Archive for the ‘Africa’ category

Running for Water Wells in Africa

May 20, 2009

They say World War III will not be about differences in political ideology, or about religion; nor will it be about who has nuclear weapons and who does not. The next world war will be a war about resources, specifically water.

The issue of water is an international concern spanning India, Central Asia, Africa and several other countries the world over. It’s even an issue in my own state.

In an effort to increase awareness of the water situation, particularly in Africa, a new documentary is to be soon released chronicling the journey of three marathon runners from three different countries as they jog across the Sahara. The goal of their monumental run is to raise awareness and funds for water projects throughout Africa.

During their course the runners spend time in local villages located along their route where they often share a jog with village kids and talk with locals about the water situation in their region.

Check out this VOA piece previewing the soon-to-be-aired program.

Here’s the official site.


For women, poverty can lead to empowerment

May 15, 2009

Consider this sobering fact:

Worldwide, women and girls make up 70% of the estimated 1.3 billion people living in poverty, two thirds of the one billion illiterate adults, and two thirds of the 130 million children who are not in school.

Now consider this story:

A teacher by training, Lynne Randolph Patterson never expected to find herself at the helm of a multi-national financial services company.

Twenty years ago, she was volunteering at a young mothers club in La Paz, Bolivia, where her husband had been posted for work.

She was there to deliver empowerment lessons but the women, who attended twice a week in exchange for donated food, all told her one thing: “We need to earn money.”

Along with her colleague, Carmen Velasco, a psychologist, they began to offer the women business training and tried to find them credit.

Inspired by Grameen Bank in Bangladesh, whose founder Muhammad Yunus pioneered microfinance, they began to offer small loans of around $50.

The women formed groups to guarantee each other’s loans, and made simple business plans showing how they would invest and repay their first loans.

“Not being very financial, we made lots of mistakes in the beginning,” she says.

But they persevered, and Pro Mujer (Pro Woman in Spanish) as their organisation is now called, now provides 222,000 women with loans, business training and healthcare in five Latin American countries. [BBC]

And this one as well from Kigali, Rwanda:

A group of 15 female entrepreneurs will receive business courses at university level, which includes mentorship through a partnership with fellow female entrepreneurs in the US, as part of the “Peace Through Business” programme later this August.

The group of 27 was short-listed after completing an extensive eight-week course largely administered by last year’s pioneers, with their graduation ceremony being held at Christ’s Church in Rwanda (CCR), at Gacuriro Estate last Sunday.

Jane Natukunda, a mother of three and a tea dealer is one of the entrepreneurs who were simply ecstatic after being named at the graduation ceremony.

“I really feel very happy being among the fifteen women. We learnt many useful business skills in the past few weeks,” a cheerful Natukunda said.

“Previously, most of us conducted business without the proper know-how, but have learnt much – bookkeeping, networking, business management, risk management and even leadership. I am highly empowered and motivated to teach others as well.” []

And before I continue, consider this fact as well:

Research has shown that women are more likely to repay loans in full and on time than men. It has also been established that giving a woman access to primary education will ensure that her entire family receives better health care and nutrition. This indicates that providing equal access to education, credit, property and employment for women, will ensure economic justice and sustainability for all.

*Ref: Empowering Young Women to Lead Change

Produced by WMCA and Supported by the United Nations Populations  Fund, published in 2006

So what’s the lesson here?

Simply put, investing in the education and training of women worldwide leads not only to self-empowerment and independence, but also encourages the self-sustainability of small enterprises that promotes business and trade at the grassroots level.

Sometimes an overlooked part of the population, in many communities women are the backbone of the family. Empowering them, empowers more than just an individual.

New TV program aims to change the way we see developing countries

May 13, 2009

You might recognize the face and name of Chris Bashinelli. (Hint: “The Sopranos.”) If, for some reason, he’s not ringing a bell to you, don’t worry – he soon will.

Chris recently asked young Americans what they were watching on TV. Their answers held no surprises. What was shocking, however, was what they were not seeing on their television screens:

This is where his new program “Bridge the Gap” comes in. “Bridge the Gap” is an in-depth TV series that looks at why understanding culture is crucial to the development of any nation. In the program, Chris travels to various developing nations where he spends 40 days immersing himself in the culture and observing firsthand the issues most affecting people’s lives. He then meets with leading experts from the countries he visits to further understand the issues at hand. The whole idea behind the TV series is to find ways for young Americans to “bridge the gap” between themselves and the developing world.

Check out this pilot episode to get a more intimate feel of the spirit behind the program:

I recently had a chance to discuss with Chris the story behind “Bridge the Gap” and his thoughts on how young people in particular can make a lasting difference in the world today.

Q: Your program is aimed at empowering a younger generation of Americans to care and take action, and it is also geared toward showing another side of developing countries other than the “poverty porn” we are usually bombarded with. Please tell me a bit about why you chose to target this segment of the population with your program.

A: So many of the young people I’ve spoken with are eager to change the world. They have a real burning desire, a fire in their hearts. They don’t know the meaning of “No” and have never heard of red tape. Many young people are also still trying to figure out where they’re at and what they’re going to be doing with the rest of their lives. They’re making important decisions as to what matters to them and what doesn’t. Often times these decisions follow through into adulthood.

Why not influence America’s youth in a positive way? Why not change the face of the developing world as America sees it? We are too often brainwashed by one-sided media that doesn’t show both sides of the equation. We’ll see images of horrible things happening in other parts of the world without a real understanding of why things are the way they are, or what we can do to help. On my journey through the developing world I learned so much more from people – more than they learned from me. I’d love to share this story with a larger audience so that we can all learn from each other.

Q: Tell me about the inspiration behind “Bridge the Gap.” You spent some time in Tanzania, I assume before you filmed the pilot episode over there. What brought you to Tanzania in the first place and can you pinpoint the moment you realized that America’s young people also needed to see what you were seeing in that country? Did a specific incident inspire you?

A: The idea for “Bridge the Gap” has been brewing my entire life. Changing the world is something that I always wanted to do, but I never knew how (I’m still figuring it out). I also always wanted to be a famous actor. I actually had the notion throughout high school and college that I would be a famous actor and use my fame to “change the world.” Ha! The realization for me that I needed to change course and take action toward my dream of “changing the world” came on November 29, 2007. I was sitting in a van with Robert Iler right after having spent the day filming “The Sopranos,” and I remember being pissed off. I was speaking with one of the other actors in the car about how frustrating show business was, how superficial and vain it could be. I knew it was significant that right after I had filmed an internationally recognized TV show, I was complaining!

That’s when I realized I was not happy and needed to change something fast. I did the math and realized I could graduate from college early so long as I could find 7 credits to complete over the summer. I started researching all of the possible options to study abroad. I filtered through about 200 programs and narrowed it down to two. It came down to Tanzania and South Africa. I brought the two options to my parents and was greeted with utter shock, profanity and denial. Eventually, my parents cooled down and my father suggested I’d have a richer cultural experience in Tanzania…he was right.

I realized around that time that America’s young people were (and still are) in dire need of new programming on TV. It was right around the culmination of “I Love New York,” “America’s Next Top Model,” and the 2,000 other programs doing nothing for the greater good of humanity. I really saw it in my younger sisters (now 20 and 18) who were constantly being drawn into this “train wreck” type of television programming. It provides a sort of temporary escape from reality and is nothing but pure entertainment.

After going to Tanzania and seeing the tremendous need for education and other basic services, I started to think. Who are we to be indulging in our wants, when so many people in developing countries are dying without the basic essentials they need? It’s very simple: America’s youth want to change the world, they need a program on TV that can outline what their role is in world change, and they need tangible ways to proceed.

Q: What do you consider to be the most important issues facing young people today, both in the U.S. and in the countries you visit for “Bridge the Gap”?

A: I’ll break this question down into two parts.

I hate to make vast assumptions that could sum up an entire population, but, if I had to, I’d say the greatest challenge young people in the United States face is combating a society that is geared toward individual advancement. We worship famous actors, athletes and idols. We are all about doing better, being the best, succeeding past all our peers.

The greatest lesson I learned in Tanzania was to be part of a world community, to put my wants on the back burner and to place other people’s needs on the front burner.  Stepping outside of yourself and seeing things from another’s shoes is one of the simplest and most difficult things to do. We live in a society that applauds the individual and individual achievement. Not enough recognition is given to selfless individuals. The challenge for young people in the States is to break the mold of materialism, wastefulness, and selfishness that is commonplace.

Young people need to know it’s OK to follow your dreams even if that means being poor and living in a shack. We need to know that it’s cool and necessary to help other people. We also need to know that it’s not OK for us to turn a blind eye to problems faced by other countries. In a nutshell, our greatest challenge is to make ourselves aware of issues that are not in mainstream media (poverty, AIDS, genocide) and do something about it!

I found that young people in the United Republic of Tanzania deal with many of the issues we deal with in the United States of America, such as trying to promote a hip-hop CD so you can find a sponsor, or a guy getting stressed out because the girl he likes is ‘playing games’ with him, getting yelled at for drinking with your friends, or even trying to figure out what to do when you grow up. However, young people in Tanzania didn’t deal with a lot of the issues we deal with here.

There are no arguments about who gets the front seat in the car, or hating your parents because they bought you a used car and not a new one. No one fights over the TV remote or deals with the stress of trying to decide which pair of sneakers to buy when it’s their 10th pair that year. Young people in Tanzania will be lucky to ever drive a car, most will never watch cable TV and many wear the same sandals for five years straight. So in one sense, many of our human needs and the daily challenges we face are universal, but wow are they different! Young people in Tanzania face incredibly difficult challenges from an early age. Many are deciding if they will stay in the rural areas or leave their families for the cities (where unemployment is in the double figures). Probably one of the greatest concerns for young people is education. They are scrambling to find money to pay school fees (with less than 30 percent of the population able to afford secondary school). If they are able to afford secondary school and can graduate, they may be the only one in their village to do so.

Q: In creating “Bridge the Gap,” what have been the lessons you have learned so far?

A: Creating “Bridge the Gap” has been a real personal journey for me. Each time I am transformed, the idea for the show transforms as well. I cannot separate my story from the show. I first went to Africa with the mindset of “I’m going to help you” and “How can I fix your problems?” Wow, was I wrong. This Western mentality that I had was very self-serving.

The transformation for me came while speaking with exiled Black Panther, Pete O’Neal, in Tanzania. I was sitting with Pete and wanted to know, “How can I help these people?” He said, “Firstly, change your focus from helping these people, to helping yourself. Learn to step outside of yourself. Learn to put what Chris wants not necessarily on the front burner, but put it aside a bit and look and see the bigger picture.” I wasn’t satisfied with this answer, so I kept on, “I don’t understand. That doesn’t tell me what I can do.” Pete said, “There is no way on God’s Earth I can tell you any set of instructions or rules that would make you go out and do great things. I don’t do great things, but I’m a good human being. Stop being so selfish. Stop thinking about what kind of shirt you wear, or if I get this money I’m going to do that. Put that all aside.” I kept on, I didn’t get it! He said, “How much money you got right now?” My response, “$800.” He said, “Take $100, and do something good with it. But do it now, you will have started a trend and if you continue, you’ll find a path, it will come to you.”

It was after that conversation I realized how selfishly I was living my life. I didn’t do something good with that $100 until over one year later. That is how long it took me to begin to step outside of myself. But Pete planted that seed in 2007. Now every day when I’m interacting with people, and I have a choice to act for myself or for others, I remember those words, “Step outside yourself.” I don’t always follow the right path, but I’m trying my best. The greatest lesson I’ve learned is that in order to live a happy life, we must move from a state of selfishness to a state of selflessness.

Q: What do you envision for the future of this program?

A: There is no limit to the success for “Bridge the Gap.” I believe that this model of informing people, immersing in another culture and finding ways for people to get involved can be applied to literally every country on earth. With about half of the world’s population living on less than $2 a day, the need for this show is tremendous. The ultimate goal will be to travel to every single developing country on earth and stay there for 40 days, immersing in the culture of the people, interviewing influential figures to find out what’s happening, and then finding tangible ways for privileged global citizens to help those in need.

My vision is that the show will air on MTV, where it could reach literally hundreds of millions of viewers, and many of those viewers would be inspired to take massive action. However, I want to make one thing clear: I want to do what is best for each developing country. During the course of filming, I may find that my role in helping one particular country may be to mind my own business. What is true for one country may not be true for another. This isn’t about a young American changing the world. It is about a young American understanding his role in world change so we can do what is best for each developing country.

Q: When can we expect to see “Bridge the Gap” air on television?

A: We plan to shoot the first few episodes of “Bridge the Gap” in Tanzania later this year. It is just a matter of securing the right company sponsorship and network deals, which is all in the works. Right now we’re looking at MTV, Discovery, the Africa Channel and Current TV. Dates and times will always be listed on our website,

Q: I’m sure many young people who will watch your program will want to know how they can do more from their hometowns. Many probably aren’t able to fly to Tanzania or other developing countries and most do not  have the money to make any sizable donation to relevant organizations. Also, they probably will want to do more than simply give money. What realistic advice can you give them as to how to become involved and actually feel like they made a difference?

A: This is a fantastic question and probably the most important.

There are numerous ways people can make a difference without traveling to Tanzania.

First and foremost, we should approach world change with an open mindset. The most powerful way I’ve found is to look at it as a partnership. Our goal should be to assist people in creating their own futures, not doing it for them. The change has to be sustainable.

Also, uur government is not playing its part in aiding the developing world. While we have promised 0.7% of the GDP to foreign aid, the number is nowhere near that and probably closer to 0.2%. I was speaking with the ambassador from Tanzania a few months ago and he says one of the best ways we can contribute is to encourage Congress to provide bi-lateral assistance to Tanzania. Viewers can organize protests at their local congressman’s office to pressure the government to contribute its fair share to foreign aid. Viewers can call the U.S. Capitol Switchboard at (202) 224 3121, provide their zip code, and they’ll be transferred to their congressman’s office.

If people can’t actually make it to Tanzania themselves, that’s no problem. There are already tremendous organizations working to support sustainable development in the country. A great way for people to help from their hometowns is to spread the word about these different volunteer opportunities to their classmates. A complete list of organizations can be found on The Peace Corps is one example: You can volunteer overseas for two years, all expenses paid.

In addition, The Millennium Promise is responsible for securing funding for the Millennium Villages Project (MVP). MVP is based on the idea that impoverished villages can be transformed if they are empowered with proven, practical technologies. Many villages throughout Africa have been transformed as a result. Students can organize fundraisers or parties at their schools to support MVP in reaching the UN’s goal of eliminating poverty by 2015.

There are 2 excellent MVP opportunities for students to work on from their hometowns:

Table for 2 is a Tokyo based non-profit working with the UN. They serve healthy meals in corporate cafeterias and charge a little extra to do so. A percentage of each purchase goes toward school meals programs in Africa. The school meals program in Africa means students are provided a healthy, locally grown meal in school, which increases attendance as well. By charging a little extra for a healthy meal, Table for 2 combats obesity in the developed world and malnutrition in the developing world. People can sign up local restaurants to become part of this amazing program.

Also, students can contact Millennium Promise to set up a school-to-school program which connects children in Uganda with children in the United States. This is a tremendous learning experience. Contact


Note: Chris invites readers of this blog and the public to a premier screening of “Bridge the Gap” on Monday, May 18, at Marymount Manhattan College (221 E. 71st St. NY, NY) in the Regina Peruggi Room, 2nd floor, main building. Refreshments will be served at 6:40 p.m. with the screening to take place at 7 p.m. Speakers will follow. Guests include: The Peace Corps, Peace House Africa, The Bahati Foundation and others.

Space is limited so interested parties should RSVP to

Why Do Celebrities Ignore North Korea?

April 24, 2009

I admit, this could be a blessing in disguise, but the question remains.

Is North Korea just not sexy enough? Do stars not want to be affiliated with propping up the Kim Jong Il regime? (I could foresee the North Korean propaganda that would result from Bono holding a charity concert in NYC or Pyongyang for that matter. Of course, the Dear Leader himself is known to be an admirer of many things coming from Hollywood.) Or does the lack of transparency just make it not worth the effort? And if that’s the case, what’s not stopping celebrities from donating their statuses to the victims of other corrupt governments?

When I was growing up, we were told as kids to eat all the food on our plates because children were starving in Ethiopia (this was in the 1980s). These days, parents might as well tell their sons and daughters to eat all their veggies as there are kids dying of hunger in North Korea. Unfortunately, there are kids dying of starvation in many countries and as a result, emphasis or awareness on North Korea’s humanitarian disaster loses out to other nations also struggling with malnourishment.

But this goes back to my original question: What dictates, in the world of stardom, why one country receives attention and another does not? (more…)

Analyzing the Greater Good of the Gates Foundation’s BREAD Program with the NSF

April 3, 2009

returning home after a day’s work, originally uploaded by martapiqs.

Earlier this week the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation announced that it was collaborating with the National Science Foundation in a $48 million partnership which will fund “research on ways to make crops resistant to drought, disease and pests; and improve soil quality and tackle a wide range of problems that limit agricultural productivity in Africa and other poor corners of the world.” [Seattle Times]

This is how it will work: Funding will be awarded to recipients based on the NSF’s thorough peer-review process and be made available to qualifying scientists from around the world, particularly those from developing countries.

The program is known as BREAD – Basic Research to Enable Agricultural Development.

Research projects might focus on the use of nanotechnology to deliver tiny amounts of fertilizer without causing environmental damage, better approaches to livestock breeding or use of remote sensors to monitor crops.

Research on genetically modified plants or animals could be included in the program.

Critics claim the partnership fails to promote innovation at the grass-roots level within Africa and instead relies on importing knowledge from the outside.

“Why doesn’t the Gates Foundation offer money to grass-roots African organizations and villagers to fund their own ‘solutions’ rather than expecting that imported ideas, dreamed up by people who have never farmed for a living, will work?” questions Philip Bereano, emeritus professor of technology and public policy at the University of Washington.

Bereano makes a good point, but I wonder if his thinking is a bit myopic. (more…)

Lessons to be learned in international development

March 27, 2009

I truly do believe that international donors and aid workers have the best intentions in mind when they embark on aid and development projects. Unfortunately, it sounds like many of these people are going about it the wrong way and as a result, money is wasted on unsustainable aid projects that fail because donors/aid workers did not consult with locals first.

The latest victim of such lack of foresight are clean water projects in rural Africa which, according to a report, amount to a loss of hundreds and millions of dollars:

The International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) says up to US$360m has been spent on building boreholes and wells that then become useless because they are not maintained or fixed when they break down. As a result, 50,000 water supply points are not functioning across rural Africa.

According to the report only one third of water points built by NGOs in Senegal’s Kaolack region are working and 58% of water points in northern Ghana are in disrepair.

The report’s author, Jamie Skinner, says that water points are often built by donors, governments and NGOs without fully consulting local people and finding out just how much it will cost to keep the boreholes clean and functioning over a sustained period of time.

While doing some investigative work before starting a project may sound simple, it seems to be a commonly overlooked task as evidenced by these findings. However, there are lots of lessons to be learned from such mistakes and anyone who has been involved in aid/donor/development work of any kind could list for you volumes of advice on how to better approach a project based on past experience.

Project Diaspora has a great write-up all aid and development workers/volunteers should read. One of the best ways to learn is from our mistakes – the sin and tragedy is when we repeat our mistakes over and over again. May the distribution of information prevent that from happening – spreading the word is a good first step.

Why the Daewoo-Madagascar Deal Would Have Struggled Anyway

March 23, 2009

women in Madagascar, originally uploaded by Zé Eduardo….

A while ago I wrote about the issue of food security and the ethical implications that have arisen in relation to it, using the Madagascar-South Korea Daewoo deal as an example. The now failed agreement will serve as a text book case study for large conglomerates and nations seeking similar partnerships in the future, especially as they relate to issues of conflict-resolution.

(For background details on the issue, please click here.)

Over the weekend we learned that the tenant farming deal is now null. Due to political unrest in Madagascar, the island has brought into power a new leader who has scrapped the deal with Daewoo, much to the pleasure of the country’s citizens.

Says the BBC:

Correspondents say Malagasy people have deep ties to their land and some had condemned the deal as “neo-colonialism”.

While there is no denying that such a deal had the potential to bring about positive change for the impoverished nation, even if the agreement had gone through to implementation, Daewoo and Madagascar’s government would have faced an uphill battle from the start.

If the people such changes are meant to benefit aren’t on board with the plan, conflicts are sure to arise. Judging by the reports I have read, there was little support among the domestic population for this agreement.

This isn’t to say that over time, the domestic population would not have gradually accepted the agreement and would have come on board with the plan, especially if they were seeing immediate positive change. Of course, that is such a big “if” when they are resisting the proposal from the get-go.

A great book that deals with issues of development, the environment and indigenous peoples (although in the context of Southeast Asia) is The Politics of Environment in Southeast Asia: Resources and Resistance, edited by Philip Hirsch and Carol Warren.

While the tone of the book did tend to have me on the offensive (as I am a strong believer in development and the good it can bring impoverished populations), I did take away one important thing and that was the realization that there is a wrong way and a right way in terms of dealing with the web of relationships involved with international development, relationships that include the physical development itself, the environment, the people who will benefit and the people who will not (in many cases indigenous communities whose land and resources are affected by the changes).

While it’s not my place to point a finger at any one party in relation to the failed Daewoo-Madagascar deal, I will say that the approach taken in introducing the plan to the domestic population seemed to lack citizen participation in the decision-making process. (At least based on the mainstream media reports I have been reading). And while citizen participation may not have necessarily saved the deal, it could have perhaps lessened the feelings of antagonization that developed further down the road.