A driver’s perspective on Haiti

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I had the chance to chat with one of our drivers on our trip through Haiti this week: a 28-year old local named Holgan who was kind enough to share his perspective on his country. How had the attitudes of Haitians changed in the twelve months following the earthquake, I wondered?

Before I share his response, let me say that Holgan had it better than many Haitians. Having gone through secondary school (the equivalent of high school in the U.S.), he was relatively well-educated. And by working as a well-connected driver in Port-au-Prince, Holgan likely earned a pretty decent income. He even had a girlfriend from the Netherlands he was crazy about, and showed me a picture he kept of a used BMW he aspired to buy one day.

But when Holgan answered my question, he was quick to point out how hope for new beginnings after the earthquake had now soured into frustration at a lack of action. As Haitians haven’t seen their government deliver on moving the country forward, he said, the initial optimism had almost fully waned. I couldn’t blame him – touring Port-au-Prince for the umpteenth time yesterday, I was still amazed at the appalling conditions in which people here live and work. For example, upon seeing a produce market that was half-flooded in runoff and sewer water, with buyers and sellers nearly wading through the filthy river-like streets in order to conduct business, I asked Holgan if the market was always like this. No, he laughed, after the earthquake everything changed. Yet over a year later, daily life still often takes place in squalid conditions.

But just because Holgan was frustrated didn’t mean that he wasn’t bullish on the future. He was quick to smile, proud of his work, and had no problem pointing to some programs and organizations that were truly doing great things. He didn’t share anything negative unless he was asked to. The fact that Holgan still held on to the idea of a more prosperous future showed that at heart, he was truly a “glass is half full” kind of guy.

One of the things I love about being in Haiti is that Holgan’s attitude isn’t unique to him. We sat in on a devotional service this morning in which the preacher talked about the prophet Jeremie’s unwavering faith and optimism, despite the trials and setbacks that he and his people faced. The audience listened closely, nodding as if merely being reminded of an attitude they held deep within. When we toured the home of a poor, jobless woman who was raising ten children herself, all she had for us was a smile and a sweet-sounding “Salut!”. Even most of the expatriates living here are cheerful. The “new” couple I stayed with last night, who moved here about a month ago, beamed with pleasure at showing us the projects they were working on with locals. And the couple of “veterans” from a local mission I had dinner tonight continued to be excited about their work that lay ahead, eager for the next challenge.

The fact that I rarely hear anyone complain seems strange, especially since there’s so much to gripe about here. Maybe this attitude can teach those of us who have a great deal more a thing or two. There’s a lot going wrong in Haiti, but I’ve seen that no matter how difficult the circumstances, human beings have an uncanny ability to find joy in life. What other way could you survive in such a tough world?

Mountain traverse in Haiti

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I’m amazed at how Haiti continues to reveal its gorgeous geography when I explore new parts of the country. While Haiti has experienced tremendous environmental degradation, especially from deforestation, there remain some truly spectacular areas to see. Today we tromped around on a Honda “Big Red 4×4″: basically a souped-up golf cart that can go places full-size trucks can’t. As we traversed through some mountainous regions just south of Port-au-Prince (in the Fermate area), the scenery was unlike anything I’d typically seen in the media:

While the landscape was fascinating, equally striking was the difficulty required to access this part of Haiti. While only several miles outside of Port-au-Prince, the area we visited was a real challenge to get to. To give you an idea of how close to the city we were, here’s our location on the map:

Despite the proximity to the capital, the outskirts of Fermate might as well be in the middle of nowhere. As rough as many of the roads in Haiti are, they’re no comparison to the rocky inclines we had to crawl up in our little 4×4 to pass through here. It would truly be challenging (if not outright unsafe) to drive on these “roads” with a standard truck, as the passageways are extremely narrow and quite steep in some places. “Trails” is a more apt term than anything else. Not that this keeps people from living in the area; we passed by plenty of  villages where people made a living by practicing terraced farming on the hillsides.

Having experienced the real isolation these communities face, it was no surprise to learn how few organizations work in the area. In fact, at one of the clinics we visited, a worker told us that it wasn’t uncommon for patients to walk over 10 hours to reach the facility – all because vehicle access was out of the question. Below are a few snippets from the journey today – keep in mind that I couldn’t film the steeper sections, simply because I needed two hands to hold on!

Returning to Haiti

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I’m returning to Haiti this morning for the fifth visit in less than a year. Whenever people ask me about going there, they often ask things like, “Are things getting better? How close are they to rebuilding after the earthquake?”

These questions always throw me off guard. I never know quite what to say, because regardless of how much has or hasn’t changed, the environment is so different from what I’m used to that it’s very difficult for me to gauge much of anything. I would liken it to asking a new listener to jazz to explain the differences in style between two John Coltrane albums recorded within a couple years of each other. If you haven’t spent time studying an area, all you’ll pick up on is the obvious.

But as in jazz, the nuances matter just as much in a culture. How are people’s views of the future changing? What is their assessment of the present? How do they feel about foreigners? These types of questions can’t be answered by the casual observer, but hopefully some of my friends here can help me understand things a bit deeper.

Perhaps the fact that I’ll be in Haiti a bit longer this time will allow me to pick up more details this trip. I’ll certainly post anything I come across that’s worth sharing!

Education for Social Entrepreneurs

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Bloggers Sam Davidson and Ryan Stephens have been sounding off on how more schools needs to teach entrepreneurship. Couldn’t agree more. But as Steve Blank outlines on his own blog, there are different types of entrepreneurship: small business, scalable startup, large company, and social.

I believe that each area demands its own course of study. Since I’m pretty involved in the social sphere, it became quickly apparent to me that a mere understanding the core tenets of entrepreneurship isn’t enough to be effective in this space. According to Mr. Blank,

Social entrepreneurs are innovators who focus on creating products and services that solve social needs and problems. But unlike scalable startups their goal is to make the world a better place, not to take market share or to create to wealth for the founders. They may be nonprofit, for-profit, or hybrid.

Does traditional entrepreneurship teach one how to address “social needs and problems”? No. So while all entrepreneurs need to understand marketing, finance, and so on, social entrepreneurs really do have to go a step further. The “1 Million Shirts” campaign is a great example of good intentions gone bad because of a culturally ignorant marketer. Haiti Rewired sums it up nicely:

In mid-April, Jason Sadler announced to the Internet that he wanted to collect 1,000,000 used t-shirts to send to Africa. Sadler, who runs a web-based marketing company called IWearYourShirt.com, spread the word about the 1 Million Shirts campaign through Twitter and other social media. By early May, word reached the humanitarian aid worker blogosphere. They did not like what they heard…

Aid workers granted Sadler’s intentions were good and he had made some small-scale efforts to gather information on specific places shirts could be used. But development experts objected that the large-scale project to send Africa 1,000,000 free t-shirts was inefficient, misguided, and could potentially swamp local economies for recycled and locally-manufactured clothing. The short but intense firestorm they created ended the project to ship shirts to Africa.

Think that individuals are the only one susceptible poorly thought out aid work? The Even World Vision, one of the largest non-profits in the world, caught flack for the way it delivered unused Super Bowl t-shirts this year. Aid Watchers has a solid critique that’s worth reading:

1. It’s not needed. Seriously, neither the developing world as a whole nor the specific recipient countries named by World Vision suffer an undersupply of T-shirts.

2. It’s not cost-effective. The cost of collecting, sorting, shipping and distributing bulky, low-value items like a bunch of T-shirts does not justify the (very questionable) benefit. And don’t forget to include the opportunity cost, the lost chance to allocate those same, considerable resources to provide something better, like clean water or medicine. (A World Vision PR rep told the New York times in 2007: “Where these items go, the people don’t have electricity or running water.”

3. It can perpetuate local community’s dependence on free handouts and stifle home-grown economic initiatives, not to mention putting out of business local shirt sellers.

So my advice to educators who want to teach social entrepreneurship? Make sure your students spend an equal amount of time learning about history, political science, anthropology, international development, or a related field. At a minimum, a basic understanding of these subjects is necessary to make sure the efforts of an enterprising person will result in lasting good.

You don’t have to be an expert in any of these area to get things right, but having an appreciation and awareness of them will go a long way to make sure you bring in the right experts before putting your idea to “change the world” into action. Thankfully, if you missed out of any of these classes in school, MIT has a tremendous amount of course material available through its OpenCourseWare site. All for free.

Can you think of other subjects that social entrepreneurs need to be aware of?

How not to design a game around cause awareness

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Can games be used to create awareness of social issues? Developers are starting to try, but so far I’ve seen more misses than hits. Let’s look at a couple of examples of what not to do.

#1: Design a game that will put you to sleep

Obvious, right? Take a look at Free Rice. The game is a quiz format that tests you on a series of questions related to a subject of your choice (math, French, etc). For every question you answer correctly, Free Rice donates 10 grains of rice to the World Food Programme. The idea is that by playing the game, you’re not only helping provide food, but you’ve increased your awareness of global hunger.

Great. But Free Rice isn’t exactly fun. It’s more akin to preparing for the GRE than an enjoyable diversion. Granted, quiz format games tend to be a bit less addictive, but even within the genre, Free Rice is pretty bland (sorry, I couldn’t resist the pun).

So the “game” misses out on the full opportunity raise awareness about hunger, since the poor playing experiene will limit player engagement.

#2: Be completely disrespectful of the cause you’re focused on

Contrast Free Rice with Smuggle Truck, a driving game in which the objective is to transport as many illegal immigrants across the border as possible. The game has some good things going for it, especially related to game play; just take a look at the trailer below:

But the problem with Smuggle Truck is that it comes across as completely disrespectful of the people who undergo extreme hardship to emigrate into another country. Pretty tasteless in my opinion. You might be able to make the argument that because of Smuggle Truck’s shock value, it will create more awareness for an issue than a conservative game like Free Rice. But since the method used to create the shock undermines any legitimate education that might have taken place, Smuggle Truck misses the mark just as much as Free Rice does.

These are examples at the ends of the spectrum, and fortunately there are some game designers who are doings a better job of tying games into causes, like Jane McGonigal. But the problem with these two examples is not that they’ve fallen short of their own potential, but that their poor execution undermines the entire idea of games associated with causes in the first place.

Do you know of a good example of a game designed around causes? Let me know!

How the absence of pity changes perspectives

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One of my colleagues shared this video with our team today. I was so taken with it’s fresh perspective I had to post it here:

The message here is clear: children in Africa (or any third world country, for that matter) shouldn’t be seen as objects of pity; they’re kids not unlike the ones you might see in your own community. How would this change your attitude about giving if you saw everyone this way?

If want to learn more about the organization behind the video, head over to Mama Hope’s website.

Keeping your fingernails dirty

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Two separate people I met with yesterday each brought up the challenge in scaling a cause-related organization. It seems that there are two dynamics necessary for an organization to thrive that pull at each other in opposite directions.

On one hand, there’s the need to stay in touch with the work in the field: visiting sites on the ground (wherever they happen to be in the world), having conversations with the doers and the field teams, and interacting directly with the people being served (the clients). Let’s call this “keeping your fingernails dirty”.

On the other end, there is the need for attention given to high-level decision making, program replicability, and organizational growth. This is time-consuming work that demands plenty of reflection and is difficult to rush. Let’s refer to this as the “ivory tower” work.

The dirty fingernails approach is what matters most at the nascent stages of an organization’s growth. All of the academic research and second-hand accounts of what takes place in the “real world” aren’t nearly as meaningful as spending time on the ground.  In my experience, that’s the only way to understand the context of the work you plan engage in.

I remember being in Tanzania and hearing of how ineffectual the police forces could be. But it was only after witnessing a terrible traffic accident there that I truly understood what this meant. Dozens of school kids had been injured when their bus flipped on its side. The police arrived several minutes later, but instead of helping the children to safety, they stood by and watched as the locals loaded kids into random vehicles that passed by. Those nearby, including myself, yelled at the police for being completely helpless, but it had little effect. A terrible scene, but certainly an effective way of understanding the dynamics of the country. This level of understanding is key; it forms the foundation necessary to become truly effective.

The only problem with keeping your fingernails dirty is that it doesn’t scale well. There are only so many places one can dig his hands into. Let’s say you’re someone like Greg Mortenson, whom I mentioned in one of my posts last week. You’ve targeted an area of the world to support and have built an effective model for working there. Now you want to expand to a new region in order to take advantage of the model you’ve built. But how would how would devote yourself to learning about another culture or country without compromising your existing relationships? How would you remain in touch with the local communities you’ve established ties with? In other words – how would you keep your fingernails dirty?

So the risk is that in growth, one might weaken her connections with a place that remains a core part of her organization’s focus. The result could be a lack of efficiency, in the least. At worst, a gross misunderstanding of a context or culture might result, and I doubt this would ever conclude well. You don’t have to look very hard to find examples of development work gone bad due to a lack of cultural perspective.

Is there a solution for balancing the two, a magic bullet? I haven’t found one, and there’s likely a different answer for each organization. But whatever stage your organization is in, make sure that you, and the people on your team, make of point of keeping your fingernails dirty.

#5/5 – Five Organizations Worth Watching: Compatible Technology International

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I love high-tech stuff. I can always find an excuse to buy the latest whatever. I even feel helpless if I leave the house without my iPhone in hand. Many of us feel the same way, and for a good reason – new technologies tend to make our lives more productive. But are high-tech tools the best solution for less developed regions?

Compatible Technologies International doesn’t think so. I had the chance to witness a presentation of theirs a few weeks ago, in which they demonstrated some very “low-tech” solutions for helping the impoverished. Think of CTI this way: if you dropped MacGyver off in the middle of Africa for a month, he’d come up with just the sort of contraptions that CTI develops (but perhaps without the chewing gum and paperclip):

CTIlogosmallCompatible Technology International (CTI) is a nonprofit organization that alleviates hunger and poverty in the developing world by designing and distributing simple, life-changing food and water technologies. …

CTI’s promotes food security by building and deploying devices that address the post harvest side of the food chain. Many organizations focus their efforts on seeds, fertilizers, and irrigation for cultivating crops, but few consider farmers’ post harvest needs. CTI’s devices help farmers process, store, and sell their crops—improving nutrition and providing economic opportunities for the rural poor.

Browse through the devices they’ve developed, and you’ll find things like hand-powered grinders, potato slicers, shredders, and grain silos, all conceived to address real issues that rural, impoverished people face in obtaining food security. The inventions aren’t so much labor saving devices as they are ways of allowing people to harvest, store, and process food in the first place. Here’s an example of a breadfruit shredder, designed to turn this common Haitian fruit into a shelf-stable flour:

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These machines don’t any employ any fancy technologies, but they’re made to be durable, usable, and low-maintenance – perfect for users who don’t have access to reliable electricity or formally trained engineers. A phone call to MacGyver isn’t even necessary; they’re simple enough to be maintained and repaired without special training or parts. CTI even goes open-source by providing free instructions on how to make many of these devices yourself, using easily-obtainable materials and tools.

So do low-tech devices like these matter? Are they truly effective way of achieving results, or are they just a way of romanticizing simpler times? My own bais is that this approach is one of the most appropriate ways to drive change. There is certainly an appropriate place for technologically-advanced solutions (see post #2 in this series), but I’ve also heard too many stories of overly sophisticated solutions used in the wrong context, with a poor result.

I’ll leave it to you to answer those questions for yourself. In arriving at your own conclusion, take a look at CTI’s project pages to see how these technologies are applied in the real world.

#4/5 – Five Organizations Worth Watching: TwitChange

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Do you use Twitter? There are close to 200 million people who do. It’s no Facebook, but the size and utility of the platform is pretty powerful. So how does this relate to causes?

Let’s talk about TwitChange. TwitChange is just as much of a concept as it is an organization; it uses Twitter to connect people’s desires to interact with celebrities as a means of supporting causes. The idea is this: most Twitter users want as many people to “see” them on Twitter. One of the best ways to accomplish this is to have an influential, widely-followed user (like a celebrity) mention, follow, or “retweet” one’s tweets.

Playing on this idea, TwitChange partners with dozens of celebrities who are willing to mention, follow, or retweet whatever Twitter user is willing to pay the most for the priviledge. For example, if I wanted @justinbieber (who has 7MM+ followers) to mention me on Twitter (and thus guaranteeing that legions of preteens would see my Twitter name), I would head to eBay and attempt to win Mr. Bieber’s TwitChange auction.  The proceeds of each celebrity’s winning bid are then sent to the cause featured in the current promotion.

Does the idea of people paying to have celebrities interact with them on Twitter sound a bit silly? Yes. But the first TwitChange auction raised over $500,000 for a special needs children’s center in Haiti. And the most recent promotion brought in $135,000 to provide financial and morale support to members of the U.S. military. Not bad!

TwitChange mastermind Shaun King is a genius for coming up with such an innovate way to raise money for causes. I wish there were more thinkers and doers like him. Like the idea of TwitChange? The least you can do is follow @TwitChange and @ShaunKing on Twitter. And if you want a boost in your Twitter influence (and have a thing for celebrities), keep an eye on TwitChange for the next promotion and see if you can end up a winning bidder!

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#3/5 – Five Organizations Worth Watching: Central Asia Institute

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I’ve been reading Three Cups of Tea over the past couple weeks, so I couldn’t help but feature the Central Asia Institute in today’s post. In case you haven’t read the book, it’s about the story of Greg Mortenson, an American mountaineer who stumbled into a remote Pakistan village after an attempt at climbing K2, one of the world’s most dangerous high-altitude peaks. The villagers generously offered much of their scare resources to nurse Mortenson back to health. During his recovery, he noticed that local children lacked a real school. Instead, they would sit on the ground, in the open, exposed to the region’s harsh weather without so much as a roof or a chalkboard. Moved by such a stark scene, Mortenson promised the village that he would return to build a school for their children, in return for their hospitality .

Such began the course of Mortenson’s new life as a developer of children’s education (especially girls) in Pakistan and Afghanistan. In 1996, with the assistance of wealthy Swiss physicist Dr. Jean Hoerni, Mortenson established the Central Asia Institute, or CAI. As the organization’s director, Mortenson would travel extensively to Pakistan and Afghanistan, developing relationships with locals and immersing himself in the culture. In the roughly fifteen years since CAI was founded, Mortenson has built over 145 schools in the region, an impressive statistic by any measure.

But the numbers are not nearly as noteworthy as is Mortenson’s approach. As you’ll read in Three Cups of Tea, for an American to establish a credible reputation in a region where U.S. citizens are seen as “infidels” is truly an amazing feat. That Mortenson earned the trust of locals to such an extent that they were willing to risk their own well-being in his support is even more astounding. But Mortenson didn’t accomplish this by showing up fistfuls of cash, having a government back his mission, or brandishing an affiliation with an international aid institution.

Instead, he dove headlong into the regional culture. Over time, Mortenson would learn the prayer rituals, learn to enjoy the local tea (no matter how putrid it might taste), live and sleep in the same conditions as the locals he was serving, and put himself at the same risks as any Pakistani would face. The CAI’s website explains even better:

The tribal communities of northern Pakistan taught Mortenson a critical lesson in our first five years of existence: sustainable and successful development can only occur when projects are entirely initiated, implemented and managed by local communities. It is also important to listen and learn from the local communities served, rather than impose external evaluations or judgment of what is best from an outsider’s perspective. The philosophy to empower the local people through their own initiative is at the heart of all CAI programs.

Mortenson’s initial ignorance of local culture would trouble him early on – he was even kidnapped for over a week after showing up in a remote region alone, without a local to vouch for him. And later, a Pakistani thug would declare a fatwā on Mortenson in an attempt to cash in on Mortenson’s presence and keep outsiders at bay.

Mortenson had started off by building what he wanted to see accomplished, but later saw that he’d be more effective, and ultimately do more good, if he allowed himself to be led by the people he wished to serve. It may sound novel for an American to admit that he doesn’t really know what’s best, as our culture is so used to being “right”. But as Mortenson and others have shown (like Dr. Paul Farmer and Partners in Health), it’s the locals who should teach us, not the other way around.

Do you have an organization in mind that is truly exemplary? Send me a note or a tweet – I’d love to learn more about it.

#2/5 – Five Organizations Worth Watching: Innovative Water Technologies

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Today’s post is about an organization that shows us what it means to take pride in one’s work.

If you’ve ever taken a look at the various technologies available for water treatment, you’ll find myriad solutions. Gravity fed gravel filters, solar-powered reverse osmosis tents, hand pumps, salt ionization, chemical treatment, and good old-fashioned wells round out a few options. Some are tried-and-true, others are a bit sketchy. I’m not an expert in understanding each of these solutions, but I can usually tell when something is designed with a real purpose in mind and built to last. That brings us to Innovative Water Technologies, a Colorado-based company that developed the Sunspring water filtration system.

Sunspring SS Logo

The Sunspring was specifically designed to be a permanent installation in areas that require high-volumes of clean water. It’s been built to withstand constant exposure to the elements: hurricanes, extreme temperatures, dust, humidity, and even physical abuse. Upon first glance, the Sunspring looks like it was delivered from outer space. It’s an imposing, 8-foot tall, polished monolith of aluminum tread plate, capped by solar panel. The design might look more at home in a museum of modern art than it would in a dusty third-world country, but no element of the Sunspring was engineered without a purpose in mind.

If you have any doubts, just talk to company founder and Sunspring designer, Jack Barker.

I had the chance to meet with Jack during a trip to Haiti last year. I knew he was legit when he told me about his arrival in Port-au-Prince days after the earthquake last year. He had shown up intending to identify sites that could benefit from a Sunspring installation. But amidst all the chaos and uncertainty, the only place he could find to rest at the end of each day was on a street curb. It wasn’t until two or three days later until he could find real shelter. In listening to the story, though, you’d have thought Jack was talking about his last stay at the Holiday Inn, not of sleeping on 6″ step of concrete.

Jack showing us the inner workings of the Sunspring

Jack showed us a Sunspring he had installed at a local hospital, and he gave us the kind of detailed overview that only a passionate engineer/inventor is capable of delivering. “See this housing?” he said, pointing to the metallic cocoon that protected the inner workings of the system, “That’s 3/16″ aluminum. Indestructible. We’ve had a dump truck back into one of these, and it remained fully operational for days until we could return and straighten the thing out.” He proceeded to demonstrate feature after feature: the solar-powered USB hub the U.S. military had asked him to install, the 10-year service life of “least durable” component, the water pump he modified to run dry and not burn out, and so on. All of this was peppered with mini-lectures on treatment technologies, manufacturing considerations, field service strategies, to name a few. Hours later, I felt like I’d just completed a college course on the subject.

Jack, a water treatment engineer by trade, and his wife, Carmen, had poured their lives into the design of the Sunspring, and it showed. Not only did he take tremendous pride in his creation, but he was quick to point out shortcomings and improvements he wanted to make. He devotion to excellence in design had brought him introductions to governments and NGOs around the world. He was even sought out by the Clinton Foundation in its own efforts to respond to the Haiti earthquake.

The Sunspring isn’t intended to be the right water treatment solution for every need. It costs over $25,000 and requires periodic maintenance by a trained technician. But in the right setting – a hospital, a community center, an NGO compound – it does its job of pumping out up to 5,000 gallons of safe water each day very well. Innovative Water Technologies picked an area of the market to focus on and devoted themselves to building the very best solution for that situation. No compromises. No half-baked ideas. Just a clear purpose, pure engineering creativity, and plenty of hard work. Well done.

#1/5 – Five Organizations Worth Watching: DC Central Kitchen

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This week we’re going to look at five cause-oriented organizations that are worth paying attention to: one each weekday. Notice I didn’t say “non-profits”; whether an organization makes money or not is beside the point here. In each post, I won’t talk about each and every program the organization runs; instead, I’ll focus on the one or two things worth emulating. Here we go…

WGlYnHFirst up is DC Central Kitchen (DCCK), a Washington, D.C-based non-profit that’s a combination soup kitchen/job training program/catering service/nutrition advisor. In their own words,

Our mission is to use food as a tool to strengthen bodies, empower minds, and build communities. Our programs provide a comprehensive continuum of care to the people we serve. First, we provide breakfast, outreach, and counseling services to chronically homeless people living on the streets.

Next we recycle 3,000 pounds of food each day, converting it into 4,500 meals we distribute to 100 shelters, transitional homes, and rehabilitation clinics throughout the DC area. These partner agencies then refer clients to our Culinary Job Training program, where they receive the tools to start new careers.

We complete the empowerment process by employing our graduates in our full-service catering company or by placing them in full-time jobs at restaurants and hotels throughout the region. Today, we are expanding our operations, partnering with local farmers to procure fresh produce and begin new revenue-generating social enterprises.

The core of DCCK’s work is the food recycling and preparation program. But the fact that they collect and redistribute unneeded food is not unique. Instead, what stands out about DCCK is their attitude of abundance. Watch the video at the end of this post, and you’ll see the kitchen overflowing with food, smiles on the faces of the staff, and great pride in the voices of those who’ve gone through their program. It would be great if every business and non-profit adopted this outlook, but finding an organizational culture that’s adopted this mentality is a rare thing!

Where has this attitude taken them? Its food program doesn’t just feed the hungry, it’s also used as a platform for providing clients with culinary training and job searching. These newly trained kitchen staff were then use to create and operate a full-service catering company that focuses on “local, seasonable, and sustainable foods”. Finally, DCCK went a step further by extending its mission to college campuses in 26 communities. Pretty impressive for an organization that’s just a few years old and is staffed by only 124 people.

Who do you think achieves more, an organizations that believes there’s a dearth of resources available, or one that looks at the world as full of opportunity and possibility? If DCCK is any indicator, the answer should be obvious.

Check back tomorrow and we’ll take a look at organization #2 in the series.

Are you missing out by staying home?

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A co-worker recently sent me an article from CNN.com titled “Why more Americans don’t travel abroad.” The piece points out that out of the 300+ million citizens in the U.S., only 30% possess a passport. And out of all Americans’ travel to international destinations, about 50% of those trips were only to Canada or Mexico. If you’ve had the chance to visit another country, you’ll know that much of the country is missing out on some incredible experiences.

Look, there are lots of legitimate reasons for an American not being able to visit a foreign country. It’s expensive. We don’t get much vacation time here in the U.S. And America certainly has some incredible places to offer within its own borders, so we have less of a reason to seek out a foreign locale.

But for those of us to do have the means and can take a week or two off work each year, not making the effort to visit a place entirely different from our own is missing on a huge opportunity. Yes, you can watch the Learning Channel, read some books, and troll the Web, and you’ll probably learn quite a bit. But those are all poor substitutes for planting your feet somewhere new and talking to people whose worldview and environment is just as unique as the exotic local dish you might have had for lunch.

I’ve been extremely fortunate in having both a family and an employer who’ve enabled me to take multiple trips to over a dozen countries around the world. But even in addition to that, my wife and I have made a point of traveling abroad with our own funds. In any scenario, the trips are always worthwhile. Here’s why:

  • Perspective Learning how others perceive Americans is excellent material for developing your own world view
  • Friendship Locals can be some of the friendliest and generous people you’ll meet
  • Humility Observing and experiencing the challenges of the world’s poor is a humbling experience
  • Self Examination Participating in a different way of life forces you to examine your own way of living
  • Adventure There’s always something new and exciting to take in
  • Practical Demonstrating that you’ve spent time abroad always looks good to a potential employer

If you’ve had the chance to visit another country, what are your own top reasons for taking the trip? What have been some of your favorite experiences abroad?

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The most boring development solution in the world

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Salt. I’m not sure I can come up with a more mundane substance. But did you know that a development solution with one of the highest returns on investment involves this lowly compound? According Harold Alderman of the World Bank,

“…the payback for investments in iodizing salt to return between $12 and $30 for every dollar invested.”

Why? Most of us get our daily dose of iodine through the salt we consume. Without sufficient iodine, though, a number of iodine deficiency disorders (IDDs) can result, such as goiters and reduced IQ in newborns. Sadly, much of the world’s salt isn’t iodized, especially in developing nations. This leaves many of the poor suffering due to a lack of sufficient iodine. Since iodizing salt is pretty cheap, especially when compared to some of the more grandiose aid solutions out there, it produces a great deal of bang for the back.

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If you want to find out more about about how the salt of the earth (literally) can be used to promote global health, investigate any of the sources below. Or just Google “salt iodization and IDD” and eat your heart out:

  • Salt Institute (yes, they actually exist) – Iodizing salt best investment to avoid a “poor start to life”
  • UNICEF – Micronutrients – Iodine, Iron and Vitamin A
  • Micronutrient Initiative – Salt Iodization in Ethiopia

Disorientation through familiarity

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There is often a strange sense of familiarity I experience when visiting third world countries. This comes not from seeing an American Airlines billboard or drinking a Coke, but mostly from seeing the second-hand, often out-of-style American garments that have found their way onto the backs of much of the local population.

At first, seeing recognizable brands, sports teams, and slogans displayed upon hundreds of t-shirts seems a welcome sign. Surely (a new visitor might think to himself) the elderly man with a huge toothless grin who’s wearing an Atlanta Braves shirt is a fan of the team, and perhaps knows a few stats about the players. But no, he’s not familiar of these “Braves”, couldn’t find Georgia on a map, and surely wouldn’t believe you if you told him how much MLB players were paid. There is a disorientation that occurs when seeing such a passionately worn symbol (in America, at least) being displayed on the clothing of someone who is completely unfamiliar with its meaning.

The effect is only further pronounced when the wearer doesn’t understand English. I remember getting a huge laugh when seeing a tough-looking teenager in Haiti sporting a t-shirt that read “Hot Mama”.

But beyond the initial humor, the differences in clothing choices can offer some interesting insights into values and environment of the local culture. A $75 designer t-shirt might be considered undesirable due to its delicacy and flimsy construction. But a older shirt covered with faded NASCAR logos that would have cost $2 from Goodwill might be prized for its durability.

By looking a bit closer, and perhaps by asking a few questions, these observations can provide some rich information. Someone who is skilled at interpreting these differences might call themselves an anthropologist, but the rest of us will have to settle for something more mundane. But regardless of our background or training, the practice of looking at ways familiar objects are used differently in other environments is a great way of giving us insight into the values, attitudes, and circumstances of another culture.

Why technology matters in Egypt, but why hearts matter more

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You’ve probably already heard, but Twitter and Google have teamed up over the past few days to support the Egyptian people and thwart President Mubarak and his government’s attempts to crack down on the protests. These two tech giants worked together to build a “speak to tweet” service that allows users to call in Tweets from their mobile phones. Perfect for when an oppressive ruler tries to stop an uprising by shutting off internet access across the country. Google describes the service as such:

Like many people we’ve been glued to the news unfolding in Egypt and thinking of what we could do to help people on the ground. Over the weekend we came up with the idea of a speak-to-tweet service—the ability for anyone to tweet using just a voice connection.

We worked with a small team of engineers from Twitter, Google and SayNow, a company we acquired last week, to make this idea a reality. It’s already live and anyone can tweet by simply leaving a voicemail on one of these international phone numbers (+16504194196 or +390662207294 or +97316199855) and the service will instantly tweet the message using the hashtag #egypt. No Internet connection is required. People can listen to the messages by dialing the same phone numbers or going to twitter.com/speak2tweet.

We hope that this will go some way to helping people in Egypt stay connected at this very difficult time. Our thoughts are with everyone there.

The fact that two US-based companies would build such this tool to share with the people of Egypt is marvelous. While this technological feat is impressive and important, what’s really astounding is the willingness of individuals to stand up for what they believe is right, especially in the face of violence.

It’s important to keep in mind that the protests in Egypt would have happened regardless of whether or not Google and Twitter’s service was available. The uprising began several days ago, and no one was waiting around for a couple of tech behemoths to help protesters talk to each other.

Why does this matter?

In our tech-saturated culture, it’s easy to turn first to technology to solve the world’s problems, whether they be eliminating hunger in Bangladesh or helping a soccer mom cut down on greenhouse gas emissions as she totes her kids around town. Trust me, as someone who’s close to a borderline tech nerd, I’m guilt of this myself. But technology will never be a stand-alone solution; instead, it can only serve to augment the will and actions of individuals themselves.

Thankfully the Egyptian people now have a powerful tool at their disposal to help their voices be heard. But let’s not forget that real power starts with the indefatigable inhuman will to turn desires into action, not from gadgets.