It’s eHarmony for volunteers.
It's the invention of Ned Brokaw of Darien, Conn., who spent 27 years in the financial services industry, most recently as executive director of investments for Oppenheimer & Co. Inc. Mr. Brokaw wanted to create a centralized resource that was user friendly and harnessed the power of social media. And he wanted something both youths and adults could easily navigate.
In 20 minutes or less a person can log on, create a profile, and sign up for email alerts from various agencies and groups, from those who deliver meals to the elderly or to those who help repair a home. Volunteers apply directly to an agency for an opportunity through Volunteer Square. After that it’s up to the agency and the volunteer to connect with each other and decide if they are a match, says Rachel Reese, executive director of Volunteer Square.
A year old, the Volunteer Square database focuses on Fairfield County, sometimes called Connecticut’s Gold Coast.
“It’s a little jarring for people because there is this sense that everyone in this county has money,” Ms. Reese says. “But that’s not true. There are places in every town with tremendous need.”
Superstorm Sandy highlighted local needs. More than 6,000 people sought temporary housing, and the number of people needing access to food pantries also rose. Volunteer Square’s activity increased, Reese says.
In Fairfield County residents used the site's blog as one way to organize a beach cleanup. More than 1,000 volunteers turned up to clean a three-mile stretch of beach. In Darien, Conn., the nonprofit group Person-to-Person used the site to publicize the need for food donations in Stamford and Norwalk, Conn.
The uptick in activity came because of the storm but also because it's the start of the holiday season. Nonprofit agencies are often booked with volunteers six months out for Thanksgiving, Reese says.
“It’s so exciting to see this huge boost, but there’s a lot of need the other 364 days of the year,” she says. About 14 percent of Connecticut is “food insecure,” meaning families at times run short of food, according to a 2012 Connecticut Food Bank study.
Volunteer Square says it believes every citizen can contribute as a volunteer regardless of their age.
The centralized database lists about 100 organizations and more than 600 registered users. Participants range from agencies such as the American Red Cross to Home Front, LLC, a community-based home repair program that helps keep low-income people in their homes.
“Its exciting that big legacy agencies are using us, but we are also getting smaller, mom and pop agencies; the start-ups. It’s exciting to me to see smaller agencies using the site,” Reese says.
One of those agencies is Kids Helping Kids. Based in New Canaan, Conn., the youth-led nonprofit focuses on projects that impact other children. Each Thanksgiving kids gather to bake and sell bread at $10 a loaf. All of the proceeds go to various philanthropic projects. This year the proceeds will help renovate a playground at a homeless shelter.
“They have been amazing for me,” says Jennifer Kelley, director of Kids Helping Kids, referring to Volunteer Square. Ms. Kelley found a summer intern and an administrative assistant through Volunteer Square, she says.
Volunteer Square receives no state or federal funding. It relies on individual donations. It has no office building and its staff are themselves mostly volunteers.
The interactive online community also works like a community room. Agencies can post pictures, videos, and news. With a few clicks the posts can be shared on multiple social-networking sites such as Facebook, LinkedIn, or Twitter.
“Nonprofits are very strapped and very short staffed. The whole process [needs] to be as simple as possible,” Reese says. “We try to take the legwork out of it for nonprofits.”
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A comfortable early retirement left Len Stanmore wondering what comes next. He climbed to a new level of satisfaction when he began to conquer a series of athletic tests around the world, putting him on the verge of setting a world record.
But he didn't really reach the summit of feeling good about himself until he connected those achievements with helping others.
The story starts when Mr. Stanmore sold his successful telecommunications business in 1998 and retired at the age of 49.
"The first year was pretty good: I played golf, I fixed everything around the house, I went on vacation.
"But then, after about a year or so, I really started feeling depressed. I didn't have any challenge in my life; there was no purpose to it."
After having lunch with a business associate who had been mountain climbing, Stanmore decided to try to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro in Tanzania. It was the only mountain he'd ever heard of other than Mt. Everest, the highest mountain in the world, "and I knew that wasn't going to happen."
He was 50 pounds overweight, smoked cigars, seldom exercised, and didn't consider himself to be athletic. "I was not outdoorsy at all. All my friends thought I was crazy," he says. But he went in 2001 "and that was the start of my adventures."
Next week Stanmore heads to Antarctica to complete an unprecedented series of expeditions to some of the world's most remote locations. He will participate in "The Last Desert" race, a 250 kilometer (155 mile) footrace in Antarctica. When he finishes the race, which is expected to take seven days, he will become the first person in history to run across the world's four major deserts (Gobi in Asia, Sahara in Africa, Atacama in Chile, and The Last Desert in Antarctica), ski to both the North and South poles, and climb the highest peaks on each of the seven continents.
His run in Antarctica, with expected temperatures between minus 5 and minus 20 degrees F., will also raise $100,000 for the charity Trekking for Kids, which helps people combine their love of adventure and the outdoors with their desire to help those in need. TFK assists orphaned and at-risk children who live near some of the world’s most coveted adventure destinations.
"I'm always skeptical of charities," he says. "You never know where your money is going. But I was really impressed with this organization, the dedication of the volunteers. I could actually see where my donation went. It really touched me."
At first Stanmore, who lives in Toronto, continued to make personal donations to TFK. But after a while he began asking friends and family to donate too, tied to him completing new challenges.
Though his "seven summits and four deserts" challenge will be completed shortly, Stanmore has some new goals in mind. He leaves in February to reclimb Kilimanjaro, this time accompanied by his wife. And in April he will run in the Boston Marathon for the first time.
His advice to others thinking about setting a big life goal? "Just get out there and try it," he says. "I think the worst feeling would be to have a goal or a dream and you never attempt it. Even if you attempt it and you fail, you have to try, right? The feeling you get after accomplishing a goal is going to last you for a lifetime."
The lessons he's learned aren't all about personal accomplishment. They're about the importance of helping others, too. When he was racing in the Gobi Desert, he was passed by a young woman runner from Japan.
"When she was running by me she pulled out a water bottle and just squirted me in the face with it, and laughed and went on," he recalls. "It was such a small thing. But I was just at the point of quitting and I thought, 'what a nice thing for someone to do.' And I kept running."
• Donations in honor of Stanmore’s incredible feats of mountain climbing, desert foot-racing, and skiing the poles can be made by going to www.trekkingforkids.org.
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A brightly-painted old school bus pulled up at the West Lake Junior High School in West Valley City, Utah, one afternoon in April. The bus’s appearance was unexpected, but it didn’t take long for the red bus to fill with 20 teenagers. Inside were drums used by No Bully Beat, a unique program to combat bullying that uses drums as a way to connect to kids.
On board, tentative taps on the drums evolved into pounding. One eighth-grade girl entered the bus as a skeptic but was soon engrossed in conversation between the beats, offering up examples of bullying, describing getting by with a little help from a friend and how she hoped to improve the social dynamics of her school.
Another teen, lanky, with black rods in his earlobes and a beat-up scooter at his feet, was also impressed.
“It makes me feel good inside, and that makes me not nervous to be in front of people I hardly know,” he said. Meanwhile, a boy with a crew-cut and a collared shirt said, “I liked the way, if you hit it really hard, I can feel it in my chest,” pounding his fist against his chest in emphasis.
To combat bullying in schools, the Utah-based program is teaching students to embrace their individualism and diversity while working toward a common goal. They do this by practicing a venerable form of communication – drumming.
Salt Lake City-based Rhythms of Life (ROL) and The Human Rights Education Center (HREC) of Utah have collaborated to create No Bully Beat. This innovative program has been used in over a dozen schools in Utah. Kids are taught aboard the DrumBus, a school bus converted into a colorful mobile music room. Leaders facilitate communication and build tolerance through discussion, rhythmic exercises, and role-playing.
Carla Kelley, founder and director of HREC, came up with the idea of a DrumBus to spread the anti-bullying message. Kelley partnered with Mike Liston, founder of Rhythms of Life, a private company that facilitates drum circles for corporations, youth events, and health and wellness centers.
“It offers this visceral connection because you’re not only saying it, but playing it,” Liston says. “We’ll ask the kids, ‘How would you feel if someone was bullying you,’ and then we ask them what that emotion would sound like on a drum.” Usually, kids will pound on the drums to communicate their pain or anger. One boy, however, made a soft, scratchy sound on the drum with his fingers. He said the sound was his racing heartbeat.
A similar anti-bullying program has been offered in schools throughout Australia for over seven years. Discovering Relationships Using Music – Beliefs, Emotions, Attitudes, and Thoughts, or DRUMBEAT, was developed at Holyoake, the Australian Institute for Alcohol and Drug Addiction Resolutions. Originally designed to engage young Aboriginal men, the program has been modified for use in schools to address a variety of issues, including bullying.
“There are a lot of drumming programs out there, but very few that have specific themes for bullying. Most of them are team building, work around getting kids comfortable with each other, building self-esteem and confidence, leveling the playing field,” he says.
DRUMBEAT takes it one step further and teaches kids how to engage and socialize in healthy ways during 10 two-hour sessions. The program culminates in a public performance.
“A lot of bullying comes down to corrupted communication patterns. People using power over another person, threatening, intimidating, putting people down,” Faulkner says. “We look at communication patterns and then we use basic analogies. What works in drumming is what works in general conversation as well.”
The results from the DRUMBEAT program are encouraging. The University of Western Australia found in 2009 that there was a 10 percent increase in self-esteem scores by the end of the 10-week program, 29 percent of participants had fewer behavioral incidents, and 33 percent had fewer unexplained half-day absences.
Arthur Hull says it makes sense to pair drumming with bullying awareness and prevention.
“Drumming creates a vibration in the air surrounding the group; it creates a group presence that acts like a messenger,” he explains. “It bypasses your circuitry that’s not working and massages the place that needs it the most. This is the experience that is reported over and over again by rhythm group participants.”
Hull’s Santa Cruz, Calif.-based organization Village Music Circles says it has trained thousands of drum-circle facilitators in over 15 countries, a significant portion of whom offer school-based programs. Of the 139 drum facilitators listed on the Drum Circle Facilitators Guild directory, most work with people of any age or condition.
The No Bully Beat program in Utah is still in its infancy, but Liston and Kelley anticipate serving 3,000 to 4,000 kids when the program is fully rolled out in 2013. They have received positive feedback from schools that have already participated.
Kelley recalls one particularly aggressive teen who claimed to be a bully at the beginning of the session, but had different thoughts after the drum circle. “Seriously, this made me think about what I’ve been doing. I should cut it out,” he says.
“Drumming is perfect for talking about bullying, which is all about exclusion,” Kelley says. “Maybe for the first time in their lives, they’re experiencing connectedness that’s crossing all sorts of bridges of difference that their little hearts or minds have been taught.”
• This article, which also includes video and audio components, originally appeared at Latitude News, an online news site that covers stories showing the links between American communities and the rest of the world. For more Latitude News stories about bullying go to http://www.latitudenews.com/topic/bullying-topic/.
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A small boy, no older than six years of age, stood in the middle of an intersection. The streets were covered in entirety by small, colorful pieces of paper. Taking no note of cars passing by, the boy gathered up two handfuls and tossed a rainbow up in the air. The paper fell at his sides, as he looked overhead, laughing at the shower he had created. "Chuva de papel," my host sister said in Portuguese, taking note of the child. Paper rain.
These ubiquitous papers, 2x3-inch slips used as political propaganda in order to proliferate the name, photo, and campaign number of candidates, are called santinhos. These santinhos – which end up puddling in the streets, "evaporating," and falling once more as chuva de papel – are handed out generally tactlessly by individuals who are promised R$40, roughly $20, by a candidate for a day's work.
In Portuguese, there's a word for all this: brincadeira, derived from the verb brincar – to play, or joke. Perhaps as a result of Brazil's obligatory voting policy, many regard the voting process with a sort of flippant passivity. Failure to vote results in a fine, albeit minimal, and a bit of bureaucratic trouble. As such, votes are often determined not by way of political conscience or genuine interest, but rather, because a candidate has promised a beer in return for a vote.
In this brincadeira, the buzzword is corruption, or corrupção. Promises are made, bribes are offered and accepted, and many blind eyes are turned. Citizens complain that politicians are inactive for the entirety of the year, save for the election season, when construction projects are suddenly completed, politicians show their faces in neighborhoods otherwise ignored, and unfulfilled promises are delivered at long last.
One of the men running for mayor here in Salvador da Bahia – the third-largest city in Brazil, and the city with the greatest Afro-Brazilian population in the country – was featured on a poster embracing an elderly black woman. "The first time that that man ever entered a poor, black neighborhood was in order to pose for that photo," a Brazilian colleague of mine said with dismay.
Said candidate, the grandson of a famous Brazilian senator, is a member of one of Brazil's most politically powerful families. This sort of nepotistic culture is prominent within Brazilian politics.
Larry Rohter, author of "Brazil on the Rise," writes of family dynasties in which "governorships, mayoralties, and congressional seats ... are handed down
from father to son or daughter as if they were heirlooms."
Rohter's comment, while astute, seems to fail to acknowledge one reality: It seems that these positions of power rarely fall upon "daughters," or the women of this country. In this year's regional elections, a mere five women were elected to Salvador's city council. Five women, in a 43-member body.
Furthermore, not one woman ran for mayor of Salvador da Bahia. This lack of female leadership and representation is undeniably concerning. While Dilma
may be representing the voice of women to some extent in higher-level politics, the same is not being done at a local level.
Yet within this system, marked by corruption and passivity, I found my own local female hero. Unlike those carelessly handing out santinhos for profit, my host sister Luciana passionately campaigned in the city. Luciana engaged people in the streets in conversation about political activism and responsibility, and took an admirable approach, which was novel in this environment.
"Ask me how much I'm being paid to do this... Nothing!" she proclaimed proudly.
Luciana was not a passive politician. Her passion was both contagious and inspirational. And, may I add, effective.
"HE WON!" she screamed at night, when the results of the election were broadcast on TV. He won. She won.
And, in the end, one more battle against the system had been won.
Editor's note: Kim Asenbeck moved from Germany to the United States when she was seven. Internationalism and global-mindedness define her passions and interests. At her high school, Kim served as the president of her school's Model United Nations team and as Co-Chair of the Leadership Committee for Africa. During her senior year, she researched the capacity of the artificial language Esperanto as a lingua franca in the service of the United Nations. She now lives in Salvador, Bahia, Brazil participating in the Global Citizen Year community service program.
On a fine sunny day in late summer, a prison work gang is busy clearing litter from the grounds around Dyess City Hall in the heart of town, providing a portentous sign.
This settlement of just a few hundred, created during the Depression as part of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal project, is the childhood home to that well-known advocate of the incarcerated, country music legend Johnny Cash.
The figurative relevance of the low-risk prisoners (guilty of minor crimes), who are frequent visitors according to the Dyess mayor, runs deep.
Perhaps more than most places, Dyess, located in Mississippi County, Ark., a short drive west of the Mississippi River, is all about second chances: Back in the 1930s, the brand-new government colony was a second chance for the Cash family after the economic ravages of the Depression and the poverty of their former home in Kingsland, Ark.
Today, Dyess is poised on the precipice of a second chance of its own.
Under the guidance of Arkansas State University, fund-raising and restoration is well under way in the settlement with the ultimate goal of returning rundown Dyess to some of its former glory – this time as a tourist attraction. One of the centerpieces, and almost certainly the biggest draw, is set to be Cash's boyhood home, a farmstead on the edge of town.
The colony-turned-city is a dilapidated shadow of the vibrant farming community it once represented. Back then it was buttressed by the bounty of cotton fields and a population that topped out at about 3,000. The area has been in decline since the end of World War II, a process that accelerated in the 1960s and '70s as locals struggled to survive on the flood-prone land, says Dyess Mayor Larry Sim.
These days, the cotton is long gone. There are fewer than 500 inhabitants, and the town is located in a region that statistics indicate is one of the most economically deprived in the nation: In Mississippi County, 25.5 percent of the population live below the poverty line, compared with 13.8 percent nationally, according to US Census Bureau data.
Ruth Hawkins, director of Arkansas Heritage Sites, the office at Arkansas State University in nearby Jonesboro that leads the project, hailed the restoration as a potential boon for the local economy. The project also includes the transformation of the old administration building into a museum and new home for city hall.
“It is projected this is going to have a major impact on the Arkansas Delta, one of the poorest regions in the country,” she explains. "We are focusing on the heritage of the town – not just Johnny Cash but historic Dyess itself. We project about 30,000 to 50,000 visitors a year. We are looking [at creating] 100 new jobs and about $10 million in [annual] revenue for this area.”
Known as "Historic Dyess: Boyhood Home of Johnny Cash", the visitor attraction hopes to tell the story of Dyess and how it produced not only Johnny Cash, but also fellow country stars Gene Williams and Buddy Jewell, as well as a string of other successful individuals, including current Arkansas Commissioner of Education Tom Kimbrell. A biking and walking trail connecting the center of Dyess with the Cash farmstead is also planned.
“Dyess was an agricultural resettlement project under President Roosevelt’s New Deal, which tried to give destitute families a new start in life,” Ms Hawkins says. “There were 16,000 acres of land divided into 20- to 40-acre farms. The 500 families who went there would eventually pay the government back through the proceeds of their crops and own the land.
“Rae and Carrie Cash [Johnny’s parents] were one of them. They just happened to have a little boy named J.R. who grew up to be Johnny Cash.”
The cost of the restoration project is estimated at $3.2 million, of which $1.4 million has already been raised through state grants and the annual Johnny Cash Music Festival.
Parts of the colony administration building – set to feature museum exhibits on family life in Dyess after the Depression, the impact the colony had on Cash’s music, and the local lifestyle – along with the Cash boyhood home are expected to open in September of next year. The Cash farmstead will also see the reconstruction of the plot’s original outbuildings, including a chicken coop, a smokehouse, and a barn – which together with the cotton fields were among the places that directly impacted favorite Cash songs such as “Five Feet High and Rising” and “Pickin’ Time,” Hawkins says.
To ensure the home closely replicates how it looked during the time the Cash family lived on the property, Johnny’s surviving siblings, Joanne Cash Yates and Tommy Cash, are acting as consultants.
Taking the lead is Joanne, who lived in the house for the first 17 years of her life. “I, being a woman, know where every table, every lamp, every bed was – even the colors of the walls,” she says.
“We are rebuilding some of the inside that has been changed over the years, and the foundation of the house has been restored, so now it looks like it did when we lived there,” she says. She will also be involved in finding furniture that closely matches what the family had in the home, providing direction for re-positioning of trees to the spots where they stood during the Cash family's tenure, and helping pinpoint the spots where the outbuildings were located, she says.
Mayor Sims credits “Walk the Line,” the 2005 biopic of Johnny’s life, with putting Dyess on the map. It has only been during the last eight years, he adds, that the town has “slowly started coming back” – a timeline that roughly coincides with the film and the first local efforts to develop a visitor attraction.
The fact that, today, almost a decade after his death, Cash is playing such a pivotal role in the resuscitation of his hometown is not lost on those involved – but neither is the symbolic significance of those prisoners tending the grounds outside city hall.
His sister Joanne says that would have appealed to Cash, who wore black to represent life’s downtrodden. “Even though Johnny was worldwide famous,” she says, “he did not look at himself as being someone special. He said to me before he passed away, ‘I wonder if no one would really miss me or really care.’ I think he would be overwhelmed.“
It was a controlled explosion, and shouldn't have been a surprise, but the boom a couple of hundred yards away in this lush, rainswept district of central Vietnam nonetheless prompted the small group of nongovernmental organization (NGO) workers, locals, diplomats, and journalists there to witness the event to flinch and recoil. Then the relieved-looking group exhaled almost in unison, a nervous-sounding release as if mimicking the puffs of smoke rising from the explosion into the gray sky.
Taking the blast in his stride, though not literally, however, was 14-year-old Duong Nhat Binh, a shy-looking, soft-spoken teenager wearing a "FBI"-emblazoned baseball cap. Two years ago he had a much closer encounter with a fragment of the estimated 800,000 tons of unexploded ordnance (UXO) thought to remain hidden in the grass and jungles around Vietnam, endangering lives and hindering local economies.
“I was on the way back from school, and I saw this metal thing in the grass. I picked it up and put it in my pocket and went home,” he recalls. “I did not know what it was.”
After he reached home, the "bombie" – as the UXO is known colloquially in Vietnam and in other UXO-affected countries such as Laos – went off, knocking him unconscious and leaving scars on his hand and arm. “I was lucky it wasn't much worse,” he concedes, “but I was out for four hours and only woke up in the hospital. My mother brought me there after she found me,” he adds.
In 2007, the Vietnam Ministry of Labor reported that there had been more than 104,000 civilian casualties due to contact with UXO, with more than 38,000 people killed. In Quang Tri province, 84 percent of land is affected by UXO, making it the worst-hit in Vietnam.
Wednesday's controlled explosion of three pieces of UXO, all sitting within a 30-foot radius of each other, was carried out by the Mines Advisory Group (MAG), an international NGO that does UXO clearance work in 15 countries.
“We have evacuated the area,” says Portia Stratton, Vietnam Country Director for MAG, which responded within hours after the UXO find was reported to the group two days previously.
“We don't try and move any of this material,” says Ms Stratton, who was speaking prior to the controlled explosion. “These devices are volatile, so we will destroy them where they sit.”
Pointing out the precariousness of life for rural Vietnamese who have to contend with UXO, Stratton says that the ordnance was found less than 30 feet from the roadside, close to a nearby shop. “The tree behind you marked with an X will be pulled down, as apparently there is more unexploded ordnance in the ground below it and around,” she says.
Since starting work in the country in 1999, MAG has destroyed on average 15,000 items of UXO each year. These controlled explosions are commonplace in heavily bombed areas of Vietnam, such as this part of Quang Tri, a three-hour drive north of Vietnam's third-largest city, Danang, and an hour from the old capital, Huế.
All told, an estimated 15 million tons of ordnance are estimated to have been used on the Vietnamese countryside during the US-Vietnam war in the 1960s and '70s. The Vietnamese defense ministry says that only 20 to 25 percent of explosives left by the war have been cleared so far, and in an acknowledgement that much more remains to be done before Vietnam can be rid of the UXO scourge, the Irish government last week announced a 600,000 Euro ($767,000) grant to MAG for clearance work in Vietnam's three worst-hit provinces of Quang Tri, Quang Binh, and Quang Nam.
“Unexploded bombs cause death and injury by the thousands in Vietnam every year,” says Ireland's Minister of State for Trade and Development, Joe Costello, who visited Vietnam last week. “We see supporting MAG's work as vital to addressing this,” he adds.
To date, the MAG says it has freed-up 7.6 million square meters (1,878 acres) of land from the UXO peril, making the land available for farming and other forms of potential economic gain for rural Vietnamese, many of whom live well below the country's average income per head of just over $1,250 per annum.
That poverty can prompt a somewhat reckless approach to ordnance among some Vietnamese living with the threat. “The land here is owned by a scrap-metal dealer,” says Henk Liebenberg, an ex-South African army soldier and nowadays MAGs technical operations manager in Vietnam.
“People in the area would find bits of ordnance and bring to him to sell. Either they overcame any worries about the danger or they were not aware of what they had found,” he says.
Lack of awareness of UXO is a concern, says Nguyen Thi Hing Thanh, a local schoolteacher, flicking through schoolbooks that try to inform children about the dangers of UXO. “A little girl of only 15 was blinded not so long ago by an explosion, she cannot go to school now. It is so sad,” says the teacher. "Not only do we use these specialized books in class, but other lessons also bring in UXO teaching," she adds.
Even if children are made aware of the hidden dangers in the nearby fields, spotting the now-weathered, decades-old devices isn't easy. Before the explosion, the devices to be destroyed sat inside a wall of bright yellow sandbags, but otherwise were barely distinguishable from the surrounding soil and leaves, due to a naturally acquired camouflage of dirt and rust.
“I could see the bomb,” says Duong Nhat Binh, recalling his own ordeal. “But maybe it would have been better if I could not,” he says laughing as he speaks after the devices were destroyed, an explosion that was a welcome echo of the sounds that almost laid waste to this idyllic part of Vietnam 40 years ago.
As planting season approaches amid concerns about successive poor harvests, research into drought-resistant seeds is gaining momentum in an indication that the Zimbabwean government is waking up to the reality of climate change.
Earlier this month, the country’s Meteorological Services Department announced that another drought is likely during what should be the rainy season.
Zimbabwean farmers have suffered a succession of poor harvests with yields far below what the country needs, forcing the agriculture ministry repeatedly to revise its projections for harvests.
Farmers and their unions blame the cyclical uncertainties of their sector not only on a lack of up-to-date farming technology, but also on their inability to obtain seed varieties that can survive the low rainfall caused by climatic shifts.
Despite erratic rainfall, farmers have continued to follow traditional planting seasons. This has increased their frustration as crops wilt from lack of rain.
But this could soon change, thanks to progress by government scientists researching faster-maturing and drought-tolerant seed varieties, holding out the hope of much-needed relief for thousands of farmers across the country.
The Scientific and Industrial Research and Development Centre (SIRDC), in partnership with the University of Zimbabwe and Biotechnology Research Institute (BRI), has developed a drought-resistant variety of maize (corn) seed called Sirdamaize 113.
Farmers have had to wait between 150 and 180 days before harvesting their traditional maize crop, but the center says the new seed takes only 136 days to mature.
Thomas Ndlovu, a smallholder farmer in Nyamandlovu, some 60 km (38 miles) from Bulawayo, said the new seed was welcome news, as he has lost his crop because of successive poor rains.
“This is what we have always asked for,” Ndlovu said. “My only hope is that this seed variety is affordable to us. We have for some time now been buying seed maize outside the country because the locally produced type is expensive.”
SIRDC says research into drought-resistant maize began more than a decade ago and has cost around $200,000. The center’s current research forms part of a policy on food and nutrition security adopted by government early this year.
Already, more maize hybrids are being tested across the country as farmers prepare for the planting season.
This fresh commitment to scientific research could be a significant help in a country where smallholder farmers, who produce up to 70 percent of the country’s food, continue to face severe challenges from lack of farming inputs, absence of irrigation schemes, and poor weather-forecasting techniques.
The research comes against the backdrop of announcements by the agriculture ministry that farmers will not meet the country’s grain needs again this year. Zimbabwe’s Vulnerability Assessment Committee Survey for 2012 estimates that close to 2 million people currently need food assistance.
Dexter Savadye, director of BRI, describes Sirdamaize 113 as a response to threats to the country’s food security.
“Zimbabwe has been experiencing a cycle of droughts and this has spurred the need for research in new maize varieties,” Savadye said.
Gugulethu Ndlovu of the Zimbabwe Commercial Farmers Union welcomed the possibility of improved crop yields.
“We have always said that the country needs fresh approaches to respond to low rainfall and food insecurity,” he said.
“If the country does not invest in research and development, we are likely to complain about the same things each planting season,” added Ndlovu (who is not related to farmer Thomas Ndlovu).
“What must be done now is to make this [new maize seed variety] available to the most remote parts of the country, not [only to] benefit famers who already can afford expensive irrigation schemes.”
SIRDC is also carrying out research into mushroom farming as Zimbabwe ups its efforts to restore its position as one of southern Africa’s major food producers.
According to SIRDC, the mushroom project aims to develop high-quality oyster mushroom spawn for sale to growers, as well as spawn from indigenous edible mushrooms.
Meanwhile, the agriculture ministry’s Cotton Research Institute (CRI) is testing a new cotton seed which it says is expected to boost farmers’ yields.
Cotton, Zimbabwe’s second-largest cash crop after tobacco, has also taken a knock in the past few years due to low rainfall, hurting farmers who abandoned maize production for it as cotton became the favored cash crop.
• Madalitso Mwando is a journalist based in Harare, Zimbabwe.
In the Palestinian territories, entrepreneurs are everywhere, but successful businesses are hard to come by.
The economic situation in the Palestinian territories is uniquely difficult, and aid agencies have stepped in to help maintain living wages as much as possible under the blockade imposed by Israel. In recent years, business development and entrepreneurship programs surfaced across the West Bank and Gaza, and suddenly there was an influx of people trying to start their own business to escape the crushing levels of unemployment.
However, many of the programs put in place lacked follow-through. Entrepreneurs were left to sink or swim on their own. “It was like walking them to a cliff,” explains Samin Malik, coordinator of Women’s Empowerment Programs at Tomorrow’s Youth Organization based in Nablus. So TYO took a different approach—instead of just helping female entrepreneurs launch businesses, it helped promising new women-run businesses survive.
TYO’s Women’s Incubation Services for Entrepreneurs (WISE) brought back six businesses that had developed a foundation from their initial women’s entrepreneurship program—Fostering Women Entrepreneurs in Nablus, and recruited nine additional female entrepreneurs by running advertisements in local newspapers, radio, and on Facebook. The requirements were simple—businesses had to have a foundation or business plan already completed, and had to be based in the northern West Bank.
Candidates who responded to ads underwent two rounds of interviews, designed not only to determine the entrepreneur's eligibility for the program, but also to assess her strengths and needs moving forward. Partnering with the Small Enterprise Center, TYO sent their final 15 candidates to one-on-one coaching early in the process in order to set their women up for targeted support and success. Additionally, the year-long incubation project will provide marketing, access to capital, and financial-growth trainings, as well as business English and social-media training facilitated by last year’s Palestinian TechWomen delegation.
When planning for an incubation center, TYO kept in mind that the conservative culture in the Palestinian territories often limits businesswomen’s opportunities to participate in meetings, classes, conferences, and other development programs. Furthermore, the psychosocial environment at times leaves women discouraged when they do not see immediate growth or results in their efforts to propel their businesses forward.
By planning programming in the mornings and weekends, TYO is able to work around many of the restrictions on women’s mobility. Not only that, but establishing the TYO center in Nablus as the base for WISE, they are able to fill a gap by being the only business incubation center in the northern West Bank geared to women, and provide support to women who may not be able to travel all the way to Ramallah, where such programs are more common. By serving as a support system to the businesswomen, Samin and Inas Badawi—a local Palestinian—provide examples of female-to-female support that is uncommon in Nablus, and try to foster the same sense of encouragement between the women they work with.
It is this model of American-Palestinian cooperation that sets TYO’s WISE program apart from other entrepreneurship trainings in the Palestinian territories. Their model provides them with contacts and networking within the West Bank, but also regionally and internationally because of the center’s connections with the US State Department, the British-based Cherie Blair Foundation and US organizations that support women's empowerment in the Middle East. While TYO is technically an American NGO, it is run largely by local staff like Inas and youth volunteers from An-Najah University. Due to its sustainable and holistic approach, TYO's incubation doesn’t just focus on building better businesses, but building a better community where women are integrated and have full participation in society.
Struggling businesses may currently be the rule in the West Bank. But the 15 businesses in TYO’s Women’s Incubation Services for Entrepreneurs program are proving to be the exception.
Governments should take a more radical approach to helping the tens of millions of people uprooted by conflicts and disasters, including granting new forms of citizenship, the Red Cross and Red Crescent says.
Issuing temporary work visas, allowing more cross-border mobility, and helping migrants integrate quickly into local communities are other measures that could help ease the plight of those forced to flee their homes.
Over 72 million people, more than 1 in every 100 of the world’s citizens, are displaced, according to the World Disasters Report 2012, the flagship publication of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC).
The IFRC says growing numbers of people are being uprooted by violence, political upheaval, disasters, climate change, and development projects, but governments and citizens are becoming increasingly resistant to helping them.
“There is no shortage of innovative approaches that could help to alleviate the trauma of extended exile. However, the difficulty lies not in the new ideas, but in escaping the old ones,” the report adds.
In particular, it suggests the international community consider new ways of viewing citizenship, such as developing regional citizenships or freedom-of-movement accords.
The report points to the example of refugees from Sierra Leone and Liberia who were reissued with national passports as civil war ended, signalling a type of “political” repatriation. But they were able to stay in the host communities where they had settled thanks to agreements providing West African citizens with regional employment and residency rights.
The IFRC says this type of arrangement could be very helpful for second- and third-generation refugees who have never seen their “homeland” – the land their parents or grandparents fled.
The report also points out that migration can help recovery after conflict or disaster by boosting remittances, and urges governments to ease restrictions on employment for those who have fled crises.
It highlights the United States' decision in January 2012 to allow Haitians to apply for temporary work visas as a way of encouraging remittance flows for post-earthquake reconstruction. Brazil has similarly decided to grant visas to many Haitians.
Although governments are resistant to mass naturalization of refugees in protracted displacement crises, the IFRC points out that some local integration is bound to happen over time – through marriage, education, and employment.
The report argues that states should accept a certain level of integration and consider granting formal status to some displaced groups. For example, it could give permanent residency to refugees who own businesses, hold a school diploma, or can fill a labor gap.
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The IFRC admits that such an approach is controversial because it could exacerbate inequalities among displaced communities by favoring those who are educated and more employable. But pragmatists would argue this is better than no solution at all, it adds.
Finally, the report calls for the international community to pay more attention to ways of preventing protracted displacement in the first place, possibly through pre-emptive “micro-level displacement.”
Evidence from Iraq and Somalia suggests that early small movements to safety – across streets or neighborhoods – may avoid longer, more traumatic migration further down the line and can increase the chance of people returning home when conditions allow.
More than half of American teenagers and young adults volunteered last year, and the best way to enlist this group turns out to be peer pressure: Three quarters of people ages 13 to 22 whose friends volunteer regularly also do so, which is nearly twice the number of those who pursue voluntary activities based on their concern about particular social issues.
The study, based on data from 4,363 young people, found that the most common form of support by volunteers was assistance with fundraising. Thirty-eight percent of those in the survey said they helped with solicitations, prompting the study’s authors to conclude: “Young people are a secret weapon. A donation pitch from a passionate teen is way more influential than a cold call or that newsletter you were thinking about sending.”
The study also found a gender divide in volunteer activities. Boys were more likely to undertake physical activities such as environmental cleanup or working with younger children in sports, while girls were more likely to help the homeless and other needy people or to work with arts groups.
Among other findings from the survey:
• Students in private high schools were 25 percent more likely to volunteer than those in public schools.
• Seventy percent of young people from wealthy families volunteered, compared with 44 percent of those from low-income households.
• Young people who reported sending out frequent text messages were 13 percent more likely to have volunteered last year than those who owned or shared a mobile telephone but did not text regularly, and they were 38 percent more likely to volunteer than those without mobile phones.
• Despite the heavy use of technology by young people, few of those surveyed went online to find volunteer opportunities. Young people were 66 percent more likely to seek volunteer activities by talking to people than by turning to social media or Web sites.
The researchers say the responses to the survey pointed out many ways that nonprofits can do a better job of getting young people to volunteer. Among their suggestions:
Offer ways to socialize. A top priority for many young people in choosing volunteer activities is having a chance to interact with friends, especially those of the opposite sex. “Think of volunteering like a high-school party,” the researchers write. “Volunteering, like everything else, is about blending in, making friends, and having a good time.”
Make volunteer jobs accessible. Proximity to home ranks second of the reasons why young people choose the volunteer activities they do. The researchers advise charities to provide volunteer activities close to home, but not in the home.
Offer one-time or brief activities. Many young people are pressed for time, so offer them tasks that can be completed quickly. “Teens often decide to go last minute, avoid showing up early and almost never stay til the end,” the researchers write. “Being first or last isn’t cool.”
Provide volunteer jobs in familiar settings. In recruiting young people, keep in mind the extracurricular activities they already pursue. Those on sports teams, for example, are more likely to want to help younger kids in recreational programs, while those who play musical instruments are probably more interested in working with arts or other cultural groups.
Focus on providing direct help to people. Hunger and homelessness are issues that many young people care about, the survey found. They tend to be more interested in helping people or animals in need than in volunteering for causes that do not have such direct or personal benefits, the survey found. In practice, that means they’re likely to regard an activity like sending messages to troops overseas as more important than installing energy-efficient light bulbs.
Minimize the focus on young volunteers. At a time of life when many young people are self-conscious, they often prefer to remain anonymous or help from a distance when volunteering, the researchers write. “In the mobile age, they’re more accustomed to anonymity.”
Offer volunteer jobs with benefits. For high-school students, the No. 1 concern about the future is getting into college and paying for it, the survey found. That worry was a bigger concern than getting a good job, having enough money, the environment, crime rates, personal health, or dying. Volunteer activities that can help give young people an edge in college admissions or provide similar incentives will be highly attractive to them, the researchers write.