Issues & Analysis
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Assoc Press highlights Haitian artists group covered in trainee’s film

The Atis Rezistans (Artists’ Resistance) is highlighted in the following Associated Press article.  CSFilm’s trainee Robenson Sanon produced Out of the Rubble on an artist in this group.  The film is part of the collection,  Owning Our Future-Haitian Perspectives in Film.

Haiti Artists Forge Int’l Reputation With Art Made of Junk

By DAVID MCFADDEN, ASSOCIATED PRESS, PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — Apr 11, 2016

Amid a maze of car repair shops in Haiti’s gritty capital, Andre Eugene pitches a shredded tire he found atop a towering sculpture he built out of rusty engine parts, bed springs and other cast-off junk.

“This is what I do: I work with the garbage of the world,” says Eugene, assessing the largest sculpture displayed at the entrance of his studio and open-air museum off a crumbling street cutting through some of Port-au-Prince’s poorest neighborhoods.

The Haitian sculptor is a founding member of Atis Rezistans, a shifting collective of artists who recycle whatever useful scraps they can find to give a raw, physical shape to the spiritual world of Voodoo, or Vodou as the religion is known by Haitians, and weigh in on the country’s chronic political and economic troubles.

While Haiti’s established galleries were slow to warm to the scrap sculptors of the capital’s impoverished Grand Rue neighborhood, bustling with furniture-makers and other craftsmen, the artisans working with recycled materials have been embraced by a number of international art connoisseurs and academics.

Haiti Scrap Sculpture

Over the last decade, the work of Atis Rezistans has been exhibited in cities such as Paris, London, and Los Angeles. There are sculptures included in the permanent collections of museums, including the Frost Art Museum in Miami.

Haitian art has long had a reputation for imaginative richness, and wealthy international collectors including Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and filmmaker Jonathan Demme sought out self-taught painters colorfully evoking the everyday lives of Haitians or depicting dreamlike scenes. And even though found-object creations have been part of the poor country’s art for decades, experts say there has been nothing like the in-your-face works of Atis Rezistans.

“Atis Rezistans takes an old practice in new directions, expanding the range of materials used and offering stunning new meanings for objects found in everyday life,” said Marcus Rediker, a collector of Haitian art and a distinguished professor of Atlantic history at the University of Pittsburgh.

The materials that form the sharp-edged sculptures include automotive fragments, carved wood pieces, broken TVs, discarded toys and even real human skulls collected at a cemetery of mausoleums where bones were scattered by grave robbers.

Many of their artworks are a nod to Baron Samedi, the Vodou god of the dead, and his rambunctious offspring, Gede. Others offer a kaleidoscope of jarring images out of a Mad Max movie: sculptures of faces with spikes; masked figures resembling shrouded corpses; broken baby dolls fused with computer motherboards.

But it’s not all darkness. There’s plenty of evidence of playfulness and irreverent theatricality, such as a skull-topped figure with a stethoscope, snake sculptures with scales of inlaid bottle caps and much frank sexual imagery.

Perhaps their most acclaimed collaborative creation has been a mashup of high art-meets-developing world called the “Ghetto Biennale.” Every two years, international artists come to the Grand Rue neighborhood in a kind of cross-cultural festival that leaves the door open for just about anything.

The Ghetto Biennale takes a form developed for European art fairs and radically subverts it, according to Anthony Bogues, a Brown University professor who co-curated a 2011 exhibition of Haitian art at the Providence, Rhode Island school.

“Art for them is not about the elite but rather recognizing that art is a language in which Haitispeaks to itself and the world,” Bogues said of Atis Rezistans.

Collaborations with overseas artists who come to Haiti have given younger members of the collective chances to tap into art networks across the globe, while international artists are stimulated by the Haitian group’s creative process.

“Their philosophy to turn trash into art, thus something seemingly worthless into something valuable, has inspired me,” said Alice Smeets, a Belgian artist who collaborated with members of Atis Rezistans to create staged photographs in Haitian slums that depict figures from tarot cards.

Eugene hopes that the praise gathered for the group he founded with Celeur Jean-Herard, who has since departed the collective, can now translate into enough earnings to upgrade his yard’s musty museum and improve the lives of members. and local youngsters dubbed “children of the resistance” who sculpt and paint.

Though he has traveled the world with his art, Eugene still lives in a small concrete shack next to his Grand Rue workshop and “Musee d’Art,” where many sculptures are caked with dust and swathed in cobwebs. Two turkeys and several cats were the only visitors one recent afternoon.

He calls Atis Rezistans a social “movement” that should expand opportunities for its artists.

“I don’t want to be famous,” Eugene said in his rain-slicked concrete yard in the poor neighborhood, shortly after returning to Haiti from an exhibit of a major piece in Milan. “Step by step, I am looking to make money so we can improve our situation here.”

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David McFadden on Twitter: https://www.twitter.com/dmcfadd

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AFGHANISTAN: Afghanistan’s ArtLords try to reclaim Kabul

4 April 2016   BBC

A group of Afghan activists and artists are attempting to reclaim Kabul after years of war – by arming themselves with paintbrushes. Because of the poor security situation, many defensive walls have sprung up around high-profile buildings in the city, and these provide the ArtLords with their canvases.

Anti-corruption painting on the wall of Afghanistan’s National Directorate of Security

Image copyrightArtLords

The group has produced a series of paintings of eyes on the walls, which are mostly accompanied by the slogan “I See You” and are designed as a warning to corrupt officials. This set of eyes, on the wall of the National Directorate of Security (NDS), mysteriously disappeared only a few days after it was painted in December.

After a huge public outcry, the NDS asked the ArtLords to draw the painting again, but on a different wall, which the ArtLords refused to do. “Now we have the same eyes and slogans on the same wall,” ArtLords founder Omaid Sharifi says.

Omaid Sharifi working on a painting

Image copyrightArtLords

Omaid Sharifi says he wants the paintings to penetrate the politicians’ defences.

“They use these walls for protection and we want to take all that down.”

Baryalai Fetrat, sociology lecturer at Kabul University, says these paintings are “a powerful tool” for bringing about social change, cutting as they do across the educational divide.

Portrait of Afghan policewoman Fariba Hamid

Image copyrightArtLords

Policewoman Fariba Hamid was painted on the security wall of Kabul’s ninth police district, where she serves. The portrait was put up to celebrate International Women’s Day in March.

“We face lots of struggles,” the policewoman said of her role.

This painting appeared near the area in Kabul where an Afghan woman, Farkhunda, was fatally lynched by a group of men just over a year ago. She was falsely accused of burning the Koran.

The slogan beneath the picture says: “A brave man supports women.”

Painting of camel and heart in Kabul

Image copyrightArtLords

Not all the paintings are political – this one suggests a caravan of love from a country at war.

And the ArtLords have shown their work outside Afghanistan too.

This installation, which was showcased in Berlin in December, was “a mixed work between us and German artists”, Omaid Sharifi says. It was based on an image taken in 2014 at a camp for internally displaced people in Afghanistan.

Photographer Rada Akbar was documenting underage marriage when she captured a young mother, Naghma, and her baby daughter on film. Naghma, who was then 19, had been married for two years and had lived in the camp for 15 years.

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AFGHANISTAN: Obama’s Afghan Dilemma: To Bomb or Not to Bomb

BY: DAN DE LUCE, PAUL MCLEAR  

As Kabul’s fragile army struggles to hold the line, will Washington’s warplanes come to the rescue?

Obama’s Afghan Dilemma: To Bomb or Not to Bomb

The Taliban released a propaganda video in August that showed more than 100 fighters, clutching AK-47 rifles and sitting astride motorcycles, gathered in broad daylight outside the Afghan city of Kunduz to pledge allegiance to the group’s new leader. The scene would have been impossible two years ago, when any crowd of Taliban fighters would have been decimated from the air by U.S. warplanes.

Times have changed. The United States withdrew most of its troops in 2014 and dramatically reduced the number of airstrikes against Taliban targets throughout the country. The footage from Kunduz illustrated how the Taliban has been taking advantage of their new freedom: by conquering the city. The insurgents held Kunduz for two weeks before being pushed out by Afghan and U.S. personnel in October. Still, many officials believe it’s only a matter of time before the Taliban targets the city again.

The Taliban’s growing military might is posing a thorny strategic question for President Barack Obama, who took office promising to end what is now America’s longest war. The U.S. has spent tens of billions of dollars training Afghan security personnel, who have suffered enormous casualties while trying — and failing — to repel the Taliban’s advances in the country’s south, east, and north. That leaves the White House with an unpalatable choice: Keep the stringent rules limiting the numbers of strikes in place and risk seeing the militants continue to gain ground, or allow American pilots to bomb a broader array of targets at the risk of deepening Washington’s combat role in Afghanistan.

One Saudi’s Protest, Through The Viewfinder
A photography exhibit in Washington by a Saudi doctor-turned-artist casts a critical eye on Riyadh’s relationship with big oil and Mecca.
The rules of engagement were sharply curtailed with the formal end of NATO’s combat mission in January 2015. U.S. commanders can call in airstrikes only to protect NATO troops, target al Qaeda militants, or come to the aid of Afghan forces in danger of being overrun by the Taliban or suffering a clear defeat on the ground.

In practice, that meant the U.S. was rarely directly targeting the militants from the air. After U.S. Green Berets and their Afghan allies were ambushed near the town of Marja in Helmand province in January, the Americans called in 12 airstrikes to ward off Taliban attackers to buy time for a rescue force to arrive. And last October, U.S. commandos directed an AC-130 gunship to pound Taliban positions in Kunduz city during intense house-to-house fighting. The crew targeted the wrong building, killing 42 patients and staff at a Doctors Without Borders hospital.

With the Taliban on the march and the Islamic State expanding its presence in Afghanistan, senior Pentagon officials believe it’s time for those rules to change. They’re pushing for revising the rules of engagement so they would be free to fire on Taliban forces massing to seize territory and directly target their leadership.

That could mean a dramatic increase in the number of U.S. strikes against the Taliban, a group Washington has spent years trying to coax to the negotiating table.

It would also represent a sharp reversal of recent battleground dynamics in Afghanistan. Since the new airstrike rules were adopted in 2015, the U.S. air war has been drastically curtailed, according to U.S. Central Command. In 2014, while the NATO combat mission was still going, American warplanes dropped 2,365 bombs. In 2015, by contrast, U.S. aircraft dropped just 947.

The upshot is that while the political debate in Washington has long been focused on how many U.S. troops should remain in Afghanistan, the future of the war in Afghanistan could hinge not on the number of boots on the ground but on the role of American air power there.

Gen. John Campbell, until recently the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, spent nearly a year asking the White House to permit the U.S. military to bomb Islamic State targets. The administration didn’t sign off on the change until January. Defense officials have refused to detail airstrikes on ISIS targets.

The expanded air raids have helped roll back ISIS in the past two months, current and former Pentagon officials said.

Nicholas Haysom, the U.N. secretary general’s special representative for Afghanistan, told the Security Council on Tuesday that U.S. bombing raids have helped confine ISIS to a small corner of the country along its border with Pakistan.

But while Islamic State militants are under pressure from the air, the Taliban has been able to move fighters and equipment across the Pakistan border with impunity while launching conventional operations on a frequency and scale not seen since the U.S.-led invasion of 2001.

In the southern province of Helmand, where U.S. and NATO allies suffered serious casualties over the past decade, the ferocity with which the Taliban has surged into the area has knocked Afghan forces on their heels, forcing the army to pull out of key districts like Musa Qala and Now Zad. Overall, the Taliban controls five of the province’s 14 districts and is fighting to gain the upper hand in most of the remaining ones.

The Afghan government has lobbied Washington to delay a planned drawdown of the current 9,800-strong U.S. force and to keep up its assistance with air power and logistical support. About 3,000 of those troops are special operations forces, some of whom accompany Afghan commandos on missions, while the rest are trainers and advisors clustered mainly in Kabul.

James Cunningham, the former U.S. ambassador to Kabul, said Washington should allow the military to bomb a wider array of targets. “The administration should expand our commanders’ authorities to enable more flexible use of our military, especially air power, in support of both the Afghan security forces and the counterterrorism mission,” Cunningham told Foreign Policy.

The White House has been getting a similar message from Campbell. Throughout his tenure, he warned of the resiliency of the Taliban, making the case for slowing troop drawdown plans and expanding the role of U.S. advisers on the ground.

At congressional hearings last month, Campbell told lawmakers: “One of the things [Afghan forces] ask for every day is close air support.”

He said he viewed the Taliban as an enemy of the United States, because it had “killed many of my soldiers,” and that the scaling back of U.S. forces and air power had given the insurgency a boost.

The four-star general suggested Obama’s plan to reduce the number of U.S. troops to about 5,500 later this year might have to be discarded if local forces continue to struggle. “If the Afghans cannot improve, we’re going to have to make some adjustments. And that means that number will most likely go up.”

The blunt talk has landed Campbell in hot water at the Pentagon, where unnamed officials accused him of submitting his request for expanded airstrikes against the Taliban directly to the White House, bypassing Defense Secretary Ash Carter,according to The Washington Post.

At a news conference Tuesday, Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook declined to discuss the content of conversations between the general and Carter, though he stopped short of rebutting the report that Campbell had gone around the defense secretary. U.S. Central Command spokesman Col. Pat Ryder said Campbell went through the proper chain of command. In an email to The Washington Post, meanwhile, Campbell adamantly denied he had in any way tried to circumvent Carter’s authority.

The Pentagon said no decision has been made to broaden the air campaign in Afghanistan and that Gen. John “Mick” Nicholson, who recently succeeded Campbell as commander, is carrying out a review of the mission. The review will examine air power as well as the Obama administration’s tentative plan to reduce U.S. forces from 9,800 to 5,500 troops this year.

Obama and U.S. military leaders in Kabul have long grappled over the best use of America’s formidable air power in the war in Afghanistan. U.S. air raids helped topple the Taliban regime quickly in 2001. But former Afghan President Hamid Karzai frequently denounced Washington over airstrikes that killed and injured civilians. The U.S. approach has varied with different commanders. Gen. Stanley McChrystal scaled back the bombing to avoid alienating the Afghan population, while his successor, Gen. David Petraeus, ramped up the air raids in a bid to push the Taliban to the negotiating table.

The call for more air raids underscores the chronic weakness of Afghanistan’s security forces, despite $64 billion in American arms and training since 2002. Several provinces are now under threat of falling to the Taliban, and the Afghan forces remain plagued by desertion and shoddy leadership. When insurgents seizedKunduz city in September, Afghan police failed to put up much resistance and fled en masse. The Afghan army, meanwhile, initially refused to deploy beyond its base at the local airport, former Pentagon officials told FP.

Although the disorganized Afghan forces have struggled against the Taliban, NATO military officers have praised rank-and-file army troops for their willingness to enter into combat. Since the bulk of the NATO force departed, casualties have spiked among the Afghan army and police. About 16,000 Afghan troops were killed or wounded in 2015, up 28 percent from the previous year.

The Afghans are slowly building their own air force but it won’t be fully ready to fight until about 2020, according to Pentagon officials. The Afghan military already flies over a dozen Russian-made Mi-17 helicopter gunships, one Mi-35 attack helicopter, and 10 light-attack helicopters. Kabul’s punch from the air received a boost in January when the first four A-29 Super Tucano fighter aircraft arrived, along with eight pilots who were trained in the United States.

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DEVELOPMENT: Life Amid Conflict In Yemen: ‘Everyone has forgotten us’

By: Karl Schembri   21 March 2016The Guardian 

More than 80% of the population is now in need of humanitarian aid. On a visit to the capital Sana’a, Karl Schembri spoke to families struggling to cope.

A Yemeni child stands inside his house in Sana’a, damaged in an airstrike. Photograph: Mohammed Huwais/AFP/Getty Images

The first thing I noticed was the destroyed airport. I flew in to Yemen on a small aircraft chartered by the UN Humanitarian Air Service with a handful of other aid workers – at the time the only way for foreigners to make it to Sana’a. It felt surreal landing among other destroyed aircraft and the skeleton of what was once an international airport terminal.

On the way to the city, it was the types of places that had been bombed that really struck me: fuel stations, bridges, roads, factories. Instead of coffee kiosks the streets are now lined with mobile fuel sellers, as the Saudi-led blockade has made Yemenis turn to the black market for their essential daily needs.

Government and military buildings have become regular targets in the daily air strikes. Even when the attacks do not target civilians directly, it is always the innocent families who get hit in one way or another, and the effects are always devastating.

That’s what happened to Mahmoud Zeid last June. He was queuing to get cooking gas when an airstrike hit. Rushing to his home, he found his two-room house overwhelmed with fumes, all windows destroyed, part of the roof gone. His frail wife, Sabah, who suffers from kidney failure, had passed out. His children were terrified, trying to revive their mother while thinking of where to flee. There was shrapnel everywhere, kilometres away from the bombing site, and hundreds of families staggering through the rubble towards some place of safety.

A building destroyed during recent fighting in Yemen’s south-western city of Taiz. Photograph: Anees Mahyoub/Reuters

Zeid and his family walked to a school a few kilometres away, where they took refuge for months, sleeping in a classroom with other displaced families. On their first night, they slept on the floor, until they came by some blankets. The mother lost some of her kidney dialysis sessions, leaving her weaker.

I met them back in their house, where they returned after a few months, the windows still broken and the damaged parts of the roof patched with wood. They told me they’ve never been poorer. Zeid used to work as a tailor before the war and blockade started a year ago, but with no electricity in Sana’a and people having lost most of their spending power, the business had to close down.

“I can create anything: shirts, trousers, bags, but there’s no work right now,” he told me in tears. “As a father, as the head of the family … I can’t deal with this.”

Since the war started, they have had to pay for all of his wife’s medications, services and medical disposables used for her dialysis. She is weaker than ever, and keeps missing dialysis sessions when they don’t have money for the transport.

The Norwegian Refugee Council, together with support from United Nations World Food Programme, provides them with food aid, but they don’t even have the fuel to cook their dinner. While we spoke, Sabah was burning cardboard pieces, plastic and whatever they could find in streets, so that she could cook for the family.

Family in Yemen

Mahmoud Zeid, his wife Sabah and their son. The family has now returned to their damaged house. Photograph: Karl Schembri/NRC

As if Yemen – already the poorest country in the region – was not marginalised enough, the escalation in the conflict and blockade over the last year has pushed it even further out of sight but also further into poverty and desperation.

So much of what I saw during my 10 days in Sana’a reminded me of Gaza, where I lived for four years. The blockade and the massive poverty brought overnight because of it. The attacks on civilian infrastructure – from hospitals and schools to bowling alleys. And the sheer impunity with which all this happens. The air strikes at night keeps everyone guessing what the latest target is. But there is also a touching, overwhelming warmth that makes the Palestinians in Gaza and the Yemenis so similar. The more people are forcibly cut off from the rest of humanity through man-made barriers, the more they value the little details that make us human.

I cannot but admit failure in my job, in helping in any way to bring Yemen closer to the lucky, wealthier side of humanity. Even for those obsessed with raising walls and closing borders in Europe, Yemen doesn’t even feature because barely any Yemenis make it to Europe. There are 21 million people now in urgent need of humanitarian aid, more than 80% of the entire population. Half of them are suffering from hunger. But figures don’t move people.

As our driver Ziyaad took me back to the airport at the end of my stay, he asked a painful question: “I understand your job is to bring attention to our situation, but how do you do it? Nobody cares. We’ve been in this war for almost a year and everyone has forgotten us.”

Karl Schembri is Middle East regional media adviser for the Norwegian Refugee Council. Follow @Karl_Schembri on Twitter.

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ON THE MEDIA/AFGHANISTAN: Afghan Women’s Radio Returns After Taliban Attack

Afghanistan Womens Radio

In this Friday, March 4, 2016 photo, broadcasters of Radio Shaesta prepare themselves to go on-air, in Kunduz, Afghanistan. Radio Shaesta — Pashto for “beauty” — had sought to educate women about their rights and address taboo subjects like reproductive health and domestic violence. (AP Photo/Najim Rahim)

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — Six months after fleeing a Taliban assault on her city, the owner of an Afghan radio station devoted to women’s rights is back home and returning to the airwaves.

Zarghona Hassan is a lifelong activist and the founder of a radio station in Kunduz that until last year reached hundreds of thousands of listeners across northern Afghanistan, where the vast majority of women are illiterate and largely confined to their homes.

Radio Shaesta — Pashto for “beauty” — had sought to educate women about their rights and address taboo subjects like reproductive health and domestic violence.

A program called “Unwanted Traditions” took a critical look at centuries-old Afghan customs, like the forced marriage of young girls in order to resolve disputes. “Introducing Elites” featured interviews with women who have succeeded in politics and activism, and those who have helped other women in their communities.

“We have had an enormous impact on the lives of women, raising their awareness of their rights, of what they can achieve, encouraging women to take part in politics, to vote and to put themselves forward for provincial council seats,” Hassan said.

Programming also encouraged women to take an active role in ending the country’s 15-year war by exhorting their brothers and sons to lay down arms, she said.

Radio is a powerful medium in Afghanistan, where the literacy rate is less than 40 percent and much of the population lives in remote communities. Wind-up radios requiring no batteries are popular and widely accessible in communities where electricity is erratic or non-existent.

In northern Afghanistan, where just 15 percent of women can read and write, radio is a rare portal to the outside world. The U.N. Development Program says Shaesta reached up to 800,000 people.

“I’ve met illiterate women weaving carpets with the radio on because they can listen and it doesn’t interrupt their work,” Hassan said. “I once met a farmer out in his field who had a radio hooked over the horn of one of his cows.”

Hassan often invited Islamic scholars onto her programs to give their seal of approval. But the Taliban, who espouse a harsh version of Shariah law, view her and other women’s rights activists as purveyors of Western influence who threaten the country’s moral fabric.

She has received more death threats than she can count, one of which even specified an exact date. So when the insurgents stormed into Kunduz on Sept. 28, she knew she had to run.

“The Taliban had a list of all the women who were working in the government, civil society, media, women’s organizations,” she said. “I knew they were going to come for me.” She hid in a relative’s basement for two days before donning an all-covering burqa and fleeing the city.

The Taliban held Kunduz for three days, during which they looted businesses and hunted down activists and journalists. Afghan forces backed by U.S. airstrikes pushed them out more than two weeks later, but by then the militants had looted Shaesta and burned it to the ground, along with another radio outlet run by Hassan that was oriented toward youth.

Now, six months later, she has returned to Kunduz, and Shaesta has come back on air in time for International Women’s Day on March 8. She was able to rebuild the station with a $9,000 grant from the UNDP, which said it hopes to encourage a “courageous voice for change.”

“Women’s rights are a key lever toward improving the lives of the entire community,” said UNDP country director Douglas Keh. “When women and girls have the same opportunities (as men and boys) in education, and the same economic opportunities, society as a whole benefits.”

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DEVELOPMENT: Secret Aid Worker: Buzzwords Are Killing Development

Tuesday 8 March 2016

All I knew about the organisation was what was written on its website. A small NGO with high quality graphics? Smiling babies? Empowerment? Sold. Photograph: Ben Curtis/AP

Words like ‘human-centred’ and ‘grassroots’ aren’t helping communities, they just make donors feel better about patronising neo-colonialist practices.

International development professionals love their buzzwords. Empowerment. Agency. Community-based. Human-centred. Equal partnership. Grassroots.

I work for an NGO in sub-Saharan Africa that uses all of these words on its beautifully designed website, full of high-resolution photos of smiling African babies. We are all about “empowering the community” with a battle cry of “Healthcare for everyone!” We take every chance we can find to let you know that we, like apparently no other humans on earth, believe that health is a human right.

When I was offered the chance to work here, all I knew about the organisation was what was written on its website. I was impressed. A small NGO with high quality graphics? Smiling babies? Empowerment? Sold. They spouted all the words I had learned about community-based development in class, so they had to be doing things correctly, right?

Wrong. Oh, so so wrong. Here’s what I have found.

We talk about empowerment, yet our patients and our staff members, many of whom are beneficiaries of the organisation themselves, have zero input into how decisions are made. In fact, many of our lowest-paid employees are expected to use their own salaries to pay for work-related costs, leaving them effectively with no salary at the end of the month.

We talk about agency, and yet our board of directors is 100% white. Not one person of colour or from the beneficiary country.

We talk about grassroots development, and yet many of our programmes are defined by the whims of American “experts” thousands of miles away.

We talk about equal partnership, yet the local government offers few to no resources to our health programmes. What motivation will they ever have to provide these necessary services to their own population when foreigners are continuing to provide it for them?

As a person of colour, I cannot help but see how my parents must have felt in the post-colonial country they grew up in. People who do not look like you, who do not come from your socioeconomic background, who do not share any of your life experiences are the same ones who are making decisions for your people. And it’s difficult to question these practices when you know you are receiving services that would otherwise be unavailable. I know I am part of the problem.

We Americans continue to make decisions, citing positive feedback and eternal gratefulness from African beneficiaries as justification for not involving them in the decision-making process. They’re happy having access to the healthcare we gave them, so why take the time to involve them in decisions that directly concern their lives?

Empowerment and agency and human-centricity have come to seem like euphemistic ways to get donors to feel like they are not engaging in neo-colonial practices by defining and determining the presence of healthcare for populations worlds away from their own.

To address this issue, we know we should be actively searching out local leaders in the community, hiring should be more diverse, and foreigners should be taking the role of support staff, not local. So why don’t foreign NGOs make these changes, when they know that they should? Crude pragmatism is the most often used excuse. “We’ll have an American in this role now, but eventually, we’ll hire local staff.” Or perhaps, “We’re doing our best, and it was just too difficult to find anyone else who could do this job.” Or, as all NGOs state, “We did not have enough funding.”

However, practices such as seeking out diversity and being intentional about the role of foreign staff often does not require additional resources. It does, however, require a commitment to critical reflection and to a constant, rigorous analysis of whether practice is truly reflecting the intention of the buzzword. And “doing our best” cannot be good enough when the future of communities and countries are at stake. Yes, perhaps it will take longer to train local staff to do the jobs young Americans can do with their fancy university degrees, but it is the responsibility of organisations who have taken on this work to do it correctly, or at the very least, in the way they say they are doing.

Sure, formalised colonialism is over. But now we have to make sure we aren’t implementing an even more insidious, neo-colonial system that gives white, rich people around the world the power to make decisions for countries that are not their own.

Do you have a secret aid worker story you’d like to tell? You can contact us confidentially at globaldevpros@theguardian.com – please put “Secret aid worker” in the subject line. If you’d like to encrypt your email to us, here’s instructions on how to set up a PGP mail client and our public PGP key.

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DEVELOPMENT: Does the west really care about development?

By:  5 March 2016  The Guardian

oil

Prime Minister Mossadegh (right) of Iran, is amused by a miniature oil well presented to him during the 1951 US negotiations over oil. Two years later he would be deposed with the help of the CIA. Photograph: Bettmann/CORBIS

We need to stop pretending that the United States, France and Britain are benevolent champions of the poor.

When it comes to international affairs, western politicians love to celebrate their devotion to development. In her flagship speech on development as secretary of state, Hillary Clinton offered stories about US aid transforming the lives of poor people in Indonesia, Nicaragua and South Africa. Laurent Fabius, the minister of foreign affairs for France, recently hailed his country’s commitment to development in the former colonies of west Africa. And at last year’s UN sustainable development goals summit, David Cameron spoke proudly about Britain’s record of providing “stability and security” to poor countries.

But this narrative of western benevolence only works by relying on our collective amnesia. For a slightly less fairytale-like version of the west’s relationship with development, we need to rewind to the decades following the second world war.

After the end of European colonialism in Africa and Asia, and with the brief cessation of US intervention in Latin America, developing countries were growing incomes and reducing poverty at a rapid pace. Beginning in the 1950s, countries like Guatemala, Indonesia, and Iran drew on the Keynesian model of mixed economy that had been working so well in the west. They made strategic use of land reforms to help peasant farmers, labour laws to boost workers’ wages, tariffs to protect local businesses, and resource nationalisation to help fund public housing, healthcare, and education.

sukarno

1945: Indonesian president Achmed Sukarno posing with his family, his wife (R), their son Guntur and daughter Megawati (2nd L) at their home shortly after he was elected president. Photograph: -/EPA

This approach – known as “developmentalism” – was built on the twin values of economic independence and social justice. It wasn’t perfect, but it worked quite well. According to economist Robert Pollin, developmentalist policies sustained high per capita income growth rates of 3.2% for at least 20 years – higher than at any other time during the whole 20th century. As a result, the gap between the west and the rest began to narrow for the first time in history. It was nothing short of a miracle.

One might think western states would be thrilled at this success, but they were not amused. The new policies meant that multinational companies no longer had the easy access to the cheap labour, raw materials and consumer markets to which they had become accustomed during the colonial era.

Western powers – specifically the US, Britain andFrance – were not willing to let this continue. Instead of supporting the developmentalist movement, they set out on a decades-long campaign to topple the elected governments that were leading it and to install strongmen friendly to their interests – a long and bloody history that has been almost entirely erased from our collective memory.

shah

Mohammed Riza Pahlevi was instated as Shah of Iran in 1954. Photograph: Bettmann/CORBIS

It began with Iran in 1953. The democratically-elected prime minister, Mohammad Mosaddegh, was rolling out a wide range of pro-poor reforms, part of which included wresting control of the country’s oil reserves from the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (now BP). Britain rejected this move, and responded swiftly. With the help of the CIA, Churchilldeposed Mosaddegh in a coup d’etat and replaced him with an absolute monarch, Mohammed Riza Pahlevi, who reversed Mosaddegh’s reforms and went on to rule Iran with western support for 26 years.

The following year, the US did the very same thing in Guatemala. Jacobo Arbenz – the country’s second democratically-elected president – was redistributing unused portions of large private estates to landless Mayan peasants, with full compensation for the owners. But the American-based United Fruit Company took issue with this policy, and pushed Eisenhower to topple Arbenz. After the coup, Guatemala was ruled by US-backed dictatorships for 42 years, which presided over the massacre of more than 200,000 Mayans and one of the highest poverty rates in Latin America.

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Former Guatemalan President (1982-1983), retired General Jose Efrain Rios Montt, 86, during the 2013 trial against him on charges of genocide committed during his regime. Photograph: Johan Ordonez/AFP/Getty Images

Brazil, too, was hit by a US-backed coup; they deposed President Goulart for his land reforms, corporate taxes, and other pro-poor policies that western companies disliked, and replaced him with a military dictatorship that lasted 21 years. President Sukarno of Indonesia was ousted for similar policies and replaced by a dictator, who – with British and US support – killed more than one million peasants, workers, and activists in one of the worst mass murders of the century, and went on to rule for 31 years. And then of course there was Chile: the US helped depose President Allende, the soft-spoken doctor who promised better wages, fairer rents, and social services for the poor, and replaced him with a dictator whose economic policies plunged some 45% of Chileans into poverty.

Some regions never even got a shot at developmentalism, western intervention was so swift. In Uganda, Britain raised the murderous Idi Amin to power, who crushed the progressive Common Man’s Charter before it could be implemented. In the Congo, Patrice Lumumba, the country’s first elected leader, wasassassinated by Belgium and the CIA when it became clear he would restrict foreign control over resource-rich Katanga province. Western powers installed Mobutu Sese Seko in his place, a cartoonishly corrupt dictator who commanded the country for nearly forty years with billions of dollars in US aid. Under Mobutu’s reign, per capita income collapsed by 2.2% each year; ordinary Congolese suffered poverty worse than that which they had known under Belgian colonial rule.

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Chilean President Salvador Allende (R) alongside Cuban President Fidel Castro during his visit to Chile in 1972. Photograph: File Photo/Reuters/Corbis

In west Africa, France refused to cede control over the region’s resources after the end of colonialism. Working through the secretive Françafrique network, they rigged the first elections in Cameroon and handpicked the president after poisoning his main opponent. In Gabon, they installed the dictatorship of Omar Bongo and kept him in power for 41 years in exchange for access to the country’s oil.

We could rehearse many, many more examples, all the way up to the recent western-backed coups in Haiti. It is tempting to see this as nothing but a list of crimes – albeit one that casts serious doubts on the west’s claims to promoting democracy and human rights abroad. But it is more than that. It reflects an organised effort on the part of western powers to destroy the developmentalist movement that flowered in the global south after colonialism. They simply would not tolerate development if it restricted their access to resources and markets.

The legacy of this history is that there is nowgreater inequality between the west and the rest than there was at the end of colonialism. And a soul-scorching 4.2 billion people remain in poverty today. No one has been brought to justice for the coups and assassinations that destroyed the global south’s most promising attempt at development and crushed popular dreams of independence. Probably no one ever will. But we need to acknowledge that they happened, and stop pretending that the US, France and Britain are benevolent champions of the poor.

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ON THE MEDIA: Caught Between The East And West: The “Media War” Intensifies In Serbia And Montenegro

By: Marija Šajkaš and Milka Tadić Mijović   CIMA

Videographers in the Sava Centar in New Belgrade. Photo by Pål Nordseth and licensed via Creative Commons (CC BY 2.0).

As EU and U.S. assistance to independent media in Serbia and Montenegro declines, Russians are seizing the opportunity to support and promote pro-Russian media, broadcasting news in the local language, and investing in media development in the western Balkans. This turn of events bears watching by the international media development community and advocates for free and independent media.

At a meeting of EU foreign ministers in 2015, one of the hotly debated topics was Russia’s increasing influence on the countries that were formerly part of the Soviet Bloc, influence that is now especially aggressive in the media sphere. The chief conclusion of the meeting was that “extraordinary measures” have to be taken for the EU to counter Russia’s “active propaganda campaign,” and Federica Mogherini, the EU’s high representative for foreign affairs and security policy, was tasked with forming a “counter propaganda team.”

But it is becoming increasingly obvious that the new measures will focus primarily on the countries with large Russian-speaking populations that are part of the EU, such as the Baltic states, or the countries that Europe perceives as important, such as Ukraine. Parts of the western Balkans, which only recently emerged from ethnic wars and have yet to fully embrace democratic political processes—including creating stable, independent media institutions—are left to fend for themselves.  Due to historic ties, steady influence of the Christian-Orthodox Church, and the NATO bombing of the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s, citizens of the republics of Serbia and Montenegro are deeply divided over the relationships with the West and Russia, making it a welcoming ground for business, policies, and the messaging coming from Moscow.

Caught between the East and the West

Since the end of wars in former Yugoslavia, both countries define their foreign policy priorities in terms of the alliance with the European Union and, in the case of Montenegro, toward membership in NATO.  Not surprisingly, a number of senior Russian officials have openly opposed Montenegro’s entry into NATO. Acknowledging the current political situation, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said that together with Serbia, Macedonia, and some other countries, Montenegro is in “the line of fire” between the U.S.and Russia.

Although Western media such as CNN, BBC, Radio Free Europe, and Voice of America are present in the region, media liberties are shrinking, and professional standards are at historic lows. The highly fractured commercial market for media makes it vulnerable to capture by outside influences. Due to the shift in donor interests and lack of funding, the influence of the EU and American media development organizations is diminishing, leaving the void in the media sphere to be filed with reporting coming from Moscow.

Russian efforts to strengthen ties with the “brotherly nations” of Serbia and Montenegro, to use the phrase often heard from Moscow, is not restricted to the economy. By the end of 2014, with its slogan “Sputnik Tells the Untold,” Moscow launched Sputnik, a news portal in the Serbian language –shared by Montenegrins and Serbs–available on radio stations and streaming on the Web. It provides news content, analysis, and opinions.

Examples of the analysis include arguments supporting the idea that the Malaysia Airlines flight that went down in Ukraine was targeted by a Ukrainian missile system; and an article explaining that the G-7 sanctions on Russia are not related to the conflict in Ukraine but to the fact that Russia is currently one of the world’s “strongest economies.” Although Sputnik is registered as a local organization, in order to get any information about its operations written questions have to be submitted up front, and its headquarters in Moscow must approve the conversation. With its modern design and a staff of journalists who used to work for independent media, Sputnik is treated by many Serbian media as a trusted source of information and its content is uncritically shared by Serbian media.

The number of media outlets registered locally and supported with Russian capital In Serbia and Montenegro is increasing, as is Russian-sponsored content appearing in the local press. With its 300 pages and printed in full color on glossy paper, the magazineRussia Danas (Russia Today) has a mission to “create a positive image of modern Russia.”

Russian media style is appealing in the Balkans

Zoran Stanojevic, editor at Serbian National Television and a veteran journalist is of the opinion that Russian media is popular in the region not so much because of the content, but because of the style.  According to Stanojevic, Western media  are often too politically correct, leaving the impression that there is more to be told about a certain story, whereas Russian media are more direct, which Serbian viewers prefer. He also noted that Western media almost never report positively about Russian politics and Serbian viewers perceive that as bias.

According to Elena Popovic, secretary and general counsel of the Media Development Investment Fund, media in Serbia are so underfunded that they cannot afford to pay for content from news agencies such as Reuters and have to look to Russian and Chinese sources, as they are generally free of charge.

In Montenegro, Russians run several radio stations that cover practically all the coast and the big cities. They have established Russian-language schools and are engaged in NGO development, providing economic and technical support to organizations that oppose Montenegro’s plans to join NATO. Their biggest radio station, More, advertises its services in both languages and brands itself as the place to explain Montenegro to Russians and vice versa.

Russia Today is recruiting media workers for its Serbian language service. Russian money supplements the revenues of some Serbian and Montenegrin media that for years have advocated for Russia.

Russian Soft Power on the Rise in the Region

Russia’s penetration of the media space, not only of Serbia and Montenegro but also in other countries, is not unexpected, according to Predrag Simic, professor of political science at the University of Belgrade.  “I believe that this is a logical move for a country that wants to be a global power and to demonstrate its global power, to be a rival to the United States. This is what people do today. This is the so-called ‘soft power,’ or what the Americans call the power of the media,” Simic says.

Some measurable results of Russia’s orchestrated efforts to influence the media sector in the western Balkans are that more than half of the Serbian population now perceives Russia favorably, while only one-third is in favor of the EU. There is also a drop in support for EU membership and a steady negative perception of NATO, culminating in the refusal by Serbia to take part in EU sanctions against Russia. Although Montenegro was officially invited to join NATO in December 2015, its people are bitterly divided about that, with a 2015 poll showing 36.5 percent of the population to be in favor of it, 36.20 percent against it, and 27.3 percent of Montenegrins saying they would not vote either way.

The “Media War” Continues in Serbia and Montenegro

Serbs and Montenegrins are aware of the “media war” between the EU and Russia, though in their perception, forged by the local media, this is not a war for freedom of information but rather a battle between East and West.

However, perhaps the most troubling effects of Russian style journalism will be on local media in Serbia and Montenegro as it legitimizes state-controlled information and “patriotic reporting.”  Much like in the Russian media’s portrayal of President Vladimir Putin, Serbia’s prime minister is increasingly portrayed as a larger than life figure. The media report that he is the first to come to work, and the last to leave, that he cares for the country’s progress so much that he is not taking summer vacation.

Media influenced by Russia contribute to a fragmented picture of the world in which news is tailored for Russian political and economic interests, and the people of Serbia and Montenegro are left with increasingly unreliable information.


Marija Šajkaš is a U.S. correspondent for a Serbian weekly Novi Magazin. She has 25 years of experience working as a reporter, editor, and media consultant. Milka Tadić Mijović is a journalist, media executive, and was civic activist during the turbulent transition era in the Southeast Europe. She is one of the co-founders of the weekly Monitor, the first Montenegrin private and independent weekly magazine. 

 

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ON THE MEDIA: In Burma, A Chance For New Momentum On Media Reform

MARCH 14TH, 2016   By:      CIMA

For media freedom advocates, the NLD’s rise to power is a hopeful sign. (Photo by Htoo Tay Zar via Wiki Commons)

As Burma’s new National League of Democracy (NLD)-dominated parliament nears the selection of the country’s next president, media reform advocates will be looking for the NLD to continue reforms of the country’s media environment, but little is known about the incoming leadership’s policy priorities.

Ever since the country began to open up in 2011, the media landscape has evolved dramatically. What was once a repressive state controlled media space, has become a relatively more open landscape populated by new and formerly exile media entities jockeying for a share of an increasingly crowded market. Although the previous government made progress in media reform efforts, and frequently spoke in favor of further liberalizing the sector, a series of high profile incidents over the past two years cast doubts over the former government’s commitment to free and independent media.

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(Photo by Robert Daly via Flickr)

The Ministry of Information’s August 2015 defamation case against five members of the Eleven Media Group, followed by contempt of court charges for an additional 17 company staff, cast serious doubts over the government’s commitment to a free press. In addition, the government has been accused of complicity in recent cyberattacks against independent news outlets, including Irrawaddy, Democratic Voice of Burma, and Eleven Media, and routinely harassing journalists who report on seemingly sensitive topics such as security and defense matters.

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A Multi-stakeholder Approach to Regain Momentum

With a new government of NLD leaders set to take the helm this month, there is reason to hope that the lost momentum for media reform will be reclaimed, but little is known about the media policy priorities of the incoming NLD leadership.

It is in this context that Deutsche Welle Akademie (DWA) recently convened a multi-stakeholder meeting involving 40 representatives of private and state  media organizations as well as civil society activists, media lawyers. The goal of the meeting was to discuss ways to continue media reform efforts by identifying key challenges and articulating media policy priorities.

Notably, the meeting also brought together officials of the outgoing government and the incoming NLD leadership to discuss how the transition will effect media reform in the country. The NLD’s leading voice on media policy, U Aung Shin, a close confidante of NLD leader Aung San Suu Kyi, represented the NLD and sought to assuage concerns among attendees that the NLD might not consider media reform a key priority and that the leadership transition might stall implementation of the 2015 broadcast law.

Although the 2015 broadcast law is not without its flaws and will require improvement, including greater independence for the Press Council, the law still marks progress in the regulatory framework for Burmese media. Implementation of the law was of particular interest to DWA and others at the meeting because of provisions that will allow for the establishment of community radio stations in the country. U Aung Shin stated that community radio is in fact a key media policy priority for Aung San Suu Kyi. Although he did not elaborate on the position, this is an encouraging sign for community radio advocates in the country.

Community Radio – the Next Frontier for Media in Burma?

I recently spoke with Andrea Rübenacker, Deutsche Welle Akademie’s regional coordinator for media development programs in Southeast Asia about this issue. Ms. Rübenacker argued that community radio could play a vital role in the development of the media environment in Burma and significantly strengthen access to information in rural parts of the country. At present there are no community radio stations in the country, and despite the 2015 broadcast law, there is still no process for issuing licenses. Much work is yet to be done before community radio becomes a reality, but according to Rübenacker, if approved under the new government, DWA stands ready to implement a pilot community radio project in the country. Community radio could provide a much needed new platform for a plurality of independent voices addressing local issues across the country’s ethnically diverse and sometimes fractured regions. Although the law only allows for community radio licenses for “geographic communities” work will need to be done to ensure that Buddhist extremists and ultra-nationalists do not co-opt community radio frequencies to further their agendas.

Multi-stakeholder meetings, such as DWA’s recent dialogue in Yangon, that engage the government, civil society, and private sector media leaders are crucial for addressing sector-wide challenges in the media in a given country or region. Even in instances where seemingly pro-reform governments come to power, media reform can still be relegated to the back burner if political pressure is not applied by a wide range of stakeholders. The risk of inaction during windows of political opportunity is serious. Arcane and restrictive laws can be allowed to persist and new laws never properly implemented. Media reform advocacy requires persistent pressure from a broad coalition of actors, and this kind of engagement could shepherd  Burma closer to an open and free media landscape that the country will need to grow and prosper.


Paul Rothman is the Assistant Partnerships Officer at the Center for International Media Assistance in Washington, DC.

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ON THE MEDIA: Here’s How 4 Hyper-Local Newsrooms are Harnessing Video

By: Josh Stearns This post first appeared on Medium. MEDIASHIFT

Photo by Tim Caynes, used via creative commons    In January, media consultant Mario Garcia wrote that 2016 would be “the year of (more and better) video” and argued that “video should be central to any newsroom’s digital strategy.” Last month, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said in his keynote to the Mobile World Congress that “we’re going to be in a world a few years from now where the vast majority of the content that people consume online will be video.” And his company is tweaking their algorithm to privilege video more and more.
“… the rise of video on the web doesn’t have to leave local newsrooms behind.”
Doing video right can be expensive and resource intensive, and we’ve largely seen big newsrooms (BuzzFeed, Huffington Post, Washington Post) and video-centric start-ups (AJ+, NowThis) lead the way.
However, the rise of video on the web doesn’t have to leave local newsrooms behind. In New Jersey, four tiny local newsrooms are experimenting with the role of video at the hyperlocal level. All of these projects are very early in their testing and development, but each contain some useful ideas about how local newsrooms can test video with their audience.

1) Social Video as a Tool for Community Engagement
Jersey Shore Hurricane News (JSHN) is a local newsroom with three part time staff and was born on Facebook, where it now has more than 220,000 fans. In the last year, it has also grown its Instagram community exponentially and started a new project called #OneJerseyShore, in which they focus on different communities up and down New Jersey’s coast, asking people to submit photos and videos of their home towns. They then create videos along with a mix of original reporting and community content.

This is part of a strategic effort by JSHN to cultivate what they call a “contributor culture” where people are a part of the journalism process. The #JSHN tag has over 30k images on Instagram, and their goal is to build on people’s desire to share and connect by producing stories and engagement opportunities. The final videos are uploaded to YouTube and Facebook, as well as chopped up for use on Instagram.
Scrolling through both their Facebook and Instagram accounts, you see a ton of community-submitted footage. Some of that footage is of tranquil sunsets and beach scenes, but the Jersey Shore Hurricane News community also regularly submits video that breaks news, like this Coast Guard rescue.
“JSHN closes the gap between user-generated content and formal news reporting by producing stories that stem from community submissions,” Justin Auciello, the founder of Jersey Shore Hurricane News told me. “For example, with the Coast Guard rescue, JSHN confirmed the activity rapidly, posted the video, and then used that tip to contact the Coast Guard. The formal report — which included a gallery of user generated photos from the scene — came shortly thereafter, and it was posted on WHYY’s Newsworks, which partners with JSHN.” This unique pro-am model gives local people deep buy-in to the work of the newsroom.

2) Bilingual Weekly News Summaries
New Brunswick Today reports in English and Spanish online, in print and via a new video series. The New Brunswick Today team focuses on watchdog investigations, accountability reporting and daily news. Their week in review is just a few weeks old, and they are still developing the audience around it, but initial feedback has been positive. They are one of the only newsrooms I have seen investing in bi-lingual video at the hyperlocal level. New Brunswick Today currently has a crowdfunding campaign focused on expanding their original Spanish language reporting.

New Brunswick Today also regularly shows up with their cameras to local committee meetings where no other journalist is attending and shares the video on their site. Their work is forcing city departments to be more transparent. “The city council only started filming their meetings and putting them online after we made a commitment to doing it first,” said Sean Monahan, New Brunswick Today’s publisher, “It was something we had asked them many times to do.” But it wasn’t until after a few months of Monahan recording the meetings that the council began doing it themselves.
3) News in 90 Seconds
Brick City Live is a two-year-old hyperlocal site covering New Jersey’s largest city, Newark. Brick City Live’s founder Andaiye Taylor developed the video idea based on feedback from her community, and because no one else locally was covering local news this way.
The videos focus on repackaging content from the site and highlighting important stories from other outlets. She creates the script from headlines and Facebook posts written throughout the week, and the video includes images from the stories. Taylor uses text overlays to make sure people can still watch the videos with the sound off. Hers is the only one of the four sites doing that so far. All the videos are directly uploaded to Facebook, where she sees the primary audience for the videos. Once she builds up her audience for the videos, she plans to look for advertisers and sponsors.

4) Turning Videos into Revenue for Local News
Kevin Coughlin, the founder of Morristown Green, has had video on his site since its earliest days. I rarely see him without a video camera by his side. That fact recently helped land his footage on network news when he recorded a bear that took up residence in the local town green.

His video coverage includes local cultural events, high school talent shows, town committee meetings and much more. On his YouTube account, many of his videos have over 10,000 views, and some have more than a 100,000. That’s nothing compared to national newsrooms, but for a small local site like Morristown Green, those are big stats.
Coughlin makes money from his videos in a range of ways. He’s occasionally paid to record events at local universities, and he edits and sells videos of local events to performers and parents.

He has also been hired to create a video reel for a local guy auditioning for The Bachelor and a music video for a classical ensemble. On YouTube, some of his videos have preroll or pop-up ads on them, but those have produced very little revenue at this point. Finally, building on his love of video, he has run summer camps in video journalism for local teens and created a local film festival that was revenue positive the last year he did it.

Each of these journalists is developing video strategies rooted in their unique communities, but together they show a terrific range of experimentation. These aren’t the only small hyperlocal news organizations working with video. The Center for Community Journalism in the UK pointed me to other great work happening at sites like YourThurrock.com and Wrexham.com, which are doing great work on local politics and election videos.
With new tools like Periscope and Facebook Live, local newsrooms can marry these edited videos with livestreaming from news events. If you want to think through the role of video in your newsroom, this report from the Tow Center for Digital Journalism is a good place to start. Also check out the lessons learned from Kasia Pilat’s work developing video products and strategy with the Daily Dot.
      Josh Stearns is the Director of Journalism & Sustainability at the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation. Follow him on Twitter and sign up for the weekly Local Fix newsletter on innovation, community engagement and local news.

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AFGHANISTAN/DEVELOPMENT: Afghanistan’s surprisingly predictable economic crash

By Jared Ferrie  Asia Editor  14 March 2016 IRIN

People lined up at the passport office in Kabul

Afghanistan’s economic collapse was sudden, surprising, and entirely predictable.

When the United States withdrew around 60,000 soldiers just over a year ago, much of the money propping up the crippled economy left with them. Their departure was part of the end of a NATO mission that at its peak included 100,000 US troops and 30,000 from other nations.

The mass withdrawal was scheduled years ago. But nobody – neither the previous Afghan government nor international donors – came up with a comprehensive plan to ease the blow of the economic shock that would surely follow.

“I have not seen anything that would indicate that we developed any programmes anticipating this tremendous negative impact on the economy,” John Sopko, the Special Investigator General for Afghanistan Reconstruction who reports to Congress on how US aid money has been spent, told IRIN.

“Shame on us,” he added.

Likewise, Afghan officials in former president Hamid Karzai’s administration seemed oblivious of the economic catastrophe that was bearing down on them.

“Not enough people grasped the meaning of it and looked at the macro and micro economic impact that it might have on Afghanistan,” said Omar Samad, a senior advisor to the current government and former ambassador to Canada and France.

“People assumed that it would be business as usual.”

It wasn’t though. Instead, a lot of business left with the Americans.

In comments included in a January report by Sopko’s office, SIGAR, President Ashraf Ghani said at least 100,000 jobs were lost in the transport sector alone, which had contributed about 22 percent of Afghanistan’s GDP. The construction sector and services connected to it had been driven by US military contracts and accounted for 40 percent of GDP.

The loss of the money flowing into the economy from jobs and contracts connected to the US military had an immediate effect. Economic growth plunged to 1.3 percent in 2014, down from an average of 6.9 percent from 2007 to 2012, according to the World Bank. The average yearly income per person fell from $730 in 2013 to $680 the following year.

Afghanistan economic growth rates

World Bank Afghanistan economic growth rates

Who’s in charge?

IRIN requested comment from the US Agency for International Development, the State Department and the Department of Defense about the current economic crisis, the lack of preparation for it, and failures that SIGAR has uncovered with American aid projects. Only USAID responded.

“In advance of the drawdown of international troops and the 2014 election, USAID developed a transition plan to guide our support for agriculture-led economic growth, with a particular focus on supporting the Afghan government’s ability to generate the revenue needed to support the Afghan private sector,” said Larry Sampler, who works with the agency on Afghanistan and Pakistan affairs.

As an example, Sampler cited USAID’s development of an electronic payment system for customs duties on imports. Previously, payments would be collected in cash, which would then be driven to the bank in an armoured car. The electronic payments are quicker, safer and allow the government to more efficiently collect customs duties, a key source of revenue.

Sopko said many US-funded programmes were successful, but overall reconstruction has been characterised by mismanagement and waste. Such a scattershot approach has led directly to the current economic crisis. While USAID and other agencies may have had their own strategies to ease Afghanistan through the transition period, there seems to have been little coordination and no overarching plan.

Afghanistan’s Finance Ministry also declined to comment.

What went wrong?

The US alone has pumped at least $113 billion in reconstruction aid into Afghanistan since helping to overthrow the Taliban at the end of 2001, according to SIGAR. That does not include having the US military on the ground fighting, which would bring the cost to almost a trillion dollars, but it’s more than America spent on the Marshall Plan to rebuild Europe after the Second World War.

Despite that staggering investment, Afghanistan in 2016 looks nothing like West Germany 14 years after the end of the Second World War. So what went wrong?

Quite a lot, as it turns out.

SIGAR has published a series of reports exposing waste, corruption and mismanagement of programmes led by USAID, the Department of Defense, and the State Department.

They include an investigation into the DoD spending $486 million on cargo planes for the Afghan Air Force, which found that “those aircraft could not even meet operation requirements in the Afghan setting”. Eventually, 16 of them were sold for scrap metal at six cents a pound, fetching $32,000.

Another investigation showed that the DoD’s Task Force for Business and Stability Operations spent almost $150 million on housing for staff members who oversaw “unfinished, poorly planned, and ill-conceived projects”. They included a $6 million plan to import nine Italian goats to stimulate a cashmere industry. The Task Force has been disbanded and the fate of the goats remains unknown.

Not all projects were failures, of course, and there’s no doubt that Afghanistan’s economy is better off now than it was under the Taliban. But the overall approach to rebuilding Afghanistan was haphazard, say insiders.

“There were problems with aid being asked to be spent too quickly, and too much of it, and not directed at the longer term,” said Bill Byrd, who was country manager and economic advisor at the World Bank in Afghanistan from 2002 to 2006 and is now with the United States Institute for Peace.

Byrd and others, including Samad, said donors neglected the key sector of agriculture, as well as other important areas like water management and infrastructure development. Samad said the main focus had been on security, while development planning was “erratic”.

“Every year, or every other year, everybody got together and changed course, changed priorities,” he said. “We were not very consistent with follow-up and implementation.”

That lack of focus meant that some sectors of the economy and some people benefited greatly, while others were left behind. A World Bankreport shows that the poverty rate stayed at 36 percent between 2007 and 2012 even as there was strong economic growth, including an astonishing 21 percent in 2009. Instead of raising living standards for the majority of Afghans, inequality increased.

A shoeshine boy in Kabul

Jim Huylebroek/IRIN Many poor families send their children to work like this boy shining shoes in Kabul

What now?

It’s not all bad news. The World Bank predicts economic growth to rise steadily for the next few years. There have been major successes in health and education, as well as training and equipping the Afghan military, which is now facing a rising insurgency from not only the Taliban, but from other groups including the so-called Islamic State.

Worsening security is feeding the economic crisis, and fractures in the government are not helping, said Byrd.

Afghanistan’s National Unity Government was created as a way out of a political crisis, after the disputed results of 2014 elections threaten to tip the country into another armed conflict. The UN oversaw an extensive audit, but the results were never made public. Instead, Ghani was appointed president, while the new position of Chief Executive Officer was created for his challenger, Abdullah Abdullah.

“It seemed almost like the NUG agreement was a recipe for inaction, and that is a problem,” said Byrd. “The National Unity Government needs to act more like a unified government that’s responding to what by consensus is a national emergency.”

There are indications that the NUG can be decisive. Byrd pointed to the government’s success in getting tax hikes approved by parliament and improving tax collection, which increased government revenue by more than 20 percent last year.

“I think it’s an example that its not impossible for the government to function and it achieved a credible and significant success,” he said. “The situation would have been worse if the hemorrhage of revenue had continued in 2015.”

Samad said it’s impossible to disentangle poor security and governance from the economic crisis, and improvements in those fields are key. He downplayed divisions in the NUG and pointed to Ghani’s widely heralded commitments to fighting corruption, as well as efforts by the government to create political space for peace negotiations with the Taliban.

Even if the government’s anti-corruption strategies and peace negotiations are successful, it won’t be any time soon.

“Nobody’s holding their breath for peace tomorrow,” said Samad.

Voting with their feet

Many Afghans have grown tired of waiting for things to get better. Instead, they are leaving the country in higher numbers than at any time since the Taliban. Afghans comprise the second largest number of arrivals in Europe after Syria, making up almost a quarter of asylum claims, according to the UN refugee agency, UNHCR.

The Tahiri family, for instance, is packing up shop and heading to Europe – anywhere in Europe – despite the considerable costs and dangers.

Standing outside the central passport office in the capital, Kabul, Ahmad Tahiri (not his real name) explained that sales at his fabric shop have been so slow over the past year that he can barely support his wife and three children.

“Now we have come to a conclusion that if we stay things will even get worse,” said his younger brother, Abdullah. “That’s why we will spend everything we have to reach a better place – if not for us at least for our next generation.”

(Nisar Ahmad contributed reporting from Kabul. Cover photo: Afghans line up at the central passport office in Kabul in August 2015)

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DEVELOPMENT: The Empowerment of Women Will Be Central to Realising Sustainable Global Development

By Mary Robinson   original

Mary Robinson, former president of Ireland,(1990-1997) and former United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (1997 to 2002).

DUBLIN, Mar 4 2016 (IPS) – “Planet 50-50 by 2030: Step It Up for Gender Equality” – the theme of this year’s International Women’s Day serves as a timely reminder that, despite incremental progress of recent years and the ambition of the new global development agenda, we must redouble efforts to achieve a world underpinned by gender equality. All women must be empowered to realise their full and equal rights. But what does it actually mean to step it up for gender equality?

Mary Robinson

Mary Robinson

For me, this requires targeted approaches to ensure that all women have a voice in the formulation of decisions that impact upon their lives. This is particularly important when it comes to facilitating the engagement of grassroots women. To realise the “leave no-one behind” approach called for in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the commitment “to reach the furthest behind first”, grassroots women must be recognised as key actors in global sustainable development.

Grassroots women around the world hold a wealth of knowledge which we will need to manage the impacts of climate change and accelerate sustainable development. However, in order to properly value this knowledge and put it to use, women must be allowed to participate meaningfully in the design, planning and implementation of policies and programmes that impact on their lives. Ensuring women’s voices are heard and their needs acted uponis central to advancing climate justice.

The impacts of climate change are different for women and men.

Grassroots women are more likely to bear the greater burden in the face of climate change, particularly in situations of poverty. Climate change exacerbates existing patterns of inequality, including gender inequality. Grassroots women have limited access to productive resources; restricted mobility and little voice in decision makingleave them highly vulnerable to climate change. Climate policy, to be effective, must understand these underlying inequalities in order to address the different ways in which climate effects grassroots women.

Enabling the meaningful participation of women is not just the right thing to do, it is also the smart thing to do. The global development sector has learned, sometimes the hard way, that programmes designed for vulnerable communities, without engaging with the women of the community, rarely achieve their desired outcomes. This important lesson is reflected in the Sustainable Development Goal 5 https://sustainabledevelopment.un.org/sdg5 (Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls) which includes a target to: ‘Ensure women’s full and effective participation and equal opportunities for leadership at all levels of decision-making in political, economic and public life’. This need is particularly acute in the case of grassroots women. Unfortunately, the importance of including women in decision making and promoting women’s leadership is less well understood by the climate regime. Yet the majority of those on the front lines of poverty and climate change are women.

Some progress has made under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). In 2012 the Parties to the Convention adopted the Doha Miracle (Decision 23/CP.18), a decision to enhance the participation of women in climate change negotiations.Parties will review progress against the ambition this decision at COP 22 in November. When they do, however, they will see that only slight gains have been made in terms of equality of representation at negotiations. For instance, the latest UNFCCC Gender Composition Reporthighlights that only 36% of delegates were women at COP 20, and this figure drops to 26% when considering heads of delegations. In Lima Parties agreed to commence the Lima work programme on gender, a two year exploration of the gender dimensions of climate change and the Paris Agreement on climate change recognises the need for gender equality and women’s empowerment.

These are all signs of progress, but a lot more needs to be done to be done in order for women’s voices to be thoroughly included in the formation of climate action. A key next step is investment in training and capacity building for grassroots women in order to enable full and effective participation. This is captured in SDG 13 (Take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts) which includes a target which calls on States to promote capacity building mechanisms in small island developing states and least developed countries to assist women, youth and local and marginalised communities to take part in climate change-related planning and management. Operationalising this target will be critical to achieving a harmonised and people centred approach to both the sustainable development agenda and the new climate agreement.

In 2015, the global community laid a foundation upon which we can build a safer world with opportunity for all. In concluding the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the Paris Agreement on climate change, world leaders signalled a willingness to change course – to leave behind the unequal and unsustainable traditional development models and move towards a future free from poverty and want, with abundant clean energy and a healthy environment.

In 2016 we begin to plan and implement these two ambitious, universal international processes; we must ensure that women’s voices, and human rights, inform our actions. Grassrootswomen must not be seen simply as passive recipients of climate assistance. They are key actors in achieving their right to development. By acknowledging grassroots women as agents of change within their communities, valuing their knowledge and building their capacity to adapt, decision makers can develop sustainable, long term climate solutions at a local level which will strengthen whole communities.

As we “step it up for gender equality”, I call on all those in positions of influence to provide the platforms for grassroots women to speak to for themselves. Listening to, and valuing,theirknowledge and experiencewill help to shape progresstowards 2030 that is good for people, the planet and gender equality.

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ON THE MEDIA: Every Day Is a Good Day to Hear More Women in the Media

By Farhana Haque Rahman  original

ROME, Mar 7 2016 (IPS) – On International Women’s Day newspapers and radio shows are filled with women’s voices. Yet too often the media’s attention is fleeting.

These are the best of times, but without a doubt also the worst of times, for journalism and journalists – especially women in the media.

Farhana Haque Rahman

Farhana Haque Rahman

According to the Global Media Monitoring Project, women still account for only 24 percent of the people “heard or read about in print, radio and television news across the world.”

Or as women’s media organisation Foreign Policy Interrupted have put it: “a woman over 65 is less likely to be cited as an expert in the media (than) a boy in the 13 to 18 age group.”

Hearing women in the media is not just about who is holding the notebook and voice recorder. Journalists also need to think about who they quote in their articles.

IPS is proud to have an editorial policy of deliberately seeking quotes from women on all topics, not just on topics that have traditionally been considered “women’s issues”.

For those women who are journalists, many face violence and harassment even as they go about their daily work. Two-thirds of more than 900 women journalists surveyed by the International Women’s Media Foundation said they had experienced some kind of threat or abuse – often by male colleagues. We all should take a deep breath.

More than one in five of the women media professionals asked said that they had experienced physical violence in relation to their work – the majority of these described it as sexual in nature – and government officials, police and apparently random people in crowds were cited as frequent perpetrators.

IPS applauds the efforts of UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova and Christiane Amanpour, the high-profile CNN correspondent who is now serving as UNESCO’s Goodwill Ambassador on freedom of Expression and Journalist Safety, on their campaign to stamp out the most existential threats to female journalists.

Yet any gains made in bringing women’s voices to the fore in the media are threatened when the news industry itself is put under pressure.

The sector is already in a commercial pinch, reducing resources available for reporters to provide their watchdog function. On top of that, there is a sense of growing censorship, taking different forms in different parts of the world.

Press freedom isn’t threatened only by violence. Esteemed scholar Partha Chatterjee denounced what he called a “McCarthyite era” wave in India. Journalists have been killed or intimidated in countries across the globe, and many deliberately avoid reporting on their nemeses. And the bad winds aren’t blowing only in developing countries. A U.S. presidential candidate fanned the flame of our concern last month when he suggested changing libel laws to make it easier to “win money” from journalists by suing them.

Free speech is widely believed to be a public good. But it is also “the most complex and controversial right,” in the recent words of Irene Khan, head of the International Development Law Organization (IDLO). It may not be an absolute right but it is one that is intimately tied up with what Khan called “the right to hear.”

We have a right to hear diverse voices and particularly women’s voices in the media every day. We – including we journalists – also have a responsibility to listen.

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AFGHANISTAN/DEVELOPMENT: Afghanistan’s Path to Women’s Rights Is Paved With Risk, but Built on Hope

Women in the Afghan National Army. U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Laura R. McFarlane/Released. Creative commons.

For Afghan women, the systematic repression and violence of the Taliban era was replaced by opportunities, but also fear and insecurity in the aftermath of the U.S.-led invasion of their country.

Today gender politics in Afghanistan are more complicated than ever, with victories in some areas qualified by setbacks in others.

Since the beginning of this year the Afghan National Women’s Cycling Team has been nominated for the Noble Peace Prize, while Sumaya Ghulami won gold in taekwondo at the South Asian games held in Guwahati and Shillong, India, an achievement unthinkable during the Taliban era.

But women have been among the greatest victims of the intensifying Taliban insurgency and a rise in criminal violence that neither the frail government in Kabul nor the shrinking American military contingent on the ground have been able to contain.

Read and weep

The age of social media has shone a spotlight on some of the most egregious examples of violence against women in recent times.

Last November, in a Taliban-controlled village in Ghor province, central Afghanistan, a 19-year-old woman, Rokhshana was stoned to death for adultery.

The adultery charge was technical in nature — an escape from a marriage that had been forced on her — and the viral video of the stoning seemingly filmed on a cell phone inspired widespread disgust across Afghanistan’s growing online networks.

Ghor province’s  former governor Seema Joyenda, only the second woman governor to be appointed in Afghanistan, became one of the main champions for justice for Rokhshana.

But Joyenda herself was eventually pushed out of office after conservatives led a successful — if not uncontested — campaign to remove her from office.

Rokhshana’s stoning came just months after another horrific incident that attracted the attention of the world, when a mentally ill woman, Farkhunda, was beaten to death and burned for allegedly setting a Koran on fire.

One of the most horrible incidents of gender-based violence in the post-2001 period took place at the very end of last year.

Pajhwok Afghan news reported that eleven men, including four policemen, gang-raped a girl of nine in the country’s northwest, where the government and the Taliban are vying for control.

Afghan women in the spring

But the news is not all bad.

This month Sumaya Ghulami returned to Afghanistan to a hero’s welcome after her taekwondo gold in 2016 South Asian Games. She was publicly congratulated by President Ghani and widely lauded in the press.

Ghani’s wife, Rula Ghani, recently announced plans to build the country’s first women-only university with funding from the government of Turkey, a move seen as key to guaranteeing women’s access to higher education.

Meanwhile, over a hundred Italian MPs suggested the Afghan women’s cycling team for the Noble peace prize earlier this month. The nomination thrilled the Afghanistan section of Twitter.

Such events are symbolic of a growing visibility for women in public life. In the parliament, women make up 28% of the seats — a bigger proportion of women than in the US Congress.

However, no woman has headed the parliament, indicating that a female presence in domestic politics can expand without necessarily translating into real power.

A clear example of this was Ghani’s attempt to include a woman judge into the national high court council, which was swiftly blocked by a parliament where conservatives are gaining ground.

Long road to respect

The Afghan woman’s position in society is thus subject to flux, varying from community to community.

Hazara women have seen a particularly fast-paced change in their lives, influenced possibly by higher rates of female education relative to other ethnic groups in the post-Taliban era.

Among Afghanistan’s most influential women are Sima Samar Head of the Afghan Human Rights Commission and Afghanistan’s first female governor Habiba Sarabi of Bamiyan province, both ethnic Hazara.

Laila Haidari, another Hazara, is a woman social volunteer who has found the Mother Camp which treats drug addicted men.

But women across groups in the country remain prejudiced by Afghan civil law, which reserves the right of divorce exclusively for men, while family matters remain under the control of the head of the family in most cases.

And critically, the Taliban is gaining ground across the country, even as the movement itself splinters, while hardline clerics have continually decried women’s rights as a Western imposition.

In such a fluid environment, women are locked in a contradiction: they enjoy more space for participation than they did 15 years ago, but are also most likely to be a lightening rod for the inevitable conservative backlash.

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DEVELOPMENT: The Great Land Rush Series: Ethiopia: The billionaire’s farm

The Great Land Rush

Across the globe, investors are betting billions on land. Tom Burgis reports from Ethiopia, where a tycoon has planted a vast rice farm in soils tainted by years of conflict

1. THE HARVEST

As an orchestra of mosquitoes and crickets greeted the dusk, Bedlu Abera looked out over fields of rice stretching across the Ethiopian lowlands towards the horizon. A flicker of contentment crossed his face. “It’s satisfying,” he said. “We are making progress.”

Mr Bedlu was overseeing Saudi Star Agricultural Development’s first substantial harvest. Every few minutes he answered a crackling query on his walkie-talkie. There was urgency to his farmhands’ work. The land here is almost too fertile. It must be cleared and planted again swiftly, before the rains return.

The deepening darkness formed a canvas for an orange flame in the distance, beyond the perimeter of the farm. A hunter had set a fire to send prey scurrying from the undergrowth into his snares. Closer at hand, parked beside an irrigation canal, stood a combine harvester, at rest after a day in the rice fields.

This remote spot is a frontier in a contest for land that stretches from Myanmar to Saskatchewan. Investors are betting billions on an asset that is both more abundant and more fiercely contested than any other. The struggle playing out in the Ethiopian lowlands is a glimpse of others to come in a crowded, warming world.

Mr Bedlu, pictured, is 40, stocky and thoughtful. He wore hobnail boots and a scruffy goatee. He took over as Saudi Star’s farm operations manager in 2014. He made light of the hardship, but swapping the pleasant warmth of his home in the highland capital city of Addis Ababa for the fly-blown humidity of the lowlands had been tough. His family had yet to join him.

Saudi Star’s proprietor, a Saudi-Ethiopian tycoon named Mohammed al-Amoudi, has spent more than $200m turning a swath of bush into a farm the size of 20,000 soccer pitches. That puts the sheikh, as he is known, in the vanguard of the global land rush.

As the populations of better-off nations move to cities in ever greater numbers, the gap between the amount they grow and the amount they eat widens. Agricultural trade has long filled this gap. But a price shock in 2007, when staple crop prices doubled in a few months, demonstrated that global markets for food can break down. Then the financial crisis created demand for investments that were not linked to volatile equities and bonds. Governments, multinational companies and institutional funds started to pour millions, then billions, into other countries’ land.

From Southeast Asia to Latin America and sub-Saharan Africa, investors are seeking to profit not simply by trading the fruits of the earth — the rice and the coffee, the oil and the gold — but by controlling the land itself.

Few countries have attracted such attention from land-hunters asEthiopia. A nation plagued by famine now envisages vast commercial farms pumping food around the region. But for millennia, land has been the source both of great advances and of bloodshed. Saudi Star’s patch of earth is no different.

Back in the cabin that houses his office after sundown, Mr Bedlu cradled a few grains of the farm’s rice in his palm. Saudi Star’s agronomists have bred Indian and Pakistani seeds into 62 varieties, testing each for their fecundity, resilience and flavour. Mr Bedlu spoke with relish of his three favourites. Two of them, Midroc 1 and Midroc 7, were named after Mr al-Amoudi’s conglomerate, the latest additions to a business empire that extends from Swedish oil refineries to Saudi defence contracts and has made him what Forbes estimates to be an $8.5bn fortune. The third, Gambella 1, took its name from the poor region in whose soils the sheikh has planted his grains.

Some of the variations are bred for the domestic market. Others are blended to suit the tastes of the wealthy rice eaters across the Red Sea. The price crisis exposed the vulnerability of countries that import what they eat, none more so than Saudi Arabia. It is said that Saudi Star was born after Mr al-Amoudi presented a sack of Ethiopian rice to King Abdullah. The monarch, delighted by its quality, gave his blessing to the sheikh’s plan for a vast farm across the sea.

In 2009, Saudi Star took a lease on 10,000 hectares in Gambella for 50 years. Later it added 4,000 more hectares when it bought an adjacent state farm. But the project struggled at first. The site is remote, the roads mostly unpaved and the locals are sceptical, even hostile.

Saudi Star’s was one of the most high-profile projects of an investment drive in which Ethiopia’s government leased 2.5m hectares, an area slightly smaller than Belgium. More than the same again is on offer. The government’s goal was to bring in modern farming technology to generate exports that would help a serious balance-of-trade problem and, some say, cement the ruling elite’s control over the fertile lowlands.

November’s harvest, covering only a portion of the allocated land, was long overdue. It was initially forecast to yield 10,000 tonnes of rice but Saudi Star halved the outlook after poor rains. The company plans to spend another $100m by 2018 completing 21km of irrigation canals, levelling the ground using lasers and bringing in more machinery. That would double the farm’s yield, allowing annual production of 140,000 tonnes, more than enough to supply the entire Ethiopian market.

Mr Bedlu, who studied plant science at university in Egypt, blamed the farm’s initial troubles on mistakes by inexperienced managers and consultants. He was part of a team that Mr al-Amoudi installed in 2014. It has brought expertise of large-scale commercial farming and is trying to improve community relations. The 4,000-strong staff includes 1,300 locals: 300 on permanent contracts and 1,000 seasonal labourers.

Temesgen Desigew, a rangy 23-year-old from a nearby town, has already risen to the position of agricultural supervisor. He joked that he wanted Mr Bedlu’s job one day. Asked whether his father, who grows maize on the family plot, used a combine harvester, Mr Temesgen’s eyes widened. “No, no,” he said. “An ox.”

Temesgen Desigew, who works as a supervisor at Saudi Star

Temesgen Desigew, who works as a supervisor at Saudi Star

Education in Gambella is rudimentary for most, so local hires are trained from scratch. In the rice-processing plant housed in a vast hangar rising from the scrub, a Pakistani technician took pride in the skills he was imparting to his local charges. “It’s difficult,” he admitted, his grin unwavering. “There are 86 languages in this country.”

Mr Bedlu was learning the language of the Anuak, the main ethnic group in the area, one of the two biggest in Gambella. Their livelihoods are rooted in farming and some have found work at Saudi Star. But armed guards on the perimeter were a reminder of what happened on April 28 2012, when decades of lowlander grievances were unleashed on the sheikh’s farm.

Guards on duty at Saudi Star's farm

Guards on duty at Saudi Star’s farm

A group of gunmen, widely held to have been Anuak militants, opened fire at the company’s compound. They killed at least five employees before fleeing. Reprisals followed. According to Human Rights Watch, the military rounded up villagers, beating the men and raping the women.

The attack was a lesson for the new lords of the land, whether in Gambella or Brazil, Madagascar or Scotland. They can come with the promise of jobs, technology and progress. But land is like the lion that prowls near Saudi Star’s farm: hard to tame.

2. A NATION OF FARMERS

From the air, most of Ethiopia looks like a vast patchwork of tiny plots, each a slightly different shade of ochre or green.

This is a nation of smallholders: 85 per cent of employment is in agriculture and 95 per cent of all agricultural produce comes from small farms, typically the size of a couple of football pitches.

Of that, 80 per cent is consumed by the households that produce it; only 20 per cent is sold. These farmers rely on their hands, some rudimentary tools and the fickle rains.

A mere 5 per cent of agricultural output comes from big commercial farms. Yet they form an important plank in the government’s strategy to complete a journey from famine to prosperity by the middle of the century

Hundreds of thousands of Ethiopians have starved to death in periodic famines. Another 8m were declared at risk by the UN in November. Nonetheless, a country once synonymous with deprivation has found its swagger. Official figures in this country of 97m people show more than a decade of double-digit growth, with strong exports of coffee, livestock and cut flowers.

Some analysts question the numbers, especially when they are accompanied by famine warnings. But there is physical evidence of advancement too: the smooth new roads, the telecoms infrastructure, the dams — and Barack Obama, who in July last year became the first sitting US president to visit Ethiopia. The country is a self-styled “developmental state”: a nation, like China, Singapore or Rwanda, where an authoritarian government sets a strict economic path.

The ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front took power when it toppled the communist regime in 1991. Dominated by highlanders, as those from central and northern Ethiopia are known, it established a record for economic competence and intolerance of dissent. A surge of opposition support ahead of 2005’s elections prompted a crackdown: government forces violently dispersed protests against alleged rigging. In last year’s polls the party and its allies won every seat in parliament. Resistance to government high-handedness has boiled over in recent weeks into protests that have drawn a deadly response from the authorities. Ethiopia sits in the bottom 25 of Freedom House’s press freedom rankings, close to Russia and Saudi Arabia. Under a counter-terrorism law that human rights activists and lawyers say is used to stifle criticism, dozens of politicians, protesters, journalists and bloggers have been jailed, along with critics of the land deals.

For years, the EPRDF was opposed to the idea of starting big commercial farms. That changed about a decade ago as donors encouraged foreign investment in agriculture. Since then, Ethiopia has been at the forefront of a global phenomenon.

Lorenzo Cotula, a senior researcher at the UK’s International Institute for Environment and Development, has tracked the evolution of transnational land deals. “Land might be seen as an asset class by a fund manager,” he says, “but for many rural people it is a foundation for social identity and food security.” Most “wild west” deals failed after the food price shock of 2007, Mr Cotula says. Still, in a report published last year, he noted that momentum is again building. “Demographic growth, climate change, urbanisation and changing consumption patterns are widely expected to continue . . . compounding pressures on valuable lands.”

Ethiopia has tried to make itself the most attractive destination for land investment. More than 50 foreign investors, from India, Turkey, Pakistan, China and Sudan as well as Saudi Arabia, have leased Ethiopian land. The rents are often very cheap. Saudi Star’s contract stipulates an annual rate of less than $3 a hectare. Investors enjoy tax holidays and access to guaranteed credit.

Yet only 35 per cent of the leased land has been developed, according to official figures. That is partly because of the sheer difficulty of getting agricultural machinery and skilled manpower to the most remote corners of a landlocked country. The government has cancelled seven leases after investors failed to deliver on their promises. Some of the domestic investors, who cumulatively have taken much more land than the foreign ones, have simply stripped their plots for charcoal and left them idle.

The biggest lease, taken by Karuturi Global of Bangalore, has not fared well. The Indian group had sought to diversify into food from its multinational roses business but struggled with flooding and debt. Initially 300,000 hectares, the government cut the lease area to 100,000 hectares. Abera Mulat, head of Ethiopia’s land investment agency, wrote to Karuturi in December, saying its lease had been terminated because it had failed to bring its plot in Gambella into cultivation. Karuturi declined to comment but its boss was quoted saying the company would challenge the cancellation.

In an interview in his office in Addis Ababa in November, Mr Abera insisted that, despite allegations from activists, no one with a rightful claim had been forcibly moved to make way for investors. “There have been cases where people have come and said: ‘This is my land.’ If we are mistaken, then we will leave that land.”

There have, however, been forced relocations under the government’s separate “villagisation” programme. This, the government says, is designed to group scattered communities into larger settlements to make it easier to deliver basic services. Some Anuak, including victims who spoke to human rights activists, have reported beatings and rapes by the soldiers who enforced their resettlement. One Anuak activist notes a bitter irony: that some of those who were self-sufficient before they were moved now depend on food aid.

Mr Abera stressed that “the point of resettlement is not to clear land for investment”. He added, however: “After the land is vacant and we have done surveys, then why not?”

3. RESISTANCE

Okello Akway Ochalla had been in exile for a decade when he checked in to a hotel in Juba, the capital of South Sudan, in March 2014. An Anuak, his homeland lay across the Ethiopian border in Gambella, where Saudi Star and other flagship ventures of the Ethiopian government’s land drive have their farms. But Mr Okello could not go home.

He had been the governor of Gambella in 2003, when mobs of highlanders set about slaughtering the Anuak, after Anuak assailants allegedly staged a deadly ambush on a government vehicle carrying highlanders. According to testimony gathered by human rights groups, the Ethiopian military joined in the massacres. More than 400 people died.

The government claimed the deaths arose from inter-ethnic clashes between indigenous groups in Gambella. But Mr Okello refused to peddle the official line. Threatened with arrest or worse, he fled. He was granted asylum in Norway but maintained contact with Anuak scattered across east Africa, some of whom, according to his associates, were involved in the small resistance groups that have taken up arms against the authorities.

In exile, Mr Okello developed twin agendas, says Gora Ojulu, an Anuak refugee in Kenya who worked as a finance official in his regional government. “One, to have a strong political organisation that can oppose the government. Two, advocate around land: be against the narrative from the government that ‘we must move you to a place where we give you infrastructures, then we give this land for investors’.”

For Mr Okello as for many other Anuak, the dispute over the land deals has fused with their people’s century-long struggle to claim their rights from British colonialists, Haile Selassie’s Ethiopian empire, a communist dictatorship and, most recently, a federal government dominated by highlanders.

Ethiopia receives more food aid than any other country. But starvation’s domain is the highlands, where the soils are thin and the droughts unforgiving. The lowland arc that has Gambella at its centre is bountiful, watered by the Nile and its tributaries. The Anuak would typically clear a patch of forest, cultivate it for 5–10 years growing maize, sorghum and groundnut, then move on to a fresh patch. If the crop in one area failed, those with a fuller harvest would come to the rescue.

It is in the lowlands, perennially resistant to highlanders’ diktats, that the vast majority of the land deals have been struck. Federal officials stress that many of the deals were agreed by local authorities. Opponents counter that local leaders who signed off on them were often stooges of the powers in Addis Ababa.

Whatever the motives of the land policy — and its proponents argue passionately that they have locals’ interests at heart — the sorry history of the lowlands was always going to colour the programme.

In March 2014, Mr Okello embarked on a tour to organise Anuak resistance. He went to Eritrea, Ethiopia’s sworn enemy, then on to South Sudan, home to many thousands of Anuak. On March 22, two South Sudanese security agents entered the hotel where Mr Okello was staying.

According to a relative who was with him, Mr Okello was led away with four other Anuak men who had been visiting him. They were taken to a military prison near the airport. All were flown to Addis Ababa. Mr Okello has been in prison since. He faces charges under the counter-terrorism law. The maximum penalty is death.

4. ‘A BLESSING FOR ETHIOPIA’

Jemal Ahmed quivered with anger. “Some of the figures are mind-blowing,” the chief executive of Saudi Star said one morning in November. Sitting in his office on the 15th floor of the Midroc skyscraper in Addis Ababa, he rattled off some of the wilder claims of profiteering that critics of the Gambella rice farm have cited. “It makes my blood boil.”

Mr Ahmed was a leading Ethiopian cooking-oil trader when he formed an agro-business partnership with Mr al-Amoudi in 2008. In 2014, the sheikh asked him to turn round the troubled Saudi Star project.

“I’m an African,” Mr Ahmed began. “And whenever I read my history, when I see how our forefathers suffered . . .” He broke off to tell the story of his grandfather. The 23-year-old man who looked out proudly from a black and white picture on Mr Ahmed’s phone was killed days after it was taken, fighting off Benito Mussolini’s Italian colonisers.

“After colonisation and slavery, Africans are still not able to use their resources,” Mr Ahmed went on. “Take Gambella. That land is infested with mosquitoes. The indigenous survive by eating roots from the forest. They don’t have food shortages but their mortality rate is so high. They don’t go to school. The only thing you see when you fly is not factories or businesspeople: you see NGOs.”

He was resentful that, when a company such as Saudi Star tried to invest, it would come under attack from foreign activists. “I get happy when I see an Anuak boy operating a Caterpillar machine the way an American boy would do on the Mississippi delta.”

Saudi Star has tangled for years with activists from the Oakland Institute and Human Rights Watch, who have compiled detailed reports on Ethiopia’s land investment programme and the heavy-handed ways in which, they allege, the government shifts locals out of the way. Mr Ahmed flatly denied such claims. “No one was living in this area,” he said of Saudi Star’s plot.

On the wall of Mr Ahmed’s office hung a framed picture of him and Mr al-Amoudi, whose closeness to the ruling party has exacerbated resentment among Gambellans. Mr Ahmed objected to attempts to portray the sheikh as “a man who came to take advantage of Ethiopia’s resources at the expense of the indigenous people, to take their ancestral land”.

Instead, he argued, the farm made economic sense. “Saudi Arabia is a rich country and imports food. We have rich lands but we need capital. If Saudi hunger for food lets us bring in capital, that is a blessing for Ethiopia.”

‘If I had invested $200m in Thailand, we could easily have produced more rice. Why do we do it in Gambella, with no roads, no electricity, no skilled workers? Because if we don’t, no one else will’

Contrary to press reports, Saudi Star had yet to export a single grain of rice, Mr Ahmed added. Higher prices at home meant that it was more profitable to sell domestically. Saudi Star’s rice production would cut Ethiopia’s import bill by up to $100m, Mr Ahmed forecast, and generate more foreign currency through exports. That hard currency is precious: Ethiopia’s trade deficit stood at $8bn in 2013 and, the International Monetary Fund forecasts, will be twice as big by the end of the decade.

Despite the early setbacks, Mr Ahmed was contemplating expansion. He had his eye on as much as 100,000 hectares in the area around Saudi Star’s farm that he expected to come free as the government cancelled failed leases.

“If I had invested $200m in Thailand, we could easily have produced more rice,” Mr Ahmed said. “Why do we do it in Gambella, with no roads, no electricity, no skilled workers? Because if we don’t, no one else will. The Indians came but they could not do it. We have a sentimental attachment to our people. Gambellans are Ethiopians too.”

By now, Mr Ahmed had calmed down. The view from his window is spectacular, taking in the national stadium and, beyond, the capital’s fast-rising skyline. For him, the land venture in Gambella is part of a plan to drive Ethiopia into the 21st century.

“All the indigenous groups have had a rough time,” he said. “They need more investment. And better governance. And civilisation.”

5. EXILE

In the cramped living room of a one-storey house on the mud-spattered outskirts of Nairobi, 14 of the men and women scattered by the long tussle for land and power in Gambella gathered one recent afternoon. A picture of an Anuak woman torn from a calendar adorned a wall.

One after another, the refugees recalled when they had fled Gambella. Some arrived recently, driven by evictions linked to the villagisation programme. Others, such as Omot Oluwoch, 37, came to Kenya after the pogroms of 2003.

“I was taking tea on a veranda and I heard a gunshot,” Mr Omot recalled. “I saw soldiers shooting Anuak. They saw that I was Anuak. I decided to run — but I can’t run.” Mr Omot’s leg was damaged when he was small and he walks with an awkward shuffle. “Because I am disabled they did not shoot because they thought they could catch me and kill me with their hands.”

Omot Oluwoch, who escaped to Kenya via South Sudan

Omot Oluwoch, who escaped to Kenya via South Sudan

He limped as far as a nearby empty house, went inside, locked the door and hid in the roof. He heard the soldiers taunting him that the land of Gambella was theirs. They called him “tyre”, a highlander term for darker-skinned lowlanders. Eventually they lost interest. Mr Omot crawled out of a window. He spent two days in the bush before he hitched a lift to South Sudan. From there, he came to Nairobi.

“The reason why we are being killed is because of the land,” Mr Omot said, to nods of agreement from other refugees. “Because the government look down on us, they don’t want us to live there. They don’t consider us, because we have dark skin. It is like what happened under apartheid.”

Anuak leaders who had opposed Addis Ababa were simply swept aside. “Some have fled, some have been taken to prison, some have been killed. So [the government] can come and sell the land,” Mr Omot said.

Some of the refugees had known Mr Okello in Gambella. Since his arrest, the former governor’s supporters have lobbied the government of Norway, his adopted home, to intercede on his behalf. Norway’s foreign ministry says the country did not interfere in the judicial process abroad but that the embassy in Addis Ababa was monitoring the case. Diplomats visited Mr Okello early in his detention but were prevented from doing so again last year, the ministry says. It added that the embassy planned to contact Ethiopian authorities about Mr Okello’s allegation that he had been subjected to violence during interrogations. A judge in the terrorism trial has concluded that the prosecution case is compelling. A verdict is due on March 7.

The refugees rattled off names of other Anuak intellectuals consigned to Addis Ababa’s jails. In some cases, the detentions appear directly linked to criticism of the land deals. One prisoner is a relative of Mr Omot’s. Pastor Omot Agwa worked as a translator for a World Bank inspection team that investigated allegations of forced evictions and other abuses in Gambella. The pastor was arrested in March last year and faces what Human Rights Watch called “spurious” charges of terrorism.

Gora Ojulu, a former finance official in Gambella, now exiled in Nairobi

Gora Ojulu, a former finance official in Gambella, now exiled in Nairobi

Akoth Adhom, a woman in her sixties, claimed she knew of villages in Gambella that had been forcibly relocated. Asked who controlled the land now, she said: “Al-Amoudi.” Yet there was little evidence, even anecdotally, of evictions specifically to make way for investors.

No one challenged the thrust of Saudi Star’s argument that there was enough land in Gambella to accommodate some big farms. But the Anuaks’ claim to their land was not based on title to this or that specific plot, explained Ojunni Ojulu Ochalla, a former nurse who escaped the 2003 massacre.

“It does not mean that there is someone on every piece of land. Even in the bush, you have demarcated land. Areas for hunting, fishing, conserving the forest, farming. The narrative that this place is empty: if you take the whole world, you are living only on a small part. But that doesn’t mean that, in the rest of it, someone can just walk in and decide they can do what they want to do.”

In Abobo, the last village before the checkpoint that marks the start of Saudi Star’s farm, the school and most of the houses are made of mud. Four-wheel-drives bump along the road, carrying farm staff or aid workers ministering to refugees from the war across the border in South Sudan.

When one passed recently, half a dozen children raced alongside, waving giddily at the windows. They wore Ethiopia soccer kits. Both the national flag and that of Gambella fluttered outside the ramshackle town hall.

A faultline of history — or, perhaps, of modernity — has opened up in Gambella. The forces of global markets have smashed up against the instinct to preserve a homeland. Some of the youngsters in Ethiopia kits might find themselves spurred to resist the government, like Mr Okello and the Nairobi refugees. Others might embrace a job at Saudi Star, maybe rising to run the farm. But it is hard to see how any will do both. If a global land rush is at hand, Gambella’s rift will not be the last.

Project manager: Christine Spolar
Design and production: Kari-Ruth Pedersen
Editors: Christine Spolar, Sue Matthias, Orla Ryan and Chinny Li
Maps: Steve Bernard
Graphics: Christopher CampbellWith support from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting

Across continents, big investors are pouring in billions into one of the world’s most precious resources – land. They promise progress. But their arrival can upend livelihoods and spark life-and-death struggles.Read more

Read more

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HAITI/ON THE MEDIA: Parting Words From Haiti’s Not-So-Sweet Mickey: Fueling An Uunsupportive Environment For Women In Media

 By: Janelle Nodhturft Williams  original

Two female journalists attend a training session aimed at increasing women’s participation in the media. Photo by Eoghan Rice/Trocaire and licensed via Creative Commons (CC BY 2.0).

Former Haitian President Michel Martelly left office on February 7, 2016, the 30th anniversary of the fall of the brutal Duvalier dictatorship. A failed election process leaves the former head of the Senate temporarily at the reigns. Thus, Haiti faces its secondinterim government in 12 years, a decidedly undemocratic political culture, and a public that wants to believe democratic institutions can function but hasn’t seen the proof. Thirty years must feel like an eternity for civil society and Haitian citizens striving to have a voice and influence in such a broken political system.

Given the big challenges here, it might be surprising that one carnival pop song managed to break through the noise and add its own controversy to the mix. One week before leaving office, former President Martelly released a new single under his stage name “Sweet Mickey.” The song, titled “Give Them Bananas” features repetitive and overt sexually suggestive lyrics aimed at the president’s critics, and one woman in particular, Liliane Pierre-Paul. One of the country’s most well-known radio journalists and longtime human rights activist, she was the first Haitian to win the International Women’s Media Foundation’s Courage in Journalism Award in 1990 and has also been an outspoken critic of Martelly.

The obvious interpretation of the lyrics is the intended one. And it’s not the first time Martelly added his own flair of sexual aggression when responding in a threatening way to his female critics. The attitude is this: Don’t like my policies or use of political power? Here’s some male dominance and thinly veiled threats instead. Last August, male and female ministers resigned in protest. This time though, the song was mostly dismissed as tasteless. Some women laughed at the song lyrics, and real outcry fell short or was washed out by the political heaviness of the moment.

The lyrics represent much larger problems in a media sector and society that does not encourage women’s voices to be heard and elevated. What are women and young girls who want to write or become a journalist – or have an opinion on anything – going to think when the public response by a man to a woman asking questions or displaying critical thinking is a gendered threat? What extra significance does this take on when it’s not just any man, but the country’s president? How is this happening in 2016?

The repercussions are a lot more serious than any single song might suggest at first glance. Though Haiti’s media sector is still weak and polarized, it is better off now than in past decades. The constitution explicitly protects freedom of expression and though the operating environment is far from perfect, Haitian journalists face fewer restrictions and violence than some of their Latin American and Caribbean peers. There is untapped potential for media in Haiti to make tangible contributions to democratic progress in the country, but to play this role the media must attract and retain all of its best and brightest – including, and especially, women.

Politically reinforced sexual aggression from Haitian leaders is no way to cultivate future generations of critical thinkers and women whose ideas will contribute to a more plural media and society and help move the country forward.

Haiti’s challenges are enormous and no one sector can effectively respond to these obstacles on its own.  It will take a village. It will take great ideas. New ideas. Haitian ideas. Haiti’s media, including female journalists, should be free to focus their energy on professionalizing Haitian media, fostering independent voices, playing a watchdog role in the face of corrupt government, and reporting on citizen priorities. Spending energy deciding if and how to respond or counter threats, sexual harassment, or – in in the case of the parting gift of the former president – ridiculous and aggressive lyrics, shouldn’t even be anywhere on their radar.

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AFGHANISTAN: Turquoise Mountain: Artists Transforming Afghanistan

Original

March 5, 2016 – January 29, 2017
International Gallery

From its critical position on the ancient Silk Road that stretches from Europe to China, Afghanistan absorbed traditions from India, Persia, and Central Asia and blended them into a distinct artistic culture. Decades of civil unrest that began in the 1970s nearly destroyed this vital heritage.  Many of Afghanistan’s artisans were forced to leave their country or give up their craft. The old city of Kabul, once a bustling center of craft and commerce, fell into ruin.

The British non-governmental organization Turquoise Mountain, founded in 2006 at the request of HRH The Prince of Wales and the President of Afghanistan, has transformed the Murad Khani district of Old Kabul from slum conditions into a vibrant cultural and economic center. The organization has renovated historic buildings, opened a primary school and a medical clinic, and rebuilt necessary infrastructure. It has founded Afghanistan’s premier institution for vocational training in the arts. Dedicated to teaching a new generation of Afghan artisans in woodwork, calligraphy, ceramics, jewelry design, and other crafts, Turquoise Mountain is reviving the nation’s proud cultural legacy.

To tell this transformative story of culture and heritage in Murad Khani, Afghan woodworkers have created magnificent wood arcades, screens, and a pavilion, all carved by hand from Himalayan cedar. Wander among these arcades and explore spectacular contemporary carpets, jewelry, and calligraphy, all complemented by videos and large-scale photographs of the Afghan artisans who made them. Artisans from Murad Khani are bringing the exhibition to life by demonstrating their art, sharing their experiences, and allowing visitors to encounter Afghanistan’s art and culture firsthand.

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ON THE MEDIA: Can explanatory journalism cure the internet?

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This post is part of our project examining the importance of explanatory journalism. The first post in the series is available here.

Last December The Washington Post shuttered its online column “What was fake on the Internet this week.” For a little over eighteen months, columnist Caitlin Dewey, with a wry smile and a wink to the fantastic urban legends our society is capable of creating and our citizens are eager to believe, humorously debunked each week’s most entertaining and outrageous online hooey. However, as she perused the Internet for outrageous claims, she realized that misinformation isn’t just an innocent manifestation of the human penchant for mystery and myth; it’s also big business.

Today’s online hoaxers aren’t just after a laugh. Their brand of bunk has a clear purpose: generating Internet traffic by appealing to people’s deepest emotional biases. Sometimes they do it for political purposes, as when the “fiercely conservative” website Revive Americapublished an article claiming that ABC had aired “A Charlie Brown Christmas” with a disclaimer that the program contained “strong Christian messages and may be offensive to some viewers.” Other times it’s for profit, often disguised as good will, such as self-titled “Food Babe” Vani Hari’s campaign to get Starbucks to stop selling pumpkin spice lattes because they contain no pumpkin. Enough people believe these ridiculous falsehoods to share them on Twitter and Facebook over and over again, gaining Revive America a flood of new readers and Vani Hari temporary star status.

For Dewey and The Post, playing whack-a-mole with this kind of Internet misinformation wasn’t what they had set out to do. “This column wasn’t designed to address the current environment,” Dewey said about “What was fake…” in her final post. “This format doesn’t make sense.”

The demise of the feature is indicative of one of the more frustrating challenges faced by traditional media in the Information Age. In a world where myth and misinformation can travel quite literally at the speed of light, traditional media struggle to keep up with digital competitors who use “click bait” tactics to capture readers, and who have little regard for the accuracy of their content. In this environment, how does solid, fact-based journalism survive? Is there even an audience for that kind of content anymore?

Increasingly, players from media icons to entrepreneurially minded journalists believe the answer to the latter question is “yes,” and they see serving that audience as a new opportunity for explanatory journalism—a style of reporting that explains an issue in a straightforward, accessible style. Ezra Klein’s Vox, “The Upshot” at The New York Times, and BuzzFeed are a few examples, but there are prominent examples outside of traditional news as well.

For example, one could be forgiven for assuming the podcast Stuff You Should Know, with episode titles like “How does a diving bell work?” and “How Mortgage-backed Securities Work,” is popular with only the nerdiest of nerds. In fact, it is one of the most listened-to podcasts in the world, and it is pure explanatory journalism. The hosts, Josh Clark and Chuck Bryant, chat about topics from the fascinatingly morbid (“What is a body farm”) to the completely obscure (“How Electroconvulsive Therapy Works”). The show is so popular it has spawned live tours and even a short-lived television series. It’s hard to look at SYSK’s success and argue there’s no market for explanatory content.

Aside from pure market considerations, the renewed interest in explanatory journalism—and it is by no means a new phenomenon: there’s been a Pulitzer for the category since 1985—is a rational and necessary response to the overwhelming levels of misinformation on the Internet. Consider, for example, coverage of the January 2015 measles outbreak linked to the Disneyland amusement park, in which scores of people across several states were diagnosed with the disease. Vox addressed the issue with a story titled “There’s a measles outbreak at Disneyland. Here’s what you need to know.” It had three main points: Measles is extremely infectious, the anti-vaccine movement may contribute to the uptick in cases, and global traffic may also be a factor. The reporting clearly and accurately described the disease and the most important facts about it and the outbreak.

Meanwhile, over at NaturalNews.com, the headline was “Afraid of the Disneyland measles outbreak? Don’t be fooled by Mickey Mouse science—READ THIS FIRST.” The article offered little information about measles or the outbreak, apart from mentioning that “only 644 people” had contracted measles in 2014, and that “the Disneyland outbreak, at last count, was just 39 people.” What it did offer was a detailed breakdown of the language in an informational insert from a chicken pox vaccine (the kind of small-print pharmaceutical details you often find in prescriptions) calling out every single potential side effect and any precautionary legalese to convince the reader that vaccines are just a big, scary lie.

It’s important to understand that this difference in reporting isn’t rooted in competing opinions or alternative viewpoints. It’s rooted in money. Vox is a news site. Reporting news is its business. NaturalNews.com, despite its name, is not a news site. It’s a commerce site that sells alternative health care products. Its writings are not meant to inform. They’re meant to enrage, so that its readers will trust the products it sells instead of mainstream health care.

Caitlin Dewey was right: blog posts aren’t the right format for addressing the phenomenon of money-driven online misinformation. A more comprehensive solution to poppycock-for-profit is necessary. Explanatory journalism could be that solution by fulfilling one of the most fundamental responsibilities of the press: fact-based, rational reporting that helps all of us better understand and participate in our world.

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ON THE MEDIA: Explanatory journalism: A tool in the war against polarization and dysfunction

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This post is part of our project examining the importance of explanatory journalism. The introductory post is available here, and the second post on journalism in the digital age is available here

In the present-day world of media and politics, we live (as the saying goes) in the best of times and the worst of times.

A motivated consumer of information on politics and policy—the ideal citizen in a representative democracy—has access to an unprecedented number of sources of excellent journalism in a rich variety of formats and on numerous platforms. These include print, broadcast and online, long-form and short, data-based and graphically visualized, straight news and opinion journalism, legacy news organizations and new digital enterprises, mobile devices and social media, only a click away from direct access to vast repositories of official public documents and datasets. The digital revolution has laid waste to the 20th century business models of news reporting and publication but even in these early days of the digital revolution, citizens seeking information about politicians, public policy, and government performance have resources never before imagined.

But how many such model citizens take advantage of these resources to exercise the popular sovereignty and democratic accountability at the core of our democracy? Most citizens are inadvertent consumers of news about politics and government, limited mostly to local television news dominated by crime, traffic and weather, with mere snippets of news related to public affairs, along with emails from family and friends forwarding materials that sound plausible but often are the opposite. Their lives are filled with responsibilities and interests that draw their attention away from election campaigns and policy battles. What little they know and learn about politics is often laden with misinformation and provides little basis for coming to public judgment beyond group identities, tribal loyalties and fleeting impressions of candidates and officeholders.

American democracy has come under severe strains in recent years. We’ve seen a precipitous decline of trust in its central political institutions, the radicalization of one of its two major political parties, a vehement oppositional politics in Congress that has turned divided party government into a graveyard for nominations, while turning legislative initiatives and congressional oversight into little more than a weapon of partisan warfare. All of this has been capped off with the emergence of a frontrunner for the Republican presidential nomination uniquely miscast for the office whose election would constitute a threat to American democracy and make a mockery of the U.S. leadership position in the world.

The roots of America’s dysfunctional politics are deep and complex. For our purposes here, it is sufficient to say that the media has done little to help the public understand what is amiss. An aggressively partisan talk radio, cable news, web and social media community has fueled a tribal politics that traffics in lies and conspiracies. The mainstream media has handcuffed itself out of fear of charges of partisan bias into antiseptic balanced treatment of both sides in spite of their obvious asymmetries. This pattern of false equivalence has served to reinforce a generalized, inchoate public distemper, one that is vulnerable to radical and anti-democratic appeals.

Explanatory journalism aspires to provide essential context to the hourly flood of news—not simply a separate fact-checking operation but the mobilization of a rich array of relevant information made possible by new technology but presented to the public in accessible and digestible formats. It is fact-based and data-rich but doesn’t shy away from making arguments that flow from the evidence—even at the risk of being charged with taking sides. It seeks to unravel the mysteries of policy and politics with historical and empirical context and speak openly and honestly about the stakes and drivers of our public life.

Ezra Klein pioneered two path breaking initiatives in explanatory journalism, first TheWashington Post’s Wonkblog and now Vox.com. Many other news organizations are now embedding the elements of this approach into the routines of the news business. As David Leonhardt notes in the video part of this series, explanatory journalism will be successful when it is no longer a separate operation of news organizations but a central and unnamed part of their ongoing operations.

While it is no panacea for what ails American democracy, explanatory journalism is the most promising development in the rapidly changing world of media and politics.There is no magic media elixir to inform and engage those, including perennial nonvoters, so removed from the public life of the nation. But some division of labor is essential and inevitable in a representative democracy—between the general public and elected officials, but also between the entire citizenry and the tens of millions of citizens who engage in more active and demanding forms of political participation, including reading about and discussing public affairs with their fellow citizens. That is the target audience for explanatory journalism.

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ON THE MEDIA/AFGHANISTAN: Bringing FRAME BY FRAME Back to Kabul

Everyone crowded in for a group shot with the US Ambassador Michael McKinley

When I sat down for the 14 hour flight to from New York to Dubai in mid-January, I felt a bit nervous that the only screening that we had planned for FRAME BY FRAME in Kabul was the U.S. Embassy premiere. I booked my trip to be in Kabul for two weeks because I knew more could happen once I was on the ground. I took on this strategy partly because trying to plan more screenings in a timezone that was the exact opposite of my own is not fun for anyone. Also, I knew meeting in person with copious amounts of green tea is far more productive and polite than a patchy Skype call. Ultimately, I was hoping in two weeks I could find a way to screen with the president of Afghanistan. Well, it happened — as did so much more.

The FRAME BY FRAME team with Ambassador McKinley and his wife Fatima at the U.S. Embassy premiere

Screening FRAME BY FRAME in Afghanistan was always going to be very limited. My co-director Mo and I promised the photojournalists featured in the film we would honor their safety concerns and never screen the film publicly in Afghanistan. Yes, we want every Afghan journalist to have the chance to see this film, but this was a condition agreed upon from the start for the film to be made. Thankfully, so much can come from holding private screenings with the people who hold so much influence on the future of journalism and a free press in Afghanistan.

Screening with Dr. Abdullah Abdullah — Afghanistan’s CEO. Dr. Abdullah hand selected ministry members that he thought would get the most of out the seeing film.

The night of the premiere of FRAME BY FRAME in Afghanistan ended in tragedy. Right after the screening ended, news started to spread that a suicide bomber had hit a commuter bus full of TOLO employees on their way home from work. The attack claimed the lives of 7 people and injured 25 others. Seeing the shell of a bus, it was hard to imagine that anyone survived. The Taliban took responsibility — the first direct attack against journalists of its kind.

This amount of pain is hard to convey in headlines. That night my head swam with what had just happened leading up to the tragic incident. Dear friends and co-workers of the journalism community had gathered at the US Embassy for the premiere. It was a night of celebration. One embassy representative said this screening was the first time something like this had ever happened at the U.S. Embassy.

During the screening, I listened as the community of people, who’s fight for a free press parallels that of Wakil, Massoud, Farzana and Najibullah, laughed at all of Massoud’s jokes, sighed at the beauty of this country, and tsked at the actions of those standing in the way of press freedom. As Sardar Ahmad’sdedication came up on the screen, an indescribable feeling of mourning filled the room — these are the people who knew him well. It was powerful, and I have never felt more humbled and honored to be a witness of this community and their strength.

Additional screenings set in motion quickly after the premiere. The Chief Executive of Afghanistan, Dr. Abdullah, held a screening with hand selected ministry members and influencers. He spoke after the film and it was clear that the story had touched him.

Dominic Medley, the Spokesperson and Head of Media Relations for United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), set up two screenings for the UN. During one of the screenings I looked around the room and found my eyes landing on several foreign correspondents and freelance journalists that have been covering Afghanistan over the years.

Massoud did not miss a chance for a selfie with Nicholas “Fink” Haysom — the Secretary-General’s Special Representative for Afghanistan and Head of UNAMA along with Tadamichi Yamamoto the Secretary-General’s Deputy Special Representative for Afghanistan.

French Ambassador Jean-Michel Marlaud introduces the film

From left to right: Ambassador of Sweden: Anders Sjöberg, Ambassador of the Netherlands: Henk Jan Bakker, Ambassador of Germany: Markus Potzel

As I sat down in the dark screening room of the U.S. Embassy screening, I had a little shock when I realized I was sitting next to the French Ambassador Jean-Michel Marlaud. The ambassador loved the film and hosted his own screening in a beautiful room at the French Embassy the next week. The ambassador has been long-time friends with Farzana and Massoud and he took special care in inviting people to the event. There were ministry members, ambassadors of many nations, filmmakers and journalists within the crowd. It felt as though the film was embraced by the people in the room and the conversation that followed was both heartfelt and powerful on the state of journalism in Afghanistan.

French Ambassador Jean-Michel Marlaud greets Farzana and Wakil after the Q&A

FRAME BY FRAME also screened at compound of the NATO-led mission Resolute Support (formally headquarters of ISAF). After the screening, the public affairs office of RS told me the biggest feedback they received was “I learned more from this documentary than from any other pre-deployment training I received” — This sparked an exciting conversation about using this film as a tool for training for RS.

 

Theater filling up at Resolute Support — Wakil was there for the Q&A to a packed house

And on my last day in Kabul it finally happened… A screening of FRAME BY FRAME with President Ashraf Ghani and the first lady Rula Ghani.

After watching the film, the president gave a statement about his commitment to the arts and congratulated the photojournalists on their daily bravery. The the president’s advisors were also in attendance along with Canadian ambassador Deborah Lyons. It was an honor to have two of the film’s advisors in attendance: reporter for the New York Times, Mujib Mashal and the director of the Afghan Journalists Safety Committee, Najib Sharifi. Our line-producer Najibullah was also there, without whom this film would have not been possible.

As I sat in the palace watching FRAME BY FRAME with such an influential group of people, it began to sink in how far this film has come. It started as a glimmer of an idea in 2012 with a two week trip to Kabul, funded by selling my car and emptying my bank account and was ignited by the trust of these four brave photojournalists to tell their story. It was lifted up by a community of people who wanted this story to be told, and championed by an amazing team of people who believed in the power of this film.

Frame By Frame came from such humble beginnings to screening in front of the President of Afghanistan and so many influencers of the future of a free press. For 85 minutes — they reflected on the great achievements of the media in the last fifteen years, the risks they face on a daily basis, and how much is still at stake.

I held my breath as the last title came on the screen…

It’s hard to know what effect a film will have — but it was encouraging to see that this happened two days after the screening.

Here is Human Right’s Watch response to the decree:

Ghani’s decree constitutes a symbolic challenge to such killings. But if he’s serious about protecting media freedom, he needs to muster the political will to stop threats and attacks on Afghan journalists by pro-government forces.

FRAME BY FRAME continues to screen in countries around the world

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