Child mortality

And How About Today?

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ruok-skywritingRUOK Day has come and gone. Let’s all get back to watching the rugby…

I know, I know. This is not a binary choice either way. It is good to be critical, and it is also good to try. You never know the consequence of your actions.

This post is about RUOK Day- it was earlier this week, and you can read my post that I posted then here.

The point is that all too often ‘raising awareness’ ends once the enthusiasm from the celebrity laced event concludes. It becomes namedropping collateral, humblebrag for another time. Or is it?

Yes, I jest. Sort of. My point is though that if we care, then we should do more than just be satisfied with a minimalist approach to slacktivism.

This blog is about improving child survival. My earlier post was about improving mental health among veterans. Where is the connection?

This is what is on my mind: too often there is great enthusiasm to talk about an initiative, especially among politicians. After the press brief, it is back to business as usual. Not for those who are in the thick of it. Not for veterans struggling. And importantly not in the remote villages where child mortality is an unwanted blight.

No, while these things still prevail, I am not ok. And neither should you be.

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They Die Namelessly, Without Public Comment

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I was fortunate to attend a wake at the Ivy Ballroom this afternoon to celebrate the life of John Hemmes. “Mr John” as he was, and still is, affectionately known was a leader in making things happen. He had style, he did it his way, he took people with him. He inspired many people, not the least of whom is Justin Hemmes.

This post frames a story that takes place across Three Acts.

Act One, Scene One:

I didn’t stay long, and just wanted to pay my respects. He had done a lot for Sydney through his influence, perhaps more than most people will know.

It was a fitting tribute. The venue was looking wonderful as usual, and staff lined the entrance along the length of the stairway to greet people as they arrived. It really was a celebration. And it is appropriate that the lives of such people are celebrated.

Act Two, Scene One:

Earlier in the day, I attended the interring of ashes for a Korean War veteran who I had come to know very well. He was originally from New Zealand, and served with the New Zealand gun battery as an artillery observer supporting the Australian battalions. Since my roles in the army and what he actually did at war were closely aligned, there was a lot to learn from him.

He was a colourful character in life, and after migrating to Australia became a private investigator, standover man in Kings Cross night clubs, along with a string of other experiences which beggared belief. During this life of his, he went bankrupt a couple of times and laughed that off when he told his stories in his true idiosyncratic manner with his huge Cheshire grin, and in doing so shared the highs and lows of what life was like as an entrepreneur, albeit if his journey was unconventional.

For the last 10 or 15 years of his life, he had ‘found religion’ as his family would describe. They didn’t approve of his new-found Christian faith, and perhaps preferred him when he was not spending so much time on the straight and narrow. In his last few years, despite accumulating many years, he found romance with a lovely lady who was close to his age. Together they were a great couple and brought each other much happiness. Unfortunately, the family neither accepted this relationship with this woman any more than they accepted his choice to follow a Christian lifestyle because of his beliefs.

He died exactly a year ago, and it wasn’t until now that his ashes were to be interred. I wasn’t able to attend his funeral because I was overseas at the time, but was pleased to attend the placing of his ashes.

I felt sick to my guts when his daughter pulled me aside at the end of the service that was attend by only a handful of people in contrast to the vibrancy of Ivy that was to come later. Included in the small throng was the lady with whom he had struck up the relationship. His daughter whispered that everyone would all pretend that we would be going home so that the girlfriend would bugger off and not join a casual lunch at the pub afterwards ‘because she was difficult’. I felt embarrassed for the girlfriend, and made a point of asking her to phone my anytime soon and that I hoped she would continue to attend the functions where the Korean War veterans would assemble. Needless to say, I left soon after that and thought nothing of attending the lunch. It was good to honour my friend that day.

This gathering couldn’t have been a greater contrast to the open expression of hospitality and celebration found at the wake for Mr John later in the afternoon.

Act Three, Scene One:

Returning home by train after the wake, I again fingered through the book “The End of Poverty” by Jeffrey Sachs. I had only just re-read it earlier that afternoon on another train ride between appointments. Flicking to the Introduction, the sentences seemed to have been written for this unremarkable train ride returning from the grandeur of Mr John’s celebration of life. Nothing in this post is to take away anything from John Hemmes, and I pay tribute to the man as he deserves my respect. But this is what I read in the opening words of Sachs (2005):

Currently, more than eight million people around the world die each year because they are too poor to stay alive….They die namelessly, without public comment. Sadly, such stories rarely get written.

Could there have been another day with three more contrasting events about death? This final scene speaks largely of course about the blight of child mortality, a moral obscenity as Tony Lake the Executive Director of UNICEF likes to characterise it.

Act Three, Scene Two:

He closes the book, and flicks over the postcard which was handed to him as he climbed the stairway when arriving at the Ivy Ballroom about an hour before. On one side, the postcard shows a flamboyant photo of a younger John Hemmes celebrating life. The other side has a simple quote from the man himself, speaking beyond the grave:

Whatever you do, do it well.

Blackbird

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IMG_4134The rhythmic whirring and tapping sounds coming from the life support machines sound like a reassuring metronome. If only it was that idyllic…

The video below is self-explanatory by the comment which accompany the clip from Chris describing his bitter-sweet experience as he sings to his son Lennon following the death of his wife:

Chris Picco singing Blackbird to his son, Lennon James Picco, who was delivered by emergency C-section at 24 weeks after Chris’ wife Ashley unexpectedly and tragically passed away in her sleep. Lennon’s lack of movement and brain activity was a constant concern for the doctors and nurses at Loma Linda University Children’s Hospital, where he received the absolute best care available. During the pregnancy, Ashley would often feel Lennon moving to music so Chris asked if he could bring his guitar into the NICU and play for Lennon, which he did for several hours during the last days of Lennon’s precious life. One day after filming this, Lennon went to sleep in his daddy’s arms.

Can you feel that crushing blow which must have accompanied Chris through this song and for the days, weeks, and years that will follow as he remembers his wife and child?

Many child deaths are irrevocable, and in the West in developed countries this is by and large the majority of incidents of child mortality. My brother’s son Xander is one such case as this. Lennon is another. Some reading this will have a very personal connection with that too, and I write these words with much care because I know that any reminder must be hurtful for you in ways only you could understand.

But what about those in so-called developing countries where we have no visibility of their deaths through YouTube or media? The sadness shared by their parents is no less. And the figure, while diminishing because of improvements in child survival is still too great, still over 16,000 children under the age of five per day. More than 16,000 parents singing their own version of a broken-hearted Blackbird daily. And that is not to mention the large numbers of women who die while pregnant or during labour. Life is a risky business. It is a situation we hope to address through the Design Forum accompanying the 10 City Bridge Run. Join  us.

Dear Bill and Melinda, It’s About The Fog That I Write To You

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Bridge in fog- hard to see the far bank
Bridge in fog- hard to see the far bank

Dear Bill and Melinda,

It’s about the fog that I write you you. Not the real fog, mind you, especially now that it is colder in the Northern Hemisphere. I know you are both busy, and need not be bothered by a trifling commentary about the weather.

Knowledge helps to lift the fog which prevents us from seeing clearly. I am particularly interested in knowledge based on the experience of others that will help improve child survival.

I applaud you both for your last two Annual Letters. The commentary and insights you provided about child survival is important. Would you please point us to five good books that might help us to know more about improving child survival?

I asked you for a recommendation of five good books in the video I recorded below in Glasgow on the Clyde River in late December last year just after I completed the eighth leg of an epic quest which I had called the 10 City Bridge Run. This involved running 10 sub-marathons each of 24 km in 10 cities across 10 countries as a stunt to open a conversation asking: “how might we use our networks to improve the delivery of child survival?”

This question of child survival will be addressed though a series of Design Forum, held in each of the cities where running took place. They begin today in Osaka, and conclude in Seoul in October. We will be exploring is question about child survival and doing what we can so that as a global community we achieve the bet you have made for the future. But we need your help.

Would you please list the five best books that have helped you both best understand child survival? We would love to read those books and also make sure others can too.

It would be great if you would join our journey by sharing with us your favourite list of five books that might help us understand child survival better. The best way to share these would be by Twitter through my address at @socialalchemy.

Thanks for your help!

Matt Jones, writing from Osaka

Question Everything, Even The Experts

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Thanks to Joanne Jacobs for sharing this provocative photo of inspiration!

2010 was the year an idea about challenging the action that was being taken to address child survival was conceived. The idea was bold, and from the beginning sought participation from others.

It was grounded in a plan to run 10 sub-marathons each of 24 km in 10 cities across 10 countries as a stunt to open a conversation asking: “how might we use our networks to improve the delivery of child survival?”

The reason for running 24 km was in response to the emphasis made by many organisations in 2010 promoting the 2008 figures of child death per day which had been released by UNICEF. The figure was 24,000 children dying on average daily. A wholly unacceptable figure, which has since been reduced by a third, and progress for the future shows signs of being promising.

I wasn’t an expert in the field, and it struck me that few were. Canvassing my friends about the importance of the issue showed the effectiveness of marketing campaigns from institutional aid agencies, but apart from that little more knowledge. I thought that in a networked age where communications and health infrastructure was better than ever, was there not more we could do to crowdsource and then implement some form of solution or positive intervention?

This was the point of the running stunt. I would run in 10 cities, simply to highlight the year 2010, and conclude with what I had loosely defined as a ‘Design Forum’ at the end to address the issue. There was no budget, no institutional backers. Just a mad Australian with a little bit of passion, who had been given legs by many friends each contributing a small amount through a makeshift crowdfunding campaign.

I took the idea to several institutional aid agencies and charities who had a vested interest in the idea. Would they partner, or was there somehow I could support their efforts? I wasn’t asking for money, and it just have been evident that perhaps lacked some experience in that sector. Their response, especially in hindsight having now completed that journey after much tribulation, was astounding. I was met with the same response, and that surprised me: “sorry, that is not consistent with our messaging”, “we can’t quite see how it ties in with our fundraising efforts”, and other such words that effectively closed their door to my invitation.

I was at a loss as how to respond to this response from the aid agencies that so effectively had appropriated the issue of child mortality. Was I mistaken, and maybe my ideas were ill-conceived and ridiculous?

Reflecting on their response, I remembered back to Boxing Day 2004 when a catastrophic tsunami would smash against Aceh and many other towns in the Asia Pacific. It was an unprecedented event. At the time, I was still serving as an Australian Army Officer and then had a responsibility for planning emerging operations across the region. From the moment the first phone call was received on Boxing Day afternoon and being probably the first person in Australia to hear about the incident, we spared no effort for the following weeks with literally no rest or respite so as to respond with critical support to assist the logistical, recovery and humanitarian needs which were many.

Aid agencies of every manner were part of what I describe as a third wave of tsunami after a second wave of tsunami crashed around the world as the general public awoke to the horror of what had happened. Many aid agencies were quick to adjust their messaging to receiving funding from an empathetic public.

A short while later, reports in Aceh were of degraded roads and bottle-necks from the inundation of traffic of aid agencies wanting to be the first organisation to be seen to arrive and distribute food and blankets. This hampered getting water and other critical supplies to remote areas. It would have made more sense for the aid agencies to coordinate their efforts in Kuala Lumpur and deploy as a collaborative effort without concern for which person from what organisation arrived first.

Now, a decade on, we look back on Aceh. There are questions about where some aid money ended up. Such questions are worth examining, but not too pointedly perhaps. The generosity that allowed the aid in the first place does deserve accountability, and that is a separate issue from that which is being raised in this post.

Child survival is an issue which has been strongly advocated for, from politicians such as Hilary Clinton to actors the like of Ben Aflick. All have spoken with the same staunch plea, demanding urgent attention, mirroring the words of Tony Lake the Executive Director of UNICEF who in 2012 rightly described child mortality as a “moral obscenity” and a “moral abomination”.

Earlier this year, we saw a very positive report from Bill and Melinda Gates in their Annual Letter which has taken a different approach to the ‘alarmist’ view of an appalling situation that has underpinned the messaging of institutional aid agencies to date. We have turned a corner. He future looks bright.

There is no better time to conduct the Design Forum for an issue like child survival. Just because the future is painted as a bright place to visit, it doesn’t mean the road is downhill from here. There is still a lot of work today, but through collaborating with those interventions that we know work and learning from interventions that have been less successful.

The Design Forum is a conversation that will last nine months and beyond. Is picks up a conversation which has started many decades prior. And everyone is welcome. I expect many people will watch to see how it unfolds, and then get involved once it takes shape closer to May. In the meantime, there is a lot of information out there, there are many people with first-rate experience to draw upon, there is a lot of data.

There is no ownership in this conversation. It is a collaboration. Part of that involves challenging and questioning that which has been said in the past. Even Bill and Melinda Gates’ aspiration should be challenged in order to understand it better. Theirs is a bet. I don’t propose we refute it, but we definitely should examine and scrutinise it rather than just accept everything because it is already on the interwebs. What better form of respect can we give reasoned thought than to challenge it with our own intellect, rather than just accept it blithely?

We are breaking new ground in a conversation that is long established. We give ourselves permission to question everything, even the experts.

Design Forum: what is it, and why does it matter?

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The first step. This is what I saw when I looked down at the start point of the second leg of the 10 City Bridge Run on the Sydney Harbour Bridge. 20 and a bit laps later I would complete the 24 km and prepare to move on to Singapore.

I’m on an epic journey. It is a quest. But it is not about me. It is about us. Together.

This is about you, not me.

Only you can say that we are on this journey together. It is your decision, not mine. I’ll write more about what that journey is shortly, but first let me explain why the decision you make is important.

This is a quest.

This is a quest to make a difference. Quests come in all shapes and sizes. This one is to improve the delivery of child survival.

This is about child survival.

So let’s begin there. I have loosely defined child survival as enabling children to flourish past their fifth birthday. Not just live, because I don’t think that is enough, even though we seldom stop to think twice about the opportunities that life brings us. If you are reading this, you really are one of the fortunate on this one earth we all enjoy. You can read which means you have had the privilege of education, and you have access to a computer, which means you have access to electricity. If you have access to education, technology (a computer), and infrastructure (electricity), it probably suggests you enjoy a wide range of other benefits that a majority of the human race can only dream about. Yes really, everyone else is not just like you. You are special.

This is about building bridges.

My good mate Scott O’Brien has an idea he is working on to connect the top billion with the bottom billion on the planet. It is the ultimate bold endeavour in building bridges. There has been a lot of interplay in the ideas he and I share. And I really enjoy the challenge and inspiration that comes from hearing near ideas or having my old ideas questioned. That is how we find new horizons. It is how we make progress collectively, and it is how we grow individually.

This is about philanthropy.

My question to you is what will you do with the privileged status you have inherited. Yes, there may well be every reason to complain: job security, relationship issues, too little money, health is not where it should be, stressed to the max, and maybe even your latte arrived cold. Those are real issues. Even the latte. But compared with others, you are fortunate and special. Philanthropy is described as having a concern for human welfare, and mostly this definition is associated with giving away money. But here I want to challenge that definition. What about if we consider other resources we enjoy that we can draw upon to use to good effect to benefit human welfare? True philanthropy. Using your time, your talents, your networks, your imagination. Connecting with others so as to help address someone else’s problem in the interest of their welfare is a selfless act of generosity. It is also shown to be the best, fastest, and most reliable way to obtain a sustainable state of happiness. That is, happiness comes from working toward the betterment of others. And don’t worry, the way the world work, these things come back you you in spades. To paraphrase Churchill: “it is by giving that we get.”

This is about making a difference.

UNICEF calculate that every day more than 16,000 children under the age of five die. That figure is called child mortality. Most of those deaths occur within the first 24 hours of life. Many of these deaths are preventable. So why don’t we just prevent them? Can it be that hard? Bill and Melinda Gates have used their recent Annual Letter as a stunt to bet that this figure will fall below 8,000 in the next 15 years. That is good news and would represent the fastest rate of benefit to humanity in history. But this won’t just happen on its own. Yes, significant progress has been made across the last 10 years especially, but let’s not leave change to chance. Innovation comes about through intervention. We need to act to bring about this difference. Returning to the point about philanthropy, this is about more than just giving money. Some of us don’t have money to give. The most valuable contribution any of us can make is through the collective genius of our shared imaginations. Are you going to hold back on us?

This is about us.

This is getting to the part that I said I would come back to. This is where you need to make a decision. I am no longer on this journey alone. Together, a larger community has formed, and we are now ‘us’. The question is, are you coming with us on this journey. Many reading this post know they are. It is easy to get involved if you haven’t done so already. You just have to make a decision to join us, to make a difference together.

This is about a journey.

This is about the 10 City Bridge Run. An idea hatched by myself in 2010 to run 10 sub-marathons each of 24 km in 10 cities across 10 countries as a stunt to address an important question asking: “how might we use our networks to improve the delivery of child survival?” It took a while to commence this journey, and it was far from easy. I began running in Port Moresby on 16 September last year and concluded the running late on a dark, wet and cold night in New York on 3 January this year. But the running was merely the device to get us to the beginning of this epic journey. This journey is actually marked by a series of Design Forums that will be held in all of the 10 cities where running took place as a way of addressing this question about improving the delivery of child survival. You can join at any time. You don’t need to come with us every step of the way. That is the advantage of the ‘us’. We share the labour. We call all reach the destination, and no matter the effort you could contribute, we can all say with much satisfaction “we did this together!”

This is about Design.

We are going to use a method called Design Thinking to address this question about improving child survival. Come as you are, you don’t need special qualifications. We will draw upon the wisdom of the crowd for knowledge. We need your imagination to help us in the process of designing a better future for many.

What does this look like? Read the posts which follows (and a link will be added shortly), to talk about what is involved. There is no cost. You don’t need to travel. You can do it within whatever constraints you currently have. But first you need to decide. You can watch and observe, but why not participate?

We need you to bring whatever magic that makes you special to the table. You are more than enough just as you are. Let’s see what alchemy we can create when we literally put our minds together.

Please join us on this epic quest as we prepare to embark on the Design Forum so at the end of the journey we can all look back with satisfaction at what we have achieved and say: “we did this together!”

Blueprint For Change

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imageWhy bother? I mean, can’t we all just sit back and relax now? Isn’t the crisis over?

In their Annual Letter published this year, Bill and Melinda Gates set the scene by betting that there would be greater progress to end extreme poverty than in the previous 15 years. And they are probably right. All indications point toward this as an outcome, and their keen interest over the last 15 years would suggest that this is actually a well-tested assumption rather than an idle wager.

Progress is good, and the message from Bill and Melinda Gates is positive. Are we out of the woods yet? Does that mean the crisis is over?

The 2014 Bill and Melinda Gates Annual Letter framed the issue of child mortality as one of three key areas where they sought to dispel myths that they rightly claim are held about addressing global poverty. At the beginning of the document, they wrote how they were “disgusted” by child mortality.

Other people have used equally strong language. Tony Lake the Executive Director of UNICEF described child mortality in 2012 as a “moral obscenity” and a “moral abomination”.

What does this mean for the 10 City Bridge Run, a citizen-led initiative to open a conversation asking “how might we use our networks to improve the delivery of child survival?” Is the war over, and we didn’t hear the news? Isn’t it all over bar the shouting? After all, Bill and Melinda Gates have spoken.

We should see the current situation as the end of a beginning, and the beginning of the end. We are now riding the waves of change. There has never been a more critical time to convene the Design Forum which will unfold this conversation about child survival than now. There is political will, institutional interest, a wealth of information, technology and the ability to communicate is better than ever, and along with increasing developments in medicine and infrastructure.

The Design Forum is not a silver bullet. And in a relative sense, together we are a minnow in an ocean of information and activity. But we are part of a much larger connected effort. And that is why this is important as a conversation. We have a real part to play, and as that conversation takes shape, it will become more obvious where we can best effect change.

The Design Forum which will commence in Osaka on 9 February is a blueprint for change for improving child survival. We are not reinventing the wheel, but drawing upon the experience and networks of others to amplify our intention. And we need your voice to help make that possible.

The Dali Lama has a quote which I like:

“If you think you are too small to make a difference, then try sleeping with a mosquito.”

We are about to begin the series of Design Forum. You can join in at any time, but why not begin with us at the beginning. We are starting by asking how might we Design the Design Forum. This will be an event in Osaka to draw upon best practice, and examine how we can organise to be effective in making a difference. The first Design Firum in Osaka convenes concurrently with an Acumen Fund/IDEO free online, seven-week course which provides an introduction to Design Thinking. You can get involved. You will make a difference. So why not sign up? It is all free.

Sign up for the Introduction to Design Thinking here.

Sign up for the Osaka Design Forum here.

Looking forward to seeing you on the journey!