Friday, November 30, 2007

Day Fifty: sweet and spice

A touching tale from Wales today, about a boy with dyslexia who has set up a small business importing and selling herbs and spices at local markets. An avid foodie, Tom Sweet was driven to create his business, with help from his parents, after others warned him that his dyslexia might prevent him from getting a good job later in life. He has since received encouragement in his endeavours from top chefs Rick Stein and Phil Vickery. It's the kind of determination you have to admire - especially since he's only 12 years old! "The stall is helping me a lot," Tom says, "especially with my maths."

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Day Forty-Nine: measles on its way out?

It's not every day that you hear of a public health campaign as successful as this one. New data reported today indicate that Africa has managed to cut the number of measles deaths across the continent by a staggering 91% in recent years, from 396000 deaths in 2000 to 36000 in 2006, through a series of childhood vaccination programmes operated largely by determined volunteers. The programmes have proved successful even where local health systems have collapsed, as in Zimbabwe. Indeed, right across the world, the measles caseload is falling. To ensure this trend continues, the global Measles Initiative plans to emulate the African success elsewhere using the same model. If they can, then we may yet see the back of this dangerous childhood illness and an end to the terrible suffering it causes - and that would be good news indeed.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Day Forty-Eight: how to help the planet

On Monday, we had big business saying not enough was being done to mitigate the threat presented by climate change to the global economy (see post for Day Forty-Five). On Tuesday, the 2007 Human Development Report was released (by the UN Development Programme) spelling out the dangers of climate change to the world's poor. So it was with some relief that I found an article today, Wednesday, suggesting there are things we can all do to benefit the Earth's atmosphere.

The article, in Scientific American, is informative, detailed and lengthy - but worth the read and ultimately positive. The author reckons that if each of us take on just three or four of his recommendations the world will benefit. Who knows how 'scientific' this really is, and I don't feel wholly comfortable with all the solutions suggested - but on an issue where lack of certainty has for too long justified a lack of action, it's kind of refreshing to see such a strong focus on solutions rather than on further debating of the problem.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Day Forty-Seven: Uganda prepares for graduation

I found this story quite by accident in the business section of The Times (UK). And what a little 'diamond in the rough' it is. A fascinating tale, about a new information and communications technology hub being built - with Commonwealth support - outside Entebbe, Uganda. The zone is being designed to harness Uganda's well-educated and ambitious graduates, much in the same way as the (apparently now too expensive) Indian call centres have done. Despite the fact that the Indian experience suggests such development pathways can be both brutish and short, I feel that - if it comes off - the Ugandan project may be longer lasting. At some point, the 'flat world' rush to the bottom on salaries has to generate diminishing returns and, for now at least, Uganda seems to promise both affordable labour costs and high standards of education (a rare combination). This may be a winning ticket.

But I find this story hopeful on a range of other levels. For one, it suggests a meaningful contribution by the Commonwealth - bringing that most anachronistic of institutions into the 21st century. Uganda has secured international interest with the recent CHOGM meeting, and this project is financed by the Commonwealth Business Council. Second, it is the stated ambition of several low-income countries in Africa and elsewhere to achieve middle-income country status within the next decade or so. In a rapidly evolving global economy, with the right investments in the right places - and perhaps Entebbe is one - this might just be possible...

Monday, November 26, 2007

Day Forty-Six: enough is enough in Uttar Pradesh

Today a story from Banda in Uttar Pradesh (northern India). A tale that is sobering but ultimately hopeful, I feel. Several hundred women in Banda have formed a gang - noted for its uniform pink saris - aimed at exposing, shaming (and, if deemed necessary, punishing) corrupt officials and abusive men.

The 'gulabi gang' (pink gang) is led by Sampat Pal Devi, a seemingly articulate and formidable woman who found herself married at the age of 9 and a mother at 13, having received little education, and is motivated by such experiences to defend the rights of the poor, especially poor women. "We are a gang for justice," she says - and whilst exposing corruption and advocating for rights appears to dominate the gang's work, gang members have been known to use 'lathis' (a type of baton) to mete out justice too. Are such tactics justified? Are these women putting themselves at risk? (Similar questions ran through my mind when reading the 'Taxi Sisters' story - see Day Forty-Three of this blog.)

It's hard to judge as an outsider, but it is clear that these women - and men, for men are joining the pink gang too - feel their situation is desperate and requires an equally extreme response. Whether the 'grudging respect' now apparently shown to them by local officials will grow into something more significant, only time will tell. But the first step towards social justice must be to amplify the voices of the marginalised. And the 'gulabi gang' seem to be doing that - loud and clear.

(Picture courtesy BBC online.)

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Day Forty-Five: business leading the way?

A group of UK businesses will issue their response to the UK Government's 'Stern Review' on climate change on Monday, and they look set to call for greater effort from the private sector, consumers and the government to shift the UK to a greener way of life. This call has been made by others many times, of course. What is encouraging here is that the companies concerned are big enough to effect real change, if they follow through on their own recommendations. So we should expect to see some new 'greener' products on the market, and greater investment in the research and development of new technology - amongst other things. There are many good reasons for such moves, with the need to address and adapt to climate change just one. In any case, it's great to see such leadership from UK businesses - let's hope it manifests itself in other areas too, such as human rights, community investment and ethical supply chain management...

[I am also enjoying the symmetry of the story I posted from the UK 'Times' newspaper yesterday, about New York, and this story today from the 'New York Times' newspaper about the UK... Hope this tickles you, too!]

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Day Forty-Four: a safer city

Going a bit closer to home today (well, my home, anyway). New data released this week show that New York City's murder rate fell again this year. True, gangs still engage in significant levels of violent crime (indeed, the vast majority of murderers in the city are known by their victim) - but it's a far cry from the violence witnessed by the city at the height of the crack cocaine epidemic back in the 1990s. This is certainly good news for those of us living in NYC. But it also demonstrates more broadly that urban violence can be stemmed and reversed - if properly analysed, New York's story could hold lessons for other cities, in the US and beyond. Let's hope this happens.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Day Forty-Three: the taxi sisters

I love this story - a great example of simple, effective photo-journalism. It tells of 10 women in Dakar, Senegal who recently set up their own taxi company, 'Taxi Sisters'. They are the first female taxi drivers in the city and have chosen to distinguish themselves further by using brand new vehicles (most taxis in Dakar are, they say, frequently both dirty and dangerous). They seem to be enjoying real success and are already making expansion plans. The Taxi Sisters are aiming for a much larger fleet - and it should be said that they have nothing against male taxi drivers, and are in fact planning to establish another company, 'Taxi Blue', using a similar business model but with only male drivers!

It's a great example of women breaking through in a traditionally very male dominated society. The Taxi Sisters have taken loans to purchase their new cars, which they are paying back so as to ensure ownership in 5 years' time, and they aim to put their profits in building society accounts. (Financial services are pretty inaccessible in most developing countries, so examples like this are massively encouraging.) I, for one, have my fingers crossed for them - and if I ever travel to Dakar, I know how I'll get around.

(Photo: BBC World Service online)

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Day Forty-Two: trust your judgement

I do like it when I find a juicy popular science piece to post, and Newsweek is often a good source. I found this today, summarising research that shows people often make the best decisions based on limited information. In other words, they trust their gut. In fact, what they are doing is instinctively honing in on the important bits of information, and screening out the rest. So much so, that researchers have found little additional benefit in using complex computerised statistical analysis to process information and make choices.

These days we are overloaded with information. No doubt many will find it reassuring to learn that following one's instinct is still a good bet.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Day Forty-One: dare to dream in Monrovia

I am feeling as sick as a parrot today (I'm never quite sure about the origins of that phrase, but will find out...) - however, I found this amazing tale that lifted my spirits. James Kiawon, a 13-year-old boy in Liberia, has performed so well at school and skipped academic years so many times as a consequence, that he will enter university next year aged 14. Most importantly, he has a tremendous passion for learning, all the more remarkable given the scarce educational resources available to him. And, as the article points out, until quite recently most boys his age were forcibly engaged in bloody conflict. James' story gives a glimpse of just what might be possible in a peaceful Liberia, where hope has been given new license.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Day Forty: stem cell breakthrough

Some really promising scientific news today. Scientists in both Japan and the US have announced their success in generating stem cells using human skin rather than embryos. Given that concern around the use of embryos is one of the key barriers to greater investment in stem cell research, this is a major breakthrough, which offers the potential for a sea-change in political and public support. Why does this matter? Well, existing research suggests that stem cell science could generate cures for cancer, strokes, Alzheimer's and a huge range of other serious (and less serious) medical conditions - as well as offering regenerative potential in those with injuries or recovering post-surgery. Their potential has already seized the public's imagination in many countries, and unfortunately this has led to some 'dodgy' research and product sales, too - another reason why a more active and open research field would be welcome. So, all in all, a very good reason to be hopeful.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Day Thirty-Nine: momentum in Khmer Rouge trial

Only days after my last post on this topic, another senior figure from the Khmer Rouge has been arrested and brought before the ECCC in Cambodia. Khieu Samphan, the former head of state under the Khmer Rouge, was arrested in hospital in Phnom Penh early this morning. He has always denied any responsibility for the brutality of his former regime, claiming his role was only ceremonial. Regardless of the truth or otherwise of this assertion, he was apparently very close to Pol Pot (who died in 1998) and as such he may be able to offer real insights into Pol Pot's character and actions.

The Cambodian Information Centre interviewed Khieu Samphan last week, prior to his arrest. You can read a transcript (translated from Khmer) here: (you may need to cut and paste into your browser). The CIC site is worth a browse anyway, if you are interested in finding out more about Cambodia.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Day Thirty-Eight: Tutu takes a stand

Archbishop Desmond Tutu has long been recognised for his timely questioning of powerful institutions where they appear to do harm. In a recent BBC radio interview, to be broadcast on Tuesday, he turned his attention to the Anglican Church, saying the institution was "extraordinarily homophobic" and "almost obsessed" with human sexuality. Tutu called for a more welcoming approach from the church's leadership.

In a world where it seems we often let subtle (or even extreme) discrimination pass without comment, it is critical that influential figures such as Tutu feel able to question societal indifference - and to scrutinise institutional practices that perpetuate bigotry. Thus Tutu's stance should arguably give hope not just to gay rights campaigners, but to anyone who values free speech and the spirit of democratic enquiry.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Day Thirty-Seven: children released by DRC rebels

News emerged today that 232 children have been released by Mayi Mayi rebels in North Kivu, DRC. Their release was apparently secured by UNICEF, working with UN peacekeepers and Save the Children. The children are being cared for in camps prior to reunification with their families. Whilst such reunifications are far from straightforward, the children's release is undoubtedly welcome news. It also gives cause for hope that the many other children seized by rebel forces to serve in armed conflict - in the DRC and elsewhere - may yet win their freedom.

Certainly, there appears to be an increased public and media interest in the plight of child soldiers. This is evident in the North American and European media, and perhaps in the African media too. Does this mean international agencies are intensifying their efforts to address the problem? Is increased publicity contributing to increased resistance within affected populations? Perhaps even a change of heart within some of the rebel forces? Now that would be a reason to be hopeful...

Friday, November 16, 2007

Day Thirty-Six: can women lead the world to a secure future?

This is an interesting little story. A meeting of senior women (several current and ex-presidents and other leaders) is being convened in New York as I type, to explore the ways in which female leaders can help promote peace and security. Their collective hypothesis seems to be that women lead differently to men and that engaging female leaders in global security efforts may bring greater chances of success, for example in conflict resolution. I think this is an interesting idea - and certainly worth exploring.

At the very least, a world in which power were more evenly spread (across spectrums of gender, race, religion) would be more balanced - and perhaps therefore more harmonious...? Discuss!

NB - I also think the site on which this article is to be found (link from post title above) is interesting. 'The Raw Story' aims to communicate 'under-reported' news. Another attempt to create balance, then, this time in news coverage - and, as you know, that's what we're all about here at Reasons to be Hopeful!

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Day Thirty-Five: closer Koreas

The gradual coming together of North and South Korea was given significant impetus today, as the respective governments announced plans for a new inter-Korean rail link to begin in December. Though limited to freight transport initially, it will be the first rail service to link the two countries in over half a century. The deal forms part of a broader programme of co-operation between North and South Korea, including in specific industrial sectors – this may in turn contribute to at least partial amelioration of the grinding poverty in which so many North Koreans find themselves. Such outcomes may be slow in coming. But the train has left the station.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Day Thirty-Four: Brazil winning the battle

Brazil's HIV/AIDS policy has been much-lauded for some time. Now a new research report from Harvard confirms the 'remarkable' progress that has been made. Through a combination of free, accessible treatment, and tenacious campaigning on 'safe sex', Brazil has kept its HIV infection rates low. And the Brazilian government hasn't broken the bank to do it. In fact, the report highlights the savings (around $1 billion) that have been achieved through the use of generic medicines, where appropriate and feasible. If all these efforts can be sustained, Brazil will no doubt continue to serve as a beacon to others seeking similar results - not just in relation to HIV/AIDS, but on health and development more broadly.


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Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Day Thirty-Three: Cambodia's race to justice

Cambodia's UN-backed human rights tribunal - the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC) - has taken seven years to get established. Following Pol Pot's death in 1998, and that of his former military chief in custody last year, many have expressed concern that those implicated could die before they face trial. However, the prospects for justice were enhanced yesterday, as the ECCC detained two high-profile figures. Perhaps the most important was Ieng Sary - the former Khmer Rouge foreign minister. (The other was his wife, a former minister for social affairs.) These arrests follow two others, earlier this year. As such, they offer some hope that 'the truth will out' for the Cambodian people - at last.

In addition to the factual summary linked above, you can read an interesting comment in the Guardian at:

Monday, November 12, 2007

Day Thirty-Two: a sliver of light?

For weeks now, I have been casting around for some sign of positive change in Burma. There were some hints of promise perhaps – as talks began between the government, the NLD and the UN – but nothing really convincing. However, it seems that the UN human rights envoy, Paulo Sergio Pinheiro, has now returned to Burma (Myanmar) for the first time since 2003. Could this be the first move towards greater openness?

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Day Thirty-One: a city moves again

New Orleans' St. Charles streetcar line had operated since 1835 - until Hurricane Katrina stopped the cars dead in their tracks. This weekend, however, a little over 2 years since Katrina, the line opened up once again. The return of the cars brings a much needed morale boost to the city - as well as offering local residents improved options for getting around - and gives any tourists (hopefully growing in number) another thing to photograph!

(Above photo courtesty AP.)

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Day Thirty: living the future

How will we live in the future? In houses that think for themselves? Well, maybe! This fascinating article from the Vancouver Sun describes a new house called EcoTerra, in Quebec, which uses a series of automated systems to adjust its own energy use - taking advantage of the outside environment and maximising energy efficiency (and lowering costs). Very clever. The article also outlines a number of other environmentally-sound construction projects in Canada, but what really attracts me to the EcoTerra demonstration house is that the public can tour it, to get ideas about how to conserve resources in their home NOW. It's another great example of innovation stimulating the public's imagination when it comes to the environment - and with very little government encouragement... (have we heard that before?).

Friday, November 9, 2007

Day Twenty-Nine: it's the little things...

It's Friday, so a more light-hearted tale seems appropriate - to me at least.

This article outlines a growing men's movement in Japan, focused on encouraging men to be more open, considerate and loving with their wives. The movement, which loosely translates as 'the Chauvinistic Husbands Association' (!), emphasizes saying "thank you", " I love you", and "I'm sorry" when appropriate - and requires its members to apologise in public for transgressions such as leaving the toilet seat up. The latter may seem a little extreme. But in the face of soaring rates of marital break-down (and limited gender equality) in Japan, the Association clearly felt extreme measures were necessary. And many Japanese women may well feel this is cause for hope...

Is it more broadly relevant? Well, maybe - after all, how many of us say "I love you", "thank you" and "I'm sorry" when we should? Plus, as far as I'm concerned, anything that addresses the 'toilet seat problem' is to be welcomed.

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Day Twenty-Eight: migration's winners?

Once again, I find myself contrasting today's hopeful story with yesterday's. Instead of Somali refugees in the US, we find Polish migrants in London - except they're not all staying for long. This article suggests that many Polish migrants remain several years in the UK, working hard, gaining skills and knowledge, and then return to Poland - better off financially and empowered socially and psychologically. It's an interesting and fairly positive slant on a topic that has so much 'bad press'. Stories like this may help to open up a more intelligent and considered debate on migration in the mainstream media - which would be particularly welcome in the US, given the emotion likely to be invested in the topic in the coming election year!

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Day Twenty-Seven: from one extreme to another

It was another tough day today for any hope-seeking blogger. But I did unearth this tale of promise in Newsweek. It briefly documents the life of a Somali refugee, Abass Hassan Mohamed, who having survived tremendous hardship as a child, now finds himself - through natural talent, hard work and a bit of help from family and friends - a student at Princeton University in the US. It's a tale of two extremes, and of one man's ability to bridge them. There aren't many that manage this journey perhaps, but it shows it can be done.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Day Twenty-Six: somewhere out there...

Having focused on the future of planet Earth yesterday, I thought this story provided a nice contrast and complement. Though it is a bit 'out there'! Apparently, a new planet has been discovered in the constellation Cancer. Why is this significant? Well, this the first quintuple planetary system to be detected in outer space, and it appears that the planet in question - or others in its orbit - may yet demonstrate the conditions that could sustain liquid water... and therefore life as we know it.

I find such stories humbling, with respect to our own role in the universe. But yet, on the other hand, the fact that scientists are able to discover such things is pretty amazing - and underscores the potential of humankind. What will we discover next, I wonder...?

(Picture courtesy of Scientific American.)

Monday, November 5, 2007

Day Twenty-Five: the not-so-selfish gene?

Well, well, well. This outcome is somewhat surprising, even for 'glass half full' folk like me! 22,182 people across 21 countries were recently surveyed for the BBC, to assess the degree to which people are prepared to change their lifestyle for the benefit of the planet - and specifically to address climate change. 80% of respondents said they were. Many supported higher taxes on energy use, particularly if the resulting revenues were to be invested in energy efficiency or clean fuel initiatives. "This poll clearly shows that people are much more ready to endure their share of the burden than most politicians grant," said Doug Miller, director of Globescan, the polling company working on behalf of the BBC. The question is: will politicians move decisively into this political space? Perhaps the 2008 US Presidential election will tell us the answer...

(The link in the title above takes you to the BBC online report. From there you can link to the survey results in full, using Adobe Reader.)

Sunday, November 4, 2007

Day Twenty-Four: Wonder Woman

I had to post this today! My admiration of Paula Radcliffe, winner of today's New York Marathon, is absolute. I am not sure how I feel about the fact that she trained through her pregnancy (I don't know enough about what that entailed exactly, though apparently she and her doctor came up with a 'plan') but her determination, commitment and sheer hard work got her past that finishing line first today - having had a baby in January - and, as a mother of two children myself, I have no idea how she managed it. Here's to girl power!

Saturday, November 3, 2007

Day Twenty-Three: the good things humans do

I found this article fascinating, not least since - coincidentally - it's a conversation I've been having with several family members and friends of late. The question? What have been humankind's greatest inventions? The ones that really changed the course of human history... Well, in this Independent newspaper feature, you'll get 101 answers to that question. Perhaps they will correspond with your own choices, perhaps they won't, but it sure makes for an interesting read. And it's definitely refreshing to have someone document some of the positive contributions we humans have made to the planet ...

Friday, November 2, 2007

Day Twenty-Two: New York does have some history after all!

I've gone a bit parochial today. I thought this local titbit was interesting. A beautiful old bit of New York Subway tiling has recently been discovered beneath a false wall at Columbus Circle station. In a society where renewal is constant and ultra-modern is the mode, this kind of discovery is fairly unusual. Here is a bit of history that seems to have survived the rush towards the future. It will now be transported to a museum - I actually think it would be nicer left where it is!

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Day Twenty-One: cautious optimism in Uganda

It seems that the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA ) and the Ugandan government are edging closer towards peace. It can't come soon enough for those in Northern Uganda, who have suffered the consequences of ruthless conflict for more than 2 decades. As LRA negotiators arrived in Kampala today, they released a dove, as a symbol of hope and of their commitment to the peace process. And so we must be hopeful too...

(This story presents an interesting contrast with that on the DRC rebels being tried by the International Criminal Court (ICC), which I posted a few days ago. The peace process in Uganda has been stalling, apparently, because LRA leaders are aware that the ICC wants to try them and they want a solution to the crisis that avoids this outcome... Hmm...)