Archive for the 'poverty' Category

Tackling the Global Education Crisis, One Innovation at a Time

Whether it’s helping Mexican university students bridge the gap between industry and academia, or providing Ugandan children with basic health education programs, many teams this year have chosen to tackle the difficult problems facing the global education sector.

In recent years, social innovators have joined the ranks of talented teachers and school administrators in rethinking traditional school models, finding creative ways to improve educational quality and access.

A new policy paper by the McGraw-Hill Research Foundation might be of interest to those pursuing projects related to educational reform.

How Social Entrepreneurship is Helping to Improve Education Worldwide (available online) highlights the distinct contributions of social innovators in helping to improve early childhood education in low-income communities, creating alternate channels for funding, and providing basic skills to at-risk populations across the globe.

Author Rupert Scofield, President and CEO of the Foundation for International Community Assistance, draws from several interesting case studies that illustrate the potential for social enterprise to solve issues ranging from poor educational access to the growing achievement gap. The key to the success of these enterprises, Scofield writes, lies in their ability to effectively utilize business practices emphasizing sustainability and scalability – two important attributes of any winning IDEAS Challenge project! Here are a few examples:

In the Bronx, the Women’s Housing and Economic Development Corporation (WHEDco) not only runs multiple afterschool programs and summer camps, but has also created hundreds of revenue-generating businesses within the community, helping to ensure the continued success and long-term sustainability of its programs.

In India, where harsh inequities prevail and 90 million women remain illiterate, the Mann Deshi Foundation provides vocational training and financial literacy to women in impoverished communities. It also runs the Mann Deshi Business School, which delivers microbusiness courses in mobile classrooms, and the Mann Deshi Mahlia Bank, which provides loans for its business school graduates to start microenterprises.

DonorsChoose.org is a charitable marketplace where teachers can make simple classroom requests, from pencils to microscope slides, for their students. As of August 2011, the website has generated $85 million benefitting more than 5 million schoolchildren in the U.S. The website notably allows individual donors to contribute to its overhead costs (with 76% choosing to do so), and has established diverse funding streams that include multiple corporate sponsors.

We hope that these examples of powerful — and sustainable — social innovations offer a bit of inspiration for those joining the education cause!

What Works in Poverty Alleviation / A Review of Poor Economics

Much coverage has been given to MIT researchers Esther Duflo and Abhijit Banerjee’s new book, Poor Economics: A Radical Rethinking of the Way to Fight Global Poverty. Banerjee and Duflo are well-known here at MIT for their use of randomized control experiments to test the means of poverty alleviation and their co-starting of the Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-Pal).

The 273 pages of Poor Economics shares the results of their research – and starts to fill in the gap between economist Jeffrey Sachs’ (aid breaks the poverty trap!) and William Easterly’s (free markets and provide incentives, people will solve their own problems!) theories on development.

Banerjee and Duflo’s work raises oft-debated questions such as what really supports the use of bed nets in malaria infested areas, when is microfinance useful, and why, given the availability of education, are more individuals not receiving quality education? What is actually working?

There are many good intentions in development work (regardless of the location); being able to learn from and distinguish between good intentions and theories and the associated results will help us all push forward the next iterations on our work.

As writers Ramnath and Misra point out in Forbes India, “The approach is not without its critics [one example]. One relates to the danger of generalising [sic] the results (what social researchers call ‘external validity’; it questions whether what worked in one place will work in another). In an earlier interview, Banerjee said it was a serious concern. But some evidence is better than no evidence. Also, many such trials will lead to better policies.”

While we are all not able to commit to (or have the luxury to) conduct randomized control trials, we can learn from Duflo and Banerjee’s work. They offer five key lessons when working on poverty alleviation (summarized here and can be found starting on page 268):

  1. A lack of information often contributes to untrue beliefs.
  2. The poor bear responsibility for too many important decisions (such as whether to spend money on vaccinations).
  3. Markets are not always friendly to the poor.
  4. Many policies meant to help fall short because of the three Is: ignorance, ideology, and inertia.
  5. People live up to their expectations.

Duflo and Banerjee end on a practical note, inviting readers to use the book as an invitation (almost a challenge) to dig deeper. As they say,

If we resist the kind of lazy, formulaic thinking that reduces every problem to the same set of general principles; if we listen to poor people themselves and force ourselves to understand the logic of their choices; if we accept the possibility of error and subject every idea, including the most apparently commonsensical ones, to rigorous empirical testing, then we will be able  not only to construct a toolbox of effective policies but also to better understand why the poor live the way they do. Armed with this patient understanding, we can identify the poverty traps where they really area and know which tools we need to give the poor to help them get out of them. (page 272)

You can find more about the book here: http://www.pooreconomics.com.

And the winner is…

Congratulations to IDEAS 2010 team Sanergy for your winning entry into the IDEAS and Global Challenge video pitch contest! Judges voted Sanergy’s pitch the best for the clear connection between your team’s accomplishment and the resources offered through IDEAS and the Global Challenge. Most importantly, the video did a wonderful job emphasizing a multidisciplinary team drawn from across the MIT community and a deep connection to community and MIT resources on the ground, like FabLab. Here’s the vid:

Sanergy from Ani Vallabhaneni on Vimeo.

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Thanks so much to all of the teams that entered a video into the pitch contest – the range of projects represented is amazing, and I hope that through the MIT Public Service Center we’ll continue to find ways to support your work. View all of the entries here.

Oct 21| MIT Agricultural Processes Challenge kick-off

[Cross-posted from the MIT Food + Agriculture Collaborative]

October 21, 2010: Yunus Innovation Challenge Kickoff dinner, from 7:00 to 9:00pm, R&D Pub Lounge (Stata Center, 4th Floor).

PROBLEM

Around the world, 550 million smallholder farmers lack access to mechanized agricultural technology. Many important food staples like maize (corn) and grains (e.g., rice or wheat) are harvested and processed by hand, which is both labor intensive and time consuming. This year’s Yunus Challenge calls for locally and environmentally sustainable innovations to improve the livelihoods of smallholder farmers.

THE CHALLENGE

The 2011 Yunus Challenge will be awarded to participants who create an innovative solution that has the most potential to increase adoption of beneficial agricultural technologies, financial systems, or market access among smallholder farmers to improve their livelihoods. Participants are encouraged to put their energy toward creating solutions that overcome the behavioral and situational hurdles of the adoption of agricultural innovations, rather than looking at the challenge only in terms of the creation of new technologies. That said, the proposed solution may involve a physical device.

Bruce Nussbaum: The New Imperialism

During the period of rapid American mechanization and industrialization – from roughly the late 18th century through the 19th century – the United States benefitted significantly from the contributions of foreign inventors and entrepreneurs. One might go so far as to say, the founding of American industrial strength out of this period was formed out of strong continental ties and a lively exchange of ideas and designs.

Explicit knowledge transfer programs like worker training and study tours thrived as societies sought to keep abreast of the latest technological advances – as did less formal modes of learning, including philosophical societies and outright espionage.

Against this backdrop of the lively exchange of knowledge and commerce, it comes as a bit of a shock to read the latest musing of Bruce Nussbaum, a professor of Innovation and Design at the Parsons School of Design, who mused in a recent Fast Company Design article whether “Humanitarian design is the new imperialism?” Granted, this is a line of enquiry he’s used in the past, for example in a 2009 Businessweek article when he asked whether “Green” was the new imperialism.

Continue reading ‘Bruce Nussbaum: The New Imperialism’

The fortress and the free agent

Non-profit tech experts Beth Kanter and Alison Fine have a great article in the June 13 edition of the online Chronicle of Philanthropy. In it, they profile a 29-year old Canadian who has spent the last couple of year traveling the world, doing good deeds, documenting his experiences, and sharing them online – inspiring millions to follow along and contribute to his work. Pretty cool stuff. Reminds me a little of the work of Gabriel Stauring, inspiring founder of stopgenocidenow.org.

In the article, they make a provocative claim: “Free agents do it when and how they please, making them distinct from and more powerful than traditional volunteers.”  ”He is inspiring other people to talk about the issue of global poverty and take action “’in a way that is different from the big nonprofit organizations,’” he says.

But he’s having a hard time earning credibility with the big guys – the more conventional aid organizations. Alison and Beth explain:

““The problem isn’t social media, the problem is that you are the fortress. Social media is not my problem: I have over a quarter million followers on Twitter, 10,800 subscribers on YouTube, and 2.1 million views. Yet despite that, I have a hard time having you guys take me seriously. I get dismissed as ‘just a guy on YouTube.’”

Continue reading ‘The fortress and the free agent’

Why social entrepreneurs do what they do

A recent article in Stanford’s Business Magazine profiled the social enterprise D.light, which delivers affordable LED lighting to rural, off-grid communities. A powerful quote caught my eye, one that really threw into sharp relief the power of what students everywhere are doing to change the world:

“Chaudhary purchased a light for about $30 and soon noticed that his family’s eyes no longer burned and their chests no longer hurt. Even better, they could see at night. His sister, Rama, was able to stay up late knitting sweaters. His father, Gajinder, could read without straining his eyesight. His aunt, Suman, stopped charring the flat chapati bread she baked over the wood stove.”

All these benefits from a light? Its almost inconveivable in our comfortable lifestyles. To communities with less, simple, smart changes add up to significant quality of life improvements.

Read the complete Stanford article here.

Winners of the 9th Annual MIT IDEAS Competition

Graduate students Aaron Zinman and Greg Elliott at the IDEAS Competition Project Display and Judging Session. Photo: Aditi Verma

Graduate students Aaron Zinman and Greg Elliott at the IDEAS Competition Project Display and Judging Session. Photo: Aditi Verma

The ninth annual MIT IDEAS Competition celebrated student achievement on Monday evening, May 3, at MIT’s Raymond and Maria Stata Center. Seven student teams received IDEAS awards to implement their projects over the next year. IDEAS — which stands for Innovation, Development, Enterprise, Action and Service — recognizes student teams that have developed outstanding projects that apply invention as a public service. Each award, funded by a corporate or individual sponsor, will enable a team to develop their prototype into a working solution in collaboration with community partners around the world.

The awards, presented by a selection of MIT staff and sponsors, went to the following teams:

Konbit was awarded the $8,000 IDEAS Award sponsored by the Office of the Dean for Graduate Education. Team members Greg Elliott and Aaron Zinman designed a service via phone, Short Message Service (SMS), and web that helps communities rebuild themselves after a crisis by indexing the skill sets of local residents, and allowing NGOs to find and employ them.

Continue reading ‘Winners of the 9th Annual MIT IDEAS Competition’

Why?

Over on his “Dare Mighty Things” blog, tech and social entrepreneur Ryan Allis writes, “As I sit on the 28th floor of a hotel in San Francisco I am angry, yet hopeful. I wonder why in a world with as much wealth as we see, as much luxury that we experience, should 40% of the human species live on under $2 per day?”

Ryan’s uncharacteristically outraged.

Always passionate, there’s a ring of clarity and urgency. This from a guy who, not even 20, founded a successful technology company and today spends alot of time inspiring others. Ryan’s young, smart, successful – he’s supposed to be optimistic about the human species and our capacity to shape the world for the better, right? So what gives?

Continue reading ‘Why?’