Five Questions for Robert Reich about Saving Capitalism: For the Many, Not the Few

Five Questions for Robert Reich about Saving Capitalism: For the Many, Not the Few

By Tamara Straus

Saving Capitalism: For the Many, Not the FewRobert B. Reich is among America’s first multi-platform public intellectuals. The Blum Center’s Senior Fellow and Chancellor’s Professor of Public Policy has written 12 books, is a constant producer of videos and movies, and has a massive Facebook audience, thanks to his rapid-fire production of commentaries and blogs. At 69, after decades of public service as a public university professor and government administrator (most notably as President Clinton’s Secretary of Labor), his work life has become even more ambitious—to unveil and correct what he sees as the imperiled state of American democracy.

The Blum Center sat down with Professor Reich to talk about his latest book, Saving Capitalism: For the Many, Not the Few. In it, he passionately argues that the U.S.’s current political polarization stems from the wrong argument. Americans should not be choosing between “big government” and “small government” or the degree to which we should promote a “free market”—they should be debating the benefits of a market organized for more inclusive prosperity or one designed to deliver the most gains to the top. Written at a time when the United States faces the greatest income inequality and wealth disparity in 80 years, “Saving Capitalism” aims to lay out what’s at stake for the present and the years ahead.

You write that you are confident we can save capitalism from its own excesses and return to a period of fairer distribution of wealth. But how do you remain confident when, for example, Thomas Piketty argues in his best-selling Capital in the Twenty-First Century that an ever-rising concentration of wealth is not self-correcting (and does it through data going back 250 years)?

Piketty focuses only on wealth concentration, not income concentration. Yet the central feature of inequality in America is income concentration. And the good news is America has repeatedly reformed itself with regard to excessive concentration of income and its attendant political consequences. We did so in the Jacksonian era (the 1830s), the Progressive era (1901 to 1916), the New Deal (1933 to 1939), and, to some extent, in the Great Society (1964 Civil Rights Act, 1965 Voting Rights Act, 1965 Medicare and Medicaid). In other words, we have a strong track record of expanding the circle of prosperity when capitalism gets off track.

Which group of Americans would you most like to reach with this book?

I want to reach average Americans who are confused and frustrated about the current political-economic system, who don’t want to scapegoat immigrants or the poor for their problems, and who are open to uniting with others in order to mobilize and organize a movement to regain control over our democracy and make our economy work for the many rather than the few.

You write that widening inequality has become “baked into” the building blocks of the free market itself. Why don’t more people understand that? 

Because the rules that define the basic building blocks are hidden from view, and most people don’t see them or understand them. Most people don’t understand that the rules that define intellectual capital—what can be patented and for how long—have been tilted in the direction of the owners of intellectual capital and against consumers, for example; or how the rules and laws governing contracts have changed (allowing much more leeway for insider trading than ever before, for example); or how the bankruptcy code has been rewritten to favor large corporations over homeowners and student debtors; and so on.

What do you think is the most controversial argument in Saving Capitalism?

Nothing should be controversial in a partisan sense. On this book tour, I’ve talked with many people who call themselves “conservative Republicans” who agree with almost every point I make. They want to end crony-capitalism; they think the biggest Wall Street banks are way too big; they’re opposed to “corporate welfare”; they want to get big money out of politics. Recently a self-described “conservative economist” who had been asked to debate me on a radio show confessed on the air that he agreed with almost all of the book, and praised it. Even my political point—that we need to reestablish what John Kenneth Galbraith once described as “countervailing power”—is not really controversial. I don’t condemn big corporations, big banks, CEOs, or wealthy individuals. My concern is that political power has become too concentrated in the hands of too few, and we need to reestablish countervailing power—perhaps not the same sources of countervailing power as we had in the 1950s and 1960s, but new sources that act as a check and balance upon concentrated power.

What is the best case and worst case scenario for our future political economy?

The best case is we enter another phase of reformist populism, as we have done at least four times before in American history. The worst case is we succumb to authoritarian populism—the quest for a “strongman” who will get the job done, even at the cost of our democratic institutions. So far, America hasn’t succumbed to authoritarian capitalism, although other nations have. But the current path we’re on is not sustainable. One or another—reformist populism or authoritarian populism—will manifest itself over the next two decades.

For more information or to order a book:

Hygiene Heroes: UC Berkeley Team Promotes Hand-Washing Curriculum to Combat Preventable Diseases

Hygiene Heroes: UC Berkeley Team Promotes Hand-Washing Curriculum to Combat Preventable Diseases

By Carlo David

A group of students, led by Professor David Levine of UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business, are seeking to combat preventable diseases in developing countries like Bolivia, Cambodia, Tanzania and India, where significant populations do not have access to clean water and soap. Their goal is to make hand washing routine for thousands of students and teachers by introducing a fun and interactive curriculum—called “Hygiene Heroes”—at public schools. The Hygiene Heroes curriculum includes recreational activities, board games, and a book, as well as cost-efficient supplies like “soapy bottles.”

Students from a public elementary school in Chennai. © Hygiene Heroes, 2015
Students from a public elementary school in Chennai © Hygiene Heroes, 2015

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 1.8 million children under the age of 5 die annually from diarrheal diseases or pneumonia, the top two causes of deaths among young people. The alarming rate of children dying from such preventable diseases prompted Prof. Levine, along with several students, such as Nimerta Sandhu (Haas ’14) and Melanie Cernak (Haas ’15), to undertake this project.

Hygiene Heroes was piloted in Cambodia and Tanzania in the summer of 2013. During the academic year, the team conducted extensive outreach to school districts, principals, and community organizations to test the project’s curriculum. Meanwhile, over the summers of 2013 and 2014 under the leadership of Gautam Srikanth, a Cal undergraduate student in Environmental Economics, several UC Berkeley students traveled abroad to lay the groundwork for expanding the project in Chennai, India.

Prof. Levine explained there are many economic and cultural misconceptions about why people do not develop a hand washing habit. According to a recent World Health Organization and UNICEF report covering 54 middle- and low-income countries, 35 percent of health facilities do not have water and soap for hand washing.

A woman in Chennai washes her hands with water from a groundwater pump commonly used in India. © Hygiene Heroes, 2015
A woman in Chennai washes her hands with water from a groundwater pump commonly used in India. © Hygiene Heroes, 2015

“Lots of people rinse hands with water. The Hygiene Heroes project is targeting people who do not wash their hands with soap,” said Levine. “Even here in the United States, when no one is looking, people tend to not wash their hands with soap.”

Continued Levine: “We introduced soapy bottles, which are basically empty water bottles filled with water and soap. With them, classrooms can create routines, such as squeezing soapy water on each student’s hands as they leave for lunch and head to a faucet to rinse. Such routines constantly reinforce students’ hand washing.”

Hygiene Heroes is working on a shoestring budget with funding from online donors, the Center for Effective Global Action (CEGA), and the Haas School of Business, and is facing equally limited financial resources from the schools that the project is targeting. To deal with these challenges, the team is capitalizing on previous efforts launched in India to promote hand washing.

“We are building on previous curricular efforts,” said Levine. “Part of the task is to reinvent some of the approaches used to promote hand washing with soap.” In the past, said Levine, glitter has been used in games to demonstrate the necessity for children to wash their hands after they play and especially before eating. But glitter is expensive, so scaling such an approach is difficult. Instead, the Hygiene Heroes team is using cost-efficient alternatives, such as chalk dust or even turmeric, to play the “pass the germ (and be aware)” game.

From his time as a senior economist on President Bill Clinton’s Council of Economic Advisors to his present position as the Eugene E. and Catherine M. Trefethen Chair in Business Administration at UC Berkeley, Levine has analyzed the impacts of investing in health and education, especially in poor nations. He is currently one of 19 Cal faculty members behind a new program called Development Engineering for graduate students pursuing research in poverty alleviation.

In the case of this project, said Levine, “One of the challenges is to work with regular teachers, who are busy, and make our proposed curriculum part of their routine. The board game [we introduced in Cambodia] is popular among kids, but because it is not part of their curriculum, it can serve only as supplementary material.”

A teacher explains the importance of hand washing to elementary school students in Chennai. © Hygiene Heroes, 2015
A teacher from Chennai explains the importance of hand washing to elementary school students in Chennai © Hygiene Heroes, 2015

The Hygiene Heroes team has been working across disciplines to find collaborators. Jacqueline Zhou, from UC Berkeley’s Art Department, for example, is the illustrator of the children’s book King Akbar Writes a Law. In the story, Prime Minister Birbal, a popular folk tale character in much of South Asia, requires the palace’s servants to wash their hands with water and soap. The prime minister must convince the king of the importance of the new law, slowly helping the monarch realize that contamination can spread, even if it cannot be seen.

Culture is an important facet of Hygiene Heroes. Nimerta Sandhu, who first joined the initiative in January 2013 and now works as a management consultant in the health industries, found her passion for public health and community service to be a guiding force for her involvement with the project. “Working with underserved and minority communities, the project has been very important to me. I hope to continue these efforts both internationally and within the United States,” she said.

For Melanie Cernak, who now works as a business development associate at a Silicon Valley firm, her first-hand interaction with the children and their enthusiastic reception of her was fascinating, although sometimes uncomfortable. “Students were attentive and largely would listen to me,” she said. “They wanted to wash their hands because they saw Americans washing their hands. But that is not a sustainable model.”

Over the past two years, the project has established important connections inside and outside of Chennai. The Indian Institute of Technology in Madras (IIT-Madras) played a pivotal role in testing Hygiene Heroes in the region, and in searching for schools that benefit from the project. Currently, the team—with more than a dozen students involved—has partnered with Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA), a government program that is responsible for 30,000 schools under India’s Department of School Education and Literacy. Hygiene Heroes is also hoping to increase its outreach through Teach for India, an Indian adaptation of Teach for America, and CLEAN India, a national campaign advocating for clean, healthy, and sustainable lifestyle.

Although the Hygiene Heroes team is aiming to create long-lasting behavioral change, it does not expect to produce far-reaching results instantly. A project of this scale requires constant engagement and understanding of behavioral and political factors. “It will take a long time,” Prof. Levine said. “But it is the most important solvable problem on the planet.”

Blum Center-Supported We Care Solar Wins $1 Million UN Award

Blum Center-Supported We Care Solar Wins $1 Million UN Award
The Solar Suitcase
We Care Solar’s Solar Suitcase

We Care Solar, the Blum Center-supported nonprofit, has won the United Nations’ first “Powering the Future We Want: Recognizing Innovative Practices in Energy for Sustainable Development” award. We Care Solar is being recognized with this $1 million grant for its pioneering work providing sustainable energy to improve maternal and child health. The nonprofit produces Solar Suitcases, which provide light and energy to under-resourced medical facilities, primarily in Africa and Asia.

The award is the first by the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs and signals the convergence of efforts around global health, renewable energy, and sustainable development. It comes on the eve of the UN’s historic adoption of the Sustainable Development Goals.

Laura E. Stachel, We Care Solar co-founder and executive director, accepted the award at a September 14, 2015 ceremony at the United Nations introduced by Secretary General Ban Ki-moon. From over 200 applicants, We Care Solar was one of 12 finalists invited to the United Nations to share sustainable energy practices.

Stachel, an obstetrician, conceived her innovation in 2008 while conducting public health research in Nigeria. She was one of the first experts to recognize the link between maternal mortality and lack of access to reliable electricity. To address this need, she and her husband, Hal Aronson, co-founded We Care Solar in 2010. Together, they developed compact portable Solar Suitcases to provide essential lighting and electricity to maternal health centers. To date, 1,300 We Care Solar Suitcases have been distributed to health centers—and that number is expected to double in the next twelve months.

Dr. Laura Stachel
Dr. Laura Stachel

Stachel said: “The United Nations is shining a light on an area that has all too often been overlooked—the lack of reliable electricity in health facilities. I have had the privilege of working with hundreds of health workers who have seen the miracle of light and power in saving lives, and we have much more work to do. This award is the beginning of a brighter future for women everywhere.”

Stachel used her acceptance speech to declare a commitment to light up and power every primary health clinic in the world with renewable forms of energy. Today, as many as 300,000 health centers worldwide lack reliable power. “There can no longer be silos between global health goals and sustainable energy goals. The time has come to collectively work together to give every health care worker the power they need to save lives,” Stachel said.

Berkeley Lab Water Technology Boomerangs from Bangladesh to California

Berkeley Lab Water Technology Boomerangs from Bangladesh to California

By Tamara Straus


In 2006, when UC Berkeley Civil Engineering Professor Ashok Gadgil began researching the possibility of removing arsenic from drinking water using electrochemistry, he targeted his invention at South Asia, specifically Bangladesh and West Bengal, where more than 60 million people are estimated to be consuming groundwater with dangerously high arsenic levels.

Gadgil’s invention, ECAR (short for Electrochemical Arsenic Remediation) has since been tested in his lab and is currently being implemented in the field, thanks to funding from the Lawrence Berkeley National Lab and the Development Impact Lab. Since December 2013, the technology has been under license by the Indian company Luminous Water Technologies, which plans to bring ECAR to arsenic-affected villages throughout India and Bangladesh. Meanwhile, members of the ECAR team, lead by Gadgil and Susan Amrose are conducting a 10,000 liter-per-day trial of the system in preparation for the considerable scaling.

For Gadgil and Amrose, these outcomes are the result of years of experimenting, planning, and partnering. One outcome they didn’t necessarily expect, however, is unfolding here in the United States. During the summer of 2013, Amrose and John Pujol launched their own company, SimpleWater, using the same electrochemical arsenic remediation technology developed in Gadgil’s lab but directed at the tens of thousands of wells and rural American water systems with high levels of arsenic. With funding from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, SimpleWater successfully validated the technology in California in 2014 and is now preparing a larger scale pilot in Grimes, California. ECAR was also awarded a 2013 UC Proof of Concept Program Commercialization Gap Grant, to see if it could be used to remediate arsenic-contaminated groundwater in California.

John Pujol and Susan Amrose
John Pujol and Susan Amrose

This turn of events is a prime example of what business and engineering scholars are calling “reverse” or “boomerang” innovations—whereby products and services developed as inexpensive models to meet the needs of developing nations are then repackaged or remodeled as low-cost alternatives for developed markets. In the case of Grimes, a town of about 550 people 50 miles north of Sacramento, ECAR technology may prove as useful to residents as those in rural Bangladesh—although the regulatory, political, and environmental conditions are quite different.

Amrose explains that the water treatment needs of remote, low-income, and small American communities have largely been ignored, because U.S. innovation focuses so much on large municipal systems. “ECAR technology was designed to be affordable and robust in rural and primarily very low-income South Asian communities,” she said, “which translates easily to the unmet U.S. needs that SimpleWater is addressing.”

One reason that arsenic-contaminated water has been overlooked globally is that it is hard to detect. Arsenic dissolves from soil and rock into drinking water supplies and is tasteless and odorless, but it unquestionably a poison. Over the past few decades, scientists have found increasing evidence that chronic ingestion of arsenic results in lower IQ in children as well as severe maladies, such as lesions, diabetes, cancer, and blood vessel diseases that can lead to gangrene, amputation, and premature death. As a result, in 2001-2002 the World Health Organization and the Environmental Protection Agency set a new drinking water standard prohibiting the consumption of water with more than 10 parts per billion (ppb) of arsenic. Yet arsenic in drinking water has remained an international problem for which long-term solutions have been elusive.

As Gadgil told Lawrence Berkeley Lab News in a 2014 article, “A lot of technologies to remove arsenic on the community- and household- scale have been donated. But if you go to these villages it’s like a technology graveyard. One study found that more than 90 percent failed within six months, and then were abandoned to rust in the field.”

Among the reasons Gadgil thinks ECAR could prove effective is that the technology has been created to be inexpensive and easy to maintain. Unlike complex chemical processes or maintenance-heavy devices, ECAR works by using electricity to quickly dissolve iron in water. This forms a type of rust that binds to arsenic—and that can then be separated from the water through filtration or settling. ECAR is not meant to serve large populations that are serviced by government water systems. Instead, the technology is designed for residents who can collectively maintain and own a water system.

One of the goals of SimpleWater’s ArsenicVolt system is to provide remote monitoring of arsenic levels. This is being done, said CEO Pujol, for a very simple reason: There are few water engineers in the U.S. with expertise in arsenic or other heavy metals—and even fewer who will live in a small town. Indeed, lack of detection of arsenic is one of the biggest problems facing small system U.S. water supplies. According to data collected over the past four decades by the U.S. Geological Survey, for example, 25 percent of public groundwater supply sources in parts of California’s Central Valley of exceed 10ppb of arsenic, which became the federal standard in 2008.

Pujol points out that the burden of arsenic is disproportionately falling on minorities and residents of lower socioeconomic status. A 2012 study of community water systems in the San Joaquin valley showed that minorities and low-income residents have higher levels of arsenic in their drinking water and higher levels of non-compliance with drinking water standards. Those communities, said Pujol, are likely to be overlooked by new technologies.

“Innovation in the drinking water treatment industry, of which there hasn’t been a lot, has focused on the big profit centers, which are big water systems in LA, Chicago, San Francisco, and so on,” said Pujol. “The smaller places have been left in the dust; they can’t afford to buy those technologies at smaller scales.”

Pujol said SimpleWater identified Grimes as the pilot location because it is small and low-income, but also because it has a persistent arsenic problem. Grimes’ water management system is also run by Stuart Angerer, who works as the environmental monitoring section chief at the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation in Yuba City and is deeply interested in technological innovation. Angerer explained that previous attempts to remove arsenic from Grimes’ drinking water were inadequate, and building a treatment plant would be too expensive.

Yet Angerer noted, “The big thing for SimpleWater will be getting California approval from the State Water Resource Control Board. There’s going to be a lot of scrutiny and tests, but I am hopeful because we need innovative approaches that are simple and save us money.”

Pujol is currently installing an ArsenicVolt in Grimes in preparation for a six-month test. He said if the ArsenicVolt gets government approval, SimpleWater does not plan to directly sell its invention. Rather, it would look for a large water treatment systems company to acquire the technology and add it to its portfolio of solutions.

“This was about going after a solution to a really gnarly problem—dangerous levels of arsenic in drinking water—and coming back with a reliable innovation that can been tested and implemented in a more rigorous regulatory environment,” said Pujol. “I believe electrochemistry can transform the way water is treated in small communities, whether in a small town in India or California.”

The Berkeley Difference: Katya Cherukumilli’s Path to Problem Solving

The Berkeley Difference: Katya Cherukumilli’s Path to Problem Solving

By Sean Burns

Cherukumilli conducted field work in Colorado on climate change impacts on plant species distribution.
Cherukumilli conducted field work in Colorado on climate change impacts on plant species distribution.

Katya Cherukumilli arrived at Cal with a calling. Having spent the first seven years of her life in the southeastern coastal state of Andhra Pradesh, Cherukumilli emphasizes, “The problem of people not being able to meet their most basic needs has always been close to my heart.” During her undergraduate years at Cal (2008-2012) as Regents’ and Chancellors’ Scholar, she majored in Environmental Sciences and minored in Global Poverty & Practice and Energy & Resources. The impacts of climate change were central to her studies and, overtime, water and sanitation challenges in developing regions became the focus of her work.

During her junior and senior year, Cherukumilli sought out a wide range of research opportunities in these fields. She worked at the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory, researching the impact of climate change on plant species distribution in collaboration with Professor John Harte (ESPM). Under the supervision of Professor Kara Nelson (CEE), Cherukumilli then fulfilled the “practice” component of her minor in Global Poverty through field analysis of the risks associated with water irrigation along the vegetable supply chain in the Indian city of Dharwad, Karnataka. Her concerns were as much with microbes as with social processes—“I asked myself, where is knowledge about how vegetables are irrigated lost from farm to consumption?”

Her undergraduate years culminated with participation in the Haas Scholars program. Selected among one of 20 seniors, Cherukumilli developed her climate change research with Professor Harte into a senior thesis.  She describes the interdisciplinary cohort of peers and mentors as “incredible and transformative.” No other setting at Cal had offered her a context where she could expose her ideas, methods, and questions to a group of dedicated people with such a wide range of growing expertise. As she honed her research on ecological responses to climate change, her fellow Haas Scholars worked on issues of immigration law, gender equity, mental health challenges for veterans, and more. The weekly dialogues were rigorous and mind-opening. “You just don’t see this kind of interdepartmental collaboration enough here,” says Cherukumilli.

This point of interdisciplinary collaboration for social progress gets at the heart of what Cherukumilli sees as Berkeley’s greatest educational promise—what many call “the Berkeley difference.”  When she made the choice to pursue her doctorate here in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, she knew she had to find pockets at Cal that fostered interdisciplinarity and real-world problem solving. One place she found this intersection was at the Blum Center for Developing Economies. Cherukumilli’s first exposure to the Blum Center was through the Global Poverty & Practice minor.  She met her current doctoral advisor, Professor Ashok Gadgil, when he spoke about his work on the Darfur Cook Stove Project for the Blum Center course “Global Poverty: Hopes and Challenges in the New Millennium” (GPP 115).

Cherukumilli received a Big Ideas @ Berkeley prize in 2015.
Cherukumilli received a Big Ideas @ Berkeley prize in 2015.

As a doctoral student in Gadgil’s Lab, Cherukumilli notes that two Blum Center affiliated programs are giving her a chance to amplify the impact of her research. During the spring of 2015, Cherukumilli teamed up with four other Cal graduate students to earn second place in the global health category of the annual Big Ideas@Berkeley competition. Their winning idea emanates from Cherukumilli’s doctoral research; the team is setting out to develop a bauxite-based defluoridation technique for communities whose water source has dangerously high levels of fluoride. The impacts could be massive. According to the Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology, approximately 200 million people are regularly consuming water with levels of fluoride that dangerously exceed World Health Organization standards (1.5 mg/L (ppm)). Fluoride naturally occurs in many aquifers, but exposure to high fluoride levels can cause detrimental health effects, including anemia and skeletal fluorosis. While de-fluoridation techniques already exist on the market, Cherukumilli’s team aims to significantly reduce the cost and environmental impact of current processes. In July 2015, the project got additional recognition when it earned first place in UC Irvine’s Designing Solutions for Poverty Contest.

Cherukumilli is quick to note that the strength of her defluoridation project resides in the interdisciplinary character of her team. Her partners at Cal include a political science doctoral student and three MBAs—one of whom is also pursuing a public health degree. Cherukumilli notes that Big Ideas created a structured and incentivized forum through which they could apply their shared interests and build upon their diverse skills. While her focus is on technical design, her team members are conducting partnership development, field-testing, marketing, fundraising, and evaluation.

Cherukumilli says she yearns for there to be more curricular and co-curricular spaces at Cal where students—undergraduate and graduate alike—can come together to research and directly engage with pressing social problems. She’s found one such place in the newly launched “designated emphasis” in Development Engineering (Dev Eng) for graduate students. The Dev Eng program, which launched in fall 2014, provides course work, research mentoring, and professional development to students seeking to develop, pilot, and evaluate technological interventions for improving life in low-income settings. Cherukumilli is part of the inaugural cohort of students and faculty forging this emergent discipline. The core course, Dev Eng C200, is taught by Professors Alice Agogino (Mech Eng) and David Levine (Haas Business) and draws students from computer science, public health, city and regional planning, economics, information studies, and more.

Cherukumilli joined the Gadjil Lab to research de-fluoridation techniques for drinking water.
Cherukumilli joined the Gadjil Lab to research de-fluoridation techniques for drinking water.

For Cherukumilli, the Dev Eng context is ideal because, “confronting these problems from the technical side, I’ve already come to understand how deeply interdisclipinary they are—issues of local context, people, politics, and education. Dev Eng structures a space where this complexity can be explored.”

During the summer of 2015, Cherukumilli was busy in the lab, advancing her research on bauxite. In the years ahead, as she completes her Ph.D., she will look to continue her work at a national lab, in a university context, or in the nonprofit sector.  Wherever she ends up, it’s clear she’ll carry with her the Berkeley difference—the rigorous analytic capacity to see the complexity of daunting social problems and have the resolve to implement possible solutions.

Big Ideas@Berkeley Winners Visualize an End to Cervical Cancer

Big Ideas@Berkeley Winners Visualize an End to Cervical Cancer

By Carlo David

Prompted by funding and recognition from the Big Ideas@Berkeley contest, a group of Cal students headed by Mechanical Engineering graduate student Julia Kramer is seeking to establish a sustainable training program called “Visualize” for midwives in Ghana. In a country where only five percent of women have been screened for cervical cancer, Visualize aims to create a system in which midwives receive the essential skills and tools to perform a visual inspection of the cervix with acetic acid (vinegar). The inspection method, known as VIA, is a low-cost and effective way to screen for cervical cancer, but it is not widely used in Ghana and other countries due to a lack of training and awareness.

Julia Kramer and Maria Young pioneered the VIA training program in Kumasi and Accra, Ghana in June 2013.
Julia Kramer and Maria Young pioneered the VIA training program in Kumasi and Accra, Ghana in June 2013.

Kramer and Maria Young first conceived of the project as undergraduates at the University of Michigan. “We were part of a group of five engineering students who spent eight weeks in Ghana for a cultural immersion and design ethnography experience,” said Kramer.

At Michigan, she and her collaborators developed the first few prototypes of a VIA training simulator, based on design requirements they developed at two major teaching hospitals in Ghana. At Berkeley, Kramer teamed up with fellow Mechanical Engineering and Haas School of Business students Abhimanyu Ray, Karan Patel, and Betsy McCormick, to develop the midwife VIA training concept. Visualize’s faculty advisors include public health professional Kyle Fliflet and Mechanical Engineering Professor Alice Agogino, who is chair of the Development Engineering graduate group.

Kramer explains that her project was motivated largely by interactions with midwives, nurses, and doctors in Ghana, along with substantial data supporting the need for more cervical cancer screening. Annually and worldwide, 275,000 women die from cervical cancer. Eighty percent of deaths occur in developing countries, which often do not have the medical infrastructure to diagnose and treat cervical cancer. VIA has been proven to serve as a low-cost alternative to methods like the Pap smear. A 2008 International Journal of Gynecology & Obstetrics study found that VIA could reduce mortality rates by 68 percent. Through midwife-administered VIA tests and subsequent treatments, the Visualize team estimates it can avert 150,000 deaths per year.

Based on their experiences in Ghana, Kramer and her colleagues believe midwives, rather than doctors or other medical professionals, are the best means to implement their public health solution. “Midwives have and can be trained for this procedure,” said Agogino. “As a matter of fact, because such an intimate procedure requires interpersonal communication skills, midwives are better suited than licensed medical doctors.”

The VIA method is not only cheaper than a Pap smear—if properly performed, it also can be equally effective. The method works as follows: a midwife performs a preliminary pelvic examination; she inspects any pre-existing abnormalities; she applies a small amount of table vinegar in the cervix; if acetowhite lesions appear, cancerous cells may be at work.

A Ghanaian midwife holds a visual aid of the cervix.
A Ghanaian midwife holds a visual aid of the cervix.

If there are signs of pre-cancerous cells, the midwife may perform cryotherapy, a procedure that freezes off cervical abnormalities and eradicates cancer cells. In a 15-year controlled trial of 151,000 women ages 35-64 in Mumbai, India, the mortality rate in the cryotherapy treatment group was reduced by 31 percent.

There are, however, unique challenges and financial hurdles to implementing Visualize. According to Agogino, “One of the biggest challenges is identifying infrastructures that already exist for training midwives, so the midwives can eventually train other women in Ghana.” Indeed, the Visualize team is exploring whether it is viable to incentivize women to recruit and train other women, particularly to reach remote areas.

Communication may also be a challenge for Kramer and her team. “There’s an ever-present challenge of working in a culture I’m not part of,” explained Kramer. “It’s hard to travel back and forth to Ghana and it’s difficult to bridge the communication gap using email or Skype.”

A group of Ghanaian women undergoing training with the use of a box that serves as a replica for the VIA training simulator.
A group of Ghanaian women undergoing training with the use of a box that serves as a replica for the VIA training simulator.

Kramer and her colleagues also must walk a fine line between American and Ghanaian public health and other cultures. “Since one of the main goals of this project is empowerment, we want to remain very careful about overstepping our bounds and ensuring mutual respect,” explained Kramer.

The Visualize team plans to use various media—television, radio, billboards—to market the availability of midwives for cervical cancer screenings. In addition, the team is collaborating with the Ghana Ministry of Health and Ghana Health Services to vet and publicize its efforts. So far, response from Ghanaian government agencies has been positive. Visualize has found several partners, including the Kumasi Nurses and Midwifery and Training College and the Ministry of Health. Its next step is to identify the location of its first training program.

Ultimately, Kramer said her project is about respectfully furthering social change. “Young people can and should take a more active role in addressing conditions of global poverty,” she said. “But we have to be humble and realistic about our role in societal progress. We have to respect cultural traditions and boundaries and be aware that our presence carries connotations beyond our control.”

The project will be running a fundraising campaign from September 14 until October 14. For more information, go here:

Laura D’Andrea Tyson on Social Impact at Cal

Laura D’Andrea Tyson on Social Impact at Cal

By Tamara Straus

tysonlauraucberkeley-500Laura D’Andrea Tyson likes to see herself as a communicator and translator of complex economic ideas. But the world tends to see her as one of the most accomplished female economists of her generation. From 1993 to 1995, Tyson was the first female chair of the White House Council of Economic Advisors under President Clinton. From 2002 to 2006, she served as the first female dean of the London Business School. Otherwise, she has worn multiple top hats at Cal: as dean of the Haas School of Business, S. K. and Angela Chan Chair in Global Management, chair of the Blum Center for Developing Economies, and professor of Business Administration and Economics—while also serving as a board member for more than two dozen governmental agencies, private foundations, and multinational corporations.

Tyson has sharp, informed opinions on many issues: world trade, international markets, minimum wage, supply chains, underemployment, income inequality, and educational opportunity. One of the subjects that allows her to combine all these threads is “social innovation,” a catchall term for finding societal solutions through multiple and often market-based methods. Tyson believes social innovation and social impact are having their heyday at Cal. Never before have there been so many courses, research projects, and student and faculty efforts devoted to projects aiming to spur social and economic improvement. To point to this phenomenon, the university is launching a campaign this fall called “Innovation for Greater Good: What Can Berkeley Change in One Generation.” The Blum Center sat down with Professor Tyson to talk about the history of social innovation at Cal and where it is moving.

Why did you start the Global Social Venture Competition back in 1999? What in the campus or general environment prompted you to create a social innovation contest for MBA students?

Berkeley was really ahead of its time in supporting socially minded entrepreneurs. This makes sense because the university has always been a progressive place that attracts forward-thinking, diverse students—students with backgrounds that enable them to see societal challenges that aren’t being effectively addressed by either the government or business sector. The impetus for the competition really came from the students. Remember, these were the days of the anti-globalization movement and the beginning of triple bottom line investing. Our MBA students were really fascinated by the new spate of companies that aimed to sustainably support people, environment, and profit. The very name of the competition made the students’ intentions clear. “Global” was used because students wanted their solutions to have international application. “Venture” connoted something new, something risky and creative. And “social” indicated challenges unaddressed by government or the private marketplace. Goldman Sachs had just gone public and had created a foundation, which liked our competition idea and agreed to fund it. Sixteen years later, the Global Social Venture Competition is global itself. The competition brings together a significant network that receives about 600 entries annually from close to 40 countries. Finalists have included social enterprise stars like Husk Power, Revolution Foods, and d.light design.

What has changed in the environment and among the students since the contest began?

I think there’s more emphasis on technological innovations and solutions. The rapid growth of digital technologies and mobile phones has made it easier for organizations to get to the populations they want to serve. The students who are coming to Cal today really get this and want to use technology for social impact. There are also more students coming into the social impact area with engineering backgrounds. They want to be innovators and they want to team up with students from other disciplines—from business, computer science, data analytics, behavioral economics, and social psychology—to form their own organizations while still at Cal. What we’re seeing is the startup culture blossoming and bearing fruit at the university. It’s very exciting to think about where all of this will lead. The other thing that has changed in the last 15 years is the increase in funding options for the research and development of social impact projects. Social innovation students today need more knowledge about financing and the availability of contests, foundations, and venture capital sources. We are working to give them that knowledge.

Why do business schools like Haas make a distinction between entrepreneurship and social entrepreneurship? Isn’t all entrepreneurship social in that it creates jobs?

Social entrepreneurs are motivated by the desire to create new approaches to addressing unmet needs and to solving social problems.  They may form a nonprofit enterprise or a for-profit enterprise to realize their goals, but even when they choose a for-profit approach, they place priority on purpose rather than on profits—or on “profits with purpose.” Traditional entrepreneurs focus on for-profit business opportunities and place priority on the profits generated by them. For-profit businesses always have the purpose of serving customers—and profitable companies also serve to employ people and generate returns for their owners. Indeed, many profitable companies make contributions to their communities and some even establish their own foundations to do so. But if a “social purpose” isn’t the original intent of a for-profit business, it is usually not considered a social enterprise. For-profit enterprises produce goods and services to satisfy market demand and demand is based on income. So markets and for-profit enterprises cannot meet the needs of those who do not have adequate incomes to buy the goods and services they need. Governments can address their needs either by raising their incomes or by providing the goods and services they need at subsidized low prices. Social entrepreneurs, nonprofits, and social enterprises also play this role and are essential when governments lack the resources or the political capital to do so.

You’ve called social entrepreneurs a “new kind of business hero.” Is it because entrepreneurs need to distinguish themselves from unethical or anti-egalitarian business practices?

No. What distinguishes social entrepreneurs is their desire to find new ways to address needs that are not met by markets and to address social challenges that sometimes result from negative market externalities, such as pollution, or from positive market externalities, such as the society-wide benefits of an educated population. Broadly speaking, the “social sector” is defined by these broad purposes and includes nonprofits, governments, social enterprises, and for-profit businesses, often working in collaboration with one another. In the U.S., the social sector includes a new form of for-profit business, called a “B” or benefits corporation that embraces both explicit profitability and sustainability goals.

You’ve been involved in the Blum Center for Developing Economies since its creation in 2006. What attracted you to the mission of the Blum Center and how has it supported social innovation at UC Berkeley?

My initial fields of study were economic development, international trade, and what used to be called comparative economics and is now called political economy. So I have always been interested in how societies try to develop and provide rising living standards for their citizens—what is today called inclusive growth. These interests very much align with those of the Blum Center. The center has made three key contributions to social innovation at Cal: through its Global Poverty & Practice undergraduate minor, through its Big Ideas @ Berkeley competition, and most recently through the PhD minor Development Engineering. The GPP minor has been an important contribution not just for Berkeley but also as a model for other colleges and universities seeking to teach students about the causes of global poverty and ways to alleviate it. Big Ideas has provided motivation and support to thousands of students seeking new new ways to address social challenges and have social impact both on and off campus and around the world. And Development Engineering is designed to help graduate-level engineers and social science students who want to use their time at the university to focus on technology for development. Through these educational programs and through the numerous research projects it supports in conjunction with its work with USAID, the Blum Center is fostering the creation of new technological solutions for inclusive economic development.

What can Cal do for its social innovation programs over the next 10 years?

UC Berkeley is a public institution with a long history of community engagement and progressive causes. Support for education and research that fosters positive social impact is deeply embedded in Berkeley’s culture, and there is strong student and faculty interest. There are numerous courses, research projects and activities that focus on social impact across the campus—at the Haas School of Business, the School of Public Health, the Engineering School, the College of Natural Resources, the Blum Center, and several other schools and departments. The Blum Center serves as an interdisciplinary hub bringing together students and faculty from many disciplines with a shared interest in poverty alleviation and economic development. Over the next decade the campus should build on the success of the Blum Center, providing support for interdisciplinary programs that allow students and faculty to design, test, and scale technological and organizational innovations that address unmet needs and social challenges. These programs should take advantage of new modes of education and collaboration made possible by online learning and online social networks.

Alice Agogino: Trailblazer in Mechanical Engineering

Alice Agogino: Trailblazer in Mechanical Engineering

By Tamara Straus

When historians get around to investigating the trials and triumphs of women scientists in the late 20th century, they would do well to spend some time looking at the career of Alice Merner Agogino.

Agogino, the Roscoe and Elizabeth Hughes Professor of Mechanical Engineering at UC Berkeley, was the only female mechanical engineering student in her 1975 graduating class at the University of New Mexico and the first woman to receive tenure in her field at UC Berkeley. She said before she joined the faculty in the mid 1980s, the mechanical engineering department decided to vote on whether a woman professor could teach mostly male students. The department seems to have voted yes, because for 30 years running Agogino has taught a majority of men.

In a meandering interview covering women in science, the new discipline of Development Engineering, and the interests of Millennial students, Agogino, an affiliated faculty member of the Blum Center, admitted that for years she insisted engineering was gender neutral. “Until it just hit me in the head: everything is gendered,” she explained with a peal of laughter. “It wasn’t until I started reading Why So Slow, for example, and did the “Beyond Bias and Barriers” study for the National Academy of Engineering and read all the surrounding literature, which was so scary and shocking, that I realized everything is gendered: what problems you select to work on; who makes the technology decisions; who benefits. There’s hardly anything we do that doesn’t have a gendered and social justice component. Now that my eyes have been opened, I can’t go back. I see it everywhere.”

Agogino explains that not thinking about gender was simply a means for survival—“so that whenever something went wrong, I didn’t internalize what happened and say, ‘It’s because I’m a woman.’” As for her academic interests, she credits her parents. Her father was a professor of anthropology and her mother occupied the rarest of 1950s female professions: physics professor. Agogino grew up in New Mexico and spent a lot of time accompanying her dad on archeological digs, ethnographic studies, and academic meetings. Meanwhile, her mother went about her career duties largely childless, lest she appear unprofessional. “My mother got paid half the wages of the people she supervised when she worked in industry,” recounted Agogino. “She thought that was okay or at least she didn’t complain. That’s how she survived.”

Looking back at her mother’s career trajectory and her own, Agogino joked that a caveat should be made to the logic-based field of decision analysis. Decision analysis stipulates that information always has some value. It can have zero value, but never negative value. In the case of being a lone female in a competitive, male-dominated field, Agogino said, again with laughter, “I’m wondering if that’s always true.” Indeed, she and many women of her generation have gotten ahead by blindly ignoring the evidence of sexism around them.

But that is changing. With ever-quickening pace, educational institutions, tech companies, and government and private funders are starting to worry about the low numbers of women in the fields of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math—the mighty STEM of 21st-century progress and high paying jobs.  The National Science Foundation has been launching various programs to improve the standing of women in sciences after confirming, in a recent study, that men hold 70 percent of jobs in science and engineering professions. An equally pressing concern is the paucity of minorities in STEM fields. African Americans hold only 5 percent of jobs, according to the 2013 NSF report, and Latinos hold a mere 6 percent.

Agogino said the physical manifestations of these percentages have been sitting in her classroom for years. “When I started at Berkeley,” she said, “I would occasionally have classes in which there not a single woman. In required classes, there were about 5 percent women. It went up to 10 percent, and now I think it’s at about 20 percent. I kept thinking: This is crazy!” To see if she could reach greater gender equity, Agogino conducted a pedagogical experiment. In 2003, she developed a freshman and sophomore course called Designing Technology for Girls and Women. The reading and coursework were solid product design for engineering; the only twist was the intended users—females. The central question was: Would you design differently for women and girls? Agogino’s course attracted 90 percent women. She knew she was onto something.

A few years later, she taught the same course, but widened the scope to emphasize diversity. Lo and behold, almost all of the under-represented minorities in the College of Engineering enrolled, as well as many women. That was also when Agogino started to involve herself and her students more in off-campus social impact classes, like the Seguro Pesticide Protection Project, a system of products to protect Central Californian farmworkers from pesticide exposure, and the Pinoleville Pomo Nation renewable energy and sustainability collaboration, in which Cal students and faculty worked with a local Native American tribe to create green housing.

In these efforts, she found numerous interests coming together: projects for social justice and impact; increasing the ranks of female and minorities in her field; and helping to mainstream “design thinking” and “human-centered design”—two product design approaches that focus on the needs of users or consumers to create more innovative, effective, and sustainable products and solutions.

For these efforts, Agogino has been widely recognized. She just won the 2015 ASME Ruth and Joel Spira Outstanding Design Educator Award “for tireless efforts in furthering engineering design education.” She has been named Professor of the Year, and received Chancellor Awards for Public Service, a Chancellor’s Award for Advancing Institutional Excellence, and a Faculty Award for Excellence in Graduate Student Mentoring. She was elected a Fellow of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, has won many best paper awards, been honored with a National Science Foundation Distinguished Teaching Award and a AAAS Lifetime Mentor Award, the latter for increasing the number of women and African- and Hispanic-American doctorates in mechanical engineering. Her work in decision-analytic approaches to engineering design led to a whole new field of research, and her research in mass customization became a patent-buster for licenses in database-driven Internet commerce. So thank her when you don’t pay a licensing fee to purchase something on the Web.

When asked what she would have done differently, Agogino quipped: “I would have avoided administrative positions and assignments that were not valued. I would have asked for maternity benefits.”

These days, Agogino is focusing some of her energies on creating a new field, Development Engineering, whose mission is to reframe development and the alleviation of poverty by educating engineering and social science students to create, test, apply, and scale technologies for societal benefit. Agogino said Development Engineering students are learning “21st century skills”—interdisciplinary, team-based methods that are oriented to seeing problems from multiple viewpoints (quantitative, qualitative, ethnographic) and applying them through entrepreneurial pathways. The first year of courses, which Agogino co-taught with Business Professor David Levine with support from the Blum Center, attracted record numbers of women and minority graduate students. The reasons, said Agogino, are not mysterious. “They want to use technology for good.”

Agogino added that students and faculty are embracing Development Engineering for a host of other reasons. For faculty, there is now an academic infrastructure for work that had been relegated to weekend projects—work in developing regions that was neither recognized or supported by their specific fields. “We now have a dozen departments represented,” she said. “And there is real joy in working with faculty who care about these issues and want to move forward by learning from each other.”

Yet the greatest push for the Development Engineering PhD minor, said Agogino, has come from graduate students who want the university to create a clearer academic trajectory for interdisciplinary research for social impact. “I have had PhD students who have felt they were demeaned because their research did not fit into traditional engineering pathways,” said Agogino. “This will be changing, due to the scholarship of Development Engineering.”

Yet Agogino does not expect Development Engineering students to have traditional career pathways. They will work for startups, government agencies, nonprofits, universities, and multinational companies, she said, and probably jump around a lot. This risk-taking outlook coheres with what Agogino sees among her other UC Berkeley students. “The climate and push for innovation is coming from the Millennials,” she said. “They’re willing to take risks. They’re willing to forgo instant gratification to do other things that they find exciting, and some of that happens to be in the social arena.”

Agogino explained that she gets behind these students because they want to fight the status quo. They also likely remind the trailblazing professor of herself.

Moving Beyond Benevolence and Cynicism: The Global Poverty & Practice Minor (A Graduation Speech)

Moving Beyond Benevolence and Cynicism:  The Global Poverty & Practice Minor (A Graduation Speech)

By Danielle Puretz

Danielle PuretzGood afternoon friends, family, faculty, and graduates. For many of us the Global Poverty courses we have taken together have been our most intimate. In this room alone, I am surrounded by mentors and peers among whom I have not only found meaningful inspiration but also deep camaraderie. So it is truly an honor and a privilege to be here addressing you today.

The Global Poverty & Practice minor is set up as a journey, and through our coursework we begin what becomes a recursive practice of questioning and critiquing strategies of poverty alleviation, the ethics of “global citizenship,” and where we lie within those discourses ourselves.

What makes our minor unique is our Practice Experience: the main requirement of which is time, a simultaneously minuscule and yet inconceivably large 240 hours.

For my Practice Experience, I focused on arts education and New Orleans.

Looking back, my Practice Experience was one of the most formative experiences of my time at Cal. Although upon returning to Berkeley, it didn’t feel formative, it felt incredibly unsettling, and I felt lost. I was unsure if I had made the right decision by going to New Orleans in the first place and I was feeling equally uneasy about then having to leave and come back to school.

Within the minor, we are taught to challenge the problems and ethics of voluntourism—destination-volunteering that benefits tourist volunteers more than “beneficiary” hosts. In critiquing this increasingly common phenomenon of service trips, we have to ask ourselves if this is also what we are setting ourselves up for with our practice experiences—doing “more harm than good.”

A number of times within my own Global Poverty journey, I’ve been required to read Ivan Illich’s “To Hell With Good Intentions.” As a speech he gave to Peace Corps volunteers almost 60 years ago, Illich’s words are as acerbic as ever: “The damage which volunteers do willy-nilly is too high a price for the blated insight that they shouldn’t have been volunteers in the first place…I am here to challenge you [he explained] to recognize your inability, your powerlessness and your incapacity to do the ‘good’ which you intended to do.”

As Global Poverty & Practice Minors, I believe that we have the best intentions.

However, we have surely put our fingers in our ears if, at any moment, we felt as if our benign intentions are enough. As we’ve all learned, the world does not begin the day we set out to do good. We are predated by centuries of systemic exploitation, which created the very poverty we so benevolently seek to eradicate. The courses we take in Global Poverty are meant to help us understand this history and our own positionality, as we set out to do social justice related work.

Along this journey, I have had quite a few moments of self-doubt, many of which somehow coincided with reading articles such as Illich’s. In these moments, I have found some distraction by mulling over a paradox Professor Ananya Roy shared with us Global Poverty 115: “To find ourselves in the space between the hubris of benevolence and the paralysis of cynicism.”

I remember initially hearing Professor Roy say these words in lecture, and it felt like a prophecy that would define the rest of my time within the minor. I arrived at Global Poverty, because I had such arrogant dreams of wanting to fight inequality and end poverty. I wanted personal fulfillment and the affirmation that I was indeed doing good work while contributing in some way to global change.

When Professor Roy’s words set in, I felt like a mirror had been held up to my ambition. I realized that this was my hubris—to think that with my good intentions, nothing I did could be conceived as anything other than altruism. In my will to change, I began to fear a trajectory where I would learn more and more about a world filled with greed, cruelty, and despair, only to be left in a psychosomatic paralysis. I was no longer just afraid of doing more harm than good; I was also afraid of becoming someone who would do nothing. As my fellow GPP student Shrey Goel mentioned, ignorance is ethically indefensible, but so too is choosing inaction. Thinking that neutrality might not be a political decision in itself is an expression of complicity in systems of exclusion.

Feeling pulled in different directions, motivated toward public service, but afraid of doing more harm than good, and terrified of doing nothing, I decided to let my curiosity get the better of me. Thus I proceeded to plan my practice experience in New Orleans.

Part of this planning is guided by the minor curriculum—thorough education and significant time commitment, we aim to set ourselves apart from volunteers who are more visibly in it for themselves. The minor facilitates “praxis”—the combination of theory and practice. We believe that sustained commitment and thorough education allow for us to build better relationships with the people we are working with. That these efforts may substantiate our presence where we are not solely putting more work on their plates. In New Orleans, I felt my own expectations to test myself, my knowledge, and my character—and have the depth and richness of the relationships I was building act as the metric for my achievement.

But when I returned to Berkeley, I felt ripped from all of the people I had been working with.

Fortunately, as Shrey so beautifully laid out, we are taught a self-reflective praxis, and experience this firsthand through our shared catharsis in the capstone course. I arrived on the first day of Global Poverty 196 not looking to be validated, but searching for some resolution and justification for the work that we did. I believe that all of us will remember Professor Khalid Kadir’s extravagant metaphor about climbing hills and mountains, building to his point that “there is no Mount Everest.” There is no end to the work we do; there is no closure or final affirmation that should ever go un-critiqued.

In looking at the Global Poverty journey as an educational experience, I want to suggest that there is value to this feeling of being unsettled. As Professor Clare Talwalker quoted Paulo Freire in our Methods course, “Those who authentically commit themselves to the people must re-examine themselves constantly.” I think that this practice of constant critiquing, questioning, and challenging is exhausting, but the unsettled feeling that comes with it is a discomfort that comes from learning, and it is necessary if we want to “do good” or at the very least learn from our mistakes.

Yet despite this realization, my anxiety about my hubris and potential to become paralyzed by cynicism lingered throughout my time in the capstone course. I was hanging onto the hope that I could grow out of my hubris without tumulting into such an opposite extreme. And on the very last day of this class, as I was still searching for my place along the spectrum of hubristic benevolence and paralyzing cynicism—I became critical of the dichotomy this analysis suggests.

I realized that another state to be wary of is the hubris of cynicism.

As we learn to constantly critique ourselves, it becomes easy to lapse into cynicism. And as we develop an association of cynicism to intellect, we learn that in playing pessimist, we may seem smarter or more well seasoned, an expert even. Cynicism acts as a shortcut, providing the guise of experience—that we’ve seen a lot and it doesn’t look good. I have learned that if I am cynical as I describe myself, I seem well versed in criticism, somehow more keenly aware of myself and the world around me. But how conceited is that? To think that we could ever know so much that we may be above the people that we work with and learn from, that their efforts aren’t enough, that our skepticism is superior to a tenacious perseverance of hope—makes me feel that cynicism is fundamentally twofold with a dangerous hubris.

To me, conflating hope with naiveté and cynicism with intellect demonstrates an arrogance that may need more than reflection to eradicate. As we hear “to hell with good intentions,” we need to be able to feel the discomfort that we may be doing the wrong thing, without using cynicism as a coping mechanism.

As I share with you one of my newfound fears of cynicism, I want to also reassure you of my faith in us to overcome it. Our minor has encouraged us to explore ourselves and given us theory to understand the space we occupy. And while our practice experiences were the climax of our journey, the core of our minor is community. It is no coincidence that we go through the different stages of this minor together, we are reflecting together, we are asking deeply personal and difficult questions together. Social justice work is difficult, but we share this responsibility, and take on these challenges in community.

Now we’re graduating, which is scary in and of itself. We must take with us our ability to understand complexity. My mom is an elementary school teacher, and when she takes her class outside to play softball she doesn’t keep score—she tells them that they are just out there to exercise. She has worked with children longer than anyone I know. Her expertise comes from her lived experience, and it is so visible when I go to her school and see how loved she is by her students, their families, and her colleagues. My mother has been my main teacher my whole life. The classroom she cultivates is a space free from failure, which I think is especially important for her second graders, so that they can learn to keep trying without fear of some ultimate failure. And in my understanding of complexity, education is a point of stability, where our failures are somewhat cushioned. So as we depart from that, we need to work on cultivating within ourselves an acceptance of failure as well as metrics of success where we do not find validation within the failures of others. We need to be able to dish out criticism as well as take it; we need to be understanding of unease, and comfortable with failure. We need to recognize that these are challenges that we need to work with, learn from, and find motivation to try again.

We now occupy a space of “educatedness”—able to understand that problems are more complex than meets the eye, that narratives are shrouded with hegemony, and that we must challenge the notion of expertise, while also doing justice to our educations. Recognizing that our degrees bring power and we are on some level experts ourselves. We are brave and we are curious; we are arrogant and we are fearful. Still, I am confident that our education and lived experiences have taught us the strength and humility to push back against injustice as well as the ability to receive the personal criticisms we undoubtedly will encounter. To do nothing is to accept the world as it is. To challenge and critique our world is ultimately an expression of hope: that while we will never reach Utopia, we can still work toward a better tomorrow.

At the very least, I hope we have learned that we are not alone. It has been an honor and a privilege learning with and from all of you. Thank you, and congratulations.

Danielle Puretz is a recent graduate with degrees in Theater and Performance Studies and Peace and Conflict Studies as well as a minor in Global Poverty & Practice. She has been selected for the John Gardner Public Service Fellowship, and will be spending the next year continuing her exploration of theater and social justice-related work.

For Cal Students Looking to “Do Good”: The Global Poverty and Practice Minor (A Graduation Speech)

For Cal Students Looking to “Do Good”: The Global Poverty and Practice Minor (A Graduation Speech)

By Shrey Goel

Shrey Goel with Prof. Ananya Roy
Shrey Goel with Prof. Ananya Roy

The pre-Global Poverty & Practice Minor student is a particular, but not unique, sub-species of the Berkeley undergraduate. Often, these students come to Berkeley impassioned but without direction. They want to challenge the status quo, advocate for those in need, and represent a cause that is being ignored. Deep down, they just want to do something meaningful. I know I certainly did—I had a desire to “do good,” and maybe a bit of me even believed that desire set me apart from others. You see, my parents taught my siblings and me to always recognize our privilege and value the idea of “giving back” to those in need. In high school, I began to tap into that social consciousness, exploring issues like social welfare, affirmative action, and inequality. So perhaps you can understand that for many in my cohort, myself included, when we first heard about the Global Poverty & Practice Minor, there was no question about it – this was our mission, what we came to Cal to do. GPP was our calling because we cared about poverty and inequality. What we may not have realized then is that we were late to the game; GPP was already one of the largest minors on campus and the debates about how to address poverty had already been raging long before we even arrived at Berkeley.

But perhaps it’s a good thing we didn’t realize it at the time. Our naiveté made us ideal candidates for what GPP can offer. I must confess, I had never cared enough about course material to take notes the way I took them in GPP 115, the inaugural class into the minor. Sitting in Wheeler Auditorium, I found my hand scribbling away, racing to capture the nuance of every point of Professor Ananya Roy’s impeccably delivered lectures. Those lectures were riddled with ethical dilemmas, forcing us to confront ideas like the savior complex, simplistic notions of the poor as victims without agency, and the development industrial complex. And at the end of the day, the message was this: you are guilty. We are all inextricably implicated in systems of power. There’s no silver bullet but ignorance is ethically indefensible. So what will you do?

At it’s best, what GPP does is lure us in, with our fledgling social consciousnesses, and throw us into debates raging in the world of poverty and development. In doing so, the minor presents students with an opportunity to contribute to those debates. Then, through the help of our GPP 105 Methods Course taught by Clare Talwalker and Khalid Kadir, we are taught to engage in a form of scholarship that is simultaneously nuanced, critical, and self-aware, as we learn to contextualize our looming Practice Experiences in the “real world” of development work.

Our Practice Experiences cannot be summarized through any one anecdote. Some of us worked for local organizations, others abroad. Some of us worked in offices, others in the field, some of us performed administrative tasks, others labored to build things. But more importantly, some of us worked for organizations that pursued “Band-Aid” solutions, and some of us for orgs that sought to tackle the causes of poverty at a deeper, more structural level. It wasn’t always something we had control over, and the work was sometimes frustrating for many of us, but in all cases, there was plenty to take in.

Although our Practice Experiences varied, returning from them and taking the GPP 196 Capstone Reflection Course was, for many of us, a cathartic experience. Our instructors Khalid Kadir and Cecilia Lucas pushed us to take our experiences and actually engage in the iterative process of reflection, never allowing us to become complacent in our critical assessment of our organizations or our roles in them. The reflection course provided us with a setting to connect to our peers in the minor—the few other people who could understand what it meant to wrestle with the ethical dilemmas presented by our practicums—and the course facilitators helped us to find support in one another. We came to see that the empathy and perspectives of our classmates were as indispensible to the learning that took place as the mentorship we received from our instructors and the support we received from our program coordinators, Sean Burns and Chetan Chowdhry, who have worked tirelessly behind the scenes to hone and improve the minor.

GPP seeks to mold us into citizens who will advocate for the rights of the marginalized to be heard in the dominant narratives of the global political economy. The irony of pursuing a minor like this at an institution like Cal, however, is that even public education is expensive these days; thus the rising cost of public higher education is excluding many voices from discussions of the very systems which affect them most. Yet another irony of pursuing a minor like GPP is this: if it weren’t for the depth and richness of the GPP curricula, with its focus on teaching us to critique and challenge everything, including our very education, I might not have felt my education was worthwhile. For me, the heart of what GPP offers is all about self-reflexivity. Self-reflexive scholarship, to me, is about never letting yourself off the hook. It’s about challenging yourself, your ethos, and your motivations, as well as the motivations of the people and organizations around you to demand better.

Today we are here to share—to share with you all, our friends, family, and faculty who have supported us, this celebration of all that we have accomplished. But I believe we are also here to share with you our challenge: our mandate as global citizens and graduates of the Global Poverty & Practice Minor. It’s a challenge that I believe is fundamentally about remaining self-reflexive. Holding on to a social consciousness and having social-welfare-aligned political views are simply not enough. Rather self-reflexivity necessitates that we never stagnate in our pursuit of praxis—in the endless oscillation between action and reflection, which inform one another and lead to true learning. Self-reflexivity asks us to never become complacent in self-congratulation and always be willing to point the magnifying glass inwards; as anthropologist Laura Nader encouraged us to do, to be willing to “study up” and critique the power structures of the institutions within which we operate; and also, most importantly, to seek out and always remain accountable to those whom we purport to help, never allowing our voices to speak over those who are being ignored and helping to carve out spaces and build platforms for them to be heard.

Graduating as a GPP Minor comes with a responsibility, and that responsibility is to recognize that the job is never complete, but is also constantly evolving. That job cannot be done alone. So as much as today is about celebration, it is also a call to action. What we students have learned and experienced through the minor is a window into how we all can push ourselves to engage in the discussions and processes of change taking place in communities around the world. So on that note, I’d like to end by recalling the prompt I left GPP 115 with: we are all inextricably implicated in systems of power. There’s no silver bullet but ignorance is ethically indefensible. So what will you do? But more importantly, what will we do together?

Shrey Goel graduated with a minor in Global Poverty & Practice and a BS in Environmental Science, for which he wrote an honors thesis based on his GPP Practice Experience. After graduation, he plans to work in the Bay Area and apply to medical school.

Will student loan debt be worth it? (San Francisco Chronicle Op-Ed by GPP student Amber Gonzales-Vargas)

In 2014, outstanding student loan debt for Millennials surpassed $1 trillion, making it the second largest category of household debt after mortgages.

By Amber Gonzalez

In 2014, outstanding student loan debt for Millennials surpassed $1 trillion, making it the second largest category of household debt after mortgages. These numbers are all too familiar to me and my friends at UC Berkeley. Initially, most of us considered student loans a great trade-off for getting our undergraduate degree, and we have held to that opinion as the loans needed to graduate increased. Yet as we face graduation, these loans are not feeling fair. They feel like a noose around our collective necks, the price of which may be dreams deferred.

As a low-income, first-generation student from Stockton, I have been able to stay enrolled at UC Berkeley through the rising tuition— from $9,342 in 2010-11 to $13,317 in 2014-15 for California residents— thanks to a Pell Grant and Cal Grant A. To cover other living and student costs such as rent, food and books I have worked as a peer adviser and office administrator.

Believe me, I am not complaining. My parents, who are from Peru, have often reminded me that I am lucky to have been born in the United States— and I agree. We assumed my future was set, as long as I excelled in high school and succeeded in college. This path would land me a job reserved for hard-working students from one of the nation’s best universities.

But will it? What is apparent to many of us attending four-year institutions is that a bachelor’s degree does not reserve you a job, even if you are graduating from a top institution. The proverbial entry-level position for recent graduates now typically requires two or more years of relevant work experience. In certain fields, these opportunities are offered as an unpaid internship, a luxury that few can afford to accept, even if it increases the chances of getting a job.

For me and many of my friends, the need for job security is especially high because we face immediate loan repayment. I owe $12,900. Yet I am “lucky.” I took out subsidized loans that do not accrue interest until six months after graduation. Others? My brother, who is at a private university, has taken out unsubsidized and other loans that begin to accrue interest upon signing, and he is only a freshman.

We are all fiercely hunting for a job. We know that not having work lined up this summer will make paying back our loans difficult. One of my best friends, who has accrued about $15,000 in debt, is attending community college as a way to acquire additional skills and to defer her loans for a few more months. She is doing this while working full-time.

Because our immediate futures are limited by loan paybacks, many Millennials may avoid creativity or risk. We may take any job that provides an income, however far from our interests. Down the line, this may also translate into deferment of such life milestones as buying a car, buying a house or having children.

In a March 28, 2014, article, Los Angeles Times columnist Chris Erskine said Millennials will be the greatest generation yet because they are idealistic, adaptive and more tolerant of differences. But Erskine makes no mention of student debt, citing instead a Pew Research Center study of Millennials that found we are the nation’s “most stubborn economic optimists,” with more than 8 in 10 reporting we have enough money to lead the lives they want, or expect to in the future. I wish he and the Pew pollsters had canvassed more of the 80 million Americans between the ages of 18 and 34 whose economic lives are dictated by student debt.

In March 2015, President Obama signed a Student Aid Bill of Rights that argues that the federal government should do more to help young people pay off their crushing loans. He offered several improvements such as a Pay-As-You-Earn plan and a centralized loan website. My experience is that no one really wants to take out a loan, and while this plan sounds like a good way to help young Americans navigate the student-loan system, we should be looking to significantly reduce student loan debt, not just making adjustments to help keep track of debt. Students still will face rising student-loan debt and have to start their careers increasingly indebted.

In the upcoming weeks, the class of 2015 will depart for the working world. We will go on to become teachers and doctors and policemen and data analysts. An estimated 12.7 percent of Californians will default on their debt; the rest will dutifully pay back the banks and the government. Our successors may also fare worse. The UC regents have approved a tuition increase of up to 5 percent per year through the 2019-20; however, the governor has proposed a budget deal that would give UC more funding if UC forgoes the increase and freezes tuition through 2016-17.

Will Americans with such early indebtedness be able to become credit-worthy adults? In a decade’s time, will our earliest financial decisions feel worth it? I certainly hope so.

The Double Burden of Malnutrition: An Interview with Janet King

By Tamara Straus

There is a quotation on the website of the Children’s Hospital Oakland Research Institute (CHORI) that sums up Dr. Janet King’s ability to combine international nutrition expertise and common-sense thinking. The quote says: “We don’t need new lab research to show us the benefits of fruits and vegetables. We need research that emphasizes real-world solutions.”

King, who serves as executive director of CHORI, is not your typical research scientist. In addition to publishing 225 scientific papers, review articles, and book chapters, she has effectively turned nutrition research into public policy. In the early 2000s, she chaired the U.S. Department of Agriculture/U.S. Health and Human Services Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, which resulted in the Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2005. She is a member of the National Academy of Sciences, Institute of Medicine; and in 2007, she was inducted into the USDA Research Hall of Fame. She also has directed the USDA Western Human Nutrition Research Center at the University of California, Davis (1995-2002) and chaired the Department of Nutritional Sciences at University of California, Berkeley (1988-1994).

The Blum Center sat down with Dr. King, a Blum Center advisor, to learn more about the connections between child nutrition and socioeconomic development.

When did child diabetes rates start to spike in the United States?

We began to see a rapid increase in the incidence of obesity in children in the 1980s. However, the association between obesity and Type 2 diabetes didn’t make it into the scientific literature until 20 years later. I can only speculate why this is. It might be because the incidence of obesity in children hadn’t reached the threshold where the association with diabetes was apparent to medical staff. Nonetheless, these days about 45 percent of all cases of diabetes in children are associated with obesity and are type 2 diabetes. Whereas in the 1980s, the only time we saw diabetes in children was when it was type 1. As that time, we would call type 2 diabetes “adult onset diabetes,” because it was so rarely seen in children.

What were the chief reasons for the 1980s rise in child obesity and diabetes in the U.S.?

I think there are many contributors. One is the increase in screen time among children. TVs were certainly available in the 1960s and 1970s, but we didn’t have the access to the computers and videos games that we have today. That has been a huge impact on the lifestyles of children, in that they spend more time in front of the screen than outside being physically active. What we hear in the obesity clinic at Children’s Hospital Oakland is that it’s not safe to play outside. So children come home from school, and many of them have their own video games or TVs in their room, and they spend most of their time playing in front of the screen. Another factor is that that the family structure has changed in the last 35 years. Now it’s almost essential that both parents work outside the home to make enough money to support the family. That means meal structures have changed. The meal together that I think was fairly common in the 1960s and 1970s doesn’t exist as much across all economic groups. I think that’s another problem because it encourages more snacking, especially among children. They come home from school, they’re hungry, and they eat snacks. The snacks are high in sugar and fat and generally high calorie.

What are you learning about the child diabetes worldwide?

I should mention first that there are differences in susceptibility to diabetes linked to ethnicity. Asians are more susceptible to diabetes, as are Latinos, Native Americans, and African Americans. In Mexico, the incidence of diabetes is growing very rapidly both in adults and children. It’s associated with the genetics as well as with lifestyle and diet. But the Mexican government is very proactive in developing and implementing nutrition programs to improve the quality of the diet of lower income people. The government supports subsidy programs providing a special fortified milk for mothers to feed to their children. They also have a tax throughout the country on sugar-sweetened beverages. Berkeley is the only place in the United States where such a tax exists. Well, the whole country of Mexico has a tax on sugar-sweetened beverages.

Vietnam is another country, where I work, where obesity is increasing among children. You’ll be out in the middle of the countryside and find a road-side stand selling sweets, salty snacks, and sugary drinks. Those items are readily available throughout the country. I’m not aware of any programs at this time in Vietnam to reduce the intake of high-sugar, high-fat foods to prevent the development of obesity.

What is clear, however, is that child obesity and diabetes is a global phenomenon. It accounts for what we call the “double burden of malnutrition”: under-nutrition and over-nutrition co-exist in the same household and in the same neighborhoods. It’s really hard to sort out why one child is stunted, thin, and under-nourished, while the next child is overweight, yet also stunted and malnourished.

How are we trying to solve the child diabetes epidemic in the U.S.?

We recognize that part of the problem is that many young mothers today have very little experience in purchasing food, preserving it appropriately, and cooking it. Thus, frozen meals ,ready-made foods, and quick meals from fast-food restaurants are common. Those particular foods tend to be higher in calories and more expensive than preparing good meals at home.  I think it is very important to establish programs that teach families how to manage the household with respect to food and to create healthy meal patterns.

Do you think we need to bring back home economics?

We need to bring back something! I know we don’t have home economics in the schools anymore and it’s not a cool thing to be studying, but food management skills are life-enhancing skills. If you don’t know how to manage your money or manage your food supply, it puts you at a real disadvantage.

Do you see potential learning from previous public health campaigns—for example, smoking—that could be used to thwart childhood obesity and diabetes?

The message is easier to understand for smoking than for nutrition. The message with smoking is: Stop. But we can’t tell people to stop eating. What we can do is ask people to change habits. Yet many nutritionists are pessimistic about using that approach, because it’s difficult to get people to change habits. It’s also expensive. It takes a lot of time to provide meaningful, one-on-one counseling. Thus in the United States and in many countries, to implement change more expediently, we’ve increased the availability of foods fortified with vitamins and minerals in the market.  Breakfast cereals are a prime example.

Is this less effective?

I think it’s less effective if you’re not providing the nutrition education to go along with the increased availability of fortified foods. If you’re fortifying your breakfast cereals, it’s true you get more of certain nutrients from that breakfast cereal. But there are other micronutrients and health components in our foods that aren’t routinely added as fortificants. We need a variety of foods in our diets.  That is an old, well-worn message that doesn’t get the public’s attention any more. .

Was there a highpoint in this country in terms of nutrition?

It’s hard to say. We have always had nutritional problems in the United States, but they have never been as severe as in lower-income countries.  For example, we had pellagra, a niacin-deficiency disease, in the southern part of the U.S. This public health problem was the basis for our first major public health nutrition program, fortifying wheat flour with thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, and iron. Since then, the U.S. has always played a leadership role in developing solutions for major nutrition crises around the world. In the mid-20th century, when millions were starving from insufficient food, Norman Borlaug, a biologist and agricultural scientist, developed high-yielding, disease-resistant wheat varieties that are credited with saving billions of lives due to starvation. This was the origin of the “green revolution.”

Our nutritional problem in the U.S. today is more complex, in my opinion, than any other nutritional issue faced in the past. Today, both children and adults are suffering from malnutrition because low-cost, high energy, tasty, but nutrient-poor, foods are readily available. The problem affects the affluent as well as the poor, but it is more common among the poor because these foods are inexpensive. Today, as never before, people have to make a conscious decision to eat healthy because many less-healthy foods are readily available.

If you could broadcast one message about nutrition to caretakers of children what would it be?

Focus on healthy snacks! However, I also think diet quality would be better if we focused on eating regular meals rather than snacking throughout the day. That would enable to the child to learn how to recognize hunger and satiety.  Since many of our children snack continuously throughout the day, I’m unsure if they ever learn when they are hungry and need to eat and when they are satisfied and should stop.

Is there enough discussion about the correlation among child diabetes, malnutrition, and poverty? If so, what is productive about the discussion? If not, what thwarts the discussion?

It is a pity that we have hungry children in the United States. Many children in low-income households suffer from food insecurity, which, in turn creates problematic food behaviors, such as hoarding and gorging. The body responds to this irregular pattern of food intake by becoming very efficient at storing calories as fat when food is available.  This puts the underfed child living in poverty on the road to obesity and, eventually, diabetes. During the last decade or two, we’ve learned a lot about this double burden of malnutrition. But, we are far from solving the problem. Why? I think this is largely because of the complex, multifactorial nature of the problem. As a nutrition researcher, I talk primarily with other pediatric nutrition investigators. But, we rarely interact with experts in public policy, economics, food science, and agricultural sciences to discuss solutions to the problem. Until leaders from all components of the issue come together with a combined commitment to develop effective solutions, I am pessimistic that we will make much progress.

Hand-To-Hand: Human Rights Accompanier Kaya Allan Sugerman

Hand-To-Hand: Human Rights Accompanier Kaya Allan Sugerman

By Sean Burns

There are places in the world where, if you are born into a tradition of subsistence farming and you are determined to preserve that tradition, you risk being murdered. The resource rich, Urabá region of northwestern Colombia is one such place. The reasons for this extreme danger are many and complicated, and recent UC Berkeley graduate Kaya Allan Sugerman is learning them first hand or, perhaps more precisely, hand-to-hand.

Allan Sugerman is a “human rights accompanier” for a number of marginalized villages in different parts of Colombia, the most well known of which is called La Comunidad de Paz de San José de Apartadó (Peace Community of San José de Apartadó). In 1997, campesinos from several villages declared themselves a Peace Community in an effort to advance their right for political and economic autonomy in a region plagued by violence. The communities face fierce, multi-actor warfare largely fueled through contestation over land that is ideal for drug trafficking routes.  Urabá is adjacent to the border with Panama, and therefore lies at a geographical doorway to the markets of Latin and North America. The Colombian Army, state-affiliated paramilitary groups, and guerilla factions—the best known of which is the FARC—have fought for decades in this area. Civilian causality numbers are horrific. Since 1997, in the small villages of Peace Community alone, there have been 210 killings. The unprecedented 2013 report “Enough Already,” produced by Colombia’s National Center of Historical Memory, puts these numbers in an alarming national context—over 200,000 civilian casualties since 1958, most of these since the 1980s.

To compound this terror, public and private corporations seek profits through extracting the abundant, diverse natural resources of this area and other regions throughout Colombia. Water, mineral deposits, and land for corporate banana farming are at the top of the list.  Corporate quests for these resources have historically resulted in mass displacement of indigenous, afro-descendent and campesino communities—an act referred to by human rights lawyers as “involuntary resettlement.” Against these multiple threats to their survival, the Peace Community, for 18 years now, has committed to a non-violent project of autonomy. From the beginning, they knew they could not walk forward alone.

This is where individuals like 25-year-old Kaya Allan Sugerman come into the picture. Allan Sugerman is a member of the international human rights organization Fellowship of Reconciliation Peace Presence (FOR Peace Presence). Its mission is to provide “physical safety, political visibility and solidarity by accompanying communities and organizations that embrace active nonviolence to defend life, land and dignity.” Very importantly, the organization’s commitment to accompany must begin with an invitation.

In 2001, shortly after two massacres in the region, the Peace Community in Colombia, which numbers around 1,500 residents, requested that FOR Peace Presence consider establishing human rights accompaniers in their villages. Human rights accompaniment is a preventative tactic increasingly used by threatened communities in many parts of the world, to diminish violence by having international volunteers physically present amidst their communities.

A crowded group of people walking along a path surrounded by lush greenery. The crowd includes men, women, and children.The tactic works for a simple yet disconcerting reason. When poor and vulnerable communities are accompanied, or observed, by people from around the world —then the perpetrators of violence are less likely to commit atrocities for fear of retribution. Thus, human accompaniment works through the power of witnessing—a certain kind of witnessing. Its efficacy reminds us that in our world, some lives are worth more than others. Allan Sugerman, a U.S. citizen, and her fellow FOR Peace Presence members provide protection to campesinos, because they physically embody the potential of diplomatic and economic intervention by powerful, outside states. In this respect, as others have explored, the tactic is inextricably bound up with dynamics of nation, race, and class privilege.

Allan Sugerman’s path toward human rights accompaniment runs right through her experiences in the Blum Center’s Global Poverty & Practice minor at UC Berkeley. “I first got interested in indigenous communities struggling to maintain their land during my practice experience for the Minor,” recounts Allan Sugerman. “I traveled to Malaysia as part of a research team with Professor Gurdial Singh Nijar to assist rural communities in their defense of traditional plants and coveted, traditional medical knowledge.” When Allan Sugerman returned from the field and enrolled in her capstone GPP minor course, she was challenged to reflect on what she had learned in Malaysia and how this learning might translate into her future choices after graduation.  A year after getting her diploma, Allan Sugerman was on a plane to Colombia for her first training with FOR Peace Presence.

“GPP taught me that specific injustices are rooted in larger systems of injustice,” says Allan Sugerman. “My biggest reason for signing up for the minor—and doing my work in Malaysia and Colombia—has been my concern for the historic influence of the U.S. government in fostering militarization abroad and fueling conflicts such as that in Colombia, in an effort to advance its own economic interests.”

She adds that the work of accompaniment has enabled her to carry out her commitment both to combating the immediacy of injustice—protecting people’s lives—and to understanding and changing the larger structures that produce and reproduce inequities. That is because human rights accompaniment requires two kinds of work. First, the strategic act of being physically present in the right places at the right time requires enormous amounts of research, planning, and communication. Second, for accompaniment to be successful, all of the relevant actors facing potential violence must be aware of the presence of FOR Peace Presence members. As the social landscape of struggle can often shift, this requires studying who is a threat to the community at any given time and effectively communicating with various kinds of state diplomats to ensure maximum visibility for accompanied communities. Visibility is paramount for accompaniment, and, despite it being an explicit gesture of solidarity, human rights organizations such as FOR Peace Presence must maintain an unwavering commitment to political neutrality. They are present as observers. They bring no material aid and no political opinions.

To carry out these roles, Allan Sugerman splits her time between a variety of rural villages (some coastal, some in mining-intensive areas around Cesar and Magdalena, and some in the North) and the capital city of Bogotá, population 7 million plus.  This rotation enables her to conduct research and carry out vital communication in the capital, and then return to different villages three times a month with fellow accompaniers and partner organizations.

While the work of FOR Peace Presence specifically focuses on accompaniment, the broader vision for nonviolence motivates employees and volunteers to collaborate with other NGOs—some of which explicitly advance social justice advocacy work.  In the fall of 2014, Allan Sugerman helped coordinate an educational speaking tour to multiple U.S. cities—including Berkeley—with partner organization Tierra Digna.  The tour, entitled People, Profits and the Planet: Prospects in the Face of Corporate Supremacy, enabled Tierra Digna human rights lawyer Johana Rocha to build awareness in the U.S. around the extractive industries and large-scale development projects affecting rural Colombian areas such as Urabá. Kaya travelled with the tour as a translator and representative of FOR Peace Presence.

Having worked with FOR Peace Presence for a year and a half, Allan Sugerman has reflected intensely on the meaning and practice of accompaniment.  She emphasizes that the most salient characteristic of her relationship with the people of the Peace Community is “the feeling of mutual respect—treating each other as equals.” She says, “My day-to-day interactions feel like an intercambio, a knowledge exchange.” As Allan Sugerman relays these impressions to me, I am struck by how aligned they are with a current, public conversation on the term “accompaniment” as a promising orientation for carrying out social justice work in variety of contexts.

A group of people gathered under a thatched roof structure, observing a mechanical setup. The setup includes a large red and green engine with belts and pulleys. The group consists of men and women, some wearing hats and outdoor clothing.While FOR Peace Presence and other human rights organizations use the term to reference a specific set of protective tactics, other activists broaden its meaning to different kinds of solidarity work. In 2012, for example, U.S. labor and prisoner rights lawyer Staughton Lynd wrote an impassioned book—part memoir, part treatise—entitled Accompanying: Pathways To Social Justice. His central claim is that accompaniment, with its emphasis on humans collaborating as equals, provides an urgently needed corrective to long prevalent notions of “organizing” in North American social justice traditions. Lynd opens his book with an analysis of Dr. Paul Farmer’s well circulated 2011 commencement address at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government—“Accompaniment as Policy”—wherein Farmer, the world-renowned founder of Partners in Health, describes his understanding of the term. Farmer’s insights stems from decades of observing development projects, some of which have failed miserably, worsening people’s lives through “unintended consequences of social action.”

For Farmer, accompaniment is an inspiring corrective because it demands a certain kind of accountability defined both by its endurance and its humility. “I’ll go with you and support you on your journey wherever it leads,” he says of the practice. “I’ll keep you company and share your fate for a while. And by ‘a while,’ I don’t mean a little while. Accompaniment is much more often about sticking with a task until it’s deemed completed by the person or people being accompanied, rather than by the accompagnateur.” This last line foregrounds how accompaniment, as a mode of comporting oneself in social justice work, compels a specific approach to evaluating the success of our actions: those who seek to help should not serve as the measurer or the measurement tool for what is working.

As I sit in my UC Berkeley office, listening intently over Skype to Kaya Allan Sugerman share her stories from northern Colombia, thinking about their relationship to the ideas of Lynd and Farmer, I am struck by the relevance of accompaniment to the challenge of social justice.

At its most elemental level, the yearning for a more socially just world presents two problems: what and how? What is the particular vision of social justice? How to go about working toward that vision? Answers to these questions dramatically affected world events throughout the 20th century, and any current effort to advance struggles for social justice should grapple with these complex legacies and sustain these questions. Accompaniment offers a particular way into and a particular way forward for both the what and the how of social justice.

Listening, walking hand-in-hand, these are the practice.

I thank Kaya Allan Sugerman ‘12 for speaking with me; any errors in understanding or analysis are mine alone. The Global Poverty & Practice minor at UC Berkeley creates an educational community for student scholar-activists committed to exploring the difficult ethical and political questions necessary for building social justice in the 21st century. 

More Than Hardware: Challenges in Education Technology in Africa

By Sybil Lewis

In 2012, the Inter-American Development Bank concluded that children in Peru receiving computers from the American nonprofit One Laptop per Child did not show improvements in math or reading and that access to the laptop did not significantly increase motivation to learn. This is the kind of survey result that makes technology for development professionals worry—especially since global education technology investments were estimated at $1.1 billion in 2012. In Rwanda alone, 203,000 laptops have been distributed to primary school students through the One Laptop per Child project.

On April 10, the Blum Center hosted a panel discussion on the private sector’s changing and often challenging role in education transformation in Africa. The panel was organized and moderated by James Bernard, senior director of global strategic partnerships for the Education Group at Microsoft and a Spring 2015 Development Impact Lab (DIL) visiting fellow. The panel included John Galvin, vice president of education at Intel; Steve Duggan, director of education partnerships at Microsoft; Sara Kingsley, research consultant at the Microsoft Technology and Policy Group; and Alex Cho, vice president and general manager of commercial systems at HP.

First, all of the panelists emphasized that there has been a shift in the past five years away from providing countries with laptops or devices toward context-specific solutions focusing on educational outcomes.

“The focus has moved from the device to thinking about the appropriate solution and service that will provide outcomes,” said Duggan of Microsoft. “So you can think of the technology not as the end-all, but as a device that delivers a service.”

Indeed, to address the shortcomings of device-only solutions, computer hardware companies are including software development and teacher and IT training into their hardware deployment projects in African and other developing countries. In 2012, for example, Microsoft invested $250 million through its Partners in Learning Project to train teachers in IT and technology subjects.

The panelists explained that one of the biggest challenges in the education technology field has been implementing curricula when government officials are more interested in the quantity of devices sent to students. Another challenge is the lack of reliable Internet connectivity in many African regions, a problem that moved Microsoft, Intel, and HP to place its educational content on USB devices with a 3G connection, so that teachers can provide an alternative way to download information. Africa’s connectivity is changing, however, said Kingsley, who works on affordable connectivity projects for Microsoft in Africa. He reminded the panel that many Internet Service Providers and governments are harnessing the power of solar energy throughout the continent.

While “adaptive learning,” which allows teachers and students to learn at their own pace through online resources, has produced positive results, the role of technology in the classroom remains unclear. The panelists attributed this ambiguity to the lack of data and rigorous assessment.

Alex Cho from HP said that the collection of real-time data from student and teacher interactions with devices and software along with on-the-ground qualitative data allows developers to track where success and failure is occurring, with the potential of creating predictive data. According to Duggan, the fact that only one third of countries have met the UN’s 2015 Millennium Development Goals on education highlights technology’s potential to offer more solutions.

The educational ecosystem in sub-Saharan Africa is complicated by resource challenges. A recent UNESCO report estimated that by 2030 2.5 million teachers will be needed to meet growing secondary school enrollment. Teachers and human interaction will always be essential to learning, Bernard assured, but technological innovations can serve as a guide to navigate a landscape lacking quality teachers.

“We need to look at technology from the framework where it is a compliment, not a replacement, to education in places where resources are running short,” Kingsley said.

The Road from CalCAP: Can the University of California Achieve Carbon Neutrality by 2025?

By Tamara Straus

Ten years ago, Scott Zimmermann left a career as an oil industry engineer to attend law school at UC Berkeley, retool, and try to save the planet. Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth” was just about to come out, and the nation was buzzing with newfound information on the connections between fossil fuel consumption and climate change. Zimmermann said he chose Berkeley because “it was easily the best place in the country for people working on interdisciplinary climate mitigation solutions, especially in the energy space. Virtually every department across campus was making important contributions to climate change research.”

Zimmermann took some good early steps. First, he got Professor Daniel Kammen to serve as his advisor. Kammen had a triple appointment at the Goldman School of Public Policy, the Energy & Resources Group, and the Nuclear Engineering Department, and recently had been named Class of 1935 Distinguished Chair in Energy and co-director of the Berkeley Institute of the Environment. He was also about to win the Nobel Peace Prize as a contributing lead to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Second, Zimmermann met a Berkeley attorney and activist by the name of Tom Kelly. In 2004, Kelly and his wife Jane had started Kyoto USA, a nonprofit to get local jurisdictions to abide to the carbon caps laid out in the Kyoto Protocol. Kelly wanted to institute the caps that the U.S. government wouldn’t at UC Berkeley, and according to Zimmermann, “It fit really, really well within the university and its politics.”

The state also was moving where the federal government refused on climate change policy. California Assembly Member Fran Pavley presented AB32, which would soon become the 2006 California Global Warming Act, the first law of its kind in the country. It would require California to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2020.

Kammen, Zimmermann, Kelly, and two other graduate students from the College of Natural Resources—Brooke Owyang and Eli Yewdall—decided that the UC Berkeley should commit to the same reductions and, if possible, get ahead of them to prove the university’s leadership in environmental sustainability. They drafted a letter to Chancellor Robert Birgeneau, gathered signatures from 13 professors, lecturers, and deans as well as from Professor Cathy Koshland, vice provost for academic planning and facilities, and requested that the administration “formally endorse the Kyoto Protocol and adopt its underlying principles.” The administration replied with a challenge: to put together a feasibility plan.

“Getting a university to commit to and administrate this kind of goal is not just a really interesting political problem,” remembers Zimmermann. “It’s also a really interesting technical problem.” The first technical problem was quantifying the actual on-campus emissions and understanding them in terms of transportation, consumption, waste, electricity, and so on. The second problem was figuring out how to reduce the emissions through technology, behavior, and other methods.

To tackle these problems, a student-faculty-staff group called the Cal Climate Action Partnership (CalCAP) was formed. As usual, money was scarce. Zimmermann and fellow students Brooke Owang, Sasha Gennet, and Sam Arons applied for a BigIdeas@Berkeley prize and won $5,000, enough to pay a student group to measure the campus’ carbon footprint. Student oversight came from Kammen, Civil and Environmental Engineering Professor Arpad Horvath, Energy & Resources Group Chair William Nazaroff, and 10 other faculty, all of whom were doing cutting-edge work on emissions analysis and technology. Fahmida Ahmed, a recent graduate of UC Santa Barbara’s environmental science and management program, was hired to manage the process. And for 18 months, momentum grew. There were large department and school head meetings, and many hours volunteered from every corner of the campus.

By the spring of 2007, CalCAP was done with its reporting and placed a 117-page plan on the desk of Chancellor Robert J. Birgeneau. He signed it, even though Nathan Brostrom, the vice chancellor of administration, didn’t know where about half the money was going to come from.

“This was one of the most collaborative efforts of students, faculty, and staff I’ve ever seen or been involved in,” remembers Koshland. “It happened because we had a multi-pronged strategy and an amazing group of graduate students who led the charge.”

Koshland went on to chair the CalCAP steering committee, comprised of a 35-member group and overseen by the UC Berkeley Office of Sustainability & Energy. In its first few years, CalCAP produced detailed reports on the path to meet carbon reduction goals and the mechanisms to report the emissions, including the 2009 Sustainability Plan and Climate Action Plan. The efforts led to hundreds
 of projects across campus on energy efficiency, transportation, procurement, water, and travel. And at each stage, the projects were individually evaluated for feasibility and measured for goal completion.

Kira Stoll, who became involved in CalCAP in 2006 as transportation staff and is now the campus’ sustainability manager, said that one of the largest efforts has focused on buildings, which account for 39 percent of C02 emissions in the United States. There were plenty of surprises. For example, Stoll and her colleagues originally assumed that there wouldn’t be much financial payback from lighting retrofits. “But what we found through tracking those projects,” says Stoll, “is that we were getting 60 percent faster better payback.”

In 2012, the Office of Sustainability launched the Energy Management Initiative, including a campaign called My Power. My Power is a simple behavioral program that has incentivized Cal departments to reduce emissions by showing them detailed reports of how much energy they use—and then giving them money back, if they go below specific targets. Stoll reports that the Energy Management Initiative has saved UC Berkeley more than $2 million since it was launched.

Also part of the Energy Management Initiative is a platform called Energy Office, which aggregates 100 real-time energy dashboards that change on 15-minute intervals. In 2012, Assistant Professor Duncan Callaway and his class noticed an inexplicable bump up of energy use on Barrows Hall’s dashboard, and notified the Energy Office. Stoll says her colleagues used the dashboard software to sort through possible causes of the increased use. They quickly found an equipment problem, went to the building, and resolved it. The avoided annual energy costs to Cal were up to $45,000.

By November 2013, UC Berkeley announced it had reduced its carbon footprint to 1990 levels. The CalCAP-initiated goal was met two years ahead of schedule and beat the state the deadline by eight years. Because of its data management, CalCAP knew exactly how and why goals were met. It gave three main reasons. First, through energy efficiency investments, building retrofits, and sustainable transportation practices, the university saved 20 million kilowatt hours of electricity and 1 million gallons of fuel. Second, Pacific Gas & Electric, which provides the campus electricity and is required by state law to provide 33 percent renewable energy mix by 2020, helped out in reducing emissions as it began to replace coal and oil with wind and sun energy. And third, and perhaps most instructive, reductions came through improved data and reporting methods.

“This shows that if you don’t measure it, it’s incredibly hard not only to act on it but to have a substantive conversation,” says Kammen. “You really need to have targets and goals. Setting them—doing the analysis to figure them out, and then doing the measurement work and adjusting—is what CalCAP has proved.”

Kammen is speaking not just about UC Berkeley’s first set of carbon emissions goals—but about the next set of goals, which UC President Janet Napolitano announced in November 2013. They demand that the entire University of California system commit to carbon neutrality by 2025.

Matt St. Clair, who was part of the original CalCAP team and who in 2004 became the first sustainability director for the University of California’s Office of the President, believes the goals are reachable but there are plenty of challenges ahead. “Energy efficiency is hard work and complex and requires investment,” says St. Clair. “We’ve done a lot of it, and we plan to do a lot more. We also don’t want to rely just on supply side solutions, where we use as much energy as we want because we can directly procure carbon-free sources of energy. That’s a big, ongoing challenge.”

Both St. Clair and Stoll say that UC Berkeley reached its first carbon reduction goals in part by grabbing at low-hanging fruit: cost-effective methods that were as dependent on behavioral changes as much as on new technologies. What the University of California needs now, they say, is financial investment and continued ingenuity.

“We really need to find a way to finance new renewable energy initiatives,” says Stoll. “The technology is available, so it’s feasible if we can find the finances for it and do it in a 10-year time frame.”

Stoll mentions that Stanford University is about to finish a $438 million electric heat recovery system to replace its cogeneration plant. The new Stanford Energy Systems Innovation project is expected to reduce carbon emissions by 68 percent and save the university an estimated $300 million over the next 35 years. Of course, these kinds of upfront costs are not something the University of California can contemplate in the midst of the budget crisis.

Stoll and St. Clair say there are other tactics UC might employ, including purchasing more solar and wind power from energy wholesalers and developing a biomethane substitute for natural gas.

“What’s exciting about a system-wide carbon neutrality policy and office of sustainability,” says St. Clair, “is that each campus has its own strengths that the others can learn from.”

St. Clair notes that Berkeley was the first to do a climate action plan, which his office used to help the other nine campuses develop their own plans. Whereas, UC Santa Barbara pioneered green building efforts with the country’s first Platinum LEED certified building, and UC Irvine developed a smart laboratory program, through which it has retrofitted more than a dozen laboratory buildings and cut energy consumption in those buildings by on average 60 percent, becoming a national and international model.

This year, Costa Rica became the first nation to use only clean energy. The country’s state utility company announced in late March that it went the first 75 days of 2015 without using fossil fuels like coal or oil for electricity, and expects to rely on renewable energy for more than 95 percent of its electricity for the remainder of the year.

Can the University of California one-up this hydropower-reliant country and achieve carbon neutrality by 2025? For many involved, it’s the ultimate hot potato question. Daniel Kammen, however, says the answer is “unambiguously yes.”

“It sounds like a revolutionary number to make the energy system carbon free by 2025,” says Kammen. “But if the UC system can really innovate and use its physical campuses as living laboratories, I think it’s absolutely doable. What it will take is a scale-up in efficiency—solar, wind, biomass, geothermal—that we have been talking about for a while. Ten years is an incredibly tight timetable. It makes you gasp a little. But we’ve seen these transitions happen on this scale already.”

Scott Zimmermann, Kammen’s former student who is now an energy lawyer at the San Francisco firm of Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati, argues that getting to carbon neutrality is a bigger step. “It’s not something you can necessarily do while saving money,” he says. “The earlier steps at UC Berkeley were easier because they enabled departments to save money. Now, if there’s extra money, the question is: Do you put the money into carbon reducing facilities or hire another professor? Those decisions are harder to make.”

A Pattern Searcher from Cal: Rebecca Hui Connects Art, Cows, and Urban Development

A Pattern Searcher from Cal: Rebecca Hui Connects Art, Cows, and Urban Development

By Sybil Lewis

During her sophomore year, Rebecca Hui was still wrestling with her decision not to attend art school—and was tepidly observing her fellow students’ focus on professional careers. Through a friend, the double major in architecture and business got an internship at a landscape architecture firm in Gujarat, India. But her boss refused to let her work; instead, he encouraged her to delve into Indian culture and discover what intrigued her.

Hui decided to follow around cows.

“I was shocked by how much respect cows received in the city—they were like a bourgeoisie,” Hui said. “I wanted to know why I had trouble crossing the road, but all the cars stopped for a cow.”

Hui following cows during her internship in Gujarat in the summer of 2011
Hui following cows during her internship in Gujarat in the summer of 2011

In Hinduism, the cow is considered a sacred animal; and in many areas, such as Gujarat, vegetarianism is the norm. Hui’s interest in human-animal interactions was influenced by her roommate, an adherent of Jain, an ancient Indian religion that advocates a high social consciousness toward animals. Her roommate allowed pigeons to live in their home.

“She would say, ‘If we build our houses on their houses, why can’t they build their houses in ours?’ It became normal to wake up with pigeons flying around my room.”

After her summer in Gujarat, Hui decided to switch her second major from architecture to urban studies and to apply for the BigIdeas@Berkeley competition in the Creative Expression for Social Justice category. She won $3,000, enough to start her project.

The Secret Life of Urban Animals is not a typical BigIdeas project. Hui followed cows in different parts of India to better understand their cultural significance as well as urban planning and sustainable development in the world’s most populous democracy. Upon graduation, she received sponsorship to continue the project as a Fulbright-Nehru Research Fellow and National Geographic Society Young Explorer.

Hui wrote in a July 2011 blog entry: “a system’s state can be understood by observing how molecules bounce around in its environment. I figured that in the same way, much can be revealed about the state of a changing society by following how its inhabitants, a cow in this case, ‘bounce’ around its surroundings. Who knew that following a cow could reveal so much about the city’s changing cultural, social, and even political fabric?”

Some of Hui’s sketches showing the city from the cows’ perspective.
Some of Hui’s sketches showing the city from the cows’ perspective.

Following cows in the densely populated city of Mumbai, Hui noted that people’s relationship to cows varied immensely between rural and urban areas. In rural areas, cows are integrated in everyday life and play an important role as sources of milk and farm labor; they are treated with more familiarity compared to more urban settings, where they are mainly used for commercial activities and in some cases face physical harm from people.

Hui has argued that protection of urban animals and wildlife can strengthen urban planning and public policy. As an expansion of her project, she attempted to study elephants in Tamil Nadu and leopards in Mumbai’s Sanjay Gandhi National Park, and noticed that that bureaucracy or real estate interests were often prioritized over conservation. If the elephants’ migration patterns were accounted for, she argued, then city planners could create grassy overpasses and roadways to protect wildlife, while still developing for larger human populations.

Some may see this line of reasoning as overly idealistic, especially since India is projected to replace China as the world’s most populous country by 2050. While Hui does not advocate for cows and other animals to roam freely in cities due to the health concerns, she argues that taking into consideration human-animal interactions is imperative to preserving ecosystems that humans benefit from.

Maps that Hui drew to document how cows inhabited the city and dealt with different urban realities such as traffic. Pic 4

Maps that Hui drew to document how cows inhabited the city and dealt with different urban realities such as traffic.

Hui admits she has never been a conventional thinker. As part of an independent research project her junior year, she decided to observe how different groups interact with Legos. She left the sets in public areas at the Haas Business School, the university’s architecture building, Wurster Hall, and a local elementary school. She found that the Legos at the business school were built into hierarchical structures, such as pyramids; the architecture students tended to make intricate designs, including Star Wars figurines; and the most creative structures came from the elementary school children.

In her undergraduate classes, Hui often put a twist on her assignments. For the business course Entrepreneurship to Address Global Poverty, her goal was to get the Cal student community more aware of social entrepreneurship opportunities on campus. The end result was a series of illustrations of an octopus, whose tentacles served as a metaphor for the reach of different social entrepreneurship opportunities.

An artisan from Madhya Pradesh who specializes in the traditional art form of Gond painting showcases his work.
An artisan from Madhya Pradesh who specializes in the traditional art form of Gond painting showcases his work.

“When she first came back with the octopus drawing, I chuckled and did not understand it,” said the course’s professor John Danner. “But the end result was much better than the original idea—she has an idiosyncratic way of putting ideas and issues together that stop people in their tracks.”

Hui just likes to search for patterns in human development and thinks that her ability to notice subtle differences in societies stem from her upbringing. Her father was a professor and during his sabbatical leave Hui moved around nine times as a child between Hong Kong, New Jersey, and Arizona, and said she learned to adapt quickly in order to “fit in.”

While the Secret Life of Urban Animals project concluded in September 2014 with a two-week exhibition of Hui’s paintings, drawings, and cartoons at the David Sassoon Library in downtown Mumbai, Hui’s work in India is far from over.

Currently, she is working to found Toto Express, a social enterprise that she says is the first design-licensing agency for rural artisans in India. During the Secret Life project, Hui met many rural artisans whom she learned were unable to generate enough income due to lack of connectivity and marketing. When they migrated to urban areas in search of employment, they ended up encountering a different form of poverty in the slums.

Hui believes it is important to create alternatives to urban migration—what she calls a “prosperous village” that can recognize villagers’ inherent skills and assets. Over eight months in 2014 and 2015, she has conducted three pilot projects with tribes specializing in the traditional art forms of Dhokra metal casting, Phad scroll painting, and Gond painting. She intends to get artisans to upload their designs to an online platform for licensing by corporations.

The platform will capitalize on the estimated $2.5 billion market of holiday gift giving by corporations and a 2014 law requiring that 2 percent of corporate budgets be allocated to corporate social responsibility. Hui hopes that Toto Express’ platform will provide a way for corporations both to meet their gifting needs and meet government mandates. In turn, artisans will benefit from growing profits that will allow them to stay in their trade and village.

Hui with a group of artisans she worked with during Toto Express’ pilot projects.
Hui with a group of artisans she worked with during Toto Express’ pilot projects.

“Many NGOs and craft ventures work with these artists, which is fantastic, but it seems they are often harrowed by supply chain and inventory challenges,” Hui said. “Toto Express increases artists’ incomes without having to send the artwork or artist to urban areas—which usually adds more layers to the supply chain, reducing the actual cash that artists receive.”

Moving forward, Hui is planning a fourth pilot project that would place permanent design centers in three to four villages, to help artists adapt their artwork for various corporate gifts and better use the Toto website.

“I am dedicated to this project because I relate to artists whose reasons for leaving their art spoke back to my reasons for pursuing a more ‘respected’ career path within the often risk-adverse Chinese American community,” Hui said. “But to see that happen to these communities where art is intimately connected to identity, hurt tremendously. I want to change that.”

Down to the Wire on Big Ideas@Berkeley’s IT for Society Competition

By Andrea Guzman

On April 10, the seven finalist teams in the Information Technology for Society category of this year’s Big Ideas@Berkeley social innovation contest went through the nail-biting process of presenting their projects to a panel of judges at Sutardja Dai Hall.

Finalists included: Piezoelectric Shoe Sole GPS Tracker, a low-cost, ergonomic children’s shoe design with an embedded data logger powered by piezoelectric materials; BCAPI, an open-source Brain-to-Computer Interfacing software for creation of assistive technologies; and TIRO, an interactive hotline management system designed to give small NGOs serving vulnerable clients in China better record-keeping and reporting capabilities. Also presenting were the Smart Diaphragm group, which aims to detect vaginal infections in pregnant women, and Lifenik, which creates games that help kids develop their brains for optimal emotional health.

Sponsored by the Center for Information Technology Research in the Interest of Society (CITRIS) and the Blum Center for Developing Economies, the IT for Society category challenges students to develop a project that demonstrates the capacity of information technology to address major societal challenges. Past winners have included: Transence, a mobile application enabling hard-of-hearing people to interact more freely with the rest of the world; and Sahay, an information and communication technology platform connecting workers in the informal household sector (e.g., domestic workers, cooks, drivers, security guards, etc.) in India with employment opportunities.

Among this year’s contestants was Team Aqua Power, which is designing a water measurement device to be installed on faucets and showers, to make people more conscience of their water consumption. Thuria Narayan said the yearlong competition allowed her team to further develop their idea, particularly with help from their mentor. “Our mentor helped us in the areas that we lacked,” she said.

For Shyam Kumar of OhMyCause!, a web platform that connects people with causes and nonprofits, BigIdeas@Berkeley motivated him to just start the project. “Big Ideas is a great channel for people to take their ideas to the next level,” he said. “Without it, people may choose to focus on something less socially driven. The contest really brings out the best in us.”

The judges in the competition seemed impressed with the quality and maturity of the proposals. “It is great to see university students not just think about these problems but to have the courage to go forward with them,” said judge Jayarami Reddy from Cisco.

Awards will be announced in mid April, with $22,500 in prizes for the Information Technology for Society winners. Awards for all categories will be celebrated on May 5, 2015, 2-4 pm, in B100 Blum Hall.

The Measurement Revolution: An Interview with Temina Madon

The Measurement Revolution: An Interview with Temina Madon

By Tamara Straus

Temina MadonTemina Madon is executive director of UC Berkeley’s Center for Effective Global Action (CEGA), whose mission is to improve lives through innovative research that drives effective policy and development programming. Madon also serves as the managing director of UC Berkeley’s Development Impact Lab, which CEGA and the Blum Center co-administer. She has worked as a science policy advisor for the Fogarty International Center of the National Institutes of Health and as a Science and Technology Policy Fellow for the U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions. She holds a PhD from UC Berkeley in visual neuroscience and a BS in chemical engineering and biomedical engineering from MIT. The Blum Center sat down with Madon to gather her views on impact evaluation, technology for development, and the changing intersections of development economics, engineering, and social science.

Impact evaluation has become extremely important to the field of international development, but many complain that funding is still difficult to come by. What do you think about this disconnect?

Temina Madon: William Savedoff of the Center for Global Development and Ruth Levine from the Hewlett Foundation recently wrote that approximately $130 billion is spent each year in official overseas development assistance, compared to about $50 million for evidence—i.e., for rigorous evaluation of programs. That’s less than one percent. Would any private sector company that is serious about its products spend that little on R&D? If you look at Google, Intel, and the companies that deliver the services we use everyday to enhance productivity, they are spending 15 to 20 percent of their revenue on product development. I’m not saying that government operates in the same way as the private sector, nor should it. But you would think that for the delivery of essential public services that safeguard people’s health, livelihoods, and basic security, more than 1 percent would be spent on product development and evaluation.

What would it take to get the pace of investment in evidence to where it should be?

Temina Madon: I think it would take a wholesale shift in the attitude of governments away from process and consensus, toward performance—toward delivery of services that actually improve people’s health, their security, and their workforce readiness and education. Bureaucrats need to be incentivized to deliver outcomes, not programs.

What do you say to people who don’t understand impact evaluation or the cost of rigorous program evaluation?

Temina Madon: First, some programs are actually harmful, just as some drugs tested in clinical trials prove to be harmful. For example, there are programs that try to put money and empowerment into the hands of women, but sometimes they can drive negative outcomes, related to domestic violence and inter-household conflict. These kinds of programs, while very much intending to empower women, can put them at greater risk, if not implemented appropriately. You want research, evidence, and careful design of services to ensure they are implemented in ways that do no harm.

There are also many programs that have no impact. So there is an imperative to allocate money to high performance programs. We like to say that the public has, in some ways, a relatively unenforceable contract with government. We vote for politicians—essentially entering into a contract with our leaders to deliver services that keep our society functioning. But that contract cannot be enforced on a regular basis, because we vote only once in four to five years. A good government, ideally, is accountable day-to-day for the performance of public services. So it is a breach of contract when elected officials allocate resources to harmful or low-impact programs. If you have limited resources, you are supposed to invest in proven, evidence-based policies or programs. This is how you fulfill your contract with the people. Of course, we need a way to identify the highest performing programs—and that’s where rigorous evaluation is needed.

To what extent can international development efforts in the U.S. be separated from U.S. foreign policy interests?

Temina Madon: I honestly don’t know the answer to this question. But I know that USAID has tried to pivot under the current administration, away from implementing programs that are “business as usual” and more toward knowledge generation. In other words, how do we contribute knowledge that helps governments in poor countries perform more efficiently? Knowledge can be in the form of scientific advances and technologies, evidence that governments can use, and even capacity building. It is a pivot away from providing commodities for consumption, like surplus grain (during famine) or condoms to prevent HIV. We are starting to equip governments and communities to increase their resilience, improve their public service delivery, and adopt new technology. I don’t know if you can ever separate foreign assistance from foreign policy objectives. USAID reports to the Department of State. But under this administration, there has been a movement toward more knowledge sharing, technology transfer, technology development, and investment in product and service design.

Is that the right way to go? Intrinsically, as an American citizen, I prefer that we give the best that our country has to offer. U.S. overseas assistance should not be a channel for dumping surplus. As a citizen, I’d prefer that we contribute our innovation, our knowledge and management skills. We have this rich human capital; I love the idea of helping Americans to do good in the world, by connecting with opportunities to transform economies.

CEGA is among a handful of university centers experimenting with wireless sensors, mobile data, and analytics to evaluate poverty-alleviating programs. Do you do see a time when one or more of these approaches will become primary or replace randomized control trials in impact evaluation?  

Temina Madon: We see these innovations as tools for measurement in impact evaluation. Rigorous evaluations just expose the causal links between programs and outcomes. We’ll always need this approach. But how you measure your outcomes, in large part, determines the cost of an impact evaluation.

Often, evaluations are expensive, because you are doing thousands of pen-and-paper surveys. You may have to hire hundreds of enumerators to carry out two-to-three hour interviews with representative households across multiple villages, districts, and regions. You have to pay fuel and housing costs for the enumerators when they travel. If you’re measuring biometric outcomes, your surveyors need to be well trained. They may even need to be certified health workers; it depends on the tests you’re administering. You may have to pay for the rapid transport of diagnostic tests to a laboratory. This is where the high cost comes from.

If we can shift toward mobile phone surveys and wireless sensors, the costs could drop dramatically. We just need to know that newer methods are as reliable and accurate as door-to-door surveys.

Again, impact evaluations just compare the outcomes—of people, or communities, or markets—in the presence and absence of a program. But they’re also a way to give a voice to poor and vulnerable households, to allow them to express whether or not a program has worked for them. If we capture this input using sensors, mobile technology, satellites—it is still impact evaluation. We’ll still be looking for causal link between the intervention and its impact, but the technologies reduce the cost of gathering the data. They make it easier to understand the lives, outcomes, and aspirations of the people we care about.

Give me an example from either UC Berkeley or another university of where new technologies are effectively helping to evaluate development programs?

Temina Madon: One of the projects supported by the Development Impact Lab (DIL) is trying to expose use of improved cookstoves by women in Ethiopia. The stoves reduce biomass consumption and, with it, health risks from pollution. The question is what kind of educational or marketing interventions could get women to use the stoves. This project started with simple pen-and-paper interviews with women to ask about their stove use—a method that is costly and quite unreliable and biased. If you ask me whether I use your excellent new stove, I’ll probably say, “Yes!”

DIL supported a group of researchers to put temperature sensors on the stoves, in order to gather reliable, high frequency data on stove use. Sensors could lower the cost of evaluation significantly, given the amount of data and the quality of data being captured. The team started to use tablet-based surveys running ODK (Open Data Kit), and then benchmarked their survey data against the sensors, to understand the reliability of each approach. There is an upfront cost for benchmarking a new technology, and you are going to see that with all these emerging measurement technologies.

CEGA is funding another project that is looking at crop yields among smallholder farmers in Kenya and Uganda. Currently, when you send enumerators out to measure crop yields in a region, you take a random strip of a farm plot, cut or harvest the produce in that strip, and then estimate what the rest of the plot will yield. This is incredibly costly. We are trying to do that now with microsatellite data. Very soon, microsatellite operators expect to get optical images, updated daily, of landmass for practically the entire planet. We think we can infer crop yields on very small plots using this high resolution, high frequency data that give time slices throughout the harvest cycle. Crop yields in the context of agriculture are something development economists really care about, because we think they generate increases in income for poor households.

Another new measurement approach is crowdsourcing. Premise is a tech company in San Francisco that CEGA is working with. Premise maintains a network of community members equipped with smartphones, all over the world. The company pushes customized tasks to the smartphone user, such as: identify where there is scarcity in consumable water in your neighborhood; or take a picture of houses that lack connection to the grid within 2 kilometers of your house. Premise gets the images, which are location- and time-stamped, and pays the contributors for every accepted observation. Premise is then able to produce real-time aggregate information. They can create consumer price indexes by capturing, for example, food prices from 60 markets across a district. To spur development, we can then intervene in half of those markets, and see how market prices change. This is an impact evaluation—a randomized trial control trial. But instead of sending enumerators out to measure outcomes, we are doing low-cost data collection using a new technology.

This is why we see the measurement agenda as essential, but also complementary, to surveys. You’re not ever going to want to get rid of surveys wholesale, because even if they introduce bias, you’re gaining beneficiaries’ perceptions. What beneficiaries tell you may not be the actual reflection of their behavior—but you may want to know what they think and say. Also, with satellites and sensors, you may not be able to capture as much information as you would with a survey. So we see these technologies as complementary and as tools that could be embedded within an impact evaluation.

What is the skill set for people going into economic development?

Temina Madon: The bottom line is that very few people have all the skills needed, and this is why we are taking a “team science” approach. We are helping to create a new discipline, development engineering. In this new field, you can’t be an economist working alone. You might need a computer scientist, an electrical engineer, a mechanical engineer, and other social scientists to work with you on the measurement component of your research. There is a fertile territory for measurement advances that engineers can contribute to and get credit for, because real innovation is required to sense physical properties or to observe trends in the field.

There are a few people who have been able to cross disciplines. In fact, this is where we got the idea for the development engineering as a PhD minor. Joshua Blumenstock was a Cal PhD student in computer science who is now an assistant professor at University of Washington. He got his PhD in the Information School, but he also did a master’s in development economics. He took the core econ courses, because he was interested. So he has the engineering insights to build systems for “big data” analytics, but he also understands econometrics and he can tease out the causal linkages between interventions and their impacts. He can leverage new measurement tools, like the call detail records (CDRs) that are generated by mobile network operators. Right now, there is another UC Berkeley student in the I-School, Robert On, who is building this same hybrid skill set.

What other skills might students gain if development engineering were to blossom?

Temina Madon: There are a lot of people with a lot of opinions on this question. But the whole idea for “development engineering” came up in a discussion with Eric Brewer and Ted Miguel. We were saying: Josh Blumenstock has these unique abilities, and can tackle unique problems, because of the methods he has been exposed to. How could we create more students like him, who will know how to work with someone from a different academic tradition? We started thinking that the obvious first step is knowing what you don’t know—understanding enough development and economic theory to know that there is a body of statistical and data collection techniques that you could tap into, through collaboration. That is one piece.

The other piece is knowing how to do fieldwork. Eric Brewer’s concern was that while engineers have become “interventionists” in the ICTD [information and communication technologies for development] community, they don’t understand how to access representative, population-level data to inform their work. They are doing focus groups. But when your technology’s design is informed by a small number of focus groups, the technology is designed for that population. It’s not necessarily scalable, or representative of something that could scale. So we need to teach people how to do field experiments, impact evaluations. We need to teach about the political economy of technology, the regulatory institutions that play a role in scale-up, and how to bundle those into the design of a technology intervention.

The flip side is that for an economist, you need to know the body of technologies that exist. You may not have the modeling or hardware skills to build sensors, deploy a network, and then analyze the data. But you should at least know about the toolkit that is emerging, so that you can think more creatively about measuring outcomes in the field. So again, knowledge about new approaches outside your own discipline is so important.

What do you make of the conversations in the popular press about women in science, both in higher education and industry?

Temina Madon: I have been fortunate to grow up in a household where women are expected to be scientists and engineers. Yet I did not become a faculty member, because I did not have that desire in the discipline in which I was trained: visual neuroscience. A lot of people say women tend to seek work that has more social impact or social relevance. I don’t know if that is true or not. But it is true for me,  personally. It was a big pivot in my career to move toward work that was more applied. I think “development engineering” gives an avenue for women in quantitative sciences and engineering—fields where they tend to be underrepresented—to find social impact in their research. We think development engineering is promising in that regard. But honestly, if you look at economics and engineering, the lack female role models at the level of faculty is a pervasive problem. It is even harder for women in developing countries. A lot of our collaborators in developing countries are male, because those are the people who have risen in their universities. We have very few female research partners in developing countries.

Can you tell me a little more about your upbringing? Did you come from academics?

Temina Madon: I grew up in California. My parents are chemists; my mom ended up going into medicine, but my dad was in the “biotech revolution.” It is funny to me that I ended up working with a bunch of social scientists. CEGA is interdisciplinary, but 40 percent of our affiliates are economists and social scientists. We say we are trying to be a Bell Labs for development. I find it strange that I have migrated toward social sciences, because my family is biased towards science and engineering. My grandfather was an electronics engineer. He is Indian, and worked after Independence on building India’s engineering capacity, bringing radar into the country. He initially started in the military, and then went into the energy sector, but he was constantly pushing tech transfer, seeing the transformation of the country through its adoption of technology and infrastructure. He brought a real focus on technology as a driver of development into our family’s values.

Neuroscience and mental health are among your areas of expertise. Would you talk about your interest in those disciplines?

Temina Madon: My background was in neuroscience and that was an intellectual interest. When I was a grad student, my partner died from suicide—and that, in large ways, pivoted me toward mental health policy. I used my background in neuroscience to understand and explore the biological mechanisms responsible for depression, bipolar disorder, suicidality. I looked at the prevention tools we have. It turns out, there are very few. There is relatively little rigorous public health research on mental illness prevention, or even treatment. There are very few randomized trials. There is a lot of observational work and demonstration projects, but there is very little evaluation of community interventions to prevent suicide, or even innovation in how to measure suicide.

What trends in your field make you most hopeful?

Temina Madon: In his annual letter two years ago, Bill Gates talked about measurement. He said you can’t fix something until you have measured the problem; and you can’t even perceive something as a problem or an opportunity until you’ve measured it. I, too, am excited about the measurement agenda. I feel like so many things in our lives today are instrumented—from the web browsers we use, to our mobile phones, the GPS on our phones, the Fitbits we are wearing, and the sensors in our cars and homes. There is so much being measured, and it has created such a rich data environment. Yet much of the rest of the world is still invisible. There is very little measurement in poor communities. If you can’t record someone’s existence, if you can’t capture their life and death, their aspirations or communities’ needs—then you can’t know how to approach shared challenges with ingenuity, innovation, and intervention.

I feel like there will be a real blossoming in economic and social development with better ability to measure outcomes. But again, benchmarking is going to be important. If you are going to use new kinds of information, measurement, and data for policy intervention or program design, or to monitor and keep governments accountable, there is a lot of work to prove to ourselves that our new measurement tools are as reliable as the current gold standard.

Microsoft’s James Bernard on the Intersection of Education, Technology, and Development

Microsoft’s James Bernard on the Intersection of Education, Technology, and Development

By Tamara Straus

James BernardJames Bernard is senior director of global strategic partnerships for the education group at Microsoft, where his team builds multilateral partnerships in more than 130 countries. The core focus of these partnerships is ensuring that technology serves as an accelerator of effective school management, innovative teaching practice, and students’ acquisition of 21st-century skills. The Blum Center talked with Bernard in advance of his two-week fellowship supported by UC Berkeley’s Development Impact Lab.

What have been some of the takeaways from your time at Microsoft bringing technology to developing countries?

James Bernard: One of the key takeaways has been that there is no single answer to this question. There are so many local contexts that are relevant and so many stakeholders, that every situation needs to be approached differently. Nonetheless, I offer three key takeaways:

  1. Ensure that the government is included in and feels ownership of all technology decisions. At Microsoft, we see the government as a major stakeholder that needs buy-in and ownership to create long-term sustainable change. But to be successful, the public sector needs the help of many other players, including civil society, the private sector, donors, and other nongovernmental players. In education, many governments make the mistake of thinking that technology—and in particular, the devices they want to give students—will solve all the problems in their education systems. The reality is that technology is only a platform and will never be successful without the right supports, including teacher training, content and curriculum, and assessment of outcomes. Not to mention that the government also needs the necessary buy-in from stakeholders that might be against technology, such as teacher unions or parent-teacher groups. So we work with ministries of education to develop a long-term strategy to bring in the right technologies for the context of that country. We do this through a series of policy-level discussions facilitated by a third party like UNESCO or British Council, but led by the ministry of education, and involving all key stakeholders. This should lead to an ICT [information, communication and technology] strategy before the government goes to tender on devices, and will hopefully ensure that the right choices are made.
  2. Ensure that the right technology is being used in the right context and even whether technology is the right solution. Will it create more access or more of a divide between the haves and the have-nots in a community? Will it withstand the rigors or a harsh physical environment? Will people know how to use it? How does it get replaced? Can a mobile solution be used or is a laptop/tablet right?
  3. There is tremendous creativity and innovation happening on the ground in many developing countries. Don’t assume that something that worked in the West is going to work in Africa, or something that works in Africa will work in Latin America. Find local solutions to local problems, and local enterprises to solve those problems. M-Pesa would never have worked in the U.S., but it was timed perfectly for Africa. It is a great example of a locally created solution.

How can NGOs be most effective in promoting economic development in poor countries and regions?

James Bernard: NGOs have two things that many multinational, private sector organizations sometimes lack: credibility and reach. In many cases, these organizations have worked for years or decades in developing countries and have deep relationships with local communities and/or governments. They bring a credible, non-biased opinion that the government trusts. By partnering with such organizations, private sector companies—which often want the same outcomes as other stakeholders—can overcome the perception that they are simply vendors to the government. Second, NGOs have reach into local communities that the private sector will never have. For example, in Ghana, a country with a $38 billion GDP, Microsoft has two to three people in the country, covering all segments across the entire country. One of our NGO partners, Plan International, is active in 500+ communities in Ghana alone. 
NGOs may be mission-driven, but ultimately many see the investments of funding and human capital as a way to build a more productive society that will help alleviate poverty.

How can higher educational institutions like UC Berkeley advance international development goals?

James Bernard: Higher education institutions play a critical role, because they can provide research and development in the space that has been lacking in the past, particularly in the area of technology. Most technology companies are optimizing their R&D resources for markets where they see the greatest growth in the near- to mid-term. Unfortunately, this means many companies are focused on technologies that are relevant for the West. (I think, however, that there is great opportunity for market growth in technology is in developing countries, where most technology users are net-new versus in the West, where technology is essentially a renewal business.) NGOs don’t have R&D budgets for the most part—although a few, like PATH, do some R&D, but they are the exception not the norm. So universities can play a critical role in pushing change in development by working with both NGOs and private sector companies. Additionally, universities can provide agnostic research into successful strategies and implementations.

What are the biggest changes you have seen in the intersection of development, education, and technology during your career?

James Bernard: First, I see a greater willingness for different stakeholders to come together to solve some of the big issues facing education: ensuring students have access; driving a greater focus on student learning outcomes; ensuring teachers have time on task; keeping girls in school and out of dangerous situations. Additionally, we are seeing some critical technology trends that increase digital access:

  1. The evolution of the User Interface. Touch screens are now almost ubiquitous on most devices. This allows technology to be used in both online and tactile learning environments. Nothing can replace good teaching, but when teachers are supported by interesting content that takes advantage of the UI, magical things can happen. We are seeing many companies now reinventing what it means to serve educational content. For example, one company created an app that allows students to see a forest, drill into an individual tree, then a leaf, then the cell and the molecular structure of the leaf. They can spin the elements around, and can pull in data from other sources. It changes the way we perceive of educational content.
  2. The role of the device. Device form factors have changed drastically in the last 10 years. We now have more computing power in a mobile phone than many early mainframe computers had. In addition, the cost of devices has reduced significantly, to the point where it’ll soon be possible to have a high-end device for less than $100 a unit. The danger here is that governments begin to focus on the device rather than supporting it in the right ways. So it’s critical that funds, which would have been used for devices in the past, be used for content, assessment, and teacher training. No matter what, a device cannot replace a teacher, so teachers need to understand how to use devices as a part of their teaching practice.
  3. Universal access. It’s continuously getting easier for people to get online, even in some of the more remote areas of the world. More can be done with 3G and 4G wireless connections, and we’re seeing a number of new technologies becoming more ubiquitous, including TV White Spaces, which use unused TV band spectrum (essentially unused channels) to deliver long-range Wi-Fi that can cover up to 100 square kilometers, and does not require line-of-site access. We’re already piloting this technology in a number of countries, and believe that with effective cooperation among wireless providers, regulators, and other players, TV White Spaces can be a game changer in providing last-mile digital access. If we have better access, you can easily imagine kids living in a community without a fulltime teacher being able to learn from a trained teacher elsewhere using Skype.
  4. The move to the cloud. With greater access to high-speed connections, comes a greater opportunity for education systems to take advantage of cloud services. This unlocks a number of opportunities—from new ways to finance technology (reducing device costs through services models), to better collection and distribution of data, to providing richer, more individualized content for learners, based on where they are in their learning journey. Many of our partners are working on adaptive learning algorithms that allow teachers to identify where a student is, and the system will provide content based on their level of learning.

What areas are being overlooked in the intersection of development, education, and technology?

James Bernard: As I said earlier, too many education decision-makers still view the device as the answer. And this isn’t just a developing world problem. Look at what happened in LA last year with their iPad rollout. It’s a well-documented failure, because the devices were not well supported. Or the One Laptop Per Child program in Chile or Rwanda. These examples prove that if the devices aren’t supported with teacher training, content, assessment, etc., they will fail in education. In many parts of the world, school or system-wide policy does not account for technology’s role in driving 21st-century skills or student learning outcomes. A study we did in 2011 in seven countries (including developed and developing countries) showed that teachers who used innovative practice—allowing students to learn inside and outside the classroom, allowing students to learn at their own pace, and using appropriate technology—increased the acquisition of 21st-century skills that ultimately will make students more employable. But many schools don’t even allow students to use cell phones in class, and are geared more toward teaching methodologies that were relevant 100 years ago.

If you could make one magic technological fix in the world today, what would it be?

James Bernard: Low-cost solar base stations that could tap into the unused wireless spectrum, and regulations that support this kind of access. Access is the key to all other technologies being used effectively, and gives students the power to find the knowledge that we take for granted every day.

James Bernard will be speaking at a Development Impact Lab panel on “Tech Innovation and Partnerships for Education in Africa” on April 10, 2015, 3-5 pm. For more information and to RSVP, click here.

Daniel Zoughbie’s Contagious Model for Public Health

Daniel Zoughbie’s Contagious Model for Public Health

By Tamara Straus

Daniel ZoughbieAmong the global health reports that keep Daniel Zoughbie up at night is a World Economic Forum and Harvard School of Public Health study, which predicts that over the next two decades the global economy will lose $47 trillion to noncommunicable diseases, such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

“Yet a very modest intervention that tries to make small changes in people’s behavior can have an enormous impact in terms of prolonging lives and saving under-resourced communities millions upon millions, even billions, of dollars,” says Zoughbie.

The modest intervention to which Zoughbie refers is a social network for “contagious health” behavior, basically a small group of family or friends who support each other to eat healthy and exercise regularly. Zoughbie has obsessively backed this social network idea since 2005, when he founded Microclinic International, using personal scholarships and startup funds from the BigIdeas@Berkeley competition. The UC Berkeley and Blum Center-seeded nonprofit has since gone on on to affect more 1 million people through the establishment of “microclinics,” community initiatives, and media campaigns across four continents.

The idea of positive peer behavior leading to positive health results may seem obvious, and that’s because it is. Microclinic International’s social network approach is based on old notions of community and self-help, says Zoughbie.

The idea also comes from a personal loss. As a junior in college, Zoughbie reflected on the premature death of his grandmother in the West Bank due to diabetes and had two intertwining epiphanies: 1) his grandmother did not have the public health information she needed to help her manage her disease; and 2) if she had been given basic preventative information and found a supportive network, she would have changed her diet and health regiment and lived much longer.

“She simply was not able to access a basic level of quality healthcare and education,” says Zoughbie, who was born and raised in the Bay Area.

Under the mentorship of UC Berkeley Professor Ananya Roy, an expert in urban studies and international development, Zoughbie began investigating how lower income communities organize themselves from the bottom up in the absence of effective or existent services. He travelled to Palestine and observed that community, not individual or institutional, ties are dominant—and that health behaviors are often social or cultural in nature.

In Palestine, for example, he observed one family with a diabetic father who passed around chocolate when entertaining a guest. Zoughbie remembers the daughter, who had learned about the dangers of diabetes from a Microclinic International program, admonishing her father for reaching for one of the chocolates.

“The daughter told her father that under no circumstances was he to eat that chocolate,” remembers Zoughbie. “In Middle East culture, this is a bit taboo: to tell your father what to eat or not to eat in front of guests. But the daughter cared more about saving her father’s life than causing some societal embarrassment.

“From these and other interactions, I realized that positive health behaviors could be just as contagious as negative health behaviors.”

Zoughbie was named a Strauss Scholar and a Haas Scholar in his junior year. He studied social anthropology at Oxford University on a Marshall Scholarship, and completed his doctorate in international relations there as a Weidenfeld Scholar. Yet he was not a traditional student. All the while, he used his university honors and credentials to travel, conduct research, and network on behalf of Microclinic International.

“While I was a Marshall Scholar, I went to South Africa and was on a bus, where I met somebody who introduced me to somebody else,” remembers Zoughbie. “One thing led to another, and I put in an application to the World Diabetes Foundation. We applied for almost $100,000 and, to my great surprise, Microclinic International got it.”

Stephen Shortell, UC Berkeley’s Blue Cross of California Distinguished Professor of Health Policy and Management, remembers Zoughbie as a young man easy to support. “He came up to me at a Blum Center function and asked whether we could meet and talk,” recalls Shortell. “He was attacking a very big problem—diabetes in developing countries—and I could see his concept was both promising and low-cost. I made some introductions.”

Zoughbie, now 30, has spent much of the past decade hustling to scale up his nonprofit. The key ingredient, he explains, has been persistence and endurance, “talking to lots and lots of people, and bluntly saying, ‘Hey, I have this idea, which has been piloted; it’s pretty simple and inexpensive to scale, and could save a lot of lives in under-resourced communities.’”

This kind of persistence led in December 2006 to the formulation of a Microclinic International pilot in Jordan, with support from Queen Rania’s Royal Health Awareness Society, the Jordanian Ministry of Health, and a former British Ambassador to Jordan. With support from A. W. Clausen, a former president of the World Bank and Bank of America, Zoughbie was able to establish Clausen Fellowships, hire really bright people, and take a more quantitative approach to understanding the effectiveness of the organization’s work and refine its model.

Microclinic’s diabetes social network model is based on four key strategies, or “4 Ms”—Meals, Movement, Medication, and Monitoring—and is intended not just to alter dangerous health behaviors but, more importantly, to sustain positive ones in groups of family and friends. As principal investigator for Microclinic International, Zoughbie has initiated several major trials, including a two-year, Jordan-based study published in Lancet Global Health, which found that for most patients, improvements in blood sugar control were sustained for two years after signing up.

Microclinic International also has achieved evidence of impact on the other side of the globe, in Bell County, Kentucky. There, it partnered with the health insurance company Humana to conduct a randomized control trial of 552 participants from five neighborhoods in rural Appalachia, where obesity and diabetes are widespread. Again, clusters of two-to-eight friends and family voluntarily came together to establish and spread healthy norms, such as regularly checking weight and blood sugar, exercising, watching calories, and eating fresh fruits and vegetables.  A 16-month follow up of the cohort, published in a 2015 study in American Heart Association journal Circulation, found that a substantial majority of the TeamUp4Health patients experienced and maintained decreased in weight, waist size, and blood pressure.

“Leveraging the social network and peer influences and social networks for support may be important for fighting obesity,” said Harvard School of Public Health Scientist Eric Ding, who served with Zoughbie as co-lead author of the Circulation study and is director of epidemiology at Microclinic International. “We need to focus on more than the individual obese patient in isolation, and look to family and friend networks and the communities where people live.”

Zoughbie, whose PhD is in international relations—and who also serves as a political science scholar at UC Berkeley’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies (his recent book Indecision Points: George W. Bush and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict was published recently by MIT Press)— views public health as fundamental to regional and international security.

“When a community is falling apart,” he says, “health problems often create a vicious cycle, in which people are poor because they’re unhealthy and they become more unhealthy because they’re poor. This cyclical nature of poor health creates the seeds for social unrest. It creates disaffected young people who don’t see any hope for the future.”

This connection between public health and societal stability is what drives Zoughbie to replicate the Microclinic International model in as many insecure places as possible. Backed by the Centers for Disease Control, Google, the International Diabetes Federation, Humana, Mulago Foundation, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and the Horace W. Goldsmith Foundation, Zoughbie’s nonprofit is in expansion mode, working with over 260 people. Currently, the United Nations is partnering with Microclinic International to train 1,000 healthcare workers to reach hundreds of thousands of Middle East refugees through social networks by spreading health behaviors and thwarting preventable diseases and their complications.

“I see our model as helping repair the broken fabric of society,” says Zoughbie. “Groups of people helping each other to get healthier is a first step for broken communities to rebuild a future. There’s an old Arab proverb I like to quote: ‘When there’s health, there’s hope. And when there’s hope, there’s everything.’”

Generation Innovation: Sarvottam Salvi’s Pivot to Development Economics

Generation Innovation: Sarvottam Salvi’s Pivot to Development Economics

By Sybil Lewis

When Sarvottam Salvi came to UC Berkeley in 2011, he was intent on double majoring in chemical engineering and economics and “interested in making some money.” By his third year at Cal, however, he had crossed chemical engineer off the career list, kept economist on it with an emphasis on development finance, and declared a minor in Global Poverty & Practice.

Born and raised largely in Illinois, Salvi said the year he lived in Pune, India during eighth grade exposed him “to issues of inequality and poverty and remained a backdrop in my mind.”

During his first year at UC Berkeley, he recalls a meeting of the student club Engineers Without Borders. There, Blum Center Professor Khalid Kadir pushed the group to think about the political and cultural implications of implementing engineering projects, causing Salvi to want to learn more.

“Kadir was poking at us to look at the power and cultural dynamics [of engineering projects], and I could tell that my engineering buddies were not really understanding what was going on, which is why I went looking for courses in development and poverty issues.”

Salvi enrolled in Global Poverty & Practice 115 taught by Professor Ananya Roy, which focuses on social and political models to alleviate poverty. Salvi said he found the course intellectually stimulating, but what he really craved was an understanding of the practical side of development work.

That sense came from a 2013 student-run Decal course on the Peace Corps, where he met returned volunteers who shared their experiences working around the world. “The Decal allowed me to relate the personal aspect of development to what I had learnt in GPP 115 and that’s when I made a U-turn,” he said. “I thought to myself—I’m done with consulting and finance. I will focus my economic course load on development.”

Salvi declared a minor in Global Poverty & Practice and during the summer of 2014 traveled to Mumbai, India to intern with Svasti Microfinance, as part of the minor’s “practice experience.”

He said he was initially skeptical about whether microfinance—a financial service that provides small loans to people who lack access to traditional banking—was a successful development tool. In GPP 115, Salvi learned of the failures of microfinance due to predatory lending and rigid repayment structures of some firms. And he was aware that in 2010 more than 200 residents in the state of Andhra Pradesh, India killed themselves after being overwhelmed by microloan debt and pressured by the microfinance firms to repay.

Yet in Mumbai, Salvi saw that Svasti had a strong lending model, granting small loans to people who were financially stable enough to make payments. At Svasti, he was also able to do hands-on work. He used his economics knowledge to build a tool for the company estimating loan affordability for clients—something that is tricky because many potential loan takers work in the “informal” economy, as street food venders and jewelry-makers. Thus their income is harder to track and model by the government or lending agencies like Svasti.

“People in lower socioeconomic brackets also need financial services like everyone else, not charity,” said Salvi. “Microfinance is not just about giving people money, but realizing that sometimes without these loans the opportunities available to people are very limited.”

In modeling people’s varying and unofficial incomes, Salvi said what he found most useful was not the economic and statistical analysis skills he learnt in school, but intuition and on-the-job-training.

He also thought that his Indian language skills and cultural background—his family is from the state of Maharashtra, where Mumbai is located—would spare him some of the challenges that his non-Indian peers faced. But he quickly realized that there was a lot of “cultural weight” in how people perceived and reacted to him. “Whenever I went with the workers from Svasti, they would always introduce me as the ‘Sir from America,’ which was weird because they were older than me and better at the work,” said Salvi.

Conducting surveys and interviews throughout Mumbai’s largest slums, Salvi noted the strong sense of community despite acute levels of poverty. “Money was not related to respect in that setting—people respected each other because of their relationship to each other,” said Salvi. “I was struck by the community aspect, which seemed more powerful than whatever money they did or didn’t have.”

After the two months in India, Salvi said his assumptions about microfinance and his possible role in development work changed drastically. “When I was doing the surveys and talking to people I thought, ‘Oh, I am doing development now,’” said Salvi. But he soon realized his skills are better suited for economic modeling and evaluation.

“I think it is necessary to do fieldwork,” he explained, “but I don’t think that I need to be the one doing it. I think that the best way for me to make an impact in issues of development is to use my education in economics.”

Salvi has taken several courses in impact evaluation at UC Berkeley, such as Professor Edward Miguel’s Economics 172 (Case Studies in Economic Development), and is currently working as a research assistant on a project by Associate Professor Federico Finan, a development economist.

Salvi, who graduates in May, is applying for jobs at organizations that specialize in research related-development in the areas of poverty, health, and financial inclusion.

Eat.Think.Design: A Public Health Course for the Startup Generation

Eat.Think.Design: A Public Health Course for the Startup Generation

By Tamara Straus

For the creators of the UC Berkeley course Eat.Think.Design, two things are certain. First, the United States is facing a food and nutrition crisis, with rocketing rates of diabetes, hunger, and health disparity. Second, graduate students today—from fields as different as public health, business, information technology, and engineering—want their education to be more hands-on, more interdisciplinary, and more “impactful” to society at large. In the case of the Eat.Think.Design course, they want to spend class time not just learning about food and nutrition problems, they want to devise actual food and nutrition solutions.

This may sound grand, but for the course’s three instructors— Jaspal Sandhu, a UC Berkeley lecturer in design and innovation; Nap Hosang, a longtime Kaiser Permanente medical doctor and UC Berkeley School of Public Health instructor; and Kristine Madsen, an associate professor in the Joint Medical Program and Public Health Nutrition at Cal’s School of Public Health—there is nothing grand or inappropriate about letting students attempt societal solutions while in school.

“The reason we emphasize experiential learning is because it has proved to be more effective,” says Sandhu, who is also a partner at the Gobee Group, a consulting firm he runs with two other multilingual Fulbright scholars with UC Berkeley roots. Sandhu speaks Punjabi, Spanish, Mongolian, and English, and prior to Gobee worked with the Mongolian Ministry of Health designing mobile health information systems.

Sandhu emphasizes that his students’ backgrounds demand more than lecturing. Among the 25 people enrolled in Eat.Think.Design this spring, many have relevant work experience. At least three have started their own companies, several have worked for big companies like IBM, Deloitte, and Eli Lilly, and most have about five years under their belts working for government agencies or large nonprofits. “To keep the attention of such students,” says Sandhu, “we need to give them actual problems to focus on.”

Working in interdisciplinary teams of three under an instructor, Eat.Think.Design students spend the bulk of the semester on one project, conducting ethnographic and market research, investigating models, and constantly devising and then revising potential solutions. Members of last year’s class, for example, streamlined SNAP federal nutrition benefits payments at San Francisco’s Heart of the City Farmer’s Market, worked with the Kossoye Development Program in Ethiopia on strategies to make home gardening more accessible, and built a pilot program with Partners In Health: Navajo Nation to test a pop-up grocery store in areas that are one hour’s drive from fresh food. Although the project in the Navajo Nation helped COPE to receive a three-year, $3 million REACH grant from the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention to pursue healthy eating programs in the vast American Indian territory—Hosang argues that the course is not designed to incubate social innovations per se.

“Our goal is to incubate innovative people—people who can be influencers in the public health sector,” he says. Hosang, who has served as head of the interdisciplinary online MPH degree program for the past 15 years and executive director of the Interdisciplinary MPH degree program since 2010, is not subtle in his criticism of public health teaching. “Most academics are in a silo,” he said, “and their silo has driven them more and more into their specialist thinking.” Yet this specialist thinking, Hosang argues, is running counter to the view that public health is enmeshed in almost every field—from architecture and transportation, to product design and education. “We need to change the way public health professionals approach problems,” said Hosang, “and we need them to be in touch with people from other disciplines to inform their problem-solving processes.”

Hosang and Sandhu started working on their public health course in October 2010, after Hosang read Sandhu’s dissertation on public health design research in rural Mongolia and was impressed by the combination of grassroots and trial-and-error learning. In the spring of 2011, they launched their course, with financial support from the Blum Center for Developing Economies, which seeds interdisciplinary, social impact courses on campus. Madsen joined the course in 2014 when the focus narrowed from designing innovative public health solutions to designing innovative food solutions. In a March 2015 article in the American Journal of Public Health titled “Solutions That Stick: Activating Cross-Disciplinary Collaboration in a Graduate-Level Public Health Innovations Course at the University of California,” the three instructors describe how their approach is part of a much-needed pedagogical shift. They write:

A Lancet Commission, convened to discuss the education of health professionals in the 21st century, argued that educational transformation is critical to meet the public health problems we face in this century. Specifically, the commission called for a higher level of learning, moving beyond informative learning, which transmits knowledge to create experts, to transformative learning, which transmits leadership attributes to create agents who can successfully implement change.”

Sandhu explained that when he and Hosang came up with the idea for the course, not only was this “change agent” approach novel but no one was applying design thinking or human-centered design approaches at the School of Public Health at UC Berkeley. (He describes those approaches as ones that enable teams to systematically develop novel, effective solutions to complex problems.) Yet Sandhu says it is clear there’s a demand for this kind of problem solving.

etd_navajo_picSandhu’s proof is the continual over-enrollment in and rave reviews of his course. This year, 60 students applied for 25 spots. And for the past four years, 40 percent of students indicated it was the “best course” they took at UC Berkeley, with the other 40 percent stating it was in the “top 10 percent” and the remained saying it was in the “top 25 percent.”

Christine Hamann, a MBA/MPH candidate who took Eat.Think.Design in 2014, confirmed that “the teaching team is phenomenal—both in terms of the academic leadership and the mentoring of graduate students.” She also confirmed that she and her fellow students want “practical challenges in graduate school,” adding “we are tired of theory.”

Hamann is one of the many students who has brought past work into the classroom. Before grad school, she worked for seven years at Partners In Health, most recently on the nonprofit’s COPE Project in the Navajo Nation. She said the course forced her to look at Navajo Nation residents’ consumer needs around food and nutrition—and to see food less as a supply issue and more of a demand issue. “Traditional public health approaches focus on supply, but that is why you see programs that don’t meet the needs of the community,” she said.

Hamann and the three other graduate students opted not to focus on the best truck routes to bring fresh produce into the 27,000 square mile territory—and instead focused on seeing what citizens there want to consume and what can last in what is a food (and actual) desert. During the summer of 2014, with funding from the Blum Center, Hamann created pop-up grocery stores in Navajo, to determine which food items were most in demand and could help reduce chronic diseases like diabetes, which affects 20 percent of residents. This exploration helped lead to the aforementioned $3 million CDC grant for COPE.

As to why so many Cal students are so focused on food and nutrition, Hamann has this to say: “From a public health perspective, I think we’re seeing the ramifications of the American diet play out in really scary chronic disease indicators.” She also noted that there is a general heightened awareness of food systems—“of where food is coming from, the corporations that own it, and the detrimental effects those relationships can have on both health outcomes and business models.” Third, Hamann said a growing number of students want to see tech innovation applied to less wealthy and less urban populations—“the people,” she said, “who need it.”

Then, there are the galling statistics: Americans throw out an estimated 40 percent of food grown per year. An estimated 50 million Americans do not have access to enough food. As of 2012, about half of all adults—117 million people—have one or more chronic health conditions, such as heart disease, stroke, cancer, diabetes, obesity, and arthritis. And childhood obesity has more than doubled in children and quadrupled in adolescents in the past 30 years.

Sandhu is aware that a course on food innovation is well timed at UC Berkeley. In 2013, UC Berkeley’s College of Natural Resources, the Goldman School of Public Policy, the Graduate School of Journalism, Berkeley Law, and the School of Public Health joined forces to create the Berkeley Food Institute to improve food systems locally and globally. A year later, UC President Janet Napolitano launched the UC Global Food Initiative—to prompt all 10 campuses, UC’s Division of Agricultural and Natural Resources, Lawrence Berkeley National Lab, and a consortium of faculty, researchers, and students to address food security, nutrition, and sustainability issues. Even BigIdeas@Berkeley, the annual student innovation prize, has a contest category on food systems innovation.

“Our timing is either well forecasted or extremely lucky,” said Sandhu.

Eat.Think.Design may be a popular course—and may inspire copycats—but both students and instructors are quick to point out that the course cannot serve as a model for every class. “It is difficult to take more than one experiential class per semester,” said Hamann. “The time commitment with fellow students and with our client is just too big.” Amy Regan, who took the course in 2013 and now works with the San Francisco Unified School District’s Future Dining Experience program, agrees that “compromising and agreeing on the best approach among a group takes time.”

For instructors, Professor Madsen estimates the course requires one and a half to two times more time than an average School of Public Health offering, because she, Sandhu, and Hosang each mentor three student groups during and after class time. The three instructors also spend time cultivating their connections to bring in student projects from nonprofits and government agencies. During the class on Feb. 4. 2015, 16 pitches were made by representatives of various organizations, including California Farm to Fork, San Quentin State Prison, and Project Open Hand. “Much more work goes into creating the class because of all the connections to be made,” said Madsen.

And very little is scripted. This gives the course the feeling of a kind of pedagogical startup, exciting but uncertain. Madsen said this atmosphere comes with a distinct disadvantage for professors. “You have to admit you don’t know as much,” she said. “If your identity is wrapped up in being an academic expert, this won’t work; you’ll always default to the more narrow but comfortable path.”

For Sandhu and Hosang, who are adjuncts, there is less face to lose. “I think over the last seven years, since the start of the Great Recession, there’s been a transformative energy happening in higher education,” said Hosang. “It’s coming from the younger generation who see the world has changed and who no longer see college as a ticket to success. That’s where this move toward an interdisciplinary, hands-on approach is coming from.”

36 UC Berkeley Students Make “Commitments to Action” for 2015 Clinton Global Initiative University

36 UC Berkeley Students Make “Commitments to Action” for 2015 Clinton Global Initiative University

By Andrea Guzman

cgiu2The Blum Center for Developing Economies is supporting 36 ambitious UC Berkeley’s students to attend the Clinton Global Initiative University (CGI U) Conference in Miami, Florida this coming March.

Launched in 2007 by former President Bill Clinton, CGI U hosts student leaders, university representatives, topic experts, and celebrities to come together to discuss and develop innovative solutions to pressing global challenges. This year’s conference, held March 6-8 at the University of Miami, will convene more than 1,100 students to discuss how they are taking action to address challenges in the following five areas: education, environment and climate change, peace and human rights, poverty alleviation, and public health.

The Blum Center has sponsored UC Berkeley’s participation in the CGI University Network since 2012, supporting students through travel assistance and yearlong advising on student projects. The Network is a distinguished body of higher education institutions throughout the world that have made a robust commitment to the principles of Clinton Global Initiative.

In 2015, the number of UC Berkeley students attending the conference jumped to 36 from 28 in 2014, with approximately 65 percent of the students having additional affiliations with the Blum Center. These affiliations include participation in BigIdeas@Berkeley, the Development Impact Lab, the Social Innovator OnRamp course, and the Global Poverty & Practice minor.

“Student-led innovations and community projects are better positioned to thrive when they have a wide spectrum of support and mentorship,” said Sean Burns, Director of Student Programs at the Blum Center. “Because of this, we are thrilled when we see Cal students participating in CGI U, who have been developing their ideas through some of our other Blum Center programs.”

A total of 24 projects will be presented, consisting of 17 group projects and seven individual projects.  The projects range from educational programs for survivors of human trafficking to improving energy access in rural, developing areas.

Undergraduate business students Camilo Ossa and Elizabeth Mossessian will be attending the conference representing their project SeedEd Capital. Mentored through the Blum Center’s Social Innovator OnRamp course and a current Big Ideas finalist, SeedEd Capital is an online platform that facilitates investors and donors to support underprivileged “seeds,” or students, with financial resources. It intends to connect individuals who are passionate about education with students across the Bay Area who need financial resources and other support to pursue higher education. In addition to facilitating student-donor interactions online, SeedEd works to mentor and tutor students so they can achieve their academic goals.

Ossa and Mossessian said they are excited to meet like-minded students at CGI U and to connect with experts and influencers in the fields of education, economic empowerment, and youth support programs.

“We believe the interaction that we can get with experienced individuals, who can mentor us and provide feedback, is going to be immensely helpful in the development of the project,” Ossam and Mossessian said in an email.

A Cross Sector Exchange on Governance and Digital Technology

A Cross Sector Exchange on Governance and Digital Technology

By Sybil Lewis


As part of a 10-day program on “Leadership in the Digital Economy,” co-sponsored by the National Democratic Institute, the Institute for Representative Government and the House Democracy Partnership of the U.S. House of Representatives, with support from the U.S. State Department and USAID, 20 members of parliament from 11 countries attended a panel discussion with UC Berkeley researchers at the Blum Center on Feb. 17.

The event was hosted by the Blum Center for Developing Economies in partnership with the Center for Information Technology Research in the Interest of Society (CITRIS)—and the focus of the discussion was how technology can be used to promote open government, civic technology, and the development of a digital economy.

Parliamentary members from 11 countries—Columbia, Georgia, Ghana, Indonesia, Jordan, Kenya, Kosovo, Nepal, Peru, Serbia, and Tunisia—met with Blum Center-affiliated faculty and postdoctoral fellows, who are conducting research on the impact of digital technology on civic engagement, corruption, and public service delivery.

“The work being done by Blum Center-affiliated scholars is enriched by interactions with elected government members who can take up new ideas and enact them,” said Sophi Martin, director of partnerships at the Blum Center. “It was truly exciting to have this distinguished delegation here, exchanging ideas and talking with us about the real implications of technology on government and citizens.”

Among the presenters was Jennifer Bussell, assistant professor of Public Policy and Political Science at UC Berkeley. Bussell researches public services in India, Brazil, and South Africa. Her recent book, Corruption and Reform in India, investigated how digital technologies may be used to facilitate citizens’ access to the state and thwart corruption. Bussell is currently working on a Development Impact Lab-sponsored project to examine opportunities for crowd sourcing information on government performance in India.

Isha Ray, associate professor of UC Berkeley’s Energy & Resources group, also presented to the delegation. Ray’s research projects focus on access to water and san­i­ta­tion for the rural and urban poor, and on the role of tech­nol­ogy in improv­ing liveli­hoods. She has been among the faculty leaders of a BigIdeas@Berkeley startup called NextDrop, which uses cell phones and SMS messages to alert people in low-income urban neighborhoods in India when they will receive water. Ray described how in India and other Asian countries, intermittent water supplies greatly inconvenience people, forcing many to wait at home for the taps to start running. The NextDrop team has been training water valve operators in the twin cities of Hubli-Dharwad to send text messages to neighborhoods receiving water. The project is currently rolling out in Bangalore as well.

The third Blum Center scholar to present was Kweku Opoku-Agyemang, a postdoctoral fellow at the Development Impact Lab. Opoku-Agyemang works on the political economy of development—on how both economic and political factors affect social change, with an emphasis on technological innovations. He has been using voice message surveys to understand changes in civic engagement with local governance in Ghana.

In the discussion, members of parliament expressed enthusiasm about the potential cost-effectiveness and ease of using technology to address governance and democratic process, particularly for historically marginalized groups.

Udaya Shumsher Rana, a member of Constituent Assembly for the Federal Democratic Republic of Nepal, asked how politicians can adjust incentive structures to avoid corruption among bureaucrats in charge of government projects.

“We need to think of how formal and informal structures of government are set up, and figure out how to adjust those structures to produce incentives that encourage better behavior,” Bussell responded.

Ray provided examples from her fieldwork in India, where she studied incentives to the people who operate the water valves. She noted operators are often bribed into changing water paths or leaving water on longer in one neighborhood over another. She said that the valve men themselves come from low-income backgrounds and there may be other incentives besides money to get them to operate the valves fairly.

Johnson Arthur Sakaja, a member of the National Assembly of the Republic of Kenya, asked whether the panelists viewed technology as a tool for government officials or as a means of transforming governance itself.

Opoku-Agyemang responded by way of example. He said the surveys he conducted in rural Ghana were no “silver bullet” for understanding citizen views or for improving governance. “At the end of the day,” he said, “technology tools will only be as useful as the trust communities foster in government”—in other words, citizens who respond via mobiles or other technological means to government projects and measures must feel that their input is translating into real policy change.

Ray added: “In general, I feel that information and technology can empower people, but it won’t always lead to power. Yet keeping knowledge and information from people does lead to powerlessness. So to the extent that I do believe in these technologies, I believe in their ability to widen the stroke of democratic participation, but it cannot guarantee it by any means.”

During its Bay Area tour, the international government delegation also met with elected government officials from San Francisco, Palo Alto, and Vallejo and with technology industry representatives from Facebook and other Silicon Valley companies.

Delegation on Leadership in the Digital Economy

Republic of Colombia:
Hon. Angelica Lozano, Member, Congress

Hon. Tinatin Khidasheli, Member, Parliament
Hon. Chiora Taktakishvili, Member, Parliament

Hon. Emmanuel Bedzrah, Member, Parliament
Hon. Ama Pomaa Boateng Andoh, Member, Parliament

Republic of Indonesia:
Hon. Ledia Hanifa, Member, People’s Representative Council
Hon. Diah Pitaloka, Member, People’s Representative Council

Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan:
Hon. Najah AlAzzeh, Member, House of Deputies
Hon. Assaf AlShawabkeh, Member, House of Deputies

Republic of Kenya:
Hon. Jessica Mbalu, Member, National Assembly
Hon. Johnson Arthur Sakaja, Member, National Assembly

Republic of Kosovo:
Hon. Zenun Pajaziti, Member, Assembly
Hon. Donika Kadaj-Bujupi, Member, Assembly

Federal Democratic Republic of Nepal:
Hon. Udaya Shumsher Rana, Member, Constituent Assembly

Republic of Peru:
Hon. Macias Guevara Amasifuen, Member, Congress
Hon. Julia Teves Quispe, Member, Congress

Republic of Serbia:
Hon. Gordana Comic, Member, National Assembly
Hon. Dubravka Filipovski, Member, National Assembly

Republic of Tunisia:
Hon. Sabrine Ghoubantini, Member, Constituent Assembly
Hon. Hayat Omri, Member, Constituent Assembly

Generation Innovation: Ashley Tsai on Tropical Disease Research and Eradication

Generation Innovation: Ashley Tsai on Tropical Disease Research and Eradication

By Andrea Guzman

In spring 2013 Ashley Tsai, a UC Berkeley Bioengineering and Material Science major and Global Poverty & Practice minor, enrolled in Public Health 112, which examines health at the individual and community level through multiple factors.  Among the draws to the course were its regular guest speakers, including Dr. Peter Jay Hotez, dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine.

Hotez is one of the most influential experts in raising awareness about tropical disease research and control, particularly neglected diseases such as hookworm infectionschistosomiasis, and leishmaniasis—which are among the most common infections of the world’s poorest people.

“He was really passionate and inspiring,” said Tsai. “I decided I wanted to learn more about these diseases.”

After Hotez’s lecture, Tsai searched online for laboratories that conduct neglected tropical disease research and found Kohn Kaen University in Thailand, which welcomed foreign students. The research sparked her interest and the laboratory was fortunately English speaking. Through a GPP minor fellowship, she headed to northern Thailand for the summer of 2014.

Tsai soon learned that much of the laboratory’s research was focused on liver fluke infections, which affect the rural poor in more than 50 countries. “Not a lot of people know about these infections,” said Tsai, “and there is not much research or investment in finding out more.”

The transmission cycle for liver fluke goes from infected humans, to snails through human feces, to fish that share habitats with the infected snails, and finally back to humans, who consume undercooked fish that carry the parasite. Infections may range from asymptomatic to presenting symptoms, such as abdominal pain, fever, jaundice, and gallstones. Perhaps most seriously, Southeast Asian liver fluke, the type Tsai studied, is classified as a carcinogen and strongly implicated in cancer of the bile duct. Tsai’s primary job was to compare the snail proteins and the fluke proteins for further research.

Tsai said she was glad to find that very good research is happening at universities in developing countries. “I realized that it’s important to collaborate instead of [universities in wealthy countries] always taking the lead,” she said. “Local laboratories working with local diseases probably have more insight than labs at places like UC Berkeley, because the former know the culture and customs a lot better.”

She also described how the Kohn Kaen lab took a holistic approach in eradicating diseases. Its efforts involved not just documenting disease transmission but focusing on how to stop transmission by collaborating with other universities and with government agencies and community organizations focused on public education and sanitation.

“This approach showed me that technology and science by themselves are like Band-Aids,” said Tsai. “For real change to happen, it has to come from public policy and the local community.”

Tsai said liver fluke is easily treated with a drug, but that the drug does not prevent infection from occurring again. In one of the areas where she and Kohn Kaen University researchers were studying, the problem largely derived from a cultural component: people ate raw fish. Thus to be successful in eradicating the disease there, researchers had to create an education campaign about the dangers of consuming fish that was not cooked.

Sean Burns, the Blum Center’s director of student programs, said Tsai’s field experience allowed her to engage in the kind of interdisciplinary problem solving that is increasingly valued in the fields of development, public health, and poverty alleviation.

“During her practice experience, Ashley began to see that complex development challenges needs complex solutions,” Burns said. “She and her fellow researchers are envisioning solutions that bring together breakthrough lab science with grounded insights into culture, politics, and social behavior. It’s at this intersection, of what we have begun to call “development engineering,” that we will see important contributions to poverty alleviation in the 21st century.”

Tsai’s GPP practice experience at Kohn Kaen University has altered her career plans. “The practice experience taught me that I can live very well on much less material possessions, and that important and fulfilling work is being done in many organizations all over the world,” she wrote after the trip. “As a result, I am now strongly considering a career in the academic or nonprofit sector.”

Tsai plans to attend a masters program in chemical biology with a focus on neglected tropical diseases and health issues that affect the global poor.

“The GPP minor made me want to look into a field of global health, and taught me that policy change is very important as well as working with the community itself,” said Tsai. “Being isolated in a lab and working with science itself is no longer enough.”

From Student to Staff: Five Questions for Anh-Thi Le

From Student to Staff: Five Questions for Anh-Thi Le

Anh-Thi LeAnh-Thi Le joined the Blum Center in September 2013 as a program coordinator for the Development Impact Lab after graduating from UC Berkeley with a B.A. in Political Science and a Minor in Global Poverty & Practice. As part of an ongoing series with Blum Center faculty, students, and staff, we asked her about her work in poverty action and education.

Q: What compelled you to focus on public service and poverty alleviation?

Anh-Thi Le: I have always been interested in public service, but it wasn’t until I came to UC Berkeley that it became a career choice. Inspired by Professor Robert Reich’s class on income inequality in the United States, I spent my first two years as an undergrad working with domestic-focused nonprofits—advocating for Asian Pacific American issues in Washington, D.C., developing re-entry services for ex-offenders in Philadelphia, and providing cancer education and awareness on campus. While my work experiences varied, the one constant was a curiosity about how to effectively address and alleviate poverty, not just domestically but internationally as well. I found myself wondering: How can policies be more effective and have greater impact in resource-poor communities? How can we build better bridges between policymakers and community members to ensure that policies reflect the needs of a community? These were some of the questions that motivated me to enroll in Global Poverty & Practice 115 class taught by Professor Ananya Roy, who, by the way, never provided neat answers. Her class inspired me to enroll in the Global Poverty & Practice Minor, to continue engaging in discussions about global poverty and inequality.

Q: What is particular or unusual about the Global Poverty & Practice Minor?

Anh-Thi Le: Being part of the minor is extremely challenging and thought provoking. It exposed me to the international development space, which allowed me to align my public service interests with my international political science studies. Perhaps most important, the minor connected me to people who are equally passionate and committed to social justice and from various academic and cultural backgrounds. I met students majoring in business, physics, chemistry, social welfare, sociology, and environmental sciences—students whom I otherwise would not have met. Together, we discussed the ethics and methods of poverty alleviation; we framed our perspectives about development (through power, privilege, and sustainability, to name a few); we challenged each other (and sometimes our professors); and we spent hours yelling, critiquing, and discussing the frustrations that came with participating in three-month practice experiences. The Global Poverty & Practice Minor provided a trans-disciplinary ecosystem that allowed for holistic discussion, learning, and practice of development issues. This approach is what makes it and the Blum Center so unique.

Q: How did you come to work at a Blum Center project?

Anh-Thi Le: When I was in India in June 2012, conducting my GPP practice experience with Nest, a U.S.-based nonprofit organization committed to empowering women through market access and capacity building initiatives, my minor advisor notified me about a student position available with CellScope, a UC Berkeley lab, funded partly by the Blum Center and led by Professor Dan Fletcher, which was focused on turning a cellphone into a mobile microscope for disease diagnosis in low-resource regions. A one-year study of the CellScope device was to be conducted in Vietnam, and Fletcher’s group was looking for a Vietnamese-speaking student assistant to help support the project. Luckily, my parents, who came to the U.S. in 1975 following the Viet Nam war, had put me through six years of Vietnamese language classes in California and I got the job. While I was extremely excited to work on a global health initiative, I also remember feeling nervous about my qualifications. On the one hand, how could a political science student with little background in global health technology work in a bioengineering lab? On the other hand, the opportunity allowed me to align my passion in the social and economic development of South and Southeast Asia, with an interest in learning more about the role of technology in international development. The first few weeks in the lab were certainly challenging. The CellScope integrates standard microscope options with the visual interface and wireless data capabilities of a mobile phone. With its durable construction, battery power, and ability to digitally record and wirelessly transmit test results, CellScope allows for screening of patients in rural health centers that previous lacked the tools to diagnose TB. For someone who has fairly little technical expertise in this area, the support I received from the CellScope team made the learning curve that much easier.

Q: How did you use your Vietnamese language skills for the CellScope project?

Anh-Thi Le: Neil Switz, then a postdoc with the Fletcher Lab and now a faculty member at Evergreen State College, and I conducted weekly Skype calls late at night with Dr. Ha Phan, UCSF’s in-country representative in Vietnam, to troubleshoot any problems with the device. We spent hours replicating, testing, and solving errors when problems arose with the software and hardware, reviewed hundreds of images to conduct quality control, and created countless manuals and instruction guidelines on everything from computer usage to reading sputum slides to support Dr. Ha and the Vietnam National Tuberculosis Program staff. While my Vietnamese skills may have allowed the CellScope team to overcome any language barriers, I must note that Dr. Ha spoke English fluently, had professional public health experience in both Vietnam and the U.S., and ultimately served as a tremendous asset and collaborator for the project.

Q: How did you come to work as a program coordinator at the Development Impact Lab, and what do you do there?

Anh-Thi Le: I began working as a program coordinator for the Blum Center’s Development Impact Lab in September 2013. I had recently graduated from UC Berkeley and knew I wanted to continue working in the global development space. After spending a year with CellScope, I became increasingly interested in the role of technology and university-based innovations in international development. Working for DIL and the Blum Center seemed like a natural fit. In my role as a program coordinator, I support DIL’s student engagement programs and organize various programs, including the DIL Salons, DIL Workshops, and Practitioners in Residence.

UC Berkeley Science Shop: Connecting Community to University for Research

UC Berkeley Science Shop: Connecting Community to University for Research

By Sybil Lewis

From left: Zack Fischmann, former Science Shop associate director; Karen Andrade, Science Shop executive director and founder; Michelle Endo, former Science Shop campus and community relations director; and Connie Kim, Science Shop website developer and graphic designer.
From left: Zack Fischmann, former Science Shop associate director; Karen Andrade, Science Shop executive director and founder; Michelle Endo, former Science Shop campus and community relations director; and Connie Kim, Science Shop website developer and graphic designer.

When Karen Andrade, a PhD student in the School of Environmental Science, Policy & Management, came to UC Berkeley in 2009, she was surprised to discover how challenging it was for outside organizations to partner with students and faculty on research projects.

Although local government agencies, like the San Francisco Department of the Environment, where she worked previously, had countless research topics in need of investigation, Andrade saw “there was no formal, institutionalized way for outside organizations to pose their research questions to the university.”

To address what she called this “discrepancy of power,” Andrade and other students applied for and won a BigIdeas@Berkeley award in Spring 2013 to start the UC Berkeley Science Shop, a publicly accessible entity within Cal that connects small nonprofits, local government agencies, small businesses, and other civic organizations with undergraduate and graduate student researchers.

Science Shop is housed in the College of Natural Resources (CNR). Rachel Morello-Frosch, a professor in Environmental Science, Policy & Management, said that’s an ideal place because a commitment to community participatory research already exists. CNR is home to the Cooperative Extension program, where specialists from UC Berkeley, UC Davis, and UC Riverside conduct research and host public outreach activities to help transfer scientific discoveries from the laboratory to the public.

In its first two years, Science Shop has completed research projects with Nature Village, a sustainability group in UC Berkeley’s University Village residencies, and with Salmon Creek Watershed Council in Sonoma County. Science Shop has provided administrative, financial, and project management support to the researchers and free research to the community organizations.

Kareem Hammoud, an undergraduate in the School of Environmental Science, Policy & Management, contacted Andrade after she presented the Nature Village project to his senior thesis class. Nature Village wanted an assessment of the monetary value and sustainability of new shower valves to control and regulate water flow. Hammoud, who planned to write his thesis on the environmental impact of human behavior change, was eager to get involved—and expanded the assessment into a larger social impact project.

From March 2013 to May 2014, he worked with Science Shop and Nature Village to evaluate the effectiveness of education campaigns on sustainability and give feedback on the water saving potential of the valves. Hammoud recruited 100 households in University Village residencies; half received a low-flow valve and the other half did not. In addition to the valves, some households received workshops and handouts on drought, climate change, and water use.

At the end of the one-year project, Hammoud found that those who used the valves experienced savings of 4 percent, compared to households not using the valves—and that the sustainability education increased savings more than 10 percent. Impressed, University Village administrators did more analysis and determined that if they gave each household a shower valve, the residencies would save an estimated $22,500 to $67,600 per year. University Village is currently planning to install more low-flow valves throughout the residencies.

Andrade argues that experiences like Hammoud’s show that Science Shop can challenge students and enable them to interact directly with the people their research is affecting. But this process requires oversight. For that reason, Science Shop assigns graduate student mentors to undergraduate researchers to provide guidance and ensure quality results.

“It is hard to do research for the first time, if you have never done it before,” Andrade said. “Science Shop provides students with as much support as we can, while also giving students ownership over the project and allowing for an empowering research experience.”

Likewise, Science Shop team members have benefitted from guidance and support from the Blum Center for Developing Economies through drop-in advising hours and workshops. Lina Nilsson, innovation director at the Blum Center and Andrade’s mentor, was especially helpful in launching Science Shop by offering expertise in designing and implementing university innovation projects.

Science Shop team members pose with their first place award certificate from BigIdeas@Berkeley. The team won $7,500 in the 2012-2013 Improving Student Life category.
Science Shop team members pose with their first place award certificate from BigIdeas@Berkeley. The team won $7,500 in the 2012-2013 Improving Student Life category.

In January 2014, the Salmon Creek Watershed Council connected with Science Shop to understand and map out the relationship between the decline and ultimate disappearance of salmon and the residential development along the Sonoma County creek. Daisy Gonzalez, a UC Berkeley senior majoring in Integrative Biology, was doing research for Cleo Woelfle-Erskine, a PhD student in the Energy & Resources Group, who had worked with the Council for his dissertation and connected Gonzalez to Science Shop and the Sonoma nonprofit.

The Council wanted to understand how water use had changed since the 1800s. Gonzalez spent a six months locating maps of Salmon Creek from the Bancroft Library Archives to generate an analysis of how land use affected water usage. Gonzalez noted that the biggest challenge was transforming the Council’s initial concern into a viable research question.

“I had done research on water before,” said Gonzalez, “but the most difficult aspect of this project was getting out of my comfort zone to find and ask for the resources that I needed.”

Noel Bouck, secretary of the Council, said her organization has displayed Gonzalez’s water usage maps at a local farmer’s market, allowing residents to follow their property as far back to the 1800s. “Working with Daisy has been wonderful, and people can’t resist the maps,” said Bouck, who noted the maps have drawn dozens of people to engage with the Council about the correlations among water usage, land development, and salmon depletion.

Another outcome of the project, said Bouck, is that her organization is connected with new researchers and resources. “One of the most beneficial parts of Science Shop was that it got us access to the UC and all their resources,” she said. “We would never have found the maps or had access to them on our own.”

In addition to aiding local organizations and providing hands-on research experiences to students, Science Shop hopes to increase student retention in the science fields. “People know science is beneficial, but when you are doing it and you write all those papers, you wonder if it will ever reach someone and go out to the world,” Andrade said.

For Gonzalez, who now works for an environmental justice nonprofit in her hometown of Salinas Valley, California, the project with the Council reaffirmed her desire to “serve as a resource to a community.”

Science Shop also operates on the idea that community expertise must be tapped and harnessed. The Watershed Council is case in point; community members there had longtime knowledge of water usage and the creek’s salmon population, and some were former research professors themselves. Since the project with Science Shop began, council members have provided the university with water samples from different aquifers, information which might have future use.

Science Shop is currently working on another project with University Village and Andrade has received over 20 research queries—more than enough to keep the rotating voluntary staff of 10 busy. The main challenge now is to secure more funding and staff to implement more projects. Science Shop recently applied for a two-year, $300,000 National Science Foundation grant to allow the organization become institutionalized in the university, eventually expanding beyond the environmental sciences to other disciplines

“Science Shop is extremely beneficial for people in my field and for scientists in general,” said Morello-Frosch, who guided the organization in applying for the NSF grant. “It’s important to collaborate with communities on scientific projects that require community involvement to both collect data and solve problems.”

The 1,000th Solar Suitcase: Scaling Innovation out of the University

The 1,000th Solar Suitcase: Scaling Innovation out of the University

By Tamara Straus

Dr. Laura Stachel
Dr. Laura Stachel

Laura Stachel never meant to be a social innovator. She never imagined working in developing countries. And if you told her 10 years ago, that she and her husband, Hal Aronson, would come to focus on energy poverty in healthcare—and that they would deliver their 1000th “Solar Suitcase” to provide electricity to health clinics trying to recover from the Ebola outbreak in Sierra Leone, she would have looked at you with undisguised amusement.

But this, in an overly simplified way, is what has happened to Stachel over the last five years. In 2008, after a back injury ended her career as an obstetrician, she enrolled at University of California, Berkeley, to earn a master’s degree in public health. An invitation to observe the maternity ward at a state hospital in northern Nigeria came from Daniel Perlman, a medical anthropologist at the university’s Bixby Center for Population, Health & Sustainability. Stachel leapt at the chance to connect her expertise in maternal health to her current studies, and headed to Abuja.

At the Nigerian hospital, as she writes in an essay in the 2013 book The Rise of the Reluctant Innovator, “I was immediately struck by the grim conditions. The labor room had four bare metal delivery tables, a limited collection of obstetric instruments, a newborn incubator that hadn’t worked in years, a broken lamp, two newborn scales in poor condition, and little else. There were no mattresses, sheets, bright lights or monitors characteristic of an American hospital. Most striking were the frequent power outages that left the hospital in darkness, creating an immense barrier to care.”

Stachel was deeply disturbed that the hospital’s frequent power outages meant emergency patient care was delayed, disrupted, or just impossible. And suddenly a statistic—that half a million women die each year in childbirth, 99 percent of them in developing countries—was understandable. She described the desperate hospital conditions in an email to her husband. Aronson, who taught solar energy technology in California, decided the sun could provide electricity to the hospital during outages. And when Stachel returned, they embarked on what could become a lifelong journey to provide portable solar energy solutions to places like the state hospital in Zaria, Nigeria.

Stachel credits UC Berkeley and the Blum Center for Developing Economies as among the main forces that enabled her and Aronson to pursue their ideas and then implement them. “This project has always been part of the university,” she said on a typically busy morning of staff, student interns, and masses of email in her Blum Center office. “We’ve been able to tap into the university’s amazing human resources—faculty advisers in the School of Public Health, the School of Engineering, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, Haas School of Business, and students from across campus. I would never even have been put into a position to see the problems I saw without having the university context of people doing research in Nigeria and exploring maternal mortality through hospital ethnography.”

The Blum Center has provided crucial support from the beginning. When Stachel returned home from Nigeria in April 2008, Aronson worked with her to sketch a design for a stand-alone solar electric system for the Nigerian hospital’s maternity ward, labor and operating rooms, and lab. The problem was how to pay for it. Stachel noticed that the campus-wide innovation contest Big Ideas @ Berkeley, now run by the Blum Center, was advertising a $12,500 prize for a social good technology. But the deadline was less than two weeks away.

Stachel, Aronson, and two students from the School of Information and the Energy & Resources Group, Melissa Ho and Christain Casillas, applied anyway and won a $1,000 honorable mention, not enough to fund the project. Then, a few hours after the winners were announced, Thomas Kalil, a university technology policy advisor who had created Big Ideas, called. “You should have won,” he said. “How much do you need?” Three weeks later, Kalil secured more funding through the Blum Center, whose mission is to alleviate global poverty through education and innovation.

Solar SuitcaseThe first year of We Care Solar, as Stachel dubbed the nonprofit, was devoted to developing the solar electric system for the state hospital in Zaria. To prepare for a trip in which hospital workers would give feedback, Aronson placed demonstration solar equipment in a large suitcase for his wife to carry. After she unpacked the suitcase and got the components to work, not only did the head of hospital give approval for the full installation six months hence—an operating room technician by the name of Aminu Abdullahi, said: “You must leave your suitcase here. This will help us save lives now.” The idea for a portable solar system in a suitcase was born.

When Stachel returned to Nigeria in April 2009 to oversee the larger hospital installation, she saw the fruits of her husband’s work: midwives could perform obstetric procedures throughout the night, doctors and nurses could be summoned quickly through solar-powered walkie-talkies, and patients were no longer turned away for lack of power.

Word spread quickly of We Care Solar’s innovation. After a chance meeting in April 2009 with Nicholas Kristof, the New York Times columnist wrote about Stachel’s successful solar power installation, and the former obstetrician was inundated with requests for similar systems in maternity wards throughout Africa and Asia. “That’s when I realized the need extended far beyond Nigeria,” she said, “and that we needed an intervention that could scale.” Stachel, Aronson, and their small team of volunteers began making portable systems from their Berkeley home, while applying for all manner of fellowships and social innovator contests to make ends meet.

We Care Solar has since won multiple awards from UC Berkeley, including CITRIS’ Big Ideas Award, a Global Social Venture Competition Award, and the Chancellor’s Award for Civic Engagement—as well off-campus recognition from the United Nations Global Citizen Award, the Department of Energy and MIT C3E Award for Advancements in the Developing World, the CBS Jefferson Award for Public Service, and the 2013 CNN Top Ten Heroes Award, among others.  Additional support has come from UC Berkeley’s Development Impact Lab, which is funded by the United States Agency for International Development. USAID’s Administrator Raj Shah has cited Solar Suitcases as a lead example of high-impact university innovation.

“We Care Solar is one of UC Berkeley’s social innovation jewels,” said Maryanne McCormick, executive director of the Blum Center. “It rose out of a student innovation contest at Cal and has been nurtured by a constellation of faculty, staff, students, and programs. It’s been an education to see it grow.”

To date, We Care Solar’s staff of six has equipped off-grid medical clinics with power in 17 African countries, 10 Asian countries, and in Mexico, Nicaragua, and Haiti. Solar Suitcases are being used not just to provide medical and surgical lighting in blackouts, but to power cell phones and essential medical devices. In addition to installations in clinics and hospitals, Solar Suitcases also have been used for emergency and humanitarian relief. When the 8.0 magnitude earthquake struck Haiti in 2010, emergency medical providers contacted We Care Solar and Aronson managed to retrofit the suitcase design for the country’s energy needs. After Typhoon Haiyan struck the Philippines in 2013, We Care Solar received funding from the MacArthur Foundation to bring in 100 Suitcases for emergency workers and maternal health centers. In 2014, as Ebola swept through Sierra Leone and Liberia, World Health Organization and ministry of health officials reached out to Stachel for additional Solar Suitcases to power Ebola checkpoint centers and health clinics. Eventually, though a partnership with Direct Relief and three in-country NGOs, We Care Solar sent 15 Solar Suitcases to Liberia and 70 Solar Suitcases to Sierra Leone. Among them, was the 1,000th that We Care Solar manufactured and distributed.

Of course, 1,000 portable solar energy systems is a far cry from the estimated 300,000 that are needed in low-resource clinics and hospitals. On this point, Stachel is not exactly sanguine. “Our goal is to try to get to 5,000 in a few years,” she said, “but I have to say that we had that goal a few years ago. It’s been really humbling to work in foreign countries and to see what’s involved in logistics.”

Stachel continues: “There are people who say, ‘Why aren’t you making 10,000 of these and just sending them out?’ My answer is: We are really sensitive to the fact that the developing world is replete with broken technologies. Training is really important—and training takes time and cultural awareness.”

Stachel used to hand deliver every Solar Suitcase, but that was not scalable. So the nonprofit has been training solar technicians, called “Solar Ambassadors,” to train hospital workers and ministry of health technicians in Eritrea, Ethiopia, Malawi, Sierra Leone, Tanzania, Uganda, and the Philippines. “The most challenging thing is not the training,” said Stachel, “but sustaining the technology. How do you make sure it will work five years from now? By definition, these government health clinics are terribly under-resourced.” Stachel recounts a recent trip to Malawi, where one clinic lacked paper on which nurses could write patient notes. “How is that clinic going to have batteries, when a replacement is needed in two years or five years?”

Like many nonprofits working in poor countries, We Care Solar is obsessed with identifying best practices. Stachel and her team are using their Blum Center funding—and Stachel’s position there as a staff researcher—to explore models for how to get more Solar Suitcases sustainably into the field. The answer, so far, seems to be partnerships. Over the years, graduate students from the Haas School’s International Business Development Program have helped We Care Solar identify international and nation-based healthcare organizations who can share costs and logistics and whose staff can serve as Solar Ambassadors. Current partners include UNICEF, Save the Children, Pathfinder International, World Health Organization, Stiftung Solarenergie Foundation, and many ministries of health—and, due to these associations, the number of installations has been expanding dramatically.

“Right now, we are trying to show a model of what is possible,” said Stachel. “On the one hand, there is no reason that every health center shouldn’t be electrified. We have the technology. On the other hand, priming the ecosystems to accept, install, and be educated on how to use the technology and have a system of maintenance for it, is crucial. If we get enough funding to scale to 300,000 suitcases, we want an ecosystem in place and we want that ecosystem to work.”

Edward Miguel on the Untidy (but Important) Link Between Climate and Violence

Edward Miguel on the Untidy (but Important) Link Between Climate and Violence

Ted Miguel

An occasional series with Blum Center affiliated faculty

By Tamara Straus

On January 3, 2014, Edward Miguel, the Oxfam Professor of Environmental and Resource Economics and faculty director of the Center for Effective Global Action at U.C. Berkeley, published an article in Science advocating for increased transparency in social science research. The article built on years of inquiry in which Miguel has focused on African economic development, rigorous evaluation methods to test humanitarian interventions, and the interactions between health, education, environment, and productivity for the poor.

In the Science article, Miguel and his co-authors summarized how researchers can improve the quality, credibility, and impact of their work. They also wrote: “Commentators point to a dysfunctional reward structure in which statistically significant, novel, and theoretically tidy results are published more easily than null, replication, or perplexing results. Social science journals do not mandate adherence to reporting standards or study registration, and few require data sharing.”

Miguel is not following this trend.  Among the research projects he has pursued over the last decade, and with provision of all data, is the untidy link between climate change and human conflict. In an August 2013 Science article, Miguel and co-authors Solomon Hsiang, a climate economist in the Goldman School of Public Policy at UC Berkeley, and Marshall Burke, an environmental economist from Stanford, quantified the influence of higher temperatures on conflict, bringing together the results of 50 previous studies on the topic.

The reaction was divided. Some social scientists commended their analysis, which found “strong causal evidence linking climatic events to human conflict across a range of spatial and temporal scales and across all major regions of the world.” Others argued the link had considerable shortcomings—even though the authors made clear that rarely is climate change the only factor in increased rates of violence.

Criticism and debate have not stop the three scholars from continuing their analysis. In October 2014, the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) published their follow-up study “Climate and Conflict,” which added several more studies to the meta-analysis, confirmed previous findings, and detailed a few more, notably that “temperature has the largest average effect by far, with each 1σ [1 standard deviation] increase toward warmer temperatures increasing the frequency of interpersonal conflict by 2.4% and of intergroup conflict by 11.3%” and that “the 2-period cumulative effect of rainfall on intergroup conflict is also substantial (3.5%/σ).” To better understand the new study as well as how it is affecting social science research, the Blum Center asked Professor Miguel the following questions.

Q: What compelled you and your co-authors to undertake the analysis in the first place?

Edward Miguel: I had been working on this issue of extreme climate and violence since 2002/2003. I wrote papers on large-scale civil war and crime, and a few years after, when I was a visiting scholar at Stanford, I joined forces with Marshall Burke. Sol Hsiang was a grad student at Columbia at the time, working on related things. I think it was Marshall and Sol’s idea to aggregate the studies and say what is the common effect.

It took us about a year to complete the Science paper, with the three of us and a bunch of researchers. And then it was another few months of work for the NBER follow up. When there are a lot of data sets floating around, it takes a lot of effort to keep everything straight. You need to standardize everything, normalize everything. The NBER paper is more current—not just because it includes more studies, but because we break things down into current effects and lagged effects, temperature effects and precipitation effects. So we went deeper into what we were already doing.

Q: What were the biggest surprises?

Edward Miguel: I think it’s interesting that the evidence continues to accumulate from different parts of the world, with different types of violence, yet the patterns remain the same. That’s really the point of putting this together. There really is a striking pattern—and not just in the overall effect of extreme climate on violence, but in that temperature effects seem to be stronger than precipitation effects. Even in rich countries like the U.S., we found that when you have higher than normal temperatures, you have more violent crime.

We feel there’s a pretty strong relationship at this point linking climate and conflict, and there’s an increasing among data to support that link. There have been critiques—people saying, “You guys are lumping together lots of types of violence” [such as domestic violence, road rage, assault, murder, and rape for “interpersonal violence” and riots, ethnic violence, land invasions, gang violence, civil war and other forms of political instability, such as coups, for “intergroup conflict”]. We acknowledge that and we understand that. That’s why we make a distinction between crime and interpersonal violence on the one hand versus more large-scale violence on the other. I do think that it’s striking that whether you’re looking at land invasions in Brazil, or civil war in Africa, or Hindu-Muslim riots in India, you get these similar patterns. There is something deeper going on.

Q: Do you expect scholarship on the link between climate and conflict to grow—and, if so, in what discipline?

Edward Miguel: It’s always been an interdisciplinary effort. The first published paper I wrote on this in 2004 in Journal of Political Economy was with two political scientists. Even Sol and Marshall, my coauthors, in addition to their economics training, have a lot of climate science training—so there’s this intersection of different types social scientists in this area.

The scholarship is certainly increasing. And in the year and a half since the Science paper came out, that paper has been cited about 170 times. That’s because people are looking at it as a benchmark in the literature. To do a meta-study, we had to make a lot of the decisions about how to normalize data and standardize climate variables. Now, all these papers are coming out adopting our approach to normalization and standardization. We are having an effect on the development of the literature, because we’ve made it easier for the different studies across disciplines to speak to each other.

Q: What does the standardization involve?

Edward Miguel: It’s pretty simple. We’re looking at the local distribution of climate variation and then standardizing it. We look at the effect of what’s called the “one standard deviation change” in local climate. For example, Northern California’s climate is very different from the climate of the East Coast, which is very different from the climate of tropical Africa. Year-to-year, we actually have much greater temperature variation here in northern California than in West Africa. Yes, they have high temperatures, but year-to-year they don’t have that much variation in temperature. The more northern latitudes have greater temperature variation.

We take that into account and say, a shift of a few degrees Celsius up in Canada is not a big deal; they’re used to it or have adapted to it. But a shift of three degrees Celsius in West Africa—for the crops that they grow, for their economic activity—is a huge effect. So we allow a certain degree Celsius shift to have a big effect in the places where it is significant and a small effect where it isn’t. This is kind of sensible, but no one had said, “Hey, we can combine all this data by making this assumption.”

Q: What are the policy implications of the climate and conflict meta-study?

Edward Miguel: We certainly want policy makers to react. In the 2014 IPPC [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] Report, two of the chapters cite the Science paper and the authors frame some of their results around it. So I feel our voice is being heard. In terms of what we want people do, we don’t really have a solution. No one really has the answer, because it’s been so hard to adapt to climate change. But what we want is for policymakers to begin the process of figuring out what the right adaptations are.

It’s striking that even the U.S. is not adapting to changing climate. We’re such a rich country, we’ve got great technology, but year to year, especially in a hot year, agricultural production does fall—and we’ve not been able to deal with it. So what are folks in the Sahel region, in West Africa, supposed to do? They don’t have our resources, our technology, and there’s been very little political will. There’s all this discussion of rich countries creating a massive fund to help poor countries adapt to climate change, but it’s mainly talk. So we don’t have the answer, but we hope the research encourages policymakers to seriously try to find a solution.

Mezuri: Eight Questions for Eric Brewer on Data and Development

Mezuri: Eight Questions for Eric Brewer on Data and Development

By Jordan Kellerstrass

USAID TechCon Photos Copyright Noah Berger / 2014For most of its history, international development has been an inexact science. Validation of development interventions to improve health or economic outcomes was generally unfounded. With the increasing reliance on data to prove that a program is effective, however, the field is entering a new era. Data-centric evidence is becoming the lead arbiter of whether an intervention is renewed or scaled.

The continual improvement of technology and the digitization of vast amounts of survey, sensor, network, and other numeric and textual data are promising more reliable, timely information for development actors. At the same time, the ability to use this data well is hampered by the lack of consistency in tools and methodologies for end-to-end data management. The Mezuri team — which includes researchers from UC Berkeley’s Technology and Infrastructure for Emerging Regions (TIER) group, University of Washington, University of Michigan, and Portland State University — are addressing this issue. Together, they are building a cloud-based data management platform to support the entire pipeline — from raw data collection to meaningful, actionable results in the form of visualizations and statistics.

Eric Brewer is a professor of computer science at UC Berkeley, where he leads the TIER group and is Mezuri’s principal investigator; he is also vice president of infrastructure at Google. To provide a deeper sense of the story behind the development of the Mezuri Data Platform, we asked him the following questions.

1. What inspired the idea for Mezuri?

The economic development space has a checkered history, which has led to more intensive efforts to “prove” that an intervention is effective and thus should be scaled up — these broadly fall under the phrase “measurement and evaluation,” or M&E for short.  This has led to techniques like randomized controlled trials (RCTs) that really aim to meet this bar of proof. However, such an approach implies a significant data management problem: How do you collect, manage, and protect the data you need?

The tools have been rudimentary, typically just laptops and Excel. The consequences are that it is easy to lose data, hard to share it, and even hard to know what exactly was done to the data since you got it.

Making data management and analysis easy and accurate is the essence of Mezuri.

2. How does your background help guide Mezuri development?

A key aspect of Mezuri is leveraging Cloud computing, which is an area of long-time interest for me (and roughly what I do at Google). The Cloud brings reliable data storage with access control, unlimited processing power, and the ability to share not only data but also best practices. Finally, done well, it provides ease of use, as users only need web access to participate and not their own servers or even data centers.

3. Who all is developing Mezuri? How did they come together?

I tried to pull together the best groups I could from around the country to form the whole solution. University of Washington has done a great job with Open Data Kit, which is the basis for the survey aspects of Mezuri. Evan Thomas at Portland State has done the most work with real users (e.g., economists and NGOs) and real data with his SweetSense data collection system; his field experience is particularly valuable.  Colleagues at University of Michigan [Lab11] are experts in novel sensors and high-volume, real-time data collection. Bringing these elements together is not easy, but I love the team we have.

4. Why is this possible now? How is this project part of the story of computer science?

The two big enablers for us are the Cloud for scalable data storage and computing, and the rise of mobile phones, especially smart phones, which enable high-quality surveys and data collection pretty much anywhere in the world. These two together will change not only the practice of “development” but are also one of the greatest shifts not only in computing, but in the history of the world. The impact of phones has already been remarkable, but I think the Cloud will be bigger (unless they are viewed as one transition in the end).

5. What is Docker and what role does it play?

Docker, at its core, is a change in the level of abstraction of Cloud computing. Traditionally, the basic unit of abstraction was the “virtual machine” — it is as though you have a raw server and you need to install an OS and applications, and then maintain the OS. This is a high burden, even for computer scientists. The new abstraction is the “container,” which is a bundle of applications that fit together well and that can be created once and then reused easily by many. The details of the machine and OS matter less, and users can pick containers that have the software they need (and already know how to use).

6. Who will benefit from a system like Mezuri?

The immediate target audience is social scientists and economists that need to manage data well as part of their research. This should lead initially to better data management and later to more aggressive evaluations that include more kinds of data and that mix surveys and sensors well. However, the real goal is to benefit those in developing regions, by making better investment decisions due to better data.

7. How does Mezuri enable or encourage data sharing?

First, just having data safely in the Cloud is a good start — that is the easiest path to sharing, similar in spirit to Dropbox and Google Docs. Because some of this data has important privacy risks, the key to sharing is actually being able to limit the sharing to just those that should have access. We can also share data at different levels of processing and summarization: often we can share the anonymized or aggregated data, but not the raw data. Finally, it is equally important to share the workflows, that is, the template of processing steps necessary to convert raw data into knowledge. Sharing workflows enables formal review of processes, sharing of best practices, and also enables repeatability.

8. What are the short and long term visions for Mezuri?

In the short term, we need to get real users to collect, manage, and analyze data using the system. This will teach us a great deal about what the real requirements are and what we need to do to make the system sufficiently useful in practice. Long term, I hope to see Mezuri emerge as the de facto way to do data management for the social sciences and a key part of better decisions around how to best spend the world’s development money.

Jordan Kellerstrass is a PhD student in computer science, a researcher in the Technology and Infrastructure for Emerging Regions (TIER) group, and a member of the DIL Idea Team.

Fighting for the Last Mile of Women’s Rights: The Head of UN Women and UC Berkeley Gender Scholars Look Toward 2015-2030

Fighting for the Last Mile of Women’s Rights: The Head of UN Women and UC Berkeley Gender Scholars Look Toward 2015-2030

By Sybil Lewis

Dr. Phumzile Mlambo-NgcukaOn Dec. 9, Dr. Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, UN Undersecretary and Executive Director of UN Women, attended a panel at UC Berkeley’s Blum Center for Developing Economies with leading gender academics to discuss the state of affairs for women and girls around the world.

Titled “Gender for a New Century: Countering Violence and Social Exclusions,” the event served as an opportunity for academics and policymakers to engage in dialogue and marked Mlambo-Ngcuka’s first formal visit to an American university.

“Our knowledge about gender has moved so far in the last 30 years, even though many of the problems remain the same,” said Raka Ray, Professor of Sociology and South and Southeast Asian Studies and an affiliated faculty member of the Blum Center for Developing Economies. “Strangely, there has not been enough sustained conversation between those who produce knowledge about gender and those who create global policies around gender.”

The event was part of a worldwide 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Violence that started on Nov. 25, the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women.

Nine distinguished UC Berkeley female faculty members from various departments and centers, ranging from Law to Gender and Women Studies, presented different forms of violence and discrimination against women that reflect the intersectionality and complexity of gender-based problems.

Panelists brought attention to gender problems around the world, including the lack of protection for female migrant workers, the alarmingly high rates of sexual assault against disabled women, and cultural values that normalize violent traditions, such as female genital mutilation. The panel also addressed forms of non-physical violence and discrimination, such as policies that are constructed without recognizing women’s physical needs and others that alienate those that fall outside the gender binary.

“You cannot understand gender in isolation; you also cannot understand class, race, and all the other dimensions of oppression and inequality without understanding how they work in and through one another,” said Gillian Hart, Professor of Geography and Co-Chair of Development Studies. “This is one of the absolutely crucial challenges that we are facing in the world today.”

Mlambo-Ngcuka responded to questions posed by faculty members on the ways that the UN and transnational policy can address violence against women and social exclusion, while also noting challenges and limitations within the UN.

For instance, she shared concerns brought up by Professor of History Tabitha Kanogo about the dangers of universal gender goals and the importance of local variations. “When we want to target differences and not apply a one-size-fits-all solution, we have to allow for differentiation; but there are times when that is not an appropriate stance to take and we have to insist on universality,” said Mlambo-Ngcuka. She mentioned the ways in which national sovereignty arguments are used to avoid implementing human rights legislation. “Nationalism is sometimes a refuge for scoundrels.”

UN Women was created in July 2010 to promote gender equality and the empowerment of women and is the UN’s youngest agency. Thus far, the institution has spearheaded several campaigns, including HeForShe and UNiTE to End Violence Against Women.

Mlambo-Ngcuka and her colleagues’ appearance at UC Berkeley coincided with visits to Silicon Valley technology companies, such as Apple, Mozilla, Twitter, Facebook, and others, to start a dialogue about how technology leaders can promote UN Women’s agenda and goals. Cheryl Sandberg, Chief Operating Officer of Facebook, originated the invitation to Mlambo-Ngcuka, who served as Deputy President of South Africa from 2005 to 2008.

Lopa Banerjee, Chief of UN Women’s Civil Society Section, said the meetings aim to find ways to increase women representation in positions of power and to look at how data can be used to better understand gender issues.

“We need to begin the conversation on how Silicon Valley marginalizes gender,” Banjeree said. “The Internet is mostly defined by the users, but [social media company] owners also have a responsibility to be conscious of the politics of that space.”

Mlambo-Ngcuka identified economic participation, particularly in leadership positions, and violence against women as areas where countries have underperformed the most.

UN Women is preparing for the 59th session of the Commission on the Status of Women in March and the UN General Assembly in September to discuss post-2015 development goals. Mlambo-Ngcuka stated that UN Women is working to improve and build on goals established in the 1995 Beijing Declaration and Path for Action, whereby member countries agreed to address 12 areas of concern affecting the lives of women and girls.

While the Beijing goals are not perfect, UN Women will not discard them. Rather, the agency seeks to modify the goals, to minimize the risk of them being “chipped” away. “We have relative control of the Beijing goals and need to sell them as a package to the member states,” Mlambo-Ngcuka said.

Mlambo-Ngcuka ended her talk by calling on campuses to mobilize in the fight against gender inequality and violence against women. Specifically, she would like university scholars to provide more research and data about women and girls “to help surmount the trivialization of women’s issues.” Said Mlambo-Ngcuka: “The UN is not going to win the struggle, the people will—and the people will do that in the streets. Therefore, mobilizing is critical and we need students and the intelligentsia to speak much louder.”

Mlambo-Ngcuka called the next 15 years, 2015-2030, a critical period for women’s rights internationally. “I would like us to see this period as the last mile. We are going to intensify the struggle of hundreds of years. We should not, however, see this as an open-ended struggle,” Mlambo-Ngcuka said. “In Portuguese we call it ‘A Luta Continua’ (the struggle continues), but it must end at some point.”

Full list of panelists:

Aihwa Ong, Professor of Anthropology and Southeast Asian Studies, University of California, Berkeley; Catherine R. Albiston, Professor of Law and Sociology, University of California, Berkeley; Juana Maria Rodriguez, Professor of Gender & Women’s Studies, University of California, Berkeley; Tabitha Kanogo, Professor of History, University of California, Berkeley; Isha Ray, Associate Professor, Energy and Resources Group and Co-Director of Berkeley Water Center, University of California, Berkeley; Gillian Hart, Professor of Geography and Co-Chair of Development Studies, University of California, Berkeley; Charis Thompson, Chancellor’s Professor and Chair of Gender & Women’s Studies, University of California, Berkeley; Raka Ray, Professor and Chair, Sociology; Professor, South and Southeast Asian Studies, University of California, Berkeley; Marsha Saxton, Research Director, World Institute on Disability; Lecturer, Disability Studies Program at UC Berkeley

Beyond Providing Clean Water: A Profile of Development Engineer Syed Imran Ali

Beyond Providing Clean Water: A Profile of Development Engineer Syed Imran Ali

By Tamara Straus

Imran Ali PhotoIn August 2010, while floods from monsoon rains covered a fifth of Pakistan, Syed Imran Ali, an environmental engineering PhD student from University of Guelph, sat in a newly built lecture hall at the Indian Institute of Technology in Madras. Ali was in South India to research safe water systems in slums—and, as is typical in academia, a visiting professor had come to give a lecture and graduate students were expected to fill the hall. The lecture, by a Purdue University professor, was on a stochastic method to predict floods, and as Ali sat there, his demeanor, characteristically courteous, attentive, and collegial, started to shift.

“I started to think: I don’t know what you’re talking about, and I don’t think anyone else in this room knows what you’re talking about,” said Ali, now a postdoctoral fellow at UC Berkeley’s Blum Center for Developing Economies. “Moreover, I began to think: I don’t care. Talking about forecasting floods—when there was a flood next door and people were dying in it—was just untenable.”

Ali went back to his office, turned on his computer, and began calling NGOs, government agencies, and UN offices, offering his water and sanitation expertise to help respond to cholera outbreaks in Pakistan displacement camps. He was told he would need to formally apply, and he was told he would need to be interviewed, and he was told he would need to be approved before being sent into the field. He also sowed confusion when he explained his background: a Canadian engineer, of Pakistani origin, working in India, seeking to go to Pakistan, India’s enemy, to help with the flood.

Finally, Ali got hold of the number for the Pakistan headquarters of Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF/Doctors Without Borders) and found himself on the phone with the head of mission, an Italian nurse, “who was totally frazzled.” “He asked me,” said Ali, “whether I could work a water treatment unit. I told him I could figure it out. He told me to send him my CV. That evening, I had a phone conversation with MSF in London, and two days later I was flying to Pakistan.”

Ali’s job was to set up a water treatment unit, to supply safe water to one of the many camps for internally displaced persons in Sukkur, Pakistan. Sukkur had been the third largest city of the Sindh province, but by the time Ali arrived in August 2010 the Pakistani army was evacuating 350,000 people from low-lying areas and bringing them to the higher grounds of what would become a refugee city of half million. Ali was told an experienced WASH (water, sanitation, and hygiene) specialist from MSF would supervise his work. But the specialist got held back at another camp with a cholera outbreak, so the 26-year-old had to wing it. “It was sort of like Lego,” said Ali of his experience assembling the MSF equipment entirely from manuals. He worked there for five weeks, treating river water and training local staff to operate the water treatment plant.

Since that time, Ali has grappled with what it means to be a development, or humanitarian, engineer. His dissertation, published in 2012, was not typical of an academic engineer. Instead of focusing only on new techniques for efficient and safe water systems for South Asian slums, he questioned the moral and political complexity of their implementation. Ali advocates a “participatory design” approach, in which technicians like himself collaborate with “users” (in his case, slum residents), to come up with sustainable and contextually appropriate solutions to water and sanitation systems.

IMG_7575The impetus for this has come from deep reading of post-colonial scholars like Frantz Fanon and Paulo Friere. It also has come from the four on-and-off years Ali spent in a slum called Mylai Balaji Nagar on the outskirts of Chennai, India. There, about 10,000 residents continue to rely on highly polluted surface water. Ali first showed up in the ramshackle sprawl of a town in 2009, as part of a University of Guelph-IIT project that he started. His goal was to remove contaminants from the water system, which was drawn from a polluted lake and was pumped, often untreated, into standpipes where it was used for bathing, food preparation, and drinking. But the longer he stayed in Mylai Balaji Nagar, the more Ali learned that the residents’ views of clean water did not necessarily cohere with his or his university colleagues.

Through interviews and focus groups, Ali gleaned a couple of key details: that the residents of Mylai Balaji Nagar had been forcibly moved there in 1995 to make way for the city’s railway expansion; that the government had never consistently supplied adequate or clean water to the area; and that residents considered water and sanitation services to be a government, not a community or individual responsibility. Ali also learned that everything that the community had managed to get in terms of education, health, or housing supports—had come from lobbying the government.

“I came to realize that much of my work in Mylai Balaji Nagar was what University of Toronto Anthropology Professor Tania Li calls ‘rendering technical,’” explained Ali. “Residents viewed the water supply as the responsibility of the government and they demanded water and other rights through collective political mobilization and direct action. Often, they won. But we engineers were focusing on doing water treatment with residents at the household level.

“You see,” continued Ali. “I rendered technical the water supply problem at Mylai Balalji Nagar. And in doing so, I submerged the political economy of water in this community’s history.”

Ali defines rendering technical as stripping a phenomenon of its complex social, political, and economic realities and distilling it to just its technical aspects. He said people in international development do this for two reasons: “One, we are technical experts and see the world through the framework of the solutions we have to offer; and two, it gives us something to do.” Ali adds to this list a third reason: human fallibility, especially in crisis situations.

In September 2012, Ali enlisted for a second humanitarian crisis. He joined an eight-month mission with Doctors Without Borders in South Sudan, where the newly independent country was being overwhelmed with refugees escaping years of violent clashes. Ali’s job was to implement emergency water treatment systems in refugee and transit camps, manage water and sanitation infrastructure and staff in MSF healthcare facilities, and lead camp sanitation building projects. He was witness to a severe health crisis at a camp called Jamam on the Upper Nile state of South Sudan, to which 30,000 people had fled. Jamam, which means “swamp” in Maban, was picked in haste by authorities of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and in part because it was 50 km from the Sudanese border, a UNHCR requirement. The place lived up to its name. When the rainy season hit in May, the camp flooded and diarrheal illnesses and hepatitis E overwhelmed the refugee population.

Ali and his colleagues worked tirelessly. In a Jan. 29, 2013 MSF blog, he wrote: “I’ve stopped thinking. The last time I stopped to think something out, to parse it, to give it a name, was months ago …. [Yet] I had a home that was not this place, this strange, inhospitable, impossible place that is now home for 15,000, 65,000, 115,000 people, who had to run here, and from where it seems like they won’t leave for a long time still, for the abode of war still reigns in their hills.”

Among the reasons that Ali’s brain was functioning only for emergency purposes was because by January he was also working in a nearby refugee camp called Batil, which had become home to 35,000 people and where a third of the camp had no sanitation services. The result was another large hepatitis E outbreak from so many people defecating outside. “There’s a structural problem in the humanitarian system,” said Ali in response to why the story of aid seems often to be one of failure. “There’s no feedback mechanism. No one in the field has the capacity, because they’re always reacting.”

But Ali has found a way to provide feedback. During his time at the Jamam refugee camp, he realized that chlorination levels for camp water systems were based on standards for municipal water systems with sophisticated infrastructure—even though a refugee camp is radically different from a city. To deal with the daily reality of sick and dying people, Ali began to study how free residual chlorine in water behaved in the refugee camp setting. He soon discovered that it was inadequate—that within four to six hours of collection, the chlorine was mostly gone. He set out to correct this oversight.

Ali’s current work at the Blum Center may very well rewrite the UN guidelines for refugee camp water systems, protecting upwards of 50 million people. “This project will help to build the evidential base for safe water practices in humanitarian settings, something which is almost totally lacking at present,” said one of Ali’s mentors, Ed McBean, a professor of engineering at University of Guelph, who holds the Canada Research Chair in Water Supply Security. “The work will improve best practices for safe water supply in emergencies the world over.”

IMAG1243Last summer, in collaboration with UNHCR, Ali collected chlorination level data at the Azraq refugee camp in Jordan, and in 2015 he will do the same at two more sites, in Rwanda and Jordan, and take data during the winter to observe any seasonal effects. By 2016, he expects he will have analyzed and generated a revision document for varying refugee camp conditions, which can feed directly into the UNHCR guidelines. Ali does not expect implementation will be difficult, as his work is “an evidence-driven improvement of existing practices.”

When Ali tells people about his discovery at the Jamam camp, they tend to be shocked. How could humanitarian organizations overlook something so simple as low chlorination levels in water? Isn’t chlorine in water the most well-known and well-used means to ensure water is safe to drink and use? “I think it’s been the accidental engagement of academic researchers like myself in the field that have encouraged this,” said Ali. “People in the field have already always known [about chlorination problems], they just haven’t had the chance to study it and push it.” Ali adds that the negative consequence of higher chlorination levels is poor taste and odor. The balance is to have just enough chlorine to protect the water, but not so much to drive rejection of the water.

When it comes to the larger questions and goals of international development—the eradication of extreme poverty, safe drinking water and sanitation for all, universal access to maternal health—Ali’s humanism and historicism seems to outweigh his optimism. “The 19th century Prussian general and military theorist Carl von Clausewitz, once remarked, ‘War is the continuation of politics by other means,’” he said. “Since the Marshall Plan and the early years of the Cold War, I believe that development has become the continuation of politics by other means.” Ali does not believe that international development practitioners are doomed to come up with only short-term solutions that avoid the systemic political factors that underlay poverty. But he believes that they, and he, must tread carefully.

“I understand why we’ve moved away from large-scale development,” said Ali. “We’ve been humbled by the technical failures of the 1960s, by the macro level approach. So we’re now looking at development through a micro level. We can’t change the macro conditions of global health, so we create a device that improves healthcare access to rural clinics. In that way, we’re doing a lot of little things and, especially as engineers, we’re doing these things without any real literacy about the sources of the problems.”

Ali hopes a corrective to this problem—to the problem of “rendering technical”—will come through the new field of Development Engineering, which began offering classes to graduate engineering students at UC Berkeley in the fall of 2014. Development Engineering, he argues, is different from traditional engineering in that the field aims to re-center technical issues, like clean water provision, within the larger contexts of political economy and society.

“Introducing non-technical elements in my engineering training was really difficult at first, but I saw it as necessary,” said Ali. “Working with non-engineers was confusing initially, because I didn’t quite understand their language,” he continued, “but there was something important there that I needed to understand. It challenged me to go beyond my own technical lens and learn to see from perspectives of new fields.

“Working across disciplinary divides requires intellectual humility. But it’s given me ideas about how we can use technical solutions to address development challenges in solidarity with the people we aim to help.”

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Host and Fellow Responsibilities

Host Organizations

  • Identify staff supervisor to manage I&E Climate Action Fellow
  • Submit fellowship description and tasks
  • Engage in the matching process
  • Mentor and advise students
  • Communicate with Berkeley program director and give feedback on the program.

Berkeley Program Director​

  • Communicate with host organizations, students, and other university departments to ensure smooth program operations

Student Fellows

  • Complete application and cohort activities
  • Communicate with staff and host organizations
  • Successfully complete assignments from host organization during summer practicum
  • Summarize and report summer experience activities post-fellowship