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November 14, 2011

IMC – Giving the Gift of Self-Reliance

These are busy times for the world’s disaster relief organizations.  International Medical Corps (IMC) is one of many global relief organizations that  provide emergency assistance to countries stricken by natural disasters or violent conflict.  However, International Medical Corps goes beyond providing assistance.  It also rehabilitates devastated health care systems and helps bring them back to self-reliance.

Introducing International Medical Corps

imc volunteers with babyIMC accomplishes this by setting up programs training local people to provide medical care so they can carry on when the relief organizations leave.  For example, in its first year in Haiti, International Medical Corps physicians worked with Haitian medical staff, local organizations, and the Haitian health ministry to identify gaps in knowledge and skills.  Together they developed training programs and provided on-the-job support to improve quality of care throughout the existing health care infrastructure. IMC trained primary health care staff on triage, drug and pharmacy management, infection control, STI/HIV management, disease surveillance and outbreak preparedness, vaccinations, nutrition, and mental health diagnosis and case management.  IMC also established a program in coordination with the Hopital de Universite d’Etat d’Haiti (HUEH), which will train 50 physicians and 100 nurses in nearly every component of emergency care delivery. The program goal is to rebuild Haiti’s virtually non-existent health care system.

As Jocelyn Zuckerman observed in a recent article she wrote about IMC’s work in Haiti for Fast Company:

Most important, the organization encourages its trainees to return to their native communities to serve, using skills they never would have developed without IMC. This commitment to empowering locals–the whole teach-a-man-to-fish thing–is what distinguishes International Medical Corps from such better-known NGOs as Doctors Without Borders.

robert simon in afghanistan

Robert Simon in afghanistan

The founder and chairman of IMC is Robert R. Simon., M.D., Professor in the Department of Emergency Medicine at Rush University, Stroger-Cook County Hospital in Chicago, Illinois.  He started International Medical Corps in 1984 in response to the need for medical services and training inside war-torn Afghanistan. During that time, he developed the model that IMC now uses in all its deployments.  He  recruited locals from underserved areas of Afghanistan, trained them for nine months, and then sent them back to their communities with supplies, medications, and skills to set up clinics. By 1990, IMC had graduated more than 1,000 health-care workers who helped establish 57 clinics and 10 hospitals throughout rural Afghanistan.


Nancy Aossey

Since that time, IMC has delivered more than $1.1 billion of humanitarian assistance, health services and training to tens of millions of people in more than 65 countries.  It now has 4,000 staff and volunteers.  Overseeing its operations is Nancy Aossey, President and CEO.  She joined the organization in 1986 and manages the delivery of assistance to the world’s hardest-hit places, including Haiti, Darfur, Congo, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Somalia, Uganda, and Iraq.

Recently, IMC has been active in Libya, where through a $1 million grant from USAID’s Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance (OFDA), it is addressing immediate health care gaps in the strife-torn country.  Teams are also assisting in establishing a unified mechanism for reporting needed medical supplies and coordinating donated items.

Despite its size and scope of operations, IMC has avoided the bureaucratic inertia and waste that can plague not-for-profit organizations.  Charity Navigator, which evaluates and ranks charitable organizations, gives IMC its top 4-star rating (62.7 out of 70) for its financial stewardship and accountability / transparency.

With its focus on training locals to take over the delivery of healthcare, International Medical Corps provides a gift that keeps on giving.

November 14, 2011

A Grandmother Reimagines Thailand’s Most Notorious Gang

“The youth is the hope of our future.”
Jose Rizal, Filipino Author (1861-1896)

Violent gangs of young people, most 12-18 years-old but some as young as eight, are a global fact of life. There are numerous programs focused on eliminating what is seen as a growing scourge ruining the quality of life in societies worldwide. But when we look into the gang lifestyle of today, could we stumble on an unexpected answer to the pressing question, “What can we do about gangs?”

In the existing body of scholarly research into the phenomenon of gangs, there is general consensus that as population grows, specific negative social conditions grow proportionately. Often cited as causes for gang formation are:

  • Income disparity and persistent poverty
  • Elimination of governmental support for necessary social services
  • Marginalization in the form of racial discrimination and gender discrimination

There are other causes, of course, but some of them are harder for researchers to agree on. One such cause is the breakdown of the nuclear family. Our understanding of the roles adults play in the development of children has widened to include “non-traditional families” like those with single parent or same sex parents, and influences from adults in the broader community. It is along this same path of enlightenment that we find the story of how a grandmother in Thailand chose to face the reality of youth gangs in her city.



Laddawan Chaininpun watched as her grandson took a step that parents, guardians, and anyone involved with the welfare of a child fears profoundly. He joined a gang—and not just any gang. Out of the 50 or so gangs in Chiang Mai, a large city in northern Thailand, Laddawan’s grandson joined Na Dara (NDR), the city’s largest and most infamous gang.

This observant, caring grandmother immediately discarded the option of trying to pull her grandson out of the grip of the gang with criticism, threats, and pleading for him to just come home. She knew that such a reaction would drive him deeper into a culture she had heard only the most negative things about. Instead, Laddawan determined to learn everything she could about what the gang offered that appealed to her grandson, as well as to other young people in Chiang Mai. She accepted that her grandson had needs that were met by belonging to Na Dara. She recognized that the gang offered her grandson the kind of “family” he needed at this point in his life. This family was populated with others who understood exactly what it was like to be a 12-17 year-old because they were too.

Laddawan Chaininpun decided to offer her skills and wisdom as a counselor helping gang members work through family and other personal problems. She also helped gang members communicate more effectively and successfully with the police. As she worked with the gang, her perception of gangs evolved from the prevailing completely negative one in Chiang Mai, to one of possibility for change. Laddawan observed that the gang operated as a support system for youth and did many aspects of that function very well. She encouraged the gang to expand the areas of support they offered and begin to be a positive force in the community. This amazing woman was able to put a “No Drugs Rule” into operation within the Na Dara (NDR) gang, which in turn inspired the gang to change its name to “No Drugs Rule.”

Laddawan wasn’t finished yet! She went on to establish the Chiang Mai Youth Community Center (CYC). Here youth gangs can learn about many kinds of needs they can then offer to new members. The result of this effort is that the negative, violent, criminal behavior of gangs is reduced because members feel that they can be a productive, accepted part of the community.

Laddawan-Chaininpun-w-DNR-gang membersIt is time that the governments and taxpayers in all places where gangs are perceived to be a problem accept that gangs are here to stay because they meet basic human needs for youth who do not have other options. The choices made by governments at every level to not fund, or to underfund, social services capable of meeting basic human needs for all who are in need, make it necessary for people to find other options. Only through tolerance like Laddawan Chaininpun displayed can we hope to become enlightened enough to end conflict and attain peace. The great lesson that Laddawan teaches us is that when we think something is insurmountable, it really is just a wonderful opportunity to learn more about being human.

November 7, 2011

Cognitive Surplus – A Potent New Force for Social Change

clay-shirkyThe rapid growth of the Internet and the low cost of collaborative technology (e.g., Facebook and other social media) offers us an extraordinary new opportunity to apply our creative energies to the world’s problems.  Clay Shirky, social media commentator and author of Here Comes Everybody, has written a book, Cognitive Surplus, which explores the implications of this.

Shirky defines cognitive surplus as the free time we have available to us.  It grew out of the forty hour work week.  In the second half of the last century, this cognitive surplus had few outlets and was channeled mainly into consumption.  Most of our free time went into watching television. Media production costs were high; as a result, what got produced and how it got distributed was the province of experts.  We were consumers, an audience, a collection of target markets.

Today the Internet and social media have given us new ways to connect and apply our creativity that are not constrained by geography or economics.   Online collaborative communities can organize around the need to solve specific problems.  These range from the social to the scientific.  These communities tap into and are driven by the generosity and intrinsic motivations of the individuals who participate. As Shirky points out, these communities are not chaotic; members establish their own rules and governance.

The emergence of these online communities offers the tantalizing prospect of directly funneling time, talent, and energy toward the solution of social and political problems in a way that bypasses institutional inertia and politics.  What’s exciting about the emergence of low cost online tools for collaboration is that they provide us with both awareness and the power to act; we become both audience and actor.  For would-be social entrepreneurs who want to tap into the cognitive surplus, Shirky provides some guiding principles for successful communities, based on his study of these communities.  These were nicely summarized by Valeria Maltoni over at Conversation Agent:

  1. Start small — See if it works, first. And the best way not to have an idea killed prematurely is by testing a small version of it, then bring results to the table.
  2. Ask “why?” — It’s still surprising how this is often overlooked. Why would people do this, whatever this is that you want them to do, over something else? Why will they choose you/this system?
  3. Behavior follows opportunity — Can you design a system that provides opportunity people understand and find valuable?
  4. Default to social — Social value is stronger than personal value, so allowing people to see what others are sharing and bookmarking is a better setting to encourage adoption.
  5. A hundred users are harder than a dozen and harder than a thousand — The middle ground between large and small can be confusing for users trying to figure out how to interact with each other.
  6. People differ. More people differ more — As in they will have different behaviors, things they like to do, etc., so think about tiering levels of involvement.
  7. Intimacy doesn’t scale — You either have large groups all paying attention to one thing, or people split into smaller active groups.
  8. Support a supportive culture — This taps into people’s sense of fairness.
  9. The faster you learn, the faster you’ll be able to adapt — And the best way to learn is by watching how people behave using the tools at hand.
  10. Success causes more problems than failure — Planning down to the details and potential problems you will have is a poor substitute for experience; planning won’t teach you how to solve the problem that arises while you do.
  11. Clarity is violence — This point is about putting process in front of experience and before its time; regulate something too soon, and you won’t know what you’re regulating.
  12. Try anything. Try everything — The applications are many and there is no “one-size-fits-all” approach that works in every instance.

angry-birdsYou would be forgiven for questioning whether our cognitive surplus will actually be applied in this manner.  After all, consider that Angry Birds, a popular game for smart phones, consumes 1.2 billion hours of that surplus each year.  But in fact, when the surplus is so large worldwide, it doesn’t take much of a shift to make a huge difference.  Using data from ComScore, Adam Hevenor created a table (see below) which shows the difference that applying just 1% of our collective average time online toward socially meaningful activities would make.

With such a potential reserve of creative energy, the prognosis for the beneficial use of our cognitive surplus is hopeful; the impact could be astounding.



November 7, 2011

Women – An Essential Ingredient in the Recipe for Sustainable Peace

“There’s no way you can fix a community and say you can find a solution for that community when you only use half of the community. When men make peace, it’s not a total peace.”

Leymah Gbowee
Nobel Laureate, 2011



The remarkable Leymah Gbowee is, at only 39 years old, a Nobel Peace Laureate and recognized as an integral part of the sustained peace enjoyed by her country of Liberia for the past nearly 12 years. Ms. Gbowee was just a teenager when the devastating Liberian civil war that would last 14 years began, but from that tragic experience grew her resolve and identity as a peace activist. She emerged as a strong leader in women’s activism and illuminated the power of women as peacemakers. Ms. Gbowee is uncompromising on the goal of attaining global peace by nonviolent means, and she teaches us by example that the way to reach that goal is by establishing sustainable peace community-by-community.

In an interview with the Christian Science Monitor on October 31, 2011, in which Ms. Gbowee comments on how she views the peace in Liberia today, she said that people are just now “…learning to live again.” It may be difficult for those living in Western countries to comprehend what a 14-year-long civil war with well over 200,000 people killed and untold numbers injured or forced to flee from their country as refugees is actually like.  Imagine a young woman of just 17 consumed with thinking of how to change this terrible path of destruction on which she found her country, and realizing quite clearly that without the activism of half of the population, that is, the women of Liberia, there could be no sustainable peace.

Leymah Gbowee shared the Nobel Peace Prize for 2011 with the President of Liberia, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and fellow women’s peace activist, Tawakkol Karman of Yemen. Ms. Gbowee is not, however, interested right now in a government position, telling the New York Times that “I still like bouncing around…I say, can you please just let me protest and do things I like?” She talked to the Times during her book tour to promote her memoir Mighty Be Our Powers. (Follow this link and read an excerpt from this fascinating account of Ms. Gbowee’s life during the Liberian civil war and her evolution into a peace activist.)

Watch and listen to Leymah Gbowee as she inspires us all to find our own unique way to advocate for nonviolent pathways to peace in our own lives, in our own communities, in our own countries, and ultimately globally on this planet we share.

Peace Activist Leymah Gbowee gives a powerful speech at the 5th Annual Living Legends Awards For Service to Humanity at the Emmanuel-Brinklow Seventh-Day Adventist Church in Ashton, Maryland



November 3, 2011

The Trail of Tears Continues

trail_of_tearsThe Trail of Tears, by Max B. Standley

Old conflicts often take new forms – guns and swords are replaced by social, legal and political manipulation.  The story of Native American tribes in America has been one of dispossession.  The first stage was symbolized by “The Trail of Tears,” when President Andrew Jackson and the Congress forced the Cherokee, Muscogee (Creek), Seminole, Chickasaw, and Choctaw Indians to abandon their homes in the Southeastern United States and relocate to the Oklahoma territories.  At the heart of the matter lay the desire for their land and gold (then being mined in Georgia).  During the brutal march, thousands died of exposure, disease and starvation.  This marked the beginning of the reservation system which was characterized by land grabs and broken promises.

indian children in public schoolsDuring the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the dispossession became cultural as the last native resistance against the taking of their lands subsided.  Tribal languages, teachings and cultural ways were steadily eroded as their children were forced into the American public school system via Native American residential schools in the interest of assimilating tribes into American cultural.

Today, native families are under a new threat of dispossession – the forced removal of their children to foster care.  The story of one such Native American family in South Dakota, and the institutions and processes that enabled it, recently aired on National Public Radio (NPR).  The story was one in a series reported by Laura Sullivan and highlighted the systemic nature of this new form of cultural conflict.  Not surprisingly, the reports have engendered strong reactions – outrage from many citizens, demands for an investigation by the ACLU, and denials from South Dakota’s governor and many social workers who feel they have been wrongly vilified.

native-american-girlRegardless of the report’s political and legal fallout, it underscores the real emotional damage done to the children involved.  They are the innocent victims at the center of this tangle of greed, insensitive government and legislated good intentions gone wrong.  Children are the tablet on which our future is ultimately written.  If they are hopeful, our future is hopeful; if they are fearful, our future will be filled with dread.  Their future is not a place for compromise. We can  put an end to this pernicious new form of dispossession if we exercise our inherent empathy, compassion and ethical sensibilities.


October 30, 2011

Pink Chaddis – Mightier Than the Sword

The greater transparency afforded by the Internet and social media, when it comes to political and social affairs, can be an effective counter to bullying by groups who would impose their own moral agenda on others.  A striking case in point is the Pink Chaddis campaign.

Pramod Muthalik

Pramod Muthalik

One evening in January 2009, in the city of Mangalore in southwestern India, a group of  religious fundamentalists named Sri Ram Sena (SRS) attacked a group of women at a local bar called Ambient.  The women were assaulted and driven out into the street.  The Sri Ram Sena (which means “Lord Ram’s Army” in Hindu) is known for its use of violent moral policing tactics similar to those of the Taliban in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Other people at the pub captured the events on their video-enabled cell phones.  These were uploaded to YouTube and widely viewed.  Pramod Muthali, leader of the Sri Ram Sene, vowed that his organization would attack anyone who chose to celebrate Valentine’s Day, which it viewed as an inappropriate Western celebration too focused on romantic love.

Nisha Susan

Nisha Susan

Nisha Susan, a resident of Mangalore, decided to make a public response and rally women to her cause.  She  organized a campaign to combat the threats from the SRS.  She set up a Facebook group called “The Association of Pub-going, Loose and Forward Women.”  She asked the members to mail pink chaddis (Hindu slang for “underwear”) to Muthalik’s office address which she published.  The campaign was an instant success.

In an article she later wrote for the Guardian, Nisha noted “One day, the campaign had 500 members; a week later, it had 30,000. A 75-year-old woman from Delhi sent us panties. A Bollywood lyricist wrote a poem in honour of the rose-coloured chaddi. Amul, India’s best-known brand of butter, put up a billboard featuring a pink chaddi. More than 2,000 chaddis arrived at the SRS office.”

pink-chaddisThe police and politicians of the city, sensitive to the large public response, took heed and brought Muthalik and some of his followers into custody for several days around  Valentine’s Day.

Online tools make it easier to coordinate non-violent protests against groups who promote their ideologies through intimidation and bullying.  But it still takes the courage and creative spark of one or more determined individuals to make it successful.