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.