Gates Gets Gross

Gates Gets Gross

gatesinafricaBill Gates is a very nice man captured in the last century, and his remarkable generosity grossly misses the mark.

The Melinda & Bill Gates Foundation just released Bill Gates’ “annual letter.” The Foundation continues to seek solutions to two of Africa’s crises, malaria and poverty.

The two, of course, are interconnected. Throughout the world the level of malaria infection is inversely proportional to personal income. I don’t think, though, that this fact drove the Gates Foundation’s mission development.

Gates and most of the world charities tackle problems as crises to the exclusion of remedying the fundamentals.

Don’t get me wrong. It isn’t as if these generous folks make crises out of situations in order to be good philanthropists. Malaria on an individual level is a distinct crisis. Hunger caused by extreme poverty has an immediate simple remedy when dealt with as a crisis: dinner.

But the problem with Gates and most of the world’s charities is that despite how rich they may be, they aren’t rich enough to tackle the fundamentals, and so they default to actions that deal with incidental crises.

Malaria is the perfect example.

Malaria was eradicated from most of the developing world without drugs or bednets. My own Chicago’s Fullerton marsh was a cesspool of malaria right until the great fire of the 1860s.

After the fire and a growing awareness that government had to step up, malaria was systematically eradicated from Chicago by an exponential increase in public expenditures that started with increased urban hygiene (better sewers and drainage) and radical use of crude oil to suffocate marshes.

Even at that time suffocating marshes was an ecological controversy, but the power of the public domain was much greater then than now. The majority ruled.

By the early 20th century, there was no malaria in Chicago. An early NIH study of the eradication found a number of additional socially progressive policies kept malaria from returning to large urban areas like Chicago, such as banning child labor.

By the 1930s malaria in the U.S. was confined to 13 poor, southeastern states that did not have the tax base to successfully eradicate the disease. So government came to the rescue.

The 1947 National Malaria Eradication campaign moved money from the rich industrialized northeast to eradicate malaria in the south, and was successful in doing so in less than a decade.

I suspect similar stories exist throughout the developed world. And the solutions employed then would work today in Kenya or Indonesia. But destruction of the environment (oiling marshes and later, using DDT) is no longer considered a tit-for-tat that might balance in the long run, and modernizing Nairobi’s sewage system is too expensive for even the Gates Foundation.

That example is a bit oversimplified, since in fact the Gates Foundation probably does have both the capital and wherewithal to modernize (at least once) the Nairobi sewage system. What I really mean, of course, is to effect a modernization and cleanliness that like in late 19th century Chicago was achieved by modernization of a public service.

Today Nairobi is exponentially bigger than Chicago was in 1860, and Nairobi is affected physiologically by what happens in Mombasa, Addis, Kampala and Dar, so fixing Nairobi without simultaneously fixing those other great metropolises would be problematic with regards to eradicating malaria.

BUT (and this is a very big but) so is the world’s wealth exponentially bigger today than in 1860, and that’s the point.

Were the public interest as dominant today as it was in Chicago in 1860, Nairobi, Mombasa, Addis, Kampala and Dar would be free of malaria, because the rich world would have fixed their sewer systems… (and of course, a lot more).

What has changed in the last 150 years is a disproportional amount of wealth has become concentrated among a few afraid it will be taken from them. There are not enough people in that pool of the paranoid very wealthy for any truly democratic or benevolent change to take place.

That isn’t to say that a majority of rich people, among which I’m sure Bill Gates is one, are not generous and intelligent enough to ante up. In this year’s letter, Gates castigates Americans for their paltry $30 annually that the U.S. provides in world aid.

But the power brokers within that pool are not the Gates of the world. They’re the Koch’s of the world. And the Koch’s rule. So long as there are Koch’s there will not be more than $30 annually per American spent on world aid.

So what’s left?

Gates. Deal with a problem as a crisis and not a fundamental, and that’s precisely what’s happened with malaria.

In October the huge multinational pharmaceutical Glaxonsmithkline (GSK) announced it would market the world’s first malaria vaccine.

The vaccine is about 60% efficacious. Not bad but incapable of eradicating malaria. It took about 30 years and billions of dollars to develop this. The beneficiaries are not exclusively people saved from malaria. It will probably in equal measure make the rich, richer.

(Note this cynical observation: If there were a vaccine that could eradicate malaria, that could be a big downer for the investors who paid to develop the vaccine.)

When the world won’t step up, when your own government or township won’t tax enough to fix fundamental problems, we have no choice: Gates and GSK become our only hope and it’s a very momentary, transitory solution that’s provided: a stop-gap.

And the powerful in the pool of the wealthy then distort those efforts to suggest they are successful in terms that claim governments can’t be.

And the cycle of mythology is perpetuated. Gates recognizes this. His annual letter is built on a series of “myths.”

I prefer a Warren Buffet to a Bill Gates. Frankly, I don’t prefer either of them in theory. There should not be super rich.

But Buffet often focuses on the fundamentals. Gates is an engineer. Or as a brilliant Dutch satirist pointed out this week, Gates treats aid like he treats Microsoft: self-perpetuating and growing and never completely tackling the problem holistically.

See Ikenna’s video below:

Will The Real Maasai Stand Up?

Will The Real Maasai Stand Up?

which real maasaiIt’s rare that I admire either a charity or NGO working in Africa, so when I do I let people know. If you’re considering an end-of-the-year donation, consider

The African People & Wildlife Fund at less than ten years old at its latest iteration promotes practical solutions to wildlife/people problems in Africa striking a balance for people that is often ignored by more purist wildlife NGOs.

And in the process of so doing has achieved a success that NGOs significantly older and far better funded have failed to do: protecting in an environmentally friendly way at very low cost Maasai stock from predators.

APW’s “Living Wall” is so simple it’s comic, when I think of all the money and science and startups that have come down the line for a generation trying to protect Maasai stock from lions to stop Maasai from killing them.

The Commiphora is a wild bush/tree that grows thick. By creating enclosures fenced with growing Commiphora a remarkable, sustainable barrier is created. And if grown through chain-link fencing (a huge additional cost, of course) the barrier achieves 100% success in keeping out cats.

Although Maasai are rarely nomadic anymore, they still graze their stock often far and wide from their homestead, bringing them home to the coral at night. Traditional thorntree enclosures were fine in the old days, when the human/wildlife conflict was less severe and when pressure particularly on lions was much, much less.

In the last several years scientists have recognized that the decline in the lion population may be more serious than any other large African animal. A number of factors have contributed to this, but the single most important one is likely human/wildlife conflict.

As Maasai grow sedentary and deed their land, they cease being nomads and become ranchers. Traditional boma enclosures are no longer appropriate, for animals or people. And chain link fences that are as high as a Commiphora grows are prohibitively expensive.

APW now documents more than 200 Living Walls working well throughout the Maasai Steppe of Tanzania, protecting more than 50,000 farmed animals.

I think one of the reasons APW was successful when so many other NGOs failed is quite simple: they put the Maasai first, not the lions. Rather than focusing on whether a strobe light or repetitive sound or electric fence was sufficient to deter lions, they started out with what was easy and convenient for the Maasai to use.

And basically they simply enhanced what the Maasai always did: instead of harvested thorn trees, which are too slow growing as live trees and near impossible to cultivate easily, they found a good, easy substitute. In other words, they asked the question, what could a sedentary Maasai use as a thorn tree?

Whereas the traditional animal focused NGO would ask, “What will keep lions away that won’t hurt them?”

Both are important questions, but one leads to a more rapid, practical and complete solution. One puts the Maasai first, the other puts the animal first.

Many NGOs have tried to integrate Maasai, particularly the youth, into anti-poaching and less aggressive pro-wildlife initiatives. APW focused on gizmos, like GPS devices and aps for phones that the kids love, resulting in greater success.

Many NGOs see Maasai as simply a problem: over grazing destroys the environment, wild life doesn’t. I venture to say most educated Africans feel the same way, and there’s this implicit feeling that these wandering farmers ought just put on a pair of pants and learn accounting.

APW dedicates a good amount of resource towards project officers who instruct Maasai on sustainable rangeland management. I’m not sure this is a good long-term strategy, since I tend to side with the majority of experts and Africans who feel there is no way that current East African domestic herds can be sustained. But the reality is that dynamic is not going to change quickly, and in the meantime, any better orientation to rangeland use and management will help.

Once again, APW takes the Maasai side.

There are other good initiatives in the APW program, but finally what I find truly satisfying can be easily seen by anyone visiting their website. So many NGOs and even East African government programs love to display the earinged Maasai resting on his acacia stick with a shuka wrapped about him and a few bracelets or anklets dangling from his appendages while he watches his goats.

APW gets real. They display Maasai kids in Polo T-shirts smiling wonderfully as they focus their binoculars. That’s the real world, today. That’s taking the Maasai’s side.

Truly Helpful Volunteers

Truly Helpful Volunteers

snapshotserengetiSnapshot Serengeti is working masterfully, and not just to help the science of the Serengeti but to unmask once and for all the increasing fraud of quasi tour experiences purporting to need the traveler to accomplish some scientific or cultural mission.

A plethora of tour companies selling travel experiences supposedly to help usually unqualified researchers or exotic project managers will never satisfy consumers’ demand to validate their experience by other than just enjoying or learning.

That’s often perplexed me. Curiosity should be enough to motivate travel. A good guide can in 20 minutes convey, inspire and make memorable a foreign experience a thousand times more successfully than a poorly fed grad student desperate to create a published study.

Indeed, learning first-hand is an even greater motivation to travel, and to be sure there are times that without actual participation in the mechanics of a situation, the understanding is scant. But as I’ve often written, that scant understanding is worth it, and attempts at full understanding by volunteering is usually compromised entirely by the amount of time the volunteer is willing to give.

EarthWatch is usually the single exception, particularly in Africa, but it is not always so. WorldTeach, International Volunteer, Cross Cultural Solutions and Full Center are examples of basically well marketed tour companies purporting to do good work abroad by organizing short vacations towards “giving” rather than “receiving.” And they are basically frauds, doing little good other than satisfying the guilt of travelers and building the equity of their companies.

In many many ways, they are identical to the tens of thousands of small church missions with very dedicated volunteers whose projects are tenuous as best, destructive more often, and usually producing a very bad culture of dependency.

But in addition to the early EarthWatch programs and a core of good ones the organization produces regularly, there really isn’t another pay-to-volunteer experience in Africa worth commending. Until now.

Snapshot Serengeti is brilliant.

The dean of African lion research, Craig Packer painted himself into the inevitable researcher’s basement of too much data. Like so many scientific projects, as money is raised for a goal it’s spent immediately, so Packer raised the money for 225 robotic cameras throughout the Serengeti that were motion or heat triggered.

The goal was to acquire so much definitive research about the whereabouts of various species throughout the year, that a truly definitive study of the Serengeti’s very fluid ecosystem, driven primarily by the great wildebeest migration, could be started.

But suddenly the study had 4.5 million photos, certainly enough to reach some at least initial conclusions, but no way to digest such voluminous data.

Nor has Google Recognition achieved the ability to distinguish between a topi and a hartebeest at 100 meters from less than a high quality lens.

Zooinverse to the rescue: “Real Science OnLine”

And yes, you can actually make a difference. And it doesn’t cost anything.

Packer using Zooniverse signed up 15,000 volunteers (in ten days) on line who felt they could identify African animals. A few, more qualified programmers wrote an algorithm created from the initial detailed study of volunteers to determine the likelihood that the identification is correct.

So by giving a certain multiple number of individuals the same packet of photos to identify, and correlating their answers with the algorithm specifically created for this specialist project, real data is mined at phenomenal speed.

In fact so fast, that the cameras are having a hard time keeping up with the refined results produced from the volunteers.

This works. There’s no fraud involved, and everyone involved can be assured that what they’re doing has real scientific value.

Congratulations to the InfoAge, the Serengeti Lion Project and Zooinverse!

Just Give, Damnit!

Just Give, Damnit!

googlesearchfoodSometimes, a week can’t end better: a long-held belief, a life-long mission, an endless struggle to prove the obvious … it just all comes, together. And so it did, today, for me:

GiveDirectly proves in real time in Kenya why charity is usually so bad. (Thanks to NPR’s Morning Edition for finding this one.)

Every time I criticize charity I have to quickly qualify the remark as a vital generalization that, of course, has exceptions. And then equally quickly, however, I have to point out how few exceptions there are.

My experience with charity has been mostly in East Africa, where for much of my life I fostered lots of it. When I was younger I was flattered, chagrined, grateful and often very proud of the projects that I created and which were generously funded by lots of organizations, especially Rotary International.

But as I got even older and looked back, I realized how bad most charity is, including I dare say, my own.

I came full circle, so to speak:

Long before I had the experience or equity to muster anybody to do anything, several of my first jobs were with international organizations in Paris, including the OECD and UNESCO.

Barely into my third decade of life, I was no analyst. I began as a typist, but over my two years I was given more responsibilities, and above all I had the remarkable opportunity of (not just typing the words of) but meeting people like Noam Chomsky and Jean Piaget.

These were the pioneer thinkers in world development, and from my point of view, they remain so, today. Their positions never changed. Mine have.

What I learned and discounted all too quickly back then was that to help the world, you had to first study Galileo.

You had to understand how big the world was, and how infinitesimally small any individual is.

That was a hard lesson for a young American in the early 1970s, particularly one who felt empowered by helping in a small but real way to end the Vietnam War.

And while the roster of thinkers in Paris at that time was overwhelming and diverse, I’d take a stab at summarizing an area of common ground: only governments can affect anything good and meaningful for societies to develop in the modern age.

Only governments. Not Rotary, or your church or your favorite foundation, or Toys for Tots. This doesn’t mean participation in those efforts is meaningless – not at all. The valuable fruit from the efforts of this type of charity is the possibility of creating a range of expertise.

(Theoretically, by the way, governments could also create this expertise if they had the latitude and unchecked funds to do so. But they don’t. In my radical older age I believe they should, and will, someday. But not yet.)

But that qualification which defines what private charity is capable of doing, creating expertise, means that most charities don’t.

The mission of most charities is not to learn from what they do, but to teach what they know. And that’s when they become destructive.

To summarize a myriad of thoughts and ideas on this, suffice it to explain that most charity work contributes to a culture of dependency. It becomes self-perpetuating in a most terrible way.

And this isn’t because the will or spirit isn’t there to do otherwise. It’s simply that you can’t engineer today’s modern society with toothpicks. It requires giant cranes and tunnel blasters and gargantuan staffs of people. You can’t build a skyscraper with a class of high schoolers.

And even the most affluent of us, even the Bill Gates of the world, aren’t big enough.

I’ve elaborated on this in particular, recently, as we learned about awesome breakthroughs in preventing malaria, a cause celebre for the Gates Foundation. But these breakthroughs have all come from government institutions, not private organizations like the Gates.

The perfect charity for an individual is thus:

Moved by the moral unacceptability of homelessness, a high schooler from the Brooklyn Heights takes the subway to South Bronx and helps Habitat for Humanity build a house for someone. She works her tail off, and at the end of the weekend feels pretty good as she stands back and looks at the new abode. She then walks back to the subway past hundreds of homeless and realizes how pitiful her effort was. She then votes progressive and dedicates much of her new free time to human rights organizations lobbying government for more subsidized housing.

That’s not the story of most donors.

Most givers are motivated if not principally at least significantly by the belief that no one knows better than themself and their small community how to help others.

This egocentric-mania leads to decrying government as a bad idea, since government is the ultimate reverse of egocentrism, the “we”. I suppose it’s based on the mythical American dream, that fantasy created by super American optimism that chooses to remember only the good at the expense of recognizing the bad.

The world is far too complicated for any single one or small group of us, or even wisely led foundation for us, to develop must less manage. If we are moral people, we must allow ourselves to be subsumed by the society we define.

We must trust government even as we work tirelessly to make it good.

That calls for an extraordinary effort, life long. And the beautiful antithesis of that is GiveDirectly, as simple as its website. You don’t have to click around very much, and you don’t have to think about a damn thing.

Just give.

Cranes & Other Conservation

Cranes & Other Conservation

Wattled Crane - Copyright © Grant AtkinsonAfrica’s beautiful cranes have become a maypole for world conservation, but I don’t believe the birds – or the world – will be saved by private initiatives.

Recently I had the privilege of visiting the International Crane Foundation in Baraboo, Wisconsin. Founded on the fairy tale conservation story that saved the Whooping Crane, the Foundation today extends its work around the globe, protecting fifteen species of crane worldwide.

I was particularly interested in their work with the four African breeders, the Black Crowned, Grey Crowned, Blue and Wattled.

Each of these birds is incredibly spectacular; the crowned and the other two types have distinct behaviors, and they all get the attention of my clients even those who are not birders per se.

And all of us guides have watched their decline… and, in the case of the wattled, the promise of a comeback.

Hardly a decade ago, flocks of black crowned cranes were common on every grassland wilderness. Although they peal off in pairs to nest, large flocks were common before nesting and among the fledglings.

Their funny low-decibel honking, very much like a goose, often introduced them long before the explosion of colors and ballet of flying together got everyone’s attention.

But the crane in general is an indicator of much more than beauty alone. Cranes are wetland birds. Like so many birds in a variety of ecosystems, cranes indicate the health of the world’s wetlands.

And wetlands – at least for the time being until new technology is developed – is the way the world cleans itself while simultaneously producing more clean water.

Now Africa’s cranes are often found as I’ve seen in near desert environments – they’ve adapted nicely to the desertification of Africa. But they tend to nest in as wetland an environment as possible.

So we might deduce that Africa’s cranes are in the forefront of the decline of wetlands, managing to adapt historical behavior to the decline of good water resources, because Africa’s wetlands are in a more serious decline than elsewhere on earth.

But we may have reached an untenable point in that decline. Over my forty years I’ve watched the crowns “come and go,” so to speak in terms of their anecdotal visible numbers. But in the last 3-5 years they’ve been going and not coming back.

And this stands in marked contrast to the Wattled Crane of southern Africa, which while more threatened to begin with than the crowned, seems to be making progress, albeit slowly.

And this little bit of evidence is why I don’t believe that despite the invaluable work of organizations like the Crane Foundation, the cranes – or for that matter, any world ecosystem – will be saved without massive government involvement.

A lot of people don’t agree with me. Another recent visitor to the Crane Foundation in Baraboo, Carl Gibson, wrote recently in the Huffington Post, “Cranes and Climate Change: Why Our Survival Depends on Local Solutions.”

In a somewhat convoluted way Gibson claims that private initiatives like the Crane Foundation can ultimately control climate change, which he correctly faults for much of the world’s current conservation crisis.

Gibson lauds “small business” and business green initiatives for being “ahead of the federal government … find[ing] ways to generate our own power, run our businesses sustainably, and conserve natural resources and biodiversity if we’re to survive extinction as a species in the next century.”

Like the leadership of the Crane Foundation and many other good conservation organizations, there’s a belief that government either can’t or won’t address the problems they do.

They’re wrong, and it’s time that we change this destructive attitude that’s arising between well-meaning conservationists and their governments. I find so often today a nihilistic attitude by private conservation organizations towards governments. This has got to change.

The reason the Wattled Crane has a current better trajectory for long-term survival than the crowneds is because the governments of southern Africa have more aggressively dealt with wetland issues. It’s that simple.

The remarkable effort by the Botswana government to create boreholes in the dried up Ngami River and its tributaries … for 26 years until they refilled two years ago!… is a case in point. And it’s just one of dozens and dozens.

Now to be sure the Crane Foundation and similar conservation organizations perform just that type of work. But they are uncoordinated with overall environment strategy and often fall well short of what a government-funded project is capable of.

The Crane Foundation is an outstanding organization. And like many others like it, one of its greatest legacies is the scientific expertise that it builds over the years. That is critical to saving the world.

But so are governments. And Carl Gibson is wrong. Our personal resources and initiatives should be directed first to guiding and controlling our government then towards private organizations.

Without government involvement, there is no hope.

Animals, Plants or People?

Animals, Plants or People?

East Africa’s hirola antelope may soon become the second antelope in 100 years to go extinct. So what?

There are 91 species of antelope left in the world, 90 of which are native to Africa. There are currently 350-450 hirola left in the wild in East Africa, down from 14,000 in the 1970s.

If hirola become extinct they would join the Bubal Hartebeest as the two antelope which went extinct in the last 100 years. An allied species, the Schomburgk’s deer, would make three.

And the extinction in all three cases is due to habitat loss, aggravated by hunting. All three would likely be survivors if man were not also competing for their territories.

In the last hundred years 12 other larger mammals (in addition to the 3 mentioned above) have gone extinct:

5 predators: 3 tigers, 1 lion and 1 wolf.
Plus 1 rhino, 1 seal, 1 ibex and 2 wallabies.

The rhino, wallabies and seal were hunted to extinction. The ibex suffered the same fate as the antelope above (habitat loss aggravated by global warming and human competition). The predators likely went extinct because the food source they depended upon diminished.

So what? This doesn’t seem like very many.

Wrong. Big mammal extinctions are the itty bitty tip of the iceberg, and you’d have to go back multiple centuries to obtain the next 12 bigger mammal extinctions. And mammals represent only a very tiny fraction of the life forms on earth.

The rate of extinctions of all life forms in the last century is massive, exponential in fact when compared to previous centuries; indeed, when compared to millennia.

So… what?

Species conservation as a social and political goal began about a 100 years ago with Teddy Roosevelt and John Muir. In those early days its justification was mostly to preserve lovely things for future generations when preservation did not require considerable resources to succeed.

A half century ago preserving lovely things for future generations became trumped by the mandate to maintain as great a biodiversity on the planet as possible. The arguments for biodiversity are powerful but often complicated. They’re best summed up by a 2010 Cornell University study that essentially argued that biodiversity is a defense against the greatest threats to humankind like viruses.

Lately, though, the public isn’t buying the science. Most polls show that a very slim margin but more than 50% of Americans no longer believe there is anything wrong with extinction.

But I tend to ignore about half of America, that also disbelieves global warming and evolution. Ignorant Americans are a danger to the future, but they haven’t at least as yet deterred good science. And we can hope that in a relatively short time, good science will prevail, again.

But what about the hirola? Should Nature Conservancy and its partners conduct a fund-raising campaign that will net tens of thousands of dollars for land purchase and management, anti-poaching and veterinarian services to protect a single species of antelope in the wild?

Or, should the tens of thousands of dollars that need to be spent to do so better be used to manage the Dadaab refugee catastrophe that is very nearby?

Or, should the tens of thousands of dollars better be spent to save 100 species of plants in the Amazon?

Or, should the tens of thousands of dollars to create and maintain The Ishaqbini Hirola Community Conservancy better be spent to actually pay for building the rerouted Serengeti Highway?

I could go on and on. Northern Kenya where the hirola exist is one of the most stressed areas on earth. The focus there should be on the Dadaab refugees first, not the hirola. And the loss of the hirola in the wild does not mean an extinction of the species, just of the species in the wild.

And the resources that seem would be required to do this job are enormous relative to hundreds of other projects to maintain the planet’s biodiversity.

Should the hirola be saved. Yes. But not at the cost of so many other possible species rescues.

No matter they might be little green vines that don’t elicit tears from rich people.

Frostbite Kills: Help Norwegians

Frostbite Kills: Help Norwegians

Recent climate change has led to extreme climate conditions, everywhere, and in Norway temperatures are at historic lows. Africans are mobilizing to help.

Young people from all over South Africa are responding to the climatology crisis by collecting radiators to send to Oslo.

“Frostbite Kills Too” is the slogan embedded in a new South African music video by South African lead rapper Breezy V. The mission: “help freezing Norwegians by donating a radiator today!”

So in solidarity with the generous South Africans my Thanksgiving family household joined in the movement which is sweeping across the world. We have a particular attachment: we have Norwegian roots.

The day after Thanksgiving is traditionally at my house a time of baking Norwegian Christmas cookies: Berliner Kranz, Fattigmandsbakkels and other multiple syllabic overly consonant cookies.

As is custom, the men go out to bars and the women bake. At the end of the day, the women divide the cookies.

This year in solidarity with the South Africans we set aside one cannister of Fattigmandsbakkels to send to the poor Norwegians. It’s a particularly ironically sad moment when you return to a certain sector of humanity something that was once theirs to begin with.

(Like survival.)

Norwegians, of course, are speechless. At least in English. Except Norwegian students, who are embracing the aid as an indication of heart-felt human compassion.

As one told me, “Du har frelst oss fra kulde med fattigmanbukels!”

This gesture to help warm a freezing part of the world ranks right up at the top, not just of earth, but of goodwill. It meets my minimum standards of what my clients should bring to Africa to help out.

Like Bic pens and used clothing. Especially shoes.

Outpourings of shoes, for instance, will go a long way towards helping Africans to walk the walk. And for talking the talk, we can leave them our unused throat lozenges at the end of the safari.

For once we’ve all demonstrated, here as we bake Christmas cookies, and there in South Africa as they rap up the radiators, that government aid is nothing but a corrupt monster of goodwill, and that our individual efforts alone can change the world.

Think, for example, of how warm Norway could be if everyone in Africa sent them a radiator! It’s mind-boggling.

Climate change would no longer matter, because it would never be cold in Norway.

There are many fewer people in Norway than you think. So just one radiator from every South African household which usually has at least two would more than completely solve the problem.

It’s messages of this sort that we must spread across the world. Breezy V’s next music video will be sponsored by Coca Cola and we will all hold hands.

Warmed, at last, by radiators!

Redistributed Marriage

Redistributed Marriage

We should be incensed by the privileged often American tourist to rural Africa who characterizes want and poverty as some kind of pristine Garden of Eden that should just be left alone.

After her “first visit to Kenya,” a recent American tourist asked in her blog: “The Maasai culture and traditions are pure, so why would you want to change them?”

The question makes me scream: because the Maasai want iPhones, and sleeper posturepedic mattresses, and Brita filters, and slim notebooks and a hope for a better life. Anything wrong with that?

Today, the UN and hundreds of other organizations worldwide, celebrate the Day of the Girl Child which specifically condemns child marriages and which pointedly teases out much of American conservative ambiguities about freedom and individual rights.

Most forced wedlock for girl children occurs in Asia, but a close second is sub-Saharan Africa and specifically in East Africa’s still deeply rural areas.

“Some people sell their daughters at a tender age so they can get food. It’s common but people are silent about it,” a rural Kenyan told Reuters TrustLaw.

The Reuters TrustLaw story interview also described Somali traditions intended to preserve virginity prior to wedlock by arranging very young child marriages.

Now to some that may seem all so noble, right?

Such practices as female circumcision, child marriage and prostitution, and even child slavery are time and again reported in equivocal ways.

“Here’s a troubling fact: 60 million girls world wide are forced into marriage before the age of 18…,” that American tourist wrote in her blog, “But when it comes to cultures that practice child marriages, not everyone agrees that change is a good thing.”

Exactly who is everyone? A few locals you photographed on your $10,000 safari while being completely incapable of speaking to them them in their own language? Might their smiles had something to do with the 200 shillings you gave them for the shot?

I concede there are issues specifically relating to children that teeter on that sharp fence separating individual from human rights and perhaps this contributes to why some Americans believe that poverty and deprivation is fated to “just be left alone.”

Few argue that each child is different, capable of assuming independence at earlier or later ages. The UN and many organizations, though, set 18 years as the first age societies should presume a child is fully able to assume whole responsibility for herself.

Only a few generations ago, that was absurd. My grandmother married at 13 years old, a lost immigrant from Croatia. If she had not married she would likely have died in the mayhem that followed the flow of thousands of immigrants out of Ellis Island.

But that’s the point. That was more than 100 years ago. Although communities in Bangladesh or Mogadishu may not seem much different today than Ellis Island was at the turn of the 20th century, the global awareness of poverty and deprivation has increased enormously.

Fortunately, we all now care more about one another than ever before, if for no other reason than we’ve the tools to see further and deeper, everywhere.

The resilient human spirit, which burns greater in my opinion among the poor and deprived, will find moments in even the most awful situations for satisfaction and happiness. The beautiful nostalgia of my own boyhood may indeed not be so different from that of a successful African businesswoman of her own childhood in a rural hut.

But the effrontery of we privileged to wonder if earlier she might have chosen to remain deprived and under privileged is astounding. I believe it’s evil. It’s racist and the result of greed, a fear that to make things better for others means they will be made worse for ourselves.

Redistribution. Shudder at that word.

And the point there is that redistribution is only the beginning. With more of the world raised from deprivation, the productive capacity will be so remarkably increased that there will be more for all.

So get a grip. Redistribute some of that wealth that got you to Kenya to the poor little Maasai girl who would very much like to visit you in Columbus.

Poopooing Philanthropy

Poopooing Philanthropy

Bill Gates’ “Reinvent the Toilet Fair” in Seattle next week illustrates perfectly the limits of philanthropy and why real generosity must come from governments not individual rich people.

The Gates’ Foundation work to prevent and cure malaria is outstanding. The battle against the disease is perfect for individual philanthropy for two reasons. But most philanthropy, if not the vast majority promulgated by private foundations and individuals is wasteful and destructive.

The first reason the Gates’ Foundation work in malaria is valuable is that global agencies and governments from the developed world dare not tread on the mechanisms of global capitalism. Developing a vaccine, or a super small X-ray machine, or the Mars’ Curiosity, takes enormous capital. It’s the reason cancer drugs are so expensive. The drug company must recover not only the huge initial investment for a successful drug but it must also cover the huge losses of failed drugs.

Governments are capable of making these investments to be sure as are multinational corporations, but developed world interest in eradicating malaria in Africa doesn’t reach the threshold of importance developed world society does place, for example, in Mars’ Curiosity. Whether this is right or wrong isn’t my point. It’s just the case that developed world priorities do not extend to malaria eradication in the developing world.

Last year U.S. aid for developing world disease control and prevention – concentrated principally to fight tuberculosis, AIDS and malaria – was $503 million (from an HHS agency budget of $30.5 billion.) Gates alone has spent nearly four times this amount just on malaria research and prevention.

Because that is how much it takes to develop a malaria vaccine. The disease is among the most complex diseases on earth, a legendary evolutionary battle between man and his greatest nemesis, disease.

Neither will the developed world’s capitalist markets undertake a project to eradicate malaria. A malaria vaccine would not generate enough financial return to warrant the investment. Once malaria was controlled in the developed world — just as with polio more recently — the developed world will not provide the additional capital investment from either governments or markets for control in the less affluent developing world.

So it’s a perfect project for a rich man.

The second important reason malaria control is perfect for western philanthropy is because it’s so political. Malaria was eradicated in the developed world by DDT. The developed world now believes that DDT poses too great an environmental hazard to be used, now.

Whether this is rank fiscal hypocrisy or a cold prioritization of self-interest I’m not certain, but the door to quick eradication of malaria in the developing world, using the only historical method we know, has been slammed shut. DDT manufacturing is mostly controlled by the developed world, but more importantly, the threat of sanctions against developing countries that would dare to use it is real.

But most philanthropy cannot be justified by these two reasons. The vast majority of philanthropy funds projects that societies are fully capable of funding themselves. By that I mean not just through government services supported by taxes but more so by the albeit much smaller capitalist markets in the developing world.

They include almost everything from education to sanitation to energy development. When a philanthropist steps into areas like these it’s usually because of a failing in society’s planning or an oversight by market developers. To that extent pointing these out becomes the greatest justification for philanthropy.

But once pointed out philanthropists should move on and the implementation should be left to society. Society, of course, can’t do everything so it picks and chooses its priorities and that process of choosing is the very essence of a society. It should not be usurped by individuals. The best example is education. There’s no doubt that education is fundamental to almost all other development. Everyone agrees with this.

The components of successful education may be innumerable. There will always be a myriad of ways to better society’s educational efforts. Philanthropy has a major role in discovering society’s failings and to discovering innovative components otherwise overlooked by society.

But once discovered it should be left to that society to implement. Implementing it outside of normal societal mechanisms (such as through individual philanthropy) distorts any social plan and usurps the right of the majority.

Community sewage disposal is as fundamental to organized communities as education is to a workable society as a whole. A multitude of techniques are known, the engineering is fully developed, none of the essential technology is protected by copyright, and it’s fair even for a laymen to conclude there aren’t many alternatives to waste disposal except disposing waste.

So the Gates Foundation’s $42 million grants to “reinvent the toilet” are absurd. Like our own current infatuation with ethanol from corn in gasoline, more energy is being used by the so-called innovation than if we just didn’t do it at all.

The reason Nairobi’s sanitation is so underdeveloped is not because Kenya lacks either the resources or technology to lay appropriate sewers in the city’s ground, but because in part the country’s resources are being used instead to fund a war in Somalia.

I’m not arguing whether the war in Somalia is right or wrong, I’m arguing that Kenya should not assume its expense. The turmoil in Somalia was not caused by Kenya. It was caused by the developed world.

So the problem in poor sanitation in Nairobi is that the world as a whole — including Kenya itself — hasn’t owned up to its social obligations even though it’s fully capable of doing so. And this dynamic is propped up by western philanthropy.

If the Gates’ Foundation is successful in creating a “better toilet” for the developing world it could not possibly be more efficient than community sewage works. But it might indeed discover a device that can produce sanitation for a given few who have the wealth to enjoy it, and then delay even further extending sanitation services to the greater society at large.

In a nutshell it divides the rich from the poor, and it accelerates the dividing.

Frankly, I think even Gates’ officials and associates realize this. A blog widely disseminated in the developed world yesterday by Gates associate Diane Scott was rife with self-deprecation and embarrassment and proves what foolishness is going on. I can just imagine my friends in Nairobi reading this and chuckling madly.

Utopia is not in the cards, I know. But philanthropy in the main delays most utopian visions. Gates should be commended for so much of his work, but this – and most philanthropy in general – is just not right.

Not so Nobel

Not so Nobel

The Nobel concept of microfinance is being revealed as little more than a business whose effects on poverty are no better than any other banking enterprise. Darth Vader sits on many of their boards.

There’s something sweetly compassionate in the pure Islamic concept that money should never be lent at an interest rate. It’s also anathema to modern capitalism. Periodic negative cash flows are intrinsic to many successful businesses; and many genius if awkward ideas would never have come to fruition in our modern economies.

But the two radically different concepts have one thing in common: you’ve got to have money to make money. White angels might have existed in medieval times; today you need collateral.

About two decades ago microfinance emerged as a charitable bridge between the despised money lender and the little guy in need of a few bucks to run his gristmill:

Or buy his heifer, or paint his school house, or open his corner café, or buy his first bicycle so go he could go to work, or plant his half acre of white beans.

It was deemed so successful that many of its original proponents received world bonuses … like the Nobel Prize.

Bangladeshi Muhammad Yunus became the world’s poster banker for helping the poor while helping himself. But, of course, he didn’t intend to help himself; he just meant to help the poor.

The concept is simple. Lend very small amounts of money to responsible people who are very likely to pay you back and keep the interest rate down.

It’s also been around for a very long time. Self-help groups in India formed during the British colonial period and continue throughout the developing world, today. U.S. credit unions were originally formed to provide the service here, although they’ve “grown up” in recent years.

This is a huge capitalistic market, and especially in emerging economies where the only big thing is the urban slum. And since “small” banks don’t exist anywhere, not even in Dhaka, it wasn’t a job banks were doing or wanted to.

Win-win, right? Yes, except it became win-win-win.

The Heifer Project was more or less an early type, and after Yunus won the Nobel Prize in 2006, microfinance became all the fashion. Three Cups of Tea followed on its heals, and today a slough of so-called microfinance charities exist. One of the largest in the U.S. is KIVA whose young female founder and CEO is now the star of a number of national television commercials.

But as New York Times’ Nicholas Kristoff so aptly put it, Three Cups of Tea … spilled. Three Cups of Tea was a patent scam. Money solicited for schools was used for the founders’ own increasingly lavish lifestyle. Moreover, his claims and promises about the why and wherefore of his projects proved widely untrue.

But to be fair, most of the microfinance groups are not like Three Cups of Tea. Their missions aren’t made up. A reasonable percentage of donor money actually gets to the developing area.

The problem is a problem with the concept of microfinance more than with the individual entities that do it. And I think it fair, today, to claim that lofty claims of goodness no longer apply. And there are some critical thinkers who believe microfinance actually increases poverty.

The first discoveries made by analysts in the early 2000s applied to organizations like the Heifer Project where growth spurned greed in the organization. Salaries went up, administrative costs became so high in the Heifer Project that the founders created a shadow foundation board to hide some of the money. In some states this is a felony.

That’s been remedied and today the Heifer Project looks more like it did when it first started, and illegalities are no longer assumed. And the attention that was poured on the Heifer Project about ten years ago reigned in much of these tendencies by other micro finance groups.

But after the scandals of Three Cups of Tea and the early Heifer Project dual foundations, criticism of microfinance in general exploded.

KIVA, America’s microfinance dandy of the here and now, was first harshly criticized almost three years ago by a charity whistle-blower, David Roodman.

Roodman doesn’t claim that like Heifer or Three Cups of Tea, KIVA’s practices may be illegal. Rather, he claims that KIVA manipulates donor money (in the way any good bank would) to maximize effect, and in so doing is misleading donors about what they are actually doing.

KIVA solicits your funds by showing you a number of uplifting small business projects to which you can donate. You then open an account with your donation, which immediately depletes and then fills back up as the debtor repays the loan. You can then, as most do, elect to place your money and its modest earnings into another project.

The problem is that your money is pooled with everyone else’s, and KIVA’s directors disperse it as they see fit.

There’s nothing illegal about this, although it does strike me as sort of a ponzi scheme with yourself. But the point is that it’s grossly misleading.

KIVA realizes that if you as a small benefactor were simply solicited to “fund a small microfinance bank” you’d be much less likely to give than if you supposedly target your money for helping a Congolese self-help group “to buy 2 tubs of tomatoes, a tub of peanuts, and 50 kg of sorghum.”

Thirty thousand people weekly are now contributing to KIVA. And as Roodman rightly points out, “In short, the person-to-person donor-to-borrower connections created by Kiva are partly fictional. I suspect that most Kiva users do not realize this. Yet Kiva prides itself on transparency.”

It remains unclear if Three Cups of Tea has remedied itself like the Heifer Project did. The American Institute of Charity ( gives Heifer an “A-“ rating, today.

And that’s the other maybe biggest part of the problem: organizations like CharityWatch and GuideStar are widely used by charity givers to determine if their noble intentions can find Nobel placement.

And through no fault of their own, charity rating agencies use the most basic business criterion to determine honesty if integrity of mission. Nothing wrong with this. It’s exactly what you as a donor should demand.

Except that the mission might not work. Or might even be wrong.

And that’s often the case, especially in the Africa I know. When I sit above my little yellow pad and start adding the millions – billions – of dollars Americans have given to so-called charities in Africa, and then understand how little development was actually produced, it’s heart-breaking.

Roodman has recently published a book, “Due Diligence, An Impertinent Inquiry into Microfinance” which I’d paraphrase in a simplistic way by the above statement, that the mission(s) of microfinance rarely work. And when they’re wrong, they contribute to poverty, they don’t alleviate it.

Roodman himself has been scrutinized, and that scrutiny is widely favorable. Both NGOs here at home as well as those in the developing world are increasingly critical of microfinance in general.

And the reason is pretty simple, too. Bad projects probably outnumber good projects. The private world of giving is probably no better – indeed, probably much worse – than government to government aid.

The net result of microfinance, like most private aid in general, harms the developing world, doesn’t help it.

Bipartisan Balderdash in Africa

Bipartisan Balderdash in Africa

We in America can’t agree to increase taxes for better education or health care, but we can all agree to pay an extra ten million or two to obsess about a fallen Africa criminal.

The absolute farce with Invisible Children reached the otherwise empty halls of Congress this week. The viral YouTube video based on much false information, laced with syrupy emotive gimmicks, and which caused riots of disapproval in the country in which it was all supposed to have happened, brought America’s otherwise vicious opponents together in a marvelous Spring Love Fest.

Blood enemies Sen. John Kerry (D-Ma) and Johnny Isakson R-Ga) held hands before the camera and announced new measures to increase the bounty on criminals in Africa while Dept. Asst. Secty. Amanda Dory applauded herself, her country, her State Department and the world for having “significantly degraded” Joseph Kony’s murderous and barbarous crusades against humanity.

The man is probably dead.

They can’t find him.

“It’s a very challenging terrain in which to find a small number of needles in a haystack,” Dory said. She Kony is now in an “evasion and survival mode.” And then she delighted in explaining how Obama’s 100 special forces were pursuing the criminal through “through hanging vines” and “crocodile-infested rivers.”

I just can’t believe this. I can’t believe the 100 million saps who watched the Invisible Children’s video and the good percentage of them who then complained to their elected officials about this fantasy.

But I can believe the response by our elected leaders. They can’t pass a budget, but by god they’re going to send the calvary out after the bad guy, and what better place to pursue a figment of their imagination than the crocodile-invested jungles of deepest, darkest, dimmest Africa.

The power of fiction.

Click the video below to see Ugandans’ attempt to respond to all this nonsense. What the Ugandans want us to know is that the legacy of Kony, not Kony, is the problem. They need Sen Kerry’s bounty money to rehabilitate children, distribute grain seeds, provide counseling.

They above all know we don’t need 100 special forces at a half million dollars or more daily to pursue a man who might be dead, and if he isn’t, is long gone from the scene.

Correction, as I get rather emotional about this. Kony’s dwindling maniacs who probably number around a 100 is a horrible, brutal criminal gang that rivals the 1930s Chicago mob. With or without Kony, whether he’s a live or not, the left over gang has found an occupation that provided they can continue to buy bullets and machetes will continue some blood letting.

And just the thought of that continues even greater terror. I don’t mean to suggest anything Obama or a Green Beret wants to do to reduce the 100 to 90 to 50 to 10 isn’t a good idea. I’m just saying that in terms of the use of available resources, American money, I think the Ugandans have a better idea.

Watch below.

The Children Are NOT Invisible

The Children Are NOT Invisible

Invisible Children has produced a viral YouTube video that is dangerous. Like other U.S. organizations embracing an African cause they exploit part truths to make a buck.

My young hero, Conor Godfrey, wrote an incredibly balanced and unemotional blog about this that you must reread to understand the facts of the case. That way I can just continue screaming in good conscience.

I’ve written disparagingly about Invisible Children before. Among their most outlandish accomplishments was accepting money from naive high schools in America’s heartland for a cause that no longer existed. IC did this by teasing emotions and grossly ignoring details.

IC’s raison d’etre is to tell the stories of child soldiers who played such unspeakable rolls in mostly Uganda and The Congo in the 1990s, while under the control of a still wanted fugitive, Joseph Kony. That’s true.

But when the Windsor Colorado high school (and presumably others, too) raised money for the effort at the behest of IC, the cause was already over. There have been no child soldiers or Joseph Konys or Joseph Kony wanabees in Uganda since 2006.

IC’s response was to change its website slightly and go on accepting money from lots of naive high schoolers, much less pensioned widows and disabled truck drivers. The teachers, administrators and even local newspaper reporters in Windsor refused to comment on my blog or even talk to me about it.

I am so incensed by this exploitation, and watching the video that’s gone viral on YouTube makes my blood boil. IC is continuing its false cause campaign by generalizing to the point that details be damned!

Of course we all care about children! Can’t criticize the palsy filmmaker Jason Russell for spending two minutes at the beginning of the video showing baby pictures of his son, followed by a minute segment showing the birth of a very white child. Warm us up, so to speak.

The entire video is so tweaked with these generalized but irrelevant emotive gimmicks that I feel I’m watching a drug company commercial on the evening news. Russell’s honey coated commentary belies a very disturbed psyche, someone whose deepest soul is daring pushback against a blind evangelical drive to tell a story … that really isn’t.

The true story, as Conor reviews above, actually has parts with happy endings, not particularly conducive to a charity campaign.

Joseph Kony is a fugitive, probably in the Central African Republic (CAR), not Uganda. He hasn’t been there since he was roundly defeated by the Ugandan military in 2006.

We should presume Kony continues his sadistic ways of conscripting, drugging and brainwashing young children to be killers – the heart and soul of IC’s craven drive for wealth and fame. But we have little hard evidence of a scale anywhere near his robust days in Uganda.

Voice of America reported in March of his redeveloping presence in The Congo near the CAR. But as one of my all-time favorite journalists, New York Times reporter Jeffrey Gettleman explains in his March essay in the New York Review of Books, Kony is involved in only one of “dozens of small-scale, dirty wars” that while absolutely terrible doesn’t begin to achieve the magnitude of murder and destruction Kony leveled on Uganda in the 1990s.

But if IC owns up to the facts it might kill the golden goose.

The warehouse of emotion that IC has harvested from an unwitting American population, much less its cash charity, corrodes to the core the intention of every good person donating to it.

IC is especially being denounced in Uganda, where it all began. Ugandans are proud that they’ve routed Kony, so when the video was shown there last month it nearly caused a riot.

The excellent blog, Upworthy, tells a more sinister fiscal tale about IC in the recent post, “Share This Instead of the New Kony Video”:

IC recently accepted $750,000 from the National Christian Foundation (NCF). The NCF designed then funded the campaign in Uganda to pass a “Kill the Gays Bill” about which I and so many others have written. NCF gives other big sums of money to “The Call” which sends youthful missionaries into “dominions of darkness” like San Francisco to retrieve gays from their purgatory.

Also on NCF’s big recipient list with IC is the Family Research Council and The Fellowship. These mega right-wing organizations are well known and so dangerous, not just to Uganda but America. Just spend a few minutes on Google to build your Darth Vader tome.

This is the recipient pool that IC shares. And its message, methods and racist causes are also the same.

Weep when you watch the video. But let the tears dry before besmirching a check. You’ll realize that your clenched fist is packaged for IC not Kony.

Volunteerism Not Always Good

Volunteerism Not Always Good

I often receive requests by sincere travelers who want to volunteer in Africa. The latest is from an enthusiastic woman who wants to help the mountain gorillas. She doesn’t want to pay “some tourist company thousands and not directly help.” Like many well meaning people, she’s got it very wrong.

Particularly with regards to the mountain gorillas, it’s my opinion that tourists doing nothing more than “paying thousands to tour companies” do as much if not more to help the mountain gorillas than scientists.

Read In the Kingdom of the Gorillas by Bill Weber and Amy Vedder, the two scientists who began the mountain gorilla project in the 1970s. From that book alone (and there are many more) you’ll see that without tourists paying the huge fee to the Rwandan government just for the privilege of seeing the gorillas, plus the funds paid local transporters and hoteliers, it is likely there would be no mountain gorillas left.

The sentiment to volunteer is a hopeful one, to be sure, and shared by many enthusiastic conservationists. And it is typical of caring travelers and crosses well beyond animal conservation into all areas of volunteerism.

Volunteerism can be good, please don’t mistake me. But there are several negative sides to it which send up serious red flags to the organizations involved.

Casual volunteers usually cause more difficulties than they expect. The most important one is time. Unless you have a half year to dedicate to some project, it’s unlikely you’ll be invited to assist. This is as true for mountain gorilla research at Kinigi as it is for AIDS education in Soweto.

Someone coming for just a month, for example, causes tremendous housekeeping problems such as food and housing (which you cannot try to do yourself).

Integrating the skills of a new team member into the team is as hard for an experienced field researcher as a casual volunteer. It takes careful analysis and if done wrong can compromise the goals of the entire project.

Analyzing your skills by a potential project takes time and money. Mistaking your capabilities, or inappropriately allocating your skills, will cost the project even more time and money. And today, time and money are scarcer than ever.

The mountain gorilla project in particular is not your down-the-street food bank. The people who work there are highly educated, generally postdocs, in highly specific fields. Of course any organization can use someone to paint the walls, but doing that robs part of the high intentions of the project: it takes those types of jobs away from Rwandans.

Remember that a principal goal of practically any aid project, whether it be animal conservation or public health, is to ultimately turn that project over to locals. The first stage of this implementation is turning over the least skilled jobs, something that is almost always the rating of a casual volunteer.

And finally, there is a negative side that is extremely important to me personally that people must try to understand. Volunteering in any sense can coopt one’s support for the grander projects that carry real potential. Projects that are government to government, or foreign aid support of organizations like the Mountain Gorilla Project.

Our first and foremost responsibility as true conservationists and sincere volunteers is to support politics at home that will continue to fund the organizations we support. If you were able to expend energy, for example, in making sure that your political representatives supported USAid projects of the Mountain Gorilla Project, and you and others were successful, you will have achieved a much greater goal in helping the gorillas than anything you could do personally in a short time there.

I am happy and willing to link anyone with trained skills appropriate to projects in Africa with any of a number of organizations, provided you have a half year or more available. Let me know! Otherwise, recognize that it is we paean tourists who have done the greatest good for the mountain gorillas, just by going there and “paying thousands” to the local government and local businesses!

Student Do-Gooders Beware

Student Do-Gooders Beware

The right way: Cottonwood Institute's many student programs.
Summer is coming and throngs of young people are getting ready to screw up the world. That’s the effect of most volunteer tourism. Here’s why, along with a few stellar exceptions.

During the last fifty years of America’s descent into conservative misery, America’s philanthropy has increased substantially. There’s a good reason for this, and a bad reason for this, and they impact tourism as we never expected they would.

The good reason was because community compassion developed as funding for good social programs was withdrawn. What else could we do? Institutions like museums and zoos, which should be a part of the public domain, became privatized for budgetary reasons. Today we even see public funds withdrawn from any type of arts (and often recreation) programs in public schools!

Fiscal concerns in America trump virtually every other concern except to wage war (in the guise of security). After we bought our ten billionth gun, there just wasn’t any money left for public aid.

We are now ailing as result.

Education is a mess.

In virtually every category America has declined. The most talked about one is health but health and everything else in life declines first and foremost because education declines first. America is now 33rd in the world. The education accomplishments of countries like Russia, Mexico and Brasil outperform us.

The need to do something in the face of government suppression of public services became overwhelming. And public response in terms of charity was good. What was bad was that charity was often not charity, just a ruse and self-disguise. And one of the principal tools for accomplishing that self-deception was tourism.

Frankly, I have serious doubts about philanthropy in general and have written about this before. The current controversy with Three Cups of Tea stands as a perfect example.

The bad effects of so-called voluntourism are acute when it involves children. I love guiding kids on safari, because I love watching their minds open to the vast mysterious of places far away and lifestyles never imagined. But I cringe terribly when they try to plan this in advance.

The number of requests I personally get by misguided parents who want to spend “a day or maybe three depending” on charitable activities when they go on safari drives me insane. It’s counterproductive. It’s a blatant indication of how badly their children are being raised.

One of the world’s finest social psychologists says it much better than me:

IN a research paper specifically addressing youth tourism programs for specially young AIDS orphanages in Africa Prof Linda Richter writes, “Programmes which encourage or allow short-term tourists to take on primary care-giving roles … are misguided for a number of reasons.”

1. They end up costing the orphanage more than the benefits received.
2. The volunteers generally perform badly.
3. Low-skilled volunteers squeeze out local and indigenous workers who not only need the work but could create a long-term benefit to the community since they don’t disappear after a few days.

But the zinger is indelible, long-lasting:

“The formation and dissolution of attachment bonds with successive volunteers is likely to be especially damaging to young children. Unstable attachments and losses experienced by young children with changing caregivers leaves them very vulnerable, and puts them at greatly increased risk for psychosocial problems…”

This is no old tour guide’s biased balderdash.

Professor Linda Richter (PhD) is a Distinguished Research Fellow at the Human Sciences Research Council in South Africa. She’s an Honorary Professor in Psychology and an elected Fellow of the University of KwaZulu-Natal; an Honorary Professor in the Department of Pediatrics and Child Health at the University of the Witwatersrand; a Research Associate in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Oxford (UK) and has been a Visiting Scholar at Harvard University USA) and Visiting Researcher at the University of Melbourne. That’s only the beginning of her resume.

Prof Richter concludes:

– “Children out of parental care have a right to protection… In particular, they have a right to be protected against repeated broken attachments … exacerbated by care provided by short term volunteers.
-“Welfare authorities must act against voluntourism companies … that exploit misguided international sympathies to make profits at the extent of children’s well-being.
-“Lastly, well-meaning young people should be made aware of the potential consequences of their own involvement in these care settings, be discouraged from taking part in such tourist expeditions…”

It is impossible to provide meaningful assistance FOR ANYTHING in a day “or maybe even three”. You can learn. You can become aware that it is unmeaningful, but you can’t MAKE A DIFFERENCE.

Yet again and again I have parents calling me about the spring break or summer safari, and they want to make sure their kids volunteer for a “day or maybe three.”

This is an unexpected further decline in America’s descent into greed and lack of real community compassion. It’s a way of “feeling good” without really doing anything meaningful. It’s believing you can do something meaningful when it’s impossible to do so.

You go on vacation for R&R and to expand your world view. You help the world afterwards, with that expanded world view. You help the world by getting deeply involved at home, not abroad. You personally have to suffer or benefit from the accomplishments or mistakes that you, yourself, make. That becomes increasingly difficult the further your charity is placed from home.

There are excellent student groups – (important: all not-for-profit and in never linked to commercial tour companies) – that do great work. Note that it is mostly local, and I believe that’s how it should be.

The Cottonwood Institute and Students Today Leaders Forever especially impress me. I bet there are dozens, but the point is there is no way to approach even a modicum of these organizations’ accomplishments on a commercial vacation.

And for adults Earthwatch rules the planet. It’s so good, in fact, that there really aren’t any viable competitors.

In all three cases, and I’m sure many more, volunteerism is not the point. It may be used, and when used creates real benefits as much for the individual (without jeopardizing the situation because of that individuals’ lack of skills) as for the situation itself.

That ultimately, is the only test. And if that standard can’t be met, then the self-styled “volunteer” does more harm to the situation than any benefits that might accrue. Voluntourism does more harm than good. And significantly to the voluntourist him/herself.

Do-Gooders, don’t get on the plane.

U.S. Kids Duped / Africa Disparaged

U.S. Kids Duped / Africa Disparaged

The International Club of Windsor High School, Colorado.

Here’s a perfect picture of what’s wrong with part of America: Kids, yes kids, duped by charity.

No one doubts the generosity of Americans. But charity must be researched first. And that’s what so many Americans just don’t do.

It would bother me less if it weren’t adults misleading kids. And I wouldn’t be quite so enraged if a series of subsequent adults didn’t affirm the original lie.

According to the Windsor, Colorado newspaper, The Beacon, Windsor High School students in northern Colorado are holding a big fund-raiser November 3 to help children fleeing a war zone in Africa.

The problem is, there is no war zone.

I don’t know if the lead teacher, Jackie Doman-Peoples, believes this. I tried to find out by calling her school and sending her an email, but she didn’t respond. So I don’t know if she just went onto the website of Invisible Children and didn’t dig deeply enough into their pages for the “current history” of Uganda and just got spell-bound by the movie about Invisible Children which no longer applies.

I don’t know if she then just decided, wow, that looks good, just like thousands of American idiots read a Sharron Angle’s poster and decide, wow, that looks good.

Doman-Peoples could have set me and lots of people in Uganda straight, but she didn’t. And I worry that she is leading her students to believe that their hard earned donations would be used to build a school to welcome recent escapees who had been kidnapped and turned into child soldiers by the notorious Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA).

The LRA hasn’t been active in Uganda for at least two years, maybe longer.

According to Human Rights Watch, the LRA was “pushed out of northern Uganda in 2005 [and] now operates in the remote border area between southern Sudan, Congo, and the Central African Republic.”

So there aren’t any children fleeing an army that no longer exists in a war zone that isn’t.

The Beacon fed into the online version of a major Ft. Collins newspaper, the Coloradoan, where it reappeared.

So, we know the Beacon didn’t fact-check, and we know the Coloradoan didn’t fact-check the Beacon, and we know that Doman-Peoples didn’t take the opportunity to tell me that she didn’t believe what was reported about her.

Now to be sure, the LRA is still a force to be reckoned with, but not in northern Uganda. This weekend the leaders of a number of African nations met in Bangui, Central African Republic (CAR), to plan a strategy to finally wipe them out.

This is because the LRA was defeated in northern Uganda, southern Sudan more than two years ago by a proactive Ugandan military mixed with adroit international diplomacy.

The African leaders met in Bangui to discuss the LRA, because that’s the country in which the LRA is now most active. The renegade leader, Joseph Kony, fled northern Uganda when his dwindling forces were being routed and is probably in a hold-up in Darfur, much closer to the CAR than Uganda.

LRA is now active in a place that’s as far from northern Uganda as Windsor is from Las Vegas or St. Louis. The displaced kids from this new war zone can’t be helped in northern Uganda. And unfortunately, these new war zone areas are far too unstable for schools of any kind at the moment.

My irritation is certainly not with the generous souls of those kids in the high school, or even with the good intentions of someone like Donam-Peoples. There are plenty of children still in northern Uganda who still need assistance from the war which ended two years or more ago. They will likely need assistance the rest of their lives.

But I’m mad as hell that the implication is that the war continues, there! It doesn’t! Or that innocent kids are still being displaced, there. They aren’t!

This is also a story of what happens to NGOs when they become unnecessary. They won’t admit it. According to Mark Jordhal, whose wonderful Ugandan blog first broke this story, Invisible Children doesn’t deny that fund-raisers are still using their materials, particularly the film, which claims that the war in Uganda continues.

Their website, under the page “History of the War”, has recently updated the facts. But their promotional materials remain steeped in the past, and it is that pitch, that kids are being kidnapped and escaping into Invisible Children’s welcoming arms in northern Uganda, which is a serious outright lie.

So if Donam-Peoples checked with Invisible Children, a charity which has accomplished a lot of good work in northern Uganda, she could have been misled from the getgo, because that’s what their site does. And good gracious me, why on earth would we question a good American charity?!

It’s so important to the peoples in northern Uganda/southern Sudan – and particularly their children – that we recognize their victory. Claiming that a war still exists trashes their victory and discounts their noble hopes for the future.

There is no excuse for this.

Even though Invisible Children is still showing their film literally to this day to raise money. A film which claims the war continues.

The film was shown Tuesday on the Main Campus of Temple University. Perhaps at the end of the showing the presenter explained it was no longer happening in Uganda, I don’t know. But this once good charity, having run out of its main justification for income, can’t seem to move on. There’s a lot of good charity work left in northern Uganda. This aspect to this story is a story in itself.

But I can’t get over the fact that children are being misled. You don’t muster the power of kids without knowing the Truth, the Whole Truth and Nothing but the Truth. It’s called:


Katherine Popowski who wrote for the Beacon didn’t. And then David Persons, the editor of the Beacon didn’t. And by the time that the senior editor of the Coloradoan, Robert Moore, didn’t, it almost seems… true. And Doman-Peoples didn’t let me know if she did or not.

I held the publication of this post for two days to give all the above a chance to comment. I made phone calls to the school, sent emails to the teacher, the newspapers, the on-line reporter. Not one response. Not one email in reply.

They aren’t alone.

This may be the biggest problem in America, today. Not Knowing the Truth, The Whole Truth, and Nothing But The Truth. But more importantly, not caring. Standing by your lie.

Thanks to Mark Jordahl in Kampala for bringing this to my attention. Take a look at his excellent blog, Conserve Uganda.