Tom Paulson


Tom Paulson is founder and lead journalist at Humanosphere. Prior to operating this online news site, he reported on science,  medicine, health policy, aid and development for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Contact him at, follow him on Twitter @tompaulson and/or send a comment below.

Author Archives: Tom Paulson

Profile of a global health prankster, Bill Foege | 

Bill Foege in the hills near his boyhood home of Colville, Washington
Bill Foege in the hills near his boyhood home of Colville, Washington
Tom Paulson

Editor’s note: William Foege is a global health hero. Everyone from Bill Gates to Barack Obama says so. But what many may not know is that Foege is a prankster as well, and that mischief is a key to his success.

Disclosure: Bill Foege and I both graduated from Pacific Lutheran University, though separated by a few decades. Bill serves on the Humanosphere board and I consider him a good friend. That said, I’m tired of all this hero talk. I want people to know the mischievous side.

I wrote this article Prankster for Positive Disruption for PLU’s new magazine Resolute and am re-posting it here. Go take a look at the link to see more photos and info.

It may sound like a stretch, but the eradication of smallpox is directly connected to a young man slipping chewed-up rubber bands into his boss’ pipe tobacco.

That young man was Bill Foege ’57, the somewhat mischievous son of a Lutheran minister who pastored the Northeastern Washington community of Colville.

The world today knows Dr. William Foege, now 78, as the person who came up with the strategy—“ring containment,” modeled on what he learned fighting forest fires in the Pacific Northwest—that led to the eradication of smallpox in the late 1970s: the only human disease ever completely wiped off the planet. Read his book House on Fire for the full story. That episode alone makes Foege a public-health hero.

Bill Foege, pipe in hand, with colleagues helping refugees during Nigerian civil war in 1968.
Bill Foege, pipe in hand, with colleagues helping refugees during Nigerian civil war in 1968.

Seattle, with help from Macklemore, celebrates Madaraka Day to boost Kenyan poor | 

You never know what part of the world you’ll run into in Seattle on a given day.

Madaraka celebration at the EMP, 2014
Madaraka celebration at the EMP, 2014

What does Macklemore, the poor in Kenya’s slums and Seattle’s Experience Music Project have in common?

It turns out June 1 is Madaraka Day, when Kenyans celebrate gaining independence from Britain in 1963. On Sunday, a sold-out crowd gathered at the EMP to do likewise, to sing, dance and celebrate Madaraka – and to help support a small non-profit organization called One Vibe Africa.

Simon Okelo
Simon Okelo

“We want to bring Seattle and Kenya closer together,” said Simon Okelo, who grew up in a slum in Kisumu, Kenya, and moved here in 2010 with his wife Rebecca.

I ran into Okelo at the EMP after attending another globally oriented event, at the Space Needle next door, hosted by Quartz magazine and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Quartz is in town for its Next Billion event today, which is focused on bridging the digital divide and expanding – by one more billion – the number of people empowered by the web.

Okelo believes in that kind of thing, but perhaps more in the power of music and art to fight poverty. He started One Vibe to specifically help young people engage in music, poetry and art – to find a positive means to express themselves, and as a first step to feeling empowered, and celebrated.

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Visualizing the vicious-virtuous cycles of population growth and poverty reduction | 

The media, Humanosphere included, have put out a flurry of stories this past week or so focused on the call to save the lives of millions of newborn babies across the world.

Hungry Kids Kenya
Flickr, Feed My Starving Children

One interesting feature of these stories is what’s missing or at least muted.

Not that long ago, almost every time some humanitarian spoke about the need to save the lives of the poor in the developing world, someone else would respond with some bleak Malthusian view:

  • “The planet already has too many people on it.”
  • “Who will feed these poor and hungry children if we save them from death by disease?”
  • “Death in the developing world is Darwinian, the unfortunate but natural converse of survival of the fittest.”

Those represent the less-offensive versions of such sentiments. You don’t hear them that much these days, the pendulum having swung to emphasize the life-saving needs above and beyond the need to reduce population growth.

But what’s missing now is the need to consider life-saving solutions in the broader context of creating a sustainable planet. Many experts agree that population growth, especially in the developing world, is a vicious cycle driving poverty and environmental degradation, among other things, all of which represents a real threat to future progress and prosperity.

Fertility rates in countries
Fertility rates in countries


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Pop quiz: Is the international community passing or failing on educating the poor? | 

Ethiopian education and gender activist Selamawit Bekele talks in Fremont with Bob Dickerson, left, and Lisa Marchal, right, of the anti-poverty group RESULTS.
Ethiopian education and gender activist Selamawit Bekele talks in Fremont with Bob Dickerson, left, and Lisa Marchal, right, of the anti-poverty group RESULTS.

A young woman and educator from Ethiopia swung through Seattle the other day to deliver a brief lesson:

“We can’t make progress against poverty and inequity anywhere unless we make progress in education,” said Selamawit Adugna Bekele. “Education is the change maker.”

A quick look at Number 2 of the eight Millennium Development Goals, Achieving Universal Primary Education, might give the impression the international community is close to doing just that – getting every kid on the planet into and through primary school. It says we’re at about 90 percent enrollment and that “more kids than ever are attending primary school.”

But that 90 percent represents a fairly small increase from the year 2000, when primary school enrollment worldwide was estimated to be 82 percent.

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CIA promises not to do any more fake vaccination programs | 

Is it foreign aid or covert aid?
Is it foreign aid or covert aid?
Flickr, johanoomen

The Obama Administration has promised that the Central Intelligence Agency will never again have its spies pretend to be doing vaccinations overseas.

Some will laugh out loud at the idea of an agency that is fundamentally based on deception and misdirection keeping any such public promise.

More importantly, the aid and development community should be asking the CIA and the Administration: Why just ‘vaccinators’ and not all aid workers?

Long-time readers of Humanosphere may recall, back in 2011, that we were one of the first news sites to express outrage and warn of the dire consequences to come from the CIA using a fake vaccination scheme in Pakistan in an attempt to locate Osama bin Laden.

Predictably, the CIA ruse turned health workers into targets for anti-Western militants and dozens have been killed trying to do critically needed vaccinations in Pakistan – where polio has, also predictably, exploded and spread to other countries.

The World Health Organization recently said the polio resurgence today constitutes a global health emergency.

The CIA, by running a fake vaccine program aimed at collecting DNA to identify bin Laden family members, ended up confirming a Taliban conspiracy theory – that aid workers are often spies. Anyone with half a brain, especially an agency with ‘intelligence’ its middle name, could have seen how this would end in murder.

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Seattle International Film Festival highlights film on Nigeria’s 1960s civil war | 

How did Nigeria get so screwed up? Some will blame colonialism, or its lasting harmful legacies; others will blame the ‘resource curse’ of oil. Others will want to point at the epidemic of bad governance throughout much of sub-Saharan Africa (which often then gets us back to the legacy of colonialism and/or foreign corporate complicity in fueling bad governance…).

One big driver of Nigeria’s difficulties is the split between north and south. Why did it take international pressure to get Nigeria’s President Goodluck Jonathan to even speak out (two weeks after the fact) on the abduction of schoolgirls by Boko Haram in the north? One answer is that Jonathan is from the south and, frankly, could care less about the north.

Are you old enough to remember what the word Biafra means? It refers to an attempt by the Igbo tribe in Nigeria to become independent of the rest of the country, and specifically to have nothing to do with the northern Hausa tribe. The creation of the Republic of Biafra launched a vicious civil conflict that lasted from 1967 to 1970.

The 2006 novel Half of  a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie tells the story of this turmoil, and the Seattle International Film Festival is showing the movie based on the book tonight, 6 pm, at the Egyptian Theatre. One of the lead actors, Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years a Slave, Amistad), will be there and honored for his work.

Seattle man, former Lost Boy, in Vice report on South Sudan crisis | 

Pelton and Thiep
Pelton and Thiep
© Robert Young Pelton, all rights reserved

Machot Lat Thiep usually works at the north Seattle Costco store as a line supervisor.

But today, Thiep, formerly one of the Lost Boys of Sudan, is a central character in a special report at entitled Saving Sudan, written by Robert Young Pelton with photographs and video by Tim Freccia.

Humanosphere’s been following this project from the beginning, as we reported earlier here and here, partly because of Thiep’s involvement but mostly because we think Pelton’s perspective on this unfolding catastrophe is fairly unique. It’s also a bit unique for Vice, which, as the Poynter Institute noted, has devoted its entire print magazine to the examination of this political and ethnic conflict.

What does the current crisis in South Sudan, the weird ongoing hunt for African warlord Joseph Kony, Uganda’s recent use of cluster bombs in South Sudan,  the American military and Howard Buffett all have in common? Pelton, in his report for Vice and also for Defense Standard magazine, has a provocative answer:

“These are all related to the U.S. government’s desire to expand its military presence in Africa,” Pelton told Humanosphere. “I mean, we sent Ospreys and KC-135 stratotankers to help Uganda find Joseph Kony? Those aircraft are nearly useless if the goal is to find a small band of thugs in the jungle. Nobody is even asking these kinds of questions.”

South Sudan, the world’s newest nation, appears to be unraveling due to conflict between two ethnic groups, the Dinka and Nuer. That part of the story is getting covered by the mainstream media.

What is not getting looked at in much depth is why this is happening, why the peace there is so fragile (and not necessarily the goal of all the players) and what is driving the U.S. government’s seemingly arbitrary response to this and other such crises in sub-Saharan Africa.

“What’s really going on here is that this is about a shift in our military priorities,” Pelton says. “None of this really makes much sense unless you look at this in that context.”

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