The amazing generosity of Tunisians who opened their homes and hearts to people fleeing Libya is revealed in the latest issue of Forced Migration Review (FMR), which looks at last year’s Arab Spring revolutions in North Africa.
“The response from ordinary Tunisians was remarkable in its altruism,” Antonio Guterres, the head of the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR), says in an introduction to the FMR report published on the eve of World Refugee Day.
“I witnessed villagers sharing their homes and land while others drove for miles to provide sandwiches for those stuck in the crowds at the border.”
The first people to arrive in southeast Tunisia were migrant workers who had been employed in Libya’s huge oil industry, agriculture, and elsewhere.
Tunisian villagers organized cooking crews and took food to Djerba airport as the migrants waited for flights home, writes Katherine Hoffman, associate professor of anthropology at Northwestern University in the United States.
As the civil war escalated, Libyan families also began pouring into Tunisia.
"We helped the Egyptians, we helped the Chinese, we helped the Bangladeshis. So when the Libyans came to stay, how could we not help them too?” one man in Djerba, Tunisia, is quoted as saying.
Another describes how he and his friends raised money for food, diapers, and mattresses, piled it into 20 trucks and headed to the border where tens of thousands of people were massed.
Some 60,000 to 80,000 Libyans arrived in Tunisia during the revolution, which erupted in February 2011 and which eventually toppled strongman Muammar Gaddafi. Some went to camps, wealthier families rented hotel rooms or properties, but many Libyans ended up living with Tunisian families.
In addition, Hoffman describes how one person in each village or town took responsibility for collecting keys for abandoned houses, emigrants’ summer residences, and other empty housing.
Villagers cleaned and refurnished homes, put in stoves and fridges, and turned electricity and water back on.
“Even seasoned aid officials said they had never witnessed such a reception by a host country during a refugee crisis,” Hoffman says.
Although the UNHCR referred to these arrangements as ‘rentals’, money rarely changed hands, she adds.
In a separate article, UNHCR staff say when Tunisian families were offered financial help with water, gas, and electricity bills, many took offense, saying they did not expect compensation.
The UNHCR subsequently arranged a contract with Tunisian utility companies to provide subsidies directly.
The UNHCR staff in Tunisia highlight other acts of kindness.
One doctor traveled hundreds of kilometres to offer his services. When he learned the Tunisian Red Crescent did not take new volunteers in the middle of a crisis he made a donation and then started picking up the rubbish left by all the people passing through.
There is also the story of a cook who arrived at Shousha transit camp with bread and rice. He only planned to spend one day, but was so moved by the sight of so many traumatized and hungry people that he returned the next day with friends. They put up a tent and started cooking with supplies provided by locals.
After two weeks the Red Cross began funding them, and from there the camp’s main kitchen was born, providing up to 28,000 meals a day.
This outpouring of generosity came without high-level orchestration – people simply responded with compassion, the UNHCR staff write.
Some contributors to FMR contrast the response in Tunisia to the reaction in Europe where the media and politicians fretted about the prospect of a mass influx from North Africa – a prediction that never materialized.
There is criticism of the lack of willingness among EU countries to accept refugees displaced by the violence. Those who fled Libya included many sub-Saharan Africans from countries like Eritrea, Sudan, and Somalia who cannot go back home. Many are still in camps.
Other unresolved issues following the revolution include the future of people still displaced in Libya where property confiscations and redistributions during the Gaddafi era have complicated access to housing and land.
FMR also looks at the repercussions for the vast numbers of unemployed migrant workers who have returned to their home countries and the fate of other migrants who are detained inside Libya.
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By all statistical accounts, the United Nations' Millennium Development Goal of halving the world’s population without access to sanitation services is failing. Some estimate the world won't reach that goal until 2049—34 years late.
For many of the world’s poorest, access to clean sanitation—like toilets and hand-washing stations—remains a luxury. Annually, 50,000 Indonesians die as a result of poor sanitation; one person every 10 minutes.
The gravity of this problem, combined with the failures of previous efforts to solve it, led Mercy Corps’s Indonesia team to author a public health project in Jakarta with a nontraditional approach. Instead of simply funding a project to build latrines in Jakarta’s slums, they take a market-development approach that will strengthen the value chain of Jakarta’s private sanitation services industry, utilize new technology to enable sanitation companies to access previously unreachable people, and turn those people into customers.
Basically, they want to fundamentally change the sanitation industry in Jakarta.
A Mercy Corps project titled PUSH (Program of Urban Sanitation and Hygiene Promotion) undertook a market analysis of Jakarta’s sanitation industry. Funded by the Suez Environment Foundation, the project found a massive untapped market of potential customers in urban Indonesia.
Around 94 million Indonesians live without access to sanitation services and 22 million people—more than two and a half times the population of New York City—have to pay for the use of communal latrines. This incredible number of people, who live mostly in urban slums, have long been overlooked by traditional markets under the assumption that they cannot afford sanitation services.
It became clear that improvements in this system could lower prices, reach more customers and, through marketing and education, encourage more Indonesians to value and pay for improved sanitation services.
To include more people in the market, costs had to fall and products had to specialize. By this time the PUSH initiative had ended, and a new Mercy Corps program called RW Siaga++ (“neighborhood alert”) began to take over the design and development phase. Funded by Coca-Cola, the US Agency for International Development (USAID), and in coordination with the local ministry of health, the project designed two specialized products that helped increase access to the unmet sanitation market:
1. Custom Sludge Cart: Innumerable inhabitants of Jakarta’s urban slums are considered unreachable by modern sludge-removal techniques because they live down narrow pathways where large sludge removal trucks cannot pass. RW Siaga++ designed a custom-made, three-wheeled sludge cart, called Kedoteng, equipped with a mini-sludge removal tank and a pump that can access latrines up to 50 meters (164 feet) away.
2. Improved Septic Tanks: A custom, specially designed septic tank made from available, local materials was designed to meet the needs of up to five people. The tank requires limited ground space, has a built in bio-filter that separates and cleans the refuse without the use of chemicals, and only requires de-sludging of fecal waste once every two years.
By sharing these innovations with the private sector, PUSH showed that the size of the potential sanitation-services market had grown exponentially, simply by making new clients physically accessible.
While working to bring supply costs down, the team recognized the other side of the market equation—demand—needed attention as well. Taking a cue from the for-profit world, Mercy Corps built some buzz about the innovations by launching a marketing campaign to educate consumers about the importance of sanitation.
The campaign included radio and billboard ads, full-color comic books, and school bags for children. It even hired a well-known comedian to talk up better sanitation systems.
To date, the project has surpassed many of its original objectives, having already increased access to more than 9,000 individuals in 1,800 households. The project is not only achieving its own objectives but also having multiplier effects: Jakarta’s district health offices have replicated some of the educational aspects of the project, and the project’s authors claim that community and local government participation in the project has been one of its biggest successes.
Mercy Corps found that even with the sanitation market model in place, there is lot of work left to do. Consolidating services and improving the supply chain has lowered costs significantly but installation still costs the target demographic 150 to 250 percent of a month's income. To address this, Mercy Corps Indonesia has been working with microfinance institutions to let customers spread the costs of their sanitation systems over 20 months, allowing families to pay for their new, private latrines with the savings they would otherwise spend on communal latrine access.
Still, the cost of materials to create the septic tanks and carts fluctuates, making it challenging to keep prices low. Microfinance institutions are interested in staying involved, but aren't yet convinced that the sanitation market is a priority worth investing their own resources. Private sanitation companies have also been slow to refine their models in response to changing consumer demands.
The project’s ambitions are huge: it hopes to tip the scales by introducing lower-priced products, facilitating the entry of the private sector, and improving awareness of the necessity and affordability of sanitation services. If ultimately successful, millions of Jakarta’s poorest residents will have access to microloans to pay for better latrines and sludge removal, which will keep them healthier and leave more cash in their pockets in the long run.
Despite—and perhaps because of—the challenges that lay ahead, this idea is worth following. By adding value to the demand and supply side of the sanitation industry, Mercy Corps is proposing a sustainable and mutually beneficial solution that addresses one of the most dormant Millennium Development Goals and fundamentally changes the role played by international aid groups.
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Maia Nativ’s job involves a lot of dirty work, and she loves it. She works as a fund raiser at Depave, a charity in Portland, Ore., whose mission tagline—“From parking lots to paradise”—upends the old Joni Mitchell song.
True to its name, the organization promotes the removal of urban pavement to create community green spaces, not just to prettify cities but also to prevent stormwater runoff from sweeping pollutants into streams and rivers.
Depave got its start in 2007 when Arif Khan bought a house in Portland that had a driveway and a garage—but he didn’t have a car. Mr. Khan demolished his driveway and garage and planted fruit trees in their place, giving birth to an idea. Over the past five years, Depave, his brainchild, has organized 24 events to remove 94,100 square feet of concrete and asphalt from sites around the city of Portland, soaking up more than 2,221,000 gallons of stormwater that otherwise would have gone into storm drains.
Depave hosts four to six “prys” each summer, recruiting an all-volunteer labor force to break, pry up, and remove pavement from unused parking lots and former playgrounds. It is arduous and filthy work, yet 60 to 100 supporters show up each time to help.
“People ask why we use human power instead of renting a machine to remove the asphalt,” Ms. Nativ says. “Well, if 100 people come to an event and then each go home and tell just one friend how they spent their Saturday, then our mission and our goal just spread to 200 people.”
Depave makes extensive use of social media to spread the word about events, but representatives also attend neighborhood meetings and distribute fliers near a planned “depaving” site.
The charity is currently run by two part-time staff members, who donate their time during donation droughts. Ms. Nativ first showed up to help with a depaving event in 2009. She oversees fundraising and management of the group’s $65,000 annual budget, 95 percent of which pays for the depaving site work. About 10 percent of revenue comes from individuals; the bulk of Depave’s operating budget is covered by local government grants, chiefly from soil- and water-conservation bureaus.
Laura Niemi, community-gardens program coordinator at Portland Parks & Recreation, has worked with Depave to create green space on a former city playground.
“I was really impressed because they were able to pull off a large, complex, and impressively professional event as an essentially all-volunteer group,” Ms. Niemi says.
Beyond carrying on with Depave’s mission, Ms. Nativ says, the charity intends to begin focusing on policy issues, putting pressure on city lawmakers to lower the number of parking spaces required per building and increase parking spaces for bikes. Over the long range, she says, the charity hopes its approach will spread to other American cities.
“After all,” she says, “anywhere you go, there’s a lot of unnecessary asphalt.”
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Community is not just for extroverts.
For thousands of years, our ancestors lived in barrios, hamlets, neighborhoods, and villages. Yet in the time since our parents and grandparents were young, privacy has become so valued that many neighborhoods are not much more than houses in proximity.
Now, many activities take place behind locked doors and backyard privacy fences. The street out front is not always safe for pedestrians, and is often out of bounds for children. With families spread across the country and friends living across town, a person who doesn’t know their neighbors can feel isolated and insecure. And when the links among neighbors are weak, security relies on locks, gates, and guns, rather than a closely knit web of connections.
Building a community from scratch is daunting. But the good news is that vibrant communities can grow over time from existing neighborhoods.
Right here, right now: 10 ways to build community:
1. Move your picnic table to the front yard. See what happens when you eat supper out front. It’s likely you’ll strike up a conversation with a neighbor, so invite them to bring a dish to share.
2. Plant a front yard vegetable garden. Don’t stop with the picnic table. Build a raised bed for veggies and plant edible landscaping and fruit trees. Break your boundaries by inviting your neighbors to share your garden.
3. Build a room-sized front porch. The magic of a good porch comes from both its private and public setting. It belongs to the household while also being open to passersby. Its placement, size, relation to the interior and the public space, and railing height are both an art and a science. Make it more than a tiny covering under which you fumble for your keys; make it big enough to be a veritable outdoor living room.
4. Add layers of privacy. Curiously, giving your personal space more definition will foster connections with neighbors. A secure space will be more comfortable and more often used, which will increase chances for seeing your neighbors – even if only in a passing nod.
But rather than achieving privacy with a tall fence, consider an approach with layers: a bed of perennial flowers in front of a low fence, with a shade tree to further filter the view. These layers help define personal boundaries, but are permeable at the same time.
5. Take down your backyard fence. Join with your neighbors to create a shared safe play space for children, a community garden, or a wood-fired pizza oven. In Davis, Calif., a group of neighbors on N Street did just that. Twenty years later, nearly all the neighbors around the block have joined in.
If that’s too radical, consider cutting your six-foot fence to four feet to make chatting across the fence easier, or building a gate between yards.
6. Organize summer potluck street parties. Claim the street, gather the lawn chairs, and fire up the hibachi! Take over the otherwise off-limits street as a space to draw neighbors together.
7. Put up a book-lending cupboard. Bring a book, take a book. Collect your old reads and share them with passersby in a cupboard mounted next to the sidewalk out front. Give it a roof, a door with glass panes, and paint it to match the flowers below.
9. Create an online network for nearby neighbors. Expand the survey into an active online resource and communication tool. Find a new home for an outgrown bike. Ask for help keeping an eye out for a lost dog. Organize a yard sale.
Take advantage of free neighbor-to-neighbor networking tools such as Nextdoor to facilitate communications and build happier, safer neighborhoods.
10. Be a good neighbor. It’s easy to focus on your own needs and concerns, but a slight shift in outlook can make a big difference in the day-to-day lives in a neighborhood. Check in on your elderly neighbor if her curtains aren’t raised in the morning. On a hot summer day, put out a pitcher of ice lemonade for passersby, or a bowl of cool water for dogs on walks.
To be sure, grievances among neighbors are common. But when a neighborhood grows from a base of goodwill, little squabbles won’t escalate into turf fights, and neighborhoods can become what they are meant to be: places of support, security, and friendship.
• Ross Chapin, FAIA, wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. Ross is an architect based on Whidbey Island, Wash., and author of "Pocket Neighborhoods: Creating Small Scale Community in a Large Scale World" (Taunton Press). Over the last 15 years, Ross has designed and partnered in developing six pocket neighborhoods in the Puget Sound region – small groupings of homes around a shared commons – and has designed dozens of communities for developers across the US, Canada, and the UK.
As head of the conservation biology department at Antioch University New England in Keene, N.H., Mr. Wessels isn’t against chopping down trees or clearing land to farm. He just wants to see more people embrace sustainable forest and land management practices.
Wessels, trained as a research ecologist, says economics plays as much a role in protecting the environment as does saving energy. Think how the adoption of fair trade principles for growing and selling coffee have changed the economics of that industry. Forests can benefit in the same way.
“Adam Smith, the father of modern economic theory, wrote about this in ‘Wealth of Nations,’ ” Wessels says. “People will act out of self-interest, but they can support each other doing it. The blacksmith makes the knives the butcher needs to earn his living; the butcher makes the meat the blacksmith needs to eat.
"Now we have too many corporations selling everything. We need to re-localize, re-regionalize, and become more resilient.”
Market forces can help to conserve forests and farmlands, says Wessels, who also serves as chair of the Vermont-based Center for Whole Communities. Banking on the idea that consumers want to buy wood from well-managed forests, Wessels worked as an ecological consultant to the Rain Forest Alliance’s SmartWood green certification program. SmartWood accredits timber operations that protect biodiversity, the rights of workers, and the lives of local people.
So far SmartWood has certified more than 108 million acres of forests globally.
Sustainability isn’t just a job for government, says Wessels, a resident of southern Vermont. It’s a job for each and every citizen. The more people who shop at local farmers' markets and local bookstores, and bank in local banks, for example, the more local economies will flourish, along with a growing sense of community, he says.
In Wessels’ world everyone has access to, and a healthy relationship with, the land. To promote his views, he spends a lot of time visiting communities across the United States, large and small, urban and rural. He talks about how people, regardless of race, income, or background, can live in a sustainable way.
To protect the environment people need to embrace what he calls three foundational principles: People should try to limit growth, become more energy efficient, and organize themselves.
“We are incredibly frivolous about our energy use,” Wessels says. “Any organism or population that is energy wasteful gets selected out of the system.” Charles Darwin explained this when he wrote about survival of the fittest, he says. Survival of the fittest also means survival of the most adaptable, and the most energy efficient, he says.
To that end, communities must become more like the acacia ant and acacia tree, Wessels says. Living in hollowed out thorns on the acacia tree, the acacia ant attacks and repels any invasive, leaf-eating insect that could harm the tree. In turn the tree nourishes the ant.
That’s the idea behind The Center for Whole Communities in Fayston, Vt. As chair of the center's board, Wessels has brought together CEOs and cab drivers, schoolteachers and firefighters. Partnering with more than 400 organizations in 47 states, Whole Communities aims to help create communities where people rely on each other for their food and other needs.
For example, Wessels would like to see Detroit become a different kind of urban jungle. The city has lost about 50 percent of its population since the late 1980s. Empty lots abound. But now community gardens have begun to fill these open tracts with food crops. The Detroit Food Policy Council and the city government want to make Detroit food secure by 2020 – meaning that everyone will have access to sufficient, safe, and nutritious food.
“A lot of our focus is around food security,” Wessels says. “Detroit will become a model for other urban areas.”
An Israeli scientist who has reached across political and ethnic boundaries to help dozens of countries in the Middle East, Africa, Asia, and South America improve agriculture with new methods of irrigation will receive the World Food Prize, the prize's foundation announced June 12.
Daniel Hillel, who is credited with developing drip irrigation methods that conserve water while allowing food to be grown in some of the world's driest climates, was named the winner of this year's $250,000 prize during a ceremony in Washington. He will officially receive the prize Oct. 18 during the annual World Food Prize Symposium in Des Moines, Iowa.
The system Hillel developed, called micro-irrigation, carries water through narrow plastic pipes to plants, where it drips or trickles onto the roots in a continuous way. It has revolutionized agricultural practices in more than 30 countries over the past 50 to 60 years, helping thousands of farmers, said World Food Prize Foundation president Kenneth Quinn, a former US ambassador.
Mr. Quinn, in announcing the award, talked not only about Hillel's research but the fact that an Israeli found a way to work with leaders in Arab nations to improve food production.
"He's able to reach across the intercultural gap with this agricultural achievement in order to address that problem that they have in common about how to lift people out of poverty and reduce hunger by working together," Quinn said. "In an area of the world and in lands where the divides — whether they be ethnic, political, religious, or diplomatic — seem so great, here is a man who by devoting his life to this peaceful development has sought to bridge those gaps."
Quinn noted several of the letters supporting Hillel's nomination for the prize came from individuals and institutions in Egypt, Jordan, and the United Arab Emirates.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who delivered the keynote address at the Washington ceremony, spoke of the importance of getting the most out of every drop of water. In many regions of the world, water is either too scarce or too unpredictable to sustain an American style of agriculture, she said.
"For 40 years, Dr. Hillel has worked to solve this problem by bringing his micro-irrigation techniques to the driest and least hospitable growing climates on earth, from Israel to Pakistan to Sudan," she said. "Today, farmers using micro-irrigation produce high-yield, nutritious crops on more than 6 million hectares [23,000 square miles] worldwide. Dr. Hillel's work will become even more important as we grapple with how to feed the world's growing population."
Hillel told The Associated Press in a phone interview from Israel that managing natural resources, respecting ecosystems, and living in an environmentally sustainable manner transcends boundaries.
"I'm a great believer in international cooperation, and I've devoted much of my career to it," he said. "I believe in peace. I'm a passionate believer in peace rather than rivalry, enmity, and destruction."
At age 9, he was sent to live in a rural, communal settlement known as a kibbutz, where he learned farming practices and gained a respect for the land and preservation of resources. After earning undergraduate and graduate degrees in the United States, he returned to Israel in 1951 and joined the Ministry of Agriculture, where he helped create the first map of the country's soil and water resources.
Within a year, however, he joined a group of settlers who were dedicated to creating a viable agricultural community in the Negev Desert highlands in southern Israel, where water was scarce. Working with those farmers, who were willing to set aside tradition and experiment with new methods, allowed him to develop and refine his ideas on micro-irrigation, he said.
For thousands of years in the Middle East, irrigation involved diverting large quantities of water from rivers, trapping it in basins, and using it to soak farmland. The soil would then gradually dry out. It was an inefficient method of growing crops, Hillel said.
The availability of inexpensive, small plastic pipes after World War II created the possibility of moving water to crops in a more continuous fashion. The pipes could be perforated to allow water to drip from small holes down to the roots of plants, Hillel said. In time, fertilizer was added to the water.
"With a little bit of water, you'd get a much better crop," Hillel said. "This was a great innovation. I was in on the ground floor of this. I can't say that I was the inventor of it, but I was very active on the early stages of it and developing the philosophy of it."
David Ben-Gurion, the founder and first prime minister of Israel, visited the farm and was so impressed he asked Hillel to take his ideas to Asia, Africa, and South America. Hillel said he's visited as many as 40 different countries during his career, teaching, experimenting, and learning more about crop production and water management.
"We need to learn how to manage land so that it will not degrade and do it efficiently. At the same time, we must maintain natural ecosystems without encroaching upon them without excessive deforestation and destruction of biodiversity," he said. "All of that is a great concern to me, and I'm devoting my career to it."
Cynthia E. Rosenzweig, a scientist who heads the Climate Impacts Group at NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies at Columbia, works with Hillel on developing ways for agriculture to adapt in a changing climate.
"He is known as the father of sustainable water management," she said. "His work on water is so significant, but he didn't stop there. Sustainability and climate change are now the issues that are challenging agriculture today, and he has turned his attention to the current challenges, never forgetting the issues of water."
The World Food Prize, which honors efforts to fight global hunger, was created by Iowa native Norman Borlaug, the winner of the 1970 Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to increase food production in developing nations with the use of hybrid crops. He died in 2009.
On the outskirts of India's third-largest city, 5,000 partly blackened chimneys stand 100 feet high, belching smoke into the sky over millions of reddened bricks below. Some of the bricks are stacked neatly into huge square-cornered stacks, and still more, innumerable, are piled roughly – some broken, some chipped and cracked, as if tipped wantonly from a wheelbarrow.
Here around 1.25 million low-caste migrant workers and their dependents spend six months each year dredging clay from nearby lakes or molding bricks under the scorching sun, or lugging back-breaking hods. It is seasonal work, done by India's lowest castes, or in some cases, dirt-poor immigrants from neighboring Bangladesh.
Weather-beaten Ram Dayal, whose home is in Gazpar in Uttar Pradesh, a 24-hour train ride away, says has worked these kilns for 25 years. Asked his age, he laughs and says he doesn't know exactly. “I have a son about your age though,” he tells me.
He's getting ready to go home – “in two or three days” – as the monsoon season approaches, rains that make brick-baking impossible. For now, however, he spends 12 hours a day fueling and stoking a huge kiln, baking around 400,000 bricks at a time. “We are paid 4,700 rupees [$84] a month,” he says.
The soft, wet bricks are stacked in a basketball court-sized area around the stack. With venting space between the wet bricks, they are covered in a layer of stone and baked for two weeks. Keeping the fires lit, Ram Dayal and Murai Rajbal share two, six-hour shifts over each 24-hour period. In between, they mostly sleep in a nearby shack, which, astonishingly, sits right on top of the baking mass of bricks and a short stone's throw from the chimney stack behind.
The afternoon shift from 12 noon to 6 p.m. is the worst, with daytime temperatures nearing 40 C (104 F.) and relative humidity between 70 and 80 percent. That's before you factor in the heat from the vast kiln, though.
“You get used to it,” shrugs Murai Rajbal, his hands black from soot and brow laced with smoke-darkened sweat. He guesses his own age to be “around 41 or 42.” With “only 12 years working here,” he's a relative newcomer compared with Ram Dayal.
The migrants and their children often have little or no formal schooling, and, given that most of the workers – except those working the fires– are paid according to how many bricks they make or can carry, being able to count is key to ensuring a fair day's pay.
Since 2006 the nongovernmental organization GOAL, based in Ireland, has worked alongside local authorities and other NGOs to improve living standards for 3,500 children and 8,500 adults who live and work at the kilns for half the year. Dora Chauduri is the assistant country director for GOAL's India program, which works in tandem with West Bengal's local government – particularly the social welfare department and the women and child development department.
Watching as GOAL-funded teachers give basic literacy and numeracy lessons to children at the kilns – in a small, steamy classroom – she says that "as well as supporting the migrant workers with much-needed safe drinking water and sanitation, such as latrines, GOAL works with the Narayantala Mass Communication Society [a local West Bengal NGO] to help with basic literacy and numeracy for migrant children and help the migrants gain awareness of their rights under the law.”
India's economy has grown by 7 to 8 percent on average per year for most of the two decades since the government ditched a socialist economic model in 1991 and opted for a range of free-market reforms. The country still has hundreds of millions of poor, however, and a caste system that many human rights groups regard as discriminatory. So many Indians are left out, even as the country booms and affluence becomes a more common sight in big cities such as Kolkata.
Among the marginalized are Jyoti, aged 20, and her daughter Puja, 3. Sitting in a tiny waist-high hovel fashioned out of bricks lifted and dried from the ground outside, mother and child sit and eat kichiri, a lunch mix of rice and dhal (lentils).
As the brick season ends, and the rainy closes in, they too are readying to travel home, to Jharkhand state in the northeast of India. Jyoti and Puja are from the Munda tribe, numbering around 2 million and scattered across India's northeast and into Bangladesh.
“It is tough work here for me and my husband,” says Jyoti, who adds that she has been married “for four or five years.” Every day Puja joins the other children for basic learning in the morning. “This allows us to work on the bricks,” Jyoti says.
A single, rope-thick braid grows on the back of young Puja's head, woven into a sort of dreadlock and looking almost too heavy for the child's neck to support. Jyoti says she had tried for several years to conceive before Puja was born. “We will cut the braid off when she is 5 years old,” she says. “It will be an offering to [Hindu god] Shiva, in thanks for me finally having a child.”
Back in 2003, country music singer Toby Keith was attracting a reputation for controversy following a high-profile spat with the Dixie Chicks over his penchant for patriotic lyrics. In 2002 Keith had recorded "Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (The Angry American)," a response to 9/11 that became a controversial political statement.
In the beginning, he robustly defended his viewpoint – trading barbs with his fellow country music stars. A doctored image of the Dixie Chicks appeared for while on a backdrop at Keith's concerts that appeared to show them canoodling alongside former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.
Then a tragedy close to home intervened to reset his priorities.
That was when a close friend and former bandmate’s two-year-old daughter succumbed to an illness. Shortly after that shock, Keith announced he was bringing his feud with the Texas threesome to an end, citing the death of the child as the moment he realized that there were more important things in life.
Roll the clock forward to 2012, and Keith is on the road to realizing the fulfillment of that focus by way of his Toby Keith Foundation, a charitable effort established in 2006 in the wake of the tragic case with the intention of supporting pediatric cancer patients. The singer was recently on site to mark the ground-breaking of the foundation’s main effort: a new lodging facility in the Oklahoma state capital intended to help assuage the challenges faced by children diagnosed with cancer and their families.
Between the burden of treatment and the associated travel to medical appointments, children often miss out on valuable time with family members, Keith says.
That’s where the OK Kids Korral – complete with day rooms, overnight suites, a kitchen, a dining hall, indoor and outdoor playgrounds, a movie theater, and a center for learning about cancer – is set to come in, promising a “cost-free, convenient, and comfortable home for families of pediatric cancer patients receiving treatment in Oklahoma.”
“The last thing a parent wants to hear is that your kid has cancer,” said Keith, a native Oklahoman to reporters at the ground-breaking ceremony on the grounds of the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center. “One of the parents usually has to quit work, your bills skyrocket," and parents end up spending "precious time" commuting back and forth to the hospital, he said.
So far, nearly $4 million has been raised by Keith's foundation in the quest to make the center a reality. Events such as the annual Toby Keith & Friends Golf Classic – which this year was timed to coincide with the May 18 groundbreaking of the Korral – are the chief sources of fund-raising income. The estimated total cost is about $10 million.
According to Keith's publicist, Elaine Schock, the golf tournament and an associated auction raised $664,000. The Keith camp lauded the effort -- which apparently exceeded the amount raised at last year's version of the event -- saying it took them "one shovelful closer" to completing the project.
In order to devote more time to the center, Keith has announced he is cutting back on the number of shows he performs. The 28,000-square-foot OK Kids Korral is earmarked for completion next year, probably in the fall.
“We’re gonna build it one way or another, if I have to build it myself,” Keith says.
As most American parents are oppressively aware, our children are far behind their counterparts in Asia when it comes to academic achievement. Departments of education around the country and on the national level have aggressively attempted to remedy the discrepancy by drowning our kids in standardized tests.
So it came as quite a surprise to me – and a breath of fresh air – to discover that the leadership at a prestigious high school in China is heading in a very different direction. Peking University High School is focusing on a skill its educators believe is the key to success in the 21st century. Not calculus, not computer programming, not filling in little ovals; this forward-thinking institution emphasizes teaching empathy.
“There’s convincing scientific, psychological, pedagogical, and anecdotal data to suggest that children are naturally empathic, and learn best through collaborating with each other, and at their own speed,” explained deputy principal Xueqin Jiang.
Xueqin actually sees empathy as the missing ingredient in China’s educational system, and one that is absolutely critical to his students’ future success in a rapidly changing, globalizing economy.
“There’s a consensus that the Chinese system doesn’t work,” Xueqin said. “One question the Chinese like to ask is, ‘Why does China not produce any Nobel Prize winners in the sciences? Why doesn’t China produce innovative entrepreneurs like Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates?’ And I think that the key here is empathy.”
“Empathy is the basis for collaboration of course, as well as also communication and creativity,” he explained.
This is an important way of looking at empathy—as a teachable, fundamental skill, without which innovation, collaboration, and creativity cannot happen. Empathy is more than just awareness and concern. It’s about cultural sensitivity and conflict resolution.
In a world in which more and more people are able to—and are—demanding to have input into products, services, institutions, and systems, the most successful adults are those who can embrace this fluid new world, work with changing teams of collaborators, and see solutions rooted in the needs of others.
“We have to have a set of social skills so we can contribute in a world defined by change, rather than repetition,” said Bill Drayton, founder and CEO of Ashoka, the pioneering global social entrepreneurship organization. Ashoka is spearheading an ambitious push to put empathy front and center in education. This global initiative is based on the experience and wisdom of its fellowship of social innovators who have witnessed the role and power of empathy in social change.
Drayton sees empathy as an imperative, and the centerpiece of “a new paradigm for growing up.”
“The old paradigm was: Master a set of skills and the associated rules, and then that defines you,” he said. “You are a baker. You are a banker. And then you just repeat that for the rest of your life. And in a world where things don’t change, that works. But it doesn’t work anymore.”
For me, this is both a revelation and a relief. As a parent it’s not hard to feel unsure of how best to help prepare our children for the future in this dizzying time.
Should we push our kids to do well on state tests? Perhaps encouraging a pursuit of technology courses? Or finding a school that offers Mandarin?
Trying to anticipate how the world will be, where our kids will fit in, and how to help them get there is an exhausting—and ultimately fruitless—endeavor. But armed with an understanding of the value of empathy and its role in fostering individuals’ flexibility and nimbleness, I can view change with more confidence for my children’s future.
From incorporating empathy into curricula, to rethinking discipline, to providing teacher training and parental support, schools and organizations are putting empathy at the center of young peoples’ education. And the early results are undeniably positive.
Dovetail Learning’s Toolbox Project, for example, is a K-6 human development program in 60 schools that teaches kids to use their inner resilience to work through frustrations and conflict. The program helps young children see the power they have to solve problems and succeed by helping them see their own innate “tools,” giving them a common language for defining and utilizing them, and encouraging them to use the tools often. The 12 Tools include the Listening Tool, the Please and Thank You Tool, and the Empathy Tool.
My older children are in their teen and pre-teen years, and while they are pretty empathic and resilient kids, every child going through those turbulent years can use support in seeing other perspectives and being understanding. But I don’t think the Toolbox is going to be up their eye-rolling alley (it is, after all, for elementary school kids). For them, I’m intrigued by Parents Forum, a peer support group that offers role-playing workshops called, “How To Tell Somebody Something They’d Rather Not Hear.”
Ultimately, it’s in schools that the major shift must happen—and is starting to. Teachers are discovering that placing an emphasis on empathy creates a positive impact in their classrooms. Some schools in Washington, DC, and in Baltimore, Md., have implemented an empathy-centered teacher-training program called Inspired Teaching. At these schools, 82 percent of teachers report students are more engaged in class.
The Inspired Teaching training gives teachers hands-on activities that put them in the position of learners—so that they understand the school experience from the students’ perspective. Teachers get a glimpse into students’ minds to better understand and appreciate their way of looking at the world, activating empathy, and increasing their ability to individualize instruction and engage their students.
To discover the fascinating array of approaches to teaching children empathy, and to take action to support the success of initiatives you find are most inspiring, visit the Ashoka Changemakers Activating Empathy Competition. Peking University High School, Dovetail Toolbox, Parents Forum, and Inspired Teaching are among the 12 finalists chosen from among 628 entries from around the world.
Vote for your favorites and the winners will receive prizes from a pool of $110,000 to advance their initiatives.
See Ashoka’s empathy initiative website, Start Empathy to learn more about how educators and parents can help activate empathy and why it’s such an important skill.
In rural villages in East and West Africa, electrical connections are humming and light bulbs are shining for the first time in homes that only knew candlelight before.
Although no power lines yet reach these villages, multifunction platforms (MFPs) are filling the energy void, powering not just lights but machines that lessen the drudgery of farmers' work.
What is a multifunction platform? Though the name sounds a bit daunting, the MFP is basically a stationary diesel engine that can be attached to about anything that rotates: grain-milling and husking machines, water pumps, and power tools. The MFPs are quiet, 6 to 8 horsepower, 750-lb Listeroid engines. Their basic construction and features have not changed significantly since their debut in the 1930s.
The engines have more than proved their durability, efficiency, and hassle-free maintenance over the years. Their efficiency and raw power make them perfectly suited for continuous electrical generation and work.
With MFPs farmers can mill their own corn and wheat for food and sale, while earning income by processing the crops of neighboring farmers. Members of cooperatives can run mechanical tools, power rural electrical grids, and soon, it is hoped, irrigate crops with the machines.
Organizations working with the platform have paid special attention to women users, hoping to free up several hours per day that can be devoted to other priority tasks.
The first MFPs were installed in Mali and Burkina Faso in 1994 by the United Nations Industrial Development Organization and the International Fund for Agricultural Development. The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) began to install MFPs in 1996, and the project is still ongoing, having expanded to include other countries in West Africa.
To acquire an MFP, a group of men and women from a village usually create a formal organization to request and purchase a generator. The cost is usually subsidized between 40 to 50 percent by the UNDP. Residents are given training and then placed in charge of installation, maintenance, and repair of the platforms.
In 2009, student engineers from Makerere University in Kampala, Uganda, and Columbia University in New York City installed two of these engines in the Teso region of northern Uganda, one of the first in East Africa. The students worked with a local NGO, Pilgrim, which had established several cooperatives in the area. The machines cost nearly $9,000, plus $3,350 to train people to use them.
With fuel prices varying greatly, access to diesel fuel to power the MFPs can be a challenge. In response, Columbia University students modified the platform to run on vegetable oil, which could decrease operating costs and ensure continued MFP use. In order to avoid using food crops for the oil, the engineers have recommended that users plant Jatropha, an inedible plant whose seeds have high oil content. With the right attachment, the MFPs themselves can extract the oil from the seeds. It is hoped that excess Jatropha plant oil can be sold to biodiesel distributors and soapmakers for additional income.
• To read more about appropriate technologies for smallholder farmers, see What is an Appropriate Technology? and Using Appropriate Technologies to “Feed the Future”.