Avaaz?

26 02 2011

Sleepily browsing the world wide web this morning when a mysterious by-line caught my eye:

“You should message me if you can give me some intelligent feedback on… www.Avaaz.org

My curiousity having been sufficiently aroused by the fact that I had never heard of this website, I cautiously typed it into Google to find out what it could be about. What I discovered was exactly the type of website I have been looking for to write a post about for the past few months, ever since the online conversations sparked ongoing protests across North Africa and the Middle East.

Avaaz – which means “voice” in several major language groups around the world, is an online forum where registered users can take actions including signing petitions, funding media campaigns and direct actions, emailing, and lobbying governments, towards a large range of issues. Their strength comes in numbers, and the fact that they focus on the things they agree on. Avaaz seems to garner strength from individualism, and rather than trying to find consensus about the specifics of any one issue, each member decides individually where to focus their efforts and whether they will participate or not in any given campaign or movement.

The result is phenomenal – for example perhaps not everyone shares the same view points on gay marriage or whether being gay is something you choose or something you are born with, but when almost half a million people sign a petition to stop the passing of a bill which would sentence gay Ugandans to death, suddenly you see that there are over-arching human rights concerns which many agree on.

Some of the descriptions of Avaaz.org listed on the site include:

“Avaaz is closing the gap between the world we have and the world we want, one campaign at a time.”

…and…

A transnational community that is more democratic, and could be more effective, than the United Nations.”

— Suddeutsche Zeitung

…and…

Avaaz is a global web movement to bring people-powered politics to decision-making everywhere.”

While Avaaz is only a few years old (2007), it has already had a major impact internationally in forums such as climate change, human rights, the international sex trade, emergency response, state corruption, protecting natural resources, and the list goes on… Some of Avaaz’s concrete achievements are listed below:

*****

  • a drive for a “million-signature Citizen’s Initiative in the EU” for a moratorium and independent testing and regulation of Genetically Modified crops.
  • almost $700,000 raised for an intensive, long-term campaign to fight the “rape trade”–the sexual enslavement of women and girls around the world
  • strong backing for indigenous communities “petitioning Chevron’s new CEO to clean up his company’s toxic legacy” in the Amazon.
  • support for a democratic resolution to the January 2008 election crisis in Kenya — tens of thousands of Avaaz members asked their foreign ministers to refuse to recognize any President until Kofi Annan’s negations could produce an acceptable compromise.
  • worldwide pressure for democratic rights in Pakistan during the November 2007 crisis, and an ad campaign in Pakistan calling for President Musharraf to end the state of emergency.
  • a global call for a WTO ruling to ban subsidies for dangerous corporate overfishing of the world’s oceans, in which Avaaz members sent tens of thousands of messages to their trade ministers.
  • an effort to increase transparency in the UN’s selection of the next High Commissioner for Human Rights that “made international headlines through a blog” and a fake job advertisement in The Economist.
  • a petition, rally, and protest video supporting efforts to oust Paul Wolfowitz from the World Bank after the May 2007 corruption scandal
  • a call for regional governments to increase aid donations to help Mexico cope with flooding in November 2007
  • co-hosting, with Chatham House, David Miliband’s first speech as UK Foreign Secretary — and bringing him questions from Avaaz members around the world.

*****

I plan to join Avaaz and dig a little deeper into their campaigning process over the next few weeks. I’m sure that the mass appeal of being able to have a real impact on international issues will bring Avaaz.org more and more to the centre stage of how the internet can be used to have a real impact on the real world.

– Sarah Topps

(I’d also like to say thanks to Arteri, who originally directed my interest towards this site.)

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CUSO-VSO celebrates 50 years!

10 11 2010

Since 1961, more than 15 000 volunteers have worked overseas for CUSO-VSO, one of the largest international development organizations in North America that works through volunteers. Now 50 years later, they have some major clout in the field.

Suitably impressed, I looked for a way that I could volunteer with them myself, and have just been invited to work at their 50 year celebration event!

The main kickoff event is taking place in Vancouver, Canada at the University of British Columbia on December 4th and 5th. The theme for the event is: “Celebrating the international volunteer – yesterday, today and tomorrow”.

Registration is $50, and there are still spots open if anyone is interested. Hope to see you there!

– Sarah Topps





Plumpynut: More revolutionary than sliced bread

19 11 2009

Every year 10.6 Million kids die before their 5th birthday. Malnutrition accounts for about half of that number. Finally, we may have a solution which addresses both caloric and micronutrient deficient diets: Plumpy’nut.

The old adage about being able to live off of only beer and peanut butter is almost true in this case, although since we’re talking about kids – it’s peanut butter and powdered milk. The mix also includes powdered sugar and several vitamin supplements including zinc, Vitamin A and E, iron and protein. It can add an astounding 1kg (2.2 lbs) per week to a hungry child’s weight.

CBS News ran a special on it back in 2008 but unfortunately WordPress does not support their embedded video.

It’s been used successfully in Niger by Medecins Sans Frontiers and is now being recommended by UNICEF for use across Africa and the world.

Plumpy’nut does not need to be cooked, or refrigerated, or boiled, it does not need to be mixed with water (eliminating potential contamination as has happened with powdered milk formulas), it has no parts which could be a choking hazard, it comes pre-packaged in an ideal amount, it can be eaten directly out of the packaging; making it an ideal meal for undernourished children in the developing world who may not have access to electricity or safe drinking water.

The following YouTube clip is an excerpt piece by Anderson Cooper from the longer CBS video I’ve referenced above.

– Sarah Topps





A Road Map to World Harmony

4 08 2009

I always have trouble when people ask me to explain succintly what I am learning from my degree (International Development Studies) and why I am taking classes in so many different areas. Last year I had made a rough diagram which attempted to demonstrate how all the areas were interconnected – i.e. agriculture is affected by environment, women’s rights are affected by religion, modern-day governments are affected by political geography, which in turn is affected by history etc.

Areas of Study - Interconnections

LANG = language, EDUC = education, NUTR = Nutrition, RELG = Religion, AGRI = agriculture, GEOG = geography, ECON = economics/economy, ENVIR = environment

*since making this diagram, I have added a few more areas to my degree, and there are certainly more which could be connected, these are just my chosen areas of focus.

More recently, Toyota has released an interesting interactive website showing the same idea as shown above, but with suggestions on how we can improve on the problems which face the world, including energy, education, health and coexistence – just to mention a few.

I thought about trying to duplicate it on here somehow, but it’s probably best to just explore it yourself.

– Sarah Topps





Development Workers and Missionaries – are we so different?

6 07 2009

In my life, I always seem to go through phases of more or less curiousity about the functioning of different religious groups I have heard of or encountered. Recently, I have had several enlightening talks with friends of mine who have been missionaries in developing countries, and after stumbling across a post this blog today (July 6th) by Chris Blattman (a Harvard professor in International Development) on missionary work and development, I thought it might be worthwhile sharing my questions of the moment.

[As a prelude to this post, I’ve also been reading a book by Orson Scott Card this week; Lost Boys which centres around a Mormon family which has been relocated for work to North Carolina and all of the strange incidences which go on in their daily lives throughout the year after they relocate. There are a number of religious references in the book, and it explores some of the stranger practices and ideals of Mormonism and examines them from a Mormon point of view which explains some of their cultural practices in a very sensitive and interesting light.]

Chris Blattman wrote his post “What aid workers can learn from missionaries” based on another blog called Blood and Milk. You can see the original post here.

Here is an excerpt:

“Host country donor staff make a major difference in institutional competence, but it’s a rare donor who lets national staff run their programs. The fear is corruption, mostly, but there is also a capacity problem. The people with the education and skills to really run a donor program aren’t working for USAID, World Bank, or CIDA salaries.

When you have a really good donor representative, they are like an extra brain for your efforts. They can help you dodge problems, adapt quickly to challenges, and negotiate different government relationships. It’s a synergy that can make all the difference.

And it pretty much never happens. More often than not, your funder’s representative doesn’t speak the local language and doesn’t even know the nation’s major cities before they land. No matter how smart or committed you are, you don’t have time in a few years to get up to speed enough to be really useful. One of the very few things we know about what works in development is that your interventions need to be precisely targeted to the local context. We can’t do that if nobody knows enough about the local context to make that happen. And how do you take a long view on development when no one stays for enough time to think that way?

So that’s what we can learn from missionaries. Stick around until you know what you’re doing. Project managers, and donor representatives, should have regional knowledge and language skills. They should be deeply steeped in local culture. We need incentives to get good people to stay in one place and become experts at it. Well, first we need it to be permitted. Then we need incentives.”

I believe that there is a reason that most of humanity’s six billion people are religious in some way or another, and religion has been trying to spread ideas of goodness and improvement for thousands of years longer than development workers have even been on the scene – in a way development work is my religion – I truly BELIEVE that things can be improved for the world poor, and maybe that makes me an idealist, but I certainly have enough FAITH in the concept to dedicate my life to working towards that end. If that doesn’t make me religious, then what does?

Religions of all types have found ways to reach into the depths of people and draw out the best in people, and to improve millions of people’s lives the world over – perhaps its time we took a lesson from missionaries – the very people many development workers blame for the stratification of much of the developing world’s societies. Maybe we do need to settle down, to “invade”, to listen, to learn from them – before we can hope to understand their problems, their needs, and the best way that we can help them. And maybe, just maybe, we’ll be smart enough to learn something from them at the same time.

Although, as Chris Blattman commented at the end of his post that: “It’s worth saying, however, what aid work ought not to share with missionaries: the saving mission. Development ain’t religion, and there are no souls and bodies to be saved. Unfortunately, that actually needs to be said. I think Alanna would agree.

I have to agree – that trying to force change where it is undesired, goes along much the same lines as religion pushing itself on people who may already have their own beliefs – perhaps we are being just as sacrilegious when we try to change their methods of giving birth, of clothing themselves, of earning a living, of anything…

Just a thought. (or a series of provocative thoughts)
Sarah Topps





Land Grabbing

6 06 2009

Yesterday I received an email from the Canadian Association for the Study of International Development (CASID) about a new website being launched by GRAIN a small international non-profit organisation that works to support small farmers and social movements in their struggles for community-controlled and biodiversity-based food systems.

The new website, http://farmlandgrab.org,  was launched last week to serve as an open forum to discuss the growing problem of out-sourced food production.

African Charter Article# 21: All peoples shall freely dispose of their wealth and natural resources for their exclusive interest, eliminating all forms of foreign economic exploitation.

The new website has news, reports, videos, and audio interviews to help people track and understand what is going on. Anyone can register and upload material. The site serves as an active forum for debate and proposals on how to turn things around, with free and open space to write your own piece, comment on someone else’s, or create new sections.

20 million hectares of good cropland worldwide has already been signed off to foreign investors.


One article that I read on the site mentions an article written by the Economist in their previous edition (May 30th 2009 ed.) but unfortunately I couldn’t find the story they referenced. Here is the article – on Food Security or Economic Slavery? – written on June 1st.

More on this topic to come soon, as I find it quite interesting, but would like to spend more timing forming my opinion.

******************************************************************************************************

(The following is an excerpt from the email I received on the CASID listserve)

“This new site is an improved version of the site initiated by GRAIN last year which provides an open, up-to-date, and easy to search library of over 800 articles, interviews, and reports on farm land grabs around the world – published since the outbreak of the food crisis in 2008.

The global trend to buy up or lease farmlands abroad as a strategy to secure basic food supplies, or simply to get rich, is not slowing down – it is getting worse. The scale is becoming more apparent now, with researchers counting some 20 million hectares of good cropland already signed off to foreign investors, or soon to be, worldwide. More countries and corporations are getting involved, from Sri Lanka to Congo or Hyundai to Varun. Farmers’ organisations, human rights groups and other social movements are agitating against this obscene approach to feeding their countries, while at least one government, the Ravalomanana regime in Madagascar, has been brought down because of its involvement in such a deal.

Next month, through a move by the Japanese government, which has a direct stake in locking down its own outsourced food supply, the Group of Eight most powerful countries are going to release a set of criteria to make these deals look “win-win”. The words will be smooth, but people won’t be fooled.

Like its predecessor, this new website contains mainly news reports, videos and audio interviews to help people track and understand what is going on. However, its role as a public clearinghouse on otherwise secret deals will be stronger:

  • The new site is open-publishing, meaning anyone can register and upload material.
  • The website will contain as many land grab contracts as possible, releasing them into the public domain because the secrecy surrounding these deals is unacceptable. (Please contact us if you have any such documents to share. Anonymity will be respected.)
  • The website will serve as an active forum for debate and proposals on how to turn things around, with free and open space to write your own piece, comment on someone else’s or create new sections.

This land grab blog is an open project. Although currently maintained by GRAIN, anyone can join in posting materials or developing it further.”
************************************************

*In October 2008, GRAIN published “Seized: The 2008 land grab for food and
financial security“, one of the first overall analyses of this new trend. It is
available in English, French, Spanish, Arabic and Bahasa Indonesia.
http://www.grain.org/briefings/?id=212

*GRAIN also maintains a landgrab resource page bringing together GRAIN materials,
other organisations working on the issues, and relevant actions & events. There
are also a number of land grab maps from various sources.
http://www.grain.org/landgrab/
*********************************************

Post written by Sarah Topps





The Power of Back-Linking

18 05 2009

Now that the blog has been running for about 6 weeks, I’m really starting to see how my traffic fluctuates, and on which days it sees more readers and why. The biggest difference seems to come from what I tag things with (affecting search engines) and links to my page from other websites – whether other bloggers, or Facebook, or my friends and family or just from people who decide they like what I’ve written and pass it on.

The magic of the internet and the huge power of social change or education through blogging comes from back-linking and word of mouth. The more people that know about you and share links to your site, the more traffic you will get, and thus the circle continues. I was very excited today when I was reading a blog by a friend who I met while doing volunteer work through AIESEC in Morocco, Caitie Hawley, to read that she was linked to Nisha Chittal’s blog which is a decently well-known dot.com about politics and social change.

Nisha recently wrote about 25 ways to use your blog or social media to create change, and I found her suggestions quite interesting, and also that I had already instinctively done at least a few of them in trying to keep the blog interesting for my readers:

1. Start simple: write a post on an issue you care about. Chances are, most people don’t know much about it. Inform them.

7. Highlight nonprofits that are creating change, like this one: Global Giving.

11. Write about your experiences with volunteer or nonprofit work. >>> This one’s coming soon guys!

12. Write your own ideas on how global human rights issues can be alleviated.

15. Discuss how social media plays a role in the non-profit community.

16. Write about advocacy in digestable ways for would-be donors, supporters like The Girl Effect video.

17. Highlight events related to advocacy efforts.

18. Interview or profile someone involved in social justice/human rights efforts like Vandana Shiva.

25. Include a link in your blog to great websites that allow you to make a difference with just a click, like The Hunger Site.

These are the ones I particularly liked from Nisha’s blog, but there are SO many ways to use new media such as blogging to get the word out there and be heard…I also find it interesting that the three people involved this time are also all linked through the global student network AIESEC.

Feel free to send me links to your own blogs or websites and I will pass on the magic of internet traffic!

– Sarah Topps








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