industry used to finance the ongoing conflict and buy guns for rebel militia groups, Nelson said. The strain on resources is even more severe as desperate people move into new areas and set up camps.

"First they're going out one kilometer and pretty much everyone has picked those," Nelson said. "In some places women go out 14 kilometers. People are literally spending half their day collecting wood."


Congolese women make and store briquettes they created out of manure, which reduces deforestation and offers a safer alternative than searching for wood.

Mercy Corps is applying a practical solution to address both environmental destruction and women's security -- a fuel efficient stove.

The simple stoves can be made from sand, clay and brick found locally, and they consume less than half the wood of traditional cooking fires. That means women don't have to leave the relative safety of the camps as often.

About 30,000 stoves have been made through the Mercy Corps program and 10,000 distributed this year, Nelson said. Women are also learning to make briquettes from manure and other refuse, which burn more cleanly and are cheaper than charcoal. Besides saving trees, the stoves and briquettes provide a way to earn income for women who make and sell them.

So far Mercy Corps has trained 360 people to pass on the stove building knowledge to more women. "As they go home they take skills back and introduce this method to their villages," Nelson said.

The stoves have generated $160,000 worth of credits in the carbon market from the reduction in carbon emissions, she said. Mercy Corps uses the proceeds to teach women living in camps vocational skills, including animal husbandry, beekeeping and horticulture.

While the country continues to struggle with conflict and corruption, progress is measured in reducing danger and harm.

In the future, she said, "if the violence can ever be brought under control, it is a country with amazing natural resources and so much potential."

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December 22, 2009 5:12 PM

PCC expresses distaste for Gates approach to agriculture

Posted by Kristi Heim

The Gates Foundation is getting some criticism from a local food co-op for supporting research into genetically modified crops to increase production in Africa.

PCC Natural Markets, the Seattle-based food co-operative, published a letter and editor's note this month taking a strong stance against genetic engineering of food.

"I caution the organic community to be watchful of this NEW Green Revolution, especially since The Gates Foundation science and technology efforts are led by a former Monsanto researcher,"
Dennis L. Weaver wrote in PCC's Sound Consumer.

"The Gates Foundation apparently is pushing genetically modified crops on African farmers," PCC editor Trudy Bialic added. She cited a $42 million Gates grant to a project involving Monsanto to produce corn resistant to drought "even though genetic engineering has failed to increase crop yields significantly, despite 20 years of research."

PCC, which has nine stores in the Puget Sound region and 47,000 members, is the largest consumer-owned natural food co-operative in the United States. Its staff writes a monthly report about issues in food safety and nutrition aimed at consumers.

Mark Suzman, director of policy and advocacy in the Gates Foundation's global development program, responded in a letter to PCC that the foundation is investing in a broad array of approaches and paying attention to environmental and economic sustainability.

"Most of our grants to improve seed quality use conventional breeding," Suzman wrote. "We include biotechnology when we believe there is potential to help farmers confront drought and disease, or to increase the nutritional content of food, faster or more effectively than conventional breeding alone."

The criticism by advocates of organic agriculture isn't new but illustrates a politically charged split over food, one that Bill Gates acknowledged in a speech in October at the World Food Prize symposium.

Gates said some critics are "instantly hostile to any emphasis on productivity," and that such an "ideological wedge" could thwart major breakthroughs to help farmers deal with the effects of climate change.

"The fact is, we need both productivity and sustainability -- and there is no reason we can't have both," he said.

But the local reaction reveals ongoing skepticism, even among an audience generally not at odds with Gates philanthropy.

"The organic community cannot buy into Bill's call to 'Let's just all hold hands, sing kumbaya, hug, air-kiss and "'get over" past "ideological" divides,' " Weaver wrote to PCC.

"I don't know exactly what is motivating the Gates Foundation to buy into the propaganda," Bialic said. "I think it's an ideology that technology can save the world."

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December 16, 2009 9:25 AM

Greg Mortenson's path of peace from one mountain to another

Posted by Kristi Heim

Like a rider through a treacherous mountain pass, Greg Mortenson negotiates through seemingly impossible obstacles to find safe passage for his schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan, choosing hope over fear and calling his only real enemy "ignorance."

Mortenson visited Seattle Tuesday and Redmond this morning to talk about his new book, "Stones into Schools: Promoting Peace with Books, Not Bombs, in Afghanistan and Pakistan." I spoke with him by phone on Tuesday while he awaited his flight from Portland. The Pacific Northwest is his biggest support network, where his champions hail from public libraries and book clubs to military bases and places of worship. His group Pennies for Peace carries on the work at home through programs for youth, teaching them about the world and how their philanthropy can make a difference. People in the Snohomish School District held a district-wide drive and raised more than $50,000.

The mountain climber and humanitarian founded the nonprofit Central Asia Institute, which has created 131 schools with the goal of advancing girls' education in rural Afghanistan and Pakistan.


Greg Mortenson (third from right in back) with tribal chiefs from Urozgan province in southern Afghanistan, a Taliban stronghold where his institute established the first girls high school.

In "Three Cups of Tea," he writes about building schools for girls in the rugged mountains of Pakistan, while his new book focuses on neighboring Afghanistan.

Mortenson, 51, gives the mountains of remote Afghanistan the motto of his native Montana, "The last best place." There he found "a combination of courage, tenacity, hospitality, and grace that leaves me in awe," he writes. Such places often "represent the best of who we are and the finest standard of what we are meant to become."

I asked him how he manages to maintain his safety, let alone build girls schools, in Taliban strongholds:


Author Greg Mortenson, son Khyber and daughter Amira in Gultori war refugee girls' school in Pakistan.

Establishing trust with local leaders is key, he said. "The Pashto word menawatay means the right of refuge. It means you will protect a guest with your life. Your honor in the tribal group is measured on your ability to provide hospitality for your guest. We have to take a lot of precautions, but my kids and wife do go to several places in Pakistan and Afghanistan."

(He was kidnapped and held for eight days in Pakistan in 1996.)

"Primarily we've tried very hard to work with the elders and we've put them in charge. The communities run the schools. When I am passing between two different feuding clans we'll sit there in the middle of nowhere and wait, and a military commander, a commandant, will send his emissaries. We'll have cup of tea and they will pass me off."

"It's absolutely imperative we build relationships..." As Mortenson's voice trailed off, he said he would call right back after passing through airport security in Portland. It took a lot longer than he thought. The U.S. Army veteran, whose advice has been praised by military commanders such as Admiral Mike Mullen and General David Petraeus, was detained again.

"Every time I come back into the country it's really difficult," he said later. "My passport is somehow marked. They ask me where I've been. I have to go into a special room. I don't look forward to coming back here for that reason."

Why choose to work in the remote Wakhan Corridor in Afghanistan?

"Our mission is to promote and set up schools, especially for girls, in areas where there is not education, generally in areas of physical isolation, religious extremism, conflict and war or natural disaster. Wakhan is the most remote. I think what really drew me there 10 years ago in 1999 a dozen Kirghiz horseman came over. They traveled six days a week, 16 hours a day on horseback. They were sent by their tribal leader to ask me to build a school in their region, the most isolated area in Afghanistan. You need to go in a jeep four days over rugged mountain and another three to four days by horseback over precipitous trails."

Why is girls' education the answer?

"Educating girls at least to a fifth grade level reduces infant mortality, and where I work about one out of three children dies before the age of 1. It reduces the population explosion. I think of all the problems in the world today -- we have global warming and wars -- I think there's just too many people on the planet. The number one way to reduce people is female literacy.

What I have seen is people coming home from the bazaar and they have vegetables or meat wrapped in newspaper. You'll see the mother very carefully unfolding a newspaper and asking her daughter to read the news to her. It's very empowering for a woman in an isolated area to read the news.

When mothers have an education they are less likely to encourage their sons to get into terrorism or violence. The Taliban's primary recruiting grounds are illiterate and impoverished societies. Most educated women refuse to allow their sons to join the Taliban."

On Afghanistan today:

"In the year 2000 there were 800,000 mostly boys in school, a Unicef figure. Today there are 8.4 million children in school including 2.5 million females. This is the greatest increase in school enrollment in any country in modern history. This is something few Americans are aware of.

Unfortunately the bad news is in the last three years in Afghanistan, the Taliban have bombed, burned or destroyed over 1,000 schools, and 850 schools in Pakistan. Ninety percent of the schools are girls schools. I think the reason they are bombing girls schools is because their greatest fear is not a bullet. It's a pen."


A school in a remote part of Afghanistan created by the Montana-based non-profit Central Asia Institute.

On what he teaches in the schools:

There are 131 schools now, plus another five dozen tent schools in refugee camps, serving 58,000 students (most of them girls): "Reading, writing, arithmetic, social studies. Elders come in twice a week and do storytelling to children...also hygiene, sanitation and nutrition. Since there's no health care, we teach teachers how to screen for vitamin deficiency, polio. We teach five languages by fifth grade, including Arabic and English, Dari in Afghanistan and Urdu in Pakistan and Pashto, and they also speak their tribal tongue. We are required by both countries to teach Islamiat studies, two to three hours a week studying the Koran and Islam. We teach kids to read and understand Arabic -- that's the difference between [our schools] and extremist madrasas. They teach how to read Arabic but not understand it. When you understand the Koran, there's nothing that says girls can't go to school. The two worst sins one can commit are killing someone and committing suicide. The real enemy anywhere is ignorance."

Does he still get threats here?

"I still get hate mail. I get threats. I've had threats all over the country. Our house was smashed by supremacists. People don't like the fact that I'm helping Muslims out. [Other] people don't like that I'm talking to the military. My wife says if people on the extreme right and extreme left don't like you, then you're doing the right thing. Americans are really great people. We're compassionate and courageous. There's too much emphasis on fighting terrorism, based on fear. If we promote peace, it's based on hope."

Did you manage to hear Mortenson's talk last night or read his books? Please share your thoughts.

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November 30, 2009 4:07 PM

Grameen gets new tech center director, partners with Microsoft

Posted by Kristi Heim

The Grameen Foundation today named David Edelstein as the new director of its Seattle-based Grameen Technology Center.

Edelstein had been the director of information and communication technology innovation at the center, and like his predecessor, also has experience at Microsoft.

The Grameen Foundation and Microsoft are getting ready to announce a new initiative this week to use technology in support of financial services for the poor.


The man above is a Village Phone operator in rural Uganda. At 15 to 20 cents per minute, mobile phone calls are expensive, but they save villagers from walking miles or taking a long bus ride to the nearest public phone.

The two are planning a series of education and mentoring forums and other activities to help microfinance institutions strengthen their technology management capabilities. It's part of an effort by Grameen to help microfinance institutions understand how technology can enhance their work.

One of the signature products of Grameen is the Village Phone, which local entrepreneurs rent to villagers for pennies a call.

Grameen also has a partnership with Google in Africa for its AppLab, using mobile phones to help people in poor communities without Internet access get information about farming, health and trading by SMS.

Mobile phones, which are becoming commonplace in many developing countries, have proven to have a number of promising applications, including mobile banking and medical diagnostics. The M-PESA system in Kenya, developed to help borrowers receive and repay money for micro loans, now has more than 6 million subscribers.

Edelstein's experience includes helping build AppLab and focusing on affordable technology products and business strategies for people in developing countries at Microsoft and at McKinsey & Co.

He replaces Peter Bladin, founding director of the Technology Center who is now the foundation's executive vice president for programs and regions.

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November 27, 2009 11:23 AM

Huskies vs. Cougars competition for charity at Apple Cup

Posted by Kristi Heim

Football fans have to bundle up to keep warm during games. For homeless people it's a daily struggle against the elements.


Can the Cougars out-donate the Huskies?

A non-profit serving homeless and needy populations is taking advantage of the rivalry between UW and WSU to stage a "Competition for Caring" during tomorrow's Apple Cup.


Husky fans get in the holiday spirit.

The competition, sponsored by St. Vincent de Paul of Seattle/King County, will challenge Washington Husky and Washington State Cougar fans to see who can bring the most blankets and coats for donation.

Tomorrow between noon and 3:30 p.m. at Husky Stadium the charity will have a Cougar Bin and Husky Bin for fans to fill up in name of their favorite team.

About 100 community volunteers will also be going around the perimeter of Husky Stadium to collect donations. The winning team will be announced later on Twitter.

People not attending the game can drop off blankets and coats through Monday at St. Vincent de Paul thrift stores in Seattle, Burien, Renton, Kenmore, Kent, Everett, Lynnwood, Monroe and at its Food Bank in Georgetown.

The items will be given out at no cost to low-income and homeless people by the charity and through its partners in King and Snohomish counties.

UPDATE: Husky fans scored with 682 items; Cougar fans scored with 268 items. Cash donations are still being counted.

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November 20, 2009 11:48 AM

Tweeting for $10: new appeals for holiday giving in tough times

Posted by Kristi Heim

Despite the lingering economic woes that most Americans are still feeling, only one in five plans to reduce donations to charity this holiday season, the American Red Cross found in a new survey. More Americans will cut back on travel, decorations, parties and gifts.


Volunteers Ken Newman, right, and Caren Shepsky heft a 50-pound bag of rice at the Cherry Street Food Bank, run by Northwest Harvest. As hunger has worsened, Northwest Harvest's pantry is seeing more than 2,500 visitors on busy days this year, up from a peak of 1,800 visitors last year.

The results tell a somewhat different story than a recent Harris Interactive survey that showed charities will probably see a decrease in generosity this season. Some large charities are preparing for lower holiday giving.

Regardless of how they interpret the data, charities are downsizing their appeals and targeting smaller donations. They're also making the most of free social media sites like Twitter and Facebook and asking supporters to help them spread the word.

The United Way of King County recently launched its Give 10/Tell 10 campaign, which asks for $10 contributions to help struggling families hit by the recession avoid falling into homelessness. After making a gift on the site, donors have the option to pass on a message emailed to 10 friends, encouraging them give, too. The charity is also using Twitter and Facebook to network, post links and share facts, such as "$25 = a week of food for a homeless person in Washington."

"We really wanted to do something different to get the word out to people that the needs are so great right now and provide a low barrier way for them to get involved," said United Way spokesman Jared Erlandson. "The thought was what if we could get people to tweet not just about what they are doing tonight, but about how they just helped someone stay in their home for the holidays then we could really have an effective vehicle to get our message out."

Mercy Corps is getting creative around Thanksgiving with a new online tool that allows families and groups of friends to make donations together. The global charity is calling on people to match the amount they spend on their own Thanksgiving Day meal with a donation that fights global hunger. The average American family spent $45 on Thanksgiving dinner in 2008, Mercy Corps said.

Other interesting new twists include gift cards with a $5 donation to charity built in. The recipient can choose where to direct the $5 gift from among more than 5,000 charities.

Getting donor fatigue? Another option is to vote for your favorite charity and have a large bank pick up the tab. Chase is donating $5 million -- $25,000 each to the top 100 charities on Dec. 15, one $1 million and five $100,000 grants to others in February, and another $1 million chosen by an advisory board of active philanthropists.

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November 19, 2009 9:54 AM

Bill introduced to curb mineral trade that fuels war and rape

Posted by Kristi Heim

You've heard of blood diamonds. Now mobile phones and other technology products are being targeted for containing minerals sold by armed groups engaged in war and rape in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

A House bill introduced today by Rep. Jim McDermott (D-WA) aims to curb that trade by identifying which mines are in conflict zones and requiring importers of related mineral goods to certify whether or not their imports contain minerals from those mines. Companies would have two years to implement the requirements, and the U.S. Trade Representative would report on their compliance.

McDermott said the conflict in eastern Congo is the deadliest since World War II and is fueled in a large part by the multi-million dollar trade in minerals. Armed groups generate an estimated $144 million each year by trading ores used to produce tin, tantalum, tungsten, and gold, he said.

Co-sponsored by Rep. Frank Wolf (R-VA), the Conflict Minerals Trade Act (attached here) requires companies to use outside auditors to determine whether refiners are "conflict-free." The USTR will report to Congress and the public which companies are importing goods containing conflict minerals.

In a report last December, the United Nations Group of Experts on the Democratic Republic of the Congo found armed groups in the eastern region continue to fight over, illegally plunder, and profit from the trade of columbite-tantalite (coltan), cassiterite, wolframite, and gold. Such groups enslave child soldiers and use rape as a weapon.

Minerals from the DRC are used in industrial and tech products worldwide, including mobile phones, laptops and digital video recorders.

Companies and consumers have the ability to make an impact. But enforcement of such a law seems tricky. A couple of questions come to mind immediately -- will companies really be able to identify sources of their supplies that clearly? Even if they can, two years is a long time in an entrenched and brutal conflict that claims lives daily. And what about China (the world's largest market for mobile phones) and its hunger for resources with a no-strings-attached policy for dealing in Africa? This report identified European firms fueling conflict minerals.

The bill has the support of the Information Technology Industry Council and the Enough Project, a Washington D.C. group working to end genocide and crimes against humanity in Africa. I wrote a bit about local efforts here.

Enough Project co-founder John Prendergast said he expects a legislative battle. "The electronics industry has spent about 2 million dollars per month lobbying to relax similar, yet weaker, legislation in the Senate (S. 891)," he writes. He urged consumers to push for passage of the bill. "Together we can help turn a system of exploitation and violence into one of peace and opportunity."

U.S. legislation would be a good start to address the problem, said Rory Anderson, deputy director for advocacy and government relations for Federal Way-based World Vision, which works in eastern DRC and endorsed McDermott's bill.

"Americans deserve to know whether the electronics they buy are fueling bloodshed in Africa," she said, adding that the law would benefit the electronics and software industries by providing a certified mechanism to label their products "conflict free."

"We saw from the success of our 'conflict diamond' campaign a few years ago that American companies want to do the right thing," she said, but "without a uniform process, such as the one proposed in this legislation, it's very difficult for companies to tackle the supply chain challenge on their own."

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November 6, 2009 3:28 PM

When small business pays the price for big bank mistakes

Posted by Kristi Heim

In the current jobless recovery, people are running out of unemployment benefits before they find job openings. Some may look to starting a small business of their own, but who would loan them money without a track record? Certainly not banks.

For such local entrepreneurs, the answer has been non-profits like Community Capital Development. CCD has provided $26 million to more than 1,000 previously "unbankable" local businesses, including Plum Bistro, Bedrock Industries and Utilikilts.

CCD-backed businesses create and sustain hundreds of local jobs, most of which go to people with low-to-moderate incomes. For entrepreneurs with a solid business plan and 10 percent of the capital, CCD provides a fixed-rate loan over five years plus free business counseling and subsidized accounting and marketing services. It charges 9 percent interest on loans.


Bedrock Industries, which turns recycled glass into art, is one of CCD's success stories.

But CCD ultimately relies on banks for capital to lend. In the current economy, that has dried up, and Chief Executive Jim Thomas worries about the fallout on struggling enterprises.

"They can't go to a bank," he told me over lunch recently. "They'll struggle along but they won't be able to grow. They'll go to the credit cards, which are at least 18 percent. they'll end up paying interest only. At interest only, you can never reduce that debt."

Another blow was losing Washington Mutual, which was one of CCD's top lenders. The new owner, JPMorgan Chase, does not lend to CCD. Washington Mutual was closed by the government a year ago in the largest bank failure in U.S. history. Its assets were sold to JPMorgan for $1.9 billion.

Meanwhile, CCD is down to microloans, funded by the Small Business Administration. The trouble is borrowers can get only one, and it's usually not enough to get a business off the ground in the U.S.

The problem is much bigger than CCD. The entire industry of Community Development Financial Institutions, a category of firms known as CDFIs that provide credit, financial services and training to under served markets, has been hit hard by the credit crunch. The segment that serves the least advantaged is suffering from a problem brought on largely by the mistakes and greed of bigger banks and Wall Street, now the beneficiaries of billions in bailout money.

Janet Ozarchuk, vice president and treasurer of the Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC), said her institution received some help recently from Bank of America. But banks in the first two quarters of 2009 didn't lend a single dollar to CDFIs, she said.

"The grant dollars have hung in there, but a good part of funding comes from banks," she said. "That has just been devastated."

"We have one of the strongest balance sheets of any non-profit," Thomas said. "We are not leveraged. But we cannot borrow money because it's not available."

Some efforts have begun to address the problem.

Community development non-profits may be able to raise capital from foundations' Program Related Investing (PRIs). In the current economy, foundations are exploring ways to make more social impact with their assets. PRIs can be used to guarantee loans and bring other investors and banks into the deal, said Ozarchuk.

Last month Senators Jeff Merkley (D-OR) and Barbara Boxer (D-CA) introduced legislation to extend credit to small businesses by allocating existing TARP funds to community banks.

Banks that get such federal help would be required to generate new credit equal or greater to the amount of capitalization received from the federal government. By the end of 2010 the bank would be required to increase overall business loans outstanding by at least 5 percent over the lowest level reached in 2009.

Untested borrowers are a higher risk. Many banks, whether commercial or community or even credit unions, are interested in making low interest loans for community development non-profits "only because they have some legal obligations to fulfill," says CCD's Chief Operating Officer Hongqing Chen.

The bill has the potential to be effective "if and only if it requires a certain percent of new business loans be made to distressed communities and low to medium income borrowers," she said.

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November 5, 2009 9:49 AM

Land-rights group RDI gets $9 million from Omidyar Network

Posted by Kristi Heim

The Rural Development Institute said today it received the largest grant in its history -- $9 million over three years -- from the Omidyar Network, the philanthropic investment group started by eBay founder Pierre Omidyar and his wife, Pam.

Omidyar has taken an active role in the Seattle-based non-profit over the past couple of years, investing $4.3 million in 2008 to help RDI and local governments provide land to women in rural India.

RDI said today that Omidyar Network Managing Partner Matt Bannick will join RDI's board of directors.

That RDI's pioneering work is getting noticed and supported on such a scale is significant. While microcredit has grabbed the spotlight and billions of dollars in investments, micro-ownership in the form of land has received relatively little notice.

Small loans have helped entrepreneurs make money from their tiny shops and businesses, but building wealth is difficult without access to property rights, especially for women.


Renee Giovarelli (center, in white), founding director of RDI's Global Center for Women's Land Rights, talks with people in Kyrgyzstan about their land rights. In 2008 Kyrgyzstan had a per capita GDP of $2,200, the same as Sudan, and less than Yemen or Kosovo.

Over the past three decades, RDI has been changing the equation by working with governments to give poor rural people secure ownership of small plots of land.

Omidyar shook up the field of microcredit when he began investing and backing its transformation to a commercial, profit-making approach. His views have clashed with those of Muhammad Yunus, the Nobel Peace Prize-winning banker from Bangladesh who developed the concept of microcredit.

Omidyar's increasing involvement in land rights may also signal dramatic shifts. In fact, Bannick made the comparison to microfinance himself. (Microfinance includes credit and other financial services.)

"RDI is at the forefront of a high-impact movement designed to create economic opportunity for the world's poorest people through land rights--just as microfinance has done through credit," Bannick said. "RDI is the cornerstone of our work in the sector because their approach has produced sustainable change for millions. Partnering with RDI, we plan to raise the awareness of property rights as a means to transform economies through individual opportunity."

Omidyar's involvement means RDI will be beefing up its local and overseas staff, which now is composed mainly of attorneys specializing in international land rights. RDI says it will be hiring "experts in advocacy, communications, and development for its headquarters and experienced local leaders for its field offices."

RDI will use the new grant to expand existing programs in India, China and sub-Saharan Africa, and launch new projects through its Global Center for Women's Land Rights.

The investment will help RDI increase its impact, said Tim Hanstad, RDI's president and CEO. "With this grant, RDI will begin implementing an ambitious three-year plan to bring secure land rights to 9 million families living in poverty," he said. "These rights can bring about transformative economic and social benefits that improve well-being and restore dignity."

RDI was founded by Roy Prosterman, Professor Emeritus of Law at the University of Washington and himself a Nobel Peace Prize nominee, who is still active in RDI's work. I wrote a profile of Prosterman here.

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October 29, 2009 10:30 AM

Gates Foundation grants to aid Washington state

Posted by Kristi Heim

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is giving out $4 million in grants to help community foundations, libraries and legal aid services in Washington cope with the effects of recession.

The foundation is announcing a package of grants this morning aimed at local non-profits, including $672,000 to 10 community foundations. The money will help the foundations get government benefits to families, and fund programs to curb domestic violence and hunger.

Another $400,000 will go to the Washington State Library's "Renew Washington" grant program, funding 17 public libraries offering services to people looking for work. The libraries have seen a surge of people looking for information and resources during the downturn. The State Library will receive an additional $115,000 for advocacy, marketing and online training.

Another $3 million in Gates Foundation money will go to the Legal Aid for Washington Fund over the next three years. The fund provides legal support for state residents through a network of 26 nonprofit law centers. More than 80 percent of low-income households in the state need but can't afford legal services to deal with foreclosures, evictions, domestic violence and other problems, according to the foundation.

The 10 community foundations sharing $672,000 are the Blue Mountain Community Foundation, the Community Foundation of North Central Washington, the Community Foundation for Southwest Washington, the Grays Harbor Community Foundation, the Inland Northwest Community Foundation, the Orcas Island Community Foundation, the Skagit Community Foundation, the Three Rivers Community Foundation, the Whatcom Community Foundation and the Yakima Valley Community Foundation.

The Gates Foundation's local spending is still a small part of its overall giving. The foundation says it has given out about $20.4 billion in grants since 1994. Of that about $1.5 billion has gone to grants serving Washington state. Its budget for Pacific Northwest Initiatives is about $33 million this year, focusing on community organizations that address homelessness. Its work in Washington state also includes education and libraries. The foundation's total budget is about $3.5 billion.

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October 27, 2009 11:10 AM

Bill and Melinda Gates make unusual personal appeal for U.S. global health funding

Posted by Kristi Heim

Calling themselves "impatient optimists," Bill and Melinda Gates plan to talk directly to lawmakers and others in Washington D.C. tonight to push for continuing U.S. funding for global health.


The Gates will tout the success of foreign aid, including contributiosn to the GAVI Alliance, a global initiative to immunize children in poor countries, which has prevented an estimated 3.4 million deaths over the last decade.

"In our visits to developing countries, Bill and I have met countless people who are alive, healthy, and productive as a result of U.S. global health programs," Melinda Gates said today. "We want Americans to know how much their generosity is accomplishing, and how much it's appreciated."

U.S. spending on global health has increased steadily, but it still makes up less than one percent of the federal budget. It was close to $8 billion this year, up from $1.5 billion in 2001.

The U.S. has started some ambitious development projects, even though the country's top post on foreign aid remains unfilled, and many pressing issues are vying for resources and attention.

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has become an increasingly important and active player in global health and development. Its annual budget is more than $3.5 billion, and about half of that goes toward global health. The United Nation's annual budget is just under $4.2 billion.

The couple started a project called Living Proof to promote the success such funding has achieved in developing countries. Positive stories about foreign aid aren't getting told, they say.

The Gates Foundation has spent about $12 billion on global health since 1994.

Their aim is to cut the number of child deaths in half worldwide by 2025. Preventable deaths of children under five have declined worldwide to about 9 million in 2007 from 12.6 million in 1990, despite population growth, according to this report.

The presentation will be webcast live at at 4 p.m. Pacific.

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October 27, 2009 9:48 AM

Seattle microfinance non-profit Unitus gets new CEO

Posted by Kristi Heim

Brigit Helms, a Seattle native described as a development and microfinance expert with a risk-taking spirit, will join local non-profit Unitus as its new chief executive officer.


New Unitus CEO Brigit Helms is a Seattle native returning home from working in Indonesia.

Helms worked previously at the International Finance Corporation (IFC), an arm of the World Bank, in Jakarta, where she was responsible for developing a five-year strategy involving $15 billion in investments. Before that she spent 10 years working at the Consultative Group to Assist the Poor (CGAP).

She said the field of microfinance faces some of its greatest challenges and opportunities right now.

"The challenge now is to explosively scale and increase access to the millions in need," Helms said. Bold and creative microfinance organizations need to take risks to help make financial services accessible to the large numbers of people still living in poverty, she added.

She joins Ed Bland, who is Unitus' president and chief operating officer. Unitus had been operating without a CEO since the departure of Geoff Davis last year.

Helms has a Ph.D. in Development and Agricultural Economics from Stanford University and master's degrees from Stanford and Johns Hopkins School for Advanced International Studies.

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October 15, 2009 9:51 PM

Want a secure world? Travel, invest and educate girls

Posted by Kristi Heim

Nicholas Kristof, a New York Times columnist and co-author of the book Half the Sky, said the inhuman reality many girls face in the world became crystal clear when he purchased two girls from a brothel in Cambodia for about $200 each, and was given receipts.

"It's no exaggeration to talk about this as truly slavery," he said, speaking to the World Affairs Council tonight at Town Hall.

At the peak of the transatlantic slave trade, about 80,000 people were sold. Today there are 800,000 women and girls being trafficked around the world, he said.

Anywhere from 60 million to 100 million girls have disappeared from the world's population because of female infanticide and inadequate care for girls' health, Kristof said, showing photos of a skeletal child being treated in a feeding center, whose brothers were well fed and healthy.

"Every kid in the feeding center was a girl," Kristof said.

But he argued that even small interventions can transform the situation, and education is the best place to focus resources.

The U.S. has spent $11 billion in aid to Pakistan since 9/11, money which has accomplished "next to nothing," he said. If some of it had gone to education, the impact would be felt by now.

Bangladesh, by contrast, invested in girls education after it split off from Pakistan. Now there are more girls in school than boys, the country is doing relatively well and tackling its remaining problems with home grown solutions such as microcredit.

Supporting local grassroots movements for female education and economic opportunity is one way Americans can encourage change without forcing their cultural values on others, he said.

He finds the rise of social entrepreneurs a revolution that will change the world.

People want to engage in causes larger than themselves because it makes them happy, he said. Asked how he remains hopeful in the face of so much suffering, Kristof said it's because he witnesses so many selfless acts by people working in terrible conditions to save lives.

But when he comes back and sees "people who express their humanity by buying the latest car or having the latest iPod -- that is truly depressing," he said.

He advised young people to travel abroad, go outside their comfort zone, be embedded in the home of a local family.

Some people ask him why we should care about the fate of people in other countries many miles away.

"When you actually see a girl in a Cambodian brothel with her eye gouged out you don't ask that question."

What happened to the girls he bought out of slavery five years ago? Kristoff said he stayed in touch and still visits them. One is married to a good husband who doesn't know her past. The other went back to the brothel temporarily to feed her meth addiction, and later married a police officer. But now the brothel no longer exists. U.S. government pressure on Cambodia to crack down on trafficking made it risky and expensive, so the proprietor turned it into a grocery store.

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October 15, 2009 2:56 PM

Get sustainable agriculture right this time, experts urge

Posted by Kristi Heim

Food quantity or food quality? Can the world quell starvation now and still have a healthy ecosystem over the long term?

Tough questions for anyone concerned about agriculture and its relation to hunger and poverty.

In a keynote speech at the World Food Prize symposium today, Bill Gates said he supports sustainable agriculture, welcome words to experts in the field, who say there is no short term fix.

Much as he changed the landscape on health, the world's richest philanthropist is trying to spark a new revolution in agriculture. The first Green Revolution improved crop yields, but at the expense of the environment. This time, there may be a chance to get it right.

"Sustainability takes more time, more learning, more people," said John Reganold, Regents Professor of Soil Science at Washington State University. "In the long run it pays huge dividends."

"I really like the fact that here we have this huge philanthropic foundation and they're really trying to help Africa and South Asia," he said. "I don't mind hearing we want to feed people, we want to raise yields, improve their income, get roads and markets in there."

But Reganold said he would like to hear more about how sustainability will be measured and valued. "We tend to go in and say wow, we improved yields," he said. "That's great because these people need to eat. At the same time I'd like to hear wow, we improved the soil so that down the road they're going to be better off."

"They say the right thing, but I'm not sure they're doing the right thing yet," said Hans Herren, a Swiss scientist who won the World Food Prize in 1995. Both Herren and Reganold are attending this year's conference in Des Moines, Iowa.

Gates said in his speech that in their zeal for an ideal environment, some people "have tried to restrict the spread of biotechnology into sub-Saharan Africa without regard to how much hunger and poverty might be reduced by it."

Research into plant genetics is worthwhile, Herren said, but critics of its current usefulness in Africa shouldn't be vilified.

"What I think is wrong is to blame the people who question the utility now as the bad guys responsible for hunger," he said. "Look at the people who have quadrupled yield in perfectly good agriculturally sound systems. Why is this not taken as the example, not to multiply everywhere but as the basis to adapt to different systems?"

Herren took issue with the notion that ecological agriculture is a luxury for rich countries.

"The idea that is deeply ingrained is that the poor can't afford it. That's really a big problem and it's not true. To do it the right way is cheaper because you don't get in debt in the future," he said, by buying more expensive seeds and fertilizers.

More global investment is needed in sustainable agriculture, as well as policies to correct fundamental imbalances in trade and access to resources, he said.

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October 15, 2009 11:02 AM

Norman Borlaug to Gates Foundation CEO: Don't give up the fight

Posted by Kristi Heim

Gates Foundation Chief Executive Jeff Raikes has deeply personal ties to agriculture. He grew up on a farm outside of Omaha, Nebraska, that has belonged to his family for generations. Raikes counted Norman Borlaug, the father of the Green Revolution, among his heroes.

Earlier this year Raikes paid a visit to Borlaug at his home in Texas. Raikes had wanted to meet Borlaug at the World Food Prize gathering in Iowa, but he knew Borlaug's illness would make it impossible for him to attend. Borlaug passed away Sept. 12.

Borlaug was having some trouble with his hearing, but overall "he was doing amazingly well for somebody who is 94 years old battling cancer."


Nobel Peace Prize winning agricultural scientist Norman Borlaug, pictured in 2005.

Raikes' burning question - what went wrong in Africa?

"When I asked him about Africa he immediately launched into a discussion about the importance of maintaining the investments and the commitment to wheat rust," Raikes said.

Last year, the Gates Foundation gave Cornell University $27 million to create a global partnership to combat the disease, called the Durable Rust Resistance in Wheat project.

A particularly virulent strain, called Ug99 because it was first seen in Uganda in 1999, has spread from Africa and can infect crops in hours. Clouds of invisible spores can be carried by the wind for hundreds of miles.

Borlaug's concern about the wheat rust problem reflected something larger, Raikes said. "What he was saying is that governments had not maintained their commitment to international agricultural development at the level they should have."

"What I took away from that conversation was how important it was to maintain the commitment to invest in agriculture when things like the opportunity for higher yield crops that better withstand wheat rust or drought are very important to food security."

Raikes sat with him for over an hour. While Borlaug had recently undergone chemotherapy and didn't get up from his chair, "his level of energy was quite impressive," Raikes said.

Borlaug is one of only a handful of people to have won the Nobel Peace Prize, the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Congressional Gold Medal.

When Raikes visited, Borlaug's family was in the process of moving the awards from their safety deposit box to Texas A&M University, and showed Raikes the Congressional medal.

On the back of the medal is Borlaug's famous creed: "The first essential component for social justice is adequate food for all mankind."

Raikes accidentally dropped the medal, which landed on Borlaug's knee.

"I tested his reflexes and his reflexes were great," Raikes laughed.

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October 12, 2009 9:30 AM

Local philanthropy group gets smarter about how to help women

Posted by Kristi Heim

Westerners want to help women in developing countries, but their good intentions don't always produce effective solutions. The problem is more complicated, as members of the Seattle philanthropy group Pangea are learning.

Working on issues of poverty and disease since 2003, Pangea's volunteers eventually came to the conclusion that gender equity had to be part of the equation.

"As we traveled and worked with communities we became more and more aware of the challenge facing women in developing countries," said board member Chris Doerr. "Women are also leading the most successful interventions."


Chris Doerr (right), a volunteer with Pangea, and Judith Orawo, head of the Omeko Women's Group in western Kenya. Omeko's tiny community businesses provide jobs for widows and orphans of the AIDS crisis. Pangea funded a simple chicken coop and the start of an egg production business, and the next year helped triple the size of the poultry project, which is now profitable.

The question is how to help them. Pangea has funded a range of women's groups, from economic projects for widows in Kenya and Tanzania to a group training women in traditional healing arts in Mexico to a group providing legal aid to women refugees along the Thai/Burma border.

"They need to find their own pathway to change," says Pangea President Allan Paulson. "Our idea of change and the values we bring to that may be very different. That's part of what we want to learn about and figure out how we can support them rather than come in with a bunch of ideas from outside."

Pangea is an all volunteer philanthropy group for people in the Pacific Northwest who want to travel, take collective action to fund programs, and share what they learn to help educate the local community. Members contribute $1,000 to $10,000 annually, which is pooled to give out in grants. It has 50 members now and aims to grow slowly, adding about 10 new members a year. Pangea makes grants to small community development groups in rural areas in East Arica, Central America and Southeast Asia, providing over $350,000 to NGOs so far.

Working at the grassroots level in rural communities, the most basic things can make a difference in people's lives, Doerr said: washing hands, being able to sell excess produce or cereals; a house with a water-tight roof.

"These communities are unfailingly hospitable and grateful to know that people in other parts of the world care about what happens to them," she said.

Pangea is hosting a program tonight: "Supporting Women as Change Agents" with Shalini Nataraj, vice president of the Global Fund for Women, which kicks off the theme for the year. The group added gender equity to its funding criteria, meaning its grantees must include women in leadership and decision-making roles.

It plans to follow up this fall with a reading program for members, book discussion dinners and film screenings. Next year it will talk about advocacy for women and sponsor a program on grant making through a gender lens.

Understanding how to do it right takes time, members said.

"There's this general belief if you give women a $50 loan to start a cell phone business that will solve all their problems," said Doerr, a Microsoft alum. "The problems are far more profound than that. Women solving their own problems is what we're trying to learn about."

Pangea funded a project in Kenya for women to grow sunflowers and turn them into sunflower oil to generate income, using Pangea's grant to buy an oil press. It didn't work out so well. For one thing they couldn't make enough money from the sunflowers to replace food they would otherwise grow on the land, Doerr said. And their husbands didn't understand the project. The second year, most of the women didn't participate because their husbands wouldn't let them.

Doerr found the problems and cultural disconnects eye opening.

In Tanzania, she talked with one of the leaders of an organization that offers education for AIDS orphans, asking her about the continuing spread of HIV even when condoms are available.

"My naive question was why don't women just insist on condom use? She looked at me like you just don't understand. She said we could say that but then we'll just get beat up worse than we are, and it's not going to change things.

"It's very hard for liberated Western women to understand the conditions women live in in other countries," Doerr said. "Of course they hate being beaten up, but they probably wouldn't like our life either."

Pangea usually supports its grantees for one to three years. It starts by collectively deciding what issue it intends to tackle, and then volunteers in three groups -- focusing on Asia, Africa and Latin America -- evaluate proposals from non-profits seeking grants. Pangea is currently reviewing proposals and will make funding decisions at its annual meeting next month.

"It will be interesting to see how this new focus guides the way people think about the proposals," said Paulson. "It's a work in progress."

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October 9, 2009 3:42 PM

When military security means insecurity for women

Posted by Kristi Heim

Update: Almost seven months after Obama announced a stepped-up civilian effort to bolster troops in Afghanistan, many civil institutions are deteriorating as much as the country's security, the New York Times reports today. System of delivering aid is "broken."

President Obama's Nobel Peace Prize?

Yes, we can celebrate it, but "we must continue to hold the President accountable so that he can, in fact, deliver on the promise of peace," says Kavita Ramdas, CEO of the Global Fund for Women.

But holding him accountable may also mean changing our ideas of what peace and security actually mean.

In Afghanistan, possibly the least peaceful or secure place on earth, it's time for Obama to shift the balance of U.S. troops from soldiers to armies of doctors, midwives, engineers and arborists, Ramdas said, addressing the University of Washington School of Global Health earlier this week.

"Stop feeding the beast," she said. "We have too many guns and way too little butter."

Fortifying militaries might make the public feel safer, but it is eroding the actual security and well being of the world's women, she said.

Ramdas made an argument I am hearing more frequently these days: that the world's security is connected to the welfare of women, especially in developing countries.

Their physical safety diminishes in militarized settings like Afghanistan, Colombia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Gaza and even within the U.S., she said.

"When militarism combines with the ideology of patriarchy, which accords women intrinsically lower value than men, it results in what most of the world faces today -- stunningly high levels of violence against women in every part of the globe," she said. "The scale of this violence is truly at the level of an epidemic."

Ramdas grew up in a privileged family in New Delhi -- her father is the former head of the Indian navy, turned peace activist. She runs the largest non-profit organization in the world dedicated exclusively to international women's rights. Ramdas is also one of the more outspoken members of the Gates Foundation's program advisory panels.

Almost everywhere, a large presence of troops correlates with high incidences of rape, prostitution, domestic violence and other problems, she said. "Survival sex" is common -- organizations working in such situations report that girls are often resorting to sex for food.

Conversely, where women's health and education is improved, and more females enter the workforce, countries achieve rapid reductions in poverty.

In Afghanistan, an infusion of new troops was supposed to secure control and help pave the way for more "soft power" efforts. But some influential aid groups, including World Vision, have argued that the U.S. should pay more attention to economic development, and separate that work from its military operations.

Ramdas poses a more fundamental question: "If the strategies that we used up to this point have not succeeded in ensuring the safety and well being of women and girls, what makes us think that increased militarization with 30,000 additional US troops is somehow going to improve the situation and security of women in Afghanistan?"

Asked what would she advise Obama in Afghanistan, Ramdas said he should set a time frame of less than five years to invert the balance of U.S. investments toward more development assistance and fewer military troops.

Even in the U.S., "the Third World is alive and well," she said. Close to 15 percent of the population is living below the poverty line, and 70 percent of them are women.

In 2007, 250,000 women and girls in the U.S. were raped or sexually assaulted. "How is it possible we don't see that as a public health crisis?" she asked.

"We must change the way we define health. It must be truly human security that we all fight for."

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October 9, 2009 7:00 AM

Half the Sky: Q&A with Nicholas Kristof

Posted by Kristi Heim

Journalists Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn set out to write a book. By the time they were done they had managed to ignite a movement. In "Half the Sky: Turning Oppression Into Opportunity for Women Worldwide," they compare emancipating women to the abolition of slavery.

The statistics stop you cold: one million children forced into prostitution every year; three million women sold as sex slaves; more women likely to be maimed or killed by male violence than by cancer, malaria, traffic accidents and war combined.

Traveling around the world, the husband-and-wife team profile individual women who are among those forced into sex trafficking and prostitution or faced with appalling health conditions. Even more remarkable, though, is how the women overcome those circumstances and go on to change their lives and help others.

Using the Web and TV, including an appearance on Oprah, to spread their message, Kristof and WuDunn invite people to join the cause of fighting poverty and extremism by educating and empowering women and girls. One local non-profit is organizing book clubs around the country to encourage activism. Kristof, a Pulitzer Prize-winner and New York Times columnist, will visit Seattle next week, talking with educators and giving a speech Thursday at Town Hall, sponsored by the World Affairs Council. He will discuss how our own national security, as well as the prosperity and stability of the world, is tied to the well being of women.

In the week leading up to the talk, I will be featuring perspectives on the issue from local organizations and individuals working on behalf of women around the world. Do you know of one such remarkable person or group? Please share your thoughts and suggestions.


Nicholas Kristof met a group of young refugees who had fled from Darfur in a visit to a refugee camp on the Chad-Sudan border earlier this year.

Q: What is "gendercide?"

A: Gendercide is a term to describe the way millions of women and girls die around the world because they don't get the same access to food and health care that males do. It's common when food is scarce to feed sons and starve daughters, or to take a sick son to the doctor while feeling a sick daughter's forehead and saying, "Oh, she'll be better tomorrow.'

Q: At what point did you decide to go from an observer to someone taking an active role in this issue?

A: I went into journalism in part because I wanted to have an impact, but it's a delicate balance - you can't march in as a crusader into a school board meeting you're covering. But we wrote Half the Sky not so much to inform people as because we wanted to shake people up and help address these issues.

Q: What is it that causes so many societies around the world to oppress women?

A: Traditionally, what mattered in many agricultural societies was physical strength, and men tended to have more of that. In addition, conservative sexual mores and taboos about menstruation sometimes led women to be further cloistered, which eroded the ability of women to contribute to the family - and thus devalued them further.

Q: Will eliminating oppression mean that humans have to overcome something in their nature?

A: Oppressive attitudes are often embedded in culture, but we can change them. After all, Sheryl's grandmother had bound feet, and Sheryl certainly doesn't.


Sheryl WuDunn won the 2009 Dayton Literary Peace Prize for Lifetime Achievement with her husband, Nicholas Kristof, for chronicling human rights in developing countries. Her grandmother grew up in China with bound feet.

Q: How will empowering women solve other world problems?

A: Empowering women tends to lead to faster economic growth, which in turn tends to undermine extremism and reduce civil conflict. In addition, there's some evidence that countries that marginalize women tend to be more likely to have the macho values of a boy's locker room or an armed camp and are more prone to violence - bringing women into the picture tends to result in more security.

Q: Can you give an example?

A: One example is Pakistan and Bangladesh. They used to be all the same country until Bangladesh split off in 1971, and at that time Bangladesh seemed utterly hopeless. Kissinger described it as an international basket case. But the one thing Bangladesh did was invest in girls, especially girls' education, and today Bangladesh has more girls in high school than boys. All these educated girls then poured into the labor force and were the pillar of the new Bangladeshi garment industry, which buttressed the economy and undermined fundamentalists. All those educated women also reduced birth rates and supported civil society organizations that promote development, like Grameen and BRAC. There are other factors at play as well, but it's fair to say that partly because it educated girls, Bangladesh is more stable and less prone to terrorism and violence than Pakistan itself.

Q: You make the argument that Westerners don't invest enough in changing culture, and connect the boom in Muslim terrorists with the broader marginalization of women. If Muslim women are oppressed but don't feel they are, how can Westerners effectively change that?

A: Sheryl's grandmother probably didn't feel oppressed when her feet were bound, but with education people began to see things differently. It doesn't work for Americans to denounce other cultures as barbaric, but promoting education does have an effect, and so does supporting those within a society who are seeking change. For example, we would be more effective in the Muslim world if we did less speaking through the megaphone ourselves and did more to support women leading the way for change in those countries.

Q: You gave your own blood to try to save Prudence, a woman in Cameroon, only to watch her die when the doctor could not be found. How did that affect you?

A: It was so frustrating. I could have wrung that doctor's neck, although it wouldn't have done much for my humanitarian credentials. I knew intellectually that one woman dies a minute in childbirth, but to see it happen so unnecessarily in front of you - that shakes you, galvanizes you and is hard to walk away from. "Half the Sky" is partly a legacy of that experience and others like it.

Q: Half the Sky refers to a Chinese saying by Mao, whose Communist revolution helped emancipate Chinese women. Yet because of the preference for male babies, China today has a dangerous gender imbalance --119 male births for every 100 girls. This suggests that even revolutions sometimes fail to change entrenched cultural beliefs about the role of males and females...

A: Changing cultures doesn't happen overnight, and the son preference is deeply embedded within Chinese society. But there's no question that China has made vast progress in creating opportunities for Chinese women, and eventually I think that imbalance will right itself. South Korea used to have a similar imbalance, and now it is correcting itself as parents realize that daughters have certain advantages.

Q: Regarding health spending and women's well being in developing countries, is too much money going toward fighting specific diseases like AIDS and malaria and not enough into maternal health programs? Would we be better off eradicating fistula than malaria?

A: It's hugely important to fight malaria, and I don't think we should walk away from that. In the case of AIDS, there's a general recognition that it was a mistake to channel resources just to AIDS while leaving women to die in childbirth unless they also happened to have HIV. We need to do a better job of supporting health systems generally, and improving maternal health tends to do just that.

Q: How do you and Ms. WuDunn, practically the power couple of gender equity issues, divide your own work on the book?

A: With previous books, we wrote different chapters. This time, I wrote the subjects and Sheryl wrote the predicates. No, no, just kidding. We shared the writing and edited each other. Just as couples grow to look alike, so does their writing.

Q: All the publicity surrounding the book and movement has made you something of a celebrity (Indeed you've traveled with a celebrity, George Clooney, to Darfur refugee camps). Is this helpful to your cause?

A: I'm not remotely a celebrity, and I tend to stay away from conferences because I learn more in villages. I'm a deep believer in the need to get out and travel and talk to ordinary people and truly listen to ordinary people. But where there is interest from TV, I welcome it. I've traveled with Ann Curry of NBC to Darfur and Pakistan, and the upshot was that NBC Nightly News did a show on maternal health. A film crew did a documentary about me for HBO, to air next year, and there were times in the Congo with them that I could have wrung their necks, if it wouldn't have undermined my image as a humanitarian. But now I'm so glad they came and did the documentary, because it helps shine a light on atrocities in Congo. And shining a light is the first step to making a difference.

Author appearance:
"Saving the world's women: An evening with Nicholas Kristof," Thursday, Oct. 15, Town Hall, 1119 Eighth St., Seattle; Doors open at 6:30 p.m., program begins at 7 p.m.; cost: $40 members, $60 nonmembers, $40 students; preregister online at the World Affairs Council Website or call 206-441-5910.

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October 8, 2009 9:43 AM

Seattle non-profits partner on global health microfinance initiative

Posted by Kristi Heim

Update: I wrote a little more about this partnership in my story today. What's at the heart of this effort seems to be identifying the most urgent health needs of Pro Mujer's clients in Nicaragua and then using microcredit to create a model to finance solutions that are both affordable for the clients and sustainable for the non-profit. Currently the health programs are subsidized by the financial arm.

The partners say they hope the model can be applied anywhere.

"Microfinance alone, healthcare alone or education alone cannot solve all of the issues of poverty," remarked David Valle, CEO of Esperanza International, a Bellevue-based non-profit that is integrating microfinance, healthcare and education in the Dominican Republic and Haiti. "But when these solutions are you have something powerful!"


Local non-profits Global Partnerships and PATH will work together on a global health initiative using microfinance to reach women in Latin America.

The two will work with Pro Mujer, an organization that funds microcredit cooperatives in Latin America and combines small loans with other services, such as business training and regular health checkups. More details on the partnership are expected next week.

Microcredit, with networks reaching millions of people in developing countries, is thought to be a promising way to distribute health solutions and other services to the rural poor.

One innovative program by Pro Mujer provides health screenings using a van retrofitted with consultation rooms and staffed by medical personnel. Global Partnerships CEO Rick Beckett described the mobile health clinics in a recent presentation about Pro Mujer's work to provide cervical cancer testing to its borrowers in Peru.

The health screenings increased the number of women tested from one third to about 95 percent over four years, and revealed treatable tumors that could prove fatal if undetected.

Global Partnerships has committed about $52 million toward microfinance in Latin America and is working to help Pro Mujer find a financially sustainable way to fund such health programs.

It's a natural fit for PATH, which could contribute its health systems expertise for the developing world, along with potential technology and commercial partners.

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October 5, 2009 8:01 AM

Would you help a stranger save money?

Posted by Kristi Heim

The founders of a new Seattle non-profit called SaveTogether think so.

They are pairing low-wage workers in the U.S., many of them working moms, with people willing to help them save small amounts at a time to reach their goals of education, home ownership or opening a small business.

A saver starts with $25, a donor chips in $25 and a non-profit matches that with another $25, tripling the saver's original amount. So savers can earn two more dollars for every dollar they save.

Sandra is one of the clients of SaveTogether, saving $120 a month to expand her hair salon business in San Francisco.

The non-profit operates a Kiva-like online model, relying on the generosity of strangers to help people profiled on the site realize their dreams. Other Seattle-based efforts that build on Kiva's success with peer to peer online philanthropy include Vittana, a non-profit started by former Amazon employees that helps fund educational loans, and Jolkona and See Your Impact, which help young people get involved in philanthropy by making small donations and tracking their progress.

SaveTogether co-founder and CEO Dylan Higgins likens it to a 401(k) match for low-wage workers.

Convincing donors to help people they don't know save money could be a challenge, Higgins acknowledged. But it's about encouraging responsibility, he said.

"These people have already taken steps to better themselves and you are helping speed the process."

After law school at the University of Washington, Higgins worked as a fellow for microlending Web site Kiva in Ghana, where he got the inspiration for the project.

The Spokane native remembers being struck by the number of borrowers who had trouble finding a way to save, while at the same time he saw the economy in the U.S. on the verge of collapse because of an overindulgence in credit.

"I was amazed how these two apparently different worlds were reacting in a similar way," he said. "They both needed savings to come to the forefront again. It was an amazing epiphany for me. I studied economics as an undergrad and was always frustrated that Americans were poor savers."

SaveTogether aims to build on the success of Individual Development Accounts, matched savings accounts for working poor who are trying to buy their first home, pay for college or start a small business. IDAs are supported by organizations such as the Corporation for Enterprise Development (CFED) and are funded by government and private sources. Seed funding for SaveTogether came from CFED.

Caroline is a nursing student saving to complete her studies at a university in Boston. She arrived in the U.S. from Uganda last year.

Recently I have been writing about new programs by the Gates Foundation and others that recognize savings as an essential part of financial well being and help people build assets. One study showed that low-income Americans who participated in matched savings programs weathered the recession relatively well. Almost none of them lost their homes.

The same study, while giving Washington state good marks overall, said the state could improve its low rates of micro enterprise and small business ownership by making capital more widely available through micro loan programs, restoring funding for Individual Development Accounts and training more entrepreneurs.

The non-profit is helping people such as Sandra, a single mother of five in San Francisco who runs her own salon and is saving to expand it; Andria, a 20-year-old who is the main breadwinner in her family and is saving for college tuition; and Raymond, a Native American father of two in Spokane who is saving to open a business.

Dylan Higgins is CEO of SaveTogether.

Robert Friedman, CFED's founder and chairman, said he has witnessed matched savings programs change the lives of poor working families for almost 20 years. He now supports several of SaveTogether's featured savers. They are screened and selected by the partners, including Neighborhood Assets of Spokane and Opportunity Fund of San Francisco.

SaveTogether has tried to build in a kind of fraud-protection system. It collects the matched funds from donors, holding them until the saver reaches his or her goal. SaveTogether then disburses the funds to the local non-profit partner and they release the funds directly to the vendor. For example, the organization writes the check to the university, not the student, or to the mortgage company, not the home buyer. This ensures that the saver uses the matching funds for the specified purpose, Higgins said.

Higgins and his partners were looking to work with a non-profit in Seattle, such as Washington CASH, but the United Way of King County no longer administers the individual development account programs and has transferred the operation to the YMCA to help foster youth save.

"For all those other uses of matched savings for business, homeownership and education, it remains to be seen what kind of market we will have in King County," Higgins said.

For now SaveTogether is working with organizations in Spokane, Boston and the Bay Area and hopes to expand around the country and eventually overseas.

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September 29, 2009 5:02 PM

Young doctor shares global health lessons from the front lines

Posted by Kristi Heim

Ross Donaldson went from a comfortable life as an American medical student into the front lines of the fight against Lassa fever, a neglected and deadly disease in central Africa. Now a doctor, he has written a book about his experiences called The Lassa Ward. Donaldson gave a talk at UW today and is appearing in Seattle Wednesday at the Greater Seattle Chamber of Commerce and also at Elliott Bay Books. I had a conversation with him about some of the lessons he learned and wants to share.

Q: What did the experience teach you about how make an impact in global health?


A: When I got there I started doing hands-on medical care. One of conclusions I came to is how much bigger impact you can make through training local health care workers, so it's sustainable when you leave and multiplies your impact when you are there.

Q: What do you want people to know about Sierra Leone (where he traveled with the group Merlin to work in a remote hospital)?

A: The situation is quite stark. It's the last country in the world when it comes to health care outcomes. It's really a human rights issue. When I was there 1 out of 8 women were dying in childbirth. In the U.S. it's like 1 in 8,000. I spent a lot of my time going between the maternity ward and the Lassa ward.

Q: You didn't get Lassa fever yourself, did you?

A: No, thankfully I didn't. The day after I got back to L.A. I came down with a serious illness, myocarditis, an infection of the heart. About a third of people die from it, a third are permanently injured and a third recover fully.

My mentor Dr. Conteh I really think is the hero of the book. He's a physician who spent his whole life taking care of patients through wards and at the Lassa ward. Dr. Conteh had worked there close to a decade and had been OK. All it takes is one slip one day. Resources at the hospital are limited, so he was drawing blood from a pregnant woman. A glass vial broke and he cut himself and died from Lassa fever about 5 to 7 days later.

Lassa is one of four communicable hemorrhagic fevers, similar to Ebola or Marburg. Lassa comes from rats originally. In parts of the area people eat rats as a food source -- essentially there's no other protein in the diet. Every once in a while they will eat a rat with Lassa.

Q: Eating rats and dying from fever says a lot about the overall situation.

A: It really connects how important economic prosperity is with health and how the two are intertwined, and also with the political situation. They were fighting over diamonds essentially. I went out into the field -- Merlin had projects for public health outreach - to just tell people not to eat rats, we won't have the initial outbreak and peoples' lives will be saved. I somehow naively thought this would be an easy message to tell. The older men would look at me and say I've been eating rats for years and I'm fine and there's no way I'm going to stop. At first it seemed very foreign to me and then I realized it's similar to conversations I've had here around cigarette smoking. It's part of human nature not to want to change.

Being an advocate for health is a very important part of what I do and what I think physicians should do. Doctors get a lot of the credit but the truth is medicine is really a team effort. It's really the whole system that deserves the credit. When there's a breakdown, it's really the system that needs strengthening so you can bring up the level of care.

Q: Do you think health aid to Africa has been effective?

A: As long as I have been doing this work, there have been debates about the vertical, horizontal or diagonal approach to health programs. In some ways a continuing dialogue is very beneficial to the aid and insuring you're getting the most out of it. Overall I think the aid community is doing a lot of good but continually striving to make sure you're doing the most good is the ethical and moral thing to do.

Q: What would you advise young people who want to work in this field?

A: I have noticed over the last couple years there has been a huge upturn in people interested in global health, and I think that's fantastic. It really is going to take a lot of bright young minds to deal with these problems. The money might come or go, but if you have a good feeling about helping other people that's not something you're going to lose in a recession.

For students it's important to get some kind of skills they can help out with and also to get some experience in the field. Information and opportunities are available on ReliefWeb and Devex.

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September 25, 2009 2:50 PM

Homeless are economic assets, says Gates Foundation CEO

Posted by Kristi Heim

Seattle's business community should consider homeless people as valuable assets, and tackle homelessness not as charity but as an investment in the future, the head of the world's largest philanthropy said today.

"Homeless people aren't just a problem to be minimized or cleared away," Gates Foundation CEO Jeff Raikes said, addressing more than 900 members of the Greater Seattle Chamber of Commerce. "They have amazing potential."


Gates Foundation CEO Jeff Raikes has taken part in the One Night Count of the homeless population in Seattle for several years.

The chamber's new slogan for "It's Time for Business" could apply to the problem of homelessness, too, he said.

Half of Seattle's homeless population are parents in their prime productive years, with children in their prime development years.

In fact, homeless families tracked by the University of Washington had better high school graduation rates than the Seattle School District, he said.

"Most homeless families are right on the edge of being a productive part of a healthy community and a thriving economy," he said.

Raikes called for a new approach that would take some money being spent on shelters and put it into permanent homes, a careful needs assessment for each family instead of a standard response for everyone, more affordable housing, and an emphasis on preventing people from becoming homeless, such as short-term rent subsidies.

Seattle is the second most expensive metropolitan area in the country, he said. Building more affordable housing would be good for the construction industry and add jobs.

In King County, there are about 10,000 people who are homeless, but tens of thousands more barely able to keep themselves afloat. They earn half the median income and spend half of that on housing.

Close to 50,000 people are "living on the border of economic stability and destitution," he said.

Given a safe place to sleep, combined with services to address the root cause of becoming homeless, three-quarters of the 1,500 families in a Sound Families program moved on to permanent stable housing, Raikes said.

He called for expanding that model, and asked business people to volunteer their ideas and expertise and to support local government leaders to put homelessness on the political radar.

Note: Yes, Seattle really is the second most expensive metropolitan area in the country, based on Federal Housing Finance Agency 2Q 2009 purchase prices, beating out New York and second only to San Jose/San Francisco.

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September 25, 2009 10:42 AM

Economic indicators miss toll on local poor

Posted by Kristi Heim

Economists may say we're coming out of the recession, but that doesn't ring true to local non-profits and people without work.

"Everybody's hearing about the leading economic indicators -- everything's getting better economically," says Richard Bray, who directs donor and community relations at the Society of St. Vincent de Paul in Seattle/King County. "We're not seeing that when it comes to the average person."


Tom Kobayashi (right), who is 93, walks at the Friends of the Poor Walk last year, with Paul and Nicki Tran at left.

Calls for assistance last month were up 60 percent over last year, hitting an all time record of 411 calls on Sept 14, he said. The 2-1-1 community information line has referred 18,000 calls to the charity so far this year. The number of people seeking food at the Georgetown food bank doubled from last year, to 8,000 each month.

Another troubling trend has emerged -- the charity has noticed a jump in domestic violence cases -- only 1 percent of the cases it manages in a long range assistance program were related to domestic violence a year ago, but in the last month that number has grown to 10 percent.

The problem stems from economic difficulties, Bray said. "People are out of work, they're stressing out and unfortunately taking it out on some of the ones closest to them."

Joining the ranks of the poor now are former professionals who worked all their lives and were doing well before the recession, he said.

To raise money and awareness about local people in need, the charity will host its second annual "Friends of the Poor Walk" tomorrow from 9 to noon at John F. Kennedy High School in Burien. Other walks are planned in 150 cities nationwide, including Tacoma, Everett and Sequim. Details are here.

"The theme is walk a mile in my shoes, to reflect and think about someone who's going through hard times," Bray said.

Last year, one participant covered 50 laps on the school track, but the standout was Tom Kobayashi, who participated at age 92, and plans to walk again this year.

Kobayashi, of Seattle, is the longest serving St. Vincent de Paul volunteer in the nation. A Japanese American who was forced into an internment camp as a child during World War II, Kobayashi has spent the last 73 years as a member and leader of the charity, making weekly home visits to people who are struggling.

"If he can do it, anyone can," Bray said.

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September 17, 2009 12:53 PM

Face of homeless changing as more kinds of people seek help

Posted by Kristi Heim

When you're homeless your feet take a beating. That was the simple fact behind the idea to provide a foot washing service.


Volunteers washed and massaged peoples' feet at a United Way event on Sept. 11, the first National Day of Service and Remembrance.

People approached a section of folding chairs inside Qwest Field and gradually began to sit down and take off their shoes. Volunteers brought over warm water in clear plastic boxes.

One man's feet were so frost bitten from last winter that it hurt too much to brush them with a towel. Another man asked a volunteer to recite the little piggy nursery rhyme on his toes. A third said it was the first time another human being had touched him in months.


Candice Mooneyham gets her hair done during a volunteer event to help homeless and low-income people get basic services free of charge.

The United Way organizers hoped last Friday's event, which included hot meals and dozens of free basic services, could narrow the divide between people with homes and people without them, at least for a day. A wrenching year of layoffs and foreclosures had already pushed many of the housed into the other camp.

The activity also held a deeper spiritual dimension for volunteers like John Fergueson, an Episcopal priest from Kenmore. The Christian tradition is based on Jesus washing the feet of the Apostles, turning a menial task for servants into a lesson about humility.

"It's a way of acting on the solidarity of all people," he said. "The face of homelessness is different now. People are much more like us than not like us."

The community event drew 1,200 people, including the newly homeless: young people without jobs. People like Candice Mooneyham or Mike Schreck who didn't even look poor but had been sleeping on the street and in parks.


People approached the foot washing station tentatively at first but eventually filled all the seats.

Mooneyham, 39, who came from Spokane and before that from Oregon in search of work, said she had slept outside under a bridge in downtown Seattle the day before.

"I have never in my life seen so many homeless around," she said. "I'm not really scared, but it's not something I hope to do a lot longer."

Mike Schreck, 42, who is now living in a Queen Anne shelter, said he dreaded the winter months when he will have to compete for a bed with men who have been living outside all summer. The unemployed waiter said social services are overwhelmed by people with drug and alcohol problems, while there's little help for those who just need work.

"As it gets worse more and more people who are economically depressed are going to be shocked at the treatment they will get," he said. "As the job situation gets worse there are going to be a lot more of those people."

People waited in line from dawn until the doors opened at 9 a.m. Some information booths hardly had a visitor. But hundreds of people, including a woman with her middle-aged mother and her baby in a stroller, stood in a line stretching around the inside of the building to a room where they could pick out a few items of clothing and get a new backpack. After a few hours organizers ran out of clothing and had to turn people away.

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September 15, 2009 12:01 PM

Low-income savers held on to their homes in downturn

Posted by Kristi Heim

We hear a lot about the promise of microcredit, small loans to help low income people start businesses and improve their lives. The concept has caught fire among philanthropists who see it not as a handout but as a way to help people help themselves.

In the Seattle area, nearly two dozen non-profits are dedicated to microfinance -- loans and other financial services for the poor.


Americans who bought homes through the IDA program have been very good at keeping them.

In talking with Bob Christen of the Gates Foundation for my story today, he told me the reality of microcredit hasn't lived up to its promise to lift poor people out of poverty, despite the $2 billion a year being spent on it. He made a strong case that the picture is more complex than just loans, and savings should be a much bigger part of the solution. Savings helps individuals, enterprises and economies get through uncertain times.

The same thing may apply in the United States, where savings is finally making a comeback. Americans' savings rate dropped to negative territory in 2005, but has since reversed that trend, rising to almost 7 percent in May and averaging about 5 percent so far this year.

New research shows that low-income Americans who participated in matched savings programs weathered the recession relatively well. Almost all of them held on to their homes, said Andrea Levere, president of the Corporation for Economic Development (CFED). She presented the findings this week at an annual conference of Philanthropy Northwest.

Last year, CFED surveyed about 750 low-income home owners who had received an Individual Development Account sometime over the past five years. An IDA, similar to a 401K match, is a grant that matches the monthly savings of working-poor families trying to buy their first home, pay for education or start a business.

Only one of the homeowners had foreclosed. CFED repeated the study using courthouse records of properties and found a foreclosure rate of less than 2 percent.

"This is wealth creation done right," Levere said. Participants saved money for a down payment, received intensive financial education and fixed rate long-term mortgages, all requirements of the IDA program.


People who once lived in a Kenyan slum are able to purchase their own homes built by the microfinance organization Jamii Bora.

Housing is also at the center of an innovative but risky program in Kenya started by the non-profit microfinance group Jamii Bora Trust, which Jim Simon wrote about here. The women involved said loans alone aren't going to get people out of poverty. Jamii Bora provides street beggars and others small loans to start businesses, but only if they first save half the amount themselves.

In the U.S., about 83,000 people have received individual development accounts, Levere said. Banks had an incentive to participate because they could sign loans with families buying homes through the program.

Washington state has become a hotbed for similar "asset building activities," she said. The Asset Building Coalition got off the ground in late 2006 and promotes financial literacy, saving and access to mainstream banking, in addition to the Earned Income Tax Credit and other benefits.

While poverty is traditionally measured by income, Levere prefers to measure assets -- the net worth of a household that helps it withstand crises.

The question is whether or not a household could exist at the poverty level for three months if its main source of income went away. Under that definition, almost a quarter of Americans fall under the poverty line, she said.

Considering the high cost of education coupled with the recession, this may be the first generation that is less educated than the one before, Levere said.

Since people need more support to save for education, entrepreneurship and home ownership, she thinks it's a good idea if "every child born in America started with an account."

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September 14, 2009 8:00 AM

Gates Foundation funds global network to increase savings

Posted by Kristi Heim

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is making its largest grant to date in the financial services space -- $35 million to help set up a global network to help the poor gain access to savings accounts and other financial tools.

The grant announced today will create the Alliance for Financial Inclusion, a coalition of bankers and policy makers from developing countries, aiming to expand savings accounts, insurance and other financial services to people living on less than $2 a day.

The alliance is based in Bangkok and managed by the German development organization Deutsche Gesellschaft fur Technische Zusammenarbeit (GTZ), the recipient of the Gates grant.

The Gates Foundation has invested $350 million so far in financial services for the poor, a relatively new program for the world's largest private philanthropy. Gates started with a broad approach that included credit and insurance, but has narrowed it down in the last year to focus mainly on savings.

Microcredit, making very small loans to poor entrepreneurs, has captured the world's attention and billions of dollars in donations and investment.

Savings accounts are at least as important as credit, but efforts to expand savings are not being funded, says
Bob Christen, who directs the Gates Foundation's financial services initiative.

Not everyone is an entrepreneur -- among the poor are legions of maids, day laborers, factory workers and others who don't run their own businesses, he said.

The problem for many low income people is they have no safe place to put their money. Banks don't consider it cost effective to take the tiny amounts they are able to save. And many microfinance organizations that give out loans are not licensed to take deposits from the public.

The newly funded alliance will share information about innovative ways to help people save money, such as allowing retail stores, post offices and mobile phone networks to receive deposits and process bank transactions. "We believe virtually everyone could use a deposit account," Christen said.

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September 10, 2009 1:31 PM

U.S. poverty increases more in the West, researcher finds

Posted by Kristi Heim

A University of Washington researcher looking at new U.S. Census data today found that more than one in eight Americans were below the official poverty line, and poverty is growing slightly faster in the West than elsewhere in the country.

Jennifer Romich, an associate professor of social work at UW's West Coast Poverty Center, said that from 2007 to 2008 poverty in the 13 Western states rose from 12 percent to 13.5 percent, slightly higher than the 13.2 percent national figure.

"It was not a surprise because I think the West was slower to get hit by the most recent economic downturn," Romich said. "In Washington state, our economy didn't start to tank until the last quarter of 2008."

In the West, the percentage of people without health insurance rose from 16.9 percent in 2007 to 17.4 percent in 2008. Nationally, the statistic remained unchanged at 15.4 percent uninsured.

Yet real median income in the West declined less -- 2 percent to $55,085, compared with a nationwide decline of 3.6 percent.

The way the Census Bureau measures poverty is the same across the lower 48 states -- a family of four living on less than $22,000 a year is under the poverty line. That may actually understate the economic distress that poorer people are feeling in places like Seattle, where the cost of living is much higher than in the Midwest or South, for example.

"If you make $25,000 and have a family of four people in Seattle, you are not officially poor," Romich said. "But functionally if you are trying to find housing in this market it's going to be very difficult."

Romich analyzed data from "Income, Poverty and Health Insurance Coverage in the United States: 2008." She said she expects the trends to continue next year. The full report can be found here.

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September 9, 2009 12:58 PM

Volunteer events planned in Seattle on first National Day of Service

Posted by Kristi Heim

Friday marks the first National Day of Service and Remembrance, a way to honor the anniversary of September 11 by volunteering to help the community.

In Seattle, hundreds of volunteers will connect with people who are homeless or facing poverty in a day-long event at Quest Field. About 90 organizations are offering free services, from haircuts and dental work to help applying for jobs, housing, food stamps and veterans benefits.


People get free haircuts during United Way's Community Resource Exchange, a day when dozens of local non-profits gather to provide free services for homeless people. .

The United Way of King County decided to hold its biannual Community Resource Exchange on the first National Day of Service, meant to encourage more volunteering and support for non-profits. Hundreds of projects are planned throughout King County on Friday, and more than 8,000 people have volunteered to work on them. Details can be found here.

The Community Resource Exchange, from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. at Quest Field, gives people a central place to find help, relax, eat and socialize with others, said United Way spokesman Jared Erlandson. The non-profit expects to serve at least 1,000 needy people at the event, which is open to the public.

"Instead of having to navigate the gauntlet of services -- when they're spending so much time just trying to survive -- finding them all in one place is really valuable," he said.

The national day was established earlier this year as part of the Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act. People can get ideas and share their own volunteer plans at this site.

On any given night in King County about 8,500 people are currently homeless, and over the course of a year, about 24,000 people have been homeless for some period of time, according to the United Way.

In another volunteer event Friday, the Jubilee Women's Center is getting a vegetable garden built by 25 Microsoft employees. The center provides low-cost housing for homeless women trying to get back on their feet. I visited the center a few months ago and met one of the residents, a woman who had fled an abusive husband and was working her way through law school.

They regularly receive canned food, but the garden will fill a big void in fresh produce. Local businesses donated the soil, seeds and building materials.

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August 17, 2009 2:13 PM

Everett builders holding farewell celebration for first Africa ferry

Posted by Kristi Heim

EarthWise spent 10 months building its first ferry aimed at restoring transportation and trade to Africa's largest lake. Now it's time to cut it all apart.

I wrote a story describing the unusual venture and its founders, Rob Smith and Calvin Echodu, in today's paper.

EarthWise will unveil the ferry in a celebration tomorrow before dismantling it and packing it inside four 40-foot containers bound for Kampala, Uganda, where local workers will begin the process of reassembling it.


Rob Smith is heading an effort to build ferries for a new passenger service in Africa from his small boat building company in Everett.

At one time 30 percent of the Ugandan economy depended on the ferry system and the trade and travel it made possible. If some of that can be restored, Smith and his partners believe it will create jobs, increased tourism and other benefits to the region.

EarthWise will be collaborating with Columbia University and with Jeffrey Sachs' Millennium Villages project to process Jatropha, a plant used to make biofuel, as an alternative to diesel for the ferries.

EarthWise, Thain Boatworks and the Pacific Northwest African Chamber of Commerce are hosting the farewell event August 18 from 4 p.m. at Thain Boatworks, 1420 West Marine View Drive in Everett. The event is open to the public. To attend send RSVP to

As for the name, EarthWise plans to hold a contest among elementary schools in Uganda to name the boat after a prominent person in the country's history.

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August 6, 2009 4:08 PM

U.S. has wrong approach to African food security, groups say

Posted by Kristi Heim

Africa is getting more attention with a new U.S. administration that says it's committed to helping African countries achieve self sufficiency and food security. The Gates Foundation has also brought a renewed focus on African agriculture through its own programs and grantees, including the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA).

What is the best way to move forward from decades of neglect and a recent food crisis that pushed 100 million more people into poverty?

As U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton tours Africa this week, a coalition of grassroots groups says "business as usual" won't work, and criticized the U.S. for pursuing a narrow approach that puts too much emphasis on biotechnology.


US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton meets Masaai traditional dancers in Kenya after addressing the 8th Forum of the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA).

The US Working Group on the Food Crisis used a visit by Clinton and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack to the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (KARI) to raise the question of whether U.S. tax dollars for food-related aid to Africa are being spent wisely.

The United States and other top industrialized nations pledged $20 billion to promote sustainable agricultural development in the world's poorest regions last month at the G8 Summit in Italy.

The USAID's policies toward agriculture in Kenya, stated here, include a public-private partnership with KARI and Monsanto to develop genetically engineered sweet potatoes resistant to virus, and promote public awareness about the technology in Kenya.

(The Donald Danforth Plant Science Center said it was never involved in the original project. I had listed the Danforth Center among the partners, based on information from the USAID Kenya Web site. Roger Beachy, president of the Danforth center, said the center brought material from Monsanto and KARI to its labs and is working on the project using a different technology, in partnership with the government of Uganda).

After 14 years and $6 million, the project proved to be a failure, the coalition said, adding that local varieties outperformed genetically modified varieties in field trials.

The coalition called such policies "misguided" and at odds with a report on the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development. The report, which came out earlier this year, took four years and was commissioned by the World Bank and United Nations to evaluate the impacts of agricultural methods on hunger and poverty, rural livelihoods, health and sustainable development.

The report was approved by more than 50 governments, but not the United States, Canada or Australia.

The way the world grows its food will have to change radically to cope with a growing population and climate change while avoiding social clashes and environmental disaster, said the co-chair of the report, Hans Herren, who is president of the Millennium Institute.

"I fear within the new (U.S.) administration not enough time has been devoted to reading and digesting the report so it can be used for its full potential to address problems at the root," he said.

Herren, who received the World Food Prize in 1995 for developing a pest control program that rescued the African the cassava, said building more resilience in plants through classical breeding is a better answer than engineering for drought resistance. Climate change may produce drought but also may produce severe storms and unpredictable weather patterns. He said the Kenyan agricultural institute is on the right track in broadening its approach more recently.

The report's findings reject current industrial farming methods as a solution to sustainable food production, concluding that the benefits of modern agriculture have not been equitably shared and have come at too high a price to the poor and to the environment.

Josphat Ngonyo, head of the Kenya Biodiversity Coalition, a network of 60 community groups, said that small holder farmers in Africa have been left out of the process of determining agricultural policy.

"We find that most of African governments ignore local farmers. They are not consulted," Ngonyo said. "We see heavy manipulation by multinational companies who have their ways to influence policies and legislation."

"What (farmers) clearly need is not biotechnology," he said. "They need water, markets for farm products. They need good roads to access markets, and they need incentives that would enhance getting their products to the markets."

The Kenya Biodiversity Coalition said the visit to KARI showcases "the Obama Administration's betrayal to Africa's small scale farmers and misplaced priorities on how to achieve sustainable food security in Africa."

"Chemical-intensive production methods continue to have adverse health and environmental effects," the group said, "while 'modern biotechnology' (genetically engineered seed) has contributed to hardly any verifiable positive impacts on equitable and sustainable development."

Asked to assess the work of Gates-funded AGRA, Herren praised its emphasis on soil quality and a program to train traditional plant breeders.

"What I think is a problem is they feel they know it all," he said. "To go out here and try to replicate the green revolution is not good enough."

He said where the effort falls short is in understanding "how the whole system operates." Key road blocks include lack of market access, infrastructure and training for farmers, he said.

"There are major gaps there in the AGRA program which are not addressed to have the impact they think they're going to have."

AGRA's main programs are seeds, soil health, market access, and policy and partnerships. The alliance has said it seeks to avoid the adverse effects of the original Green Revolution in Asia and Latin America, including overuse of fertilizer, and focus on small farmers living on less than a dollar a day--most of whom are women.

Last month AGRA, chaired by former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, launched a program with KARI and other partners to improve maize yields by counteracting soil acidity.

The Gates Foundation's own assessment of the program last year can be found here.

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August 3, 2009 7:25 AM

Hopelink opens new food bank designed like a grocery store

Posted by Kristi Heim

Hopelink will open the doors to a new food bank today that uses the model of a grocery store to let people make their own choices and shop at their convenience.

Where traditional food banks hand out food items in a line at a set time and date, Hopelink's new Kirkland center mirrors a grocery store where people can choose their own canned goods, baked goods, produce, meat and dairy items from cases and shelves. The store has both daytime and evening hours.

hopelink food bank.jpg

To use the food bank, people have to first qualify and register at Hopelink, where they are matched with services aimed to help them move toward self-sufficiency. The grocery store uses a point system to provide people with a food budget based on family size.

Since many of Hopelink's clients have jobs and children in school, a food bank offering flexible hours is an advantage. Food banks all over the region have seen a surge in demand during the economic downturn.

The supermarket-style model was first developed by the University District Food Bank (a separate non-profit from Food Lifeline) in 2007. Food Lifeline then recognized University District Food Bank with an award a year later for exemplary approaches to ending hunger.

In addition to food, the new Hopelink center will offer a one-stop-shop for other services, including adult education, emergency financial assistance, a jobs program and help for families with children.

Hopelink's new center replaces two of its other centers in Kirkland and Bothell and is located at 11011 120th Avenue N.E. in the Totem Lake area. For more information call 425-889-7880.

Update: Just learned about AmpleHarvest, a nationwide effort to link local food pantries with surplus produce from neighborhood gardens. It invites local pantries to list themselves and gardeners to visit the site, and "reach into their backyard instead of their back pocket."

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July 30, 2009 2:15 PM

Two words missing from Gates Foundation vocabulary

Posted by Kristi Heim

Technology holds the key to solving problems of health, education and poverty, Bill Gates made a point of saying in his recent visit to India.

The wholehearted embrace of technology comes as no surprise from the chairman of the world's largest software company. But in the context of philanthropy, perhaps he should have added the words "when appropriate."


Indian President Pratibha Patil, left, hands the Indira Gandhi Prize for Peace, Disarmament and Development to Bill Gates as Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, second left, applauds.

Gates touted the benefits of computers to help rural people access video lectures in villages without schools, and mobile devices to help doctors examine patients remotely. Slum dwellers in Bangalore can use mobile phones with SMS messaging and GPS to find jobs as day laborers through a Gates Foundation-supported program called LabourNet. Technology can reduce government corruption if citizens can use mobile phones and public computer terminals to give feedback on public services, he said.

"I am a 24-hour technology person," Gates said.

He visited India to assess the foundation's programs and receive the Indira Gandhi Prize for Peace, Disarmament and Development on behalf of the foundation. His appearances seemed to be a mix of the foundation's work and Microsoft's mission. Gates said Microsoft would like to partner with the Indian government in a project to provide each of India's 1.17 billion citizens with a unique identity number and biometric card.

The visit came after recent suggestions that the Gates Foundation's Avahan program has not lived up to its goals of curtailing the spread of HIV/AIDS. The $258 million initiative has been led by highly paid business consultants rather than people with public health experience. After the Indian government balked at taking on what has become one of India's largest health programs, the Gates Foundation increased its funding by $80 million.

In health and development, high-tech solutions don't always work. They can even make things worse if applied in the wrong way, by diverting resources from more fundamental programs or missing the root cause of a problem, for example.

Sometimes the most appropriate technology is none at all. Ironically this point was made best by one of the Gates Foundation's biggest grantees: PATH.

Its name stands for Program for Appropriate Technology in Health, and the idea behind that was reflected in a speech by Margarita Quintanilla earlier this year in Seattle.

Quintanilla, PATH's country leader in Nicaragua, got her start working at the ground level as a community health coordinator teaching basic concepts as washing hands to avoid diseases and getting regular pap screenings. She realized that technology could not overcome one of the biggest obstacles to health: gender-based violence and its effects, contributing to the spread of diseases like HIV/AIDS, unwanted pregnancy and other problems, all of which are common in India. Her approach was to build projects to teach life skills and health education to pre-adolescent girls and promote respect for women in families.

The more PATH's work grew, the more Quintanilla realized it would have to include "both technical and social approaches to increase the country's capacity to ensure better health," she said.

"We have to be wise and intelligent in our solutions. We have the responsibility of promoting change in the right way."

About 800 people listened to Quintanilla, but billions listen to Gates. As one of the world's most respected voices, he has a unique opportunity to call attention to social issues that no technology alone can solve.

UPDATE: Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl Wudunn analyze the links between gender discrimination and poverty, child mortality, global health issues and other problems in this excellent magazine series.

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July 15, 2009 8:00 AM

Kiva takes community feedback on U.S. loans today

Posted by Kristi Heim

This afternoon the micro-lending site Kiva will be hosting an open conference call to get feedback on its pilot program in the United States.

The program has generated mixed reactions and a protest led by a Seattle lender who thinks Kiva should stop featuring borrowers from the U.S. The U.S. loans deviate from Kiva's original mission to help the poorest, said Tom Behan.

"New Kiva loans are facilitating the richest country on the planet in making loans to itself," Behan said.

Kiva spokeswoman Fiona Ramsey said the non-profit expected the move to be somewhat controversial.

At the same time, "We never saw ourselves as just a platform for Americans to loan to developing countries," she said. "We've received emails for years from people who say that charity begins at home -- why aren't you giving me an opportunity to do that?"

One positive outcome has been the high degree of interest and engagement of Kiva users who feel strongly about the issues, Ramsey said.

Kiva is working through two microfinance partners: ACCION USA and the Opportunity Fund. Those organizations select entrepreneurs to post on the Kiva site. Recent U.S. borrowers have ranged from a New York homeless man to a San Francisco architect.

Each partner has caps on the number of loans it can post. Even if they each reached the limit, the U.S. loans would not exceed 5 percent of Kiva's total global portfolio, Ramsey said.

Right now the partners are going through an adjustment period, Ramsey said, getting direct feedback from Kiva users about the types of borrowers and projects they would like to see. She summarized the reaction along these lines:

"The homeless guy -- that story brought me to tears," she said. "The architect -- I'm not buying it."

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July 10, 2009 11:58 AM

Behind the G8 food security initiative: Gates Foundation role

Posted by Kristi Heim

President Obama and other world leaders seem to be taking their cue from the Gates Foundation for a new three-year agricultural initiative announced today.

Leaders from the Group of Eight leading economies made the $20 billion pledge to finance agricultural projects in poor countries to fight hunger and reduce food price volatility.


The U.S.-sponsored food security initiative aims to provide poor farmers in developing countries with seeds, fertilizers, infrastructure and other tools to help them boost local food production, a shift from previous policy that emphasized sending food aid from abroad.

Here is what Obama said about the issue today:
"There is no reason why Africa cannot be self-sufficient when it comes to food. It has sufficient arable land. What's lacking is the right seeds, the right irrigation, but also the kinds of institutional mechanisms that ensure that a farmer is going to be able to grow crops, get them to market, get a fair price."

The Gates Foundation has focused on seeds, fertilizer, irrigation and market access in its own programs, spending $2.6 billion on global development so far, most of it for agriculture in Africa.

The world's largest foundation has taken on a major role in agricultural development since it launched the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) in 2006. AGRA funds work to improve seeds, fertilizers, irrigation, and market access for small farmers, employing techniques of the original Green Revolution started in the 1940s in an effort to boost food production in Africa.

The new grants by Gates and Rockefeller came at a time when U.S. funding for agriculture had fallen sharply. Agriculture's share of U.S. development assistance was 3 percent in 2005, compared to 12 percent in 1985, according to this report. In dollars, support for agriculture went from a high of about $8 billion in 1984 to $3.4 billion in 2004.

Now besides the Gates and Rockefeller foundations, the U.K'.s Department for International Development has become another core donor to AGRA.

Obama also talked about agriculture and his trip to Ghana in this interview with

"I'm still frustrated over the fact that the green revolution that we introduced into India in the '60s, we haven't yet introduced into Africa in 2009," he said.

The push for a green revolution in Africa has sparked criticism and debate about the role of high-tech solutions over ecological farming methods. Obama said today that low-tech solutions are also important.

"We don't need fancy computers to solve those problems; we need tried and true agricultural methods and technologies that are cheap and are efficient but could have a huge impact in terms of people's day-to-day well-being."

The Gates Foundation has also funded policy studies and advocacy campaigns. It gave nearly $1 million to the Chicago Council on Global Affairs to fund a project on the U.S. role in global agricultural development, and Gates Foundation Senior Fellow Catherine Bertini co-authored the report.

At the beginning of the Obama Administration, the Chicago Council released the report with recommendations for a new policy on agriculture as a way to restore the United States "as a force for positive change in the world."

The report, "Renewing American Leadership in the Fight Against Hunger and Poverty: The Chicago Initiative on Global Agricultural Development," made five recommendations and more than 20 specific suggestions, calling for a renewed U.S. commitment to alleviating global poverty through agricultural development in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. The recommendations include increasing support for agricultural education, research, including genetic engineering, and infrastructure.

The official support for biotech and commodity crops was called into question today in this piece by food writer Paula Crossfield.

Bill Gates has used forums such as the World Economic Forum in Davos to increase public attention to the issue, and has spent more time talking directly with world leaders since leaving Microsoft to dedicate himself to full-time philanthropy.

Gates has taken up the cause of agriculture in meetings with key leaders such U.K. Prime Minister Gordon Brown and Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero.

Former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, chairman of AGRA, recently outlined a 10-year strategy to develop regional breadbaskets among African countries to produce staples. AGRA President Namanga Ngongi was in Brussels a couple of weeks ago meeting with European Union officials about the topic.

The food crisis itself may pushed the issue back onto the political agenda. The UN predicts the number of people going hungry will rise to 1.02 billion this year, reversing a four-decade trend of declines.

Yet today's G8 commitment also shows that the foundation's relatively new efforts in global development are beginning to have a catalyzing effect on agricultural policy, just as its health programs have helped shape the world health agenda.

Mark Suzman, director of policy and advocacy for the Gates Foundation's global development program, said today's pledge is encouraging. Leadership coming from the G8 on agriculture could be a platform for the future in the same way that a G8 agreement to support public health in 2000 helped create the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, he said.

"It's focused on the right set of issues."

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July 9, 2009 1:20 PM

Another day on the ground, another lesson about poverty

Posted by Kristi Heim


Brett Mennella, a senior at Bellevue High School (at right), helped start the school's Microfinance Club, which focuses on learning about the global effect of microcredit. The club raised more than $130,000 in the last two years to support microloans, and decided to invest the money in Esperanza International, a global microfinance institution based in Bellevue founded by former Mariners catcher David Valle. This is the second post he's filed from the Dominican Republic, where he is doing volunteer work.


After another day in the country, I have gained even more insight into the Dominican culture and frustrated economic situation. I attended another Esperanza International microcredit bank meeting this morning that was regrettably not as efficient as the meeting I went to yesterday.

The meeting took place in a bank leader's home in Hato Mayor, the town where I am staying. All 25 associates were present or had an excused absence except one woman. Unfortunately, this particular woman did not send her money with another associate, so the other women in her bank had to cover 1,000 pesos (about $28) for her before anyone could leave.

This was a very uncomfortable situation because all the other women had been responsible and made their biweekly payments, but they also had to support their fellow associate who had failed them. This group solidarity model is the main reason micro loans have such a high repayment - more than 98 percent worldwide, and a very similar rate here in the Dominican Republic.


Carmen Mota received a microloan from Esperanza International to support her small shop in Hato Mayor, Dominican Republic.

Borrowers know the importance of education. All the people I have talked with so far assured me that their children are going to finish high school, and many have said that they want their children to attend a university. However, affording a university education is a completely different issue.

I interviewed several entrepreneurs, including a woman named Carmen Mota. She was extremely proud of her business and wanted to take me there to show me how she was making her living. Next to her house she had a small "colmado," or food stand, which she operated with her husband and brother. She gave me a soda and valiantly refused to accept any money from me in return, even though she was already living on so little. She was saving to put a cement floor in her business to replace the existing one made of dirt.

This type of generosity and the overall sincerity of the Dominican people continue to inspire me.


Pascual Nieve, 57, has received seven microloans from Esperanza International, which he used to develop his horse saddle business.

Although the people here are all very sociable, the men and women associated with Esperanza and other such organizations seem to be exceptions from the vast majority of the population in terms of their independence, economic stability and plans for the future.

For those seeking a way out of poverty, taking out a microloan or other source of financial assistance has had another, more subtle benefit -- it teaches them how to dream.

The culture itself seems to be a bit confused. Technology comes off as a surprisingly high priority in society. Men, women and children watch hours of television each day and music is always blaring out of home radios and cars. Kids have cell phones at such a young age you would think you were living in the States. Still their families struggle to eat every day.

The unemployment rate of 15.4 percent, according to The World Factbook, is not representative of the real number of people without jobs. Three or four people often work a one person job just to be doing something productive. There are men on "motos," mopeds and street-designed dirt bikes, on every corner when most people can walk anywhere within the city limits in about 20 minutes.


Shacks with walls and roofs made of corrugated metal in a village in the Dominican Republic.

Another problem that I see as probably the most detrimental in the long run is the lack of variation of businesses in the economy. Everyone seems to run a colmado, fantasia or clothing store, none of which require skilled labor. One woman told me that she started a colmado because "everyone lives on this earth and everyone has to eat." This simple thinking seems to work because although many people are only just getting by, these businesses are still bringing in an income.

If the Dominican Republic wants to push into the modern world economy, it needs to develop business variation or possibly find new successful cash crops. The economy is heavily reliant on sugar cane, but thousands are out of work when there is not a harvest. The development of the nation is dependent on the people as well as the government and all of its systems. Poverty is obviously not a quick fix here, or anywhere else for that matter.

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July 8, 2009 3:58 PM

Seattle lender leads Kiva revolt

Posted by Kristi Heim, the Web site that ignited the online micro-lending phenomenon, took a bold new direction last month when it decided to offer loans to borrowers in the United States.

It was a significant step for an organization started to help the poorest borrowers in the world gain access to credit. Kiva CEO Matt Flannery talked a bit about his reasoning here, saying that poverty has become borderless, especially in light of the global recession.

The decision has come under fire from some long-time Kiva supporters, including Tom Behan, a retired advertising executive from Seattle who has made dozens of loans to people in more than 20 countries through the site.

Behan is spearheading an effort to get Kiva to stop lending to people in the U.S. and "return its original mission; that of making loans where needs are the greatest, not the least."


So far 421 people have joined the group of Kiva lenders opposed to what they call "a shameful deviation from Kiva's core mission." The unhappy Kiva lenders expressed their frustration with the illustration at right.

"Kiva built its reputation on alleviating poverty in the Third World," Behan said. "It started out with a pure intention of helping a different segment of the population: the bottom of the bottom."

Of 1,645 people who have responded to a poll on the issue, 48 percent said they support Kiva's decision to allow loan requests in the U.S., while 43 percent oppose it, and about 10 percent are undecided.

"I'm not denying the need in the United States for assistance," Behan said. "I've started small businesses myself, and I've got family members right now that are out of work."

But he cited a recent loan request from a San Francisco man with a degree in architecture who wanted to try his hand at Web design and needed $7,000 to do it.

"That's $7,000 which previously would have been available to perhaps 7-10 other borrowers in developing countries," Behan said.

Other Kiva users say the decision doesn't harm anyone, since lenders can vote with their wallets and choose to fund loans in poor countries instead.

With the recession tightening credit, Kiva spokeswoman Fiona Ramsey said the U.S. loans are a way to "give opportunities to entrepreneurs who really need it right now, and give lenders a chance to help those in their backyard, not just those in other parts of the world."

Have an opinion? Kiva has scheduled a community conference call July 15 at 2 p.m. Pacific, when anyone can call in and offer feedback on the issue. Details are here under the July 8 entry.

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July 8, 2009 9:00 AM

Local student gets education in realities of microlending

Posted by Kristi Heim


Brett Mennella, a senior at Bellevue High School (at right), helped start the school's Microfinance Club, which focuses on learning about the global effect of microcredit. The club raised more than $130,000 in the last two years to support microloans, and decided to invest the money in Esperanza International, a global microfinance institution based in Bellevue founded by former Mariners catcher David Valle. This is the first of several posts he'll be filing from the Dominican Republic, where he is doing volunteer work.


Despite its growing economy, the Dominican Republic is only a tourist destination for most of the Western world. It has 1,288 kilometers of coastline, much of which is made up of brilliant sandy beaches and resorts. However, more than 30 percent of the country lives below the poverty line of $2,326 in annual income according to USAID, and a majority of the others are not too far above it. I have been in the Dominican Republic two weeks now and most of what I have seen is far from the lucrative tourist lifestyle.

I spent my first week with the Bellevue High School Microfinance Club. We have loaned to over 1,400 people to date in the San Pedro area through Esperanza and were able to visit many of these people during our stay. We also worked on a school in a very small town outside of San Pedro for two days, which is not easy to say the least in 95 degree heat with 75 percent humidity.


I am currently staying with a host family in the town of Hato Mayor, home to about 100,000 people, which is a very populated area relative to the rest of the country. It thrives around the town park, the center of social interaction, and the various Christian churches located throughout the town. The poverty of the Dominican Republic is apparent in the deteriorating streets and undeveloped buildings.

The public water system often shuts off for days, even weeks at a time. Despite this, there is relatively easy access to water and almost all homes have big rainwater collectors on their roofs which they then chlorinate and can use for household activities.

There is a large supermarket in town and dozens of other "colmados," which sell a variety of food from fresh fruit and bread to soap and cleaning supplies.

These are the realities of Dominican life that I have been able to experience during my stay here.

This morning I visited an Esperanza microcredit bank meeting in Bejucal, a small, poor community about 45 minutes outside of Hato Mayor. I rode there in a "Gua Gua," the Dominican term for a van or bus. This one normally seats 12 people, but the driver had somehow managed to pack 24 of us into the vehicle.

All bank meetings start at nine in the morning and associates are required to attend these biweekly meetings to make their payments. In this particular meeting, some associates did not show up so they sent their payment money with others in the same bank.

Attendance is very important in the world of microcredit because its solidarity is based on ideals that all people in the group should support each other and are accountable for each other. Their absence was a problem that is a constant focus in microlending because it does not encourage the trust and responsibility needed for a microcredit bank to be successful.

I interviewed a man named Juan Sosa, who was the main connection between the Esperanza officials and the bank. He buys and sells cacao, a plant native to the tropical Americans and Caribbean, and is currently paying back his ninth and largest loan thus far with Esperanza, about $425. He is married and has two daughters, ages two and nine, and two sons, ages three and eight. He plans to take out another loan after he has paid this one back in order to continue developing his business. His goal is to buy a cement house because the one he is currently living in is wooden, making it susceptible to hurricanes which plague the region annually.


However, this is not the norm for microfinance or for the Dominican Republic. Many people are only able to make minor, subtle changes to their life, but they are at least able to do so thanks to microfinance and other philanthropic causes. They might put a cement floor in their house when they have been sleeping on dirt all their lives. Or maybe they can start buying meat when their diet normally only consists of rice and plantains.

Poverty here is not only rooted in the low income that people take home each year. The education, health care, transportation and other government systems are all underdeveloped and do not seem to be improving anytime soon.

From what I have seen so far, this seems to be a classic case of "the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer."

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June 23, 2009 10:42 AM

Unitus expands in Africa as Indian partner mulls IPO

Posted by Kristi Heim

Unitus, a Seattle non-profit supporting microfinance around the world, is entering a new phase as it expands into northern India and Africa, and its social enterprise investment arm builds a second equity fund of at least $70 million, almost triple the size of its first fund.

From its new location on the fifth floor of a Queen Anne building, Unitus President Ed Bland talked about the group's progress to help small microfinance organizations grow by providing capital and business consulting. Unitus has about 40 employees and 24 microfinance partners, 14 of them in India.


Flora, an entrepreneur in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, used a microloan to expand a business renting chairs and tents for local events.

Among them, SKS Microfinance in India is the fastest growing microfinance organization in the world, reaching more than 4 million clients today from the 12,000 it had when it first received support from Unitus in 2003. I wrote about SKS here when its founder Vikram Akula was in town.

SKS, which has relied on private equity so far, is likely to go public within the next 18 months. "It will make a big splash," Bland said, but not in the same way as the last major microfinance IPO, Compartamos of Mexico. SKS charges interest rates of 26 percent, compared to the 84 percent interest charged by Compartamos, he said. The IPO helped fuel a debate about the role of microfinance.

A public stock offering would be one way for investors in Unitus Equity Fund to get back their initial capital investment. Another way would be for a microfinance partner to be acquired by a bank in a private buyout. That could help the bank push its services to more low-income clients, who have proven to be reliable borrowers with higher than 90 percent repayment rates. Two-thirds of the Unitus Equity Fund's investments are in microfinance organizations that Unitus supports on the non-profit side.

The first fund's investors were socially minded individuals willing to take a risk for a modest return over 10 years. The $24 million fund was managed with a "charitable override," Bland said. That meant that its social purpose was the most important aim, and making money was second.

Now Unitus' for-profit arm has been renamed Elevar to avoid confusion with the non-profit. Elevar is raising the second fund with a different strategy: broadening its investors to include institutions that weren't part of the first fund at all. To draw investors such as pension funds, Elevar changed its mission to remove the charitable override, Bland said.

It still has a social mission, but that can't be above profit, he said.

The fund will make almost no investments in Unitus' partner microfinance organizations, but rather invest in "innovation at the bottom of the pyramid," Bland said. That includes things like technology, insurance for the poor, private education and anti-malaria bed nets.

The second fund has a target of $70 million to $100 million, focusing on a new category of investing in services for the 4 billion people at the lowest socioeconomic rung.

Unitus opened an office in Nairobi earlier this year, along with the Africa Microfinance Growth Centre, an 18-month program in leadership development for microfinance CEOs. As it moves into Africa, Unitus has partnerships with MFIs in Kenya and Tanzania and hopes to expand to groups serving Uganda, Rwanda and Ethiopia in the future.

Some of the challenges are different, Bland said. Capital is much harder to come by than in India, where the government has identified microfinance as a priority sector and banks have an incentive to support it. In Africa costs are higher, and MFIs must hedge against currency fluctuations as they borrow in dollars and lend in Kenyan shillings, for example.

But Unitus' mission is to put its resources into promising regions where microfinance is struggling. Places that are "harder but not so hard you're stuck there for 30 years banging your head against the wall," Bland said.

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June 12, 2009 11:30 AM

Paul Farmer returning to Seattle next week

Posted by Kristi Heim

Dr. Paul Farmer, global health and human rights advocate and co-founder of Partners In Health, will be in Seattle next week for a free public event at the University of Washington.

By the time he gets here, he may have decided to take a new job with the Obama Administration.

Farmer will speak about the current climate of global health in a conversation moderated by Dr. Chris Elias, the CEO of PATH. Farmer is the subject of the Pulitzer Prize-winning book "Mountains Beyond Mountains." A conversation with him seems like a tonic for despair and apathy -- he's brutally honest about the disparity he sees, but people still come away feeling optimistic they can do something about it.

I had a chance to meet him a couple of years ago and ask him about his work.


Paul Farmer will speak at UW's Kane Hall on Thursday at 6 p.m..

In Seattle, he'll talk about the future of global health delivery, the challenge of multi drug-resistant tuberculosis, and how one person has the ability to make a significant contribution to global health. More details are here.

Farmer is the chair of Harvard Medical School's Department of Global Health and Social Medicine and an associate chief at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston. He also spends time shuttling between PIH projects in Rwanda and Haiti. There have been suggestions recently that he will be named to a top post at USAID, which would signal a radical shift for that organization.

Arguing that health care is a human right, Farmer approaches ill health as a symptom of deeper issues of poverty and inequality. But he also expresses ambivalence.

"I move uneasily between the obligation to intervene and the troubling knowledge that much of the work we do, praised as humanitarian or charitable, does not always lead us closer to our goal," he said in a recent NPR feature. His goal? "Nothing less than the refashioning of our world."

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June 10, 2009 12:15 AM

Africans loaning to Americans? Kiva expands to U.S. borrowers

Posted by Kristi Heim

A Kenyan Internet entrepreneur is planning to make her first loan -- to an American she's never met. She's doing it through the online micro lending Web site, which grew famous serving the developing world and is now expanding to include the working poor in the U.S.

Recognizing that poverty is everywhere, Kiva is starting to offer loans to U.S. borrowers today, a plan that has been in the works for some time. It's testing the waters to see how the service is used and whether it will help Americans in the midst of a credit crunch find ways to fund small businesses such as beauty salons, nurseries and bakeries.

CEO Matt Flannery mentioned the idea when he talked with me about the evolution of Kiva in a recent interview here. More than 500,000 people have used Kiva to make a total of $76 million in small loans to entrepreneurs featured on the site.


Silvia and Todor Believe received a Kiva loan to expand their firewood delivery business in Bulgaria.

In the U.S. market, the non-profit is working through two partners: ACCION USA and the Opportunity Fund in the Bay Area.

Locally Washington CASH also offers small business loans to local borrowers. While a small amount of capital is often what entrepreneurs in the developing world need,
getting a business off the ground in the U.S. has its own challenges. Keeping it running successfully can be even harder, so Washington CASH combines loans with training, such as creating a business plan, budgeting and marketing.

Kiva's U.S. micro loans come at an interesting time, with the global economy shifting precariously and unpredictably, and government rescue plans aimed at huge banks and corporations. Through its person-to-person economic stimulus plan. Kiva is giving individuals a new way to decide where and how to put their money to work helping others.

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June 8, 2009 11:39 AM

Climbing to elevate local charity in downturn

Posted by Kristi Heim

Seattle Seahawks head coach Jim Mora sounds like an energetic guy. The Northwest native who's fond of running up Tiger Mountain is planning to climb Mount Rainier next month, along with Seahawks CEO Tod Leiweke and United Way of King County CEO Jon Fine, to raise money for the charity.


Seahawks head coach Jim Mora.

The July 5 "Climb for the Community" will be led by veteran climbers Ed Viesturs and Peter Whittaker. Both have climbed Rainier more than 200 times.

Other climbers include NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, Molly Nordstrom, the United Way's incoming board chair, Boeing vice president Fred Kiga, Costco vice president John Thelan and Wells Fargo regional managing director Greg Bronstein.

It's part of a drive by United Way to raise more funds for basic needs to help people struggling in the recession. Programs support housing, food banks and access to public benefits such as tax credits and food stamps.

Last year the Seahawks and United Way partnered to raise awareness about family homelessness. This time, the non-profit is hoping to reach Seahawks fans to participate in the fund raising drive.

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June 1, 2009 10:12 AM

Is offshore farming a good thing for Africa?

Posted by Kristi Heim

To overcome shortages of farmland or water at home, a few wealthy countries are turning to buying or leasing land in Africa to produce their food.

Saudi Arabia, for example, has started farming in Ethiopia, where it recently brought in its first 2,000 tons of Basmati rice.

Abdullah Alireza, the Saudi minister of Commerce and Industry, talked about the practice in a recent visit to Seattle, where he addressed a private gathering of local business people.


Abdullah Alireza is leading a drive by Saudi Arabia to invest in overseas agriculture.

Not only has the rice been grown successfully in Ethiopia, he said, but it's also cheaper to produce there than it is in India, he said.

It's all part of a drive by the desert kingdom to make agricultural investments abroad, which Alireza is spearheading. The Saudi government is investing in Ethiopia, Uganda and Tanzania, countries chosen for their close proximity to Saudi Arabia and abundant water supply, Alireza said. But competition for water is already causing conflicts in Ethiopia, and like many countries in Africa, it struggles to produce enough food for itself.

The three countries would make up a new agricultural export zone. "If we can string them along we can actually begin to create a whole area built for agriculture," Alireza said.

The Economist reports that nearly 50 million acres of African farmland worth $20 billion to $30 billion has been acquired by China, Saudi Arabia and other countries for offshore farming. Critics call it the newest form of colonialism and say the deals are destabilizing land grabs that push out local farmers.

Others say that after decades of neglect and failure by international aid organizations to improve the situation, commercial investment might actually help. To learn more about the topic, check out excerpts and videos from a conference at the Woodrow Wilson Center International Center for Scholars.

The Gates Foundation-supported Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) aims to reduce poverty using market-based approaches and improving things like seeds, soil and irrigation for small-scale African farmers. The Rural Development Institute focuses on stronger legal rights for African farmers, most of whom are women.

The way Alireza sees it, the practice of offshore farming can enhance food security in Africa.

"We can become the farmers of the world in terms of food security to Africa," he said. "Although we're taking so many hectares, we are actually going to be helping farmers contiguous to our farms, assist them in repairing the land, plant seedlings, and have an agreement if they wish so that we can buy their products."

Saudi Arabia has slipped from a grain producing nation to a net importer, and water security is a major concern. At the same time, a development push to open six new economic cities and various new industrial zones in Saudi Arabia will consume even more land and water resources.

"We are going to be importing a lot of wheat from all over the world," Alireza said.

After sitting next to Congressman Jim McDermott (D-WA) at the Seattle dinner, Alireza hinted that he might reconsider where to make investments. "He has given me many, many thoughts," Alireza said. "Maybe Seattle might be a better place to come in."

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May 8, 2009 12:12 PM

Microfinance draws mega interest

Posted by Kristi Heim

Seattle Pacific University is putting on the first ever Pacific Northwest Microfinance Conference tonight and tomorrow, a testament to the growing interest in the topic. Seattle has at least three dozen organizations working in microfinance, and no doubt students are already dreaming up others.


Microfinance pioneer Muhammad Yunus, founder of the Grameen Bank in Bangladesh, is now loaning to hundreds of borrowers in the U.S.

More than 400 people are expected at the sold-out event. Speakers include Matt Flannery, co-founder and CEO of, Skip Li, founder of Agros International, and Atul Tandon, World Vision senior vice president.

Tandon, who left a career in global banking to join non-profit World Vision, said the current economic crisis has made it more urgent to find, train and equip local entrepreneurs in poor countries.

"Microfinance is a time-tested tool," he said, "to generate self-employment and provide local jobs for those who are losing the little they have gained over the last twenty years of global prosperity, and stand to drop back into the black hole of the abject poverty."

Defying the global recession and Wall Street meltdown, microfinance has continued to grow. But as commercial banks and private investors move in, more questions are being raised about how effectively it reduces poverty, and whether more efforts should go into other areas, such as savings and larger-scale employment.

Microfinance is expanding in the U.S. through programs like Washington CASH, which provides training and "peer microloans" to low-income entrepreneurs in the Seattle area. Mercy Corps Northwest recently formed a partnership with Washington CASH to make more micro-loans available in Washington state.


Grameen Foundation executive vice president Peter Bladin.

Peter Bladin, who will also speak at tomorrow's conference, is taking on a new role at the Grameen Foundation as executive vice president for programs and regions, part of a new strategy to expand the reach of microfinance and technology in international development. Bladin, a Microsoft veteran and founding director of the Grameen Technology Center, will lead global operations for microfinance and technology and remain in Seattle.

The field is attracting more interest from job seekers. The World Affairs Council is sponsoring a "Careers in Microfinance" panel Tuesday at 7:30 p.m. at the Seattle Public Library. Details are here.

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May 7, 2009 12:15 PM

Dambisa Moyo ignites debate over aid to Africa

Posted by Kristi Heim

How to help Africa, an important endeavor for so many of Seattle's non-profits, is the subject of heated debate these days, thanks in part to a provocative book by Dambisa Moyo.

Rich countries have poured more than $1 trillion in development aid into Africa over the past five decades, and all that money has made Africans even worse off, she argues in "Dead Aid."

Moyo, a native of Zambia who has a PhD in economics from Oxford University, worked for investment bank Goldman Sachs and consulted for the World Bank. Instead of charity, she proposes market-based alternatives such as trade with China, accessing capital markets and microfinance. A substantive review of the book is here.

Whether the current approach is working seems a fair question, one that more people have begun asking. For countries like Zambia that are doing all the right things according to economists' prescriptions, where is the Western investment? Why is it that people are willing to invest billions in disease eradication or humanitarian aid but not a dollar in African business?

Foreign aid props up corrupt regimes with cash and propagates the aid industry, built on "orchestrated worldwide pity," Moyo writes.

"I think she's a change agent," said Eliza Kelly, director of global communications for Unitus, a Redmond non-profit that supports microfinance. "She's bringing out something we've long suspected but nobody wanted to say."

With 560 million people, or about 73 percent of sub-Saharan Africa's population, living on less than $2 a day, poverty remains chronic.


Bono has been an outspoken advocate of debt forgiveness and aid to Africa. Moyo argues that Western celebrities have become the spokesmen for the African continent.

But others say Moyo goes too far.

"Her suggestion to simply cut off all foreign aid over the next five years would do incalculable damage to the lives of ordinary people living in developing countries," said David Scheiman, senior director of Africa programs for World Vision, the Christian humanitarian agency headquartered in Federal Way.

Moyo calls aid "an unmitigated political, economic, and humanitarian disaster for most parts of the developing world."

"That simply isn't true," said Scheiman. Foreign aid has also saved countless lives, particularly in conflicts and disasters.

Like Moyo, many Seattle non-profits see a huge potential to alleviate poverty in entrepreneurship.

Unitus is trying to expand the availability of micro loans in Africa, where it's setting up a branch office in Nairobi, hiring local employees and starting a leadership development program for CEOs of local microfinance institutions. Regulations have improved there making it easier to do business in a relatively stable environment, Kelly said.

Borrowers there don't want a hand out, she said, they want a job opportunity.

While economic development is important, progress can't be measured by raw economic growth alone. And it's hard to keep civil strife and disease from spilling across national borders and infecting countries that are faring well themselves.

Having more African voices contribute to the debate is valuable. Maybe just as important is some experience with extreme poverty, which Moyo lacks, says Scheiman. "I think she would have a different perspective if she was one of the millions who has benefited from and is alive today because of appropriate aid over the last several years," he said.

I'm looking forward to hearing her talk at UW's Kane Hall tonight at 7 p.m., and the questions sure to follow.

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April 22, 2009 10:15 AM

Charity retailers expand in a sagging economy

Posted by Kristi Heim

One segment of the retail world bucking the trend of declining sales is thrift stores. The Society of St. Vincent de Paul is opening its seventh thrift store in King County today to coincide with Earth Day. The 16,000-square-foot store in Kent replaces a former carpet business that sold the building to the charity in November.


Kent store employees (left to right) Margarita Mercado, Donna DeLorenze, Judy DeLauney, Neil Jennings and Lori Bedwell.

The local charity is using the event to encourage both giving to the community and recycling. More than 2,500 tons of material is recycled through store sales and reclamation efforts each year, said Richard Bray, director of donor and community relations.

Proceeds from thrift store sales directly fund assistance to people in the community, including food, clothing, furniture and help paying rent and utility bills.

"The nature of our work compels us to expand during tough times," Bray said. "St. Vincent de Paul's outreach grew in the Great Depression and we are growing during this "Great Recession" too."

This past year, the Catholic charity says it has received more than 29,000 calls for help in King County, including a 50 percent increase in people at its food bank.

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April 22, 2009 8:29 AM

Biotech messages and global food legislation

Posted by Kristi Heim

Two characteristics seem to be emerging from the Obama Administration's agriculture policy -- a global outlook and confidence in technology solutions.

U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack lately has been talking about the link between food security and global stability, warning that unless countries take immediate steps to sharply boost agricultural productivity and reduce hunger, the world risks fresh social instability.

Just how to do that is an important but controversial question.


Farmers in developing countries face price volatility, changing weather patterns and other pressures

With the challenge of feeding the world's population compounded by climate change, Vilsack called on G8 countries to back the use of science in agriculture, including genetically modified organisms, to boost productivity, according to the Financial Times and coverage of the issue on the Web site.

Earlier this week, Vilsack nominated Gates Foundation agricultural development director Rajiv Shah as chief scientist and undersecretary for research, education and economics.

Shah, the bright star at the Gates Foundation who helped design the partnership for a new Green Revolution in Africa (and recruit Kofi Annan as its chair), will now be in a position to shape much of the research and science policy within the federal government.

The move was praised by the chairman of the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center in St. Louis, among others. William Danforth chairs the non-profit institute, which received a $3.3 million grant from the Gates Foundation to enhance the nutritional value of cassava through genetic engineering. This year the center received $5.4 million from the Gates Foundation to help secure the approval of African governments to allow field testing of genetically modified banana, rice, sorghum and cassava plants.

A rash of magazine ads for Monsanto in recent months also links the global food crisis with the potential of technology to solve it. But some governments are uneasy about the implications of crops like GM corn, which was banned in Germany this year.

A key piece of legislation, the Global Food Security Act of 2009 S.384 sponsored by Sen. Richard Lugar, would authorize appropriations through 2014 to provide assistance to foreign countries to promote food security, stimulate rural economies, and improve emergency response to food crises.

Part of the bill includes a provision to "include research on biotechnological advances appropriate to local ecological conditions, including genetically modified technology."

That clause is sparking vocal opposition by groups including Food First, the National Family Farm Coalition, Organic Consumers Association, Rainforest Action Network and others who say the bill's intentions are good but the approach is wrong.

"While the intentions behind the Global Food Security Act may be laudable, the question is whether poorer farmers left behind by the last Green Revolution will again be swept aside by a top-down approach that benefits mostly transnational corporations," said Andrew Kang Bartlett of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).

Instead, the coalition supports a number of actions to address the food crisis, including
regulating commodity futures markets to end excessive speculation, halting growth of industrial crops for fuel in developing countries, stabilizing commodity prices through food reserves, setting fair regional and global trade agreements and directing efforts toward ecological farming practices.

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April 17, 2009 5:15 PM

The price of development: farmer suicides and hunger strikes

Posted by Kristi Heim

Northwest philanthropy programs are reaching into India with microcredit, improved land rights and water access. The Gates Foundation is applying techniques from the original Green Revolution that changed Indian agriculture in a huge push to transform farming in Africa.

The situation on the ground in India shows how complex those challenges are. Under desperate conditions, individuals pay the price with their lives. In one state, 1,500 farmers have committed suicide, complaining of escalating debt from loans, drought and failed crops, according to a report this week.

An in-depth series by NPR offers a cautionary tale about the Green Revolution.

The approach that seemed so promising four decades earlier -- importing modern methods of fertilizer, high-yield seeds and irrigation -- is on the brink of collapse in Punjab, India's breadbasket. Diminishing groundwater from heavy irrigation use seems to be at the heart of the problem.


A farmer and his young daughter on a train in Punjab province.

Almost every village in Punjab has witnessed a suicide in once-prosperous farming families and it is a major issue in the general election, notes this report from BBC.

With so much effort to expand microcredit in the region, it turns out farmers are still borrowing from moneylenders to pay for other production costs.

Each year before the harvest, small farmers of Punjab borrow from rural moneylenders at exorbitant interest rates to meet production costs, including seeds, fertilizers and electricity for irrigation.

The demand for electricity is causing a different problem along the Ganges. Dams being constructed in the foothills of the Himalayas are disrupting downstream flows and changing conditions on a river central to Hindu faith. Desperation over that issue is prompting hunger strikes. At a temple in the holy city of Varanasi, I met a man named Baba Nagnath Yogeshwar, who was rail thin and moved around in slow motion.


Baba Nagnath Yogeshwar is on a hunger strike in Varanasi, India, to save the Ganges from hydroelectric dams that would restrict its flow and disrupt life along the sacred waterway. He is being monitored by a doctor.

He said he has been fasting since last year to protest the dams. Another activist, one of India's best known scientists, AD Agarwal, came close to dying earlier this year after staging a hunger strike in protest of the dams.

"It is our privilege to live near the holy mother Ganga which nourishes
our lives," Nagnath said through an interpreter. "Keeping the mother from impurity and destruction is our sacred duty if we want to continue receiving the irreplaceable benefits that the mother freely gives us everyday."

Questions of how to grow enough food for a burgeoning population without destroying the environment and how to modernize the country without sacrificing its identity remain central to development efforts and the Northwest dollars that support them.

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April 14, 2009 11:10 AM

The surprising reality of life on $1 a day in urban India

Posted by Kristi Heim

Yes, there is grinding poverty. Yes, there is also glittering wealth. But in New Delhi I found something unexpected.

I happened to meet a family by chance while checking into the YMCA. Addison Samuel, his wife and their three children, all named after tennis players: Martina (Navratilova), Steffi (Graf) and Stefan (Edberg). Samuel had retired from his job as accountant at the YMCA but brought his children there after school to take part in activities. Seeing that I was traveling alone, he invited me to dinner in his home.

Kristi's India pics 145.jpg

The tiny apartment in a two-story cement housing block had no dining room or dining table -- just a kitchen and bedroom. As far as I could tell, meals were eaten while sitting on the beds. They served me a delicious dinner of lentils, mixed vegetables, pickled mangoes and bread, eagerly watching to see if I enjoyed the food. I began to talk with Martina about life in India and my job in Seattle. When I mentioned some of the work that Seattle organizations are doing in India, she had a lot of questions. "Where are these programs?" she asked. They are generally aimed at rural people living on $1 a day, I said. Her response surprised me. "But we live on $1 a day," she said.

It was Martina, on a salary of 7,000 rupees (about $140) a month, who supported the family of five. With her father retired, her mother in declining health and her younger siblings still in school, the 24-year-old elementary school English teacher was the family's sole breadwinner.

Kristi's India pics 146.jpg

By the time she paid rent (4,000 rupees) and the transportation costs of a long daily commute to work, she was left with a little more than $1 a day for the family's food, clothes and other needs. She explained that her situation was not really unique. Many families survive on that much.

And yet here was a woman who dressed relatively well, had a good education and even found time to volunteer at the YWCA to help women less fortunate than herself.

It struck me how much in common they have with many families here, who are struggling to pay the rent and afford health care, just on the border of homelessness or not enough to eat. Any unexpected expense could throw them into a desperate situation.

But Martina's biggest worry was not daily living. It was the question of how her father, already busy searching for a suitable husband for her arranged marriage, would come up with the money for her dowry, which could be as much as a new car. Her father's biggest worry was how the family would get by once Martina left home after marriage.

Meeting the Samuel family was eye opening. They were certainly not the poorest in India, but somewhere beyond the reach of philanthropy, falling through the cracks in the widening gap between rich and poor.

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March 24, 2009 3:13 PM

Long road leads from Sudan to Seattle

Posted by Kristi Heim

Garfield High School graduate Jackilin Abiem remembers fleeing civil war in Sudan and walking three months across the country with her father to Ethiopia. Some refugees traveling the same path never made it, she told me. They were killed by lions along the way. Although her father managed to get her safely across the desert, he was killed in the fighting when he returned to Sudan on his own. She doesn't know what became of her mother in Sudan.

The same week that Abiem told me her experience as one of the rare lost girls among thousands of "Lost Boys" orphaned by that war, I was hearing another story of countless others suffering in the seemingly endless conflict in Darfur.

A dozen of the largest humanitarian organizations, including Mercy Corps, were expelled from Darfur eariler this month by Sudan President Omar Hassan al-Bashir. He accused them of cooperating with the International Criminal Court in the Hague, which issued a warrant for his arrest on war crimes charges. World Vision was among a few groups allowed to continue operating.

Save the Children President Charles MacCormack, who is also chairman of a coalition of 170 humanitarian aid groups, said the situation leaves about 3 million displaced people in a crisis. His agency had been working to supply a million people with food, shelter, protection and medicine in Darfur.

"What's going to happen to those people?" he said. "There's nobody there to run the thing. We've got 500 trucks and all the infrastructure, but that's unraveling as we speak."

I met MacCormack while he was in Seattle briefly last week. While he said nobody deserves indictment more than al-Bashir, he wondered whether the decision was ultimately the right one for people on the ground.

"I've been ambivalent about how smart it is to have done it under that set of circumstances... I've always felt don't start something unless you're prepared to see it through to the bitter end," MacCormack said. "This thing has no game plan, other than to issue the indictment."

There are stories of aid workers basically held hostage as the government demands millions of dollars in fines in exchange for the necessary exit permits.

Both sides appear to have reached a stalemate. Al-Bashir doesn't have any choice now, MacCormack said. "If he were to back down, he'd be overthrown." The Sudanese government has not responded to pressure from the UN, and it has written off the U.S. "as a Western cabal imposing anti-Muslim ways and out for regime change," he said.

Meanwhile, with private aid groups out and the rainy season on its way, Darfur is likely to see even more disease and starving children, as this story warns. Abiem, who left Sudan when she was 3 years old and lost everything, is one of the lucky ones.

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March 19, 2009 10:55 AM

Stimulus money goes to jobs for low-income seniors

Posted by Kristi Heim

It's just another sign of the times: without retirement benefits to count on, people are working later and later in life. The recession creates an even tougher situation for seniors who need work but can't find it.

Today one national group based in Seattle is getting help from the federal stimulus package to put more seniors into job training programs.

The National Asian Pacific Center on Aging received $1.6 million for its Senior Community Service Employee Program, designed to help low income Asian Pacific Islander seniors 55 and older with limited language skills get on-the-job training with community organizations and transition into employment.

It uses an interesting model of federal money to pay wages while seniors train at local non-profits, which serve as their bridge to jobs in the private sector (though sometimes they are hired on at the non-profits, too).

The federal stimulus money will pay wages for an additional 180 seniors to train at community based organizations and government offices within the next 60 days, the NAPCA said today.

"This is just the kind of targeted job creation that should be first priority in a stimulus bill," said NAPCA President Clayton Fong. "The program has a long waiting list that demonstrates the need and would allow seniors to be hired immediately."

Lam Vuong is one of the people who has gone through the program in Seattle. The 67-year-old immigrant from Vietnam trained for a year at Helping Link and Kawabe Memorial House. He then got a full-time job as a dishwasher at Ruth's Chris Steak House in Seattle. He earns more than minimum wage, but for Vuong the most important thing was getting health benefits.

NAPCA works with 400 agencies nationally to serve 1,000 low-income seniors a year, but 250 more are on a waiting list. In Seattle, the project serves 100 seniors annually who work at 40 host agencies -- local non-profits that get the benefit of an employee in training. They include Asian Counseling & Referral Service (ACRS), Catholic Seamen's Club, First AME Child & Family Center, Millionair Club Charity and St. Mary's Food Bank.

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March 13, 2009 10:48 AM

RDI doubles its fundraising in a down economy

Posted by Kristi Heim

Some of the top experts on land rights and their impact on women are lawyers working with Seattle-based Rural Development Institute.

Their approach seems to be paying off, even in a tough year for non-profits. RDI's annual Women's Day fund-raising event defied the anemic economy with a turnout of 550 people Thursday and a total of $115,000, twice the amount it raised last year, not including sponsor underwriting of the event.

"Land is the most fundamental asset for most of the poor in most of the developing world," said Roy Prosterman, who founded RDI 40 years ago and has been nominated for a Nobel Prize. When I profiled him a few years ago, he was content not owning a house, property or even a car.


Women's ownership of property has been tied to respect and social standing. Gitanjali Chaudhry, 17, of New Delhi, started attending women's self-defense classes last year after being harassed by men on her way to school.

While women are responsible for most of the world's agricultural production, they own just 2 percent of the land, according to RDI. In some countries women don't have a right to own property; they are property. Such entrenched customs are hard to change, but RDI has made progress in places like Kyrgyzstan by advising the government to strengthen women's ownership rights in the process of reforming land laws, said Asyl Undeland, a Kyrgyz anthropologist.

I've always thought what RDI does is an interesting counter point to the explosion of microfinance, and RDI addressed that during the event.

"Before you can give a woman a loan to help her lift herself out of poverty, first she has to have land," said Radha Friedman, RDI's associate director of development and communications. If she doesn't have land, it's hard to use the money for a sewing machine or a cow, since she may have no stable place to earn her living.


RDI's Tim Hanstad worked in the fields in Skagit County as a boy.

In India, RDI has a strategy of purchasing land from sellers to obtain "micro-plots" for landless farmers to build a shelter, grow food and raise animals. RDI CEO Tim Hanstad moved his family to India and lived there for about four years to get the program going with a grant from the Gates Foundation. Now the concept is part of the country's current five-year development plan.

For years, RDI toiled in relative obscurity. But last year it won a World Bank competition for its "barefoot lawyers" project to offer legal aid and education to China's rural poor, and a new $6.7 million Gates Foundation grant to expand its "micro-land ownership" program across India.

RDI is also expanding in China and Africa. This fall it will create a Global Center for Women and Land in Seattle to train law and policy experts on gender-specific problems related to land rights, and build an electronic library of laws related to women's land rights that practitioners around the world can access and use to share information.

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March 5, 2009 10:19 AM

Matt Flannery answers your questions about Kiva

Posted by Kristi Heim

I had a good conversation with Kiva co-founder Matt Flannery, who told me the microlending Web site will offer loans to people in the United States later this year and is working to fix the imbalance of borrowers and lenders. He also reflected on his own motivations and hope for the future. He grew up in Gig Harbor and still has family and friends here, in addition to several non-profit partners. Thanks to Susan, Kintan, Lynann and others for contributing questions.

Q: What brings you to Seattle?

A: Primarily to speak to SeaMo [Seattle Microfinance], an organization my long time friend Ryan [Calkins] is running. I've known Ryan since we were 15. I'm meeting several other [microfinance] practitioners: World Vision, Unitus, Grameen Technology Center. We just want to expand synergies with those three organizations.

With Grameen we have a lot to learn from them. They're developing great software...we'd love to encourage our partners to use it. It's free and it's advanced to manage their loan portfolio, and our Web site can connect to that.

As we grow from 6 million to 60 million, it's getting quite complicated. A single organization in Peru might be managing 2,000 borrower profiles on our site. They have to upload those one at a time from a location where the Internet doesn't works so good, and as a woman pays them back $10 a month, enter that information in Peruvian currency. Then relay to somone in Seattle and that person gets paid back in dollars. When you have currency fluctuations in between, it gets pretty complicated.

Q: How has the economic crisis impacted Kiva?

A: Currencies are more volatile than ever. Funding is drying up for partners all over the world. [In the past] there was almost too much debt capital compared to the capacity of lending organizations to absorb it. Because of the credit crunch, most of that has dried up or in the process of drying up. Kiva is growing. We're becoming more important in that landscape. We're depending on people in Seattle with $25 to make up the difference.

Lending organizations helping women in Ghana, you break even charging 20 percent interest, and in order to lend that out you need to get funding. They get funding from wholesale debt and lend it to the women. A few years ago debt capital like that was abundant. If you run a commercial you could get funding from Deutsche Bank, Citibank, USAID, Unitus and local banks. Just as banks in the U.S. are tightening criteria, so are these international lenders. Kiva is contrary to that trend because the money we raise comes from completely different sources. Lenders are borrowing money from Wall Street, the same places that are drying up. Kiva is borrowing $20 from my mom. My mom is not drying up yet. The average lender is contributing $60. We have diversified our sources to half a million people. That's more diversified than if you are Lehman Brothers. The situation is driving more MFIs to Kiva, and more lenders, too, oddly enough.


Radka Borisova Portocalova runs a walnut-cracking business in the Roma ghetto in Bulgaria. She and her husband hope to use the money from their Kiva loan as working capital to increase the volume of nuts they buy.

Q: Does microfinance offer any lessons or solutions to the larger problems in banking?

A: The emphasis on knowing the borrowers is the biggest lesson you can learn. Know the community in which you work. You get to know the people you work with and that results in a high repayment rate.

Q: Kiva has run into the problem of having more lenders than borrowers. Is that still the case?

A: It just changes. Today more borrowers than lenders, yesterday there were more lenders than borrowers. It's just dynamic call and response on the Web site. The equilibrium shifts back and forth often.

Q: Is it a problem of infrastructure within microfinance to find enough borrowers to which you can direct those lenders?

A: I wouldn't go so far to stay that. We have 100 partners, and we work with them closely. It has much more to do with Kiva. We've been chronically short [of borrowers] more than not. Especially since December more often than not loans have been zero. That's because we've been selling out. Lenders - about 150,000 are selling the site out most days. That's a failure on Kiva's part to predict the strength of our lender base to grow exponentially and supply the site accordingly. We should have been signing up more and more [microfinance institutions] and enrolling them last October or last August to prepare for this event.

We looked at our statistics last year, and in February we thought that we would have the same seasonal patterns. This year it's not true at all. Last August we were trying to improve relationships with existing partners rather than expanding. We didn't predict that in 6 months the site will be blowing up. Finding partners takes time. You have to go to Mozambique to get to know a small non- profit, to do an audit, to get to know the funders, and do all sorts of financial analysis. We'll probably be in the opposite situation later this year.

Q: What are you doing to address that?

A: We raise money from our lenders, who donate little amounts to us optionally. That's the main way we are able to pay the rent, and occasionally donations from foundations [such as eBay founder] Jeff Skoll's foundation and the Kellogg and Rockefeller Foundations. Right now we're trying to raise another big round of money from foundations, so we can stop operating incrementally, and correcting, correcting, correcting... because we're understaffed.

While we're growing, the world just looks quite unstable. We have a few months of good data...but it's inconclusive. Part of our income comes from foundations. I am seeing a noticeable tightening on the part of foundations. I view foundations as much more volatile than the Internet public at large. That makes up 30 percent of our budget, and the outlook for that is much more dire.

Q: Is Kiva expanding to offer loans to people in the U.S.?

A: Yes, I expect it to happen probably later this year. Obviously there's poverty everywhere including the U.S. As we've grown up, we've begun to think of our Web site not only as a developing world Web site but a place to lend to people in poverty. When we started we thought it's an interesting idea for this one village in Uganda ... Time and time again we were just forced to think bigger. We just were responding to thousands of people who wanted to do something.

Q: Can you envision applying the Kiva model of dispersing financial capital to dispersing human capital, such as mentoring entrepreneurs in developing countries?

A: Yes, I think the flow of information is just as important as the flow of money. That's a really good idea. It's been hard for us to pull it off in the early days. The borrowers typically aren't computer literate or even literate. People who are borrowing don't read and certainly don't use the computer. That's a barrier. In running their business, they know what to do. If you've been selling vegetables in Cambodia for 15 years, you're pretty good at it and you know your market. It's really just [a question of] funding. That's by and large the problem we're trying to solve. It's challenging if you're a Microsoft employee in Seattle speaking to someone selling vegetables in Cambodia.

Q: Do you think global poverty can be eliminated in the next 35 years?

A: Oh, absolutely... wide scale poverty that is. There's always some segment of people that will be poor because of their situation. But we live in a world where a huge percentage of the glob is in poverty. It's completely out of whack. I think we'll look back at this era in shock that we let this thing get this far out of hand. I think this is a temporary anomaly in a world where there's disparity in wealth. It's this weird moment in time, in history, that will correct itself because it's unsustainable.

Q: What motivates you to do this work?

A: I grew up in a Christian family... my mother was a volunteer for World Vision, my sister worked for World Vision. I definitely had international development on my mind. I realized I was an entrepreneur and that was what I was best suited for. I tried to start several companies and failed and failed. It wasn't until I went to Africa with [co-founder and wife] Jessica. I loved talking with people in Kenya about their plans and dreams. That was a different vibe than I had when I was sponsoring children and had an idea of Africa as a desolate place. I found it vibrant and fun. I just wanted to convey that sense of hope and have people convey that to each other. That set me on fire. I thought wow, if people knew the country and started helping a business in Africa that would be so exciting. I told my family I'm going to start thousands of businesses in Africa. People are entrepreneurial. People have a lot in common if you can just break down the barriers between them. Neighbors are not just here, they are in Cambodia and Nicaragua. You are so connected to them spiritually and financially, but it just hasn't been evident.

Q: What do you mean by that?

A: In any major faith tradition there is a proponent of the idea that people are very connected. Whatever religion you're in you'll find there's a universality of people and our actions affect us all.

Financially what you have is a good metaphor for spiritual connection. Someone making a foolish decision in Louisiana, a loan defaulting, a bank no longer able to lend money to international lending organizations, then institutions collapsing in Cambodia because they can no longer raise money, and a seamstress weaving silk in Cambodia can no longer get a loan. It's connected now more tightly than ever.

Q: What else is in Kiva's future?

A: We're opening a development community for volunteer developers all over the world. Volunteer coders are writing apps, where you can browse loans on an iPhone and see transactions. With a second round of apps hopefully you can make a loan from Facebook, or put Kiva loans on your Web site... People could buy loans or where you access a 401k online, you might be able to put a Kiva loan there. We want to spread transactions across the Internet. One day, borrowers can actually get the money on their mobile phones. That's probably five years away. The regulatory and technology barriers are too great to do it today.

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February 23, 2009 9:42 AM

Does Hollywood spotlight risk slumsploitation?

Posted by Kristi Heim

Following the success of "Slumdog Millionaire" at the Oscars Sunday night, the media spotlight is even more intense, yet not everyone is thrilled about that.

Several people have written to protest what they see as Western glorification of poverty in India.

Western non-profits such as World Vision and the OneWorld Health are using the movie to highlight the problems of poverty and disease and raise money for their work.


The Institute for OneWorld Health, a U.S.-based non-profit pharmaceutical company that develops drugs for neglected diseases, launched its campaign this morning, saying it's using the movie to "raise awareness about neglected diseases afflicting the world's poor," and take advantage of "America's heightened interest in the developing world."

Yet some say the portrait of slums in Dharavi shouldn't be the whole picture the world sees. A fascinating portrait of how Mumbai's rich and poor worlds coexist on the eve of the film's Indian premiere is here.

"To most self respecting Indians it seems as if people with vested Interest need more Slums so they can milk people who want to buy their place in Heaven," one reader wrote today.

"Unfortunately, the Hollywood spotlight is going to add fuel to this form of exploitation,'" writes another reader, Samuel Sunderaraj.

"Yes, India does have poverty and yes, there are slums in India; however these are the only images we see of the country. At the same time there is a lot of development going on in India, and firms like Google, MS, Intel, Cisco, to name a few, have established a presence there for that very reason."

Sunderaraj also took issue with the comparison between Atul Tandon's rags-to-riches story and poor slum dwellers in India, saying it's "exploiting the American 'ignorance' about India to raise funds."

"Mr Tandon had a typical middle class upbringing in India and quite simply should not be compared to the folks of the Dharavi Slum in Mumbai," he writes. "Mr Tandon had access to a good education from one of the top schools in New Delhi... In India that's a middle class/upper middle class living. My dad in the 1950s, much like Mr Tandon, lived on $1/day or less but does not consider himself as someone who made it ... because he now has a graduate degree from Princeton."

Films like "Slumdog Millionaire" raise sensitive topics that often produce a powerful backlash at home, as the film received last month.

Other films include "Born into Brothels" in India, "Tsotsi" in South Africa and "City of God" in Brazil.

While the film "City of God" was extremely popular, in Brazil "it didn't change the situation of the slums, even though the people who were in the film became famous," said Margaret Willson, international director of Bahia Street.

For non-profits, the movie tie could be lucrative. "World Vision could make big bucks off of it," Willson said. "People will think, oh this is what the slums in India look like. They can use it effectively as a marketing tool."

But in terms of changing the lives of those involved, "I don't think it particularly helps," she said. For one, taking kids out of the slum does nothing to change conditions, and for another what goes on in Dharavi is so much more complex than outsiders realize.

Finally, there is yet another idea that involves giving away money more directly.

Rumors are circulating of a "Secret Slumdog Millionaire" reality TV show, where disguised wealthy people infiltrate slums and select recipients to hand out money.

Here's a post with complex reaction to the film by Marla Smith-Nilson, who has seen the problems of slums up close.

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February 20, 2009 7:53 PM

World Vision's "Slumdog" vice president

Posted by Kristi Heim

As all eyes are on the hit film "Slumdog Millionaire" for Sunday's Academy Awards, the aid agency World Vision has a simple message: the reality is worse.

More children live in India's slums than the combined populations of Los Angeles and Chigago. Those 26 million kids include Pooja, 5, at left in the photo, sitting in front of her house in the slums of Mumbai with her brother and friend.


After 50 years in India, World Vision is taking advantage of the Hollywood spotlight to point out a few things the film misses: HIV / AIDS and the terrible stigma they carry, the recent food and economic crises pushing more poor into misery, the persistent low standing of girls and their path into early, unwanted marriage. In India, 42 percent of the population lives below the $1.25 a day poverty line, according to the World Bank.

But there is at least one Slumdog who got out, went on to college, worked his way up to head the global branch system at Citibank and achieved success and riches he could never have imagined.

Atul Tandon spent the first two decades of his life existing on about $1 a day. Since 2000 he has worked at World Vision, where he's senior vice president for donor engagement.

"I have been in all the places the movie was shot," he said. "It really was a flashback. The stations where they met -- I walked those places thousands of times."

"What you saw is the best of poverty. It's worse as you leave urban India. The further away you get, the worse it is... not having water and food."


Tandon remembers getting sick as a teenager, far away from any hospital. "We were living in a remote part of India. I fell ill and my mom put me in the back of a bus and it took two days. I still remember like yesterday. My body was on fire with fever and she was sitting there there weeping for two days. That is the reality of life."

His mother sold her jewelry to put him through school. "She is the one person I can look to and say I'm here because of you. It is moms in the lives of most of these kids. I can see the story repeated in many parts of the world."

He hopes the film doesn't just entertain but convinces people to do something.

"I hope when people leave the theater they leave inspired," he says. "It is about the poor, but it is also that the average American can say I'm going to change someone's life. It doesn't take much. That would be the most exciting thing that could happen."

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February 20, 2009 3:50 PM

Gates Foundation responds to questions on cocoa farming and child labor

Posted by Kristi Heim

The Gates Foundation's grant to a cocoa industry group is raising questions about labor rights.

The foundation said this week it will give $23 million to the World Cocoa Foundation and $25 million to a German development agency to help farmers in West Africa improve production and obtain higher prices for their cocoa and cashews.

The non-profit World Cocoa Foundation represents 70 chocolate companies, and most have not lived up to an agreement they signed to stop the worst forms of child labor in their cocoa supply chains, according to the International Labor Rights Forum.

Almost eight years after the major chocolate companies signed an agreement called the Harkin-Engel Protocol, they have not instituted programs to ensure that they are complying with international labor standards, says Tim Newman, the group's campaigns assistant in Washington D.C.

"After millions of dollars and many years, it appears that the chocolate companies, through their charitable organizations, are not having a broad impact on improving the lives of children on cocoa farms," Newman wrote in response to the Gates announcement.

Richard Rogers, Gates Foundation program officer in agricultural development, answered my questions today about the labor issues. He said commercial involvement is necessary for the project to succeed.

The debate reflects a gap between those who question corporate involvement in global development and the Gates' view that embraces such public-private partnerships.

By having the private sector directly involved, "farmers can have a clear understanding of what the market demands," he said. Companies will contribute technical and managerial skills and resources to help farmers develop better seed varieties and plants and post-harvest handling methods.

Rogers said he chose the World Cocoa Foundation for the grant because "they have the best network of connections with governments, NGOs and corporate partners we feel are critical to this project."

Historically, the cocoa companies have worked "in silos," Rogers said, but the Gates Foundation has tried to play a role bringing them together for the first time, "getting all these companies to share their best practices and technical innovations to have maximum impact."

Hershey, Kraft Foods, Mars, Archer Daniels Midland and Cargill were among those contributing $42 million in cash and in-kind donations to the Gates project. Those contributions "enable our dollars to go twice as far," Rogers said.

West African farmers, including young children, supply 70 percent of the world's cocoa, earning just $30 to $110 a year, according to the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture.

The goal is to drive up income for the 2 million small farmers in the region who earn a living through cocoa production by addressing the root cause of child labor -- low income.

When families are struggling to get food on the table every day, they need the whole family to chip in and work on farm farms, he said. "One of first things farmers do when incomes improve is send their kids to school."

But others argue that unfair trade policies lie at the root of the problem.

Stephanie Celt, director of the Washington Fair Trade Coalition, said she agrees with the message the Gates Foundation is sending that "current free trade policy is not bringing promised benefits to many family farmers and agricultural workers around the world." However, she added, "we hope that the foundation will also recognize that programs such as this one only have a chance of creating long-term benefits if they are partnered with more comprehensive reforms to the trade policies that are keeping many agricultural workers in poverty."

The Washington D.C.-based World Cocoa Foundation will re-grant virtually all the Gates funds to three non-profits working in Africa, Rogers said, after using some to hire a project director, coordinator and finance specialist, and a few management consultants.

Rogers said he believes the chocolate companies are working to help solve child labor problems, but "the challenge is the constant monitoring. It's difficult to be monitoring 2 million farmers 24 hours a day."

The International Cocoa Initiative has some information and reports here.

"Certain groups will always feel there could be more done," he said. "As long as companies are abiding by their commitments and putting effort toward ending child labor, we feel satisfied with that."

I asked why organic farming isn't a part of the project. Roger responded that farmers can decide themselves what to grow. While "organic, single origin markets have been growing, they are relatively small, he said.

"We want to have large scale impact and reach the largest number of farmers. To do that we need to get at the mainstream market. Most people aren't willing to pay the premium for specialty chocolates."

One goal is to improve diversification of crops, but cocoa is the main focus because it gives more bang for the buck. For a farmer on less than 3 hectares of land, about 25 percent would be dedicated to growing cocoa, but cocoa would contribute half of the farmer's income.

Raising income may be the one way to find common ground.

"If all of us can agree that improving income is the key to improving livelihood," Rogers says, "we have a great opportunity in front of us."

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February 13, 2009 10:00 AM

Food Lifeline becomes major food buyer with new fund

Posted by Kristi Heim

In a tough economy, finding creative ways to stretch resources has its rewards.

Trying to fulfill increasing demand from the local food banks it serves, Food Lifeline has turned to a new model -- a kind of bank account that lets it take advantage of "opportunity buys" and cut out the middleman.

"We're now going to develop as a line of business an entire program where you can reliably expect a number of different products," says Chief Executive Linda Nageotte.

The non-profit's Shoreline warehouse holds the first of such bulk purchases -- 44,000 pounds of Great Northern beans.


Volunteers Susan O'Callaghan, left, and Karen Sullivan pour beans from 100-pound bags into bins for repackaging.

Food Lifeline's nascent revolving food purchase program, funded with grants from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation, lets the organization buy food directly from growers and vendors, cutting costs and passing the savings on to 300 food banks in Western Washington.

In this case, the beans are good nutrition for 28 cents a pound, says Jerrimi Hofman, the program's coordinator. About 90 percent of the food at Food Lifeline is donated, but donations aren't predictable or continuous. When food banks need something they aren't getting from Food Lifeline donors, they have to go out to a wholesale store to buy it.

"They need more and we want to give more and do it in an absolutely cost effective way," Hofman said.

Since bargain food comes by the truckload, Food Lifeline relies on volunteers to repackage it into smaller sizes for distribution. On a recent Friday, the volunteer bean counters were Stuart Despain, Nikita Shvachko and their team of 12 Microsoft program managers.

Despain can relate personally to people who need help. After he graduated from Evergreen State College in the 1980s, during a different recession, he used a food bank himself.

"I had a heck of a time finding a job," he said. "The choice for me was whether to pay the rent or pay for groceries." A food bank in the University District helped him get by.
"Those are the things you don't forget," Despain said.

Working throughout the day, the Microsoft team packaged about two tons of food into family-sized servings. At a time when some companies are considering cutting employee volunteer time or matching gift programs, it was a reminder how much those benefits matter.

The team's general manager, Eric Wilfrid, who heads the Macintosh Business Unit, is a supporter of the program and let the team spend a day there as a morale-building event.

Despain calls it a "2 for 1 special -- socializing and having fun together and at the same time doing good things for the community," he said.
"We're going to do this as often as possible."

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February 11, 2009 2:34 PM

Literacy Bridge gets first Talking Books pilot program off the ground

Posted by Kristi Heim

Think Kindle is exciting? Take a look at this book that talks, was developed entirely by volunteers and costs less than $10.

Seattle-based non-profit Literacy Bridge launched its pilot program today to test dozens of its Talking Books in Ghana. The digital audio player and recorder is designed as a tool to teach literacy when used with textbooks, and help rural people who can't read get access to information.

Talking Book Devices.jpg

In the current usability test, Literacy Bridge volunteers want to find out how people use the device and what content is most popular. They are working with local health and agricultural officials to help disseminate information, such as disease prevention and best farming practices, and with local schools to build lesson plans using the device.

The man behind the project is Cliff Schmidt, a former Microsoft program manager who studied artificial intelligence and thought a lot about how literacy can play a role in moving people out of poverty. He left Microsoft to form Literacy Bridge.


In a place like Ghana, Schmidt thinks having spoken information at hand will help people avoid lengthy trips to visit clinics or other offices. He also designed a function for users to record their own messages, and a way for such content to be distributed within local networks through the device-to-device copying capability.

Next he hopes to use the Talking Books to reach women in Afghanistan (90% of whom are illiterate), but ideally the device could be used anywhere in the world.

Here's a detailed Q&A with Schmidt, and a profile of Literacy Bridge.

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February 10, 2009 3:39 PM

Global Washington debates how to redefine development

Posted by Kristi Heim

Washington state is in the soft power business. Dozens of local organizations involved in global affairs have a stake in defining the U.S. role in the world, and they're calling for an overhaul of some basic principles.

They're hoping to influence policy in the other Washington to focus on more equitable, efficient and sustainable development as the Obama Administration sets its budget and priorities.

One area that needs changing most is foreign aid, participants at a Global Washington forum on Monday agreed.


The U.S. foreign aid program needs a thorough overhaul to be more effective, many NGOs say.

The current Foreign Assistance Act, all of 417 pages, contains programs to attack the Soviet threat and address disasters in Nicaragua and Pakistan that ended in the 1970s, said Jenni Rothenberg, field director of the U.S. Global Leadership Campaign. With 140 priorities and 400 directives, it's complex and cluttered without any clear road map.

The campaign, whose leadership includes local charities such as PATH, Mercy Corps and World Vision, along with Boeing and Microsoft, is advocating for a strong international affairs budget. The administration's current international affairs budget proposal for fiscal 2009 is $39.8 billion, about 1.3 percent of the total budget request, according to the campaign.

As the U.S. has been involved in two wars, the military role in development has grown significantly, said U.S. Rep. Adam Smith (D-Tacoma).

The Defense Department "moved into what was traditionally the State Department's lane," Smith said. Now it's in over its head in some places and needs to work cooperatively with more civilian experts in a broader mission. But as for getting the military out of the business of development entirely, "it's not going to happen and it's not desirable," Smith said.

Foreign investment and trade will play a key role, but the U.S. needs a new approach to that as well, he said.

"We have learned an enormous amount about how to not make it work," Smith said. "Foreign investment comes in, keeps separate from local populations, sucks money out, pays shareholders somewhere else, pays no taxes and flees."


As the U.S. military has expanded its role to include more international development, it has stretched beyond its capability and needs more civilian involvement, local leaders say.

Bill Clapp, a Seattle businessman and philanthropist who launched the Global Washington network, suggested that the mission of the U.S. trade representative should be redefined.

Rather than simply negotiating the best deal for U.S. companies, "there has to be a change in priorities, or an additional priority on the trade arm, that says economic development is also one of the outcomes we are looking for," Clapp said.

Speakers debated the role of corporate involvement in economic development.

Foreign aid, originally used to bring foreign countries in line with Washington and promote U.S. economic interests, has fostered a sense of mistrust of U.S. programs, some said.

Margaret Willson, international director of Bahia Street, a Seattle non-profit that aids impoverished girls in Brazil, said her organization refused money from the U.S. Agency for International Development. "All the construction materials had to be brought from the States, supervisors had to be from the States. No money was going into the community. They did not own it, they did not supervise it." In addition, USAID "wanted dossiers on every person involved in the organization," she said.

Simeon Karanja Waidhima, a businessman from Kenya, pointed out that while many criticize U.S. foreign investment, almost none has actually gone to Africa. He also argued that foreign aid has done some good.

"I'm a product of foreign aid," he said. The aid that came in the 1960s and 70s was visible on the ground in the form of teachers and machinery, he said. But in recent years "what we received is not visible," he said. "It's packaged in democratization, but this has no effect on the local population."

Aaron Katz, senior lecturer at the University of Washington School of Public Health, said business interests can be a positive force for development if the focus is on creating economic opportunities for families.

"If there is an intersection between the interests of some corporations and expanding opportunities for those families, I say great," he said. "It's not the companies' interest or U.S. interest that should be paramount. It's the economic well being and opportunity to expand one's freedom that should be paramount."

Since foreign debt consumes up to 70 percent of the budgets of some countries, it has to be addressed to make resources available for health, education and other services, Katz said. An audience member from Ethiopia, however, was quick to chime in that governments often don't use those resources appropriately, and the savings from debt relief does not go to the poor.

Katz and Willson put forth what they called "A Modest Proposal" for U.S. foreign aid, based on the following principles: Do no harm, support public institutions and transparent decision making, invest locally, serve local agendas and priorities, and foster equitable relations.

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January 29, 2009 3:41 PM

As economy heads downhill, Gates faces steep climb

Posted by Kristi Heim

It's a sign of the times that whenever a Gates Foundation employee speaks in public, the question and answer session becomes an audition for would-be job candidates. You can save the world and still wear Prada, too.


Shaping the post-crisis world with an economy on edge.

Gates Foundation CFO Alexander Friedman spoke to the Trade Development Alliance in Seattle this week, offering such a clear, detailed and unvarnished analysis of the market it's amazing there was no run on banks.

The talk came after Bill Gates revealed his foundation lost 20 percent of its assets in 2008 but vowed to push ahead this year, and just before Gates headed to Davos to urge other non-profits, businesses and governments to do the same.

In Friedman's analysis, the roots of this crisis date back a long time. In the 1980s, the current account balance flipped as the U.S. began importing more than it exported. At the same time, Americans started saving less.

Interest rates came down from the ultra-high levels of the late 1970s and early 1980s; largely as a result, home ownership surged from the mid-1990s until 2007. Subprime loans grew from about 6 percent of all loans to 20 percent. And most mortgages, rather than being held by the banks that made them, increasingly were packaged together and sold as securities.


Davos: a spectacle of wealth, power and debate... but less caviar.

With money so cheap, investment banks borrowed more to increase their profits. Consumers went on a debt-fueled spending spree, borrowing against their homes and loading up their credit cards. When the bubble finally burst and defaults started rising, mortgage-backed securities went from 100 cents on the dollar to 15 cents on the dollar. About $2 trillion in securities were downgraded.

How much could it all cost to fix? To shore up the financial system, U.S. government agencies have committed almost $8.5 trillion, even before the $819 billion stimulus package. That's about half of the U.S. GDP, and the single largest expenditure in American history.

Looking at various financial crises over the last 30 years, the minimum losses from this one appear to be far more severe -- almost double the losses from Japan's banking crisis of the 1990s and triple those of the Asian financial crisis.

Global markets have fallen in tandem with the U.S. What's the net result? Poverty is likely to rise sharply, especially in the poorest countries.

The World Bank estimates 20 million more people will go into extreme poverty for every one percentage point drop in developing countries' growth rate. Overall growth rates of developing and emerging economies are projected to fall from 8 percent in 2007 to about 5 percent in 2009. Robust African growth rates of 5 or 6 percent are almost certain to drop, too. Add at least another 60 million to the 100 million people pushed into poverty by the food crisis

So back to Gates' mission. Poor countries, especially in Africa, depend on foreign aid, which typically makes up 10 to 25 percent of their GDP. Aid has disproportionately gone into education and health, so those programs will be hit hard if it falls.

The prospects for aid look fairly grim throughout much of the world, said Friedman.

United States: Could be reduced or stretched out over longer period.
Japan: Flat or falling, unless aid becomes part of an anti-deflationary package.
Italy: Threatened 50% cut in bilateral aid program..
France: Official intent is to flat-line aid, but internal discussions indicate cuts.
United Kingdom: Holding firm -- so far.
Canada: Flat to negative.
Gulf states: Falling oil prices and financial contagion likely to minimize their role.
Nordic countries and Netherlands: Maintaining aid targets for now, but ministers say that's politically unsustainable if big donor countries cut theirs.

Gates is holding a press conference Friday to call on global leaders to maintain their commitments.

Meanwhile, Friedman thinks consumer debt, commercial real estate and private equity could be the next trouble spots in the U.S. economy. Big commercial banks may not be prepared for much higher unemployment levels and the related defaults, he said. Still he's trying to stay optimistic.

"When you're in a crisis, you tend to think the sky's falling," he said. "When you look at a 5 or 10-year horizon you adopt a more positive frame."

"We're trying to address diseases that are essentially Biblical..." Friedman said. "They've been around thousands of years... so the time frame of two or four years is something we can't let distract us."

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January 26, 2009 2:20 PM

Microloans and a housing market for slum dwellers

Posted by Kristi Heim

As more borrowers lose their homes amid falling housing prices and a mortgage meltdown, a Kenyan institution that started with loans to 50 beggars in a Nairobi slum makes for an interesting counterpoint.

A microfinance organization called Jamii Bora ("good families" in the local language), is building a whole new town. It's offering sub-prime mortgages, but potential buyers must have successfully repaid three self-employment loans to qualify for one.

"What that basically means is that the mortgages are only provided to those who have proven that they are capable of repaying loans," said Robyn Shepherd, communications officer of RESULTS, a grassroots advocacy organization. "Rather than assuming that these people cannot pay because they are poor, or granting a mortgage that cannot be paid and allows the family to slide into debt, Jamii Bora allows clients to prove themselves."

Jamii Bora is in the spotlight today as supporters of microcredit announce a major milestone in surpassing a 10-year goal of reaching the very poorest people with tiny loans to help them do business.

More than 100 million of the poorest families in the world had received a loan of $50 or less by the end of 2007, compared with less than 8 million in 1997, according to the Microcredit Summit Campaign. The non-profit project recently received a $700,000 grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to measure its progress.

The more important question is what the millions of borrowers do with the money. In many cases they are poor women who get loans to buy a cow or purchase items to expand a small food shop, working their way up to a larger operation and eventually sending their children to school.

Since the concept of microcredit was first pioneered by Mohammad Yunus in Bangladesh, it has expanded all over the world and spawned a whole industry of microfinance institutions that exist to lend money to the poor.

Banks and other commercial firms smell money, realizing that the poorest people have a good track record of paying their loans off on time in spite of high interest rates. The amount of microloans has grown from an estimated $1 billion to $15 billion in 2007.

But people in the field are seeing the loans in a new way: not merely as a financial tool, rather also as a network to reach the poor with many kinds of basic support -- health care, clean energy and in this case, housing.

In Kenya, the new town has 2,000 houses and 3,000 business spaces. Each new two-bedroom house with its own kitchen, living room and bathroom has the same monthly mortgage as a one-room shack in the slums.


Previous schemes to provide housing for the poor have failed "largely because they did not involve the people in the planning and implementation of the program," says Ingrid Munro, a Swedish housing researcher who founded Jamii Bora in 1999.

Those projects were designed by experts, with land and expensive infrastructure that was already out of the reach of poor people by the time the plots were available.

So Munro, who has become a role model for many in loaning to the poor, reengineered the system from the ground up.

"They have to be able to afford the loan repayments on a monthly basis," she says in explaining the program on her Web site. "Otherwise they will be forced to sell to those who are better off ..."

Sounds like the all-too-familiar story of foreclosures.

Now the microcredit campaign has set a new goal of reaching 175 million of the poorest families by 2015. The goal includes making sure that 100 million of them move above living on $1 a day.

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January 15, 2009 5:06 PM

Microfinance: a mecca for 21st century idealism

Posted by Kristi Heim

What can get a crowd of young, hip Seattleites more excited than an REI clearance sale or an afternoon of sun in January? You guessed it. Lending money to poor people. It helps, of course, that beer is involved.

The star of the bimonthly Microfinance and Microbrews event tonight (Thursday) is Casey Wilson, 24-year-old co-founder and CEO of Wokai, a non-profit that aims to expand small loans for the rural poor in China. In Chinese, wo kai means "I start."


Casey Wilson's first job out of college was founding a non-profit.

I took some time out this afternoon to talk with her about the organization, which now has three chapters in the U.S., an office in Beijing and an army of highly motivated volunteers.

siqin wokai.jpg

I asked her why start in China, a country wealthy enough to finance the U.S. national debt.

"It's a good question," she said. When she went to China a few years ago to study Chinese, Wilson said she expected to find a poor country. "I got to Beijing and I'm eating sushi every night. I really thought is this the country that needs microfinance?"

Although in the next 30 years China's economy is expected surpass that of the U.S., "in rural areas it's really still a third world country," she said. The income gap is staggering, leaving about 200 million living on less than $1 a day.

Improving life for people in the countryside of China is a unique challenge. Microfinance has been tried by the United Nations and by the Chinese government, but so far it provides far less loan money than microfinance programs in India, and it hasn't reached people at the bottom, Wilson said.

For migrant workers in cities, the alternative is 16-hour days and conditions that young women can tolerate only for a few years before their bodies break down. This happened to a friend of Wilson's in Beijing, who got sick and had to pay a hospital bill equal to three months' work. Her employer covered the cost, but "that essentially made her an indentured servant," Wilson said.

Wilson and her fellow student-turned-business partner, Courtney McColgan, got their inspiration from, the online person-to-person lending platform. But in China, they ran into obstacles because they were not allowed to register as a foreign non-profit or take money out of the country to repay lenders.

Continue reading this post ...

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January 8, 2009 2:05 PM

Bank on Seattle? Some "participating" banks have never heard of it

Posted by Kristi Heim

The Bank on Seattle program to help "unbanked" people get access to financial services was launched with much hoopla in September. President Bill Clinton sent a videotaped message congratulating Mayor Greg Nickels and the city for helping more people realize the American dream.

But in Seattle four months later, local residents George King and Cheryl Ross had trouble finding bank tellers who had even heard about the program.

"I tried all of the Wells Fargo banks," said Ross, a customer service representative for a transportation company. "They just put me on hold forever and no one knew what was going on."

When she tried Bank of America, "they didn't know what I was talking about," Ross said.

George King, who hoped to reestablish a bank account through the program, also said that tellers at several banks he visited after reading press coverage of the program knew nothing about it.

"I don't think the Bank on Seattle offer works for people like me who have a score against us on Chex background," he said, referring to the Chex System database, a kind of banking blacklist.

Ross finally hit pay dirt at Viking Bank, where bankers were familiar with the program and signed her up.

Ross said she knows people who have not been able to do regular banking for years because they have small but unpaid balances. "If people still owe money through the Chex system, (Bank on Seattle) doesn't solve that problem," she said. "That's the real reason people are using other options" such as payday loans.

Jerry DeGriek, public health manager and policy advisor for the City of Seattle, said the outreach efforts to banks are just now getting underway.

With 400 bank branches in Seattle-King County participating, "it's challenging to make sure personnel are all up to speed on the program," he said. But ultimately, "that's critically important for the program's success," he added.

DeGriek said anyone with questions is welcome to call him directly. His number is (206) 684-0684, and his email is

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