Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Tools for Change

Burkina-Faso, Administrative Divisions
I had honestly thought I was done with the inspiring posts for the season, but one more came my way at the Penny University  on Monday night, a discussion group I have been attending mostly faithfully for what seems like forever. This week we had not one but two guest speakers who are working on innovative projects in Africa. Ron Swenson has visited before. He is an enthusiastic supporter of the idea of podcars as a preferable means of public transportation, and is becoming interested in the possibility that African cities may be more ready for such a change so was headed to East Africa to talk to some movers and shakers about that. I'm thinking Ron's ideas may fit in to a future blog post, so I think I'll leave that there for now.

Our other guest was Pierre Yamleowo Balma, who comes from Zao Village in Koupela, Burkina Faso, West Africa. It was his luck to become one of the few children designated to go to school, and his path eventually led him to Santa Cruz, where a former Peace Corps volunteer in his village now lived. On one of his visits to the area, he and his friend were taking some stuff to the dump, and Pierre saw many still usable tools that  had just been thrown away. To him this looked like amazing wealth, but he was told that neither he nor anyone else was allowed to just rummage through the dump. These articles were off-limits. He would have to find another way to acquire our cast off belongings. 

One thing led to another, and Tools for Change was born. Coordinating with a music festival called Reggae on the River which takes place every year on the Eel River up in Humboldt county, Tools for Change designated a drop off space for used tools, as well as other ways of donating, and on November 17th of this year, a 40 foot shipping container full of tools bound for Burkina Faso left the Oakland port. It is bound for Ghana, as Burkina Faso is a landlocked country. There is a sizable port fee and then the cost of shipping the tools over land. As Pierre explained it all of the tools have been engraved with the word "Common", because the intention is shared use by the whole village of 3000 people. Pierre's idea reaches beyond simple charity. To quote from an article from the Redwood Times about a visit he made to a the Garberville Rotary Club, there is an inspirational aspect.  He wants to be able to tell his people, “These were the tools of Americans. They used them to build their country and we can do the same here and become independent and prosperous.”

As Pierre admits, the whole idea is an experiment. If it doesn't work, he seems like the kind of guy who will try something else. But if it does, well, Zao Village is only one of many, many poor village collectives in Burkina Faso, and America has an awful lot of discarded tools. 

Tax-deductible monetary contributions, which may help with getting this load of tools to journey's end as well as future projects, may be sent to:

Mateel Community Center
c/o Tools For Change Program
P.O. Box 1910
Redway, CA 95560

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Let's all go to Mars!

Okay, maybe not literally for some of us. But you know, we can all participate. Remember the space race? I mean, when you studied it in school, not like me, who remembers watching Neil Armstrong walking on the

If, as Chris Hedges says, "War is a force that gives us meaning," and William James searched for "The Moral Equivalent of War", meaning something that challenged our greatest capacities and gave us our greatest solidarity as humans without involving bloodshed, doesn't a friendly competition to figure out how we can become a multi planet species, as Elon Musk suggests we must, make sense?

At any rate, after a dispiriting last couple of months,it was quite cheering to watch the incredible SpaceX launch and return undamaged of Falcon 9. As most of us have known since John Glenn, Star Trek and of course Star Wars, space is our future. So why are we wasting time duking it out down here?

Merry Christmas to those who observe it and happy holidays to everyone who gets through the dark days of the year with some kind of joyous (and peaceful) celebration.

Oh, yeah. And may be the Force be with you.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Something you can do for me

I know--you think now's the time I start passing around the hat for some cause dear to me. But for some of you, it may be a good deal harder than just throwing a few dollars toward a good cause. The favor I'm asking is that, even though this is a busy season, and you're a great multi-tasker and an even better driver, please don't text and drive. I understand that it's a hardship, and you are really good at it. But you can be good at it 999 times and wreck your own life and someone else's forever on the thousandth. Please just use some self-restraint and wait until you can pull over.

And, since I probably haven't convinced you, here's a little film from none other than the great Werner Herzog, who took the time and care to make a little documentary about it a couple of years ago. Sadly, it's still relevant. Here, without further ado, is "From One Second to the Next".

Monday, December 14, 2015

Feel the Ville!

Tired of the same old holiday songs? Maybe it's time to try something new. It may start out a little chaotic, but by the end you will be energized to do whatever Christmas or holiday task you need to do.

I recently became acquainted with Dapo Akers as a Linked In connection. He's got a book series about a character called Robin from the Hood, who transforms from being a "hood from the hood" to, well, someone more like Robin Hood. You can check out the series HERE.

That's Dapo playing the guitar in the video. Have fun. If the lady with the cane can dance to this, you really have no excuse. 

Sunday, December 13, 2015


My friend Meg and I have developed a fun gift giving tradition in recent years. She gives me a Kiva gift card and I give her one right back. It was her idea and she's the proactive one, but I'm happy to take part in the exchange.

Odds are, you've heard of Kiva. It's a microlending organization where people crowdsource loans to people around the world who otherwise would't have access to them. Mostly these are in places where the offical lending institutions aren't set up, or aren't set up for people at their tier of the economy. There are some U.S. loans available too.

I've heard some criticisms of Kiva: the loans can be at a pretty high interest rate to the borrowers, but that's not because the lenders get anything back. It's often because of what it takes to administer these loans where the infrastructure for them isn't good. I've also heard the complaint that microlending isn't the panacea for world poverty that it was once vaunted to be. So I was interested in the section of the Challenges of Global Poverty course I took online that addressed this. On balance, their conclusion was that though microlending had its limitations, a good way to think of it was that it offered people a way to improve their life a little. I think sometimes people get a little outraged if someone is borrowing to pay for a wedding or to buy new furniture, instead of improving their farm or whatever, but if you think of it as giving people a way to afford some of the pleasures of life that we take for granted, even the little luxuries make sense.

Although the risk is all yours and people do occasionally default, my own experience is that the only time anyone every defaulted on a loan I'd made was because he had unfortunately died. And even then it was only a part of the loan. There can be some currency exchange loss and that's happened to me more frequently. Frankly, though I'm not in this to get a full return. The best thing about people paying back is that you can turn around and lend it to someone else. So even some very poor people have a way of paying it forward.

Once you join, you can affiliate with a team of your choice, but only if you'd like to. I'm on a few. My personal pitch is for the Late Loan Lenders, as the whole aim of this team is to keep loans from expiring (they only have 30 days to get fully funded, so it's a problem, though more for the field partners than for the borrowers themselves). So, though of course I'm all for empowering women, in practice women's loans tend to get funded faster than those to lone men, so I may have a disproportionate amount of Tajikistani cab drivers in my portfolio. I'm also on the Electric Animal Enthusiasts team, which you'll be glad to know isn't a team that enjoys electrocuting animals, but instead enjoys the crazy way some animals eyes glow in the dark in their pictures.

Anyway, if you need a 25 dollar gift for someone who has everything, maybe Kiva is just the place for you to shop. Or maybe just invest it for yourself. It turns out that it's pretty fun to be a financier.


Saturday, December 12, 2015


Actually, I'm not a huge fan of the word "repurposed", as it's often just a fancy way of saying "used", but in this case I'll make an exception, as this is truly a new purpose for a plague upon the planet. And best thing of all, I'm not pitching that you get involved or donate or anything, just that you know about this cool thing. At least for now.

I came across this on TakePart, but I see that it's been mentioned in several places. Basically, it's an effort to house homeless people in pretty cool houses made of nothing more than plastic bottles and dirt. Here's the TakePart article by David McNair.

                                                                                   Amina Abubakar/Getty Images
14.000 plastic bottle is all it takes. See what you can do.

Friday, December 11, 2015

Congratulate the people of the Marshall Islands

                                                            How Stuff Works
I had a whole other thing lined up for today, but I just got word that for the first time in its history, the Right Livelihood Award was given to an entire nation: the people of the Marshall Islands, "in recognition of their vision and courage to take legal action against the nuclear powers for failing to honor their disarmament obligations under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and customary international law."

If you'd like to, the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation offers you a chance to congratulate the Marshallese people right HERE. And you can also watch Foreign Minister Tony de Brum's acceptance speech on behalf of his people below. 

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Human Rights Day

Today is Human Rights Day. I was just reminded of this over at Kathleen Kirk's blog, Wait! I Have a Blog? but had seen an email earlier about it from Care2 as well. Keeping with the theme here over the past week or so of things you can do that might actually do some good at a rather despairing point in our history, I'm going to link to their 5 Ways You Can Celebrate Human Rights Day post, written by Steve Williams. Some of the suggestions are about ways to educate yourself about the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, how it came about and what human rights laws it has inspired over time and across continents. There are several videos, including a longer one in which Emma Watson interviews Malala Yousafzai. Here's a simple rendering of all our rights by some charming kids.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

The Heifer Project

For many years, one of the Christmas presents my aunt would give us was a donation to the Heifer Project, now known as Heifer International. Although it's similar to the Oxfam Unwrapped program I mentioned a few days ago, there's a slight difference in their emphasis. They have something of a pay it forward model, where people who receive an animal and training, pass on that training, as well as giving the first female animal that their own livestock produces to another family. I've always liked the idea of the Heifer Project and am happy to endorse their work here now.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Write for Rights

So far, the possibilities I've mentioned for making a difference this season have involved some kind of purchase, but today's suggestion only really involves the cost of postage. It's Amnesty International's yearly holiday letter writing campaign. You can do this all on your own, or host or attend a group event where you all write letters together. Here's a link to the stories of some of the people you'll be advocating for.

I've participated in Amnesty's holiday campaigns in the past, and it's actually pretty satisfying. So throw in a few letters among your Christmas or holiday cards this year. Unlike some of the people you'll be writing for, you have nothing to lose by speaking out.

Monday, December 7, 2015

Educate a girl

Now don't get me wrong. I'm all for the education of boys too, and there's certainly no shortage of ways boys can be shortchanged in their own pursuit of education. So if you'd like to fund some boy's education, please, don't let me stop you. But as we all know through the story of Malala Yousafzai, there are parts of the world where girls' education is actively hindered, and beyond that, when families in straitened circumstances have to prioritize education, it's often the girls who lose out.

The admirable International Rescue Committee, which deals particularly with people caught in the midst of large scale humanitarian crises, emailed me about a program they've set up where you can donate to give a gift of a year of school for one girl. And you will find other kinds of things you can give to all kinds of people there, at a wide variety of price ranges.

I think the future of the world depends on girls and women being fully incorporated into our collective decision-making. Men sometimes appear to be afraid of this, but in fact, bringing all of our human resources to bear on the problems the world is facing is a win-win for everyone.


Sunday, December 6, 2015

Nothing but Nets

A couple of years ago, I took a really great free course from MIT through EdX called The Challenges of Global Poverty.  Being MIT, there was a lot of focus on statistics and measurable data, but the real interest for the layperson was in learning what actually works. One of the things that works is bed nets for malaria. Although it seems a no brainer in retrospect, it turns out that it isn't so much that you have to provide a bed net to everyone, but that if enough of a population is using bed nets, it reduces the chances of contracting malaria for everyone.

Therefore, the simple goal of providing bed nets to people that the organization Nothing But Nets achieves actually has enormous consequences. For a mere ten dollars you can buy a net for a family. As their information page says, not long ago, a child died of malaria every 30 seconds. Now the statistic is that a child dies every sixty seconds. Obviously, that's a huge improvement, but equally obviously, it's nowhere near good enough. If you'd like to buy a net, go HERE. During the holiday season, your donation will go twice as far.

                                                                                  World Bank Photo collection

Saturday, December 5, 2015


Today's post actually does have a word learning element, as sundara is Sanskrit for "beautiful". But that's not why I'm writing about it today. Yesterday I happened to get an email from TakePart, an online action group, which included a link to this article. The story is about how a woman in India has started an organization called Sundara that takes slightly used hotel soap, cleans it up and sanitizes it, and refashions it into new bars for people who otherwise would have none. It's estimated that seventy million people in India qalone live entirely without soap. The article tells us that more than two million children die of diseases like pneumonia and diarrhea which could be prevented by soap and regular hand washing.

If you're like me, you sometimes think of things you'd like to have that you can't afford. But I'm pretty sure if you're reading this, you have a bar of soap at your disposal, which puts you in a category of luxury that a lot of people can't even conceive of. If you'd like you can make a donation at Sundara, and in some parts of the world anyway, you can also get involved with Clean the World, which gathers soap from the U.K. and the E.U. among other things.

Friday, December 4, 2015

Give a goat

Yes, yes, don't worry--there is a ton of ignorance piling up around here and it's all bound to spew forth sometime. But I just had a great idea, which is to highlight some cool things you and I can do for others over this sometimes overly consumer oriented season. Today for example, I got an email from Oxfam, suggesting that it might be a good day to give a goat, as they were going to match all goat donations up to about 25,000 dollars. Maybe you didn't know that Oxfam was in the goat giving business. Well, neither did I.

According to the email I got from Oxfam, here's the word on goats:

They're at the top of our list because they make a HUGE difference for families living in poverty. Goats provide milk and fertilizer – and they reproduce quickly, so what starts as a few goats can quickly turn into a stable source of income.

It's a funny thing, but at a certain point in my childhood, I actually dreamed of having a goat farm. I even envisioned having goat cart rides as part of the operation. Sadly, it never came to pass. But at least I can help someone else fulfill my vision.

"CL North in a Goat Wagon"

Here's the link to Oxfam Unwrapped. If a goat is a little out of your price range, fear not. There is sure to be a gift there tailored just for you.