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If the Youth Lead, the Leaders Will Follow

Today and tomorrow, young leaders will join together for the United Nations High Level Meeting on Youth, an event that will cap off the UN’s International Year of Youth.  The theme of the meeting will be “Youth: Dialogue and Mutual Understanding.”  The meeting is a small step in the right direction.  Bringing together youth leaders from nations around the world is an important part of engaging a generation that often times feels disenfranchised and disconnected from the decision making process.  But the small group that will gather in the General Assembly Hall represent only a miniscule minority of the billions of youth across the planet, and much more must be done to integrate their voices into the international dialogue.

Nearly half of the planet’s population is under the age of 30, and unfortunately, many of them are undereducated and underemployed.  Despite the attempts of many governments, education infrastructure and economic growth have been unable to meet the demands of this generation.  Youth all over the world have become restless and rebellious, as the absence of hope and opportunity have weighed down on them day after day.  Moreover, too many leaders have simply failed young people, leaving a world that is inferior to the one passed down by previous generations.  The planet has been crippled by the poor decisions of our elders who sadly have been unable to meet the challenges of climate change, financial instability, nuclear proliferation, extreme poverty, global pandemics and more.  These challenges have been left for our generation to bear and to brave.  If today’s youth are to be successful in solving these problems, we must begin to address them today.

With the launch of The Future Forum just a few short weeks ago, we have worked to build a movement of youth that is more informed and engaged and properly equipped to handle the immense challenges of our world.  We intend to be a destination for discussion and a repository of research and opinions on issues affecting people around the world.  Ultimately, we hope to be an organization that identifies and incubates new ideas and unites young leaders who are dedicated to changing the world for the better.  But the work we are doing at The Future Forum is not enough.  We need more engaged youth at the decision making table.  We need more youth serving in public offices, in leadership positions at their companies and non-profit organizations, in media and journalism and in prominent research institutions.  And we need a young populace that is better organized.  Young entrepreneurs have built some of the most innovative technologies of the past decade.  Now, we need to use those tools to collaborate more and to share our successes and our grievances.  We need to develop an international network of young leaders that can respond to an emerging crisis and send an instant alert to youth from Tahrir Square to Tiananmen Square to Times Square.

We have ideas of what an international coalition of engaged youth would look like, but we need the expertise, ingenuity and on-the-ground efforts of others to turn these ideas into reality.  We hope the young leaders attending the UN meeting over the next few days will come out of the sessions reinvigorated and ready to work together to build a global movement, and we welcome new thoughts on how best to proceed.

Borrowing a Revolution

This post was originally published on the Center for Strategic and International Studies’(CSIS) “Smart Global Health Blog.”

It was written in response to a question posed by CSIS: Do you think it’s possible to create a unified social movement for NCDs, akin to the movements that already exist for individual chronic diseases? If so, why? If not, what initiatives can we implement in the place of an effective social movement to move an NCD agenda forward?

A unified social movement for NCDs isn’t in the cards.

Building a movement around a diverse set of diseases with broad and varying constituencies just won’t work.

What we need is evolution and revolution in the way we think about combating chronic disease.

In 2009, Michel Sidibé, the Executive Director of UNAIDS, announced that it was time for a “prevention revolution” in the fight against HIV/AIDS. He articulated what we learned in epidemiology 101—treating those who are sick is absolutely essential, but the only way we can actually beat an epidemic is to prevent it from growing.

Those hoping to build a movement for NCDs have focused on the lessons that can be garnered from the early days of the fight against HIV/AIDS. But we can’t forget that we are in very different situation from the AIDS activists of the 1980s and early 1990s, who were fighting a mysterious illness with unknown origins and no treatment options.

Instead, we are at an incredibly unique moment and vantage point in time, with knowledge and tools that those early HIV/AIDS activists could not have dreamed of. We know our epidemic. We know how it is caused, we know what the risk factors are, and we have even estimated how and when it will hit us and how much it will cost.

What we need is “prevention revolution” for NCDs that will use the information we have to change the way we think about combating illness. This revolution would shift the focus from what currently divides the NCD community—specific diseases and conditions—to what unites it—the need to address shared risk factors.

Many will lament, correctly, that changing lifestyles—eating, drinking, and smoking habits—is incredibly difficult.

But we have examples of real success, from the change in attitudes in the United States around tobacco use, to growing awareness in India and China about the dangers of diabetes and unbalanced diets.

Currently, initiatives like President Clinton’s Alliance for the Healthier Generation and First Lady Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” campaign are demonstrating how top-down approaches can bring diverse constituencies together to focus on healthy lifestyles (here’s to hoping that they will be equally successful in encouraging their spouses to attend the UN NCDs Summit!).

This kind of broad based coalition building, with government educating and regulating, civil society advocating, and industry becoming a responsible stakeholder, is what will lead to a prevention revolution and real success in the fight against NCDs.

The movement will be more diffuse, less focused, and perhaps more chaotic than past initiatives. But it will also be more flexible and adaptable. It will bring advocates together, rather than separate them over a competition for resources. It will allow cash strapped governments to take the most cost-effective and sustainable path toward preventing economic catastrophe. Even industry will be able to realize benefit in a healthier population ready and able to consume more nutritious products.

Rather than searching for the next viral video or social media campaign to launch the NCDs movement, we must get down to the much harder work of revolutionizing the way we think about how to combat chronic disease.

Mapping Violence in Nigeria

This is a cross post with the Council on Foreign Relations’ blog, Africa in Transition, and Movements.org.

The recent intensification of attacks by Islamic militant group Boko Haram in northern and central Nigeria, including its capital Abuja, is alarming to Nigerians and the international community alike. But is it really an escalation?

Nigeria has been marred by violence almost continuously during its post-independence history.  To cite recent episodes, since 2005, the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) has waged war against the Nigerian government and the oil industry over what it deems is an unfair distribution of the wealth the Delta region produces. They have killed soldiers, kidnapped oil workers, and destroyed infrastructure, and have threatened renewal of its campaign against the government and the oil industry. Near the city of Jos, situated in the middle belt region of the country, economic, religious, and sectarian conflict (often between Christians and Muslims) has killed thousands over the past three years. Following the disputed presidential elections in April 2011, violence along religious lines erupted in northern states, claiming the lives of an estimated 800 Christians and Muslims, after southern Christian Goodluck Jonathan was declared the victor.

Considering the apparent daily attacks and bombings attributed to Boko Haram in the past few weeks, there is a new, palpable feeling of insecurity in the country. More than fifty civilians, soldiers, and militants have been killed in the last week in separate attacks in Maiduguri, Kaduna, and Suleja, prompting the indefinite closure of the University of Maiduguri and the banning of motorbikes in that city, as well as an unprecedented 10 p.m. curfew in Abuja. Further, bombings in the capital during its 50th Independence Day celebration in October as well as the June bombing at the National Police Headquarters have underscored the federal government’s inability to suppress violence, at least in the short term.

However, press and other reporting of the violence and unrest are often contradictory or inconsistent.  At times, numbers of victims appear to be underestimated.  Sometimes, however, casualties are double-counted.  And disagreement over responsibility is common.

In an effort to improve our understanding of the scope of the unrest, we have initiated a crisis mapping project, the Nigeria Security Tracker,  sifting through media reports, looking for incidents of violence that ostensibly can be connected to political, economic, and social grievances directed at the state or other affiliative groups (or conversely the state employing violence to suppress those uprisings). Using Ushahidi’s relatively new Crowdmap platform, we are recording each event we find, categorizing the data, and plotting it on a map and timeline. Over time, we hope to be able to evaluate the frequency of attacks, the magnitude (measured in terms of lives lost or injured), and the location of incidents.

Crisis mapping has a number of advantages. For one, it requires a more rigorous definition of violence and consideration of information as part of the process of determining which incidents should be included. It provides a means to organize and analyze often conflicting reports while at the same time allowing us to database information for future reference. In addition to being visually, appealing, the act of mapping also creates a novel opening to discuss violence in Nigeria for a technology-hungry media.

Of course, its analytical value is equally limited. Dependence on published reports means that incidents will be missed or reported inaccurately. This is particularly relevant in Nigeria where media is often concentrated in the south and important events, especially in the north, may not receive the coverage they should.

Further, it does not answer the question of why these incidents happen or why their frequency or intensity might be changing. As a result, we are working under the assumption that violent incidents often take place because of the weakness of the government and popular alienation from it, making scarce legitimate channels for redress of grievances. This alienation in turn is, at least in part, driven by Nigeria’s extreme poverty and inequality, which is most pronounced in the north; a political system that encourages winner take all competition; overzealous security services operating within a culture of impunity; and perverse corruption, which saps the political will for political solutions.

Follow the Nigeria Security Tracker here.

Is the Democratization of Media Good For Democracy?

The new film “Page One: Inside the New York Times” provides a behind-the-scenes look into the ivory tower of the iconic paper.  The audience is taken for an exciting journey through the history and present day of this respected institution while the narrator, NYT media columnist David Carr, ponders what would happen if this cathedral of journalism came crashing down and was subsequently overtaken by an army of autonomous bloggers and Wikileakers.

After watching the film, one must wonder what the future holds for news and media, and whether the current trajectory of independent bloggers and 24-hour news cycles leads to a better-educated public or if it establishes a tabloid economy made up of hot stories and illegitimate sources.  In a discussion with Arianna Huffington, the Twitter (and real world) celebrity Ashton Kutcher rightfully pointed out that technology has democratized media, giving microphones to a larger population and shining light on a greater array of issues.  While earlier generations may have depended on three evening newscasters and a collection of national papers for the pulse of the country, this generation turns to Twitter and Facebook and Google News to find the latest trends in national and international conversation.  The public can now find instantaneous information on issues and events from all corners of the world, as long as they can be reduced to 140 characters or less.

The problem though with this form of information gathering and digestion is rooted precisely in the term that Twitter has given users: “followers.”  As “followers,” we actively seek out sources of information that share similar interests, traits, ideologies and demographics, and we ultimately follow them.  Depending on our beliefs, we also follow bloggers, websites, and television stations like MSNBC and Fox News that lean a certain direction in the debate.  Using tracking tools, websites now feed us “suggested stories” and other content that we may be interested in based on our previous readings.  Listening to these “trusted sources,” we reaffirm our own personal beliefs and are pulled even further in whichever direction we initially began.  Now, the effects of this “follower” culture have begun to take shape in the United States, where opinionated media and a disgruntled citizenry has led to an even greater divide in the government and the emergence of new political parties and organizations.  And while the debate is more diverse, one must wonder whether either side is hearing the opposition’s argument, or if each is cocooned in a cave of echoes.

Whether the democratization of media is good for democracy is debatable.  While the historical prominence of a few, trusted, national voices may have guided the United States and other democratic nations in a more unified direction, the one narrative that they often echoed can in some ways be compared to the national media organizations that many non-democratic countries use to promote government propaganda.  The public’s emergence as the master of the fourth estate can enhance public discourse, but only if it demands journalistic integrity and investigation.  Many bloggers and freelance writers currently produce unique, reputable content, but many also package opinion as facts, and their actions threaten the reputation of the entire community.  Furthermore, the success of the new captains of the new industry depends on the success of legacy institutions like the New York Times and the Guardian of London, and that these institutions maintain their credibility in a time of austerity for the newspaper industry.  If these few standing giants permit their reporting quality to fall along with their ad revenues, then they too will fall like so many others before them.  The larger community of bloggers and citizen reporters are interdependent with these legacy organizations — the former can provide speed and reach while the latter can provide additional credibility and authority.  But the new masters of media are not dependent on their predecessors, and even if their goal is not the demise of the media establishment, it may ultimately be the result of their progress.  To answer Carr’s question, if the New York Times falls, the community will mourn its loss, but the kingdom will eventually find a new king(s) to lead the way.