29 October 2007

Global Climate Change: Stuebi on New Scientist Climate Policy Poll

Polls can be meaningless. Sometimes its the sampling. Sometimes its untrustworthy respondents. Often, it's the interpreters who run roughshod over the results. It's easy to make a poll say what you want it to say: just ask the questions in a way that will give you the answers you want.

I'm skeptical about polls.

So is Richard T. Stuebi, the BP Fellow for Energy and Environmental Advancement at The Cleveland Foundation, and Founder and President of NextWave Energy, Inc:

"It seems to me that poll respondents give themselves far too much credit for being well-informed or magnanimous, relative to what they actually know or what will they will do when making real decisions that really affect them," Stuebi writes over at the CleanTech blog:

However, this past summer, a poll conducted and reported by New Scientist magazine did seem to shed some useful insights that policy-makers ought to consider. The reported highlights of the survey were that there was substantial public support in the U.S. for carbon limitations, that the public preferred outright standards to cap-and-trade or (egads!) carbon taxes, and that the desired focus of carbon reductions should be on the electric power sector than on vehicles (don't tread on SUV!).

In my view, the most illuminating finding was the weakness of support for carbon imitations if they induced any significant economic pain. In other words, respondents were fine with climate legislation -- as long as it really didn't cost much. On the other hand, when asked if they would support carbon emission requirements that would increase energy prices significantly -- which is likely to be the case to achieve the magnitudes of emission reductions that are widely viewed necessary to have meaningful impact in protecting the planet -- support evaporated.

But, Stuebi confesses, "This is one of the few instances where I actually believe what the poll results say, without any bias." The finding that changed his mind, Stuebi says, is "that -- to avoid catastrophic climate change during the balance of this century -- either we need to quickly develop a zero/low baseload carbon energy source that costs essentially no more than conventional coal generation, or that we quickly need to substantially increase U.S. political will and courage to endure economic sacrifice."

Stuebi's conclusion? "Either will be tremendously challenging. Failing on both counts could doom the planet."

Access the poll here: New Scientist

25 October 2007

Social Entreprenuers, Microfinance & Security: Mitigating and Adapting to Climate Change

Good workshop today hosted by UC Irvine's Center for Unconventional Security Affairs on the subject of how social entrepreneurs and microfinance can help address climate change mitigation and adaptation.

Much of our conversation focused on whether microfinance is a viable solution for alleviating poverty, especially among the poorest of the poor. Microcredit started out as a mission-focused option for providing credit to those who do not have access to traditional institutions. But it has matured and evolved to a point where commercial interests are moving into microfinance.

There are many questions surrounding this entry of big finance, including Citicorp, into this space. Chief among them: what happens to the "real bottom" of the pyramid if commercial interests are appealing to those already up a couple of rungs on the ladder out of poverty?

We seemed to arrive at consensus around the need for donor money -- with its greater tolerance for risk -- to back fill at the bottom.

Anne Hammill, of IISD, presented some of her excellent work on climate change adaptation issues, which led to a discussion about appropriate responses for microfinance and social entrepreneurism.

Where are the clear "no regrets" needs for such interventions? How can investments be directed to the best adaptation strategies and most promising mitigation applications?

How to address the perpetual concerns about the need for increased, longer term capital for social entrepreneurs who are acting in this arena?

A few thoughts emerged:

1.) clearly identify the opportunities for enhancing adaptation and mitigating the known impacts of climate change;
2.) identify the most promising social entrepreneurs working on agriculture/food security, water, and alternative, distributed energy;
3.) stratify the financing products and asset classes associated and develop new products and mechanisms;
4.) integrate environmental concerns into MFI offerings much the way HIV concerns have been integrated, rather than creating yet another layer of complexity to due diligence by loan officers.

Anne Hammill and Richard Matthew, director of the Center for Unconventional Security Affairs, will be compiling recommendations about social entrepreneurs and microfinance to bring to the climate change adaptation community at December's Climate Change meeting in Bali.

David Bornstein, author of How to Change the World and The Price of a Dream, gave an inspiring talk in accepting the Center's 2007 Human Security Award. The talk was videotaped; I'm hoping it will be posted on the Center's web site in the near future.

23 October 2007

Philanthropy & Environmental Change: Should Social Capital Markets Take Over?

I'm taking up a friendly challenge here.

Lucy Bernholz, who writes the excellent blog Philanthropy 2173, and I started a blogalog (Did I just coin that term?) between our blogs about the state of philanthropy and environmental change.

It began in response to Lucy's listing of green blogs in the wake of Blog Action Day last Monday, and her noting the lack of discussion of philanthropy on the sites listed (including mine).

My defense stemmed from a concern about philanthropy and its effectiveness as an agent of change in the environmental sphere, which actually was the origin of this blog. I have grown increasingly concerned about the ability of traditional philanthropy to effect lasting change at a pace commensurate with the global challenges we face.

I expressed this concern in my essay for GreenBiz, "Confessions of a Green Skeptic," several years ago about the Earth Charter.

Back then (March 2003), I wrote, "we need to demonstrate how profitable being green can be, and how essential it is to a truly global sustainability. If we can turn the greed motivation to green motivation, effectively turning it on itself, does the means justify the end? Hard to say. But if greed isn't going away anytime soon, we are left with trying to redirect the motivation any way we can. Guilt has worked, but only gets us so far. 'Envy trumps guilt' every time."

This sentiment was influenced by Thomas Friedman's thoughts on the subject expressed in The Lexus and the Olive Tree, that "if conservationists are going to get ahead of the greedy we need to move faster. 'For now, the only way to run as fast as the herd is by riding the herd itself and trying to redirect it,' Friedman writes. 'We need to demonstrate to the herd that being green, being global, and being greedy can go hand in hand.'"

And it was echoed by Gretchen Daily and Katherine Ellison in their book, The New Economy of Nature, from which I quoted, "the record clearly shows that conservation can't succeed by charity alone. It has a fighting chance, however, with well-designed appeals to self-interest."

Things have changed quite a bit since I wrote that essay -- the world has gotten flatter, green has become the new black, Al Gore won an Academy Award and a Nobel Prize for his work on climate change, and the herd has started to move to greener pastures.

But a lot hasn't changed. In Philanthropy, as Susan Raymond points out in a two-part piece called "Does Philanthropy Scale?," the "vast majority of American nonprofits are small; 60 percent or more...have less than $100,000 in annual revenue." And, Raymond notes, "the average foundation grant to nonprofits is on the order of $25,000."

Raymond also points out that "the number of nonprofits with $10 million or more in revenue has increased by 73 percent in the last decade," and asks, "when $25,000 is the average grant, is philanthropy the answer to organizational growth? Indeed, is it even relevant as a source of capital?"

I'm going to quote one more thing from Raymond's essay: "The evolution of microfinance teaches that, when what had been a philanthropic initiative matures and proves its worth, alternative capital sources step in and redefine the opportunity. Is achieving scale, then, the clue for philanthropy to either evolve or exit? And, if so, do we need to rethink what we mean by 'philanthropy' for large organizations or proven initiatives in social markets?"

I quote Raymond's piece at length because it corroborates some of my own thinking on this subject. She rightly points out that the biggest advantage of philanthropic capital is its "ability to take significant risk, to seed a promising idea and recognize that all promising ideas can be failures."

So risk tolerance or tolerance for failure, playing on the field of ideas and at at the edge of problems "where the probabilities of success are unknown, is the key playing field for philanthropy."

For many ideas, perhaps chief among them those addressing environmental issues, it may be time for other types of capital to be brought to bear. I'm particularly interested in what Raymond describes as "a multiplicity of approaches to organizational finance in the nonprofit sector...for self-reliance, sustainability, and (yes) profit" to come to the stage.

This is not far from what Lucy refers to as "tri-sector solutions," such as the B Corporation she has described or the bond purchase strategy Raymond describes in her piece. (In the latter, Raymond explains, "'Donors' took on the role of guarantor rather than funder, and the resources flowed at levels that donations would never have been able to sustain.")

Elsewhere in the web pages of onPhilanthropy, John Bloom of RSF Social Finance, posits that "social finance holds that the purpose of money and finance is to support human initiative and to foster the evolution of new community."

And, Bloom suggests, social finance recognizes "the human and environmental consequences of economic activities...[and] presents a picture of a healthier sustainable future -- and one that leaves behind the industrialist model of philanthropy..."

I will continue this dialogue here on The Green Skeptic, because I think it is an important one, and part of an ongoing, evolving thought process for me that started over four years ago and which led to this blog. Thanks to Lucy for calling me out about it and fostering this dialogue.

22 October 2007

Clean Tech: Nanosolar Cells, or What the...?

A friend of mine invoked Warren Buffett in a comment on an earlier post about nanotechnology on this blog some time ago, and I'm straying out of my Warren Buffett territory with this one. In other words, I don't really understand this stuff enough to invest in it, but it's cool.

Now a new paper begins to explain nanotechnology's potential applications in the solar arena:

Researchers at Harvard University have made solar cells that are a small fraction of the width of a human hair. The cells, each made from a single nanowire just 300 nanometers wide, could be useful for powering tiny sensors or robots for environmental monitoring or military applications. What's more, the basic design of the solar cells could be useful in large-scale power production, potentially lowering the cost of generating electricity from the sun.

Each of the new solar cells is a nanowire with a core of crystalline silicon and several concentric layers of silicon with different electronic properties. These layers perform the same functions that the semiconductor layers in conventional solar cells do, absorbing light and capturing electrons to create electricity.

To make the cells, Charles Lieber, a professor of chemistry at Harvard University, modified methods he'd previously used to make nanowires that could serve as sensors or transistors. He then demonstrated that his solar cells can power two of his earlier nanowire devices, a pH sensor and a set of transistors.

"This paper provides the very first example of using a single silicon nanowire for harvesting solar energy," says Zhong Lin Wang, professor of materials science and engineering at Georgia Tech. He calls Lieber's work "breakthrough research in the field of nanotechnology."

This is wild stuff. And something to watch, even if we don't yet understand it.

See the story in Technology Review

Here's a link to Lieber's Paper

Photo credit: Charles Lieber, Harvard University, "a cross section of silicon nanowire that converts light into electricity. The image has been colored to highlight the functional layers of the device. Each layer is made of silicon modified with another material that gives it distinct electronic properties."

19 October 2007

Clean Tech: Wind Some, Lose Some

Why do people hate wind farms?

Sure they are huge; the turbines have a large footprint, and may even chop up a few birds. But they also generate a heck of a lot of power, and are comparatively free from negative environmental impacts.

From a design perspective the sleek white towers and aerodynamic blades seem, well, elegant and forward-looking.

It's clear that opinions about wind farms, however, blow whichever way the wind does.

When I was visiting some friends in northern New York late in the summer, I learned about objections to the St. Lawrence Windpower project, a project of ACCIONA SA (Other OTC:ACXIF.PK). Even my friends don't want it and speculated about graft and insider deals going on behind the scenes. (I couldn't corroborate any of the latter.)

The project is supported by many small, family farmers in the area as a source of additional income. Objections stem from many weekenders and locals who claim the farms will spoil their viewsheds, interfere with migratory bird patterns, create excessive ambient sound -- there are even some outrageous claims that wind turbines cause cancer or sterility.

Who's right? It's hard to say.

There seems to be little evidence that birds are victims of wind turbines and, as for the other claims, the jury is out on whether turbines or transformers can lead to physical ailments beyond certain setbacks.

But the debate keeps getting more charged.

This week, two developments speak to the complicated business of wind farms. And, for those of us who want the US economy to fully embrace alternatives, it's a one-two punch between China and our own backyard(s).

On the one hand, China National Offshore Oil Corporation (CNOOC) announced plans to venture into renewable energy with the first off-shore wind farm in China. The project will be situated 37 miles from shore, in the Bohai Bay, home of a significant part of the company's oil production, according to CNOOC president Fu Chengyu.

It's a welcome move by CNOOC (NYSE:CEO), which needs to diversify beyond oil, something also much needed in a country where cleaner growth is a top priority of its leaders. And there will likely be more of a push for such clean tech moves in China in the wake of the pending environmental embarrassment of the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

Why offshore? Offshore wind generation is more expensive, but has greater capacity. On land, siting is critical; you need enough open space, unobstructed wind patterns, and minimal interference by the natural or built environments. On the open water, it is easier to capture sustained, higher wind speeds; there less surface resistance, especially in deep water.

But on sea as on land, it turns out, you still get a "Not In My Back Yard" (NIMBY) reaction.

This week in Massachusetts, the Cape Cod Commission denied Cape Wind's application to bury electric cables in Nantucket Sound. The company needs to lay the cables on the Sound floor to connect its proposed 420-megawatt offshore wind farm to the state power grid.

Cape Wind plans to challenge the Commission's decision; the Commission said it did not have enough information to make a decision. The proposed wind farm will consist of 130 GE 3.6 megawatt wind turbines, capable of supplying most of the electricity needed in Cape Cod, Martha's Vineyard, and Nantucket combined.

So what's holding it up? Although the farm will be located more than 5 miles away from the Cape Cod coast, the turbines will stand -- from blade tip to water's surface approximately 440 feet -- and the transmission lines connecting the project to the grid crosses land controlled by state and local authorities.

Among those who object to the project: Senator Ted Kennedy, who along with other residents, claims he will see the wind farm from his coastal complex. Some extreme environmental groups also object to the project, on the grounds that migratory bird and sea life patterns may be disrupted.

Supporters, among them even some green groups, posit that the benefits outweigh the losses, among them renewable energy, improved air quality, lower electricity bills, and added security and reliability for the Northeast power grid. And even Audubon has discounted the impact on birds.

A recent global wind mapping project may help guide where to site wind farms for maximum return in the future. But what happens when a Nantucket Sound or the St. Lawrence Seaway makes the top of the list?

That question is a complicated one, and it often involves some big, influential neighbors.

But the larger question is do we want to invest in alternative energy or do we want to continue to rely on foreign oil, domestic coal, and other polluting sources?

With oil flirting with $90, it seems imperative to put our objections to rest and start turning ill-winds into gains.

17 October 2007

Clean Tech: Space, The Solar Frontier?

One of our favorite clean tech writers, Tyler Hamilton of the Toronto Star has an intriguing post about the space race for solar energy development. No, this isn't about creating a new "man on the moon" mission to catalyze investment. This, deployment of solar receptors and technologies into space. Maybe getting closer to the source generates more energy?

His Clean Break column this week talks about how a U.S. government agency is promoting the idea of space-based solar technology and putting up some serious money.

The National Security Space Office, a part of the U.S. Department of Defense, posits that energy is a security issue and that such concerns, along with the need for addressing climate change through advancements in technology, calls for a massive government investment in space-based solar power systems.

NSSO proposes a 10-megawatt pilot, which could, Tyler says, "spur private investment in commercial ventures, much like early government investment in the Internet and GPS eventually transformed the way we do business."

Perhaps space is the final frontier for solar. We can hear Scotty calling out to Kirk, "I canna get no power Captain." To which Kirk replies, "Move a little closer to the sun, Scotty."

Read his blog piece: Tyler in Space

Or the full article: Tyler in Toronto Star

16 October 2007

Social Entrepreneurs: Orri Vigfússon Saves Atlantic Salmon

Orri Vigfússon
Originally uploaded by greenskeptic

I just spent the morning with a group of folks at Ashoka meeting with Orri Vigfússon, the vodka tycoon (ICY), Ashoka and Goldman fellow, and flyfisherman who is single-handely rescuing Atlantic salmon from the brink.

His idea is a simple one: buy the netting rights from commercial fishers across the North Atlantic, essentially paying commercial fishermen not to fish salmon in the North Atlantic.

His organization North Atlantic Salmon Fund (NASF) has also brokered moratorium agreements with several national governments. These efforts have dramatically improved salmon fish stocks in numerous countries.

According to NASF estimates, commercial open-sea fishing in the Atlantic has dropped by more than 75 percent in the last 15 years, and river anglers in several countries in areas where nets have been closed have reported substantial increases in salmon catches.

NASF estimates that in excess of five million North Atlantic salmon have been saved to date.

Orri told us that he needs 2-3 years to complete his work of purchasing and retiring the netting rights, then he wants NASF to turn its attention to restoring the historic salmon rivers of Central Europe, which he says is possible.

See: Goldman Prize

And Salmon

(P.S. Orri is not telling us how big was his last salmon in the photo...)

Posted via Flickr

12 October 2007

Global Climate Change: Can Gore-UN Panel Nobel Prize Tip New Green Economy?

Arguably, no one has done more over the past few years to elevate the issue of global climate change than Al Gore. Except perhaps the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Now Mr. Gore and the UN panel are sharing the Nobel Peace Prize. Does this mean climate change, the issue, has reached the big time?

A larger question on my mind is: Will this recognition help us get our act together to do something about it?

Let's hope that someday the winner of the Nobel in Economics is the person who figures out how to address climate change action by transforming the global economy into something sustainable, profitable, and green.

A new green economy.

We need to make this moment the tipping point to turn green into gold.

10 October 2007

Global Climate Change: Gore, Climate Activist, Head Contenders for Nobel Peace Prize

Bloomberg.com reports that Former U.S. Vice President Al Gore and Canadian activist Sheila Watt-Cloutier are among contenders for this year's Nobel Peace Prize for campaigning about the threat of climate change, according to Stein Toennesson, director of the International Peace Research Institute in Oslo.

Buddhist monk Thich Quang Do, former Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari and humanitarian group Save the Children may also be among the 181 nominations for the 10 million-krona ($1.5 million) prize, Toennesson said in an interview. The winner is announced by the Norwegian Nobel Committee tomorrow.

Bangladesh's Muhammad Yunus and the Grameen Bank won last year for advancing social and economic development by giving loans to the poor. Wangari Maathai, Mother Theresa, Aung San Suu Kyi, and the Dalai Lama are among past recipients.

Read the complete article: Nobel Gore?

See link for more on the Nobel Peace Prize

09 October 2007

Clean Tech: Tipping Point for China Sunergy?

Greentech Media reports on China Sunergy's deal to buy about 106 metric tons of solar-grade polysilicon from Chinese manufacturer Luoyang Zhonggui High-tech. Can this be the tipping point for China in the solar market?

"The deal is especially welcome to China Sunergy, which has become emblematic of the silicon shortage plaguing the solar industry (see Could China Steal the Solar Throne?).

"On Monday, China Sunergy's stock tumbled 9.52 percent, to close at $10.08 per share, after shareholders filed a class-action lawsuit against the Chinese company (see China Sunergy Troubles Continue).

"And Wall Street jitters have been shaking up some Chinese solar companies' stocks as investors react to allegations surrounding inconsistencies in LDK Solar's inventory of solar-grade silicon (see LDK Says Inventory Discrepancy Allegations Have 'No Merit' and New Details Surface as LDK's Stock Continues to Plunge).

"News of the silicon deal helped push the China Sunergy's stock back up 20.7 percent to close at $12.17 per share Tuesday.

"China Sunergy (NSDQ: CSUN) said the contracted amount will support the production of about 13 megawatts of solar cells from September 2007 to March 2008. But the company kept a tight lip on how much it paid for the goods, stating only that it garnered a fixed price for the length of the contract."

Read the complete Greentech Media article: China Sunergy

China Sunergy will announce its 2007 Q3 earnings on November 19th. A conference call will be arranged for 8:00 a.m. EST, details of which will be circulated nearer the time and be available on China Sunergy's website http://www.chinasunergy.com .

China Sunergy Co., Ltd. is a leading manufacturer of solar cell products in China as measured by production capacity. China Sunergy manufactures solar cells from silicon wafers utilizing crystalline silicon solar cell technology to convert sunlight directly into electricity through a process known as the photovoltaic effect. China Sunergy sells solar cell products to Chinese and overseas module manufacturers and system integrators, who assemble solar cells into solar modules and solar power systems for use in various markets.

07 October 2007

Social Entrepreneurs: The Village Phone Program; Since When is Success Obsolete?

"Connectivity is productivity," wrote Iqbal Quadir, describing how he arrived at the idea for what became GrameenPhone. "Connection enables, disconnection disables."

By now, the field-changing story of GrameenPhone and its Village Phone Program is well known. It started as a joint partnership between Grameen Telecom (which owns 35%), Gonofone, Japan's Marubeni Corporation, and the Norwegian telecommunications company Telenor Mobile Communications AS, which has "led to other opportunities, other kinds of progress in the villages."

In 1993, when Quadir originally conceived his idea, there were 2 phones per 1,000 people in Bangladesh and virtually none in rural villages where over 100 million people lived. Meanwhile, back in the U.S., where Quadir was educated, the Internet and email were beginning to revolutionize communications and, by extension, productivity.

Quadir began searching for evidence of the link between telecommunications and economic progress. He found it.

UN studies indicated that an underdeveloped economy, such as that found in Quadir's native Bangladesh, "could grow by US$5,000 annually in GNP due to one additional phone that, as it turns out, would only cost US$1,300." It was an opportunity that the young Quadir could not ignore.

He looked to Grameen Bank, which had brought hope and economic progress to rural Bangladesh via microcredit infrastructure; by then, the bank operated in 35,000 villages and made US$100-200 loans to the women who lived there.

"To me, connectivity could play a similar role," said Quadir. "Both credit and connectivity empower individuals."

Telephones, thought Quadir, connect producers and customers, and allow women in poor villages to call ahead when making doctor appointments. Phones could also generate income for the women who sell excess call time to other women in their village. His start-up, Gonofone, which means "peoples phones," could create self-employment through small loans to acquire wireless handsets.

A decade later, according to David Keogh, manager of Village Technology at Grameen Foundation's Technology Center in Seattle, Grameen Telecom "now has 294,000 operators." Pretty good scale, considering many experts predicted would reach its saturation-point of 50,000 clients after 5 years.

Replication of the Village Phone model has led to expansion into Uganda, Rwanda, Cambodia, Senegal, Cameroon, Haiti, and the Philippines. At least 10,000 operators have answered the call in Uganda and another 600 in Rwanda, with the recently launched pilot in Cameroon already signing up 50 clients.

Yet, Richard Shaffer, longtime Wall Street Journal columnist and the author of a recent article in Fast Company magazine (FC), claims that the concept of giving loans for cell phones in rural villages is now obsolete.

In Bangladesh, phones are now so cheap and available, the author argues, that the "phone ladies" are no longer necessary. The author worries that the women can no longer make a living on their cell phones alone. Shaffer asserts that the program no longer supports claims that it provides a stepping stone out of poverty.

But this seems to ignore the fact that, as anecdotal as it may be, many side businesses have been created by this program over the past ten years, in part because the women who start out with phone loan later consider other ways to diversify their businesses.

"One lady is thinking about raising a large number of chickens," writes Quadir in an article on gramBangla.com, "a business she had not pursued earlier for fear of not being able to call a veterinarian on time if the chickens developed a disease." Another decides to grow bananas because market prices are now just a phone call away, which leads to better harvesting and shipping decisions.

Shaffer unfairly claims that lower profits from cell phones actually force the operators to diversify. What's so bad about that?

No business that fails to diversify or innovate over ten years is going to stay around very long. Competitors enter lucrative markets and you innovate or die. Like any business, Grameen Phone has had to adjust its strategy along the way.

Now that phones are cheap and there are many others offering such services, it would seem that the Village Phone model is obsolete, as Shaffer offers. But, lest we forget that the surest way to test market demand is to create competition. The original project has spawned a whole range of potential competitors and customers, and that is healthy and productive for the overall economy. It also suits the original aims quite well.

According to Keogh, the Village Phone model was developed in reaction to several market shortcomings; namely, lack of coverage and the length of time it would take for phone companies to extend their reach to rural areas; handsets were (then) too expensive for most of the rural poor; and service fees for airtime were simply too high.

For those associated with Gonofone and its original aims, accessing Grameen Bank's large network of borrowers to get phones in the hands of the rural poor was a temporary means, not an end.

Indeed, one of Iqbal Quadir's original goals for Gonofone was to identify and create a market for telecommunications where others had not seen one before, enabling the digital revolution to get a foothold in a poor country.

Gonofone is no longer a partner in Grameen Telecom, having sold its shares to Telenor, but in an annual report published in 2004, its aims were clear: to use the power of connectivity to spur higher productivity; to use the rapidly declining costs of telecommunications technology to reach poor communities; and to leverage the borrower network of Grameen Bank to deliver connectivity. In short, the goal was to transform the country of Bangladesh by identifying and creating a market for telecom services.

One could argue this has been accomplished and then some. Sources say there are now at least six telecoms providing cell phone services in Bangladesh. "Cell phones are everywhere," according to one source quoted in the FC article.

The current situation, where cell phones are now ubiquitous, can be seen as one definition of success -- free market style.

"All products have life cycles," suggests Keogh in an email. "And the decline in Village Phone operator incomes over the past years was inevitable."

However, the costs of equipment and airtime are also coming down, and this allows the loans to be smaller, allowing a valuable revenue stream for many individuals.

"It also provides an important service in rural communities where even at current market prices many poor people are still unable to afford their own phones," Keogh offers.

In my view, Shaffer misses several key points in his FC article:

1. The real goal of the "Village Phone" idea in Bangladesh was to create nationwide telecom access for all people;

2. The Village Phone program has helped create additional opportunities for entrepreneurs to diversify their income streams and created over 290,000 businesses in Bangladesh alone;

3. The shareholders of Grameen Bank (the real owners of the bank who access the loans) now own 38 percent (including Marubeni’s 3 percent, which Grameen acquired) of the largest telecom in Bangladesh -- a US$3bn business, which is a pretty good return on their investment.

That sounds like success when measured against the stated aims of the original partners in the Village Phone Program.

So what exactly does Shaffer mean by obsolete? And what is so bad about obsolescence if it means greater competition reducing costs and greater access for more of the world's poor?

The model may no longer be appropriate in some places and may not provide "a clear path out of the poverty cycle." But what of it? The Village Phone program has clearly created a market where there was none and where few were willing to go before.

Shaffer admits that Grameen Phone overcame "risks -- spending $1.2 billion, for example, on communications infrastructure in an impoverished land -- that few others would have considered and has improved the lives of countless people."

If anything, in my view, the program may be faulted for failing to see its true business. Like the seemingly apocryphal story of the railroads losing out to trucking and airplanes because they thought they were in the railroad business rather than the transportation business, Grameen Phone thought they were in the retail cell phone business rather than in the business of transforming communications.

The fact is, according to Keogh and the Grameen Foundation, there are "still 2.6 billion people living under two dollars a day who cannot purchase their own phones, and for them affordable, accessible telephone services are vital." This would appear to be an untapped market for a viable, sustainable avenue for providing services, whether cell phones or other needs.

Indeed, Grameen Foundation is, Keogh told me in an email, "developing mobile applications that can be built on the Village Phone platform to enable communities to access healthcare, financial, educational and other critical resources."

My bottom line is: Let's not hang up on the Village Phone Program just yet; it may still provide value and help bridge a gap in the digital divide.

02 October 2007

Conservation: Steve McCormick's Departure from The Nature Conservancy, Questions and Appreciation

The emails started hitting my inbox shortly after 11 yesterday morning. From all over the world, colleagues and alumni alike were sending me the news: Steve McCormick resigned from the top of The Nature Conservancy.

"After almost seven years in my role as President," his email to staff began, "and a total of thirty years with The Nature Conservancy, I've concluded that I've contributed all I can to help the organization improve its ability to fulfill the mission. I've decided, therefore, to resign, and will vacate my role immediately."

What is surprising is the abrupt manner in which this was done. It begs the question, "Why now?" The harsh ring of "vacate my role immediately" begs another set of questions. It's not surprising that he stepped down; many of us had speculated that Steve was weary of the top job. And who could blame him?

His first year as president and CEO was marked by an unfair three-part investigative series by the Washington Post. The reporters put Steve -- who was not in charge when many of the alleged discretions were made -- under the spot light; chiefly for the no-interest loan the Conservancy had given him to lure him from California to northern Virginia.

I argued at the time that it was the lack of disclosure and not the loan itself that should have been questioned. I don't see any problem with trying to lure talent to your top position with such incentives. And his salary and Fairfax County home, which were also disclosed, the latter even pictured in the series, were neither extravagant nor lavish.

The Post series, much of which was based on conjecture and a too strict interpretation of what constitutes an "insider," led to two letters of inquiry from the Senate Finance Committee. Even as Steve took the heat most directly, he led the charge for transparency and cooperation, and marshaled all staff to work on the response from whatever corner of the organization they sat.

In the end, the committee in its review called the Conservancy a "model institution" and recommended it as an example of how non-profit organizations should be governed.

During this time Steve was seemingly unflappable. But this belied another struggle he was undertaking: transforming the organization to realize its mission: "to protect the diversity of life on Earth" (emphasis mine), by making it more of a global institution.

In his first 90 days, Steve told staff that the Conservancy needed to act on our global mission and that we couldn't fulfill that promise by spending 80 percent of our resources in the United States, where 20 percent (or less) of the biodiversity was found. We need to flip that ratio and we needed to do it soon -- time was our worst enemy.

Some early advice from ill-considered consultants who misread the organization's appetite for change, led to push-back from many parts of the organization. Much of the Conservancy was ill-prepared to move in this direction or to move as quickly as Steve wanted; some are not there still. Steve's reaction to that push back -- to scale down his tone and rhetoric --- was appropriate, but it eroded his leadership.

The fact is the Conservancy was not ready to do a 180 or even a 90-degree shift. Over 55 years (56 in a few weeks), the Conservancy built a strong infrastructure around a state-based model, and attracted staff, donors, and trustees to make it the largest and most effective conservation organization around.

With that strength and history, however, came responsibility. At times, I've likened this dilemma to a mid-life crisis: the Conservancy has a strong, 55-year marriage and it's faced with the fast-car/trophy spouse of global conservation. To be honest, I'm not convinced Steve's closest advisers at the time were doing him good service. We should have listened to the pulse of the organization, understood how to go about this change in a more strategic, methodical manner.

The Conservancy's brand was so tied up in its history that it seemed intractable. I know about this because my team there was intimately involved with trying to change the perception of that brand, from "We Buy Land" to protecting Nature for life; from "Saving the Last Great Places to words articulating a vision that Steve used in his email to staff: that our vision was not about "protecting lands and waters from people, but conserving them for people."

Truth be told, there were many among us who felt the Conservancy wasn't going far enough and fast enough. The last few years have been characterized by too much planning and process and not enough action. In my mind, some of that leads directly back to Steve's early charge and retreat. Once people got a sense they could push back, they did -- and heavily at times. I don't think Steve's presidency ever fully recovered from that early stumbling.

Ultimately, however, Steve has brought the Conservancy forward towards realizing its potential and his legacy. Much of the organization now better articulates the connections between biodiversity conservation and human well-being; there is a groundswell of recognition of the need to be a global institution, even if it is intellectual and not yet operational; and they now have a more clear strategy for its reaction to the major environmental issue of our time, climate change.

I got to know Steve first when he was California State Director and I was in Alaska. We shared some trustees between our two programs and I always heard about how good Steve was at managing their relationship to the organization. I was also intimately involved in helping shape the conversation on biodiversity/human well-being, going global, and developing the climate change strategy as part of the working group Steve chartered last winter.

At times, he frustrated me; like the Annual Meeting in Monterrey a few years back, right after we had made it through the Senate Finance Committee hearings, when I wanted him to acknowledge our painful journey and how we emerged stronger and better, and now could put it all behind us. I wanted him to take charge, lead the troops, rally all of us towards the ambitious goal we'd set for ourselves. Instead, he told stories that made you scratch your head and had none of the fire of his passion he carries within.

Yet, when Steve was on message, he was on fire, and his tenure as president of The Nature Conservancy should be weighed by the progress the organization made under his leadership. I think the late John Sawhill, whom Steve “replaced,” would be proud of him.

In the end, I left the Conservancy because of a need to explore alternative models, to find a way to catalyze entrepreneurial ideas and approaches that were beyond what the Conservancy could foster. There’s too much of an air of mystery surrounding his abrupt departure (and attempts to reach him have proved futile); I need to know more and why the accelerated timeframe?

I still consider Steve a colleague and am proud to have helped in my small way to move things forward with him. (Would that I could have done more early on to help him navigate the treacherous path he undertook.) I wish the best for him in his next endeavor -- and I hope he does turn his attention to global warming, as he told the Post he may.

For more on Steve McCormick's resignation, see: nature.org