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Saturday, January 10, 2015

Water as a tool of War #Yarmouk #Syria


Published at Aljazeera English 


Yarmouk camp victim of water wars in Syria


The Syrian regime is using water as a tool of war in the Yarmouk camp, according to a recent report issued by the Palestinian League for Human Rights (PLHR).

According to PLHR, a diaspora network established in 2012 with contacts all over the Palestinian camps, the camp's water supply was entirely cut off with no justification provided, leading to a humanitarian catastrophe.

"We live an atrocious tragedy and all forms of death are available here," Abdullah al-Khateeb, a Palestinian activist living in Yarmouk, told Al Jazeera over the phone.


Caught up in the war between rebel armed groups and the Syrian army, the camp paid a high price. Of the 160,000 Palestinians who used to live in the camp, only 18,000 remain. Established in 1957, Yarmouk camp is one of nine camps hosting Palestinian refugees in Syria; the number of registered Palestinian refugees, according to UN figures, is 517,255.

Since December 2012, fighting from the Syrian civil war, which followed the popular uprising in March 2011, spilled over into the camp when some rebel groups moved there. The regime claims it was fighting "extremist groups" inside the camp.


In July 2013, the camp came under siege by regime forces, leaving at least 200 people dead from starvation, accelerated by dehydration and water-related diseases. Since the blockade began, food and medical aid were prevented from entering Yarmouk, and the drinking water was cut off.

A relief activist in Tadamon, a close neighbourhood east of Yarmouk, told Al Jazeera over the phone that one of the relief agencies gave activists a few hundred dollars to buy and provide water for both Tadamon and Yarmouk.

However, the amount of water  "was barely enough for one of their streets". Tadamon is home to over 65 families as well as the Free Syrian Army (FSA) fighters and their families.

The first day we went to distribute the water from the tank, I was threatened with arrest, then a group of fighters from FSA attacked me.
Relief activist in Tadamon
"The first day we went to distribute the water, I was threatened with arrest, then a group of fighters from FSA attacked me," the activist said.
The lack of water supplies is also threatening agricultural projects that some organisations carry out to ease the food shortage.
Ansar Hevi, an activist with the 15th Garden, a farmers' solidarity network supporting besieged areas in Syria to grow their own food, expressed fears of drought, recalling the 2005 drought and its grave consequences on plantation.

As a survival tactic, people were encouraged to plant gardens in their own houses, on their rooftops or in between buildings to stave off starvation.
But in light of the current water crisis, tending for these farming projects is becoming costly as the price for an hour's fuel (needed to pull water from wells) has risen to $30.

Eventually, "the water cut will not only affect the gardens, but the whole economic structure that developed under siege because these projects helped reduce prices of food commodities sold in the black market".

A board member of the PLHR who gave her name as Selena Mohamed told Al Jazeera: "Even if the regime will allow some food shipments into the camp once in a while through its own organisations, this move will do little to ease the immense suffering. The water crisis will remain the most humiliating weapon of war."

Death and brutality, Mohamed said, have many faces in Yarmouk. Besides starvation, diseases and blockades of aid, daily indiscriminate bombing with mortars, snipers and ammunition continue to kill civilians and children. 

"Yarmouk reached 540 days of siege and 110 days without drinking water."

Between 2013 and 2014,  there were - at least - 26 ceasefire initiatives between regime forces and armed opposition groups. Many of these initiatives were discussed in Yarmouk as a possible exit since neither regime forces nor the opposition could achieve any military breakthroughs on the ground.
The talks involved the Syrian regime, rebel fighters based in the camp and Islamist groups. Most of the truces ensured that the main entrances to the camp would be opened and basic services restored. However, UNRWA is still unable to carry out humanitarian operations in the camp. 

The UN intervened in other areas in Syria, such as backing up the truce in Homsto allow besieged and starving opposition fighters to evacuate the Old City. "But it did not intervene for Palestinian camps, " said Ala Aboud, a PLHR board member.

The PLHR report states: "Despite the regime agreement and promises that civilians would be unmolested during food deliveries, dozens were arrested by regime forces that were present in the delivery area at the camp's entrance, and dozens more were killed during delivery operations, either by snipers or in clashes between regime and opposition forces, both parties are indifferent to the presence of civilians."
The evacuation, however,  and according to activists, can put them at the risk of being detained by regime forces. 

Recently, several activists have been assassinated in the camp, although they say they do not know who is behind such assassinations since activists are being targeted by all parties.

The PLHR report recommendations hold several parties responsible for the deterioration of the situation in Yarmouk and demand an urgent humanitarian operation.

The PLHR report stated that the Assad regime was primarily responsible for the "genocidal war crimes" against Yarmouk camp, while it calls for putting pressure on the Syrian regime to reopen water supplies and urge all parties to resume aid to the area.

A member of the board quotes Article 6 of the Rome Statute, noting: "For the purpose of this statute, 'genocide' means any of the following acts committed with the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethical, racial or religious group... "

According to camp activists, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) operates with limited deliveries of assistance. Locals confirm that emergency sections and all medical centres are closed. Only a few doctors are available but with hardly any equipment.

Locals' testimonies seem to match that of Daphnee Maret, the deputy head of the ICRC delegation in Syria, who admits that it is "the first time in over a year that we have been able to deliver aid to the people in the camp. We hope to do more."

The PLHR report cites the failure of the ICRC to address the situation in Yarmouk camp, pointing to their previous work in Iraq and Yemen, where they "distributed water to many areas that were damaged during the then-ongoing war. It also repaired water supply networks, re-operated water pumping stations and ensured water supply to the various Iraqi cities."

UNRWA, considered responsible for the protection and assistance of Palestinian refugees, announced that it only managed to distribute fewer than 700 parcels over the course of the entire month of December, which does not meet the minimum needs.

"Between asylum seekers, refugees and under siege, the Palestinians of Syria remain today's most untold story in the Syrian conflict," Aboud said.

Keeping momentum in reporting on the tormented Yarmouk, according to analysts, remains crucial in helping solve the crisis.

"It's not a coincidence that aid began to enter Yarmouk slowly when the siege became a prominent subject for a brief period within the diaspora," said Talal Alyan, a Palestinian-American commentator.


Saturday, January 3, 2015

The future of Climate Change in Africa

 INTERVIEW WITH ROSE WACHUKA



I interviewed Rose Wachuka, a dear friend and a climate activist. 

Rose is a Steering Committee member of the Global Young Greens (GYG). She is also the Strategic Advisor on Programsand Partner Relations at Kenya Young Greens. Rose prides herself in the fact that the Green principles are focused on ensuring that women and minority rights are protected. Rose is the co-founder of the Voice of Women Initiative and a blogger, building a platform that would inform the world about African values, democracy, green principles and the value of peace. Her blog is called Green Background.


1.Tell us about your "climate awakening moment", the moment where you decided to dedicate your efforts in climate activism and why you think everyone has to have that “awakening moment" to save our nations and continent?

I was asked to present a paper on Climate Change Farmer Related Suicides in Makueni County in Kenya at an East African Climate Change and Reproductive Rights Conference in Munyonyo, Uganda in 2010. At first, the topic seemed surreal. Then I embarked on the data collection and discovered that not only were desperate farmers in dire need of government assistance, but that some of them had become suicidal as a result of the change in weather patterns, reduced productivity and increased poverty. The link between psychology and the effects of climate change reinforced my zeal to continue pushing for climate responsibility. Over the years, I have learnt that the understanding and comprehension of impacts and the long term effects are different in different parts of the world.

This differentiated approach is worrying because most policy makers react to the problem of climate change based on their national state identity. Most nations focus on their national security, economic prosperity and self survival. This approach cannot work where the global commons are concerned. Climate change threatens the existence of the present and future generations. So, I have been focusing more on this policy aspect. If we are to achieve any meaningful impact on this issue, we must reorganize our global priorities and economic model. We must realize that millions of people in little villages around the world and who neither understand why their lives seem so bleak, nor have the opportunity to attend international climate conferences, face the worst threats. We must realize that our global future is interlinked and that realism as far as climate justice is concerned can no longer hold. Everybody is threatened and everyone needs to realize that the future of development has to have a sustainable matrix.

2. Following your passion and vision what did you concretely achieve with Global Young Greens and other initiatives in East Africa and Africa in general?

Information and an avenue to talk about the environment have been the greatest avenue the Global Greens and the Global Young Greens have offered, particularly for Africans. In Europe for instance, where the movement is strongest, this dialogue has traversed into the political sphere with young Greens getting elected on the basis on a conscious ideology into the European Parliament.

As a member of the Steering Committee of the Global Young Greens and strategic adviser to the Kenya Young Greens, I have been involved in national and continental climate and environmental awareness and policy and law making. The African Civil Society is very climate change attuned with the African Youth Initiative on Climate Change (AYIIC) and PACJA among the internationally recognized pressure groups for climate justice. The gap and the area that I continue to engage in is policy and law: Commenting on bills and laws relating to the environment such as the Biosafety Bill in Kenya and ensuring that the constitutional imperative of sustainable development is upheld.

3. Where do you think the real problem lies; in companies, governments or communities?

Africa is in the age of industrialization. The narrative has been that 'Africa is Rising' and this is the problem. African governments are economic oriented but pursuing the same model as other industrialised nations around the world. While indeed, the continent is putting in a lot of hard work both in its manufacturing industries, infrastructure and production, the formula for development must incorporate sustainability.

Governments must consider the impact of external extraction and particularly, the impact of oil and gas exploration upon the environment. While most African countries are resource rich, the productive use of those resources continues to be elusive. Our model for development has to be different. We must incorporate human and environmental considerations into that model.

4. What do you think about the future of climate change policy plans and implementation in Kenya and Africa?

Climate change cannot be averted using the tactic of veto and political power. Climate diplomacy must be level and it must be directional. The Kenyan Foreign Policy incorporates environmental diplomacy as one of its key pillars. As a country dependent on agriculture, the government has dedicated a part of the national budget to enhancing food security. Sustainable development is also one of the constitutional values under Article 10 of the Constitution. The approach of involving the private sector and civil society on national climate and environmental dialogue is very effective. Unlike in the past, the government of Kenya, the private sector and civil society have an agreed position on the future of climate dialogue. The current model is not working and an immediate and most urgent shift ought to be engaged.

We must realize that no single continent can tackle climate change. It is a phenomenal problem that affects various parts of the world in different ways. The world must move beyond trial and error. It must move beyond tiring, verbose climate summits. Governments must allow scientists, geologists, farmers, fishermen, industrialists, financiers, children and women and all those concerned, to find solutions. It must be about compromise and sacrifice. Production and the economic model must move from the individualistic capitalist sense to a more conscious Green model. This newer model should not be a single ideology. It has to be a combination of various ideologies and considerations. It must be a system of global cooperation.

5. What message would you want to leave for young people? How can they meaningfully contribute to solving climate change?

Young people have the minds to innovate and the spirit of selflessness. Innovation and technology will arm our generation with some of the tools we need to survive and help others to do the same. Selflessness will allow us to remodel the economic model even to the seeming economic detriment of our countries. It will allow us to enforce true global cooperation.


Stay engaged and keep yourselves informed.


Saturday, December 13, 2014

The Life of an American Freelancer in the Middle East



Published at OpenDemocracy 

“What’s more appealing to me as a freelancer is having the autonomy to go and create my own stories… without losing part of my freedom, or having to uphold any editorial line" - Eric Reidy 


 I met Eric Reidy last April in San Francisco, where we both spoke at Stanford University. We quickly bonded through our passion for writing, photography, listening to and telling people’s stories, a combination of what he defines as the package for freelancing.

Knowing him for a short period of time and understanding his motivation when he delivered his speech gave me the impression of him not being a typical American freelance journalist.

 In mid October, I received a message from Eric telling me that he was coming to Tunisia in two weeks time, with no plans whatsoever on where he will be staying, for how long or what will he be doing. A few days later, to my surprise, I met him there. 

Eric’s life appears to be unplanned, as probably most freelancers’ lives are. What distinguishes him is his clear vision, once he connects with the place and the people, of the kind of story he wants to deliver to an international audience. He has an interesting approach to freelancing; he sees it as a choice, an opportunity, an excuse and a challenge. For him, journalism is “an excuse to ask people the questions that you would want to ask them anyway but don’t have a pretext to do so”.


His journey started when he was 17 years old as a “news junky”, particularly with respect to the Middle East. “During the worst period of the Iraq War in 2006/2007, I started being exposed to more critical perspectives of what life is actually like in the region… a chasm opened up between the story that I had been presented with since I was a young adolescent, and reality”, he said. Eric was fascinated with how big a gap that was. 


He is an adventurous freelancer who is willing to take risks to get important stories but “being a freelancer can also be an obstacle as much as an opportunity”, he adds. “Unfortunately Iraq is a bit less accessible, particularly to American freelancers. Without training in reporting in danger zones, without financial backing from a major channel, without a strong network of connections, it is pretty foolish and dangerous to go there”. As much as he believes in taking risks, he also cultivates the personal safety to be able to tell these stories.


Eric’s first stop was Lebanon, where he went to study Arabic for two months as a fresh graduate from the University of Pittsburgh, but ended up staying for eight months. Lebanon was his first choice because of its reputation as a “cosmopolitan, relatively free cultural space in the Middle East, a region that is tightly controlled by governments and censorship”.  


He was lucky to find a job within a couple of weeks with a Lebanese foundation called the Samir Kassir Centre for Media and Cultural Freedom (SKeyes). “I thought it would be great to have an excuse to interview artists, to sit down and talk to them about their work and their life experiences with social and cultural censorship.” He interviewed 25 artists about the role of art in public life in Beirut as part of his project. His work resulted in the publication of a book titled, “A Fractured Mirror: Beirut’s Cultural Scene and the Search for Identity”.


The next stop was Palestine, which might seem as dangerous as Iraq to outsiders. However, Eric argues that, “to be a foreign journalist in Palestine is safer than Iraq”. He lived in Palestine for five months.


He has been writing for Wamda, which is a platform designed to empower entrepreneurs in the MENA region by covering stories of small businesses and growth trends. Eric was the only journalist covering the Palestinian entrepreneurial scene full time. “I found entrepreneurship to be a fascinating lens into Palestinian society”. He observed that “as a consequence of the occupation, a lot of people have understandable limitations to what they think is possible. There is a real sense that there isn’t very much possible in the West Bank because everything is really tightly controlled…”


So he looked for stories that would show Palestinians that there are those who have some agency to act on their own. “They are usually portrayed to the west as people who are either oppressed by a controlling system or people who are exercising violence”. He chose not to fall into that dichotomy but instead to open up more space to understand what he had come to see “as a much more nuanced existence”. 


This falls into his broader vision of “using the power of personal stories to break people’s pre-existing understandings and open up a little space within people’s preconceptions about a place or people or an experience…to have them start to be self-critical and question whatever they think is true or certain”.


Eric had to leave the Middle East in early February this year, after being deported from Israel, but he considers this as “a minor bump on the road”.


He has now been in Tunisia for five weeks, refreshing his Arabic and studying the Tunisian dialect, while exploring new stories. “Other than transparent free elections and the transition of power, I think the story that should be coming out of Tunisia is the longer ongoing process of what is actually taking place here, on how to build a new type of society out of the society that was previously governed by an authoritarian dictatorship. To me, that’s the story of Tunisia.”


So far, Eric has written three pieces on Tunisia claiming that “If we promote Tunisia’s model, by following its democratic transition, then we owe it to ourselves to actually understand what that means…People do not have to be dying for that to be an important story, and I hope I can convince editors of that while I’m here”.


As a totally new context from Palestine or Lebanon, he is finding his way in Tunis while “There is a bit of nostalgia and longing for the comfort I was able to build for myself where I was last”, he confsses.


He undoubtedly confirms the stereotypical image of the maddening life of a freelancer as “a hassle, you have to always keep coming up with story ideas, keep pitching, developing relationships with editors, with contacts, with people who can help translate things for you… Everything somehow is related to work. It’s kind of a consuming lifestyle as your livelihood basically depends on the network you develop…I always feel I should be working when I’m not, I have no sense of security”.


He has lived in three different places covering stories for AlJazeeraAl-Monitor, and the Middle East Eye among other international media outlets, yet he says he is new in the freelance space. “Everyday I sit down to write an article or do an interview I ask myself ‘am I good enough to be doing this?’ Do I understand well enough to put the stuff that I’m creating out there for other people to use as a source of information? Still something I have to prove to myself”.


This self-reflection is surely a mainstay of journalistic ethics and integrity and something that today’s journalists should be asking themselves as they report stories from the Middle East.


Over the past years, I have met many freelancers in Tunisia and Egypt who moved to the region to be journalists thinking that there were “a lot of violent, bloody stories they could cover to make a name for themselves.” Eric, however, has a different approach; he wanted to “correct” the media narratives that he grew up consuming. 


There is an urgent need to change the narrative of the region and shift focus from bloodshed, terrorism, religious, sectarian and tribal threats to more in-depth stories. How did a revolution turn into a proxy war in Syria? How are the elections shaping Tunisian’s lives? How does the Lebanese multifaceted identity manifest itself? Here's to more and better stories!




Wednesday, December 3, 2014

The Oldest in Civilization, The Youngest in Population: THE FUTURE LIES IN AFRICA





How can we not think about the future for Africa if the future is Africa itself?

Looking at the past and the future, Africa becomes a crucial part of this reflection. Africa developed the world's oldest human civilization and moving forward, it defines the world’s future. With a comprehensive timeline of at least seven million years, Africa is home to the first tools, jewelry, mathematics, astronomy, fishing, and art, among other essential humankind developments. It gave humanity the use of fire around two million years ago and made all nations rely on our land for their markets.

However, as much as Africa has given to the world, it has been abusively exploited by colonial and postcolonial powers, and dictatorships. The status, privilege, and wealth of the colonizers were often maintained and upheld through the use of policies that violated our rights. Unjust colonial practices and policies as a means to preserve their dominant status, subjected us to the loss of our lands, resources, identities, and sometimes even our lives. Yet, marginalized under colonial occupation, we continue to be marginalized under postcolonial governments.

Moving forward, we need futures thinking of Africa’s values, power and youth.

So, if the roots of humanity come from Africa, then true African wisdom will help us understand people and their organizations, inclusiveness, and deep respect for the other. Including everybody in the thinking of the community has always been part of Africa’s culture.

The Somali proverb says “wisdom is like a baobab tree, no one individual can embrace” - it requires a diversity of people holding hands in an effort to embrace the tree.


“Mahala” is the traditional African practice which teaches that it is proper to give to others without expecting anything in return.


The value of Ubuntu, indeed, is a basic foundation of each individual. It’s the value that one cannot exist, manage or lead in a vacuum because human beings are social and were created to live together in harmony. Ubuntu definition is, but not limited, to the promotion of co-operation, love, respect, togetherness and solidarity. I met Prof. Rob O’Donoghue last week and he said that “The value of Ubuntu has been taken away, like most things were taken away by academics like me”.


Ubuntu needs a revival because it can become that which will bring people together, but it is a vanishing practice, a value of the past. So, the aim in African culture is for a better community, which will, in turn, provide a better environment for the individual. But do we actually practice Ubuntu and live in harmony with others and ourselves?


We used to believe in our wisdom. Our teaching and proverbs used to be very common, but now we are trading our traditional wisdom for a handful of candied Western slogans broadcasted by television. Our ethics are turning into metaphysics; our group and common wisdom is turning into individual and elite wisdom. Are we on the right track or is Africa going Western? Our wisdom is poorly understood and so little appreciated in the West.


Therefore, the West has disbelieved in African thought for so long that Africa is starting to disbelief itself. Considering the future, we need to challenge the Western disbelief, as the tenets of the African cultural systems and practices form the fundamentals of living with others and with nature in harmony, which can teach lessons to humanity worldwide.


Besides, our African wisdom will enhance our decision-making. We have forgotten how to be human beings, and we must go back to our indigenous knowledge if we are to save our culture, people and future.


We have all become aware of our society’s social, economic, environmental and political problems, to a certain degree. However, we are still not sure on how exactly to go about fixing these problems because we’re underestimating our power. The solution is in the saying ‘kopano ki maata’, which means “togetherness is power”.


Another essential part of the conversation of futures thinking of Africa is youth. Africa’s population is the world’s youngest because half of our continent’s inhabitants are under the age of 19, while 70 per cent of the population is under the age of 30. More than 200 million people in Africa are between ages 15-24. By 2035 Africa’s working-age population, those aged 15-64, will be larger than that of China or India. Yet, one of Africa's greatest untapped resources is its young people.


As the youngest continent, we are not only important for Africa but also for the world. As we are growing faster than any other continent, we are the ones who lead innovation; we are a source of labor force of any economy. But until African leadership realizes that we are the solution not the problem then Africa will “rise” with its youth. Despite advances in education and economic growth, progress remains fragile; young Africans face major difficulties in finding decent jobs, participating in decision-making and fighting inequalities.


The lack of such freedoms in Tunisia was among the factors that led us to take to the streets demanding change and fulfillment of our legitimate aspirations for better lives. Empowering youth is essential for sustainable economic growth, political progress and management of the earth's ecosystems and resources. The world has to recognize the people, youth and promise of Africa. The continent has just experienced a decade of rapid economic growth. On the other hand, we Africans need to strive to overcome threats to peace and development, by building an environment conducive to democracy, social justice and peace based on our values, power and youth.



Thursday, November 27, 2014

SMILES THAT IGNITE PASSION



Dense rows of white tents and long lines of listless people that are queuing for a small portion of food and water, of which there is never enough quantity to reach everyone. This was the daily image of Ras Jdir refugee camp in Rmeda where I volunteered during the Libyan Civil War. When I first arrived to the Tunisian-Libyan border in June 2011 the total number of refuges reached almost one million.
We organized caravans brining donations from Tunis (the capital city of Tunisia) to the camp – despite all the conditions of insecurity of the trip. Beside our typical cargo – toys, food, water and covers – we also brought joy and hope to the refugees. Though our main targets were the young refugees, we indirectly sparked the solidarity in the Tunisian society that resulted in the collection of huge donations for weeks to come.
When I first arrived, the one mission I had for every single activity I carried out was to draw smiles on the children’s faces. Just after a few hours on my first day I realized that such a mission in the midst of the crisis is not just about giving joy to other people but also about giving a special meaning to my own life. These children that I was trying to support opened my eyes on what my passion in life is.
One day, while I was gathering the kids for the afternoon activities, a five-year-old Libyan refugee asked me:
“Why are these people fighting?”
I followed his gesturing hand, as it pointed to the queue of refugees waiting for lunch. That image – of a dispute over food – was one of many daily conflicts in the camp. “They are not fighting, they are asking for lunch in different ways because they come from different cultures” – I answered. It was this singular experience that taught me the importance of peacebuilding, coexistence and intercultural dialogue among the cultures.
Behind these daunting scenes of suffering in a refuge camp, I was also inspired by life-changing stories of African migrant workers in Libya. I learned about the traditional African beat and dance from Mali, special naming rituals from Ghana, slave trade that is still practiced in Ethiopia, the colonial creation of Gambia out of the Senegambia, the Somalian Civil War, and other stories that set me on my current path as a peacebuilder. These stories also influenced the process of shaping my own character. This exploration of African historiography, opened channels for understanding the continent. Since then, my compass has pointed me to explore even more about peace and conflict dynamics in Africa.
A few months after my experience at the Libyan borders, I took a trip to Kenya where I launched a project called Africa Inspire Project with the crucial support of a wonderful Kenyan team.  I had keenly followed the democratic rise in Kenya especially after the historic elections in the year 2002. Following the peaceful 2013 general elections, I decided to explore and highlight the role of youth in the peacebuilding process that had participated in the previous 2007-2008 post-elections outbreak of violence. Having experienced the 2011/2012 post-elections frustration in Tunisia and Egypt when monitoring the elections, I had a desire to learn more about Kenya’s experience and promote its model of choosing peace over violence. Thus, I decided to produce the documentary, Kenya’s Conscious Transformation.
I have been challenged with the idea that conflicts in Africa are too complex to deconstruct or understand; however, I refused to give up my quest for searching for proactive solutions. I interviewed Kenyan community workers and youth leaders at the grassroots level as well as government officials, lawyers, award-winning journalists and electoral officials at the national level. Unlike what I had seen in the international media – which portrays a situation of tension and potential violence – what I found in Kenyan society was instead resilience and commitment to make peace possible. After that discovery, my quest for combining art with the usage of alternative media to change this negative portrayal of Africa has only intensified.
Coming from a region where we have been going through many uprisings and revolutions… where everyone around me has lost hope in peace because of the rise of terrorism on a precedential scale… where young activists are falling into depression, desperation, breakdowns, and many times are completely burned-out… It was not a surprise that some of them turned to the usage of violence as the only language that could be heard. I believe that making peace starts from believing in the existence of peace and the sole belief that peace can be sustained. Young people need to see successful models and positive stories to reflect on their understanding of violence and its impact.
My blog, my documentaries and everything else that I do are only the first steps in achieving the ultimate goal of building peace and understanding by raising people’s awareness so that they can rethink their perceptions of each other. Contributing to peacebuilding in Africa defines Who am and aspire to be and at a same time gives me a motivation to serve others like I did at Ras Jdir refugee camp – uplifting others with positive vibes and voices, and inspiring them through what I capture and deliver with the lens of my camera.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

The Statement of the Rustler’s Valley Youth Retreat



We are 60 diverse young people from all continents of the world who met in Rustler’s Valley, South Africa from November 16 to 19, 2014 to discuss the state of civil society around the world and consider our role as young people within it. We do not claim to speak for all youth, or for the diverse views from within our own countries, but rather we seek to lend our voices to the on-going debate about the role of civil society in the social, political and economic transformation of the world. We also want to respond to and further develop the conversation begun by the Open Letter for Activists as young people engaged at grassroots, national and international levels.

Increasingly, the face of civil society around the world is a young one. Yet, we recognize much may be learned from other generations; their struggles, histories and lessons. Although we will face many of the challenges of the future, we believe that with intergenerational partnerships and a shared responsibility, we can transform civil society and therefore global society.

Current strategies to address restrictions on civil society space are failing. To create the necessary space at the national level, we should develop radical tactics to mobilize non traditional civil society groups, create platforms for international solidarity, and develop safe spaces where we can come together in a conducive environment to address these issues.

After much reflection, we collectively arrived at four primary topics of concern to those present: race, gender and sexual orientation; democratization of our own organisations and power structures; reform of relationships between civil society and donor organisations; and the divide between grassroots movements and civil society organisations (CSOs).

Eliminating discrimination: Race, gender and sexual orientation
As youth, we witness and experience the on-going reality of discrimination in civil society based on race, gender, and sexual orientation. We call on all sectors, especially media, governmental, non-governmental, and religious organizations, and the private sector to acknowledge and combat discriminatory practices. Civil society should lead the way by respecting diversity and completely eliminating all forms of discrimination from our own environments.

Democratization of CSOs and power structures
As youth, we acknowledge that current political, social and economic systems and organizational structures favour the few, not the many. We emphasize our duty to democratise:
·       Public dialogue through the use of inclusive and accessible language to broaden participation and break down the hierarchy among civil society and the communities we seek to serve.
·       Structures of power that prevent us from collaborating across issues and themes to establish civil society-wide avenues of influence and the elevation of our collective voice.
·       Access to intergovernmental and civil society processes for local and grassroots social movements.
·       Relationships between large civil society organizations and grassroots movements through the adoption of and respect for higher ethical standards.

Additionally, we should establish new methods of ensuring transparency, through the development of:
·       Conflict of interest indices;
·       Organization-wide gender parity measures;
·       Reporting on executive salaries and board fees;
·       Cooperation indices, and;
·       Mechanisms that ensure the full integration of all stakeholders into decision-making processes, including volunteers.

Rethinking relationships between civil society and donor organisations
As youth, the driving force of our work is our own vision, passion and values. To better serve those with whom we work, we must question the current relationships between donors and recipients. We pledge to:
·       Acknowledge the need to be financially autonomous through self-sustainability.
·       Mobilize unions through membership fees as a way of engaging our own constituencies to ensure their ownership and responsibility in our work.
·       Create alternative and innovative solutions to generate funds for our work.
·       Encourage donors to explore avenues of promoting collaboration between and with civil society organizations.
 
As youth, we see the increasing danger in becoming more accountable to funding sources than the communities we purport to serve. We recognize the need to first hold ourselves to account, and then:
·       Increase accountability of the international community to its by commitments and constituents
·       Develop the advocacy skills of community members to more effectively claim their rights

Relationship between Grassroots and Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs)
The increasing importance of grassroots actors, both formal and informal, is undeniable in today’s world. Gone are the days where NGOs may claim to represent the “voices” of communities. Our communities can and do speak for themselves and stand on their own work. They invert power structures through community-driven development and building people-power globally. We believe in the following tenants: 

·       Access. NGOs should work to access, identify and develop leaders and existing solutions within communities. Serving as enablers, we can support accessibility to and sharing of the core resources needed to foster greater impact.
·       Sustainability. NGOs should promote capacity-building and community ownership to both catalyse the emergence of new grassroots groups and ensure existing groups continue their work self-sufficiently and sustainably. Instead of providing ready-made solutions, the focus should be on connecting likeminded leaders in decentralized networks of information sharing.
·       Measuring success. NGOs should work with communities to develop new, community-supported, ways of measuring and interpreting success around the values of sustainable change and community ownership.
·       Reimagining the playing field. NGOs should work to reorient all funding systems to align with these tenants and the under acknowledged needs of grassroots organizations.

As young people fighting for social justice, we make these criticisms and suggestions with the hope that they will contribute to a reimagining of the role, vision and methods of civil society. We recommit our lives to the struggle against inequality, poverty, environmental degradation and all injustices in whatever shape they assume.

We perceive the vision of our letter as an invitation to all—including young people and those in decision-making positions—to take immediate action to transform civil society. Let this letter stand not only as our message to civil society, but also as a broader commitment to move forward with confidence and purpose towards a just, sustainable and peaceful world. 



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