Give $10, feed a child. This is a common campaign tagline among aid groups and charities especially those that work amidst the food crisis in East Africa. But does this one-liner oversimplify the complex issues in crisis areas particularly Somalia? In an article on The Guardian, the head of an international medical charity accused aid groups of misleading the public on the real situation in Somalia.
"There is a con, there is an unrealistic expectation being peddled that you give your £50 and suddenly those people are going to have food to eat. Well, no. We need that £50, yes; we will spend it with integrity. But people need to understand the reality of the challenges in delivering that aid. We don't have the right to hide it from people; we have a responsibility to engage the public with the truth," Dr Unni Karunakara, president of Médecins Sans Frontières, said.
Karunaka’s statements sparked debate on Twitter and even had New York University professor Bill Easterly and Oxfam spokesperson Ian Bray trading blows for a while.
@bill_easterly To Bray @Oxfam: "no debate allowed" on Somalia is worse than "aid agencies arguing w/ each other."
@IanOxfam Aid agencies trading insults will not improve access in Somalia. Misrepresenting my quote will not either. Grow up
@bill_easterly Thx for help growing up. Now can you address the criticism?
@IanOxfam Criticism dealt with in quote, you may not agree with it but it was dealt with so 2nd time please do not distort what I said
@bill_easterly But @IanOxfam you don't answer how you cope with lack of access to people inside Somalia
@IanOxfam thks Bill Yes access big challenge Joint work with local partners Reached 600k last week Gedo M+L Juba L Shebelle Banadir
A commenter also criticized The Guardian for publishing the story, saying it just gives an excuse for people not to donate and may even result in reduction of donations. Twitter war aside, the discussion highlighted issues on ethics of fundraising and public education on the intricacies of humanitarian aid.
With so much available media and a shorter attention span of people nowadays, awareness and fundraising campaigns have to be short and direct. They must also appeal to the emotions of people. Most of us donate because we want to feel helpful; we want to feel like we’re doing something that makes a difference in such a horrible catastrophe. To affirm this, fundraising ads are crafted in such a way as to say that the $10 you gave was translated to actual food for the famine victims.
This method however, also runs the risk of delivering simplistic messages that don’t cover the complexities on the ground. How then can aid groups make donors and the public understand, for instance, the difficulty of access to Somalia, Al-Shabaab blocking aid delivery, incidents of corruption and the myriad of other problems that plague humanitarian relief? But one could also say: does it even matter? Isn’t the important thing to raise money in whatever way possible? If a simplistic message gets people to give $10 for the famine in Somalia, then it’s good enough and has served its purpose.
The importance of better public education on humanitarian aid, I think, is its potential to reduce donor fatigue. Going back to the earlier point of people giving because they want to feel helpful, people get tired of giving not because they don’t want to help anymore. They get tired of giving because they don’t see the impact of what they give. When an aid group asks people to give $10 for the famine in Somalia and then the situation still doesn’t seem to improve, they begin to wonder if it even makes sense to donate in the first place. It leads to the callous but candid mindset of “What else is new? People are always starving in Africa anyway.”
But if there is better public engagement and discussion on the realities of the crisis, people would have a deeper understanding of the situation on the ground and why the problem calls for more than just delivering food packs. Campaigns could also go beyond the usual poverty porn and the shock value of photos of emaciated children. On the longer term, this may even be better for aid and development. When people understand the intricacies of the famine and the factors that contribute to it, it may be easier to mobilize support for long term solutions.
© UNICEF/NYHQ2011-1205/Kate Holt. Somalia, 2011. On 27 July, people collect water during a distribution in a camp for people displaced by the drought, in Mogadishu, the capital.
As Hurricane Irene hit northeastern United States on the last weekend of August, northern Philippines was also being battered by Typhoon Mina (international code name: Nanmadol). Storms forming in the Atlantic Ocean are called hurricanes while those from the Pacific Ocean are known as typhoons. Different terminologies, same destructive power. As Irene and Mina made landfall, the powerful winds and strong rains ravaged towns and cities, destroyed homes and livelihoods, and caused injuries and casualties.
After the weekend of storms, we were left to count the dead and calculate the damage. As of last count the death toll from Irene was at 44 in the US. Here in the Philippines, 33 people were killed from the typhoon. Destruction from the hurricane was estimated to cost $7 billion while Mina caused at least 1.4 billion pesos ($33 million) in damage to agriculture and infrastructure.
I was up north on that weekend right in the path of Mina. Electricity was out by late afternoon. Loud warning sirens indicated storm signal number 2 which means winds of 60-100 kilometers per hour were expected in 24 hours. As a country that gets hit by tropical cyclones 20 times a year on average, typhoons and the resulting floods are no longer new to us. We’ve learned to live with disasters; we get by with a sheepish smile and a prayer. Or so we’d like to think.
As the rains subsided and the winds calmed down, we were finally able to drive out into the streets. The aftermath was also just like those of other strong typhoons: uprooted trees blocking the roads, flooded rice fields that ruined any hope for a good harvest, and news blaring on the radio of the latest death toll. It was sad but no longer shocking, as if we were already expecting and accepting that people routinely die and livelihoods are habitually destroyed with every strong storm that comes.
I later caught up with the news coverage on Hurricane Irene. States of emergency were declared in several areas ahead of the storm’s landfall in order to mobilize resources in preparation for disaster. Public transportation in New York City was shut down and there was that picture of a deserted Grand Central Station. In my corner of the world, a state of emergency or state of calamity is declared after the typhoon has hit. We learned a painful lesson on the value of disaster risk reduction after the capital was ravaged by Typhoon Ketsana two years ago. And yet with every storm that hits, we still seem to be just as helpless.
As a people who’ve been through quite a lot, we often boast of our resilience and obstinate optimism (although some would say it’s actually fatalism) even in the worst of situations. As much as I’m proud of these traits, I also wish that we’d have something more. Like maybe a strong will and a solid plan to actually prepare for disasters and adequately cope with the aftermath. And maybe the capacity to adapt and successfully recover from them, not just survive one catastrophe after another by the skin of our teeth.
Picture 1: Flooding in the US as Hurricane Irene made landfall.
Picture 2: Destroyed rice crops in northern Philippines.
Photo credits: Creative Commons
The rebels have taken Tripoli, Colonel Muammar Gaddafi has gone into hiding and Libyans have begun celebrating. Gaining control of the country’s capital was a crucial break for the opposition after six months of fighting. As the Arab Spring swept through the Middle East and North Africa, the ouster of long-time leaders in Tunisia and Egypt earlier this year gave much hope that even someone like Gaddafi, who has been in power for more than 40 years, is not invincible.
While gunfights are still erupting in parts of Tripoli and rebels and NATO forces are closing in on the embattled colonel, Libyans now have to start confronting the challenge of rebuilding their country. After decades under strongman rule, transitioning to a democratic leadership will be a grueling process. Political institutions will have to be restored or even built from scratch. Political parties for instance, have been banned during the dictatorship and non-governmental organizations are required to conform to Gaddafi’s mandate. Establishing a vibrant and independent civil society and stimulating an open and participative political exercise are just some of the long-term challenges.
Almost 70 percent of Libya’s population is under the age of 34. With young people comprising a good number of the opposition’s foot soldiers, the revolt has been branded as disorganized and amateurish. Gaddafi has also accused the youth of taking drugs and being manipulated by al-Qaida. With unbridled passion and impulsiveness typically attributed to the youth, they are often seen as the best for frontline fighting but not so much for policymaking.
As the tide is turning in the rebels’ favor, the spotlight is on the senior leadership of the National Transitional Council and who Libya’s next leader might be. But by focusing on who the next big personality in the country could be, there is a danger of just picking the next dictator instead of moving away from the strongman framework and establishing an inclusive, democratic system. If Libya is to break away from Gaddafi’s legacy, different sectors and parties should be involved in nation-building including the youth. In fact, the country could benefit greatly from the youth’s passion and idealism. They joined the uprising because they wanted something better for themselves, they didn’t want to settle for the kind of society and government that their elders have lived with.
Democracy is a messy job; the process of making it work can be slow, arduous and frustrating. But for a people who have endured nearly half a century of dictatorship, it is also empowering and liberating. Young Libyans should be given a real chance to experience this empowerment and liberation as they shape their future in the rebirth of a country that they can truly call their own.
Photo: © UNICEF/NYHQ2011-0971/Marta Ramoneda. Libyan Arab Jamahiriya, 2011. On 11 June, 18-year-old Sidiq Nasser stands in a street in al-Whishi, a poor neighbourhood in the city of Benghazi. “I want a country with good institutions, where people understand what politics is, and the people and the politicians respect the law. So we have buildings we are proud of and can be recognized by the world as intelligent and strong,” said Sidiq.
What does the future hold for the youth? And does the present give us something to hope for? At the risk of literary triteness, I would have to quote Dickens on this one.
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way- in short, the period was so far like the present period…
This famous opening line from A Tale of Two Cities was written in the context of the 18th century French Revolution and yet it just as accurately describes the absurdities and contradictions of the modern era. Democracy and human rights have never been more celebrated and yet we still see some of the most blatant and deadliest suppression of them. Technology has never been more advanced and humanity has never been smarter (if the Flynn effect is to be believed) and yet we’re facing a massive economic downturn and a famine is still claiming lives as we speak. Security and anti-terrorism measures have never been tighter and yet a ruthless massacre happened in a place we never would’ve imagined such horror to occur.
Humans have never been comfortable with paradoxes. We are wired to resolve conflicting ideas and to reduce dissonance as much as we can. We live, however, in a world where contradictions abound and each generation must face its own share. For today’s youth, these are the contradictions we have to live with, and we must deal with. And there lies the hope of our future: that in our discomfort of these contradictions, we will work as hard as we can to resolve them. We will give our best shot to narrow the gap between what is and what should be.
There is no guarantee of success of course. In fact, failures are often inevitable. We can also succumb to apathy and hopelessness, and it is all too easy to do so. But youth is also blessed with passion, boundless energy, enthusiasm, and an idealistic, if at times naïve, goal that we can change the world. So why not? We won’t solve the big problems on a global scale but we can come up with piecemeal solutions on the local level. We may not completely change the world but we’ll probably make enough of a difference to make it a little better.
Risking another shot at literary triteness, I’ll end with a quote from The Lord of the Rings. When Frodo was feeling the burden of responsibility for the ring which he must take to Mordor, he said: “I wish the ring had never come to me. I wish none of this had happened.”
Gandalf then answered, “So do all who live to see such times, but that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”
We are young, we have the world before us and these are the times we are given. Let us decide wisely.
Photo: © UNICEF/NYHQ2005-2254/Giacomo Pirozzi. Morocco, 2005. A girl waters a wild rose at Timjichte Primary School in the rural district of Ouisselssate in Ouarzazate Province.
“What is wrong with British youth?” This headline came out on The Telegraph in 2007 after a study of the Institute for Public Policy Research said that teenagers in the UK are among the most ill-behaved in Europe. They were more likely to engage in alcohol and drug abuse, have underage sex, join gangs and get into fights, the research said. Four years later, riots and looting are breaking out across England and young people are identified as prominent participants.
It is difficult not to feel outrage against these rioters and looters when we read about how a local shop owner is devastated with the loss of his livelihood, or the story of a father whose young son died in his arms amidst the violence in Birmingham. In Manchester and Salford, youths and even kids as young as nine or 10, were involved in the looting. Store windows were smashed and designer clothes, expensive gadgets, jewelry and alcohol were brazenly stolen.
In demanding justice for these criminal acts and the re-establishment of law and order, we must still seek to understand the cause and context of the violence. The rioters may be acting out of sheer self-interest with no apparent political cause but the societal breakdown that led to the riots in the first place is still political, as one columnist similarly pointed out. Social exclusion is often mentioned as one of the reasons for the eruption of lawlessness. Young people feel disconnected from their communities and are hopeless about their future. Feeling like they have nothing to lose and with no regard for the consequences of their actions, they storm the streets of their cities and set buildings and vehicles on fire while making off with flat screen TVs and branded clothes.
The problem of anti-social behavior among the youth in Britain has been brewing for some time now. The media have called it the rise of the “yob culture,” unruly groups of young people who are often drunk and wreaking havoc on the streets. There have been calls for imposing curfews, stronger police presence, and actions on alcohol abuse. Youth centers and after-school clubs were also among the suggested solutions for providing young people with alternative activities to combat yob culture. Now it seems like the anti-social behaviors have come to a head, sparked by the death of Mark Duggan at the hands of the police.
As authorities are scrambling to restore order, the coming days will still be fraught with discussions on why these things have happened and who should be blamed (because it’s human nature to play the blame game when something bad happens). But a key lesson probably is we ignore deep-seated societal problems at our own peril. If we don’t give attention to youth issues and we don’t address the root causes of anti-social behaviors, the consequences are going to explode right in our faces sooner or later.
Justice should be served and rule of law should be restored; that much is owed to the shop owner who lost his livelihood and the father who lost his son. But in the same way, social inequalities should be addressed and the youth should be given a stake in their communities; that much is owed to today’s young generation.
Photo: http://www.flickr.com/photos/beaconradio/6016780301/ (Creative Commons) Tottenham Riots. A shop and police car burn as riot police try to contain a large group of people on a main road in Tottenham, north London.
The food crisis in East Africa has been reported with the utmost sense of urgency, literally as a matter of life and death. In contrast, food aid delivery is still marred with delays and inefficiency, trapped in the sluggish grind of bureaucracies and regulations.
“In general, food aid is still far more costly and less efficient than it could be because major donors continue to tie their aid in various ways,” Kimberly Ann Elliott, senior fellow at the Center for Global Development, told Voices of Youth. Tied food aid refers to the condition that the funded goods and services must come from the donor country. Aid from the United States for instance, requires that donated food must be bought from American suppliers and 75 percent of them must be shipped on U.S.-flagged vessels.
Tying of food aid causes distribution to be slow and expensive. According to the non-government organization CARE USA, the average delivery time (from purchase order to arrival in recipient countries) of tied food aid is five months. Cash donations only take 1-3 months. The cost of tied food aid is also 30-50 percent higher than untied aid. A good chunk of the funding goes to shipping costs alone.
The U.S. still tops the list of donors for the Horn of Africa, providing more than $400 million worth of humanitarian assistance so far this year. There have been some improvements in U.S. food aid delivery which includes pre-positioning stocks in areas where they might be needed, Elliott said. The fundamental system, however, is still deeply flawed. There have been calls from NGOs and food policy think tanks to end the conditions of tied food aid. Cash donations to relief agencies like the World Food Program are deemed more efficient. This allows the agencies to buy food locally or from neighboring countries, thereby reducing delivery time as well as shipping and other logistical costs.
Other donor countries like Australia, Canada, Denmark, France, Norway and the United Kingdom have moved to untie their food aid. The European Union now also provides cash donations, Elliott said, but much of it is still tied in terms of earmarking on where it should go or in what form. U.S. food aid policy, on the other hand, is currently protected by legislation, and lobbyists for agribusiness and the shipping industry are making it difficult to institute reforms.
Another potential reform to maximize food aid is to allow the WFP to buy food on futures markets. This entails purchasing goods at an agreed price for future delivery, which would protect the buyer from potential price hikes. At this time, WFP still buys food at current market prices in the midst of price increases. This means the agency is not able to stretch its budget as far as it might, Elliott said.
She also recommended the use of cash transfers instead of direct food aid particularly when the crisis is primarily caused by high prices. Similar to Stephen Devereux’s suggestions, she pointed out the need for developing safety nets that will enable affected families to cope with food insecurity. On the longer term, investment in agriculture and rural development is crucial in addressing the food problems in East Africa.
© UNICEF/NYHQ2011-1226/Kate Holt. Somalia, 2011. On 24 July, aid workers cook and serve maize at a feeding centre in Badbado, a camp for displaced people in Mogadishu, the capital. Nearly 1.5 million Somalis are internally displaced.
Her height and her voice made her different. Karen* was the tallest girl in her high school class, even towering over most of the boys, and had a deep baritone voice that stood out from the cacophony of other teenage girls’ high-pitched blabber. These qualities that set her apart also made her a target of bullying. Her classmates called her a horse. Some of the mean boys made a game of tugging at her bra straps or raising her skirt to expose her underwear. Most people in her class just laughed. A few others cast disapproving looks but did nothing.
In their fifth grade class, Danny and John were also different. They were openly gay and in very audacious ways. One day, Danny brought his mother’s shoes to school and the two of them walked around in high heels during lunch break. Other 11-year-olds saw this as an open invite for derision and nastiness. There was no shortage of insults and name-calling thrown at them.
A common advice given to those who experience bullying is to tell the teacher about it. This was not an option for the two boys. Their fifth-grade adviser was known as a terror teacher whose idea of discipline was to humiliate misbehaving students by making them take their pants off in front of the class. Other teachers knew about this but merely credited it as an unorthodox disciplinary tactic.
Their adviser was also their Math teacher. Danny and John were bad at Math but so were half of the class. Somehow, they often ended up on the receiving end of his insults. One time, he brought a chart with a third-grade level lesson, ordered the two of them to stand and made them answer the questions on the chart. They were nervous and made a lot of mistakes. The entire class was snickering the whole time, seeing this as a teacher-sponsored entertainment at the expense of their gay classmates.
At the time, I was one of those who were snickering. Danny and John were my classmates in grade school. Karen was my classmate in high school. I didn’t think of myself as a bully back then. But I did laugh when other people made fun of them or they were put in embarrassing situations. I didn’t bother to intervene or stand up for the victim. I didn’t think bullying was a form of abuse or harassment. It was just something that kids do; it was part of growing up. After all, I was also bullied from first to fourth grade and I managed to live through it. I was just happy that I was no longer the target as we got older.
There are studies that say bullying is a factor in psychotic behavior and increases risks of depression and suicide. Bullying erodes your self-esteem, makes you feel worthless and can even make you hate yourself. How many times could’ve Grace wished that she were not so tall or her voice were not so deep. Could Danny and John, despite their flamboyance in displaying their sexuality, have also wanted to be “manly” just so their classmates and teacher won’t treat them like crap? I know I wished I didn’t have such a huge forehead, squinty eyes and a funny-sounding surname. My childhood best friend was also once teased for having curly hair. She couldn’t wait to be old enough to get a hair straightening treatment.
My notion then that bullying was “just part of growing up” was the norm in our school and probably in a lot of public schools, where more obvious problems like overcrowding and dilapidated classrooms had to be dealt with. Anti-bullying programs were unheard of and reports of bullying incidents were not given much attention. UNICEF commissioned a study last year on violence against children in public schools which also tackled bullying. Hopefully, this raised awareness on the issue and spurred appropriate interventions.
Physical, verbal and emotional abuse is never acceptable even if it’s kids who do it. There is nothing normal about bullying and harassment. Teachers and school administrators should know this and should take steps to fight against it. In the first place, the teachers themselves shouldn’t be bullies and should never tolerate colleagues who humiliate students for the sake of so-called discipline. Even educators need to be educated on these issues. Instituting a zero-tolerance policy will encourage victims of bullying to report such incidents to the school authorities, knowing that they would have a safe haven to turn to and their complaints would be addressed.
An atmosphere of tolerance, acceptance and empathy should be fostered in schools, enabling students to understand that people shouldn’t be picked on for being different. We should also strive to understand why bullies do what they do. Maybe they were also abused or they have their own issues and insecurities that they can’t deal with so they take it out on others. Addressing these concerns will go a long way in solving the problem on the longer term.
Gender equity and sensitivity should be promoted as well. Why not integrate lessons on LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) and women’s rights as part of the school curriculum? At the very least, children can learn early on that it’s not okay to expose a girl’s underwear or taunt someone for being gay. Admittedly it would be a controversial issue since in countries with a religious population, homosexuality is still considered a sin. We can all agree though that it is wrong to abuse and humiliate people because of their sexual orientation so let’s start from there.
I haven’t seen Danny or John again since grade school. I hope they’re alright and still just as proud of who they are. Looking back, they were the bravest 11-year-olds I’ve known. They dared to stand up for their identity even if it meant facing taunts and cruel name-calling. Grace went on to take up Chemistry in college and found a great group of friends. I wish I was more empathetic back then since I knew what it was like to be on the receiving end of bullying. I wish I was also brave enough to say no to bullying and stand up for what is right instead of just cowering in the background and even joining in on the laughter.
*not their real names
Photo: © UNICEF/NYHQ2009-1771/Susan Markisz. Colombia, 2009. A boy (in blue shirt) walks away holding the yoyo he has just bullied the boy behind him into releasing, as the second boy holds his throat and cries, during recess at the Robert Owen Educational Institute in Moravia, a poor neighbourhood in Medellín.
Famine in the 21st century is immoral and unnecessary, said Stephen Devereux, a development economist and fellow at the Institute of Development Studies. The United Nations declared a famine in parts of southern Somalia as malnutrition and mortality rates have gone up to alarming levels and more than a thousand people are arriving daily in refugee camps. Just as in the previous food crises that hit eastern Africa, international assistance has mostly been emergency response and not so much on instituting preventive measures and long-term solutions.
In an interview with Voices of Youth, Devereux, whose expertise includes food security, famine and social protection, suggested three ways to help people cope with food insecurity and prevent the escalation of famines. The first is to implement regular social welfare programs. An example of this is the hunger safety net program in northern Kenya which provides monthly cash transfers to poor families. The financial support enables them to meet their basic needs and is particularly helpful when food prices are soaring. A similar initiative is also being implemented in selected regions in Ethiopia.
The second is to establish an insurance mechanism for farmers and pastoralists. Under this scheme, they would receive cash payouts in the event of crop or livestock failure due to low rainfall. The World Food Program, in partnership with insurance group AXA, has launched a drought insurance pilot project in Ethiopia in 2006 that would’ve had a payout of $7 million. The amount would be paid to WFP, which would give the funds to the Ethiopian government for disbursement as cash transfers to affected households. There was enough rainfall that year though so no payments were disbursed.
The third coping mechanism is to provide alternative livelihoods which, Devereux admitted, could be controversial. For pastoralist societies, their livelihood is not just a job or a source of income; it is their way of life. Altering this will have lasting impacts on their communities. He pointed out however, that farming and livestock-raising are high-risk livelihoods given the conditions in the region. Of course, they should not be forced to do something else but they should at least have access to alternative sources of income, he said.
He is also calling for a political solution to the crisis in Somalia. Suffering from armed conflict and with no functioning central government, the country has been the most severely affected by the food crisis in the region. Since the rebel group Al-Shabab, which controls most of southern Somalia, has imposed a ban on aid groups, it is difficult to get accurate information on what’s going on in the country.
Somalia is politically isolated. It has no friends, he said. As part of a longer term strategy, the international community should engage with the country in a more constructive way. Having a functional government is also crucial to the effective implementation of long-term solutions.
On the short term, food aid is essential in helping the 12 million people who are in danger of starvation in East Africa. Devereux said aid agencies and relief organizations are doing a good job in responding to the crisis, raising awareness and mobilizing public support. The delay however, in humanitarian assistance has had deadly costs. People including children were already dying before the international community responded.
The drought had started last year, he pointed out. There was already crop failure, animals were dying, and yet there was a gaping delay between the onset of the dry spell and the arrival of humanitarian assistance. Response is often mobilized only after malnutrition and mortality rates are already at high levels and by then, it’s too late. The definitions of emergency, famine and crisis should be used in a more sensitive way, he said.
He added that aside from focusing on key indicators like malnutrition and mortality, we should also keep an eye on indicators of vulnerability like food prices. Monitoring the latter can provide early information on a potential crisis and preventive measures can then be put in place.
In the analysis of where things went wrong, Devereux said the question that should be asked is why the early warning systems failed. A lot of money was spent on them, they had good communication system and made use of advanced technology, and yet they didn’t work as well as they should have.
At this time, the improvement of the situation in East Africa depends mostly on the onset of rain, he said. If the rains come in October this year, then things may start to get better in January or February. But if the dry spell continues, then the crisis could drag on well into next year. Recovery from the famine would take at least two to three years.
Photo: © UNICEF/NYHQ2011-1183/Kate Holt. Somalia, 2011. On 24 July, an armed soldier from the Transitional Federal Government monitors a large crowd of children and women who are waiting behind a barbed-wired barrier for the start of a food distribution, in the Badbado camp in Mogadishu, the capital. The camp, established three weeks ago, shelters almost 30,000 people who have been displaced from rural areas more affected by the drought.
On a flight to Surigao City in southern Philippines last year, I met a group of young Caucasian girls. They were giggling and chattering in a language I couldn’t understand. They seemed very excited about their trip and could barely sit still. One of them was seated beside me so I ventured to make conversation and ask where they were from.
“We’re from Norway,” she answered, smiling.
“Wow, you’re a long way from home. What brings you here?” I said.
She then turned to her friends and they started talking in Norwegian. One of them got up, fished a travel magazine from her backpack and excitedly showed me a full-page article. It was written in Norwegian so I couldn’t understand a thing except for the name Siargao on the title. Siargao is an island off the coast of Surigao City and is famous as a surfing spot.
I asked if they were surfers. They don’t even know how to surf, they said. It’s their first trip to Asia and they don’t know much about the Philippines. They just saw the magazine article about Siargao and thought it might be a fun place to visit on their break from school. I had to laugh at their adorably whimsical decision, a combination of youthful naiveté and reckless daring that only the young can so easily summon.
Siargao is located in Mindanao, which has gotten a lot of bad press for armed rebellion, bombings and kidnapping. The high-risk areas actually make up only a small part of the region and most areas are generally peaceful but a lot of foreign tourists still steer clear of the place. They gave me a blank stare when I mentioned this to them; they apparently haven’t heard of all that bad press.
This group of 16- and 17-year-olds saw the world as a place full of opportunities for discovery and adventure. Unbridled by the paranoia that often comes with age, they plunged head-on into the unknown. They implicitly trusted in the goodness of humanity and believed in a world that is just and fair, that innocent people are not harmed and that we have the freedom to live our lives without fear. They may be accused of being naïve but it is well within the rights of young people, and all human beings, to believe this and aspire to this.
This kind of trust and sincere belief in humanity was betrayed when young people in Norway were indiscriminately shot and killed on Friday while on a youth camp. The summer camp, organized by the youth wing of the ruling Labor Party, was a setting for the youth to be more involved with the political system and be immersed in a multicultural environment. According to the New York Times, among the attendees were children of immigrants from Africa and Asia. “It was for me the safest place in the world,” a camper said.
The massacre suspect was reported to be a right wing extremist who hates Islam and immigrants. Initial reports stated that he took responsibility for the killings but believed that they were “necessary.”
As the United Nations High Level Meeting on Youth commences today, let us foster a youth activism that stands up against the bigotry and extremism that leads to these kinds of heinous acts. Let us demand an inclusive civil discourse that honors human rights and values diversity. Let us work towards a more open society that doesn’t ostracize people just because they come from a different ethnic background, or they worship a different God, or they happen to wear a headscarf that we don’t wear.
If there is one other thing we can learn from the tragedy in Norway, it’s also that we should not judge a belief system by its abuses. When it was reported that the suspect claimed to be a Christian conservative, the world didn’t accuse Christianity of advocating terrorism. There was no racial profiling of people who looked like him. We should also afford that same respect and courtesy to Muslims. Just because there are extremists who use Islam as a justification for their crimes doesn’t mean the entire community of faith advocate the same perverted beliefs. Just because the terrorists we see on TV look “Middle Eastern” doesn’t mean we should be suspicious of everyone who has brown skin and a beard.
The theme for the youth meeting is dialogue and mutual understanding. These are indeed crucial components in achieving openness and tolerance that will make for a safer society. Young people deserve to have a society that is just and fair. They deserve to live their lives without fear and see the world as a place for adventure and discovery, not just because they are inherently naïve but because this is truly the kind of society we strive to have.
Photo credit: Rippie: Contra Censura! http://www.flickr.com/photos/ripnread/5966066810/
Just when the food crisis in south-central Somalia has deteriorated to famine level, rebel group Al-Shabab which controls the area has decided to maintain the ban on food aid and operations of foreign aid groups. The group denied that there is a famine in the country and said that the United Nations is merely promoting propaganda.
Most foreign development agencies have ceased operations in southern Somalia in 2009 following deadly attacks against aid workers as well as reported extortion and threats from Al-Shabab. Rebels accused aid groups of having a political agenda. The banned agencies include the World Food Program, UN Development Program and other UN agencies, Famine Early Warning Systems Network, Care, World Vision, Mercy Corps, Somali Red Crescent Society and International Medical Corps among others.
The rebels also blamed the WFP in particular for undermining local markets, saying that food aid is preventing local farmers from getting a good price on their products. They also said that the food being distributed is already expired and has made people sick. Al-Shabab has been engaged in armed conflict against the Transitional Federal Government of Somalia and African Union forces. The United States government has tagged it as a terrorist organization and its senior leadership is said to have links to al-Qaeda.
Caught in the middle of the battle for ideology and territorial power are the Somali people. Many have been displaced from their homes and were living in makeshift camps. The onset of severe drought made life worse as harvests dwindled and livestock died off. Surviving animals were in poor condition and fetched low prices in the market while food prices are increasing. Deprived of their livelihood and with no means to procure food, Somalis are forced to walk for hundreds of kilometers just to get to the refugee camps.
Despite the ban, agencies like the WFP and the Somali Red Crescent are still determined to continue providing humanitarian assistance in the country. The WFP plans to airlift food into Mogadishu while the Somali Red Crescent and the International Committee of the Red Cross will open new therapeutic feeding centers for malnourished children in southern Somalia. The security threats however, of working in the rebel-controlled areas endangers the stability and could limit the effectiveness and reach of these activities.
Amidst the massive displacement and starvation, yet another tragedy is the dirty politics that prevents help from reaching those who need it most. Somalis have long endured the armed conflict and political instability in their land. Now that they have literally nothing to eat, their food supply is still being subjected to political power play. While power players are busy arguing whether there’s famine or not, helpless children are wasting away, more than 1,000 people are arriving daily in refugee camps, and those who can’t sustain the long walk are dying by the roadside. There goes the irony: as food becomes more expensive, human life is still cheap enough to be mere collateral damage in the struggle for political control.
© UNICEF/NYHQ2011-0202/Kate Holt, Somalia, 2011. Boys queue to receive food at a distribution point organized by the World Food Programme (WFP), near the port in Mogadishu, the capital.
How many dead children make a famine? Apparently, four per 10,000 people each day. Also, if 30 percent of children have acute malnutrition, livelihoods are in “near complete collapse” and households have a “near complete lack of food and/or other basic needs where starvation, death, and destitution are evident.” The official declaration of a famine will then merit the following actions: “critically urgent protection of human lives, comprehensive assistance with basic needs” and “immediate legal interventions and political-economic negotiations, as necessary.”
The Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC), the reference table used by aid agencies, has comprehensive and precise indicators for determining levels of food insecurity. Measuring death and hunger never sounded so clinical and scientific, down to the available calories and liters of water.
Since the latest crisis in East Africa made headlines, it has not been officially described as a famine, a phase five on the scale. Phrases like “food crisis” and “humanitarian emergency” were used instead. Under the IPC scale, crisis is phase three with child mortality rate of 1-2 per 10,000 people and 10-15 percent acute malnutrition. Emergency is a phase four: 2-4 dead children and 15-30 percent acutely malnourished.
Earlier today, the BBC and Al-Jazeera reported that the United Nations will declare a famine in some parts of Somalia in order to galvanize international attention and signal to donors the need for more aid. As a BBC source puts it: “It enables us to say to those who tell us: 'You're crying wolf' - look at this. The situation is deteriorating rapidly.”
The IPC scale was supposed to improve food security analysis and decision-making, thereby providing appropriate and timely response based on realities on the ground. Instead, it ends up as a screaming alarm that’s used as a desperate resort to wake the rest of the world from its collective lethargy. Famine should be a dire condition that we strive to prevent, not a tipping point on the scale that we wait to reach before doing something.
In a USAID-funded 2009 study on early response to crises in the Horn of Africa, a researcher reported that donors often wait for an “official emergency” before responding. Predictions are also disregarded in favor of a to-see-is-to-believe approach i.e. we have to see high child malnutrition before we believe there’s a crisis. No wonder early warning systems don’t work; the warnings are not taken seriously and are instead merely seen as crying wolf.
Do we have to wait for phase five before we recognize a hunger crisis for what it is? Is starvation, death and destitution a prerequisite for comprehensive assistance? Do we really have to reach a quota of dying children in order for the protection of human lives to be declared critically urgent?
© UNICEF/NYHQ2011-0203/Kate Holt, Somalia, 2011. Children and women receive food at a distribution point organized by the World Food Programme (WFP), near the port in Mogadishu, the capital.
As the food crisis in East Africa continues, children face more than just hunger. The crisis also exposes them to greater risks of contracting infectious diseases, stunted growth and impaired learning abilities. They may survive this drought but they would have to live with the long-term damage that malnutrition has inflicted on them.
When a child is malnourished, it means her body doesn’t have enough supply of nutrients for her to be able to function normally. Broadly defined, malnutrition can mean being underweight or obese. In situations of food scarcity however, severe weight loss is the most evident manifestation of this condition. The child begins to waste away; first losing fat, then muscle. Her immune system also loses its ability to fight off infections and she becomes more vulnerable to diseases like measles, diarrhea, pneumonia and malaria. While these diseases are dangerous even for healthy children, they are potentially fatal to a malnourished child.
Marasmus and kwashiorkor are the two most common types of malnutrition among children. Marasmus occurs when there is severe shortage of protein and calories due to lack of food in general. The child becomes extremely thin; her bones and joints become more prominent with the rapid loss of fat and muscle, and her vital organs are weakened. Kwashiorkor occurs when there is not enough protein, which means the child could be taking in calories but the diet lacks protein-based food and other micro-nutrients. The most visible symptoms of kwashiorkor are the swollen belly and swelling of arms, legs and feet as well as changes in skin and hair color.
Preventing malnutrition is critical in the first two years of age. The World Food Program calls this the “window of opportunity.” Studies have found that when children don’t get adequate nutrients in the first two years of life, they suffer irreversible damage well into adulthood. Undernutrition causes direct damage to the brain and motor development. This affects their cognitive skills and physical size later in life. Malnourished children tend to have lower performance in school, and they don’t attain their optimum height and lean body mass. Women who were undernourished as children tend to have babies with decreased birth weight.
Nursing severely malnourished children back to health requires intensive treatment that goes beyond basic food aid and feeding programs. For children below five years old, the first phase requires 24-hour care for a week for the treatment of infections, rehydration and therapeutic feeding of specialized formulas. The second phase is rehabilitation which involves daily care for five weeks, and aims for weight gain and transition to solid foods and local diet.
News reports say that over two million children in the Horn of Africa are malnourished and about half a million of them are in a life-threatening condition. How many of them are able to access the kind of treatment they need? How will they be able to cope with the long-term effects of malnutrition?
© UNICEF/NYHQ2011-1033/Kate Holt. On 14 July, a woman sits with her severely malnourished child in the paediatric unit at the District Hospital in Lodwar, capital of Turkana District, in Rift Valley Province. Another malnourished baby lies nearby.
“We’re just going to watch this happen again and again,” was the observation of a news program interviewee while discussing the current hunger crisis in eastern Africa. The drought and extreme food shortage in the eastern Africa are once again dominating the headlines along with shocking images from the region.
While no less shocking, the tragedy of famine is anything but new in this part of the world. The enormous amount of 10 million people are now suffering from the latest cycle of food crises, among them 2 million children under the age of five years.
Twenty-seven years ago, this BBC report showed horrific images of dying children by which the 1982-85 famine in Ethiopia seeped into the consciousness of the rest of the world. Severe drought and a civil war drove millions of people into starvation. The death toll was increasing by the day and response from the Ethiopian government and the West couldn’t be more wanting. In May 1981, the Relief and Rehabilitation Commission of Ethiopia presented evidence of worsening weather conditions in the country during the United Nations Conference on Least Developed Countries. But it was only three years later, when the famine had already killed thousands of people that the international community took notice.
In 1999, warning bells sounded off again as harvests in Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia were under threat because of low rainfall. Chilling statistics were again stalking the news: five children dying every day, eight million people facing starvation. The border war between Ethiopia and Eritrea was making the situation worse.
In the last six years, the threat of famine has been looming over East Africa and present conditions are eerily similar to past crises: drought which is now said to be the worst in 60 years, armed conflict and chronic poverty. In 2005, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization warned that 11 million people are at risk of starvation. In 2008, Oxfam reported that more than 14 million people are in need of urgent food aid and humanitarian assistance.
Today parts of Djibouti, Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia and Uganda are experiencing crop failures due to the severe dry spell. Livestock are dying because of the shortage of grazing land and water. Food prices are increasing and people are too poor to afford them. Then there’s the civil war in Somalia. Those who can muster the strength walk for miles to reach the refugee camps, which are stretched past their limits. Dadaab, the world’s largest refugee complex, has a capacity of 90,000 but now has over 380,000 people.
This latest round of crisis has again raised urgent appeals for humanitarian assistance as well as criticisms of insufficient funding and delayed response. Just as it happened decades ago, it still seems customary to wait first for images of the dead and dying to hit mainstream media before the rest of the world actually does something. Also just like decades ago, solutions still seem to be largely limited to food aid and other stop-gap responses that don’t address the root causes of these problems.
The factors that contribute to the hunger crises over the years have been similar. Droughts for instance, have been occurring in the region for decades. Doesn’t it make sense to implement long-term solutions that will enable communities to be less vulnerable to these weather conditions? After the Ethiopian famine in the 1980s, USAID established the Famine Early Warning Systems Network that’s supposed to warn about famines. While the current situation is not yet classified as a famine, millions of people are already starving and among them are children who are extremely malnourished. Shouldn’t an early warning system also lead to an early and adequate response?
East Africa is stuck in a cruel cycle of hunger crisis and not just because they keep on having the same problems but because we keep on making the same mistakes in addressing them.
© UNICEF/NYHQ2011-0995/Kate Holt Somali refugees wait to register for food and other aid in the Dagahaley refugee camp in North Eastern Province, near the Kenya-Somalia border. The camp is among three that comprise the Dadaab camps, located on the outskirts of the town of Dadaab in Garissa District.
In my country, we adore our heroes particularly the dead ones. At least on paper. Annual public holidays in the Philippines are peppered with days dedicated to heroes and heroic events. We have a National Heroes Day, Day of Valor, Rizal Day (in honor of the national hero), Bonifacio Day (in honor of the other contender for national hero) and Ninoy Aquino Day (the most prominent opposition figure during the Marcos dictatorship in the 1970s and 80s).
A common denominator among our most celebrated heroes is their violent deaths, whether through execution, assassination or as casualties in battle. Ask any grade school kid what a hero means and a common answer would be someone who died for the country. Even the last line in our national anthem says ang mamatay ng dahil sayo (to die for your sake).
Putting one’s own life on the line for a higher cause is indeed the greatest sacrifice and requires exceptional courage. But the idea that heroism only means martyrdom results in extolling extraordinary deeds but neglecting simple helpful acts that citizens can do. As one columnist often says, we’re so good at dying for our country but we suck at living for it. We soar to great heights in moments of dramatic glory (like ousting corrupt presidents in bloodless revolutions) but fail in the arduous day-to-day task of nation-building (like paying taxes and following traffic laws).
In the age of the Filipino diaspora, a new breed of heroes was recognized. They didn’t intend to die (although a number of them did), they just left. Overseas Filipino workers became the modern day heroes, leaving their families behind to earn higher wages in foreign lands. They toil in the oilfields of the Middle East, in the hospitals of Europe and the US, in the palaces of monarchs and mansions of the rich in order to send their sons and daughters to school, build a concrete house and maybe buy a jeepney or tricycle. A number of them suffer unjust labor practices, violence, discrimination, and physical and sexual abuse. The more unfortunate come home in coffins. In the recent uprisings in the Middle East and northern Africa, a lot of Filipino migrant workers lost their jobs and were trapped in the conflict.
Today, about 3,500 Filipinos are still leaving the country every day and not just blue collar workers but professionals as well including doctors, nurses, teachers, engineers, computer programmers, accountants and scientists. Working in developed countries is a golden opportunity to earn big and advance one’s career. Decades of bad economy and corrupt governance have caused a lot of us to become hopeless and apathetic. It seems the only viable escape is to abandon this sinking ship and migrate abroad.
While millions have left for the so-called greener pastures, there are those who stayed and chose to work here: teachers who educate and inspire their students, healthcare workers who provide services even in the remotest of communities, government employees who do their jobs well despite the systemic corruption, social workers who persevere in helping the poor and disadvantaged, and many others who are trying to make a difference amidst the dysfunction in Philippine society. Theirs is the kind of heroism that keeps hope alive in the face of cynicism and strives to make things work even if the odds are stacked against them.
Two years ago, an artwork posted by a graphic designer on his Tumblr page became a popular T-shirt design. It says: “Where I’m from, everyone’s a hero.” This renewed excitement for heroism came after Ketsana, one of the most devastating typhoons to hit the country in recent history, brought up to 20 feet of flood waters and submerged 80% of the Philippine capital. More than 300 people died and thousands were left homeless. In a matter of hours, Filipinos mobilized to rescue people who were trapped on the roofs of their houses, collect and distribute relief goods, and donate their time and resources to help flood victims get back on their feet. In the midst of tragedy, they became the best version of themselves. They became heroes.
There are extraordinary people who do exceptional things. They are often the ones who become renowned and have books written on their lives, monuments erected for them and public holidays declared in their honor. And then there are ordinary people who do ordinary things exceptionally. The world will probably not know their names but the collective impact of their actions will reverberate in history.
© UNICEF/NYHQ2009-1447/Mike Alquinto A family sits atop a raft, which is being propelled by a man wading through waist-high floodwater, in Pasig City in Manila, the capital. On 30 September 2009 in the Philippines, over half a million people are displaced by flooding caused by Tropical Storm Ketsana (also known as ‘Ondoy’), which struck on 26 September. The storm dumped over a month’s worth of rain on the island of Luzon in only 12 hours.
Six years ago, Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Nicholas Negroponte announced his vision of distributing a $100 laptop to every child in the developing world. The ambitious One Laptop per Child program was born and soon garnered the support of the United Nations Development Program, Citigroup and other private companies. Among its founding members are Google and Ebay. It was supposed to revolutionize learning and empower young people through technology.
The OLPC developed its own low cost laptop called the XO. Named by Time magazine as one of the best inventions of 2007, the XO has a lower processing power than other laptops in the market but has 12 hours of battery life and was designed to be shockproof, waterproof and dustproof. It can also be converted into an e-book reader and its screen can still be readable even in direct sunlight. The price however is closer to $200 and the OLPC has not been able to reach its target yet of lowering it to $100.
The concept of providing universal access to technology is a fairly recent addition to the heaping plate of development goals. At a time when early adopters can barely keep up with the latest releases of iPhones and iPads, it comes as a glaring inequality that a lot of children in poor countries haven’t even touched a computer. Attempting to bridge this technological divide through One Laptop per Child is a noble aim but the program is not without its critics and, like all other development goals, it’s not without its failures.
When Negroponte pitched the OLPC program at a TED talk in 2006, his target for production and distribution was impressive: 7-10 million laptops in 2007 and 100-200 million by 2008. As of today however, the OLPC has distributed only about 2 million laptops in 31 countries. About 80 percent of the laptops have gone to countries which are classified as upper-middle income.
The targets may have been too grand and unachievable in so short a time. Negroponte has admitted to bluffing on the numbers to create momentum for the program. “You need scale to change people’s minds,” he said. Another reason is the demand was less than originally expected. The main distribution model of OLPC is to sell the laptops to governments although it has also partnered with non-governmental organizations. With a sales price of $181 per unit, affordability could have been an issue for low-income countries.
Lessons can be learned though in countries that did implement the program. In July 2010, the Inter-American Development Bank released an assessment on the OLPC program in Peru. The study found out that infrastructure problems hindered the effectiveness of the project. Internet access is an integral component of the program and yet only 1.4 percent of the schools have an internet connection. About 4.8 percent of the schools also don’t have electricity.
Teachers complained about inadequate training and lack of technical support. It was also observed that once the initial excitement over the novelty of the laptop has subsided, its use also decreased. The students also don’t bring the laptops home for fear of being liable for their damage. This is contrary to the original project design which promotes a new way of learning by enabling students to use and explore the gadgets on their own.
On the positive side, parents and teachers have shown increased enthusiasm when the OLPC program started. They believe that the laptops help in improving the children’s education and training, and motivate them to attend school. Teachers also find it easier to prepare class materials and lesson plans with the use of the laptops.
When Negroponte started promoting One Laptop per Child, he introduced it as an education program, not a laptop program. If the Peru experience can teach us anything, it’s that it should be treated as such. This means that implementation should be holistic and should involve all aspects of the education system, from teacher training to curriculum design to infrastructure. We may want to revolutionize the learning process by just giving away computers for kids to tinker with but the fact is they will still have to rely on the so-called traditional components of education and social services as a whole. If these components remain weak, no amount of spanking new inventions will make up for it.
In April this year, the IDB published another study on one-to-one laptop programs in Latin America and the Caribbean. In its conclusion, it said: “there is no silver bullet in education. There is no device or strategy that applied on its own resolves the complex challenges that education faces. Change in educational practices, student-centered learning, and personalized learning experiences can all be facilitated by technology when integrated holistically into an education system.”
Technology grants us new ways of tackling problems and exploring solutions but we should be realistic in what it can and cannot do. Otherwise, we may just end up dumping 200 million laptops in poor countries and our children are still none the wiser.
© UNICEF/NYHQ2007-1917/Susan Markisz. Kimberly Deonanan, 15, from Trinidad and Tobago (foreground), and Ibrahim Adamu, 17, from Nigeria (background), type on laptops inside the 'Our Stories' recording booth at UNICEF House. Ibrahim is working on a One Laptop per Child computer, created for use by children in all parts of the world.
They are six siblings; the eldest was 15 and the youngest was just four years old. Earlier this month, they were rescued from a cybersex den in the Philippines. The den turned out to be their house and the operators were their own parents.
According to the National Bureau of Investigation, the parents would order their children to strip naked and perform lewd acts in front of a web camera. They charged $25 from each online viewer. The couple admitted to engaging in the cybersex business for the past three years but have denied using their kids as performers. They were charged with child abuse, child pornography and qualified human trafficking, to all of which they pleaded not guilty.
It is a painful reality that sexual abuse and sex trafficking among children and teens have been long-running problems in the country. Some cities and tourist destinations are already well-known hotspots for prostitution and pedophilia. The Philippines ranks fourth in the highest number of prostituted children. About 60,000 to 100,000 kids are trafficked each year, a non-governmental organization said.
As the internet became more accessible and online pornography proved to be a huge money-making machine, cybersex dens also became a burgeoning business. Unlike the conspicuous red light districts, these online operations are more discreet and well-hidden from authorities. Operators can just rent a small apartment, get several computers and an internet service provider, and they’re in business. It’s pretty much like putting up an internet café, less the hassle of applying for a business permit.
Aside from the difficulty of apprehending perpetrators, the Philippines doesn’t have any laws yet that specifically cover cybercrimes. Charges on cybersex operations are based on existing laws on child abuse, pornography and human trafficking. Child abuse and child pornography are currently bailable offenses. Government agencies are also not properly equipped with up-to-date technology, technical expertise and human resources to monitor and apprehend cybersex den operators.
The six children who were rescued from the abuse of their own parents are now in the custody of the government’s social welfare department. What makes this family affair even more complicated is the mother is six months pregnant and will have to spend the final trimester of her pregnancy in jail. The couple have apologized for what they did; they said that they got into the cybersex business after they’ve lost their jobs.
For now, the siblings are safe although they will have a long way to go in dealing with the trauma of their horrific experience. But how many more children are still trapped in places with a web camera for which they will have to perform lewd acts? And how long will it take before they are rescued?
© UNICEF/NYHQ2006-1436/Ninfa Bito In August 2006 in the Philippines, a child's drawing depicts a large man overpowering a small girl. The drawing was made during a violence-awareness workshop at Katin-Aran Children's Center in Roxas City, capital of the central Capiz Province. The text on the drawing (left) reads "She was abused by her father."
The test of the morality of a society is what it does for its children, a German theologian once said. In the past two months a 13-year-old boy was returned to his family as a mutilated corpse, a four-year-old girl was shot dead in her own home, a 12-year-old was hit by four bullets while buying bread for his family, and a school bus became a target for gunfire that killed a 10-year-old. These are just some of the atrocities against the children in Syria in the ongoing uprising. The Syrian government has constantly denied responsibility for these deaths but has continued with the crackdown against protesters and the ban on foreign media.
In Libya children are being killed and maimed as bombings and gunfire assault their neighborhoods. Some have been injured when they picked up unexploded ordnance on the streets. Other than the physical threat, Libyan children suffer from displacement, psychological trauma, being deprived of basic health and education services, and the loss of their loved ones. They are also used as propaganda tools to advance political motives and lend legitimacy to military actions.
The feeling of horror is a gut reaction whenever we hear of the innocent being killed or hurt. Children are among the most vulnerable in our society and should never be a target in armed conflict. It should not be acceptable that their deaths are merely counted as collateral damage. We’ve had the Convention on the Rights of the Child as a legally binding instrument for 20 years now; 193 countries have ratified it including Syria and Libya. And yet here we are.
Sadly, the rights of the most vulnerable are the first to be abandoned when military victory and political survival are at stake. As the body count of victims continues to increase, justice for these horrendous acts also remains elusive. Governments are quick to wash their hands clean but don’t have anything to show for in upholding the rule of law on these crimes. What’s worse, there seems to be no hopeful sign that atrocities would end anytime soon. Promises of reform ring hollow when four-year-olds can’t be safe in their houses. Nationalist grandstanding is a meaningless pomposity when kids get their arms blown off just by playing outside. And a humanitarian cause for going to war is damaged when you screw up and kill civilians instead.
At the risk of their lives, Syrians continue to pour out into the streets in outrage over their children’s murders. The rest of the world watches with much hand-wringing while statements of condemnation are issued by world leaders. In Libya meanwhile, NATO is struggling to keep it together as the conflict lasts longer than initially foreseen. Someone also once said that the value system of a society is measured by what it can tolerate. Our humanity doesn’t look so great when we allow the highest cost of war to be exacted on the innocent.
© UNICEF/NYHQ2011-0784/Rebecca Fordham On May 23, 14-year-old Ayman and his nine-year-old cousin, Mamud, lie in the medical tent of a boat arriving in the eastern city of Benghazi from the western city of Misrata. The boys were injured while playing close to an unexploded munition, which went off near them. Ayman lost both his hands and Mamud suffered burns on his face and arms.
The potential dangers of the internet are often highlighted by the extreme: a college freshman jumping off a bridge after becoming a victim of cyber bullying, a 13-year-old kidnapped by an online predator, locked in a cage, tortured and raped. The world can be a dangerous place but it is all the more unnerving when it seems that children and youth are just as at risk even when they’re at home in front of their computers.
According to a 2009 Pew Internet survey, 93 percent of Americans aged 12-17 use the internet and 73 percent of them are on social networking sites. In the United Kingdom, 74 percent of 9- to 19-year-olds have internet access at home. An overall estimate of global internet usage among the youth is hard to come by but with internet users worldwide currently estimated at 2 billion and more than 500 million of them on Facebook, we can surmise that a sizable chunk of those are young people.
In the late 90s and early 2000s, online predators became one of the most publicized threats against children on the internet. In 2002, a 15-year-old girl was kidnapped and abused by a couple she met in a chat room. There was also the case of “Dr. Evil,” a man who was expecting to meet with a 13-year-old girl. He was arrested in a sting; the child he thought he was talking to online was a county sheriff. Police found an ax handle, paring knife and duct tape in his truck when he was captured.
More recently, cyber bullying was identified as a growing problem among young people. This issue became more magnified when a 15-year-old girl who became a victim of cyber bullies killed herself last year. A study has shown that victims of cyber bullying could suffer worse degree of depression than their tormentors, whereas in real-world bullying, both the victim and the bully are likely to be depressed.
Cyber bullying exacerbates feelings of isolation and helplessness. There’s the anonymity factor; your tormentors are faceless, you don’t know who exactly are saying these horrible things about you. There’s also the public nature of cyber bullying. When nasty words are posted online, everyone can read them and they will be there forever. They won’t just be confined to your school or your neighborhood and they won’t be conveniently erased and forgotten.
Internet addiction has also been pointed out as an area of concern. A lot of young people spend so much time online that it’s almost unimaginable for them to go a day or even a few hours without checking their Twitter and Facebook accounts.(Of course, one could argue that this addiction is hardly limited to the youth but that’s another story.) Like any other addiction, this becomes a problem if being so engrossed with the internet hinders them from focusing in school, being involved in their families and exploring the “offline” world.
These issues may scare us and perhaps prompt us to wall off children from the online world. Many of today’s young people, however, are growing up with the internet as an integral part of their lives. This could make them vulnerable to its risks but it also makes them smarter and more well-informed about its nature. In a documentary on youth and the internet, the online-savvy students who were interviewed were actually aware about the threat of online predators and know better than to entertain them. Young people who are particularly vulnerable to internet sex offenders are those who have had histories of physical and sexual abuse or have suffered from a troubled childhood. Taking this into account would help in devising targeted efforts to address the issue of online predators.
To combat cyber bullying, some cities have set up help lines which children can call if they become targets of cyber bullies. Parents have also called for anti-bullying task forces to be established in schools. Providing help to vulnerable children would go a long way in preventing another teen suicide. Promoting decent and respectful online behavior could also help in reducing cyber bullying.
While internet addiction has gained attention over the years, its official classification as a disorder is still under debate. Nonetheless, suggestions on overcoming internet dependence include teaching children about setting a limit on time spent online, cultivating interests in other activities, and seeking counseling should the condition become severe and too disruptive.
The internet has become a powerful force in modern society in so short a time. This has been a good thing in a lot of ways; it has revolutionized communication and information-sharing among other things. However, it can also be frightening and overwhelming especially when it presents a danger to young people. There are things we can do to empower children and the youth so that they would be educated internet users. But let’s also take comfort in the fact that today’s generation can be competent enough to adapt to and thrive in this rapidly advancing technological landscape.
© UNICEF/NYHQ2005-0924/Shehzad Noorani Adolescents attend a computer-skills training session at the UNICEF-supported Youth Information Center in the town of Portmore in the parish of St. Catherine. Each child is allotted 30 to 45 minutes of free computer time, including high-speed Internet access.
South Korea prides itself in the academic achievement of its young people. The country's 15-year-olds have the highest reading scores among developed countries, they rank third in proficiency in science and mathematics, and more than 80 percent of them will go to college. The glowing statistics, however, has a dark side: Korea's youth has one of the highest suicide rates. Suicide, in fact, is the leading cause of death among Koreans aged 15 to 24.
This year, the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology, the country’s most prestigious university, lost four of its students (and one professor) to suicide. For a high school kid who has been trained to constantly aim for academic excellence, getting into KAIST is a dream come true. But living this dream means a relentless struggle to survive the rigors of a highly competitive environment. The suffocating pressure of schoolwork is blamed as a big factor in pushing the students to end their lives.
It has often been said that suicide is a complex issue and we shouldn’t be too quick in pointing to a single cause for it, and rightly so. But it is also not difficult to imagine that intense academic pressure can cause serious stress and anxiety. For those who don’t have adequate coping mechanism and social support, it is an easy road to depression and erosion of self-esteem.
The pursuit of excellence in education can be all-consuming but it can also be dreadfully myopic. We aim to train students to have perfect grades and heads full of knowledge at the risk of producing walking zombies emptied of the desire to live. A New York Times article quoted a statement of the KAIST student council released after the fourth suicide in the school: “Day after day we are cornered into an unrelenting competition that smothers and suffocates us. We couldn’t even spare 30 minutes for our troubled classmates because of all our homework… We no longer have the ability to laugh freely.”
Yes, education should develop and hone young people’s abilities, equip them with knowledge and skills, encourage them to be exceptional, and challenge them to be the best at what they do. But education should also teach them that their worth is not measured by their grades, that failure however awful it seems is not the end of the world, that they don’t have to constantly beat everyone else just to succeed, and that competitiveness tempered by compassion and empathy actually makes them a better person.
Photo credit: Creative Commons. High school class in South Korea.
He is known as El Ponchis, The Cloak, and his arrest in December last year set off another barrage of headlines on drug-related violence in Mexico. What could be a more compelling story than a 14-year-old boy who allegedly served as a hitman for a drugs cartel.
“How many have you killed?”
“How did you execute them?”
“I slit their throats.”
This was his confession in front of a TV camera. He was flanked by armed military men as the media swarmed and took pictures of him. He was arrested along with his 19-year-old sister in an airport in Mexico as they were about to board a flight to Tijuana and cross into the United States where their mother lives. Last February, he was formally charged with homicide and will be tried in a juvenile court, facing a maximum of three years in prison.
While this story may be shocking, it is hardly unusual. Young people in Mexico have been victimized by drug trafficking, not just as innocent casualties but as perpetrators of violence and drug trade. Some reports say that kids as young as seven years old are already recruited as lookouts to spot the police or rival gangs. They comprise the pool of young “talents” and will eventually take on more dangerous responsibilities as they grow older and become more experienced. Mexico’s National Institute of Criminal Science also reports that the fastest growing rates of drug addiction are among children aged 12 to 17.
Kids are lured into local gangs with drugs and the prospect of raking in a lot of money. For those who live in poor neighborhoods with no access to education and dim chances of getting decent jobs, joining the drug trade is often seen as the most attractive option. It is difficult for them to imagine an alternative when local gangs and drug cartels have dominated their communities as they are growing up. Violence and grisly murders are happening so often that it is almost inevitable to become desensitized to them. They have become so common that committing these acts won’t seem so gruesome anymore.
Even innocent games in the playground have become tainted with the reality of drug-related violence. Some children in elementary schools would role-play shooting encounters between the police and the drug cartels, wielding their toy guns with confidence and vigor. In some games, the drug traffickers are portrayed as the good guys.
It is right to recognize that the drug problem in Mexico is more than a security issue; it is also an economic and social issue and should be addressed as such. By all means, strengthen the military and police forces, intensify the crackdown on drug criminals, and employ the powers of the state to ensure the safety of the people. But strengthen the education system as well, make sure that young people don’t remain trapped in the cycle of poverty, and provide timely interventions for at-risk and vulnerable children. Let us not wait for yet another headline of a 14-year-old who confesses to slitting people’s throats.
Photo Credit: Creative Commons via Knight Foundation. The drug-related violence in Tijuana has become so pervasive that not even schoolchildren can escape it.
On Christmas Day of 2010, a 14-year-old boy killed himself. “He wouldn’t stop crying. He seemed to be saying goodbye, he said he was finally going to sleep soundly,” his aunt said in a TV interview, describing how Popoy was behaving on the day he took his own life.
Popoy lived with his grandmother in a city in the Philippines while his mother and four siblings were in the province. His mother couldn’t afford to raise all of them so he was left in the care of his grandparents when he was little. He grew up in a temporary housing project awarded by the government in 1995. The environment is typical of an urban poor community: houses are made of scrap wood and iron sheets, streets are narrow and cramped, days are filled with the noise and chaos of an overcrowded neighborhood.
He should’ve been in high school at his age but Popoy had stopped going to school. He earned some money by selling scrap metal and plastic while his grandmother occasionally did laundry for other people in order to augment their income.
On his wake, his mother was distraught and in tears as she tried to make sense why her young son would commit suicide. “I had no idea that this would happen. He seemed happy here,” she said. She was asked if Popoy ever said something about killing himself. “He talked to his friends about it but it seemed like he was just kidding around,” she answered.
He may have felt that he was abandoned when he was left with his grandmother and he had no one to talk to about his feelings, his mother said. She may not be too far off the mark. Family problems are identified as a big factor that contributes to stress and depression among teens. As they enter a confusing phase in their lives where they’re trying to figure out so many things about themselves, a barrage of problems and a lack of social support would make them feel helpless and trapped.
In a country where one-third of the population is poor, poverty has also been blamed as a reason for suicide among young people. In November 2007, a 12-year-old girl hanged herself, leaving a diary that told of how she wasn’t able to go to school at times because they didn’t have money. She also left an unsent letter to a local TV program that features people who are in need and grants their wish. She asked for a new bag, a pair of shoes, and livelihood for her parents. Her father occasionally worked as a construction worker while her mother did laundry jobs. Her death shocked the country and led to protests against the government, finger-pointing and chest-beating among public officials and civil society, and renewed vigor in trying to do something about poverty.
It is rather simplistic however, to assume that kids end their lives because they are poor. Teen suicide cuts across social classes and occurs even in well-to-do families. In June last year, a 17-year-old student of a private university committed suicide after allegedly receiving threats from a fraternity.
It is difficult to point to a single reason for a young person’s decision to stop living. There are certainly risk factors including family problems, sexual and emotional abuse, homosexual issues, substance abuse and mental disorders. There is also a stigma among those who attempt to commit suicide. They are either branded as insane or just melodramatic and seeking attention. But as one counselor said, what do we have to lose by taking the time to listen and trying to understand their situation?
Suicide is a complex issue. It isn’t solved by taking a drug or a vaccine shot. With all the problems that plague the health system of a third world country, it’s no surprise that this is not high on the priority list. The Philippine health department reports, however, that about five people die of suicide everyday with the highest rate among ages 20-24. These deaths are preventable and things can be done to address the risk factors. When young people who are supposedly at the peak of their lives are instead choosing to die, isn’t it about time we do something?
© UNICEF/NYHQ2006-1433/Ninfa Bito On 26 August 2006 in the Philippines, several girls who have been abused participate in an interview for UN Radio, in Roxas City, capital of the central Capiz Province.
Malcolm Gladwell, author of The Tipping Point and Blink, didn’t exactly endear himself to social media fans when he declared in his New Yorker article last year that Twitter, Facebook and other social network sites aren’t all that relevant in starting and sustaining a revolution. He said that networks formed online are essentially weak links; while they are effective in disseminating information at lightning speed, they’re not very successful in eliciting strong and sustained commitment which high-risk causes (like overthrowing a repressive government) require.
It’s one thing to retweet a news headline on the uprising in Egypt; it’s an entirely different thing to actually go out into the streets and face a very real danger of getting arrested or killed.
Another writer who’s not too excited about celebrating the crucial role of online networks in uprisings is Evgeny Morozov. Like Gladwell, he believes that strong movements are formed through structured and strategic grassroots organizing and not just through a bunch of random people tweeting and posting one-liners on their Facebook walls. In an article on the Guardian, he has this to say about social media: “Perhaps the outsize revolutionary claims for social media now circulating throughout the west are only a manifestation of western guilt for wasting so much time on social media: after all, if it helps to spread democracy in the Middle East, it can't be all that bad to while away the hours "poking" your friends and playing FarmVille.”
Angus Johnston on Huffington Post challenged Gladwell’s thesis by arguing that although grassroots organizations are built on strong ties, the collaboration of these groups that would grow into a national movement relies on the so-called weak links. “All strong ties start as weak ties, and… even weak-tie relationships can spur action within and between strong-tie communities,” he said.
Following the downfall of Tunisian President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in January, pundits on the other end of the spectrum were even quicker to point out the errors of social media doubters. Andrew Sullivan who was then writing for The Atlantic cited the strong presence of Tunisians on Facebook and the trending on Twitter as evidence for the importance of online networks in the success of the revolution. Tunisia has about 2 million Facebook users or 19 percent of the population. Egypt, incidentally, is the top African country on Facebook with almost 5 million users although that translates to only about 6 percent of the population.
It seems that the arguments revolve on how much credit should be given to online social networks in spurring revolutions in the digital age. Are they so crucial that these movements wouldn’t have happened without them? Or is the attention they’re getting grossly disproportionate to their actual contribution?
I find it helpful to look closer to home. When the 20-year dictatorial regime of Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines was overthrown during the 1986 EDSA revolution, radio was key in issuing the call for people to gather in the capital’s main highway which culminated in a peaceful uprising. In the second EDSA revolution in 2001 which toppled the presidency of Joseph Estrada, live TV coverage of the president’s impeachment trial incited the people’s outrage. The televised trial publicized blatant corruption in the presidency. Text messaging was also credited as an important medium for spreading the word on the massive street protest.
In each of these events, people used the most relevant media at the time to further their cause. Since the internet is the fastest route nowadays to share information, it is but inevitable that the biggest online networks like Facebook and Twitter would figure prominently in today’s protests. However, the prominence of mass media notwithstanding, the 1986 and 2001 events in the Philippines weren’t branded as the radio and television revolutions. In the same way, it would probably be excessive to call the Middle East uprisings as the Twitter or Facebook revolutions.
Online social media gets the information out in real time not just within national borders but throughout the rest of the world. Its strength lies in its speed and reach, which is something that we shouldn’t just arrogantly dismiss as inconsequential. But the popularity of these networks shouldn’t overshadow the rightful recognition of the power of citizens to organize themselves for a common cause, their courage in the face of mortal danger, and their struggle against strong and oppressive regimes. In the end, the message is still more powerful than the medium.
© UNICEF/NYHQ2011-0225/Roger LeMoyne On 31 January, a boy, sitting on a man’s shoulders, uses a bullhorn to join in the chanting that is part of a mass public demonstration in Tahrir Square in Cairo, the capital. The protesters include women and men, many of whom carry signs. Others take photographs with their mobile phones. One sign (right) reads: “The people announce a civil revolt.”
A girl I went to high school with was leaving for Saudi Arabia in a week. She has been working there as a nurse for a couple of years and was only back in the Philippines for a few weeks of vacation.
We we’re right out of college when I first learned that she was going to be a part of the mass migration of Filipino workers. It didn’t come as a surprise. Our generation grew up at a time when working abroad has already been established as one of the best career options for earning a lot of money. We currently have about 11 million overseas Filipino workers, ranging from domestic helpers and oil field workers to doctors and computer programmers. It’s hard to come up with an accurate estimate of their population though; a considerable number of them are illegal immigrants.
She is working in a country with the second highest population of Filipinos next to the United States. She is also in a place that is vastly different from what she has been used to. In high school, we often went to the mall, hung out at each other’s houses and went on trips to nearby beaches. Today, she can only be in the hospital or in the dormitory where she and her fellow nurses live. They are allowed to go to the marketplace once a week for some shopping but are closely monitored by the religious police.
It’s a boring life, she said, but on the upside, she doesn’t have a lot of expenses and saves up most of her salary which she sends back home. She ends up spending most of her free time online, where Facebook at least provides a connection to the outside world. I asked why she chose to work there knowing the constraints she would have to live with. She said that it was the only available job option at the time and the processing of work papers was relatively faster than in other countries. She hopes that her work experience would give her a bigger chance of getting a job in another city, maybe Dubai or even London.
While she struggles to live with the boredom and loneliness in Saudi Arabia, a guy I also went to high school with has been trying to live through the armed conflict and suicide bombings in Afghanistan while working in a U.S. base. The Philippine government has imposed a deployment ban on Filipino workers to Afghanistan due to the high security risks but the attraction of a big salary effectively overturns the dangers of a war. The last I heard, he was posting on his Facebook wall about being woken up by the sound of mortars in the morning.
There are many more stories of childhood friends and high school classmates who have now migrated to other parts of the world; mostly for jobs that pay better than what they could get here. A lot of young people who are still in the country are only biding their time until they could get placements overseas. We were part of a generation that scrambled to get degrees in computer programming, information technology and nursing primarily because these were in high demand for overseas jobs.
Brain drain has been a long-running buzzword in the discourse of the Filipino diaspora; so is the phrase “modern heroes” which is often used to describe our migrant workers. We’ve lost a lot of our best teachers, health professionals, engineers, scientists, accountants and other skilled workers as they moved abroad to seek greener pastures. These workers however are vital in propping up a country that has been on life support; they practically keep the economy afloat with their dollar remittances. More importantly for them, these remittances put food on the table for their families. This is the dichotomy we’ve had to live with when we were growing up. Today, this is the same dichotomy we are living with and have become a part of.
© UNICEF/AFGA2009-01026/John Isaac Afghanistan, 2009
“You could have a kitchen like that someday. It costs dearly, but home always does.” So goes a line from Munich, a Steven Spielberg film about a covert Israeli team that tracks down and kills Palestinians suspected of being responsible for the massacre of Israeli athletes during the 1972 Munich Olympics.
Seen on a map, the area of Israel and the West Bank and Gaza is only a tiny strip of land surrounded by its much larger neighbors in the Middle East. And yet this patch of land has been a setting of violence and bloodshed for much of its history. A home costs dearly indeed and for nearly a hundred years, both the Israelis and the Palestinians have been paying for it with their lives. The latest in fact was just last weekend; at least 15 people dead.
On May 15 Israelis celebrate their independence day, the fulfillment of their aspiration to have their own land and country. On the same day Palestinians commemorate the Nakba, the day of catastrophe when more than 700,000 of them were driven out of their homes. On its 63rd year last Sunday, the Nakba took a violent turn when thousands of Palestinians and Arab supporters marched towards Israel’s borders, resulting in a deadly clash with Israeli troops.
This long-running conflict is taking its toll on one of the region’s most vulnerable population: the children. In the town of Sderot in southern Israel, about 75 percent of kids aged 4-18 were found to be suffering from post-traumatic stress after rocket fire from Palestinian militants targeted their town on a nearly daily basis. From 2001 to 2009, more than 8,600 rockets have hit southern Israel and in Sderot, 90 percent of residents have had a missile exploding in their neighborhood.
Meanwhile, children in Gaza are in danger of gunfire from Israeli troops as they go scavenging for construction materials in ruined buildings near the border. The Gaza blockade has prevented new materials from coming in; poverty has forced young people to drop out of school and earn some money by scavenging. Twenty-six children are said to have been shot by soldiers in 2010 alone. In East Jerusalem, an estimated three out of four Palestinian children are living in poverty and have no access to basic social services. Public schools are overcrowded, with a shortage of about 1,000 classrooms.
In this continuing struggle of which land belongs to whom, generations of children have had to contend with the crises and risks that the conflict has imposed on them. In 1948, then 13-year-old Kamel Shraydeh had to flee his home in the Palestinian village of Safsaf with his three-year-old brother in tow. He escaped to Lebanon where he thought he would just stay for a few days before going back his village. Now 76, he has spent his life in refugee camps and hasn’t returned to Safsaf since the day he left.
After more than a century, Kamel is witnessing the same chaos he was subjected to as a kid. When today’s generation of children have reached their 70s, are they going to see another deadly commemoration of Nakba? Is home on a tiny strip of land still going to be that costly?
Photo 1: © UNICEF/NYHQ1951-0002/Photographer Unknown. Displaced Arab children stand together in the Baquara area near Lake Tiberius, where their families were resettled. The recently demilitarized area now has some 3,000 returning refugees, who are entirely without food, seeds for planting, or cattle.
Photo 2: © UNICEF/NYHQ2006-1080/Amnon Gutman. On 21 July 2006 in Israel, a child lies on a bed in a bomb shelter in the northern coastal town of Nahariya. An estimated 37 people, 20 of them soldiers, have been killed and over 200 others wounded since the start of the current hostilities following attacks by Hezbollah, a Lebanon-based political faction, on 12 July.
It often takes a disaster to make us realize that we might be doing things wrong. In the case of nuclear energy, the Fukushima power plant meltdown was the latest catastrophe to scare us off. Chernobyl happened 25 years ago but we thought that we've been doing a much better job since then. A magnitude 9 earthquake and a powerful tsunami proved otherwise.
Following its nuclear crisis, Japan has decided to abandon plans of expansion and will focus instead on renewable energy. Germany is doing the same thing. That would be the third and fourth of the world's largest economies making major shifts in their energy policies. Japan and Germany depend on nuclear power for 30 percent and 25 percent of their electricity needs, respectively. Implementing these changes will not be easy or cheap.
A friend of mine is about to start working on geothermal energy so I asked for her opinion on the nuclear crisis and the excitement over renewable energy. Instead of an enthusiastic endorsement of geothermal sources, she somberly pointed out that we should focus instead on reducing our energy consumption and basically undergoing a collective behavior change. Although renewable energy sources present a reduction in carbon emissions and a safer alternative to nuclear power, they require new infrastructure and an upgrade of human resource and institutional capabilities, which cost a lot of money and would take some time to accomplish.
There are also concerns on what experts call the renewables gap. This means that renewable energy may not be able to match the high energy density of resources that we have relied upon such as oil and coal. One hundred years ago, it only took one barrel of oil to get 100 barrels out of the ground which translates to an energy return on energy invested (EROI) of 100 to 1. Today, the EROI of oil is at 15 at 1 since we now have to drill deeper in order to get the resource. Coal is at 30 to 1 and gas is at 10-40 to 1. Biofuels, solar, wind and geothermal sources have EROIs that range from 1.5 to 1 up to 18 to 1.
In other words, just because we say we’re going renewable doesn’t mean we’ll get there right away. And even then, putting up wind turbines and solar panels will not automatically solve the energy crisis. Chasing after all sorts of energy sources will not be enough if we are not serious about reining in our consumption.
The scaling back of electricity use in Tokyo may provide a useful example. A blog post on The Guardian narrates how shopping malls in the city have turned off their escalators and automatic doors, restaurants and other establishments have dimmed their lights and neon signs, convenience stores have reduced their business hours, and residents have turned off their TVs and lights when not in use. They are obliged to do this because disasters hit their country. Let’s not wait for another catastrophe before we do our part.
© UNICEF/NYHQ2011-0433/Adam Dean On 16 March, a medical worker tests a girl for radioactive contamination in an emergency evacuation centre for people living within 20-kilometres of the damaged Fukushima nuclear reactors, in Fukushima Prefecture.
Three months before his death, Yasser Talal al Zahrani was deemed to be in good health although it was noted that he had suffered from rheumatoid arthritis. He died inside the Guantanamo Bay detention camp in June 2006 allegedly by hanging himself using his bed sheets. He was only 21 then.
At 17, Yasser was captured in Afghanistan on suspicions of being a front line fighter for the Taliban. Although technically a minor, the U.S. military didn't consider him a juvenile as it only applies this status to persons under the age of 16.
Juvenile detainees are entitled to special protection. They should be kept separate from adults and provided with education and other rehabilitation assistance.
In his detainee assessment documents, Yasser was identified as "a jihadist" who was in combat for three months and participated in a prison riot. He was classified as "medium risk" and "may pose a threat to the US, its interests and allies," a ridiculously vague phrase that has peppered most of the detainees' reviews.
Yasser's dossier is part of the trove of military documents released by Wikileaks on Monday. His assessment papers were classified as "SECRET/NOFORN" (not for release to foreign nationals).
He was not charged with any crime. He was basically in detention because the military believed him to be a religious extremist who, if released, would kill as many Americans as he can. This is the common narrative that runs through the files of detainees in Guantanamo.
War criminal at 15
Captured when he was 15, Omar Khadr can definitely be considered a juvenile. This did not save him, however, from being convicted of five charges of war crimes. He was sentenced to eight years in prison, not counting the seven years served in detention.
In the recommendation of the Defense Department's joint task force dated January 2004, Omar must remain in detention because his father was an al-Qaida financier, he excelled in explosives training, he's a smart kid, and he appeared to know a lot about al-Qaida operations and training camps. He was primarily accused of throwing a grenade that killed a U.S. soldier.
"Detainee, though only 16 years old… has been found to be intelligent and educated and understands the gravity of his actions… [He] has never expressed any genuine remorse for the killing of that soldier. He has direct family affiliations with senior Al-Qaida members, has received advanced specialized training in explosives, and has directly participated in hostile attacks against US forces… he remains committed to extremist Islamic values," the document said.
In 2010, Omar pled guilty to the murder of Sergeant Christopher Speer. He may be transferred to Canada, his home country, to serve the remainder of his sentence after at least one year in Guantanamo.
Summer camp: weapons training
Hassan Mohammed Ali Bin Attash has been held at Guantanamo without charge for six years and seven months. He was 17 when he was captured.
In the third round of his case review in 2007, the odds were not in his favor. The review board listed 32 factors for his continued detention and only two factors for transfer or release.
Like Omar, Hassan's family connections did him in. Osama bin Laden was said to be a frequent visitor at his father's house and he supposedly belonged to a family of jihadists.
His review documents stated that he started taking bomb-making classes when he was 12 and underwent further weapons training at 14. He also acted as a courier, delivering remote detonators to the Taliban and forwarding money to al-Qaida operatives.
From the looks of it, Hassan's life is a child soldier story: He was raised in an extremist belief system, sent to warfare trainings at an age when other kids are going to summer camps, and dragged into a war that was not his making.
From the U.S. government's point of view, that qualifies him as an enemy combatant and a threat to American security. It also doesn't help his case that he's a Yemeni citizen. The U.S. has halted transfer of detainees to Yemen on account of the country's unstable security conditions.
How many teens are in Guantanamo?
There has been no definite figure on the number of Guantanamo inmates who were captured before they turned 18. Estimates range from 12 to as high as 60. The government said it is difficult to determine the exact number of minors among the detainees since most of them did not know their own date of birth.
Nonetheless, acting on a better-safe-than-sorry approach, the government has determined that these young men are dangerous enemies, never mind that no charges have been brought against them in court. So while young people their age in other parts of the world were graduating from high school and going off to college and getting on with the start of their adult lives, they have been wasting away in a military prison camp, tagged as the worst of the worst.
Photo 1 by Joshua Sherurcij - Toronto protester in 2008 protesting the detention of minors in the Global War on Terror
Photo 2 by Flickr/4wardever (Creative Commons) Omar Khadr at age 14
April 25 is World Malaria Day. Nearly 50% of all children who die before their fifth birthday in the Central African Republic lose their lives to malaria. The international health charity Merlin has been working in CAR since 2007, training thousands of national health workers to prevent, diagnose and treat the infection. It's estimated that CAR needs at least five times as many health workers as it currently has.
Jonathan Yala was brought to a health center in rural CAR after two weeks of being sick. His organs were swollen, he had a 40-degree fever, was severely dehydrated and barely conscious. He tested positive for malaria.
Jonathan died the next day.
Insecticide-treated bed nets have been hailed as one of the most effective and cheapest ways of combating malaria. Studies show that using these nets can reduce mortality in children under five by about 20 percent, and malarial diseases among children and pregnant women by up to 50 percent.
The long-running debate particularly among economists is how the nets should be distributed. Should they be given out for free or should organizations charge a price for them?
New York University economist William Easterly has argued for selling them at a minimal price, known as cost-sharing, as this will ensure that they will go to people who really need them. The sense of investment created by paying for the bed nets would be an incentive for people to use them properly.
Giving them away has resulted in the nets being diverted to the black market or used for fishing or even as wedding veils, Easterly said in his book White Man's Burden.
Dean Karlan of Yale University contends in a recent article that providing bed nets free of charge extends the benefits even to those who don't use them by breaking the chain of transmission.
He cites research done in western Kenya which found no difference in usage between people who bought them and those who didn't pay anything. The research also hasn't found evidence that cost-sharing filters the recipients of bed nets according to greater need. Those who purchased the nets weren't any sicker than those who received them for free.
What do you think? What would be a more effective way of ensuring that insecticide-treated bed nets will really serve their purpose?
“Finish your food. There are starving children in (insert name of a poor country).”
Whenever my parents used this line on me, I’ve always wondered how polishing off my plate would help a starving child elsewhere. There just doesn’t seem to be a logical connection between the two statements apart from bludgeoning me with guilt at dinnertime.
The World Food Program tries to create a more positive link between what we eat and how we can help in fighting hunger through WeFeedback.org. On the website, you can type in your favorite food and its estimated cost, and the feedback calculator will determine how many children it can feed. You can then donate that amount to the WFP for its school feeding programs.
The WFP provides school meals to about 22 million children in 60 countries each year.
Over 3000 young people are infected with HIV every day. Only 1 in 3 young people have full knowledge of how HIV is transmitted.
World leaders will meet on AIDS at the UN headquarters in New York 8-10 June 2011. Time has come for them to act.
Participants of the 2011 Global Youth Summit on HIV in Mali have issued a call to action for heads of states to include young people in the agenda of addressing AIDS. Their demands are for governments and world leaders to:
- Secure resources and funding to support new youth leadership for a sustainable HIV response,
- Protect and promote human rights to eliminate stigma and discrimination from legal frameworks, and
- Deliver HIV information and services that meet the diverse needs of young people including key populations.
You can endorse this call to action by going to the What About HIV website and adding your name and email address to the document.
"All I was thinking was that I had to detonate myself near as many people as possible. When I decided it was the right time, it was a moment of happiness for me," said 14-year-old Umar Fidai.
"I thought that there would be a little bit of pain, but then I would be in heaven."
Umar did not make it to paradise. Instead, we find him in custody.
His left arm is missing, his right arm entirely strapped up, and there are bandages around his torso.
In early April two teenage boys carried out a suicide bomb attack in a Sufi shrine in Pakistan. One of them survived after the explosives in his jacket failed to detonate properly. He tells the BBC of how he was recruited by the Taliban and found himself preparing to die while killing other people in the hope of going to paradise.
A 32-minute documentary on The Guardian narrates the story of two girls in a village in rural Kenya who refuse to undergo genital mutilation and a grassroots organization that tries to promote an alternative to this dangerous and painful rite of passage.
As global food prices continue to remain high, with potential increases on the horizon because of soaring oil prices and supply concerns, experts says there is one often-overlooked solution for fighting hunger: women.
Women are vital to food production in many developing countries, making up on average 43 percent of the agricultural labor force. Some estimate that 80 percent of those involved in farming in Africa and 60 percent in Asia are women.
In the search for solutions to the global food crisis, we might be missing a crucial point: the participation of women in agriculture. An article on Global Voices points out the role of women in producing food crops.
By trying to do too many things, it ends up not doing enough.
The UN Population Fund should focus on one objective: universal access to sexual and reproductive health and promotion of reproductive rights, says the Center for Global Development Working Group in its report.
With its limited resources, the UNFPA’s involvement in other activities has weakened its leadership and influence in this core mission. It just has too many things on its plate.
The agency currently works in three focal areas: sexual and reproductive health, population and development, and gender equality. It is also involved with supporting adolescents and youth, and HIV prevention.
The group suggests that the UNFPA should have “one objective, one agenda” and should rebrand itself as the lead agency for sexual and reproductive health and reproductive rights. Anyway, other UN organizations are already working on the other focal areas that it currently covers.
The agency has a newly appointed executive director and the change in leadership may open to a new strategy in fulfilling its mandate.
An entire generation of Somalis have been born and raised in the Dadaab refugee camps in northeastern Kenya, the largest refugee complex in the world. With a population of more than 332,000, the complex now houses nearly four times its original capacity.
The Atlantic features a photo essay on life in the Dadaab camps.
A video montage by the World Bank's 2011 World Development Report presents various responses to the question of how conflict affects people. Tagged as the Conflict Convo, this aims to initiate an inclusive discussion on conflict in different parts of the world.
The latest figures on food prices show that after eight months of straight increases there was a slight dip in March. It’s too early to say whether this is the start of a decline and much will depend on what happens in coming weeks. In the meantime the effects of hikes have already been felt around the world.
How high are food prices now? How are events in the Middle East and North Africa affecting food costs? How do the poor cope? Is there a silver lining amidst all this? The World Food Program answers these and other questions.
It's one thing to invest in sending children to school but how do we make sure that they actually learn there? The World Bank's animated video suggests several points:
- Support early childhood education
- Equip children with life skills
- Measure student success
- Get parents involved
- Hire the best teachers
- Hold the government and educators accountable
I was in a rural town in Bohol, an island in the Philippines best known for its beautiful beaches and natural sceneries. While walking towards the town center, a motorcycle driver offered to take me to a distant village to see a well-known cave. He was charging me 250 pesos though (about $6) which is way too steep so I declined. The standard fare is only 15-20 pesos.
“Why are you going to the town center anyway? There’s nothing to see there,” he said.
“I just want to look around,” I answered.
The town has an old church that dates back to the Spanish period and I thought century-old structures are definitely worth seeing. When I got to the town hall though, what caught my eye was a long stretch of beach with powdery white sand and clear blue waters just a few meters from the main road.
I had to wonder if that motorcycle driver was blind or just completely oblivious to postcard-worthy scenery. Real estate developers would kill for this location and tourists would bust their cameras taking pictures of the view.
I imagined what the place would be like if it were developed as a major tourist destination: beachfront hotels with fancy accommodations, bars with overpriced cocktails, foreigners and urbanites in fashionable beachwear.
On that afternoon, there was a group of local kids squealing with glee while swimming in the shallow parts of the water. Some young boys were playing football on the sand with a homemade rubber ball. An old man and his three-year-old granddaughter were walking on the beach.
Good thing this place wasn’t tagged as a tourist spot. Not yet anyway. This is a community space the residents can enjoy for free.
Aside from its environmental impact, tourism development can at times lead to alienating the locals from the most scenic spots in their own towns. Exclusive private beaches and upscale villas are well beyond the price range residents can afford, most of whom make their living as fishermen, drivers or through small retail stores.
This long stretch of beach doesn’t have to be on a postcard. It just has to be a place the residents can truly call their own.
April 12 was declared as the International Day for Street Children. The aim is to bring attention to the plight of kids living on the streets.
Street children have practically become a fixture particularly in chaotic urban landscapes. In the Philippines for instance, we see them selling flowers, rags and whatnot on the sidewalk, knocking on car windows to beg, sleeping on the pavement at night with only a cardboard for cover.
They are everywhere and yet they are invisible. And so a specific day had to be marked for them in the hope that we would take notice of an injustice that’s right in front of us.
Six young women from a Washington State high school are aiming to bag the top prize for this year's Shell Eco-marathon Americas, a competition of high school and college students to create the most fuel-efficient vehicle. They call themselves ShopGirls and they are the first all-female team to join the Eco-marathon since it started in 1985.
A survivor of the 1994 genocide in Rwanda tells a story of what happened 17 years ago - through a comic book.
Rwandan artist Rupert Bazambanza authored Tugire Ubumwe - Let's Unite in cooperation with the Outreach Program on the Rwanda Genocide and the United Nations. The story is designed for children and aims to teach about reconciliation and the costs of racism and intolerance.
Could cash transfers be effective in helping people adapt to climate change? An article on the Due South blog thinks this strategy could work. Giving money to the poor will help them meet basic needs and enable them to respond better to climate-related disasters, it says.
Poverty makes people more vulnerable to the adverse effects of global warming, much as it has always made them more vulnerable to diseases, crimes, oppression and all other terrible things in society. Cash transfer programs would essentially try to address this crippling poverty in order to empower people to face the challenges of a changing climate.
International Supermodel Liya Kebede talks to Al Jazeera about how mothers are dying everyday due to pregnancy and childbirth complications. A majority of these deaths could've been prevented if proper medical care was available.
Liya is an ambassador of the World Health Organization for maternal, newborn and child health, and also has her own foundation which aims to reduce maternal mortality. She is from Ethiopia, which has the lowest rate of skilled birth attendance in the world. About 94 percent of women in the country give birth without a health worker present.
Foreign Policy features a photo essay on children and young adults who are on the front lines of uprisings in the Arab world.
Some are looking on innocently at the chaos around them while others are intensely involved in the atmosphere of passionate protest. Some are already toting guns. Their world is changing rapidly and, at times, violently before their very eyes. Surrounded by forces that are well beyond their control, childhood for them will never be the same again.
The United Nations is doing it wrong, says this article on The Guardian on the UN's strategy in combating global warming. Getting together all member countries to talk about climate change actions only results in a stalemate.
"By working in large groups, UN talks are often held hostage to the whims of even small players – as happened in Copenhagen and Cancún when Sudan and Bolivia and a few other nations whose emissions of warming pollution are tiny," the article says.
It suggests that the UN should instead focus on engaging with just the largest countries with the highest carbon emissions. Some of the big polluters such as the EU are more willing to devote resources to the problem and are more able to commit to strict, binding agreements.
Will this work? In the continuing multilateral discussions on climate change, who then should be included in the conversation?
One-year-old Shane resolutely holds out a plastic bowl as the giant pots of rice and chicken soup are opened. She knows the drill: once the lids are removed and the servers take their position with ladles in hand, it’s lunchtime.
Shane is one of the 200 kids in a Payatas community who gets a free meal through a charity-sponsored feeding program. On Tuesdays through Saturdays, her grandmother takes her to the program site, a covered area outside a rundown warehouse.
Payatas, a large estate located in the most populous city in the Philippines, houses a 22-hectare dumpsite. It is also home to about 500,000 people, a large number of whom make their living scavenging on the mountain of garbage.
Payatas had its day of infamy 10 years ago when trash, piled as high as 70 feet (about the height of a seven-story building), collapsed on a slum area at the foot of the dumpsite and killed nearly 300 people.
Project Matthew, a local charity supported by a private donor, began its program in the area in 2007. When it started, about half of the children who attended were underweight and malnourished, Lina Mendiola says.
Lina handles the feeding operations of the organization. After nearly four years, malnutrition cases have dropped among kids who attend regularly, she says.
A majority of the children, however, are still on the thin side. For most of them, the food they get is not just for themselves. They bring it back to their homes where it will be shared by the whole family.
Project Matthew’s program in an area usually lasts five to seven years, Lina says. Apart from the feeding activity, the organization also provides scholarships to elementary and high school students. It currently supports 16 scholars in the community.
The children’s mothers, however, are yearning for a livelihood project, she says. Dole-outs don’t last forever and scavenging can hardly support the needs of a family.
She hopes to make this a reality but she’s still figuring out how it can be done. Project Matthew only supports feeding and scholarship programs. Livelihood initiatives are not its expertise.
In a few years, Project Matthew might have to leave Payatas and start a feeding program in another poor community. Will Shane and her family have enough to eat by then without the benefit of a free meal? For now, they have one cup of rice and a piece of chicken to tide them over.
Photo: The children watch a short program prepared by the organizers before lunch starts. Photo by Aissa De Guia
About 1.3 million babies could be saved each year if only the global shortage of 350,000 midwives would be filled, a new report of Save the Children says.
One in three mothers, about 48 million women, gives birth every year without a trained medical worker present. About two million women deliver their babies completely alone, the report says.
My mother works as a midwife in a rural town in southern Philippines. Growing up, I saw first-hand how the shortage of health workers could put women’s and babies’ lives in danger. In mountainous areas which can only be reached by hours of walking, deliveries are often handled by traditional birth attendants who follow superstitious rituals rather than proper medical practice.
Some attendants wait until low tide before delivering the baby since they believe this is the proper timing to give birth. Others put a cockroach leg in the newborn’s mouth supposedly to protect her from evil spirits. They also don’t have the proper tools for safe delivery. An unsterilized blade or pair of scissors is often used to cut the umbilical cord, which exposes the baby to tetanus.
To address this problem, the local health unit conducted trainings on proper delivery for these traditional birth attendants. After all, they can’t just be banned from practicing their trade; they are usually trusted women in their communities. The measly budget of the local government also cannot support the hiring of additional midwives.
The Action for Global Health identified five causes of the shortage of health workers:
Difficult working conditions – a lot of health workers in developing countries are overworked, underpaid and lack the equipment and supplies they need for them to do their job.
Disparities in health coverage – workers in search of better opportunities leave the rural areas to work in cities.
Migration of health professionals – the lure of higher salaries in rich countries have led to a massive brain drain in the medical field in developing countries.
Lack of education and training – many poor countries don’t have adequate facilities and personnel to train enough number of health workers that will meet the needs of the population.
Chronic under-investment in human resources – funding for human resources development of the health sector hasn’t been a high priority among donor agencies and global health initiatives.
It still amazes me how my mother managed to stay in her job in the same godforsaken town for almost 30 years. She receives a monthly salary of about $360.
In her previous assignment which lasted for about 18 years, she had to ride on top of a cargo truck for two hours and cross 13 rivers to get to the health center. The village had no running water and no electricity, which made vaccine storage a huge challenge. Medicines were (and still are) always in short supply.
On immunization day, she vaccinates about 200 babies, conducts prenatal checkups on almost 100 women, and attends to whatever aches and pains of other patients. All of these in one day.
She’s about to retire next year, along with three of her colleagues. Fortunately, the local government has already hired new midwifes to replace them. Unfortunately, the new ones will still have to contend with the same challenges they faced.
If the early results of the 2011 national census are any indication, females in India are still being murdered while inside the womb, Alertnet reports.
The child sex ratio in the country is now 914 females per 1,000 males, said to be the lowest since Independence. This is also a significant decline from 10 years ago, when the ratio was 927 to 1,000.
The states of Haryana and Punjab have the lowest sex ratio in children aged 0-6, with 830 and 846 females respectively.
The government has banned prenatal sex determination tests since 1996 but, as the data shows, this hasn't been very effective in turning the tide against female foeticide. Proposed solutions range from stronger enforcement of laws to women empowerment.
After years and years of fighting for gender equality and women's rights, we still have to somehow convince people that females are important enough to be allowed to be born. We still have to contend with this problem: How do we keep unborn daughters alive?
Teenagers and young adults are more likely to die nowadays than children.
According to a study published on The Lancet, mortality rates in young people are now higher than in children below five years old. This was not the case half a century ago. In 1955, the 1-4 age group had the highest death rate.
Young men are especially at risk. The mortality rate of 15 to 24-year-old males is now two to three times higher than that of boys aged 1-4. Injury is identified as the leading cause of death. This could result from violence, road accidents and suicides.
The study used WHO data from 1955 to 2004 for 50 countries - rich, middle-income and poor.
The significant reduction of deaths among children, about 85-93 percent, reflects the progress in combating infectious diseases and improvements in child health. In contrast, the decline in death rates in young men was only at 41-48 percent.
"Modern life is much more toxic for teenagers and young people," Dr. Russell Viner of University College London said in a BBC report. "We've had rises in road traffic accidents, rises in violence, rises in suicide which we don't see in young children."
The study, however, doesn’t include the poorest countries in sub-Saharan Africa due to lack of available data.
"What is clear is that the greatest threats to young peoples' health, outside of living in extreme poverty and in 'hot zones' of infectious disease and war, stem from the behaviors in which young people engage, and the contexts in which they find themselves," Dr. Michael Resnick, co-author of the study, told the BBC.
Addressing this complex problem requires serious consideration of how we prioritize the mental health of young people and the psycho-social issues they face in light of rapid economic changes and modernization. It is as much of a tragedy when society manages to keep children alive only to let them die just as they are about to enter one of the most exciting time of their lives.
So dangerous in fact, it can literally get you killed. Right at the airport of Puerto Princesa in Palawan, a banner calling for justice for the murder of a journalist and environmental activist greets you after you step off the plane.
Palawan, a group of islands on the western side of the Philippines, has some of the richest and most diverse natural resources in the country, and is home to two UNESCO World Heritage sites. The Underground River is probably one of the most awe-inspiring places on the planet.
But beneath the postcard-perfect sceneries, environmental advocates are struggling to protect these resources from the onslaught of mining and illegal fishing. They also have to contend with the systemic corruption in government.
Doc Gerry Ortega, a broadcaster, veterinarian and environmentalist in Puerto Princesa was gunned down two months ago in a thrift store right beside his pet shop. His family and colleagues believe he was murdered because of his hard-hitting criticisms against some local government officials for the alleged misuse of royalties from a natural gas project. He was also a passionate anti-mining activist and an advocate for community-based sustainable eco-tourism.
A few days after his death, a multi-sector coalition launched a “No to Mining in Palawan” signature campaign which aims to collect 10 million signatures in support of the movement. Doc Gerry lived for a cause he believed in and was killed while still fighting for it. If 10 million people would support that cause following his death, then maybe things are not so hopeless after all.
When I met Teresita last year, she was pregnant with her 16th child. At the time, she claimed she was 39 years old but the health workers can’t really be sure. She couldn’t present a birth certificate and on her last visit to the local health center the previous year, she said she was 36.
It’s not only her age she can’t remember accurately. She also wasn’t certain about how many pregnancies she has had. She got pregnant 16 times, she said, but her sister Arlene argued that it’s actually 17; one was aborted.
Arlene, who came with her for prenatal check-up, was also expecting. It would be her 9th baby.
I asked them if they really wanted that many children. They smiled coyly before Teresita answered, “It just happened.”
Teresita didn’t finish elementary school; she only got to second grade before dropping out. She can barely write her own name. Her sister was luckier; she reached sixth grade.
The two women live in a remote area in southern Philippines, far from the capital where a vicious debate on the reproductive health bill is being waged. The proposed law requires access to and public funding for modern family planning methods, reproductive health and sex education in schools, and improved maternal health services. It also provides for maximum public health insurance benefits for people with HIV/AIDS, breast and reproductive tract cancers, obstetric complications and other serious reproductive system illnesses.
Different sectors and groups have already weighed in on the issue. The Catholic Church has voiced its vehement opposition to the bill, contending that it would violate the sanctity of life, destroy family values and promote abortion. Economists and academicians have published position papers in support of the bill, warning of a rapid population growth that could worsen poverty and impede economic development.
The scale of contention ranges from sound articulation of arguments to preposterous name-calling. RH bill advocates are accused of being morally corrupt while anti-RH groups are charged with religious bigotry. Meanwhile, the only sound from women like Arlene and Teresita are their pained screams while giving birth.
While the religious are making it a moral issue and economists are treating it as a population issue, the reproductive health discourse is primarily an issue of rights for Arlene and Teresita. Too bad they don’t even know about it and they’re too far from the debate floor to be heard.