Non-Governmental Imagination

Thanks, Marnie/Beth!
February 28, 2006, 7:50 am
Filed under: Blogs, Imagination

Marnie Webb has what I’ve been looking for.  This is exactly the kind of thing that nonprofits and the non-techies they hire to do techie things need.  I hear all kinds of buzz about online tools, and it’s hard to seperate the wheat from the chaff.  Brief, informative posts like these that outline in simple terms what x is can be really valuable to me.  It saves me a ton of time at work, and that translates into saving donors money.  Marnie said that she got the link from Beth Kanter, but I couldn’t find it there.  That’s ok, I’ll still give Beth some link love.


NetSquared Warm Fuzzies
February 17, 2006, 6:55 am
Filed under: Blogs, Imagination, Interplast

Note:  The internet crapped out on me, and although I wrote this at 4AM, I am only now getting around to posting it at 10:30PM.  

Wow.  So I’ve just had quite a night.  It’s 4AM and I can’t sleep.  Tonight I co-presented with Mena Trott at the NetSquared Net Tuesday event.  She’s super nice.  Before we talked I told her how nervous she was and she told me to just be myself and not worry about what people will think.  It worked!  I can’t imagine how it could have gone any better.  At Interplast, my role as Youngest Person Who Therefore Obviously Knows A Lot About Computers has been to stumble across new technologies (without spending too much time on the clock looking for them) and convey to the rest of the staff why we should or shouldn’t use them.  I find myself trying to understand complex things and then explain them simply to people even less tech-savvy than myself.  It’s fun, because it helps me understand them more by having to really break down why a particular technology is useful, and not just “cool?. Tonight, I was one of the least knowledgeable people in the room regarding technology, and I just talked about how Interplast has used the blogs to further our mission.  When I had been practicing, I really struggled with how much to talk about Interplast, our blog, our meandering blogging path, the ways in which we’ve screwed up and the ways in which we’ve done something cool.

In the end, I said screw it; I’m just gonna talk.  I wasn’t looking at my notes very much, and I wasn’t trying to portray Interplast in a particularly positive or negative light.  Just how we are, what it’s like to work at an international humanitarian organization that most people haven’t heard of, and some of the successes and failures of our blogs.

Afterwards, lots of people came up to me and gave me pointers and praise.  Their compliments mean a lot, but their tips mean more.  I spend more time than I would like (and staff time = donor money) trying to learn about new technologies that might help us, and how to implement them.  It took me months to figure out how to have videos on our blogs, and I still don’t know how to do it bug-free and with ease.  Maybe now that some techie types are aware of some of the issues I face every day trying to help Interplast help more kids, tools can be developed that can make my job easier.  Or maybe there can just be findable instruction manuals.  Maybe now people will pay attention to our blog, and instead of cruising by and thinking “that’s nice? they might actually leave a comment or write an email about how we could do x better or how we should email the person’s cousin who runs a hospital in India.  Maybe someone can finally explain to me in simple, non-buzzwordy terms how to use our blog to increase donations and please our donors without appearing crass and/or commercial.  Maybe they can convince me, as people tried to tonight (they were about 95% successful), how to not care about what the blogosphere thinks.

There are all kinds of great tools out there (like the Tech Soup forums) that if I was smarter I would spend more time delving into.  But I’m easily intimidated by uber-geekiness and have plenty of right-now issues to deal with otherwise.  Being in a room face-to-face with the people that make the tools I use every day has given me new hope that small nonprofits like Interplast can compellingly reach large numbers of people without celebrity spokespeople, paid ads or powerful friends.  We’re definitely not “there? yet, and I don’t really know where “there? is, but I after tonight I am more confident that we can get “there?, and we’ll have some help along the way.

Cool Photo Journal of a West African Cotton Farmer Affected By US Subsidies
February 9, 2006, 8:36 am
Filed under: Big vs. Small, Food, International Aid

Check out this photo journal of Francois Traore.  Gives some insight from an African perspective about the US cotton subsidies.  I especially like the picture of him in Texas.

Charities Playing Poker
February 7, 2006, 8:55 am
Filed under: Donations, Imagination

What do you do if you flip between eight tv stations and all you see is Texas Hold ‘Em? If you’re a charity, you follow the money…

India Launches Massive Rural Anti-Poverty Scheme
February 4, 2006, 10:15 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

India’s ruling Congress party has launched the “National Rural Employment Gurantee Scheme”, which guarantees 100 days of work anually for one person in India’s 60 million rural families. Either the family member gets work or they get the equivalent amount in welfare. Needless to say this is a pretty ambitious plan, and the BBC esitmates that it will cost between $5-25 billion.

The big question of course is whether it will work or not. A number of Indian bloggers have some pretty strong doubts. The Open Window crunches some numbers and offers a convincing argument that this is simply designed to make it look like Congress is helping the poor. Santhosh simply thinks that subsidy-driven plans never work at inspiring the entrepreunrial spirit needed to drive an economy.

As much as I would love to see this program work, their doubts seem well-founded. Corruption could cripple the program, and there doesn’t seem to be stringent enough protections against corrupt panchayat and state governments from dipping their paws into the honey pot. Here’s to hoping I’m wrong.
Cross-posted at So a Hindu, a Christian and a Jew walk into a bar….

Great News For The Global South: US To End Cotton Subsidies
February 4, 2006, 7:40 pm
Filed under: Big vs. Small, Food, International Aid

The US press didn’t pay too much attention to this, but Congress authorized President Bush’s decision to comply with a WTO ruling (instigated by Brazil) that mandates the elimination of major subsidies to US cotton producers. Before I get into how much this will benefit the world’s poor at the expense of only a few rich agribusiness companies, let me note that this is the first and possibly the last time you will seem me praising Congress, Bush and/or the WTO (oh my!). To approve of them all at one time is just crazy talk.

Why is the elimination of cotton subsidies a good thing? Well, the US government is always clamoring for greater “free trade”, as it describes it. It says that the world economy is better off if all countries reduce subsidies and tariffs. One of the many problems with this argument is that the US has simply not been following its own advice. It bullies other countries into opening up their markets through the WTO while keeping its own domestic subsidies. The result is farmers in poor nations cannot grow crops because subsidized versions from the US (and/or Europe and/or Japan) are cheaper to buy than locally grown crops. As Oxfam notes, Cotton is a perfect example of this. So the local economy tanks and US farmers win. TIME magazine points out the irony that the money we give out as aid to West African cotton producers is often equivalent to the damage we do to their economy:

“…annual losses in export earnings in most West African cotton-producing countries are comparable to U.S. aid donations. Burkina Faso, for instance, received $10 million in U.S. aid in 2002 but lost an estimated $13.7 million in exports because of U.S. cotton subsidies”

So US farmers are benefitting at the expense of poor farmers in the global south. But the “US farmers” are not who we think they are; they tend to be a less cuddly group. I love the idea of helping family farms, but when 61% of the total cotton subsidies (in 2004) go to the top ten producers, it doesn’t strike me as very equitable.

By eliminating major cotton subsidies, the US will allow poor countries to work their way out of poverty. Aid can only go so far; people need to be able to fend for themselves. By stopping the flow of subsidized cotton to the global south, we are giving poor farmers a chance to help themselves and their communities. Way to go Bush/Congress/WTO. Relish in my praise, it is pretty rare.

Kenyans: Dog Food Beats Starvation
February 2, 2006, 6:35 am
Filed under: Food, International Aid, Jerks, Uncategorized

Kenya has been suffering through food shortages much to the detriment of their poorest citizens. A woman from New Zealand who owns a dog food company decided to donate 160 tons of dehydrated dog food to feed starving Kenyan children. Naturally, this came off as “culturally insulting” to Kenyan politicians, who do not like to think of their citizens as being equal to dogs in other countries. Lo and behold, hungry Kenyans do not share their government’s disgust:

“Parents of some of the children said leaders opposed to the offer were only after satisfying their personal egos at the expense of starving millions in the country.”

Only people with enough to eat complain about the quality of food. If faced with starvation I’d eat dog food or anything else to stay alive. I think that the woman could have been more sensitive by donating the proceeds from the sale of 42 tons of dog food and gotten much less negative attention. Regardless, I don’t think the Kenyan government can complain about the quality of aid foreigners are bringing in as long as they are frittering away $6 million on 57 Mercedes Benz cars ($105,263.17 each) for governement officials.