Archive for December, 2008

Happy New Year wants to wish all of you – readers, co-competitors, supporters, project managers and donors – a very happy New Year. We are thankful for your support, feedback and encouragement, and the great work many of you are doing to make this world a, yes, better place.

2009 will see a continuation of much of what we have started in 2008. In the blogsphere, we’ll be introducing a number of changes. Finally, both the German and  the English blog will be properly incorporated into We will also seek for a greater variety of topics and let you more fully participate in our work as a team: we are having so many inspiring and interesting encounters with new supporters and collaborators from all realms of life and business, which we would like to share with our readers. Thus, for example, last week here in the US, Stephan and I met Bill Barmeier,  vice president for eBay’s global citizenship team, to discuss possible cooperations between the eBay Foundation and betterplace. 

The last – and our first – year, has been a great one for betterplace. Over 7500 users have financed  120 projects. 60 companies are actively using to improve their social reputation, making it more transparent and participatory. We also feel priviledged to have the support of an increasing number of highly powered supporters and enthusiastic volunteers, not to forget the wonderful betterplace juniors, who with their x-mas activities alone collected over 3.000 Euros for 5 different projects on Over the past month, the German media coverage has also finally taken up the betterplace idea and spread it around the country. 

Let me thank all of you. Have a Happy New Year and let’s make 2009 another year to remember.


Gaming for Rice


This morning I came (via Fast Company) across Free Rice a great online game:  

that allows you become a little bit smarter while also doing the world some good. Created in October 2007 by computer programmer John Breen, who wanted to help his son study for the SAT, Free Rice was initially just a vocabulary game. Now, it has expanded to include math, science, geography and other subject areas and is even used as a learning tool in classrooms — apart from being an effective procrastination device at work.  

It works like this: users are given one question and four different answer choices. For every correct answer, sponsors (who advertise at the bottom of every page) donate 20 grains of rice to feed the world’s hungry through the World Food Program. With very little promotion on the part of the WFP, the game has gone viral – it has about 40,000 users a day and so far can be credited with purchasing enough rice to feed 2.5 million people for a day – in Bangladesh, Myanmar, Uganda, Cambodia, Bhutan and Nepal.  

While my maths skills predictably didn’t yield many grains, my history of art know-how did: between waking up and having breakfast, I collected 1000 grains of rice! Try it yourself. It really is fun.

A payoff out of poverty?


Reyna Luisa Olmedo Vasquez, the nurse for the clinic in Paso de Coyutla. At health clinics like this one in rural Meico, poor people are paid to bring in their children for checkups.

I am spending the holiday season with my family in California. For the past few days we have been renting a house in San Franciscos Haight-Ashbury. Today,  as part of the “going local” process we went to have breakfast at Boulange on Cole with one of those wonderfully thick Sunday editions of The New York Times.

The magazine has an interesting article entitled  A Payoff Out of Poverty? about Mexicos ground-breaking Oportunidades program. In order to break the cycle of poverty for millions of Mexicans, the state started in 1997 to give the poor cash. But unlike conventional welfare programs it conditiones the receipt of cash on activities designed to break the culture of poverty and keep the poor from transmitting that culture to their children. Thus mothers receive small cash payments when they attend workshops in hygine and health, regularly turn up at medical check-ups with their families and sent their children to school. 

The results are highly promising: With more than 5 million families enrolled, Mexicos poverty rate has sunk from 37,4% in 1996 to 13,8% in 2006. Rates of malnutrition, anmia and stunting have dropped, as have other illnesses. Middle-school and High-school enrollments have risen enormously. And while some sceptical observers feared that the programs cash would either be spent on alcohol or lead to increased domestic violence against women (who are the main recipients of the money), it seems that the majority of men have come to realize the benefits of the program.

The success of the program is such that a number of other countries have started to experiment with it, including Turkey, Cambodia and Bangladesh. But adepts also include New York City, where a pilot program will test whether the Oportunidades model can help New York neighbourhoods where poverty is passed down from one generation to the next.

Improving Human Rights in Dubai


Dr. Mohammed al-Roken in his Dubai office

The last 4 days I was in Dubai – no, not in order to admire the construction of the Burj Dubai, soon to be the tallest buildig in the world, ski down the slopes of Ski Dubai or to sip cold beer with Marcus Vetter and Ismael Kathib from Cinema Jenin on the terraces of one of the numerous luxery hotels (although we did just that, as Marcus and Ismael are currently in Dubai to show The Heart of Jenin at the Dubai Film Festival. Btw: The audience loved it).

My purpose there was much more academic, but not less inspiring, as I was invited to attend a German-Arab media dialogue organised by the German Foreign Office about cultural globalisation. For two days 20+ intellectuals from the Arab and German speaking world discussed the changes societies go through in the current phase of globalisation and whether or not the development path Dubai has taken is (or should be) a model for the rest of the Arab world. 

Building Towers, Cheating Workers
Of course, I didn’t quite manage to restrain my project scouting activities for Especially not, after Anja, back at the Berlin office, had identified a contact at Human Rights Watch and put me in touch with Hadi Ghaemi, the author of the report Building Towers, Cheating Workers. The report addresses the many problems of the up to 500.000 South Asian low-wage migrants labouring on the construction sites and staffing the service industries in Dubai.

Hadi, who by now has his own NGO based in New York – International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran, had recommended that I speak to Mohamad Al Roken, the – according to the Washington Post –  most prominent human rights lawyer in Dubai – about possible collaborations between and local Emirati NGOs. 

Lawyers on
From my point of view, the strengthening of legal practice in countries with non-democratic, totalitarian or paternalistic governments is one of the most important leverage for a better world. Many countries, such as the Peoples Republic of China or the United Arabic Emirates , have sound laws – in theory. But they are only rarely enforced, as citizens don’t know about their rights and vested political interests work against them. Thus I think it would make great sense to assemble a number of good legal projects on, which could be supported by (German) legal professionals, from law professors to judges or lawyers.

When I went to see Al Ruken in his office in the old part of Dubai, he confirmed, that there are no obvious NGOs for betterplace to work with in this area. There are very few NGOs in the UAE and the development of a civil society is still in its infancy. Yet, there are a number of possible collaborations which would make great sense according to al-Roken:

  • organize an exchange between the law department of a German university and a group of young lawyers from the UAE (this could be done in cooperation with the Jurists Association in the Emrirates).
  • sponsor the translation of Arabic written UAE law into English, in order to enable foreigners (making up 85% of the whole population in Dubai) to access laws relevant to them (such as residency laws, labour laws etc.)
  • sponsor lawyers from the UAE to take on more pro-bono cases for poor clients, for example in the realm of labour law.

With regards to the last point: there are a number of lawyers willing to represent poor migrant workers against their companies. These cases concern serious abuses of construction workers by employers, such as unpaid or extremely low wages, several years of indebtedness to recruitment agencies for fees that UAE law says only employers should pay, the withholding of employees’ passports, and hazardous working conditions that result in apparently high rates of death and injury.

The laws to deal with these cases are in place, yet, most migrants don’t have enough money to pay the necessary fees: one case costs between $1.500-2.000 and lawyers can only take on a limited number of pro-bono cases without jeopardizing their own economic survival. So, how about if Dubai lawyers – selected by Mohammed al-Roken – start posting their clients cases on betterplace (such as, for example, Sol y Vida, does for medical cases) and german lawyers provide the legal fees?

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60 Years Universal Declaration of Human Rights

Today I attended the event  marking the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in Berlin. The German section of Amnesty international as well as the Friedrich Ebert Foundation had invited to a festive ceremony, attended by Chancellor Angela Merkel and Foreign Minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier. Listening to their speeches I was positively struck by their differentiated perspectives.

Steinmeier pointed out that in a globalized world, where not only (often originally Western) goods and media, but also concepts such as Human Rights, travel and are appropriated by local populations, we can’t anymore think of countries where those rights are regularly violated  – such as Russia or China – as monolithic blocks. We need to identify and strengthen those local actors,  inside and outside the political elites, who are working hard and against odds to improve the human rights situation. He also praised NGOs like amnesty as being part of the vangaurd of a global civil society, creating networks and momentum for Human Rights, which surpass the manouvering space of traditional state politics. 

Here at we are celebrating the 60th. birthday of the 30 Articles of the Declaration with a special campaign in our German blog: For the next 30 days, betterplace team-member Anja Kalb will present the articles one by one. And – as the challenge of the Human Rights lie less in them being declared, but fullfilled, she will present to you organisations and projects which work hard to make the rights reality. 

Here is the first article “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. And although Anja blogs in German, the projects she presents to go along with the Articles of the Declaration, can all be accessed in English.