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Note to the reader: this post was originally posted on my personal blog. I am currently in the midst of a one-year fellowship working with both Fundación Gente Nueva and Fundación PETISOS in Bariloche, Argentina.

Do you consider yourself to be lucky in life?

Twitter, my newfound love (addiction) asked me this, then directed me to an online discussion about poverty and international aid. Completely reorients the conversation, when you stop looking at numbers and start looking at experiences.

Today was the first official meeting of Madres Verdes, a new initiative ofPETISOS. A microenterprise offered to the mothers and family members of child laborers, the team will be producing and selling household and living accessories made from recycled products (think Bead for Life). Ultimately, the money earned from the microenterprise is intended to alleviate some of the monetary pressures that compel families to send their children to scavenge for useful materials in the garbage dump. Very triple-bottom-line.

Instead of jumping right into training and production though, our first day was dedicated to team-building exercises and get-to-know-each-other activities to explore the different realities that we come from. Because the Madres Verdes team is composed of two groups of four mothers, each one coming from one of the two barrios where PETISOS has a community center, they promptly divided along those lines to explain “como es mi barrio.”

The majority of responses that followed illuminated the hardships that these women lived through on a daily basis: “the city still hasn’t installed running water or gas in our neighborhood,” “the bus only comes every hour and usually there isn’t enough space for everyone waiting to get on, so I’m often late to work” and “one of my walls is made of cardboard, but we don’t have enough money to buy the materials to construct a new wall.” The last is particularly difficult, given that Bariloche’s winters are incredibly wet, cold, windy and long (and I say this having spent four winters in Boston).

When it was my turn to speak, I was somewhat embarrassed to share with the group what my ‘barrio’ is like. Unlike them, I do have running water and gas. I have a car to take me wherever I want—on my own time–and I have a house that is not only well-constructed, but has central heating and air conditioning, should the weather outside not exactly suit my comfort level.

However, this kind of mentality is an incredibly detrimental and progress-inhibiting one for the following reason: the way I (and perhaps some of the other women) perceived the situation in that moment was solely through a quantitative lens. Summarizing and analyzing our respective realities exclusively based upon these measures fails to properly reflect the complete story. Because it discounts qualitative experiences of growth, progress, and happiness, it necessarily victimizes an individual lacking basic resources, regardless of whether that individual does in fact perceive him or herself to be victimized. True, 2.5 billion people live on less than $2 a day—which undeniably compromises several of their human rights—but that does not mean that they are among the ‘unlucky ones.’

If we’re really going to make any kind of meaningful changes to the international aid and development machine, let’s start by abandoning the one-sided poverty pornography paradigm that depicts poverty exclusively as a situation of hopelessness and disrepair.

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On June 4th, 2011, Chile’s Puyehue Volcano erupted, spewing a cloud of ash around the globe. 100 kilometers away, San Carlos de Bariloche, a small town in Argentine Patagonia, blanketed in ash over a foot deep. The local Patagonian economy has been severely disrupted: sheep and cattle herds have been deprived of their food source, the fields they once grazed now covered by ash. Regional transportation has halted, hampering the prized tourist industry of the mountainous region. After over a month, flights to Bariloche only just resumed on July 6th. Having experienced the February 2010 Chile earthquake myself, I am naturally inclined to monitor the fallout of natural disasters in that region. However, my preoccupation with this particular natural disaster over the past month lies in the fact that on August 26th, I will be traveling to Bariloche to begin a yearlong fellowship with Fundación Gente Nueva.

My name is Zoe Schlag and I graduated from Tufts University in May 2011 with a degree in International Relations. Through the Empower Program, I will partake in a Schwab Foundation Network Internship with Fundación Gente Nueva, a non-profit organization that works with the most marginalized sectors of the Bariloche community through educational, capacity building, and microfinance initiatives, among others. For the past month—with all regional transportation in and out of Bariloche indefinitely canceled—I have been wondering when (and how) I would actually arrive to begin my work.

With the airport having been reopened, I now expect that I will be able to begin my Empower fellowship as planned. However, given that I may experience a volcanic eruption or earthquake myself while in Bariloche, I decided to explore social enterprises and the myriad of ways in which they respond natural disasters.

Lately, it seems that not even a few months go by before news of yet another natural disaster arrives: the Indonesia tsunami, Hurricane Katrina, the Haiti earthquake, the Icelandic volcano eruption, Pakistani floods, and most recently, the earthquake and tsunami in Japan. Traditional responses to natural disasters have in the past been spearheaded by national governments and international organizations such as the Red Cross and Catholic Relief Services. Today, these organizations are still at the forefront of natural disaster response efforts, but they now collaborate with and involve individuals of the international community on a more intimate level through social media, new technologies, and economic redevelopment initiatives.

New technologies that capitalize on our interconnectedness have arguably led to the greatest change in disaster response practices. For example, the advent of SMS donations provides a way for donors to quickly and conveniently donate to aid organizations, which effectively lowers the threshold for participation and therefore increases the frequency and speed of donations to disaster zones. Social media such as Facebook and Twitter have likewise been effective in galvanizing donor support and action. Additionally, they are able to serve as a medium of communication between victims and the rest of the world. I know this personally: as soon as I had access to the internet after the earthquake in Chile, one of the first things I did was post on my Facebook page that I and my host family were alright.

Along similar lines, crowdsourced news sites have emerged, featuring citizen journalists who have survived a natural disaster. In addition to providing on-the-ground information inaccessible to professional journalists, the roles these individuals take on empower them, allowing them to make a contribution in the aftermath of disaster.

New technologies have also allowed for new processes of support to emerge. One such process, Crisis Mapping and Early Warning, uses communication technologies to prepare, mitigate and respond to emergencies (Harvard Humanitarian Initiative). A particular social enterprise that has had success implementing this new process is Ushahidi, a non-profit tech company that “specializes in developing free and open source software for information collection, visualization and interactive mapping.” Using “heat maps” following Haiti’s earthquake, Ushahidi provided a tool for Haitians to see where violence and aid were particularly concentrated, and, from the reverse end, revealed to donors where aid should be targeted.

Innovative business enterprises that directly engage the local economy have likewise cropped up. Following the 2004 tsunami, P2P Rescue, a non-profit that works to “raise awareness about and deliver support to Sri Lanka” began to sell “Tsunami Birdhouses.’ Made by Sri Lankans and utilizing materials salvaged from the wreckage of the disaster, all proceeds of the birdhouses go toward supporting P2P’s mission.

In the wake of natural disasters, a newfound sense of solidarity is often cited as the sole positive outcome produced by a natural disaster. However, we should also recognize the innovative solutions that are being produced by social enterprises. Eventually, these solutions will become the tools to help mitigate future disasters more effectively.

Because Bariloche lies beside a major fault line running down Chile, earthquakes and volcanic eruptions are the norm there. Knowing this, I now look forward to exploring the disaster response mechanisms that have developed in Bariloche—particularly since the June 4th eruption—as I carry out my Schwab Foundation Network internship.