Category Archives: philanthropy

Christmas in Palestine at the time of COVID-19

 My latest article, just published on Impakter:

Christmas in Bethlehem: The COVID-19 Experience of the Holy Family Hospital

What is Christmas like in Palestine at the time of COVID-19? There is no better place to find out about the challenges brought on by the COVID emergency than in Bethlehem, the birthplace of Jesus Christ. And in a hospital like the Holy Family Hospital run by the Order of Malta where most of the children in Bethlehem are born: It is both a center and a mirror of life in the region.

Until March 2020, life was normal in this sunny city of 25,000 people, six miles south of Jerusalem. Administered by the Palestinian Authority (PNA), people lived off tourism. And at Christmas, there was a peak of presence as pilgrims visited the Church of the Nativity, a UNESCO World Heritage site since 2012. In 2019, the Church was even removed from the UNESCO list of World Heritage Sites in Danger because it had been so well-restored. And people flocked there for Christmas, as always. 

Not this year. 

When COVID-19 hit, Bethlehem was the first city to go under curfew, closing hotels, tourist shops, and all economic activities. Later on, COVID-19 spread to the surrounding district and also to the other districts in Palestine. As most families in Bethlehem depend on tourism for their income, the pain was immediate and long-lasting. 

The movement of people was drastically curtailed, except for medical personnel allowed to reach the medical centers. And I wondered how hospitals in the region addressed the COVID-19 emergency.

Read the rest on Impakter: click here.

Have a Happy Holiday!

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Filed under Health, philanthropy

Latest article: Saving the Skyros Horse – Interview with project founder

Just published in Impakter Magazine, this long read for the weekend. I had a great time talking to Aliki Steen, the founder of the project to save this ancient horse from extinction! Here is the beginning:

In the past fifty years, humans have managed to destroy 60 percent of animal populations. Among them, one is of historic importance: The ancient Skyros horse, whose ancestors are said to adorn the Parthenon frieze. At the start of the 21st century, some 200 animals were reportedly left, of which only 90 could be considered genetically pure. Such a low number suggested that the horse could be facing a fatal lack in genetic variability leading to its extinction.

But the Skyros horse has found champions ready to save it. Among them, Professor Nikos Kostaras, President of AMALTHEIA, (a non-profit organization for the protection of native Greek farm animals and rare Greek livestock breeds threatened with extinction). He has worked with an American expert on horse genetics, Professor E. Gus Cothran, of the Texas A&M University’s Animal Genetics Lab, when the latter came to Greece to carry out a genetic study of the Skyros horse. Subsequently published in 2011, the study proved that the Skyros pony is “outstanding through having a distinct phenotype” and was found to be “isolated, without any relationship to any horse breed” in Greece or in the region.

I talked to Professor Kostaras about the future of this horse and this is what I learned.

Describing the Skyros horse as “one of the gems of the equine family”, he noted that it was perfectly adapted to its environment, “the result of isolation in an insular environment with poor vegetation and harsh climatic conditions.” The historical data, however, supported the idea that the Skyros horse is part of a large family of horses that lived in most Aegean islands, and for thousands of years, were “serving humans in their day to day activities.”

The problems arrived with the mechanization of agriculture that caused a steep population decline, and, he said, even extinction of some Aegean horse populations. Among the threatened species, we have the Skyros horse, the Rodos small horse (with a total population of 12 horses), and the ‘Mintili’ the small horse from the Island of Lesvos, thought to be extinct from the 1960s and rediscovered in 2017 in a feral state.  

However attempts to preserve the Skyros horse were, he said, “short-sighted and had devastating effects.” In particular, there were two “major bottlenecks” resulting in the loss of precious genetic variability. The loss of genetic variability, he pointed out, is “a major threat to the survival of the breed.”

The creation of the “Skyrian Horse Society” in 2006 was a first step in the right direction.  The society kept a studbook, recording all the Skyros horses that live on Skyros island, the rest of Greece and abroad, thus setting the breed standard.

He described how the Skyrian Horse Society has set out to overcome the loss of genetic variability problem, focusing its strategy on increasing the population size without risking further loss of variability.  For this, he explained, all horses have been DNA tested and each horse’s inbreeding coefficient established. This enables the development of optimum out-crossing plans and thus the long-term survival of the breed.

Today the population of the breed, he reported, has increased to approximately 400, of which 160 exhibit all phenotypic characteristics of the breed. Another study is presently underway to assess the current status of the breed.

Among those leading this conservation action, he said, was and still is The Silva Project in Corfu and the Katsarelias Simpson project in Skyros.

Armed with this information and the good news that the Skyros horse population has practically doubled from where it was a couple of decades ago, I set out to interview Aliki Steen who is a founder and working on The Silva Project in Corfu and Athens, one of the two leading conservation programs mentioned by the professor.

I discovered that the SILVA breeding program started in 1996 with four horses, two stallions and two mares. The horses were originally brought to Corfu because they required living and breeding free and in a semi-wild environment which was provided at Villa Silva, an olive grove near Corfu town owned by Aliki Steen’s family.

Over time, the total number reached 45 purebred horses, although there are fewer now in Corfu because The SILVA Project “helped” other breeding centers in Greece and abroad (e.g. in Peebles, Scotland): The horses were “given away”, not sold, in order to create additional breeding centers.

From the start, the program was and is engaged in advocacy to make the public – and also potential breeders – sensitive to its cause.

The program is also engaged in equine therapy, with the special needs of about 30 children attended to every year. In relation to this, a Silvaland Riding Center has been established with both therapeutic and classical riding programs. In addition to the usual riding facilities, there is a café, and the Center organizes a variety of activities, including dog shows and horse riding competitions. It also offers an internship program and runs a 20-acre organic kiwi farm. A rare Greek breeds Educational and Environmental Park based at Silvaland is under development intended for school children and tourists.

I had a long talk with Aliki Steen who joined her family’s project from the start (1996) in parallel with her work in finance. Born in Athens, Greece, from a Greek mother and a Norwegian father, she came to Brussels in 1983 for her studies, then worked for several years in finance, her latest position being director of global internal communication for a large international banking group.

Aliki Steen with one of her Skyros horses

How are your horses today, any recently-born foal or happy event on the way?

Aliki Steen: The Skyros horses on Corfu island are living in a little earthly paradise, called Villa Silva, in Kanoni near Corfu town. Our current “working” horses, that is the small horses used for riding for children and therapeutic riding for people with special needs, are kept on other premises, near the village of Kalafationes, in the center of the island. This riding ranch is called Silvaland and it is better suited for riding during the rainy winter days or during the very hot summer period. 

For the moment, we do not have any pregnant mares on the property – ideally, each mare should be pregnant only once every five years. The older Skyros horses are all in great shape and, as some of you may know, they also live much longer than other “modern” horses – 40 years or so if they get good food and appropriate veterinary care.

That is a remarkably long life span! Can you tell us how the island of Corfu was affected by the coronavirus pandemic? 

A.S.: Most coronavirus cases in Greece were observed in Athens, Patras, and the Northern part of Greece. All islands, Corfu included, were preserved, mainly because the Greek government took very strict confinement measures from the very beginning. Experts say that both the stringency of those measures and the way Greeks have largely abided by them, have been key to Greece avoiding the worst ravages of the global pandemic.

As of Monday 25 May 2020, the internal borders have finally opened and it is possible to travel anywhere in Greece. As from June-July, tourists will certainly travel to the Greek islands, but everyone hopes that the relevant social-distancing measures will help contain a potential second coronavirus wave.

How did Greece manage to cope so well with the pandemic?

A.S.: The coronavirus outbreak in Greece should have been a disaster. As a popular tourist destination, Greece received 27 million visitors in 2019 alone—presenting a potentially significant risk of COVID-19 from international travelers. The country’s population is the second-oldest in the E.U. (behind only Italy), its health sector has been ravaged by austerity, and its crippled economy is still nearly 40% smaller than it was in 2008, before the last global financial crisis.

Officials said in 2019 that, after three bailouts and drastic cuts to its public healthcare system due to austerity, there were only 560 ICU beds in the entire country of 11 million – that is 5.2 beds per 100,000 people, compared to Germany’s 29.2. The conclusion is clear: Full application and respect for quarantine measures made the difference.

Let me turn now to your project, saving the Skyros horse from extinction. Can you tell us how The SILVA Project was born?

A.S.: In 1995, my Greek family and I discovered that the ‘Skyros small horse’, an ancient Hellenic breed, was endangered and on the verge of extinction. Since this horse doesn’t live in captivity or in stables, it was imperative that a large property was found, adapted, and used for its breeding. With very little knowledge about horses in general, we started breeding in extremis the very last purebred horses that remained in Greece. This is how in 1996 The SILVA Project was born in Corfu, Greece.

What were the challenges you confronted?

Read the rest of the interview on Impakter, click here

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In the featured photo: Parthenon Frieze, detail. Note the size of the riders in relation to the horse – long thought that the enlargement of humans was a way to indicate their elevated status, it is now believed that this is an exact representation and that they were, in fact, riding small horses – i.e. the Skyros horse. Source: Urban Grammar

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Filed under Environment, philanthropy, travel

Funding: Too Much for Notre Dame in Paris, Not Enough to Fight Climate Change?

My latest article on Impakter:

Notre Dame burning in Paris, 15 April 2019 Source: Wikimedia

Soon after Notre Dame in Paris went up in flames, teenage climate campaigner Greta Thunberg, in a speech to the European Parliament, said she did not want to diminish the Notre-Dame fire, but wished there was an equal outpouring of funding support to combat issues such as climate change.

The outpouring of funding to rebuild Notre Dame was indeed impressive. Within 24 hours of the blaze, French luxury tycoons had pledged donations in the hundreds of million Euros: François-Henri Pinault (Kering) came through with €100 million; his crosstown rival Bernard Arnault (LVMH) with  €200 million; the Meyer Bettencourt family (Oreal) with €200 million.

Add to that the €100 million announced by Total CEO Patrick Pouyanné

Is Greta Thunberg right? Is there not enough to fight climate change? I thought I’d investigate the question and if you’re curious and want to get the answer, read the rest of my article on Impakter, click here

Let me know what you think!

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Filed under art, climate change, Environment, philanthropy, politics

Philanthrocapitalism Under Fire: A Call for Responsible Giving

My latest article on Impakter, here’s the opening:

Looking back to the exceptional crop of 2018 bestsellers criticizing the state of our society, from rising economic inequality to populism and climate change, one book stands out: “Winners Take All” by former New York Times columnist and Aspen Institute fellow Anand Giridharadas. It skewers philanthrocapitalism, arguing that uber wealthy do-gooders, rather than changing the world, do well for themselves, preserving the status quo. What is needed is a move to more responsible giving.

Book cover and author photo by Mackenzie Stroh

Anand Giridharadas made waves with his new book, Winners Take All, The Elite Charade of Changing the World and the waves show no sign of stopping. 

When it came out in August 2018, the renowned American economist and Nobel laureate John Stiglitz, in praising it in a New York Times article warned that we should “prepare for a new genre” of books analyzing economic inequality and globalization: the kind that “gently and politely skewer[s] the corporate titans who claim to be solving such problems. It’s an elite that, rather than pushing for systemic change, only reinforces our lopsided economic reality — all while hobnobbing on the conference circuit and trafficking in platitudes.”

Since then, Anand Giridharadas has been active on the conference circuit but he has certainly not been “trafficking in platitudes” and he has stopped being gentle and polite. Instead, he has taken to “skewering corporate titans” with a vengeance, even going into their lairs, as he did when he gave this talk at Google in October 2018: 

In December 2018, The Financial Times, in a lengthy article titled “Is wealthy philanthropy doing more harm than good?”, reviewed Anand Giridharadas’ book along with two others that touch on the subject: Just Giving, Why Philanthropy is Failing Democracy and How it Can Do Better by Stanford University scholar Rob Reich and Trumponomics: Inside the America First Plan to Revive Our Economy by Stephen Moore and Arthur B Laffer, Trump’s campaign economic advisers. 

For the FT, Trumponomics was a “timely defence of the president’s policies” and in particular of his €1.5 trillion tax cut – and it predicted that, of the three books, this was the one most likely to become a bestseller “given the size of the conservative bulk book market” in the United States. 

The prediction turned out to be wrong: Of the three, as of now, Giridharadas’ book is clearly the best seller, ranking highest on Amazon’s best sellers list (#252 and #1 for the philanthropy category), followed by Reich (#27,928) and far behind, Trumponomics (#85,183). 

Perhaps many, if not most, American readers are tired of Trump. 

The FT however does make an important point: What’s wrong with philanthropism in America is that the US has a uniquely favorable tax system that allows all kinds of charities to deduct taxes “regardless of whether they are effective”. Annual tax breaks amount to $50 billion, as much as the Federal government spends on energy, the environment, food and agriculture. Reich calculates that barely 20 percent of philanthropy benefits the poor, the rest mostly goes to education, culture (the arts) and religion (worship). 

The FT draws attention to an important point made by both Giridharadas and Reich: Giving to education is problematic. It benefits wealthy district schools or charter schools, thus increasing American public education’s “savage inequality”. The FT clearly enjoys Giridharadas’ sense of “acute observation” and polemical tone, quoting him on Trump (though leaving out the last five words in the sentence):

By January 2019, as political leaders and corporate titans were flying to the World Economic Forum in Davos, Giridhadarads raised the tone. The press rushed to cover him. The Economist called it an “entertaining polemic”, subtitling its book review “The Davos Delusion”. 

“Trump is the reductio ad absurdum of a culture that tasks elites with reforming the very systems that have made them and left others in the dust.” 

On Bloomberg, Giridharadas baffled his interviewers, lashing out at Davos, calling it “a family reunion of the people who broke the world” and suggesting Davos should be cancelled: 

The rest on Impakter (including the Bloomberg video), click here to read.

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Filed under Book review, philanthropy, politics