Spotlight on philanthropy

June 1, 2011

In 1984 Marc Koska read a newspaper article that changed his life. The article predicted that the HIV contagion that had surfaced a few years earlier would morph into an all-out pandemic across the developed world via the unsanitary practice of reusing syringes. He spent the next three years traveling and designing a cost-effective syringe that would lock up if someone attempted to reuse it. Fast forward to the present, and 13 manufacturers around the world are making a couple of million of Koska’s K1 syringes every day. Yet, as he told Chrystia at Google’s 2011 European Zeitgeist conference in May, doctors and nurses in developing countries continue to reuse unsterilized syringes:

The vast majority of injections are not in any way safe if they don’t use this or they don’t use correct procedure.So we end up with something like 1.3 million deaths — World Health Organization number — being caused every single year, which is twice the amount of the death toll of malaria even. And what angers me is, this is caused by a doctor or a nurse. This isn’t, you know, an innocent mosquito. This is actually being transmitted to the patients via a health care worker.

Marc’s approach to development was one of many that were discussed during Chrystia’s Zeitgeist panel “Spotlight on Philanthropy.” Another panelist, Oxfam CEO Barbara Stocking, stressed that business had a crucial role to play in poverty alleviation and argued, “the best thing that companies can do is actually work in their core business in a way that actually helps poor people.” She cited a recent initiative from consumer-goods behemoth Unilever as an encouraging example:

Unilever is buying up vegetables out of supply chains for — in this case, it’s Knorr stock cubes. Now, we’ve got really a five-term arrangement now with them that in Azerbaijan, actually, we will be organizing the farmers into producer organizations, and Unilever, helping with the agronomy work, so that actually Unilever will be buying 10% of their global supply of onions in three years from Azerbaijan.Now, that’s fantastic for the poor farmers because they have a guaranteed contract and that’s what they’re looking for.

Sipho Moyo, Africa Director of Bono’s charity ONE, said that no matter what approach donors, businessmen, or development efforts pursue in Africa, one thing the continent does not need is more foreign interlopers who try to impose their pre-conceived remedies on the people from afar. She brings up a cautionary tale from the colonial era:

When the colonialists came to Zambia back in the colonial days, they found the Tonga people one of the rites of passage as a coming of age for young men was knocking their front teeth out. And that was a really big thing, if you didn’t get your front teeth knocked out, you protested. You had to have them knocked out. And the colonialists came and thought this was really barbaric. So they put in a law, some kind of a, you know, legislation to make that illegal. And that went well. But soon after that happened, young men just started dropping dead like flies, you know, at the time that they sort of come of age. And then they started investigating what was the problem. What actually happened is that because, you know, they were pastoralists,they handle a lot of cow dung, and there is a bacterium in the cow dung that transmits tetanus. And the reason they originally knocked out their teeth was that when you have tetanus, there’s a lockjaw of some kind that takes place, so they can’t feed you, they can’t give you medication. But if your front teeth are knocked out, they can drop the medication and the food through, you know, the gap. And so they could no longer feed them or medicate them, and they started dying. And that’s when the colonialists came back and said, “Okay.Tell us why you knock out the teeth.” But they should have asked that in the first place. So the point is, is that what the Africans want? You need to find out why they do what they do.

Posted by Peter Rudegeair.

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