Can Seattle Save the World?


Seattle still wants to save the world | 

As regular readers know, the title of last week’s “Can Seattle Save the World? (Poverty, Health and Chocolate)” was tongue-firmly-in-cheek, but also meant to raise some important questions. There’s a serious debate about the meaning and priority of “health” in “global health.”

"Can Seattle Save the World?" panel at Town Hall Seattle

Justin Steyer/KPLU

"Can Seattle Save the World?" panel at Town Hall Seattle, featuring Tom Paulson, Bill Foege, Chris Elias, Wendy Johnson, and Joe Whinney

The event itself proved so popular that we moved it to a room three times larger than originally planned — and nearly packed the room. Not to toot our horn too much, but immediate feedback was enthusiastic. “Do it again,” was the most common response.

We’d love to.

In the meantime, we are belatedly offering a replay. Seattle’s municipal cable TV station recorded the event, and edited it for local broadcast on May 5th at 2pm. It’s now also viewable at the Seattle Channel website and embedded below.

We have a few photos of our panelists (alas, none yet of the magnificent domed room or of the audience — if you have your own photos, please share) at our Flickr site.

There’s a lot of interest in continuing the discussion. Some provocative audience questions included: How can the development community start talking about projects that are not working — without jeopardizing funding for the good projects? What sort of careers are there, or should there be, for the hundreds of college students now majoring in Global Health?

A comment and question stream has started at this earlier post (as well as on Twitter at #SEAsaves).

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!

Preview of the issues: Can Seattle Save the World? | 

Here are a few thoughts in advance of tonight’s event at Town Hall Seattle.

Can Seattle Save the World?

What do we intend to accomplish asking a question like that?

It’s a bit irreverent, sure. That’s the point. We seem to have countless meetings, forums and symposiums these days that do a great job of describing the region’s (it’s not just Seattle, of course) many efforts in fighting disease and poverty worldwide. Most of them, legitimately, are focused on promoting a cause.

As a journalist, it’s my job to also help the community probe such causes — poke at them, see if they’re half-baked or cooked just right. We’ll do more of that tonight.


I was at one such event yesterday, at Seattle-based PATH, for World Malaria Day where experts discussed some of the locally based projects aimed at fighting malaria overseas. It’s stunning to realize our community is now one of the world’s headquarters for the global fight against malaria.

But it was also sobering to recognize that, despite some tremendous progress, we remain on a knife’s edge in this global battle against a major killer. Everyone wants this battle to succeed, so it can be difficult raising questions about effectiveness, cost and performance. It can be especially difficult to do in public because of the risk of undermining popular support. It’s a dilemma.


We’re also big on microfinance here. The anti-poverty scheme pioneered by Nobel laureate Muhammad Yunus has been carried out by organizations like Global Partnerships for many years — long before most of us had even heard of microfinance.

Yet microfinance is in kind of a mess right now, something like an identity crisis. Yunus is having political battles that get a lot of media attention, but the more important problems raise questions of a loss of purpose — of truly focusing on the needs of the poor. These are also tough, complex issues that some advocates of microfinance worry will hurt the cause.



Yes, chocolate. I can partially reveal now why I convinced Joe Whinney, founder and president of Theo Chocolate, to join this panel discussion focused largely on health. The main reason is that I didn’t want it to be limited to health. Global health is really a subset of development, which is about fighting poverty.

Whinney is a business owner and an activist. He got into the chocolate business aiming to improve the lives of poor farmers. And he will say that we will never get rid of poverty unless we all change our ways — of doing business and how we behave as consumers.

To put it simply, you can vaccinate a kid against disease but if you buy the wrong kind of chocolate bar you’re dooming that child to slave labor and poverty.


Our first goal for the event will be to make sure we recognize that something special is happening here with respect to global health and poverty.

Secondly, we will consider our special responsibility. Are we heading in the right direction? Have we defined the problems correctly? What are we doing to correct the problems?

Or are we all just naive, thinking that we can save the world? And save it from what exactly?

We’ll begin with Bill Foege — the man who figured out how to eradicate smallpox, former head of the CDC and an adviser to Bill and Melinda Gates. Following my chat with Foege, we’ll explore the issues with Chris Elias, president of PATH, UW health activist Wendy Johnson and Whinney such as:

  • Does improving health actually reduce poverty?
  • Is our approach to fighting disease in poor countries too techno-fix oriented?
  • Is the philanthropic, or charitable, approach a long-term solution just a short-term band-aid?
  • What can the rest of us do to help … save the world?

For those who would like to use Twitter to follow and participate, or even suggest questions now, see #SEAsaves and chime in. My colleague Charla Bear has graciously agreed to live-blog the event on Humanosphere.

And, of course, you can always just actually come to event.

New and Improved and More Inclusive: Can Seattle Save the World? | 

Due to popular demand, we’ve moved upstairs to a bigger room at Seattle’s Town Hall for our event next Tuesday evening, 7 p.m., Can Seattle Save the World? Poverty, Health and Chocolate.

Tickets are on sale again. And here’s my invitation to you, and repeat description of the event:

So … Can Seattle Save the World?

No, of course not. Don’t be silly.

But Seattle folks, and many like-minded others throughout the Northwest, are actually crazy enough to believe they can do something to make the world a better place.

We should probably talk about this.

And we will, on the evening of April 26, at Seattle Town Hall, with you and a panel of our leading local experts who are working to reduce disease and poverty around the world.

We’ll explore what I am calling, for the sake of debate (and I do like a good debate), the “Seattle approach” to saving the world. Bill Foege, the man who figured out how to rid the world of smallpox, Chris Elias, president at PATH, UW health activist Wendy Johnson and Theo Chocolate founder Joe Whinney.

Chocolate? Yeah, chocolate and disease and poverty. You’ll see.

Obviously, a big reason for our community’s constant chatter of can-do, humanitarian global optimism is because the 8,000-lb. gorilla in the do-gooder universe happens to be located here — the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

The folks at the Gates Foundation — which is perhaps now the most influential player in global health and certainly one of the leaders in many anti-poverty efforts — like to say they are impatiently optimistic. We’ll take a look at both the reasons for the impatience and the optimism.

Other questions we will explore:

  • What’s special about Seattle’s approach to fighting poverty?
  • Does charity, or any kind of humanitarian effort, really work?
  • Why does poverty exist and can we get rid of it?
  • How can fighting disease help in the fight against poverty?
  • Is this the next big thing for young people — a dot.compassion revolution rather than just another

And any question you bring to the forum. Feel free to submit a question on Twitter at #SEAsaves in advance, during or after the event. (We’re planning to post live updates from the event, here on Humanosphere.)

Come join us for a celebration and examination of what may be a revolution in process, a revolution in how we look at poverty, inequity and, well, the rest of the world. The Humanosphere.

For more info on the event and to purchase tickets, go to Brown Paper Tickets.

Join the conversation: Can Seattle Save the World? | 

The forum doesn’t begin until 7 p.m. PST at Town Hall Seattle, but you can join in the conversation right now using the Twitter hashtag #SEAsaves.

Not able to attend the event? KPLU’s Charla Bear will also be live blogging right here, at, starting at 7 p.m.