The Dark Heart of Global Health? | 

Guest post by Johanna Crane, a medical anthropologist and assistant professor at the University of Washington and author of “Scrambling for Africa: AIDS, Expertise, and the Rise of American Global Health Science.”

Researchers collecting genetic data from Khomani Bushmen community in southern Africa.
Researchers collecting genetic data from Khomani Bushmen community in southern Africa.

Global poverty isn’t just a tragedy. For the biomedical research community, it’s also an opportunity.

Last week, two of my students approached me wanting advice about how to get experience “doing” global health.  This happens to me all the time.  I teach classes on bioethics, science and society, the history of AIDS, and medicine across cultures.

Many of my students want to become doctors.  Some of them care deeply about global health inequalities, while others are primarily concerned with how to get accepted to medical school. Either way, they’re already figuring out what so many North American universities have figured out in the last decade:

Global health is a hot commodity. That is both good and bad news. Continue reading

City Council member: Why fighting poverty means fighting for socialism | 


We’re all familiar with the fear-mongering that goes on when it comes to socialism, communists, and anyone deemed outside the “mainstream” of American politics. The right-wing is fond of calling President Obama a socialist – even as he pushes for a massive, corporation-friendly free-trade agreement – without explaining why that would be a bad thing. Perhaps we can chalk up most of the hysteria against further-left-than-liberal figures to the Cold War.

But it’s 2014. It’s time to move on.

In Seattle, economics professor Kshama Sawant ran on an openly socialist platform against a longtime capitalist, Democratic incumbent in November. And she won.

Today, we explore with Sawant why her campaign was successful, why socialism seems to be gaining momentum, and her analysis of global poverty – including how her views are informed by her upbringing in India, where she says extreme poverty was rampant right alongside staggering wealth. Why was one person rich, and someone living next door destitute? Like many in the development sector, “I was obsessed with this question,” Sawant says. But it drew her to socialism and politics, not aid.

And no discussion of the humanitarian industry is complete without a mention of the world’s largest philanthropic institution, based here in Seattle: the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. While Sawant has some strong words for Gates, there’s also some common ground between this socialist and the billionaire on the question of what kind of aid works. Tune in!

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How the Evergreen state helped Uruguay legalize marijuana | 

Ken Kesey's bus at Seattle's Hempfest
Ken Kesey’s bus at Seattle’s Hempfest

Earlier this week, politicians in Uruguay voted to make the South American nation the first in the world to legalize marijuana – a bold move aimed at regulating the use of pot and disrupting the criminal drug trade.

But they might not have had it not been for a little help from Washington state, in the form of Alison Holcomb, a civil rights attorney in Seattle who led the successful citizen’s initiative here in the (appropriately named) Evergreen state that de-criminalized recreational use of pot.

Here in the U.S., where our policymakers tend to be as bold as lukewarm soup, it is largely the public (fed up with the failed War on Drugs, surveys say) that has been pushing for our political leaders to adopt a more rationale alternative to dealing with drug use.

In Uruguay, it was the politicians pushing the public. President José Mujica had decided that legalizing marijuana would reduce the harm, and the violence, caused by the drug cartels.

“But a poll done in 2012 showed that 64 percent of Uruguayans were opposed to the idea,” said Holcomb, who works for the state branch of the American Civil Liberties Union. As I noted earlier at this year’s colorful, sickly sweet-smelling August gathering of Seattle Hempfest, Washington state’s legalization of pot continues to have global implications. Continue reading

Hey NGOs! Stop fighting with each other! | 

If you’re sincere about fighting poverty, you shouldn’t be trying to out-compete someone else who’s also fighting poverty.

Bookda Gheisar
Bookda Gheisar

You should be supporting their efforts and sharing resources. That might seem like an obvious point, but too often, NGOs are squabbling with one another. Even in Seattle (where everyone is supposedly nice to each other but really rather passive-aggressive), nonprofits are competing for grant dollars more than they’re collaborating.

So says Bookda Gheisar. And she would know. She’s the outgoing executive director of Global Washington, a membership organization that counts prominent philanthropic groups – from MercyCorps to the Gates Foundation to smaller groups like Burkitt’s Lymphoma Kenya Fund – among its constituents. Gheisar talks with Tom Paulson on this week’s podcast about why NGOs don’t work together as well as they should, the pros and cons of labelling the NGO sector an “industry,” and the rare instances where nonprofits have acted as a unified front. If you work in this sector, you’ll want to listen to this.

Before the interview, though, Tom and I discuss the hottest headlines on Humanosphere from the past week, including the new global momentum towards universal healthcare (and how the US lags behind), and why Americans are still clueless about foreign aid.  No, we are not hating on America. We just think to those whom much is given, much is expected.

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Seattle’s pro-pot efforts reverberate worldwide | 

Seattle recently held its annual marijuana celebration, aka Hempfest, replete with colorful characters and events like the bags of Doritos (with pot-smoking instructions) handed out by police, numerous tie-dyed shirt shops and burrito vendors as well as the sweet smell of success from the public ballot initiative that de-criminalized recreational pot use in Washington state.


“The whole world is watching!” shouted Vivian McPeak to the crowd last weekend. McPeak, the organizer of Hempfest and a long-time activist for legalizing marijuana, might have been accused of hyperbole had he said this last year. But this year certainly, it’s not an overstatement.

“I’ve been working with the government of Uruguay on their move toward legalization of cannabis,” said Alison Holcomb, the attorney from the Washington branch of the American Civil Liberties Union who helped draft Initiative 502 that last fall de-criminalized recreational use of small amounts of marijuana.

“Uruguay’s President José Mujica favors this approach as a means to undermine narco-trafficking and the violent criminal organizations who now benefit from it being illegal.”

Attorney Alison Holcomb and son Dashiell
Attorney Alison Holcomb and son Dashiell

Holcomb, who doesn’t use marijuana and spoke at Hempfest accompanied by her young son Dashiell, has traveled a lot since Washington voters approved extending the earlier legalized use of medical marijuana by making personal, recreational use legal as well (at least according to state law). Holcomb was the leader of this initiative, but not because she necessarily favors use of marijuana.

She got into this by first legally defending marijuana users or producers many years ago because she saw it as a matter of global justice. The so-called War on Drugs, which after half a century of implementation is by most accounts a failure, has led to a massive increase in the U.S. prison population as well as widespread instability and violence in many Latin American countries.

Rather than defend against such damaging policies, Holcomb eventually decided to help change the law. Continue reading

China’s Great Leap towards Rapid Urbanization | 

Here’s the plan. China wants to move 250,000,000 people out of its rural areas and into cities within the next 15 years.

There are 316 million people in the United States. China’s plan is to move nearly as many people as the world’s third most populous country.

To do so, China is undertaking a massive construction effort to expand, improve and build new urban centers. Reporting from the New York Times reveals that the effort to transform the country has the potential to rapidly propel China or saddle it with long term and harmful problems.

Continue reading

Seattle’s GiveBIG seeks collaboration amid the competitive chaos of our day of giving | 

Give-BIGToday is the annual GiveBIG event in Seattle, a massive online giving spree sponsored by the Seattle Foundation aimed at raising money for good causes and for fostering a broader “collective” identity and appreciation for this region’s many charitable and humanitarian endeavors.

“GiveBIG is an opportunity to focus on the collective work we are doing to build a healthy community,” said Mary Grace Roske, spokeswoman for the Seattle Foundation. “It’s a day to come together.”

It’s also a day that drives many people nuts due to all the competing demands for attention from the 1,400 non-profit organizations hoping to get you to donate during GiveBIG – thanks to the event’s promise to ‘stretch’ donations (not quite matching, but adding to donations, up to $25,000) and its random Golden Ticket award.

Joy Portella
Joy Portella

“I recently returned from a weeklong vacation to find my email inbox clogged with more than a dozen appeals from nonprofits pleading for donations on May 15. Feeling overwhelmed, I did what many people in my position might: I deleted everything,” wrote Joy Portella, in a guest column for the Seattle Times entitled Has Seattle Foundation’s GiveBIG campaign gotten too big?

Continue reading

Seattle AIDS vaccine scientists celebrate new clues – and uncertainty | 

Jim Kublin provides an overview of AIDS vaccine science at Seattle HVTN meeting

Seattle is home to the world’s largest HIV vaccine research network and, as a scientitic meeting here this week indicated, they’re quite comfortable with not knowing where they’re heading.

“We actually don’t know what the agenda is,” said Dr. Jim Kublin, executive director of the HIV Vaccine Trials Network (HVTN) based at Seattle’s Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center.

That drew a lot of laughs from the audience, since Kublin’s lecture title for the day was ‘Scientific Agenda, the Next Seven Years.’

“That’s the way science is,” Kublin told me after his talk. “Good science is based on uncertainty, on having an open mind and dealing with the unknown.”

But what makes it easier to laugh about not knowing where you’re going, he added, is that researchers today have a lot more tantalizing clues – beginning with the ground-breaking Thai vaccine trial known to this bunch as RV 144. Continue reading