The National Catholic Review
Big Deal for Big PharmaBy a vote of 49 to 40, the Senate approved an amendment that effectively excludes U.S. citizens from importing prescription drugs from abroad. The amendment requires prior F.D.A. certification of imported medicines, certification the administration says the agency is not equipped to provide. The vote was a defeat for the public, but a victory for Big Pharma. Imports could have cut Americans’ drug bills by as much as two-thirds. There are fixes to the problem of qualityfor example, allowing imports from countries like Canada that have standards comparable to our own or strengthening the F.D.A. to carry out the needed certification. Likewise, repeal of the prohibition on Medicare negotiating lower prices with the drug companies could provide enormous savings. Meanwhile the elderly and their families are stretching resources to make ends meet, Medicare is strained to the breaking point, and the cost of health insurance, a substantial part of which consists of prescription medication, is making it difficult for U.S. industries to compete. John Edwards has proposed paying for a universal, single-payer health care reform by rolling back the Bush tax giveaways to the wealthiest Americans. In this campaign season, the other presidential candidates ought to be pressed to explain how they would deal with a drug bill that is bankrupting the country.Giving Up on LaptopsWhile many high school districts throughout the country are still phasing in programs to provide laptops to their low-income students, a district in Liverpool, N.Y., has decided to phase out its program after seven years. According to The New York Times, Liverpool High is not alone. A handful of other school systems also have determined that laptops in the classroom are more a distraction to students than a tool for educating them. They find the laptops not worth the expense of repairs and security upgrades that limit access to pornography and discourage cheating and hacking.

The disappointing experience has taught educators and parents a few unintended lessons. No one should expect student test scores to improve simply because computers have been added to the classroom. Several studies, including one by the U.S. Department of Education, have shown no measurable gains on math or reading tests. (Since computers further creativity, collaboration and independent thinking, proponents have argued, it might be that standardized tests simply do not measure these.) Also, teachers need training in how to integrate what computers do best with their own subject areas, teaching goals and methodsa much broader matter. Which brings up the topic of software: Does it challenge students? And connectivity: Does it allow for group Internet searches and group participation during class?

Such capabilities, using mesh networks and open, free and modifiable software, are now being developed by the One Laptop Per Child foundation, a nonprofit organization in Cambridge, Mass. Its goal is to put a low-cost laptop into the hands of the world’s poorest students, enabling them to work collaboratively and to develop their own programs. This software can be changed and redistributed with modifications royalty free, and it conforms to the group’s many other money-saving principles. Still, one wonders: Could software allow a teacher to temporarily disable student access to the Internet, instant messaging and anything else that would distract students from the lesson at hand?

EcotourismTourism ranks among the world’s biggest industries, and conservation groups are trying to combine it in ways that both protect environmentally fragile areas and benefit local communities through jobs and income. Conservation International notes that partnering is key to the process, linking local governments, communities and organizations. One outstanding example is the Posadas Amazonas lodge in Peru. Owned by the local indigenous community and operated by an affiliate of Conservation International, the undertaking creates employment for local inhabitants and gives tourists a chance to see the rain forest at close range without causing environmental damage. In Africa, too, a group of indigenous communities in Kenya manage their own wildlife sanctuaries in ways that protect endangered animals, like the zebra and black rhino.

But when local communities are not included, anger and destruction can result. The director of C.I.’s ecotourism department notes that in the 1980’s, tourists to Kenya’s national parks generated millions of dollars, but provided little or no benefit to the pastoral Samburu and Maasai people, on whose ancestral lands most of East Africa’s wildlife is found. I witnessed local communities striking back, he adds, setting fire to the reserve and killing wildlife to express their frustration. But sensitive undertakings like the recent efforts in Peru and Kenya show how ecotourism and biodiversity conservation can work together to promote sustainable development, creating practices that protect ecosystems and alleviate poverty.

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