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Motley Fool: Silent Disasters Threaten Global Economy

United States, December 19, 2007

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Carrie Crockett

The Motley Fool
December, 2007

Across the world, a profound disaster is unfolding: Over the next 10 years, 1 billion young people in developing countries will be competing for about 300 million jobs. Mercy Corps is working to create opportunities that will help unleash the potential of tomorrow's workforce and avoid the deepening poverty and potential conflict that unprecedented unemployment could cause.

Mercy Corps was a Foolanthropy pick in 2005, two years before Foolanthropy announced its new focus on financial literacy for youth (if you missed the announcement, you can read it here). With its numerous programs around the globe, Mercy Corps also fits very well as a Foolanthropy recipient now that our long-term goal is to ensure that every young person in the world gets a basic financial education. This year, we're specifically supporting the Silent Disasters program. The following interview with Mercy Corps' President Nancy Lindborg explains why:

Carrie Crockett: Can you briefly explain Mercy Corps' overall mission?

Nancy Lindborg: Mercy Corps works to alleviate poverty around the world by helping people build productive, just, and secure communities. We have programs in transitional countries that are community led and market driven.

Crockett: How does the Silent Disasters program fit into that mission? How did it start?

Lindborg: The Silent Disasters campaign evolved from our observation that there were many crises around the world that just didn't receive appropriate attention. When there's not what we call the "CNN factor," it's hard for people even to know there's something going on in a place like Niger or the DR Congo. It's our effort to try to focus our resources and our energies in those places and on those issues that really require more international attention and energy.

Crockett: How does the Silent Disasters program address what Foolanthropy is now focusing on -- financial literacy in youth?

Lindborg: One of the Silent Disasters that we've called out is the fact that more than half of the developing world's population is under 25, and 1 billion of them are living in the developing world. Yet we anticipate that there will be only 300 million new jobs.

The regions with the absolute highest rate of youth unemployment and underemployment are the Middle East and North Africa. So we're focusing our efforts on those areas to bring additional opportunities and training, education, and access to possible employment to youth as a means of averting what we see could be greater crises in the future.

Crockett: Tell us about the job training kits Silent Disasters uses.

Lindborg: The job training kits help us focus attention on the impact of underemployment and unemployment on youth in these regions. We have a variety of programs that are tailored to each region, such as working to provide apprenticeships for youth in Kyrgyzstan, and building centers of excellence in Lebanon to provide Internet access and computer training for kids in Beirut.

What the job training kits do is to provide funding for those programs that really enable youth to become more financially literate, to participate in the global economy, or just to have a job that can provide both stability for their future and the hope to invest in what may come.

Crockett: How do you measure the impact of these training kits?

Lindborg: Well, we measure it through the programs they support, on a program-by-program basis. So in the apprenticeship program in Kyrgyzstan, for example, you measure how many kids, through the apprenticeships, are able to find long-term employment that provides a living wage and an opportunity to invest in their own future. For the Centers for Excellence in Lebanon, for example, you measure how many skills were gained. Were the kids able to either start a business or find employment? So there are very tangible ways in which you measure success in terms of the impact it has had on the lives of the youth who participate.

Crockett: I'm familiar with the story of Aziz, who's an apprentice on a project of yours in Kyrgyzstan. How is he doing?

Lindborg: He's doing great. You know, that area of Kyrgyzstan is so interesting, because when the whole Soviet Union tore apart, it really left Kyrgyzstan land-locked and without a lot of access to various global markets. We have worked in Kyrgyzstan more broadly to provide additional financial services for the poor, as well as how to understand a market economy, and then focused on youth like Aziz to ensure that he has the skills to enter what is a resuscitating market. And it's a beautiful, beautiful country, too, I will say.

Crockett: At The Motley Fool we encourage our readers to evaluate not only stocks that they invest in but also the charities they donate to. Could you tell me a little bit more about how a charitable organization like Mercy Corps evaluates which countries you operate in and which programs you'll fund?

Lindborg: Well, the Silent Disasters campaign includes countries that have been largely ignored and issues that have the potential, if not addressed, to become a serious disaster. We believe that Mercy Corps has its greatest value in countries that are in transition -- countries that are suffering from some sort of collapse, economic disaster, conflict -- and then we ask, is there a need that we can fill, or is it already being met by other actors?

Crockett: How critical will the Silent Disasters unfolding around the world be in the coming years?

Lindborg: Because we live in a global world, it matters what happens in some obscure country in the middle of Africa. There are so many issues like youth unemployment and HIV/AIDS and other infectious diseases that don't know borders, and we also know that what matters to a little kid somewhere in other parts of the world matters to us.

The Silent Disasters have the potential to spread regionally if they don't get the kind of attention we can provide. There's lots of data that shows that a country that has conflict on its border is more susceptible to becoming unstabilized itself. So we think it's critical that not just the enormous disasters that gather extraordinary media attention deserve responses, but also those that are unfolding without public attention.

That's important not just because of the moral imperative [to help] people who are affected, but also because of the potential they have to keep us from what I think we all share -- global aspirations for peace and stability and less poverty around the world.

Crockett: I know Mercy Corps partners with companies like Starbucks (Nasdaq: SBUX) and Boeing (NYSE: BA). What unique value does working with corporate partners bring?

Lindborg: I'd like to point out that Nike (NYSE: NKE) is also one of our corporate partners. Let me say a word about the Nike partnership, because they work with us directly in some of those countries that aren't otherwise that well known. We have a global partnership with Nike on youth and emergencies.

Our experience shows that in a lot of these very tumultuous times and places, it's often youth who need special attention. They're disoriented. They're often taken away from educational opportunities, and yet youth are the hope and the future. We have partnered with Nike to provide sports opportunities in these difficult areas as a means of helping kids regain a sense of optimism, a sense of hope, of confidence by engaging them in sports, and it's a terrific program that draws on their corporate competencies and ours as well. You put them together, and you get really powerful possibilities.

Online editor Carrie Crockett owns no shares of any company mentioned in this article. Carrie has been co-chair of Foolanthropy since 2005. Starbucks is a Stock Advisor recommendation. The Fool has a disclosure policy.