My letter about Haiti and the Worthy Dozen

Wordle: Haiti and the Worthy DozenGreetings,

Happy New Year! Heather and I just got back from two weeks in Thailand so my message is a little late. We’ve both been looking for new jobs abroad, preferably in the developing world. For the last ten years I held a dream of getting my PhD and then joining Peace Corps again to teach science at the university level in some exotic place. Unfortunately, Peace Corps doesn’t roll like that anymore, even though my mother did this, and several of my fellow volunteers did this ten years ago when I served in the Gambia. Alas, I am on my own to find connections at a university in Africa or Asia that needs a good science teacher.

My reasons for wanting to teach outside of the US and Europe will become clear in a moment. First, I wanted to give you some relevant insights into the Haiti earthquake to which I am privy because of my position at GlobalGiving.org. As you know, Haiti was devastated by a 7.1 earthquake a week ago and all the homes collapsed. Over 30,000 were killed instantly, and a confluence of developing country factors (corruption and a lack of infrastructure, security, and local expertise) are threatening to take that death toll to 100,000 now. Similar earthquakes have struck elsewhere (i.e. Indonesia) but with a much lower death toll – because the infrastructure and the response are better in rich countries. See http://earthquake.usgs.gov/earthquakes/world/world_deaths.php if you’re curious about trends.
Yesterday I was sitting in a meeting, my first day back at GlobalGiving, and was struck at what an amazing job everyone had done for Haiti. In one week, they had found ten new local partners who are helping with disaster relief and strengthened ties with our existing ones. Paul Farmer (of Mountains Beyond Mountains fame) is one of these, but we now have a dozen others just as good whom didn’t get 60-minutes coverage. Another of the “Paul Farmer” heroes is Todd Shea, a struggling rock star who left his career in 2005 after the Pakistan earthquake and ran to help, setting up his own Comprehensive Disaster Relief Services (CDRS) NGO and remaining in the region to this day. Within 24 hours of the Haiti Earthquake, Todd had picked up again and gotten his own medical team to a country he’s never been to. What these Worthy Dozen organizations are doing right now is even more amazing when you compare it to the official aid channels. I don’t know if the news has picked this story up yet, but over the weekend Red Cross raised $22 million via mobile phone giving (with constant promotion by the NFL). That’s wonderful, but because of a quagmire of cell phone carrier contracts and bureaucracy not one cent of that $22 million will reach haiti until Februrary. It’s sad and ironic that instant giving will be the slowest way to get money there, but that’s just a fact of life. In any other situation three weeks wouldn’t make a difference, but we take calls from our partners on a daily basis who urge us to get the money there now.

So we did. Because GlobalGiving was created to be more flexible and faster moving than the industry, we’re getting money to our Worthy Dozen on a weekly basis. Today each of the 13 organizations will got at least $30,000 a piece from the Haiti Disaster Relief Fund http://www.globalgiving.org/haiti-earthquake/. We sent out a total of $630,000 raised last week. We’re also able to get money to people like Todd Shea, who last week didn’t have anything in place there, and will take another six months to complete his formal 501(c)3 paperwork for Haiti relief. We can’t send millions like national governments or fly in military jets to drop off emergency supplies, but dollar for dollar I think we’re the most efficient. I was sad to hear Paul Farmer’s team on 60 minutes lament that they were hacking off limbs with rusty saws when literally tons of real medical supplies were at the airport, tied up in red tape http://www.cbsnews.com/video/watch/?id=6108550n. They were down to three bottles of rubbing alcohol and one fifth of vodka to stelize their civil-war-era equipment. And down the road, I have much more confidence in our vetting process for where the money went and what it accomplished than I do in anyone else. We’re working with people whom we already know well and who have a demonstrated track record. I put Haiti among the top five most corrupt countries and would never send a check to any organization there without an audit trail. Right now, millions of aid dollars are likely getting siphoned off into private bank accounts by corrupt Haitian government officials. That mountain of medical supplies will probably stay “tied up” at the airport until a proper bribe amount can be negotiated. But rather than put up our hands and send nothing, we’re doing all we can to get money directly to people on the ground, circumventing official channels where money can be embezzled, limiting the power of bureaucrats for extortion.

Last week in Thailand I spoke to one of our partner organizations there who helped Burmese migrant workers during the tsunami. Max, an American four-year volunteer, noted that immediately after the tsunami, dozens of unregistered organizations popped up to accept relief money. Five years later most of these orgs have disappeared again, with little trail as to where the money went. That’s why he was proud to work with GHRS, which remains there to this day and who just joined GlobalGiving in 2009. This is the face of the world today. Good guys compete for money among a field with some bad players, and it is up to us to know who is who and which is which. That’s why GlobalGiving hired me. I have been working for nearly two years to find ways for local people to provide feedback on the work that local organizations are doing to serve them (or not). Local people are the experts, and technology – like cell phones integrated into the web – can extract that knowledge and put it into the hands of donors on the website.

I’ve also been helping design a global reputation system for NGOs, much the way that Ebay rates sellers, but nothing like that. Because unlike ebay, neither buyers nor sellers are experts on whether the product was any good. It’s up to a third party – the beneficiaries – to rate the product, the buyer, and the seller. These have all been exciting projects to work on, but after two years, I am really ready to back to teaching science, and not just teaching science anywhere.

I’ve lived in enough places to realize that opportunities are not spread equally around the world. In The Gambia I trained computer teachers in schools and gave youth the tools to enter society with good technical jobs. Some of my pupils did get much better jobs than would have been possible without my teaching. I know, because when I arrived the five schools had no computer teachers and just a few second-hand computers in boxes. They needed to be set up, and that required canibalizing some to make others work. They needed software, and I found that. And when I left, over 200 students were getting regular computer classes.
But I am most proud of the handful of people who became the teachers. Kemo Jatta – a out of school guy who works at the ISP, Absulai Sesay – a teacher who started his own computer teacher school, after school programs, and awards to promote computer literacy, and Abiye Romeo Tonye – who like all of these would have made a great scientist if he had been born elsewhere.

Recently there was a book released about a boy who learned to build wind generators out of trash with just a photograph. He couldn’t read, but his mind obviously held great potential. In my experience there are thousands of Einstein quality minds out there, and the difference is opportunity. I want to be there – to give that opportunity as a great teacher.

Now I know many of you can rightly show that many in America need that opportunity too. And I agree. I’ll return some day and help them. But for now, I’m looking for an opportunity to teach abroad and help the next Einsteins become scientists, or at least the next computer teacher become Bill Gates. I need your help with this. I’ve written to various schools but if you don’t know a soul on the staff, none of them write back. Could you please take a moment to examine your rolodex and introduce me to anyone you know at a university in Africa or Asia? I would greatly appreciate it. Thanks.

P.S. – PLEASE forward this message to your friends on my behalf. Maybe one of them has a connection, and everyone should know about Haiti.

Marc Maxson

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