Archive for November, 2009

I have just had the deep privilege of assisting with the coordination and screening of the documentary Milking the Rhino at both Carnegie Mellon and Penn State universities.

For those unfamiliar with the documentary:

Trailer http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fbzWM6Kqbhk

Movie Website  http://www.MilkingtheRhino.org/ (copies available for purchase)

The documentary was filmed in Kenya and Namibia.  It provides an in-depth view of the challenges and opportunities offered by the Community Based Conservation model http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Community-based_conservation

My role was to:

  • Connect the film’s Originator & Co-Producer, Jeannie Magill, with interested parties at Carnegie Mellon and Penn State
  • Assist with planning and logistics
  • Moderate the panel discussion at Carnegie Mellon
  • Participate in the panel discussion at Penn State
  • Help to promote post-screening dialog and activities

You can find details on the Carnegie Mellon panel discussion here http://www.cmu.edu/uls/november/rhino.html (link to video is forthcoming).  My moderator comments can be downloaded here http://www.box.net/shared/yzen6lqgml

My presentation for the Penn State panel discussion can be downloaded here http://www.box.net/shared/h6nekgobj1 (focus is on a community owned hippo sanctuary in Ghana)

Penn State has created an Innovative Solutions Showcase.   http://mtrsolutions.weebly.com/ Students were asked to create video pitches of no more than 3 min in length and to post them on YouTube.  While this is the first year, it is hoped that next year others (other students, general public, entrepreneurs, etc) will join the competition.

You can view the 12 student submissions here http://www.youtube.com/view_play_list?p=AB8BA0AC68E84D71 The winning entry was video #10 (Milking the Rhino – Lion Solution)

Patty Satalia host of Conversations from Penn State on WPSu TV interviewed Jeannie Magill on November 18th.  Interview can be viewed here:  http://conversations.psu.edu/episodes/jeannie_magill

The following comment from Lisa Premo (Program Associate, Office of the Vice-Provost for Education) at Carnegie Mellon has prompted me to attempt to create this blog as an online forum whereby discussion can continue.

“You are an amazing moderator! On the spot you seamlessly pulled together all the threads of discussion into a coherent and visible pattern.”

Now that shameless self-promotion is out of the way, I will attempt to summarize the different themes that arose from 3 days of discussions and meetings:

Community Based Conservation

What it is:

  • An attempt to dispel the myth that the natural environment is a “free” resource.  It creates an awareness that there is a delicate eco-system balance on this planet and the eco-system is not centered around humans but rather on the peaceful and collaborative co-existence between humans, wildlife, plants, insects, even microbes.
  • Recognizing that (a) there is a cost to maintain the natural environment, and, (b) professional conservationists alone are not sufficient in number to protect all the natural resources on the planet, we need business models that create incentives for local communities (urban, suburban, rural, remote) to take ownership of and effectively maintain their local eco-systems.

What it is NOT:

  • Easy/Simple
  • A quick solution (These models need at least 10 to 15 years of nurturing and collaboration before they become successful)
  • Standardized approach (Each solution must be localized to the existing environment AND driven by the individual and collective needs of the community that is participating)
  • A synonym for tourism (While the film showcases tourism as a business model, there are many instances where tourism is not a feasible model due to safety, e.g. Liberia, or lack of tourist interest, e.g. a remote community in Kazakstan is preserving local bird species but it is not yet a tourist destination, or, cases in which the traffic of tourism will cause more harm to the local environment than the benefits it brings)
  • A model centered on Western values (This planet has a multitude of human beings each with their own cultural and religious identities and beliefs.  As an example, in African and Native American cultures, the notion of hunting animals for food is widely accepted.  The notion of killing any animal is horrifying and socially disgraceful in Buddhist cultures.  Hunting animals only for sport is often viewed as a Western preference.  Often times the judgments and decisions made based on these differing value systems create intense conflict between groups so we need to find ways to harmoniously resolve our differences.)

Respecting Local Autonomy AND for “The Poor”

Across the globe, any time a community is given the label “poor” (based on their lack of monetary wealth), there is an unspoken assumption that they are also incapable of sound judgment let alone making sound business decisions.

Hence the “poor” (in any part of the world whether in rural Africa or urban slum neighborhoods) are treated more like ignorant children than autonomous adults.  It is expected that they will acquiesce and comply with whatever solutions and assistance are provided by the “more enlightened” people (i.e. people with money or certified education degrees).

There is never an attempt to ascertain why certain behavior patterns or preferences have evolved over time.  When people are “poor” it is automatically assumed that their modus operandi is either primitive or wrong.  However, those who are considered primitive are able to construct housing that leaves zero footprint on the local environment (something that those with money and certified degrees have yet to figure out).  Those in the US who were labeled as wrong for not wanting to invest their money in banks because of the excessive fees are now being proven right during the economic downturn as more and more “wealthy” individuals get hit with 30% interest rates and other onerous bank fees.

It has often been said that societies are judged based on how they treat their least fortunate members.  (see quotes http://ask.metafilter.com/23612/Quote-About-Government-and-Poverty)  Within our country borders AND as a global community it is time that we put actions behind our words.

The first step to respect is listening without judgment or bias.

The second step to respect is asking others: How can I best help you? Instead of assuming one knows what is best for that person or group.

Are movies truly educational or do they just serve to promote myths and stereotypes?

This was an interesting polemic discussion

Point: A film such as Milking the Rhino is just a snapshot in time.  For those who are uneducated about foreign cultures it can reinforce negative stereotypes and beliefs (i.e. continue to promote ignorance rather than increase understanding).

Counter Point: A film such as Milking the Rhino is an invitation for further dialog and informed discussion.  It presents the complexity and depth of the issues so that we are forced to argue amongst ourselves.  Through these arguments we will eventually increase our understanding and create better solutions.


One polemic discussion leads to another.

Point: Throughout the film, Africans refer to “white people” in a derogatory manner.  This is offensive and why are we asked to help when they are so hostile to us?

Counter Point: In the film, the Africans also state that “we cannot kill them [whites] and we must continue to live with them.”  When it comes to Africa, as the film shows, there has been no shortage of derogatory and abusive treatment from whites to Africans.  The Slave Trade, Colonial Rule, Exploitation of Natural Resources through lopsided contracts and trade agreements, constant biased media portrayals of “savages” and “primitive people”…The list is virtually endless.  This behavior naturally generates deep resentment and anger.  Anyone who is treated this way would react in the same manner.  Instead of being surprised by the reactions, the reactions should be taken as a wake up call that the treatment of Africans needs to change.  When this happens, their remarks will change.

Can Technology help to reduce Human-Wildlife conflict?


In Kenya, elephants are being tagged with collars that send an SMS (text message) alert to game rangers any time an elephant gets too close to the farms of a local village. http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2008/10/11/tech/main4515365.shtml

Todd Katzner, Director of Conservation & Field Research at the National Aviary in Pittsburgh, is working on tracking devices that use a GSM mobile platform in order to track the flight patterns of eagles.  This data is collected at 30 second intervals.  It allows for things such as the appropriate placing of wind turbines (renewable energy windmills) in locations that do not pose risk to eagles as they fly by.  Perhaps one day there can be devices for each animal species so that we have the tracking mechanisms that will enable us to issue and trade wild life credits in the same manner we are beginning to trade carbon credits.  http://www.aviary.org/cons/katzner.php

Penn State faculty and students are working on a WishVast project which leverages the power of social networks combined with mobile telephony in order to enable rural communities to directly interact with the global community.  Information can be readily transmitted to them (e.g. Have you tried to protect your crops from elephants setting up natural barriers using chili pepper bushes?  You can also harvest and sell the chili peppers for money.) http://sites.google.com/site/thewishvastproject/

Is Development Aid a problem or a solution?

Across the globe, development aid has had many mixed results.  In some parts countries such as the Asian TIGERs have flourished.  In many parts of Eastern Europe and Africa, the impacts of development aid and development policies by foreign donors have made things worse not better.

There is no one-size-fits-all solution.  The complexities of delivering effective development aid are highlighted in Working Paper 185- Beyond Planning: Markets and Networks for Better Aid published by Owen Border at the Center for Global Development. http://www.cgdev.org/content/publications/detail/1422971

For development aid to work, donors and technical assistance providers MUST learn to synchronize their interests with local interests in a manner that is collaborative and mutually beneficial.

Within the context of Africa this means that, within each country, donors and technical assistance providers need to start sharing information about their projects with local communities AND with each other.  Each country has an almost infinite number of projects on the same topic (wild life conservation, value added agriculture, HIV/AIDS treatment, small business development).  There is no mechanism which provides a country-by-country across the board evaluation of which projects are working better within each sector/issue.

In addition, the one-off pilot project approach needs to be replaced with a long-term intervention approaches (e.g.  minimum of 10 year commitments to a project).  1 to 2 year pilots where activities stop as soon as funding stops are not helpful.  In the context of development aid, we are not manufacturing widgets.  We are working with individuals and groups of individuals to change behaviors and transfer skills (bi-directional, i.e. changes from donors to communities and from communities to donors).

Think about how long it has taken to create awareness of global warming.  Think about how long it takes someone who decides to stop smoking to actually quit smoking for good.  Think about how long it takes even the most successful entrepreneur to start a company and start making money.  The film Milking the Rhino took 6 years from concept idea to final production and with an additional 1.5 years of screenings and discussion we are just beginning to scratch the surface of what the film’s producers intend for the film to accomplish.  http://www.milkingtherhino.org/makingof.php

If the 1 to 3 year pilot approach is not adequate in any of these contexts, why is it then assumed that it is suitable for the context of development aid?

Why are initiatives like these being spearheaded by foreigners instead of Africans?

This question was raised by a Penn State student from Ivory Coast.  He also lamented that he was the only African student at the Penn State screening.  I can attest that at the Carnegie Mellon screening there was only 1 African student from Rwanda.  Both universities have a much larger African student population.

There is also a lot of African led research and activity that takes place within each country.  Unbeknownst to many, Africa has a large and distinguished scientific research community as well as business community.

If I had to answer as to why their efforts are not better known, I would say it is due to lack of marketing.  Africans need to get better at self-promotion so that they are in control of the spin and the voices that are heard.

In the interim, I am hoping that at least some Africans will post on this blog…  (-:

Read Full Post »