Thursday, June 4, 2009


By Marian Starkey

Yesterday, yet another sign of the Obama Administration’s commitment to international diplomacy was presented to an audience of over 500 in Washington, DC at the
TED@State event. Once the seats were filled, people crowded along the staircases and into the back of the auditorium, standing for nearly three hours to hear the experts’ takes on how to proceed effectively with international development.

TED Talks (TED stands for Technology, Entertainment, Design) has partnered with the Global Partnership Initiative, based at the State Department to form the TED@State series. Since 1984, TED has invited experts on a range of subjects to deliver “the talks of their lives” to audiences around the world in 18 minutes or less. In April of this year, the partnership with State was forged so that new ideas could find their way to professionals and politicians in Washington.

Ambassador Elizabeth Frawley Bagley introduced the event on behalf of Secretary Clinton, who had a last-minute invitation to travel with President Obama to Egypt.

Clay Shirky, author of Here Comes Everybody, spoke about how social media is changing our world and how governments must keep up to avoid embarrassment or worse.

Stewart Brand, author of the Whole Earth Discipline, argued that cities are "green" and full of opportunities lacking in smaller villages. He described the living conditions of squatters, who sometimes live right smack up against the gated communities of the rich. From above, slums might look disorganized and void of services, but actually, there are countless informal businesses and access to cash economies that just doesn’t exist in the rural developing world. The people who move to urban slums are working as hard as they can to climb out of poverty and the infrastructure that they enjoy there, while appalling to the Western eye, is actually far superior to that available in the countryside.

Sometimes counterintuitive to our supporters, Population Connection has long stuck up for cities in terms of their ecological footprint. New York City, where most people do not own cars and instead walk or take mass transit, is a champion of energy efficiency. Apartments are small, walls (and therefore heating and cooling) are shared, and less land is converted to development because buildings are built up instead of out.

Paul Collier, author of The Bottom Billion, also spoke about poverty and how easy it is for families on the verge of escaping poverty to fall back into it because of an event like a health emergency. He continued Brand’s discussion of the eco-friendliness of cities and even called them “population sinks” because they ease demands placed on rural land by subsistence farmers.

While I see the value of populations congregating cities where they can share economies and infrastructure, I took issue with his comment, “Cities diffuse the population bomb.” While moving away from family farms and letting the land lie fallow may restore nutrients to the soil, it does not reduce the total number of people in the country that need to be fed. Someone still has to grow the food for the world’s population, regardless of whether the majority of its inhabitants are rural or urban dwellers. One important point Collier does make though, is that typically urban residents have lower fertility than rural residents and that this demographic trend helps slow population growth. Smaller families probably arise due to a variety of factors, from increased educational and employment opportunities to new ideas about family and society to simple contraceptive access.

Collier also spoke in detail about the problematic youth bulges of failed states and the need to find work for young men who will otherwise fall into crime, terrorism, or despair. Perhaps outside the bounds of his expertise, it nevertheless would have been helpful if he had mentioned population stabilization as a means by which to speed the rise from poverty of urban slum dwellers and slow the growth of the troubling youth bulges in failed states.

Jacqueline Novogratz, founder and leader of the Acumen Fund, spoke about her insightful approach to philanthropy. Acumen addresses poverty from the bottom-up and brings in private investors who can serve a more grassroots population than donor governments, multilateral agencies, or foundations, which typically must focus on the bigger picture.

Finally, Hans Rosling, creator of the Gapminder tool recently purchased by Google, presented different demographic data in his colorful, easy to interpret graphs. He praised the United States government (he’s Swedish) for funding the Demographic and Health Surveys, which are the primary tools we have for tracking social and health indicators over the past 25 years. Rosling gave a longer talk last week at the Woodrow Wilson Center, which was highly entertaining and informative.

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