How my search for Irish ancestors led to Jack the Ripper

Mary Jane Kelly was born in Limerick around 1863 and died in London's East End in 1888. Everything in between is vague. What little we know about her comes from police interviews with the people who knew her -- she'd told men she lived with that she was born in Limerick, then she moved to Wales, then she became a prostitute in London's ritzier West End, then she briefly lived in France with a man, then she ended up in Victorian London's much scarier East End.

On November 8th, she went out for the night, got drunk, and eventually retired to her tiny room in Miller's Court, on "the worst street in London." This final night of her life has been dissected a million different ways by professionals and amateurs. What we know is this: at 10:45 in the morning on November 9th, Kelly's landlord knocked on her door to collect rent. She didn't answer, so he went in, and found her body, literally ripped apart.

Mary Jane Kelly was the final and most gruesome victim of the killer known as Jack the Ripper. Her mutilated corpse became the subject of the first-ever crime scene photograph. She became far more famous in her brutal death than she possibly could have in life.

Irish refugees

My Irish ancestors came to the US in spurts -- the first of them came during the potato famine in the 1840s, when the choice was to either catch a boat to America or starve. The rest of them trickled in over the next 60 years. Almost all of them ended up in New York and New Jersey. My grandfather was born poor in Newark. His father died of a heart attack when he was only 14, and then shortly afterwards, his older brother was killed in the Battle of the Bulge during World War II.

My Grandpa was a rags-to-riches story. He worked his way up from janitor to an executive at General Electric. He met my grandmother and took her on dates to the Jersey Shore. When his work transferred him to Cincinnati, Ohio, he settled there, where his daughter, my mom, met my dad.

Heritage was not an emphasis in my family. We were told we were Americans, and since both of my grandfathers were self-made men, our history was that of the American dream. Our story started when our ancestors set foot on America's shores. But this wasn't a history that was particularly deep -- the stories only went back a couple of generations, and they were all tales of success and triumph. I was an awkward, lazy, and angry teenager -- I couldn't relate to tales of hard work and success. These people who'd conquered life did not feel like ancestors of mine.

There were moments when my grandfather would seem to show a deeper nostalgia, and it was when he was singing. He had a beautiful bass voice, and on St. Patrick's Day, he would drink Guinness and sing "Galway Bay" and jokey Irish folk songs. His voice was slow, soft, and melancholy. He had jowls, and they would flap comfortingly when he shook his head with each note. The sound came from some place deeper and sadder. I was hooked on this grandfather -- he was so much more human than the one who'd conquered poverty and had risen above.

Living on the Ripper's turf

In 2011, I moved to London to go to grad school. When selecting housing, I more or less flipped a coin, and ended up in Lilian Knowles Student Housing in London's East End. I knew a bit about the East End from one of my favorite books, Alan Moore's From Hell, a comic book about the Jack the Ripper murders, and I was delighted to see that I was smack dab in the middle of Jack's territory. I'd read about pubs like the Ten Bells, and the church right around the corner had featured heavily in the book.

My kitchen at Lilian Knowles was situated directly over the street, and every day, tour groups would walk by while I was cooking my dinner. The guides would always be wearing heavy top hats and holding lanterns. They'd park outside my window and start talking:

"THIS, my friends, was once 'the most dangerous street in London.' Right here we have what used to be known as 'The Providence Row Night Refuge,' which was once a place for the destitute women and children of Whitechapel to stay. Mary Jane Kelly herself lived here briefly while working for the nuns. The Refuge served the community until 1999, when it was converted to housing for a different class of poor people: students."

This was a laugh line. The tourists would inevitably look up at me, in my shabby clothes, as they laughed.

Lilian Knowles, formerly the Providence Row Night Refuge. My kitchen was the window directly under the “Women” sign. Photo by Jim Linwood

Lilian Knowles, formerly the Providence Row Night Refuge. My kitchen was the window directly under the “Women” sign. Photo by Jim Linwood

“If you turn around,” the guide would continue, “you will see a fenced off alley way. This, my dear friends, is no longer open to tourists. This alley leads to what was once Miller’s Court, where Mary Jane Kelly would meet her grisly end.”

I was shocked the first time I heard this. That? That was a boring alley next to a car park. I walked over later and craned my neck, trying to see some old remnant of Miller’s Court, but there wasn’t much to look at. So I moved on.

MARY JANE KELLY AND ME.

While I was living in London, I decided to do some family research. A few years before, my grandfather told me that he’d never found out where his brother was buried. So I went online and found it almost immediately: he was buried in Luxembourg. By the time I’d made it to London, I knew my grandpa wasn’t going to ever get to the tomb of his brother, so I caught a train to Luxembourg and visited it myself.

At my uncle's tomb.

At my uncle's tomb.

When I got home, I showed some pictures to my grandfather, who started telling me more about his family — how his brother had been a troublemaker, had gotten into trouble with the law, and the judge had told him the choice was enlisting in the Army or going to jail.

After that, loops started closing, and I couldn’t stop learning about my family. I didn’t even have to look — it fell right into my lap. First, at my housing in London, in the place where Mary Jane Kelly once lived, I met and fell in love with a girl from New Jersey. She’d grown up blocks away from the place where my grandparents went on their first date on the Jersey Shore.

We eventually moved back and got married. My wife, who works in politics, got focused on healthcare in New Jersey. My grandmother told me that my great-great aunt Rose had been one of the first female doctors in the state of New Jersey, and had worked on Ellis Island. She told me that her family had long been active in the state’s Democratic party, and that there was the odd political radical in my lineage. I opened an Ancestry account and started piecing together my old family tree. I talked to my Grandpa, shortly before he died, and he named as many relatives as he could remember. I tried to take the history back centuries, but it was not particularly easy, as Irish people tended to name their kids the same five things. I gave up the hope that I’d discover that I was the great-great-great-great grandson of George Washington, but I was miffed to discover that I wasn’t related to anyone famous at all.

With one possible exception — Grandpa had been related, a couple generations back, to a family by the name of Kelly. Every third person in Ireland, at the time, seemed to be named Kelly, so tracing them was next to impossible, but as far as I could tell, the Kelly’s had left Ireland in the late 1860’s, early 1870’s for either Britain or the US. The ones that came to the US would end up as my direct descendants. The ones that went to the UK — who knows where they ended up? But they did have a daughter, born in 1862, who went off Ancestry’s record books in the 1870’s. Her name was Mary J. Kelly.

THE VIOLENCE THAT BROUGHT US TO AMERICA

The Irish people I’ve met don’t recognize the American version of St. Patty’s Day. They’ve called me out for even calling it St. Patty’s Day. And it’s fair — There are 33 million Irish-Americans. There are only 6 million people on the island of Ireland. Most American Irish are so disconnected from their homeland that they know little more about their culture than Catholicism and Guinness.

Most of the fourth or fifth generation immigrants I know have their own American rags-to-riches stories. But as I reached into the past, I found that our immigrant stories were far uglier, far more complex, and far more human than the Gilded Age glitziness I’d been shown in my childhood. The Irish were driven here by poverty and violence, and often met the same even once they’d reached our shores. They starved in Irish famines and fought in American wars.

Mary Jane Kelly is probably not a direct relative of mine. My genealogy skills just aren’t that good, and there were a lot of Mary Kelly’s in 1860’s Ireland. But thousands of my ancestors were just like her. They struggled just as hard, they lived and died in oblivion. Not everyone gets tied to the world’s most famous serial killer. It’s about the last way, I think, any of us would want to achieve immortality.

Most of my family history will be forever hidden. But when my grandpa sang, I could still hear Ireland in his voice. It was older than he was, and in it, there was darkness. It felt like a place I’d been. It felt like home.

This article was originally published on the Matador Network. Featured photo by Kevin Burkett

Downloading this one app while you travel can help you save people from sex trafficking

IT’S REPULSIVE TO EVEN think of, but sex traffickers need to advertise, just like everyone else. And to do so, they will often take pictures of the children they are abusing, and will post these pictures to the darker corners of the internet. Oftentimes, the place sex traffickers will set up shop is in hotel rooms, so that’s frequently where the pictures end up being taken.

An app called TraffickCam has been set up to help catch these modern-day slavers in the act. How it works is simple:

  • Download the app or go to the website.
  • Take pictures of your hotel room when you arrive at your destination.
  • Submit the pictures to the app.
  • The app puts them into a massive database, which law enforcement can then compare to the photos that the sex traffickers use as advertisements.
  • If there’s a match, law enforcement officials may well be able to track down the sex trafficker, and save their victims.

The app has suggestions for how to take the pictures, which you release under a creative commons license to them. As of November 2016, over 1.6 million photos had been uploaded to the database. The group that runs the app, the Exchange Initiative, says that while the app is only currently operating in the US, where they are working with law enforcement, but they hope to eventually go worldwide.

Travelers are often the front lines against sex trafficking.

The ugly truth a lot of sex trafficking occurs in close proximity to the travel industry. Hotels in particular are havens for this type of illegal activity, as the hospitality industry puts high value on discretion and relative anonymity. Pimps and sex traffickers exploit this environment, and use hotels as safe havens.

Recently, hotels have started training their staff for how to recognize sex traffickers — red flags like guests paying in cash, or large groups of children, or kids made up to look older than they are, or the lack of luggage, or the presence of drugs or alcohol around children, or the sneaking in of women and girls through side doors — all of these together may point towards sex trafficking, and hotel managers have to make a judgment call as to whether they should involve the police.

Likewise, airlines are starting to train their staffs to spot sex trafficking as well, and it’s already saving lives: one flight attendant noticed something wrong between an older man and a young, teenaged girl he was traveling with. She tried to engage the man, but he became defensive, so the attendant left a note for the girl in the bathroom, who wrote back asking for help. The attendant informed the captain, and the police were waiting at the gate when they landed.

Training programs are being supported by the UN’s Be a Responsible Travelerprogram, which helps provides materials to tourist organizations that may be able to stop trafficking.

Public awareness is hugely important.

“Raising awareness” gets sneered at a lot of the time (sometimes justifiably so), but in the case of sex trafficking, a big part of the problem is that travelers in the United States assume it just doesn’t happen here, so they aren’t on the lookout for warning signs. As a result, a lot of trafficking slips under the radar.

The TraffickCam app is still in its relatively early stages, but its creators already believe the program is a success solely on the basis of raising awareness. It’s an “if you see something, say something,” type of fight, and with more people on the lookout, we have a better chance of getting these kids out of the hellish trafficking rings they’re trapped in, and back into their childhoods.

This article was originally published on the Matador Network.

How to be a better global citizen in 2017

Okay, so 2016 was rough, and a lot of people are pessimistic about 2017's prospects. But even if this is a dark year ahead of us, there's still a lot of room for you to do good as a global citizen. We've got some quick, concrete tips to help you make the world a better place in 2017.

Volunteer local, give global.

The election of Donald Trump has led to a spike in charitable contributions to domestic non-profits. People are throwing their weight behind groups like the ACLU, Planned Parenthood, and the Council on American-Islamic Relations in anticipation of a hostile President.

But this has unfortunately led to a drop in donations towards some really excellent globally-oriented charities. I talked to Charlie Bresler about the problem a few weeks ago. Bresler is the Executive Director of the Life You Can Save, a non-profit that supports the world's most effective charities, like Oxfam, the Against Malaria Foundation, Innovations for Poverty Action, and Population Services International. They're saving lives on a daily basis in the developing world, but people have turned inward in the face of Trump.

Bresler suggests something simple: just give more. "If one feels the understandable urge to give to political movements or organizations fighting the Trump agenda," he wrote to me in an email, "then please consider giving more money over the next four years so that you don't diminish your gifts to fight global poverty. We certainly can afford to give more generously if we all consume less, which has the added benefit of being good for the environment."

The truth is this -- you can do a lot of good at home by getting actively involved. You can go to protests, you can go to local government meetings, you can call your representatives. You can't be as effective globally, except in regards to money. You get a lot more bang for your buck when you donate abroad. So do the most good possible. Get involved at home, and give abroad.

Learn how to help before you start to help.

A lot of us (myself included) have gone on very well-meaning trips to help people in developing countries. The problem was that we were not remotely qualified to help. We were bussed into a village we knew nothing about, we built a house despite having zero construction experience, we met a few "locals," and then we were bussed out.

Voluntourism is tricky. It comes from a very kind, generous place, but it doesn't do the good we may want it to do, and in the worst cases, it may be exploited by horribly cynical people: over the last few years, there have been stories of "fake orphanages" in Cambodia that target rich tourists.

The problem is a simple one to solve, though: you should only help when you know how to help. Are you a doctor? Great! Go volunteer somewhere -- anywhere! Your skills translate anywhere there are humans. Are you a specialist in earthquake resistant construction? Oh my god, that's awesome -- we could use you in a ton of places. If you don't have skills like these, that's fine, you can still help. But you may be helping most by simply giving money wherever you can. We mentioned The Life You Can Save above -- check out GiveWell, too.

You can do a lot of good -- you just gotta know how to do it first.

Travel as green as possible.

Travel is great -- it helps you see and understand the world better, which in turn makes you a better global citizen. But travel can be super harmful to the planet. Fortunately, the Union of Concerned Scientists made a graphic that helps you figure out what the greenest way for you to travel is. Check it out:

Image by UCSUSA. Click here for a larger image. You can read the full report here.

Image by UCSUSA. Click here for a larger image. You can read the full report here.

Download a few simple apps.

Technology can be used in some really great ways to help save lives and make the world a better place. Here are some simple ones you should download now:

  • TraffickCam. This app is simple -- it helps fight human trafficking by simply asking you to take a photo of every hotel room you stay at, and then uploading that photo into the app. This helps authorities identify rooms where sex slaves are being held (which they can see through photos or webcams). It's super easy, and it's for an incredible cause. Similarly, Free2Work helps you keep track of companies that have used forced or child labor.
  • Buycott. Buycott is another simple app -- it helps you to stop supporting causes to which you're opposed by buying goods from businesses that support those causes. It's simple -- you select causes you want to follow. You scan the barcode of a food item, and Buycott tells you if the business that sells that item is, for example, using slave labor, or is discriminatory towards LGBTQ people, or has donated to particular candidates. Talk with your money!
  • Green Globe. This is another great one for the environmentally conscious. It's simple: they'll help you identify which nearby businesses or hotels are green certified.

This article was originally published on the Matador Network. Featured photo by Christopher Crouzet.

Harambe's killing was a tragedy. Don't be a dick about the mom.

WHEN I WAS A LITTLE KID, I used to love going to clothing stores. Not because I liked the clothes, but because certain clothing racks were cylindrical, and I could slip between the clothes and hide out in a little clothes silo. It gave me that feeling you get when you're alone in a place no one knows about -- I had the same feeling when I ran into the woods, or found a table to hide under at a restaurant, and I chased that feeling whenever I could.

My tendency to dash off to play an impromptu game of hide-and-seek, naturally, scared the bejesus out of my mother. She had my two sisters to take care of as well, and all three of us were born curious and born explorers, which she and my father considered a good thing. But she'd get disapproving looks from other store customers because her kids weren't "in control." So after one particularly frightening incident at the local JC Penney, she bought a velcro leash that could be wrapped around my hand to keep me from escaping into my clothes silo. This got her even more judgmental looks from store customers. "How dare that woman drag her child around like a dog!"

Moms just can't win.

This all came rushing back to me this weekend with the story of the four-year-old boy who made his way into the gorilla habitat at the Cincinnati Zoo, and was manhandled by the gorilla until zoo officials were forced to kill the animal.

I grew up in Cincinnati. 26 years ago, I was that kid.

Kids at the Cincinnati Zoo

While my mother always kept a close eye on me, there were certain places where I got so excited that she couldn't adequately constrain me, and the Cincinnati Zoo was one of them. I loved the lizards and the monkeys, and I fantasized many times about swimming across the moat to monkey island to play with the macaques. I wasn't as into gorillas, but that's just because they didn't seem to ever do all that much. To the kid who fell in, I say, to each his own.

Much of the uproar around the killing of Harambe the gorilla has been directed at the mother of the child, who supposedly should have had her kid under total control during the full visit to the zoo. A popular theme was to say that the gorilla would have been a better parent than the mother of the child:

While I understand the impulse towards indignance or self-righteousness, this argument is appalling for a couple of reasons: first, you can see in the video of the incident that the gorilla was not being gentle with the child.

Aside from this video, there are witness reports that Harambe tossed the kid ten feet into the air, with the kid landing on his back. The boy suffered a concussion.

The second reason the argument is appalling is that it shows a complete ignorance of what having kids is like. Children do not behave like adults, and "keeping an eye" on your kids 24/7 is impossible unless you force them to live in the bubble. Kids wander off, they hide from parents for fun, and they are small enough and fast enough to escape you if they want.

The mother of the boy wrote the following on Facebook on Monday:

As a society we are quick to judge how a parent could take their eyes off of their child and if anyone knows me I keep a tight watch on my kids. Accidents happen but I am thankful that the right people were in the right place today.

 

She'd apparently been taking care of other children that were with her (she has four total) when her son slipped away. And this is understandable. I've had that mother. I've been that kid. My guess is that we all have. Most of the time, curiosity in a child is an excellent thing. But it can sometimes lead to tragedy. And that's what happened last week.

Pointing fingers

The internet loves to be outraged. It's an understandable impulse: rage is an emotion that comes easier and that is less painful than simple sadness. But in this situation, pointing fingers is just a way of diverting ourselves from the sad fact that a magnificent animal, through no real fault of his own, had to be killed because of a series of unfortunate events. Literally no one wanted that gorilla to die.

You could blame the zoo for not having better barriers, but the gorilla barriers at the Cincinnati Zoo have been effective for the entire 38 years of their existence, and the thing about barriers is that they're impenetrable until the second they aren't.

You could blame the zoo for not waiting longer to get the kid away. But that's 20/20 hindsight. That gorilla could've killed the kid at any given moment, and it would be hard, as a zoo manager, to justify putting off action when a child's life was on the line.

The hardest thing to do is to simply accept that we can't prevent all tragedies, and that in some stories, there are no bad guys, just a bunch of humans who make mistakes. Making mistakes is a very human thing to do.

Go easier on moms (and do something to help gorillas)

If you find yourself furious at this mother, take a second to try and empathize. Try to imagine bringing your kids to the zoo in order to do something nice for them. Try to imagine having an active and inquisitive three-year-old. Try to imagine turning to help one of your other three kids, and turning back to see your child gone, and to hear screams coming from the gorilla pit. And try to imagine watching your kid get thrown around like a ragdoll.

If you can do that, then go a step further: Try to allow yourself to feel sad instead of angry. Sadness is a harder emotion than anger, but it's ultimately healthier, and it's far less corrosive.

If you're still angry, maybe consider using that anger constructively. You can educate yourself about the plight of the western lowland gorilla, which is critically endangered thanks to poaching, disease, and habitat destruction (Harambe was at the Cincinnati Zoo in the hopes that he would breed with the females as part of the zoo's conservation efforts). A really great way to help in that cause is to support the World Wildlife Fund, which fights to protect tons of species from extinction.

Perhaps most importantly, don't hold mothers to double standards where they are either helicopter parents or are negligent. They don't deserve that. You were a kid once, too, and this could've been you.

This article was originally published on the Matador Network.

Kenya just did something incredible to fight poaching

POACHING IS A MAJOR WORLDWIDE PROBLEM, especially when it comes to animals with tusks -- rhinos and elephants in Africa face possible extinction thanks to poaching cartels which have been taking ivory out of Africa and into Asia. In the Asian market, ivory is seen as a luxury good, and some types of ivory -- such as Rhino horn -- are erroneously thought to be folk cures for anything from headaches to hangovers to erectile dysfunction.

Many African governments have had trouble adequately fighting poaching thanks to corruption and a lack of infrastructure, but in recent months, a few governments have taken serious steps to fight poaching. Just last month, Tanzania handed down a harsh sentence for two poachers who killed 226 elephants, which will hopefully act as a deterrent.

Then, this past Saturday, the Kenyan government burned the world's largest stockpile of ivory coming from illegally poached elephant tusks. The message was clear: we don't want anyone making money off of this. We want these animals kept alive.

The stockpile of horns was huge, as can be seen from the aerial photography.

The act was witnessed by delegates from 170 world nations, and hashtags like #WorthMoreAlive started trending on Twitter. Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta has ordered similar ivory burns before, and is trying to fight for a total ban on the ivory trade.

The ivory burn weighed over 100 tonnes, making this the largest ivory burn in history.

If you are looking to help fight poaching, there are a few things you can do. First and foremost, do not contribute to the poaching market. Do not buy ivory or any other products made from the parts of endangered animals. The second thing you can do is to support a few of the charities that are fighting poaching around the world. The best known is undoubtedly the World Wildlife Fund, but you can also donate to the International Anti-Poaching Foundation, and to the Wildlife Conservation Society, which is considered one of the most effective. Finally, Tweet with #WorthMoreAlive to show your support!

This article was originally published on the Matador Network.

Researchers may have found the best way of ending extreme poverty, and it's embarrassingly simple

FOR DECADES, THE UNITED STATES HAS grappled with the homelessness problem: what's the best way to deal with thousands of homeless people living rough in our cities? Should we crack down on drug use? Should we improve rehabilitation efforts? Should we try to fix the economy so the homeless can get jobs?

During this debate, the state of Utah quietly solved the problem. Between 2005 and 2015, they reduced their chronic homelessness rate by 91 percent. And the answer was almost stupidly, blindingly simple: just give homes to the homeless. The people who grumbled about the expense of housing the homeless have been silenced by the numbers: homeless people tend to cost the state a lot of money, whether it's in jailing them or in paying their emergency room bills, and simply giving them homes is much, much cheaper.

Thus, a major, intractable problem was fixed in a way that any two-year-old could have devised. Which of course makes you wonder: are there any other major problems that we may have stupidly, blindingly simple answers to?

The answer is yes: researchers may have found an incredibly simple and intuitive way to fight extreme poverty.

The effective altruism movement

The past decade has seen the rise of a form of philanthropy that concerns itself not with ideology or emotion, but with end results. It's called "effective altruism," and it's designed around the idea that, if we're going to give our money to charities, we should give it in a way that it does the greatest amount of good to the greatest number of people.

It's been heavily advocated by utilitarian philosopher Peter Singer, who insists that if we think all lives are created equal, then we have a moral obligation to help the people who are most in need, and who we are most capable of helping.

Effective altruists want their donations to be justified with hard data. As such, they demand that the charities they support be both effective and transparent about how effective they are. Two websites, GiveWell and Singer's own The Life You Can Save do research into the world's most effective charities, and then recommend a select few that meet their rigorous standards. Most of the charities are fighting developing world diseases and afflictions like malaria or parasitic worm infections -- diseases that the developed world has already eliminated for the most part, but that still plague the developing world thanks to a lack of funds and public health infrastructure.

One charity on their list, however, is different. One charity isn't fighting a disease, but is fighting extreme poverty as a whole. They're called GiveDirectly, and their method is simple: they just give cash directly and unconditionally to extremely poor families. And it's working really well.

How to change conventional wisdom

It should be noted that giving money directly to poor people is not an idea economists and aid workers have traditionally been on board with. It seems to go against common sense: "If you give a man a fish, he'll eat for a day," the old saying goes, "If you teach a man to fish, he'll eat for a lifetime." GiveDirectly is basically just giving out fish.

People who have traditionally seen capitalism as the route to ending poverty are deeply suspicious of this approach as well, as hand-outs are generally believed to breed dependence. Giving cash directly to the poor smacks of socialism. Singer himself said so in his 2009 book, The Life You Can Save:

"Neither [Columbia anti-poverty economist Jeffrey] Sachs nor anyone else is seriously proposing that we solve world poverty by handing poor people enough money to meet their basic needs. That would not be likely to produce a lasting solution to the many problems that the poor face."

Singer has since changed his mind, because he has seen the evidence: GiveDirectly works. And the organization doesn't identify with a socialist ideology. They just give out the money because it's really, really effective. GiveDirectly co-founder Michael Faye explained that they were econ grad students who were looking to give away some of their money.

"We were fortunate to have front-row seats to two profound shifts in the development sector:

The first was the rise of rigorous testing (i.e. randomized tests). From this, we learned that many of our longstanding assumptions were wrong, and that cash transfers performed remarkably well across a wide variety of contexts, and over prolonged periods of time.

The second major shift we saw in the fieldwork that we were doing was the rapid growth of mobile payments and financial connectivity. This made it possible to send cash to the poor at a lower cost, with more speed and security than had been imaginable."

 

But, they realized, there was no organization dedicated exclusively to direct cash transfers. So they started it themselves.

How it works

As of right now, GiveDirectly only operates in two countries, Kenya and Uganda. The reasons they chose these countries are that both of them have high levels of extreme poverty, but also have electronic payment systems already in place. Direct cash transfers take place over a cell phone or a SIM card, which GiveDirectly provides the families with if they don't have it themselves.

It's a relatively simple process: First, they identify the families in a given area that are most in need. They have a field staff investigate, but one of the easiest indicators, they've found, is to go to families with thatched roofs. They've found that if a family has money, one of the first things they're likely to spend it on is an iron roof.

After that, they run an investigation to make sure that the recipients truly deserve the money, and didn't bribe anyone or cheat their way onto the list. Then, they transfer around $1000 (nearly a year's wages) to the family over the cell phone or SIM card. This cash is unconditional: recipients don't need to spend it on anything in particular.

After that, they monitor the families to make sure they got the money and to see how they do.

Overall, the results are pretty incredible. The cash transfers are one-time only (though possibly paid in installments), so there's no worry of them breeding the sort of dependence that many aid experts fear, and the program costs them staggeringly little in the way of overhead: of the money donated, 91% of it ends up in the hands of Kenyan recipients, and 85% of it ends up in the hands of Ugandan recipients. And although the idea of cash transfers is still relatively new, the early numbers are promising: one-time cash transfers do seem to have a long-term effect in improving the lives of the recipients.

What cash transfers are showing is that if you give an extremely poor person money, they are probably going to have a better idea of how best they can spend it than an aid worker does. And while the conventional wisdom says "they'll just spend it on alcohol and tobacco," GiveDirectly has found that there's no significant increase in expenditure on these products. Instead, families tend to spend the money on things they need, or they invest in business opportunities they would otherwise have not been able to afford.

The result is that most of the families end up a good deal better off than they were before, whether it's because they got a new roof that doesn't leak, or because they saw an increase in their total income after making business investments.

A silver bullet?

For years, microloans were touted as the best solution to global poverty. Microloans are basically exactly what they sound like -- small loans to extremely poor people. They turned out to be pretty effective in terms of helping the poor get small businesses started, or in helping them invest in themselves or their family, and for a few years, the world thought it had found its silver bullet for ending poverty. But the problem with them was that they put some of loan recipients into pretty serious debt, which is hardly a way to alleviate poverty.

On the heels of this realization, the development world has been looking for better alternatives, and the best alternative seems to be cash transfers. UN Secretary Ban Ki-Moon recently said that cash transfers should be the default method of helping people in emergencies whenever possible. A Princeton study found that cash transfers have a significant impact on the lives of recipients, while several other recent studies have found that direct cash transfers (as well as conditional cash transfers) don't breed dependency, and don't make the recipients lazy.

As of right now, Give Directly is the only non-profit that does cash transfers exclusively. There are other non-profits that do cash transfers on top of their other operations around the world, though, and cash transfers are gaining steam. There's the Issara Foundation, which gives cash directly to freed slaves, and development titan Oxfam and the UN High Commission for Refugees have integrated cash transfers into their programs. But the aid world seems to have learned its lesson from the microfinance boom, and is still treating cash transfers cautiously.

"We don't think that cash transfers are necessarily a silver bullet," Max Chapnick, a spokesperson for GiveDirectly told me. "There are things cash transfers alone can't do. They can't build public goods. They can't build roads. They can't build a cellphone tower. They can't cure a disease. But they can directly help families in need and serve as a benchmark for other programs.

The idea, in short, is to judge other aid programs by asking the question, "Is this better than just giving people cash?" At the same time, GiveDirectly is working with researchers to be transparent as possible, so they can better understand the long-term effects and limitations of cash transfers. And just last week, they announced something huge: they're doing an experiment with "universal basic income," in which they plan on providing a guaranteed income for 6,000 people living in extreme poverty in Kenya for 10 to 15 years, and then observing how that affects their lives in the long term. This will, of course, test the conventional wisdom about handouts breeding dependency. But so much of the conventional wisdom has been wrong up to this point, that it's worth putting it to the test: as Michael Faye and his GiveDirectly co-founder Paul Niehaus wrote about the experiment, "At a minimum our money will shift the life trajectories of thousands of low-income households. At best, it will change how the world thinks about ending poverty."

Cash transfers aren't going to save the world. But they could help improve it dramatically. And the lesson that cash transfers are teaching us is extremely important: when you put ideology aside and focus on the results, the answers to some of the world's toughest questions may turn out to be incredibly simple.

You can learn more about GiveDirectly here. This article was originally published on the Matador Network.

Meet the only country in the world that's carbon negative

BECOMING "CARBON NEUTRAL" IS THE HOLY GRAIL for a lot of environmentalists. By ceasing to produce more carbon dioxide that we absorb, we may, as a world, be able to avoid the worst effects of man-made climate change, and reach a point where we can live sustainably on this planet. What most environmentalists don't talk about is the possibility of becoming carbon negative. The idea of absorbing more carbon than we produce seems almost impossibly far-fetched for most of the world. Except for one country.

Bhutan is a tiny country sandwiched between China and India in the Himalayas. It's remoteness and size have meant that it's remained relatively untouched by the globalization that most of the rest of the world has seen, and it entered the world economy late enough that it could clearly see the downsides of global capitalism as well as the upsides. So instead of focusing on Gross National Product, it invented a concept called "Gross National Happiness." The country now tries to balance economic growth with the preservation of its environment, culture, and quality of life.

In a TED Talk, Tshering Tobgay, the Prime Minister of Bhutan said, "Economic growth is important. But that economic growth must not come from undermining our unique culture or our pristine environment." Bhutan calls it "development with values," and as a result, had ensured that a staggering 72% of the country has remained under forest cover. According to the constitution, 60% of the country must always remain under forest cover.

What this means is huge: the forest sequesters three times the amount of carbon dioxide that the country produces. If Bhutan were carbon neutral, it would be the only country into the world to earn that designation. But it's not carbon neutral. It's carbon negative.

On top of the forests, Bhutan has invested in renewable hydroelectric energy, of which it is a net exporter. So other countries around Bhutan now receive clean electricity as well. They are working to expand this hydroelectric energy, and if they reach their goals, they will annually offset the same amount of carbon that the city of New York produces each year.

Tobgay admits that his country is small, and has a very tiny economy, but Bhutan's story is a hopeful story. It is proof that economic development and environmentalism can go hand in hand, if we have our priorities straight. And it's proof that we can say no to short term profit in the name of long-term global benefits.

This article was originally published on the Matador Network.

Want to show someone you love them? Give them a Valentine's gift that saves the world

VALENTINE’S DAY, AS A BILLION Hallmark cards have told us, is about love. Usually, the focus is on romantic love, but it’s just as often love between parents and children, brothers and sisters, or totally platonic friends who are definitely not going to hook up after a night of drinking wine together while whining about being single.

There’s no reason, though, that the love we celebrate shouldn’t extend even further. Why not celebrate love for our fellow man? Why not celebrate love for our planet? So maybe instead of spending money on a restaurant that’s jacked up its prices for the holiday, you should buy your partner a different kind of present: one that says, “I want to make this world a nicer place for you.” Here are some gift ideas.

Save a tree.

Trees are one of the most effective solutions to the problems of climate emissions: they naturally absorb carbon dioxide and release oxygen, cleaning the air of the crap we pump into it. So naturally, it’s a big problem when trees are chopped down.

Stand For Trees is a non-profit which focuses on saving forests, and for Valentine’s Day, they’re doing a project called “Love You A Tonne,” in which you can pledge money to a specific forest. Generally speaking, a $10 donation takes 1 tonne of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere.

Save a child.

You know all of those friends of yours who have November birthdays? Those are Valentine’s babies. There’s no shortage of children who owe their existence to holidays and celebrations -- the NFL highlighted so called "Super Bowl Babies" last week, for example -- so why not honor that by making a donation that will save a child? One of the most efficient ways to do this is to give to organizations like the Against Malaria Foundation, which provides mosquito nets for people living in areas with high incidences of malaria. Malaria kills around a half a million people every year, and of that half a million, about 70% are kids under the age of 5.

So giving a few bucks can go a long way towards saving kids lives. $100, for example, can protect up to 60 people from malaria for three or four years. That’s huge.

Save a mother.

Be honest: You don’t love anyone more than you love your mom. So if you’re going to give a Valentine’s Gift to your mother, it would make sense to give her a gift that saves other moms. One of the best ways to do this is to give to the Fistula Foundation. Fistula’s are particularly nasty medical conditions that tend to develop in areas where women get pregnant too young and don’t have access to proper medical care. In short, it’s a hole that develops between a woman’s vagina and her other internal organs after prolonged labor. The hole causes leakage, which can cause a horrible stench that makes the woman stigmatized in her community, and can lead them into even deeper poverty.

The good news is that there’s no reason for these to exist anymore: we have the technology to fix the vast majority of them, and it’s relatively cheap to do. The Fistula Foundation repairs fistulas in the developing world (primarily Africa and Southeast Asia) for an incredibly low cost. A donation to them could save a mother and her child from trauma and poverty.

Save a life.

Dr. Gleb Tsipursky, a professor at Ohio State and a social entrepreneur, says he received his best Valentine’s Day gift ever last year:

“Instead of candy and liquor, my wife suggested giving each other gifts that actually help us improve our mental and physical well-being, and the world as a whole, by donating to charities in the name of the other person.”

They did their research, and using an online calculator at the effective altruism website The Life You Can Save, they figured out how to make their money go the furthest. Tsipursky’s wife donated to the Against Malaria Foundation, while Tsipursky himself gave to GiveDirectly, a non-profit which does exactly what it suggests: it gives money to the extremely poor in Africa.

This article was originally published on the Matador Network.

5 ways to be a better global citizen in 2016

THE WORLD NEEDS MORE PEOPLE like you this year. People who see humanity not as separate, distinct groups which should never mix (and of which theirs is coincidentally the best), but as a single mass of people who are all in the same boat, who all have the same basic fears and wants. People like you — whether you call yourself a global citizen, a cosmopolitan, an internationalist, or just a chill dude who wants to live-and-let-live — are the people who are going to make the world a better place in 2016.

That sounds like a daunting task, but it’s not, really. There are 7 billion of us, after all, and the world is ours to make. You can do small things, here and there, and all of those small things multiplied by 7 billion will turn into big things. But if it still sounds daunting, here are a few more things you can do to be a better global citizen.

1. Get on board with fighting climate change.

Easily the biggest challenge facing our world right now is climate change. All of our other problems — war, poverty, famine, disease — will only get worse with climate change, and the window on stopping the worst effects of climate change is getting smaller by the day.

This is a huge project that requires global cooperation, but there are a few simple things you can do to help:

  • Get your home better insulated and turn down your heat and air conditioning this year. This is one of the biggest energy sucks in the home.
  • Eat less meat. Especially beef. Meat contributes to greenhouse gas emissions, so if you can, go veg as much as possible, and if you can’t, at least try cutting back. Try meat-free mondays.
  • Donate to green-friendly charities. Check out the ones on this list at Project Greenify.
  • Vote for politicians who aren’t in denial about climate change.

2. Fight global poverty.

There’s actually good news on this front: on a global scale, we’re winning the fight against poverty. It is far from over, but, as The Atlantic reported in December, this was the best year in humanity’s history for the average human. We beat the terrible ebola outbreak in Guinea and Sierra Leone, we cut child mortality in half since 1990and world hunger is on the decline.

But a lot still needs to be done. You can start by donating to charities like Give Directly, which just gives your cash straight to extremely poor individuals in Kenya and Uganda. GiveWell, an organization that ranks the effectiveness of charities, lists them as one of the most effective charities on the planet. You can also use popular microfunding sites like Kiva, or extremely effective charities like Oxfam. If you want to make sure you get the best bang for your buck, check out the charities on GiveWell, and also on effective altruism site The Life You Can Save.

3. Support global education

A smarter world is a better world, and unfortunately, many people — especially in the developing world — don’t have access to quality education. Unfortunately, as GiveWell points out, improving education in the developing world is an incredibly difficult process, and it’s a process that can’t be done exclusively from the outside. The only charity GiveWell has given their stamp of approval is Pratham.

4. Support women's rights.

Women’s rights is a pretty great place to start if you want to bring an end to things like violence and poverty. Experts have found that when women in developing countries are given control of the money, they are more likely to use the money to life themselves and their families out of poverty than men are, and educating women in developing countries makes them more likely to avoid unwanted pregnancies and more likely to start making money on their own, breaking the cycle of poverty.

Oxfam has some simple tips for how to support global gender equality.

5. Vote.

For people who are American citizens as well as global citizens, 2016 is going to be a pretty big election year. By voting in the upcoming election — and by paying attention to all of the races and not just the presidential one — you’re participating in democracy and making your country a stronger place. Democracy anywhere is a good thing, and while voting alone does not a democracy make, it is a vital element.

This article was originally published on the Matador Network. Photo:Sai Mr.

5 ways to be a better global citizen in 2014

FROM THE BEGINNING, 2014 seemed intent on proving to us that humanity’s biggest challenges transcend national borders. Ebola wasn’t interested in respecting borders, and spread to several other countries around the world. Political problems in Ukraine managed to result in the deaths of 298 mostly Dutch passengers on a Malaysian plane. Several of the dead were prominent AIDS researchers, a loss that could have an effect on all of the millions of people worldwide with the disease. And the year’s biggest scientific achievement, the landing of a spacecraft on a comet, was accomplished by the European Space Agency, which has 20 member countries.

2014 was right: the world needs less partisan and national division and more global citizenship. So for those of us who consider ourselves to be “global citizens,” here are some things we can do to make our world a better place this year.

1. Get serious about climate change.

Climate change isn’t going away. Its existence isn’t even a debate anymore. 2014 saw predictions that the West Antarctic Ice Sheet was in the process of collapsing — something that could raise ocean levels by several feet over the long term. 2014 also saw the world’s first climate refugees. This is obviously an issue that could drastically change and destabilize our planet, so it’s on top of the list of things good global citizens need to help with.

But where to start? The Environmental Protection Agency offers a list of things you can do in your daily life to limit the greenhouse emissions directly caused by your actions. It’s simple stuff like recycling, using energy efficient lights, planting trees, and insulating your home. But the problem has to be fought at the international level, too. So try donating to carbon offset programs or nonprofits that fight climate change, and contact your US representative and let them know that you’re a voter who cares about climate issues.

2. Donate your time and money to worthy causes.

You could probably afford to take $25 a month that you would otherwise spend on beer or pizza and donate it to a cause that could desperately use it. If you’re interested in donating to nonprofits that will spend your money effectively, check out efficient giving sites like The Life You Can Save.

You can also volunteer. It might be harder to volunteer for causes that focus on global causes in your town or city, but don’t let that stop you: by making your small community a better place, you’re making the world a better place. The best spot to find good local and international volunteer gigs remains Idealist.org.

3. Share your stories, and listen to other people’s stories.

One of the things we believe in here at Matador is that the best person to tell your story is you. The world needs more voices — especially marginalized or minority voices — to speak out about their experiences and their culture. The more perspectives we’re exposed to, the more open minded we become.

I don’t want to make Twitter and Facebook sound more important than they are (your cat picture is cute, but it’s not really making the world that much better of a place), but in 2014, trends like #YesAllWomen and #BlackLivesMatter helped expose male or white Americans to the experiences that they may not have had in their lives. Any time people start to stop and listen to the stories of others, things get better.

4. Support an open and free internet.

We live in an awesome age. We get to hear what’s happening around the world as it’s happening, and we are no longer limited in our choices of news sources. And we get to make friends with people no matter where they are. This new interconnectedness is one huge reason that we can feel hopeful about the future of humanity.

The reason all of this is possible is because we have a free and open internet. It’s a thing worth supporting, so check out Google’s Take Action page for free web issues and give to organizations that fight for net neutrality.

5. Get on the legalization train.

In the past couple of years, Washington, Colorado, and Washington, DC have decriminalized pot. This has reduced crime, increased tax revenues, and made it harder for minors to get pot; one presumes that it will also result eventually in fewer people being jailed for nonviolent drug offenses.

The War on Drugs is a global catastrophe, and it’s distracting us from our much bigger problems. The US drug war fuels the even more violent drug wars in Mexico, Colombia, and Afghanistan, so ending it here would help end it in those places, too. Even if you’re not a pot smoker, supporting legalization helps make the world a better place. DrugPolicy.org has a great toolkit for activists, as well as resources for other things you can do to help end the War on Drugs, so check them out. You can also donate to the Marijuana Policy Project if you want to help change legislation at the national level.

This article was originally published on the Matador Network.

6 ways to be a better global citizen in 2014

ONE OF THE side effects of international travel is that you lose the luxury of thinking of yourself only as the citizen of your hometown or country. Unless you cloister yourself in a walled resort, you’re going to come into contact with citizens of other countries and places, and you’re suddenly going to realize how closely your lives are linked — your politics, your economies, your environment.

Becoming a good global citizen is a difficult thing to do, and it can be incredibly overwhelming if you’re confronting your place in the world for the first time. Here are some easy things you can do in 2014 to make yourself a better global citizen.

1. Learn about the stuff you buy.

Look, for the time being, we live in a capitalist’s world. We’re not getting rid of consumerism and rapacious free markets any time soon. But as a relatively affluent member of a relatively affluent country, you have the ability to buy your food, clothes, and gadgets not because they are cheap, but because they are ethical. Of course, it’s insanely difficult to be a totally ethical consumer: Should I eat meat? How do I find locally made gym shoes? Does the company that makes my Extra Virgin Olive Oil actively campaign against gay rights? Does my bubble tea company pay its employees a living wage?

And so on. There are some things you just can’t buy ethically, and to some extent, you’re probably going to fail in your effort to be a conscious consumer. But here’s one hugely positive step you can take: Get out your smartphone — yes, the one made with conflict minerals — and download the Buycott app. Buycott allows you to join user-created campaigns that you believe in, like “Campaign for Ecological Responsibility” or “Say No to Monsanto” or “Equality for LGBTQ.” Next, take your phone into your pantry, closet, or fridge and start scanning your products’ barcodes. Buycott will tell you — based on your campaigns — which of your products are ethically made, and which aren’t.

You may not be able to buy everything ethically, but you can certainly start.

2. Travel sustainably.

Unfortunately, travel can leave a pretty huge carbon footprint if you’re not careful. So how can you get from Point A to Point B without poisoning the lungs of your great-great grandchildren? If you have the time, try traveling by bike, or walking, or kayaking, or sailing, but if you need to be moving a little faster than that, check this out: The Union of Concerned Scientists put together a guide a few years back for traveling green. Turns out, the best way is one of the cheapest: Take a motor coach. You can see the best travel methods ranked here (they depend on the number of people you’re traveling with and the distance you’re going), but the worst ways to travel are to fly first class or drive in an SUV.

There are a ton of other ways to travel more sustainably. National Geographic has a set of tips, as does Conservation.org. The basic rule, though, is to just do your research, and don’t be a dick.

3. Volunteer locally.

The popular maxim is “Think Globally, Act Locally.” If you’re trying to help make a better world, the best place to start is in your own little corner. One way to do that is to volunteer. If you’re at all like me, you always mean to but never quite get around to it. Here are a few resources to help you get over that hurdle.

The first is VolunteerMatch. Punch in your location, your email, and the causes you’re interested in, and each week they’ll send you a newsletter with opportunities nearby that you can sign up for. Another similar site is Idealist.org, which can do the same but with jobs as well as volunteer opportunities.

4. Donate, but donate smart.

Philanthropy is important to being a good global citizen, but it’s far from the most important thing you can do, and is also one of the most fraught decisions you can make. You may have read the excellent Three Cups of Tea a few years back, about an American named Greg Mortenson who built schools for girls in Afghanistan and Pakistan. It was an awesome story, so naturally a ton of people rushed to donate to Mortenson’s charity, the Central Asia Institute. Problem was, a lot of Mortenson’s story was a lie, and his charity was horribly managed. So if you donated money, it likely wasn’t going towards building those schools.

How can you know which charity to trust? Fortunately, there are a number of sites that do this work for us. The first is The Life You Can Save, an organization founded by philosopher Peter Singer that’s focused on giving your charity money the most bang for its buck. Very few charities meet their very high standards, but they hope to add to their list over time.

Another site to check out is Zidisha, a microlending site. You’ve probably by now heard of Kiva, the more famous microlending site that allows you to lend money to causes and small businesses around the developing world. Zidisha is similar but cuts out intermediary institutions, making it more of a peer-to-peer website than Kiva. Zidisha also has a much lower interest rate for borrowers, which is important for those that worry that microlending simply puts the borrowers into serious debt. Kiva, on the other hand, has a slightly higher repayment rate. Since this is, in fact, lending and not giving, you could theoretically use the same $25 over and over again endlessly, and support countless small businesses in the developing world.

For a full breakdown of the differences between Kiva and Zidisha, check out this article.

5. Read everything you possibly can.

This sounds simple, but one of the best ways to engage with your world is to read everything you possibly can. If you aren’t a big reader, start listening to podcasts. If you’re a more visual person, start watching the news. If you aren’t a big TV person, try comics journalism. Seriously — it’s a thing, and it’s incredible.

The point is that, to a critical reader — a reader who’s skeptical of the source and its bias and engages with the material instead of accepting it — nothing is harmful. Not even bullshit-heavy conservative mouthpieces like Fox News. And this isn’t even limited to nonfiction — there’s no shortage of thought-provoking fictional material out there. The goal, with your reading, is to get yourself thinking in different ways and to be more engaged in the world around you. To find new stuff, check out GoodreadsTasteKid, and Shelfari.

6. Get involved in politics.

Volunteering is great, but at the end of the day a lot of the problems with the world are systemic, and volunteering is usually focused on a more personal level. Fortunately, most of the people reading this page right now are probably in democratic countries, where there are plenty of avenues to legally make a difference in the political system.

Getting involved in politics can mean any number of things (and don’t believe the assholes who tell you democracy ends at the voting booth, and that if you don’t vote, you don’t have the right to complain). The quickest way is to start letting your representative know what you think about the issues that are important to you. If you’re in America, here’s a tool to find your Congressperson’s Twitter account. Here’s how to find their email. Trust me — someone’s at least gonna glance at your missive.

If you don’t like your representative, campaign for their rival. The New Organizing Institute is a great organization with a ton of awesome resources designed to help you organize for political campaigns. You can also, on a lower level, give to campaigns you approve of. It may sound boring, but politicians do operate on money, and they do need your money just as much as they need your time.

Finally, if you belong more to the “We Shall Overcome” crowd, Lifehacker put together a great guide on how to safely protest, the law blog LegalFish did a piece on how to legally protest, and the Economist explains why, if you’re going to break the law protesting, you should do it peacefully.

This article was originally published on the Matador Network. Photo: Stallkerl