Esther Duflo and Impact over Ideology

“Part of me always wanted to do something useful in the world. It came from my mother. She is a pediatrician and she was active in a small NGO for the child victims of war.”

--Esther Duflo, Economics Professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Every year, over 300,000 deaths are attributable to climate change related issues. Even worse, the infiltration of pollutants and other negative, third-order effects of consumerism have impacted every facet of our ecosystem. From various levels of degradation in our air quality to temperature-related deaths or illnesses, every person on the planet is a shareholder in the success of our environment’s health and, certainly, we are all liable for various failures.

Given the loss of human life related directly to climate change, it is important to challenge the presumption that climate change is a future problem. Rather, it is a present problem. Therefore, an examination surrounding climate change and the way we live must not be confined to the academic realm. Instead, a radical approach on the issue that incorporates morality, philosophy, and pragmatism must establish a framework to provide a logical basis of why sustainable thinking ought to be promoted. Ideally, this framework shift will further efforts to preserve the sanctity of life of our precious planet and the lives of our fellow humans.

Sadly, climate change is far from easy to solve and is exacerbated by other, pressing social needs. Around the world, problems heavily impede the development of countries south of the equator. A lack of clean water, a distrust of preventative medicines in urban and rural settings, and inadequate supply chains that unevenly distribute ‘winners’ and ‘losers’ in our societies are only a few issues that draw attention away from environmental economic inclusion. Furthermore, this, of course, does not include the religious conflicts and sectarian violent outbreaks that further entangle implementation of policy solutions devised by academic, public policy professionals, and subject matter experts.

Moving forward, the best approach to tackling complex crises is to favor impact over ideology through framing environmental and economic successes as contextual rather than generalizable. Whether grand universal theories exist to unite our understanding is not the intended purpose of this book -- instead, ideally, our readers will further an understanding of how to shift their personal habits towards sustainable development and internalize the importance of environmental economics. Hopefully, ideas will align, naturally, with solutions.

Silk Tougher than Steel

Spider silk is an amazing material known to have a strength to weight ratio comparable to some steel alloys. However, a group of professors and students at Massachusetts Institute of Technology found an even more amazing (and useful) discovery. Spider silk was found to have a super contraction quality in the presences of moisture. They found this property accidentally when a strand of the silk started to rotate and coil during a study looking at the effects of humidity on spider silk. Upon further investigation, the phenomenon the researchers discovered had immediate applicability to robotics and prosthetics. 

Currently actuators simulate muscle movements in several forms: electric, pneumatic, and thermal actuation. A large number of the artificial muscles on the market today use Nylon, a non-biodegradable material that is largely responsible for the pollution of the ocean in the form of micro-plastics. The production of Nylon also releases greenhouse gas, nitrous oxide, a major contributor in global warming. As the demand for more intricate prosthetics and robots increases, contributions to pollution and global warming will only get worse if an alternative cannot be found. Although spider silk could be this perfect substitution, as of today the supply of spider silk unfortunately is not enough to warrant this switch. However, research on generating synthetic spider silk through genetic engineering is making headway. Researchers at the University of Washington in St. Louis discovered a way to make genetically-synthesized spider silk that can rival the real thing just this past year! With this new and exciting discovery of super contraction there may be enough interest from private sectors to invest in creating genetically-synthesized spider silk to replace the Nylon currently being used in so many products today. If done, this manufacturing process could have a great impact not only in the engineering and robotics world, but also in the health and sustainability of our global environment.

Georgetown Strategy Group: First Annual Letter - 2019


On May 1, 2018 at 6:00 am, we launched the Georgetown Strategy Group with a social media campaign attracting 20,000 people in its first days. Last week, the the Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee introduced me, “the Managing Director of the Georgetown Strategy Group,” as its first witness of the new 116th Congress to speak about U.S. Policy in the Arabian Peninsula (read statement and watch hearing). Every day in between has been heady, exciting, exhausting but always interesting.


From the outset, the Georgetown Strategy Group had one mission: to leverage talent, technology, and capital to help solve some of the world’s most complex problems. Working with the private sector, communities, and governments, the Georgetown Strategy Group seeks to promote trade and investment, develop economic opportunity, advance security and stability, and facilitate the delivery of humanitarian assistance in the Middle East and Africa. The leaders of the Georgetown Strategy Group have dedicated their lives to improve the human condition. We have designed and managed programs to deliver essential services; negotiated agreements to facilitate the movement of goods and people; developed businesses and tech ecosystems; and contributed to building more effective institutions throughout the Middle East and Africa during times of war and crisis.


In the first 8 months, the firm has demonstrated profitability, growth, and impact. Revenue exceeded projections; strong earnings continue in early 2019. The firm has diversified its client base with 12 customers and prospects for 50% further growth by the end of the first full operating year. Importantly, the firm has no long term liabilities and has sufficient financial sustainability to continue to grow. Aside from a financial bottom line, the firm has assisted non-governmental organizations and for-profit corporations manage critical challenges. The firm is positioned to take advantage of the growing nexus between capital and technology in frontier markets. We have advised FinTech companies intending to launch in Yemen, agricultural firms seeking to open high-end markets; structured big data analytics throughout the Middle East, Asia, and Africa; provided strategic management for leading DC consulting firms; and helped bring pre-commercial research and development of remote sensing, advances in renewable power and water, and operational research and analysis to humanitarian assistance and disaster relief.


The Georgetown Strategy Group (GSG) entered into two strategic partnerships in 2018. In June, GSG announced its partnership with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Lincoln Laboratory. MIT’s mission is “to advance knowledge and educate students in science, technology, and other areas of scholarship that will best serve the nation and the world,” and through Lincoln Laboratory, has developed novel technologies in support of stabilization and humanitarian assistance. The Georgetown Strategy Group and MIT Lincoln Laboratory seek to disrupt and improve humanitarian and disaster assistance response capabilities to meet the most pressing challenges of this century.

In November, the Georgetown Strategy Group entered into a joint venture with Souktel Inc., a leading provider of custom digital solutions solutions for emerging markets. Through this partnership, the firms will work jointly to expand into new markets across the Middle East, Africa, and Asia — building on Souktel’s decade-long track record of digital solutions delivery, to add new private sector business lines in 2019. With the launch of the new partnership, I have assumed the role of Chief Executive Officer for Souktel, Inc. and will continue to lead GSG.


While scouting opportunities for the Souktel-Georgetown Strategy Group joint venture, I traveled to Gaza in December. This time not as a diplomat, journalist, or aid worker, but rather as an entrepreneur in search of software developers and rugged water technologies. My first stop: Gaza Sky Geeks. This Mercy Corps incubator operating in Gaza City helps startups build products and offers teams of designers and full stack developers for international clients. I then met with the CEOs of half a dozen firms leading the Gaza tech sector; these firms are doing early stage outsourcing in the region and beyond. Collectively, their firms employ over 150 engineers who work through blackouts, disruptions, and conflict to deliver services to the world. The eager young developers at Gaza Sky Geeks, coupled with the more seasoned tech firm leaders, provided great insight into the emerging talent, passion, creativity, and drive that can flourish, even in one of the most challenging of circumstances.

Software is not the only nascent sign of hope. The collapse of the water aquifer and the resulting necessity of desalination of nearly all the water in Gaza has propelled new thinking in water and treatment technology that could be viable in frontier markets around the globe. MIT is piloting a community based off-grid solar desalination plant for brackish water; this technology is pre-commercial but primed to hit emerging markets in 2019. This technology adapted in Gaza would be effective for the people of Yemen and can readily be employed as an off-grid alternative to refugee communities along the Syrian border or in the horn of Africa. Moreover, Gaza is ripe to test other, newer technologies such as air-to-water systems, greywater re-use in rugged environments, and private community solar and water, obviating the need for large-scale government infrastructure.


The firm’s expansion strategy includes building a name brand public platform. In the first 8 months, the firm has been prominently referenced in leading U.S. and international media including the New York Times, National Public Radio, The Hill, The Atlantic, Associated Press, United Press International, and Jerusalem Post coupled with television interviews on Al Jazeera, i24, TRT and other channels. This profile has led to numerous speaking engagements throughout the country and has helped to drive business opportunities in the Middle East and beyond.


The Georgetown Strategy Group sees three macro political-economic trends shaping the Middle East and Africa in the decade ahead

First, the world order as largely built by the U.S. post-World War II, which has served as the greatest force for peace and prosperity in history, is being challenged by emergent world leaders. These WWII institutions, including the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), the UN, and the multilateral finance banks served as global shaping forces for more than 70 years. We are now witnessing the rise of a new great game with China, Russia, Turkey, and Iran vying for power, position, and markets throughout the Middle East, particularly in the Arabian Peninsula as well as in the Horn of Africa.

Second, the decade ahead will be defined by rapid technological changes, (particularly in artificial intelligence and big data analytics), rapid public and private capital flows (including increased financing from non-U.S. sources), the continued mass movement of people across borders and regions as we have seen in Syria, and a shifting of markets and trade routes away from the dollar economy in favor of our rising nation state challengers.

Third, national aspirations, particularly in the Gulf states, will result in unprecedented opportunity and serious inflection points for American business leaders. Saudi Arabia and the UAE are rising regional powers with complementary and, at times, competing geo-political interests. Saudi Arabia has an ambitious economic vision for 2030 that will require a respect for human rights and consistent rule of law if it hopes to actually implement its vision. The United Arab Emirates seeks economic expansion and political influence, as demonstrated specifically by its race to build regional seaports, boost trade partnerships, and create new markets. Rising national aspirations, coupled with rapid technological and financial trends, will likely accelerate the Israel-Sunni bloc re-alignment in way which will be exciting and unexpected in the U.S.


The Georgetown Strategy Group has a bold vision for 2019. Specifically, the firm seeks to aggressively position for market share at the corner of capital and technology. Further, the firm’s agility and speed will allow it to effectively capitalize on the three macro political-economic trends ahead. This vision will begin by expanding into power and water technologies adaptable for complex crises in the first quarter of 2019. This strategic alignment coupled with Souktel’s corporate capabilities will position both firms to drive transformative impact in frontier markets throughout 2019.


The future favors the bold. The Georgetown Strategy Group seeks create a legacy that positively shapes and influences the future for generations. 2018 was just the start.


R. David Harden

***Originally published on Medium by R. David Harden.***