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.)

Advertisements




Homeless but harmless, and probably smarter than you are.

12 02 2010

For today’s post, I’d like to take a brief trip down memory lane…

Tuesday, May 29th 2007

Today I met a bum. He was a nice guy… and he made me laugh. He was one of those Montreal classic twenty-something homeless punks, with the battered leather jacket and the dog.
As I walked past he called out “Have my dog read your tarot cards, miss?”
I laughed, but I had somewhere to be like everyone else, so I kept on walking.

Later, I was at home and I realized that I’d be heading back up that street later. So before I went out, I cut a piece of the banana bread I’d made, buttered it, wrapped in some plastic wrap and stuck it in my bag. When I saw him again, I handed it to him and said I was sorry that I didn’t have any money…. I’m a student, I said.

He understood. He said he’d also been a student… graduated with a bachelor degree, majored in ethnobotany (useless nowadays unfortunately) and a minor in English Literature. Said he’d just finished paying off his debts, short of a hundred bucks, which isn’t bad.

We talked some more, and I relaxed a little – we talked about the times each of us had spent in South America… how different it was from here, and the good and bad times. I learned that he had grown up with his mum in Vancouver – learned to read tarot cards from her crazy gypsy family…. I asked about his dog – Koko, eleven months old, who he had stolen from a crackhead down in San Diego. He said he had to get out of there… you spend time just wasting your life, doing drugs… etc. So he had left.

He used intruiging phrases like “pretty ladies” for the women think they’re so damn gorgeous as they’re walking down the street – deeming themselves too good to talk to strangers. He called himself belligerent, which most average citizens can’t even spell, let alone use properly in a sentence…

He asked about me, politely of course – just as you would exchange information with any other stranger you might meet. He introduced himself : Andrew, he said, as he held out his hand for me to shake, fingers blackened with life. I gripped his hand, and found him gentle and kinder than I’d imagined him to be – with his chains and studded jacket, his dog wearing a fake muzzle and a spiked collar. I’m glad I met you, Andrew, I said. I’ll see you around.

– Sarah Topps

*Note: Photograph is not of Andrew. It was obtained from homelessworldcup.org





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





Seawater rising? Or the riverbeds sinking!

22 09 2009

Climate change has become a big issue in recent decades, and one of the major indicators that many people point to as a worrying potential problem is the rise in sea levels globally. There are island nations buying up land in foreign countries, people moving further inland, worse floods every year from tropical storms and hurricanes – yet perhaps an even more worrying problem is that the land itself is SINKING!

Scientists in the well-known and respected journal “Nature Geoscience” have recently published an article on the impact of human activities on the land drop towards sea level in many deltas worldwide. This closure towards the water, they claim, is far greater than the rise in sea level faced by the same inhabitants. Their abstract, below, will give a quick glimpse into the problem:

Many of the world’s largest deltas are densely populated and heavily farmed. Yet many of their inhabitants are becoming increasingly vulnerable to flooding and conversions of their land to open ocean. The vulnerability is a result of sediment compaction from the removal of oil, gas and water from the delta’s underlying sediments, the trapping of sediment in reservoirs upstream and floodplain engineering in combination with rising global sea level. Here we present an assessment of 33 deltas chosen to represent the world’s deltas. We find that in the past decade, 85% of the deltas experienced severe flooding, resulting in the temporary submergence of 260,000 km2. We conservatively estimate that the delta surface area vulnerable to flooding could increase by 50% under the current projected values for sea-level rise in the twenty-first century. This figure could increase if the capture of sediment upstream persists and continues to prevent the growth and buffering of the deltas.”

Taken from: http://www.nature.com/ngeo/journal/vaop/ncurrent/abs/ngeo629.html

detailed_chao-phraya

Chao Phraya River Basin

.

.

.

.

.

.

.

.

.

.

.

.

.

.

.

.

.

.

.

.

.

Chao Phraya, (see image above) the river which flows through Bangkok is one of the worst affected – parts of the delta have sunk 15cm (six inches)! Compare this to the global rate of sea level rise due to climate change at only 1.8-3.0mm per year – nearly a tenfold difference!

Scientists estimate that the area of land vulnerable to flooding will increase by about 50% in the next 40 years due to a combination of climate change causing sea levels to rise and land sinking due to human causes.

“This study shows there are a host of human-induced factors that already cause deltas to sink much more rapidly than could be explained by sea level alone.” Journal Geoscience Article

The researchers report that the flow of sediment down to the Chao Phraya delta has been almost entirely blocked, due to  irrigation, damming the river, and directing the main flow through just a few channels. In rivers with no dams or man-made controls, the sediment would pass down the river and add to the height of the land, a process known as aggradation. (see image below) Now, the sediment can’t reach many delta areas. The further extraction of water and gas for irrigation, drinking, and industry further compacts the land.

Aggradation

As reported in the BBC yesterday, “Rivers affected include the Colorado, Nile, Pearl, Rhone and Yangtze. Of the 33 major deltas studied, 24 were found to be sinking. About half a billion people live in these regions…

THE HIGH-RISK LIST
Deltas with “virtually no aggradation (supply of sediment) and/or very high accelerated compaction”
Chao Phraya, Thailand
Colorado, Mexico
Krishna, India
Nile, Egypt
Pearl, China
Po, Italy
Rhone, France
Sao Francisco, Brazil
Tone, Japan
Yangtze, China
Yellow, China

As the ground falls and sea level rises, people become more vulnerable to inundation during storms.
Every year, about 10 million people are being affected by storm surges,” said Irina Overeem, another of the study team from the University of Colorado.

So should we be worrying about the inevitable rise in sea levels? Or more focused on the major impacts we are still having on these sinking river deltas, which around the world are home to almost half a billion human beings?

– Sarah Topps





One Billion Hungry People

19 07 2009

In my last post, I ranted about the sour economy and how terrible it was for students in North America to try and find a job in these troubled times. Perhaps I’ve been in my own country for too long again, and searching back through media stories today, this one hit me hard:

World hunger ‘hits one billion’

The UN said almost all of the world’s undernourished live in developing countries, with the most, some 642 million people, living in the Asia-Pacific region. In sub-Saharan Africa, the next worst-hit region, the figure stands at
265 million.

Here I am, feeling a bit undervalued and thinking that students in the North American recession have got it so tough, and BAM! this headline makes you sit up again and wish you could just crawl back into your safe academic hole. True as it is painful, while most students are being beleaguered to ‘just get a job’ and ‘stop messing around’ with our lives, there remains a full sixth of humanity which is slowly starving out their years on Earth.

Chronic malnutrition affects people long after they have begun eating normally again, killing many young children and causing stunting, lower life expectancies, eye and brain damage, and causing their own children to be smaller years later, thus repeating the trend. Most people who die from malnutrition actually die from micronutrient deficiencies such as Vitamin A, Iron and Zinc. For example according to prestigious medical journal The Lancet; Iodine deficiency is the number one preventable cause of mental damage worldwide.

According to Jean Ziegler* , mortality due to malnutrition accounted for 58% of the total mortality in 2006: “In the world, approximately 62 millions people, all causes of death combined, die each year. One in twelve people worldwide are malnourished. In 2006, more than 36 millions died of hunger or diseases due to deficiencies in micronutrients”

Fascinatingly enough, when I was working in Morocco last summer, I asked my fairly educated (high school or higher) students  if people had ever died of hunger in Morocco. The answer they unanimously gave was:
no, never, not since before Mohammed (blessed be he) was alive, not since before Christ, has anyone died of hunger.

Interesting. And I bet you would find many people in countries around the world who would echo their sentiments.
– Sarah Topps

*(the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food for 2000 to March 2008)





Difficult times for university students and recent grads

16 07 2009

The economy is down, job searching this summer is tearing students apart in North America – most of my friends are having some form of difficulty finding work. And not just work that pays a decent wage, or even minimum wage, work that is any more challenging than flipping burgers or doesn’t involve someone screaming at you every fifteen minutes or so – now even these hated positions are scrapped over like the final pieces of carrion by vultures.

As a top student at one of the best and easily the most well-known university in Canada for my field of studies – I followed the same path that has previously offered the best chances for interesting and sometimes paid work opportunities this summer:

I asked my current manager if he would be able to keep me on for a summer position… no such luck.
I tapped my professional contacts… no luck.
I applied for, and was accepted to an internship program… but in the end couldn’t afford the plane ticket and visa costs to reach the country where the internship was to take place due to funding cuts by CIDA this year.
I searched on the internet for hours, finding internships, jobs and volunteer work which appealed to me and applied to dozens of spots, all well before deadline… no luck.
I asked past employers if they needed employees for the summer months… no luck, many are still downsizing.
I spoke with friends, family, friends of the family, family of friends… no one was hiring, anywhere.
I applied for jobs in the paper – in English, in French, in Spanish – in Alberta, in BC, in Montreal, even in Europe… no luck. I had some job interviews, and even a few offers, but moving and housing would cost more than the salary offered.
I took job interviews with companies I would never wish to work for, such as telemarketing and door to door sales, heavy manual labour that paid less than minimum wage or waitressing positions in sketchy restaurants that ran drug deals out the back… then I decided risking my safety and/or sanity wasn’t quite worth the minimum wage positions.
I even worked manual labour for 4 weeks while I tried to come across something more stimulating (or better paid).
And put myself in a somewhat risky situation with a bipolar boss who paid under the table cutthroat wages and screamed at us when he couldn’t find his cigarettes which were on the table behind him.

Finally… I’ve had enough. Sometimes you can put in all the work, and your luck or timing will be off by just enough that you just miss the spot you were trying so hard for. Better luck next time…

On the other hand, I have the luxury of having paid all of my bills already and not having any dependents at the moment (besides my kitty, who I have fed and taken to the vet when I didn’t have money to buy food for myself or pay all my bills on time) and realistically, I’m far more likely to wear myself down, wear myself out or put myself in the way of some serious harm – whether physical strain, mental breakdowns or simply feeling terrible about my life – than to actually make enough money to make those things worth it.
I’ve paid all my bills for the summer, and I’m not going to starve to death, I can keep my cat healthy, keep me healthy and far happier than I would be, working some shitty job where in the end, half my pay is lost due to my bosses losing track of my hours or short-changing me on my shift hours etc.

I’m lucky, and I recognize that. Not having to work for 6 weeks during a recession where finding a job as a student is a nightmare and keeping one is hellish at best, is truly something to be taken advantage of, and I intend to spend the time working on my thesis, prepping for my classes next year and taking care of myself mentally so that I might not break down when it all goes to hell next April when my thesis will be taking over my life.

For a few lucky ones, life still worked out in their favour – even more so than it did for me, and several of my most talented friends have been offered interesting and stimulating work or educational placements this summer – including my friends Alexandra in Nepal, Eric in Syria, [see their collective blog here], Lynn in Tunesia [click here to follow her adventures and those of the other AIESECers from McGill], and fellow AIESECer Amina Samy in India, and good friend Kelly Garton in Panama.

Next year I will be one of these lucky people, as the internship offer which I qualified for with AIESEC McGill still stands until February of next year, by which time I will have chosen one to undertake post-graduation in May 2010. (I’m very excited to see what I will end up choosing… there are so many options!)

As for right now, I remain happily unemployed, working hard on my thesis, my final paper for a summer class and my blog, organizing the international trips for my VP position in the McGill International Student Network for 2009/2010, coming up with ideas for my other VP position on the IDSSA (International Development Studies Students Association) academic board, keeping my body healthy, helping my cat with his physical therapy and enjoying spending time with friends I might not see again for several years after this summer.

All in all – not a bad way to spend the last 6 weeks of a summer when unemployment is rampant and most of my friends are wallowing in misery-filled jobs, huge amounts of debt, or both. I think I’ll just appreciate that for now I have the most luxurious of resources – time.

– 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








%d bloggers like this: