Outside the Velvet Rope
at the World Summit in Johannesburg

The unofficial "brainstorm summit"
has better ideas


Susan Older, Press Office
Greenstar, New York City:
+1-646-486-0454; email older@mindspring.com

AUGUST 30, 2002; JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA: What's missing at the Earth Summit in Johannesburg?

George W. Bush, for one thing, but that doesn't really matter. The United States is well-represented by Secretary of State Colin Powell. The summit isn't supposed to be about personalities. It's about eradicating poverty through "sustainable" solutions and promoting development that's people-friendly and environmentally-sound.

Also missing is any real agreement between the haves and the have-nots. As predicted, developing countries are asking for more aid, and developed countries are concerned that contributions may not make it past government officials to reach the poor.

What's missing most of all? A word. The official name of the conference is The World Summit on Sustainable Development. "Sustainable" means surviving, or lasting. It does not convey the dynamic growth and change needed to bring self-reliance to the 2.3 billion impoverished people in our world.

Greenstar, one group attending the summit, takes particular issue with the word. "The term 'sustainable development' is self-defeating," says Michael North, president of Greenstar. "It fosters passive policies that seek only to feed themselves, not to grow independently. It's a good-faith attempt, but it aims too low, so it will fail. We can do better than 'sustainable.'" Greenstar proposes an alternative, a word from the ancient language of Hawaii: "ohana", which means "family and community, gathering together."

As governments wrangle over how much money they'll fling at huge, intractable problems, hundreds of private enterprise and volunteer groups, represented by 10,000 people from around the world, are meeting outside the sleek velvet ropes of the official summit chambers to talk about small, realistic answers. They may not wear the coveted security photo badges around their necks, but they often have what the official delegates lack: real experience, a personal connection with people in developed countries, and the vision thing.

One of the key Tools for Independence -- solar power -- is demonstrated by Greenstar through a large photovoltaic array at the main entrance to the Ubuntu Exhibition in Johannesburg, South Africa. Solar power is fed from this array into the main exhibit, co--sponsored by Astropower and Xantrex.

At places like the Ubuntu Exhibition (held under the world's largest tensile tent), these people are brainstorming with each other to provide realistic strategies that take simple, tough solutions straight to the people who need help the most. And there's no lack of such tools; they just don't get mentioned much inside the hushed, secure hallways of the conference center where the heads of state are meeting.

Greenstar has brought together a number of these "Tools for Independence" at Ubuntu. Since 1998, Greenstar has been deploying a set of tools to rural villages -- so far to India, Jamaica, Ghana and the West Bank -- with great success. As a result, the company's delegation is highly visible at the unofficial brainstorming summit.

The Tools for Independence are 12 proven programs that can make a real and tangible difference in the daily lives of people in a poor village. They include health, education, energy, environment and communications, and come from many different organizations in countries ranging from Nigeria to Kenya, India, the UK and the USA. Greenstar serves as a platform for these tightly focused, self-generating strategies that go direct to the people -- fostering an attitude of independence in small villages through education, technology and revenue-producing plans that build on indigenous culture and traditions.

"We asked ourselves: what kind of program would be more than sustainable -- able to earn its own way? And it wasn't programs that rely on continual donations from thousands of miles away," says Greenstar's North. "It was small businesses that stimulate people's instinct for self-reliance, that are fueled by natural assets and talents they already possess. That's how we developed the Greenstar 'digital culture' program, which markets original music, artwork, poetry, dance and legends from a traditional village to the world."

Valencia, a traditional performer from the East Cape, South Africa, creates dramatic poetic and music events, now available on the Internet at Greenstar's website, http://www.greenstar.org/media/.

"People's language and vision, their relationship to the earth as expressed in their arts, are a huge untapped asset, and a potential source of income to supply their basic needs," added Charles Gay, a Greenstar executive who is on hand in Johannesburg. "We help with media production, business and marketing; the people in the village are the ones with the real talent, and they decide how to invest the income in solar power, clean water, vaccination programs, computers for their schools, local micro-enterprise, or many other options. They examine our Tools for Independence, and select what they need."

The Greenstar model has received recognition in international awards programs as diverse as the World Bank, the Stockholm Challenge, the Davos Conference and the Tech Awards. Two of the giants of the solar power industry, Astropower and Xantrex, are co-sponsoring the Ubuntu exhibit.

South African students, given time off school to visit the Earth summit, crowd into Greenstar's exhibition there, which provides glimpses of live in traditional villages in Jamaica, the West Bank, Ghana, India, Tibet and Brazil.

And some of the big players are listening. The U. S. Department of the Interior has provided substantial funding for Greenstar's exhibit in Johannesburg. Interior wants to spur economic development among the Indian tribes of the US, balanced with environmental responsibility -- in this sense, the original people of America are part of the developing world, and they have 'digital culture' assets in their powerful drumming, chanting, ritual dance, fabric design and ancient legends. Greenstar has launched a pilot program in conjunction with Sandia National Labs in Albuquerque to help develop those assets, and to finance a micro-enterprise based on digital culture in the small Navajo community of To'Hajiilee, New Mexico. That program officially gets under way this weekend, August 31, in a special day that will connect New Mexico to a traditional South African group in Johannesburg, through the Internet, for a series of musical and performance interactions. A senior Interior official, Assistant Secretary Lynn Scarlett, will attend to observe and learn more.

Similar ideas are being hatched in Johannesburg -- outside the velvet rope. Says Greenstar's Charles Gay: "I wouldn't want to be anywhere else. This is where the real summit is taking place. The best ideas are out here, and that's where we belong."

About Greenstar

Greenstar builds solar-powered community centers in remote, rural off-the-grid villages. Health, education, employment, telecommunications and e-commerce services are set up in a co-ordinated system -- all running on solar power and satellite technology.

The Greenstar program was pioneered in Al-Kaabneh, on the West Bank near the Dead Sea, with subsequent projects in Swift River, Jamaica, Parvatapur, India and Patriensah, Ghana. New programs in Tibet, Brazil and New Mexico are now being developed. The company is establishing a network of 300 such centers in remote rural villages around the world. Greenstar's "digital culture" programs help people help themselves by emphasizing the intrinsic value of their vital cultural traditions.


Susan Older, Press Office
Greenstar, New York City:
+1-646-486-0454; email older@mindspring.com

Tools for Independence: the South Africa exhibit

Streaming Video of the Tools:

The Greenstar model, projects, track record:

The Navajo Voice: introduction to the project in New Mexico:


Faces of Africa and America: students from a Navajo community in New Mexico, and from traditional tribes in South Africa, prepare to meet each other across the bridge of the Internet.