Who loses when foreign aid is slashed

Among the details of the 2018 budget proposal presented this week by the Trump administration were plans to slash nearly 30% of the combined State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) budget, with most of the cuts going to foreign aid and assistance.

Climate change work, unsurprisingly, was targeted for elimination or heavy cuts, but other programs included wide-ranging issues and departments such as the Bureau for Food Security, numerous global health programs, the ambassador-at-large for global women’s issues, the Office of the Coordinator for Cyber Issues, the Trans-Sahara Counterterrorism Partnership, and general development assistance.  

There are many justifiable criticisms of international aid and the bureaucracy of institutions and most people would admit these agencies could be made more efficient. But foreign aid can also clearly save lives and improve living conditions, and many economists have pointed out what a tiny percent it constitutes of the U.S.’s overall federal budget (1.3 percent) and how, despite being the world’s biggest donor, how little we pay relative to GDP in comparison to the world’s other rich countries (.17 percent compared to .7 percent by the UK for example).  The Council on Foreign Relations has a good run down of these issues here.

There are so many other numerous pressing issues commanding our attention these days in terms of petitions to sign, marches to attend, and collective action to be planned. Restoring the Bureau for Food Security may not be the easiest cause to galvanize such acts.  So I’ll make it very simple, here are some places you can support with your wallet to attempt to cover some of the gaps should these cuts be made:

 

Global Health

Miraculously, the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) has avoided the chopping block. But numerous other programs in multiple countries will likely be effected. Besides the major intergovernmental and multilateral agencies,  Doctors Without Borders is a perennial favorite. But here are aggregations of other possible groups at the global ( here, here, here, here,) regional and local  here, here,  here, here, here and  here ) levels.

Food Security

The major intergovernmental and multilateral agencies play a big role here but other global and local groups also significantly contribute. See aggregations here, here, here and  here.

Women’s issues

The broad category of women’s issues of course can intersect with global health, development, civil liberties and numerous other issues. But here are some places to start:

Global groups  here , here and here. And an overview of a selection of regional groups herehere,  here and here .

 

This provides only the tip of the iceberg of groups working on these issues and, by virtue of necessity, skews heavily towards bigger organizations with a more global scope. Ideally, we would choose the issues that most matter to us and research local groups whose crucial and informed work provides the most sustained commitment.

 

Fighting Corruption: An Active Pursuit

On Monday, the U.S. State Department posted a story about Donald Trump’s private club, Mar-a-lago. The State Department deleted the post but not before it was tweeted by various U.S. Embassies. The Guardian referred to the post as a blatant “plea for corruption.” This most recent event is one in a series of incidents that have raised serious questions about conflicts of interest and other ethical violations on the part of the Trump administration. Since taking office on January 20, 2017, the Trump administration has faced criticism for a wide variety of potentially corrupt practices involving US corporations, foreign states, transnational and foreign corporations, and nepotism.

Concerns about corruption are not limited to one party or administration, and reports of political corruption and crony capitalism have emerged outside of the administration. These include sitting congressman Chris Collins, who invested $2.2 million dollars in the IPO of Innate, an Australian pharmaceutical company. The congressman exploited a loophole in disclosure laws that do not require the reporting of foreign stock acquisitions by elected officials.

Public anger toward government corruption is driving voter sentiment not only in the United States but also globally. Protests have occurred in Europe (particularly eastern European countries like Romania), Russia, and almost every country in South America. South Korea impeached its sitting president on corruption charges following massive public demonstrations, and Brazil is currently in the middle of its first general strike since 1989. 

Corruption can take many forms and directly affects the ability of citizens to influence their political systems. It widens economic disparities and increases political instability by undermining the rule of law.

If news of the daily shenanigans in Washington feels overwhelming, save time by checking in with a couple of sites that will cut down on the mental fatigue. What The F*ck Just Happened Today? is a well-curated, daily compilation of news about the “shock and awe” of national politics, and the website, corrupt.af, is tracking 292 reports of suspected corruption linked to the Trump administration. The sheer number of instances of corruption can seem overwhelming and intractable, but citizens do have the ability to advocate for change.

Donating to organizations provides financial support for anti-corruption efforts. The ethics watchdog group, Common Cause works to expose political corruption and address issues like political gerrymandering. The group filed an ethics complaint on behalf of the public about the Mar-a-lago post. Represent.us seeks to curb corruption at the city, state, and federal levels through the American Anti-Corruption Act. Transparency International also offers a number of ways for citizens to get involved with fighting corruption. 

Volunteering time or specialized skills to anti-corruption efforts through the organizations listed in this article may be of interest to some readers. Emerging possibilities for citizen participation include efforts to crowdsource fact checking.  More than 1000 volunteers participated in fact checking donor information for Donald Trump’s inauguration, which led to the uncovering of numerous errors. I spent about twenty minutes looking up information on the spreadsheet and really enjoyed participating. The non-profit organization Propublica recently shared access to financial disclosures of Whitehouse staffers with the public. These distributed efforts are in their infancy but show promise and are worth keeping an eye out for in the future.

American corruption and alt-right influence has gone global, with the Kushner family soliciting funds from real estate investors in Beijing in connection with a controversial visa program, and the American alt-right attempting to influence the 2017 French election. Global issues can be combatted on a local level. Help maximize grassroots efforts in your community and your voting power with this checklist. 

Quick tips for active citizenship: Active Citizenship Cheat Sheet

The “scandal of invisibility” as a new priority for international development

What is identification and why is it so important?

The “scandal of invisibility” [1] is the situation of millions of people who are not taken into account in any official statistics, and thus who cannot fulfil the rights enabled by being registered. In most countries, civil registration is a condition to have access to citizenship, property, and also health care, the education system, social protection, among other rights.

Moreover, some studies show that in history, identification has been essential to help countries grow. In particular, it is before the industrial revolution of the 19th Century that Great Britain developed its identification system. This system was crucial in supporting the economic development of these years, especially because it enabled to secure property rights.

The legislative background

The United Nations declared identification at birth a human right in the Article 7 of the 1989 UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. However, today, almost half of the world population live out their lives unrecorded by any state or civil registration[1]. The largest unregistered populations live in South Asia and on the African continent (both regions together account for 79% of all unregistered births), where until very recently, national systems of civil registration have not succeeded in recording a majority of births.

Developing countries may have struggled with this issues, and this for various reasons

In Tanzania for instance nearly half of children born in the developing world are not registered. Tanzania has one of the lowest rates of birth registration in the world: only 8% of children have birth certificates. Research[2] shows that lack of birth certificate leads to the social reproduction of poverty from one generation to the next, because identity documents are essential in order to benefit from Tanzanian social rights (health in particular).

In Indonesia[3], research shows that the poorer and rural population is the one who had the lowest registration rate. Some measures have been taken by the government in order to improve access to civil registrations services, and to support the families in the process, but many of them are still not part of the system.

The recent call from the international community

In 2000, the Millennium Development Goals launched at the United Nations already focused on health topics, and relied on data for fertility, mortality and causes of death, and underlined that data and measurement of progress were essential. More recently, in 2015, the Sustainable Development Goals (http://www.un.org/sustainabledevelopment/sustainable-development-goals/) also have underlined the need to improve the world’s identification systems (the SDG 16 aims to achieve “legal identity for all, including birth registration” by 2030). The objective is not only to give people access to the basic needs of health, education, etc., but also to take all the populations into account when development progress is measured.

Also, the World Bank launched the Initiative “Identification 4 development” (http://www.worldbank.org/en/programs/id4d) aimed at bringing development partners together, and raising funds to help the poorest countries to develop identification system and make sure that the poorest are registered and can access social services.

The new Development Agenda raises awareness on the issue, and set this civic identification as a priority. We can hope that programs and measures that will be implemented will enable the most of us, and especially the poorest in developing countries, to fulfill their basic needs.

 

 

 

 

 

[1] Breckenridge Keith, and Szreter Simon, Registration and Recognition: Documenting the Person in World History, 2012, Oxford: Published for the British Academy by Oxford University Press, 2012

[2] Birth Rights: Birth registration, health, and human rights in Tanzania, Wood, Summer, ProQuest Dissertations and Theses

[3] Sumner, Cate, Indonesia’s Missing Millions: Erasing Discrimination in Birth Certification in Indonesia, Policy File Policy File, Center for Global Development

 

[1] Setel, Philip W; Macfarlane, Sarah B; Szreter, Simon; Mikkelsen, Lene; Jha, Prabhat; Stout, Susan; Abouzahr, Carla. (2007). A scandal of invisibility: making everyone count by counting everyone. The Lancet, 2007, Vol.370(9598), pp.1569-1577

How to give it all away: Steps toward smarter giving

Have you wanted to have more impact after the election of President Trump in the fall? Have you considered donating to the ACLU or Planned Parenthood?

I get you. I have also looked for ways to contribute what I can. The ACLU and Planned Parenthood support causes that I care for. They are credible organizations. But a new article on Vox.com, “Rich charities keep getting richer. That means your money isn’t doing as much good as it could,” reminded me to get perspective.

The Vox.com article summarizes why the big charities keep receiving donations at the expense of smaller, possibly more effective charities, challenges for nonprofit startups, and elements of the ‘effective philanthropy’ movement. Yet, it left me wondering what I can actually do. 

What action can I take to make my money count? How can I learn more about making my dollars go farther toward making the world better?

I have wrestled with these questions and want to share with you a few steps of varying time commitments that can help you learn about how to make your money count.

First, GiveWell—”a nonprofit dedicated to finding outstanding giving opportunities“ [1]—is a useful resource, even if you choose not to listen their advice. GiveWell was started in 2007 by two guys in the finance industry struggling to identify the best giving opportunities. Take two minutes and read their Giving 101. Then take another few minutes to explore their website and learn how they research and evaluate charities.

Second, Effective Altruism has a ten-minute written introduction to concepts for doing good better and how to direct our efforts. You don’t need to agree with what the intro suggests. You will still find value in these perspectives and in being mindful of what impact you want to have.

Lastly, if you prefer videos to text, check out Esther Duflo’s 17-minute TED talk on social experiments to fight poverty. Duflo is the founder and director of the Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL), a research network that evaluates social programs, and a Professor in Economics at MIT. If the TED talk interests you, you’ll enjoy the award-winning [2] book Poor Economics coauthored by Duflo.

Money can do so much good if given to the right organizations. You can make a tangible, measurable difference with your money. The first step is to learn about how your money can do most good.

References:
[1] http://www.givewell.org/about
[2] The book Poor Economics won the Financial Times and McKinsey Business Book of the Year Award as well as the Financial Times Business Book of the Year.

Eating disorders insurance coverage – and actually getting part of your expenses paid for

According to national surveys, approximately 30 million people will experience an eating disorder throughout their life. These illnesses are life threatening (and even the third cause of death for women in America) and involve mental and physical aspects that both have to be equally seriously treated. The earlier the diagnosis, the more chances of recovery a patient has. In any case, these illnesses cannot go untreated: they necessitate important medical attention, and in a lot of cases this involves full time hospitalization, also known as inpatient care. If he or she can pay.

The American Psychiatric Association distinguishes between five levels of care when it comes to treating eating disorders. First are three levels of outpatient care going from appointments with a psychiatrist to a partial hospitalisation, also known as full day outpatient care. On a fourth level is residential treatment and on a fifth inpatient treatment, which involves the patient being locked up in a specialized treatment center.These levels are gradual and they are meant to respond in the best way possible to the specificities of each patient’s case. At least on paper.

The National Eating Disorder Association (NEDA) has extensive documentation explaining how a general care provider usually decides on which level of care would best fit a patient and accurately respond to its medical needs. The text provided by the association reads, as one of its first points:

« The intensity and duration of the treatment depends on:

  • Insurance coverage limits and ability to pay for treatment »

In reality, money often comes before a patient’s medical needs. Obtaining coverage for eating disorder treatments is paved with obstacles and mentally exhausting for the families of patients who already have to go through their loved one’s illness (when patients are lucky enough to have people caring about them, and families willing to take the time to help). Getting an insurance provider to reimburse these types of medical expenses often involves having to make appeals and calling the insurer multiple times, being « persistent, assertive and rational ». It also involves getting as much information on the plan as possible, even if this usually involves reading the full description of the plan and « this document may be longer than a hundred pages », states once again the NEDA. What about those who do not have the legal literacy to understand what is at stake in those documents? Those who do not have parents or family to take care of the paperwork for them? The NEDA also stresses the usefulness of hiring an attorney to help with the case. What about those who cannot afford legal representation, as they are additionally most likely to be the ones who cannot afford care in the first place?

All in all, in the United States, getting access to a decent and appropriate treatment and partial coverage for the expenses attached to it appears almost as complicated as getting a PhD.

Insurers do not cover eating disorder expenses the same way. On paper, the situation is better than it what it used to be prior to December 2016, date at which a new law concerning the obligation for insurance providers to cover equally for physical and mental expenses passed. However, in reality, getting an insurer to reimburse these expenses is still very complicated, and no insurance plan will cover them entirely. Most plans propose to cover 12 psychiatric visits per semester. In many cases, these are of course not sufficient. Inpatient care costs on average 30 000$ a month, and many parents have so far had to find ways to pay for this through other means, among which the dilapidation of their retirement savings.

Primary care providers are the ones deciding over what is the most adapted treatment, considering their patient’s condition and financial resources. A treatment center is chosen according to the insurer’s affiliations with those types of structures. The care provider also discusses with the insurer, and even if the insurer does agree to pay part of the expenses, demands for extensions have to be made on a regular basis. Most of the time, insurance providers agree on covering several days of treatment, when inpatient treatments often requires the stay to be a few months before they start being effective. Moreover, the insurer can deny further care if it notices a « lack of progress in treatment », which manifests itself either by the patient « not restoring weight », « no reduction in behaviors », or a« lack of motivation in treatment ». However, eating disorders are also mental issues, and the patient is not always willing to get better  in the first place as he is mentally caught in a vicious circle. It is often the families who have to take action, and take their love one to see a care provider or a psychiatrist.

In anyway, being met by a refusal of even partial coverage for those medical expenses is stressful, and puts an additional burden on already worried families. Here are three ways to try to unlock your situation, and one way in which the system could be amended – but this last element requires an increase in awareness, and would need people to bring the issue in the spotlight for actors to take on the issue.

NEDA: A first step towards getting your insurer to cover for part of your expenses

Denial of coverage or refusal to provide further care can of course, be appealed. As odd as it may sound, these denials are actually to be expected. Families and patients should not feel desperate by these steps that are most of the time mandatory obstacles before getting partial financial coverage. NEDA provides extensive documentation, available to families for free. This documentation is highly valuable, and needs to be checked if needing guidance on how to make an appeal . NEDA proposes models of letters (p.53) that can be sent to insurers, and phone call scripts worth consulting (p.60).

NEDA also offers a helpline (1-800-931-2237). However, this helpline is not meant to provide help on extensive case to case solutions. If requesting a lawyer to manage your case is too expensive, you should consider taking the next step: contacting your representative in Congress.

Your representative: don’t be afraid to take the step – especially if you are covered by Medicare

Contacting a US representative is most efficient if your medical coverage is Medicare / Medicaid, as these are federal agencies. Your congressman might not have as much leverage if your health care plan is private.

You can find your own representative here, and should try to give a phone call to its cabinet in order to clearly expose your problem. You should not try to contact more than one of your representatives at the time, as this will not make your request process faster. Stressing the urgency of your request might be worth a try, but remember that in most cases you will have to be patient. However, cabinet members are hired to serve the representatives’ constituants, and these are issues they are here tackle. It can just take time.

The grant option

If you are unable to pay for the very out of the pocket cost of the coverage, which can rise up to 6000$ depending on your health plan, (such as for Blue cross Blue Shield), one solution might be to request a grant. Non profit associations, most of the times funded by family members of deceased patients, do propose such awards on return of application. Here is one you can contact to ask for financial help. You will have to return an application form, that can be downloaded here.

Moving forward

In a perfect world there would, of course, be universal and full healthcare coverage (if in search of an example, most european countries do so and it works -and Scandinavian countries are particularly good at this.) However, this is highly unlikely to happen in a near / far future.

What could be done, then? Private foundations should step in, and consider providing fundings to create structures that could provide eating disorder treatment for free. For the most part, these illnesses target young people, who have a future and a role to play in our society. Funding such structures is giving them a chance to recover and fully take advantage of what lies ahead. Private organisations in foreign countries already do fund such treatment centers. In France, the Maison de Solenn is funded by Jacques and Bernadette Chirac via the Fondation des Hôpitaux de Paris, and provides inpatient and outpatient care to anorexic girls. Why not transpose this model to the United States? Demand for such structures is high, and there is a lot of work lying ahead to change how eating disorders are taken into account in the united states, and who gets access to treatment.

Unemployment in Serbia

Article note

After doing the article we realized that the topic might not be the best example for this exercise since bringing up solutions for unemployment is not very controversial. However, it is a topic that (unfortunately) is needed to be discussed in Serbia and that requires them to take actions individually.

The overall proposal for “solution journalism” is that in the future there would be a parallel set of articles linked to traditional issue reporting articles. Thus, there would be journalists that focus on bringing together different possible options (or the awareness of the lack there off) and experts debates on pros and cons of the solutions and their possible long term outcomes.
Maddie, Sruthi, Dijana

 

Unemployment in Serbia action Unemployment in Serbia

Unemployment in Serbia action

#AllHairMatters or Nah?

When Sundial, the company behind Shea Moisture brand, released the latest in its #EverybodyGetsLove campaign, the black-owned beauty company made it clear that their new target audience is white.

There was one token black girl – a mixed woman – with long, curly hair. Her and two white women talked about “hair hate.”

How can a black beauty line tangle through the issues of hair hate without talking to black women about the impact European beauty standards have had on them? Black hair has long been treated by societal bias at large as unkempt, dirty and undesirable. Ciara and Alicia Keys wear braids and it’s called urban. Kylie and Kendall do it and it’s claimed the new, chic trend. I think it’s what drives the psychic impulse that has black women spending 80% more on beauty products than other women. Despite that buying power, beauty aisles have very limited haircare selections for black hair.

White women have options on options. So its surprising Sundial felt the need to expand their line. They didn’t put nearly this much effort into launching their Madam C.J. Walker collection last year. Then again, capitalism is capitalism and businesses are meant to grow. But if you built your brand on the scalps of black women, you don’t have to erase them to include white women. You don’t have to find the fairest, most racially ambiguous black girl to tokenize alongside them. Cater to us all, rather than participate in the long practice of erasing black women.

Not different from the Pepsi debacle, a hashtag protest led to immediate shutdown of the ad and a quick apology.

Wow, okay – so guys, listen, we really f-ed this one up. Please know that our intention was not – and would never be –…

SheaMoisture 发布于 2017年4月24日

But if we have the power to shut down ads, shouldn’t we ask for more? It’s not enough to withdraw your money from one capitalist venture and switch to another or quiet down once the ad comes down.

Are we happy to support a black-owned company whose idea of inclusivity isn’t to do the smart thing and simply include white women, but instead it does the American thing and shoves black women aside? When black-owned companies make millions thanks to the support of black buyers, should we not expect them to buy black as well? Had Sundial used a black ad agency, this would have never happened.

And like I said, capitalists are going to be capitalists. But if you have the power to pull ads, why not demand community support. Sundial could be donating money or product to black shelters much like Pepsi should have donated money to #BlackLivesMatter instead of apologizing to Kendall Jenner for paying her a million to insult a civil rights movement. We can’t just smooth this over with a few tweets. We have to comb through the issues.

Putting a stop to the death penalty

Eight prisoners were scheduled to be put to death this week in Arkansas, in what would have amounted to the largest mass execution in America in half a century. Of these eight, at the time of writing, three have already been killed, four have been given temporary stays beyond the end of the month, and one further execution is scheduled to go ahead Thursday night.

Why the rush? Arkansas’s primary method of execution, like the other 30 states which have capital punishment on their statute books, is the three-drug lethal injection protocol. Securing these drugs has proved increasingly difficult in recent years, due to shortages caused by political and regulatory pressure making pharmaceutical companies reluctant to provide the drugs for the purposes of capital punishment.

Arkansan governor Asa Hutchinson sprung into action this month, scheduling the eight executions mere days before the expiry date on the state’s only available sedative, midazolam, elapses at the end of April. The third execution, of convicted murderer Marcel Williams, only took place after a last-minute legal scramble to halt it failed on Monday evening. The reason? That evening’s first scheduled execution, of Jack Jones, may have been botched, after correctional facility officers tried and failed to insert an IV line into the obese prisoner’s neck.

This most recent episode only serves to underline the increasingly farcical nature of capital punishment in the US. Lawyers for Williams argued that his execution might be unconstitutional on the grounds of “cruel and unusual punishment” – but it is increasingly obvious that the whole system of capital punishment has elements of unusual cruelty. Jones’s execution reportedly saw him moving his lips and gulping for air after the sedative was applied, amounting to what Williams’ lawyers claimed was “torturous and inhumane.”

What action can you take against this inhumane system of state-sponsored murder? Several organizations are fighting to abolish the death penalty across the nation. The National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty works to mobilize the 90 million Americans who say the death penalty is wrong. You can add your name to the growing movement by taking the coalition’s pledge. The group also offers resources for contacting your elected officials, and engage with community organizations like faith groups.

Amnesty International is also working to put an end to the death penalty around the world. One current campaign seeks to halt the return of the death penalty in the Philippines, an issue currently in front of the country’s Senate. The International Commission Against the Death Penalty is similarly working to put an end to the practice around the world, and provides useful resources on its website, albeit with fewer calls to direct action.

Yet as with so many other issues, from climate change to nuclear non-proliferation, preventing the death penalty around the world – and especially in China, which with over 1,000 executions a year may account for half the global total – would be much easier were it prohibited in the US.

Change starts at home – and if you live in one of the thirty one with capital punishment on the statute, consider contacting your local representative. No politician wants to be seen as “weak on crime”, and murderers and rapists are one of the more problematic constituencies to advocate for. But this is all the more reason why demonstrating your support for prohibition is important. Almost 3,000 people languish on death row in the United States, and fully 158 death row inmates have been exonerated since capital punishment was reintroduced in 1973. Ultimately, it comes down to this: only by putting an end to capital punishment can you be sure that no person will ever be put to death for a crime they didn’t commit.

Facebook’s F8: It’s not just for software developers

by Arthur and Drew

Click here to read article with annotations

You’re a small business owner, looking to stay ahead of the curve in everything you do. Say, for example, you run a local electrical service, where you employ 50 technicians, and you send them to customers’ homes when something isn’t working and they call in. As the owner of this business (like countless other small businesses), you’re likely using Facebook to advertise, but you’re probably not very tech savvy yourself or have the time to keep up with all the technology enhancements. Evolutions can be really tough.

But … you know it’s important. Competition is relentless, and your users are on Facebook, so staying up to date on advertising practices is important to you.

Last week, Facebook held their annual conference called F8, and though this event is meant to be for software developers, it’s important for business owners who rely on Facebook to understand the announcements at this event and think proactively about how they can act to take advantage of these platform upgrades for their businesses.

Below, we break down the three most important Facebook platform upgrades that concern advertising and businesses, and share some ideas for how small businesses can leverage these new tools to further their sales.

To get a basic understanding of the announcements below, you should watch either the entire keynote speech or this shortened summary.

Facebook Augmented Reality (AR)

Frame Studio and AR Studio

You know those cool filters on Snapchat that give you dog ears or turn you into a taco? Well, Facebook now allows you to do the same thing. The basic idea is that you can spend some of your advertising dollars to create custom filters for users to use, and those filters will act as highly engaging advertising.

SLAM (Simultaneous Localization and Mapping)

Facebook also talked about a new technology, called SLAM, which is slightly, yet importantly, different from the filters above. Whereas the underlying technology of the above allows you to recognize and digitally paint on a person’s face, this recognizes shapes and objects in the real world, which allows you to now place digital items into the physical world, and have those items follow real world physics laws (e.g. you put a digital cup on a table, and as you pan around the table, the cup stays in the same place as if it were a real cup!)

Now, you might be thinking, “So what? Why is this relevant?” But imagine leveraging this form of AR to allow users to digitally tag things relevant to your business. For example, let’s go back to our technician example. You can now have your customers use their camera to digitally circle the specific light switch that doesn’t work, or where they left the keys under the mat so that your technician can find it and head outside, or a note on the wall with special instructions just for the technician. This could allow you to offer a better service than your competitors, giving you that leg up you need to attract customers and grow your business.

Facebook Spaces

Whereas the above announcement is all about AR (Augmented Reality), this is Facebook’s VR (Virtual Reality) play. As a small business owner, imagine building a space on Facebook Spaces for your business to act as a digital customer service center. Imagine a future where everyone has a VR headset, and customers who want to learn more about your service don’t have to take the time to drive down, and they also don’t have to settle for the limitations of a phone call. Instead, they can enter Facebook’s virtual world, find your virtual store in that virtual world, and then engage with someone from your sales or customer support team through that virtual store.

Facebook Messenger

New integrations in Messenger allow for games, music sharing, and more capable bots. These bots can now be included in group chats, allowing businesses to provide useful services for drawing in new customers. Discovery of these bots has also been enhanced, making it easier for customers to find relevant bots.

For example, customers could interact with an electrical services business through the convenience of Facebook Messenger, and on their phone. (As of last week, customers can now scan QR codes from a flyer and immediately be put into a conversation with the business.) On the small business side, the owner could automate the matching process: using software to dispatch customer’s requests to the appropriate electrician in that area.

Why Amazon Has Bought Whole Foods

(In short: It’s their grocery playground.)

The decision, last week, from Amazon to buy Whole Foods for $13.7 billion, has been met with considerable criticism. Big acquisitions are not a part of Amazon’s usual playbook. Amazon has generally patiently built its services across many years, and relied on mergers only for specific technologies or, in rare cases, to buy competitors such as Pets.com.

It looks like a horrendous decision

This is all the more puzzling when one looks at Whole Foods in more detail. One, for all its growth, it has had tremendous difficulties in recent years, struggling to be profitable, and is now under attack of activist investors over its falling stock. Amazon will therefore have to somehow change Whole Foods to turn it into a success. Plus, Whole Foods is known for having a unique corporate culture in which welfare and the independence of store employees is emphasized. For instance, employees are allowed to vote on benefits every three years. A caricatural way of summing up Whole Foods’ culture is that there is no employee union because the work conditions are so good. This stands in contrast with Amazon’s corporate culture, which is reportedly brutal for low-level employees, and insanely competitive for high-level ones.

So, Amazon has bought, at a massive price, a flailing company in a low-margin, competitive market; seems to prepare itself to massive culture clash and the PR nightmare that could result from it; and, on top of that, some are already talking about the need of antitrust regulation to block this merger that would consolidate Amazon a retail behemoth. What on Earth is Jeff Bezos thinking?

Now, I am here to argue that the merger is strategically justified (and, as The New York Times mentioned, one of Amazon’s strengths is its willingness to fail.) But there is a pretty strong case for Amazon to buy a company like Whole Foods, and I am going to lay it out here.

The problem with the grocery industry

The sector of groceries has long been an area of future growth for Amazon. It is indeed one of the biggest sectors of the retail industry; and, notoriously, it has been pretty impervious to e-commerce. So, for the past years, Amazon has tried to spin their take on grocery shopping with a flurry of products. Most notable among them was Amazon Fresh, which allows customers, for a monthly fee, to have produce to be delivered or picked up. Or one could mention Amazon Prime Now, which allows Amazon Prime members to be delivered produced products in two hours, albeit for a hefty price.

The problem with that strategy is that, essentially, it has not worked out. Grocery services is a tough nut to crack, Amazon seems to have discovered. Groceries are indeed ordered pretty differently than books or households objects. Immediacy is very important: hence the value of a combination of physical presence and very fast delivery. Also, perishable products cannot be stored and presented in a way that is even remotely similar to the rest of their catalog. Therefore, Amazon has tried to innovate in both domains. It has opened physical stores and food trucks in Seattle. These experiments, although headline-grabbing, didn’t seem to be very scalable. If Amazon wanted to have a physical presence as ubiquitous as their website, it would have to acquire a lot of real estate and build stores there. These operations are notoriously lengthy, difficult and expensive to realize; at least, much harder than scaling their online presence.

You could buy Whole Foods for its real estate, but that’s not enough

Whole Foods partially solves that problem. Their physical presence across the US is relatively expansive; there are Whole Foods in virtually every major US city. The mere real estate of Whole Foods can be valued in billions of dollars. So, if Amazon wanted to convert all of the Whole Foods in Amazon Groceries, they would have a good jumpstart. This, in itself, not a sufficient reason to buy Whole Foods. After all, if Amazon really wants to be as gigantic as their $500 billion valuation suggests, it can’t content itself with a grocery brand that occupies only a percent of the market, focuses on organic products, and is itself under financial duress.

So it can’t be just about acquiring a grocer; Amazon will have to change Whole Foods somehow. One could imagine, instinctively, that Amazon would radically transform the Whole Foods stores, rebrand them under the Amazon brand, and change the catalog to make it appealing to every American. And, because this Amazon, make Whole substantially bigger. But that probably would engender a heavy culture clash. This probably explains that, after the acquisition, Amazon declared that Whole Foods store would continue to operate as before, and that no jobs cuts were in store.

Whole Foods is a playground for Amazon

And honestly, there is plenty of ground to believe that. Amazon is probably not thinking of Whole Foods as their endgame, but rather as their playground in the grocery space. And you can think of playground as a demeaning word, but it really isn’t. A playground is what Amazon needs to be able to succeed in the grocery space.

The flurry of experiments that Amazon conducted in the past few years have failed because of a kind of chicken-and-egg problem. It is hard to prove that a single grocery experiment is viable without economies of scale, but it is hard to scale that experiment without financial viability. That problem surely existed for previous business like books, but they probably were less complicated.

So, Amazon needs scale from the get-go to jumpstart their grocery experiments. That is what Whole Foods offers. It is a grocer that is big without being as big as Walmart. Plus, their culture emphasizes the independence of each location, which makes it easier to run local experiments. Therefore, it seems like Whole Foods was bought to be a guinea pig.

This seems all the more logical that it very much fits Amazon’s structure and history. Amazon is structured around small teams that have a lot of independence. This means that a lot of them are running live experiments that are validated or axed based on their results. This is the corporate equivalent of throwing stuff against the wall and see if it sticks. More crucially, a lot of these teams operate as APIs: they are supposed to treat both the rest of Amazon and the external world as customers. This explains, for instance, that the Amazon supply chain is available to both Amazon.com and third-party retailers; or that their web services hosts both Amazon’s websites and other customers.

If one takes that framework to think about the Whole Foods acquisition, it is simple to see how this will unfold. Amazon will run experiments in countless Whole Foods stores (and potentially opposite experiments in two different stores to compare them,) and see what works and what doesn’t. In addition, they will probably will reconfigure the back-end of Whole Foods to make more efficient, and, crucially, more flexible so that it can be modularized. (This has led some writers such as Ben Thompson to think that Amazon could use that supply chain to deliver produce to other groceries or even third-party restaurants.)

Despite this acquisition, they are still hard questions that Amazon will have to answer. Even if Amazon is comfortable with being a modular company, it is dubious that they would only keep Whole Foods as their only customer-facing operation, especially outside of the US where Whole Foods is unknown. It seems probable that they would create Amazon branded stores; what they would look like is probably a mystery to the company itself. (But the experience acquired from running Whole Foods, I think, would give them clues to how to conceive them.) And the question of culture compatibility, which has sunk so many mergers before, is still crucial to Amazon’s success.

These issues will still be here next year; hell, they may very well be there in five years. But, at least, Amazon won’t have to worry anymore about the first step of their grocery business, as they will have a jump base to start from.