November 16, 2008

Blame in the Blogosphere: When Fundamental Freedoms are under Fire

In the United States, our news media is fortunately uncensored, which encourages citizens to express their opinions openly and honestly. While there have been incidents of abuse concerning the freedoms of speech and press, most recently perceptible in the harsh critique of certain candidates campaigning in the U.S. presidential elections, these rights are fundamentally part and parcel of a democracy. These intrinsic liberties have become particularly powerful in the realm of the blogosphere, which has become a forum for the flow of ideas, concerns, and discourse not only within the United States but also on an international level as well. The blogosphere is undeniably less reliable in terms of non-partisan news delivery, and one must take each post with a grain of salt, as they are often saturated with biased viewpoints and opinions. In spite of a few minor pitfalls surrounding a free media, its emancipated existence is crucial for discussion and self-expression. Unfortunately, these democratic principles are not globally enforced, and even countries that do include these freedoms in their constitutions often violate them when it is to their benefit. A good example of the repression of promulgated rights is discussed in two Nigerians' blogs concerning recent events in both the Nigerian blogosphere and "free" media. The first, from PBS's World View Blog, is a post entitled "Nigeria Joins List of Countries Harassing Bloggers," in which Sokari Ekine discusses the recent arrest of Nigerian bloggers Jonathon Elendu and Emeka Asiwe, and the implications of these incidents in regards to the government's relationship with the media. Nigerian Curiosity, a blog by Solomon Sydelle, raised similar concerns about Nigerian President Yar'Adua's relationship with the press in his post "Yar'Adua to Sue Nigerian Newspaper." Both entries demonstrate how these relatively self-contained incidents could have disastrous effects on the country, further de-legitimizing an already unstable regime of governance.

"Nigeria Joins List of Countries Harassing Bloggers"

Sokari, thank you for addressing such a salient issue that was in need of proper attention. I appreciated the integrity of your post, and the wide base of evidence you incorporated to support your argumentative viewpoint. It seems that the Nigerian government and particularly President Yar'Adua need to practice what they preach and uphold the values they communicate. While it is encouraging that President Yar'Adua declared a commitment to upholding an unrestricted press, his actions concerning the arrest of Jonathon Elendu and Emeka Asiwe dictate the opposite, which makes one wonder if he is truly committed to ensuring that liberty. This disconnect in parlance and performance is especially pertinent in a country such as Nigeria, which has struggled to achieve a true democracy after independence in 1960, and has been burdened with an unfortunate history of cyclic corruption within the government. Intentionally or not, Yar'Adua has further undermined his position as president with the detention of these two bloggers without an explanation as to the crimes behind the two arrests. On the other hand, I find that a president should not be subject to unprecedented attacks or misinformation surrounding his actions as head of state. The arrests have already exacerbated public suspicion on his commitment to freedom of speech and of press.

Additionally, I think the detail you highlighted concerning the widespread anonymity of Nigerians in the blogosphere is also indicative of their fear concerning freedom of expression, particularly when one takes into consideration the "the history of media censorship in Nigeria" and its infringement on fundamental human liberties. Do you think that if the president had provided an initial reason for these arrests the public would have had a different response to his actions? Conversely, is their any merit to Elendu or Asiwe's arrest, or is it purely an infringement on rights clearly defined by the Nigerian constitution? Is the Nigerian media a reliable and credible source of information, or has it been affected by years of inconsistent censorship? Is it possible the bloggers in question were intentionally publishing false or malicious script in an attempt to punish the government's wrongful treatment of, among many things, the media? I would appreciate your insight regarding these subsequent inquiries, as your post demonstrates a high level of intimate knowledge and concern for Nigerian politics.

“Yar’Adua to Sue Nigerian Newspaper”

Solomon, thank you for such an intelligible and thoughtful post. As I have recently just begun to tackle the complex history of Nigerian politics and systems of government post-independence, your blog was particularly useful in terms of more recent administrative events. I appreciated and agreed with your assertion that "Yar'Adua has every right to sue anyone who defames him or his character," especially because Leadership Newspaper has admitted that its article "was not entirely factual." I also sympathize with his attempted action to rectify the misinformation published about him, as it was relevant to his capabilities as a leader. Although the public appearances in question pale in comparison to the country's insurmountable structural issues and internal conflict, had he countered the initial suspicions surrounding his health, his honesty would have reinforced his legitimacy as president. However, in light of the two recent arrests of Jonathon Elendu and Emeka Asiwe, whose convoluted crimes remain highly debated, this law suit unfortunately further clouds his commitment to a free and unadulterated media. While the president says he "fully believes that a free and unfettered press is essential to the growth and entrenchment of democracy in Nigeria," his recent actions seem to dictate otherwise.

Furthermore, I have a few remaining inquiries that I would like for you to consider. Is Yar'Adua's health a potentially large issue for the country? Could the newspapers actually be attacking Yar'Adua's government purposefully to destabilize support for his regime? If so, would this be a result of internal divisions and mistrust for governance among the Nigerian population? Additionally, how do you think Yar'Adua would react to the United States media and their portrayal of politicians? Particularly with the recent US presidential elections, would he consider the coverage concerning the presidential and vice-presidential candidates to be malicious misinformation, or an expression of fundamental rights that encourage democratic elections and governance? Moreover, I would appreciate if you could elaborate on the statement you made in response to Olusegun Adeniyi's accusation of the newspaper's deliberate attempt to destabilize the current administration with the attacks on President Yar'Adua. What were some of the other occasions when Yar'Adua "accused others of trying to undermine the government?" Were they also involving the press, and what were his reactions to these other attacks? With your insight and knowledge on these matters of Nigerian governance displayed so passionately in this post, I would appreciate your response and interpretation concerning these additional concerns.

November 09, 2008

On the Money: The Effective Strategies of Microfinance

This week, I discovered an article summarizing a microfinance summit in San Francisco among leading micro-lenders to discuss organizations that are now incorporating health care education and protection as part of their programs. According to a piece in the San Francisco chronicle, the most common reason for a loan recipient to default is illness or poor health. In order to address this issue, microfinance institutions, such as Freedom from Hunger and Credito con Educacion, are employing doctors who will administer discounted medical care, provide health and wellness seminars, and issue health care loans to borrowers. The hope is to eliminate illness-related loan default, and encourage future lending, spending, repayment, and ultimately, start-up success for their borrowers. If achieved, these health care proposals could dissolve one chief disadvantage to micro-lending. Conversely, this plan could further encumber borrowers, as additional medical loans would place an added strain on timely loan repayment. This potential consequence only encourages the critics of microfinance, who already find its scope too small and too specific, lacking the necessary resources to reach the truly destitute. These are not false accusations, however microfinance has proved to be a largely successful venture when executed properly and provides an alternative to conventional aid organizations, which oftentimes exacerbate the problems of the recipient country. Multilateral finance institutions such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank do dispense necessary assistance and relief in the presence of nation-wide economic crisis, yet microfinance is a valuable and practical addition to large-scale aid organizations, whose goals are often muddled or lost within the breadth of their subsidies and the inefficiencies with which they are constructed.

Over the past fifty years, $2.3 trillion dollars has been sent in aid packages to various poor and developing countries throughout the world. Unfortunately, the majority of these funds were lost in the inefficient "bureaucracy-to-bureaucracy" aid model implemented by multilateral organizations. What makes these aid agendas ineffective is an overly complex regulatory plan that is impossible for the recipient country to execute with its already strained and overextended administration. Critics of the IMF contend that the required structural adjustments are often too challenging politically and too rigorous, and that the debts acquired through IMF loans only perpetuate poverty, as capital that could have been invested instead was channeled into debt repayment. Another large issue these plans fail to address is the persistent corruption among administrative officials, who often intercept these funds for their own benefit. For instance, in his article entitled “Foreign aid feeds poverty," William Easterly points to the example of the dictator Paul Biya of Cameroon, who “will get 55% of his government revenue from aid after the doubling of aid to Africa.” Thus, the money frequently does not reach its intended beneficiary, and is often sunk into poorly-executed projects, such as the $5-billion Ajaokuta steel mill in Nigeria, which began in 1979 and never operated at more than twenty percent of its capacity, consequently causing the failure of businesses contingent upon its productivity.

With such sweeping fiscal relief efforts from bureaucracy to bureaucracy or multi-lateral organization to bureaucracy, the desired effect becomes lost in legislation, corruption, or ulterior motives. Hence why small-scale, private microfinance organizations are constructive alternatives to the convoluted current system of foreign aid. Microfinance equips marginalized people with the means and resources to create success for themselves, and is based on loans and credit, not charity. Enabling people to achieve their own objectives is sustainable, and the notion of lending eliminates any sense of obligation of the borrower, placing the two involved parties on more equitable ground. While critics of microfinance, such as former World Bank analyst Sudhirendar Sharma, often argue that high-interest rates put them on the same level as moneylenders, Alex Counts and other defenders of the system demonstrate that the interest rates are high because poor people often have no collateral with which to take out a loan, thus making the risk of loan-default higher. In most countries, property rights are not protected, which makes securing loans in general much more difficult. Supporters of micro-lending also point to the clear, unbridled success stories, which have become so prevalent in the field. Arguably the pioneer of microfinance is Dr. Muhammad Yunus, the unofficial founder of Bangladesh's Grameen Bank in 1976, which procures loans to those below the poverty line, particularly women. The recipients of such loans were able to escape poverty at a rate of 48% percent, compared to the previous rate of 4% without assistance, and the bank has a 99% loan recovery rate. Thus, many microfinance initiatives today try to emulate the efficient model created by Dr. Yunus. ACCION International is another private non-profit organization whose partner microfinance institutions today are providing loans as low as $100 to poor men and women entrepreneurs in 25 countries in Latin America, Asia, Africa and the United States. As evident in “Microfinance Leader Launches New Hub in Africa," within the last ten years alone, ACCION partners have provided more than 22.4 million loans totaling $17.4 billion; 97 percent of the loans have been repaid. Even United Colors of Benetton's 2008 aid campaign, as pictured above, promotes a micro-credit program in Senegal called Birima established by Youssou N'Dour.

While microfinance is by no means a flawless system, its incredible accomplishments demand recognition. In fact, its work on the small-scale fosters more personal relations between lenders and recipients, which in turn promote a greater sense of understanding, trust, and commitment among all parties involved. This personal approach lies at the heart of micro-lending success, as does the practice of monetary loans in place of fiscal awards that levels the playing field among all participants in the process. It is difficult to determine how the health care proposals in partnership with microfinance organizations will fare in the future, but it is important to recognize this action as an effort to further improve the system. Despite the shortcomings of multilateral aid organizations, one must appreciate their achievements in delivering large-scale disaster relief. The World Bank has even altered many of its policies after the severe criticism it received in the 1970s and 1980s of its insensitivity regarding the local needs of aid recipients. These institutions remain far from perfect, and are in need of structural and strategic reform, particularly regarding the stipulations they attach to provisional aid plans. In the meantime, microfinance initiatives should be applauded and encouraged as a supplemental type of foreign assistance, which has proven to be successful and sustainable. Spare change to spur change: that is my kind of ingenuity.

November 03, 2008

Global Gab on the Prospective President: South Africans and Nigerians Voice their Vote

With a national debt of more than 10.5 trillion dollars, the United States currently has little fiscal allowance to spare. Our next president, to be declared after tomorrow’s election, will hopefully execute a viable plan of cutting costs and reorganizing American spenditures, concentrating on domestic policy in terms of feasible solutions to the financial crisis, in addition to foreign policy regarding the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. However, it is not solely our grave financial debt that has fostered international intrigue for this particular presidential election. The global hype and concern derives largely from two factors that should be immaterial: race and gender, which, regardless of the outcome, will result in a historical milestone for the United States. The African community is particular energized about the candidates in contention and how their leadership will generate changes for Africa, despite sparse U.S. resources to spare and the urgency of our own domestic economy, along with prior foreign engagements in the Middle East. While rather obvious familial ties exist between Democratic candidate Barack Obama and Kenya thus welding a strong voucher of support from its citizens, I consciously chose to explore the responses of citizens from other African nations regarding the U.S. presidential elections. Fortunately, there were two recent posts in the blogosphere that highlighted Nigerian and South African opinions of the two main American candidates in contention, the aforementioned Barack Obama, as well as the Republican nominee, John McCain.

Both Nigeria and South Africa are prominent African countries and recent democracies, and are frequently sought out by the United States as cordial allies to secure oil reserves and fiscal relations, as well as to improve U.S. eminence on the continent. Additionally, both nations have historical ties to one another, particularly Nigeria’s overwhelming support for South Africa and the ANC in the abolition of apartheid. Today, both countries maintain amicable relations with the West, and its respective citizens have shown particular interest in our own upcoming election, demonstrated by the two blog posts I discovered this week: “Black and White South Africans Weigh in on U.S. Election” and “U.S. presidential elections: Nigerians are anxious”. Both posts explore generalized national perspectives on which candidate would best serve the presidency. The former, written by Hamilton Wende, is part of MSNBC’s World Blog, and provides a commentary on which American candidate is favored among South Africans. Wende discusses the opinions of three different South African men on the candidates and the issues, and tries to define the reasons behind their choices, impressing race, change, and African foreign policy as conventional deductions. The second post derives from The Takeaway, a news and analysis program with global partnerships and contributors, and was written by Adeola Aderounmu, a Nigerian blogger who offers a personal testimony regarding the overwhelming Nigerian support for Obama. My commentary on both posts is on each individual blog as well as provided below.

Black and White South Africans Weigh in on U.S. Election
Mr. Wende, thank you for your informative post and providing a global perspective on the U.S. elections. It is important for Americans to comprehend the investiture of non-U.S. citizens in this election, and how the choices we make have profound worldwide effects. South Africa is a particularly impressionable democracy, and it is nevertheless self-evident why they have such a vested interest in the processes surrounding our well-established system of government. Additionally, the historical evidence you provided concerning the South African apartheid and the U.S. civil rights movement of the 1960s additionally contextualizes and strengthens the ties between the two countries and its citizens. I found your inclusion of Lucky Mathye’s commentary on Barack Obama and the racial issue particularly interesting. While I had previously heard the issue of race discussed in terms of societal significance, I had yet to hear Lucky’s particular argument for Obama, which contended that the color of his skin might enable him to negotiate settlements among African presidents like Robert Mugabe better than John McCain.

While I appreciate the insight this post provided on the responses to the US elections by both black and white South Africans, the argument your post embodies in its nature is devoid of both female and elderly perspective. Especially with the prevalent issues concerning women’s health and the controversy surrounding Vice Presidential candidate Sarah Palin, I feel your post would have benefited from a woman’s point of view. Additionally, while each of the South Africans interviewed expressed their concerns over which candidate would best benefit Africa, not a single one mentioned any evidential support for their reasoning. If these individuals cannot point to a particular policy or stances that would differentiate Obama from McCain in his ability to better serve Africa in foreign policy, does that not simply reinforce the racial concern? If there is a particular motive for these individual’s support for Barack Obama, the lack of its inclusion is a disservice to the South Africans interviewed, for it illustrates them as less educated on the pertinent foreign policy issues then they might be. Either way, I think your post could benefit from a follow up investigation as to why these three particular men promote Barack Obama for the U.S. presidency, in addition to his overwhelming global endorsement.

U.S. presidential elections: Nigerians are anxious
Adeola Aderounmu, thank you for revealing such an articulate and thoughtful argument concerning Nigerian support of Barack Obama. I appreciated such a personal account in regards to Nigerian mentality, and many of the issues you touched on were ones that I had yet to consider. I was particularly struck by the more tangible evidence you offered in your post, such as your discussion of visa application policy in regards to U.S. immigration laws, which Nigerians feel Barack Obama will reduce their selectivity if elected. The Nigerian criticism and objection to the continuation of the Iraq War is yet another valid point in their endorsement of Barack Obama, who initially stated a timeline of 16 months for U.S. troop withdrawal from Iraq and sees the war as a strategic error. Additionally, I found your concluding statements in regards to the motivation of Nigerians to avidly follow the U.S. elections moving and very poignant. The United States is one of the oldest and most well-established democracies, providing a stark contrast to the Nigerian regime, whose failed attempt for a democratic election in 2007 has left the country in its perpetual slump of poverty and corruption. I hope that whomever is elected on November 4th has a positive impact on the Nigerian system of government.

While I respect and understand your perspective and the majority Nigerian supportive response to candidate Barack Obama, there are a few points that I would like you to consider. First of all, you seem to point towards your own government and poorly executed regime as the main source of wealth discrepancy. Do you think that expanding the role of government is the best solution for Nigerian prosperity, or should more control be left in the hands of the people? In regards to the Iraq war, what do you think will happen to the Iraqi citizens who support the United State’s mission in Iraq if we remove U.S. troops? Additionally, what type of relationship do you feel would best suit the United States and South Africa, and how could each nation foster more mutually beneficial ties? These are a few issues that I would appreciate if you considered in a follow-up post.

October 27, 2008

A SODIS Bottle of Potable Water: Half Full or Half Empty?

While the majority of United States citizens are engrossed with the presidential question that will be answered next Tuesday, the local residents of the Kibera slums in Kenya are consumed by a much more fundamental incertitude. Amidst the unbridled crime, disease and pollution in Kibera, home to approximately one third of Nairobi’s total population, the greatest daily challenge remains finding sufficient potable water. However, in a recent article entitled “Kenya: UV Rays to the Rescue," a small-scale initiative for a water purification system was recognized as a hopeful long-term sustainable solution to this critical issue of clean water. The most surprising detail of this report highlighting the SODIS initiative (shown below) and its success, was the absent role the Kenyan government played in its development. With a resource as vital as potable water, whose abundance in the United States goes widely unappreciated, one wonders why the Kenyan government has not put this concern on top priority. Should an unbiased reader assume a positive reaction to small-scale solutions such as SODIS as exemplary of local African empowerment and achievement, seeing the glass half full of freshly potable water? Or, should one consider these grassroots initiatives to be a giant red flag, pointing to the larger problem of an apathetic and inefficient Kenyan government that is incapable of deciphering the elementary needs of its citizens? While it would be unethical to answer on behalf of hypothetical readers, I deduce that it is the absence of governmental action in local development projects that lies at the causal root, sadly indicative of the inefficient and flawed institutions of Kenyan governance.

Although the Kenyan government has extended some assistance to improve the water situation in Kibera, the structures erected have been weak and only offer a temporary resolution. With the introduction of legislation in 2002, under which local entities gained control, the Nairobi Water and Sewerage Company has been responsible for providing its services to the city, including Kibera. However, there are only 25 kilometers worth of pipes in all of Kibera. The huge deficit in supply means the vast majority of residents are forced to buy water from private vendors, who allegedly pilfer it from the NWSC.  In addition, per an IRIN news article, “Kenya: Kibera, the Forgotten City," the few taps in the slum are “made of plastic, ridden with holes and cracks, and are consequently rather inefficient in keeping unsoiled water separate from sewage and waste.”  These local institutions, we can see, have proven just as unreliable as the Kenyan government in establishing long-term structural adjustments. Furthermore, in the recent presidential elections this past December, the two major candidates, Mwai Kibaki and Raila Odinga, campaigned primarily on the issues of free secondary school education and constitutional reform as their respective high-priority commissions. Rather than working to alleviate poverty, improve sanitation and health care, or work to create jobs in both the private and public sector, the two front-runners preferred to focus on issues that, while undeniably imperative, do not solve the life-threatening crises of sufficient nourishment, hygienic conditions and employment. How can citizens be expected to attend secondary schooling or find a job when they cannot even obtain drinkable water? Additionally, these basic issues have been plaguing the country since its independence in 1963, and remain unresolved today. Thus, for over forty years, the government has established its inability to enact solutions with longevity to relieve with permanence the most fundamental of concerns.

Despite the failure of the Kenyan government in finding national solutions to poverty and sanitation, its localized apathy to the water situation in Kibera is based largely on the tribal divisions deeply embedded in Kenyan political culture. In Kibera, the majority of people are Luo, a tribe historically marginalized under colonial rule as well as national leadership since Kenyan independence. Unfortunately for the Luos, every president since 1963 has been from the Kikuyu tribe, a tradition that continues to day with head of state Mwai Kibaki. While in power, each leader has demonstrated tribal preference, particularly visible with the government’s allocation of land, jobs, and resources, which always end up in Kikuyu hands. This tribal conflict was exacerbated to the point of bloodshed after the presidential elections, when controversy over the tallied results erupted into ethnic clashes and violence. These violent attacks unfortunately led to the destruction of one of main water pipes to Kibera (pictured below), heightening the importance of the SODIS program in the daily struggle for clean water. The government’s inaction over sanitary water concerns localized in Kibera is clearly linked to the time-honored discrimination against non-Kikuyus, which has in turn created a general sentiment of distrust of and discontent with national authority among its residents. In spite of the hopeful message of SODIS concerning grassroots development and action, it is hard not to condemn the government’s passivity and lack of concern for meeting basic needs as the culprit of rampant societal disparity.

Furthermore, while the SODIS project is by no means of seamless composition, its inconsequential setbacks are hardly deterrents for its continued practice. It is true that it cannot be performed on days without sunshine, and the solar energy only works effectively on amounts of water less than three liters. Additionally, SODIS makes no impression on water that has been tainted by fecal matter or chemicals. However, since its initiation in 2004 with the help of the Kenya Water for Health Organization, clinical cases of diarrhea are down by 41% in Kibera, and the deaths of young children from water-born related diseases have decreased in certain neighborhoods by 80%. The water project has grown from three staff members to twenty-four, reaching 65,000 households and fifteen schools in Kibera. Its indisputable success and achievements, especially in an impoverished area with few alternatives, overshadows these negligible drawbacks. The expansion and continued success of SODIS also stems from the responsibility and commitment of the local residents to the initiative, reflecting positively on the potential of the Kibera inhabitants to work outside of the government to improve their own standard of living.

Although I find stories of local action and empowerment hopeful in terms of Kenya’s future, I am also concerned about the revolutionary implications they have on society. As more systems similar to SODIS are introduced to marginalized communities, its citizens will become increasingly self-sufficient, finding solutions to rudimentary issues without governmental assistance or support. I worry that it will be only a matter of time before the lack of discourse between leadership and said communities erupts into a larger problem, where the administration’s inactivity, particularly in crucial areas, becomes increasingly indicative of its illegitimate governing abilities, which could potentially lead to a revolution of the masses and a sweeping regime change. Before the Kenyan government can reform the educational system or the constitution, the enduring misery of widespread poverty, lack of sanitation, and ongoing ethnic clashes needs to be countered with a viable and impartial answer. In order to achieve the prosperity desired by those who appreciate Kenya as a country with so much to offer, the government must prioritize problems, rid the government of corrupt institutions, and instigate a nonpartisan approach to provide all citizens with an evenhanded opportunity of survival and success. Projects such as SODIS, while not a panacea, reinforce both the country’s ability and willingness to work towards a more sustainable and equitable Kenya.

October 10, 2008

Afro-Connections: Internet Resources for Development and Change in Africa

With my recent realization of just how expansive the world wide web can be, I took the time this week to journey into its darkest corners in search of credible and useful resources to provide auxiliary information regarding the issues I tackle in individual posts, as well as to facilitate the further investigation of developmental matters in Africa. By employing both Webby and IMSA criteria to assess each website, I have selected twenty remarkably informative and intellectual sites that harmonize with and expand upon the nature of my blog. Within this collection of web-based resources, there are links to news sites, academic journals, aid-based organizations, and individual blogs in order to offer diversity of both perspective and subject matter. Each site functions with a high level of legitimacy and integrity, demonstrated by their stimulating and scholarly subject matter, clever visual design, and clear and logical website structure. Along with a general description and evaluation of each link included in this post, the twenty chosen websites have been posted on my linkroll (located on the left-hand side of this page).

The first websites that I happened upon, without too much exertion I might add, were the well-established, high quality news websites of the International Herald Tribune: Africa and the Middle East and BBC News: Africa (as depicted in the graphic below). Both sites provide their viewer with a clean yet stimulating visual layout, and offer a comprehensive range of global issues comprised from credible sources and scholars. The International Herald Tribune provides useful links to blogs, discussions, and special reports that supplement the major headlines. BBC News offers similar features, while also including links to audio news programs with an African concentration, such as "Network Africa" and "Africa Have Your Say". Both sites are excellent starting points for research on current issues in Africa, however their breadth is typically too expansive for the nature of my blog, which requires a certain level of specificity. In addition to the two sites aforementioned, I also uncovered "The Economist: Africa and the Middle East", a facile site to navigate with useful tools to find scholarly articles from current or previous editions, by country or by subject.  Another valuable news website is "World News Network: Africa", dividing resources into two categories, siting general newspapers, such as "Renewable Africa", as well as regional and national newspapers, such as the "Sudan Times". What makes World News Network unique is its visual content, replete with stimulating graphics that entertain and entice its visitors to further explore its erudite content. IT News: Africa is another excellent resource, which concentrates on technical and developmental news on the continent. However, it lacks organization, and can prove more challenging when trying to locate articles within a specific subject or location.

In addition to the larger and internationally renowned news sources, my online quest has also revealed a few hidden gems that are equally informative with content more unique to Africa.  All Africa is one of the largest electronic distributors of African news worldwide, highlighting topics such as "Sustainable Africa", which is of particular relevance to my blog content.  Despite  a visual layout littered with low quality graphics, distracting advertisements, and poorly categorized tabs, this site is teeming with articles and information on issues that are often overlooked by the mainstream media.   The Africa Resource Center is a credible academic resource, and includes scholarly essays, peer-reviewed journals, art and music information, and a diverse assortment of columnists who discuss anything from African rastas to social issues affecting children. In order to attain humanitarian news and analysis, IRIN News is a particularly educational website, offering film and radio footage, as well as "Hear our Voices", a forum for marginalized individuals to express themselves and call attention to their plight.  I have also included two Kenyan news sites to provide African perspectives on local issues from both regional and local levels: the Daily Nation, a popular Kenyan newspaper that focuses on events of the East African coast, and Coast Week, which deals with local issues confronting Kenya's coastal province.  While Coast Week is a more difficult site to navigate, mostly because of its low quality graphic design and layout, it presents compelling issues lying below the national level from a local point of view.  

Furthermore, I uncovered many websites for aid and development based organizations, such as the United Nations Development Programme: Africa, an informative source of new developmental programs, in particular those in place to empower women and reverse the marginalization of Africa. I also found the World Bank: Africa to be similarly educative, focusing on current projects set up to generate long-term, positive change to empower the African people, with a particularly helpful section entitled "In Focus", which discusses the major current problems and the efforts made to combat these issues. However, the World Bank website focuses largely on statistics and percentages, and lacks the personal accounts and engaging visuals that are offered on other sites. Mercy Corps, an organization which works to create lasting positive change in transitioning countries, is one of my preferred resources with its very personal and small-scale approach to change, and the added bonus of a user-friendly website that allows for easy searching and access to information. Another personal favorite is GlobalVoices: Sub-Saharan Africa, which displays and promotes online global communication, and shines light on issues that are skimmed over by the media. Other similar organizations include Africare (as pictured to the left), an aid-based organization dealing with HIV/AIDS, food security and development, as well as Transform Africa, a consortium of NGOs from the United Kingdom that are working to improve the effectiveness of local African organizations. Both sites are easy to navigate and informative, yet lack an explanation of the successes and/or failures of the programs and projects they have implemented.

Finally, I have unearthed several academic blogs that provide alternative perspectives on the issues I tackle in my own postings. One in particular, Afrigadget, a news and collective blog site highlighting new development with African initiative and innovation, has been one of my main resources in previous entries. Afrigadget is a particularly engaging blog and informative resource, displaying the successes of pragmatism with a simplistic approach, and focusing on creative development stemming from within the African community. I am also fond of The African Uptimist, where Lawrence, a program manager at United Nation's Environment Programme, explores the success of technology in Africa with an optimistic perspective, as well as Kenvironews, which investigates political and environmental news in Kenya.  However, Kenvironews' entries frequently reference an entire article with little opinionated commentary, which can prove frustrating if one is searching for a more personal perspective on a subject. Another great resource in the blogo-sphere is Kenya Unlimited, a website devoted to Kenyan vision and voices with a collection of blogs written by Kenyans, which again has personal significance to me and to my recent entries regarding Kenyan development. Overall, each website I have discussed offers creative, credible, and unique approaches to the delivery of their information. The diversity of perspective and subject matter creates a comprehensive list of resources that will promote further exploration of change and development in Africa, for both my readers and myself.

September 29, 2008

The Controversy Continues: Renewable Energy Revisited

In a previous post entitled "Waste for Welfare: Exploring Alternative Energy Solutions", I discussed a few examples of alternative energy programs that were being conducted in the developing and neighboring African nations of Kenya and Ethiopia. With a particular emphasis on bio-fuels and the use of waste (both food and human) in the production of fuel, I highlighted a bio-latrine project in Kenya's Kibera slums and a fuel briquette production program in the Akaki Kaliti neighborhood of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. This past week, I found two particular postings in the blogo-sphere that pointed out additional energy action and controversy in Kenya concerning the adoption of more eco-friendly and sustainable energy sources into the local communities. The first blog, "AfriGadget Innovator Series: Simon Mwacharo of Craftskills", was from, a website which sheds light on new innovative technologies developed by Africans to solve everyday issues. The post works essentially as a transcript of an interview with Simon Mwachano, an entrepreneur based in Nairobi who owns Craftskills. Craftskills is a small business that works to create and construct sustainable renewable energy projects in locations where electricity is difficult to access. The interview discusses the inspirations, challenges, and successes that Craftskills has encountered with the execution of their various projects, ranging from harnessing wind energy (as exemplified by the windmill pictured to the right) in the Taita hills to a water pumping turbine in Chirifi. The second post I stumbled upon similarly focuses on Kenyan energy projects, providing an impartial explanation of the potential benefits and the disadvantages to government implemented energy projects. "Biofuels and Biodiversity in Africa" from Kenya Environmental and Political News Weblog, a blog created to cover environmental and political information in Kenya with a view to promoting poverty alleviation through awareness, addresses the controversial aspects concerning the agricultural production of alternative biofuels is discussed, citing both environmental and pragmatic lifestyle concerns as evidence. While both blogs deal with the similar broad topics of "Africa" and "alternative energy", one discusses the challenges yet successes achieved through small-scale local ingenuity, while the latter delves into the downside of large-scale projects and international involvement in biofuel production.

"AfriGadget Innovator Series: Simon Mwacharo of Craftskills"
I thoroughly enjoyed this post discussing Simon Mwacharo of Craftskills, and providing those of us who are not familiar with his business and its mission with a sufficient introduction into the world of producing self-sustaining renewable energies. First of all, I was particularly pleased to discover that Mr. Mwacharo was originally from a village in the Taita Hills, a place I learned a great deal about after studying abroad in the coastal province of Kenya in the fall of 2007. My personal attachment to the Kenyan coast aside, his native heritage is of huge significance to his projects, both emphasizing and celebrating African "home grown" ingenuity and creativity, pointing to the success of initiative and action from within the community for its own preservation and prosperity. Craftskill's flexibility concerning the financial strain on the local community, as well as its understanding of deep rooted practices and beliefs, are also to the advantage of the company. This increases local popularity and support of these programs, and makes their innovative actions a tale of sustainable development "by the people, for the people", with projects encouraging the involvement and participation of the local community. A second poignant element of Simon's operation was his own motivation: training himself and working from the ground up, now with a skilled and growing work force of technicians, engineers, and sales representatives. Additionally, the use of local and inexpensive materials also makes Craftskills' projects easy on the pocket of the community while, once again, encouraging local sustainability. Overall, this post was inspirational and informative about small scale fuel technologies that do not receive much recognition. My one critique of the post. and thus the interview, stems from the lack of in-depth explanations of some of the individual projects, such as the Chifiri Water Pan Project, in order to gain more perspective on how these programs function and operate. How do the ideas come to fruition? How are these turbines faring today, and what are the reactions of the local community in regards to these creative and innovative renewable energy sources? Has it inspired other community members to get involved in other alternative fuel projects? Once again, thank you for uncovering such a unique and positive account on the developing nature of alternative fuels, and I hope to hear more about Craftskills (and its successes) in the future!

"Biofuels and Biodiversity in Africa"
I would like to thank you for tackling the issue of biofuel investigation and production, and uncovering the difficulties and disadvantages facing Kenya and Africa as a whole. While there are certainly benefits to the “green revolution” that has sparked the production of various alternative biofuel technologies, it is important to understand the potential repercussions of these actions. While I am not exactly sure to what extent a “moratorium on biofuels” in Africa, which as you mentioned was suggested by certain African non governmental organizations, would be an appropriate or correct choice, I understand the necessity to protect both the African people and the environment from those who wish to usurp and exploit its resources. I particularly appreciated the parallel you drew towards Darwin’s Nightmare and the issue of the Nile perch in the local fishing communities of Lake Victoria. After having spent a semester studying on the Kenyan coast last fall, I certainly heard a great deal of discussion concerning the fishermen living in Kisumu, and that point encompassed a great deal of personal resonance and perspective for me. I found the point you raised concerning the loss of land to non edible crops like flowers for international markets intriguing, and I was curious as to what source that information is stemming from, as I would like to broaden my understanding of the agriculture market in Kenya and Africa as a whole. I have also read from other blog postings and news sites about the issue of sugar-based ethanol farming in Kenya and the controversy regarding nomadic herdsmen and their concern over sufficient grazing lands for their cattle. Do you have a stance of this issue as well, and do you believe that this is yet another cause for critique concerning biofuel production in Africa? Additionally, there is certainly a lot of discussion concerning the rise of biofuel production and the increasing cost of food, which you reference in regards to the article, “The New Face Of Hunger” by Ban Ki-Moon. I think this is an important point to make, and certainly the most significant disadvantage to biofuel production. It is discouraging to that these lands are being converted in vain and are merely contributing to a crisis that is already so substantial internationally. I would love to know more about Jatropha and these other species called “miracle crops”, as I know very little about the variety of crops employed in the hopes of producing a viable energy source. While I do believe that the detrimental effects of these particular agricultural efforts for biofuel production need to be dealt with effectively and avoided in the future, I do not feel the answer lies in a widespread halt in the search of new energies. The inspiring stories of certainly point to the possibilities of small-scale and sustainable innovation for new energy technologies, and hopefully we will see more of them in the future. Again, thank you for this post and for shedding light of the controversies surrounding African biofuel production.

September 23, 2008

Waste for Welfare: Exploring Alternative Energy Sources

As the price of crude oil suggests, at a high $130 per barrel yesterday, the concern over America's energy agenda continues to plague the United States. Americans make up 4% of the world's population, yet we consume approximately 25% of the world’s oil, according to The soaring cost of energy has weighed heavily on the American economy, and has thus become one of the critical issues in the upcoming presidential elections. Both political parties share a common goal of less foreign dependency on oil and increased funding for alternative energy research. While the parties remain divided on more specific issues such as domestic drilling, the emphasis has been placed on exploring the alternatives energies, such as coal, wind, solar, and biofuel, which we can harvest here at home. However, while we continue to work to find fuel sources that can sustain our nation's high demand for energy, other countries have already found some margin of success in addressing their own local obstacles brought on by this international dilemma. As countries across the globe are working to alleviate the rising cost of fuel, it was the work of two African nations, Kenya and Ethiopia, whose efforts caught my attention by exhibiting small-scale success in this endeavor, prioritizing sustainability and environmentally conscious techniques. Both countries were able to maximize monetary and technological support from international organization and donars and put their acquired knowledge and man-power into use, constructing projects with potential for long-term success.

The first tale of energy activism occurred in Kibera, the largest slum in Kenya's capital city, Nairobi. The inhabitants of Kibera found success in combating the high cost of energy and food with one significant and omnipresent resource: sewage. With funding provided by international donors, Kibera residents along with Practical Action, an international non-governmental organization, were able to construct public “bio-latrines”, which filter out methane gas from human waste. The collected gas can then be used to heat water, turn on lamps, and light stoves. In addition, the remaining solid waste, once treated and re-filtered through reed beds, can be sold as fertilizer, an additional bi-product of the system. These particular bio-latrines, which were based off a model of similar design in Tanzania, were built adjacent to a school for orphaned children in the slum. The high traffic among these latrines has in turn generated enough gas to cook for the 68 orphans. Additionally, the money that the school saved from not buying charcoal for fuel has enabled them the funds to pay for two extra teachers. What is particularly resonant is the community’s single-handed management of the latrine project. By charging residents 3 cents for use of one of the eight drop-toilets, there is enough money to keep these latrines clean and properly maintained, with any surplus recycled into helping fund other bio-gas projects or other community-based development. Another advantage to these eco-friendly restrooms is the significant decrease in “flying toilets”, the unfortunate culmination of a lack of places to relieve oneself, the urgency to go, and a plastic bag. Those who are most relieved by the advent of bio-latrines are the unfortunate passers-by who find themselves in a head-on collision with one of these winged-waste bags.

Another example of bio-fuel success can be found in Akaki Kaliti, an impoverished neighborhood in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital city. A local organization, Women in Self-Employment (WiSE) teamed up with Mercy Corps, a non-profit dedicated to humanitarian and development work, to support a group of neighborhood women transform leftover food waste such as potato skins and fruit peels into fuel briquettes. These women were passionate about raising their own families up from the poverty line and creating environmentally non-harmful alternative fuel sources. These briquettes produce less smoke and have demonstrated equal burning capability in comparison to wood charcoal, which subsequently alleviates the dependency on already-scarce wood material in the area. These female entrepreneurs manufacture the fuel briquettes through a process of slowly burning the organic material, grinding the remaining matter, and mixing it with clay and water in an agglomerator. The women have also received the necessary training, equipment, and support to start more of these environmentally conscious businesses that will create a similarly earth-friendly and inexpensive alternative fuel source. Eventually, these businesses will attain a certain level of success and will expand, creating more job opportunities for other residents of Ethiopia’s capital, while also manufacturing an increased number of briquettes. While this example of fuel source exploration is younger and thus less developed than the model discussed in Kenya, it’s monetary support from international organizations and the determination and aptitude of these young women help to ensure its survival in the short term. Hopefully, the fuel briquette production will prove successful in the long run as well, and will encourage economic growth and opportunity in the impoverished neighborhoods of Addis Ababa.

In both Kenya and Ethiopia, these assertive actions for alternative energy sources have great potential and social benefits as well. These programs provide more job opportunities in an area of the globe where unemployment hovers around 40% to 50%, while also creating products that are non-disruptive, safe, and even positive for the environment. In addition, a key component of their success thus far derives from their initial modest scale of production, which allows for more experimentation and less room for failure. After seeing the success in countries where oil dependency is not as high as in the United States, what progress has our own country made in the development of eco-friendly fuels?

The United States has been experimenting with domestic alternative forms of energy for several years now, and most recently has been active in researching ethanol gas. While ethanol fuel has proven to be a cleaner energy source with fewer greenhouse gas emissions, its production, which requires the use of corn, has the unfortunate consequence of creating additional strain on the rising cost of food. In the state of the union address in 2006, the alternative energy development expenditure was $10 billion, with undoubtedly more funding on its way as demonstrated by the political agendas of both presidential candidates. However, the issue within our own nation lies not only in finding alternative methods of supporting our fuel demands, but also in reducing our needs. As stated in an editorial from The Washington Post entitled “There is an Energy Crisis”, American energy independence “lies in conservation". "The average American burns 26 barrels of oil per year, compared to 12 for the average European; if Americans drove cars of the same efficiency as Europeans -- even if they continued driving just as many miles as they do today -- they would save in annual oil consumption the equivalent of Iran's entire annual production”. Unfortunately, it seems that our demand for energy is only growing, with a projected increase of 35% between 2003 and 2025, according to the U.S. Department of Energy Office of Science. While the research and technology the United State’s has developed may not be as obvious nor as tangible as the bio-fuel programs started in countries like Kenya and Ethiopia, we have certainly made great strides in understanding the pitfalls of our oil and gas dependency, realizing the domestic potential of energy resources available, and working towards energy-conscious conservation at the national level. Developing a sustainable and non-toxic energy form that will support the diversity and complexity of the United States economy will take time and patience, and will require some room for trial and error. However, the responsible and conscious environmental projects created by the people of Kenya and Ethiopia exemplify how part of our energy problem lies within our lack of action. In two countries that have suffered continually hardship with high unemployment rates, extreme poverty and unstable governments, those who were passionate about the cause were still able to make a palpable difference within their community. Despite all our technological advancements followed by greater international independence, our high consumption of the World's oil relinquishes any independence we may have gained through our science and endless research. Maybe it is time the United States to reconsider working on the micro-scale, or even acting on it.
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