Citizens of Nowhere

A stateless Arab, known as Bidoons, holding a portrait of Kuwait's Emir Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah, protests to demand citizenship and other rights in the city of Jahra, 50 kms (31 miles) northwest of Kuwait City, on December 23, 2011.

No nationality, no citizenship, no rights.

That may sound like a signposting outside your local convenience store, but it’s actually a frustrating real-life limbo for millions of people worldwide.

The causes of statelessness vary from simple administrative errors like failing to register a baby’s birth to legal disputes between countries. Sometimes states cease to exist altogether, leaving citizens in search of new homes. And all too often, statelessness is used as a weapon against ethnic groups, with nations persecuting populations they’d prefer to see leave by simply denying their existence.

Men protesting with signs during the day

Stateless Arabic people, known as bidoon, take part in a protest in Jahra, Kuwait, to demand citizenship and other basic rights.

Source Yasser El-Zayyat/Getty

Whatever the cause, the predicament is rarely temporary — thousands have been stateless for more than a decade.

For many Bedoun people, their name is a constant reminder and reflection of their homelessness. Bedoun, a corruption of the word ”Bedouin,” means “without,” and more than 100,000 of them in Kuwait are living without a nationality, despite the fact they comprise nearly 10 percent of the country’s population.


“Being stateless is like having your life stopped before it even starts,” says Mohamed Albadry Alenezi, a Bedoun from Kuwait, who lived without a nationality for 40 years. “Nobody deserves that.” 


Number of people in millions around the globe who are without a nationality — even though Article 15 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights says everyone has the right to one.

Nearly 12 million people around the globe are without a nationality  And while it may not seem like such a massive burden, living without a nationality means no citizenship, no protections and no legality. Stateless people can’t even enjoy simple things like driving legally or accessing health care because they lack the proper paperwork.

Other examples of affected communities include Palestinians, nearly 4 million of whom technically have no citizenship; 90,000 Sahrawi, inhabitants of Western Sahara, living as refugees in Algeria; Kurds living in Syria; Nubians in Kenya; 22,000 Roma in the Balkans and 15,000 more living illegally in Italy; as well as the Rohingya Muslim minority in Burma. And there are many more.

Defining statelessness: Defined by the 1954 U.N. Convention as “a person who is not considered as a national by any State under the operation of its law,” but few of the signatories have mechanisms in place to help stateless people establish nationalities.

The U.N. has been pushing in recent years for countries to adopt the mechanisms needed to aid their stateless, and thanks to the global push, a number of states are beginning to address the issue.

A large group of people in colorful clothing in a crowded room

Overpopulation and population density are two primary problems in the refugee camps. 

So far Asia has made the most significant progress. In 2006, Iraq gave nationality to more than 100,000 Feili Kurds and, a year later, Bangladesh recognized 300,000 Biharis, the Urdu-speaking minority, as citizens. Kyrgyzstan also passed a new citizenship law in 2009, giving nationality to 50,000 former citizens of the USSR.

The world needs the collaboration of developed countries to solve the problem on a bigger scale, particularly with asylum seekers who often fall through the cracks and end up in legal limbo for years. To this end, the U.K. approved a groundbreaking law last year, giving stateless migrants a path to citizenship by allowing them the right to remain in the U.K. and, if they wish, eventually to naturalize.

The positive momentum, coupled with the 60th anniversary of the 1954 Convention, has prompted the U.N. Refugee Agency to launch a global campaign to eradicate statelessness once and for all — a goal that should strike home with everyone.

The Making of Madeline

Screengrab from "Madeline" cartoon

Video by Melanie Ruiz.

One of fiction’s youngest heroines turns 75 this year. The mischievous girl, Madeline, with her blue dress, yellow hat and devil-may-care ways, remains one of the most beloved characters in children’s literature. But before Madeline came to live in “an old house in Paris that was covered with vines” — and in the minds of millions of children across the world — she was the offspring of her equally feisty creator, Ludwig Bemelmans, and a bizarre mishap that sent the Austrian-born American writer, like his most famous character, to a French hospital in need of urgent care.

Like Madeline, young Ludwig was a boarding school misfit who inhabited a richly textured but rather parentless world. When his Belgian father left his German mother when Ludwig was a boy, the diminutive lad was sent to live with a wealthy uncle who owned a chain of luxury hotels in Austria.

“Unruly, impertinent, never serious [and] always late,” according to one biographer, Bemelmans was kicked out of several boarding schools and fired from a string of hotel jobs. Finally, in 1914 at the age of 16, he was shipped off to America where he became a busboy at the Hotel Astor in New York.

Like Madeline, what the adventuresome Bemelmans excelled at most was getting into some rather unexpected binds.

After serving as a lieutenant for his adopted country in World War I, Bemelmans would go on to an eclectic career in New York and Paris as a restaurateur, artist and writer, designing covers for The New Yorker and writing articles for Vogue and Town & Country and even penning film scripts for MGM. But, like Madeline, what the adventuresome Bemelmans excelled at most was getting into some rather unexpected binds.

screenshot of

Ludwig Bemelmans at his drawing board.

Source Walter Sanders / Time Life Pictures / Getty

Once during the 1930s, Bemelmans and his wife stopped at a beer garden in Berchtesgaden, Germany, that had a view of Hitler’s mountaintop retreat, the “Eagle’s Nest.” A live broadcast from the Nazi leader happened to come on the radio, prompting fellow diners to fall silent and turn deferentially toward the mountain out the window.

To the great horror of everyone present, Bemelmans — saying “Pooh-pooh to the tiger in the zoo” — placed a cigar stub on his top lip and offered up a mock Nazi salute as well as his best impression of the Führer’s halting speech pattern. The petulant artist was hastily hauled off to jail and charged as a subversive. Perhaps “afraid of disaster,” an American vice consul would get there “fast and faster” to secure Bemelmans’s release and shepherd him Miss Clavel–style back to safety in New York.

But the incident that would convert Bemelmans from just another free-spirited artist into an eternally beloved author took place once again on the other side of the Atlantic.

While holidaying on the small Île d’Yeu, just off the coast of western France, he was merrily riding a bicycle down the wrong side of the road — his hands in his pockets and a sack of six lobsters over his shoulder — when he was struck by the only vehicle on the island, a baker’s delivery truck.

At a nearby hospital, Bemelmans was placed in a narrow bed, and the scenes he witnessed around him would one day change from merely odd to iconic.

As he would later recall, “The sisters in that small hospital wore large, starched white hats that looked like the wings of a giant butterfly. In the room next to mine was a little girl who had had her appendix out. In the ceiling over my bed was a crack ‘that had the habit of sometimes looking like a rabbit.’ ”

After he had recovered from his injuries and was back in Manhattan, Bemelmans sketched out the story of the first Madeline book on the backs of menus at Pete’s Tavern on East 18th Street. The beautifully illustrated tale — set in Paris and just over 400 words — was a Caldecott Honor Book in 1940, and his six Madeline books would go on to sell 13 million copies worldwide.

Bemelmans would not reap much financial reward from his creation during his lifetime, and despite consorting with the likes of Greta Garbo and Aristotle Onassis, he struggled to keep what money he had, often roaming from place to place, exchanging his art for hospitality. He painted the stunning murals at the eponymous Bemelmans Bar in the Carlyle Hotel in New York, for example, in exchange for 18 months room and board.

Nor did Bemelmans make any real plans for his retirement or death, choosing instead to put his trust in fate and his work, and informing his wife, “Madeline will be our Social Security.” And a year before his death from pancreatic cancer in 1962, he penned a letter to his daughter, asking her to “frame and hang in your bathroom” not one of his classic illustrations but the following piece of wisdom:

1. Sell when things go well

2. Buy when people cry

3. Always be protected / Stop-loss the unexpected

Not bad for investment advice but a somewhat ironic prescription from a free spirit who spent his life courting the unexpected and relying on others for protection. Perhaps what Bemelmans discovered through his adventures — and embodied in his alter ego, Madeline — was the perfect hedge for life’s unexpected outcomes: to embrace fate’s surprising turns with grit, if not outright enthusiasm. (“Tell them it was wonderful” went his proposed epitaph.)

After all, if, like Madeline, you are “not afraid of mice” and love “winter, snow and ice,” then there’s not much that the world can do to get you down. And should disaster strike, the “biggest surprise by far” will simply be a scar — that you can show off to your many admirers.

“That’s all there is, there isn’t any more.”

Ski, Shoot, Party: Biathlon Brings the Boom

SOCHI, RUSSIA - FEBRUARY 10: Ondrej Moravec of Czech Republic practises in the Men's 12.5 km Pursuit during day three of the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics at Laura Cross-country Ski & Biathlon Center on February 10, 2014 in Sochi, Russia.

Two cross-country skiers haul themselves over a hill. They’ve traveled more than 6 miles to reach this point, shedding a couple of pints of sweat in the cold. They breathe deeply as they glide in front of the stadium seating, where thousands of fans wave flags and cheer.

They aim. They take one more breath before steadying the rifles. A shot rings out …

The skiers’ faces show a taut display of exhaustion as they pull rifles from their backs and look at small banners to gauge the wind. The crowd falls silent. Olympic medals rest on what each skier can do with these next five pulls of the trigger.

They aim. They take one more breath before steadying the rifles. A shot rings out …

SOCHI, RUSSIA - FEBRUARY 10: Ondrej Moravec of Czech Republic practises in the Men's 12.5 km Pursuit during day three of the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics at Laura Cross-country Ski & Biathlon Center on February 10, 2014 in Sochi, Russia.

Ondrej Moravec of the Czech Republic practices in the men’s 12.5 km pursuit at the Sochi Games.

Source Harry How/Getty

At home, you’re gathering your breath as well. You’ve learned to follow the little graphics showing how many shots have been made or missed, and you’re leaning into your laptop to see whether the French guy you just met or the wily old Norwegian will take the gold. You’re glad you heeded the advice of a fellow Olympics viewer who told you to skip whatever’s on TV at the moment and seek out one of the hidden gems of the Games online.

Welcome to biathlon.

The sport combining cross-country skiing and shooting is quite popular in Europe, commanding big-money TV deals. In the United States, the only regular option for viewing is through the International Biathlon Union’s site, which supplies a clean feed with no commentary.

And even with NBC devoting up to five channels to Sochi 2014 coverage, you’re not likely to stumble into biathlon until the women’s relay on Feb. 21.

That’s a pity, because the best way to get hooked on biathlon isn’t through a simple 30-second highlight reel. It’s not an action sport. It’s a drama that plays out through grueling laps around a cross-country skiing course and the battle to steady one’s hands to knock down five targets.

Each biathlon event has a slightly different format; the Sochi site explains them all. The individual and sprint races are time trials, with athletes taking off one at a time and trying to post a fast time. The other events (pursuit, relay, mass start) are simpler to follow — first across the line wins, and it can go down to the wire.

But in each event, the object is the same. Ski fast, and then try to hold a rifle steady enough to knock down five targets. Each miss incurs a penalty of added time or added distance.

It’s great TV drama. Broadcasters long ago figured out visual cues to help even a newbie viewer determine how the targets are falling. Close-ups on the skiers can show viewers how much a skier is struggling.

But the live audience adds a lot of color. It’s not a trash-talking crowd, but it has the festive feel of a college football or basketball game. As one Swiss fan put it during the 2010 Olympics, “The German people make very party.” 

To make very party at home in the U.S., you’ll need to get online in the midmorning hours. Party on, Ole Einar. Party on, Tim.

When Nice Guys Finish First

A delicate plant inside a light bulb-nature conservation concept

This OZY encore was originally published Feb. 10, 2014. Last month, Etsy announced plans to issue an initial public offering— making it splashiest B-Corp yet to to go public. It’ll trade on the Nasdaq as ETSY. 

We have a complicated relationship with big business. Corporations are bulwarks of our economy and often admired. But in popular narratives, bigger is rarely better. Corporate behemoths are cast as the bad guys, the Goliaths who trample the mom-and-pops and humble corner stores. The little guy gets our love and little else.

Delaware’s courts used their influence to declare, over and over, that a corporation’s sacred duty is to maximize profit…

But in recent years, the B Corp — short for benefit corporation — has begun to frame a different story. And antiseptic as the phrase “corporate structure” may sound, this one could well upend how we think about corporations and how corporations think about us. Over the past few years, some 20 states, including the District of Columbia, have enacted legislation that allows companies to register as benefit corporations. Some 16 more states are considering it. But the real watershed came this past summer, when Delaware got on the B-Corp bus too.

Corporations could be good, or they could grow, but they couldn’t do both.

That’s not just because Delaware is the legal home to most venture-backed operations, half of public corporations and two-thirds of Fortune 500 companies. It’s also because the state has outsize influence in corporate law matters. Historically, Delaware’s courts have used their influence to declare, over and over, that a corporation’s sacred duty is to maximize profit for its shareholders — everyone else, including workers and customers, be damned. If a corporation deliberately took a hit to profits, no matter how noble the cause, shareholders could sue.

Woman with eyeglasses smiling sitting on ground

Jen is a member of the Artisans Gallery Etsy team.

Source Warby Parker

Enter the benefit corporation, whose structure would let corporations have their cake and eat it too. Delaware’s legislation, for instance, protects corporations from suits by profit-mad shareholders. Indeed, shareholders with at least 2 percent of shares can sue the corporation for failing to optimize its social mission.That bedrock principle of corporate law was a turnoff for companies like Etsy, Warby Parker, Seventh Generation and other social enterprises. It all but mandated a trade-off between issuing the public shares often needed to scale, on the one hand, and staying true to mission, on the other. In other words, corporations could be good, or they could grow, but they couldn’t do both.

About 500 companies have become registered benefit corporations, according to nonprofit B-Labs, which helped pioneer and spread the structure. And as more companies sign on, the B Corp movement has the potential to subvert an entire century of corporate law.

As more companies sign on, the B Corp movement has the potential to subvert an entire century of corporate law.

All of which makes us wonder: Which sexy B Corp will be first to go public? Some have speculated that Etsy will sell public shares this year. The company is certainly growing fast. Sales on Etsy rose from $525 million in 2011 to $1.35 billion in 2013, it says. And it’s poised for more: In November 2013, it announced a rule that would allow users to sell products manufactured by other firms, which will help users scale. 

Etsy declined to comment on whether it is planning an IPO, but “if we end up going public one day, I’m hopeful we’ll be able to do it in ways that keep with our values,” says Matt Stinchcomb, VP of values & impact.

Another possibility: Warby Parker, industry disruptor and scourge of opticians across America. Amped by a huge injection of capital around Christmas, the Certified B Corp is slated for even faster growth than it’s thus far experienced, but its founders are cagey about the prospect of selling or going public.

It probably won’t be Patagonia, the outdoor apparel maker. Patagonia became California’s first benefit corporation two years ago. But its founder, Yvon Chouinard, seems outright anti-IPO — chastened, perhaps, by a period of overexpansion and leverage in the 1980s — and very into personal control besides. (The 75-year-old owns the company in full.)

But here’s something many industry observers forget: Many of the 900 companies trumpeted as “Certified B Corps” are not, in fact, registered benefit corporations. The certification comes from B-Labs, the independent nonprofit and advocate. (It’s also in the certification business, like Fair Trade or LEEDS.) Certification carries some legal requirements — companies can either register as benefit corporations or amend their charters to take into account stakeholder interests — but they don’t have the teeth of state law.  

The charter amendment required for certification, for instance, would probably not give shareholders a right to sue if the corporation fails to uphold its social mission. And it probably would not protect corporations against suits from profit-hungry shareholders.

Etsy is a case in point. It’s a Certified B Corp, and on its last B-Lab audit, it scored very high. But Etsy is not registered as a benefit corporation but as a Delaware C Corp. (It incorporated eight years before Delaware enacted its statute.) Becoming a registered benefit corporation would be difficult, says Etsy’s Stitchcomb, because it would require 90 percent of its shareholders, who now number in the hundreds, to agree. “It’s a bit of an uphill battle to do it [amend its form] after the fact,” he says. “But we’re really supportive of it, and if it had existed when we incorporated, we definitely would have done it.”

But if Etsy does go public without becoming a registered benefit corporation, how will it stay true to its social mission? What will protect it from profit-hungry investors? Or help shareholders enforce its social mission? 

Unclear. For now, Stichcomb hopes that Etsy’s trove of documents and practices will signal to potential investors what to expect. “If we do one day go public, we hope there is enough evidence and collateral out there that every potential investor would know that this is what Etsy is about,” he says. 

That a company’s articulated values would discourage investors who care only about profit, instead of “people” and “the planet,” too—well, it’s a nice idea. Whether it holds in practice is a different story. We suspect that story will start soon.

The Nigerian Buck Stops Here

NGOZI Okonjo-Iweala, Minister of Finance of Niger at a Summit for a new model of economic partnership between Africa and France, 4/12/13.

Poor, corrupt and hopeless — that’s how Nigeria looked just 10 years ago, but now it’s Africa’s second-largest economy, and its future is increasingly promising.

Africa’s most-populous nation is growing twice as fast as its continental rival, South Africa, and holds nearly as much in foreign reserves, around $50 billion. Nigeria’s GDP may be smaller — $292 billion to South Africa’s $354 billion — but it is expected to catch up soon. The country’s GDP per capita also doubled from $1,400 in 2000 to an estimated $2,800 in 2012. 

Africans have to start looking after themselves and working and trading with each other.

– Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala

The secret weapon behind Nigeria’s economic renaissance? Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala: the minister of finance and economy since 2011, who has led landmark reforms to combat corruption, reduce foreign debt and attract investment. 

With a bachelor’s degree from Harvard and a Ph.D in regional economic development from MIT, Okonjo-Iweala spent 12 years at the World Bank, including five as managing director. In 2012, she narrowly lost an election to Jim Yong Kim to become the institution’s next president, despite winning the support of the Financial Times and Newsweek, which declared that if the competition “were a normal process, Jim Yong Kim wouldn’t stand a chance.”Impressive CV aside, what makes this 59-year-old exceptional is her character. An optimist by nature and a realist by trade, Okonjo-Iweala is determined to change the world’s perception of Nigeria — and Nigerians’ perceptions of themselves.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (L) talks with Nigerian Finance Minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala at the Presidential Villa in Abuja August 9, 2012. Clinton arrived in Africa's most populous nation on Thursday offering to help Nigerian President Goodlu

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton talks with Nigerian Finance Minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala in 2012.

Source Jacquelyn Martin/Corbis

“We are fed a diet of negativity about ourselves these days, and we must not allow that to stand,” she claims. “Africans have to start looking after themselves and working and trading with each other,” she adds.

An advocate of economic liberalism, Okonjo-Iweala is a booster for privatization and cutting governmental spending. And as one of just a few female finance ministers in the world, she considers her gender an advantage. “Being a woman makes you able to deal with a lot of things — and still keep sane,” she told The Guardian in a 2005 interview. “I think women have less ego. If someone’s saying things to make me feel bad, I don’t care as long as I get the job done.”

And getting the job done as the mother of four, she is quick to draw parallels between economic management and parenting: “If your child has been doing bad things and they come to you and say, ‘Mother, I want to change, please help me,’ would you say, ‘No. You’re hopeless. You can’t change?’”

There are many roadblocks on Nigeria’s path to prosperity, and Okonjo-Iweala aims to eliminate them one by one.

Okonjo-Iweala believes in Nigeria’s potential for change. “It’s a country of spirit, entrepreneurship, drive of creativity, and I want all Nigerian people to know it’s a country that we can be proud of,” she says.

But there are many roadblocks on Nigeria’s path to prosperity — debt, corruption and oil dependency — and Okonjo-Iweala intends to eliminate them one by one.

She took her first major step in 2005 with an initiative that convinced the Paris Club of Creditors to cancel $18 billion (60 percent) of Nigeria’s external debt. Her vigorous campaign, which focused on investing Nigeria’s savings towards reaching the country’s Millennium Development Goals, convinced lenders to forgive most of the debt in exchange for paying off the remaining 40 percent with a portion of the nation’s energy revenues.

Next? Attract foreign investment — but to do so, Okonjo-Iweala needed to improve Nigeria’s business reputation by tackling its endemic corruption. She introduced the Advance Fee Fraud and Other Fraud Related Offences Act in 2006 and implemented new transparency practices such as publishing states’ budgets in the press.

Okonjo-Iweala also volunteered information to the Transparency International Group, a watchdog that had called Nigeria “the most corrupt place on Earth” in 2003 but now applauds efforts that have recovered $33 million to Nigeria’s coffers and locked up corrupt officials such as James Ibori, a governor who embezzled $79 million. And in May 2011, the ministry drafted tougher money-laundering policies and freedom of information legislation that allows citizens to access public records so they can hold officials and institutions accountable. 

“Does it mean the problem is over?” Okonjo-Iweala asked in her TED Talk. “The answer is no. There’s still a long way to go, but that there’s a will there. And those successes are being chalked up on this very important fight.”

The minister’s next challenge was convincing western nations to invest, reforming Nigeria’s economy to make it more hospitable to foreign business and less dependent on oil. So far the country has managed to attract foreign investors in not only energy but also banking and telecoms. In 2012 alone, Nigeria received a net inflow of $85.73 billion in foreign direct investment, much of which came from Nigerians living abroad, mainly in Europe. 

Occupy Nigeria Protesters with placards. -- Nigerians come out to protest against the removal of Fuel Subsidy by the President. Abuja, Nigeria. 6th January 2012

Occupy Nigeria Protesters against the removal of the fuel subsidy in 2012. 

Source Blazeotokpa/Corbis

Yet she has also faced criticism, mostly for failing to use the country’s oil income to ease the poverty that affects 60 percent of the population. Despite a decade of 7 percent economic growth, poverty in Nigeria has worsened. Many citizens were similarly outraged by Okonjo-Iweala’s $240,000 salary, considerably higher than the $6,000 base ministerial salary, which she defends by insisting it is temporary, with the extra cost coming from a government-organized and donor-supported Diaspora Fund.Okonjo-Iweala’s efficiency has won admiration in the West. Time magazine called her “one of the world’s heroes”; Forbes named her one of the world’s most powerful women; and former U.K. Prime Minister Gordon Brown hailed her ”a brilliant reformer.”

Okonjo-Iweala’s 2011 decision to remove a popular oil subsidy also cost her support, especially among the poorest citizens who perceive cheap fuel as the only benefit they receive from the government. Gas prices doubled and widespread disapproval led to the “Occupy Nigeria” protests in January 2012.

Her opposition also regularly accuses her of promoting the interests of Western finance ahead of Nigeria. Many blame Okonjo-Iweala’s policies for reducing funding to agriculture, a sector that still accounts for two-thirds of Nigerian jobs, in favor of sectors more attractive to foreigners such as telecommunications.

“I don’t think she is doing anything wrong,” counters Yet Zainab Usman, an expert in Nigerian economics at Oxford University. ”The problem is structural. It is crucial to grow the economy, but the industries that are driving growth — mostly oil but also banking and telecoms — are not job-generating ones. They require very skilled labor, and in a country with 70 percent illiteracy, this gap will inevitably take time to close.”

Okonjo-Iweala is determined to make Nigeria one of the world’s top 20 economies by 2020. Many in her country aren’t so optimistic, but it is her grit and belief in what’s possible that have already turned Nigeria into an example for other developing nations and a partner for wealthier countries. 

“If you really want to be in Africa, think about investing,” she urges developed nations. “Because those who miss the boat now will miss it forever.”

The Anti-Soviet Poet

BW image of Natalya facing forward looking at camera in glasses

From Pussy Riot’s ”Punk Prayer” to performance artist Pyotr Pavlensky’s scrotum nailing , we’ve had more than a few tell-tale signs that Russian authorities are not comfortable blurring the lines between art and political activism. But these examples are just the latest in a tradition that began long ago.

In 1968, Russian tanks triumphantly rolled through the streets of Prague, and the western world cringed as the USSR’s authoritarian hand swept away the buds of Czecholoslovakia’s Prague Spring .

We were no heroes. We just found the force, at a particular time, to act according to our conscience.

In Moscow’s Red Square , eight people gathered to protest the invasion, and among them, holding her 3-month-old baby, was a writer named Natalia Gorbanévskaya.

Protesting was daring enough, but when she unrolled a banner that read “For your freedom and ours,” she expressed her solidarity with Prague’s citizens and became an international symbol of the fight for freedom under Soviet rule.

Seven of the protesters were arrested, beaten and put on trial, but Gorbanévskaya escaped detainment as a mother of two young boys. This wouldn’t be her last brush with Soviet authorities, though, because rather than keep her head down, she reported on the proceedings and continued campaigning for her friends.


Gorbanévskaya was expelled from university for her political activism, but she found refuge from the suffocating Soviet environment by using her words to tell the story of a generation torn between their inner ideals of freedom and their reality of repression.

To denounce the state’s system of institutionalized fear, she co-founded and wrote for the Chronicle of Current Events , a clandestine publication dedicated to human rights. Her articles got her arrested in 1969.

Soviet authorities diagnosed Gorbanévskaya with “continuous sluggish schizophrenia” after her arrest, confining her to a prison’s psychiatric hospital for three years. She refused to talk about the abuse she endured, choosing instead to exorcise her demons through poetry:

It’s good when the breathing in the next room

is my sons’ and not a cell-mate’s;

it’s good to wake up, not groaning

at an envenomed reality.

Institutionalizing Gorbanévskaya did little to stifle her message; if anything, it propelled her story into the international consciousness. Her book about the demonstration and trial was published in the West as Red Square at Noon , and she was immortalized in Joan Baez’s ” Natalia .” 

BW image of Natalya facing towards left of frame in glasses

Source Roger Viollet/Getty

“I am convinced that if you and I are still alive and can walk the earth, it’s because of people like Natalia Gorbanévskaya,” the folk singer said.

Three years after her release from the hospital, death threats forced her out of Russia to Paris, where she continued her work as a poet, journalist and rights activist until she died in November at age 77.  Just before her death, she visited Russia to mark the 45th anniversary of her fateful demonstration and stood once again in Moscow’s Red Square. Unbelievably, history repeated itself when Russian authorities broke up the protest and detained 10 of the activists for holding an unsanctioned rally. As before, she was excluded from detainment.

I am convinced that if you and I are still alive and can walk the earth it’s because of people like Natalia Gorbanévskaya.

Russia’s authoritarian attitudes toward artistic protest are what continue to make Gorbanévskaya relevant today. Nadejda Atayeva, president of the Association for Human Rights in Central Asia, remembers Gorbanévskaya as a source of inspiration. “She was a person of principle who knew how to defend a position,” she said, adding, ”She passed her confidence on to us.”

Likewise, Alexander Cherkasov, the prominent human rights campaigner for Chechnya and chair of the “Memorial” Human Rights Center, remembers her as “a wonderful person” and explains that “back then, as even perhaps in part now, opposition to the regime was aesthetic in style. It was poets and artists who protested even before the emergence of a human rights movement.”

Above all, Gorbanévskaya saw her activism as a way of speaking truth to power. 

She passed her confidence on to us.

“One must begin by postulating that truth is needed for its own sake and no other reason,” she wrote.

In exchange for that truth, she was arrested, tortured and forced into exile. But her efforts weren’t in vain. Her courage brought hope to others and made way for the establishment, in 1972, of the Index on Censorship , an organization that promotes freedom of expression worldwide (it launched its first publication with a series of Gorbanévskaya’s poems). 

When asked if she saw herself first as a poet or as a protester, Gorbanévskaya replied, “I am who I am.”

Who she was is an example of remarkable courage, and her legacy lives in her fellow artists who continue her fight for truth.

Shubhendu Sharma, Urban Forest Guru

Shubhendu in a sea of forest standing to the right facing and looking into the camera

Shubhendu Sharma doesn’t think people should need to drive for miles to the mountains or countryside to connect with nature — or even leave home, period.

“Cities should be so full of forests that no empty space should be wasted,” said 28-year-old Sharma from his home in Bangalore, India. “Rather than people going to the supermarket to get fruit, they should be able to directly pluck it from a tree.”  

The Thoreauvian vision sounds odd coming from an industrial engineer. But Sharma believes that industry and ecology can co-exist — and in a world where 36 football fields’ worth of forest are destroyed every minute, they simply must.

 Afforestt’s method could yield forests that would normally take 100 years to grow in just a decade.

So Sharma quit an engineer’s dream job at Toyota in 2011 and launched Afforestt, a Bangalore-based company that uses a scientifically tested method to grow dense urban forests in just two years. In fact, Afforest’s method could yield forests that would normally take 100 years to grow in just a decade. What’s more, they can thrive in even the most crowded cities; Afforestt claims it can grow 300 trees in an area as small as six parking spaces. Their leaves filter pollution, while their roots absorb water from sinks, showers and washing machines, which would otherwise go to waste down a storm drain.

So far, Afforestt has planted 31 forests for residences, schools, businesses and hospital campuses throughout India. The company charges clients for each square foot of forest. Sharma decided to make Afforestt for-profit from the get-go. “Social entrepreneurship is overhyped,” said the 2014 TED fellow. Instead, he wants to make afforestation — the transformation of bare land into forest — a full-fledged industry that “should be taken as seriously as building roads and making software.”

Shabhendu in middle of forest on right side of frame

Fast-Growing Forest in Your Backyard

Source OpenMagazine

But some experts argue that Afforestt’s method has its drawbacks. Densely planting trees might actually stunt their development, and without careful planning, it can also disturb the existing ecosystem in surrounding areas. And although Afforestt’s method can theoretically achieve 100 year’s worth of growth in 10, the company has seven more years to go before it can back up its claims with data. 

In the face of such skepticism, Sharma meditates on a Sanskrit saying: vasudhaiva kutumbakam, or “the whole Earth is a single family,” a reminder of how humans and trees depend on each other to survive. It’s a primal connection he sees when locals help plant his forests — like the two-year-old girl lowering a sapling into the soil, followed by a 92-year-old woman, who murmured a prayer as she did so. “The sheer realization that what you do caters to everyone from two to 92 is the biggest satisfaction,” Sharma said. “We don’t even teach them [how to plant a tree]. It’s as if they have this instinct.”

With a boyish earnestness — and a tidy sidepart to match — Sharma laughed as he recalled having zero interest in trees or gardening growing up. Instead, he gravitated to carpentry. In high school, he built a machine that won an award from India’s Ministry of Higher Education.

Then he scored an industrial engineer’s dream job at a Toyota plant in Bangalore — where a PowerPoint presentation changed his life. In 2008, Japanese botanist Akira Miyawaki spoke to Toyota employees about his afforestation method, which involves densely planting a variety of native tree species to create lush, fast-growing forests. So far, his technique has regenerated rainforests from Thailand to the Amazon, something once thought to be impossible.

People planting plants on soil outdoors surrounded by gated fence

Afforestt works its magic on the premises of a Karnata State Police Department building.

Source Afforest

I realized that this is something which has to be done all over India,” Sharma said. The country has lost nearly 385 square miles of forest in two years. “This [deforestation] can’t go on forever.”

Then came a tougher realization: “I knew this was something I wanted to do the rest of my life,” he said. But he also knew how disappointed he’d make his parents if he abandoned a brilliant engineering career to plant trees for a living. When he tried to broach the topic, they would hear none of it. Still, he was so intrigued by Miyawaki’s method that he decided to test it in his own backyard. Sure enough, he transformed his barren plot into a grove of 300 trees as tall as his house in just two years.



Social entrepreneurship is overhyped.

— Shubhendu Sharma

After proving that “even a commoner” like himself could create a forest, he knew what he needed to do next; he quit his job at Toyota — without telling his parents. “When you fall in love with something, you don’t really think,” Sharma laughed. They didn’t find out until four months after he had launched the company, when he came home wearing an Afforestt uniform. Now, they’re “very supportive,” he said. “If you love what you’re doing, everyone around you will be happy.”

Sharma launched Afforestt in 2011, sans investors or donations. Dead-set on building afforestation as an industry — not just Afforestt as a business — he refused to “lie at the mercy” of another corporation’s profits. It was a high bar. But Sharma printed business cards and presented at countless conferences, a cardboard box of native tree saplings in tow. A month later, a furniture manufacturing company asked Afforestt to plant a forest for them — and the requests kept pilling up. Afforestt maintains a positive cash flow to this day.

2 People tending to soil

Afforestt’s first residential project @ Nainital, Uttaranchal.

Source Afforestt

The six-person company bases its method largely on Miyawaki’s. But Sharma also applies his engineer’s efficiency to speed up the process, designing a computer algorithm to determine what ratio and sequence to plant each tree species, for example. Ninety-two percent of his saplings survive and grow nearly two meters each year.

The Afforestt team first surveys the soil to determine which nutrients it lacks, as well the native plant species in the closest forest. Then they prepare the saplings and mix any needed nutrients into the soil. They spend the next two years watering and weeding the area, which then no longer needs maintenance.   

Yet Afforestt’s method “may not be the best solution,” argues Pedro Beja, a senior scientist at Portugal’s Research Center in Biodiversity and Genetic Resources. Planting trees too closely together might cause them to slow their development to compensate for the lack of space. And planting an abundance of native species might cause them to outcompete existing exotic species — such as those in urban parks — that help support native species already growing in the area. Plus, growing forests near grasslands has been shown to displace animals already living in these habitats. “Afforestation should not be regarded as a panacea,” Beja said.

But Sharma doesn’t waste time worrying about whether afforestation will heal the planet. Instead, he stays rooted in the teachings of a sacred Hindu text, the Bhagavad Gita. “You have to concentrate on what you do, your karma, and never think about the benefit. It will eventually come,” he said. “It’s my karma to make more and more forests.” 

Pedals to the Metal

An employee of a gas station in Caracas, Venezuela, cleans a hose on February 17, 2011.  AFP PHOTO/MIGUEL GUTIERREZ (Photo credit should read MIGUEL GUTIERREZ/AFP/Getty Images)

Are you one of those people who groans every time you see the dollar figure that flashes on the gas station screen after you’ve finished filling up your car? Or drives miles out of your way to get to the cut-price station where gas is 20 cents cheaper a gallon? Well it’s quite a commute, but there is a place where you can get gas ultra, mega cheap! In fact, it’s just:

7 cents a gallon

You just have to travel all the way to Venezuela to get it.

Venezuelan drivers, it turns out, enjoy the world’s cheapest gasoline, the beneficiaries of one of the planet’s largest oil reserves and massive government subsidies that artificially tamp down the prices of that liquid gold they use to fuel their cars. Just think, if you were in Caracas right now, you could fill up an average 17- or 18-gallon gas tank for less than the price of a Starbucks latte.


And Venezuela’s not the only OPEC country with some seriously sweet deals at the pump. According to the latest World Bank data from 2012 (which is in liters, not gallons), Libyans pay an average of just about 44 cents a gallon, the second cheapest gas in the world. Saudi Arabia comes in third at 59 cents. 

Man's hand pointing to a gas station pump

A petrol station worker points at the petrol price in Caracas on December 13, 2013.

Source Getty

Of course these and other oil-rich countries — Egypt springs most immediately to mind — are also grappling with the market-distorting effects of keeping fuel prices so low. The New York Times reported last month that Venezuela’s state-run gas monopoly is ”giving away $30 billion worth of gasoline, diesel and other fuels each year … forcing it to print money” and run huge deficits. The World Bank also shows that Venezuelans’ carbon dioxide emissions per capita are more than one metric ton higher than the average for Latin America’s developing countries — but if it costs just a couple more Venezuelan bolivars to drive and visit tu hermana 100 miles away, hey, why not?

Raising rates per gallon to even half of what, say, Americans pay, would be tremendously unpopular and politically dangerous.

Now the president, Nicolás Maduro, is mulling a gas price hike to help staunch Venezuela’s financial bleeding. But raising rates per gallon to even half of what, say, Americans pay, would be tremendously unpopular and politically dangerous. It’s the same sort of conundrum that Egypt — which ranks 12th on the World Bank’s list with $1.67-per-gallon gas — faces as it tries to right its economy. The International Monetary Fund has demanded Cairo reform its energy subsidy program, among others, in exchange for a $4 billion-plus loan. Though it desperately needs the cash, none of Egypt’s post-revolution governments have been willing to take the political hit they know would come with any rate spikes. Egypt’s current finance minister, however, told USA Today last week that the officials are now planning to gradually wean the country off energy subsidies over the next five to seven years.

Americans can also take heart knowing the pain at the pump could be much worse. The United States rates 30th in the world in terms of average gas prices — at roughly $3.60 per gallon. That probably sounds mighty good right now to someone in one of the most expensive countries for gas, like Turkey or Norway, where it costs upwards of $9.25 per gallon to fill ’er up. How do you say “ouch” in Norwegian?

Looking for the Part-Time Sheryl Sandberg

Woman in red shirt about to clock in at a green time clock on a cream colored wall

If you told me five years ago that I would leave a full-time job I loved to spend more time with my son, I would have thought you were crazy. Full-time working parenthood has always been a pillar of feminism to me, based on my own mother, whose fleeting experiment with freelancing from home was so disastrous that the family breathed a collective sigh of relief when she stopped cooking dinner and went back to the office, and the Earth was put back on its axis.

But my mom’s experience was a rare thing — a highly educated woman who went part-time and was able to return to a full-time career with few major ripples. Today, research shows that when a woman decides to leave the workforce, a short-term pullback may mean she puts herself out to pasture long term.

Research shows that when a woman decides to leave the workforce, a short-term pullback may mean she puts herself out to pasture long term.

That freaks me out. Six months ago, I quit my job as a magazine editor so I could freelance and spend more time with my son, right about the time that Lean In fever was sweeping the nation. I had read the book by Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, and admired its message that women should push for the job they want before they have kids, so that they are motivated to come back from maternity leave.

I tried hard to do the Lean In Check List. My husband is a true partner, a hands-on parent with a knack for unloading the dishwasher. At my job, I pushed for a title and responsibilities that would make me want to return. But the commute from San Francisco to the Silicon Valley was an hour-plus each way, and a month into my return, the cupboards were bare, I had hardly seen my baby, and my husband and I interacted like stressed co-workers. Part of me wanted to write Sandberg an email: “Sorry, Sheryl, I really, really tried. But Highway 101 and my son’s fat little feet are undoing me.”

So I left my job and came up with another plan: I would find the part-time Sheryl Sandberg, read her book and know just what to do.

The problem is, she doesn’t exist.

While plenty of ink has been spilled in recent years over the work-life balance, there are still no easy solutions. And according to a book by Debora L. Spar, the president of Barnard College, only 40 percent of women who eventually try to return to full-time professional work are able to do so.


Is the notion of being ambitious while working less than 40 hours a week in this country so laughable that no one has thought to champion it?

2 women at a desk looking at blueprints by a window

Source Gallery Stock

For some perspective, I turned to Mariam Naficy, the founder and CEO of Minted, the crowdsourced stationery startup that’s taking over the wedding invite/holiday card world and also hires a lot of part-time contractors during its busy cycles. As a successful tech entrepreneur who co-founded and sold her beauty site,, for $100 million, Naficy surprised me by saying she went part time after her first child was born.

“Take risks early on, so you can go a little further a little faster,” she advises. “The more of a track record you have, the more credibility you have to negotiate some flexibility when you have kids.” When the Body Shop recruited Naficy to launch their e-commerce business, she was six months pregnant. “I said, ‘Are you sure you want to hire me?’ But I got that job because they decided that having me at four days a week was better than someone else at five days a week.” 

Exactly. Evidence that “part-time employee” doesn’t have to be synonymous with “slacker.”

Europe, especially the Netherlands, has done a better job cracking the part-time code. According to a 2011 study, an astonishing 77 percent of Dutch women work part time, the highest number in the EU.

In the U.S., one big stumbling block is a reluctance to let managers work part time. I get that there are some jobs that just don’t work part time, but one of the best bosses I ever had worked four days a week, an in-early/out-early commuting mom who combined the efficiency of a German automotive engineer with the humor and writing talent of a Nora Ephron.

The truth is, we need the Sandbergs of the world beating the drum for us to shoulder our way into the boardroom and climb the corporate ladder. But we also need a standard bearer for part-time work — the kind that rewards ambition, that is creative and stimulating and doesn’t park your career until your kids are out of diapers. I have to believe it’s out there.

Because there are smart, driven women who are willing to take risks, chase down new skills, and do the thing that they are passionate about — 25 hours a week.

This piece was originally published Feb. 10, 2014, and updated as of Nov. 27, 2014.

Unhackable Text Messaging Comes to Smartphones


Ever since the great Paris Hilton T-Mobile Sidekick debacle in 2005, where her naughty bytes were exposed to the world, celebrities and civilians alike flew into a state of mobile hacker-phobia. While security remains a concern in today’s voyeuristic, information-obsessed world, companies who promise protection against data leaks have built an industry. One that feeds off the paranoia of those with too little time to dance with the latest security techniques.

The new Privatext app aims to reduce the risk of getting cyber-jacked by offering Mission Impossible-like features to mobile texting and image sharing. Users can send encrypted messages that are decoded by the recipient and, after the sender’s determined amount of time, deleted from both sides. Celebrities like Brad Delson of Linkin Park and Adam Richman from the Travel Channel’s Man vs. Food have already adopted the free app and, fingers crossed, it hopes to become the standard of the entertainment industry.

“Before we launched Privatext, our development team spent weeks testing our application to make sure that no messages were saved anywhere after they were deleted,” said Privatext CEO and Founder Justin Schwartz. “When our team was finished, we hired the brilliant team over at Decipher Forensics just to make a hundred percent certain we covered all of our bases. After they gave us a clean bill of health, we launched.”

The sign-up process after downloading the app is pretty quick: The user inputs an email address and cell phone number. The app then generates a PIN like the ones used in Blackberry’s messaging system. To send a message, the user adds a contact using the other person’s PIN and waits for the recipient to approve the invitation. From there, it’s a typical chat exchange except that after anywhere from 30 seconds to 24 hours, the messages vanish. Expiration can be adjusted on the fly so if one message is more sensitive than another, expiration can be tailored accordingly. Privatext’s current interface is clean and easy to navigate, and while the color scheme leaves a bit to be desired, all in all, the app does what’s promised.

Expiration can be adjusted on the fly so if one message is more sensitive than another, expiration can be tailored accordingly.

But with reports of the NSA monitoring the most random forms of apps and services like World of Warcraft and more recently Angry Birds, it wouldn’t be too far-off to imagine the same thing happening if Privatext becomes the powerhouse it’s banking on.

“Privatext is technology’s equivalent of having a face-to-face conversation,” Schwartz says. “If the NSA, or anyone, believes that all Privatexts should be monitored, it would be the same as saying that every conversation on the planet should be recorded in some form, and I don’t see that happening any time soon.”

Next week, Privatext plans to launch an updated version of the app that includes a sexier graphic redesign and navigation improvements. The company also offers their technology on an enterprise level to corporate clients and hospitals for a fee to offset giving it away to consumers. Best of all, Privatext promises not to sell user information to third parties, so there’s no need to worry about unknowingly signing up to the Nigerian scam of the week club.

Privatext is now available for iOS and Android via iTunes and Google Play.