Every now and then the air in Mexico City gets so bad that flocks of migrating birds flying overhead rain down dead on the city.
A million children in Mexico City are permanently condemned to be slow learners because they have been poisoned by gasoline lead in the city smog.
Neither the public nor the leaders of Mexico really understand the mounting environmental problems that are undermining their own health and their nation’s future. Furthermore, there is an atmosphere of profound cynicism and distrust. The public sees the government as corrupt and business as exploitative; the government sees the public as ignorant and foreign advisers as self-serving; business sees environmentalists as meddlers; and nobody spends much time trying to communicate across these boundaries of suspicion.
Except Manuel Guerra, 38, a chemist. He has recently resigned as head of Merck/Mexico to tackle the environmental problems of his country head-on, full-time.
Guerra now hosts a call-in radio show, through which he informs the residents of Mexico City of the status of their air and water. (His reports are more thorough, honest, and timely than those of the government.) He organized a demonstration of 50,000 bicyclists to demand bikeways. (It is now suicidal to try to ride a bike in the city.) He runs a magazine that analyzes Mexico’s environmental problems, one by one, and lays out clear-headed recommendations for solutions.
He is organizing Mexico City’s first serious efforts to manage hazardous waste by bringing together industry, government, environmentalists and engineers for non-accusatory planning sessions. He has started a non-profit think-tank to house and train more environmental analysts like himself, skilled not only in technicalities, but in the arts of communication and conflict resolution.
Guerra can devote his full energy to doing these things because he has been chosen as an Ashoka Fellow. The choosing was done by a new nonprofit organization called Ashoka: Innovators for the Public, which finds extraordinary "public-service entrepreneurs" like Guerra and supports them. It has selected over 200 Fellows so far in Latin America and Asia. As its budget expands, Ashoka’s next Fellows will come from Africa. Ashoka was founded by 1984 MacArthur Foundation Fellow William Drayton.
Another Ashoka Fellow is Anil Chitrakar from Nepal. Anil is a 28-year-old mechanical engineer who has been doing research on solar energy for the Royal Nepal Academy of Science and Technology. He found that the best part of his work was testing and perfecting simple, effective devices in the villages, with the help of young people there. His fellowship allows him to launch a series of one-week training camps throughout Nepal to give teenagers hands-on experience with solutions to problems of sanitation, agriculture, energy and conservation.
A workshop starts as the young people in a local school survey the opportunities and put forth ideas to improve their village (small-scale hydroelectricity, a bee farm, reforestation for fuel and erosion control, a solar water pump). With Chitrakar or one of his college-student trainers, they jointly plan their activity. By the end of the workshop they have learned some science, made a concrete start on a useful project (sometimes they’ve finished it) and, more important, learned to look, imagine, work in groups, and see themselves as solvers of their own problems.
Now Chitrakar intends to set up an organization to keep in touch with the village youth groups and provide them continuing support.
Ashoka does more than find people like Guerra and Chitrakar and fund them. One of the most important things it does is introduce the Fellows to each other, both in regional meetings and by connecting Fellows with similar interests in distant lands. Chitrakar’s efforts, for instance, have been publicized by another Ashoka Fellow, who has established a "wall newspaper" for rural Nepal.
Ashoka has introduced Marta Gil in Sao Paulo (who is building a computerized referral network for services for the disabled across Brazil) to Nandini Mundkur (starting the first mass screening for infants with disabilities in India) and to Marlene dos Cents (busily building Brazil’s first recreational clubs for the handicapped). These three activists can now exchange ideas with each other.
In this world that needs so much ingenuity, courage, and care, what most deserves support, I have always thought, is not governments, not organizations of any type, but people – the only source of ingenuity, courage, and care. Ashoka, funded entirely by private donations, with a 1988 budget of only $1.3 million, has found a creative way to do that. In its support of "public innovators," Ashoka has itself become a public innovator.
For more information write Ashoka: Innovators for the Public, 1200 North Nash Street, Arlington, VA 22209, Tel. 202-628-0370.
Donella H. Meadows is an adjunct professor of environmental studies at Dartmouth College and a contributing editor to IN CONTEXT. For information on her syndicated weekly newspaper column, "The Global Citizen," write her at PO Box 58, Daniels Rd., Plainfield, NH 03781.