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Generation 2K ready to change the world

Graduate Institute Photo of 2016 winners

By Peter Hulm

The brightest grads of Generation 2K.01 — those who got their diplomas after 2010 — don't talk like many of the previous generation. Their main ambition, thank goodness, doesn't seem to be to earn a million a year by the time they reach 30.

Nor are these under-30s obsessed with digital technology. And they take the U.N.'s Sustainable Development Goals seriously rather than as window dressing.

That's my impression after hearing the international finalists for the Geneva Development Challenge in November.

The three teams — a dozen students in all — have already taken steps to improve life for many of the poorest people in India, Colombia and Kenya's largest "informal" settlement, Kibera near Nairobi.

But first they had to present their projects and answer questions from the professional jury, the other finalists and the academic public in an auditorium at Geneva's Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies.

The theme this year was urbanization.

Winners: wastepicker project in Bogotá

Winner of the CHF15,000 first prize was a Colombian team mainly from the London School of Economics (LSE). Their project aims to reorganize garbage collection in residential streets of Bogota.

Even more ambitious, they want to make life better for the low-status freelance wastepickers who specialize in collecting and selling anything that is recyclable.

The team has given the project the name minga, a word Colombian indigenous communities use to refer to collective work towards a common objective. They have already singled out 10 neighbourhoods to start.

Presently only five per cent of Bogota's waste products are recycled. Wastepickers race the commercial trucks to open garbage bags and grab what they can sell on.

Green and yellow squares

The minga students want to paint green squares by the side of the road for residents to deposit their bags of recyclable wastes, and yellow squares for the rest.

Each street will have an assigned wastepicker from the associations that control these freelance workers. Through a phone app, residents will be able to contact the wastepicker and organize special pick-ups.

Is it all too high-tech? the jury asked. The students pointed out that wastepicker associations already use smartphones and apps to locate the best spots to pick up recyclable garbage.

What about Internet penetration? Many developing countries do not have reliable networks? The students had thought of that. They will put up photos of the wastepicker for the street with contact details for those without a hookup.

Rebate for householders

One benefit from the project could be a 4% rebate in waste collection charges for residents. It's in the law, but there is currently no way for householders to prove they are separating their waste properly. Minga will be able to certify this.

In return, wastepickers — who will each be assigned 50 green garbage squares — can rate streets for their performance to put social pressure on residents to separate and neatly dispose of their wastes.

Second prize: disaster planning portal

Second prize (CHF5,000) went to the Indian business and planning students — from the University of Pennsylvania — to Bhubaneswar, one of the most rapidly industrializing cities in Gujarat State. They want to launch a web portal to share data for better disaster planning.

The portal will enable cities to measure their vulnerability to disaster, using the Sustainable Development Goals as one of the standards for progress.

It will also give decision makers an online platform to consolidate data and compare their performance with cities around the world.

High costs of recovery

"Post disaster recovery is associated with high monetary costs (nearly $1.7 trillion dollars between 2000 and 2012)," they point out.

The problems come largely from failures to prepare against disasters or introduce mitigation efforts.

They've already mapped out a pilot project for the city of Chennai, which suffered flooding in 2015.

The trip to Geneva enabled them to meet officials at the U.N.'s disaster reduction institute, UNISDR. Their talks on how to take the project forward led them to incorporate the Indian pilot scheme into their plan.

Micro-farms to supplement diets

Third prize (CHF2,500) went to the London School of Economics team for a micro-farming project in Kenya's largest informal settlement, Kibera outside Nairobi. They want to put together three low-tech devices to compost wastes, filter drinking water and drip-irrigation, and provide vegetable-growing containers to supplement diets, provide clean water and perhaps lead to trade for the micro-farmers (90% women).

The system should not take up more than 1 sq.m, a third of the space required for sack gardening, which was a lifesaver in a 2015 famine.

Total cost about $25, two thirds for the composter. Too small to be beautiful? asked one jury member.

Bigger might seem more profitable, the team admitted. But the land in Kibera is too contaminated to use for large projects.


What about security? asked another jury member. Sack gardeners keep an eye on each others' property already, the team replied. They expect the Kibera micro-farmers to do the same. Besides, thieves would have to steal the whole unit to make it worthwhile.

The LSE team were reminded that it would cost some $1.25 million to equip 50,000 households. What would their role be?

The LSE group — whose members included food sustainability and security students as well as a health and development management graduate — said they expect the Kibera residents would need some training but "it is not intended to be a business for us that we run." They envisage a collaborative effort by the huge variety of NGOs already active in Kibera and have held talks with community leaders to gather information and discuss the feasiblity.

Practical solutions

The Advancing Development Goals Contest started in 2014 with the support of Ambassador Jenö Staehelin. The Kofi Annan Foundation, set up by the former U.N. Secretary-General, is a patron.

"The idea is to gather contributions that are both theoretically grounded and offer pragmatic solutions to a relevant international development problem stemming from an interdisciplinary collaboration between 3 to 5 enrolled master students from anywhere in the world," says the Institute.

I was impressed that the 2016 students did not try to score points off each other. Their questions seemed more aimed to gather ideas about how to handle problems in their own projects.

Student teams entered 114 projects for the 2016 competition, 60% of them from developing countries' universities. Bogotá also won the first contest in 2014 with a project to empower the city's female sex workers through a health rights approach.

The employment challenge

On 22 December the Graduate Institute announced the 2017 theme will be the challenges of employment. The prizes are CH10K for the winners, CHF5K for the runner-up, and CHF2.5K for the third placed team. It is open to teams of 2-5 master students anywhere in the world.

Martina Viarengo, chair of the contest’s Academic Steering Committee, observed:"Employment is regarded as a tool to improve living standards and eradicate poverty, but the question is: what kind of employment will nurture sustainable growth and development?"

For a video and recording of the 2016 event, click here.

Finalist details

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