We can thank Maine hippies for NPR global health reporter Jason Beaubien | 

Jason Beaubien

What makes for the best radio reporting on global health and development? We can credit some hippies in Maine.

At least, that’s what led to Jason Beaubien, NPR’s global health and development correspondent. Beaubien grew up way off the grid in rural Maine, raised by hippie parents who only had a radio for keeping up with the outside world. “We didn’t have (grid-based) electricity when we lived out in our log cabin … but we did have radio.” Everything Beaubien learned about the rest of the world came to him through radio, through his ears and his imagination, an experience that has clearly helped make him one of the most compelling audio story-tellers out there today.

Beaubien started reporting for NPR more than a decade ago in sub-Saharan Africa, beginning with a coup attempt in Ivory Coast (aka Côte d’Ivoire). Humanosphere’s founding editor Tom Paulson happened to be in Ivory Coast at around the same time, reporting for the dearly departed Seattle Post-Intelligencer newspaper on the early days of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation‘s revolutionary investment that eventually, massively, expanded child immunizations in poor countries.

Tom was doing typical ‘parachute’ journalism – flying in for a story and, when the going got too wacky, flying out. Beaubien stayed put in Africa, enduring dangerous situations and harsh conditions to tell the many broader political, economic and social stories. He later went on to Mexico to report on Latin America, including the drug war (which is often deadly dangerous for journalists). On our podcast, he tells us a few tales about being a foreign correspondent and why he thinks covering the fight against poverty was an obvious next step for him.

“In covering these issues, what just jumps out at you is the incredible inequality,” Beaubien said. To a great extent, he said, the conflicts and troubles he reported on for NPR are often rooted in poverty and inequality. He sees his new assignment, which may not sound as exciting as being a war correspondent, as moving from reporting mostly about what is happening to why it is happening – and what we can do about it.

It’s a great conversation. And as usual, before Tom and Jason compare notes on the poverty journalism front, we discuss a few of this week’s top news items. Tom Murphy noted that the campaign to rid the world of polio has again suffered a violent setback with more attacks on health workers in Pakistan. We also discuss Tom’s (the Paulson one) article describing how Seattle scientists are world leaders in a new approach to vaccine research and discovery.

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How optimists like Bill Gates may be counterproductive to development | 

Optimist in Chief, Bill Gates.
Optimist in Chief, Bill Gates.
Eric Haver

There might not be a more optimistic person about the future of the world than Bill Gates.

“By 2035, there will be almost no poor countries left in the world,” declared Gates in his annual letter, released in January.

He has good reason to feel so good. Massive gains against extreme poverty, the reduction in deaths by diseases and growing nations all point to a better and more prosperous world in the coming future. Challenges remain, but most things seem to be going in the right direction.

Despite all that good news, there may be reason to be skeptical of optimistic thinking.

“Actually, there’s a lot of research now to suggest that many of these techniques are counterproductive, that saying positive affirmations to yourself in the mirror can make you feel worse and that visualizing the future can make you less likely to achieve it,” said journalist Oliver Burkeman to NPR in November.

It goes further, there are instances that show holding onto positive thoughts can keep people from achieving their goals. The Millennium Development Goals set a host of targets to be reached by 2015, the World Bank wants says most extreme poverty will be gone by 2035 and it also hopes to achieve universal access to electricity by 2030. Countries create their own ‘Vision’ documents that outline where they want to be by a certain point.

There are a lot of goals and optimism floating in the international development ether and they might not be helping as much as we think.

Continue reading

From smallpox victim to polio eradication advocate | 

Ali Maow Maalin
Ali Maow Maalin

Ali Maow Maalin of Somalia died suddenly at the age of 59 last week. He was the last person infected with smallpox in the world.

What he did with his life after the infection is what makes Maalin’s story truly remarkable. He took his experience and set his sights on eradicating polio.

Maalin refused the smallpox vaccine when he was younger because he feared needles. Refusing the vaccine is why he contracted smallpox while driving to a clinic with an infected family. He explained to the Boston Globe’s John Donnelly in 2006:

”I was scared of being vaccinated then. It looked like the shot hurt,” said Mo’allim, 48, who was sick for 50 days with smallpox but recovered completely. ”Now when I meet parents who refuse to give their children the polio vaccine, I tell them my story. I tell them how important these vaccines are. I tell them not to do something foolish like me.”

“He would always say, ‘I’m the last smallpox case in the world. I want to help ensure my country will not be last in stopping polio,’ ” Dr. Debesay Mulugeta, who leads polio eradication efforts in Somalia, said the the NPR Shots Blog.
Continue reading

Emerging markets turn into a pumpkin for investors | 


When the global economy took a massive hit in late 2008 it was the emerging markets, countries like India, China and Brazil, that picked up the slack for the older Western powers. These countries managed to maintain strong growth and attack plenty of attention from investment and development experts.

Nearly five years later the same countries are showing continued growth while the United States, UK, France and more trudge along. One would suspect that investors would look to the strong growth of emerging markets for financial gains.

Turns out the opposite is happening. As the US begins to get back in order money is rushing out of emerging markets, reports the Wall Street Journal.

“It feels like the party is ending,” said Howard Wong, managing director at Doric Capital Corp. in Hong Kong.

Facing the loss of foreign capital, central banks in these emerging markets have attempted to prop up their home currencies. Continue reading

Vaccinophobia: World’s most powerful disease preventing tool, the vaccine, still a hard sell | 

A shot at life


A shot at life

The benefit of expanding the use of vaccines worldwide seems like a no-brainer: A cheap and easy way to stop disease dead in its tracks.

Yet polio persists despite a massive global campaign. The crippling disease is back in the Horn of Africa and new violence against vaccinators in Pakistan prompted the World Health Organization to again suspend its polio immunization work there.

The ups and downs of the polio campaign is a cause for concern to those seeking to eradicate this disease. But it isn’t just polio vaccines, or vaccinators, in poor countries that are targeted. There’s a disturbing synchronicity among vaccine opponents – whether it’s the Pakistani Taliban, Nigerian Islamists or Seattle granola heads. Seattle, in addition to being an epicenter for global health, is also known for having the lowest rate of child vaccination for any US city.

Part of the problem may be that a vaccine’s benefit is invisible on the individual level – lack of death and disease. Perhaps another reason vaccines are so frequently targeted for boycotts is the contagion of scientific illiteracy. Continue reading

Behind the scenes with the Gates Foundation’s ‘strategic media partners’ | 

media horde Flickr
Flickr, MMR d

Just kidding.

I wasn’t actually allowed behind the scenes at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s recent meeting in Seattle entitled “Strategic Media Partnerships.”

The Gates Foundation funds a lot of media – more than $25 million in media grants for 2012 (but still less than 1% of the budget). 

I’m media but I wasn’t invited. I asked if I could come and report on it, but was told the meeting was off the record. Those attending included representatives from the New York Times, NPR, the Guardian, NBC, Seattle Times and a number of other news organizations, non-profit groups and foundations. Not all were grant recipients, or partners. Some just came to consult.

Spoiler alert: Nothing sinister happened. But there’s still a story here.

The public doesn’t see much coverage of the media’s collaboration with the Gates Foundation. Yet it’s substantial, influential and, despite the media’s distaste for reporting on itself, I feel compelled. So here’s my news analysis…. Continue reading

What Happens when you Combine Dr Seuss and Malaria? | 

Today is the anniversary of the day the Dr Ronald Ross’s discovery that malaria was spread by female mosquitoes. Various sites marked the day with blog posts and pictures, but this find from the NPR Shots Blog, who in turn was tipped by the Contagions blog, is much more fun.

Shots tells the story of the pamphlet:

Dr. Seuss was a captain in the U.S. Army. And during World War II, the author and illustrator, whose given name was Theodor Geisel, spent a few years creating training films and pamphlets for the troops.

One of Geisel’s Army cartoons was a booklet aimed at preventing malaria outbreaks among GIs by urging them to use nets and keep covered up.

In 1943, Germany blocked the Allies’ supply of the anti-malaria drug quinine. So Geisel created a booklet explaining to the troops how to avoid harmful encounters with “blood-thirsty Ann,” the character he created to represent Anopheles, the genus of the mosquitoes that transmit the disease

Newsmap side 2 Monday, November 8, 1943 Credit: US Navy Dept Library

Notice that there were cases of malaria in the United States during World War II. A lot has changed since then in the US, but the map has not changed much for sub-Saharan Africa. The basic advice to use sleeping nets was pushed as hard 70 years ago as it is today. Continue reading

NPR: Update on Haiti’s battle against cholera | 

Two reports by NPR’s Richard Knox provide a great overview of the cholera outbreak in Haiti, beginning with coverage of the launch of a (much delayed and fairly small) vaccination campaign aimed not so much at stopping the outbreak as demonstrating vaccines — if more widely used — can stem the epidemic.

Despite yet another tiresome headline riff off Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ book Love in the Time of Cholera, the accompanying report by Knox examines what really drives the cholera explosion — poverty and lack of access to clean water.