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Published in the Guardian on September 14, 2012 .  Read the full article here.


On a sunny Wednesday afternoon, 16-year-old Vasco Mzanda limped into a district health centre in Zambia‘s southern province, accompanied by his father, Listen. Three weeks earlier, Vasco had been riding his bicycle near his village when a car hit him, causing him to fly off the dirt road. When he stood up, he had trouble walking and could not put any weight on his left leg.

Vasco’s injuries were exacerbated by Zambia’s healthcare system. Listen immediately took his son to the nearby rural health post. But it did not have any diagnostic equipment, so Vasco was referred to the district health centre, 60km away. Having saved money for the 60,000 kwacha (£7.50) round-trip fare and paid for an X-ray once there, Listen learned that his son’s femur had been fractured; in the three weeks without care, the bone had partially “malunited”. The district hospital did not have the surgical equipment to fix it, so the attendant doctor told them to find their way to Livingstone general hospital, another 130km away.

There are more than 20,000 road traffic accidents every year in Zambia, resulting in an estimated 3,000 deaths and exponentially more injuries and disabilities. The country has less than 0.02% of the world’s registered vehicles, but almost 14 times the proportion of fatalities from road traffic accidents. Many injuries, like Vasco’s, are technically simple to treat. But without adequate emergency care, transportation or referral systems, many patients experience unnecessary complications. Some suffer from neglected physical trauma, some become permanently handicapped, and others die needlessly.

Continue reading here.


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Published on Dowser on November 29, 2011.  Read the original article here:

Directed at budding social entrepreneurs, Social Enterprise Bootcamp, a recent two day workshop organized by students at Columbia, NYU and the School of Visual Arts, offered practical advice from an impressive array of speakers. Here are a few of the key take-aways:

A social enterprise can change the world, but only a part of it.

Greg van Kirk, founder of the New Development Solutions Group and of the micro-consignment model, told participants, “Social entrepreneurship is when people tell you you’re crazy, that your idea will never take off, but you decide it’s important enough to do anyway.” With a lofty vision, deep conviction for your cause, and solid execution capability, almost anything is possible. At the same time, however, the best social enterprises know their limits. No business can change everything, van Kirk said, and businesses that attempt to do too much will inevitably fail. Instead, he advised participants to pick what they want to influence and do it well.

Expect bumps along the way.

Starting a business, especially a social enterprise, is not easy. The speakers, many of whom were social entrepreneurs themselves, had no qualms about sharing their past and current obstacles in getting their businesses off the ground. Joanna Opot of TerraCycle, for instance, discussed the challenges all businesses face as they begin to scale up, and mentioned some ways her business is currently trying to overcome them. Joyce Meng of Givology advised participants to “keep it cheap” for as long as possible, so as to survive the unavoidable growing pains. “Do you really need an office in the early stages?” she asked. Or will it make your business more likely to sink if something goes wrong?

Do what you love.

Keynote speaker Jeffrey Hollender of Seventh Generation spoke to the importance of “doing what you love.” The process of opening a social enterprise is difficult, he said, and without a deep commitment to your cause, it will be easy to find exit opportunities. He also discussed the importance of developing a strong mission and set of values. In many cases, he said, these intangibles are more important and longer lasting than the product.

Design your business around your consumer.

Design thinking, or “human-centered design,” is important for almost any social enterprise. Jeff Chapin of IDEO explained how design thinking goes far beyond the aesthetics of a product or service, and often requires re-engineering entire business models and processes to focus on the consumer. He gave the audience examples from the water and sanitation world, where design thinkers made water filters, latrines, and mobile toilet systems with the consumer’s needs and preferences in mind.

Don’t undervalue your product/service.

It is common for social entrepreneurs, especially new ones, to undervalue the novelty of their offerings, and therefore undercharge for them. To illustrate this point, Opot of TerraCycle told participants her own story. “When we started making partnerships, we found that everyone was interested in partnering with us,” she said. It’s exciting in the beginning, Opot said, but after a point, she realized the real reason for the interest was that their prices were too low. “When we hiked up our prices, nobody even blinked,” she said.

Dot your i’s and cross your t’s.

Without basic logistical details in place, even social enterprises with rock star leaders and revolutionary business models can fail. To avoid this, some workshops focused on the legal, financial, and other backend processes needed to bring businesses to success. Speakers gave advice on how to register their businesses, how to forecast financials, how to engage good lawyers, and more.


One session asked participants to put everything away and spend the next forty-five minutes simply reflecting on what they had learned. Some rolled their eyes and left the session (“this isn’t what I paid money for!”), smartphones in hand, but I heard very good feedback from those who sat through it. “We’ve learned so much this weekend,” one participant told me, “and we never take time to just sit and consider what it all means.”

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Reported and written in May 2011.  The full article is also available at Thanassis Cambanis’ website.

Aron Wieder, Vice President of East Ramapo's public school board, keeps a Twitter account. His tweets vary from the cultural (“This purim—a springtime Jewish festival—it was unusually quiet on the streets of Monsey”) to the secular (“I read to the kids a Curious George book”). Photo: Aron Wieder.

Steve Forman, one of Ramapo High School’s assistant principals, was stunned to find on a recent morning that his town’s sectarian feud had spilled into his school. On the blackboard in an empty classroom, someone had scribbled: “IT’S THE JEWS’ FAULT.”

Forman immediately knew the anonymous student was not referring to the latest conflict in the Middle East.  The anti-Semitic jab was much less global.  In all likelihood, the student was referring to the Jewish members of the local public school board, who have drawn fire over the dilapidated state of the school district.

The East Ramapo school district is deeply divided.  Located twenty-five miles northwest of Manhattan, the suburb consists of a sizable ultra-Orthodox Jewish community, now the single largest ethnic group in town, and a mix of immigrant groups, including communities from Haiti and the Dominican Republic.

Though Ramapo High School boasts a colorful mural with the phrase, “Unity in diversity,” the community has largely ignored this mantra.  Over the years, festering tensions between the Orthodox and the non-Orthodox populations have led to disputes over real estate, traffic safety, and most contentiously, education.  Non-Orthodox residents complain that the Orthodox community has used its political muscle to lower taxes and gut the public education system, while Orthodox residents contend that the district must be more responsive to the needs of the changing population.

These disputes mirror those in many other towns with bourgeoning Orthodox populations, such as in Long Island and in Brooklyn.  East Ramapo’s tensions may be mounting to unprecedented levels, though, with the US Department of Education recently having begun an investigation to see whether the school board has engaged in discriminatory practices against public school students.

Ultimately, the community-wide dispute has the largest impact on the 8,200 students who attend the public schools, over half of whom are eligible for free and reduced lunch (a proxy for low-income status).  The dispute also directly impacts the 17,000 children in East Ramapo who attend private schools, the vast majority of which are yeshivas, or traditional Jewish schools.


Long-time East Ramapo residents often talk about the “golden age” of the school district.  “When I attended Ramapo [High School], it was a totally different place,” a middle-aged woman whispered to me during a school board meeting.  “Things have really gone downhill.”

In the context of East Ramapo, the phrase “gone downhill” has several specific connotations. I grew up in the area and attended East Ramapo’s public schools, so I am familiar with several of them.

Among residents of Rockland County, which embraces East Ramapo, “gone downhill” most often implies the changing ethnic and socioeconomic makeup of the district.  In 1989, 38 percent of Ramapo High School’s students were non-white; by 2009, this figure had jumped to 93 percent, due both to the influx of sizable immigrant populations and to “white flight,” defined in this case as hundreds of East Ramapo’s white families either moving or sending their children to other schools.  “After white flight we began seeing black flight,” said Forman, an assistant principal at Ramapo High School.  “Middle-class black families started to leave our district too.  Who are we left with?”

“Gone downhill” also often refers to the perceived quality of education in East Ramapo.  SchoolDigger, a national school-rating website, currently ranks Ramapo High School 824th out of New York’s 1113 public high schools.  Less than 75 percent of students graduate, and of those that do, only 40 percent continue to four-year institutions.  Most publicity the district receives today centers around fights, arrests, and gangs.  This is a starkly different picture from twenty years ago, when East Ramapo was, according to my mother, a long-time resident, “considered one of the best school districts around, with some of the best teachers.  That’s not the case anymore.”

More recently, “gone downhill” sometimes tacitly refers to the composition of the East Ramapo school board.  The nine-person elected board has enormous influence on the school district: each member has a say in which lawyer the district should hire, which extracurricular programs to fund, and which union contracts to uphold.

Historically, the board consisted of ardent parents of East Ramapo students.  Over time, however, the town began electing several equally ardent “private school parents”—a local euphemism for Orthodox residents—to the board.  Members of the grassroots group East Ramapo Stakeholders for Public Education, among others, have credited the elections to a supposed Jewish bloc vote combined with general voter apathy.  They have also complained that many of today’s East Ramapo parents are not US citizens and thus have no say in local elections.

As of April 2011, there were five Orthodox or Hasidic Jewish men serving on the nine-member public school board.  All of them send their children to private schools.  These board members included Nathan Rothschild, who served as President of the school board from 1998 until his sudden resignation on April 14.  The following day, he appeared in a US District Court on unrelated felony charges (he is accused of engaging in mail fraud while serving as fire commissioner in Monsey, one of East Ramapo’s more Orthodox neighborhoods).

The East Ramapo Central School District board in 2009. Five of nine members are Hasidic Jewish and send their children to private yeshivas. Photo credit: Vos iz Neias


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Published in The National on July 21, 2010.  You can read the article here, or see below:

The noted Islamic scholar Khurshid Ahmad once described the philosophy behind Islamic banking: “Money never becomes the objective, the hero of the cast. It remains an intermediary and an instrument for real productive effort, for asset creation, and for the expansion of physical economic activity.”

Islamic banking essentially reminds us that money is not the end goal, but rather an intermediary that helps build non-monetary assets in society. As a result, say Sharia scholars, one should never profit from money alone, and one should never use money for unproductive purposes (including haraam activities like alcohol and gambling).

This philosophy has resonated throughout the Muslim world for centuries. Today, Sharia-compliant banking is practised in more than 50 countries, and has even found a place in societies without a Muslim majority. Around the world, financial institutions have adjusted their offerings to comply with Islamic law.

Surprisingly, India is not included in these 50 countries. Even though India has the third largest Muslim population in the world (more than 160 million individuals today), Indian Muslims have few options to practise proper Islamic banking.

This is largely because of India’s strict banking laws. Regulations do not explicitly prohibit Islamic banking, but they certainly don’t encourage it either. Banks in India are supposed to further lend the deposits they accept, meaning that – in direct opposition to Islamic philosophy – they are supposed to profit from money. Banks are also not allowed to make investments in non-financial endeavours, which most Islamic banks regularly do.

But recently the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) has begun making strides in favour of Sharia-compliant banking. Citing the safer nature of debt-free Islamic banking, the RBI has been pushing for regulations that would allow Islamic banks to thrive.

For India, this could have huge consequences. If new legislation passes, devout Muslim households would finally be able to save their wealth with formal banks, as opposed to relying on poorly funded co-operative societies.

Amid these new opportunities, however, there is significant opposition. India is a secular country, detractors say, and financial services should not have religious elements attached to them. The fear is that Islamic banking cause further social divisions in society.

Hopefully, the RBI will not heed these concerns. There will always be naysayers to new propositions, especially when they involve communities as marginalised as Indian Muslims. There will also always be groups afraid of how concepts like Islamic banking comply with India’s democratic ideals.

In this case, however, the potential benefits from Islamic banking are too great to allow these arguments to become serious setbacks. And Islamic banking may actually foster India’s democratic ideals, rather than detract from them.

The Indian Muslim community would obviously be the largest beneficiary of Islamic banking. At present, there are very few avenues for Muslim households today to practise Sharia-compliant banking. Many families, as a result, simply do not access formal financial products. They keep money with relatives and friends, inside closets and under floorboards – essentially, in places that are less safe than banks.

Introducing Islamic banking would be revolutionary for this entire segment of Indian society. For decades, India has been touting the need for greater “financial inclusion”, the need to bring more citizens into the formal banking systems. Indian laws even require banks to locate a percentage of their branches in so-called “economically backwards” areas.

Islamic banking could help to achieve this goal. Millions of families could deposit their savings in formal banks in accordance with their religion. By doing so, these households would be on a more equal footing with non-Muslim ones, thereby promoting India’s democratic values.

India could also benefit from added investments. By opening Sharia-compliant banks, India could potentially gain investment opportunities from the Gulf that would otherwise have been lost. On several occasions, investors from the Middle East have been interested in Indian projects – particularly in infrastructure – but existing legislation has blocked them.

Worldwide, many countries have opened Islamic banks to cater for their Muslim constituencies. Some corporate giants – including Microsoft, GlaxoSmithKline and BP – have also taken steps towards being Sharia-compliant.

It is time for India to follow their lead. India has a sizeable Muslim population that needs tailor-made financial solutions. Over the next few months, the RBI should continue taking steps towards opening Islamic banking, while explaining to the public how important it is for India overall.

Sarika Bansal is a Mumbai-based freelance writer with a background in microfinance

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A shoe cobbler I met in Udaipuria

In Udaipuria, a village in the northwestern Indian state of Rajasthan, sits a shoe cobbler.   His hands, much like his products, are brown and leathery.  He has been making shoes—in his case, ethnic mojaris—for almost 50 years.  Over this time, he has sculpted innumerable shoes, taught innumerable apprentices, and observed innumerable changes in the business.

“When I began making shoes, they were all for kissans, for farmers,” he says, not missing a beat from hammering a new shoe to life.  “That is not what happens anymore.  A few of us still make shoes for farmers, but most work goes to big cities.”

Such has been the case since 1997, when the UNDP (UN Development Program) and RUDA (Rural Non-Farm Development Agency) launched “Operation Mojari.”  Recognizing the potential urban market for Rajasthani shoes, this program was designed to help artisans to thrive well beyond their home villages.  As a result, Rajasthani shoemakers began to see markets and money they never before imagined—that is, until the intervention ended and market forces resumed. (more…)

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What an autorickshaw looks like, in case you were wondering

What an autorickshaw looks like, in case you were wondering

So, I got in an accident today. It was one of those stupid, extremely avoidable ones that left an (equally avoidable) bad taste in everyone’s mouths. My friend and I were on a motorcycle, driving very responsibly for the most part. We were less than five minutes from our destination when my friend decided to make a quick right turn onto a side street. We turn, suddenly realize there’s an autorickshaw coming full speed in the opposite direction (that’s now screeching its brakes), try to make a quick getaway, and ultimately fail.

My left foot ended up colliding head-on with the auto’s headlight; my friend flew for a bit and hit his shoulder on the pavement; both vehicles toppled onto their sides; the rickshaw passengers (a mother and son) fell on top of each other; and the rickshaw driver fell onto his side. In true Indian ish-tyle, there were 40 spontaneous spectators, a fraction of whom helped all of us up.

As they say, “it all happened so fast.”

It turned out that my foot was the only seemingly serious injury of the lot, emotional shock notwithstanding. We were luckily two blocks away from a hospital, so my immediate thought was to hobble back onto the bike and get my foot X-rayed. I was in serious pain, up to the “holding back tears so I don’t look like a wimpy little girl” point, so I was moving as fast as my good leg would allow me. However, before I could actually sit on the bike, the rickshaw driver yelled out for my friend and me. (more…)

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Hello world!

hello anonymous, ambiguous, androgynous cyberspace!  so i’m new to blogging, but am enthusiastic to learn the rules.  i like thinking — and now writing — about a lot of things, from economic development to social entrepreneurship to public health initiatives to literature to film to urban environments to animal behaviour.  oh and pop culture.

so about me… i’ve been living in mumbai, india for almost 3 years.  i’m working in microfinance (well, kind of).  i like books.  i like people (for the most part).  i like stories.  i like music.  i like travel.  and i like writing, though i’ve always been a bit intimidated by the art.  starting this damn thing was actually my new year’s resolution, so let’s see how well i keep up with it :)

so, hello.  and hopefully this isn’t one of those “<kiss kiss> so nice to see you” hello’s, but a real, sustained, bellowed greeting.  ok that sounds a bit scary, but you get the point.

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