The Rights Stuff

What You Can Do for Burma

| Tue Apr. 13, 2010 12:12 PM EDT

I'm back from a month of reading, presenting, and radio-interviewing about Burma, during which several people asked a question that begs to be more widely answered. So, herewith, a re-creation of how that conversation went down in Portland. In the name of scene-setting: When we get to the Q&A point in the lecture, many people are generally wincing, because the situation seems hopeless, because they can't believe something so horrible is happening outside their awareness, and, well, because by that time I'm standing in front of this picture, which is just one slide in a pretty unsettling show.

Wincing gal: [with hand raised] So what can we do? Are we just supposed to write a strong letter to our congressman?

Me: I know it sounds kind of lame to say "Write a letter to your congressman," but seriously, if you want to get involved you should really write a letter to your congress(wo)man. Many of your representatives are aware, as the Obama administration and the United Nations are aware, that ethnic cleansing abounds in eastern Burma, but it's not likely to make it to the top of anyone's agenda until politicians know it's on their constituents' agendas.

Gal: [not satisfied] Is that it?

Me: [neither this succinctly nor eloquently, but to paraphrase here] If you want to donate money, you can support refugee services in Thailand; check out the organizations providing them under the Committee for Coordination of Services to Displaced Persons in Thailand. Or look at the Global Health Access Program, which funds indigenous medics, or the Free Burma Rangers' bad-ass assistance to internally displaced people in Burma's jungles; ditto the Burma Humanitarian Mission

In Seattle, one of the Free Burma Rangers was present, and he pointed out when this question inevitably came up that it takes many groups in the United States to help the tens of thousands of Burmese refugees that have been moved here. That's true. And though I talked to many an aid and advocacy organization, no one seems to be aware of any complete listing of them, so I'll report here (with links!) that a good shot of finding one is via your local chapter of the International Rescue Committee, Church World Service, Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, Episcopal Migration Ministries, Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, World Relief, or Catholic Charities. Googling a nearby International Institute or Jewish Family Service or even "Burmese refugees" alongside the name of your city is another way to turn up the people who are assisting these survivors on our soil. (You'll notice, no doubt, that a lot of them have God/church affiliations. That's the way the Burmese aid cookie largely crumbles. Had it not been for religious groups tending to the desperate needs of the Burmese, frankly, a lot more people would have starved or otherwise suffered to death in the last several decades.)

Hopefully, there will someday be a comprehensive list or umbrella organization that can direct people to all these efforts, but for now, there's a head start for those interested in helping. Other brilliant suggestions? Did I miss any groups doing something way different? Let me know, and I'll add them to the list.

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On Outsourcing: Indian Uterus Edition

| Thu Apr. 8, 2010 6:00 PM EDT

Today MotherJones.com has published an article from the March/April special human rights issue that explores a Western penchant for renting Indian women's wombs. Sounds creepy, but the exposé perhaps raises as many questions as it answers. After all, there are many who point out that, for example, working in a sweatshop beats being starving, or forced into sex work; so how exploitative is it to cheaply employ Third World reproductive organs if the pay is still way more money than their owners could make by conventional means? Check out an additional angle of the debate, as well as an interesting piece of the medical-tourism puzzle, here.

Brits Outsource Their Votes

| Wed Apr. 7, 2010 11:00 AM EDT

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown has just announced the date of the UK's first national elections since 2005. And one nonprofit has launched a campaign to round up some unusual—and controversial—members of the electorate.

The organizers of Give Your Vote are on their way to collecting thousands of UK votes to hand out to citizens of Afghanistan, Ghana, and Bangladesh. Here's how it works: People in the UK sign up to give their vote to someone in a country impacted by British policy. Bangladesh is a recipient because of the havoc wreaked on it by climate change; Ghana for how f'ed it's gotten by trade policies; and Afghanistan for reasons I hardly need to point out. Give Your Vote will disseminate candidate information in local languages (the press materials quote a Bangladeshi who lost a home to rising sea levels as saying, "I will be looking for the party that has the best plans for dealing with climate change refugees"); those locals will text in their vote, which signed-up Brits will receive and cast accordingly on their behalf at the polls. The idea was cooked up by someone who was in Syria with a bunch of Iraqi refugees glued to the 2008 American presidential-election coverage to see what their own futures might hold. And it's all legal. Spokesperson May Abdalla reminded me that "you get told who to vote for all the time"—via advertising, or political groups, or advocacy organizations; this is just "shifting where you're getting your information from." (And for the fact-checkers: The process' legality was confirmed, by mutiple sources, with the UK's Electoral Commission.)

Backers of Give Your Vote include Nobel laureate Desmond Tutu and celebrities like Keith Allen, who is apparently famous to British people. People who are really mad about it include the extremist British National Party, which has railed against the initiative on its blog, the readers of which, if the comments section is any indication, all hate Muslims. 

While the BNP is claiming a Marxist plot to undermine British sovereignty and "punish the prosperity of Britain," Abdalla swears that the idea is just to get people thinking about how to make democracies more accountable for their wide-reaching actions. An American group is planning to strike up a similar program for the 2012 US elections, and I'm looking forward to the debate between those liberals/socialists and the Tea Partiers. Either way, you can't argue, at least, with one of Give Your Vote's slogans: "Many of the issues that the UK decides on are global. The electorate is not."

I think that's a pretty good point. But since I work with a bunch of commies, you know, I would.

Why Diss Lindsay Lohan for Tackling Child Trafficking?

| Mon Apr. 5, 2010 1:54 PM EDT

Hey everyone, I'm Lindsay Lohan, and this is Lindsay Lohan's Indian Journey (BBC3). India's, like, this crazy place in maybe Asia? The people are sooo cute, and real skinny. Also they're mad drivers like me – maybe they all do tons of cocaine too. But this isn't about drugs or driving (for once!). Or who I'm dating or not dating. It's about child trafficking, which is this massive issue out here.


That is not the opening voice-over of Lindsay Lohan's Indian Journey, but the more puerile of two scathing Guardian articles (plus a blog item) about it within the last seven days. Alright, it's weird that LiLo is the host of a BBC documentary about child trafficking. And the inarticulateness in the clip below isn't even the least compelling commentary she offers during the course of the film:



Still. I'm going to have to side against the haters on this one.  I'm not really qualified to judge whether Lohan is genuinely interested in learning about child trafficking or is using the issue to scrub her ditsy image, but even the latter still does the service of raising awareness. In the doc, we go to the slums; we look at how globalization and economic "progress" have exacerbated demand for underage slaves. We meet children whose parents give them up to traffickers for the extra income, sometimes repeatedly, talk with very young rape victims, hear more kids talking about being beaten than we can count. "In fact, it would be [hard] to argue that the BBC had produced a bad documentary here," admits the Independent. "Who knows what their motive for choosing Lohan as their star was? To raise awareness among a demographic—supermarket-tabloid readers—who wouldn't otherwise have taken an interest? To generate publicity? To boost ratings?"

Well, yes. Consider how many more people watched Lindsay Lohan's Indian Journey than would have Learn About Child Trafficking With John Davies. Who? Right. As I've mentioned before, Thailand, for example, has a problem with abusing refugees, but it took Angelina Jolie's involvement for the issue to really explode into the news. And I'm gonna guess, that these two stories snarking about Lohan is way more headlines than the Guardian gives child trafficking in a typical week.

 

NPR's Sex Problem

| Fri Apr. 2, 2010 5:25 PM EDT

NPR's ombudsman, Alicia Shepard, has done a little sleuthing about the number of the network's female commentators and sources, and the results aren't pretty. Well, this is a good-looking chart, but you get what I mean:

 

"NPR listeners heard 2,502 male sources and 877 female sources on the shows we sampled," Shepard writes. "In other words, only 26 percent of the 3,379 voices were female, while 74 percent were male."

The problem is hardly limited to NPR; Mother Jones has posted the scary statistics about the gender disparity in magazines, in the blogosphere, and everywhere else, from golf clubs to Hollywood. I recently did my own scientific study, in which I saw the December Harper's sitting on a friend's bathroom floor and counted on my fingers that every one of the six contributors mentioned on the cover was a man. I've also conducted a follow-up that involved looking at The Daily Show's 2009 guest list on Wikipedia and tallying that it featured only 36 women; only one guest was a woman in each of February and March; in September, none was.

"Many times we hear there are no women, or there are more men to tap into as experts," said Women's Media Center president Jehmu Greene in Shepard's blog post. "I think that's a mindset that is common in the media. Clearly, it is worth it to do the extra work for the story to get the female perspective which many times can be different, unique and necessary." That's why the WMC is devoted to populating the media landscape with more ladies—a cause I'm honored to participate in as a member of its 2010 Progressive Women's Voices class.

While Shepard laments her organization's shortfalls on the gender front, she points out that it is still "an industry leader with female correspondents and hosts." To wit, it has launched an initiative to diversify its on-air voices, and hopefully, this chart will soon be less skewed. Points out Jill Geisler of the Poynter Institute, for the analysis win, "I doubt there is a conscious, systemic aversion to selecting women as sources at NPR. But benign neglect is still neglect and its impact just as harmful to society."

 

 

5 Reasons Why Burma's Elections Are Bogus

| Fri Apr. 2, 2010 7:20 AM EDT

This week, Burma's National League for Democracy, the party of detained Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, announced that it wouldn't participate in the country's first elections in two decades, which are to be held sometime later this year. Than Shwe, the general who heads the Burmese junta, insists that the contest will be "free and fair," and despite mountains of evidence to the contrary, some outside observers appear to be buying the hype: ASEAN Secretary-General Surin Pitsuwan said that the elections are "a new beginning," and the New York Times ran a bizarrely rosy story about the country's future. But the NLD boycott reflects what everybody in Burma already knows—that the elections are a farce.

Let's take a look at the aforementioned mountains of evidence:

1. The government is already cheating. The military's proxy political party, the Union Solidarity and Development Association, has spent millions currying favor with the populace by paving roads, opening free health clinics, and giving away high school tuition. This started before the junta announced the rules for participating in the election (or even a date; October is the rumor), effectively crippling other parties' ability to start campaigning. When the government finally did reveal the campaign rules, they were so stacked against the opposition—for example, barring Aung San Suu Kyi from participating—that the NLD sued to have them revised. The case was rejected.

2. Even if the generals don't win, they could still "win."
In 2008, 92 percent of Burmese voters allegedly said yea to a constitution drafted by the junta. Never mind that the new constitution basically legalized forced labor or that the vote was held in the chaos following a cyclone that killed 140,000 people. Also, the last time the government held multiparty elections, in 1990, and lost to the NLD by a landslide, it simply declared the results void and kept Aung San Suu Kyi incarcerated.

3. Even if the generals admit that they don't win, they still can't actually lose. According to the constitution, 25 percent of the seats in parliament are reserved for the military, and the current government picks the candidates for president. And in the event that parliamentarians do start exercising too much power, the military machine could always just reassert control of the state, as it did in the coups of 1962 and 1988. Than Shwe reminded the populace of this possibility last weekend when he made the wholly unveiled threat that the army can step into politics "whenever the need arises."

4. Bad guys will continue to hold the purse strings.
The Times has cited the government's decision to sell "a raft of state-run factories and assets to cronies in the private sector" as a sign of progress. But the reason the military is hastily selling off hundreds of state-owned properties—buildings, land, oil and hydro projects, ports, an airline—to its leaders and crooked friends is to guarantee that the country's economy will remain in their grasp no matter what the election outcome.

5. There's the matter of rampant discrimination and war crimes. Don't discount, as most Western media does, the millions of ethnic minorities inside Burma's borders, many of whom will not participate in the elections (the rules of which were published only in Burmese and English) and some of which have armed insurgent groups threatening to come out of retirement in the face of election-related turmoil. Also rarely discussed is the full-on, horribly bloody war in the east of the country. These minorities' continuing disenfranchisement and targeting for annihilation is hardly a move toward peace and democracy. A UN official and more than 50 US congresspeople have called for an investigation into the regime's crimes against humanity, but a clause in the wildly popular constitution stipulates that the perpetrators cannot be brought to justice. 

ASEAN's Pitsuwan may have cause for saying that the Burmese government's decision to hold elections is a "step forward"—after all, that's not saying much about a government known for its total disregard for political and human rights. But such falsely hopeful messages diminish the gaping distance between Burma's current state and true democracy. Did the National League for Democracy have any choice but to sacrifice their chance to play along with the charade?

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Domestic Violence Redux

| Fri Apr. 2, 2010 2:46 AM EDT

Speaking of spousal abuse, I just arrived in New Orleans for World Affairs Council and University of New Orleans events. Guess what was on the front page of the Times-Picayune.

Hot Humanitarian: Chris Lin

| Thu Apr. 1, 2010 7:30 AM EDT

Food carts selling gourmet goodies like crème brulee are all the rage in the States. But in the slums of Jakarta, Indonesia, they've long been a popular way to eat on the go. Though the streets of Jakarta are awash in cheap eats, the meals are often lacking in nutrition. Mercy Corps Indonesia recently rolled out food carts stocked with healthy food and gussied up pro bono by the ad firm Saatchi & Saatchi in hopes of reaching hundreds of thousands of undernourished kids.

That's where Chris Lin from the Global Entrepreneurship Lab at MIT's Sloan School of Management comes in. He and three other MBA students went to Jakarta to help Mercy Corps figure out how to make good food cheap (and profitable—these are B-schoolers, after all). Chris is also the first of many humanitarians doing cool work around the globe whom I'll be interviewing here. I talked to him shortly after his return.

Will you give me your elevator pitch for what you were doing?

Mercy Corps Indonesia ran a pilot program to address malnutrition in kids and also to hopefully offer some employment opportunities. A lot of people in Indonesia eat food from street carts, because they don't have kitchens and therefore don't cook. So they found vendors and a nutritionist to make sure their carts offered a well-balanced diet. 

Does the good street food cost the same as regular street food?

We found that the prices were actually pretty comparable—the comparison being instant noodles, which are very popular there, or deep-fried foods. They found four vendors to cook and vend food to mothers to give to their kids, and they've run this program for about five to six months. They wanted help to find a business model that would work so that it could be financially self-sustaining.

How could that happen?

We helped them work through the business structure so that the company they set up would be kind of a franchise system. They will franchise out cooking centers—kitchens, basically—and the kitchens will franchise vendors that they sell food to, and then the vendors will sell food on their own. So there's multiple levels of independent businesspeople: the corporate headquarters, the cooking centers, and then the vendors. What we went through with them was setting up this structure and then setting up the financials, to show that everyone can make a decent amount of money while still serving healthy food to kids and giving employment opportunities to people.

So whoever runs the parent company after Mercy Corps steps out could profit off this venture?

Yeah. That was the idea, to demonstrate that there was a viable business opportunity here. We think it should be attractive not just for a philanthropist but also for someone looking to earn some return.

You're an MBA student. So when you grow up do you want to continue saving the world with math and technology

—and business charts and PowerPoint slides?

That's how I like to imagine the answers that you guys came up with for this.

There were also some intangibles we gave them in terms of more understanding of strategic planning. But the physical thing we gave them was, yeah, an Excel sheet and a PowerPoint deck. Good question, though. I’m still figuring that out. I've always been interested in technology, but I'm still very open to exploring different things and different areas. I would love to continue to do global projects, both from a nonprofit and social justice but also from a corporate side. I think there's a lot of opportunity there in terms of nonprofits helping the business world and the business world helping nonprofits, so would definitely be very open to opportunities like this in the future.

In most poor neighborhoods in the United States, we have tons of crappy food. As you think about making healthy food fast, easy, and cheap, do you see applications for this idea in other countries, like ours?

That's a great question. I definitely see that parallel, but it never came up as a topic. I know Kiva is now doing microfinance in the US, after they were able to really successfully do it internationally.

So if a businesswoman launched this initiative to try to make cheap street food really hot in poor communities and also make it profitable and wholesome, would you be on the consulting team?

[Laughs.] Yeah, I'd definitely love to talk.

Spousal Abuse Spiking

| Tue Mar. 30, 2010 8:00 AM EDT

I recently arrived in Portland for a talk at Mercy Corps, and though my host tells me that the city’s strongest association is with roses, it feels more like my own personal Domestic Violence Awareness Town.

The first thing I thought of when I touched down was this stupefying stat I’d read: A few months ago, 18 people died in domestic violence incidences in less than 30 days here. That would be just one piece of an alarming trend in rising domestic violence rates—not that domestic violence statistics haven’t always been consistently alarming.

Then I was doing some unrelated Internet research, and somehow landed on this page for an "assault and family violence attorney" containing such offensive and flip copy—

A domestic violence assault charge could be the result of a single violent outburst, one high-stress incident, or the retaliation of a malicious spouse. Whatever the reasons for you being so accused, we can help you favorably resolve your criminal case and move forward after a domestic violence or assault charge.

—that I was left torn between my certainty that we put way too many people in prison for way too long and an intense visceral desire to not let wife-beaters out of jail to walk around in the world, ever.

Then, also totally unrelatedly, someone posted on my Facebook page the United Nations Foundation stat that "One of every three women in the world faces violence, coercion, or abuse as part of her everyday life—and more than 70% of women will experience violence in their lifetime." And my host also reminds me that it’s naïve for me to find it hard to believe that, for example, there were 59 DV deaths in Wisconsin last year. And the Facebook post comes with a link pleading that people should "Tell your representatives in Washington today that ending violence against women needs to be a real priority."

Jesus. And how.

For More on Congo

| Mon Mar. 29, 2010 3:28 PM EDT

Today Mother Jones is giving the Internet the gift of Adam Hochschild’s amazing Congo piece, from the March/April issue, about how what we buy makes Congo so f'ed, along with an accompanying slideshow from photographer Marcus Bleasdale. For even more of his pictures, which are invariably haunting, or gorgeous, or both, and for a description of what Bleasdale saw in his own words, check out this dispatch:

Then, before you wholly descend into a pit of despair, listen to a Human Rights Watch senior researcher break down, in just two minutes, how other nations can help curb the carnage.