Sunday, December 12, 2010

WikiLeaks and the Fight for Democracy

WikiLeaks is under siege in the US. Not only has the web site become an “enemy of the state”, which is not surprising given the series of punches that WikiLeaks has been throwing at the US government, but the public opinion seems to have turned against the web site. The major mistake that WikiLeaks made was to divulge the names of Afghan informants who chose to work with the Americans and other foreign forces there, making those people immediate targets for the Taliban and their friends. I don’t know frankly how democracy or transparency benefited from the release of those names and as such I believe it was a very unfortunate move.

That being said, the founding principle of WikiLeaks that receives information from insiders who often take immense risks to be whistleblowers and releases it through highly respected media outlets such as the New York Times, Der Spiegel or Le Monde remains extremely valuable in my eyes as it will bring more transparency to actions of corporations and governments that find themselves under pressure because of the risk that WikiLeaks will release details of their covert actions to the outside world.

That is why I found really shocking that the likes of amazon, eBay, or Mastecard took repressive actions against WikiLeaks in order to limit its ability to operate. The closest thing in recent years to what happened this week to WikiLeaks is the freezing of Osama Bin-Laden’s bank accounts and assets… Is WikiLeaks such a threat to our world? I don’t think so.

The personality of Julian Assange, WikiLeaks’ founder, has become a lighting rod for those who have come to hate the web site. Accused of sex crime in Sweden Assange has become a pariah in the US public opinion that has a long history of having banned celebrities that had committed repressible sex-related crimes or engaged in so-called immoral behaviors or were accused to have done so. The list includes Roman Polanski, Charlie Chaplin, and Woody Allen who is now viewed by most Americans as the worst pervert for having married his ex-wife’s adoptive daughter.

Assange has been heavily criticized by some of WikiLeaks’ early followers, partly around the decision to divulge Afghan informants’ names but also for its egomaniac and dismissive attitude towards others.

He will have to be replaced at the helm of WikiLeaks for the organization to continue to thrive. For the time being, we don’t know what is going to happen to him as he is now jailed in Britain. But I am concerned rather about WikiLeaks’ ability to continue to do its job as a news organization. If it is sticks to its original mission and avoids Afghan informant-type mistakes WikiLeaks does have an extremely valuable role to play in our world.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Story-telling at the EVPA Conference

The EVPA conference had three outstanding featured speakers. I have to admit that I am not a sucker for plenary sessions and guest speakers usually as I tend to get bored quickly during those. Jacqueline Novogratz, the founder and CEO of Acumen Fund, Percy Barnevik, ex-CEO of Swedish giant ABB and founder of Hand in Hand, and Sir Ronald Cohen, founder of European PE pioneer Apax Partners and social investor with BridgesVentures, were the featured speakers. They are pretty extraordinary individuals and each talked about his/her own organization that occupies a specific segment in the broader venture philanthropy and social investing universe.

It was quite interesting to hear how differently the three conveyed their message to the audience. Jacqueline and Percy mainly used story-telling while Sir Ronald was much more fact-based. Jacqueline told her usual Blue Sweater story which is her life story really as it starts in her early childhood. Barnevik did the same though he did not go as far back as Jacqueline did and started with his corporate days. Sir Ronald told us about his background growing up in Egypt and having to flee the country with his family after the Suez Canal crisis but the rest of his presentation focused on his last 10 years in the social sector trying to develop hybrid business models and, more recently, financial products targeting the social sector (social bonds).

All three got a pretty enthusiastic response though I felt (but I may be biased) that Cohen was the one best received. Also, I am used to seeing a much more emotional response to Jacqueline’s speeches across the pond in the US where it is not rare to see standing ovations and teary eyes among audience members after she has told her story.

The art of story-telling is based on the premise that the listener will come up with his/her own interpretations and draw conclusions and implications of what s/he hears. In contrast, the more factual presentation feeds information to an audience, thus lending itself to more limited interpretation. Also, personal stories in particular draw on others’ empathy. We tend to put ourselves in the shoes of the one telling his/her story. By eliciting our emotions the one relating her story will seek to compel us, to draw us to her, and also to possibly make us experience a a-ha moment of sort.

Therefore, there is much more processing going on with story-telling and that processing is often done through a very personal and subjective filter, especially when a personal story is involved. The audience has to work harder and the range of lessons and conclusions drawn will be wider than in the case of a factual presentation. But in the end listeners will be more engaged if they feel resonance with the story that they have been told. However, if they do not connect with the story the rest of the process, i.e. drawing lessons and conclusions and possibly experiencing personal growth thanks to a light bulb moment, will not happen.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Convergence around Social Investing at SOCAP10 and EVPA Conference

I attended SOCAP10, the conference on social capital markets (“at the intersection of money and meaning”), last month in San Francisco and the annual EVPA conference (European Venture Philanthropy Association) last week in Luxembourg. Reflecting its membership the EVPA conference was mostly attended by intermediaries (on the financial / grant-making and advisory fronts) whereas in San Francisco there were also a number of social entrepreneurs.

Coincidentally, social investing was this year’s topic at the EVPA conference. It is a sign of how lines are blurring ever more between grant-making and investing in this increasingly populated pond between charity gifts and traditional investments seeking maximum financial returns.

It is actually ironic to think that impact investing is a relatively new notion for EVPA that happens to have been founded by veterans of the private equity industry in Europe, thus folks who lived and breathed investing for most of their careers but who have defined their involvement in the social sector in the form of philanthropy. I don’t know whether they will be interested to go back to investing – albeit of social nature – and, if so, how big an adjustment this will constitute for them.

Jean-Marc Borello, the CEO of Groupe SOS, was one of the rare social entrepreneurs present in Luxembourg but that may change if social investing becomes a significant area of interest for EVPA members. I frankly find it much more compelling to hear about an entrepreneur’s (or grantee’s) adventure related by him/herself than “derivative” stories told by funders or investors about their beneficiaries’ experiences in the trenches – but one degree removed from the action.

Thus, EVPA will probably have to strike a better balance as far as opening the floor to investors / funders vs. investees / beneficiaries.

Another major difference that I saw between the two conferences was the geographic scope of the actions that were presented. Whereas most of those who attended SOCAP seemed to be working on projects or ventures focusing on emerging markets / developing countries EVPA members have kept a domestic focus, thereby reflecting their geographic preferences historically. But this is changing – Jacana Venture Partnership is a case in point. Jacana’s objective is to promote the emergence of private equity fund managers in Sub-Saharan Africa. Its co-founder Stephen Dawson is the former chairman of London-based Impetus Trust, one of Europe’s premier venture philanthropy funds and one that focuses just on Britain.

Talking about emerging markets and developing countries, it struck me how little those regions were represented at both conferences. Granted, it is expensive for folks to travel from Asia, Africa, and Latin America to Europe or North America and also, a lot of ventures focusing on those areas that I heard about at SOCAP are based in the US or Europe – which itself poses a question.

But a higher representation is needed (through invitations or sponsored participations) for northern countries’ people to hear a different perspective (even for those working in emerging markets / developing countries) and to make sure that conferences in glitzy San Francisco or Luxembourg do not become private club-like gatherings happening behind closed doors.

There was little reference in Luxembourg to a topic that was very present at SOCAP, i.e. current efforts revolving around building the enabling context for the social investing sector. B Corp, an innovative kind of company focused on doing both well and good, was recently created by B Lab and new reporting standards are being developed by GIIRS (Global Impact Investing Rating System), another creation of B Lab, and by IRIS (Impact Reporting and Investment Standards), a project of GIIN (Global Impact Investing Network – a network of social investors). The two sets of measurement systems and standards have different purposes, one (GIIRS) centering on social investing per se while the other one (IRIS) aims to come up with a common language for describing social and environmental performance in general for any organization.

Putting together a robust enabling context is the prerequisite for significant financial resources currently invested in other asset categories to flow towards the hybrid sector between traditional grant-making and investing. It is great that things are moving forward in the US - and the impact of those actions intends to be global (the G in GIIR and GIIN). But Europe has to take notice and be aware of what is going on across the pond.

The upcoming SOCAP Europe in Amsterdam in early May will be a good opportunity to bring the two continents together and I know that the EVPA folks have already started talking with the SOCAP organization about how to collaborate best for that event and beyond.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Chile: Proud Miners and Populist President

It is fascinating to see how the odyssey of the Chilean miners has captured the world’s attention for several weeks and how their rescue conveyed a message of hope – mining accidents do not end well in general as the most recent ones including in the US (in West Virginia last summer) constituted a painful reminder. Especially after the earthquake that struck their country in early 2010 this victory over fate is what Chileans needed the most.

I lived in Northern Chile for nearly two years – not that far from Copiapo and the location of that mine. I saw every day the faces of those folks from the North, the so-called Nortinos (Northerners), who for the most part have a mixed European and Indian (Native American) background. Despite Chile’s economic takeoff since the early 80’s and continued economic progress since the return of democracy the Northern provinces (Chile’s First and Second Regions) are still populated by mostly poor people. So, the mining industry in spite of its very tough labor conditions that still result in shorter than average life expectancy, continues to represent a major draw for the population as salaries paid tend to be higher than average.

Also, the mining industry that remains the main production of the country is an immense source of pride for all Chileans. Ironically enough, beside state-owned Codelco most mines belong to foreign interests but Chile is proud to be the world’s largest copper exporter.

The national sentiment and love for the flag (there is a holiday called Day of the Flag - “Día de la Bandera” – in Chile and elsewhere in the region) run deep in Latin America. Chile in particular – and you will excuse the generalization here – has always suffered from some inferiority complex towards its bigger and more buoyant neighbors, mainly Argentina and Brazil. This is partly due to Chile’s long isolation – the long strip of land by the Pacific Ocean near the tip of the continent was not an obvious destination for world travelers for a very long time.

Today, while keeping some of that low-key national character and inferiority complex, the country is mightily proud of its economic successes (at least compared to those of its neighbors and case in point of Argentina, the land of booms and busts - for instance the country’s national airline company Lan and its retail giants have expanded throughout the continent), its mining industry’s world leadership, and its political stability since the fall of Pinochet.

All of this explains why Chileans remained riveted by this story for weeks, why soon after the miners were found to be alive spontaneous celebrations erupted akin to those only seen after la Roja (Chile’s soccer national team) victories, and why the country literally exploded in joy, emotion, and pride when all the miners were brought back to the surface alive and well.

In the process, Chilean President Piñera demonstrated how he has understood Chile’s soul as he got extremely involved in the rescue efforts. First – and to his credit – he held himself accountable by saying soon after the accident that those guys would not be abandoned under his watch but then when the happy outcome was soon to become a reality insisted to be there in person for days on end and was the first in line to greet each one of the rescued miners (even the young Bolivian guy… inside joke for those who know about the acrimonious history between Chile and Bolivia).

Piñera acted as a big-time populist here. He is no Chavez and no Castro – his politics or rather his economics are exactly the opposite of his Venezuelan and Cuban counterparts’ but my god, did he force himself on the media stage – prime time, national TV, the country’s hero in short (“Heroe de la Nación”).

He has bought himself enough political credit to withstand whatever crises (economic or political) may strike the country in the next 2-3 years…

Kudos to Piñera for standing up and putting his rear end on the line as he did – but let’s also recognize how he chose to politicize the miners’ rescue.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Good Hair Day

On my way back from Asia the other day I watched Chris Rock’s documentary Good Hair (see wikipedia page) that depicts the obsession of a lot of African American women about having “good hair”. Good hair means straight hair basically and the film does an excellent job of describing everything that so many women are willing and ready to suffer though to get their hair as straight as possible. Chris Rock has that charisma, charm, and instant connection and chemistry with folks so that he manages to get both women and men, as well as celebrities and no-name people in the movie to speak with their hearts about what “good hair” means to them – those comments are both funny and moving.

Incredible coincidence - my neighbor actually works for one of those LA-based human hair (from India!!) wholesalers. What were the odds, right? He said that the movie was quite accurate – so great job, Chris Rock, and a shout to my neighbor’s company

Rent or borrow this move if you can. It says so much about the American psyche and about the complexity of social justice, i.e. the fascination of those African American women for straight (in other words Caucasian-looking) hair.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Absolut (sic) Double Standards!!

I laughed the other day when I saw the Harvard subway station (T station) in Cambridge covered with big Absolut vodka posters. From time to time the Boston subway strikes a deal with a company to put its posters all over some given T station – and not only in the dedicated spaces. It is a little bit of an overkill from a subway rider’s standpoint but at least you can’t miss these ads…

Anyway, I was laughing when I saw Absolut going bezerk MBTA (Boston transit system) style because it made me think about how differently alcohol and cigarettes are treated in the US. Tobacco might well be another word for devil in this country…

Pointing to the addictive power of tobacco, its role in causing lung cancer and respiratory disease and other ailments such as heart disease is certainly the right thing to do. We don’t want our kids to start smoking, nor our grandmothers to smoke, nor our work colleagues, nor anyone around us for that matter because cigarettes stink. Alright…

But what about alcohol? How is alcohol less addictive than tobacco or less damaging to people’s health – to name a few possible repercussions, liver cancer, high cholesterol and heart condition due to alcohol high sugar content, and any dangerous situation that drunk folks can put themselves into?

I just don’t get it. Now, my point is not to discuss whether or not those among us who smoke or drink should be left alone as to how they choose to conduct their lives, what constitutes an addiction, or how much drinking and smoking cost to society from a public health standpoint.

What boggles my mind is just how smoking has been vilified whereas drinking is very accepted in this country’s culture. When I walk around in some Boston neighborhoods (you know who you are, Southie friends) and I see all those folks whose faces are totally ravaged by alcohol (and probably smoking too), I don’t understand how we as a society feel that it is ok. I live next door to a bar – a lot of folks are drunk when they leave. You find people going into bars and taverns at all times of day in certain neighborhoods. And this is more acceptable than people smoking a pack a day? I don’t see how.

In contrast, Europe has been as aggressive in its prohibition of alcohol advertising as it has been with smoking. Western European governments appear to consider that both drinking and smoking can have negative public health repercussions and thus, neither is encouraged – on the contrary high taxes on those products and limited advertising intend to curb consumption.

Why such a different outlook on drinking vs. smoking in the US? I don’t know... Enjoy the good times, Absolut!!

Monday, September 20, 2010

France is Hurting

I was in France for a few weeks over the summer and the level of discontent I saw among most people there struck me. I know the stereotype about French folks complaining and whining all the time – or at least a lot. This is not necessarily inaccurate but today it seems to have reached epic proportions. And what I heard behind the complaining was quite alarming: widespread sheer unhappiness and fear about the future.

I tried to figure out where all this malaise – uniquely French word indeed… - comes from.

1) Increased stress at the workplace: this is an unintended consequence of the shift from the 39- to the 35-hour workweek several years back. The new law reduced the work time but employers were obligated to keep salaries at the same level. This brilliant economic calculation logically resulted in employers not recruiting anyone for a while – even though the 35-workweek was at its core a measure intended to promote job creation… So basically, folks were told, you may work fewer hours but you’ve got to do the same amount of stuff.
And the headaches and increased stress were not limited to employees. Managers find themselves having to deal with their employees’ increasingly complex and ever-shifting schedules. Those who continue to work through the week without stopping at 35 hours get comp time – 2 days a month (24 days a year – 5 weeks!!!) on average. The comp time generally has to be taken the same month it is granted so that people can’t accrue too much vacation time (which is about 5 to 6 weeks already). Thus, any given day at least one team member is likely to be absent and the job still needs to get done…
What is more - as a consequence of having so much free time, organizing that extra comp / vacation time has become a substantial activity for a lot of folks – and certainly a distraction at work… While they are thinking about when it the best time to go to Musée du Louvre to avoid the long lines, they still have work to do… bummer!!

2) Ambivalent position towards reforms: I feel there is a broad understanding that reforms are needed, especially regarding pensions that are a ticking time bomb in France like in other industrialized nations. That being said, there is widespread concern that today’s benefits – whatever they are because they vary from company to company and quite significantly for those who work for the civil service - will be paired down a lot, which would mean for instance that a 55-year-old having worked hard all his/her life would have to wait until 65 instead of 60 to retire with full benefits if the retirement age was to be increased. The frustration and concern are understandable.
What adds to the frustration of most is that there will be double standards in the way reforms will come to pass. Civil servants working for ministries like the Ministry of Education or large state-owned companies like SNCF, the railway system operator, make up an ultra-sensitive group of stakeholders whose salaries have historically been pretty low compared to private sector compensations but in return whose benefits were quite good. The current administration knows from experience that this group is willing to go on strike and paralyze the country – an effective blackmailing strategy. Thus, those who are not in the civil service or do not work for large Fortune 100-type companies (that tend to offer more generous benefits than small and medium enterprises) feel as though they will be the ones who will pay at the end so that others can keep their benefits - or not lose as much as they will.

3) Lack of prospects: for most young people unemployment seems to be the likeliest prospect unless they graduate from the best Grandes Ecoles, the Ivy League-like graduate schools offering their students the best job and career prospects for that age group. Unemployment among youth has been at an all-time high – and poverty among young people (between 18 and 30) has become a nation-wide issue. It was heart-breaking for me to hear from the adolescents I spoke to (they have not even finished high school yet) that they were certain to be unemployed at some point in the next 10 years… Unemployment is a major concern but beside that concern young people don’t seem to believe that they’ll be able to have great careers and exciting jobs – not even that they will be able to make that prospect happen by themselves. What about a cool start-up? Certainly the French education system is generally not very good at fostering kids’ creativity - but it is still scary to think that the concept of being in control of one’s own fate, namely if you work like a dog things are pretty likely to turn out fine at the end, just seems foreign to most.

4) Too much aggressiveness in labor relations: I don’t know if this is because of the added stress that I mentioned above but I’ve been amazed at how aggressive relations between people have become, and in particular in the work place. In most stories I hear about relations at work, especially between manager / boss and employee, a win-win outcome never seems to be in the cards. Either one or the other is going to get screwed. And that happens mainly because folks will tell you that they know for a fact that the person across the table just wants to take advantage of them. Wow…

5) Middle class feeling squeezed: in a trend similar to the US and Britain in the past 15 years – but very uncharacteristic of France’s long period of growth following WWII that put the country solidly among the richest industrialized nations – the gap between the rich and the middle class has widened as the middle class’s real income has remained flat while that of the richest experienced a substantial growth. Like in Britain and the rest of Europe the expansion of professional services firms (consulting and banking) and to a lesser extent the increase in executives’ salaries in Fortune 100-type companies have broadened that gap while ordinary people were supposed to be content getting the inflation as an annual increase on their pay. Central Paris has become as closed to the vast majority of the population as are most downtown areas in New York, London, Boston, etc. With real incomes staying flat and quite a bit of inflation on some food staples like milk, meat, or vegetables in the past several years (overall inflation figures show modest increases but the consumer price index includes such sectors as tech products or cell phones whose prices have tended to go down for the same set of specs) the middle class is definitely feeling the pinch – and they think it is unfair.

6) Lack of leadership: Nicolas Sarkozy’s Dr Jekyll and Mr. Hyde personality does not inspire his countrymen and women. He can be visionary and innovative but also paranoid and controlling - and most people in France, even among his supporters, now see through his dual personality. Ironically, the country that produced Louis the XIVth (14th), Napoleon, and more proudly General de Gaulle is not big on leadership – probably some libertarian resentment toward the boss figure (the French invented the Guillotine after all). But still – whenever French people look toward the top and get confusing signs from a leader whose powers are immense (France’s “Fifth Republic” has fewer checks and balances to counter the President’s power than most other industrialized nations), that does not help them feel good about their future.

I am not sure where the country will go from there. It is indeed very French to worry about the country’s “decline” (from its powerhouse status dating back to the 18th century…) and I’ve heard heated arguments about this supposed decline for years. But this time it is different. French are frustrated, anxious, and often plain mad (as a result, racism is going up these days) and they generally don’t have the Americans’ optimism and resiliency to envision – and more importantly – work hard for a brighter future.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Quran Burning – Really?

I was shocked in the past few days that that pastor in FL who wanted to organize a Global Quran Burning Day (!!!!) on September 11th got so much press coverage and such mellow reactions at first. Granted, the US is a country where freedom of expression is sacrosanct – that is how it is possible for Ku Klux Klan advocates or those nostalgic of the Nazi era to demonstrate unopposed by the police. But the KKK / Neo-Nazi folks are exactly in the category where I put that pastor and his crazy and dangerous idea.

This is serious and worrying anti-Moslem sentiment – the worst example of racism. Period.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Inspired and Inspiring Individuals

I was fortunate to travel to Bogota and Rio de Janeiro a couple of months ago and on my way back from Rio, I sat on the plane next to a guy named Alberto with whom I struck a conversation that turned out to be extremely interesting. Alberto who is an architect by background and designs multimedia and pyromusical events has a passion for Tanzania and decided to start his own organization, Bricks for Life, that has already funded the construction of a library in rural Tanzania and is helping local youth acquire valuable professional skills, using architecture as an instrument for learning (i.e. brick-making, masonry, carpentry, eco-orchard, eco-garden, water harvesting projects, solar power/water heating projects, etc.).

It is a sign of our times that people like Alberto - whatever their means - take matters in their own hands and try to solve the problems that they particularly care about. I think we have a generation of Fixers here. They happen to be individualistic and entrepreneurial too. Here goes their thinking, “why defer to others hoping that they will solve a problem that bothers me”? And also, “I can’t see anyone that does this – or does this right, so I may as well do it myself”.

Bill Gates - and to a lesser extent Pierre Omidyar and Jeff Skoll - have been the most prominent figures of that generation of Fixers. Basically they walked away from the old habits of traditional philanthropy, which I would characterize as active / passive (active because traditional philanthropists would donate money but passive because they also generally accepted the context and resulting agenda of the sector that they got involved into), to rather be “active / active” social investors as they prefer to call themselves.

Gates’ work in global health is the best example of this new way of doing things. What he did was simply to change the global health agenda. He did so by committing vast amounts of money to fight tropical diseases like malaria which everyone had deemed urgent to cure for years but yet that remained under-funded.

Gates and his friends are not afraid to impose their own agenda for an entire sector despite being totally new to it. This is the kind of power and influence that history associates to 19th century philanthropists like Carnegie or Rockefeller.

The Giving Pledge initiated by Bill Gates and Warren Buffett that prompted 40 billionaires to commit part of their wealth to philanthropic causes drew a lot of attention this summer. It is great that Gates and Buffett are raising the bar and are not shy to look toward their peers and say, how about you guys, what do you do with your money?

But the generation of Fixers to whom Gates, Omidyar, Skoll - and Alberto - belong has something else than money in common, namely their drive to make things better.

You don’t have to have money to be one of those Fixers. I am always amazed when I watch Extreme Makeover Home Edition that features ordinary individuals and families with average (or below average) incomes who often make a tremendous difference in their communities through volunteering or some meagerly paid socially-valuable work. They are certainly not well off - and yet they also took matters in their own hands and decided to make a change.

Changing the agenda of an entire sector like global health or homelessness is probably reserved for those with vast amounts of capital at their disposal because money will move the other actors in that particular field and/or draw new ones.

But evidence shows that you don’t need to be a multi-millionaire to be a Fixer and a Change Maker. I am happy that our era counts with Alberto and others who are taking concrete actions to make this world a better place.

Obama Misunderstood By Most Americans

Time Magazine published an interesting piece about why President Obama has become Mr. Unpopular as they call him. It seems to me that the Democratic Party exemplified by Obama mainly appeals to some “happy few”, namely wealthy / highly educated Americans living in major urban areas.

Obama has probably kept the black vote too – as Clinton did, which is not surprising as we celebrate the 5th anniversary of Katrina and the Bush administration’s major failure in responding to the disaster.

But who else is on board? A significant portion of the working class has historically sided with Democrats because they were supposed to defend those folks’ interests better. But for those experiencing economic hardships it makes no sense to be behind this Administration: they don’t relate to its leader nor have they not benefited from its actions in general.

I don’t hear much about unions these days, so I am not sure where they stand. But I would be surprised if they were elated with this sluggish economic recovery that comes with few job creations. As I wrote in an earlier piece, I fear that this recovery – even when it gets stronger - unlike others in the past will not bring as many new jobs.

Ironically, those who are disenchanted with Obama’s politics do not like big government according to the Time Magazine piece - and yet they are criticizing the Administration for not getting the economy out of its present mess. Most are in favor of tax cuts which seem to be the one and only remedy they can think of for fixing an ailing economy. Maybe that is their vision of the government’s role…

But my point here is about the disconnection between the President and most people who voted for him in 2008. I can almost feel a “social class” disconnect – at least among non-African American voters.

There is a tremendous danger that the Democratic Party becomes the party of the rich, sophisticated, intellectual people while ordinary Americans - and I don’t like using the term “real people” because it tends to be exploited by populists in politics but that is what I mean – will find very little in common between them and what has become the Democratic Party.

Another sign of that “canyon” between the Obama Administration and most Americans is reflected in the people who came to work for the President. There was an amazing wave of enthusiasm in late 08 – early 09 among “the best and the brightest” (or considered as such by our system) to serve for the Obama Administration. Top schools and most prestigious employers in the country were heavily represented among those who got recruited – so many hailing from Ivy League schools or the likes of Stanford and from powerhouse professional service firms, Goldman Sachs in particular.

In a kind of closed loop transplants from those companies, schools or institutions recruited their kin, a crowd of devoted, smart, and hard-working people happy to forego their big Wall Street or Corporate America salaries to work for the Administration.

But how could this homogenous group be representative of America or can we expect that ordinary people will relate to them? “The best and the brightest” will please the wealthy / highly educated / (faux for some) liberal people – who else really?

The current malaise between Obama and most is also caused by the growing angry undercurrent in the country right now. It is certainly due in part to the economic situation and the hardships it has caused to most. But there is much more to this as evidenced by the success of the Tea Party or, more anecdotally, by most comments to the articles that I read on the Boston Globe web site. Every time I browse those comments – recently on an article pointing to the higher price of cigarettes in disadvantaged vs. wealthy neighborhoods – I am struck by how resentful and almost heinous they are. Where does the hate come from? I first saw that anger come to the front locally during the Skip Gates affair last year (when he was arrested by mistake upon entering his home in Cambridge).

Also, the Administration’s actions go against a lot of people’s deeply embedded values or beliefs, for instance their anti-government stance and individualistic nature. Obama won zero point on the health care reform with those who believe that government can’t fix problems (on the contrary…) and who did not care much that a significant portion of the population did not have health care coverage - since they were not affected directly.

I see another sign of that angry undercurrent in the fact that only 1 in 3 American identifies Obama as a Christian - this is anti-Moslem prejudice and it worries me. Finally there may be some “hangover effect” after the exhilaration of having elected the first African-American President in US history. Some voters I am sure are wondering, how did I exactly benefit from being socially progressive – however good it may have felt at the time?

The candidate Obama electrified crowds during his campaign with his message of hope. The reality of the recession has struck hard – hope is an afterthought for many. The current context may just accelerate the dwindling of the Democratic Party to an ever smaller and marginalized – though powerful – group of Americans.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

One too many “dumb guy” commercial…

I think I’ve seen one too many "dumb guy" commercial the other day… I mean the kind where a 20-something acts like an idiot with a woman the same age who is evidently much starter than him and saves the day. What’s more – in those commercials guys are shallow and appear to only like sports, cars, and sex basically. That’s the message. I don’t care for cars but I do like sports and sex, so yes the statement is partially accurate probably but this kind of commercials is twisted in a much more profound and disturbing way.

My interpretation is the following: in our society there remains huge inequality between men and women – and that starts right in the cradle and continues through childhood, teenage years, to adulthood up to Corporate America C-suites or other circles of power where women are still vastly under-represented. And for the same job there is still a difference in compensation between men and women in most professions.

So, the way our society (or rather how corporate America and Madison Avenue see it) compensates with this continued state of inequality is to portray young men and women 1) in a totally stereotypical and grotesque way and 2) in a manner where the balance of power is reversed.

Not only are women way smarter than men in those vignettes of our society but they are the ones in control, making up for guys’ dumbness, solving problems, and saving guys’ blunders.
The rationale of Corporate America and Madison Avenue is maybe that women will feel good about themselves watching those commercials and men will feel less guilty about their actual dominating position – unless they are too dumb to get the gist of those jokes of course…

I don’t know how others feel but I find this whole thing (those silly commercials and the wicked sub-text) infuriating frankly… I like humorous commercials but instead of giving us a false sense of comfort about equality and fairness in our society, they should bring up those issues in a humorous yet substantive way and we as a society should push much harder to resolve them. Let’s not keep our eyes off the prize…

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Farewell to Bill Moyers

Friday night April 30th was the last edition of the Bill Moyers Journal on PBS. Moyers is a monument of American Journalism and he has presented a series of journalistic programs on PBS (Public Broadcasting Service) over the years. Coincidentally, NOW that he hosted for years had also its finale that same Friday. I watched the Journal as often as possible and it struck me consistently that I just did not hear anywhere else what I would hear on the Journal.

It prompted me to think about what information reaches us - and how. It is hard not to infer that the information that we get is filtered big time…

Moyers had strong liberal opinions that he was not afraid of expressing, so those who disagreed on his political views had an easy time criticizing him. I am a bit biased since I would agree with him most of the time. But I think I am critical and analytical enough to see what a balanced opinion is - and it always seemed to me that Moyers asked the good questions and wanted to get to the bottom of whatever topics he covered. I never felt that he gave a pass to anyone on his program.

I read the comments posted by many viewers after his last program and I share most people’s concerns that when Moyers goes (and he’s gone), where will we find balanced, thorough, and fair journalism?

Part of the finale was about everyday folks who had decided to make themselves heard and were not afraid to stand up to “big interests”. The coalition of Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement was featured and I was compelled to see very different people in that coalition in terms of age, background, ethnicity, profession, sharing that same concern, i.e. they had had enough of being trampled on and not being able to express their opinions.

I feel like in the US most of us have given up and are just passive in front of whatever is decided by Washington or big corporate interests that affects us directly. Or rather we think we are powerless – so why bother?? That is a very scary thought.

Also, I think Americans are distracted by their everyday concerns. So many of them are just focused on getting by and making ends meet, let alone preparing for their future and that of their kids (because of the absence of a safety net) that they won’t bother protesting whatever Corporate America or Washington decides that they disagree with. They have bigger fish to fry…

In my view, a lot of folks in this country are like rats in a maze running like crazy or have constantly a gun on their heads – it is just about getting to the next day. Especially since the economic crisis struck.

There is some cultural aspect at play as well I believe. Culturally, Americans are pretty disciplined and law-abiding, which may be helpful sometimes (you don’t sweat about being jumped ahead when you wait in line here…) but also may lead to a certain degree of passivity.

Thus, seeing that group of ordinary citizens rise and say no to business as usual was very comforting. The message was that it does not have to be that way – being a “nobody” and not having connections does not mean necessarily that you’ll never get your voice heard.

Also, it was a shot in the arm for me - with respect to my own engagement and level of optimism. Each one of us has a role to play and we can make this world look like what we want it to be…

Moyers said that he was optimistic about the future as long as the US remains a society of citizens vs. a society of consumers… He could not be more right.

Thank you, Mr. Moyers!!

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Are we Winning the Race?

Happy Earth Day, Everyone!! I had a chance to follow from a distance the Skoll World Forum that took place in Oxford from April 14th to 16th. I was actually getting ready for a trip to South Africa and I ended up grounded in Boston because of that Icelandic volcano ash cloud…

So, I read the summaries of every session on the Social Edge web site. I was struck by the extraordinary variety of subjects that were addressed and by the enthusiasm that this Forum aroused. Videos posted on the site featured happy participants who seemed aware to be part of a global movement (apparently there was a good representation of folks from Southern countries) in which everyone wants the same thing (broadly, make this world a better place) and goes in the same direction, whatever folks work on specifically, improving access to drinking water or supplying financing to SMEs.

I had felt the same momentum and enthusiasm at SoCap 09 last September in San Francisco (see my earlier post about it).

I must say however that sometimes I wonder whether we are talking about a movement or rather a small club closed to the outside world since you tend to run into the same folks and see the same presenters in these conferences. But lets’ remain optimistic – last weekend around the same time that the World Skoll Forum was happening, there was a massive conference on global health at Yale in New Haven with a truly impressive set of presenters. And the other thing that makes me optimistic about the viability of this movement is the increasing number of young folks under 40 who are active in the social sector (however broad its definition) and are in the trenches day in, day out trying to make things happen.

Now, let me go back to one of my favorite themes - sounds like a broken record I am sure… The topic is impact and results. All this enthusiasm and energy for what exactly? At the end of the day, the objective is to make this world a better place. Are we successful? Isolated initiatives have that powerful PR effect when they work: it is nice and easy to communicate on x number of houses built in a village or y number of farmers whose income doubled. And yes, if there are a lot of those isolated initiatives, there will be some impact. But as I wrote in post some time ago on social investing, what is the real macro impact? To what extent are we getting the needle to move?

I have some doubts that the needle is significantly moving actually but the truth is that we don’t really know. It is just very complex and expensive to aggregate results of those disparate projects out there, big and small. Even doing so at the scale of a country (not a big one for that matter) is complicated…

Why is it important however? Because all of us in that movement are engaged in a race against time – look out there and consider a not so sustainable development in most places, climate change over which we have little control, or social inequalities that keep widening (just think about how the middle class is struggling right now in rich countries – we did not quite see that one coming, did we?).

I don’t know whether we are winning that race or not. But what I do know is that we have to do a better job of measuring our collective progress and put that outcome in a standard macro-economic context so that we will better understand where we are in that race but also what it will take to win that race and cause the needle to actually move…

If that does not happen, don’t be surprised to see people dropping out of the race – discouraged and disheartened because as rewarding to them and valuable in general their efforts are they won’t be able to figure out how their actions are helping the greater good.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

The Predictive Nature of Leadership (II)

See Part I below

So, what else to look into or look for? When I was doing those interviews, I would ask about personal and professional aspirations. We would also discuss that person’s vision of his/her environment. How does s/he see the world around him/her? Asking about aspirations was a good way to check for a combination of realism and ambition, which I consider to be a telling leadership trait. The thing with the vision of one’s world is that it gives a sense of how self-aware the person is and also how broad or narrow his/her universe is. I find it quite fascinating to hear how someone defines his/her universe – where to place boundaries? Should those be geographic, sectoral, topical, or generational? Self-awareness is indeed an important leadership trait and I am also biased towards breadth (not having a narrow definition of one’s world) – actually for that matter, a definition that is different (someone who is all about cars for example, and community of car aficionados, new technology around cars, etc.) would strike me as interesting as well.

I also found that the few that I interviewed or with whom I worked like Brian and Abby (whose organizations I discussed in earlier posts) who were clearly off the charts had a lot of charisma, and in particular had just incredible grace. I am not sure whether grace is an innate trait and I know it is certainly not a requirement for leadership, but seeing those young folks show so much grace I knew right away they would go do great things.

I probably did not do enough of those interviews nor have I spent enough time thinking about this question of whether and how leadership can be predicted - but I always felt that this is more an art than a science. Think about the various leadership traits or ingredients that I have mentioned. It would be nice to look for a combination but what’s the minimum threshold for each of them – or is there a minimum overall level to target? This does not seem much practical.

And intuition played a role too, and not an insignificant one. Again, this is related to my own bias. While knowing that I am quite analytical I am also quite intuitive and I trust my instincts. I saw this at play when I was interviewing folks and I would be convinced that those guys would be community leaders. What community leadership means essentially is that students may play leadership positions on campus but above all, they are outstanding members on campus, always being there to help others and being a resource to their classmates whenever they can.

I had that type of intuition a couple of times. That could seem odd because today for a candidate to convey that s/he is a going to be an outstanding member of his/her community is among the requirements. You know the short program in skating and whatever figures skaters have to do – that’s the same for anything related to community in a business school application and interview. Despite the fact that I heard dozens of times folks telling me that they would be engaged from day one, I knew listening to some of them and observing their body language (the sparkle in their eyes, their excitement when I brought up the subject) that they would very likely be truly outstanding classmates.

The funny thing is that coincidentally after some got admitted I caught a glimpse of them doing exactly that: I saw one of my students helping another student in Finance in her classroom and I also heard about another one who was working hard to help his fellow ex-military classmates to think about possible jobs in the corporate world.

In sum, I don’t have a secret formula for predicting whether young folks can become leaders in their own right. Past leadership experience counts. Personality traits such as humility, self-awareness, ambition, selflessness all matter as well. Those are the ingredients. But we also know that leadership is often expressed in challenging times and thus, the true test may very well come only whenever life throws a curve ball at those folks and they have to step up to the plate and react quickly - without having the time to think about the stuff they learned in school or the good intentions they swore they would have no matter what.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

The Predictive Nature of Leadership (I)

[This is the first of two installments.]

When I was doing business school admissions work, one of the big questions that I grappled with was how to tell if a candidate was going to be a future leader. Leadership potential is a key component of any successful business school graduate, so it is legitimate that it would constitute one of the main criteria for admission into business school.

Looking for evidence of past leadership would seem the first thing to do when considering the potential of a candidate – even though the track record of any 25-year old can be slim and also, like in the stock market, past performance does not help predict future one…

For those educated in the US, extracurricular activities give them an opportunity to take on leadership positions in their teen years (e.g. captain of a sports team, class leadership position in high school) and then in college. Moreover, the notion of leadership is one that is understood, well developed, and valued in this country whereas in others – and I am thinking of Europe and Latin America which are regions I know a bit – it is either considered fuzzy (what does leadership mean exactly?) or even despicable in some more egalitarian societies (if someone leads, others will have to follow – but aren’t we all equal?).

In my reflections and discussions with my colleagues about leadership, the very nature of leadership was addressed. What dos it mean to be a leader and how can one lead? The stereotypical nature of the “quarterback leader”, i.e. charismatic figure (often a man) who inspires and awes his colleagues and gets them to work like dogs and do anything they can to please him and reach the organization’s goals, is far from reflecting the full range of what leadership is or should be. Other forms of leadership, such as thought leadership (which is about producing breakthrough concepts rather than leading others) or quiet leadership (which characterizes a more subdued management style), are also now considered legitimate.

However, broadening the definition of leadership does not fundamentally change the question of predicting whether anyone will be a leader. Past evidence does matter. Exposure to leadership positions is valuable because it will guarantee that the person will have learned some skills from that experience, however easy or difficult, successful or tedious. I think it does say something about a young person’s motivation as well even though a lot of young folks seek those leadership positions as “resume builders” because they know that higher education institutions or employers will be looking for those experiences when scanning resumes or going through applications.

So, what else to look into or look for?

Feel free to share your thoughts on the subject… Thanks!!

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Comic Relief – Who Speaks Legalese??

One of my students sent me a job posting the other day for me to review it in preparation for an interview with a potential employer. The position was a very typical post-MBA product management job in a tech company – nothing unusual that far. But them upon reading the posting I stumbled across the following paragraph:

“PHYSICAL DEMANDS: While performing the duties of the job, the employee is regularly required to use hands and arms and talk or hear. The employee requires dexterity in using telephone, computer keyboard, mouse and calculator while seated at a desk. The employee is frequently required to stand, walk and sit. The employee may frequently move to interact with fellow employees and/or clients. Specific vision abilities required by this job include close vision, depth perception and ability to adjust focus.”

I am not making this up… The employee is required to use hands and arms and hear and talk – well, duh… The employee requires dexterity in using telephone – wow, why not virtuosity? And oh yes, the employee is required to stand, walk, and sit – good thing that he/she is not expected to crawl or swim…

When I shared my disbelief with my student, she sort of smiled and said, oh yeah, this is very standard now… So, to those of you who work in Corporate America or Corporate Somewhere Else and are not surprised by this either, I am telling you, wake up, people!! We are talking about an extreme case of Legalese here…

In this world of absurd political correctness, we should pause for a minute and think about what extremity of ridicule we’ve let things reach without reacting…

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Global Citizen Year – Shaping the next generation of young Americans

I wrote about Brian, a former student who started The Right Side of History Campaign, in an earlier post. Another ex-student of mine who is just brilliant, Abby Falik (Abby was one of the speakers at the Harvard Social Enterprise Conference this weekend), created a compelling organization right out of business school, Global Citizen Year. The idea behind Global Citizen Year is to engage a bunch of young Americans in a 9-month program, after they graduate from high school and before they start college, in order for them to get immersed in developing countries where they work for 6 months with local NGOs.

Abby came to business school with the seeds of that project in mind as she had been struck by the lack of international exposure of Americans in general while realizing also that the younger generation was probably different, namely much keener to get connected to the rest of the world. Being one of the so-called Millennials, she also knew that those folks constituted the most socially-conscious generation in history for which doing well does not come without doing good.

There is a long tradition of service (i.e. volunteering) in the US, dating back to the 30’s and the Civilian Conservation Corps created by President Roosevelt and the Peace Corps in the 60’s. Then AmericaCorps was founded in the 90’s during Bill Clinton’s first term and today thousands of young people spend a year doing service as part of organizations like YouthBuild or City Year.

Global Citizen Year draws upon this tradition and adds an international flavor, also targeting slightly younger folks and integrating some component of learning.

Abby who is an extraordinary young woman (by her smarts, grace, and determination) has been successful at getting her organization off the ground quickly and has managed to gather a “heavy-hitting” Advisory Council in particular, with the likes of Wendy Kopp, Teach for America’s founder, HBS professor and “leadership guru” Rosabeth Moss Kanter, or Matthew Flannery,’s founder and CEO.

Abby’s vision is for her organization to count 20,000 alumni, have reached out to 10,000 “host communities”, and have 5,000 projects implemented thanks in part to the GCY Fellows by 2020. This is an ambitious target for a program that costs over $25k per Fellow but GCY is already active in Senegal and Guatemala and is looking to expand to other countries in 2010.

More importantly, Abby knows that her nonprofit cannot do it all by itself and have a truly significant impact – there are about 75m of 18- to 34-year olds in the US alone after all... She has to create a movement so to speak, 1) to institutionalize a gap year between high school and college (that is what she wants) or to make it standard for young people to include a year of service in their education in the US, and 2) hopefully inspire similar initiatives around the world that would have young folks from northern and southern countries go spend several months abroad working on projects having social impact.

I am proud of you, Abby.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

The Social Innovation Fund: What to Watch in 2010

The Obama Administration has set up the Social Innovation Fund with a view to replicating solutions to social problems that have proven effective. 2010 will be a pilot year for the Fund as the first $50m will be disbursed, actually $200m in total as the remaining $175m should come from matching private funds (not an easy task by the way in those tough economic times).

President Obama and his team have tapped into one of the characteristics of the social sector in this country when they designed the SIF: the very entrepreneurial nature of the sector has caused a lot of innovative initiatives to get off the ground. In Boston for instance there is a cluster of nonprofits that have specialized in after-school programs and have earned excellent programmatic and management reputation, such as Citizens Schools, Jumpstart, BELL, or Summer Advantage. Obviously, one has to wonder whether those guys talk enough to each other and partner on joint initiatives – but the proliferation of organizations surely multiplies the chances that new solutions to serious problems will be found.

Those programs or projects can thrive at a local level as it is usually not that hard to find enough funding to pay for activities at a limited scale. However, securing money to pay for a national expansion is a totally another ballgame and the process of expansion itself is complicated and full of pitfalls. That is why the Social Innovation Fund sounds like such a great idea.

This is how the SIF will work: $50m are going to be shared among 5 to 7 intermediary organizations that each will receive between $5m and 10m. This is actually a 5-year commitment, thus those intermediaries will receive the $5-7m amount for 5 years.

By choosing to work through intermediaries, the Fund does what would seem most efficient – no need to treat directly with the multitude of nonprofits on the ground that will receive its support. Also, the model of managing a portfolio of promising organizations and supporting them in their growth phase over several years is quite proven - it is actually called Venture Philanthropy (VP). The likes of New Profit or Venture Philanthropy Partners (VPP) were the pioneers of that “movement” about 10 years ago (not a lot of other VP shops have actually emerged and succeeded since then). Certainly, they know what they are doing.

Now, I do believe however that the SIF grant-making model presents a couple of potential problems. By subcontracting the selection of the ultimate beneficiary organizations to intermediaries (even though it will issue selection criteria) SIF runs the risks that the whole process will lack consistency from one intermediary to the next. Furthermore, if the Fund ends up working with New Profit or VPP, how can we be sure that they are not going to push their “protégés”? They have all the incentives in the world to do so. If they stick to the same organizations they already picked to join their portfolios as beneficiaries of the SIF money, intermediaries won’t obviously have to find the funding that those nonprofits would have needed in the next 5 years. Also, why not promote their “protégés” as VPP or New Profit will already have conducted thorough due diligence and established the social value and effectiveness of those entities’ models? Thus, the likelihood of the New Profits and VPPs of the world seeking out other nonprofits is pretty low.

What is more, even though I did not attend any kind of secret meetings or am in the know on this, I’ve heard enough in the last few months that New Profit, VPP, or Root Cause (another intermediary but one that does not do VP) have engaged in a serious lobbying effort towards the Obama Administration (where they know a bunch of folks) in order to make sure that 1) the money goes through intermediaries like them, and 2) they are the ones actually getting it.

I am not suggesting that they have lacked or would lack integrity but it is fair to say that there is some form of tug of war or rat race around and after this SIF money. I should add though that the press release relaying the news about the 2010 funding pointed out that new intermediary organizations are encouraged to apply for the funding available. We will see if that happens or not and if it does, who is behind these new intermediaries.

The last potential difficulty with the SIF set-up has to do with the challenges of replication itself. To take a community organization that is active at the local level and make it a national force is extremely complex. Scaling – without even going from local to national – is hard and history shows that there have been more failures than successes and that the process is very long. Thus, let’s be realistic and not wait for early miracles!!

In sum, replicating ideas and models that have been most effective at solving social issues is great and much needed. Obama likes to take the Harlem’s Children Zone (HCZ) as an example of an organization (founded and led by the charismatic Geoffrey Canada) that has changed the lives of so many kids (by investing in their early childhood development) and whose model should be replicated in every corner of this country. But my sense is that not all beneficiary nonprofits will be such an obvious pick...

Overall, I remain optimistic and positive about SIF because at the end of the day let’s not forget that dozens of organizations ($200m distributed with an average grant of at least $100k) will be able to ramp up their activities. But there are a few things that we’ll have to watch closely:
· To what extent can matching funds be raised to the level of $175m as planned?
· Will other intermediaries than the usual suspects like New Profit or VPP be selected?
· Among the beneficiaries that VPP or New Profit pick – if they are indeed chosen by SIF – how many will there be that are not in their portfolio currently or were not in the process of becoming one of their portfolio organizations?
· Will the beneficiaries’ management capacity be high enough - whatever support they receive from the intermediaries - to overcome obstacles of scaling up and replication?

Friday, February 12, 2010

The Right Side of History

I wanted to tell you about one of my former students, Brian Elliot, who founded The Right Side of History Campaign a couple of months ago. What prompted Brian to create that organization was the passing of Proposition 8 in California last year that banned gay marriage.

The LGBT (Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender) community still suffers from a number of discriminations in this country and the question of marriage is just the tip of the iceberg.

Brian has chosen to target the straight community to help spread the word about those discriminations and bring about change eventually. He drew an analogy with the civil rights movement in the US in the 60’s when the force that made the difference and caused the Johnson administration to pass sweeping civil rights legislation was not so much the activists or the African-American community (despite the obvious leadership of Martin Luther King or Robert Kennedy) but rather the non-militant white community who got absolutely disgusted and ashamed of seeing on the evening news footage of local police treating black protesters like animals in Selma and other places in the South.

Brian thought that the same rationale could be applied to the non-militant straight community regarding LGBT issues. If the outrage about unfair treatment of LGBT folks on many levels came from straight people, the probability of successful change would be much higher.

Straight Talks for Equality is an initiative launched by the Right Side of History Campaign. As its name indicates, it is about straight folks having conversations about what equality means to them and why some portions of the population, including LGBT people, are still discriminated against today.

Brian has relied on social networks such as Facebook to spread the word towards young people who constitute the Right Side of History’s target age category. He launched a group on Facebook called Give Brian Equality and in just four weeks over 19,000 supporters have become fans.

Brian and his team are working on their web site which does need improvements right now and they have already completed their business plan and raised about $30k.

Go Brian!! A lot of social justice issues are unresolved in the US and elsewhere around the world and it is great news that someone as gifted as Brian Elliot who could do pretty much whatever he wants in the corporate world and make a bundle of money has chosen to take on issues that are not necessarily popular with all Americans or figure prominently on their radar screens.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Haiti Earthquake: A Missed Opportunity for Large NGOs

The Haiti Earthquake is slowly drifting out of the headlines and as the number of casualties is said to top 200,000, there have been alarming reports that aid does not nearly reach the multitude of people in need.

I don’t know whether coordination is worse this time than it was in 2005 in the various areas hit by the Tsunami. It is probably easy to think that it should not have taken much to come up with some disaster plan ahead of time and then follow it when sadly the catastrophe happened. But I am pretty sure that this is not as simple when it is just chaos around as it was the case shortly after the Earthquake. It is also rare to see a disaster of that magnitude hit a capital city with high density and a large population. One has to remember as well that the Haiti administration ceased to function almost entirely overnight and that most of the senior UN folks died when their building collapsed.

However, a few weeks after the Earthquake hit, it must be extremely frustrating for the population – and for donors on this side – to see that aid is not reaching its destination.

Like in 2005 big humanitarian organizations are competing for people’s financial contributions to the relief efforts. As I pointed out in an earlier post a lot of those large NGOs realized that the emotion caused by the 2004 Tsunami provoked an unprecedented movement of generosity on the part of the general public. The last 2 years have been tough for those nonprofits on the fundraising side, thus it is not unrealistic to think that they are viewing the Haiti Earthquake as an opportunity to be helpful to the Haitian people and in doing so, fulfill their mission certainly but also raise much needed money for non-Haiti-related activities.

I did a search on Google of the term “donate to Haiti” and here is what I got: eleven (11!!) sponsored links, in other words ads, by humanitarian organizations, namely from the top of the screen to the bottom (3 in the top segment of the page and 8 in the right column), Red Cross, UNICEF USA, Habitat, Clinton Bush Haiti Fund, Save the Children, Hope for Haiti, Samaritans Purse, Food for the Poor, Doctors Without Borders, Charity Navigator (a tool to conduct due diligence on nonprofits), and IRC. The search results listed the following links on the first page (not including the news results): Red Cross, how to Avoid Scams (, Yele (Wyclef Jean’s nonprofit), the general Google page on how to donate for relief efforts that I mentioned in a previous entry, and four newspaper / magazine articles on where and how to donate (in order US News, NY Daily News, Huffington Post, and The Atlantic).

My reaction to this is twofold. As much as I applaud the efforts of the UNICEFs, Red Cross, and MSFs of the world, I think it is confusing to most folks out there to get messages from those organizations and many others asking to help them specifically. In a time of such a huge crisis, considering moreover that the vast majority of the general public knows very little about who does what in the social sector – and even less about who does what well – I don’t see the “greater good value” of sending those messages to the general public.

What the public wants is to contribute to relief efforts in Haiti. People want their money to get where it is needed, they want to see that their money is making a difference and helping those who are suffering right now. My guess is that they could not care less whether the money goes to Mercy Corps, MSF, CARE, or UNICEF as long as it reaches those in need.

That is why the concept of a Fund like the Clinton Bush Haiti Fund is appealing because it is equivalent to having a big bucket where people give to a cause vs. a certain entity and then the money is distributed according to the needs.

It is not surprising that most donations to date have gone to organizations considered as generic names so to speak like the Red Cross or UNICEF. I bet most think that the Red Cross has a particular status whereas in fact the American Red Cross is just another 501c3 like any other nonprofit in the same field. The Federation of the Red Cross and the Red Crescent housed in Switzerland does have international organization status but the national organizations don’t.

In this dramatic crisis, I would like to see nonprofit leaders do for once what they have been long criticized for not doing enough, i.e. BAND TOGETHER. Why don’t they raise money together and figure out a way the money should be distributed among their organizations depending on what part of the reconstruction or relief activities they are taking on?

An interesting NYT article recounted earlier this week how in other countries like Britain and Canada such pooling of funds has taken place on occasion in times of great catastrophes. But it has not been possible in the US yet – it should be noted though the American Red Cross did pass on 46% of the money it raised after the Asian Tsunami to other organizations, which was positive.

Thus, the idea has been around – actually brought up by those organizations that raised very little money obviously – but large humanitarian agencies in the US have not come through on this topic.

This is a shame and a major missed opportunity. For a sector that is widely known for its “planting the flag” mentality (i.e. I want my organization’s name on this project – as a result, the project’s very objective may take a back seat to the organization’s and its leadership’s ego), the Haiti crisis was an opportunity to do things differently, to “think outside the box” – if this cliché is ever to be used… – and to show the world that this is not about them.

And don’t get me wrong, I am not suggesting that it is actually about them but by acting this way, it seem awfully as though large NGOs and international organizations want to get our money because they know better and will do a better job with it than others.

Lastly, I believe that MSF’s co-founder and ex-president Rony Brauman was wrong (no newspaper article found) when he said the other day that people should keep donating to his organization, irrespective of the needs in Haiti because the needs are so enormous elsewhere. The needs in other countries are indeed huge. But as I already argued – and sorry for sounding repetitive, supporting MSF or the IRC is not what the public wants – not now.

This is what I think the NGOs should do: in case there is any money left after the relief and reconstruction needs have been met, all the nonprofits that received contributions should contact those who donated, giving them the choice to get the % of their gift that was not utilized for Haiti back or to allocate it to other programs of their choice (the nonprofit should list options) or picked by the entity itself (no earmarking).

I am afraid that by doing business as usual so far the big humanitarian organizations involved in the wake of the Haiti Earthquake have reinforced negative stereotypes about them and lost an opportunity to change the way they work and, in doing so, be way more effective and helpful to the Haitian people.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Scott Brown, Productivity Gains 2010 Edition, and the State of the Union Address

The victory of Scott Brown over Martha Coakley for Ted Kennedy’s senate seat last week sent shockwaves in Massachusetts (MA) and across the country. True local liberals must have wondered how their neighbors could vote for Scott Brown, I suppose the same way they asked how all those rednecks out there voted for Bush – twice!! To add insult to injury the senator-elect is not even a social conservative – what is going to happen to gay marriage and the right for women to choose?

There is some degree of misconception actually that the Commonwealth of Massachusetts has always been hard-core liberal and overwhelmingly Democrat. Obama did win the presidential election with a 28-point lead but Massachusetts voted for Reagan both times actually… And Massachusetts was a much more conservative state pre-1970’s than it is today.

Boston is about 85% Democrat but across the state the split is about 60-65% Democrats and 35-40% Republicans. Thus, if about only 10% of the electorate changes its mind and decides to vote Republican instead of Democrat we have a very close race. This is clearly what happened with some Democrats who felt that their votes were taken for granted by Coakley and/or who were unhappy about current unemployment and what they feel is the failure of the Obama administration to do something about it.

And this is not even counting Independents who represent over 2 million people in MA and who heavily favored Brown in pre-election polls (almost 2/3 said they would vote for him according to a Suffolk University poll – similar data was apparently not collected on Election Day). Last year, those same Independents voted 57% for Obama.

Last factor was participation as folks in Republican districts voted more in masses than in Democratic ones. Yes, people, every vote counts…

Another thing that struck me in this election is that voters don’t need to be 100% aligned with candidates to cast their ballots in their favor. Unemployment and healthcare were on most people’s minds and hugely influenced their decisions. And I would bet that a lot of those who voted for Brown did not agree on the more conservative part of his agenda. But they did not care this time.

What people are truly worried about is that they don’t see in the early signs of the economic recovery a decrease in unemployment numbers. There is always a lag between the economic activity and the labor market but this time unemployment figures do not seem to move much if at all.

And I think that a lot of folks who work in Corporate America have been seeing the same thing I’ve been hearing accounts of, i.e. companies have found ways to do the same with fewer people. So, why hire back the folks who got laid off or recruit new people as long as the activity does not pick up significantly? I am afraid that a lot of the jobs lost won’t be coming back, and not only those that were outsourced to developing or emerging countries. The name of the new game is “Productivity Gain – 2010 Edition” - a lot of people out there are not going to protest when they are told they have to take on some of the tasks of someone who just left the company in addition to their regular duties – who would be foolish enough to say “no way, Jose, I don’t like the 2010 Edition and I don’t want to play”?

Obama in his State of the Union Address last night had a clearly different tone than he would have had before the MA election. It is as though his Administration got a shot in the arm and realized they had to come out more strongly to show Americans they are doing something about this crisis. And the situation for the Republicans has also changed radically as they have a totally renewed sense of self-confidence and are dying to take on the Administration and the Democrats...

But frankly, I am not sure there are a ton of things Obama can do to curb unemployment if indeed mentalities have started to change and the “do more with less” approach that bears the fruits of significant future discontent and tensions in the workplace is becoming the new norm in Corporate America.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Some thoughts about the Haiti Earthquake and the 2004 Tsunami

It has been heart-warming to see the outpouring of generosity and support since the disaster hit in Haiti. I even saw a message about earthquake relief yesterday on a highway sign that normally gives live info about traffic congestion…

As the examples of other catastrophes that gathered far less attention (earthquake in Kashmir or Iran a few years ago) show, the extent of the emotional connection that one feels with those who have been struck by a natural disaster is going to determine in a big way the level of people’s generosity. In the US, the proximity to the island and the presence of substantial Haitian communities in many large urban areas (20,000 in Boston for example) can explain the level of mobilization. Also, most Americans – even those who know next to nothing about other countries – are aware that Haiti is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere and thus, seeing the poorest of the poor struck by such a catastrophe is heart-wrenching for everyone.

Man-made disasters often generate far less sympathy for their victims – for instance, a civil war in Haiti would be viewed by most as yet another failure on the part of the different parties in the country to work together and make things right for their people.

That same emotional connection we are seeing now explained the big-time generosity in early 2005 after the Tsunami hit Southeast Asia and caused over 300,000 deaths. The disaster struck a day after Christmas (which made the catastrophe even more “unfair” to most though it was a totally irrational reaction) in places that were known by a lot of Westerners who had vacationed there or at least heard about them. The fact that a number of foreign tourists – mainly from English-speaking countries – were among the victims helped spread the word and the emotion. And finally that part of the world is considered “non-hostile” to the West unlike Iran for instance. Although most of us can make the difference between a country’s politics and its civilian population’s plight, this is about emotional connection that by definition is subjective.

A major difference with the 2004 Tsunami aftermath is the role that social networks are playing this time. It has been amazing to see how the likes of Twitter, MySpace, and Facebook have helped people stay connected with loved ones or share or ask for information about family members they had not heard about. CNN was counting on its viewers in the first 48 hours following the catastrophe for images. All phone lines were down but I heard about folks who were able to communicate by skype – incredible.

The 2004 Tsunami turned out to be a bonanza for NGOs that got involved in the relief efforts. Amounts raised worldwide went through the roof compared to whatever those organizations had achieved in the past, even for relief assistance. Arguably, those entities provided a service in the affected areas and thus, the money raised enabled them to do that work on the ground. However, a percentage of the funds that were collected paid for those NGOs’ administrative infrastructure and sometimes for other projects as well. I am under the impression that most of those organizations, even the bigger ones, did not communicate on the way the money was spent.

Now, having experienced how hard it is even for good organizations to raise money, especially in times of economic crisis (see what happened after the burst of the internet bubble in 01-02 and since the Lehman meltdown in the fall of 08), I don’t have a problem knowing that some of the Haiti Earthquake money will serve to fund those nonprofits’ “backbones” and maybe less publicized but equally important projects as well – however, if that is the case, people should be informed before making their donations and every NGO receiving money for the relief efforts should report on its use.

I wonder about the way relief efforts can be coordinated. Obviously, in an area nearly 100% destroyed, the order of business is just to scramble and do as much as possible. Every bit counts, every dollar counts, every pair of arms counts. But given the state of Haiti’s infrastructure before the disaster and knowing the extent of destruction, it is no surprise however that aid relief has a hard time getting to the people right now. In 2004, a week after the Tsunami, Doctors Without Borders (MSF) stopped accepting donations arguing that aid could not arrive where it was supposed to go and thus additional money was not going to help. Let’s hope that those involved in the relief efforts won’t have to get to that extreme. NPR just had a story about possible relief gridlock.

I feel like CNN and other news networks are having a bowl right now – not literally because I know they care about the suffering and the pain of the Haitian people but this Earthquake is such good business for them. I was in Puerto Rico when the disaster hit and I watched CNN (and Fox News) in my hotel room quite a bit. As I already wrote, I am not a fan of media-bashing and I recognize the value of the CNNs of the world, namely informing us and bringing us live news coverage – but you can tell that catastrophes are the bread and butter of those folks. Natural disasters make for such compelling images and so much emotion also that viewers will stay stuck to their screens for days on end. And CNN has the resources to send a bunch of its people down who know virtually nothing about the country (based on the comments I heard) - but hey, there are journalists and even the good Doctor Gupta who are reporting on the ground, so I guess we are all covered...

I don’t want to finish on a cynical note, so here is some information again about how you can get involved in the relief efforts: Network for Good’s web site / blog and Google’s Crisis Response page.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Haiti Earthquake

We did not have to wait long for this decade’s first calamity… I was wondering in my previous piece what was in store for all of us and boom, the Haiti earthquake hit that poor country so hard!! I lived there for a year in 1995-96, which was probably the best period the country enjoyed in a very long time, i.e. shortly after former President Aristide came back from exile and when there was a high level of optimism about the country’s future. But the increasingly seemingly undemocratic way Aristide ruled the country, his reluctance to leave power, his eventual “exile”, and a continued political instability and economic hardship made the last 10 years tough on the country and left it even less prepared to deal with today’s disaster.

It is just terribly sad to see the pictures of places and neighborhoods I knew well that look all but totally destroyed – it is all the more chilling to have been in these areas and see now that what’s left of them is rubbles and chaos.

Fundraising has been quick to get organized. In particular, the option offered by the Red Cross to send a $10 donation by SMS ($10 is then added to your next phone bill) is very smart and has worked extremely well in the US. Yahoo has a direct link to Network for Good’s web site / blog that has sorted out and listed the NGOs active in Haiti and Google has set up a Crisis Response page featuring a number of organizations that are involved in the relief efforts as well making it possible to post messages (searching for missing folks or providing information) and to use Google Voice for free for 2 weeks for calls to Haiti.

I will be back later with more thoughts on the aftermath of the Earthquake.

Monday, January 4, 2010

I am no psychic…

I celebrated the end of the decade by falling asleep at 11pm watching a movie and my wife woke me up at midnight… Makes me wonder how I am going to finish this decade - if I am still around then…

I have to say that the past decade started pretty well since I was on the Washington Mall near the Lincoln Memorial all jazzed up about the fireworks and the new Millennium (where did the collective excitement go by the way?). And then came September 11 and the burst of the internet bubble and in an interesting symmetry, those ten years ended with a global financial crisis that put our whole system on the edge of the precipice and with a failed terrorism attempt on a flight bound to the US from Amsterdam last Christmas Day.

I have certainly no psychic talents, so why should I be any good at foreseeing what History has in store for us? But yes, strangely enough, every decade I am just surprised by what happens – stuff that seems to come from left field… In the 70s there was that terrorism in Europe (I lived in Paris as a kid) - but friends and readers, I am not that old, I was not pondering in December 1969 about what might happen in the 70s… Rather I did not want to go to school and I was puking every day, but that’s another story.

If I had been told at the end of the 70s that the Soviet Giant would crumble and collapse and the Berlin Wall would fall, I would have laughed. If ten years later someone had told me that there would be two massive genocides in the 90s, in Rwanda and former Yugoslavia and the international community would be sitting idle (including myself) doing nothing, I would not have laughed but probably banged my head against the wall, wondering how that could be possible after the Holocaust in WWII – my generation grew up with this “Never Again” thing in mind. Did not have much of an effect, did it?

Same tune – end of the 90s, I probably would have disagreed with the assertion that Islamic fundamentalism was going to become the major threat to the Western world – probably out of idealism and naïveté and also because I did not share the political agenda of those who were saying so at the time (because there were some). As to the global crisis, there had been those big systemic crises in Southeast Asia, Russia, and Mexico in the 90s but Western countries seemed far from those excesses – we believed we knew better I guess. Yeah right!!

So, what now? Don’t ask me, I have no idea. But let’s all try to have fun, be happy, and continue whatever little things we all do to make this world a better place.

Happy 2010 - and some cool work in Madagascar

Happy New Year to everyone and all the best for 2010!! I was fortunate to be away for about 2 ½ weeks in December, escaping the cold weather that came to Boston suddenly and with a vengeance to work in Madagascar of all places on the evaluation of an organization called FAPBM (full name is in French) whose objective is to finance the country’s national park system over the long term. They set up a fund a few years ago that is invested on the financial markets (following a rather conservative investment strategy actually) and that will hopefully produce enough income to pay for part of those parks’ operating costs consistently in the future.

That financial mechanism has been quite effective in Latin America in particular (check the web site of the regional organization RedLAC), so the folks in Madagascar are not reinventing the wheel certainly. But 1) there is no similar success story in the Africa / Indian Ocean region (the Fund in Madagascar has been around since early 2005), and 2) some may have discovered Madagascar only when the cartoon was released (I did not see any lemurs by the way but I did see 2 crocodiles…) but you guys know that Madagascar is off the charts with respect to the biodiversity value of its environment. 80% of all species on the island are endemic, i.e. they are only found in Madagascar.

The thing is that the country was that close to just selling half of its forests to Korean humongous conglomerate Daewoo, is still very poor, and has been stuck in a political crisis for over a year now. So, you can imagine how high the stakes around FAPBM’s work are.

Most folks there - in government, the international community, the NGO sector, and the corporate world - realize that a compromise has to be found between a sustainable use of resources (which means that some extractive activity, i.e. mining and oil drilling, is going to be done within the boundaries of those parks) and the preservation of that amazing nature, all the more that whatever is lost will be mostly lost for good and forever – no other place where you can go find it…

These huge tensions are not unique to Madagascar – they are actually common in poor countries. But the country’s iconic nature and the people’s poverty just make those challenges even more pressing and complex.

I will write more about my impressions of that beautiful and interesting country. First time in that part of the world, I have to give you more than my (boring?) spiel on sustainable development…