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Off to Zimbabwe

For the next week I will attend a meeting in
Zimbabwe. If possible I will blog from Harare and Old Mutare. If not, I’ll be
back online when I return.

The General Commission on Communication, the board of directors of United Methodist Communications, is meeting in Harare and Old Mutare, Zimbabwe this week. In addition to taking care of policy and planning related to communications, the commissioners will also engage in volunteer experiences in and around Old Mutare, which is home to Africa University southeast of Harare. They will also visit families and individuals affected with AIDS to experience firsthand the influence of the disease on families in the area. Volunteers will work at an orphanage for children left homeless by loss of parents to HIV/AIDS.

Another group will train approximately forty Zimbabweans in communications skills on the campus of Africa University. The lack of communications infrastructure and skilled communicators results in poor communication across the church in Africa. Training people in newsletter preparation, writing and use of computers is necessary, along with providing tools to enable communication. United Methodist Communications has a major initiative to provide technology and training for African communicators. The Commission will be providing volunteer support for this important effort.


On January 4 the National Basketball Association’s NBA Cares, The People of The United Methodist Church, the United Nations Foundation and Sports Illustrated will launch Nothing But Nets at the NBA store on Fifth Ave. in Manhattan. The program to provide bed nets for children in malaria-infected areas was launched in The United Methodist Church before Christmas. The NBA chose the NBA store as the site of the NBA launch in conjunction with a game between the Chicago Bulls and New Jersey Nets the evening of Jan. 4. Look for some new wrinkles to this exciting campaign.


I hope to blog from Zimbabwe, however, in the past it has been difficult due to bandwidth and the limits of time. In the meantime, Happy New Year!

Malnutrition and its Effects on Ethiopia’s children

Michael Wines writes of the effects of
malnutrition on African children with a detailed look at Ethiopia.

Malnutrition threatens the ability of Ethiopia to move into the developed world according to an impressive article by Michael Wines in The New York Times. Wines documents the toll on Ethiopia’s children, not only those who die but also those who survive but are stunted physically and mentally. Wines reports on the damage malnutrition does to their bodies and brains. He writes that almost half of Ethiopia’s children are malnourished and those who survive may lose as much as 15 I.Q. points.

It’s a report that presents both a bleak picture of current reality but hope for the accomplishments of nutrition centers and government action. Governments are beginning to add nutrients to flour and vitamins to other foods, practices that have been required by the U.S. government since the 30s, Wines reports. These efforts are showing positive results, but don’t reach all the children due to the slowness of governments to institute nutrition policies and the limited scope of the programs operating now.

Wines offers further evidence that health specialists know how to attack deadly problems such as malnutrition and how to prevent them. But this requires a commitment from governments and international organizations to make it happen.

This is a place where the voices of concerned people can make a difference. Malnutrition is a direct result of poverty. It occurs within a complex that includes failed agricultural practices, lack of knowledge and depressed economic possibilities in poor communities. The National Council of Churches has produced an excellent study guide with suggestions about what we can do individually and as churches.

And, contrary to the belief of some, the problem is not beyond solution. Dr. Jeffrey Sachs, economist and special advisor to the Secretary General of the United Nations says, “Total annual U.S. aid for all of Africa is about $3 billion, equivalent to about two days of Pentagon spending.”

He also points to the level of our support compared to other developed nations. “While the United States is still the single largest donor, giving about a quarter of the total, it is next to last in the share of national income it gives – 16 cents of each $100. On average, major European nations give more than twice as much – 36 cents of each $100. And they plan to raise that level to 51 cents of $100 by 2010.”

There is much to be done. And there is much we can do.

Ethiopia Bombs Somalia Border Towns

Ethiopian fighter jets are reported bombing
Somali border towns in what some fear could be the start of a proxy war that
could further destabilize the Horn of Africa.
(Updated December 25, 1:05 p.m. — According to the New York Times the Ethiopian Air Force has bombed the airport in Mogadishu and Ethiopia’s Prime Minister, Meles Zenawi, explained on television that the country “had no choice” but go to war against Somalia to protect its national sovereignty.The Time’s Jeffrey Gettleman writes the attack is “a major escalation that could turn Somalia’s internal crisis into a violent religious conflict that engulfs the entire Horn of Africa.”)


(cursor over map)

The Christmas eve news that Ethiopian fighter planes have bombed Somali border towns cast a shadow over the Christmas hope for peace. It also reminded me that this troubled region remains an unstable and inhospitable place. This isn’t new, but the fact that the world seems to forget it and in doing so silently tolerates the suffering of millions of people in this tough region is an ongoing frustration.

The bombing runs today reminded me of a personal experience, now twenty years past. I was standing on the shores of Lake Tana in northern Ethiopia with a cinematographer, sound engineer and gaffer as a Soviet-made MIG swooped over us flying so low we could see the pilot’s face. It came out of nowhere, so fast that had we been a target of its bombs we could never have escaped.
Its wings bristled with a cluster of missles. It was headed for the Eritrean border and beyond where Soviet pilots flying under the command of the Ethiopian Air Force were bombing Asmara. It was a sobering, frightening moment.

I realized how totally helpless we were out in the open with no early warning. We were sitting ducks on an inland sea.

Now bombs are falling again. This time it’s Somalis who are being blown away. But the protagonists are the same–Ethiopia and Eritrea. At least, that’s what some experts who know this region are starting to claim. A proxy war between Eritrea and Ethiopia may be starting using the conflict in Somalia between the Islamic Court militia and the Somali government whose power and reach is limited.

At first glance this war seems a long way from the U.S. but as Jared Diamond reminds us in Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, “…we are tightly and irreversibly connected to overseas countries…political instability anywhere in the world now affects us, our trade routes, and our overseas markets and suppliers.”(p. 518-19)

Setting aside the considerable suffering in the humanitarian crisis (in a good year 7 million Ethiopians don’t have sufficient food), it doesn’t take much imagination to see the importance of the Red Sea shipping lanes that access Sudan, Israel, Egypt, Eritrea, Djoubti, Somalia, Saudi Arabia and Yemen, southward into the Indian Ocean, lanes that carry Middle East oil to refineries around the world, and automobiles and weapons to Sudan, Somalia and Ethiopia. Somali pirates already operate in the region. There is instability on land and sea.

Instability now threatens the heart of Africa. A cauldron of potentially uncontrollable war is boiling over starting at Eritrea in the east, continuing westward through Sudan, Chad and Niger, then to the Central Africa Republic, northern Uganda, Ethiopia and Somalia. Ending the genocide at Darfur, disarming the insurgency in northern Uganda, cooling the conflict in Somalia and preventing open war between Ethiopia and Eritrea cannot be put on the backburner today. Too many lives are at risk. Dangerous conditions are growing on both sides of the Red Sea.

Moving Toward a Malaria Tipping Point

I just attended a conversation among leaders of
The United Methodist church in which concern for global health concerns became a
conversation about hope. It was a remarkable experience.

How would you start a movement to save one child at a time from the ravages of the diseases of poverty, for as long as it takes?

I woke up this morning wondering about this curious question. It’s inspired by an informal conversation I attended among some of the leaders of The United Methodist Church about ending the diseases of poverty. But the conversation didn’t focus on diseases, it was about life, and that made it exciting. They talked about caring for children, the poor and the vulnerable, and how doing this is the meaning of being a disciple of Jesus, who said, “I have come so that you may have life.” It was a conversation about Life!

And as United Methodists, we remembered the teachings of the founder of the Methodist movement, John Wesley, who told members of the small “societies” that formed around his teachings they should include a dispensary in their meeting houses so the poor could get medicines.

This was an energizing and emotional conversation for me. In fact, I haven’t felt so emotionally moved since my teen years when I went to old-fashioned revivals. But this was a hope-filled meeting, not fire and brimstone whipped up around fear as those were.

I wonder what could happen if all of us who are the people of The United Methodist Church committed ourselves to do whatever is within our power to put an end to malaria. What if we advocated for public policies to free up the resources necessary to provide the education, insecticides, medications, health care providers and bed nets that would once and for all stop this disease from killing a million people a year, most of them children under 5? What if we volunteered to go to places that could benefit from our hands and worked in partnership with people in local communities to drain standing water, remove debris that is habitat for disease-bearing mosquitos, built health clinics, improved water supplies and taught good health practices? What if we became familiar with the causes of the diseases of poverty and set about trying to change them with acts compassion and advocacy for justice? And what if we gave financially to the church and the U.N. to provide bed nets so that they cover the continent of Africa and other places where malaria is still causing death?

These what-ifs are running through my mind like a race car on a track. What if 14 million United Methodists united around this challenge? Imagine what they could accomplish!

They could be the tipping point that catalyzes a global grassroots movement to end of the scourge of malaria and save millions of lives. Methodism started as a movement and if we remember where we came from, we could become a movement once again, a movement for Life.

Global Summit on Malaria Framing

I have often written about how framing affects
the ability of mainline denominations to achieve visibility in mainstream media.
Here is an example.

I often write about how framing affects the ability of mainline denominations to project themselves into the public dialogue. A recent example appeared the New York Times coverage of the White House Summit on Malaria.

The second paragraph of an article about the Summit reads: The gathering highlighted the growing efforts of influential evangelical, business and charitable leaders to raise money and mobilize volunteers against malaria, which kills 800,000 African children each year. Their rallying cry: Donate $10 for a mosquito net, save a life.

Here’s the framing issue. A unique partnership (Nothing But Nets) between a mainline religious denomination and several major non-religious organizations was cited twice by speakers in the Summit and was the source for the call to action–“Donate $10.00 for a mosquito net and save a life”. A mainline denomination (The Episcopal Church) presented from the podium at the Summit. General Secretary Randy Day, head of the General Board of Global Ministries represented the people of The United Methodist Church at the Summit.

Mainline denominations have played a significant role in calling attention to poverty and the diseases of poverty for more than 200 years. In The United Methodist Church, for example, in the past year, more than 167,000 United Methodists volunteered in various mission efforts in the U.S. and beyond, efforts to build clinics, care for AIDS orphans, provide direct medical services, empower women, and create sustainable development among the poor. They do this without regard for public acclaim. They do it because it’s the right ting to do and their church teaches it’s one way, a very basic way, they can live their faith.–yet the story is framed by the presence of “influential evangelical leaders.”

I really don’t have anything against evangelical leaders. I’m glad they were there. More power to them. I fully support the bottom line: Send a net. Save a life. I am keeping my eye on that ultimate goal.

But if the leaders and members of mainline denominations are to be encouraged to participate in these partnerships, they not only deserve recognition, they also deserve to know their commitment is valued and makes a difference.

So, to my mainline friends and colleagues, I write simply to say: You are important to this cause and to many other causes that alleviate suffering and contribute to the quality of life of millions around the globe. You, perhaps more than most, understand that the Christian movement is truly its most authentic and faithful when it partners with the vulnerable, the poor and the left out, to heal, empower and manifest hope. Your voice is important. You stand in a tradition that has historically stood for justice and mercy. Your predecessors challenged slavery and put it to its deserved end. You gave support to the aspirations of the Civil Rights movement in the U.S. and we’re a better nation for it.

Your voice is influential in the places where it matters. It harmonizes with those who lack voice, or whose voices are not being heard. Your advocacy is important in achieving just and merciful policies to benefit those with whom you stand in solidarity. Your active involvement through volunteering on the ground changes lives. And the money you raise is put to good use. It brings healing and seeds hope.

Whether the mainstream media understands this or not, millions of other do. And so I hope you do not minimize your importance, nor feel diminished by framing that excludes you. You are the glue that holds much together because you are among those who plug away with consistency and stay for the long-term.

Whether the mainstream media understands this or not, millions of other do.

Malaria Summit

The White House Malaria Summit concluded this
afternoon with the report that the U.S. $1.2 billion anti-malaria program will
include eight more African nations.

President Bush announced that eight more African nations will be included in the $1.2 billion U.S. anti-malaria program. This brings the total to 23 nations.

This followed an announcement by the World Bank yesterday that it is pledging $180 million to fight the disease. The funds will be used for insecticide and bed nets to prevent the spread of the disease. BBC coverage of the Summit can be found here.

I’m told that the Nothing But Nets initiative that includes Sports Illustrated, The People of The United Methodist Church, NBA Cares and the United Nations Foundation was noted by two speakers. Kathleen Behrens of NBA Cares spoke of the partnership that has been formed by these founding organizations. In addition, Melinda Gates referred to Nothing But Nets in her remarks.

General Secretary Randy Day of the United Methodist Church’s Board of Global Ministry attended the summit.

White House Summit on Malaria

Today the White House is hosting a Summit on
Malaria.

Today President Bush and first lady Laura Bush are hosting a White House Summit on Malaria. Many non-profit and international agencies will attend. General Secretary Randy Day, head of the General Board of Global Ministries of The United Methodist Church will represent the presence of The People of The United Methodist Church. The summit is valuable because it will call attention to a challenge that can be met–eliminating this disease.

There is little question that death by malaria can be significantly reduced, if not eliminated, by providing bed nets, draining standing water, and using insecticides carefully in malaria-prone areas. Even in resort areas where tourists go to see wildlife in South Africa–where the conditions are most favorable for mosquitos–malaria has been eliminated. It is not for lack of knowledge, tools or medications that this disease continues to claim a child every thirty seconds. It is lack of commitment.

But I believe when people hear the startling facts–500 million persons infected annually, the death of a child under age 5 every thirty seconds–they care and they respond. My hope is that this summit is one more call to awareness, but I hope it does more. I hope it sparks a global movement to eradicate poverty, the underlying cause of diseases that could be prevented if the international community would apply resources to improve the quality of life for everyone, and stamp out preventable killer diseases. A grassroots global movement to end the killer diseases of poverty is not a visionary dream, it is a movement waiting to happen. I intend to be a part of it.

See the LA Times view on the White House Summit here.

The Boston Globe report is here.

Australian Broadcasting reports on a World Bank announcement coupled with the Summit here.

To send a net and save a life you can go to nothingbutnets.net, and you can follow the link to The United Methodist Church malaria initiative and also contribute to bed nets through the Advance for Christ and His Church.

And thanks to the TIME Global Health Blog for pointing to the link for live Internet coverage of the Summit provided by the Kaiser Foundation.

Ethiopian Leaders Found Guilty of Genocide

Former Ethiopian leader Mengistu Haile Mariam was
found guilty of genocide in abstentia by a court in Ethiopia. Other leaders in
his regime, some of whom, were present in the courtroom were also found
guilty.

I read with great interest the report by the BBC that Mengistu Haile Mariam, former military leader of the Marxist government of Ethiopia, was found guilty of genocide yesterday by a federal high court in Ethiopia. Mengistu led a regime noted for its murderous reign. It was known as the “Red Terror,” not only because it was Marxist but also because thousands of Ethiopians were killed by the regime, so many it was said the streets of Addis Ababa ran red with blood.

Issuing its verdict, the court said the Dergue, as the government was known in the 1970s under Mengistu , “set up a hit squad to decimate, torture and destroy groups opposing the Mengistu regime.”

The Dergue made allies with East Germany, the USSR and other Eastern Bloc nations. I worked in Ethiopia on a film about the Ethiopian Orthodox Church during this time. While there, I met Soviet fighter pilots operating out of Gondar, a northern city, who were flying bombing runs against Eritrea, the northernmost province that fought for and won independence in 1991.

Ethiopia was a police state. I was told the East German State Security Police (Stasi) trained Ethiopian agents to monitor visitors in the hotels and other settings. I got used to returning to my hotel room and discovering that my suitcase had been searched.

Movement around the country was difficult and required numerous requests, filing applications and providing documents. Our crew was monitored and we had to secure travel permits to travel even to the edge of Addis. Sometimes if the government didn’t want us to go to an area, we were delayed for days and occasionally required to produce documentation from outside the country as a way to slow our movement.

At first the heavy security was creepy and frustrating. But with experience I learned to keep my notes with me at all times and to write in cryptic, ambiguous sentences so that when I had to show them to the censors they were unintelligible to them. This happened most often when we were required to go to government agencies to get travel documents.

Our inconveniences were nothing compared to the hardship endured by the Ethiopian people. Ethiopian peasants were forcibly removed from drought-stricken regions and re-located under force of arms. Others were forced to re-locate to carry out state collective agriculture schemes. Some were moved in order to break up resistance groups, others to demonstrate the power of the government to any who might resist or oppose the Dergue.

Mengistu is in exile in Zimbabwe. He is 70. He was a young colonel in the military when he seized power and presided over the death of emperor Haile Selassie and sixty cabinet and government officials. He has denied the brutality attributing the violence to colonizers and the resistance in Eritrea and Tigray.

The Nobel Peace Prize, Wars and Weapons

On the day Dr. Muhammad Yunus accepted the Nobel
Peace Prize, 50,000 people in Central African Republic fled their homes as
foreign fighters rampaged in the country and the New York Times reported that
all manner of weapons can be bought in markets in Iraq.

On the day Dr. Muhammad Yunus accepted the Nobel Peace Prize, 50,000 people in Central African Republic fled foreign fighters threatening the government. And in Iraq black market weapons flood the marketplace.

Nobel Laureate Muhammad Yunus

Nobel Laureate Muhammad Yunus says the prize
gives him the ability speak in a manner not possible before.
(Updated Dec. 10, 7:00 p.m. Central Standard Time: Dr. Muhammad Yunus’ address accepting the Nobel Peace Prize.)

Poverty is
a threat
to peace.
That is
a message
for the
whole world.
–Muhammad Yunus

Muhammad Yunus, founder of the Grameen bank, will receive the Nobel Peace Prize tomorrow in Oslo. In an interview today Yunus said poverty is a threat to peace. In a speech in Washington a few weeks ago he said the award is tacit recognition by the Nobel Committee that peace and poverty are inseparably linked.

Where poverty exists, so will social instability. It need not take the form of insurrection, although insurrection is bred by the seeds of poverty. Instability can take the form of family breakdown, self-destructive and addictive behaviors, and poor health including high blood pressure and emotional depression as well as hunger and the diseases of poverty.

Yunus told the International Herald Tribune that when he screamed this message before he was hardly heard. However, today with the Nobel Prize as validation, he said he can whisper and “the whole world hears me loud and clear.”

May his voice continue to be strong and his message clear.

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