A World-Changing Idea Is About to Get $100 Million

The MacArthur Foundation's 100&Change contest is offering a nine-figure grant for a plan to solve a major world problem.

It's easy to be cynical these days. And then this happened: The MacArthur Foundation's 100&Change contest offered $100 million dollars for a single idea that could solve a major problem facing the world. There were no other criteria. The competition was open to organizations working in any field. And that enormous sum - for one project - is enough to make real change. The only thing needed was an idea - and a plan for implementing it - that would measurably solve a real problem.

It's not surprising that the grant garnered a wave of applicants. It's a massive sum in philanthropy, even for the MacArthur Foundation, whose annual Genius Grants are for $625,000. Indeed 7,069 competition registrants submitted 1,904 proposals. The foundation announced eight semifinalists after much vetting - 801 passed an initial administrative review - and were evaluated by a panel of judges who each rated them on four criteria: meaningfulness, verifiability, durability and feasibility.

Here's a look at the non-profits vying for the award and the issues they want to address.

Catholic Relief Services
Even those who follow the plight of orphans around the world probably don't know that 80 to 90 percent of those children have living parents without the resources to care for them. The Catholic Relief Services has a plan to fix this by turning orphanages into institutions that teach parenting skills and provide services as well as encouraging donors and working with local governments and community leaders to support family-based care rather, allowing children to go home.

360° Institute for Global Health
In parts of Africa, the knowledge is available to prevent the death of newborns, but the technology often isn't. 360° Institute for Global Health from Rice University has a plan to reduce pre-term birth, delivery complications and infections. A suite of low-cost solutions called Newborn Essential Solutions and Technologies (NEST) could help diagnose infections, keep newborns warm and breathing properly, and treat jaundice and other conditions that are threatening to newborns.

International Rescue Committee and Sesame Workshop
We've all seen horrific images of young children displaced by war. There are 12 million of them, under the age of eight. But the International Rescue Committee and Sesame Workshop have a plan to bring Muppets, educational material and targeted assistance to an entire generation of children who have suffered trauma, are living in difficult circumstances, have lost family members - and have no access to education. Services would be tailored to "reflect and mitigate the adverse effects of experiences of refugee children and their parents," according to the partnetship, in Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria.

Himalayan Cataract Project
"There are 18 million people on our planet suffering in total blindness who could have perfect sight," said Dr. Jeffrey Tabin, co-founder of the Himalayan Cataract Project. This project is committed to fixing that. And, after developing a low-cost lens cataract surgery for around $25 per person in Nepal, it already restores site to over 200 people a day. Tabin hopes to use this grant to build a health system in Nepal, Ethiopia and Ghana - and create a model that can be scaled worldwide by using a "train-the-trainer model," according to the project, to provide low-cost cataract surgery to everyone who needs it, eliminating unnecessary cataract blindness.

The Carter Center
River blindness, caused by a worm parasite spread by black flies, affects 32.7 million people, mostly in Nigeria. But there's a medicine to treat it: Mectizan. Merck is willing to donate the drug. And delivering that medicine twice a year would eliminate the blindness and itching the parasite inflicts while preventing its spread. The Carter Center wants to stop this parasite by training volunteers at the community level on how to diagnose river blindness and dose and deliver the medicine to families and neighbors in remote communities.

For a third of the world's population the food available to them, grown by local farms, lacks essential nutrients. Entire populations suffer from blindness, stunted growth, cognitive disability, and even death from the feeble food they live on. HarvestPlus came up with a brilliantly simple solution to fix that. Change nothing but the seeds the farmers use, replacing them with "biofortified" seeds that grow plants rich in nutrients. The project aims to begin in Nigeria, Uganda and Zambia with a goal of expanding to feeding the boosted crops to 1 billion people by 2030.

Human Diagnosis Project
Thirty million people in the U.S. have no health insurance, relying on safety-net care. But a big hole exists in that medical system. If you need to see a specialist, you wait months for an appointment and pay out of pocket. The Human Diagnosis Project believes technology can solve this: It's building an electronic consultation system - Specialty Net - that lets front-line doctors ask for diagnostic assistance electronically from specialists. When doctors see a patient in need of a specialist's diagnosis, they can post their clinical observations to Specialty Net and get an answer, often immediately, and treat the patients right there. The system would employ 100,000 pro bono specialists, gaining credit for their medical education, and ongoing licensing and certification. Specialty Net wants to roll out over the next five years, serving up to 3 million people in the U.S.

The Internet Archive
Working to create the largest library ever built online, the Internet Archive is digitizing four million books and making them available to borrow. But there is a 100-year gap in printed books that are available online because of copyright issues. This project will scan and digitize those texts, making them available to everyone. Once digitized, these books will go into the Open Library where they can be borrowed by anyone, one person at a time. The organization has a working prototype of the system that has already digitized more than half a million books over the last six years, then lending them to the public in way that's modeled on traditional libraries.

Of course, only one of these projects will win the grant money. In September, the candidates will be narrowed to five - and the winning proposal will be announced on Dec. 11, 2017.

"It is our hope that these creative proposals will benefit from expert feedback, technical assistance, and public attention," said Cecilia Conrad, MacArthur's managing director. "And that they attract funding from other sources, even if they do not win 100&Change."

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