Amy Pickering Named Assistant Professor in Development Engineering

The Blum Center is pleased to announce that Amy Pickering has accepted the position of Assistant Professor in Development Engineering, a joint Blum Center-College of Engineering appointment made possible through a generous gift from Richard C. Blum and an anonymous donor.

Amy Pickering Named Assistant Professor in Development Engineering

The Blum Center is pleased to announce that Amy Pickering has accepted the position of Assistant Professor in Development Engineering, a joint Blum Center-College of Engineering appointment made possible through a generous gift from Richard C. Blum and an anonymous donor. Pickering, the Tiampo Family Assistant Professor in Civil and Environmental Engineering at Tufts University, will commence her teaching and research duties at Berkeley in January 2021.

Professor Alice Agogino, who led the search committee and is the Blum Center’s Director of Education, notes that Pickering’s background ideally matches the needs of the Development Engineering position. She had over a decade of experience in multidisciplinary research in development, high quality scholarship, and an impressive record in both teaching innovations and diversity, equity, and inclusion contributions.

Pickering received a BS from Cornell University in Biological Engineering, a MS from UC Berkeley in Civil and Environmental Engineering, and a PhD from Stanford University in the Emmett Interdisciplinary Program in Environment & Resources. Her current and proposed research directions are in developing novel water and sanitation technologies, impact evaluation of scalable interventions on child health and development, and environmental surveillance for infectious diseases. She has >70 peer-reviewed publications.

Pickering has been Principal Investigator or Co-Investigator on 22 current or completed research grants from the NIH, NSF, USAID, the World Bank, and foundations including the Thrasher Research Fund, Saint Anthony Foundation, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and Givewell. She has 15 years of field experience in development in Bangladesh, Benin, India, Kenya, Mali, Malaysia, Mexico, Sri Lanka, and Tanzania.

With her strong teaching record in Environmental Engineering and Development Engineering, Pickering said she is eager to contribute to teaching the Design, Evaluate, and Scale Development Technologies course and to design new courses, such as Public Health Impacts of Climate Change and Ethics in Development Engineering. She also expects to continue her strong record of mentoring students, especially women and underrepresented minorities. 

Professor Agogino said the search committee was particularly impressed by Pickering’s work with KQED developing an e-book to engage students in STEM topics that featured an inexpensive water purification device she co-designed for use in Dhaka, Bangladesh, an initiative that included collaboration with Blum Center students. Her research has enjoyed strong interest from the press, with articles and podcasts in BBC World Service, New York Times, Lancet Press Office, Everyday Health, The Hindu, World Bank, and the ASME Global Development Review.

Joeva Sean Rock Joins Global Poverty & Practice Program

Joeva Sean Rock, an outstanding instructor in international development who researches agricultural biotechnology, food sovereignty, and environmental governance, has joined the Blum Center’s Global Poverty & Practice program as Lecturer.

Joeva Sean Rock Joins Global Poverty & Practice Program

Joeva Sean Rock, an outstanding instructor in international development who researches agricultural biotechnology, food sovereignty, and environmental governance, has joined the Blum Center’s Global Poverty & Practice program as Lecturer. 

Rock, who has served as Professorial Lecturer in the Health Inequity and Care Program in the Department of Anthropology at American University, has taught courses on globalization, social movements, and political-economic determinants of health. She earned a BA in International Studies/Political Science from UC San Diego and a MA and PhD in Anthropology from American University. She has served as a Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the Department of Nutrition and Food Studies at New York University. 

Rock’s research has been funded by the Fulbright-Hays Program and the Wenner-Gren Foundation, and featured in African Affairs; Culture, Agriculture, Food and Environment; Global Bioethics; The Nation; Popula; and Foreign Policy in Focus. She has served as a contributor to Africa Is a Country, where she writes on issues related to development, agriculture, and social change.

Her current book project is We Are Not Starving: the Struggle for Food Sovereignty in Ghana, “an ethnography of Ghanaian activists, farmers, scientists and officials embroiled in intense debates over agricultural futures, national development and political sovereignty,” according to Rock’s website.

Among Rock’s areas of expertise is online learning, a boon for UC Berkeley, as the campus enters its first full semester of virtual learning due to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“I’m thrilled to be joining a program that takes a critical lens to poverty and development practice,” said Rock. “As inequalities continue to widen in the U.S. and around the globe, we need more than ever students and practitioners who are committed to building different, more equitable worlds. GPP 115 seeks to do just that, and equips students with interdisciplinary skills in asking deep questions, analyzing structures of inequality, and imagining alternatives.”

Deep Learning and Mindset Shifts in GPP Summer Study

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Global Poverty & Practice Experiences were cancelled this summer. However, the Blum Center created the GPP Summer Study, taught by Dr. Rachel Dzombak with 22 students across 15 majors to explore ways in which they might create change for a problem they care about.

Deep Learning and Mindset Shifts in GPP Summer Study

The signature element of the Blum Center’s Global Poverty & Practice undergraduate minor is a “practice experience” for students to connect the theory and practice of poverty action. Students select to work with nongovernmental organizations, government agencies, social movements, or community projects that focus on various dimensions of poverty action—from community health and food security to economic justice and grassroots political power, in the U.S. and abroad. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed that. Students have been forced to cancel their summer 2020 practice experiences, and seniors have questioned their ability to finish the minor. As one student wrote, “My PE in Ghana was cancelled and since I am a senior I am unable to reschedule my PE abroad to next summer.”

To address this problem, the Blum Center created an online offering for students to engage in deep learning and to allow for mindset shifts. GPP Summer Study taught by Dr. Rachel Dzombak supported 22 students across 15 majors to explore ways in which they might create change for a problem they care about. Problems pursued by the students included:

  • How might we address rising health disparities among low-income communities of color during the pandemic?
  • How might we reduce rates of disease in the northern region of Peru?
  • How might we expand educational technology access for young children?

Throughout the summer, GPP students leveraged toolkits from design and systems thinking to understand how to make change in a complex problem space. The first challenge was to determine what problem to tackle. Using a Ladder of Abstraction (Fig. 1), students thought critically about the problem space entailed and why it mattered. This helped them to see the problem space from multiple perspectives. They used “journey mapping” to understand, for example, the experience of an individual navigating the healthcare system during COVID-19. And they were challenged to map the system in which their problem exists—charting political, historic, economic, and social forces within specific communities. 

The students also engaged in introspection exercises to apply the same innovation process to themselves. “Students are grappling with really hard problems and questions in their life: Do I return to school during a pandemic? What are my job prospects amidst a pending global recession?” said Dzombak. “The same tools that can help a student discern a global development challenge can be used to help navigate ambiguity in their own life.” 

Dzombak said she structured the course so that students updated each other on their projects during each session. She also gave them time to connect about the complexity of being a student during a global pandemic. Asynchronous videos and resources allowed students to go deeper into their projects as time allowed. 

Said one student, “The Global Poverty & Practice Summer Study gave me a tool set to break down an issue and figure out ways I could begin to implement the changes I want seen.” A second shared: “It made me realize that GPP and my practice experience actually deal with real aspects of the world that need to be examined and not merely be seen as a ‘minor’ or a ‘practice.’”

Another Year of Outstanding Development Engineering and InFEWS Doctoral Graduates

Another Year of Outstanding Development Engineering and InFEWS Doctoral Graduates

Now in its sixth year, the Development Engineering PhD program enables UC Berkeley doctoral students from engineering and social science fields to pursue applied technological research in low-resource regions around the world. The InFEWS—Innovations at the Nexus of Food, Water, and Energy Systems—Fellowship, as part of this doctoral program, enables students to work with and for poor communities that face extreme challenges accessing nutritious food, clean and reliable energy, and safe water. Both programs recognize and stand to correct Paul Polak’s observation that 90 percent of the world’s design efforts are aimed at 10 percent of the population.

Among this year’s graduates are: Julia Kramer, who received a PhD in Mechanical Engineering and a Master in Public Health and whose research focuses on global health and equity; Alana Siegner, a graduate of the Energy and Resources Group whose work addresses food distribution, access, and justice questions; and Christopher Hyun, also a PhD graduate of the Energy and Resources Group, whose research addresses water, pollution, and development, largely in South Asia.

Julia Kramer: Design for Global Health Accessibility

Julia Kramer has earned multiple advanced degrees at UC Berkeley: a Master of Public Health, a PhD in Mechanical Engineering, and a Designated Emphasis in Development Engineering. In addition to her scholarly work, she is co-founder of Reflex Design Collective, a consulting firm that uses design thinking to fight social inequality, and Visualize, a nonprofit dedicated to empowering and supporting midwives to screen for cervical cancer.

Kramer’s dissertation, “Designing for Health Accessibility: Case Studies of Human-Centered Design to Improve Access to Cervical Cancer Screening,” is based on her Development Engineering work in Ghana, India, and Nicaragua. She describes the impetus and framework for her research thus: “Our world faces immense challenges in global health and equity. We see huge disparities in access to health care across geographies, and while we have made massive strides in addressing health issues, we know that these disparities persist. In my dissertation, I explore the role of human-centered design to improve global health access. Human-centered design, a cross-disciplinary creative problem-solving approach, has been applied and studied in both academic research and industry practice, but its role in improving global health access remains poorly understood.

“I present research on designing for health accessibility in the context of one particular disease: cervical cancer. Cervical cancer is an illustrative example of the global disparities in access to health care, given that cervical cancer is preventable. Every year, 300,000 women around the world die of cervical cancer, and 90% are  in low- and middle-income countries. My research examines the work of two organizations that created unique solutions to improve access to cervical cancer screening in India and Nicaragua. I developed case studies of each organization grounded in ethnographic fieldwork, including over 250 hours of observation and 15 interviews over two years. Through these case studies, I show how early efforts to understand the barriers inhibiting cervical cancer screening access allow design practitioners to create novel and feasible ways to address these barriers. This demonstrates the importance of design practitioners considering multiple dimensions of accessibility, while conducting design research in order to improve the potential impact of their ideas and prototypes. Overall, this dissertation establishes the foundation of a new framework to ‘design for accessibility’ that can spark further research across sectors, including but not limited to global health.”

Alana Siegner: Education at the Intersection of Food Systems and Climate Change

After graduating with a double major in Environmental Studies and International Relation from Tufts University, Alana Siegner spent three summers in Uganda working on an Engineers Without Borders clean water storage project. Siegner then served as an AmeriCorps National Teaching Fellow with Citizen Schools, working with 8th graders in Boston Public Schools. At UC Berkeley, where she completed a PhD from the Energy & Resources Group (ERG) and was an InFEWS Fellow, she researched sustainable, agroecological food systems and farm-to-school programs as mechanisms for developing student environmental and climate literacy. Her master’s project focused on the San Juan Islands as a case study of high-functioning school food programs and environmental education; and she served as a sustainable agriculture intern for two summers, working alongside small scale diversified farmers on Lopez Island. Siegner has developed, implemented, and evaluated food and climate change curriculum. She served as a graduate student researcher with the Berkeley Food Institute, working on a study of East Bay urban agroecology, with a focus on food distribution, access, and justice questions; and as an agriculture and plumbing systems engineer for the THIMBY tiny house project, a collaboration of ERG students, faculty, and graduate students from other departments.

The dissertation chapter most closely tied to Siegner’s InFEWS Fellowship is “Education: Experiential Food and Climate Change Curricula on Farms, in School Gardens, and in Humanities Classrooms.” It addresses the motivation for creating experiential, interdisciplinary, action- and solution-oriented climate change educational resources for a variety of educational settings. Using an integrated Food-Energy-Water nexus framing, she introduces concepts of systems thinking and experiential learning about natural resources as they relate to climate change education in the United States. Examples of experiential and solutions-oriented interdisciplinary curricula are provided from the San Juan Islands in Washington state, from Oakland, California, and from Washington, D.C. 

Christopher Hyun: The Challenge of Sanitation in Low-Income Communities    

Christopher Hyun has over a decade of experience in South Asia, working on water, sanitation, pollution, culture, religion, and development, particularly in the Ganges River Basin in Varanasi, India. He has worked with multiple NGOs on capacity building, education, and watershed and waste management. He earned a M.Sc. in Environmental Science from Banaras Hindu University, and in 2013 moved to Berkeley to join the master’s program in the Energy & Resources Group, then continuing on to become an InFEWS Fellow and complete his PhD at ERG with a Designated Emphasis in Development Engineering.

Hyun’s dissertation, “Shit, Now What? Overcoming the Struggles of Infrastructure, Inequity, and Capacity to Achieve Sanitation for All,” details how and why inadequate sanitation is a hallmark of low-income communities in low- and middle-income countries. He writes: “The United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 6 (SDG 6) attempts to address this challenge by declaring ‘sanitation for all’ and targeting a 50 percent reduction of ‘untreated wastewater’ by 2030. However, urban areas of low- and middle-income countries have struggled to reach such treatment targets. Since the 1980s, development practitioners and researchers have interrogated the reasons for these shortcomings, primarily focused on the need for decentralized technology; however, increasingly blame has focused on the complexity of social phenomena. My scholarship is grounded in empirical research on the challenge of sanitation in low-income communities. While centered on the crisis of sanitation, I seek to advance and inform critical theoretical and policy-relevant debates on socio-technical systems, local governance, and capacity building.

“I hypothesize that sanitation shortcomings indicate gaps and miscommunications in our collective understanding of sanitation systems. Practitioners and researchers often base interventions on the ‘sanitation service chain,’ which defines the sanitation system as an engineering one as opposed to one with both social and technological dimensions. Therefore, I ask: (1) What are the definitions, functions, and actors of sanitation uncovered across major disciplines? (2) How do these disciplinary understandings compare to baseline understandings of sanitation, i.e. SDG 6 and the sanitation service chain? I led a cross-disciplinary review team from UC Berkeley, Stanford University, and Columbia University. Our discussion and results provide conceptual clarity to the complexity of sanitation systems through (1) the development of an augmented sanitation framework, as well as (2) recommendations for how cross-disciplinary research can support and advance the Sustainable Development Goals.”

LiquidGoldConcept Wins Big Ideas 2020 Scaling Up Contest

When UC Berkeley alumna Anna Sadovnikova launched her successful social enterprise devoted to helping pregnant mothers overcome the challenges of breastfeeding, she never expected that she would need to reinvent the entire program — transforming an in-person breastfeeding simulator into a virtual training program. But that’s what she and her team did this spring.

LiquidGoldConcept Wins Big Ideas 2020 Scaling Up Contest

Dr. Bertram Lubin (1939-2020), An Appreciation

It is with a heavy heart and beloved appreciation that we memorialize the passing of Dr. Bertram Lubin, a groundbreaking pediatrician and children’s hospital leader. Bert, as he was widely known, was the kind of person the Blum Center dreams of having around—to mentor students, advise faculty, inspire ideas, and lend decades of knowledge about the fight for disease mitigation and healthcare equity.

Dr. Bertram Lubin (1939-2020), An Appreciation

It is with a heavy heart and beloved appreciation that we memorialize the passing of Dr. Bertram Lubin, a groundbreaking pediatrician and children’s hospital leader. Bert, as he was widely known, was the kind of person the Blum Center dreams of having around—to mentor students, advise faculty, inspire ideas, and lend decades of knowledge about the fight for disease mitigation and healthcare equity.

Bert joined the Blum Center Board of Trustees in 2016, and in 2019 he came to Blum Hall to serve as a senior health advisor because he could not fully retire. Although his career had been long and illustrious—he had served as the former president, CEO, and research director of Children’s Hospital Oakland for more than 40 years—there was still much he wanted to do.

And indeed, there was much he did do. He advised students from our Global Poverty & Practice program in their quest to reduce health inequities in California and beyond. He brainstormed with us to further the impact of the Blum Center’s Big Ideas Contest, Development Engineering programs, and healthcare technology innovations, specifically CellScope.

Months before his death, Bert was working the phones and sending emails at all hours to support Project PreVENT, to make backup ventilators available at hospitals treating COVID-19 patients. He helped pull together a coalition of scientists and healthcare professionals that included College of Engineering Dean Tsu-Jae King Liu and Mechanical Engineering Professor Grace O’Connell. “If there’s anything I can do to help,” was Bert’s constant refrain, during a time he was weak and fatigued from battling brain cancer.

Dr. Lubin leaves many legacies. He is widely known for advancing the concept of the social determinants of health and health equity, which include such varied factors as early child development, food security, housing, social support, education, housing, and poverty. A national expert in pediatric hematology, particularly sickle cell disease, he launched the first newborn screening program for hemoglobinopathies in California, which became the national standard, saving thousands of largely African American children’s lives. He started the first sibling cord blood banking program in the world for children with hemoglobinopathies; co-authored the first clinical best practice guidelines for sickle cell anemia; and supported the application of gene therapy and bone marrow transplantation for children with hemoglobinopathies.  

At Children’s Hospital Oakland, he also mentored over 1,000 aspiring healthcare practitioners from underrepresented, minority high school, college, and post-baccalaureate institutions. The CHORI Summer Research Program was Bert’s way of saying: My parents didn’t go to college, I didn’t come from money, but now I develop groundbreaking health care programs for all children—you can, too.

In an interview for an October 2019 Blum Center article, Bert said: “I think we have to have healthcare leadership involved in public policy. If you don’t get policy and implementation together, then you’re not going to move the needle. We need to stop pursuing small economic advantages. We need to focus on big impacts for society.” 

Thank you, Dr. Bertram Lubin. We will carry your inspiration and vision with us.

—Blum Center Faculty and Staff

Blum Center for Developing Economies Statement of Solidarity for Racial, Social, and Economic Justice

“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

Blum Center for Developing Economies Statement of Solidarity for Racial, Social, and Economic Justice

“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” —Martin Luther King Jr., “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” April 16, 1963

In the wake of the deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and too many others, we remember Dr. King’s words about the rippling effect of injustice and oppression. We are horrified by the senseless racism and abuse of privilege and power that remain prevalent in parts of our society. And we stand in support of the peaceful exercise of grief, horror, and desire for systemic change for those who are injured and attacked for the color of their skin, the location of their home, or the assertion of their rights. 

The mission of the Blum Center is to promote social justice, inclusiveness, and greater economic and social opportunity for all. We believe that racial, ethnic, and religious harmony, empathy, and a shared sense of purpose are critical to solving the big problems confronting us today: the pandemic, global warming, poverty, health inequities, and racial and social injustices, to name a few. 

To create an atmosphere for working collectively on these large problems, we need to strengthen our networks of mutuality and speak a language that embodies a spirit of community, nationally and globally. We need to speak of historical sins and understanding, of the stark need for cultural, economic, and racial justice. We need to reaffirm loud and clear, Black Lives Matter. This must be part of the language with which we give power to a new culture based on solidarity, humanity, and progress.

Although we are in a moment of multiple crises: health, environmental, economic, and political, we harbor the hope that this moment can yield new understandings, futures, and destinies. Let us work together to create a more just, equitable, inclusive, healthy, and prosperous world. 

Faculty, Staff, and Students of the Blum Center

A Class for the Pandemic

When Rachel Dzombak and Vivek Rao began planning for the spring 2020 Development Engineering course “Innovation in Disaster Response,” part of their motivation was to get students to think about the use of technology during past disasters. But by early March, it was clear to Dzombak and Rao that the COVID-19 pandemic was increasing the relevancy of their class in ways no one could have predicted.

A Class for the Pandemic

When Rachel Dzombak and Vivek Rao began planning for the spring 2020 Development Engineering course “Innovation in Disaster Response,” part of their motivation was to get students to think about the use of technology during past disasters. But by early March, it was clear to Dzombak and Rao—who both earned PhDs in Engineering at Cal, have expertise in design and innovation, and lecture for the Blum Center and the Haas School of Business—that the COVID-19 pandemic was increasing the relevancy of their class in ways no one could have predicted.

For their 23 students—comprising even shares of graduates and undergraduates, technical and non-technical majors, and women and men—determining appropriate technological interventions to disaster-driven problems became visceral. And as the class moved online, connected by Google and Zoom instead of open studio space, the students observed how all manner of organizations were struggling to use technology to protect lives and livelihoods due to the fast-moving coronavirus.

Ethan Stobbe, a Master of Engineering student, recounted that the class started with different readings about drone technology. One reading was written for and by engineers whose view of drones was promotional and laudatory, and the other was written by and for government employees who warned about public policy problems presented by unmanned aerial vehicles.

“I realized there was this massive disconnect between the people who develop the technology and get excited about it and push it,” he said, “and the people who have to use technology to make life in a disaster zone more bearable. That’s the beauty of this class—to see both sides—and to understand how to bring technology that’s less than a decade old into a disaster response zone.”

Stobbe was assigned to the “cash disbursements” team with a fellow engineer and two lawyers. They included: Karen Olivia Jimeno, a Master of Development Practice and Fulbright student from the Philippines; Mozheng (Edward) Hu, a Master of Engineering student focused on product design from China; and Ifejesu Ogunleye, a Master of Development Practice student who trained in law at University of Manchester and the Nigerian Law School. As they conducted interviews about cash disbursement with representatives from FEMA, Give Directly, and other organizations, they were guided by Dzombak and Rao not just to focus on the mobile technology, but on “framing and reframing” their understanding of how to make cash disbursements more effective. 

A classroom filled with students who are attentively listening to a speaker at the front. The room has a high, wooden-beamed ceiling and large windows, creating a bright and airy atmosphere. The speaker is standing near a large blank projection screen, engaging the audience. The students are seated at tables, some with laptops open and others taking notes.
Alex Diaz, Head of Crisis Response & Humanitarian Aid at, lectured to students on disaster prevention, response, and recovery, focusing on the roles of technology and governance.

The team’s first framing question was: How might we help streamline the disbursement of cash relief while maximizing its impact in disaster response? This prompted the students to question how the disbursement process works, why particular steps in the process are difficult, which organizations are the largest, and what existing standards govern the field. After conducting several interviews with practitioners, they learned that cash allocation can be enhanced through crowdsourced information and public accountability, but that targeting people is a challenge and enrollment and verification takes time. So they reframed their question to: How might we speed up the distribution of cash transfers by improving the enrollment of and verification process of disaster survivors?

The team’s final idea, which included a prototype website presented over Zoom in early May, was “biometric pre-registration” along with a policy guide to address legal concerns. The idea was to compel individuals in flood, hurricane, and other disaster zones to pre-register their biometric information on a website, in order to receive cash disbursements more easily in the event of a calamity. The point, argued the team, is to work around the problem of identification, as driver’s licenses, social security documents, and birth certificates often disintegrate in disasters. During their final presentation, the team acknowledged how seeing the rollout of the CARES Act, in which tax returns were used as a verification method, validated the need for solutions that enable quick access to cash for citizens.

Dzombak and Rao see the educational approach they offer to the cash disbursement and other teams as part of the emerging discipline of Development Engineering. “Development Engineering embraces complexity as a sub-discipline in itself,” explained Rao. “A lot of ways that design-based problem solving or technology-driven problem solving is taught—the problem isn’t engaged in a multi-dimensional way.”

Dzombak underscored that although the course teaches design methodologies, “The actual project is the focus and outcome of the class. The projects themselves demand that one builds technical and social fluencies and specifically how to move back and forth between the two to solve problems that matter.”

Dzombak feels strongly that STEM education needs more problem contextualization, more emphasis on ethics, and more rigor around collaboration and teamwork. She was drawn to Development Engineering during her PhD at UC Berkeley because she wants to see academic inventions tested and applied but also because she believes that well implemented technologies, devised in an interdisciplinary and collaborative way, can improve and even save lives.

Rao explained that there is a long orthodoxy in higher education that you must learn theory before exploring applied technologies or solutions—an orthodoxy that stems from the need for deep knowledge before tackling complex problems. “But there is also an urgency to many problems,” said Rao. “Students have a hunger for them and there are many ways to contribute to problems before you have a PhD in a specific field.”

Rao noted that the accessibility of technology is changing who gets to intervene in disasters and how. “The ability to manufacture a mechanical part would previously have required a high degree of fluency in several knowledge areas and toolkits,” he said. “Now, a rough prototype of that  product can be designed and built with a credit card and a few clicks. In many cases, the learning curve on technical tools has eased to the point where you can engage with tools and theory simultaneously and cater to students where they are.”

Dzombak noted that the augmented reality and data visualization sessions of their course would not have been possible four years ago when she and Rao were working on their doctorates. “Every student would have needed a background in programming and hardware in order to engage in that space. But given where toolkits are now, students were able to download software, do some reading, and then engage in a meaningful way.”

Since technologies will alway be advancing, Dzombak and Rao believe there is a growing space for people who are tech savvy but not tech specialized and can frame questions while leveraging the latest tools. “We’re trying to teach students how to learn how to learn in a very explicit way,” said Dzombak. “Because of the way jobs are shifting, people are going to be forced to get up to speed on new technologies and figure out how to use them to tackle problem areas.”

The student team that explored drone imagery is an example of this approach. They were excited to apply drone technology to fire mitigation in California. But after talking to fire chiefs, image processing researchers, and drone operators and designers, they surfaced several problem areas in which they did not have the expertise to make a contribution. For example, they knew that one of the challenges in using drone video footage during disasters is how best to parse the massive amount of data generated. And they also knew that drones suffer from flight mechanics and battery power issues during disasters, but those issues are best handled by drone manufacturers. Where could they make an impact?

One area where they found less activity is how to leverage public and private drone operation after the first hour of a disaster. The “Rapidash” prototype—developed by Master of Development Practice Student Aaron Scherf, Master of Engineering Student Wai Yan Nyein, Cognitive Science Student Meera Ramesh, and Data Science Student Jinsu Elhance—is an app that enables public and and private drone operators to collaborate during disasters by providing maps of high vulnerability areas and access by firefighters to this information. The idea is to get firefighters crucial information about the direction and density of a blaze as soon as possible and especially when public drones are too far away. 

Katie Wetstone, a Master of Development Practice student who was assigned to the “disinformation” team, said that this kind of idea formation has been a strength of the class. “We were given a structured way to process information after interviews and organize different insights,” she said. “This approach is different from other courses, in that we have more time to research and understand a problem space rather than jumping to a solution.”

Wetstone said it wasn’t until the last third of the class, after interviews with Alex Diaz at and Chris Worman at TechSoup, that her team homed in on the idea that disinformation is a “public sector problem in a private sector space.” They also realized that immediately after a disaster there is an “information vacuum period” when a lot of disinformation spreads, making people vulnerable to news that increases anxiety and bad decisions. 

“This whole problem is a balance between education, technology, and policy,” said Master of Development Practice Student Sadie Frank. “Until the policy mechanisms around enforcement and regulation of social media change, or until private social media companies make significant personnel investments, our best approach might be to teach people how to recognize and avoid disinformation.”

During the final projects showcase, the disinformation team presented “Compasio,” a downloadable device extension that filters potentially inaccurate information on social media through pre-verified accounts and geolocation. The software essentially warns users when information is suspect or unverified. 

Dzombak notes that “Innovation in Disaster Response” is not meant to jumpstart social enterprise ideas, such as new apps and web services, though it might. “The training is meant to prevent unintended consequences once students go into the workforce. That’s why we spent a lot of time on critical thinking, ethics and values, decision-making,  and teaming.”

Deniz Dogruer, an Engineering Education PhD Student and COO of Squishy Robotics, who served as the graduate student instructor for the course, noted that the range of disaster-related problem spaces students explored—drones, disinformation, evacuation, disaster documentation, and cash disbursement—made the course particularly complex to teach but also advantageous for development engineering training.

A zoom video call page containing 3 people.
On Zoom: Innovation in Disaster Response Graduate Instructor Deniz Dogruer (upper left) and Course Developer-Lecturers Rachel Dzombak (upper right) and Vivek Rao (bottom).

Although the COVID-19 pandemic that forced the course online gave faculty and students a chance to consider the importance of technology during disasters, Dzombak said it’s been a “mixed bag.” 

“In some ways, it gives students an excellent way to connect with their learning. The disinformation team, for example, was inundated with so many examples of how their problem can manifest,” she said. “On the flip side, so many people think the future of education is purely online. But the intangibles that we’re trying to teach—collaboration, peer-to-peer learning, process iteration, emotional connections—are just drastically changed. I think the irony is that solving complex societal problems requires people collaboration as much if not more than advances in technology. We need to be present with each other, not just with the machine.” 

—Tamara Straus

George Moore Wins Chancellor’s Award for Public Service

George Moore, an InFEWS Fellow and Development and Mechanical Engineering PhD student, has been awarded the Birgeneau Recognition Award for Service to Underrepresented Students.

George Moore Wins Chancellor’s Award for Public Service

George Moore, an InFEWS Fellow and Development and Mechanical Engineering PhD student, has been awarded the Birgeneau Recognition Award for Service to Underrepresented Students. The Blum Center emailed with Moore to find out more about his academic and extracurricular interests and views on the culture of STEM.  

What was it like to move to UC Berkeley for grad school after growing up in Alabama and attending University of South Alabama? 

These two places have really different cultural values. So, in addition to the excitement of being in a new physical space, there was a lot for me to learn about Bay Area culture. In general, my decision to come to Berkeley was intentional: I knew that my academic capacity and personal lifestyle would be challenged.

Why have you felt compelled to help underrepresented communities develop STEM skills or advance in their STEM careers?

All underrepresented communities are not the same. It would be foolish to think that I have something helpful to offer just because I also identify as a member of an underrepresented community. But because support for these communities is insufficient, I feel inspired to give what I have to offer. Because I have been able to navigate a piece of the STEM institutional system, it’s easier for me to feel more comfortable offering my service in these disciplines. What I think is most important is that I offer my experience and advice purely as a resource, and not a conviction, that should be imposed on someone else’s lifestyle. In other words, it’s not my place to steer underrepresented folks towards an engineering degree or, more broadly, pursuing a STEM career. Instead, one of my essential goals is to shed some light on how to navigate and leverage opportunities in STEM when the system is not designed for you to succeed. I’d hate to see someone abandon their cultural values for a career in STEM. 

Tell us about your service work—with the SMASH Academy and the Pinoleville Pomo Nation.

I have enjoyed the opportunity to meet, share, and learn from scholars at the SMASH Academy and community members of the Pinoleville Pomo Nation. With both groups, I was able to share some of the Human Centered Design strategies that I and other practitioners use to address big problems. My hope is that my work reassures and, if necessary, instills confidence in SMASH Scholars and the PPN community so that they are aware of their capacity to solve their own problems.

As vice president of the Black Graduate Engineering and Science Student Association, what kinds of programs have you implemented?

I’ve worked alongside Liya Weldegebriel (BGESS President) and several other strong black graduate students on the BGESS executive team to help provide supportive programming for BGESS members this year. A few notable programs include our Buddy Lunch mentorship program, Professional Development Workshop, Cultural Exchange Speakers Series, and attendance at AfroTech in the Fall. The Buddy Lunch program matches BGESS members based on their interests and encourages them to meet up for lunch to share experiences and advice navigating life at UC Berkeley. Recently, the program has moved to virtual lunches via Zoom in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The Professional Development Workshop was inspired by conversations about figuring out how to prepare ourselves for life after graduate school. The Cultural Exchange Speaker Series have offered a platform to have culturally relevant conversations with each other. These events range from panel sessions with prominent black scholars in STEM to sharing our own cultural backgrounds—acknowledging that while we share a lot of the same values and struggles as the black graduates in STEM, our cultural backgrounds are actually quite different. AfroTech is an annual Conference held in the Bay Area that focuses on accelerating black careers in engineering, design, and entrepreneurship. Thousands of black professionals in STEM and related fields attend this conference every year. In the Fall of 2019, we had at least 15 BGESS members attend. 

Your LinkedIn page notes that you are “On a mission to thread a desire for empowering marginalized communities with a passion for sustainable design. Hence, I stay familiar, and critical, of frameworks like the Human-centered Design process and Life Cycle Analysis.” Please explain your skepticism about HCD and LCA. What issues does it fail to address for marginalized communities?

While these frameworks are constantly being modified to better serve their purpose, “service to marginalized communities” is not always included in that purpose. So it’s important that I use these frameworks with caution and understand the underlying assumptions that other researchers and practitioners have made. A good understanding of these assumptions is what enables me to refine these frameworks to better serve a marginalized community of interest.

Big Ideas Entrepreneurs Respond to COVID-19

For many entrepreneurs who come out of the University of California’s Big Ideas social innovation contest, the challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic are motivating them to find creative ways to shift their business strategies to stay busy and afloat.

Big Ideas Entrepreneurs Respond to COVID-19

For many entrepreneurs who come out of the University of California’s Big Ideas social innovation contest, the challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic are motivating them to find creative ways to shift their business strategies to stay busy and afloat.

Cruelest Month, COVID-19, and Fiat Lux

Around the UC Berkeley campus, there has been a plethora of COVID-19 responses that will help developing and developed countries alike.

Cruelest Month, COVID-19, and Fiat Lux

April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.

So began T. S. Eliot’s 1922 poem The Waste Land about madness and death, trauma and hope, and the confusing world of the early 20th century. A century later, we find ourselves in another cruel April, one witnessed and suffered by the whole world due to the coronavirus disease pandemic: COVID-19.

At the Blum Center, we like all centers and departments and schools have been shifting to online teaching, advising, and working—as well as closely following the spread of the disease to low-income countries and regions. As you know, the news is bad. The COVID-19 crisis threatens to disproportionately affect developing countries, not only as a health crisis but as a devastating social and economic crisis. 

For poor countries, the socioeconomic fallout from COVID-19 could take years to recover from, according to a United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) report released on March 30. The report warns that income losses are expected to exceed $220 billion in developing countries, and nearly half of all jobs in Africa could be lost:

“With an estimated 55 per cent of the global population having no access to social protection, these losses will reverberate across societies, impacting education, human rights and, in the most severe cases, basic food security and nutrition. Under-resourced hospitals and fragile health systems are likely to be overwhelmed. This may be further exacerbated by a spike in cases, as up to 75 per cent of people in least developed countries lack access to soap and water.”

But there is room for hope and more for action. As Berkeley Economics Professor Edward Miguel points out in a recent Cal news article, Africa has certain strengths for combatting COVID-19. Unlike much of Europe, the median age of many African countries is young: 20 years old. That could mean the proportion of people who die could be much lower in African countries. That might also be true for India, where the median age is 26.8. Miguel, who is faculty director of the Center for Effective Global Action, also notes two other strengths: Even though Africa is rapidly urbanizing, a large share of the population still lives in rural areas, where social distancing is more possible.

He continues: “Another strength is the regional experience in sub-Saharan Africa dealing with Ebola in the last five or six years. There was infrastructure put in place to screen people, to contain an epidemic. I know Ebola and COVID-19 are quite different, but that capacity building may help now. And Africa has 30 years of dealing with the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Partially due to local initiatives, partially due to global aid initiatives, African health systems are much stronger than they were 20 years ago, or 15 years ago.”

Still, there is much to fear and prepare for. Multilateral agencies, international foundations, and all manner of aid organizations focused on poor countries are moving funds and resources toward saving lives. A UNDP-led COVID-19 Rapid Response Facility has been launched with an initial $20 million; however, UNDP anticipates a minimum $500 million need to support 100 countries. The International Monetary Fund and World Bank have urged debt relief to poorer countries hit by the coronavirus pandemic, with bilateral creditors playing a major role.

“Many countries will need debt relief. This is the only way they can concentrate any new resources on fighting the pandemic and its economic and social consequences,” said World Bank President David Malpass at a March 26 meeting. Malpass reported that the bank has emergency operations under way in 60 countries and its board is considering the first 25 projects valued at nearly $2 billion under a $14 billion fast-track facility to help fund immediate healthcare needs. Meanwhile, the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development have pledged $274 million in health and humanitarian assistance. And Bill Gates is spending billions to set up factories that will make the seven most promising coronavirus vaccines. 

Around the UC Berkeley campus, there has been a plethora of COVID-19 responses that will help developing and developed countries alike. The first target of a new AI research consortium, the Digital Transformation Institute (of which I am co-director), is research that addresses the application of AI and machine learning to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. Bioengineering Professor and Blum Center Chief Technologist Dan Fletcher and his lab members have come up with a way to adapt the fluorescence microscopy function of their mobile phone microscope, the CellScope, to assist in rapid testing. Fletcher and his colleagues have been working with virology expert Melanie Ott of the Gladstone Institute and CRISPR pioneer Jennifer Doudna, among others, to provide the rapid remote detection portion of the team’s CRISPR-based COVID-19 RNA detection method. Dr. Bertram Lubin, the Blum Center’s and College of Engineering’s senior advisor in health, has been working with a coalition of UC Berkeley engineers led by Mechanical Engineering Professor Grace O’Connell, emergency room doctors, and critical care pulmonologists to turn sleep apnea machines into ventilators. And Development and Mechanical Engineering Student Paige Balcom is in Uganda (where there are 55 ICU beds with oxygen for a population of nearly 43 million people), using her social enterprise Takataka Plastics to manufacture face shields for doctors and staff in the town of Gulu.

In this issue of the Blum Center’s Innovation Chronicle, we salute these and others working stop the spread of COVID-19 and educating the next generation of Berkeley changemakers. Fiat Lux!

Shankar Sastry is Faculty Director of the Blum Center for Developing Economies and Siebel Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Sciences, Bio-engineering and Mechanical Engineering at UC Berkeley.


Blum Center Welcomes New Board Members Michelle Nunn and Afsaneh Mashayekhi Beschloss

Blum Center Welcomes New Board Members Michelle Nunn and Afsaneh Mashayekhi Beschloss

In anticipation of the expansion of its Development Engineering programs and continued growth of the Big Ideas Contest and global problem-solving initiatives, the Blum Center welcomes two new members to its board of trustees.

Michelle Nunn is president and CEO of CARE USA, a leading humanitarian organization that fights global poverty and provides lifesaving assistance in emergencies. CARE works in 93 countries and directly reaches 63 million people annually. Nunn took the helm of CARE in 2015 and has since invested in innovative new programs and partnerships with private corporations and other nonprofits. Among her initiatives, Nunn has set a goal of increasing CARE’s micro-savings program from 7 million participants to 60 million participants by 2028.

Before joining CARE, Nunn built an illustrious career of civic and public service as a social entrepreneur, a nonprofit CEO, and a candidate for the U.S. Senate. She co-founded the volunteer-mobilization organization Hands On Atlanta, and expanded it from a single entity to a national network of more than 50 affiliates. Nunn oversaw that group’s merger with Points of Light, creating the world’s largest organization dedicated to volunteer service, with affiliates across the globe engaging more than 70,000 corporations and nonprofit organizations.

A Phi Beta Kappa graduate of the University of Virginia, Nunn majored in history with a minor in religion and earned her Master’s Degree in Public Administration from the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. She also received a Kellogg Fellowship to study faith and social justice in more than a dozen countries, from Peru to Namibia to Jordan.

Afsaneh Mashayekhi Beschloss is the founder and CEO of RockCreek, a leading global investment firm that applies technology and innovation to sustainable investments. Previously, she was managing director and partner at the Carlyle Group and president of Carlyle Asset Management. She was treasurer and chief investment officer of the World Bank and worked at Shell International and J.P. Morgan. Beschloss has advised central banks and regulatory agencies on global public policy and financial policy. She led the World Bank’s energy investments and policy work on sustainable investing in traditional and renewable energy and power projects to reduce carbon emissions. She founded its Natural Gas Group to invest in natural gas and power projects in emerging economies.

Beschloss serves on the boards of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, the World Resources Institute, and the American Red Cross, among others. She is a member of the World Economic Forum and the Council of Foreign Relations. Beschloss is a past Trustee of the Ford Foundation, where she chaired the Investment Committee.

Beschloss is a recipient of the Institutional Investor Lifetime Achievement Award and the Robert F. Kennedy Ripple of Hope Award. She was recognized as one of American Banker’s Most Powerful Women in Banking. Beschloss holds an MPhil (Honors) in Economics from the University of Oxford, where she taught international trade and economic development. She is the co-author of The Economics of Natural Gas and author of numerous journal articles on energy, finance, impact, and sustainability. 

Said Professor Shankar Sastry, faculty director of the Blum Center, “We are delighted Michelle Nunn and Afsaneh Mashayekhi Beschloss have agreed to lend us their intellect, ear, insights, and sage advice to further the Blum Center mission to educate the next generation of global citizens and support breakthrough interdisciplinary research for the widest societal benefit. In Fall 2021, we will launch the first professional master’s degree in Development Engineering, piggybacking on what we have learned from our faculty innovations, our Big Ideas Contest, our undergraduate program in Global Poverty & Practice, and our PhD programs in Development Engineering. We are grateful these two exceptional people will be helping us with that and other efforts.”

Development Engineering Scholar Woojin Jung Finds Significant Discrepancies in Global Poverty Measures

Development Engineering Scholar Woojin Jung Finds Significant Discrepancies in Global Poverty Measures

Woojin Jung, an assistant professor in the Rutgers School of Social Work, credits her interdisciplinary education in social welfare, public policy, and development engineering for her award-winning research. In December, she was honored with the 2020 Society for Social Work and Research Outstanding Social Work Doctoral Dissertation Award for Combating Poverty Through Aid: A Critical Analysis of Alternative Models, which she wrote at UC Berkeley to fulfill her PhD in social work and development engineering. To find out more about Jung’s poverty measurement research and her contributions to development engineering, the Blum Center conducted the following interview.

Rutgers School of Social Work. Photo by John O’Boyle

Your dissertation examines the discrepancies between different global poverty measures and brings that analysis to bear on identifying the salient dimensions of poverty in developing countries. What were your most surprising or meaningful takeaways from this analysis?

One surprising finding is that the discrepancies between the two approaches to poverty were larger than I thought. For instance, in Cambodia in 2010, only 10 percent of the population was poor by a $1.90 poverty measure, but almost half of the population was living in poverty by multidimensional measure. In development agencies, when it comes to the usage of indicators, income measures dominate but this study shows that each measure requires attention. How to incorporate multiple measures is another issue. Policymakers and research communities can juxtapose various measures one by one, taking a dashboard approach, but I want to take a systemic account of discrepancies. It was interesting to me that exceptions and mismatches between measures are not always bad but may serve as interesting sources of information and have the potential to be used as a policy instrument.

The most unexpected finding was that some evidence of the match between needs and policy intervention, which I would call the diagnosis and prescription match. My study finds that the “capability poor” countries receive marginally higher social sector aid relative to economic sector aid.[1] Social sector aid aiming to address capability poverty has skyrocketed since the beginning of the 2000s, significantly outpacing the economic and production aid. The result of the analysis tells us that higher rate of social sector aid is not uniform but more in countries where poverty is more multidimensional. Further research can expand this discussion by analyzing whether the considerable policy shift favoring the social sector was in response to the growing rate of “capability poor” countries to “income poor countries” or in response to the large magnitude of capability poverty as relative to income poverty. As for the individual country, more attention can be paid to outliers lacking the diagnosis and treatment match[2]

Given what you know about discrepancies between measures of international poverty and advances in technology to better measure poverty, how can the development community better distribute aid in, say, Myanmar, where you focus some of your paper?  

I would say that development communities should be more clear and consistent about the definition and concepts of poverty and policy responses to address poverty. Rhetorically, the development community calls for tackling “poverty.” However, in terms of aid targeting, they equate the meaning of poverty with low gross national income. Strictly speaking, poverty and low gross national income inform needs from different angles. The poverty rate exclusively focuses on those falling below the poverty line and reflects the distribution of income (and dimensions of other wellbeing). However, average national income, which is a measure of central tendency, takes account of everyone’s income, and the super-rich can move the mean upward. In my previous study, I found out that aid per capita per country is explained by GNI per capita and population, but poverty rate does not have any significant explanatory power, or even if it does, it is in the negative direction (the poorer, the less aid). The ways economic growth and national income translate into poverty reduction differs by country; both income and poverty should be taken together. For instance, among countries with a similar average income per capita, should not those with a large proportion of poor be receiving more aid?

I also think that development communities should take advantage of the advancement of technology to measure poverty. We can validate and test the performance of new poverty measures through supervised learning, triangulate alternative measures, and use them to impute missing data. I found that the areas with the highest needs often have the least certain data, spatially and timely irrelevant. When serving these areas, even if the development community uses their best intentions, it is left with ad-hoc decisions to pick beneficiary communities. When the World Bank and Korea International Cooperation Agency started their community-centered development (CCD) projects in Myanmar in 2012-2013, the country didn’t have any reliable income and consumption data to identify the most impoverished townships or villages. The country’s first DHS data became available in 2015 and 2016, but proxy poverty measures such as the wealth index[3] are available in only 441 village clusters. Using geospatial interpolation techniques or poverty prediction techniques using satellite imagery, development communities can better pinpoint where the poor are and fill the development gaps using global social welfare program—development aid.

Your study concludes with a call for social work research and practice to return to the basics, and to begin by considering client needs. Why are you compelled to make this call?

Actually, I am speaking to the broad field of social science, including social welfare/social work and development engineering. I was compelled to make this call because a particular way of generating evidence may have obscured broader lessons. The knowledge continuum of a development project is composed of need assessment, implementation, evaluation, and policy uptake. Each piece of evidence can contribute to creating a holistic sense of impact. There will be a cost involved in putting too much emphasis on one of the continuums (e.g., outcome evaluation), a specific sector (e.g., health), or scope (micro approach). For instance, rigorous experimental studies can tease out socio-economic impacts of interventions but are less likely to recover quantities that are useful for policy.

Similarly, too much emphasis on outcomes can result in disproportionate aid allocation to sectors with easy-to-measure outcomes, such as health, HIV/AIDS prevention, while stifling innovations with hard-to-reach populations. With the promise of the big data revolution, questions also arise over the value added—other than confirming what’s already been known—in the international development context. Many development projects have failed because they did not simply pass the scrutiny of the very first test: Does the intervention take precedence over all competing resources for individuals and communities in extreme deprivation? Is providing a laptop for a child really a priority for children suffering from lack of water or food and in a village without electricity?

The sub-field of social welfare/social work is heavily leaning towards health science while the sub-field dedicated to anti-poverty policies has been losing its ground, particularly in the U.S. Still, I am not quite convinced why studies covering individual health outcomes such as patients experiencing depression or sleeplessness are more likely to be funded than inquiries about poverty, inequality, or structural impediments to finding decent work, which might affect billions of people and many other social problems. Part of the reason would be the substantial funding streams exclusively earmarked to the health sector with concrete indicators for success. Science that advances health is important to both the rich and the poor, but science that reduces poverty would be only an issue for the poor. I think such an imbalance in social welfare and in social science as a whole can be partly remedied by going back to basics, starting from client and user needs.

Tell us about your effort to combine fine-grained spatial techniques with satellite imagery to assess aid allocation in data-sparse communities in Myanmar. What did that involve, and what did you discover?

My efforts focused on creating poverty variables, combining spatial analysis and remote sensing methods. They involve the entire process of data science techniques—atomized data collection, the representation of non-traditional data, downstream machine learning tasks, and data visualization. Like in many other countries, Myanmar does not have poverty data at a small community level where aid projects are taking place. This would make it difficult to say whether aid-receiving communities are poorer than non-aid receiving communities or whether aid volume is explained by the degree of wealth. I used spatial interpolation techniques to overlay the gridded wealth field onto the georeferenced aid project locations, so that we can estimate the level of poverty in project villages as compared to non-project villages. The fine-grained spatial analysis also allows measurement of poverty at a small scale such as a 5 km by 5 km square grid depending on the resolution of the images, and it does not depend on administrative boundaries. What I also found interesting is that there are multiple ways of measuring poverty or needs broadly so that we can link needs and interventions. One of those is a distance to conflict areas from project villages, a measure of need relevant to fragile and conflict-prone countries. Beyond spatial interpolation, I also use nontraditional data sources such as daytime and nighttime satellite images. For instance, annual average nighttime luminosity across Myanmar was extracted from raster/image files and was trained to predict poverty using a convolutional neural network.

Through this new approach, I discovered mixed evidence in needs-based targeting. Community centered development (CCD) in Myanmar disproportionately flows to better-off communities, as indicated by a lower share of vulnerable populations per township and areas that shine brighter. However, unlike the literature that argues that aid favors the richest, my study suggests that a need-based allocation is also in place in Myanmar, at least for community-centered development, an aid instrument known for its emphasis on participation and inclusion. The previous studies used aggregated poverty measures at the state level, which is the highest administrative level, across African countries. Within villages of similar levels of population and electrification, aid goes to areas with low assets. The analytic tool I developed also helped me answer other questions. I found that the donor’s ideology shapes the design of aid projects design and project design matters in targeting. One CCD project concentrates on poorer regions, while the other project supports villages close to conflict zones.

Why did you choose to get a designated emphasis in development engineering? What did the field bring to your dissertation and how might it shape your academic career?

With a policy analyst background in development agencies, I wanted to continue work on international development and was about to start a concurrent MA in economics while earning a PhD. At that time, I also discovered the development engineering program and sought advice from Dr. Clair Brown to weigh in. I like what the program is aiming for—that is, addressing poverty by emphasizing human-centered design, adapting technology to local needs, and scaling up interventions. So I decided to take a route to development engineering.

I took core development engineering courses and was connected with innovative projects and their research teams, such as the Darfur Cook Stove project. That inspired me a lot, so for the last chapter of my dissertation, I wanted to survey “technology-informed data-intensive projects” (e.g., Development Impact Lab projects supported by the Blum Center) and interview principal investigators. However, after the discussion with the Blum Center, I realized that there is no centralized reservoir/data warehouse to collect such data. Due to this obstacle in doing a study of other studies, I thought, “Why don’t I get involved in data-savvy research?” and I ended up doing such research. The rigorous core and elective course of development engineering paved my way toward building data fluency and programming skills.

As I acknowledged in my dissertation, being part of the development engineering group has expanded my area of interest to the application of technology for social good. I really benefited from the marriage between STEM and social science education. For instance, I drew my aid occurrence and density outcome variable from spatial differences in African elephant densities. The development engineering program helped me select rigorous data science and impact evaluation courses to promote my analytic skills. It put me in touch with faculty members from various disciplines. The guidance and mentorship from my advisor, Dr. Brown, as well as Dr. Agogino and Dr. Levin, have been strong. Dr. Brown has been nourishing my scholarship in every way from the formulation of the research question to coaching for a job interview, to following up with article submission. The NSF INFEWS fellowship was also a tremendous financial support to pursue my dissertation.

The data science training and my interdisciplinary background with social welfare, public policy, and development dngineering will profoundly shape my academic career. I believe my unique contribution to the field is showing how to harness technology and data to identify the needs of the most impoverished in the world—from the eyes of social work, as well as for its direct work experience with clients.

—Tamara Straus

[1] Particularly low policy score (CPIA) countries receive more assistance to the civil service and governance subsector, which was a sub-sector that led to the increase in aid to the social sector.

[2] For instance, Zimbabwe in 2016 received a higher ratio of social sector aid (USD 151) despite its income poverty status. In contrast, Sudan in 2010 received a lower rate of social sector aid (USD 6.77) despite its capability poor status.

[3] Although the wealth index cannot be used directly to construct benchmark measures of poverty, these asset-based measures are capable of capturing a household’s long-term economic welfare in poor regions lacking consumption, expenditure and price data.

Blum Center Board Member Erica Stone’s Commitment to the Himalayas

Blum Center Board Member Erica Stone’s Commitment to the Himalayas

Erica Stone, who has served as president of American Himalayan Foundation for close to 30 years, came to her job through an unusual path.

After graduating from Cal with a BA in Sociology she met Gil Roberts, an Alta Bates emergency room physician whom she describes as “part climber, part doctor, part Hells Angel.”

“Gil said, ‘Would you like to go camping?’ I was smitten so I said, ‘Sure.’ Then I asked ‘Where?’ He said, ‘Everest Base Camp,’ and I said, ‘OK.’ So, we went camping. We walked from Kathmandu to Everest Base Camp. This was 1991; it took a month. We fell in love and then we went back to Nepal a lot.”

Roberts was among the first Americans to climb Hidden Peak in the Karakoram range in Pakistan and almost lost his life scaling Everest in 1963, when a 30-foot-high slab of ice tore loose and killed his climbing companion. Through the climbing community, he later met UC Regent Richard Blum, who started the American Himalayan Foundation (AHF) in 1981 to alleviate the widespread poverty he had witnessed on his trips to Nepal.

“Gil was on the board of AHF,” explains Stone. “I went to a meeting or two. At one point, Richard was looking around for someone to grow it because it was tiny, with revenues of $60,000 per year. By then I had an MBA from the Haas School of Business and was working as a consultant. At first, I was reluctant but then I thought, Why not?  So, I traded my crampons and duffle for a laptop and garment bag.”

Erica Stone on horseback in the Mustang District of Nepal on the way to visit an American Himalayan Foundation grantee.

Stone’s adventurous spirit and sharp business skills have been a driving force behind the American Himalayan Foundation’s steady expansion, which now gives away around $4 million a year. The nonprofit has a diverse portfolio of programs—from supporting girls’ education and restoring ancient temples to building health clinics and protecting tigers. Its staff is intensely loyal; in addition to Stone’s 29 years at the helm, Vice President Norbu Tenzing has been with AHF for 27 years, Nepal Country Director Bruce Moore for 20 years, and Deputy Director Charu Pradhan for 17 years.  

Stone says much has changed—particularly travel to and communications with one of the world’s more inaccessible regions—and much remains the same. “We had a startup feel about us in the early days and that has not changed,” she notes. “If you want to operate in Nepal, you need to be willing to pivot at any point and in any direction, because it’s not a country that you can predict.”

The foundation’s reaction to the earthquake in 2015 illustrates this flexibility. The Gorkha earthquake killed nearly 9,000 people and injured almost 22,000, which meant that AHF had to continue programs and add new ones in a country that was literally convulsed. Thanks to its educational programs, AHF could mobilize its local partner networks on the ground to help distressed students and their families. AHF and it partners deputized teachers to distribute “blue bags” with food, water, clothes, toothbrushes, and other essentials. The foundation also built 54 temporary schools and later rebuilt or repaired a hospital, elder homes, and schools.

Stone’s approach to philanthropy is marked by this kind of practicality: do what makes sense, meet people where they are. Although its headquarters are in San Francisco and AHF employs a staff of six in Kathmandu, the foundation is largely leveraged—meaning it always works in partnership with local people and organizations to identify, implement, and improve its programs.

“In the early years especially,” relates Stone. “I would go and look for local rockstars—people who are driven, passionate, savvy, and can actualize. We would sign onto their vision and help them build capacity.”

STOP Girl Trafficking is one the initiatives that has grown from a local rockstar’s vision. In 1993, the AHF board—which now includes dignitaries like former Ambassador Peter W. Bodde and celebrities like Sharon Stone—began to hear rumblings about rural Nepali girls being sex trafficked, largely to India. Stone convened a meeting of local people working against trafficking at Malla Hotel in Kathmandu. Eighteen people showed up, including Nepali doctor Aruna Uprety.

“Aruna was clearly the star,” remembers Stone. “She had seen Nepali girls trapped in brothels in Mumbai. They said to her, ‘It’s too late for us. What you need to do is go back and stop other girls from coming here.’ Aruna had this vision for preventing girl from being trafficked—it’s cheaper, easier, and prevents so much suffering. She led us to keep girls in school, and to educate them so they are more valued in their families.”

The American Himalayan Foundation started with 54 girls in 1997 and now supports 12,000 females in 500 schools annually, with 25,000 still in school or having graduated. Funding is always challenging, but STOP Girl Trafficking resonates with people and has been easier to fundraise for than some other AHF initiatives, says Stone. Richard Blum has been very supportive.

Another local star identified by Stone and her colleagues is Dr. Ashok Banskota, an American-trained pediatric orthopedic surgeon who Dr. Gil and Stone met in Nepal in 1988. He asked AHF for a $4,000 donation to buy an autoclave sterilizer for his small clinic. In the 1990s, health clinics in Nepal were ill equipped and poverty was rampant—with an estimated 80 percent of the population living on less than $2 per day. A child’s serious injury or disability could debilitate an entire family and destroy their life chances. Dr. Banskota was among the few doctors with the skill to fix club feet, twisted spines, and fractured arms and the passion to do it for low or no cost.

“I started to go back and see Banskota,” remembers Stone. “He moved from that clinic to another one in a rented house in Kathmandu. [Blum’s wife] Senator Dianne Feinstein came and saw the clinic and said, ‘Richard this is great stuff. He’s astonishing. His dedication to his kids is amazing.’”

Over the past three decades, AHF has supported Dr. Banskota’s Hospital and Rehabilitation Center for Disabled Children, including helping to build a new 100-bed hospital in Banepa, just outside Kathmandu. Banskota’s son, Bibek, has followed in his father’s footsteps as a pediatric orthopedic surgeon and has joined him at the hospital that now employs 230 staff and provides 25,000 consultations and 2,300 surgeries annually. Over 95,000 children have been healed since AHF’s first visit.

Stone may still see herself as an accidental nonprofit president, but she says she never changed jobs because of the draw of Nepal, its people, and especially its vulnerable girls. Although she grew up far from the Himalayas (in Montreal), she has been a longtime student of female empowerment through her practice of Taekwondo, a martial art she took up as an undergraduate at UC Berkeley after being stalked on its streets. She has 5th degree black belt and for 35 years has run an all-women studio in Berkeley as a community service.

“Empowering women is really important,” says Stone of her JLAG/Wild Crane Rising martial arts studio. “I have heard it said that men are afraid women will laugh at them and women are afraid that men will kill them. How do we teach women to defend themselves, not just physically but psychologically? If you neutralize the balance of physical confidence between men and women, it makes a lot of other stuff more possible.”

Stone is psychologically astute about cultural differences as well. She was quick to realize that American approaches to work don’t translate well in the Himalayas. “In South Asia, if people don’t see you, they don’t believe in you,” she says. “You have to show up and sit down and talk to them. That’s the only way I know how you can have a trusting, lasting relationship. So Norbu and I meet with every single partner once or twice a year.”

The doctor-climber who introduced Stone to Nepal died in 2000 to cancer. Yet she says the country Gil Roberts brought her to remains reverential. “When I first went,” remembers Stone, “we were coming into the Kathmandu Valley by plane. It was dusk and I looked down and there was not much electricity in the city, but you could see all these little lights. People were cooking over fires. It was completely magical. I just fell in love. I’ve been about 50 times since, and I’m still in love.”

—Tamara Straus

Dan Fletcher and Ashok Gadgil Projects Among Top 100 Proposals of MacArthur $100 Million Grant

The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation today unveiled that the LoaScope Project for Removing the Greatest Obstacle to the Elimination of River Blindness was one of the highest-scoring proposals, designated as the Top 100, in its 100&Change competition for a single $100 million grant to help solve one of the world’s most critical social challenges.

Dan Fletcher and Ashok Gadgil Projects Among Top 100 Proposals of MacArthur $100 Million Grant

Berkeley, CA, February 19, 2020 — The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation today unveiled that Dan Fletcher’s project for Removing the Greatest Obstacle to the Elimination of River Blindness and Ashok Gadgil’s project for Ending Arsenic Poisoning for Marginalized People via Safe Drinking Water are among the highest-scoring proposals, designated as the Top 100, in its 100&Change competition for a single $100 million grant to help solve one of the world’s most critical social challenges.

The river blindness project is led by Daniel A. Fletcher, UC Berkeley’s Purnendu Chatterjee Chair in Biological Systems and Chief Technologist of the Blum Center for Developing Economies, with partners The Task Force for Global Health and The END Fund. Its goal is to eliminate onchocerciasis, also known as river blindness, using the LoaScope, a mobile phone-based diagnostic technology developed by the Fletcher Lab. Two hundred million people in 10 Central African countries are at risk of blindness from the parasitic infection. Half have gone untreated by the “wonder drug” ivermectin—recognized by the 2015 Nobel Prize—because of another parasite that can cause serious or fatal side effects following treatment. Fletcher’s proposal aims to expand access to the LoaScope device; resolve uncertainty about the extent of disease overlap through mapping; and initiate data-driven disease elimination programs across all populations currently excluded from treatment. This work will clear a path towards the World Health Organization’s goal of river blindness elimination.

The arsenic removal project is led by Ashok Gadgil, the Andrew and Virginia Rudd Family Foundation Chair Professor of Safe Water and Sanitation and a Blum Center Affiliated Faculty Member. Its goal is to scale up the Gadgil Lab‘s ElectroChemical Arsenic Remediation (“ECAR”) technology for drinking water. Currently, 200 million historically marginalized people worldwide have no choice but to drink water containing toxic levels of arsenic. Consequences include painful disabilities, internal cancers, and death. ECAR is inexpensive and designed to work even under harsh conditions. It allows water to be purified locally in marginalized communities and sold at affordable prices, while creating local employment and generating sufficient revenue for sustainable operation and further expansion. With additional funding, Gadgil’s ECAR team aims to build 1,004 plants in India, USA, and Nigeria to provide safe drinking water to 4-5 million people and end what the World Health Organization has called “the largest mass poisoning in recorded history.”

The Top 100 represent the top 21 percent of competition submissions. The proposals were rigorously vetted, undergoing MacArthur’s initial administrative review, a Peer-to-Peer review, an evaluation by an external panel of judges, and a technical review by specialists whose expertise was matched to the project.

Each proposal was evaluated using four criteria: impactful, evidence-based, feasible, and durable. MacArthur’s Board of Directors will select up to 10 finalists from these high-scoring proposalsthis spring.

MacArthur seeks to generate increased recognition, exposure, and support for the high-impact ideas designated as the Top 100,” said Cecilia Conrad, CEO of Lever for Change and MacArthur Managing Director, 100&Change. “Based on our experience in the first round of 100&Change, we know the competition will produce multiple compelling and fundable ideas. We are committed to matching philanthropists with powerful solutions and problem solvers to accelerate social change.”

Since the inaugural competition, other funders and philanthropists have committed an additional $419 million to date to support bold solutions by 100&Change applicants. Building on the success of 100&Change, MacArthur created Lever for Change to unlock significant philanthropic capital by helping donors find and fund vetted, high-impact opportunities through the design and management of customized competitions. In addition to 100&Change, Lever for Change is managing the Chicago Prize, the Economic Opportunity Challenge, and the Larsen Lam ICONIQ Impact Award.

Bold Solutions Network Launches

The Bold Solutions Network launched today, featuring UC Berkeley-Task Force for Global Health-END Fund as one of the Top 100 from 100&Change. The searchable online online collection of submissions contains a project overview, 90-second video, and two-page factsheet for each proposal. Visitors can sort by subject, location, Sustainable Development Goal, or beneficiary population to view proposals based on area of interest.

The Bold Solutions Network will showcase the highest-rated proposals that emerge from the competitions Lever for Change manages. Proposals in the Bold Solutions Network undergo extensive evaluation and due diligence to ensure each solution promises real and measurable progress to accelerate social change.  

The Bold Solutions Network was designed to provide an innovative approach to identifying the most effective, enduring solutions aligned with donors’ philanthropic goals and to help top applicants gain visibility and funding from a wide array of funders. Organizations that are part of the network will have continued access to a variety of technical support and learning opportunities focused on strengthening their proposals and increasing the impact of their work. 

More About 100&Change

100&Change is a distinctive competition that is open to organizations and collaborations working in any field, anywhere in the world. Proposals must identify a problem and offer a solution that promises significant and durable change.

The second round of the competition had a promising start: 3,690 competition registrants submitted 755 proposals. Of those, 475 passed an initial administrative review. 100&Change was designed to be fair, open, and transparent. The identity of the judges and the methodology used to assess initial proposals are public. Applicants received comments and feedback from the peers, judges, and technical reviewers. Key issues in the competition are discussed in a blog on MacArthur’s website.

In the inaugural round of 100&Change, Sesame Workshop and International Rescue Committee were awarded $100 million to educate young children displaced by conflict and persecution in the Syrian response region and to challenge the global system of humanitarian aid to focus more on building a foundation for future success for millions of young children.  &

Global Gains in Reducing Extreme Poverty

Global Gains in Reducing Extreme Poverty

By Shankar Sastry

In a recent poll from Oxford University’s Our World in Data, a majority of Americans said that the share of the world population living in poverty is increasing—yet one of the trends of the last 50 years has been a huge reduction in global poverty. In fact, per World Bank data, the proportion of the Earth’s population subsisting on about $2 a day or less has dropped by more than 75 percent over the last four decades—from 42 percent in 1981 to 10 percent in 2015.

Just as remarkable, annual worldwide deaths of children under 5 have plummeted since 1990. Thanks to health interventions in respiratory infections, diarrhea, and preterm birth as well as massive success in vaccinations for measles, tuberculosis, and malaria—global child death rates have dropped by more than a half. We also are approaching 90 percent adult literacy and seeing large gains in girls’ education.

So why are so many Americans unaware of these tremendous global gains?

One reason is that whereas poverty, health, and educational outcomes are improving in developing nations, in the U.S. poverty shot up to 1960s levels in 2009 and the cost of health, housing, and higher education is thwarting socioeconomic mobility for too many Americans.  The regional, racial, and class details of this phenomenon are constantly in the news. In fact, in America— thanks to our always-on, click bait media—we are drowning ourselves in bad news.

Yet here on the UC Berkeley campus and at the Blum Center, we find students are not just well informed—many are brimming with hope and commitment to continue to fight extreme poverty in developing nations and to reduce inequality and work for social and economic justice in the United States. We also finding that in addition to students lending their energy and intelligence to established organizations, some are seeking to form news ones through startups and through incubators and accelerators like Big Ideas, CITRIS Foundry, and Skydeck.

There is also growing understanding among Blum Center faculty, staff, and students that higher education must adapt to the future of work. As my good friend Carnegie Mellon University President Farnam Jahanian pointed out in a recent World Economic Forum article, “There is an undeniable need to train the next generation in emerging digital competencies and to be fluent in designing, developing, or employing technology responsibly. At the same time, 21st-century students must learn how to approach problems from many perspectives, cultivate and exploit creativity, engage in complex communication, and leverage critical thinking.”

In this issue of the Blum Center’s Innovation Chronicle, we invite you to read about students combining these skills sets for a fairer planet. Please read about Kaloum Bankhi, a sustainable housing organization in Guinea led by Big Ideas winner and recent UC architecture graduate Aboubacar Komara. We also have an article about the forest economics research group led by Professor Matthew Potts, who is Vice Chair of the Graduate Group in Development Engineering. And we invite you to listen to our Global Poverty & Practice students about their poverty action fieldwork in the Philippines, San Francisco, India, and Colombia.

All their efforts, combined with the larger story of global poverty reduction, make me think that 2020 is a year for great hope and hard work for global progress. 

Shankar Sastry is Faculty Director of the Blum Center for Developing Economies and NEC Distinguished Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Sciences at UC Berkeley.

Arts Entrepreneurship Comes to Big Ideas Contest

With all of the excitement and funding directed at artificial intelligence, machine learning, blockchain, and gene editing, it is hard to remember that one of the most consistently innovative and financially robust sectors in the United States is the “creative industry.”

Arts Entrepreneurship Comes to Big Ideas Contest

With all of the excitement and funding directed at artificial intelligence, machine learning, blockchain, and gene editing, it is hard to remember that one of the most consistently innovative and financially robust sectors in the United States is the “creative industry.”

Building Homes with Low-income Communities in Guinea

For Aboubacar Komara, a combination of cultural values inspired the mission behind Kaloum Bankhi–a registered NGO in Guinea that maximizes existing and limited housing space for people in the slums of Kaloum.

Building Homes with Low-income Communities in Guinea

Aboubacar Komara, founder and president of Kaloum Bankhi, says his upbringing in Guinea and the United States has shaped how he understands architecture. Born in Guinea, Komara moved to the U.S. in 2013 and graduated from UC Berkeley with a degree in architecture in 2018. He explains that the combination of cultural values from both countries inspired the mission behind Kaloum Bankhi–a registered NGO in Guinea that maximizes existing and limited housing space for people in the slums of Kaloum, located within the capital city of Conakry.

Matthew D. Potts and the Scholarship of Resource Economics

How can we meet increasing human demands from the land while protecting natural systems? This is the question that Matthew Potts, UC Berkeley’s S. J. Hall Chair in Forestry Economics and the Vice Chair of the Graduate Group in Development Engineering, asks in his scholarship.

Matthew D. Potts and the Scholarship of Resource Economics

How can we meet increasing human demands from the land while protecting natural systems? This is the question that Matthew Potts, UC Berkeley’s S. J. Hall Chair in Forestry Economics and the Vice Chair of the Graduate Group in Development Engineering, asks in his scholarship. Potts specializes in resource economics, an interdisciplinary field in which he conducts quantitative analyses of forest management, biofuels, plantation agriculture, land use planning, land use policy, biodiversity conservation, ecosystem services, and tropical ecology.

“In my research group, we ask how interactions among human labor, history, technology, and nature are  shaping tropical lands and the well-being of resource dependent communities,” said Potts at a winter Blum Center Faculty Salon. 

Much of Potts’ research in tropical forests provides insights into how to sustainably manage these landscapes, which he says provide public and market goods. Public goods include carbon storage and animal habitats. Market goods include raw materials such as timber, land for agricultural production, and gold. 

At the salon, Potts highlighted stories of three commodities: the story of oil palm in Pasoh, Malaysia; the story of cacao in Sulawesi, Indonesia; and the story presented by Jimena Diaz, a PhD candidate in the Department of Environmental Science, Policy & Management, of gold mining in Madre de Dios, Peru.

Potts presented findings from fieldwork he conducted in cross-boundary subsidies in a Malaysian plantation landscape, using oil palm as the primary crop in his analysis. (Cross-boundary subsidies are caused by organisms or materials that cross or traverse habitat patch boundaries, subsidizing the resident populations.) Using two decades of ecological data, Potts and his research colleagues illustrated how subsidies from neighboring oil palm plantations triggered powerful secondary “cascading” effects on natural habitats located >1.3 km away. Specifically, they found that 1) oil palm fruit drove 100-fold increases in crop-raiding native wild boar, 2) wild boar used thousands of understory plants to construct birthing nests in the pristine forest interior, and 3) nest building caused a 62 percent decline in forest tree sapling density over the 24-year study period. As described in their 2017 Nature Communications study, “The long-term, landscape-scale indirect effects from agriculture suggest its full ecological footprint may be larger in extent than is currently recognized. Cross-boundary subsidy cascades may be widespread in both terrestrial and marine ecosystems and present significant conservation challenges.”

Next, Potts presented an analysis of sustainable cacao intensification initiatives in Southwest Sulawesi, conducted by his former student Lisa Kelley, an assistant professor in the Department of Geography & Environment at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa whose initial research was supported by the Blum Center’s Development Impact Lab. Kelley explored how a rapid smallholder cacao boom in the 1980s-2000s produced mixed benefits for farmers and negatively impacted forests. Over the last 20 years, Sulawesi cacao farmers experienced significant yield losses due to the reduced profitability and sustainability of the crop. In one of Kelley’s interviewers, a farmer reported: “When chocolate is young, it produces well and doesn’t require too much work. After it’s mature, it produces little and requires too much work. Meanwhile the price of chocolate goes up and down. As soon as my peppercorn trees yield, I will leave it.” 

To improve sustainable cacao production, the Indonesian government, companies like Mars and Nestle, and international organizations like USAID and the World Agroforestry Centre have invested since 2000 half a billion dollars into farmer education and land improvements. Using GoogleEarth to understand land effects, Kelley is working on a study to determine the degree to which the investments have borne results. 

Concluding the salon, Potts’ graduate student, Jimena Diaz, presented her ongoing research on the social and ecological effects of small scale gold mining in Madre de Dios, Peru. Diaz emphasized that her research explores the intersection between the social relations of gold production, including labor practices and technologies used in mining, and the ecological consequences of these diverse mining production practices. Through her fieldwork, Diaz has found  that small scale gold mining in Madre de Dios has grown rapidly in the past 15 years, causing ecological change and rapid deforestation. Mercury is present in almost all gold mining areas, because it is used to bind fine gold particles into an amalgam that is later burned to release the mercury. 

Informal gold miners in Madre de Dios, Peru. © Jimena Diaz

“Misconceptions of mercury and mining practices are common in Madre de Dios,” said Diaz. An important finding from her field research is that not all mining areas are contaminated by mercury and that the type of machinery used in mining may help to explain differences in mercury contamination. Different gold production practices also have different impacts on patterns of deforestation. Areas where miners use heavy machinery tend to show more uniform patterns in deforestation and forest regeneration in comparison to those areas worked with suction pump based technologies. Diaz recommends greater involvement of miners in the design of mining regulations and an explicit recognition of the importance of small-scale mining as a livelihood for a large portion of the region’s population.

“Nature is quite resilient and there are ways to mine that are less impactful,” said Diaz. “Miners themselves don’t want to destroy rainforests, but they also don’t have a lot of economic choices.” 

–Dalia Elkhalifa

Inspired to Become an Innovation Ambassador

Inspired to Become an Innovation Ambassador

When Amy Liu was a master’s degree student in biology at UC San Diego, she met a recently immigrated Haitian refugee who desperately needed a doula. After four hours of waiting for a professional, Liu—who had volunteered as a doula for a year—assisted the delivery of the woman’s baby over a 35-hour period. Inspired to provide pregnant women with the support they need, she founded Junior Hearts and Hands in August 2017, to connect mothers with doulas in a time-sensitive manner. After receiving mentorship from the Big Ideas Contest, she became an Innovation Ambassador for both the 2018-2019 academic year and now the 2019-2020 one. Liu, founder and CEO of Partners in Life, chatted with Big Ideas about how the program has inspired her (and why you should apply).

Why We Are Expanding the Field of Development Engineering

Why We Are Expanding the Field of Development Engineering

By Shankar Sastry

This winter, the Blum Center was among the many groups in academia and development to celebrate the recipients of the Nobel Prize in Economics. Professors Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo of MIT and Michael Kremer of Harvard were lauded for their innovative use of randomized control trials and behavioral economics to evaluate the effectiveness of global poverty interventions—and for a body of scholarship that has transformed the field of development economics.

Stated the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences: “This year’s Laureates have introduced a new approach to obtaining reliable answers about the best ways to fight global poverty. In brief, it involves dividing this issue into smaller, more manageable, questions—for example, the most effective interventions for improving educational outcomes or child health. They have shown that these smaller, more precise, questions are often best answered via carefully designed experiments among the people who are most affected.”

One of Banerjee, Duflo, and Kremer’s innovations—strengthened by other leading development economists like UC Berkeley’s Edward Miguel—is to emphasize the importance of field work and the contribution of teams. Previously, development economists worked largely in isolation; today, their studies often include dozens or even hundreds of people representing government, nonprofits, civic organizations, and private firms. This approach leads to greater transparency of both the data collected and the methodology used, as well as a richer inquiry into which poverty reduction programs and policies should be studied and whether or how they should grow.

At the Blum Center, we are studying how advances in development economics are part of a new and emerging field, which we call “global problem solving” and “development engineering.” This field is responsive  to the UN Sustainable Development Goals and to the fact that, in many cases, we have the scientific and technological tools to meet the United Nations’ 17 goals but not the financial will or transformative tools for changing people’s behavior to achieve them. Development engineering builds on what development economics has revealed—which poverty interventions are succeeding—and then modifies or scales or re-invents them for implementation elsewhere.

In this way, development engineering is both deeply indebted to development economics as well as a transdisciplinary field for our time. Its rigor is in understanding complex societal challenges—such as the need to build earthquake and typhoon-resistant homes around the globe—and then devising the technological, cultural, financial, policy tools, and work force development to implement these problem solutions.

Elizabeth Hausler, who received her PhD in civil and environmental engineering from Cal, and went on to found Build Change to empower people to live and learn in safer homes and schools, is an exemplary development engineer. When she visited the Blum Center recently, she said her organization’s greatest challenge is not in seismic technologies but in all that surrounds resilient construction in developing nations: community buy-in, policy frameworks, government advocacy, financial product availability and affordability, and ensuring local construction workers are well trained.

Hausler called her efforts “Money, Technology, People” or “The Financial, The Technical, and the Social,” describing a kind of holy trinity of development engineering demands. Another way to describe development engineering is that it enables iterative problem identification and solution formulation propelled by interdisciplinary teams. In essence, we are advocating a transdisciplinary approach that combines the insights-oriented rigor of development economics with the solutions-oriented rigor of engineering. We also aim to integrate business, natural resources, public health, and social sciences into development engineering in order to appropriately and ethically create, implement, and scale new technologies to benefit people living in resource-deprived regions.

Over the next year, the Blum Center will take steps toward realizing the promises of development engineering by partnering with the College of Engineering and the Haas School of Business to hire two tenure track professors. One will be an assistant professor whose focus area may include: engineering better health, the nexus of food, energy and water systems, accessible low-cost energy technologies, the digital transformation of societal systems, climate change mitigation, or sustainable design and communities. Applicants will be hired 50 percent into the Blum Center and 50 percent into a home department in Bioengineering, Civil & Environmental Engineering, Electrical Engineering & Computer Sciences, Industrial Engineering & Operations Research, Materials Science & Engineering, Mechanical Engineering, or Nuclear Engineering.

The second hire will be an assistant, associate, or full professor in Entrepreneurship in Developing Economies who will split his or her time between the Blum Center and the Haas School and whose research topics may include productivity, innovation, small and medium-sized enterprises, financing for entrepreneurial activities, start-ups, venture capital funding, incubators, and policies to promote new businesses.

These professors will help us realize the promises of development engineering and be leaders, with their future students, in the achieving the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

Shankar Sastry is Faculty Director of the Blum Center for Developing Economies and NEC Distinguished Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Sciences at UC Berkeley.

Joe Leitmann on the New Era of Disaster Risk Management

Joe Leitmann on the New Era of Disaster Risk Management

By Tamara Straus

Though he admits it is macabre, Joe Leitmann is walking encyclopedia of natural disaster statistics. The 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami resulted in 280,000 deaths and $15 billion in damages. The Sichuan Earthquake in 2008 led to 68,000 deaths and $20 billion in damages. Hurricane Sandy’s 2012 tear across the U.S. and Caribbean left behind $75 billion in destruction, and the same year Cyclone Evan in the Western Pacific produced a record $180 billion bill.

Leitmann can reel off these statistics in rapid fire, because he has been in attendance at several of these earth-human calamities. Since 2004, when Indonesia was trampled by ocean waters, he has emerged as one of the World Bank’s experts in how to mobilize money, resources, and other forms of assistance to disaster sites as quickly as possible.

Josef Lloyd Leitmann, Team Leader for Resilient Recovery and Urban Resilience, World Bank

Leitmann, who is the Bank’s Team Leader for Resilient Recovery and Urban Resilience, came to the Blum Center on October 17 not to underscore the increasing cost and frequency of natural disasters, but to inform faculty and students about several rapidly evolving innovations, particularly in digital forecasting and catastrophe financing, that are allowing big institutions and small communities to save lives and protect livelihoods.

“Disasters are costing us an average of half a trillion dollars per year, with up to 26 million people annually being pushed into poverty,” he said. “These costs undermine the World Bank’s twin goals: to eliminate extreme poverty by 2030 and promote shared prosperity. Yet since 2004, there’s been a shift—we have been focusing on resilience strategies and results are happening.”

Leitmann has spent most of his career at the World Bank. Trained in development studies and political science at Cal, he went on to earn a public policy master from the Harvard Kennedy School and completed a PhD in city and regional planning at UC Berkeley. His first job after graduate school was as a Peace Corps volunteer in the South Pacific working on appropriate technology and agricultural planning. For the World Bank, he has worked in over 40 countries, where he has picked up six languages, including Cook Islands Maori and Turkish.

Leitmann said that if the World Bank had not stationed him in Indonesia as its environmental coordinator Indonesia in the summer of 2004, his career trajectory would have been different. However on December 26, months into his new position, an undersea megathrust earthquake led to a killer tsunami and his job changed overnight. Asked to fundraise for the recovery effort, he wrote a memo that became a proposal, detailing how to fill the reconstruction gaps in Banda Aceh and Nias. Within six months, due to the circulation and approval of his ideas, he had raised $650 million and was managing a portfolio of 20 projects.

Leitmann, who has gone on to serve as a program manager for the Haiti Reconstruction Fund and as the lead specialist at the Bank’s Global Facility for Disaster Reduction and Recovery in Washington, DC, says that over the past 15 years the World Bank’s portfolio has shifted from a 100 percent reconstruction to 75 percent disaster risk reduction.

“This is an amazing change for a slow-moving organization like the World Bank,” he said.

The international community also is moving in a more preventative direction. In 2005, the Hyogo Framework was introduced, serving as the global blueprint for disaster risk reduction for the next decade. In 2007, the Caribbean Catastrophe Risk Insurance Facility was established as the first regional risk-pooling mechanism for vulnerable countries. And in 2008, the Joint Declaration on Post-Crisis Assessments and Recovery Planning was signed by the United Nations, World Bank, and European Union, followed by another handful of major international agreements and frameworks, most notably the 2015-2030 Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction, which includes seven global targets.

As part of this move from disaster response to disaster risk reduction, Leitmann emphasized the increasing role of computer modeling of disaster-prone areas. Digital forecasts of hurricanes and earthquakes now result in damage estimates within days or even hours.  As a result, countries have detailed information about who is vulnerable and where they are, enabling sophisticated risk planning.

In Haiti, for example, Leitmann said the government, with assistance from the World Bank, readied for the next storm by improving detection through weather forecasting, mapping at-risk communities using predictive modeling, building shelters in safe areas, and developing the capacity to move people into the shelters before dangerous weather as well as a means to finance these moves.  Because of these measures, the impact of Hurricane Sandy was relatively small, said Leitmann. He also cited the recent $1 billion retrofit of major public facilities in and around Istanbul funded by the Bank and other donors—as a “great example of getting ahead of the curve.”

“In the 1970s and 1980s, monsoons killed 200,000-250,000 annually in Bangladesh. That number is now down to 50 per year, because people are being moved out of their homes to safe shelters before they flood.”

Leitmann also sees disaster risk insurance funds, catastrophe bonds, and other financial products as a positive development. In Chile, copper revenues were funneled into $35,000 grants to households affected by the 2011 earthquake; and in Ecuador, increased taxes after the 7.8 magnitude earthquake in 2016 helped to finance the recovery. The Sendai Framework, he said, is specifically oriented to “building back stronger, quicker, and more inclusively.”

Meanwhile, rapid and remote assessment methods—such as social media analytics and satellite data—are changing the way disaster relief experts analyze and plan for recovery. In six cities in Syria, for example, Leitmann’s colleagues are using official reports, social media posts, and data from NGOs on the ground to determine the functionality of public facilities and infrastructure. ISIS may report that the hospitals are closed to undercut the government’s reputation for providing medical services, but the World Bank can tell from tweets, satellite data and reports from the field that the maternity ward is open or people are booking appointments for regular services in the non-damaged parts of the building.

“We can then use these assessment methods to extrapolate how much it would take to entirely rebuild the facility,” said Leitmann. “We are doing that with roads in Yemen and buildings in the Boko Haram-affected parts of Nigeria.”

Big technology companies are also turning to the work of disaster risk management, helping governments and humanitarian institutions with a range of digital communications. During the fall 2019 wildfires in California, for example, Google provided maps not just of fire-affected areas but of the availability of public services, such as shelters and gas stations and supermarkets. Devex reported last December that Facebook’s Data for Good team tripled in one year the number of disaster maps partners, to include the UN Children’s Fund, the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, and the World Food Programme.

Daily there are reports of the human-earth consequences of climate change, such as new research published in Nature that reports sea level rise and flooding will affect hundreds of millions more people in the coming decades than previously forecast. Yet Leitmann remains a cautious optimist. He believes if the above efforts are implemented by cross-sector collaborations, we can cut the current half trillion dollar per year expenditure on disasters by a third and save lives. 

“By reducing risks, strengthening recovery systems, and enhancing preparedness,” he said, “we can protect gains in poverty alleviation and economic development—that’s true resilience.”

Winners of the 2019 Global Poverty & Practice Photo Contest

Winners of the 2019 Global Poverty & Practice Photo Contest

For the past 12 years, UC Berkeley’s Global Poverty & Practice Minor has supported 1,013 students in completing their practice experience in 72 countries. The practice experience is a six-week fieldwork opportunity in which students connect theory with action by partnering with nongovernmental or community organizations, government agencies, or other development programs domestically or abroad. The Blum Center offers funding support for students’ practice experiences through a competitive fellowship.

Every Fall, students who have completed their practice experience, are invited to compete in the Global Poverty & Practice photo contest. Photos are judged based on three criteria: visual content, aesthetics, and caption. Below are this year’s winners.


First Place: McCalister Russell, Peace & Conflict Studies, Class of 2020

Practice Experience: Fundación En Vía, Teotitán del Valle – Oaxaca, Mexico

Mrs. Martinez Mendoza spins carded wool into yarn. The yarn will be used on a loom to make the tapestries traditional to her village of Teotitlán del Valle. She has been weaving since her childhood and, alongside her husband, has taught her three daughters and two sons how to weave. Fundación En Vía provides interest-free loans to her daughters, which enable them to continue this tradition and grow their business.

Second Place: Maggie Chen, Civil & Environmental Engineering, Class of 2021

Practice Experience: Maji Safi Group – Shirati, Tanzania

A young girl looks up trustingly as she brings her 1L bottle to be filled with clean water by Community Health Educators. Today, the water is free and she proudly carries it home to help her family store as much as possible. But distributing free water is unsustainable, and community residents will soon be forced to choose between paying for water or using heavily polluted surface water.

Third Place: Marbrisa Flores, Psychology, Spring 2020

Practice Experience: Voces y Manos – Rabinal, Guatemala

Climate change in rural Guatemala is causing crops to die and therefore people cannot produce enough food to sustain themselves. Here, the Maya Achi people congregate for a spiritual Mayan fire ceremony to ask Mother Nature for forgiveness for hurting her and to plead for her future abundance.


Raphael Villagracia, Political Science, Class of 2020

Practice Experience:  Kalipunan ng Damayang Mahihirap – Quezon City, Philippines

Thousands from progressive organizations and urban poor communities rallied on Commonwealth Avenue in Quezon City against Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte and his State of the Nation Address on July 21, 2019. The “Open Seas” effigies, referring to the President’s lack of action to assert Philippine sovereignty over the West Philippine Sea against the claims of China.

Practice Experience: Voices of the Experienced – Monroe, Louisiana

Louisiana has the highest incarceration rate in the nation, and many there face the racial and social control of mass incarceration. The organization Black Voters Matter and Voice of the Experienced bused across Louisiana to register formerly incarcerated individuals to vote. Here, Monroe locals show it takes power from the people to push against the criminal (in)justice system.

Anna Gallacinao, Cognitive Science, Class of 2019
Sasha Mizenin, Environmental Sciences, Class of 2021

Practice Experience: UBPC Alamar – Alamar, Cuba

Pablo casts a tired glance as he determines which can to use for his seed farming business in Alamar, Cuba. He has been working in sustainable farming for six years. People leave all sorts of containers (and trash) right outside his gate, the best of which he uses to place seeds and sproutings. His livelihood consists of eating almost all of the vegetables and fruits from his garden and selling the rest.

Practice Experience: Health in Harmony – Sukadana, Indonesia

These farmers have created a complex system of organic farming that includes goats, manure, and catfish, all contributing to fertilizer. Fire is used to keep the mosquitoes away, as smoke is a natural pesticide. Produce is given to employees, and the farming methods are passed on to locals.

Mia Plude, Anthropology, Class of 2020

Author: Veena Narashiman

Supporting Low-Income Entrepreneurs in Nairobi

Supporting Low-Income Entrepreneurs in Nairobi

Over the past five years, SOMO has grown from a proposal submitted to the Big Ideas Contest to a viable nonprofit, which receives close to 2,000 applications annually from Kenyan entrepreneurs looking to launch their business ideas. So far SOMO has helped launch 58 businesses, partnering with them for two years through its acceleration program.

Suleiman Halasah: Environment as a Cross-boundary Peacebuilding Tool

Titled “Innovations and Collaboration at the Nexus of Food, Energy, and Water Systems: Toward Sustainability in the Middle East,” Halasah’s talk covered his role as founder and co-director of JICCER, his solar water pumping project with Palestinian and Jordanian farmers, and the lessons he has learned about community development and environmental peacebuilding.

Suleiman Halasah: Environment as a Cross-boundary Peacebuilding Tool

By Jason Liu

In 2002, Suleiman Halasah graduated from the University of Jordan with a degree in electrical engineering and went on to work first as a teaching assistant for the University of Jordan’s Department of Computer Engineering and then as a control engineer for the Jordan Valley Authority on irrigation projects. Yet within a few years, Halasah came to realize the work wasn’t for him. “I would sit in an office all day being totally disconnected from life,” he said. 

Halasah was also disillusioned with the impact he was having at the Jordan Valley Authority. “Working with the government is really hard because of one main point: it’s a huge institution,” he said. “Making any change is almost impossible, especially if you’re assigned to a project far from the center of power. ”

Halasah’s frustration came with a silver lining, however. Because of the slow pace of work, he had free time to pursue other passions and became involved in several Jordan-based NGOs focused on peacebuilding, community development, and volunteering.

“One of the main projects I did was establishing a village computer lab that was the only one for 100 kilometers,” he said. “I saw how the lab brought opportunities to change people’s lives, and ever since then I’ve been focused on what I can do to directly help other people.”

In 2006, Halasah joined the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies in Israel where he co-founded a photovoltaic solar field company called the Arava Power. He went on to found the environmental service consulting agency i.GREENs; served as the acting associate director of the Arava Institute’s Center for Transboundary Water Management; and now co-directs the Jordan-Israel Center for Community, Environment, and Research (JICCER), which supports the well-being of natural and human systems of the Arava valley through cross-border community initiatives and research. He is also pursuing a Ph.D. in off-grid water and wastewater systems in the West Bank from Ben-Gurion University in Negev, Israel.

Energy & Resources Group Professor Isha Ray (right) and Suleiman Halasah discuss sustainability challenges in the Middle East at the nexus of food, energy, and water systems. © Laura Turbow

Halasah came to speak at UC Berkeley on October 29 in an event co-hosted by the Blum Center for Developing Economies, the Master of Development Practice, and the Berkeley Institute for Jewish Law and Israel Studies. Titled “Innovations and Collaboration at the Nexus of Food, Energy, and Water Systems: Toward Sustainability in the Middle East,” Halasah’s talk covered his role as founder and co-director of JICCER, his solar water pumping project with Palestinian and Jordanian farmers, and the lessons he has learned about community development and environmental peacebuilding.

Discussant Isha Ray, associate professor at the Energy & Resources Group and co-director of the Berkeley Water Center, joined Halasah afterward and highlighted some of the key takeaways: how those working on development often focus on financial and technological solutions, while ignoring cultural, political, and social realities; how patience goes beyond being a virtue in development but is the very key to success; how governments at times track and control nomadic tribes under the guise of development; and how the current push for “scaling up” needs redress as communities are location-specific.

I had the opportunity to sit down with Halasah before the event at Berkeley’s beloved Yali’s Cafe to ask him about his work. While waiting for our coffee, I asked how he would describe his day job. Halasah said:

“My main focus is to bring people together, so that they can get to know each other and discuss hard questions. But if the audience focuses on water, then I focus on how water can do this. If the audience focuses on environmental issues, then that’s how I present work. Ultimately, I use different opportunities for bringing people together to catalyze peace building in the Middle East.”

During his career, Halasah said he was shaped by two factors. The first was his father. When connecting the dots on how an electrical engineer in Jordan ended up at the Arava Institute in Israel, the first thing Halasah said was: The flexibility my Dad gave helped a lot. My Dad very much believed that I should lead my own direction in life and as long as I felt like it was the right thing to do, he would support me.”

The second shaping factor for Halasah was traveling. Halasah has been to conferences all over the world to share his work in community development, peace building, and how he’s able to transcend the complicated politics of the Middle East. He has also traveled as a tourist to the US, Indonesia, China, Malaysia, Uganda, and many other countries.

“When you meet people from other nationalities, it opens your eyes,” said Halasah. “You don’t see yourself as superior to others. You see that everybody is very proud of their culture and the divisive things that separate people from different cultures and nations don’t exist anymore. It’s humbling.”

As I listened to Halasah’s talk at the Blum Center later in the day, it was clear how these experiences were reflected in both his professional choices and his outlook on development. 

“The approach today is mainly one-directional. The implementer comes to the community saying, ‘This is your problem, this is its effect on you, and this is how I’m going to solve it.’ The community itself is totally disconnected. As a result, communities don’t take ownership of the solution, they don’t see it as their system. Then comes complications with the system when some part fails and people say, ‘This is their technology. Why should I fix it? How should I fix it? The NGO needs to come to see what is wrong with it.’” 

Instead, Halasah argues, we need to “work directly with the community on defining the problem, brainstorming solutions, and figuring out what assets they have. It should all ultimately come from them.” For Halasah this means conducting interviews, holding roundtables with all stakeholders, and making sure the community has a voice at every step. “It’s their problem; they should know more about it than we do,” said Halasah. 

Another topic that Halasah is passionate about is environmental peacekeeping. In explaining how natural resources, pollution, and social spaces can play a role in peace building, Halasah said, “For any conflict, there is a core problem, but there are also so many other things that can be opportunities for peacebuilding and community development. The environmental approach works because it affects everyone. And that’s something that can be used to bring people together.”

Halasah continued: “Once you bring people together people don’t talk about each other as ‘the other,’ as an imaginary person in their head—they realize it’s a human in front of them that shares a lot of the same interests.  People ultimately care about their level of living, about securing their food and water. They care about their kids, how their kids are being treated, and the resources they have. I see the environment as not only a tool for peacebuilding but also for community stability as it gets everybody to talk about their shared interests.”

Halasah had a clear answer when I asked what the key factor in making these talks successful is: trust. He said: “There’s high potential for things to be done, but the main obstacle is that people don’t trust each other. With my work, we always have a balanced team that represents different communities. I have an Israeli partner. She brings me to all her community meetings in Israel, and I bring her to all my meetings on the Jordanian side. When people see that there’s somebody from the other side that they learn to trust, there’s more open communication.”

As our coffee cups emptied and Halasah prepared to go to his next meeting, I asked him what advice he would give students pursuing a career in development engineering. Among seeing each moment as a learning opportunity, persevering, and staying positive, Halasah ended with this: 

“I would say interdisciplinary projects are the best way to learn and get a full picture about something. If you are an engineer that looks at a technical solution, it doesn’t make sense to be isolated from the community. You need to go out there in the field to meet with people, listen to them, and see what they think. Too often, we think we have the right answer for something, but it might be for the wrong problem. We need to understand what people need in order to understand what the solution is.”

Providing Accessible Medical Care through Low-Cost Fracture Detection

Providing Accessible Medical Care through Low-Cost Fracture Detection

Treating bone fractures in the developing world is increasingly difficult due to the lack of x-ray accessibility. Emily Huynh, a senior at UC Berkeley studying Bioengineering, thought: if bone fractures were diagnosed and treated properly in an affordable way, large populations of people could avoid the chronic pain, disability, and socioeconomic disadvantage that mistreated fractures cause. This past spring, Huynh and her team won third place in Big Ideas’ Hardware for Good category for a medical device that provides orthopedic care in underdeveloped countries and remote settings called Fractal.

Malaysian Minister of Finance Lim Guan Eng Visits the Blum Center

Malaysian Minister of Finance Lim Guan Eng Visits the Blum Center

By invitation of the AMENA Center for Entrepreneurship and Development, Lim Guan Eng, Minister of Finance for Malaysia, addressed UC Berkeley students and faculty on the topic of “Industry 4.0 and the Extension of Malaysia’s Economic Success” at Blum Hall on October 18.

“It is always energizing to come to the San Francisco Bay Area and its universities,” said Eng. “There is much to learn here.”

Although Malaysia had considerable success industrializing in the 1970s and was among the so-called Asian Tiger Cub Economies in the 1990s, Eng said that since the early 2000s his country’s economy, particularly its electronics sector, has “hollowed out” due to its inability to compete with China. 

“We are seeing a premature de-industrialization in the electronics sector,” stated Eng, who noted that manufacturing in Malaysia declined to 22 percent in 2018 from 30 percent in the 2000s. 

Eng said other economic challenges include the US-China trade war and the financial impact of Malaysia’s 1MDB scandal, the latter of which involved a state-owned investment fund that was supposed to attract foreign investment and instead led to $25 billion of irregular financial transactions. 

“How do we overcome the great challenge of turning around Malaysia from a global kleptocracy to a normal, boring democracy?” asked Eng, who has a long history in government. He was elected to Malaysia’s Parliament in 1986 and has served as Secretary-General of the multiracial, center-left Democratic Action Party since 2004. 

Eng said that the US-China trade war is upending the economy of Malaysia and other developing nations in Southeast Asia, “permanently reorienting the global supply chain. ”

However, Eng sees this reorientation as an opportunity to spur investment in Malaysia and catalyze its re-industrialization, particularly in the digital sector. 

“Various firms today are attempting to circumvent rising tariffs imposed by China and the United States and shifting their manufacturing bases elsewhere,” he said. “Southeast Asian countries, including Malaysia, have begun to enjoy increased foreign investment resulting from trade and investment diversion caused by the trade war.” 

Eng reported that foreign investment across all sectors in Malaysia has roughly doubled from $6 billion in the first half of 2018 to $11.8 billion during the first half of this year. A majority of the investment was in the manufacturing sector. Among the results is an increasing GDP growth, up to 4.9 percent in the second quarter of 2019 from 4.5 percent in the previous quarter. 

Yet digitalization, not manufacturing, is at the core of the 2020 Malaysian Budget and central to what Eng calls “Industry 4.0.” 

“Unlike 10 to 40 years ago, when industrialization required an ample supply of skilled workers, good physical infrastructure, as well as a set of reliable consistent rule of law, there is a new dimension that needs to be considered today,” he declared. “It is about data and its uses.”

Malaysia has identified five sectors–electronics, machinery, chemical products, medical devices, and aerospace–in which to make its digital investments. Part of the Industry 4.0 plan is a $5.2 billion investment in digital connectivity, with the goal of achieving 5G high-speed Internet throughout the nation by 2023.

Growth incentives for Malaysia’s aspiration to become a digital and entrepreneurial state include: $5 billion in investment over five years to small and medium enterprises, large local companies, and multinationals; a regulatory framework for virtual banking by 2020; and $1.6 billion over five years to develop 350,000 jobs for Malysian youth, unemployed people, and women. 

“The digital economy must be inclusive–for the many, not the few,” said Eng.

In Salute and Celebration of Women Social Entrepreneurs

In Salute and Celebration of Women Social Entrepreneurs

By Shankar Sastry

At the Blum Center, women using their entrepreneurial and discipline-specific talents to start innovative projects and organizations has been a goal since our founding. The difference today compared to 13 years ago is that there are more networks and investment opportunities for female founders. Yet barriers still exist (to be broken).

At the October 1 CITRIS Women in Tech Initiative “Inclusion by Design: Practical Tips for Improving STEM Equality,” the Blum Center’s Phillip Denny was part of a panel discussing ways to increase the participation and success of women and under-represented people in entrepreneurship.

“Networks and mentors are extremely important for female innovators, as they are for everyone,” said Denny who directs the Big Ideas Contest.

Recently, Denny documented in a Stanford Social Innovation Review article that in Big Ideas there is a correlation between female participants’ success and the number of female judges in the pool. The researchers also found that women mentors, who advise on project plans, offer much needed perspectives and networks and have a better understanding of some of the types of products and services that women are proposing.

In this month’s newsletter, we are featuring several women entrepreneurs who have come through Blum Hall.

Maria Artundauga, 2019 winner of the Big Ideas Contest, discusses how her personal and professional experiences led her to found Respira Labs, a Skydeck startup, and how she navigates male-dominated spaces as a woman of color and an immigrant.

Also in this month’s newsletter is an interview with Jill Finlayson, Cal graduate, longtime Big Ideas Contest mentor, and director of Women in Technology Initiative at CITRIS (Center for Information Technology Research in the Interest of Society) at UC Berkeley, where she supports research and initiatives to promote the equitable participation of women in the tech industry.

Also featured is the work of Vicentia Gyau, a Mastercard Foundation Scholar and Global Poverty & Practice alumna, who co-founded the nonprofit Education Redefined for All to  improve public education and workforce development in Ghana.

In addition, October was another tremendous month for Blum Center Education Director Alice Agogino and her startup Squishy Robotics, which makes shape-shifting robots for first responders in disaster situations. The Professor of Mechanical Engineering was named one of the 30 women in robotics by Robohub, and her invention won the Grand Winner Award at 2019 Silicon Valley TechPlanter competition in the global accelerator category.

Please join me in the celebration of these and other women founders and social entrepreneurs at the Blum Center, at UC Berkeley, and beyond.

And please take a look at Jason Liu’s article on the Development Engineering course Design, Evaluate and Scale Technologies (DevEng200), which is being taken by 44 UC Berkeley STEM and social science students, more than half of whom hail from outside the U.S.  

Shankar Sastry is Faculty Director of the Blum Center for Developing Economies and NEC Distinguished Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Sciences at UC Berkeley.

Dr. Bertram Lubin to Mentor Cal Students and Focus on the Social Determinants of Health

Dr. Bertram Lubin to Mentor Cal Students and Focus on the Social Determinants of Health

Dr. Bertram Lubin’s 50-year career is not coming to a close. Although the former president, CEO, and research director of Children’s Hospital Oakland—who has served as the principal investigator or co-investigator on over 30 National Institutes of Health grants, published more than 200 articles in peer reviewed journals, and co-authored the first clinical best practice guidelines for sickle cell anemia—is not, as he put it, “looking for an opportunity to advance my academic career,” he is also not interested in retirement.

This fall he joined the Blum Center and the College of Engineering to serve as a senior advisor in health, where he plans to mentor students and advise interdisciplinary faculty on health care-related research.

“I’m doing this because I enjoy it, because I see an opportunity to work with students and faculty to improve the health of children and their families, locally and globally,” said Lubin. “In my opinion, UC Berkeley is perhaps the best public research university in the world, has a strong a commitment to its community, and I want to encourage that with what I do.”

Lubin is in an unusually strong position to make a mentorship and advisement commitment, not just because of his professional successes, but because he has led a life of tremendous breadth. Born in New York City, he grew up in a small town outside of Pittsburgh, PA to parents who ran a fruit and vegetable store and did not attend high school. He became the first person in his family to graduate from college and then medical school, and went on to become the first Pediatrician to run a children’s hospital in California. He plays jazz drums, and once was asked to play a tune with Thelonious Monk. He is married to a Cal graduate, has several children of whom he is very proud, started the basic research program at Oakland Children’s Hospital called CHORI, and founded 40 years ago an NIH-funded summer research program that has provided basic and clinical research opportunities to over 1,000, mostly underrepresented, minority high school, college, and post-baccalaureate students who have used knowledge gained in the program to pursue STEM-related careers.

Lubin is widely known for advancing the concept of the social determinants of health and health equity, which can include such varied factors as early child development, food security, housing, social support, education, housing, and poverty. He concedes this concept, though now recognized as important, is not financially successful in the short term, but can improve the health of communities over generations and result in an enormous return on investment.

Lubin first built his reputation in pediatric hematology, particularly sickle cell disease. Beginning in the 1970s, he led a California program to introduce newborn screening for sickle cell disease, an inherited blood disorder that largely affects people of African descent and can lead to acute pain and chronic complications. When he began studying this disease over 50 percent of children with sickle cell were dying by age 5 from infectious disease complications as their immune system was compromised.

Lubin, who claims to have inherited a “resilience gene” (if there is one), was convinced that he could both reduce the suffering the disease causes and extend the life of patients. He and his colleagues thought that if sickle cell disease could be identified at birth, they could start antibiotics and prevent early mortality. The problem was how to convince the community of the value of newborn screening, especially African Americans, who had cause not to trust the U.S. medical establishment.

“I knew I had to do things that were widely accepted,” remembered Lubin. “I knew some members of the community might see the testing as earmarking them in a negative way, so I had to get them on board, which meant going to every possible community meeting.”

Community permission and funding came after a pilot project at Alta Bates Hospital in Oakland. The results were convincing: with a simple blood test, pediatricians knew if an infant carried the disease. They could then prescribe penicillin to prevent bacterial infection and affect lifespan.

“Everyone agreed that if the child had sickle cell, their life would be negatively affected and even at peril,” explained Lubin. “This then meant that everyone could accept identifying a child to prolong his or her life and institute prophylactic antibiotics. What we did in California was adopted across the United States. Now there isn’t a state that doesn’t screen for sickle cell anemia in the newborn period.”

Lubin went on to start the first sibling cord blood banking program in the world for children with hemoglobinopathies, which did lead to cures, and supported the application of gene therapy and bone marrow transplantation for children with sickle cell and related diseases.

Now 80, he looks back at these experiences with satisfaction and pride. He attributes much of his success to his passion to help others, particularly underserved children and their families.  He believes the salesman ability he learned as a kid while working at his parents’ store played a major role in his life.

“[Medical research] funding often requires sales and communication skills,” he said. “As an NIH reviewer at a study section on a particular grant, I’d often have to convince the 30 other reviewers of the value of the proposed research. I do feel these skills are important if they are done in a way that the community respects and trusts.”

The sales boy turned doctor found these skills particularly useful when he was running Children’s Hospital Oakland. The staff selected him because they wanted a physician in the CEO position, who was committed to improving the health of all children.

“They knew that I brought with me the concept of the social value of children and the importance of improving the health of the overall community. It was what I believed in, and what our medical staff believed, was of value. It’s what a children’s hospital should be doing, especially one that serves 80 percent of children covered of Medi-Cal.”

Lubin plans to spend his time at UC Berkeley working with bioengineering faculty like Blum Center Chief Technologist Dan Fletcher on lifesaving medical devices with local and global application as well as emphasizing the importance of the social determinants of health—of seeing health care as holistic, interdisciplinary, and cross-sector. He also plans to help foster the university’s commitment to diversity and inclusion.

“I think we have to have health care leadership involved in public policy,” emphasized Lubin. “If you don’t get policy and implementation together, then you’re not going to move the needle. We need to stop pursuing small economic advantages. We need to focus on big impacts for society.” 

Dr. Bertram Lubin is available to UC Berkeley students, research staff, and faculty for office hours and consultations. Please contact Yovana Gomez at for an appointment.

Global Poverty & Practice Alumni Share Lessons Learned

Global Poverty & Practice Alumni Share Lessons Learned

Career paths are both visible and hidden to UC Berkeley students, probably because college is both a time to prepare for the workplace and analyze its history. At the Global Poverty & Practice (GPP) Post-Practice Retreat on September 7 at Blum Hall, five GPP alumni shared their experiences navigating work and life after Berkeley. The retreat provides support for current GPP students as they consider their personal and professional  journeys at Berkeley and beyond.

Amber Gonzales-Vargas, now a senior program manager at the Latino Community Foundation, said she sought work with an organization whose values aligned with her own and that could allow her to create solutions to systemic problems present in the United States. She also wanted to work locally and serve Latinx communities. At the Latino Community Foundation, Gonzales-Vargas says she is inspired and challenged each day to push through barriers to enact greater change within Latinx communities. She also said she is constantly being challenged in how she approaches problems—learning from which she adopted from her GPP coursework and practice experience.

Similarly, Priya Natarajan says she considers her work with Teach for America a “long-term practice experience.” Since being placed to teach elementary special education at a Voices Charter School in the Bay Area, Natarajan says she has been reminded of the power and the value of community, a theme commonly discussed in GPP coursework. Teaching special education has also made her reflect on the GPP minor’s emphasis on structural and systemic failures and the power dynamics present within the workforce. 

Like Natarajan, panelists Jennifer Fei, Ryan Liu, and Alison Ryan spoke about their own journeys after graduating from UC Berkeley and echoed the sentiment that figuring out the best fit professionally requires experimentation and a lot of trial and error. 

Jennifer Fei, currently a program manager at the Immigration Policy Lab, shared her experiences working at  Berkeley Consulting and Goldman Sachs as well as her decision to get a master’s degree in international policy from Stanford University, which helped her land her current job managing the Lab’s refugee research portfolio. Fei’s advice to GPP students is to never underestimate the importance of putting your best foot forward in every project and professional relationship. Fei said people are willing to advocate for you when they remember your quality of work. Fei also advised GPP students to make space for themselves by attending to their mental well being. Gonzales-Vargas agreed that making space for herself allows her to better serve the communities she represents. She says self care “helps to build my resilience and in spaces where I may otherwise have thought there was no hope.”

Similar to Fei, Liu’s postgraduate experience was not linear. Liu graduated from Berkeley with a B.S. in mechanical engineering, but was interested in finding work outside of what he saw as the rigid structure of the field. As a result, he explored an array of industries—from working at an NGO in Nicaragua to taking on positions in corporations, startups, and national laboratories. He eventually completed a master’s degree in mechanical engineering from Georgia Tech. Liu is now a product designer at Fenix International, an energy and financial inclusion company with offices in San Francisco, Kampala, and Lusaka. He says the completion of the GPP minor has allowed him to develop a more critical lens, one that encourages him to question power dynamics and to evaluate his own role within hierarchies.

Like Liu, Alison Ryan says GPP is ever-present in her work and shapes the way she thinks about and interacts with the world. She said that the GPP minor has heightened her awareness of problems with equity and how employers can contribute to making people feel valued. Ryan graduated from Berkeley with a degree in political science, and went on to receive her master of public health in epidemiology from UCLA. Ryan now works as a surveillance officer at the California Emerging Infections Program. Like fellow panelists, she said the trajectory of her career was much different than what she had anticipated during her undergraduate days at Berkeley. “You refine over time what you want and what you’re looking for and that changes as your career develops,” she said.

— Dalia Elkhalifa

Blum Center Panel at San Francisco Collaborative Against Human Trafficking Symposium

Blum Center Panel at San Francisco Collaborative Against Human Trafficking Symposium

Last April, the Anti-Trafficking Coalition at UC Berkeley gathered researchers and advocates from academia, industry, and the nonprofit sector to discuss how AI and machine learning can help prevent child exploitation and combat human trafficking. The panelists included Dr. Bob Rogers, expert in residence for AI at the UCSF Center for Digital Health Innovation; Lisa Thee, vice president of, a child monitoring app; and Roger Martin, former Chief IP Strategist of Qualcomm and co-founder and CEO of Humans Against Trafficking

Moderator Chloe Gregori of the Blum Center and panelists Lisa Thee of, Bob Rogers of UCSF Center for Digital Health Innovation, and Roger Martin of Human Against Trafficking

The Blum Center was asked to replicate the panel for the San Francisco Collaborative on Human Trafficking’s symposium, held September 27, and hosted at the California State Building. The full-day conference attended by representatives of  law enforcement, businesses, service providers and volunteers explored best practices and policy solutions for survivors’ protection, restitution, and socio-economic inclusion. Plenary and breakout sessions focused on effective partnerships and innovative programs aimed at addressing the root causes of human trafficking.

During the closing plenary session, “The Role of Data Science in Preventing & Rescuing Survivors of Human Trafficking,” panelists and moderator Chloe Gregori from the Blum Center discussed significant milestones, challenges, and opportunities in the tech field to keep protect people and prosecute traffickers. 

Rogers and Thee discussed their work with the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC), which took place when they were working at Intel. Rogers and Thee explained that  when a child is reported missing, time is of the essence. Thee recounted that in 2013, NCMEC employed 25 analysts, receiving and disbursing about 500,000 reports to law enforcement. Cases determined as “urgent” were automatically dispersed to a government agency, while others went to a 30-day backlog.

In 2017, through Rogers and Thee’s leadership, machine learning was introduced as a key part of the pipeline. A team of engineers automated the IP addresses and cell phone information of victims and predators. Since then, case turnaround  is down to 24 hours, and the time saved has allowed analysts to focus more deeply on specific cases. In addition, the Center for Missing & Exploited Children was able to handle 16 million cases in 2018, up from 8 million in 2017.

“This is exemplary of what AI can accomplish to accelerate analysis of data and allow humans to do work that machines cannot do,” said Rogers. “AI is not going to take jobs away. We’ve shown it can accelerate human work and bolster law enforcement and expertise.”

Although machine learning is being used to assist law enforcement in locating victims, panelists Thee and Martin also noted the importance of using machine learning to prevent children from being trafficked in the first place. They said  children are at risk of being “groomed” by traffickers through texting and communications via social media channels.

Thee believes that smartphones, unmonitored by parents, put children in great danger.  She recommended parental control and monitoring apps like Bark, where she works as vice president of strategic partnerships.  Bark enables parents to monitor children’s text messages, YouTube accounts, and 24 social media networks to flag potential safety concerns. Thee emphasized the crucial connection between child safety and technology in addressing child trafficking, but reminded the audience that parents are always the frontline for safety for their kids.

Holding up her smartphone, Thee quoted John Clark, CEO of NCMEC: “Handing your child a smartphone is like dropping them off in the most dangerous city in the world and walking away.”

Martin, founder & CEO of Humans Against Trafficking, is piloting machine learning solutions at his organization to identify at-risk youth before they are recruited by traffickers through social media platforms.

“We need to understand that predators search the web for public profiles of children to gauge their vulnerability,” he said. “This needs to stop and we can develop the tools to do it.”

A Project-Based Course on Collaboration, Diversity, and Design Thinking

A Project-Based Course on Collaboration, Diversity, and Design Thinking

By Jason Liu

How does one bring a social impact idea from conception to reality? 

That question is central to DEVENG C200: Design, Evaluate and Scale Development Technologies, a Development Engineering course taken by 44 UC Berkeley STEM and social science graduate students this fall.   

Because the emerging field of Development Engineering is highly interdisciplinary, DEVENG C200 is taught as a collaboration among Blum Center Education Director and Mechanical Engineering Professor Alice Agogino, Haas School of Business Professor David Levine, and College of Natural Resources Associate Professor Matthew Potts, all of whom are faculty from the Graduate Group in Development Engineering. Yael Perez, a Blum Center researcher and coordinator for the Development Engineering program, also provides support for the student teams, especially in their project formulation and interactions with local communities. 

According to Levine, who specializes in the economic analysis of developing countries, the class is meant to help students practice design thinking and engineering in low-resource settings. 

During the first week of class, students participated in a project fair, where sponsors of ongoing Development Engineering projects introduced themselves to the students. Projects included a technology for arsenic removal from drinking water in California’s Central Valley and a community-based enterprise for recycling plastic waste for infrastructure in Kenya. Students were tasked with reconceptualizing the product design for user needs, performing needs assessments for stakeholders, and analyzing the social integration of the projects in their respective communities. 

“The goal of the class is for the students to learn how a product evolves through user interaction, how it is contextualized culturally and otherwise, and how to improve a design so it better serves the needs of its users,” said Perez, who completed a UC Berkeley PhD in Architecture focused on collaborative design. “Students will need to think beyond their initial conceptions of the project and seek feedback from stakeholders to adjust their ideas to the users’ needs in a particular place and context.” 

Levine, who has taught the course previously, added: “These projects are serving real communities and some will become real solutions that will operate on a real scale. Students will go through needs assessments, use their creativity to find new solutions, develop relevant business plans, and eventually get to see how impactful those solutions actually are.” 

When asked what he thought the most important skill will be for the students to succeed in their projects, Levine responded, “Nothing is more important than listening. The world is complicated and we have to try to understand what the problems are on a deep level. Too often we assume that really smart people at Berkeley have all the solutions and too often they’re wrong. Instead, we need to use all the surveys and data possible to understand the potential solutions to a problem, collect feedback, and continue refining the solution.” 

While listening is an important skill for DEVENG C200 students, Perez noted that the diversity of students is also an important characteristic. 

“Diversity in any company or team improves creativity, brings new ideas, and fosters new ways of thinking,” she said, citing a Harvard Business Review article.

Diversity is indeed reflected in the student makeup of DEVENG 200, in which a third are business students and the rest are pursuing advanced degrees in engineering, education, natural resources, and public policy. More than half the class also hails from outside the U.S. 

Student goals for the semester are similarly diverse. Haley Wohlever, a first-year Mechanical Engineering PhD student, Engineers Without Borders graduate, and fellow in the Blum Center’s program on Innovation in the Nexus of Food Energy and Water System (InFEWS), said, “My goal for DEVENG C200 is to be exposed to the process of creating a working business model to implement technology targeted towards a particular society. [I’ve seen] how multi-faceted these Development Engineering problems are, and I’m excited to have the opportunity to study the social and economic pieces of the solution.” Other students discussed team characteristic goals, such as being transparent, respectful, and proactive, as they formed into eight teams focused on seven projects.

One of the most popular projects chosen was TakatakaPlastics, sponsored by Paige Balcom, a Mechanical and Development Engineering PhD student, InFEWS Fellow, and advisee of Agogino. The main goal of the project is to convert the plastic waste in developing countries into durable and affordable construction material.

Explaining what excites her about Takataka Plastics, Balcom said, “I saw how [Takataka Plastics] could make a huge impact on the lives of my Ugandan friends. By turning waste into saleable products, we’re creating jobs, cleaning up litter, reducing public health issues, and reducing greenhouse gases released by burning plastic. Takataka is helping change people’s view of plastic waste from dirty, untouchable ‘rubbish’ to an untapped resource and helping them realize the impact plastic has on their environment.”

In 2018, Takataka Plastics successfully tested a prototype and recently received its first order from Uganda. DEVENG C200 students will create a marketing strategy to franchise the project across Uganda, design additional products from the available plastic, and tailor the technical product to better satisfy user needs. 

Another project, Air Cathode Assisted Iron Electrocoagulation (ACAIE): Arsenic Solutions, was introduced by InFEWS Fellow Dana Hernandez, an Environmental Engineering Ph.D. student working with Civil and Environmental Engineering Professor Ashok Gadgil and other members of his lab to develop an affordable arsenic removal treatment technology. The technology will provide clean water for communities in California’s Central Valley and has scalable prototypes in development. ACAIE: Arsenic Solution won Berkeley’s Big Idea Contest last year. Students will work with Hernandez to socially integrate the technology into the communities of the Central Valley, scale the project, and create a business model for the product. 

DEVENG C200 Students Adrian Hinkle and Soliver Fusi, both InFEWS PhD Fellows as well, are leading the Urine to Fertilizer project, which focuses on converting urine into an affordable fertilizer that increases food production while promoting sustainable sanitation in Kenya. Fusi said, “I’m attracted to the fundamental premise of my work because I’m not creating anything new–I’m just finding ways to make do with what we already have, such as urine.” Previous researchers, working with Civil and Environmental Engineering Professor Kara Nelson, have successfully tested a proof of concept in Kenya in 2017 while Fusi and Hinkle will finalize technical research, the needs assessments for their Kenyan stakeholders, and the economic viability of urine-derived fertilizers with the students of DEVENG C200.

Anaya Hall, an Energy and Resource Group Ph.D. student and InFEWS Fellow, is leading the Peel: Scaling Compost for Carbon Sequestration and Community Resilience project, which addresses the inefficiencies and significant greenhouse gas emissions coming from conventional composting practices in California. With the project still in its early stages, students will work on solving operational questions, such as how to scale and where to site the project, while also determining if compost utilization can be turned into an effective, socially beneficial, and environmentally friendly business model. 

Another project, Aakar Innovation, seeks to address the dearth of effective menstrual hygiene management in India through environmentally friendly, comfortable, and convenient menstrual pads. Sponsored by Aakar Social Board Members Jaydeep Mandal and Ajay Muttreja, Aakar Innovation aims to destigmatize menstruation and empower females in rural India. Students will work with the Indian nonprofit to conduct needs assessments and create a financial strategy to scale the project. 

Meanwhile, the Edu-Comp project is working to find bothsustainable technological and educational solutions to food waste at the Native American Yocha Dehe Wintun Academy, a school for indigenous people located near Sacramento. The project sponsors are Yael Perez and InFEWS Fellow George Moore, a Mechanical Engineering student of Professor Agogino, who are building on the work of students in Professor Kosa Goucher-Lambert’s ME290 class last spring. DEVENG C200 students will work to find educational supplements to technological solutions, customize the device itself to fit the needs of the school, and determine benchmarks for success.

Lastly, Shelby Witherby, an InFEWS Fellow with a PhD in Developmental Engineering, is leading the SAFR: Fluoride Removal project, which addresses the lack of an affordable solution to fluoride contaminated drinking water in rural India. Several field tests for the project have been completed and Witherby hopes to finalize the design of the prototype, address waste disposal, and organize local maintenance for the system with DEVENG C200 students this semester. 

By the end of the class, students will have immersed themselves in these projects and, as Professor Agogino stated, will have learned methodologies for working with underserved communities and developing  integrated solutions for complex sustainability challenges.

“Ultimately,” she said, “they will have also potentially co-designed innovative solutions for communities in need.


Mentoring and Marveling at Founders

Mentoring and Marveling at Founders

There are few people as committed to judging the Big Ideas Contest as Jill Finlayson. A lifelong advocate of mentorship and a graduate of UC Berkeley, Finlayson has been a Big Ideas mentor since the competition’s inception in 2006. She currently serves as director of Women in Technology Initiative at CITRIS (Center for Information Technology Research in the Interest of Society)at UC Berkeley, where she supports research and initiatives to promote the equitable participation of women in the tech industry.

Redefining Secondary School Education in Ghana

Redefining Secondary School Education in Ghana

Growing up in Ghana in the 1990s and 2010s, Abraham Martey and Vicentia Gyau understood that the weak educational system in their country was a byproduct of structural failures that were hardest on the poor. At UC Berkeley, where the two Mastercard Foundation Scholars majored in Global Studies and minored in Global Poverty & Practice, they steeped themselves in learning about global powers, structural injustices, poverty alleviation, and humanitarian aid.

Abraham Martey and Vicentia Gyau present a poster of the ER4All model.

One fact the UC Berkeley students noted time and again was that for educational projects to have success, a synergy must exist between development organizations and the communities they seek to help. In May of 2016 while freshman at Berkeley, they set out to create such an organization—Education Redefined for All (ER4All)—as a way to help to improve public school education and give back to youth in Ghana. ER4All received its Certificate of Incorporation in Ghana in June of 2016, and its Certificate of Recognition as a Regional/District Non-Governmental Organization in Ghana November of 2017.

“The ultimate goal of ER4All,” says Gyau, “is to change the face of education in Ghana from a chew and pour system—one that focuses on how well students are able to memorize and regurgitate information—to a critical pedagogy where students are actively engaged in education and where education is made practical, easy, affordable, and accessible to everyone.” 

Martey and Gyau say that the Global Poverty & Practice program helped them to gain a critical lens through which to think about how to proactively approach solutions that center on people while acknowledging structural failures. For that reason, ER4ALL works to find effective solutions not just to educational access but to unemployment in Africa by addressing what Gyau refers to as “the root of the problem, not just the leaves.” 

ER4All provides its beneficiaries—financially disadvantaged students aged 6-19 and their parents—with school supplies, tutoring in entrepreneurship, leadership, and computer literacy, as well as career coaching to help high school dropouts (one of whom went on to become a Community Police Driver) learn a trade of their choice, such as sewing and driving. 

Because access to secondary school education in Ghana is very new—indeed tuition-free high school is only one year old—Martey and Gyau say most parents from disadvantaged backgrounds don’t have the experience necessary to guide their children through school or help plan for their livelihoods afterward. For that reason, ER4ALL has developed an Empowerment Fund that provides parents with capital to start or invest in existing businesses, offers lessons in entrepreneurship, and engages parents in discussions on how they can be actively engaged in the education of their children. The Empowerment Fund is meant to help parents both attain a higher level of financial security and participate in the education of their children.

Currently, ER4All serves 18 students, 18 parents, and two high school dropouts in Prampram and neighboring towns in Ghana. Martey and Gyau say that the Global Poverty & Practice minor introduced them to the idea that approaches to aid should be analyzed and reassessed to best suit beneficiaries’ needs. As such, they want to apply new methodologies in response to what does and doesn’t work. Says Martey:  “We make sure we have the best interest of our beneficiaries in mind, and not impose on them what we think will help—but doing what works best for them.” 

Since graduating from Berkeley, Gyau has been selected to be a Student Support Fellow at the African Leadership Academy, a South Africa-based organization whose mission is to develop a network of over 6,000 leaders to collectively address the continent’s greatest challenges. Meanwhile, Martey is enrolled in McGill University for a Master of Education and Society. He says, “At McGill, I am taking courses related to and or in curriculum development to help further develop the Leadership and Entrepreneurship Curriculum we are currently using.” His main focus is on first generation college students, learnings from which he plans to apply to ER4All.

While in Canada and South Africa, Martey and Gyau are maintaining their roles at ER4All and are in constant touch with the teachers and administrators on staff in Ghana. Martey is focused on funding opportunities, budgets, and the further development of the Leadership and Entrepreneurship syllabus. Gyau oversees the staff, helps recruit new students, and further develops guidance, counseling, and study skills to better serve ER4All’s beneficiaries.

Gyau says the long-term vision of ER4All is to catalyze a shift from standardized education in Africa to a focus on the economic and social well being of students and their communities. “Overall, the idea of ER4All is to create an ecosystem in which youth in Ghana are able to start their own trades, create jobs for themselves, and enter the workforce with applicable knowledge and skills,” says Martey.

—Dalia Elkhalifa

Empowering Women of Color in the Medical & Technology Field

Empowering Women of Color in the Medical & Technology Field

Although Maria Artunduaga, a Colombian-born translational physician and entrepreneur, says that racial and gender bias has played a major role in shaping her career, she doesn’t view it as an obstacle. Instead, she views such experiences as motivation to close the gender and racial gap, particularly in Silicon Valley.

Echolocation Technology that Empowers the Blind

Echolocation Technology that Empowers the Blind

Darryl Diptee used to think of himself as a “closet innovator.”

During his time as an officer for the U.S. Navy, Diptee remembers being told to “color inside the lines and innovate on your own time.” After coming to UC Berkeley in 2018 to pursue a Ph.D. in Education, Diptee found himself in an environment that required the opposite.

Empowering Students Inside and Outside the Classroom

Empowering Students Inside and Outside the Classroom

By Shankar Sastry

How do we educate students to become lifelong learners? University professors are continually grappling with this question, as we aim to spark students’ curiosity and engage them in thought-provoking coursework.

This fall, I am re-engaging in teaching undergraduates after 11 years, leading a 200-person course on robotics and intelligent machines. Although I will need to extensively supplement the textbook I wrote more than 20 years ago for the course, I am excited to connect with students in my field and take part in a changing undergraduate pedagogy at the nexus of technology, design, and problem solving.

Shankar Sastry is Faculty Director of the Blum Center for Developing Economies and NEC Distinguished Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Sciences at UC Berkeley.

Students today learn differently than my generation and have new tools at their disposal. In my class, all lectures will be recorded and made available online. This allows students to engage with the material in new ways. If they miss a lecture, they can catch up afterward. If they have questions or find a topic challenging, they can consume the lecture at their own pace, pausing to make sense of information or look up answers to questions as they arise. Indeed, it is common for students to have class-viewing sessions in their dorms. And if students are familiar with a topic area, they can watch at 1.5 speed or just focus where they need deeper understanding.

This approach is a boon for faculty as well. It frees us up to answer more substantive questions and workshop homework or challenges rather than respond to the students’ request “to explain that theorem one more time.” Giving students the ability to learn at their own pace and in their own style is one way to make learning more self-directed. It also transforming the role of faculty from holders of knowledge to knowledge guides and exploration counsellors.

Another way we are trying to inspire lifelong learners is by engaging curiosity. For the second time, we are offering a Development Engineering graduate section of our core undergraduate Global Poverty & Practice class. By opening up a graduate section designed for engineers, we aim to encourage engineering graduate students to pursue knowledge they might otherwise not encounter. The class will connect critical debates around development and foreign aid with current issues around technology (such as data privacy) and research (AI and job churn).

Finally, if we are to educate lifelong learners, we must acknowledge we are aiming not only to expand students’ intellect but also their life choices. Attending Berkeley is a widely viewed as a catalyst to becoming an engaged citizen—but only if students have the time to reflect on their individual motivations and career trajectories. Too often at Berkeley, we don’t create enough space for students to have conversations about their individual growth and journeys. To that end, we are developing a toolkit that will help faculty better facilitate conversations around personal motivations, leadership skills, and offer student workshops that will help them design (and re-design!) lives that are purposeful and fulfilling.

What It Means To Be First Generation LatinX in Medical School: An Interview with Leilani Gutierrez-Palominos and Karla Tlatelpa

The Blum Center reached out to Karla Tlatelpa and Leilani Gutierrez-Palominos to ask how the Global Poverty & Practice minor helped shape their understanding of and participation in the medical field.

What It Means To Be First Generation LatinX in Medical School: An Interview with Leilani Gutierrez-Palominos and Karla Tlatelpa

Karla Tlatelpa and Leilani Gutierrez-Palominos, UC Berkeley graduates who majored in Molecular and Cell Biology and minored in Global Poverty & Practice, have recently been admitted to the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA. They are attending UCLA’s Program in Medical Education-Leadership and Advocacy (PRIME-LA), which enables students to focus on underserved communities. Tlatelpa and Gutierrez-Palominos are both first generation college Latinx women who have defied odds and pushed through barriers to get to where they are now. The Blum Center reached out to Tlatelpa and Gutierrez-Palominos to ask how the Global Poverty & Practice minor helped shape their understanding of and participation in the medical field.

What inspired you to join the Global Poverty & Practice minor?

Leilani Gutierrez-Palominos: I wanted to apply a critical social lens to my understanding of poverty and inequality. I have experienced poverty on a downstream level, but I wanted to learn what upstream factors caused the poverty I had witnessed. My existence in this country, as a previously undocumented immigrant, is inherently political. Thus, I am personally invested in advocacy efforts regarding underserved communities. My clinical and personal experiences have shown me patients’ desire to feel represented and understood, both through language and culture. In addition to having my background drive my passion for addressing inequalities, minoring in GPP provided me with the historical, political, and economic knowledge necessary to analyze and address systemic forces contributing to poverty.

Karla Tlatelpa: Growing up, my family experienced many injustices that, at the time, I thought were only happening to us. As I grew older and learned more about the systems in which we live, I began to understand that our circumstances were not isolated and were part of systemic problems that other families like mine were experiencing. We were a low-income family of undocumented immigrants, so my parents worked two to three  jobs at a time to keep us economically afloat. From the ages of 7 to 15, I worked 12-hour days with my grandma on weekends selling candy at the Oakland Coliseum flea market to help contribute to our food budget, especially since being undocumented meant we did not have access to social services like SNAP. With limited access to health care due to a lack of health insurance, my family’s health problems would sometimes go unattended. As I entered UC Berkeley, I wanted to gain a framework that would help me understand the disparities families like mine experience as a result of limited economic and social rights. On orientation day, I came across a student tabling for the Global Poverty & Practice minor and was immediately hooked!

How has the GPP minor changed your perspective on the field of medicine, if at all?

Gutierrez-Palominos: The GPP minor has made me more socially aware and fostered my sense of seeking to serve underserved populations. The minor has allowed me to delve deeper into wanting to understand upstream social determinants of health, which encouraged me to apply to the PRIME program at UCLA. I will be weaving an additional Master of Public Health year into my four years of medical education.

Tlatelpa: GPP helped me understand the role I will have as a physician beyond the clinical setting. I’ve always known that physicians are highly respected members of society, but GPP highlighted the extent of my privilege as a future physician. After GPP, my drive to study medicine shifted from a desire to help individuals in my community to also include a sense of responsibility to use the power and influence that being a MD provides to push for positive social change.

What lessons from GPP will you carry forward into your medical education and career?

Gutierrez-Palominos: Through the GPP minor, I considered the economical, social, and political dimensions involved around engaging in poverty work—which is relevant to my aspiration of providing care in low-income areas as a doctor. The GPP minor focuses on processes, such as the process of grappling with newfound concepts, which helped to further develop my critical thinking skills. Knowing that poverty doesn’t have a simple solution, I remained humble when engaging in poverty alleviation work since I always had to consider further implications, possibilities, and ways to improve. I became more conscientious of the decisions I made in ethical consumption, my support for certain organizations, and evaluating the effectiveness of certain methods/approaches when serving impoverished communities. Lessons of humility and critical thinking is what I will carry forward.

Tlatelpa: One of the greatest lessons GPP taught me was to always ensure I include the community’s voice in decision making that will affect them directly. As a medical student and eventually a physician, I will be regarded as an expert in many situations. However, I will take the teachings from GPP and my practice experience and remind myself and my colleagues that community members are the experts of their own lived experience and should always be included in the decision making process.

What’s the most important thing people should know about you as a Latina entering the world of medicine?

Gutierrez-Palominos: My clinical and personal experiences have shown me patients’ desire to feel represented and understood, both through language and culture. Underrepresentation causes low-income Latino communities to mistrust the medical field and lack mentors they can seek for guidance. Thus, this encourages me to gain more representation for my community and underserved communities like the ones I come from. There are few  Latinas in medicine; at UCLA medical school I am not only representing myself, but a greater community—both the village it took to continuously support me on this journey and those who will come after me.

Tlatelpa: There are few Latinx in medicine; this field is certainly not representative of the general population. This meant that when my family had health insurance, we did not usually have medical providers who shared our language or culture. Being a Latina in medicine means that I will have the unique opportunity of improving health outcomes in the Latinx community and relate to my patients in the way my family would have liked to with our own physicians.

What do you hope to accomplish for yourself, your family, your community, or the great world in becoming a doctor?

Gutierrez-Palominos: I hope to have the agency to help in situations where a medical professional is desperately needed. For example, experiencing death and disease in my own family that could have been prevented had there been a doctor. I want to be an advocate for my community and give back to low-income areas like the ones I come from. Due to my background, my ultimate goal is to work in under-resourced global communities involving poor migrants.

Tlatelpa: In the future, I see myself working as a primary care physician in under-resourced, largely Latinx communities. I also see myself working at the policy level to increase access to healthcare for everyone, including undocumented and socioeconomically disadvantaged folks. As part of the Program in Medical Education-Leadership & Advocacy (PRIME-LA) at UCLA, I will take time off from medical school to pursue a Master’s degree in public policy. Through this additional training, I hope to gain the tools necessary to advocate effectively for my patients’ economic and social rights and to carry out policy work that may institutionalize protection for under-resourced communities to access care and other vital social services. As a physician, my voice will carry more weight and increase the impact I could have at the policy level to create changes that will positively affect people beyond those I can reach during individual consultations.

—Dalia Elkhalifa 

Fletcher Lab’s Mobile Phone-based Microscope for Neglected Tropical Diseases Receives Gates Foundation Support

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation awarded a grant to Berkeley in July 2019 to support the scaled-up production of the LoaScope, a mobile phone-based microscope developed by Blum Center Chief Technologist Daniel Fletcher and researchers in his bioengineering laboratory, to enable mapping of Loa loa prevalence and intensity in Central and West Africa.

Fletcher Lab’s Mobile Phone-based Microscope for Neglected Tropical Diseases Receives Gates Foundation Support

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has awarded a $1.9 million grant to Berkeley to support the scaled-up production of the LoaScope, a mobile phone-based microscope developed by Blum Center Chief Technologist Daniel Fletcher and researchers in his bioengineering laboratory, to enable mapping of Loa loa prevalence and intensity in Central and West Africa. The LoaScope uses video from the mobile phone-based microscope to automatically detect and quantify infection by parasitic worms in a drop of blood. 

Loa loa, commonly referred to as African eye worm, is passed on to humans through the repeated bites of deer flies in West and Central Africa rainforests. Knowing whether someone has a Loa loa infection and the intensity of that infection is critical for mass drug administration efforts to eliminate onchocerciasis (river blindness) and lymphatic filariasis (elephantiasis). There may be more than 29 million people who are at risk of getting loaisis in affected areas of Central and West Africa, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The Fletcher Lab’s original device was developed with support from the Blum Center, USAID, KLA-Tencor, and the Gates Foundation to enable safe treatment of River Blindness with the potent anti-helminth drug ivermectin in regions co-endemic with Loa loa. The new project will update 30-year-old maps of Loa loa infections in partnership with the Task Force for Global Health. Fletcher, who is UC Berkeley’s Purnendu Chatterjee Chair in Engineering Biological Systems, said the mapping is necessary to identify regions where mass drug administration for River Blindness can be carried out safely and where precautions due to Loa loa co-infection may be necessary. 

The LoaScope uses video from the mobile phone-based microscope to automatically detect and quantify infection by parasitic worms in a drop of blood. 

Among the LoaScope’s proof of impact is a November 2017 New England Journal of Medicine paper co-authored by Professor Fletcher and an international team of researchers describing how the device was used to successfully treat more than 15,000 patients with ivermectin without the severe adverse events that had previously halted treatment. 

“This is not just a step forward for efforts to eliminate river blindness,” Professor Fletcher told Berkeley News in a November 2017 article, “but a demonstration that mobile microscopy — based on a mobile phone — can safely and effectively expand access to healthcare. This work sets the stage for expanding the use of mobile microscopy to improve diagnosis and treatment of other diseases, both in low-resource areas and eventually back in the U.S.”

How One Big Idea Led to an Innovative Co-working Solution

How One Big Idea Led to an Innovative Co-working Solution

As a freelancer and a master’s degree student at UC Berkeley’s College of Environmental Design (M.C.P.), Christelle Rohaut found coffee shops too crowded, co-working spaces too expensive, and her own home too isolating. In 2016, on her daily commute home, she saw rows of overpacked coffee shops. 

“I also found it incredibly ironic that my living room was empty all day long,” said Rohaut.

Educational Access and Exchange at Heart of Blum Center-Pinoleville Pomo Nation Collaboration

Educational Access and Exchange at Heart of Blum Center-Pinoleville Pomo Nation Collaboration

This summer, on the same day that Joy Harjo was named the first Native American Poet Laureate, a delegation of students and educators from the Pinoleville Pomo Nation and Santa Clara tribes of Northern California assembled in Blum Hall at UC Berkeley.

The group came to Berkeley as part of a summer STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art, and math) program organized by Global Poverty & Practice students working under Blum Center Education Director Alice Agogino and Yael Perez, a Blum Center researcher who with Agogino and the UC Berkeley CARES group has been involved in collaborations with the tribes for over a decade.

Perez read Harjo’s “The Morning I Pray for My Enemies” to the assembled 20 middleschoolers:  

And whom do I call my enemy?
An enemy must be worthy of engagement.
I turn in the direction of the sun and keep walking.
It’s the heart that asks the question, not my furious mind.
The heart is the smaller cousin of the sun.
It sees and knows everything.
It hears the gnashing even as it hears the blessing.
The door to the mind should only open from the heart.
An enemy who gets in, risks the danger of becoming a friend.

These words set the tone for the visit, said Perez, who later explained:

“Over the years of our collaboration with the Pinoleville Pomo Nation, there have been several visits to campus. These visits are sensitive and loaded as they make injustice more visible, forcing all of us—the Native citizens, the campus representatives, and the students—to acknowledge it. Similar to previous visits, this tour of the Pomo youth is ingrained in a soil of historic wrongdoing and current injustices, of which the youth are aware.”

Perez, who earned her PhD in architecture from UC Berkeley with a dissertation on a collaborative design for a cultural center to celebrate Pomo artifacts, said that the highpoint of the visit for her was the afternoon at the Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology, which houses one of the largest collections of Native American remains and artifacts in the country. 

There, museum employees laid out a dozen Pomo objects from Mendocino County—decades-old baskets, necklaces, and musical instruments—which had been brought up from the museum’s closed-off rooms for the Native students to observe and, in some cases, touch and hold.

The students were told there are over 3,000 Pomo objects in the museum. On the TV screens around them, they could see footage of basket making video recorded by anthropologists. One 13-year-old boy asked, “How did the museum get these things?” to which the docent replied: “They were acquired by anthropologists.”

As the youth approached a table that included a small sample of artifacts from his home county, one of the Pomo girls picked up a clapper and started to clap a traditional rhythm. With the rhythm filling the room, another student started to sing a traditional song and one of the boys commenced a Pomo dance circling the room. 

“The TV screens and computer stations depicting the rich collection of artifacts preserved in the museum faded away, as the youth took over the room enacting their culture,” recounted Perez. “I felt in that brief moment that the youth experienced their capacity to engage and transform the dominant culture, making the institution adapt to indigenous ways of knowing, as opposed to gazing at a display that encloses the artifact and distances the visitors from it.”

The purpose of the June 21 UC Berkeley visit was not to question the Hearst Museum’s ownership of artifacts per the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990. Rather, the visit was a means to introduce the Native students what the university might offer them—after a summer of instruction from undergraduate students affiliated with the Blum Center’s Global Poverty & Practice minor, including Derek Cai, Mira Cheng, Chan Gao, Dylan Kennedy, Camille Kuo, Kolbjorn Rehn, Sarah Xu, and Jenina Yutuc. 

On the agenda was a visit to Jacobs Hall, where Native students took a tour of some of the maker labs, marveling at 3D printers, laser cutters, wood fabrication equipment, and soldering irons. Mira Cheng, a molecular and cellular biology major and GPP minor, watched with infectious smile as the middle school students oohed and aahed at the equipment. “We’ve all gotten really attached to the students. I just want to mentor them all forever,” she said.

Camille Kuo, an intended conservation and resource studies major and GPP minor, said that beyond co-designing the summer program with PPN educators and managing high-energy middle school students, “I learned about the layers of bureaucracy and logistics, the importance of communication when you’re dealing with three different entities—UC Berkeley, the tribal office, Ukiah school district—and what it means to work in this kind of complex educational space.”

Educational access and exchange are at the heart of the PPN-UC Berkeley collaboration. Angela James, vice chair of the PPN’s Tribal Council, remarked last summer that the days of cultural and educational isolation are ending for her tribe in California. “My goal is to open the minds of youth and introduce them to college and science,” said James, “and teach them how to build positive working relationships with people outside their immediate circle.”

Clayton Freeman, project assistant for the Pomo Youth College Career Success Project, agreed that campus visits strengthen his students’ interest in and comfort level with going to college. Sitting on a bench in the sun outside the Hearst Museum, he said, “Growing up, I never saw the things we saw today—labs inside the university, this museum.”

Another student chaperone, Sparrow Steele, noted that she was 13 when CARES first started working with the Pinoleville Pomo Nation. “The STEAM workshops have been intense,” said Steele. “The kids see them as different from school, and it feels like the UC Berkeley people are more connected with the kids–there’s more energy.”

Josephina Spurlock, a 12-year-old member of the Round Valley Tribe who lived with her uncle in Ukiah this summer to attend the STEAM workshops, said she appreciated learning math in a more hands-on way, “which made it easier to understand.” Spurlock, who is a 4.0 student and class president at Round Valley Middle School, said she can see herself going to Berkeley, playing on the basketball team and studying engineering and photography. She would be the first person in her family to attend college.

When asked how she will accomplish this goal, she explained, “I have to make sure that work comes before goofing off. My mom wants me to get a good education. She did not go to college because she became pregnant with me,” adding: “At school, everyone calls me the goody two shoes. That makes me feel proud.”

Esmerelda Castanon, who is also 12 and attended the last two years of the STEAM camp, is likewise aspiring to college. The PPN tribal member said she is aiming for a career as a civil lawyer, because “there are everyday problems with race that the law can help with.”

Native Americans and Alaska Natives make up roughly 2 percent of the population in California and only 1 percent of undergraduate students at UC Berkeley. Among the 8,447 graduate students matriculated at Cal in 2018-2019, only 59 are Native American/Alaska Native.

Patrick Naranjo, a member of the Santa Clara Pueblo and the director of UC Berkeley American Indian Graduate Program, urged the Pinoleville Pomo Nation students to think of their futures in higher education.

“Hopefully,” remarked Perez, “the aspirations expressed by the youth on this campus visit will be reflected in UC Berkeley statistics for 2024.” 

—Tamara Straus

A Year of Solutions Science and Scholarship at the Blum Center

A Year of Solutions Science and Scholarship at the Blum Center

Shankar Sastry

What is the role of the university in the wider world? What is the role of scholarship in an era of vast digitally enabled knowledge?

These are two questions we at the Blum Center keep forefront in our minds, as we pursue forward-looking curricula and solutions scholarship related to development. During the 2018-2019 academic year, we sought to practice what we preach by holding interdisciplinary faculty salons on large development questions, both to bolster what we teach and how we can learn from one another.

The faculty salon series was kicked off by Michael Nacht, UC Berkeley’s Thomas and Alison Schneider Chair in Public Policy. The former Assistant Secretary of Defense for Global Strategic Affairs explored the nexus of national security, diplomacy, and development—and gave a sober assessment of what that nexus might produce under the Trump administration. Michael concluded that development in low-income countries will not come out of the strategic interactions of the U.S.’s economic and foreign policy positions but likely will be spurred by the for-profit sector through advances in agricultural technology, artificial intelligence, and bioengineering.

In November, Robotics Professor Ken Goldberg and Business Professor Laura Tyson, Blum Center Chair of the Trustees and Business Professor, debated the effects of automation and machine learning on employment across nations and economies. Ken, who believes automation will both eliminate and create new jobs, proposed a “multiplicity movement” to foster uniquely human skills that AI and robots cannot replicate: creativity, curiosity, imagination, empathy, human communication, diversity, and innovation. He recommended the U.S. reinforce creative and social skills in high schools and universities, so that Americans are in a position to leverage machines with varying levels of automation alongside diverse groups of people to amplify intelligence and spark problem solving.

Laura pointed out that the substitution of intelligent machines for low-cost, low-productivity workers poses the greatest challenge in Africa, where by 2050 the continent’s youth population is estimated to increase by 50 percent to 945 million. She said we must focus our attention on how African countries will fare in global trade and global supply chains, when the availability of comparatively cheap labor is no longer a competitive advantage. She advocated that nations develop comprehensive educational and development strategies that support the livelihoods of their citizens—and that share the benefits of intelligent machines broadly.

In December, Bioengineering Professor and Blum Center Chief Technologist Dan Fletcher presented on his own solutions science related to the London Declaration of Tropical Diseases. Nearly a decade ago, the declaration brought together more than 80 global organizations to control, eliminate, or eradicate at least ten of the diseases by 2020. Progress has been made on some of the diseases, but they still affect nearly one billion people, even though major pharmaceutical companies have pledged to contribute the treatment drugs. The main problem now, explained Dan, is a health information gap—both in terms of who has the diseases and where they are located. His mobile microscopy device CellScope, developed over a decade plus, can fill this gap because it both identifies the infected through testing and provides effective treatment and monitoring, even in the most remote areas. Dan has proven his technological intervention in several major papers, and is now on mission to fund the implementation of this life-saving innovation.

In early 2019, we welcomed Joshua Blumenstock from School of Information, to the faculty salon. Blumenstock, director of the Data-Intensive Development Lab, cautioned that even though the application of machine learning to monitor and alleviate poverty has become a much discussed aspiration, new digital methods may serve more as a complement than a replacement to traditional approaches, especially in the area of economic assessment. However, he did point out that satellite imagery is becoming a key source for development research because it reveals basic physical infrastructure and quality of life trends. In his own research, Joshua has shown that by leveraging machine learning to analyze satellite data, we can draw conclusions about certain aspects of the quality of life with nearly the same accuracy as traditional, multimillion-dollar field surveys.

Technological interventions are never clear cut. This was illustrated in the April Faculty Salon by Professors Isha Ray of the Energy and Resources Group and Alison Post of the Political Science Department. They shared their analysis of the effects of the UC Berkeley-incubated social enterprise NextDrop, which designed a mobile phone intervention to alert Indian households via text when to expect water supply. Isha and Alison’s two-year study found the SMS service failed to have its intended time-saving effect due to a combination of oversights by NextDrop in terms of water service provision, mobile phone ownership, and other information gaps. “It is absolutely essential to understand the role of human intermediaries and how drastically the conditions and results of an intervention can change from one setting to the next,” said Isha.

In May, we discussed Kenya’s rural electrification efforts, studied by Ted Miguel, Oxfam Professor of Environmental and Resource Economics, and Catherine Wolfram, Cora Jane Flood Professor of Business Administration. Although Kenya has received massive foreign assistance to achieve universal energy access, the economic benefits of rural electrification in the world’s poorest places are not straightforward. Ted and Catherine’s research team conducted a randomized control trial to study the effects of electricity connections in 150 Kenyan communities, and found no meaningful medium-run impacts on economic, health, and educational outcomes. The reason? Even when heavily subsidized, the cost of connecting was a significant burden for many households whose average annual cash earnings were $205. In addition, rural Kenyans had no money to buy time-saving, productivity-enhancing appliances like refrigerators or computers. 

“Power isn’t like water,” said Ted. “It isn’t like turning on the tap and getting something that improves your livelihood. Power requires you to connect to an appliance. But if you are too poor to buy something to connect to power, the hypothesized effects are not there.”

The last faculty salon of the academic year was led by Dan Kammen, Distinguished Professor of Energy, and Solomon Hsiang, Chancellor’s Professor of Public Policy, who engaged in a wide ranging conversation with interdisciplinary faculty on the economics, politics, and development impacts of climate change. Kammen has spent much of his two-decade career at UC Berkeley focusing on renewable energy research, with a focus on the role of developing economies. He underscored that in Kenya, which has a robust mobile money system, off-grid solar-generated energy is becoming the norm in many rural areas. This illustrates, he said, that around the globe—from California (which will reach its 2025 zero net carbon emission targets ahead of time) to Morocco (which is the only country meeting Paris climate accord goals)—solar, wind, and other renewable energy sources are proving to be implementable and economically viable.

The problem, of course, is that the transition away from fossil fuels to renewables is not happening quickly enough. However, Solomon, whose Global Policy Laboratory researches what we need to know to design global policy, said public interest in climate change modeling  has increased dramatically over the last two years and the conversation among governments is now how detrimental will be the social cost of global warming, particularly for Southern Hemisphere countries. “This is where the role of information and academic research becomes economically powerful,” he argued.

The Blum Center Faculty Salons will continue in the fall. Stay tuned for more news about how faculty across the disciplines can collaborate on solutions science and scholarship for global public benefit.

Shankar Sastry is Faculty Director of the Blum Center for Developing Economies and NEC Distinguished Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Sciences at UC Berkeley. 

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