Guinea-Bissau is one of the poorest nations in the world, ranked 176 out of 187 countries on the United Nations Human Development Index in 2012. With a population of 1.5 million inhabitants, approximately 40 percent are under the age of 14-years old. In many communities, women and girls have limited education and health services.  Many fall victim to forced marriage, exploitation, sexual violence and childhood pregnancy.

Guinea-Bissau has had substantial military and political upheaval since its independence from Portugal in 1974. Shortly after, a military coup appointed Joao Bernardo “Nino” Vieira as its president in 1980. Vieira created a nice path to a multi-party system and market economy, but his regime was characterized by suppressing his political opposition and by purging political rivals.

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, there were multiple coup attempts against Vieira, but they all failed to cast him out. He was elected as president in the country’s first free elections in 1994 only to be expelled from the country in 1999 after a military mutiny and civil war that started in 1998.

A transitional government turned over power to the opposing leader Kumba Yala after he was elected president in transparent polling in 2000. After only three years in office, Yala ended up being overthrown in a nonviolent military coup in 2003, and Henrique Rosa, a businessman at the time, was sworn in as interim president. Vieira came back to Guinea-Bissau, was re-elected in 2005 and pledged to pursue national reconciliation and economic development, but he was assassinated in 2009.

In an emergency election in June of 2009, Malam Bacai Sanha was elected, but he passed away in 2012 from a pre-existing illness. To determine his successor, there was supposed to be an election in April of 2012, but a military coup prevented it from taking place. Currently, Manuel Serifo Nhamadjo is the transitional president and the transitional government keeps postponing the new presidential election that was supposed to take place two years ago.

All of this political strife has led Guinea-Bissau’s economy to be severely harmed and it has been very difficult for it to recover. A UN human rights expert called out the Guinea-Bissau authorities on February 28 in her visit to the nation to inform them how crucial it is that they help out their own people that are in extreme poverty.  She said the population cannot wait any longer for the transitional state policies to become effective and that the government needs to work to ensure the welfare of future generations, especially those living in abject poverty.

Much of Guinea-Bissau suffers from low levels of school enrollment, illiteracy and unemployment. Development of Guinea-Bissau is mostly dependent on the investment in basic services like health and education.  The country cannot successfully improve the situation of the poor until its framework is improved first.

– Kenneth W. Kliesner

Sources: UN News Centre, The World Factbook
Photo: Tia Mysoa

bahrain protests
In order to mark the three-year anniversary of failed attempts to bring about democratic change in Bahrain, tens of thousands of people demonstrated peacefully on February 15. The al-Wefaq party, a Shia opposition group in support of democratic change, organized the Bahrain protests.

Although the majority of Bahrainis are Shia Muslims, a minority of Sunni Muslims rules the small island in the Persian Gulf. Thousands of Shi’as gathered to call for peaceful democratic change, political reform and the release of political prisoners. The King of Bahrain, Shaikh Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, has refused to concede to the demands for political change by the Shi’ites.

In 2011, Bahraini authorities brutally crushed protests inspired by the Arab Spring with the help of Saudi Arabia. The monarchy and the Saudis view Shi’a demands for change as Iranian subversion, and its tactics in dispersing protesters and not listening to citizens’ demands have caused tension between the United States and Bahrain, which hosts the Fifth Fleet of the United States Navy.

The Bahrain protests were largely peaceful, with limited clashes between the police and the demonstrators in smaller rural villages. The Interior Ministry claimed that there had been unprovoked attacks on police officers by groups who detonated two bombs and used guerilla-like homemade weapons against the officers. On February 14, one policeman died in a bomb blast, three were wounded and 26 arrests were made.

Concern has been growing over the treatment of Shi’a Bahrainis; there is a fear that they will resort to increasingly violent means of demonstrating their discontent unless a legitimate political solution is arrived at soon. Shi’as claim the current government does little to adequately address their concerns and that discrimination against their religious affiliation is rife.

Although a third-round of dialogue between the ruling family and the opposition has started, the opposition group has boycotted the dialogue for the past four months over incitement charges of two of its leaders brought by the monarchy against the opposition. Royal Court Minister Sheikh Khaled bin Ahmed al-Khalifa has met with opposition leaders informally, but a more formal arrangement has yet to be made, and progress seems far away.

Jeff Meyer

Sources: BBC News, Reuters
Photo: Totally Cool Pix

Participatory Democracy in Africa
With over 300 in attendance, the Congressional Palace of Tunisia is to host the Participatory Budgeting and Citizen Conference between Dec 4 and Dec 6.

Participatory budgeting is the collaboration between civil society and local government in allocating municipal funds. The purpose is to create transparency and accountability in the use of public funds as citizens themselves become engaged and more knowledgeable of their government. As a result, informed decisions can lead to fairer spending and community development.

The movement gained ground in 1989 at Porto Alegre, Brazil. In 2012, participatory democracy is practiced in over 2,778 municipalities worldwide from New York City to Buenos Aires to London.

The participatory budget movement in Africa gained ground in the early 2000s and as a result, there are a recorded 211 African communes that take part.

The first International Conference on Participatory Budgeting was held in 2008 at Senegal. The conference was supported by the World Bank and drew in over 200 participants from Asia, Europe, Africa and the Americas.

That same year, pamphlets about participatory budgeting were published in English, Arabic and French for their respective African countries.

Furthermore, in 2012, the Observatory on Participatory Democracy was launched for Africa at Dakar. The conference included over 154 participants representing 16 different countries. Among them included elected local officials, overseers of P.B., lecturers, university professors and researchers.

The goal of the Observatory is to publicize the efforts of participatory budgeting, support it within Africa and to educate the global audience in regards to the movement.

The participatory budgeting movement empowers local actors and ensures that public resources go towards the poor. Based on a report by the World Bank, participatory democracy can increase knowledge of municipal systems – from transparency to accountability. As a result, a level of public education about local government enables an active civil society and media. Thus, policy is shaped by a “pro-poor” influence.

For its part, the current conference in Tunisia hopes to elaborate upon the benefits and challenges that participatory budgeting faces.

Secondly, the conference aims to discuss the mainstreaming and possible institutionalization of participatory democracy throughout Africa.

Lastly, the conference hopes to address the role elected officials, particularly women, have in mobilizing grassroots efforts.

Such measures are in line with the goals of creating an active citizenry for the betterment of their localities, a true echo of democracy and self-determination.

Miles Abadilla

Sources: PBP, OIDP 1, 2, World Bank

Democracy is an idea that envisions a method of decision making characterized by the equal participation of members of the collective group. As a form of government, democracy is often thought of as a political system where citizens have the power to create and amend laws, elect and impeach leaders and retain ultimate control of important policy matters. But the idea of democracy rarely corresponds with the practical elements of modern nation-states, even those that claim to be democratic.

The word democracy is derived from the Greek words demos which means “the people” and kratos which means “to rule.” A good literal translation may be, “the rule of the people.” But in terms of governance, different forms of democracy tend to dilute the rule of the people. For example, in a representative democracy, citizens elect representatives to act on their behalf when it comes to making decisions that affect the collective group. The United States is governed by a representative democracy whereby the people elect congressional representatives and an executive to carry out the respective powers granted to them by the Constitution.

The United States has often touted itself as the most advanced expression of democracy. While this may be true to some degree, the U.S. experiment with democracy has also illustrated the complexity of a representative democracy. The health of a functioning democracy is dependent upon the participation of the people—if the people are to rule, then they must participate. In the U.S., voter turnout is on average a little more than 50 percent for Presidential elections and substantially less for non-Presidential elections. When people do not vote, they are not participating fully in the democratic process.

Another issue that affects a democracy is the information and education available to the participating citizenry. As Thomas Jefferson explained, “An enlightened citizenry is indispensable for the proper functioning of a republic. Self-government is not possible unless the citizens are educated sufficiently to enable them to exercise oversight.” It is not hard to see that without the proper information, citizens cannot effectively oversee their elected representatives. Thus, a free and independent press is indispensable to a properly functioning democracy. But no matter how much information may be available, it is ultimately the will of the people to be adequately informed that determines the effectiveness of democracy.

Like any idea, democracy is one that continually evolves. Each experiment with democracy is dependent upon the participation of the people in the decision making process. A well-informed and active citizenry makes for a healthy and dynamic democracy. But an unenlightened and indifferent citizenry cannot hope to participate in a functioning democracy. If democracy is—at its core—the rule of the people, then it is the people who must define the characteristics of their democracy.

– Daniel Bonasso

Sources: Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, United Nations, The Guardian
Photo: Pixar Planet

The traditionally conflict-ridden state, Mali, recently elected former Mali Prime Minister Ibrahim Boubacar Keita as president. Keita won in a landslide presidential run-off with 78 percent of the national vote. This election was designed to bring stability back to Mali after a recent coup and Islamist rebel takeover of northern Mali. This election also marks a transition back to democracy after 18 months of crisis.

46 percent of 6.8 million registered voters casted their ballots on August 11, 2013. Soumaila Cisse was one of Keita’s competitors and received only roughly 22 percent of the vote, coming second in the run-off election. With this victory, Keita has been awarded a strong mandate bringing peace to Mali. But in addition to trying to secure a lasting peace with the Tuareg separatist rebels in northern Mali, Keita also needs to address military reforms, widespread corruption, and the economic crisis.

This election holds major implications because it is designed to unlock billions in international aid that have been offered to Mali in good faith. Aid to this country by international donors had been blocked after both the 2012 coup and insurgency by radical Islamist forces sent Mali into turmoil. With this election and revival of democracy in Mali, Keita will have access to over 4 billion dollars in reconstruction aid. Additionally, the United Nations will be deploying 12,600 troops in peacekeeping missions as France withdraws their 3,000 troops. In January, France helped the Mali government fight and repel the Islamist insurgents in Timbuktu, Gao, and Kidal.

Although Keita and the return of democracy are welcomed by many, a significant number of Mali southerners are opposed to funding the northerners as they try to recover from Islamist rebel occupation because they blame the north for the country’s current crisis.

Another divisive problem that exists is the promotion of coup leader Captain Amadou Sanogo to the rank of lieutenant general. Sanogo and his forces have been linked to serious crimes such as attacks and torture of civilians. This promotion has been highly scrutinized by groups such as the Human Rights Watch. This scrutinization is the first step to investigations of Sanogo and his departure from the military.

Regardless of the problems and obstacles ahead, Keita is known to be tough and a blunt speaker, but he has affirmed his commitment to bring peace and security reunite the people of Mali. The hope is now that Keita remains true to the people and does not appoint his political backers as a way to repay favors and fill cabinet position with his cronies.

– Rahul Shah

Sources: Reuters, Zee News, BBC
Photo: la Croix

According to the UN, famine occurs when there is “a severe lack of food access for a large population” that causes more than 30 percent of the population to suffer from malnutrition and two people per 10,000 people to die each day. Though many organizations attempt to solve famine crises with emergency resources alone, these resources address the immediate causes of famine instead of the underlying factors that prolong and exacerbate it. Listed below are five ways to end famine that go beyond emergency relief to offer long-term solutions.

1. Promote democracy.

Harvard economist Amartya Sen remarked that “No famine has ever taken place in the history of the world in a functioning democracy.” While no country is immune to natural catastrophes that hinder agriculture, countries with stable democracies can better combat the conditions that lead to famine. People can promote democratization by stressing the importance of foreign aid and development assistance to legislators. Democracy may not fill stomachs, but it does help to manage the resources needed to do so.

2. Send funds instead of food.

Amartya Sen also pointed out that a “shortage of purchasing power” rather than a shortage of food itself causes famines. Though emergency food and water supplies can sustain populations during severe famines, such resources do not prevent future famines. By sending funds instead of food, donor countries can avoid procedural delays and ensure that starving people can afford the food they need to survive.

3. Connect farmers to markets.

Organizations such as the UN’s World Food Programme (WFP) provide smallholder farmers with the opportunity to sell their crops to reliable buyers, providing them with steady capital. The WFP also teaches farmers sustainable practices that increase the value of their crops and boost national food security over time. Connecting farmers to markets directly reduces poverty and gives farmers the income necessary to purchase their own food.

4. Empower women.

While women produce roughly half of the world’s food supply, they are often the first to go hungry in a household. Educating women lowers rates of unplanned pregnancy significantly, decreasing the average number of children a woman must feed and reducing poverty.

5. Spread awareness.

The aforementioned strategies can solve the structural problems that lead to famine, but resources are needed to implement these strategies. Ordinary people can help to end famine simply by spreading awareness and contacting their friends, families, and legislators. Such awareness can put pressure on legislators to implement programs that combat famine.

Katie Bandera

Sources: Forbes, World Food Program, End Famine
Photo: BWG

Have you ever wondered how to run for Congress? If you want to influence politics outside of citizen activism or local government, then running for Congress is a great next-level option. Follow these 8 steps to Washington, D.C. and make a lasting impact on Congressional issues.

1. Build a resume – It is important to note that successful Congressional candidates do not have identical resumes. It is encouraged to have a wide variety of political background, and a lifetime of experience to show that you are an ideal candidate for the United States Congress. Previous work experience of most people in Congress involves being a lawyer, but the exceptions to this rule often include physicians and students with graduate degrees in political science.

2. Avoid mistakes – Seems impossible, right? This step is probably the most likely to deter the “average joe” from running. Many congressional leaders have cheated and lied before to get their seat. However, these mistakes are usually overlooked if they are in the distant past.

Just like in the movies, it is important to disclose anything and everything that might be incriminating politically or morally so supporters are not surprised later. Conversely, a flawless record can be your undoing in and of itself. If one minor mistake is made on a flawless record, it could mean the end of a career. Best to maintain a healthy, human balance with any potential mistakes.

3. Go to College and study the structure and role of Congress – A university degree is not listed as one of the qualifications for candidacy. However, your fellow candidates are almost guaranteed to have a degree. On top of that, a consistent education in government or political science will help any candidate in Congress.

4. Run for local government and start building a name for yourself – First, “test the waters.” Try and gauge how likely your are to win a candidacy. One classic path to the Congressional seat is starting at the local government level. An active role in local government will not only show a positive humble beginning and connection to your roots, it will impress voters. In addition, running for local office is great experience and gives the opportunity to test campaign strategies.

5. Start fundraising – It is extremely difficult to achieve any sort of political good without monetary help. In order to promote your own election, you are going to need to fundraise for advertising, traveling, and payroll for your committees. Choosing a good staff that subscribes to the ideals you want to fight for is crucial for a cohesive team. In addition, you may need an assistant or a speechwriter.

6. File ballot paperwork – Make sure you are a resident of the state in which you are applying for a Congressional seat and are at least 25 years old.

7. Campaign, campaign, campaign – Organize a campaign with your staff to travel as much as possible and meet as many voters as you can. Meeting voters personally is crucial for a successful winning campaign. Hire a professional marketing team to ensure that all of your campaign media is consistent with your campaign strategy.

8. Vote! – When the time comes, revel in the sight of your name on the ballot, and don’t forget to vote for yourself!

We often forget that we do live in a democracy. And although money and fame can get in the way, the information on running for congress is available to the public and you can and should run if you are able.

All registration forms to run for Congress are available for download from the Information Division, Federal Election Commission, Washington D.C., or by calling the toll free number, 1.800.424.9530.

– Kali Faulwetter
Source: WikiHow,FEC
Photo: Business Insider

Girl-writing-call_congress_letter_to_editor_community_involvement_opt (1)
Global poverty is an international issue, and because of its scope helping the poor can often seem like an insurmountable problem. However, if everyone one person devoted to the cause could take 5 or 10 minutes to make an effort and get involved, the solution to poverty wouldn’t seem so out of reach. Here are some simple ways to make a difference:

1. Call or Write Congress

The power of free speech is often underestimated; when in reality congressional leaders often support poverty-reduction legislation when as few as 7 to 10 people in their district contact them in support of it. Calling your leaders each week only takes up to a minute out of your schedule – all you need to say is that you are calling to support funding for USAID or poverty-focused aid. Simple as that!

2. Donate to the Cause

There are many ways to donate either time or money – instead of birthday or graduation presents, ask for donations. Set up a fundraiser with your local bakery. Volunteer and donate your time to aid organizations. The options are endless.

3. Spread the Word

In order to solve a global problem, it is important to have a global presence. Whether through flier posting, blogging, or word of mouth, make sure to educate those around you to the trials of those in poverty and the simplicity of the solution. Encourage others to call their congressional leaders in order to have the most impact on foreign aid legislation. It’s as easy as posting a link with the information to your social media accounts.

Being an active member of the movement to eradicate poverty is incredibly important; and the more people that get interested and involved, the faster the government will take note and put more poverty-focused aid into legislation. It’s quick and simple, so why not take a minute to call right now?

-Sarah Rybak
Source: The Borgen Project
Photo: The Ambrose School

Ricken Patel: The Opportunity Of Our TimeLast week at the Guildhall in London, Ricken Patel gave the Commonwealth Lecture, a once-a-year event hosted by the Commonwealth Foundation featuring distinguished speakers discussing issues and ideas pertinent to the global community. Patel, the founder of the online activist group Avaaz, delivered his lecture entitled “The Opportunity Of Our Time” proposing that a “new politics, new activism, a new democracy” is coming, empowering us, bringing us together, and changing our world.

“Practical idealism is not just our only hope, it’s just good sense,” said Patel.

Throughout the lecture, Patel’s optimism sheds reasons to be hopeful that newer generations will not only make impacts in the future but that they have already done so. Over the past half-century, significant progress has been made in poverty reduction, the spread of democracy, the suppression of war, and the decline of deaths caused by war. Globally, nations are experiencing increases in income per person, empowerment of women, life expectancy, literacy, and internet access. In these promising statistics, there is a basis for profound hope.

Patel asserts that common goals across the globe are being realized. Public opinion surveys show proof that nearly all of the world believes that we must act towards solutions for environmental problems, human rights issues, poverty, corruption, and climate change.

Though many people are indeed mobilized towards these objectives, Patel states that we are living in an “age of tyrannical systems.” Systems such as corporate capture, gladiatorial politics, oligarchy, media complexes, and lowest-common-denominator-global-governance allow individuals who are in positions of power and influence to exploit society using fear. These “tyrannical systems” create division rather than allow cooperation through inspired hope and shared enterprise. These are the systems that, Patel stresses, need to be reformed to accomplish the common goals.

Patel discusses what he calls his “20 years plan to save the world,” through political empowerment and citizenship. Governments at the moment have the unique characteristic of having the potential to be either vast threats or society’s most powerful tool. They will either be swayed by a few who will utilize it for their own selfish gains or by the many who are working for the common good of all. Patel proposes highly accountable, highly functional democracies at the global, national and local levels that will engage citizens in politics, empower them to voice out their beliefs and concerns, and ensure them that governments will act on the promises they make. These democracies will be powered by “thoughtful committed people” organized towards these goals.

Most of the world believes, he comments, that the greatest challenges are happening right now. At the same time, technological advancements that answer these challenges are accelerating at quicker speeds than ever. Patel simply states that “democracy is coming” for all. The efficacy of our actions, the community of our voices, and revolutionizing democracies and institutions towards citizen empowerment are all crucial to this vision.

Avaaz, meaning “voice” in several languages, is the world’s largest activist network with more than 20 million members in 194 countries. As Patel puts it, the mission is to “close the gap between the world we have and the world most people everywhere want.”

“So much more than just having a reason to hope, we have a responsibility to dream,” said Patel.

– Rafael Panlilio
Source: AvaazCommonwealth FoundationGuardian

Author Chinua Achebe Dies at 82Chinua Achebe, author of “Things Fall Apart,” and widely considered to be the father of modern African literature, has died at the age of 82. His passing was confirmed by his publisher on March 22, 2013. For nearly his entire life, Chinua Achebe passionately advocated for democracy in his home country of Nigeria; he was and is an inspiration to millions who still yearn for peace and freedom.

Living in London in the late 1950s, Achebe struggled to find a publisher for his first work. “Things Fall Apart” was finally published in 1958, and its influence cannot be overstated. It has been described as “among the most important books of the 20th century, [and] a universally acknowledged starting point for postcolonial, indigenous African fiction.” A story about a tribal Nigerian man’s troubles with British colonialists, Achebe’s novel influenced famous authors like Toni Morrison and Junot Diaz.

After catapulting into the center of the debate over Nigerian democracy, Achebe had found himself at times being labeled an enemy of the state, and at other times refusing prestigious literary awards from what he considered to be an illegitimate government. A tireless critic of authoritarianism, he claimed that it stifles individuals and creates mediocrity, which “destroys the very fabric of a country as surely as a war.” He urged Nigerians and all Africans to be passionate about the future and to use that passion to work to bring their visions into reality. Achebe lived much of his life in the United States, mostly for his own safety. He had taught at Brown University since 2009, previously working at Bard College. He leaves behind a legacy that will undoubtedly stand the test of time and inspire millions more.

Jake Simon

Source: Washington Post