Issues & Analysis
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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

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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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AFGHANISTAN: Young Afghan activist Hasina Jalal wins Global Women Leadership award

By KHAAMA PRESS – Tue Mar 01 2016, 3:02 pm  original

Hasina Jalali

Celebrated Hasina Jalal won the Global Women Leadership award on 17th Feb. 2016 for her hard work on scientific researches about women and economy.

Hasina Jalal is a young Afghan woman scholar who competes internationally and has achieved many successes so far. Hasina Jalal once more created honor to Afghan women and once again brought extra ordinary success to Afghanistan. Hasina recognized talent and activism proved Afghanistan young generation of women knowledgeable and competitive in the world.

Hasina Jalal is a remarkable Afghan young woman leader who has accomplished so much as a youth leader. A young, creative and energized soul! Hasina Jalal has jump-started a wide ranging number of initiatives for empowerment of Afghan women and youth.  From educational training projects to writing articles in weekly newspapers, to a vocal representative at community meetings, Hasina speaks up for women’s and youth rights one way or another.

Self-reliant and pro-active, Hasina has a passionate voice and an uncompromising belief in the promotion of women’s rights and democratic principles. These beliefs have enabled her to remain resilient in the face of the cultural barriers and security threats aimed at her.  Despite these challenges Hasina continues to push the agenda of women’s rights forward by fostering partnerships and collaboration between women’s groups, undertaking advocacy and building the capacity of a number of non-profit organizations. A founding member of the National Association of Afghanistan Civil Society, Hasina works with other like-minded activists in bringing together voices that have been marginalized by violence. Hasina has learnt that by constructing a strong and empowered collective, greater political power can be yielded to build a growing resistance within Afghanistan to ignorance, discrimination, oppression.

Hasina’s work for a more inclusive society also extends to the written word, in which she exposes abuses against women, promotes inclusion, and celebrates freedom of expression. She co-founded and is a board member of the Afghani weekly Freedom Message Newspaper, an activist tabloid that exposes abuses of women’s rights and promotes freedom of expression, tolerance and understanding of democratic principles and laws on human rights. Her advocacy for women’s rights, particularly in rural areas, extends beyond writing.  Her work as a speaker on youth issues over the past three years has not gone unnoticed, with greater advocacy to address issues of violence against women and demand greater equality for women. In 2012, Hasina’s contribution to spreading awareness and fighting for equality and justice in Afghanistan led her to being included in the Asian Rural Women Coalitions Honoring 100 Women campaign.

Hasina has worked with various organizations in Afghanistan for promotion of democracy and enhancement of young women participation in the processes and in making the voice of Afghan youth recognized.

Hasina has participated in international conferences on behalf of the people of Afghanistan especially the youth and led various campaigns such as One Billion Rising Global campaign in Afghanistan. She has gained exceptional achievements and results for the youth of the country as well as the women and elderly, also achieving impeccable results in regards in youth leadership. With exceptional skills, attributes and determination Hasina is the voice of Afghani youths today.

Hasina demonstrated through her struggle as front line runner that young women in Afghanistan are capable of contributing to peace and development despite the many social, economic and political obstacles and the enormous threats to their security.  Recent events in Afghanistan witnessed women activists and defenders of human rights being assassinated by enemies of the people. In the culture of Afghanistan, a young woman like Hasina is not expected to play active roles in public life, much less become an activist and a leader.

Hasina focuses in helping raise the voices of young women through her leadership in education and training of youth, promoting partnerships and collaboration among women’s groups, advocacy, and capacity building of non-profit organizations.  She works to bring together the voices of people who are being marginalized by violence, poverty, and isolation. She believes that collective power of the dis-empowered is key to equality, democracy and a peaceful and more progressive life for all.

As a writer and publisher in Afghanistan local press, Hasina encourages women in communities to write their news and opinions about their lives.  Through speeches and direct engagement with the people, Hasina amplifies the clamor for attention to the lives of people who have less in life.  She is a real inspiration to the next generation of women leaders in the country.

Hasina’s efforts and achievements for Afghanistan youth has been recognized and received by Asian Rural Women Coalition, rural women advocate international award in 2012 for continuously fighting for survival, justice and freedom in Afghanistan. ARWC recognized the leadership, strength, creativity, and commitment in pushing for gender equality through awarding the mentioned award which is certified in the below link:

http://www.asianruralwomen.net/html/events-honouring100women-hasina-faizullah.htm

Hasina speaks fluently in Dari, Pashto, English, Turkish, Urdo, Hindi and moderately in Arabic.

Hasina did much to build peace and make people aware of what women can offer when participating in society. She assisted community members in having their disputes resolved, consulted with male and female traditional and tribal justice actors, organized and facilitated various workshops and discussion sessions for male and female traditional justice actors, tribal elders, religious leaders, and has been a consistent and vocal supporter of strengthening women’s role in community justice processes.

Hasina Jalal received N-Peace Award from UNDP Asia-Pacific Regional Centre by Judy Cheng-Hopkins, Special Adviser of the Secretary General on the University for Peace” as recognition of her work for peace through promoting peace culture as Afghanistan 2014 N-Peace Award winner is reflected in below links:

  1. http://n-peace.net/candidate/candidate-264
  2. https://twitter.com/NPeaceNetwork/status/527707433334865920/photo/1
  3. https://www.facebook.com/NPeaceNetwork/photos/a.978108232203244.1073741837.266724613341613/978108892203178/?type=1&theater
  4. https://www.facebook.com/UNDPinAfghanistan
  5. http://www.khaama.com/young-Afghan-activist-hasina-jalal-wins-2014-n-peace-award-9030
  6. https://saadiahaq.wordpress.com/tag/hasina-jalal/
  7. http://sadf.eu/home/2014/11/06/hasina-jalal-wins-2014-n-peace-award/

As well as being committed to peace-building, Hasina is dedicated to women’s rights and trying to educate the young generation to work together to achieve a prosperous future. She has supported the foundation of many women’s organization and supports female victims of violence to access justice, and in supporting women seeking divorce from abusive husbands.

Hasina spent a lot of time organizing conferences and campaigns to raise awareness amongst both women and men about the importance of education for both boys and girls, and how both men and women need to be included in securing peace in the community. She has visited the leaders of many provinces in Afghanistan to talk with them about the benefits of educating women and girls need, for not only peace, but also for the social and economic well-being of Afghanistan. She also established educational centers where women can learn and take trainings in safe spaces.

Hasina has been always committed to advancing the agenda of women, peace and security. “Women have different opinions for peace and security matters in Afghanistan. Without the advancement of the roles of women in Afghanistan, the country cannot move forward,” she has stated.

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ON DEVELOPMENT: Aid work: an insult to the poor? – poem

A Zimbabwean aid worker shares his reflections on the NGO sector through a poem

By: Admiral Ncube  original

Zimbabweans collect grain distributed by World Food Programme (WFP) on November 25, 2013 in East Mashonaland, Zimbabwe.

‘Where there was need, a hand would help.’ Photograph: Xinhua/Landov/Barcroft Media

Decades ago, I heard life was simple and it was so
Where there was need, a hand would help
Where there was a tear, a heart would ache
Willing hands and hearts would meet the lack
Charity they called it, for it was so
Now an industry of sorts – an insult to the poor

Now in my day I see things do change
Experts have risen who have not been poor
Whose studies and surveys bring no change
Whose experiments and pilots insult the poor
Whose terms and concepts, tools always change
An industry of sorts – an insult to the poor

What greater insult could there be
When a fellow man calls me just a beneficiary
When our pictures of desperation are used for marketing
When our dignity is insulted just for fundraising
When trainings and awareness are imposed on us
When the life of another is planned by another
When the gift we got is never disclosed
When overheads are deducted before we know
When we smile for pictures we never see
When our children seek to change our ways
When we waste our lives responding to assessments
Indeed an industry sorts – an insult to the poor

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ON THE MEDIA:What Everyone Should Know About Filming (And Sharing) Injustice on Social Media

What Everyone Should Know About Filming (And Sharing) Injustice on Social Media

Image Credit: Getty Images

Armed with mobile devices and social media, citizen journalists around the world have become essential agents of democracy, bearing witness to criminal behavior and abuses of power that might otherwise remain obscured and unseen. That genie’s not going back in the bottle. But the next time you happen upon an unfolding scene of injustice — particularly when police are involved — there are some things you need to know before you hit record.
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ON DEVELOPMENT: The future of aid: will international NGOs survive?

There was a lot of soul-searching, with multiple inter-agency initiatives aimed at responding to the critics and making the sector more accountable, more humane and responsive. But they failed to stem the tide   of discontent that was beginning to wash over the sector.

Twenty years later and INGOs – humanitarian, human rights, development and environment – are all facing a set of far more critical and far-reaching crises. Their very legitimacy is in question from all sides: governments, southern partners, donors, and even their own staff.

The critiques are myriad. Southern organisations and governments argue that INGOs are unaccountable and have too much power; humanitarian agencies, meanwhile, fail to consult beneficiaries and local groups effectively, and it’s unclear where donors’ money goes. At home some politicians argue that INGOs shouldn’t bite the hand that feeds them by campaigning while receiving government grants. Conversely, they’re accused of not campaigning enough; that they are apolitical, and too close, in some cases, to the corporate sector. Add to this list concerns about overheads, aggressive fundraising tactics, gender representation, and the failure to win key campaigns on critical issues such as climate change.

In spite of what some perceive as great successes of the sector – reaching the 0.7% foreign aid targetor international debt relief – there is no backing away from the view that the sector needs, at the very least, a tune-up, if not a wholesale revolution to enable it to face modern times.

Because in addition to the critiques, the sector is facing a rapidly changing, complex, and increasingly demanding environment, with new conflicts and climate change and colossal political, technological, and demographic transformation. The world bears little resemblance to what it did in the sector’s heyday of the 80s and 90s. Seven of the largest development organisations in the UK (Oxfam, Christian Aid, Action Aid, Cafod, World Vision, Tearfund, Save the Children) now have a combined income of more than £1bn, but is their influence and impact commensurate?

Social innovation seems to be rising up around INGOs, making them appear out-dated and static in comparison. Social enterprises are rapidly occupying the service delivery space where INGOs once led, with a fresh wave of philanthro-capitalists seeking out “beyond charity” solutions to poverty. Meanwhile, new social movements from Occupy to UK Uncut are highlighting the issues of inequality and social justice and inspiring young people more than ever before. Digital technology has bred a new rise of campaigners, from 38 Degrees, to350.org, which seem to be more effective at rapid mobilisation, both on and offline.

It’s an exhausting list, and one that threatens to send even the most die-hard of INGO thought leaders into a dark closet, never to be seen again. I suspect a few are already there.

If INGOs were companies, most would shrug the critics off – “haters gonna hate” – and continue on as they were. But they’re not, nor can they afford to bury their heads in the sand. Historically, INGOs have gone through periods of growth and retrenchment, and no doubt these patterns will continue.

The sector’s traditional approach to challenge has been to develop codes of practice, joint charters, or training schemes. Some go further: Action Aid and Oxfam have shifted their headquarters to the global south. But such approaches feel a bit like changing a warning sign on a poorly engineered aircraft – they still have a high likelihood of failure.

It is unlikely that INGOs will survive, at least in their current form, without a direct full-frontal assault on the sector. With the external trends coming at rapid-fire pace, they will need to respond by innovating in an equally rapid-fire fashion. So the question is: how will INGOs face the issues of today, and what will they look like when they come out the other side?

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ON DEVELOPMENT: The stealth aid raid: militarising Britain’s development budget

By: Diane Abbott  Mon, 29 Feb 2016 17:38 GMT  original 

Any views expressed in this article are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

When David Cameron last year committed Britain to spend 0.7% of its GDP on aid, he bought his ruling Conservative Party an air of sanctity. He is now exploiting this sanctity to push through some rather unholy changes to how Britain spends that budget.

The public conception of development aid does not include paying the Ministry of Defence (MoD) to train militaries the world over to find and kill people they have determined are terrorists.

But as of this month, people will find themselves to be sadly mistaken in thinking that the £12 billion they pay each year in taxes towards Britain’s aid budget is deployed only to reduce poverty in the developing world.

Following a successful lobbying campaign by the British government – and against the arguments of more sensible and less militarised donor nations such as Sweden – the Development Assistance Committee of the OECD has widened the definition of overseas development assistance (ODA) to allow for aid to be used for military purposes.

Helen Clark, head of United Nations Development Programme, said last week the rule changes would hurt and possibly even destabilise poor countries.

CHANGING PURPOSES

The government’s militarisation of the aid budget makes a mockery of Britain’s legal commitment to use aid only to reduce poverty and will inevitably divert development aid away from those most in need.

This is just the latest step by the government of the most radical change to how Britain spends its aid budget since 1997, when the Department for International Development (DFID) was set up by Labour.

Once out of the hobbling coalition with the Liberal Democrats, the Conservative Party moved swiftly to expand the proportion of the aid budget allocated for security projects, allocating at least half of the aid budget to fragile and conflict-hit states.

At the same time it signalled that from now on Britain would spend aid only on projects that serve its own financial and security interests.

To finance its new security strategy, the government has beefed-up the Conflict Pool – a pot of cash for security-related projects worth £180 million in 2014 that constituted 1.5 per cent of the aid budget – into a new pot called the Conflict,Stability and Security Fund (CSSF). The CSSF will be worth £1.3 billion by the end of this parliament – around 11 per cent of the aid budget.

LACK OF TRANSPARENCY

At the same time the government has empowered the MoD and the Foreign Office to spend more and more of Britain’s aid budget at the expense of the DFID: over the course of the parliament the amount of aid spent outside DFID will triple to around £5 billion in 2020.

Neither the MoD nor the Foreign Office report on their projects in a systematic way, unlike DFID which reports on projects month by month. We have not had project-level data, for example, from the Foreign Office since the May election.

Transparency aside, spending aid in conflict zones on security projects has a bad precedent. The U.S. development agency USAID spent billions in post-2001 Afghanistan which was embezzled or spirited out of the country. The British government is once again falling into the American trap.

The Independent Commission for Aid Impact (ICAI), the government’s own aid watchdog, has criticized the government’s failure to learn lessons from the past, adding that its security initiatives are “naïve” and perform “poorly” in terms of both effectiveness and value for money.

In summary, the government is spending more of the aid budget, less transparently in conflict-hit states that it thinks serve the British interest. This is a thin euphemism for a raid of the aid budget to finance costly folly in the Middle East and North Africa, most of whose nations are middle-income.

WRITING ON THE WALL

The government’s lobbying of the OECD redefinition of aid is only the latest step of a wider agenda by this government to use the aid budget to top up Britain’s military and diplomatic budget.

It is not for no reason that the refrain “Can we ODA that?” is now common in the corridors of the Foreign Office and the MoD.

The trend of allocating more and more aid for security projects in conflict-hit areas with an eye on what such spend can do for Britain’s own interests is an extraordinarily dangerous direction of travel.

Should we, for example, be using our aid budget to train in counter terrorism the security services of our allies who routinely commit human rights abuses? This would appear to sit comfortably in the remit of the government’s new aid strategy.

Counter terrorism goes hand in hand with the routine abuse of human rights as security services surveille, detain, torture and even execute those in civil society who object to their style of rule under the banner of fighting terror.

I fear that by spending our aid on militaries in fragile, often undemocratic states, we are at considerable risk of using taxpayers’ money to make these countries more fragile and more undemocratic.

My concern is not simply hypothetical.

Until 2014 UK aid was financing on a project to train  Ethiopia’s quasi-military police force. The project was eventually pulled amid reports from rights groups including Amnesty International which found allegations of torture and rape by the very security services Britain was financing.

At the same time Britain was funding the police of the Democratic Republic of Congo for nearly a year after reports first emerged that the force “summarily executed” civilians. The project was only pulled when the United Nations released a report on the killings.

Perhaps we should not be surprised. The permanent secretary at the Foreign Office, Simon McDonald, revealed in October that human rights were “not one of the top priorities” for this government.

Diane Abbott is a Labour Party lawmaker for Hackney North and Stoke Newington and opposition spokeswoman for international development

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AFGHANISTAN/ON THE MEDIA: Pressure Like Nowhere Else in the World: Journalism in Afghanistan

By: Bismellah Alizada   p

First female journalists trained in Afghanistan in more than a decade, and first ever trained in digital media, produce a documentary as part of a groundbreaking training program for Afghan women journalists supported by The Asia Foundation, a leading non-governmental organization active in Asia since 1954. The hour-long documentary captures the stories of women in Afghanistan, describing both their lives under the Taliban and their hopes for the future. www.asiafoundation.org. (PRNewsFoto/The Asia Foundation)

First female journalists trained in Afghanistan produce a documentary as part of a groundbreaking training program for Afghan women journalists supported by The Asia Foundation. Photo by PRNewsFoto/The Asia Foundation, Creative Commons

With the collapse of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan almost 15 years ago, a democratic government with a relatively liberal constitution emerged that made allowances — in theory — for freedom of the press and expression. But ensuring the basic security of media workers in the country has been somewhat harder. Media outlets grew exponentially after the anti-press Taliban was toppled, thanks in part to generous funding coming from NGOs, international organisations and foreign countries.

But as foreign troops withdrew, funding for these operations began to wane and only a handful remained commercially viable as many others closed down.

Threats affecting journalists are numerous. Media workers are targets because they highlight the brutality of the insurrection led by the Taliban and other militant groups, while pinpointing the shortcomings of the government and the misdeeds of warlords and parliamentarians alike.

According to a report published by Deutsche Welle in January 2015, there were 125 incidents of violence against journalists reported in 2014, marking the year the “most violent year on record for journalists in the country” as thousands of troops from the US-led coalition withdrew from the country.

Things have not improved since. In August 2015, Pajhwok News Agency’s Azizullah Hamdard was shot and injured in Kabul by unidentified assailants after she reported an incident of electoral fraud.

But it was in autumn last year that things truly took a turn for the worse for the country’s media, as the Taliban dramatically seized the strategic northern city of Kunduz, one of their biggest coups in recent years.

As noted in a recent report by International Media Support (IMS), a non-profit that advocates for media rights and safety across the world:

In the months leading up to the attack, the Taliban had exhibited increasing hostility towards media workers following a spate of years in which the terrorist group had built up stable relationships with mainstream media, providing regular press statements from spokesmen and utilising social media with great effect to broaden their outreach. In September and October 2015, this strategy changed abruptly, as the Taliban proceeded to openly target journalists during the terrorist group’s capture of the Northern city of Kunduz. According to the IMS-supported Afghan Journalists Safety Committee (AJSC), the Taliban actively sought out journalists, searching and raiding the offices of media outlets.

Among the outlets to feel the Taliban’s wrath is TOLO News, a dynamic organisation owned by the MOBY media group that has gained the trust of large parts of the Afghan public by providing 24-hour coverage that includes some of the most dangerous and inaccessible areas of the country.

On January 21, TOLO News staff were targeted by a suicide bomber in Kabul, who killed seven of their workers.

The Taliban had been particularly angry with TOLO News for what it described as a vilification effort after the outlet described incidences of violence and rape towards Kunduz’s civilian population during the month of October.

The subsequent attack on the channel sparked public outrage.

In response to the Taliban’s attack, some journalists suggested a boycott of coverage of future attacks, depriving the group of a vital source of publicity.

Accordingly, the February 1 bombing in Kabul that claimed 20 lives was not covered by TOLO TV and TOLO news.

However, the initiative received mixed responses.

Government officials meanwhile try to force corruption, embezzlement, land usurpation, and human rights abuses off the media’s agenda.

On his first day in office, President Ghani allowed New York Times’ Matthew Rosenberg, who had been expelled by Afghan government on allegations of undermining Afghanistan’s national interests, to return to the country, showcasing his administration’s commitment to free press and freedom of expression.

He also signed into law the Access to Information Law earlier passed by the parliament which states that government-held information should be available to the public, “except in cases that would threaten national security, compromise privacy, or interfere with a criminal investigation”.

Ghani’s administration, however, has failed to deliver on those promises.

The government’s controversial Media Violation Investigation Commission (MVIC), which has been in effect since 2005, has summoned leading daily newspapers on many occasions.

Hasht-e Subh Daily, Daily Open Society, and Etilaat-e Roz Daily are amongst those whose editors-in-chiefs called in by officials as a result of critical reporting.

Moreover, when the anonymously-run satirical Facebook page Kabul Taxi poked fun at Ghani’s powerful security chief Hanif Atmar, Atmar began an unsuccessful witch hunt to try and find out if any prominent media workers were behind the page. It was eventually shut down.

Although television is attracting a significant audience throughout the country, radio still remains the primary source of news for the bulk of the population.

Print media readership is low, but social media usage is on the rise and Internet connections are becoming faster and more accessible.

Accompanying these trends are citizen journalism and blogging, which are increasingly appreciated by a young educated readership.

The phenomenal growth of an independent media in post-Taliban Afghanistan is one of the few major achievements that a government still stricken by graft and incapable of providing many public services can point to.

Despite all manner of pressures, the media is fulfilling its duty and defending the public interest. Although the sacrifices it has been forced to make in order to achieve that goal have been far too many.

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Help us screen these Haitian-made films in May – Haitian Heritage Month

OOF-HPF DVD CoverWe need your help to organize screenings of Owning Our Future – Haitian Perspectives in Film during Haitian Heritage Month – in May.

We can be there with you to help present the films;  We’ve got all the materials you need – posters, flyers etc…  We just need your help with gathering the audience. Please call (617-834-7206) or email (michael@csfilm.org) to help us make a big Haitian splash during the month of May.

These ten Haitian-made documentaries provide a very unique opportunity for your community, school, college, church or organization to experience Haiti as it is lived by street vendors, business women, artists, farmers and more.  Their stories nourish an understanding of Haiti that goes beyond its man-made and natural disasters.

Your audience will come away with a completely new understanding of the economic and social challenges faced by Haitians and so many others in countries struggling against inequality and injustice.

 

 

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ON THE MEDIA: Oscars: Examining Gender Bias in the Documentary Categories

By: Addie Morfoot   FEBRUARY 18, 2016 | 10:30AM PT   original

Gender Bias in Documentary Filmmaking

The institutional bias against minorities and women within the Academy has been widely discussed. However, encouraging Oscar docu statistics as well as an impressive roster of female nonfiction gatekeepers suggest that women in the documentary arena are not only breaking down barriers but also successfully steering the ship.

Not so, according to a number of the communities’ leading female directors, producers and executives.

Unlike the narrative world, where hardly a week goes without a prominent actress or director making headlines by blasting Hollywood for treating women as second-class citizens, public discussion of gender inequality in the nonfiction community is not often spotlighted.

But recently the issue came to light thanks to entertainment attorney Victoria Cook, who reps leading doc directors including Oscar nominees Heidi Ewing, Rachel Grady, Marshall Curry, Amy Berg and Liz Garbus.

In early January, Cook wrote a 634-word Facebook entry about gender bias in the documentary world. In the post, Cook said there is a “misperception that the (feature) documentary category is more inclusive, less sexist and less racist than the other categories.” The entry went viral.

In the post Cook addressed a “pervasive problem in the documentary category,” citing just two female doc feature filmmakers — Laura Poitras (2014’s “Citizenfour”) and Zana Briski (2004’s “Born Into Brothels”) — winning the Oscar documentary feature category in the past 20 years.

In spite of that grim stat, there is no denying that female feature documentarians have a better Oscar track record than their fiction counterparts. Case in point: In the past 10 years, 13 female helmers have been nominated in the feature docu race. (Poitras was nominated twice in that period.) They made up 30% of the nominations.

Through 1992, nominations and awards in docu categories went to producers, not directors. If directors were also classified as producers, they received the award. In total, 11 female directors have won the feature doc kudo, including two-time champ Barbara Kopple, who won for 1976 and 1990.

Compare that to the past 10 years of the directing race, where there’s been only one female nominee — Kathryn Bigelow, who went on to make history by becoming the first woman to win. In the past 88 years, 12 best picture nominees have been directed by women. Out of those 12 films, only three were nominated for a directing kudo.

Despite the promising Oscar numbers, prominent nonfiction female filmmakers attest to gender bias in the community even after winning a little golden man. “Learning to Drive” screenwriter Sarah Kernochan has won two Academy Awards for her nonfiction work, the first for 1972 feature “Marjoe” and the second for 2001 short “Thoth.”

I think it’s crucial that … people are increasingly aware of whatever unconscious biases they bring to the table when hiring or deciding whose film to finance or distribute.” LIZ GARBUS – “WHAT HAPPENED, MISS SIMONE?”

“My co-director on ‘Marjoe’ was a man, Howard Smith,” Kernochan says. “He was good about thrusting me forward so people would have to deal with me as well, because they would automatically talk to him (about the film) and often I was the one with the answers. When I split up with him, there were no opportunities for me, but there were definitely opportunities for him.

“The Oscar didn’t get me anywhere at all because it was assumed that Howard did all the work and I was just the tag-along. The second Oscar, it had absolutely no effect. I think one person asked to meet with me. One! And it was just a meet and greet. It didn’t lead to a job. That would have never happened with a man. Especially a young man.”

In a recent essay for Medium.com, “What Happened, Miss Simone?” helmer and two-time Oscar nominee Garbus recalls fighting for a credit she rightfully deserved.

“On one of my earliest projects, on which I worked many, many years, for next to no money (the usual), my deal with my male filmmaking partner was that we would share producer and director credit,” Garbus wrote. “Three years later, after I had brought in one of the two financing deals, spent nearly two years in the field and a year in the edit room, and maxed out a personal credit card in order to get the film finished, as we were doing the credits in post this fellow suggested that we share just the directing credit, but the producing credit rest solely with him.”

Garbus ultimately kept her producing credit, but contribution questioning is not unique to her. Female directors point to gender disparity in all facets of the documentary process in spite of prominent female gatekeepers including HBO’s Sheila Nevins, Netflix’s Lisa Nishimura and A&E’s Molly Thompson as well as a lower barrier of entry into the field.

As a woman you have to make the case each time you want to make a film why you should be trusted.” DAWN PORTER – “TRAPPED”

Problem is, many women in the field do not feel comfortable going on the record about it.

Emmy nominated docu helmer Dawn Porter agreed to speak about the issue. Porter has three high-profile feature docs under her belt. Her latest project, “Trapped” premiered last month at Sundance and won the special jury award for social impact.

“The problem is a different kind of problem than the fiction world,” Porter says. “In documentaries it’s definitely not a problem of access and filmmakers getting greenlit, because documentaries don’t necessarily work that way. We are not an industry of commissions, so we don’t really have to wait for greenlights. But as a woman you have to make the case each time you want to make a film why you should be trusted. People assume that you, being a woman, don’t necessarily have an infrastructure. I don’t get the sense that people ask (male documentarians) those kinds of things. Or when working with a crew you aren’t familiar with — you get people challenging you in ways that I’m positive they don’t challenge guys. For instance, they think you never shot an interview before.”

For “Mavis!” director Jessica Edwards, Cook’s post “really hit a nerve.” Three years ago Edwards decided to make her first feature about the life of living music legend Mavis Staples.

Despite choosing a popular, historically well-funded nonfiction topic (“Amy” and “Miss Simone?” are about notable female singers Amy Winehouse and Nina Simone) for her first feature, Edwards did not receive any outside funding. Instead she was forced to self-finance, using credit cards, savings and asking family members for loans. (HBO acquired the film in April.)

Arguably project undercapitalization is a problem for both male and female documentary filmmakers, but Edwards says it’s worse for women and people of color.

Making documentaries is tough all over but when shit gets tough all over, ultimately the first people who get what they need to get to get going are white dudes.” JESSICA EDWARDS – “MAVIS!”

“Making documentaries is tough all over, but when sh– gets tough all over, ultimately the first people who get what they need to get going are white dudes,” says Edwards. “The only way it’s going to change is to talk about it and hire more women.”

Garbus agrees. “I think it’s crucial that we’re having these conversations (and) that people are increasingly aware of whatever unconscious biases they bring to the table when hiring or deciding whose film to finance or distribute.”

Despite being the only female nominee in the doc feature race this year, Garbus says she does not feel like the underdog.

“(‘What Happened, Miss Simone?’) has had an extraordinary year, and has gotten incredible responses from audiences and terrific support from (Netflix),” the helmer says. “I feel I’m representing for female doc filmmakers — some of whom I had hoped would be my fellow nominees — but it feels more like an honor than a pressure.”

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AFGHANISTAN: Afghanistan war: Just what was the point?

By Nick Paton Walsh, CNN, Updated 5:43 AM ET, Thu February 25, 2016, original

Afghan troops pull out of Helmand districts

Afghan troops pull out of Helmand districts

Nick Paton Walsh is a CNN Senior International Correspondent who has reported from Afghanistan frequently over the last 10 years.

(CNN)It is worse in Afghanistan now than I ever could have imagined. And I was a pessimist.

Fatigue was always going to be the decider. Western fatigue with the horrors their troops saw, and with the violence inflicted daily on Afghans themselves. The fatigue of the financial cost, where a power station that was barely ever switched on cost Uncle Sam a third of a billion dollars.

And the other fatigue — the one felt by the Taliban — mostly distinguished by its absence; they felt only the tirelessness of their cause.

Meet Afghanistan's Romeo and Juliet

Meet Afghanistan’s Romeo and Juliet

Sometimes the occasional jolt reminds the world that the war is still ongoing. The conflict, begun initially to oust the Taliban that sheltered al Qaeda chief Osama Bin Laden after the September 11, 2001 attacks on the U.S., has cost the lives of more than 3,500 Coalition service members and tens of thousands of Afghan civilians.

This week, Afghan troops, after months of fury at poor supplies and low morale, fell back from two vital positionsin the volatile Helmand province. It leaves Lashkar Gah and Sangin as the major strongholds the government still holds, and a sense of foreboding that the opium-rich southern region will eventually entirely belong to the Taliban.

The war also moved back into focus three weeks ago with the death of Wasil Ahmad. Wasil learned firearms and commanded a unit of anti-Taliban fighters briefly, before Taliban gunmen on a motorbike mowed him down as he bought food for his mother and siblings. Wasil was just 11 years old.

Before the Coalition came

Known as the “graveyard of empires,” Afghanistan has a reputation for humiliating would-be conquerors. Both the Soviets, in the 1980s, and the British, during the 19th century, were forced to beat bloody retreats from Afghanistan, deprived of what looked, on paper, to be easy victories.

Time has changed the definition of what people nowadays call an “empire,” but not this perception. The U.S. military liked to feel wise as they repeated the maxim that they had the “fancy watch, but the Taliban had the time.” In truth, the American watch ran out of batteries, leaving the Taliban owning both the aphorism and the clock.

READ: Young Messi fan wearing plastic bag jersey found in Afghanistan

The rise of the Taliban before 9/11 owed much to the country’s ethnic divides. In the civil war that followed the withdrawal of Soviet troops in 1989, Pashtun forces swept in from the south, towards the capital Kabul, and pushed the Tajiks back to the north.

Time passed. The U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003. The Taliban found its feet again. The U.S. began to get mired in Iraq. The insurgency picked up. The Afghan government started losing ground. By 2008, it was a full-on emergency and the U.S. realized — even from the liberal anti-war perch of President Barack Obama — that this was the “just war” that it must fight.

And then, the war ramped up

For about three years, there was intense focus. First came the surge. Up to 100,000 U.S. troops (as part of a NATO force) at one point, pressing into the darkest Taliban valleys. Holding ground — spending millions every month to maintain a presence in tiny dusty villages in faraway places like Kandahar to show the insurgency the U.S. had the resolve.

READ: Top U.S. general in Afghanistan: 2016 ‘possibly worse than 2015’

But it was never going to last. In fact, that was always an advertised part of the plan: the U.S. and NATO would hold the land for a few years — until they thought the Afghan troops were ready — and then they would pull out. The Taliban had to hope the Afghans wouldn’t be ready, and just wait. It seems they did.

Secondly, came the budgets: $110 billion spent in the largest reconstruction effort in U.S. history. Some new roads that made life in some towns viable again, but also buildings that always stood empty, and an injection of cash into Kabul so unrealistic, unprecedented and absurd that the cost of living became almost reckless.

At one point the World Bank suggested more than 90% of Afghanistan’s total budget was aid-dependent. (I got a very quick call from the U.S. Embassy telling me this wasn’t true — no alternative figure was offered). Housing for Afghans became more expensive — some rents have now dropped by almost half. From behind the concrete blast walls where foreigners mainly lived, a (small) can of black market Heineken at one point cost $10. America had no shortage of cash, just a shortage of viable ways to spend it, resulting in some daft projects and a brief pocket of total imbalance in the Afghan economy.

Thirdly came the leadership. U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates fired the military commander of the NATO-led security mission in Afghanistan ISAF, David McKiernan, in 2009 and replaced him with Stanley McChrystal, a special forces veteran.

McChrystal’s bleak assessment of the war was damning enough to suggest the Green Beret knew the scope of the challenge. He had a plan — and it was leaked quickly enough to back the White House into a corner that involved a large commitment of resources. It involved talking to Afghans, and winning them over. Troops would get out and meet people. For a moment, it seemed to work.

Then the bizarre happened. Eyjafjallajökull, a volcano in Iceland erupted in 2010, scattering ash into the atmosphere and grounding aircraft. McChrystal and his team were among those delayed, along with a Rolling Stone reporter. They spoke their minds, found themselves in print, and McChrystal was fired. From that point, the war felt like it changed. Forever.

READ: Opinion – Sanity prevails on U.S. troops in Afghanistan

David Petraeus swept in that year as McChrystal’s successor — a career general, mindful that the clock was ticking on the surge. The campaign focused on the message and that clock. Petraeus was succeeded by another Iraq veteran, John Allen, whose role was about cleaning up. The surge had almost worked, but been interrupted, caught short, and now America was leaving.

Between January and May 2012, every day seemed to bring a new calamity to the U.S. military presence. From Qurans burned apparently in error; to the corpses of Taliban fighters urinated on by Marines who filmed themselves as they did it; to a massacre by an American soldier in a Kandahar village. Even the most footsure NATO spokesman seemed to lose faith.

So what was achieved?

Well, at one point, al Qaeda was said to be in its mere hundreds in Afghanistan — hiding away in the eastern hills. Bin Laden had been killed in Pakistan. A few thousand Afghans became absurdly rich on the U.S. presence. Far many more thousands (there is no real, reliable figure) died or were injured.

Women saw a brief moment when Western aid programs and ideals let them think about lives outside of the home, where they could flourish. (They still can think about that, but now risk more than ever brutal reprisals from conservatives). The West flooded the country with money and weapons to the point that it is now a land of warlords on steroids.

READ: Opinion – How Afghanistan can succeed

The Afghan army, briefly, swelled. But it could never hold the ground NATO did. NATO advisors would swear blind that you were wrong, that the ramshackle units you saw could defeat a hungry and angry local insurgency. But it became clear they were misinformed. That an inner malaise — corruption — would undo the Afghan National Security Forces, whose upkeep has cost the U.S. taxpayer well over $60 billion, and whose brave losses continue now at an unprecedented speed.

In Afghanistan, portrait of a tragic failure of humanity

In Afghanistan, portrait of a tragic failure of humanity

 Two stories stick out of Afghans who are not where the West told them they would be. The first is Gulnaz, the woman who was raped, then jailed for adultery because her attacker was married, then told she would have to marry him. International pressure led to her release into a shelter for women, but three years later I found her living with her attacker, and married to him — the only way Afghanistan’s at times backwards world could find to reconcile the crime against her.

Second is Wahid. He commanded an Afghan army unit, fighting fiercely in Kunduz against the Taliban. They had little support, he alleged, even ammunition, and the dead bodies of their fallen comrades were left to rot in their besieged base. So he fled — dodging bullets in Iran, taking the boat to Greece, and enduring tear gas near Hungary. He is exactly the sort of Afghan the West promised a future to and needed to stay where he was — defending his country. We found him eating a muffin in a café in Munich, Germany.

Where are we now?

The dissent in the ranks of the Taliban has led to ISIS becoming a radical, brutal and attractive alternative to the country’s disenfranchised youth, for whom the old insurgency isn’t moving fast enough.

Haunting pictures of Kunduz MSF hospital

Haunting pictures of Kunduz MSF hospital

 According to the U.S. Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction (SIGAR — the U.S. government’s money watchdog there), the Taliban hold more territory now than at any time since 2001. There are about 10,000 U.S. troops left, who can hunt extremists, but not hold territory. And it seems neither can the Afghan army at times. It is losing fast in Helmand. It lost Kunduz temporarily in October. If you suggested either of these losses were remotely possible two years ago, most NATO advisors would accuse you of mild insanity.

In terms of Western goals — things are right back where they started: needing to keep Afghanistan free of extremists and a viable country for its people. Without that the result is thousands of refugees in Europe, and ISIS gets a new safe haven. What is left is a country where the West is discredited as unwilling to stay the course; where most fighters are meaner, better armed, and more chaotic than they were in 2001; and whose name causes opinion-formers in the West to try and change the subject.

It was dubbed the Just War, then the Forever War. Now many want it to be the Forgotten War.

But it is still a war, and the West owns a lot of it.

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