15 September 2009

Followup: Child Survival

Perhaps some of you faithful readers remember my post on child mortality rates, where we discussed the main causes of child deaths globally.

This week I got some good news on my Facebook feed. (Are you Facebook-friends with UNICEF yet? It's a super-convenient way to keep up on headlines related to global children's issues.) Here's the good news: Recent reports indicate that global child mortality rates are continuing to drop.

Thanks to measures like immunizations, insecticide-treated bednets, and vitamin A supplements, the child mortality rate is declining steadily. From the article linked above: "UNICEF Executive Director Ann M. Veneman noted that compared to 1990, some 10,000 fewer children are dying every day."

This is good news--it really is--but of course there has to be an addendum. Although death rates are declining, 8.8 million children still die every year. Nearly 40 percent of these child deaths occur in just three countries: India, Nigeria, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Most of these children die of preventable causes, as discussed in my previous post, like malnutrition, malaria, and other preventable diseases.

Still, we are on the right track. Visit unicef.org for ideas on how you can get involved with the fight for child survival.

29 August 2009

Issue: Women

I will be amazed if anyone is still checking this blog, but here comes a post anyway! It has been a long hiatus, and I apologize. In the past couple of months, we bought a house, moved across the country, changed jobs, finished one thesis (my husband's) and started another (mine)--and of course, there's always that thing where we're chasing a toddler (or rather, waddling behind a toddler, since I'm third-trimester-pregnant). We are settled into our new home now, internet access and all, so I think that I will be returning you to your regularly scheduled blog-programming.

Today I mostly just have a recommendation. Last week a friend forwarded me an amazing article that was recently published in the New York Times. This article, "The Women's Crusade," was written by Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn. If Kristof's name sounds familiar to you, it might be because of his regular Times column that often addresses, among other social issues, global women's issues. Past columns have covered topics like sex trafficking, maternal health and obstetric fistula, and mass rape as an element of warfare. (You can access a full list of his columns here.)

Kristof and WuDunn (who are married to each other) have written a new book called Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Worldwide, which is scheduled to be released in early September. In preparation for the book release, the Times published an excerpt from the book under the title "The Women's Crusade." Please take some time to go read this article. If it is any indication of the quality of the book, you can bet I will be reviewing the rest of the book soon. "The Women's Crusade" is an excellent introduction to a number of issues that affect women around the world, such as domestic violence, poverty, bride burning, sex-selective abortion, sex slavery, maternal mortality, health, education, etc. etc. I hope to delve more deeply into some of these topics in future blog posts, but for now the excerpt from the book will provide you will a good overview, and a sense of why these issues are so urgent.

29 May 2009

Book Review: Regarding the Pain of Others

"To paraphrase several sages: Nobody can think and hit someone at the same time."
-Susan Sontag

OK, the cover picture is disturbing. Actually, it just gets increasingly disturbing as you look at it more, and as you think about its implications. Susan Sontag's book Regarding the Pain of Others is about violence, essentially. Every day we are exposed--in newspapers, on the internet--to photographs of violence that is occurring in some distant part of the world. What effect does the viewing of that violence have on us? What effect does it have on the person whose suffering is depicted? What is the relationship between the viewer and the viewed, and how can we make that photographic relationship more compassionate and less exploitative?

Regarding the Pain of Others is a really interesting look at issues connected to photography, the gaze, representation in times of war and suffering, and the complex relationship between those who look and those who are looked at. This book deals with the outer limits of human cruelty and brutality, and how people respond when exposed to visual images of these kinds of acts.

Try this. I've recommended James Nachtwey's photographs before on this blog, but I want to recommend them again. Take a look at his famine photographs, for instance. They are not easy to look at, nor should they be. But as you look--as you gaze at this other flesh-and-blood person whose day-to-day reality is so different than yours--think about what you feel for that person. Think about how you are affected by the presence of a lens or the presence of the ocean. Think about how you are connected, and also the ways you will never be connected. Think about these words: complicity, silence, helplessness, voice. Think about whether there is even an appropriate way to respond to photographs like these.

Regarding the Pain of Others ends like this:

"'We'--this 'we' is everyone who has never experienced anything like what they went through--don't understand. We don't get it. We truly can't imagine what it was like. We can't imagine how dreadful, how terrifying war is; and how normal it becomes. Can't understand, can't imagine. That's what every soldier, and every journalist and aid worker and independent observer who has put in time under fire, and had the luck to elude the death that struck down others nearby, stubbornly feels. And they are right."

19 May 2009

Issue: Consumption

(Photo from the Wall Street Journal)

I don't know if this blog post is properly titled, or even if I have a concise and cogent topic for the post, but I just want to throw out a few things that I've been thinking about lately.

To get started, please click here and check out the Global Rich List. You put in how much money you earn, and see how much of the world's population is poorer than you.

Go ahead.

Do it.

I'll wait.

OK, now that you've done it, perhaps you're feeling richer than you did before you clicked on the link. Maybe you just found that you're in the richest 10 percent, or 4 percent, or 2 percent of the world. But your place there is not surprising, since half of the world (roughly 3 billion people) lives on less than $2.50 a day. And the richest 20 percent of the world accounts for three-quarters of the world's income.

Some people would like to think that this is changing--that as more wealth is created throughout the world, more people have access to wealth. But according to the UNDP, 80 percent of the world's population lives in countries where the income differentials are actually widening.

Whenever I start thinking about poverty, I invariably find myself considering my own place and role in the continuing existence of world poverty. After all, the world is rich in resources and wealth, but that wealth is unequally distributed. So the wealthy have more wealth, and as a result they (we) are able to consume more resources. This means that the richest people in the world consume far more resources than the poorest people in the world. In fact...

I got this image from a Global Issues blog:

If you break it down even further, the richest 10 percent of the world's population consumes nearly 60 percent of the world's resources. (By the way, in case you're interested, the breakdown in the United States is no less shocking--in the U.S., the richest 1 percent of the population holds 40 percent of the country's financial wealth.)

So what I keep thinking about is: How much of that consumption am I responsible for?
And the more I think/read about it, the more I feel like there is a crucial link between the widening gap between the rich and the poor, and the overconsumption by rich countries of the earth's (limited) resources.

My sister-in-law told me that when she was young, when her parents would say something like "Eat your dinner because there are starving children in China," she would respond with, "Then why don't you pack up this food and send it to them?!" It's funny, but it's also sort of a valid question. How does my eating everything on my plate change the lot of a hungry person in China (or Ethiopia, or Bolivia)? What is the connection between the amount of resources I consume and the amount of resources other people have access to? I definitely have a sense that this is a moral issue, and that it is immoral for me to consume extravagant amounts of resources when so many people don't even have enough to eat. So I believe that I should consume resources responsibly, AND I believe that we have to find ways to improve the distribution of goods and services so that the income gap doesn't continue to widen... but I want to hear people's ideas about how these two things are linked. Because I believe that they are, but I'm having a hard time explaining myself.

[This is where I'm really hoping that some of you (I know you're out there reading this, but most of you are COMMENT-SLACKERS) will step in, comment, and tell me what you think, because I feel like it's important and I also feel like there is something I'm missing.]

Of course, I can think of lots of things that each of us can do to reduce our ecological footprint and consume the earth's resources in a more responsible way, and it seems like this would be a good place to mention a few. A few suggestions, each with a link that will explain why it's relevant/important:

*Eat less (or no!) meat.

*Eat (real) food that is locally grown.

*Remember that famous maxim: Reduce, reuse and recycle.

*Assess your own ecological footprint and think about how to reduce it.

*Diagnose yourself: Do you have affluenza?

What else?

12 May 2009

Film Review: The Soloist, and Issue: Homelessness in America

Yesterday I saw "The Soloist" in a theater, and it inspired me to go domestic on the blog. "The Soloist" has a potent combination of themes; those of you who know me will not be surprised that I loved a movie that addresses homelessness and poverty in America, mental illness, race, the dynamics of helping/not helping people, group identity, the power of music, and the process of writing. It's in theaters right now, and I really recommend that you check it out if you have a chance. You can watch the trailer here.

For this blog entry, I'll review the film and also talk a bit about homelessness in the U.S. of A.

"The Soloist" is based on the true story of an encounter between Steve Lopez, a columnist for the L.A. Times, and Nathaniel Anthony Ayers, a gifted Julliard-trained musician who Lopez finds living on the streets of L.A. Lopez begins to write about Ayers' life, and the two of them become friends. He learns about the mental illness (schizophrenia) that derailed Ayers' plans to be a successful musician. He listens to Ayers play a two-stringed violin, and then a donated cello, in the street. He tries to help Ayers; he learns that helping is more complicated than we would like to think.

On a filmic level, I was impressed with "The Soloist." I thought Jamie Foxx and Robert Downey Jr. (and the other cast members as well) were completely brilliant in their roles. The soundtrack (comprised mostly of classical music and variations, featuring a lot of Beethoven music) was gorgeous. I was also pleased because the cello happens to be my favorite instrument to listen to, besides the piano. But what really made me fall in love with this movie was what it's about.

When I was in high school I started volunteering weekly in the playroom at my local homeless shelter. I think it was this experience that really broke apart, for me, some of the myths about the face of homelessness. Throughout high school, college, and my post-college years, I continued to volunteer (and, for a time, work as a paid employee) with the homeless population. (I haven't managed to do much work in this area since I had a baby two years ago.) So you can imagine why this issue is so important to me. When I think of homelessness, I think of specific people--like a woman I knew, who had been married to an abusive husband and had no family to turn to. One day, after a particularly bad beating, she took her two daughters (ages 2 and 6 months) and all the cash she could find, got in the car, and drove until she ran out of money. She ended up in our city (three states away) and at our soup kitchen. She ate all her meals with us, and took public assistance for a few months until she could find a job and affordable+adequate childcare (not easy things to find). After a while she saved up enough money to put a deposit on an apartment... and then I lost touch with her. But when I think of homelessness, I think of people like her.

I've often said that poverty in America is a different thing than global poverty, and it is. (You're not very likely to die of starvation in America, or of diarrhea or measles or malaria--in other parts of the world, you're lucky if you don't. In some countries, the majority of people make less than a dollar a day, and live in conditions that would qualify them as homeless in America.) Poverty in America is is a bit different, and that's part of the reason I typically focus this blog on global issues. But don't assume I'm not equally concerned with domestic issues--I am. America has extreme economic inequality; there is a LOT of money up in here, and we still have children sleeping on the streets. And since most of my blog readers live in the U.S., that means some of the issues raised in this post are happening in your own backyard--and I don't know about you, but it makes me feel complicit.

It's difficult to find reliable statistics about homelessness, because homelessness is, by its very nature, a transient and difficult thing to measure. There are homeless people who live in shelters, or on the streets, or in cars, or who sleep on friends' couches. Some people may experience a lack of permanence that has them sleeping in hotels when they have some cash, or on the streets when they don't. An estimated 3.5 million Americans experience homelessness every year. For most of them, homelessness is a temporary condition, although an estimated 10 percent of them deal with chronic (or long-term) homelessness.

I know many people have a particular image that comes to mind when they think of people dealing with homelessness. When I think of homelessness, I think first of children--which is appropriate, since nearly 40 percent of America's homeless people are children (and nearly half of those children are under the age of five).

So who is homeless in America? Here are some things to consider, gleaned from the National Coalition for the Homeless:

* Approximately 40 percent of homeless men are veterans of the armed forces.

* Roughly 16 percent of homeless individuals suffer from "some form of severe and persistent mental illness."

* Studies have found that nearly half of all homeless women and children are fleeing domestic violence.

* Families with children comprise nearly one-quarter of homeless individuals.

* Up to 25 percent of homeless people work full-time.

* The federal definition of "affordable housing" is housing that costs 30 percent of a person's income. This is calculated to guarantee that there is adequate money left to pay for insurance, health care costs, food, heating, and the many other expenses that people face (especially people who have to deal with the high costs of prescriptions and doctors' visits for treating chronic health conditions, including mental illnesses). But in most states, a minimum-wage worker would have to work 89 hours a week in order to earn enough to pay only 30 percent of their income to housing.

The problems faced by homeless individuals should be self-explanatory, but I'll mention a few anyway. Homeless people are extremely vulnerable to physical assault, rape and sexual assault, and theft. Homeless families generally don't have good access to health care, mental health care, and dental care, and mortality rates are three times as high as within the general population. Between the risk of physical danger, subpar health care, and being subject to dangerously cold weather, the average life expectancy for homeless individuals is age 51. Children in homelessness are much less likely to get a good education (which is part of the reason that homelessness is so self-perpetuating). One-third of homeless people do not get enough to eat. This section could go on for pages, but I think you get the idea.

How can this happen? Honestly, I ask myself that question every day. I mean, I can understand why it happens: A confluence of events that force people onto the streets. Poverty + expensive rental housing + increasing unemployment + the mortgage crisis + mental illness + inadequate health care/mental health care for many low-income Americans + domestic violence + inadequate veterans assistance + a low minimum wage + inadequate substance abuse programs + widespread misconceptions and intolerance toward homeless people that result in huge challenges for organizations that are trying to create more opportunities for housing and employment. Etc.

But the question I ask myself is not answered by any of these "explanations;" it is: How do we let this happen? President Obama recently said that it is "not acceptable for children and families to be without a roof over their heads in a country as wealthy as ours." I agree; I think it's unconscionable.

OK, so... what do we do? Often when I'm writing these posts I want to drop everything and move to Uganda. I want to do something. This post will be easy for you to act on in a very personal way, because homelessness exists in communities across the United States. Chances are, there is a homeless shelter or food pantry near you that is in need of volunteers or donations.

Click here to access a directory of service organizations across the country. You can search by state. The directory is not comprehensive, though, so you might also want to check in your phone book. The "blue pages" near the front should have a listing of local community service organizations. Or just get to work on Google. If your nearest organization has a website, it probably includes lists of what the organization is most in need of.

Also, the Take Part website for "The Soloist" has a directory of volunteer opportunities, as well as information and tips on how to get involve in your own community. While you're there, check out this video that debunks some of the popular myths about homelessness.

Once you've found an organization, call your nearest shelter/pantry and ask to talk to the volunteer coordinator. If possible, call with an idea of what you're hoping to do already in mind. This will depend on how much time you're willing to commit, but here are a few ideas:

*If you want to commit a couple of hours a week: Your organization may need people to serve meals, or to sort through donations, or to wash dishes, or to play with kids in the playroom, or to teach a computer class, or to teach a dance class for kids... Setting aside two or three hours a week will enable you to really get to know the people you're working with.

*If you want to do a big one-time only project: Donate some cash! Or organize a food or clothing drive in your neighborhood, or plan a party and ask everyone who attends to make a donation or bring a sack of food for the food bank. Be creative; big projects take planning, but they are a great way to pull together resources and simultaneously raise awareness about the issues connected with homelessness. (Some of your friends might not even realize that homelessness exists in your community.)

*If you want to do a little bit here and there: Perhaps you can take in periodic donations of food or clothing, or maybe the organization needs people to pick up food/donations from local businesses. Or maybe the organization has a big event coming up and they need help preparing or staffing. Some organizations will be able to accommodate you on this kind of an occasional basis.

*If you'd prefer to get involved in an activist kind of way, local organizations may or may not be your best bet. Sign up for the newsletter at the National Coalition for the Homeless website, or check out this list of advocacy groups.

All right, get to it! If you are able to watch "The Soloist" or get involved in a community project, I would love to hear about your experiences...

06 May 2009

Film Review: War Dance

This week I noticed a documentary on the shelf at my library, called War Dance, directed by Sean Fine and Andrea Nix Fine. I took it home and watched it; I'm glad I did. Maybe your local library has it, too.

War Dance is set in northern Uganda, a region that has been wracked by conflict for two decades. Ongoing fighting between government forces and the rebel group Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) has created instability in wide swaths of the countryside. (The LRA is also linked with the conflicts in neighboring Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo, which we've previously discussed on this blog.)

Perhaps the dimension of the conflict that has received the most attention is the forcible "recruitment" (a.k.a. abduction) of children to serve as soldiers or slaves for the LRA. Although child soldiering is not the main focus of War Dance, one child featured in the documentary tells his story about being abducted, taken into the bush with the rebels, and forced to perform terrible acts. The other children interviewed in the documentary share their stories of how the war has affected their lives and the lives of their families. The film is a good introduction, on an educational level, to issues like child soldiers and orphan-headed households.

But the film doesn't stop with tales of atrocities. The main storyline of the film revolves around Uganda's National Music Competition, where 20,000 schools compete in dance, singing and instrumental music. The featured students in northern Uganda (from the Patongo school) have never made it to this competition before; after all, many of them are orphans, refugees, heavily impacted by the war. The film follows these students in their quest to compete in the Competition in Kampala. I won't give away the ending, but I will say that it was refreshing to see a film in which the children come away feeling empowered because of something they accomplished. So often, kids are portrayed strictly as victims, or they are shown being empowered by adults' lectures--but in this film, the kids work hard, accomplish something, and feel powerful as a result.

If you like music and dance, you will love the scenes of children performing traditional music and tribal dances. And if you like stylistically-beautiful films, this one's for you. Despite its sometimes-dark subject nature, it is gorgeous. The cinematography is breathtaking, the landscape is beautiful--and the color! the light!

I think the filmmakers made a stylistic choice to skimp a bit on historical analysis, so if you watch this film I would recommend that you read up on the LRA and the situation in northern Uganda, to help you contextualize what you're seeing. In fact, even if you don't watch the film, click on these links. Northern Uganda gets remarkably little international attention, and it is one of the world's most dangerous conflicts, especially for children.

You can watch a trailer for the film and look at (beautiful) still photographs at the War Dance website.

24 April 2009

Issue and Action: Malaria

Tomorrow (April 25) is World Malaria Day, so of course: Let's talk about it.

(This photo is from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation photo gallery.)

This is how it happens: Malaria is caused by a microscopic parasite that is carried by infected mosquitoes. When an infected mosquito bites a person, the parasite goes straight to the person's liver and begins to reproduce, then the infection is passed throughout the body through the blood stream. If the parasite arrives in the brain, cerebral malaria (which may lead to a coma and permanent neurological damage, and may be fatal) occurs.

Every 30 seconds, a child dies from malaria. Worldwide, malaria exists in 109 countries (which, combined, are home to half of the world's population) and kills a million people every year. In Africa specifically, malaria kills more children than any other disease. Overall, 90 percent of the people who die of malaria live in Africa. As is the case with so many public health issues, children are disproportionately affected by malaria.

Of course, even if a person doesn't die of malaria, there can be long-term effects just from contracting the disease. Globally, there are an estimated 350 to 500 million cases of malaria every year. Children who survive a case of cerebral malaria may suffer from long-term learning impairments or brain dysfunction. Also, malaria can cause anemia in children, which makes them more vulnerable to diarrhea, dehydration, and respiratory illnesses--which can, as we've seen in previous posts, be fatal in areas without ready access to health care, clean water, and adequate nutrition. Also, pregnant women (another high-risk population) who contract malaria have higher infant mortality rates, and their babies may be born with dangerously low birthweights.

You can imagine the toll that this disease takes on communities and nations; Africa loses an estimated $12 billion every year because of malarial infections.

One of the best-known (and simplest, and cheapest) ways to prevent malaria is to promote mosquito control initiatives. Distribution of insecticide-treated mosquito nets have been shown to have a remarkable effect on decreasing malaria. Technological innovation has made these nets more effective; old nets sometimes had to be re-sprayed with insecticide every six months, but the new nets are extremely effective. This, in combination with simple public health efforts such as removing standing water from the vicinity of homes (since mosquitoes breed near standing water), is crucial toward preventing malaria.

Other crucial initiatives involve improving access to drugs that treat malaria (which at present may be hard to come by, or too expensive). Other organizations are working to develop other prevention strategies (such as a malaria vaccine). The international community is working toward a goal of near-zero deaths from malaria by the year 2015. Obviously this will require concerted effort--and commentators seem divided on whether it is possible at this point--but many organizations are working toward this goal.

Recent data suggest that things are already changing, in some target countries, even faster than anyone expected. For instance, in Zambia, malaria deaths have been cut by two-thirds! And countries like like Rwanda and Ethopia are registering significant declines in their child mortality rates, attributable to the widespread distribution of bed nets.

I love these figures; I love to tell them to people who try to tell me that making donations to public health NGOs doesn't make a difference. Because if you choose your organizations wisely, your small donations really can contribute to difference-making.

If you're interested in learning more or donating to one of these organizations, here are some good ones to check out:
Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation
The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria
Nothing But Nets
Malaria No More

Also, if you have ten seconds to spare, you can sign this proclamation indicating your support for President Obama's promise to make ending malaria a national priority in the USA.

And if you have ten dollars to spare, you can donate an insecticide-treated mosquito net to an African country (and receive a woven African bracelet as a gift).