Category Archives: Miscellaneous

Lives of the Saints – International hardship duty in Chad.

Bredjing, a refugee camp in eastern Chad, close to the border with the Darfur region of Sudan. Twelve camps in the region house a quarter of a million Sudanese who have fled to the area and are now caught between warring armies. Photograph by Christoph Bangert.

The New Yorker has a lengthy article about aid workers in Chad.  @aidworkersntwk Twittered this a few hours ago.  I worked with Yvan in Chad in the early days of 2004.  Like others in my line of work I arrived alone at 3am with a backpack and a hotel reservation to set-up operations before our advance team arrived a week later.  Ah, fond memories of brutal heat, great food and lots of sand.  But are we really saints?  When I have time I’ll read it in full.  From the article:


Everything is fine, until the moment when it is not. And when that moment comes it can be very quick and very bad.

This is what Aiméry Mbounkap tells me on a Saturday afternoon in November of 2007. Mbounkap works as a site planner for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. He is a robustly built man of about thirty, an architect by training and saturnine by disposition. We are sitting in the common room of a U.N.H.C.R. field office situated on the eastern frontier of the African nation of Chad, thirty-five miles from the Darfur border. Along that border, the U.N.H.C.R. oversees the operation of twelve refugee camps with a population of nearly two hundred and fifty thousand Sudanese who have fled to Chad to escape death, mayhem, and ethnic cleansing.

Read on…

Innovation in the Humanitarian Sector

Paul Currion over at has undertaken the difficult task of trying to understand why innovation in the humanitarian sector is as evasive as it is essential.  We have an evil relationship with innovation and more often than not we fail to innovate at exactly those times when we should be doing so.  Classically, this is because 1) we don’t have the cash to innovate 2) we’re distracted with the latest emergency or 3) management is dumber than a box of rocks and sits on the best and the brightest ideas while force feeding their own.  And at those times when we do have a clear shot at getting something done the pickings are so slim we usually end up batting around a few ideas and then give up and going home.

Paul is trying to figure out what works and could use a hand in doing so.  He’s looking for ideas and feedback.  For my part I don’t think staff turnover is a crucial issue.  Innovation is a process, a religion.  It is something that happens over time and if you don’t start and then don’t stop you are never going to truly innovate.  You’ll simply have a smattering of bright ideas that, as Paul says, wither on the vine.  True innovation will resist any counter flow, weather any storm and evolve as a result of these challenges.  The main impediment to innovation is us.  As long as we take the easy way out and continue to make grand, sweeping and ineffective gestures rather than small, sensible ones we will continue to find ourselves stuck in the doldrums and wondering what happened.  The world will never be saved by massive systems.  What is needed is one small but very good start.

Read on…

(This was written after midnight so please pardon the fuzzy logic.)

MSF’s Condition: Critical

Doctors Without Borders/Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) has launched a new initiative called Condition: Critical aimed at raising awareness of the situation in eastern Congo.

The site has an incredibly moving slideshow with audio from the field and an informative narration.  As a father it is hard to watch.  I used to have thicker skin when I was in the field with MSF but all that changed with the birth of my son.

Read on…

‘Pray The Devil Back To Hell’

For Those Who Want to know has a link to an AfricanLoft article about the movie Pray The Devil Back To Hell.  It looks like an incredible movie that highlights the struggle of Liberian women during the conflict in that country.  The music alone makes me want to go back.  You can download the theme song “Djoyigbe” here.  It’s great.

Read on…

The Bottom of the Pyramid

“These unhappy times call for the building of plans that rest upon the forgotten, the unorganized but the indispensable units of economic power…that build from the bottom up and not from the top down, that put their faith once more in the forgotten man at the bottom of the economic pyramid.”

U.S. president Franklin D. Roosevelt in his April 7, 1932 radio address, The Forgotten Man

PTSD and the aid worker

Michael Kleinman over at has a nice write-up on the impact of PTSD on aid workers titled Dealing, or not Dealing – Part 2.  I know first hand how when things go wrong in the field the memories can stick with you for a very long time.  A valuable reality check for those of you thinking that field life is glam and for that other set that doesn’t feel quite right following their last field gig.  Be sure not to miss Part 1.

Read on…

Mini-UAV’s used to collect HIV/AIDS and TB samples in remote areas of South Africa

This is about as wild and innovative as it gets.  Another great project being developed locally.  The National Health Laboratory Services of South Africa is using mini-UAV’s to collect HIV/AIDS and TB samples from remote health posts in the region.  Here is the complete write-up from the NHLS website and a New Scientist video:

Read on…

[via, DIY Drones, and Timbuktu Chronicles]


Baghdad - James Gordon

Baghdad - James Gordon

My former colleague and now fellow blogger has a wonderful write-up covering her brief visit to Baghdad.  It is a short, personal account of the experience one can have in Baghdad and the impact that working in such an environment can have on an individual.

The line about about seeing Baghdad briefly from the bedroom window…  I remember looking out from the dining room years ago and seeing soldiers reading Playboys and drinking Gatorade while leaning against heavy weapons.  I remember so clearly the acne on the back of one kid’s neck and how it made me realize that these guys were younger than my little brother, just teenagers really.

Read on…

‘Tim O’Reilly to software developers: Get serious’

My snarky comments about Team Cyprus (see below) came after reading an LA Times’ article on Tim O’Reilly.  From the article:

O’Reilly argues that Silicon Valley has strayed from the passion and idealism that fuel innovation to instead follow what he calls the “mad pursuit of the buck with stupider and stupider ideas.”

Flush with money and opportunity following the post-dot-com resurgence, he says, some entrepreneurs have cocooned in a “reality bubble,” insulated from poverty, disease, global warming and other problems that are gripping the planet. He argues that they should follow the model of some of the world’s most successful technology companies, including Google Inc. and Microsoft Corp., which sprang from their founders’ efforts to “work on stuff that matters.”

Not everyone is convinced that business is the right vehicle to tackle social or environmental ills. But Jim Schorr, who lectures on social entrepreneurship at UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business, says he can’t imagine “a higher calling for the next generation of tech entrepreneurs.”

Not everyone is convinced that business is the right vehicle to tackle social or environmental ills. But Jim Schorr, who lectures on social entrepreneurship at UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business, says he can’t imagine “a higher calling for the next generation of tech entrepreneurs.”

“The opportunity to focus technology and tech entrepreneurs on the unaddressed, underserved segments of society is enormous,” Schorr said. “Developing and extending technologies with limited profit potential, using market-driven approaches, can deliver both social and financial impact and sustainability.”

Though the Web 2.0 generation has a reputation for indulgence and narcissism, O’Reilly can point to a number of ventures using Silicon Valley ingenuity to deliver on Schorr’s ideal.

The Omidyar Network, created by EBay Inc. founder Pierre Omidyar and his wife, Pam, makes grants to and investments in worthy causes., started by former rocket scientist Jim Fruchterman, creates software for human rights activists, environmentalists and people with disabilities.

The market is not so much interested in helping the developing world rather they want to corner it.  I agree that most of the IT world is locked in their own reality believing that they alone know how to save the world.  (I didn’t have this cynicism when I jumped into this side of the pool but everything I have seen so far has given me little hope that change is on the way.)  I really think that Silicon Valley has to bottom out before things get better and the ideas get fresher.  The problem with many of the social ventures, foundations, etc. is that they are simply being populated with folks that still live in the ‘reality bubble’.  Those same glassy eyed individuals who danced their way through ‘Don’t stop believing’ are now deciding that they want to do more with their lives so they are simply moving their offices, pulling in a comparable salary and producing the same tepid ideas that are weighting down the companies they are leaving.  We really need to send the kids somewhere for the summer and not just to some exotic island where they can cavort with babes in matching bikinis.  Who are those women anyways?

‘A Solar Refrigeration System, Carried by Camels’

TreeHugger has a story on camels that carry solar powered refrigeration systems.  This is another briliant invention.  It warms my heart to know that this is the product of the Art Center College of Design Designmatters program that I was fortunate to serve as an expert/judge for some years back.  I had the honor of meeting with the class and discussing the challenges of logistics in the developing world along with an ER physician from one of LA’s toughest hospitals.  It was a great experience and let me tell you that those folks are absolutely brilliant.  They say that something like 70% of the cars on the road today were designed by Art Center graduates.  If you are sitting around wondering what to do with your life stop thinking and start filling out your application.  You could do much much worse.  From the write-up:

Reaching the nomadic communities who roam the arid and hot Sahel of Africa with vaccines has always posed an exceptional challenge to health workers, particularly because vaccines need to be refrigerated. (See past posts on the Ice Battery.) National immunization programs to eliminate serious diseases like polio and measles rarely benefit pastoralist communities in Kenyan districts like Laikipia and Samburu, nor do those communities often get access other medications requiring refrigeration.

In the last two years, a team of designers, health workers, and development experts from Designmatters at the Art Center College of Design, Princeton’s Institute of Science and Technology of Materials, and the Mpala Community Trust has conceived and rolled out a clever mobile, refrigerated health clinic using solar energy and camels.

Read on…