The 2015 Gates Annual Letter: The Biggest Bet for the Future

Last night, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation released the highly anticipated 2015 Annual Letter outlining their hopes and dreams for the future. As a social good advocate and blogger, I greatly admire Bill and Melinda’s amazing work at making the world a better place for the people who suffer the deepest in the world due to poverty, hunger, lack of health care and education. The Gates are amazing advocates for the millions of voiceless people around the world and their work has already made an enormous impact in saving lives. Their annual letter is a key report that highlights where they are heading and I always am eager to read it.

Photo credit: Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation

Photo credit: Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation

This year’s annual letter is extremely hopeful. Inside the letter, Gates is making a big bet for the next 15 years predicting that the lives of people in poor countries will improve faster in the next 15 years than at any other time in history thanks to amazing breakthroughs in health, farming, banking, and education. Gates is envisioning huge advancements in the following key areas that will improve the lives of millions:

  • Half as many kids will die, far fewer women will die in childbirth, and people will live healthier lives because we’ll beat many of the diseases that sicken the poor.
  • Africa will be able to feed itself.
  • Mobile banking will help the poor radically transform their lives.
  • Better software will help all kids, no matter where they live, receive a world class education.
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Rural Ethiopian Girl

Frayed Clothes and the Blue Sweater

When I arrived in Ethiopia, it was impossible not to notice the frayed clothing worn by most rural Ethiopians. As an avid reader on global issues and extreme poverty, I couldn’t seem to get the fabulous non-fiction book “The Blue Sweater” by Jacqueline Novogratz out of my head. One of the unforgettable moments in Jacqueline’s life was when she was living in Rwanda and saw a young boy wearing her blue sweater that she had donated eleven years ago to a local American charity. Somehow that sweater with her initials still written clearly inside, made it all the way to Africa and was still being worn despite being tattered and frayed. It made Norogratz, a successful investment banker, think about how our world is interconnected, and it steered her life towards philanthropy.

Driving throughout the rural countryside of Ethiopia where over 90% of Ethiopia’s 90 million people live, frayed clothing is an omnipresent reminder of the high level of poverty in this part of the world. I saw toddlers wearing no bottoms, little boys wearing pink jackets, girls and women in a pell-mell of skirts, tops and dresses, and men wearing worn-out, patched up trousers. Shoes were rarely present especially on children. If shoes were worn, they were either too big, too small or torn.

I thought about my own children, comfortably back at home in Minnesota with more clothing in their closets and drawers than they could possibly wear to the point of wearing them out. The fact that twice a year I make the annual trip to Goodwill or Salvation Army where I unload all the unnecessary clothing that is supposed to go to the local community but like Norogratz’ blue sweater, most likely ends up somewhere in Africa.

Was some little girl out there wearing my daughter’s favorite dress? I am certain she is.

Rural Ethiopian Girl

Rural Ethiopian Boy

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Vivekananda Camp, Delhi India

A Snapshot of India

Sometimes it is true that a picture can paint a thousand words. This week’s photo challenge: A Split-Second Story, inspired me to dig deep throughout my vast archive of photographs, each one telling a story of a certain place and time. In my opinion, there is no place on earth that a simple photo can tell so much about a place than India.

India, one of the most populous countries on the earth, is full of color, contradiction, glory and pain. It is a place of wonder, sorrow, fear and hope. India bursts with humanity on every street or corner you pass. You can see it all there – poverty, wealth, good, bad, happy, sad, beauty and tragedy.

Behind the beautiful, lavish parts of India always lies the most abject poverty imaginable. Nothing can prepare you for the stark reality of desperation, misery and despair of walking through a real live slum in the heart of India’s capital. Sometimes the most severe poverty is hidden behind the walls and within the confines of a slum. Other times, it stares right back at you like a hard slap across your face. You try to look away, and ignore the creeping, uncomfortable nagging guilt. But you can’t.


Vivekananda Camp, Delhi India

Woman leaving the newly constructed toilet compound thanks to WaterAid.


Vivekananda Camp

Women living on the street, outside the walls of the American Embassy near Vivekananda Slums in Delhi, India.

In the background of the lush green, beautiful grounds of the American Embassy lies the Vivekananda Camp, one of many unauthorized slums that surround every single part of Delhi. I visited this slum as part of a tour with WaterAid, a global NGO that provides safe drinking water and sanitation to areas around the world that do not have access to it.

The stark contrast between the neighboring American Embassy and the Vivekananda Slum were almost too hard to morally comprehend. These two places represent the immense contradictions and inequalities that can be found all throughout Delhi and India as a whole. One of the greatest inequalities ever seen anywhere in the world is right there staring into your face, making it impossible to not feel deeply distraught.

In the Vivekananda Camp, a slum of approximately 500 households, there is no running water, no sewer lines and people live in absolute dire circumstances. Thanks to WaterAid, improvements to sanitation have been made by the building of a Community Toilet Complex (CTC), a compound containing 20 toilets for women, 20 for men and a few for children as well as a couple of showers, providing some sort of dignity in a place where dignity hardly exists.

When I saw the old woman leaving the Community Toilet Complex, I couldn’t take my eyes off her. She was moving slowly, at a snail’s pace, with the help of an old wooden cane. She was heading back into the deep confines of the dirty, dingy slum, to her home.  I watched her gait with wonder and hope. She had to be in her eighties and most likely spent almost all her life without a proper toilet. Finally after all these years she had the one thing every human being on this earth is entitled to: Dignity. It brought tears to my eyes for the simple things we take for granted.

Less than a third of people ( 772 million people) have access to sanitation in India, and 90 million people in India do not have access to safe water per WaterAid.  Over 186,000 children under five die from diarrhea every year. With 17% of the world’s population (over a billion people), the water crisis in India is only getting worse and is becoming life or death for millions of people.


This post was inspired by the Weekly Photo Challenge: Split-Second Story. To view more entries, click here


Note: Right after I posted this today I saw the following tragic press release from WaterAid. Lack of toilets reportedly linked to murder of Uttar Pradesh girls . Via @WaterAidAmerica

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View Finder Workshop: Helping children see their world through the eyes of a camera

Have you ever had an experience in your life that has changed you forever? For Babita Patel, a humanitarian photographer, that fateful day happened during an assignment to one of the poorest places in the Western Hemisphere: Haiti. In Babita’s words here is that moment that changed her life.

I WAS WALKING THROUGH CITÉ SOLEIL, the largest slum in the Western Hemisphere located in Haiti, one of the poorest places on Earth. Trash littered the streets and dirty stagnant rainwater was often used as latrines. The sun pulsated directly overhead, bleaching the blue sky to a blinding white. Sweat droplets raced down my spine and pooled at my lower back. Children dressed in rags – or for some, in nothing at all – played a spirited game of soccer with a half-inflated ball. I snapped a picture of a group of rambunctious kids, only to have eager young hands grab at my camera to see the image captured on my screen.

Haiti Babita Patel

“Praying”. Photo credit: Dumas (one of the students). 

The novelty of the reproduction faded and most darted off between the shanty houses. One remained, diligently pointing at each face on the screen, as if ticking them off in his head. He stopped at the last one. His own. He let out a burst of pure, innocent, giggling glee and scampered off. Alone, I realized that for people who have next to nothing, a mirror is an unattainable luxury. This child only met his reflection by process of elimination. For he knew which ones were his friends and which one was the stranger.

I was struck dumb. For I never realized a person could walk through life without knowing his own physical self. But photography can change that. It lets a child see himself and his world through different eyes. By learning tangible skills and creating new avenues of self-expression, he can contribute to his life and his community.

And thus, the seed for View Finder Workshop was planted.
Babita Patel.
founder, humanitarian photographer

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Whole Planet Foundation: Giving back around the World

Whole Foods Market began as a small natural grocery store in Austin, Texas with a mission to sell meat and poultry free of growth hormones and antibiotics, unprocessed grains and cereals, and a wide variety of organic fruits and vegetables. Over time, Whole Foods Market expanded into other states and countries with its unique approach to offering whole foods while promoting environmental sustainability, local and international community service, and supporting employee happiness and excellence. Over the years, Whole Foods Market has grown into an international chain of natural food supermarkets operating over 340 stores in the United States, Canada, United Kingdom and Scotland.

Luciana - Brazil small

Luciana is a microentreprenuer from Sao Paulo, Brazil. She used her Whole Planet loan to start a business selling fruits and vegetables. Photo credit: Whole Planet Foundation/Evan Lambert.

Whole Foods Market just so happens to be one of my favorite places to grocery shop as it offers many organic and “real” foods, not all the processed garbage that has become a huge part of the American diet. Through the work I do as a social good blogger and advocate, I discovered that behind Whole Foods Market’s widely successfully business is a foundation that is doing some pretty amazing things to give back to the communities in which they source their products.

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#Moms4MDGs: What it means to me

Do you know what the word MDG stands for? 

MDG stands for Millennium Development Goal. It may sound like some kind of fancy jargon however in my opinion MDGs are pretty amazing.  Established at the start of a brand new millennium in 2000 by world leaders at the United Nations, the 8 MDGs represent what we should strive for to make the world a better, more equitable place.  The MDGs build upon years of global teamwork and partnership in the adoption of the United Nations Millennium Declaration and aim to achieve 8 major measurable targets by 2015. These 8 targets are shown in the infographic below.

The 8 UN MDGs (Source:

The 8 UN MDGs (Source:

“The eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) – which range from halving extreme poverty to halting the spread of HIV/AIDS and providing universal primary education, all by the target date of 2015 – form a blueprint agreed to by all the world’s countries and all the world’s leading development institutions. They have galvanized unprecedented efforts to meet the needs of the world’s poorest.” (Source: United Nations)

To learn more specifics about the MDGs please click here.

“In 2000, 189 nations made a promise to free people from extreme poverty and multiple deprivations. This pledge turned into the eight Millennium Development Goals.” (UNDP)

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Water for the World

When I was in India this past May with Mom Bloggers for Social Good, I saw firsthand how safe drinking water and sanitation needs impact people living in extreme poverty. I spent a scorching afternoon with temperatures climbing almost to 120 degrees Fahrenheit touring one of WaterAid’s work sites, an unauthorized slum named the Vivekananda Camp.

Vivekananda Camp.

Women living outside the Vivekananda Camp, an unauthorized slum that ironically is located right behind the walls of the American Embassy in Delhi.

At this one location, the people had been fortunate to finally receive somewhere safe and hygienic to use the bathroom. A community toilet compound. Although the slum did not have running water, at least it had somewhere people could go to take care of their bodily needs and help eliminate the spread of deadly diseases and the horrible humiliation of open defecation.

As I stood outside the Community Toilet Complex (CTC), I couldn’t help but rest my eyes on a painfully slow-moving woman. A woman who had undoubtedly spent her entire life living within the confines of a slum. She was hunched over and bent on her cane and slowly dragged her feet across the ground, one step at a time, as she left the Community Toilet Complex we had just toured.

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The World Through My Eyes

Traveling the world with a third-eye has always been the way I prefer to experience life. It means to view life openly and see everything – good or bad- with an open mind and heart. The world through my eyes can be contradictory and complex. Seeing both good and bad can bring so much immense joy and happiness while also such deep sadness that it makes your heart ache. Yet in my humble opinion, you cannot go through life with a blind eye. Otherwise nothing will change.

On my most recent trip through the Delhi slums as part of Mom Bloggers for Social Good, I saw a tremendous amount through my eyes. If I could look beyond the immense poverty, destruction, destitution and disease, I could also find beauty and hope. Beauty in the lovely warm smiles across the children’s eager faces whenever I pulled my camera out to snap their photo. Hope among the innocent faces of the girls in schools finally being given a chance to learn.

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. The world through my eyes sees so incredibly much.








This post was written in response to the Weekly Photo Challenge: The World Through My Eyes. To view more entries, click here.

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World Food Program’s Live Below the Line Challenge

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Yesterday I had the opportunity to listen in a conference call along with other social good bloggers to hear World Food Program USA Board Chair Hunter Biden and WFP USA President & CEO Rick Leach discuss the “Live Below the Line” Challenge to help solve global hunger.  The fact that 1 in 8 people in the world live in constant hunger – which means 925 million people will not get enough to eat this year (more than the populations of the United States, Canada and the European Union) is not only a tragedy but the world’s number one health risk.

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The impact of the good old Sweet Potato on Global Health

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Today I am honored to be collaborating with a group of women bloggers on behalf of ONE, a non-partisan, grassroots advocacy organization that fights extreme poverty and preventable diseases, to increase awareness about world hunger.

ONE asks:

“How can it be that 40% of Africa’s children are so chronically malnourished by the age of five that they will never fully thrive, physically recover or mentally develop – and this has not improved in two decades, despite so much other development progress?



  • In 2010, 171 million children under the age of five had stunted growth (chronically malnourished)[1]
  • Every year, malnutrition causes 3.5 million child deaths – or more than one third of all deaths of children under the age of five[2]
  • More than 600,000 children die each year from vitamin A deficiency[3]
  • 2 billion people are anemic, including every second pregnant woman and an estimated 40% of school-aged children — contributing to 20% of all maternal deaths[4]
  • The economic toll of malnutrition causes the loss of 2-3% of GDP in affected countries and more than 10% of productivity over a person’s lifetime[5]

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Helping Haiti: The story of how 600 volunteers built 100 homes in a week

I am honored to be writing a two part series on behalf of Habitat for Humanity. Recently 600 volunteers from around the world set off to Haiti as part of the Carter Work Project for the second year in a row with the goal of building 100 homes in a week. Here is their story. 

Men anpil, chay pa lou.

Many hands [make] the load lighter.

-Haitian proverb

In 1984, President Jimmy Carter and his wife Rosalynn created the Jimmy & Rosalynn Carter Work Project in response to the basic need of simple, decent and affordable shelter for people around the world. For 29 consecutive Mr. and Mrs. Carter have volunteered with Habitat for Humanity for one week building homes and hope in over 14 countries.  Past missions have brought people together to build homes as close as Mexico and Canada and as far away as South Africa and the Philippines. It has been an amazing feat and even more impressive given the fact that Carter and his wife Rosalynn, who are both in their mid-eighties, are right there with the volunteers on the ground, pouring in their heart, sweat and soul, in every project.

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United Way’s campaign to teach children about poverty: Pass the Grade game

This post is part of the Social Good Sunday series in which I highlight different organizations around the world making the world a better place. 

Poverty is a tough topic to comprehend. It is tragic, dark, unfair and cruel.  A way of life that doesn’t make sense in a world that has so much for some and so little for the rest. If poverty is hard to understand as an adult, imagine how confusing it is to understand such a difficult topic for children.

Many children in my community have everything they need and most likely too much. They generally have all the latest toys, more than enough food on their table, a home to live in and a family to love. However, once you step outside of Southwest Minneapolis, the picture is dramatically different. Children live in poverty, don’t always have enough to eat at night and struggle immensely in school. The inequities are surprising and often astounding.

According to numbers released in September by the U.S. Census, the percentage of children living in poverty in Minnesota continues to grow.

“Now 80,000 more children are living in poverty compared to 2000 (114,000), an increase of about 70 percent. Officially, an estimated 194,000 (15.4 percent) children were living in poverty in Minnesota in 2011, a trend that has continued to increase for more than 10 years. Compared to last year, the number increased only slightly by 2,000 children from 192,000 in 2010”.

I often find that our middle class children live in a bubble and grow up rarely being exposed to what the rest of the world lives like and even more so, what a large percentage of kids in their own city live like. In poverty. If it is hard for adults to understand poverty, it is  oftentimes even more challenging for children to understand the full impact of poverty on families and kids themselves.

In honor of the first ever Giving Tuesday, a new day to give back to the community that was launched on November 27th, The Greater Twin Cities United Way* launched a fun, educational online game cleverly called “Pass the Grade“. In “Pass the Grade”, players will experience four challenges that teach about the trials children in poverty have to overcome to succeed in school.  What is so impressive about Pass the Grade is that it accomplishes two important goals: First, it educates children about other kids living in poverty in a fun, engaging way. Second, it also raises money for educational programs with each game played.

Here are some details about the fundraising piece of the campaign (all information below provided by Greater Twin Cities United Way):

  • Campaign was launched on “Giving Tuesday”  – November 27, 2012 and runs through December 31 2012. 
  • Ecolab, Inc. is committing a total of $30,000 to the effort on two fronts: For each person who plays the game, found at, Ecolab Inc. will donate $1 to United Way’s Pass the Grade Campaign up to a maximum $10,000.  For each person who donates after playing the game, Ecolab will also contribute a dollar-for-dollar match, up to $20,000.

The goal of United Way’s Pass the Grade Campaign is to help 7,500 kids pass the grade in 2013. Here are some examples on how playing this game helps children living in poverty:

  • $5 provides a hungry child with snacks for a school week.
  • $22 will help one child receive one-on-one reading help.
  • $33 provides a child with enriching after-school programs.
  • 5,000 kids will get a healthy snack at school.
  • 1,500 kids will receive one-on-one tutoring and reading help.
  • 1,000 kids will take part in enriching after-school programs.

The game, developed by Space 150 and supported by U.S. Bank, takes players through four unique challenges that test if they have what it takes to pass the third grade. (Students who fall behind by third grade are four times more likely to drop out of high school.) After each challenge, statistics on childhood poverty are shared. Upon completion of the game, a grade is given to the player. Players are then asked to share their results via social media to encourage additional donations. 

“Tackling the challenge of poverty and making a difference in a child’s life can’t be done alone, it must be a community effort,” says Greater Twin Cities United Way Senior Vice President of Marketing Kathy Hollenhorst.  She continues, “In playing Pass the Grade, one learns about the impact of poverty on a child’s educational advancement, while at the same time learning about how to make a difference in the community.  With our regions’ philanthropic spirit, we at United Way believe that together we can help all children get the quality early education they need to succeed in school – and in life.”

Ok….now I’m going to ask everyone to play the game! I just played the game and I failed! I failed at passing but I sure learned a lot about kids living in my community in poverty. Here is what I learned.

About Greater Twin Cities United Way:

Greater Twin Cities United Way addresses our community’s most critical issues by focusing on three key areas: Basic Needs, Education and Health. We attack poverty on multiple, interconnected fronts to achieve lasting change – through 10 measurable goals – by collaborating with business, government and nonprofit organizations to create solutions and carry out our call to action to LIVE UNITED by encouraging everyone to Give. Advocate. Volunteer. United Way serves people living in or near poverty in nine counties: Anoka, Carver, Chisago, Dakota, Hennepin, Isanti, Ramsey, Scott and western Washington. Join the movement. LIVE UNITED.

For more information, visit

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