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Innovators Urge Rich Nations to Fight Global Poverty


How can the world’s richest nations, governments and entrepreneurs best help in the global fight against poverty?

Above, panelist de Sam Lazaro (right) with moderator Baker; below, panelists watch video of violinist Biswa Karma, who grew up in poverty in the Himalayas. Photos by Leo Sorel

Three innovative panelists shared their ideas on the subject at Globalization and the Ecology of Caring: Untold Stories, Unsung Heroes, a forum held on Nov. 10 at Fordham in conjunction with the 2010 Opus Awards celebration.

PBS Newshour journalist and filmmaker Fred de Sam Lazaro, who has reported on poverty from 41 nations, said one of his biggest challenges was to make his reporting relevant to an American audience.

“One approach that has helped us enormously is what I call ‘solution-oriented journalism,’” said de Sam Lazaro, who directs the Project for Under-Told Stories at St. John’s University in Collegeville, Minn. “We find people at the forefront of a [poverty]problem and who have a bright idea to attack the problem. We have a bar that people have to cross, beyond a good idea—they have to actually be doing something that shows results and good outcomes.”

The journalist shared some Under-Told story video clips that featured such results-oriented unsung heroes:

• the late Thomas Edward Maguire, S.J., fought poverty and hopelessness in a missionary school in the Himalayas by teaching the poorest children in the village to play violins; one girl, Kushmita Biswa Karma, went on to study at the Richard Strauss Conservatory in Munich;

• entrepreneur Bunker Roy, created the Barefoot College in rural India, which trains illiterate middle-aged women, some of whom only speak Arabic, to build, assemble and maintain solar panels within remote communities without electricity; instruction is done through body language and drawings.

“People like to watch success stories, so that’s what we inherently do,” he said.

De Sam Lazaro was joined by Jacqueline Novogratz, founder and CEO of Acumen Fund, a nonprofit global venture firm that uses entrepreneurial approaches to solve global poverty; and Lawrence MacDonald, a vice president of the Center for Global Development, a nonprofit research organization dedicated to reducing global poverty.

Novogratz’s nonprofit fund manages more than $15 million in investments in 50 organizations in South Asia and East Africa, all focused on delivering affordable healthcare, water, housing and energy to the poor.

Acumen Fund’s approach of “patient capital,” Novogratz said, is to invest in small entrepreneurs creating serious and sustainable change in grassroots poor communities—even if it takes 10 or 12 years for projects to pay off.

“I’ve seen the failings of traditional development and traditional charity as well,” said Novogratz, a former international credit banker. “This year alone we will touch 40 million people and create 35,000 jobs in healthcare, housing, water, alterative energy and agriculture. So the model is starting to work.

“[To] see the kind of significant sustainable change that we are beginning to witness, it is a pretty great return on the philanthropic dollar,” she said.

One of Acumen’s success stories is Aravind Eye Care, which was begun in 1976 in a small hospital in south India by Dr. Govindappa Venkataswamy. Today, Aravind performs millions of cataract surgeries annually and, according to de Sam Lazaro, is a prime example of how sustainable grassroots projects can successfully grow into large, effective programs.

“This is an organization that grew from a six-bed hospital into the largest eye care provider in the world, one that has an error rate comparable to the Mayo Clinics,” said de Sam Lazaro. “This is how you scale up to have a widespread impact.”

MacDonald, whose organization does research and analysis on ways to reduce global poverty, said that there is great injustice and inequity in the global economic system.
It is time, he said, for citizens of the United States to speak out about unfair trade policies, global warming and immigration reform.

“We should look into ourselves and understand the injustices that we are part of,” MacDonald said. “I know there are people in this country who are out of work and losing their homes, but the difference in per capita income and wealth, as well as our environmental footprint on the planet, is so huge that it is difficult to take that into account (when thinking of global poverty.)”

Many other nations, MacDonald said, provide more foreign aid per capita than the U.S. Those nations, such as Sweden, also show the highest levels of income equality—something that is losing ground in the United States as the richest 1 percent of the nation gets richer at the expense of the poor and middle class.

“As long as the United States has very high and increasing levels of income inequality, I don’t think we are going to be a very generous nation,” he said.

That is where grassroots entrepreneurs and microfinance loans come in, Novogratz said.
“Entrepreneurs can create change where government is unjust,” she said. “That is where we are going to see progress. I think we are capable of ending poverty in the next few generations, and that’s exciting.”

Attending the event were Opus Prize finalists Sister Beatrice Chipeta, director of the Lusubilo Orphan Care Project in Malawi, and John Halligan, S.J., founder and director of the Working Boys’ Center in Quito, Ecuador.

“These are people who are making a difference in the lives of the poorest of the poor, those men and women whom the world would sooner forget,” said Joseph M. McShane, S.J., president of Fordham. “These very humble people are saints.”

The event was sponsored by Fordham’s Center on Religion and Culture and the Opus Prize Foundation, and moderated by William F. Baker, Ph.D., the Claudio Aquaviva Chair and Journalist in Residence at Fordham.


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