Monday, April 26, 2010

Innovative Solutions for Addressing Global Poverty on Display at the Global Social Venture Competition

The finals for the 11th Annual Global Social Venture Competition took place in Berkeley on April 22nd and 23rd and what a contrast it was to the conference I attended two days prior and described in my previous post. This was an amazing competition that began with over 500 entrants from more than 30 countries. The 16 finalists presented business plans for social ventures using technology and innovative approaches to solving social and economic problems that give rise to global poverty.

I was able to see almost all of the final presentations and can attest to the extraordinary level creativity, professionalism and passion exhibited by all the teams. Ruma, the Grameen Foundation supported social venture I have been mentoring took second place. This is a micro-franchising operation that has already helped more than 2,000 poor women in Indonesia start their own businesses and lift their families above the poverty line that I have written about in earlier posts.

The first place winner of the competition was a team from Stanford University that has started a company called Re:Motion Designs. They have developed a polymer-based polycentric knee joint that can be manufactured for less than $20. In a very moving and powerful presentation they demonstrated the life-changing nature of this invention for poor amputees living in developing countries.

The winner of the Social Impact Assessment award was a team from UC Berkeley called WE CARE Solar that provides obstetric health facilities with solar power for lighting, mobile communications and essential medical devices. The innovative portable, plug and play solar-electric system they have developed is being distributed, installed and maintained by local market-based capacity and partnerships. Their product is designed to reduce maternal and infant morbidity and mortality in developing countries.

The conference also featured two excellent keynote speakers, Wilford Welch the author of a new book “The Tactics of Hope—How Social Entrepreneurs are Changing our World” and Neal Keny-Guyer, the CEO of Mercy Corps, a leading international humanitarian and development organization with operations in 40 countries. Both stressed the critical role of social entrepreneurs in creating new solutions for addressing the problems of global poverty with new approaches and solutions that bridge the efforts of traditional NGOs and government ODA with market oriented enterprises.

Wilford Welch described the role of social entrepreneurs as being primarily focused on solving social or environmental problems, “riding the boundaries” between waves of change from one paradigm and the next, looking for systemic solutions, seeking replicable and sustainable solutions, open to establishing alliance with disparate and unlikely partners, listening at the local level to the people affected by social problems and engaging in intergenerational collaboration. In fact, to this latter point, I was excited to learn that as a member of the “Encore Generation” I have a role to play in this intergenerational collaboration!

Neal Keny-Guyer also talked about the social entrepreneur reaching out to traditional NGOs with new ideas and bringing the changes that are happing in India, China and Brazil to more fragile states. He outlined the basic principles of social entrepreneurship as: putting people first; practicing the 3 Rs—Relief, Recovery and Reconstruction; doing what’s best for the local economy and seeing crisis as opportunity. He noted that prior to the recent earthquake that devastated Haiti the country had been, on a per capita basis, one of the largest recipients of Official Development Assistance. Nevertheless, the country had a very low level of self-sufficiency. The current relief, recovery and reconstruction efforts in Haiti, he noted, should be seen as an opportunity to re-build the country such that it becomes sustainably self sufficient.

In the final analysis, my take-away from both conferences is that while we need to ensure that we are doing our share in terms of providing official assistance to developing countries, this will not be sufficient to end extreme global poverty. Without the efforts of social entrepreneurs bringing innovative business approaches and developing new technologies that directly address the needs of the poor, we will not create sustainable, scalable solutions that will eradicate poverty. The passion and creativity on display at the Global Social Venture Competition is best evidence I have seen that there is hope for ending global poverty in our time.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

A National Interfaith Conference on Global Poverty

I spent the past two days (April 20th and 21st) at the “One Voice of Faith” conference on global poverty at St. Mary’s Cathedral in San Francisco. The cast of speakers was impressive including: Ruth Messinger, President of the American Jewish World Service; Dr. Bonnie Anderson, President, House of Deputies of the Episcopal Church; Rev. Dr. Heng Sure, Director, Institute for World Religions and the moderator, Maha ElGenaidi, President, Islamic Networks Group. Panelist came from an array of notable organizations: Catholic Relief Services; RESULTS; Bread for the World; the UN Millennium Campaign. What made the event most worthwhile for me however was meeting three remarkable individuals running two small non-profits that are actually doing the hard work every day needed to put an end to global poverty. More about them follows below.

The fight against extreme poverty is expensive but is morally and, arguably, even economically the right thing to do. That 1.1 billion people in the world live on less than $1 per day is more than scandalous. That wealthy countries, and their citizenry, have a responsibility to alleviate the needs of the poor is consistent with the teachings of every faith. This interfaith conference focused on organizing the advocacy needed to move the US government to meet its Millennium Development Goals (MDG) commitment.

In 2000, the United Nations unanimously adopted a resolution known as the Millennium Declaration that, among other noble objectives, calls for the eradication of global poverty. Information on the MDG and the campaign to end global poverty can be found at President Obama has committed to present the US’ plan for achieving the MDGs in his speech to the UN General Assembly this coming September.

Speakers and panelist pointed out that the recent global economic crisis has seriously affected the political will in the US to live up to our MDG commitments. Therefore, we were encouraged to engage in a concerted campaign to lobby our representatives in Congress regarding key anti-poverty legislation and support of the “Point 7 Now” initiative which calls for the US government to commit 0.7% of GNP to Official Development Assistance.

Alex Baumgarten, Director of Government Relations for the Episcopal Church, noted that Americans are “by far the most generous giving to private charities but don’t trust the government to efficiently distribute foreign aid.” It was further noted that Americans have a grossly inflated notion of just how much of the federal budget goes to foreign aid. In fact, while we are the most generous when giving from our own pockets, we are by far the most parsimonious giving from our public treasury. According to some statistics, the 0.16% of GNP the US contributes to ODA is the lowest among the 22 OECD countries.

But to Mary Burns, who along with her husband Bob, founded and run the Kasimu Education Fund, these are all just words and statistics she’s heard many times before. While we talk, she says, children are starving for food and education in the Manyesa area of Malawi where they have helped build a school, fund a small local micro-lending operation and provide scholarships to local youths to attend high school and teaching college. I spoke with Bob about the micro-lending activities and the availability of other financial services to the people of Manyesa. They are basically non-existent he said and desperately needed. I told him about some of the initiatives I know about to bring mobile banking services to the poor in Africa and promised to come back to him with some ideas.

Just listening to Mary and Bob talk about their passion for helping the people of this poor corner of the world achieve a measure of self-sufficiency by 2015 was truly inspiring. And, they are not alone. Bob told me of finding about 100 other small non-profit/NGOs based in Santa Clara and focused on helping the people of Africa. I have added a link to the Kasimu web site. Check out the video it is really amazing.

Then there is Raj Rambob, Executive Director of Homes and Hope, a San Mateo County based non-profit that provides temporary housing for families that have become homeless during the economic crisis. He told me of his family’s commitment not only to poor of San Mateo but to his grandparents ancestral village in India where they too support a school.

I have no doubt it is necessary to fight the good fight with regard to our government’s commitment to the MDGs but I have greater confidence in the Bob and Mary and Raj’s of this world. It may feel good to stand in a circle and sing Kumbaya but Bob and Mary and Raj are doing the work that will ultimately enable the poor to raise themselves out of poverty.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Learning about the Bottom of the Pyramid

Apologies to readers of this blog (and thankfully there are a faithful few) for the long delay in generating a new post. The chance discovery of financial services available at Wal-Mart, which I discussed in my last post, impressed upon me how much I do not know about existing options for the poor in the U.S. In a recent development regarding Wal-Mart it was announced last week that they have joined the Secure Remote Payments Council, a non-profit industry group that supports the growth, development and market adoption of debit based internet eCommerce and mobile channel payment methods.

I have been thinking about how much else I might not know in this space. Who are all these people categorized by the U.S. government as “under-banked” and how can their needs best be addressed? Twenty-five percent of American households (see previous post) is a lot of people—maybe as many as 100 million give or take a few. This is far more than the just the homeless and illegal immigrant populations, although they would certainly be counted as among the “under-banked.”

Access to financial services is a critical problem whether for poor entrepreneurs in Indonesia or the homeless in the U.S. But it is by no means their only problem. Appropriate remedies need to be based on just where the poor fit on a continuum from the “poorest of the poor” to the “working poor” to people at the lower end of the middle class where the loss of a job or catastrophic medical emergency might lead to a precipitous slide into poverty.

Over the past two weeks I have spent some time talking with people who deal with the lowest end of the spectrum in San Francisco. At St. Boniface in the Tenderloin, an area of the City synonymous with the down and out, I met Laura Slattery who runs the Gubbio Project. Homeless people who have spent the night on the street are welcomed into the church to rest and use the facilities. While her clients stretched out in the pews for a few hours of rest we chatted quietly.

The church was less crowded than usual she explained because it was the first of the month, the day the City hands out checks. Where would they cash their checks I asked; what do they do with their money? Laura wasn’t sure. They probably pay too much to cash their checks and many will use the funds to find solace in drugs or alcohol. Some might get off the street for a few nights by taking a room in a single room occupancy (SRO) hotel. One thing was sure, Laura knew most would be back in the pews before the month was half over.

We walked the neighborhood visiting other programs serving the poor. At Hospitality House we met a woman, herself formerly homeless and a drug abuser, who now counsels others at the Self Help Drop -in Center. We asked if she thought a stored value card that could be acquired at Wal-Mart or Walgreens would be a valuable aid to clients. She didn’t think so. When they need money the most, she explained, it is usually late at night when the urge for a “fix” hits them the hardest. Then they have no option but to use the card to buy something they don’t need to get some cash back to buy their drugs. They’re better off just holding the cash she thought.

Laura suggested we have lunch at St. Anthony’s Dining Room, a facility adjacent to the Church that has been serving meals to the poor for six decades. I felt uncomfortable eating food meant for the poor but as it was the first of the month, demand was less than usual and Laura assured me there would be plenty for everyone. Besides, she said, you should learn what it feels like to receive charity and dine among the less fortunate. She was right. It was a humbling experience. One more lesson about what it means to be poor.

As we exited the dining hall I spotted two neatly dressed men at a table with information for veterans. They were volunteers from the VA providing outreach to homeless veterans. One-third of all homeless, they explained, are veterans. At their suggestion I called later in the day at the VA clinic located South of Market and learned about the Veterans Industries/Compensated Work Therapy program which works on placing homeless vets in jobs. I have some further meetings scheduled with the managers of this program and will no doubt be writing about this in future posts.

The following week when I returned to volunteer at the Gubbio Project Laura introduced me to Sister Carmen at Faithful Fools, a street ministry that, in their words, “…meets people where they are through arts, education, advocacy and accompaniment…” The Faithful Fools seem to act as a bridge between those on the street and those seeking to help. They conduct periodic “street retreats” for people interested in connecting with homeless.

Again we raised the topic of stored value cards for the poor with Sister Carmen. Perhaps it would be helpful for some she said but like the case worker at Hospitality House, she was under no illusions that the product would impede the purchase of drugs. She told us of one enterprising Chinese woman who had a wireless POS device she would use out on the street to provide cash to holders of ETB cards (electronic food stamps). This “innovative” service allows the poor to get cash without having to actually buy items permitted under the food stamp program. While certainly innovative, this hardly the kind of “assistance” the poor need to extricate themselves from poverty.

“Banking on the Poor” will promote the kind of financial access and infrastructure that we hope produces more constructive results. If you have time, check out the Gubbio Project web site. The video clip on the site is really quite moving. Just click on the link I have added to the list on this blog.