The Relentless Rise of Two Caribbean Lakes Baffles Scientists

National Geographic

Jacob Kushner

In Haiti and the Dominican Republic, the lakes are flooding farmland, swallowing communities and leading to deforestation, baffling climate scientists.  

Story and photos by Jacob Kushner for National Geographic

Jacob Kushner

The Voluntourist’s Dilemma

New York Times Magazine

Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images for Artists For Peace And Justice

Several years ago, when I was working as a reporter based in Haiti, I came upon a group of older Christian missionaries in the mountains above Port-au-Prince, struggling with heavy shovels to stir a pile of cement and sand. They were there to build a school alongside a Methodist church. Muscular Haitian masons stood by watching, perplexed and a bit amused at the sight of men and women who had come all the way from the United States to do a mundane construction job.

Such people were a familiar sight: They were voluntourists. They would come for a week or two for a “project” — a temporary medical clinic, an orphanage visit or a school construction. A 2008 study surveyed 300 organizations that market to would-be voluntourists and estimated that 1.6 million people volunteer on vacation, spending around $2 billion annually.

Read the full essay at the New York Times Magazine

The Science of Donating to Effective Charities

Columbia Global Reports

GiveDirectly makes unconditional cash transfers to people via mobile phones—this man in Western Kenya used the money to start a business raising and selling chickens. Photo by Jacob Kushner.

Each year, individuals donate hundreds of billions of dollars to charities. Last month, GiveWell, the science-minded philanthropy evaluator, announced that in 2015, as a direct result of its research, more than $98 million in donations went to charities it found to be the most effective at doing good in the world. By reviewing randomized control trials and other studies conducted on different development aid programs across the globe, GiveWell recommends a few “top charities” whose methods have been scientifically tested to offer the most bang for our buck.

A control trial is an experiment that tests one variable at a time, and compares the results to a control group. Random means that instead of letting participants come to you, you go to them, assigning them randomly to either the test group or the control, to avoid self-selection bias.

This is the way that major pharmaceutical companies vet new medicines or advertising agencies test audience reactions to proposed TV commercials. The CDC wouldn’t approve a new drug from Merck simply because Merck says it works and can offer a couple of anecdotes to that end, but unfortunately, that’s how many charities appeal to individual donors. Why is it that when it comes to development aid, our standards are so much lower?

That’s the question being posed by a growing number of “effective altruists,” a term popularized by the Australian philosopher Peter Singer. “Effective altruism,” writes Singer, “is based on a very simple idea: we should do the most good we can.”

Read the full article at Columbia Global Reports.

World’s largest cement company wants to clean up the industry’s CO2 legacy–brick by brick.

African Business Magazine

Photo/JACOB KUSHNER

Oa sunny hill overlooking a valley of shrubs, yellow grass and maize, Deodat Madembwe watches a team of masons make bricks for an elementary school he’s building.

As a young man growing up in central Tanzania, Madembwe too was a mason. Back then the most popular way to make bricks was to mould them loosely out of dirt and clay and then burn them in a tanuru – the Swahili word for a kiln. But to heat the kiln was to wreak havoc on the local environment.

“People cut trees to burn bricks,” he explained. To burn enough bricks for about five houses, they’d have to fell 10, even 20 trees. Burning the trees releases CO², contributing to climate change, and deforestation means there are fewer trees left to combat it. As Tanzania’s population grew, more and more houses arose and the landscape suffered. “We [were] making a desert,” said Madembwe.

But today, on a sunny plateau above Mbeya, the masonry unfolding before Madembwe’s eyes is of an entirely different breed. Two men with shovels quickly mix dirt they’ve sifted with a bit of sand and cement. They add water and shovel the mixture into a small steel device. A third man closes the heavy metal lid and pulls down hard on a long green lever. He releases, and a perfectly rectangular gray brick rises up.

NGOs, governments and local cooperatives have been experimenting with so-called compressed stabilised earth blocks (CSEB), a green alternative to tree-consuming burnt bricks, on a small scale for years. But they may soon rise to global prominence, prompted in part by interest from an unlikely party: the largest cement manufacturer in the world.

Read the full story at African Business Magazine via SparkNews. This article is part of a series of reports by Solutions&Co published to coincide with the COP21 Climate Talks in Paris.

Look Who’s Fighting Homophobia in Kenya

TakePart

From left: Pastor John Kambo of Kilifi County; Kenyan mosque; Father Thomas Apil, a hospital chaplin in Mombasa. (Photos: Sam Wolson)

In an attempt to counter the anti-LGBT fervor gaining hold on Kenya’s coast, one gay rights organization has developed a new approach. Rather than confronting the religious leaders behind it, it’s inviting them to tea.

Read the full story at TakePart.

In Somalia, a new approach to justice for rape survivors

TakePart

Nichole Sobecki/AFP/Getty Images

Decades of war have divided Somalia into three regions, each with its own government. What they share are the challenges to prosecuting sexual assault. In south-central Somalia, which includes Mogadishu, Somalia’s largest city, survivors of sexual violence have particularly scant hope for justice. The U.N. counted 1,700 rapes between January and November 2013 in Mogadishu; the total number of rape convictions that year in all of south-central Somalia was two.

“You’re more likely to be arrested for reporting than are your perpetrators,” says Antonia Mulvey, founder and executive director of NGO Legal Action Worldwide, an NGO that works to prevent sexual assault and improve justice outcomes for survivors. “The climate for impunity is very large.”

Today, though, Mulvey and her organization think they’ve found the solution: a one-stop center where victims can report their crime to police while also receiving medical care, legal counsel, and psychological support. Though viewed as crucial to finding justice for survivors of sexual abuse in Mogadishu, setting up the center will be a tall order in the region, where there is barely any law enforcement, a history of abuse of women, and a tradition that mandates rape be dealt with by local clan elders rather than the official justice system.

But a model for success is 450 miles away in the city of Hargeisa, the capital of a region of Somalia known as Somaliland.

Read the full article at TakePart.

This article was featured on the Huffington Post Honor Roll and by the Solutions Journalism Network, which named the piece among the Best Solutions Journalism of 2015.

The Single Mom Who Shut Down a Toxic Plant Readies for Round Two: Making Them Pay

TakePart

Jacob Kushner / TakePart

Phyllis Omido receives the Goldman Environmental Prize Monday, but the battle for justice is only beginning.

In the coastal city of Mombasa, Kenya, a rogue lead-smelting factory has left a path of destruction in its wake: at least three dead workers, hundreds of failed pregnancies and stillborns, and more than two dozen children suffering lifelong health effects from breathing in polluted air and stepping in toxic runoff.

The damage might have continued were it not for one Kenyan woman who fought to close down the plant and save an entire community—even amid death threats and an attempted kidnapping.

Today, 36-year-old Phyllis Omido is being honored with the Goldman Environmental Prize, given each year to six exceptional individuals—one from each continent—who undertake “sustained and significant efforts to protect and enhance the natural environment, often at great personal risk.”

The prize is the beginning of yet another journey for Omido: She plans to use the $175,000 award to sue the government agencies that knew about the problems at the smelting plant but did nothing.

“As long as there is no justice, we will keep pushing,” she says.

Read Omido’s story at TakePart. 

In Kenya, the future of sanitation may entail turning human waste into fuel

TakePart

To get the fuel she needed to cook her food and warm her home, Kenyan Nancy Wambui, 54, used to buy charcoal made from chopped-down trees. But recently, she was given a new set of briquettes to try, that looked just like regular charcoal but worked even better. The secret ingredient? Human poop.

These briquettes just might be a promising new way to curb deforestation, reduce the daily expenditures of low-income families, help solve an energy deficit facing the country, and support sanitation improvements in areas where they are desperately needed. More than 2.5 billion people in the developing world lack access to toilets, and a child dies every 15 seconds from diarrhea, usually the result of food or water becoming contaminated by human waste. Each year, 200 million tons of the world’s poop also goes completely untreated, ending up directly in lakes, rivers, and oceans.

Read the full story at TakePart.

The best way to help in the developing world may be the most obvious: Just give money

TakePart

Schoolteacher Loice Anyango Ocholla, 24, of Amudho, Kenya, received a cash grant through a new development program. (Photo: Jacob Kushner)

The Western Kenyan village of Nyawita is a dry, sparse place. In the mornings, wives tend to small plots of corn or cassava near their mud-wall homes. Husbands shepherd their few cows around, searching for patches of grass. Children attend a local school if their parents can afford to send them.

Victor Ochieng has spent almost his entire 39 years here farming corn, tomatoes, and other crops. Until recently, it was all the father of six could do to scratch out a living for his family. He wanted to buy pumps and pipes to irrigate his crops with water from his well but couldn’t afford it.

“Farming has so many challenges, and one of the biggest is that rains disappear,” he said. “I wanted to farm even during the times of drought, so I could take my crops to the market while the price is high.”

One day last year, a couple of out-of-towners showed up in his village. They walked from house to house, chatting with the locals. When the visitors, Kenyans like Ochieng, arrived at his home, they told him something astonishing: Some Americans he’d never met wanted to give him and nearly all his neighbors a fortune. Not a loan, a giveaway. With no strings attached.

Read the full story at TakePart.com

The Map That Could Save Africa a Trillion Dollars

OZY.com

SIMON DAWSON/BLOOMBERG/GETT

In the 19th century, foreign explorers came to Africa in search of ivory, rubber and slaves. Today, they come for Africa’s minerals — its copper, zinc and tungsten. The developed world needs them for its skyscrapers, cell phones and much in between.

The exchange is sometimes unfair. Often, African governments don’t know the value of the natural resources underground, but mining companies from the West — and, increasingly, China — do. That knowledge asymmetry has cost African countries and their citizens as much as $1.4 trillion over the past 30 years.
coach patchwork purse
But a more level playing field may be in sight, thanks to a World Bank initiative that aims to compile Africa’s mineral maps into a single, public database: the so-called Billion Dollar Map. The goal is to give African nations as much information as possible about their natural resources so that they can earn a fair price for the minerals they sell, World Bank officials say.

While mineral maps of the African continent exist, most are private or piecemeal. The Billion Dollar Map is crucially different: Its contents will be available to the public. And that, experts hope, will minimize underpricing and corruption, and help governments get a fairer price for their countries’ resources.

Read the full story at OZY.com

In Dominican Republic, a T-shirt factory sets the highest bar for workers’ rights

GlobalPost/GroundTruth
One group of workers who earn a high wage and unusual benefits is helping others earn the same.

Elvira Juan Chale sews t-shirts at Altagracia Apparel, where workers earn three times the Dominican Republic’s minimum wage. Now, Altagracia workers are inspiring other textile employees here to demand higher wages and better working conditions from their own companies. (Jacob Kushner/GlobalPost)

By Jacob Kushner

Founded in 2010 by the collegiate clothing supplier Knights Apparel Inc., Altagracia Apparel pays its workers a so-called living wage, calculated to be about three times the country’s minimum wage for factories in its free trade zones. Altagracia workers earn at least $500 US per month, well above the minimum wage of about $150.
cheap nike air max
Four years since Altagracia opened its doors, the factory has become a model of what workers in the Dominican Republic dream to achieve.

Read the full article as it appeared at GlobalPost.

A Thread of Hope

On Wisconsin Magazine
At a factory in the Dominican Republic, workers are sewing UW apparel, providing for their families, and spreading hope that the global textile industry can change.

During an age in which nearly all clothing sold in the United States is made in developing countries by workers who are paid just pennies an hour, Alta Gracia Apparel is not your typical textile factory: its employees earn three times the nation’s minimum wage of $150 per month. They get health insurance, a pension, vacation days, and maternity leave. They sit in ergonomic chairs and drink water that they themselves have quality-tested for pathogens.

It’s hard to fathom that a decade ago, many of these same people produced hats for a company that paid them just eighty-four cents an hour, forced them to work overtime without extra pay, and sometimes verbally and physically abused them.

See the full article and photos that were published in the Winter 2012 edition of On Wisconsin Magazine.

The Multiplier Effect: Driving Haiti’s recovery by spending aid dollars locally

GlobalPost/GroundTruth
Just a small fraction of foreign aid has gone to Haitian businesses, but an NGO network is trying to change that.

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — Just days after a cholera epidemic began infecting thousands of Haitians in October 2010, Salim Loxley received a phone call at his desk in Port-au-Prince from the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), one of the largest-spending organizations operating in the post-earthquake nation.

“We need 4.5 million bars of soap by Friday,” said the man on the other end, anxious to distribute the soap to Haitians who were living in unsanitary displacement camps and vulnerable to the highly infectious disease.

Read the full story as it appeared at the Global Post