The Swedes Who Saved Millions of Lives

Meet the Nils Bohlin and Gunnar Engellau, whose work at Swedish carmaker Volvo has helped save millions of lives worldwide.

Engellau, Volvo’s president and an engineer himself, helped push for a more effective seatbelt, after a relative died in a traffic accident due partly to the flaws of the two-point belt design—which was not even standard feature in cars at the time. This personal tragedy drove Engellau to find a better solution, hiring Bohlin to find a solution quickly.

There were two major problems with the historic two-point belt design, which crosses the lap only. First, because the human pelvis is hinged, a single strap fails to restrain the torso, leaving passengers vulnerable to severe head, chest and spinal injuries; positioned poorly, the belt can even crush internal organs on impact. Second, they were notoriously uncomfortable, so many people chose not to wear them. Bohlin’s innovation was to find a design that resolved both problems at once.

After millions of dollars and thousands of tests through the 1950s and 1960s, Volvo became the first carmaker in the world to standardize the three-point safety belt we now take for granted. More than that, Volvo pushed hard for the seatbelt to be adopted in its native Sweden, which like most places was initially resistant to having to wear seatbelts.

But Volvo didn’t stop there. While it patented the designs to protect their investment from copy-cats, the company did not charge significant license fees to rivals or keep the design to itself to give their cars an edge. Knowing that lives were at stake worldwide, Engellau made Bohlin’s patent immediately available to all. Having sponsored the costly R&D, they gifted their designs to competitors to encourage mass adoption. It is estimated that Volvo may have lost out on $400 million in additional profits, if not more.

Instead, literally millions of people have been spared injury and death by this now-ubiquitous seatbelt we take for granted. All because a couple of Swedes decided to put people over profits (which isn’t to say they didn’t reap any financial incentive, but proved you can do both).

The World’s Biggest Charity You’ve Never Heard of

Did you know that the world’s largest and most successful charity and nongovernmental organization (NGO) is from Bangladesh? It is the only organization from a poor country to rank among the top in the world.

Founded in 1972, BRAC—which once stood for the Bangladesh Rehabilitation Assistance Committee—was the brainchild of Sir Fazle Hasan Abed, a wealthy corporate accountant who was horrified by the state of his country, particularly following a devastating cyclone, which killed 300,000 people, and a bloody liberation war that killed between 300,000 and 3 million people, most of them civilians..

Whereas most would have despaired at this hopeless situation, Abed got to work. Having lived and worked in the U.K. for a time, he could have simply fled there, but instead sold his London flat and used the funds to create BRAC. The new organization immediately built housing for war refugees and storm survivors; within a year, it reportedly built up to 14,000 homes, as well several hundred fishing boats to support the refugees’ livelihoods.

BRAC soon expanded into every possible area of human development. It worked from the ground up, at the village level, to invest in agriculture, fisheries, worker cooperatives, rural crafts, adult literacy, health and family planning, vocational training for women, and community centers. To ensure efficiency, it established a Research and Evaluation Division (RED) to evaluate its programs and projects for their success, and to learn from any mistakes or shortcomings. Based on what was learned, BRAC took a more targeted approach to charity by creating “Village Organisations” (VO) to assist the most vulnerable people in Bangladesh, such as the landless, small farmers, artisans, and women. To finance its activities, it set up a commercial printing press and a handicraft retail chain, both of which employed poor people.

When diarrhea emerged as a leading cause of death for children (as it was historically and in poorer societies), BRAC initiated a field trial in two village, teaching rural mothers how to prepare a simple oral rehydration solution (ORS) that could save their children’s lives. Overtime, it scaled up its operations, which in the span of ten years taught 12 million households across over 75,000 villages across the country how to prepare ORS. The country has one of the highest rates of diarrhea treatment, with child mortality rates plummeting from 133 deaths out of 1,000 births in 1989 to 46 deaths per 1,000 in 2014—a decline of 65 percent.

The scientific and open-minded approach to charity is part of BRAC’s company culture and brand. As the Economist reported:

[BRAC] is also one of the world’s best charities. NGO Advisor, which tries to keep score, has put it top of the heap for the past four years. Its corporate culture is a little like an old-fashioned engineering firm. BEACH employees are problem-solvers rather than intellectuals, and they communicate well—the organisation constantly tweaks its programmes in response to data and criticisms from local staff. Some of its innovations have spread around the world.

Today, BRAC has about 100,000 full-time staff, mostly in Bangladesh but increasingly abroad, too. According to the World Bank, its program in Afghanistan significantly boosted incomes and women’s employment; its after-school clubs in Uganda appear to have reduced teen pregnancy rates and encouraged girls to pursue careers; and its innovate anti-poverty program, focused on giving assets and training to poor women, has been adopted with great success by charities in Ethiopia, Honduras, and India.

As of 2018, BRAC lent money to almost 8 million people and educated more than 1 million children across Bangladesh and ten other countries. Per its multifaceted approach to charity, it has founded or been involved in just about every possible venture: A university, a bank, over 8,700 primary schools, a dairy processor, a cold storage company to preserve farmers’ goods, and so much more.

BRAC is a reminder that even the poorest nations, no matter how “backward” or benighted they may seem, harbor incredible talent, creativity, and potential for progress.

Source: The Economist

The Poorer Nations Standing Firm Against COVID-19

It’s been heartening to see that many poorer countries or regions are faring a lot better than expected. For all the death and suffering that’s occured, it’s important to acknowledge the deaths and pain that haven’t—and to derive some important lessons, since these are places that don’t have our wealth and resources.

Costa Rica has had one of the most successful pandemic responses in the world. It was the first Latin American country to record a case—which is actually indicative of its open and efficient monitoring—and citizens have been able to lean on its universal healthcare system, on which it spends a higher proportion of its GDP than the average rich country (and subsequently has one of the world’s highest life expectancies). It implemented nationwide lockdowns and tests quickly, and has done a good enough job that it stared partially lifting restrictions as early as May 1st—albeit with strict restrictions (only a quarter of seats can be filled in sporting venues, while small businesses are limited in the number of customers they can serve).

Costa Rican President Carlos Alvarado has been transparent: “We have had relative and fragile success, but we cannot let our guard down.” Hence the borders will remain closed until at least this Friday, while restrictions will remain on driving to keep the virus from spreading: Driving at night is banned and drivers may only drive on certain days depending on their license plate number.

Ghana and Rwanda—which hardly come to mind as world-class innovators—each teamed up with an American company to become the first countries in the world to deliver medical aid and tests via drones to out-of-reach rural areas. Doctors and health facilities use an app to order blood, vaccines, and protective equipment that get delivered in just minutes. Rwanda, which has become a little known but prominent tech hub, started using drones as early as 2016 for 21 hospitals; now the drones are used to serve close to 2,500 hospitals and health facilities across Rwanda and Ghana.

Vietnam (pop. 95 million) and the Indian state of Kerala (as populous California), both learned from previous outbreaks and acted quickly and decisively to contain the outbreak. As the Economist magazine put it, despite their poverty, they have “a long legacy of investment in public health and particularly in primary care, with strong, centralised management, an institutional reach from city wards to remote villages and an abundance of skilled personnel.” Lack of wealth did not stop them from making the necessary investments.

Uzbekistan, a former Soviet republic that’s hardly a household name, has become an unlikely pioneer in remote learning. Two days after implementing its lockdown in March, the Ministry of Public Education announced an unprecedented plan to roll out virtual courses and resources for its 6.1 million school students. In a matter of days, it made available over 350 video lessons to go live on national TV channels; the lessons are available in the dominant languages of Uzbek and Russian as well as sign language. Free data access has been granted to educational platforms, making them accessible for all school students and their parents. An average of 100 video classes are being prepared daily.

While it is too soon to tell what’s in store for these nations in the long term, they have proven that you don’t need lots of wealth and power to develop an effective and humane response to crises. If anything, their poverty and historic challenges have made them more resourceful and decisive, thus providing useful lessons for the rest of the world.

The School Under the Bridge

A shopkeeper in Delhi, India has been running a makeshift school for hundreds of poor and homeless children beneath a metro bridge for over eight years.

“The Free School Under The Bridge” was founded and run by 49-year-old Rajesh Kumar Sharma, the sole breadwinner of his family of five who operates a small grocery store nearby. He dropped out of college without completing his bachelor’s due to his family’s poor financial condition.

His idea started with just two local children in 2006, and has now grown to over 300, including slum dwellers, ragpickers, rickshaw-pullers and beggars, most of whom live nearby.

Sharma believes no one should be deprived of education due to poverty or denied his or her dream, so to that end he dedicates over 50 hours a week to the children — for free.

“I am driven by my selfless goal of educating these poor and underprivileged children whose smile is more than enough for me.”

He now runs two shifts: one from 9-11 AM for 120 boys and the other 9-4.30 PM for 180 girls, aged between four and 14 years. The open house school has the Delhi metro bridge as its roof and five blackboards painted on the wall, with some stationary such as chalks and dusters, pens and pencils. The children sit on the ground covered with carpets and bring their own note books, which they often share or study with in groups. The location is relatively far from traffic, and passing vehicles hardly get noticed by the students.

In addition to a standard curriculum, Sharma also teaches students practical skills like hygiene, which is difficult to maintain in such abject poverty. He’s installed separate toilets for boys and girls.

Fortunately, his example has attracted seven other volunteer teachers from the community, as well as some support from locals.

“Some people visit the school occasionally and distribute biscuit packets, fruits, water bottles and packaged food. Some youngsters celebrate their birthdays with the children, cut cakes here and have food together by sitting beneath the bridge. “Such occasions make them feel that they are also the part of the society no matter where they live or what background they belong to,” he said.

In addition to teaching full time while running his shop, Sharma also ensures students get enrolled into the nearby government schools. He ensures hey devote sufficient time to their education and conducts attendance; if a student is frequently absent, he checks in with their family.

“Sometimes, some children get absent for days as they have to assist their families due to extreme poverty. No child wants to discontinue his or her studies but they also have to make their ends meet. “They come to my school fighting hunger, extreme poverty, adverse weather and sometimes resistance from their families. They all dream big. You can see the smile on their face while they study here,” he said.

Source: Hindustan Times

The Japanese Diplomat Who Saved Thousands of Jews

Chiune “Sempo” Sugihara was a Japanese government official who, as vice consul of Japan in Lithuania, helped over 6,000 Jews flee certain death during WWII, risking his career and his life. Hundreds of Jewish refugees arrived in Sugihara’s consulate, trying to get a visa to travel to Japan. Unsurprisingly, the Japanese Empire had very strict immigration procedures, requiring applicants to pay large fees and to have a third destination lined up to exit Japan. The dutiful Sugihara contacted the Foreign Ministry three times for instructions, being told each time that he could not issue the visas.

533101_10151430822115472_1457010455_nAware of the mounting danger Jews faced, Sugihara ignored his superiors and issued ten-day visas to Jews. This level of disobedience was highly unusual – and risky – within the stringent culture of the militaristic Japanese government. With the Soviet Union occupying Lithuania – though not yet at war with Japan – he persuaded Soviet officials to allow Jews to travel through the country via the Trans-Siberian Railway, which would take them to the Pacific near Japan. He reportedly spent 18-20 hours a day handwriting visas, producing a typical month’s worth of transit documents daily. These were to heads of households, which allowed entire families to leave via a single visa. The exceedingly polite diplomat had the refugees call him “Sempo”, a variation of his name that was easier for them to pronounce. Continue reading

Nobel Peace Prize 2019 Highlights Sexual Violence and Those Who Fight It

Today’s announcement of the Nobel Peace Prize winners for 2019 made my day, not only because it is extremely well deserved, but also because it brings attention to a sadly relevant problem. As the BBC reports:

The 2018 Nobel Peace Prize has gone to campaigners against rape in warfare, Nadia Murad and Denis Mukwege.

Ms Murad is an Iraqi Yazidi who was tortured and raped by Islamic State militants and later became the face of a campaign to free the Yazidi people.

Dr Mukwege is a Congolese gynaecologist who, along with his colleagues, has treated tens of thousands of victims.

Some 331 individuals and organisations were nominated for the prestigious peace award this year.

The winners announced in the Norwegian capital Oslo on Friday won the award for their “efforts to end the use of sexual violence as a weapon of war”, Berit Reiss-Andersen, the Nobel committee chair, said.

The pair both made a “crucial contribution to focusing attention on, and combating, such war crimes”, Ms Reiss-Andersen added.

I learned about Murad years ago, when Islamic State suddenly swept through Iraq and Syria, stunning the world with its rise, brutality, and genocidal aims.  However, I had not appreciated how she persevered against the unfathomable suffering she endured, using it as a source of strength to motivate her activism:

Ms Murad did not just lose her mother in the genocide. She endured three months as a sex slave at the hands of IS militants. She was bought and sold several times and subjected to sexual and physical abuse during her captivity.

After escaping, she became an activist for the Yazidi people, campaigning to help put an end to human trafficking and calling on the world to take a tougher line on rape as a weapon of war.

Ms Murad described her escape in a BBC interview in 2016, detailing how the women who were held captive were treated by IS.

She was awarded the Vaclav Havel Human Rights Prize by the Council of Europe in 2016 and called for an international court to judge crimes committed by IS in her acceptance speech in Strasbourg.

Ms Murad, the first Iraqi to win the award, was named the UN’s first goodwill ambassador for survivors of human trafficking later that year.

I am eager to learn more about this incredible woman, in particular through a documentary about her life and activism highlighted by the LA Times:

There are miles of mass graves, millions of refugees. Only some are heard. But Murad, whose power comes from a brokenness inside, will not let her people in northern Iraq be forgotten.

She is a reluctant heroine, a young woman of unflinching conviction and rustic grace. She was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize — sharing it with Denis Mukwege, a Congolese doctor — on Friday for her work to end sexual violence in war zones. Murad was kidnapped and made a sex slave when Islamic State fighters overran Yazidi villages and towns in Iraq in 2014. She escaped months later and made it to Europe.

The new documentary, “On Her Shoulders,” which opens in Los Angeles on Oct. 24, is an evocative portrait of this unwitting activist who lost family, endured rape and torture and became the eloquent if at times overwhelmed voice of 400,000 Yazidis, a religious minority, driven from their homes. Hers was the poetry of witness in a land of atrocity, a tale carried by a seamstress to the world’s capitals.

Directed by Alexandria Bombach, the film follows Murad for three months as she calls attention to her people’s plight, traveling from Berlin to New York to Canada. Her mother and brothers had been killed; at least 3,200 women and girls remained in captivity. This was her story, unfolded in weary persistence to politicians and ambassadors, many of whom praised and photographed her but could do little to stop the carnage.

The disquieting truth of “On Her Shoulders” is Murad’s gradual realization — as if layers of a bitter fruit exposed — that a village girl, even one with Amal Clooney as her lawyer, cannot quickly budge the world’s bureaucracy and cruel political designs. This point is crystallized when she is told that it will be a decade before destroyed Yazidi towns are rebuilt and refuges return home, a time when her village will be a place of no men and widows dressed in black. She cannot fathom this.

An incredible human being who is a testament to the courage and tenacity of oppressed peoples everywhere.

Dr. Mukwege is equally inspiring, prompting me to write a blog about him over four years ago, when he was still being touted as a potential prize recipient. I invite you to read more about his life and work, and to donate to his medical foundation (which now proudly displays a banner announcing his Nobel Peace Prize win).

Dr. Mukwege founded Panzi Hospital in his native town of Bukavu in 1999, just one year after the start of the Second Congo War, Africa’s deadliest conflict, and one in which the incidence of gang rape was systemic. Located near the heart of the conflict zone, the hospital was strained by increased demand for both general medical services and gynecological surgery; Dr. Mukwege remains the facility’s only gynecologist, and one of only two doctors in all of eastern Congo specializing in reconstructive surgery.

Over the past 16 years, the hospital has treated over 30,000 women, many of them repeat visitors; many patients arrive right after being gang-raped, “sometimes naked, usually bleeding and leaking urine and faeces from torn vaginas” according to Dr. Mukwege’s own horrific testimony. Due to the still-high demand for his service, he often performs up to 10 surgeries a day during his 18-hour shifts (though the war ended in 2003, lingering and related conflicts continue).

His diligent and desperately needed work would be more than enough, but he has also used his firsthand experience to bring attention to this crisis and call for an end to the rampant rape that persists, often to dehumanize victims and traumatize families. According to the BBC, he saw the award as an opportunity to show rape survivors that “they are not alone”.

103726897_tv049778342

Whenever I find myself losing faith in humanity, I will just think of these two and the millions of others like them.

The Middle East’s First Particle Accelerator Turns One Year Old

Here’s a rare bit of good news coming out of the Middle East: last year saw the inauguration of its first and still only synchrotron radiation facility,  a large, complex, and powerful machine that, in layman’s terms, acts as an exceptionally keen microscope. (The largest and most well known example is the Large Hadron Collider operated by CERN, a European research organization.) According to the BBC:

Its name is Sesame – Synchrotron-light for Experimental Science and Applications in the Middle East.

The facility hosts a synchrotron, a particle accelerator that acts as a powerful microscope.

Researchers including Iranians, Israelis and Palestinians – who would never normally meet – will now use the machine together.

Sesame is a play on the famous phrase “Open Sesame” and is meant to signal a new era of collaborative science.

By generating intense beams of light, synchrotrons provide exceptionally detailed views of everything from cancerous tissue to ancient parchments to plant diseases.

Sesame’s vast white building, located amid dusty hills some 35km north of the capital Amman, makes a stark contrast to the olive groves around it.

Jordan was chosen because of its relative political stability and the fact that it is the only country in the region with diplomatic relations with all the other members of the initiative: Bahrain, Cyprus, Egypt, Iran, Israel, Pakistan, Palestine, and Turkey.

Nevertheless, as to be expected with trying to start an expensive international collaborative project in a place like the Middle East, there were many obstacles. Again from the BBC:

For most of the past decade, a British physicist, Prof Sir Chris Llewellyn Smith, has chaired the project through a series of obstacles.

  • For a start, Israel and Iran do not have diplomatic relations with each other and nor do fellow members Turkey and Cyprus
  • Iran has been unable to pay its share because of international sanctions on banking
  • Two Iranian scientists were killed in what the Iranian government said were assassinations by the Israeli secret service — one was a delegate to the Sesame Council, the other had visited Sesame
  • After a freak snowstorm, the Sesame roof collapsed leaving key components exposed to the elements

Now, standing in the centre of the completed — and tested — main ring of the Sesame synchrotron, Prof Llewellyn Smith admitted that he was “a bit surprised” that the venture had got so far.

“The real problem has been finding the money — the countries in this region have science budgets that you can hardly see with a microscope,” he said.

Indeed, neither multinational collaboration nor particle accelerators come to mind when one thinks of the Middle East, and yet it now hosts a facility that is just one of sixty in the whole world, funded, staffed, and maintained by nations that still distrust, if not outright despise, one another. It was quite an inspiring feat to pull off, and one that is still tenuous — as it passes its one year anniversary without a hitch, will it survive worsening circumstances in the region (including renewed tensions between Israel and Iran).

Imagine how much scientific progress could be made if our species could get past the ignorance, tribalism, pettiness, greediness, and fearfulness that continue to divide us. This project is just a small and unlikely indicator of that. Here’s hoping there will be more to come there and elsewhere.

Hero Highlights: Project Prakash

Of the world’s 1.3 million blind children, India is home to the world’s largest population, with estimates ranging from 200,000 to 700,000. As in many developing countries, a child born blind faces enormous social and economic hurdles: in addition to being stigmatized and marginalized in their communities, the vast majority of blind children are unable to get an education or a job. Many face physical and sexual abuses. At least half do not survive to adulthood.

In addition to regressive social attitudes, a lack of medical care access, and little to no disability-friendly institutions and infrastructure, the problem is made worse by the pervasive idea that, once a child reaches seven or eight years of age, their blindness is irreversible and untreatable. Yet the prevailing cause — congenital cataracts — is an otherwise easily treatable condition in the developed world. Imagine a lifetime of being disadvantaged and ostracized for something beyond your control and which could easily be addressed if there was the will and money. It is a disease of poverty.

Enter Project Prakash, founded in 2002 by Dr. Pawan Sinha, an Indian-born graduate of MIT. Named after the Sanskrit word for “Light”, he started the organization after a trip to rural India, where he witnessed the first hand the scale and severity of child blindness. After obtaining a grant from the U.S. National Eye Institute, he assembled team of about 20 clinicians, scientists, and outreach personnel to provide cataract surgery for as little as $300 per patient (though those too poor to pay get it for free). He tells the story in great detail Scientific American (sorry for the paywall.) Continue reading

Volunteer Rescuers of Migrants Acquitted of Criminal Charges

The sheer humanity of people in the face of suffering and injustice will never cease to captivate and inspire me. A couple of days ago, five individuals — three Spaniards and two Danes — were acquitted of charges in Greece of facilitating illegal immigration into they country when they volunteered to save migrants during the height of the crisis last year. According to the New York Times:

“This is a strong signal to other NGOs and just people working for humanity,” said one of the Danish defendants, Salam Aldeen, the founder of Team Humanity, speaking by telephone after the verdict. “Saving lives is not a crime, rescuing people is not a crime.”

Mr. Aldeen said he was now eager to return home after nearly two years in Greece — his pretrial conditions included being barred from leaving the country. He continued working as a rescuer during that time, he said.

“I lost everything but I did not lose my humanity,” he said.

Along with Mr. Aldeen and another Dane, Mohammed el-Abassi, who also worked for Team Humanity, three Spanish firefighters who volunteered for the Spanish group Proem-Aid faced as many as 15 years in prison.

The five were arrested on Jan. 14, 2016, just a few hours after successfully rescuing 51 migrants, according to Mr. Aldeen, the owner of the boat on which the five were working.

Not long after their operation, the men said, they had alerted the Greek authorities to another migrant boat in trouble, without approaching it. They were arrested soon after. “We didn’t even see the boat,” Mr. Aldeen had contended.

Continue reading

Human Rights in Everyday Language

The following chart from Our World in Data tracks the frequency of the phrases ‘civil rights’, ‘women’s rights’, ‘children’s rights’, ‘gay rights’ and ‘animal rights’ in English-language books from 1900 to 2008. 

28577763_10160169149475472_2017476594267848704_n

We take for granted that these words and ideas exist, but for the vast majority of human history, the very notion of human rights, especially for children and women, let alone rights for animals — was almost completely alien to virtually every culture. That these words have become so common in our books, media, and everyday language is a huge sign of progress in itself — even if we have a very long way to go.