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Posts Tagged ‘President Obama’

Thanks to a decades-long focus on improving access to college, nearly seven in ten Americans today enroll in some form of postsecondary education within two years of leaving high school. That’s a record number, and it is impressive. But it also obscures another reality. Lurking in the shadows is a more sobering statistic: Not much more than half of college students—some 57 percent—earn a bachelor’s degree in six years.

In short, colleges are getting more people to start a race they cannot finish. In fact, college graduation rates are increasing in every developed country except for the United States, according to Grantmakers for Education (GfE). Individual success is hindered, as is the nation’s competitive global edge.

Over the past couple months the college dropout issue has been getting the increasing attention it deserves. Last month, President Obama called for the nation to regain the world lead in college completion by 2020. (The US currently ranks No. 12.) Philanthropy is stepping up, too. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation just launched a $12-million initiative with the National League of Cities to boost college graduation rates in four cities. The Intel Foundation, led by Shelly Esque and championed by Intel CEO Paul Otellini, has sponsored competitions to incent and reward achievement in science and math, thus encouraging dazzling stars in the next generation, not only to do well in high school, but to excel in college and in life. And the Lumina Foundation has announced a $14.8 million, four-year national effort to help adults with “some college”—even those decades removed from attending school— complete their degree.

Over the summer GfE released From Access to Success, a funders guide to improving college graduation rates, relating key themes from a spring meeting in Washington with prominent researchers, higher education leaders and officials from the US Department of Education. In addition to describing the reasons too many students don’t complete college, the short GfE guide offers ideas for funders. Among these: Convene K-12, higher education and private industry leaders to better define college- and career-readiness; help schools and districts strengthen the quality of student counseling and college preparation; and help build will among policymakers and the public to support adequate funding of community colleges, which are entry points for many into the larger, postsecondary system.

But in addition to dangling carrots, the guide also offers prodding with sticks. It calls on grantmakers to hinge institutional support on efforts at improving college retention, including better tracking and analyzing of data. According to the guide, basing funding on course and degree completion rather than mere enrollment will push schools to focus on true progress.

—Jane Wales

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Think the debate over health care reform is over? Not a chance— and not just because Election Day is fast approaching. President Obama signed the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA) in late March after nearly a year of debate and deliberation. But the real work is only just beginning: Implementing the law at both the federal and state levels.

And so, Grantmakers in Health has called upon foundations to ramp up funding for public education about the legislation, as well as to build local capacity to implement it. Working to generate and sustain public support over the next few years will be critical if the law is to withstand efforts to repeal or undermine it before it has had a chance to take effect, according to Implementing Health Care Reform: Funders and Advocates Respond to the Challenge.

Moreover the Grantmakers alliance says that the issue should concern even those funders working outside of the health and heath care area. For starters, the report explains, the law touches on issues beyond health and health care, incorporating issues about workforce, income security and equity among racial and ethnic populations. But perhaps the most important reason the report argues that non-health funders should play a role in health care reform: the success— or failure— of the law could affect other public policy issues in the future. As the GIH publication puts it, the bill’s high profile and broad reach means that successful implementation could help restore public trust in government and demonstrate government’s positive role in improving lives. Wouldn’t that be something?

Although the focus—and controversy—has been on provisions expanding health insurance, the PPACA encompasses significant changes affecting virtually every aspect of the health system, from information technology to training to delivery system. The aim is to restructure the health care delivery system to make it more focused on prevention and primary care, reduce costs and improve quality. Indeed, it’s more complex and broader in scope than Medicare or Medicaid, and will be enacted in stages over the next four years, with many of its provisions requiring extensive planning and preparation.

Based on interviews with 43 funders and advocates, the GIH publication reports on foundations’ early implementation activities and plans. It also offers recommendations for further engagement and support. The organization will further discuss the report and hear from several funders engaged on the issue in a Sept. 8 conference call for members at 2:00 PM EST. (Email to register.) The report suggests that funders should work harder to coordinate and collaborate their efforts, within a state or on a regional level, learning about what their colleagues are doing. In particular, funders could work to create pooled funds for specific issues, activities or localities. And larger funders could seek out small, community and nonhealth funders, soliciting their expertise or advice on education, poverty or workforce issues as they relate to implementation.

More specifically, the report calls on philanthropists to fund efforts to explain the law in ways that people— including grantees— can understand, overcoming skepticism, as well as to target groups who might benefit from the early provisions, such as the uninsurable, seniors with prescription drug costs and small businesses. Another critical need is for philanthropists to help state government officials take on the local tasks of implementation. The latter will be a particular challenge, as states are constrained by budget deficits, staff reductions and anticipated turnover due to the fall elections. So foundations could identify ways to partner with local or state government, according to the report—if not direct funding for personnel or programs, then helping them apply for federal grants or support data collection and evaluation.

“Never before has there been such a national framework in place for major health systems change,” GIH reports.

The potential is certainly there—now, to make it real.

—Jane Wales

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In a live address from the Oval Office last night President Barack Obama declared the end of the US combat mission in Iraq. The president thanked American military personnel for their dedicated service, while also restating his firm belief that the entering the conflict was a mistake. “We have sent our young men and women to make enormous sacrifices in Iraq, and spent vast resources abroad at a time of tight budgets at home,” Mr. Obama said. Watch the president’s entire speech here.

Some of those sacrifices are chronicled in The Good Soldiers, by David Finkel. He will be speaking at the Council on Thursday, September 9 about the eight months he was embedded with the 2-16 infantry battalion deployed on the outskirts of Baghdad. Finkel, a reporter for The Washington Post, will also discuss the cognitive dissonance between the violent reality of the ground war and the abstract policy debates back in Washington. Register for the program here.  While another perspective of the war will be provided by Georgetown professor Derek Leebaert on Thursday, September 16. Examining the missteps of wartime foreign policy,  Leebaert argues that the cause of many of America’s foreign policy mistakes lies in “magical thinking” – the idea that the US can manage the world through well-intentioned force. Register for the program here.

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Less than a week after President Barack Obama introduced a new national HIV and AIDS strategy, the International AIDS Conference began in Vienna. UNAIDS Executive Director Michele Sidibe unveiled Treatment 2.0, an initiative that will try to bring down the cost of life-saving medicines, make drug regimens less complicated and simplify the process of HIV treatment.

On Wednesday, July 28 the US Global AIDS Coordinator, Ambassador Eric Goosby, will be at the Council to outline Obama’s new AIDS strategy. To register for the program, visit our website here.

For more information about the AIDS Conference, read this article from Voice of America. To learn more about the new national plan, listen to this episode of KQED’s Forum.

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Only days after Russian President Dmitri Medvedev met in Washington with President Obama, the FBI accused 11 people of being Russian agents. The charges include money laundering, conspiracy and failing to register as agents of a foreign government, but do not include espionage. The FBI has been tracking the alleged spies since 2003, though many of the spies have been in the US since the 1990s.

The need for increased vigilance towards Russia’s spy program was brought up at Monday night’s Council program with Georgia’s Ambassador to the US, Batu Kutelia. He noted the weekend’s 11 arrests and said, “This same case happened in Georgia five or six years ago and at that time I was head of our foreign intelligence service and when we intercepted and arrested this, most of the world accused us, Georgia, of being too provocative towards Russia. But now it appears that the same activities are happening in a different part of the world and the intention of modernizing Russia is really good, but if they continue with business as usual, there could very different consequences for them as well.” To listen to the entire program with Ambassador Kutelia, please visit our online audio archive.

To learn more about Russia’s history of espionage the US, read this article from the New York Times. For more information about the relationship between Russia and the Caucasus, read this article from the current issue of Foreign Affairs.

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This Monday, June 28, the Council is honored to host His Excellency Batu Kutelia, Ambassador of Georgia to the United States, for a discussion of the state of bilateral relations and importance of Georgia as an ally in the Caucasus. The visit follows the Council of Europe’s Parliament overwhelming approval of a draft resolution condemning Russia’s policy in the North Caucasus, the same week that the Russian president is touring the United States. To register for the program with Ambassador Kutelia, visit the Council’s website.

Russian President Dmitri Medvedev, at the invitation of President Obama, traveled to the US on Tuesday to meet with business and political leaders in California and Washington, DC. Medvedev, who hopes to create a new technology mecca in Russia, made stops in San Francisco and Silicon Valley where he met with industry executives. Tomorrow he will travel to Washington to discuss the expansion of the economic relationship between Russia and the United States, which has largely been on hold since Russia’s war with Georgia in 2008. To learn more about Medvedev’s trip to Washington, read this article in the New York Times.

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Many were thrilled to see that the Kellogg Foundation had made a $75-million commitment to attacking racial disparities in communities across the country. It brought to mind the superb work of Anne Kubisch and her colleagues at the Aspen Roundtable for Community Change— whose work on structural racism remains among the most thoughtful approaches to analyzing and acting on this insidious problem. And so I turned to Anne’s colleague Keith Lawrence— and this is what he had to say:

“Hats off to the Kellogg Foundation for publicly adopting racial equity as a central grant-making principle!

“This is a bold step by a major philanthropic sponsor of initiatives designed to eliminate racial disparities in communities across America. It’s bold because a racial equity perspective explicitly challenges a number of faulty ‘wisdoms’ about race and its connections to familiar socioeconomic outcome patterns, and about the appropriate posture for philanthropy in this arena.

“Kellogg’s recent decision to transform itself into an anti-racism organization sends an important message to those who would believe that President Obama’s election signaled the end of race in America. While that historic development is a great leap forward for our democracy, and a welcome reminder that large numbers of voters hunger for a politics of hope and connectedness, it should not cloud our recognition that we still have a long way to go in truly extending opportunity to all Americans. Thankfully, old-fashioned, in-your-face racism has receded and most of us now consciously embrace colorblind values. But we’re not yet a colorblind society, because our opportunity systems and institutions maintain racially patterned inequalities without, for the most part, intentionally setting out to do so. Kellogg understands that racial privilege and disadvantage have been deeply inscribed into the physical, cultural, economic, institutional, and psychological spaces we navigate daily. Racially inequitable norms and practices in the employment, housing, criminal justice, health and other key sectors still combine to keep far more individuals of color on the margins than can reasonably be explained by their individual shortcomings. Personal responsibility isn’t irrelevant, but its contribution to chronic racial group inequalities is dwarfed by the effects of public policies, institutional practices and unconscious biases that continue to perpetuate racial disparities.

“By stepping up and reframing its race work in this way, Kellogg also sends an important message about the niche philanthropy occupies in our democracy.  Americans have always relied on secondary institutions to extend democratic equality: public schools, trade unions, political parties, religious organizations and, among others, philanthropy. These “equalizing institutions” help create a common social fabric as well as additional opportunity pathways for those without social advantages. The extent to which philanthropic foundations have given a broader cross section of the public access to areas and opportunities once the exclusive preserve of elites—such as higher education, the arts, or specialized training—has been part of this equalizing stratum. This wholehearted embrace of a racial equity grant-making standard speaks loudly to others in this sector about what they can do to help our democracy achieve its full potential and substance”.

Keith could not have put it better. I am eager to hear the thoughts of others on Kellogg’s big bet, the work of the Aspen Roundtable on Community Change and the combination of research and action that is required.

—Jane Wales

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“Liberia is not a poor country. It is a country that has been managed poorly,” according Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Liberia’s president and Africa’s first female head of state.

Poverty is both a cause and a consequence of violent conflict, which decimates economies, destroys infrastructure, and undermines a state’s capacity to meet basic needs. Yet Sierra Leone and Rwanda have each demonstrated that with the right policies and the right partners, countries can emerge from conflict and achieve positive economic results for their publics. Liberia can be a third example—and wealthy countries, far-sighted investors, and strategic philanthropists alike are betting on the policies of its reform-minded leader.

Undaunted by the problems inherited from 14 years of civil war, Sirleaf’s government undertook a highly inclusive public process to develop its Poverty Reduction Strategy (PRS). It encompasses policies aimed at integrating former combatants, promoting reconciliation, combating corruption, welcoming investment, and encouraging the growth of civil society. It is a blueprint that has persuaded wealthy countries to provide much-needed debt relief and both private philanthropists and investors to work in close coordination with one another—and with a government they feel they can trust.

I write from Liberia, where I am traveling with 19 philanthropists committed to Liberia’s success. The origins of this trip lie in a 2008 Clinton Global Initiative “commitment” undertaken by Pam Omidyar’s Humanity United, the Global Philanthropy Forum (GPF), the Open Society Institute, the Daphne Foundation, the NoVo Foundation, the McCall-MacBain Foundation, TrustAfrica, and the government of Liberia.

As part of the commitment, the grant-making foundations stepped forward to finance the establishment of a Philanthropy Secretariat within President Sirleaf’s offices, with the mandate to coordinate their investments so as to best support Liberia’s reform agenda. For our part, at the GPF, we agreed to expand the number of “new philanthropists” alert to Liberia’s potential and to test and refine this extraordinary model of partnership between a post-crisis government and a consortium of private donors and investors.

Ultimately, our hope is to be able to demonstrate—to our satisfaction and to other donors seeking to engage—that this model of highly disciplined and collaborative philanthropic engagement can be adapted and made portable to other post-crisis situations. Many of the GPF members who joined the trip are also leaders of The Philanthropy Workshop West or members of the Aspen Institute Society of Fellows. They are strategic philanthropists, discerning, intent on impact—and deeply respectful of local voices.

They recognize that many of the prescriptions contained in Liberia’s poverty reduction strategy would apply to most post-crisis states. At the same time, they are cognizant that Liberia’s history is unique.  Founded by freed American slaves in 1847, it became the first independent republic in Africa. It established a constitution that met the needs of those settlers, but excluded indigenous peoples. The inequities inherent in that formula helped lead to political instability and ultimately a brutal civil war, during which the GDP of the country dropped 90%, poverty rates rose 64%, the physical infrastructure was decimated, the management class was dispersed, 270,000 died, and many hundreds of thousands were displaced. Its young population, 75% of whom are under age 25, has spent more time in battle than in school.

As a group, we will explore whether and how private actors can contribute to the public goals that are designed not only to reverse the damage done, but to build a new Liberia that can be a model for others emerging from crisis.

In particular, we will report to you—and gain your views—on four hurdles ahead: improving security, promoting public health, rehabilitating infrastructure, and strengthening government capacity.

As we report out to you on the status of each of these areas, we will be eager to hear your views on the role that private actors can play and how they can best work in partnership with each other and with Liberia’s government. Barack Obama has often said that government alone cannot solve all of our country’s problems. If this is true for us, it can be no less true for Liberia, where philanthropy and investment have a significant role to play.

– Jane Wales

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On January 19th the Council was fortunate to host H.E. Zhou Wenzhong, Ambassador of the People’s Republic of China. The Ambassador expressed his optimism about current US-China relations and noted that both nations have much in common but should respect and accommodate each others’ core interests. Ambassador Zhou took a number of questions from the audience on a range of topics, including the issue of Google’s potential withdrawal from China, US perceptions of the People’s Republic and the importance of student exchanges.

To listen to the entire program with Ambassador Zhou, visit our online audio archive. To read about China’s recent warning to the US on account of President Obama’s scheduled meeting with the Dalai Lama, visit The New York Times.

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While his new book, Stripping Bare the Body: Politics, Violence, War discusses three different conflicts, Mark Danner focused his remarks on the “War on Terror” at the Council last Thursday. Danner described the torture of detainees at Guantanamo Bay, specifically that of Abu Zubaydah, the first of the “high-value detainees” to face interrogation and torture under the post-9/11 directives. The information was recorded by the International Committee of the Red Cross in a classified report that was leaked to Danner in 2008, and later published by him on the New York Review of Books’ website.  Danner urged all in attendance to read it to be better informed about these post-9/11 tactics sanctioned by the Bush administration. Danner does applaud the Obama administration’s reversal of numerous interrogation and detention procedures, especially the decision to close Guantanamo. Looking to the future, Danner is concerned about the current situation in Afghanistan, but is optimistic that Obama’s patience and unwillingness to be bullied will lead the president to make the right decision about Afghanistan when he’s ready.

To hear the entire program with Mark Danner, please visit our online audio archive. Read more about President Obama’s Afghanistan decision in an article from today’s New York Times.

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Robert Musil, author of Hope for a Heated Planet and Senior Fellow at American University’s Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies, joined the Council Tuesday night to present strategies for combating climate change. Musil said he prefers to be an optimistic environmentalist, rather than  emphasize  “gloom and doom” like so much of what’s found in today’s media. He acknowledged many problems that the world is facing, such as the spread of malaria and the rise of sea-levels, but spent the majority of his time focusing on positive solutions, like the increasing global investment in alternative energy and the changes the Obama administration is making in environmental policy. Musil also discussed the current Boxer-Kerry “cap and trade” bill that is making its way through the Senate and he encouraged the audience to write Senator Boxer to ask her to keep plans for new nuclear plants out of the bill. However, of all the solutions Musil has for fighting climate change, his biggest is getting the general public involved. He cited numerous groups all across the political spectrum that are doing good things for the environment and said the only way we can slow global warming is to become involved ourselves.

To listen to the full program with Robert Musil, please visit our complete online archive here. If you would like to get involved with a group taking action against climate change, check out these organizations mentioned by Musil: 350.org, Earth Day Network, Power Shift, Interfaith Power and Light Campaign, and Save Our Evironment.

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Washington Post Associate Editor and Chief Foreign Correspondent Jim Hoagland joined the North American Forum again this year as a participant.  One of his most recent columns draws from this year’s discussions at the Forum in Ottawa and advises President Obama to work with Canada and Mexico to form a “more perfect economic union to deal with a lingering international financial crisis that drains the U.S. dollar of value and credibility and that fuels rising unemployment.”

Read the full piece here.

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