Two days ago I spoke at Humaninet / TechReach Sim Day at the Intuit campus in Mountain View. It was an interesting collection of people, most of them being white men in business casual clothes involved in supplying NGOs, governments and the like tech tools to aid disaster relief work.
Most of the presenters were groups like Green Wifi, Telenor, The Red Cross, and UUplus. With the exception of the Red Cross, all of these groups are involved in creating/improving wireless communications for the NGOs/gov’ts large enough to afford them. They asked Interplast to present our work, and while I enjoyed being there and talking about Interplast Grand Rounds, we were definitely an outlier as the only (intentionally) nonprofit organization.
Nonetheless, it was interesting to see the solar powered wifi nodes and other assorted gadgetry. The Red Cross’s badass truck was a definite highlight. For the first few hours folks circulated around booths such as those shown here. Then we all went inside for 15 minute presentations.
I was struck by the wide variety of attendees. Only about 50-75 people showed up, but they ranged from official-looking folks from Mozilla and World Vision to a volunteer from Project Vietnam. Most had a very heavy tech/ICT background and seemed pretty devoted to questions of how aid organizations do their job when they arrive on the scene with no power/connectivity.
Ironically enough, the wifi access was spotty and/or terrible. For being blocks away from Google’s HQ, well within the free Mountain View wifi system, and being within 30 feet of several compaines that claim to provide connectivity in the most remote corners of the world, I had a very hard time logging on to the internet.
Oh well. As those of us in development know well, problems arise. The San Jose Mercury News had a reporter who was able to roam around a bit, so his piece is pretty accurate. I was at the Interplast booth repeating myself for hours on end, so unfortunately I didn’t get to learn too much about the other groups.
There will be another Sim Day in Washington, D.C. soon, so if you’re in the area you should get your geek on and stop by.
Update: A note from Gregg Swanson–
“My only question about your blog post is that you (sic) weren’t the only nonprofit, if I am reading your second paragraph right. HumaniNet and Inveneo are nonprofits – and the Red Cross of course – and TechReach is being organized as a nonprofit. Green WiFi is small and has a social conscience. VVAF couldn’t make it with their OASIS software, but they’re a nonprofit. Telenor, our sponsor, was the only corporation represented.”
So I haven’t posted here in months and months. I’ve been very bad, I know, and with starting up a new vlog (more on that in the near future) and other stuff, I’ve neglected this blog. That’s ok, not much in the world of philanthropy has happened recently, so I’m sure I didn’t miss much…
I found The Onion’s take on Norm‘s motivations for joining the Peace Corps absolutely hilarious. That said, a coworker who I like and trust found the piece offensive. So I hope that it doesn’t offend anyone, that is certainly not my intention. I think it’s funny because I get a lot of emails at work from people who want to help themselves via helping others:
“I want to go to someplace exotic and extreme like India or Brazil for three months during my summer break. I am a high school senior, have taken some Spanish classes, and would like to be on a co-ed program. It’s ok if you don’t pay me any money since I’m sure that I will be in an economically disadvantaged community, so I’ll be perfectly happy with free room, board and a plane ticket (and a safari/trek after the program). I have always wanted to help people, and view your program as an excellent way to help others and give me the insight I can use to be accepted at a top university. I’ve heard that I really need to play up my volunteerism, but working with the poor in tropical countries seems more exciting then helping those in my community.”
Ok, I made that up. And it’s more exaggerated than what actually crosses my desk. But lots of people seem to think that volunteering is about the volunteer. Norm does. I don’t.
I must admit that when I was younger I had thoughts like these. I wanted to help others but not give anything of myself. Well, that’s not often the case. It really took me a long time to understand that I can be happy knowing that I am helping those in need doing thankless work that is imminently needed. Even if it’s not exotic, co-ed or fun.
So Republicans think that Hugo Chavez’s plan to give homeless shelters and poor Americans discounted heating oil is “part of an unfriendly government’s increasingly belligerent and hostile foreign policy”? Why? The US government gives away billions of dollars in aid every year to the world’s poor. Would they like it if it was vieiwed as belligerent and hostile?
If the US governement wants to make Chavez look bad, belittling the entire concept of international aid as merely an influence-peddling political tool is no way to do it. After all, people might start to believe that, and then USAID will be viewed as nothing more than pure propaganda. Plenty of folks say it already is. Pronouncements like this do nothing to help.
Regardless, what’s wrong with people trying to help the poor? It should shame the US government that homeless shelters face budget shortfalls. If I ran a shelter I’d be calling up the Venezualean embassy as fast as I could. Free stuff rules.
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.