Those 'other' things we can't quite categorize


Amid UN food ration cuts, how US food aid prolongs civil conflicts | 

USAID-provided lentils and soy-oil are readied for distribution to citizens of Petonville, Haiti.
USAID-provided lentils and soy-oil are readied for distribution to citizens of Petonville, Haiti.

The UN announced last week that it was forced to cut food rations for nearly 800,000 refugees in Africa. A shortage of funding was behind the World Food Programme (WFP) and refugee agency (UNHCR) making cuts as much as 60%. The impact could be far reaching as people displaced across the continent face hunger.

The hardest hit areas are also places experiencing ongoing conflict. For decades food aid has been provided to people in need due to crop failures, droughts and displacement. The thinking being that immediate food aid can save lives and avert the present crisis so that families can get back on track when the problem goes away.

That might not be the case when it comes to conflicts.  In fact, new research indicates that food aid helps to prolong smaller civil-conflicts. It raises the question as to whether food aid, in the case of countries like South Sudan and Central African Republic, might not be the optimal response to both hunger and ending the problems that led to the spike in hunger.

“An increase in US food aid increases the incidence of armed civil conflict in recipient countries. US food aid does not crowd out other forms of aid or aid from other donors. Thus, the increase in conflict is really due to an increase in aid,” say economists Nathan Nunn of Harvard University and Nancy Qian of Yale University.

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The ten best songs from the first half of 2014 | 

CaptureWhile we take a break today in observance of US Independence Day, I am exploiting this space to share a different interest. For the past two years, I have collaborated with my friend Mo on a playlist of new songs we like.  For this year, we have a third contributor to the list. It is relatively diverse, but limited given that it is only three of us and the songs have to be available on Spotify.

Now that 2014 is halfway done, I thought I would share our playlist and share my favorite songs so far. Without further ado, the 10 songs of 2014 (so far), in no particular order.


  1. St Vincent – Digital Witness
  2. Bombay Bicycle Club – Carry Me
  3. Sharon Van Etten – Every Time the Sun Comes Up
  4. Sylvan Esso – Coffee
  5. Real Estate – Talking Backwards
  6. The Pains of Being Pure At Heart – Simple and Sure
  7. Sam Smith – Nirvana
  8. Future Islands – Seasons (Waiting On You)
  9. Sleeper Agent – Waves
  10. Cloud Nothings – I’m Not Part of Me


  1. George Ezra – Budapest
  2. Sam Smith – Stay with me
  3. The War on Drugs – An Ocean Between Waves
  4. Broken Bells – Holding on for Life
  5. X Ambassadors, Jamie N Commons – Jungle
  6. Metronomy – I’m Acquarius
  7. Banks – Brain
  8. Tove Lo – Stay High (habits remix)
  9. Indiana – Solo Dancing
  10. Jungle – Time

You can find those songs among our 77 favorites on our Spotify playlist:

Now it is your turn. Weigh in with the songs from this year that you are enjoying in the comments section.

Did the Millennium Development Goals accomplish anything? | 

Richard Horton, editor of the British medical journal The Lancet, recently penned an OpEd slamming the progress of the sustaniable development goals. In it, he proposes that the people putting together the new goals consider these areas when discussions sustainability: wellbeing, capability, intergenerational equity, externalities, resilience, and ‘strength of our civilizations.’

“Unless we embrace and measure the full meaning of sustainability, the SDGs will fail. None of us, and certainly not our children, can afford that failure,” says Horton.

The ten year global development experiment, better known as the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), is wrapping up in the next year. Much of the discussions are now focused on what comes next. There appears to be broad agreement that a new set of goals or benchmarks should follow in 2015.

These sustainable development goals, as they are being called for the time being, are meant to improve upon the MDGs. Recent research shows that people might be thinking about the MDGs in the completely wrong way. In fact, there is good reason to believe that as a whole they did not accomplish much of anything in terms of getting countries on track to meet the goals.

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New Gates Foundation chief to seek revolutionary simplicity | 

The world’s biggest philanthropy is entering a new era, a third phase of sorts, but is hardly settling into a comfortable routine of funding the same old things  or losing its upstart mindset.

Susan Desmond-Hellmann
Susan Desmond-Hellmann

Susan Desmond-Hellmann is the new chief executive officer for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the first non-Microsoft outsider to take the helm of an organization that, for better or worse, sets much of the international agenda for global health, aid and development. Desmond-Hellmann takes over as Gates Foundation CEO from Jeff Raikes, who took on the job after Patty Stonesifer.

Both Raikes and Stonesifer were former Microsoft executives with little prior experience in philanthropy or international development. Desmond-Hellman, a physician, academic and former biotech exec, did medical research years ago in Africa with her physician husband Nick Hellmann, who formerly worked on HIV/AIDS for the Gates Foundation and now works at the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation.

“It’s easy to underestimate how much global health has changed in the last 15 years since the foundation started,” said Desmond-Hellmann. “When Nick and I worked in Uganda (in the late 1980s and early 1990s), before all this was called global health, people’s expectations were very low…. Now we are talking about eradicating polio, or malaria and we have so many more resources for these problems. It’s amazing!”

Yet Desmond-Hellmann knows just talking about these challenges, or even throwing more money at them, is only the beginning.

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Boston nonprofit hub sparks collaboration through shared work space | 

Last Mile Project

(Boston, MA) – Each Tuesday afternoon, a conference room overlooking the Boston harbor fills with staff from various Boston-based nonprofits. Their work ranges from building water points in Liberia to teaching Shakespeare in Boston schools. Usually the weekly meeting is a chance to hear from a wide array of speakers with experience in the business of doing good. This week, it is an opportunity for newcomers to introduce themselves and for some minor housekeeping issues, like washing dishes after using them.

When issues of cleanliness are not being discussed, the twenty-two organizations housed in the same space next to Lewis Wharf in Boston’s North End are working with each other to achieve their respective missions. The Next Mile Project, as it is called, is the brain child of lawyer Vilas Dhar. He and his brother Vikas founded Dhar Law four years ago with the goal of using money made doing more traditional law work to do as much social good as possible.

That goal is being realized. Dhar says that 40% of the firm’s work falls into the social sector, often times meaning pro bono. It is also seen in the dozens of people that share an office space with Dhar Law. Nonprofits work in the Next Mile Project space for as little as $150 per person per month. What they get is more formal support, like weekly speakers, wifi, a printer (at no cost to use) and the ability to work alongside some of the city’s best and brightest.

“The value you get for the price is incredible,” said Amber Oberc, US Managing Director for the Tanzanian Children’s Fund.

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Documentary questions motives for Westerners ‘helping’ Africa | 

Nearly a decade has passed since Kenyan writer Binyavanga Wainaina penned the satirical essay “How to Write About Africa” for Granta. The biting piece called out the way that people talk about, write about and depict the continent of Africa.

Taboo subjects: ordinary domestic scenes, love between Africans (unless a death is involved), references to African writers or intellectuals, mention of school-going children who are not suffering from yaws or Ebola fever or female genital mutilation.

The piece resonated with and challenged many of the Westerners who worked on the continent. While it is still often cited to show the problems with how Africa is characterized, the very problems that Wainaina skewers are ever present. A recent advertisement by Save the Children Australia came under criticism for deploying the guilt-based tactics of showing suffering children (also known as poverty porn). The lack of change is the motivation behind the production of a documentary film called Framed*.

The film seeks to answer the question, what is behind the West’s fascination with “saving” Africa? Filmmaker Cassandra Herrman is working alongside Kathryn Mathers, a visiting scholar in the Department of Cultural Anthropology at Duke University, to investigate the question and expose the problems with how Africa is depicted. The film features Wainaina, Kenyan photographer Boniface Mwangi, South African professor Zine Magubane and American former voluntourist Pippa Biddle.

“We are trying to take a step back and look at the underlying cultural consciousness that is formed by the limited vocabulary and visuals about Africa,” said Herrman in an interview with Humanosphere.

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A peaceful and food-secure Africa is not just a dream | 

IFAD President Kanayo F. Nwanze
Dr Kanayo F. Nwanze

An open letter by the International Fund for Agricultural Development‘s President Dr Kanayo F. Nwanze called on African leaders to follow through and deliver on their promises for investing in agriculture. It came just ahead of the 23rd African Union summit that will bring together Africa’s leaders. In the letter, Dr Nwanze says that only seven countries have followed through on the commitment to spend at least 10% of their budgets on agriculture.

Rather than simply publish the letter (read it at the bottom), we sent along a few questions for Dr Nwanze to answer about agriculture on the continent. Here is what he had to say:

Humanosphere: What makes you optimistic about the future of the African continent?

DR Nwanze: Today, there are unprecedented opportunities in African agriculture. Africa has the fastest growing population and the highest rate of urbanization in the world. The middle class is growing across the continent, driving demand for food. As I said in my letter, Africa has land available for cultivation, it has the potential to massively boost food production through investment in agriculture, it has the youngest population on the planet, economic growth rates are strong in many countries. The challenge is to make the growth inclusive – and some countries are already showing the way – in Ethiopia, Ghana, Rwanda, and Togo.

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