Some reflections on the 2017 Skoll Forum

A few weeks ago Vivek and I attended the Skoll Forum in Oxford on behalf of Namati and the global legal empowerment network. This year’s theme was Fault Lines: Creating Common Ground. Around the globe rifts are emerging along cultural, class, and political lines as globalization and the digital revolution have benefited some, and left others behind. The divide grows in how people perceive—and experience—the world, which represents a threat to a peaceful and prosperous future. The Forum focused on exploring how we can design a world where our common humanity outshines our ideological, cultural, and political differences.

Given the events of the last year, many of us have been hit by waves of anger and despair. This coming together of people committed to doing good in the world was much needed soul food. We had honest and sometimes difficult conversations, but the messages of hope and optimism were abundant.

Aside from the many rich conversations and connections made, a few highlights:

Hamdi Ulukaya arrived in the US at the age of 22. He spoke almost no English and had only a few thousand dollars to his name. He soon found a job on a dairy farm and milked cows to pay his way through college. Today, Ulukaya is the founder and CEO of the multi-billion dollar yogurt company Chobani. He is an inspiration in his humility and commitment to justice for refugees - both as a philanthropist and as a corporate leader. After visiting a refugee center not far from the Chobani factory and learning from his conversations that the main barriers employees were facing was that they did not speak English and did not have cars or driver’s licenses, he began providing translators and transportation to the plant. Chobani now employs refugees from 19 different countries.

From the beginning, the company has donated a portion of its profits to charitable causes, many of them in Idaho and New York where its products are made. A champion of reducing income and wealth inequality nationwide, Ulukaya advocated in support of a proposal to increase the minimum wage in New York that ultimately became law. Last year Ulukaya announced a groundbreaking profit-sharing program for company’s 2,000 employees. A devoted philanthropist, Ulukaya founded the Tent Foundation to bring entrepreneurial approaches and creative solutions to help end the global refugee crisis. He also signed the Giving Pledge and committed the majority of his personal wealth to the cause.

Hamdi Ulukaya speaking during the Opening Plenary.

The following day, the four 2017 Skoll Awardees (below) spoke about their work. Sally Osberg, President of the Skoll Foundation, captured it well: “This year’s Awardees are social entrepreneurs who deeply understand that human dignity depends on the security that comes from knowing fundamental needs are met: health, food, shelter, and safety.” Click here to see the stunning short films that Skoll’s Gabriel Diamond produced about each of them.

Polaris Human trafficking is a low-risk, high-profit criminal industry, enslaving more than 20 million people each year in forced labor and commercial sex and generating some $150 billion in profits. Law enforcement agencies lack data about trafficking patterns, specific sub-types, and locations. Victims rarely have access to channels of communication for help. Less than one percent of victims are identified globally each year. Polaris systematically disrupts human trafficking networks and restores freedom to survivors. Grounded in data gathered from victims’ experiences, Polaris directly supports victims, equips key stakeholders with data to address and prevent human trafficking, and intervenes in specific industries through targeted campaigns. With experience and expertise from direct victim services such as hotlines and resource centers to policy advocacy, Polaris provides a data backbone for the sector. This data enhances law enforcement access to tips and actionable information, identifies gaps in services and resources, and facilitates collaboration to support organizations and agencies across the United States and eventually, around the world. Working together to find and support victims, and prosecute traffickers, they seek to reverse the risk-to-reward ratio and destroy the industry.

Build Change More than nine of every ten natural disaster-related deaths occur in developing countries. Many of these occur in overcrowded and unsafe neighborhoods where housing is likely to collapse—as in the 2010 Haiti earthquake that killed more than 230,000. Faced with such calamities, international aid agencies often move in to build new housing as fast as possible. That process can cause even more damage by relying on international contractors whose products are not culturally appropriate, disaster resilient, or affordable. With an emphasis on prevention, Build Change trains homeowners, local builders, engineers, and government officials to construct or retrofit disaster-resistant houses and schools in emerging nations vulnerable to earthquakes and typhoons. Build Change makes the work affordable by leveraging cost savings through standardized retrofitting designs, existing subsidy and incentive programs, and partnerships with local universities providing seismic engineering experts. It works with governments and development agencies to promote standards, building codes, and financial incentives for disaster-resilient construction.

Last Mile Health In developing countries, people who live more than an hour’s walk from the nearest health clinic are at increased risk of dying from preventable or treatable diseases. Health ministries often try to serve these populations by mobilizing community health workers (CHWs), but are unable to support them with adequate pay, training, diagnostic tools, medicines, and supplies. Last Mile Health partners with government to deploy and manage networks of community health professionals integrated into the public health system. With training in maternal and child health, family planning, treatment adherence, and surveillance of epidemics, together with mentorship from nurse supervisors, these CHWs deliver high quality healthcare to remote communities.Newborn mortality has decreased, and the percentage of children receiving treatment for diarrhea, malaria, and pneumonia has increased. As a result of this success, Last Mile Health now supports the Liberian Ministry of Health to implement the approach nationwide, preparing policy documents, training curricula and impact measurement tools, and coordinating with NGO partners.

Babban Gona In Nigeria, Africa’s most populous nation, smallholder farming is a perilous occupation. Although agriculture represents a quarter of the economy, the sector is unready to meet the food needs of a population expected to double over the next generation. Meanwhile, the burgeoning youth population faces 50 percent unemployment against a backdrop of three insurgencies in the past twenty years. To help prevent the spread of insecurity in Nigeria, a revitalized agricultural sector that offers its youth attractive prospects for a viable income is urgently needed. Babban Gona is an investor-owned social enterprise serving small networks of smallholder farmers with a model created specifically to attract youth. The members receive development and training, credit, agricultural inputs, marketing support, and other key services. Besides increasing each farmer’s yield and income to 2.3 times the national average, the Babban Gona franchise works to demonstrate that the smallholder segment is a viable model for investment and to attract massive new capital to the sector.

Vivek sat on this panel on Global Goals in an Uncertain World. He spoke about legal empowerment as bringing a deeper vision of democracy, and as justice as integral to achieving the SDGs and protecting fundamental human rights - whether it be health or education or land rights. As always he managed to bring to life through beautifully told human stories what are too often abstract concepts. Laws work well enough for the powerful and the rich, but they provide few protections for the rights of poor people around the world. He highlighted the urgent need to identify sustainable funding for SDG 16/access to justice work.

"This question of access to justice is cross-cutting… Development needs justice.” VM

I also attended an excellent panel discussion on Philanthropy for a Fractured World with Darren Walker - Ford Foundation, Pia Infante - The Whitman institute, Laleh Ispahani - Open Society Foundations (OSF), and Lilianne Ploumen - Minister for Foreign Trade & Development, Netherlands. Darren Walker opened by speaking about the critical role of philanthropy in advancing justice. “We are fighting for the very soul of our democracy… Too many people feel that the systems are rigged, and in some ways they are right.” He spoke about the need to look honestly at who benefits from the current system and to support people working on the front lines to provide hope and dignity. I was inspired by the compassion and love that came as a response to the language of hatred and division that we are seeing erupt around the world; OSF raised 85 million USD in just 2 weeks to support its Communities Against Hate rapid-response initiative.

Gemma Mortensen, Tim Dixon and Brendan Cox are mobilizing a movement called More in Common - inspired by the life and love of Jo Cox - an incredible human being, mother, parliamentarian and tireless humanitarian and advocate for justice who was shot and killed last June by one of her constituents in the days leading up to Brexit. More in Common will focus on looking for solutions to these fault lines which are increasingly coming to the surface. In their workshop, they spoke of the growing polarization between global cosmopolitans and angry nationalists in the US and much of Europe and shared evidence showing that most of the population doesn’t fit into either group. These segments of the population - "the anxious middle” – often hold contradictory views. They are largely concerned with traditional culture and values, security and economy, and generally speaking feel that populists speak to these concerns and anxieties about change more effectively. It was interesting to learn that most of these middle groups don’t actually share populist hostility to the ‘other’; polls show that they are largely supportive of the idea of welcoming refugees. As Tim said during the session, they have anxiety but they also have compassion. The takeway: In our efforts to build bridges, we need to focus on addressing and understanding the fear of the other. Not only do we need a new narrative and new language, but we need to find new ways to create personal encounters and build communities that are closer and more inclusive.

Kinan Azmeh, Syrian clarinetist and member of the Silk Road ensemble, who graced us with their music, was initially denied a visa for the UK, but was eventually (with many strings pulled) allowed to enter the country just hours before the closing plenary. Before playing, Azmeh spoke to the audience about the strength of the human spirit even amidst violence and tragedy: “I would like to dedicate this piece to all the Syrians who managed to fall in love in the last six years. I find it quite, quite inspiring that in spite of all the bullets, the barrel bombs, and even chemical attacks, people have the resilience in themselves to fall in love…It seems to me that maybe falling in love is one of the very, very few human rights that no authority can take away from you.”

I was left with a simple truth at the end - one which perhaps makes me sound like a 60’s flower child: love is the answer. In the words of Jo Cox, ”We have far more in common than that which divides us.”

(Here is the link for anyone from the network interested in applying to attend next year’s Forum.)

cc: @namati_staff


Meu Deus, que historia mais inspiradora e motivadora que ja ouvi, obrigado pela partilha da conversa, sabedoria tao rica,em suma a partilha do Link.


Excellent, inspiring post @elliefeinglass. Thank you so much for sharing.


This is great! Thanks for sharing your thoughts and experiences, @elliefeinglass :smile:

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Quite an inspiring piece.

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