Poverty, health and chocolate: Do-gooder central

Updated, 2:30pm

KPLU-Humanosphere’s event Tuesday night at Seattle Town Hall — Can Seattle Save the World? — was clearly a huge hit, drawing in an estimated 700 people, despite our best efforts to confuse you.

Yes, the title was a bit goofy. We intended it so. And yes, I know the ticket sale thing got a bit hectic in between moving venues, but it was a test to see how much you cared.

Obviously, you care a great deal. Global health, global poverty and social justice are hot topics in this community, which I dubbed off-the-top-of-my-head “do-gooder central” at the event.

Here are a few moments from last night that stood out.

We all “tolerate poverty” — because our lives are subsidized by the suffering of others, said Bill Foege (paraphrasing MLK). That is, poverty makes our middle-class lifestyles possible, by keeping the prices cheap on so many products.

“I’d like to see half of all development money go to educating consumers,” about the choices we make, said Joe Whinney. Having consumers be educated will have more impact than any amount of philanthropy.

“It’s the most unproductive debate in global health,” said Chris Elias, referring to the debate over whether we should invest in technologies vs. strengthening local health systems. (“You need to do both,” he said. Design your technology to fit into real-world systems.)

Some people in the 20th century thought DDT was a “magic bullet” against malaria, even though it took a systems approach to wipe it out in the U.S., and now the discussion in Seattle seems to be centered on looking for new magic bullets, said Wendy Johnson. Whatever new technologies we develop, they should be equitably distributed.

But I’d rather get your thoughts, impressions and reactions. By the end of the evening, the conversation took on a life of its own, through the audience’s (excellent) questions. Judging by the line at the microphones, there’s still a lot left to be said. What about that whole thread on young people and jobs?

So please chime in using the comments below (and/or check out the Twitter stream at #SEAsaves).

We need to continue this discussion!

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About Author

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 tom[at]humanosphere.org or follow him on Twitter @tompaulson.

  • Marla Smith-Nilson

    Here’s what I’ve been sharing this morning with my colleagues here at Water 1st. Although it didn’t get the audience worked up like some of Bill Foege’s great statements, I thought the most honest and thought-provoking statements of the night came from Wendy Johnson, of UW’s Department of Global Health. She felt that we are pretty focused on the silver bullet solution here in Seattle and that donors in general are not interested in the long-term commitments that are needed to change systems in poor countries. Instead we prefer quick fixes that may be successful in the short-term, but are not sustainable.

    This rings very true in my experience in the water and sanitation field, and the fact that no one on the panel even mentioned water and toilets – a fundamental, but already invented, foundation of public health and poverty reduction – until someone from the audience (me) asked the question, I think also supports Dr. Johnson’s statements.

    Dr. Johnson said that she is nauseous when she hears the term “global health industry” here in Seattle. I had the same reaction to that phrasing. It seems to me that, intentionally or not, we’ve forgotten about the very people whom we say we represent, even though we drag out glossy color photos of them for fundraising events and conferences. Although no doubt a lot of good work gets done, priority #1 is sustaining our own organizations versus focusing our efforts on the highest priority problems with the best solutions.

  • Fantastic event last night. It was quite inspiring to see a room filled to capacity with people interested in hearing how to make the world a better place.

    One areas that I would have loved to hear more opinions/discussion on was around the push for development organizations to tell success stories. Is it actually possible for us to discuss our failures? Is the donor community right to dry up support when there are failures? What does transparency really mean in this work if we’re penalized for talking about challenges and failures? Are success stories really successes, or are they glossed up for publicity, marketing and fundraising (many would argue that the same is true for organizations discussing the problems they’re trying to solve)?

    Also, I vote for a multi-part interview series w/ Dr. Bill Foege. He was thrilling to listen to.

  • Marla Smith-Nilson

    I agree, Katie, that would be an interesting discussion and is really a beefy enough topic to be an event itself. I wonder if there would be enough organizations willing to be completely honest on this topic. I know ours would, but we are small and nimble and have less to lose when we are transparent.

  • Anonymous

    I really enjoyed the discussion around poverty — what Foege called — the biggest social determinant of health. I’d like to see more discussion around getting people out of poverty and looking at some interesting approaches like the example in Chile, which Foege mentioned.