Monthly Archives: May 2011

Blending the Line Between Business and Charity

The original (and very basic) $300 house design, showing the necessities that must be included in a valid entry into the competition. (Source: theglobeandmail.com)

I was recently listening to the Economist’s All Audio podcast (which, by the way, I would highly recommend), a fantastic source for news and analysis. In a (fairly) recent report, published on April 28, I heard about a wonderfully simple yet novel idea: A $300 house for the poor.

Living quarters are often given secondary importance in the fight against poverty by many. Things like the provision of food and medicine usually take the front seat, leaving living space as a kind of secondary concern when stacked up against what may seem like more important goals. But when one stops to think about it, living space has a direct effect on nearly every other aspect of life.

What’s safer, a mansion or a broken-down shack? Which has more reliable clean water? Which offers more protection from bug-born and other diseases? The places we live in are integral to our health. But an alarmingly large part of the world’s population isn’t afforded these “luxuries” by the places in which they live. A decent house, apartment, or other living space can act as a stepping stone to a better life for individuals and families in devastating poverty. But, according to a 2010 report by the UN, there were about 827 million people living in slums around the world in this year.

Here’s where the $300 house comes into play. A professor of international business at Dartmouth named Vijay Govindarajan issued a challenge of sorts to the business minds of the world: Turn your talents to housing the poor. Who better to find an economical solution to a global problem? Govindarajan and a consultant started an online competition to create a house that is sturdy and secure, and also provides basic necessities for its inhabitants, such as electricity and clean water. The winning design will then be discussed and improved, and ideally, will be invested in by global companies. In this way, the world’s poor can be aided without draining other parts of the world economy; businesses can reach a new kind of customer, and those customers can receive the support and shelter they need for day-to-day life at a price they can afford. As Govindarajan’s consultant, Christian Sarkar, put it, “We’re trying to encourage companies to look at the bottom of the pyramid, at the poor, as customers. What you’ve got to do is make it a business and make it to scale.”

Normally, I tend to draw a line in the sand between business and philanthropy. It’s an easy dichotomy to make: We think of business as the pursuit of personal gain, and philanthropy as the pursuit of others’ wellbeing. I have to admit that I tend to separate the two as well; in fact, I always used to tell myself that I could never go into business, because it would be too self-serving. But this idea, among many others, has proven me utterly wrong about this.

It’s true that in many cases, businesses do tend to be self-serving. The purpose of a business is to make money, so it can be very easy for those in the business world to become so focused on money-making that they lose sight of the great potential the business world has for helping the poor in a cost-effective way, something many charities couldn’t say. The $300 house idea is a great one, not only for its provision of safe and secure housing for the poor, but for its fusion of care for the poor and economic thinking. Many great ideas to help the poor have been held back by monetary shortcomings and lack of funding. But if the business world can continue to get involved in this kind of low-cost business to and for the poor, for everything from water filters to houses, then perhaps cost-effective charity could be much easier than we think.

I used two major information sources for this post: The Economist audio story I mentioned above, and a great article I found here, on The Globe and Mail.

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Filed under Economy, Human Rights

A Harder Line on Israel

Benjamin Netanyahu and Barack Obama discussing the state of affairs between Israel and Palestine. (Source: CNN)

In a landmark speech on the Middle East, President Obama staked a strong position for the United States towards Israel, Palestine, and the conflict between the two nations. Rather than the usually-noncommittal tack taken by previous US leaders, Obama strongly stated that Israel and Palestine must set apart their differences, each recognizing the other as a sovereign, independent state.

It’s been the unofficial stance of the United States for years that Palestinian borders should be restored to their positions in 1967, prior to the Six-Day War, in which Israel forced Palestine out of yet more of its territory, after having already been given Palestinian territory by the United Nations in 1947. But Barack Obama is the first US president to openly state that this will be America’s official policy toward the conflict.

This is a crucial statement on Obama’s part, both politically and strategically. On the political side, Obama is finally reviving one of his campaign “promises” (I use quotes because all presidential candidates make promises that are unlikely to come to fruition; it’s how they get elected) by bringing up the issue of Israeli-Palestinian tensions. Strategically, Obama may have helped place himself on the right side of a coming conflict between Israel and Palestine.

I say “coming conflict” because, unfortunately, it seems quite likely that another intifada may come along. The revolutionary spirit of many other parts of the Arab world could easily catch on in Palestine, and not necessarily in the peaceful ways it did in Egypt or Tunisia. The recent merger of Fatah and Hamas has Israel even more concerned, and the Palestinian plan for a unilateral declaration of independence at the UN’s General Assembly this coming September is pushing things to dangerous levels. Last week, Palestinians from neighboring countries marched on Israel, calling for recognition of a Palestinian state. 13 were killed by Israeli soldiers.

All of these events, combined with the energy of the Arab Spring, may put Israel on very bad footing on the international stage. If Palestine can take the reins of this revolutionary fervor in a peaceful way, Israel will have to either make peaceful concessions or react oppressively to Palestinian desires. If Israel doesn’t acquiesce but instead reacts with repression, it stands to lose an enormous amount of hard-won respect around the world.

Perhaps a new, peaceful intifada is in order. Instead of the bloodshed and violent hatred that marked the second intifada though, this revolution should be a nonviolent shaking-off (as the word intifada literally translates to) of Israel’s repression. Palestine must recognize Israel’s right to statehood, but Israel must do the same for Palestine. Only if these two peoples can see one another’s value will there be any true resolution.

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Filed under International Focus, Military & Might, Politics & Power

Read On: Prothero on May 21sters

Whether or not Christ is returning on May 21st, this op-ed by Stephen Prothero is provocative and insightful for any reader. (Source: eurweb.com)

This is the first in a new category of posts I’m starting called Read On. These are short posts that include a brief introduction to a topic followed by a link to an article, op-ed, video, or other piece on that topic. I’m starting this category for two reasons: First, this will allow me to continue writing and encouraging discussion about interesting and provocative topics and issues, even when short on time (which I have been of late). Second, there are many pieces to be found online that I feel merit more discussion, so I want to share these with my readers.

As many of you have likely heard, the world is going to end tomorrow, May 21st, at 6 pm. Well, that’s the story at least.

Harold Camping, president of Family Radio, made a prediction about the end of the world, declaring that it is to come on May 21st: tomorrow. This isn’t the first time Camping has made this prediction, and after 6:01 passes without incident tomorrow, he’s likely to come up with another.

Now, the idea of this world crashing down around our heads tomorrow seems unlikely at best to the vast majority of us. And while I would agree that this theory is pure lunacy and fantasy, perhaps this kind of unfounded belief is not as far from home as we would think.

In the article I link to below, Stephen Prothero, a professor of religion at Boston University, discusses the idea that we all have our pet irrational beliefs, and perhaps we’re not all that different from the May 21sters.

My Take: Doomsdayers not so different from the rest of us

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Filed under People & Society, Read On, Religion & Reason

Clashing Dreams in the Middle East

As revolution rushes through the Middle East, radical Islam and democratic secularism will clash and confront one another. (Source: beforeitsnews.com)

Osama bin Laden may be dead, but his dream lives on. His was a dream of violence, bloodshed, and sectarianism, one in which a new Islamist caliphate could take power, and his repressive ideology would flourish.

Bin Laden also envisioned a Middle East that would be sympathetic to his ideas and ideals. And while most people are repulsed by his beliefs, there are a frightening number of people who hold the same bloodthirsty views as him. Many of these are already involved in al Qaeda, the Taliban, or other distinct terrorist entities. But this mindset can be found all throughout the Middle East and beyond. It is an idea that advocates the violent enforcement of one’s own beliefs, and is not only a grave danger to lives, but an offensive and woefully misguided interpretation of the otherwise peaceful and fairly welcoming religion of Islam.

Yet the Arab Spring, as it is now known, is seriously calling into question the efficacy and popularity of bin Laden’s violent Islamist vision for the Middle East. Unlike the religious revolution al Qaeda dreams of someday bringing about, the Arab Spring which brought down both Hosni Mubarak and Zine El Abidine Ben Ali was almost exclusively secular, and motivated by secular desires and aspirations. It’s democracy that the Arab people seem bent on achieving, not an Islamic state or caliphate.

So there seem to be two conflicting viewpoints in the Middle East right now. On the one hand, Osama bin Laden, al Qaeda, and all who share their twisted views see a future in which their own beliefs about religion and society are paramount. On the other hand, a powerful new youth movement is swelling in the Middle East, a movement that, despite al Qaeda’s fondest wishes, is a secular one.

The stage seems set for yet more tension in the Middle East. Even as a new dream of freedom and democracy builds momentum in places that previously suffered under terribly repressive states, a different kind of repression, this time of a religious variety, is still in the arena. As these two dreams of the future, one of religious nationalism and the other of secular democracy, face off over the coming years, the people of the Middle East will have a choice. They must make it wisely.

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Filed under International Focus, Religion & Reason, Revolutions & Revolts, War & Peace

Yet More Pakistani Complications

Special Forces killed Osama bin Laden in this compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan on May 1. (Source: talkingpointsmemo.com)

The news of Osama bin Laden’s death sent shockwaves through the United States. Barack Obama’s announcement of the mass killer’s demise was amazing and exhilarating to most Americans, and gave the President strong new legitimacy as the country’s leader and commander-in-chief.

But it also presents a tricky and troubling question: If bin Laden has been hiding in a compound in Pakistan (see picture) for quite some time now, how did Pakistan not notice? Or more worryingly, why did they not tell the US if they knew where bin Laden was hiding?

Osama was tracked down to a modest city in Pakistan called Abbottabad. It’s not particularly surprising or alarming that bin Laden was found in Pakistan. What is frightening is that he was hiding in the middle of a good-size town that is only around 50 km away from the capital of Islamabad. What’s more, the compound in which bin Laden concealed himself was only around half a mile away from a major military training academy.

All of this adds up to yet more turbulence in the already complex and conflicted relationship between the United States and Pakistan. As I mentioned in a previous post, things have been tough between America and Pakistan as of late, and the discovery of bin Laden is unlikely to help things much.

So far, Pakistan has played a key role in counter-terrorism operations and provision of intelligence to the US. Since the alliance between the two countries began after the September 11 attacks, Pakistan has generally assisted American forces in the fight against terrorism in the area. So the question of why they did nothing and said nothing about bin Laden is an important one. Bin Laden’s compound, which burned trash, had holes rather than windows, and featured walls up to 18 feet high, is hardly covert or discrete. And being just down the road from the Pakistan Military Academy, and located in a town known as a military stronghold, it seems ludicrous to say that no one in Pakistani law enforcement had any idea.

Which leads to two possible answers as to why Pakistan’s lips were sealed about bin Laden: Either the Pakistani military and intelligence officials were incompetent, or they were intentionally harboring the most notorious terrorist in the world. Both possibilities are grim ones. Pakistani officials have also been questioning why the United States didn’t give them some warning or wait for permission to carry out such an operation within Pakistan’s borders. This is an understandable desire on that country’s part, but there are good reasons why they weren’t told.

As I also mentioned in the above previous post, a serious trust gap is widening between the US and Pakistan. While neither side is directly scorning or condemning the other at this point, both sides are uncomfortable with one another. American leaders feel that Pakistan is not consistent in their handling of terrorism and in their alliance with the US. Pakistan, on the other hand, sees America as overstepping its boundaries with civilian collateral from US drone strikes, the discovery of a number of CIA agents operating in secret within their borders, and a general distrust of Pakistan’s leadership, especially the ISI.

This led US officials, and rightly so, to refrain from informing Pakistan about the operation to take out Osama bin Laden. To inform any Pakistani leadership would be to take away the security of the operation; this would perhaps even have allowed bin Laden to slip quietly away from Abbottabad, even as American forces closed in on him. The simple fact is, the US simply does not know enough about Pakistan’s desires and goals as they relate to al Qaeda and the Taliban. It’s apparent that at least some factions of Pakistani leadership seek to keep certain terrorist cells and organizations in existence, as this could presumably offer them some benefit. It’s unclear whether keeping bin Laden alive was intentional on Pakistan’s part, or whether they were simply worryingly ignorant of his presence.

Neither reason is likely to do much to help ease tensions between the US and Pakistan. With many questions yet to answer about bin Laden’s presence in Abbottabad, Pakistan is finding itself under pressure to explain things. Whether Osama’s conspicuous living in Abbottabad was allowed by Pakistan or simply overlooked, this revelation adds another strain of unease between these nascent allies.

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Filed under International Focus, War & Peace