Monday, December 31, 2007

Day Eighty-One: democracy comes gracefully to Bhutan

Well, here we are folks. The final throes of 2007. In fact, for some of you, it's already 2008. So, consider this the final good news of the year - the last hurrah, as it were...

In stark contrast to the stories dominating headlines around the world - those relating to election violence in Pakistan and Kenya - today saw the culmination of elections in Bhutan. The first elections for a century, in fact! The article I'm posting here is not the only coverage of the elections by any means, nor even the most comprehensive, but it captures beautifully the state of electoral decorum (there can be no better word) in this tiny, fledgling democracy. The article, from Bhutan's online newspaper 'Kuensel', describes the level of commitment from voters in Pemagatshel dzongkhag (district) - many of whom will have to travel for an hour to get to their polling station (though this is nothing compared to the four days that I've read about elsewhere!) - and the mutual support demonstrated by the two candidates for that district, who have said they will work together whoever wins. The elections seem to have passed off largely without incident and the new National Council is now close to being formed. More significantly, the monarchy has shifted with seemingly minimal fuss from an absolute role to a 'constitutional' one. It's a new and promising chapter for Bhutan - and it will be very interesting to see how it pans out.


Kuensel is worth a browse, as are two other websites about Bhutan if you are keen to find out more about this mountain kingdom: and

For some analysis of how Bhutan's newly democratic society may evolve, see the new opinion piece 'Gross National Happiness: putting the concept into practice' on Kuensel's website.

(Picture courtesy BBC online.)

Sunday, December 30, 2007

Day Eighty: Japan comes round on emissions targets

Well, I've just blogged around the world in eighty days! Only 285 to go, until I meet my challenge to myself... not sure what will happen then, but we'll cross that bridge when we come to it, eh?

For now, enjoy this great news fresh out of Japan. The Japanese government has just announced that it will set numerical targets for its own carbon emissions reductions, reversing the stance it took in Bali earlier this year. It seems the government has reflected on the Bali negotiations and the public outcry that ensued, and has decided to make a public commitment to specific targets at Davos in early 2008. According to the Reuters article linked here, the Japanese are also proposing a new financial mechanism (to support developing countries in moving towards low-carbon development) and a new category of targets designed for middle-income countries such as India and China. Thank you, Japan, for taking this constructive approach. And thanks for letting it slip out prior to Davos, just in case others decide to follow your lead... ! (Picture courtesy Reuters.)

Saturday, December 29, 2007

Day Seventy-Nine: women rise in Kenya

The result of Kenya's presidential election hangs in the balance tonight, with the electoral commission auditing results in several areas to ensure an accurate declaration on Sunday. Meanwhile, many parliamentary seats have changed hands. It seems that several key ministers have lost their seats and some political veterans have been displaced by younger rivals. One positive trend reflected in this election is the advancement of women in Kenyan politics. As the article from 'The Standard' linked here reports, female candidates have truly broken through - many will serve for the first time, though some will return having retained their seats. Many battled in an otherwise all-male field and against cultural expectations, in a society that remains strongly male dominated. It's one positive sign to emerge from an election that has been extremely tense throughout. Let's hope it indicates a democracy coming of age and a society becoming more equal.

Friday, December 28, 2007

Day Seventy-Eight: US foreign policy in the spotlight

What does it take for foreign policy to get airtime in US presidential debates? (Beyond the Iraq 'blame game' of course.) The answer, sadly, seems to be that it takes something both dramatic and tragic - such as the assassination of Benazir Bhutto. As today's linked article from Pakistan's 'Daily Times' reports, Bhutto's untimely death has prompted greater consideration of foreign policy issues by US presidential candidates. Inevitably, the discussion focuses on US and global security, but it could also prompt broader consideration of America's place in the world. It may focus voters' minds on who might best represent the US constructively on the global stage. This must be good news. The world desperately needs a credible US president who demonstrates genuine concern and compassion for the world's less fortunate citizens - in word and deed. The debate started this week will help the US electorate identify someone who fits this bill. There is time yet...

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Day Seventy-Seven: Pakistan's neighbourhood

Following the shocking assassination of Benazir Bhutto earlier today, little positive reporting of any significance could be found. However, on Pakistan's 'Dawn' newspaper site, I found an article that predated Bhutto's death by hours. It seems that Hamid Karzai, the President of Afghanistan, is on a state visit to Pakistan right now. In fact, he met with Bhutto hours before her death. Prior to that, the Dawn article reports, he also met with Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, and the two leaders committed themselves to co-operation in order to suppress extremism and shore up the region's stability. Now, following Bhutto's death, Pakistan seems to be teetering on the brink of collapse - making the strength and support of its neighbours vital. Pakistan's relationship with Afghanistan - and, of course, that with India - may hold the key to the future of the South Asian region. If there is hope to be found anywhere today, it is in the overwhelming and universal condemnation of Bhutto's assassination and sympathy for Pakistan's citizens - particularly from leaders in Afghanistan and India. We must hope today's events have not eroded Karzai's commitment, but rather reinforced it.


BTW: The Dawn website is worth reading in more detail, if you wish to deepen your understanding of Pakistani politics, security and culture. The coverage of Bhutto's assassination and its aftermath specifically is fairly comprehensive, though factual rather than analytical.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Day Seventy-Six: harnessing brain power to change lives

I found this article tucked away on the ABC News website today, and it's a fascinating read. It outlines progress towards developing technology that could intercept signals sent by the brain to the vocal chords - something that could ultimately restore the power of speech to those currently without it. At the moment, the project team is concentrating its efforts on developing a wheelchair that can move in response to brain signals - but it's clear that the technology has many potential applications. Indeed, it's easy to see how it might be misappropriated. But, for now, efforts are rightly focused on realising its tremendous promise for those with limited speech or mobility.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Day Seventy-Five: messages of peace

With many people across the world celebrating Christmas today, there were renewed calls for peace and tolerance from Christian and world leaders. It is thus every Christmas, of course. This year the messages carry particular poignancy, though, as peace talks are renewed between Israeli and Palestinian administrations - whilst conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere rage on. This AFP article carried in the Middle East Times captures succinctly the desire for peace expressed by so many communities at this time of year. A particularly striking image evoked in the article is that of Muslims and Christians praying alongside each other for peace in Kashmir. When hopes and dreams are shared across different faiths and cultures, they must surely edge closer to realisation...

Monday, December 24, 2007

Day Seventy-Four: promise for India's widows

Yep, I'm still here. Is anybody else? I hope and expect you are all with your families having some well earned rest and recuperation... If you get the chance to look in on Reasons to be Hopeful, then I hope you enjoy today's little bit of positivity.

It seems that the Indian government may be on the path to addressing one of the nation's most deprived groups - its 33 million widows. At the weekend, Renuka Chowdhury, the Minister for Women and Child Development, announced her intent to forge the way for widows to remarry if they wish and to provide training to help them find work. This is a very promising development. If the Minister's plans are enacted, they could help break down some of the stigma attached to widowhood - currently, Hindu custom forbids widows from remarrying and they may be ostracised by friends and family. Many must beg to survive. The plans are not yet law of course, and any change in societal attitudes will take many years. But, if the government follows through on these recent promises, many Indian women may find some hope where before they had none.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Day Seventy-Three: the spirit of Christmas, in China

A classic heartwarmer today, courtesy of the Indian newswire. Kailee Wells was born in Hunan, China, in 1997 and abandoned soon afterwards. She was brought to the US by her adoptive parents. But in 2002, at the age of five, she was diagnosed with aplastic anaemia, a rare and potentially fatal blood disorder similar to leukaemia. By Christmas 2003, having been given a very poor prognosis by successive doctors, even poor Kailee believed she might not see another Christmas. So her parents went on their own search for a bone marrow donor, eventually returning to China to find a match for Kailee there. After one failed transplant, Kailee's family got lucky - a young doctor from Hangzhou was identified as a perfect match. The transplant was successful. Kailee is now ten (going on eleven) years old, healthy and doing well at school. This week she returned again to China, to meet her donor, Wang Lin - and this Christmas is launching her own recruitment drive for bone marrow donors in China, in the hope that other children will benefit too.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Day Seventy-Two: modern city living

I found this feature in The Independent newspaper (UK) a very interesting read. It details an assessment of the world's cities, using a range of measurable criteria such as the number of major tourist sites, UNESCO heritage sites, flights into the city, 'ethnic' restaurants etc. It's good news for Londoners - London narrowly pipped New York to top spot in the rankings. (Though I suspect if cost of living had been a factor, New York would have soared above London, given the current dollar exchange rate!) It's also a great read - lots of detail on different cities around the world, from Tokyo to Johannesburg. More importantly, it shows improvements in the quality of urban living in general - and given the world's seemingly inevitable drift towards urbanization this has to be welcome. Many of the cities described in The Independent were once dirty, smog-covered and crime-ridden - London is one example. Some are still heavily burdened with such problems. But the fact that so many cities have evolved into cultural and culinary capitals, with well-kept public spaces, shows that cities can become great places to live - as local incomes improve and with appropriate public and private investment. Makes you wonder what the world's big cities will look like in 20 or 50 years' time, doesn't it?

Friday, December 21, 2007

Day Seventy-One: maintain your brain

After much rooting around today, I finally located this fascinating little story on CNN. It documents some of the findings from a study of Alzheimer's and other forms of dementia, which has already been going for 20 years and will continue a while yet. What makes this study so unusual is that all the subjects are nuns. 677 initially enrolled in the study. Just 61 are still alive - all of whom now appear to be in their 90s ... and very lucid. In addition to undergoing regular interviewing and testing over the last two decades, all the nuns agreed to donate their brains to the study upon their death. And because their lifestyles are so uniform, it has been relatively easy to distinguish contributors to the onset of dementia - and, indeed, things one can do to delay or prevent it. These include staying intellectually active and - all readers of this blog will be pleased to note - maintaining a positive and optimistic outlook! So, get reading and keep smiling. You'll be glad you did when you're 96...

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Day Seventy: accessing information in Cuba

A really interesting article from the BBC today - part of their 'Free to Speak' series, launched to celebrate 75 years of the BBC World Service. (The stories in the series are really worth a read, incidentally.) It also chimes with the article posted yesterday on open access university lectures - which has stimulated a lot of RTBH interest! Thanks very much for all your comments and emails on that - and with the post on Middle Eastern media outlets (Day Sixty-Six).

So, to today's story. It documents the ingenious efforts of Cubans to gain access to the internet and, through it, to knowledge and opinions beyond Cuba's borders. Some Cubans now have internet access at work, but hooking up at home is not possible - though some people are paying to use foreigners' internet access for a set time per month, so desperate are they to surf. In addition, the Cuban government appears to be loosening restrictions on access to information, just a bit. Serving president Raul Castro has apparently called on the Cuban press to be more critical, and earlier this month the government said it would sign two UN human rights accords (which should enshrine press freedom, at least on paper).

So not quite 'good news' yet, then - but cause for hope? Certainly.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Day Sixty-Nine: sharing knowledge and a little love

This article from the International Herald Tribune made me laugh out loud today. It tells of a charming and theatrical physics professor from MIT, whose internet-broadcast lectures are proving quite a hit. He is known for bouncing around the lecture theatre, performing dramatic experiments with props and generally making physics fun. When Walter H G Lewin gained a cult following at MIT, the institute created a global classroom using its OpenCourseWare - and now anyone in the world can log on and benefit from his knowledge and enthusiasm for FREE. And they do. Apparently, Prof Lewin has received fan mail from India, China, Iraq and many other places, and he was No 1 in the download charts on IPhoneU for a while. It's a fantastic example of someone with a gift for teaching thinking of new ways to reach out and touch their students, wherever they may be.

Well, guess where I'm off to next? Yes, to an online science lecture - I want to witness Prof Lewin for myself and develop my own love of physics. If anyone can help me do that - something of an upward climb - then I guess Prof Lewin may be the man. (Photo from IHT online.)

(Actually, you can link to the lectures from a little box to the side of the IHT article. I've already had a peek. All 36 lectures are there so you can view them in order, or pick a subject that takes your fancy. The high res versions are more or less like being in the lecture hall yourself... though you are less likely to be hit by any flying props. Each is 45 mins, so this is something to do when you have some time, and a cup of tea in your hand...)

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Day Sixty-Eight: living with HIV in Lesotho

In direct contrast to yesterday's post on Madagascar, today I found this article on Lesotho. This tiny, mountainous, landlocked country is one of the poorest in the world - the locals joke that its biggest export is soil, which is washed down the mountains into South Africa as it erodes. In fact, the nation is defined nowadays by its export of water, the landscape dominated by the enormous Highlands Water Project (which pipes water over the border towards Johannesburg) - and also, sadly, by its HIV epidemic, with around 25% of adults infected. And yet, despite its lack of resources the country is beginning to get to grips with HIV, as this story from the BBC demonstrates - it tells of a new recruitment agency dedicated to placing HIV-positive people in stable employment (no mean feat in a country with 45% unemployment). It's early days, but the agency seems to be having some success, as taboos break down a little and people are willing to be more open about their HIV status - but also as the local community, in which nearly everyone has lost a close friend or family member to AIDS, is more willing to act and to show its compassion. Could this be the turning point for Lesotho? I have my fingers tightly crossed...
(Photo from BBC online.)

Monday, December 17, 2007

Day Sixty-Seven: health and hope in Madagascar

A really impressive little story today, about how the Madagascan government and its people have 'got it right' in terms of improving public health. For a start, the island nation has the lowest rate of HIV infection in sub-Saharan Africa, due in large part to early and significant investment in sex education, condom promotion, HIV testing and targeting of high-risk groups. But it doesn't stop there. The government and its partners have also rolled out comprehensive programmes in malaria, childhood vaccination, nutrition and other services. The result? Child deaths have dropped by around 40% in recent years. It shows what can be done with leadership and commitment, and appropriate and timely external support in the right places. It makes me wonder why I don't hear more about Madagascan healthcare professionals sharing their knowledge with their African neighbours - let's hope that is happening, even if it's done quietly. Meanwhile, if the Madagascans sustain their own efforts, I have no doubt that health indicators will improve further and the country will be recognised as a model for others.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Day Sixty-Six: many voices, many choices in Middle East media

This opinion piece in Middle East Online caught my eye today. It documents the exponential growth in media outlets across the Middle East, sparked - the commentator says - by the popularity of Al Jazeera. Now everyone wants a piece of the airtime action, it seems, and the result is the airing of a more diverse range of opinions, perspectives and ... talkshows! Indeed, even Oprah has found a new audience across the region, as the influx of entertainment from the west gathers pace. One suspects the intercontinental cultural traffic may be moving in one direction though, with local versions of 'Pop Idol' also achieving huge popularity. It would be great to see as much traffic coming the other way - after all, improvement of cross-cultural understanding is by its nature a two-way process. Here's hoping! Keep tuning the dial...

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Day Sixty-Five: hang on... just two years to wait!

It's hard to know quite what to make of the outcome of the climate change negotiations in Bali. Certainly, there appears to have been more emotion on display than is customary at international environmental negotiations. The NYT article linked here does a good job of presenting a balanced summary, whilst highlighting some of the positive aspects that give cause for hope. Chief among them, the authors say, is the fact that a new US president will enter the fray half-way through the two-year negotiating round initiated in Bali - and most analysts agree that he or she will feel and respond to the pressure for a credible and meaningful outcome. So, deferred hope, perhaps?


Thanks go to Reasons to be Hopeful reader, Milli, who sent me a link to a BBC article giving an upbeat account of the Bali negotiations. Unfortunately, by the end of today, the BBC had watered down the article's enthusiasm considerably! It, and the accompanying analysis by Richard Black, is still worth a read though: I also found an article closer to the original on a Bangladeshi news site: Thanks so much, Milli!

You can send me links to positive news stories anytime you like, at: I've also posted this contact email to the right hand side of the blog posts, for ongoing reference.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Day Sixty-Four: is US - N Korea relationship thawing?

Having placed my faith in the New York Philharmonic and their planned tour of Pyongyang on Day Sixty, it was some relief to see that political diplomacy continues in parallel - and with some hope. The New York Times reports that President Bush today received a letter from Kim Jong-il, confirming that North Korea will decommission its nuclear weapons provided the US fulfills its promise to 'normalize relations'. It's clear both sides are dancing round each other a little, but the overall direction appears to be forwards, and this must be welcomed - the alternative trajectory, namely continued tension and possible escalation into conflict, is definitely to be avoided.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Day Sixty-Three: grandmother fights local battles to win a bigger war

Since retiring as a primary school teacher just over two decades ago, Le Hien Duc has waged a daily war against corruption in Vietnam. Acting on behalf of her fellow citizens, the 75-year-old grandmother purues their complaints and allegations against local officials from her home in Hanoi - armed with such resources as a computer and digital camera (to catch the unscrupulous 'in the act'). This week, her tireless efforts were recognized by Transparency International, which awarded her the 2007 Integrity Award. Her hard work has attracted other, less welcome, attention too - including death threats. Nevertheless, she remains optimistic, saying “Vietnam has won every war it has fought in the past. There is no reason it cannot win the war against corruption.” If enough people take a brave stand against everyday corrupt practices, like Le Hien Duc, her faith may well be rewarded.

(Photo courtesy AFP, from Khaleej Times.)

By the way, although this AFP article is on broad circulation, I chose to include the version from Khaleej Times online - an interesting newspaper from the United Arab Emirates. It's worth a browse if you have a spare minute. It includes some interesting and thoughtful (and sometimes provocative) opinion columns.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Day Sixty-Two: a new deal for Sudan

With Darfur now (rightly) dominating news coverage about Sudan, it's easy to forget that until 2005 the country was engaged in a bloody civil war. That conflict – between the north (with its largely Muslim population, housing the capital Khartoum) and the south (mostly Christian and Animist, with more productive land) – lasted two decades and claimed the lives of 1.5 million people. Recently, the peace deal has appeared fragile, with the ex-rebel Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM) pulling out of the nation's power-sharing government. Now, it seems, solutions may have been found - a deal has been struck to rotate the home of government every three months, between Khartoum and the southern city of Juba. Troop withdrawals will follow, and a national census is planned. The final outstanding issue – how to share the country's oil wealth – is apparently also close to resolution. The SPLM Secretary General said today, "We are hopeful that by Saturday there may be a solution - we are hopeful." Well, then, we must be hopeful too. Even more so if the momentum of success can help generate similar 'deals' for the people of Darfur.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Day Sixty-One: relationships with Iran

Today, the last in our mini-series (!) on building hope in totalitarian states. Actually, according to this eminently readable and thought-provoking article by Fareed Zakaria of Newsweek, Iran is less totalitarian than those in the West might think, with a range of powers vested in different institutions - many of which do not always (or even often) see eye-to-eye with hardline president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Nevertheless, there is no doubt that Iran has been 'shunned' by the US of late and the words 'military action' have even been whispered. Most agree that is not on the agenda. But alternatives are needed, and fast, to safeguard global and regional security. Zakaria argues that, rather than backing Iran into a corner where building up its nuclear capability is the obvious response, the US and Europe should work hard to develop ties with Iran, making use of the full range of institutional viewpoints that currently exist there. The New York Philharmonic might yet play Tehran...

Monday, December 10, 2007

Day Sixty: diplomatic overtures

After the recent discussions about what might work best to effect positive change in Zimbabwe, this story, about North Korea, seems particularly apt. The New York Philharmonic orchestra announced today, after months of debate, that it will play a concert in Pyongyang when it tours East Asia next year. The tour date has been agreed in response to an unexpected official invitation from the North Korean culture ministry that was received in August. The project is not without risk or controversy, of course (so I am expecting those comments to come rolling in!) but those who support it point to recent moves made by the North Korean government towards engaging in dialogue with the US and others about scaling back its nuclear ambitions. They see cultural exchange as complementary to renewed diplomacy. Interestingly, US orchestras have paved the way for diplomacy before - the article linked here, from the New York Times, cites past orchestral tours of China and Russia as examples. So, the New York Philharmonic will bring Beethoven to the people of North Korea (and apparently the 'Star Spangled Banner' too!?), and in doing so may open their doors just a crack to the rest of the world. Nothing else seems to have achieved that to date, so it is probably worth a try.

Sunday, December 9, 2007

Day Fifty-Nine: strong words and actions from Sentamu

Back to Zimbabwe again. The pressure is certainly mounting for positive change. Today, Dr John Sentamu, the Archbishop of York (second most senior in the Church of England hierarchy) cut up his clerical 'dog collar' live on television and said he would not wear it again until Mugabe was gone and Zimbabwe was free. At the same time, he called for significant economic and political pressures to be brought to bear on Mugabe, not just by African leaders but by the world, as they were against Charles Taylor in Liberia and the apartheid regime in South Africa. It was a passionate call to action - hard for any of us to ignore now, and one we're unlikely to forget given Sentamu's unusual and hugely symbolic cutting up of his own 'identity'. It seems the ball is now fully in our court. The world holds Zimbabwe's future in its hands...

[ It is well worth watching the whole interview the Archbishop gave to Andrew Marr, via BBC online, using the link in the title above. If you'd like to read more about related gestures made by several European leaders on the final day of the EU-Africa summit, use this link: ]

Saturday, December 8, 2007

Day Fifty-Eight: heroic humanity

I had to post this today. Over the last few days, CNN has been showing footage from its 'Heroes' awards ceremony on television. It's the culmination of a lengthy process to identify some of the people doing their best to change the world for the better. Some of their stories are quite amazing. I'll let you take a look and see for yourselves - but if you need guidance on where to find inspiration, start with the stories of Ecuadoran lawyer Pablo Fajardo, young leukemia patient, activist and "viewers' choice" Pat Pedraja, or 'Young Wonder' Kayla Cornale (who at the age of 18 has already contributed more to scientific discovery that most of us could ever hope to!)... All power to CNN for putting something together that is not schmaltzy, but is instead rather understated, and yet incredibly moving. Hope for humanity indeed!

Friday, December 7, 2007

Day Fifty-Seven: offering hope to Zimbabwe

It's hard to imagine quite where the current diplomatic muddle around Zimbabwe will end. Will EU leaders at the Lisbon summit talk 'tough' to Mugabe, having seemingly condoned his political and economic mismanagement by lifting his EU travel ban? Can Mugabe's peers across Africa serve the role of 'critical friends', or will deference persist?

An interesting and thoughtful opinion piece in the South African Business Day today asserts that democratically elected African leaders - such as Kufuor in Ghana and Mbeki in South Africa - must draw on their popular mandate to take bolder steps. Kofi Bentil, a Ghanaian academic and consultant, argues that such boldness is needed not only in relation to Zimbabwe (on which he clearly believes African leaders are out of step with the 'vast majority' of their citizens) but on human rights abuses across the continent and on other areas such as economic reform. In short, Bentil argues that a more discerning form of leadership is required to facilitate the 'African renaissance' craved across the continent. The only way such leadership can be fostered is by many more Africans calling for it, loudly and publicly - and with the same thoughtfulness modelled by Bentil today.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Day Fifty-Six: good business for dyslexics

I am normally a little reticent about posting frequently on the same topic. Variety is the spice of life, after all! However, this article from the New York Times today echoed so beautifully the story about Tom Sweet posted on Day Fifty, and the brief discussion that ensued here, that I had to include it.

In short, recent research suggests that people with dyslexia often excel as entrepreneurs, due to their well-developed verbal and interpersonal skills and a willingness to delegate responsibility to others. Indeed, this particular research project - conducted by Professor Logan at the Cass Business School in London - found that 35% of entrepreneurs interviewed identified themselves as dyslexic. Incidentally, so do several hugely successful business people, such as Richard Branson and Charles R Schwab. When you think about it, it makes a lot of sense that a person's need to adapt to constraints spurs broader creativity and innovation. But it's really important to have research confirming the trend and documenting success stories more formally. Meanwhile, the future for Tom Sweet looks hopeful indeed...

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Day Fifty-Five: kidnapped toddler returned to parents

Brian Rincón Arias was kidnapped by guerillas from his nursery in Cúcuta, Colombia, on June 15. This week he was carried across mountains for 24 hours by a female guerilla, who then handed herself and Brian to soldiers on patrol. The woman, known as La Negra, had fled with the boy from the rebel gang with which she had lived for years. Not without significant risk, it must be said, since the rebels had demanded £370k ransom for the boy's safe return – they would have had little sympathy for La Negra's 'maternal instinct', which Columbian authorities think drove her to return Brian. La Negra is now in a protection programme, which aims to reintegrate ex-rebels into society. As for Brian, he has been reunited with his parents – a happy ending that provides a rare glimmer of hope in a country that has seen 393 people kidnapped by rebels this year alone...

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Day Fifty-Four: Islam and tolerance

A quite extraordinary story today. It tells of one man, seeking to shift minds across a worldwide religious community. At the International Consultation on Islam and HIV/AIDS in Johannesburg last week, Abu al-Sameed 'came out'. He asked that he and other homosexuals be respected and supported as community members, so they can seek support and help protect themselves against HIV infection. Such a plea was, apparently, unprecedented. The audience reaction? Well, after some initial discouragement, followed by a tense silence, Abu al-Sameed held the floor. At the end of the session, several listeners came up and apologised to him for anything offensive that they or others may have said about homosexuality in the past.

Abu al-Sameed's experience is reassuring for gay Muslims. But the story has broader significance. It seems that tales depicting the intolerance of Islam abound in the press. (Witness the furore over the British teacher and her class teddy bear in Sudan.) Stories like Abu al-Sameed's lend a balance and perspective that may prove critical if we are to build mutual understanding and trust between those of different faiths.

Monday, December 3, 2007

Day Fifty-Three: a miraculous escape

I went for an old fashioned good news story today. Devon, UK: young boy falls into river whilst playing with dog, father jumps in to rescue him, both manage to grab on to some rocks until rescue services arrive... and both are pulled out and brought to safety. According to the rescuers, it was something of a 'miracle' that they both survived, in what were described as 'horrendous' conditions following significant rains. One imagines the water wasn't too warm either...

Sunday, December 2, 2007

Day Fifty-Two: Malawi feeds itself

It's a rare thing indeed - alas - to find good news on the front page, let alone as the lead story. Yet, lo and behold, this is exactly what I found as I picked up my copy of the New York Times this morning. (The only hard copy newspaper I read these days...)
The story in question documents Malawi's significant increase in agricultural productivity this year, following a national programme to distribute subsidised fertiliser to farmers. The programme was instigated by Malawi's president – following severe food shortages in recent years, which had led to widespread suffering across the country - and he was keen to find a solution that didn't entail dependency on humanitarian aid. Interestingly, many international donors had urged the government not to enact subsidies - and some are now eating their words. The UK, for example, has latterly given $8m to support the subsidy programme, having apparently voiced concern initially. There are of course questions over the programme's sustainability (indeed it's worth reading the whole NY Times article to appreciate the nuances) but for now the strategy appears to be giving Malawian agriculture (and sovereignty) just the boost it needed. And for those who can now feed their families, having been unable to last year, it's a most welcome sign of hope.

(Picture from NY Times slide show.)

Saturday, December 1, 2007

Day Fifty-One: teaching hard lessons

I found this story really thought-provoking - and encouraging. It asserts - on the basis of evidence from a US national social studies educators' conference and testimonies from schools in California - that increasing numbers of US teachers are including the study of 'genocide' on their curriculum. The aim is to cover not only the origins of genocide, but also strategies to prevent and solve genocidal practices - with case studies ranging from the holocaust to Armenia, Rwanda and Darfur. Not easy lessons. But perhaps just what schools should be teaching in the 21st century... namely, how to prevent (and when needed solve) some of the big challenges affecting people now, right across the planet. Wtih children equipped to debate these difficult issues today, we may see a global community better equipped to address them in future.