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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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AFGHANISTAN: Afghan teacher among top 10 finalists for $1 million Global Teacher Prize

By KHAAMA PRESS – Sat Feb 20 2016

A female Afghan teacher has been nominated for the Global Teacher Prize by Varkey Foundation and is among the top 10 finalists to receive the $1 million prize.

According to a statement by the organization, the top 10 finalists were announced on Wednesday, representing 5 continents, and 9 countries.

The winner of the prize is expected to be announced on 13th March in Dubai and each of the top 10 finalists will be featured by the organization.

Aqeela was forced to leave Afghanistan in 1992 due to the civil war and shifted to Pakistan along with millions of other Afghans.

Shocked with the deeply conservative Afghans refugees in the camps who were regarding education with suspicion preferring to put their children to work, Aqeela started her first school in a borrowed tent, spending as much time educating parents on the benefits of education as their children.

“There was no money and no equipment: her first pupils spelt out their work in the dust of the tent floor. Careful to be sensitive to religious and tribal sensibilities, word spread amongst both the Afghan refugees and the local Pakistani families who started to send their daughters to Aqeela’s school. She gained the trust of the community and was rewarded increased attendances,” according to a feature published about Aqeela on The Global teacheer Prize organization.

Today, over 1500 pupils are enrolled in her schools of whom 900 are girls. Her graduates are carrying the message back home – two of her former pupils have opened schools for girls in Afghanistan and other have started businesses, become doctors or government employees .
“I am particularly proud of those who have made their decision to return to Afghanistan and become active agents of change at a time when their country needs them most”, she says.

Aqeela’s school has produced over 1,000 graduates (mainly Afghan refugee girls, but also local Pakistani children). Some have become doctors, engineers, government officials and teachers in Afghanistan.

She was also presented with the UNHCR’s Nansen Refugee Award in 2015.

http://www.khaama.com/afghan-teacher-among-top-10-finalists-for-1-million-global-teacher-prize-0121

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ON HAITI: As drought hammers countryside, many in Haiti go hungry

by David Mcfadden The Associated Press, 2 min read, original
dt.common.streams.StreamServer

This Feb. 20, 2016 photo shows the dry, cracked lakebed of Trou Caiman, in Croix-des-Bouquets, Haiti. A drought worsened by the El Nino weather phenomenon has driven Haitians who were already barely getting by on marginal farmland deeper into misery. An estimated 1.5 million people are going hungry as crop yields fall to lowest levels in 35 years in a country where two-thirds of people eke out a living from agriculture. (AP Photo/Dieu Nalio Chery)

“We get a little bit to eat and drink each day, but it’s never enough to get our strength back. I don’t know what to do anymore,” she said, her voice hoarse as she cradled her toddler twins, their hair brittle and taking on a yellowish tinge, a sign of malnutrition.

For the last three years, a punishing drought has driven Haitians who were already barely getting by on marginal farmland even deeper into misery. Last year’s crop yields were the worst in 35 years in a country where more than two-thirds of people eke out a living from agriculture, many using archaic hand tools.

Many Haitians routinely go to bed hungry, and are heartbreakingly accustomed to privation and natural disasters. But the cumulative impact of this drought is so severe that Haiti is facing “unprecedented food insecurity,” according to the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

Over the last year, it’s worsened significantly with a strong El Nino weather phenomenon that’s been disrupting weather patterns across the globe, leaving many places in Latin America and the Caribbean stricken by drought. Cuba suffered its worst drought in over a century in 2015 and water rationing was ordered in Puerto Rico and elsewhere.

But few places are more vulnerable than Haiti, where 3.6 million of its 10.4 million people can’t afford the minimum daily calories, according to the U.N. World Food Program. Of those, 1.5 million are in urgent need of assistance, meaning they’re getting significantly less nutrition than what they need and are so underfed they become weak. That category of “severely food insecure” people has doubled in Haiti over the last six months, the agency said.

“This drought is a very dangerous situation. The pressures on people keep increasing,” said Haitian economist Kesner Pharel, noting that buying food makes up more than half of an average Haitian family’s budget.

Pharel said local agricultural production has contracted so severely over the last two years that 70 percent of the crops consumed in Haiti are now imported, up from roughly 50 percent in the past. With the local currency losing value, the cost of imports is rising, making everything pricier.

Officials say more rural families are being forced to join the decades-long exodus to cities. And diminishing calories means more children are vulnerable to infections like measles and any number of other diseases.

Wendy Bigham, country director of the U.N. World Food Program, said a growing number of farming families have been eating seed stock, seeking loans and selling items such as livestock and tools to get cash for food.

But “coping mechanisms such as reducing food consumption, selling assets and borrowing money are more and more difficult to sustain as the drought continues year after year,” she said.

In the wind-swept mountain town of Oriani in southeast Haiti, Joseph knows this all too well. About a year ago, her husband left to seek work in the neighboring Dominican Republic and he hasn’t returned since. She was forced to sell off her chickens and then her other meager possessions to buy food.

On a recent afternoon, Associated Press reporters met her at a town health clinic crowded with other women cradling children and waiting their turn to be seen. Her 2-year-old twins, Angelo and Angela, have missed developmental milestones such as taking their first steps or uttering their first words. On this day, she left with only deworming tablets because the facility was again out of nutrient-dense peanut butter.

At her family’s stone-and-timber shack, Joseph’s two older children, 10-year-old daughter Junel and 12-year-old son Stevenson, sprawled listlessly on a straw mat as her hungry twins tried to breastfeed. Joseph is so underfed and dehydrated that she can’t produce milk. “I only nurse them to comfort them,” she said.

To get emergency aid to people like Joseph and her children, the World Food Program is seeking $84 million in donations to distribute cash and food to roughly 1 million drought-affected Haitians. The U.S. has boosted its emergency aid to Haiti, awarding $11.6 million to nonprofits to address nutritional deficiencies for over 135,000 people.

The challenges of getting emergency food aid to struggling communities, even those accessible only by foot or donkey, is easier than finding elusive solutions to Haiti’s chronic hunger problems.

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ON HAITI: Haiti Rises-A Time for Solidarity

22 February 2016, Nia Imara and Robert Roth – Haiti Action Committee
“Reflecting on struggles everywhere, we came to the conclusion that a people can’t be sovereign if they don’t have the right to vote. No people can retain their dignity if their vote does not count.”From a Statement Issued by 68 Haitian Grassroots Organizations, Jan 22, 2016

The voice of Haiti’s popular movement at this critical period in the country’s history has never been clearer.  For the past several months, since the discredited legislative and presidential elections of last August and October, mass, vibrant protests for the right to a free and fair vote and against foreign intervention have been a relentless force, in the face of heavily-armed and well-financed adversaries and mounting repression. The influx of articles and editorials in recent weeks by leading U.S. media outlets depicts the situation in Haiti as a confused, incomprehensible, morass of violence and dysfunction, with all sides being equally unreasonable in their demands. This misleading portrayal of Haitian politics and culture—indeed, of Haitian people—by American mainstream media is not new. Rather, it is a continuation of a historical pattern of obfuscating the underlying reasons for the grievances of Haiti’s mass movement, which has consistently denounced foreign intervention and the suppression of Haiti’s sovereignty.

The popular revolt in Haiti has forced the postponement of the January 24 presidential run-off election, to the dismay of the U.S. State Department and the current Haitian government of Michel Martelly, whose handpicked candidate had been declared the frontrunner.  And now, on February 7, it has forced the end of the rule of Martelly himself, who has had to step down rather than oversee the next stage of the electoral process.

These are major victories for the people’s movement in Haiti. But already there are signs that the next round will be just as difficult as the fight has been already.  The popular movement has made it clear that they have no interest in a top-down solution that excludes the participation and voices of the tens of thousands of Haitians who have risked their lives nearly every day in the fight for democracy.  They have raised the fundamental question: How can elections proceed to a second round if the first round was hopelessly illegitimate? How can elections move forward without a thorough investigation and repair of the fraud that already took place?  These are the critical issues being fought over today as Haitians celebrate the end of the Martelly dictatorship.

Background to the Revolt: Twelve Years Since the Coup, Twelve Years of Occupation

The revolt in Haiti has not emerged overnight. It is now almost twelve years since the U.S.-orchestrated coup that overthrew the democratically elected government of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide and removed over 8,000 elected officials, and exiled, jailed, raped and murdered thousands of supporters of the Fanmi Lavalas Party.  The coup was enforced by a United Nations military occupation that still exists today.  It has been five years since Michel Martelly, a supporter of the brutal Duvalier dictatorships and their death squads, was selected as president; only 17% of eligible Haitian voters turned out in an election that excluded the most popular political party, Fanmi Lavalas. Hillary Clinton, then the U.S. Secretary of State, flew to Haiti to dictate to Haitian officials that Martelly be placed in the election runoff after initial results had left him only in third place. His U.S.-backed reign has featured one corruption scandal after another, intimidation of the judicial system, the return of death squads, torture of political prisoners, selling off of oil and mineral rights to foreign corporations, and rule by decree.

Haitians have had enough of this.  As they watched this latest election being stolen and a Martelly minion emerge as the leading vote getter, they took to the streets by the tens of thousands. As they saw ballot boxes burned and “observers” with 900,000 government-issued credentials vote over and over again, they declared the election an “electoral coup.” As they were turned away from one polling place after another, and told that they were not eligible to vote, they declared fraud.

While they joined the demonstrators in the streets, Fanmi Lavalas and its presidential candidate, Dr. Maryse Narcisse also filed a petition with the National Office of Electoral Litigation to challenge the results. All major opposition condemned the fraudulent elections and announced a boycott of the scheduled presidential run-off on January 24.  As the demonstrations grew in size and scope, the Haitian government responded with increasing violence.  Police fired into peaceful protests, and beat and tear-gassed those in the streets.  Much of this has been met with silence by the international media.

When it comes to Haiti, the United States’ homegrown illness—racism—is cast outward.  Just as the voting rights of Black people have been abused throughout American history, the US Government, through financial and diplomatic coercion, abuses the voting rights of Haitians.  Just as the basic human rights of Black people—decent education, housing, healthcare, physical safety—are regularly undermined here, the US Government has directly and indirectly made efforts to extinguish fundamental civil and human rights in Haiti.  Just as the State of Michigan forced the majority Black population of Flint to drink contaminated water while the EPA did nothing, so did United Nations troops dump their excrement into Haiti’s water supply with impunity, bringing cholera to the country with no reparations.  The U.S. Government—from the Bush Administrations, to the Clinton and Obama Administrations—have routinely demonstrated, as a matter of policy, that Black lives matter in Haiti as little as they do in America.

The State Department: Talking Democracy, Promoting Fraud

The U.S. role throughout the electoral crisis is as predictable as it was after the 2010 earthquake, when the State Department sent then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to handpick a well-known misogynist and supporter of the Duvalier dictatorship, Michel Martelly, for president.  With one hand, the U.S. State Department denounces the “violence” surrounding the elections, while the other hand has never ceased stoking the fires of electoral fraud and corruption.  With one face, the US State Department encourages fair, free elections and discourages voter intimidation; with the other, it upholds electoral fraud and threatens the leadership of Haiti’s most popular movement.

The U.S. State Department has been the chief promoter of both the Martelly government and the fraudulent elections that Haitians have called an “electoral coup.”  It has maintained its pro-Martelly stance despite the reports of independent human rights investigators that Martelly’s PHTK Party intimidated voters, stole ballots, burned ballot boxes and attempted to terrorize voters and suppress voter turnout in both the August 9 and October 25 legislative and presidential elections.

Now that the popular movement has finally brought these fraudulent elections to a temporary halt, the State Department has made its displeasure even more clear. On January 24, it issued a warning to demonstrators in Haiti against “electoral intimidation, destruction of property, and violence,” saying this runs “counter to Haiti’s democratic principles.”  This is the same racist and paternalistic tone it has always used in Haiti—from the time of Haiti’s Revolution, to the U.S. invasion and occupation of Haiti from 1915-1934, to the two coups that overthrew the democratically elected Aristide administrations in 1991 and 2004. This from the same State Department that was silent when peaceful protesters were killed, tear-gassed, beaten or arrested, or when Martelly’s agents terrorized voters and burned down polling places.

Hidden From The Headlines: Fanmi Lavalas and Dr. Maryse Narcisse

In addition, there has been near-silence about the remarkable campaign run by Fanmi Lavalas and its presidential candidate, Dr. Maryse Narcisse. A medical doctor and long-time Lavalas militant, Dr. Narcisse helped establish health clinics in rural communities. At the time of the 1991 coup, like many Aristide supporters, she went into the streets to protest the military and was briefly forced into hiding. When President Aristide was reelected in 2000, she joined his administration.  Exiled after the 2004 coup, she returned in 2006 to help rebuild Lavalas and continues to serve as Aristide’s spokesperson.  Day after day throughout this campaign, she has been in the streets with the people. Her campaign has emphasized “dignity”—that the Haitian people cannot be bought or sold, that, as President Aristide has said, “If we don’t protect our dignity, our dignity will escape us.”

The progressive achievements and agenda of Lavalas—setting up health clinics in poor urban and rural communities, advancing the fight against HIV/AIDS, promoting equality for women, literacy education for all Haitians, living wage employment, taxing the rich, and abolishing the Haitian Army—have made it the party of the poor majority in Haiti.  The organized collective of dozens of grassroots organizations that compose Fanmi Lavalas make it much different from the elite political parties we are familiar with in the U.S.  Fanmi Lavalas grew out of a nationwide mass movement to force out the American-backed dictator, Jean Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier, and to instill truly participatory democracy after years of rule by the elite and foreign intervention.  In 1986, after decades of sacrifice and struggle against repressive regimes, Haitians succeeded in forcing out Duvalier and bringing about the nation’s first democratic elections.  It was a hard-fought, hard-won victory when the great majority voted into presidential office Jean-Bertrand Aristide in 1990.

Since then, the US organized two coup d’états against the Aristide administration, which again received an overwhelming mandate in 2000.  Following each coup—in 1991 and 2004—the US Government helped to install a military occupation to suppress resistance, namely, Lavalas.  In 1991, the US lent its support to paramilitary groups, many of whom were part of the Duvalier military—since disbanded by Lavalas—and the Haitian police.  In 2004, the US, with the support of France and Canada, threw its full weight behind the United Nations, which, in Haiti, is an occupying force, not a peacekeeping mission. Over the last 12 years, that occupation, known as MINUSTAH, has overseen the attempt to destroy Haiti’s popular movement.

Lavalas still has a target on its back. In an article published by Reuters on January 26, 2016 an unnamed Congressional source told the news agency that, “The Obama Administration would be worried if he [Aristide] were playing an important role. They’re not thrilled with Aristide’s forces coming back.”  This should be no surprise, given the leading role Lavalas has played in the democratic movement.  After all, in 2011, it was President Obama who made a phone call to South African President Jacob Zuma, warning him not to allow President Aristide and his family to board a South African plane and come back to Haiti. When Aristide returned, he was greeted by thousands of people at the airport and then at his home.  Once again, Haitians—and in this case the people of South Africa—did not obey.

What Next? A Time For Solidarity

During this campaign, Dr. Narcisse emerged as a formidable candidate.  If there is a full investigation of the last bogus election, as Lavalas and grassroots organizations are demanding, the abundance of popular support for Dr. Narcisse is certain to manifest in the ballot box.  If she ends up winning, she would be the first elected woman president in Haiti’s history.

That will only be possible if a transparent and credible process takes place over these next months.  The “electoral coup,” after all, stole votes from candidates who represented popular organizations and parties. Any new election that repeats this process will be a new form of theft. With U.S. officials already decrying the “violence” of demonstrators and warning against new protests, and reports circulating of “solutions” that leave out the representatives of the very grassroots organizations and parties that have been at the forefront of the fight for free and fair elections, this is a moment for vigilance in Haiti.  In their recent statement, 68 grassroots organizations in Haiti state their position very clearly:

We say NO, WE WILL NOT OBEY ILLEGITIMATE OFFICIALS. Self-defense is a legitimate universal law. Civil-Disobedience is an accepted universal right when a people confronts an illegal regime. The right to elect a government is universally accepted as a way for people to protect its existence. Today, confronted by the danger presented by local and international colonialists, the Haitian people have started a RESISTANCE FOR EXISTENCE movement. They ask for people to people solidarity from everywhere on the planet.”

We should heed their call.

__________________________________

Nia Imara is a member of Haiti Action Committee, a San Francisco Bay Area based organization.

Robert Roth is a co-founder of the Haiti Action Committee, and teaches high school in San Francisco.  The website of HAC is www.haitisolidarity.net

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ON THE MEDIA; AFGHANISTAN: What next for media in Afghanistan?

By Helle Wahlberg, International Media Support, 18 Feb. 2016

An Afghan journalist at work. Photo: Lars Schmidt

As private and independent media in Afghanistan struggle to come to terms with the loss of seven colleagues from Tolo TV in January following a Taliban-led bomb attack, the international community must now consider how best to move forward in their support for media workers in Afghanistan

The Taliban’s renewed hostility towards media and the emergence of equally media-hostile ISIS (Daesh) in Afghanistan pose serious challenges to the impressive gains in the field of independent media and freedom of expression in Afghanistan over the last 15 years.

The vulnerability of private, independent media in the country was brutally exposed when a bomb attack on 20 January targeted a minibus carrying workers from the country’s largest private broadcaster, Tolo TV, killing seven staff members and injuring dozens.

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 utilizing 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.

Despite being taken somewhat by surprise by this turn of events in Kunduz, the AJSC, a locally led network of journalist union -, media and civil society representatives working to protect and improve the safety of Afghan journalists, was able to help over seventy journalists out of Kunduz in time. The emergency assistance involved providing accommodation, transportation by air and cash handouts to cover emergency expenses for the displaced journalists. Female journalists fled under the cover of their Burqas.

Following the Kunduz incident, Tolo TV News and 1TV, the two largest private broadcasters in the country, were singled out and named as military targets by the Taliban allegedly for having broadcast false reports about the conduct of Taliban fighters during their brief takeover of Kunduz. According to the AJSC, this was the first time that the Taliban had publically issued threats against specific media outlets directly from the Taliban Military Council. In a strong show of solidarity, some Afghan media and media support organisations issued a joint statement promising to boycott any Taliban media and news sources if such an attack was carried out. Tolo TV was attacked on 20 January.

The threat of another imminent attack is now one that staff at 1TV are living with every day.

“The attack on Tolo TV was shocking. I expected it, but not so soon,” says Abdullah Azada Khenjani, editor-in-chief and Head of News and Current Affairs at 1TV.

“1TV covered the attack and issued a statement saying that we considered this to be an attack on all media. The night of the attack, we focused on supporting our colleagues at Tolo TV. The next morning, BBC Persia reported that a spokesperson for the Taliban had said that 1TV was next in line.”

The attack on Tolo TV has taken its immediate toll on the daily lives of staff at 1TV. Many staff members are opting not to come to work out of fear of another attack and while the management group at 1TV has taken the threats against the station very seriously, ensuring the protection of over 100 staff members remains not only logistically difficult, but also very costly.

“Not only are journalists living in fear. Their families are affected as well. My mother is not sleeping and I need to report to my wife every hour for her peace of mind,” Abdullah Azada Khenjani explains.

He continues:

“The aim of the Taliban is to demolish the beginnings of a democratic system in Afghan society in which media is a main pillar. My fear is that they will succeed. We need the Afghan government to help mitigate these attacks on media and we need more support from the international community. I think the coming year could well become the deadliest yet for journalists in Afghanistan.”

The international community including governments, the UN, international media and journalists’ rights organisations and civil society have responded to the latest attacks on media in Afghanistan with statements of solidarity. While the working relationship between media support organisations and the Afghan government has improved, most recently manifested in the establishment of an Oversight Commission on Access to Information that will monitor the government’s implementation of the Access to Information Act, more is needed from the international community. According to Abdullah Azada Khenjani, the international community must increase its pressure on the Afghan government to take the threats against the hard-won achievements of the Afghan media sector seriously.

“In the last 15 years, the international community has spent millions of dollars in Afghanistan, but more of this should have been invested in securing freedom of expression values. We need to help Taliban supporters understand that media has an important role to play as a watchdog of government and power holders and that for this reason, media should not be a target. In addition to this, there is a need for more technical support to educate local media in the provinces on how to better protect themselves.

For now, the IMS-supported, locally anchored Afghan Journalist Safety Committee remains the only country-wide safety and protection mechanism for Afghan journalists that operates in 32 out of 34 provinces. The Safety Committee has assisted some 600 journalists in distress since it was set up in Afghanistan with support from IMS in 2009. Regional safety coordinators and volunteers manage an alert system, where they liaise with journalists under threat and provide updates on violations and changing circumstances for media to the AJSC headquarters. Basic services include various types of safety training for both male and female journalists, legal advice, a hotline, safe houses and safety funds coupled with efforts to influence media law reform through advocacy efforts.

One of the AJSC’s key initiatives has been its approach to community-based safety where cooperation with local police authorities has resulted in agreements on provincial safety procedures for police to follow to help ensure a safer working environment for journalists. But also the AJSC setup remains fragile in a volatile environment where rising insecurity and decreasing funding for their essential work to ensure the safety of journalists are a reality.

The Taliban’s renewed hostility towards media and the emergence of ISIS and their aggressive and coercive position towards media in Afghanistan both pose serious challenges to the impressive gains made by media and in the field of freedom of expression in Afghanistan over the last 15 years. Today, media plays a highly important role in public life. The media is the only watchdog apparatus monitoring the performance of the government and power holders. Safeguarding a strong, professional and independent media sector and its workers should thus be viewed as a long-term investment in Afghanistan’s democratic and peaceful development.

Read more about important developments in Afghan media between July – December 2015 in AJSC’s Six Month Report July-December 2015.

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ON DEVELOPMENT: It’s Not a Food Truck. It’s a Mobile Kitchen Feeding Refugees

globalvoices.org, by Public Radio International, Feb. 13, 2016, 3 min read, original
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Ghafoor Hussain and his brother Fazel stand outside Ghafoor’s bus-turned-mobile kitchen. They’re supplying 3,000 hot meals a day, and 10,000 cups of tea. Credit: Adeline Sire. Used with PRI’s permission

This article by Adeline Sire for The World originally appeared on PRI.org on February 10, 2016, and is republished here as part of a content-sharing agreement.

No matter where they are located, most refugee camps need an army of volunteers to help with distributing blankets, clothing, and especially food and water.

Listen to this story on PRI.org »

Some of those volunteers are particularly committed.

For years, Ghafoor Hussain has been offering his time to help feed and clothe the needy. Last fall, he traveled from his home in Stockton-on-Tees in northeast England to migrant camps in Croatia, Slovenia and Austria.

But when he was in at a camp in Austria, he saw that refugees were given cold sandwiches. And he decided they needed hot food — and that he would be the one to deliver.

Now he doesn’t just bring himself to camps, he brings a bus, which he bought online last December and retrofitted with special equipment.

“We took it back to the garage where I work and we stripped it all out and my nephew gave me some help to kitty it all out into a full mobile kitchen,” says Hussain, who’s 44.

The bus is a rolling professional kitchen equipped with two prep tables, a double-drainer sink, five commercial gas stoves and a 260-gallon water tank. Gas containers and storage are in the back and underneath. Buying and retrofitting the bus cost him about $9,000 but he got help from friends and colleagues.

“Everyone started chipping in and we got a fund going,” he says. “People have donated food and clothing and everything. And they also gave me donations, as in money, so this morning we went out to the warehouse and bought two pallets of water.”

Since mid-January, Hussain’s mobile kitchen has been stationed at the Grande-Synthe migrant camp near Dunkirk, in northern France. His brother-in-law drove it over from the UK. Hussain had originally planned to stop at camps along the route of migrants traveling up through Central Europe, but he got a phone call telling him the living conditions at the French camp were bad and that they needed his help. He left his son in charge of the family garage to give his full attention to his mobile kitchen.

Now Hussain supplies about 3,000 hot meals per day for people living in tents at the camp. Hot drinks too.

“We do about 5,000 cups of tea in the morning; then we do another 5,000 cups of tea in the evening,” he says. “As you can feel, the temperature is very cold, and this morning everything was frozen. And there’s no hot beverages anywhere in this camp apart from what we supply.”

As for meals, Hussain says they cook rice, lentils, chickpeas, red kidney beans, black-eyed beans, pasta and porridge. Truth be told, porridge didn’t go over too well in this camp of mostly Kurdish refugees. Because most of the people here are Muslim, like Hussain, he cooks vegetarian meals to avoid the need for Halal meat. It’s expensive and hard to get in this small French town.

Preparing 3,000 meals a day cost him about $450, but he’s not worried about running out of money. He says he’s getting donations from all over Europe, as well as Abu Dhabi and Pakistan, where he was born.

“The way the things are going with my friends and family,” he chuckles, “I don’t think my funds will run out. They’re very kind.”

And he says he is in it for the long run, as long as he can get the backing. But what does his family think about him being away?

“They think I’m a bit mad,” he says with a laugh, “but I have the full support of my family. I’m hoping to go back [home] for a few days next week, and then come back again and keep going.”

In fact, Hussain just bought another bus, soon to be a fully-equipped kitchen, to meet the growing demand at the camps for hot meals.

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