Recently there was an excellent diary on Daily Kos discussing the politics of African famines. This diary is so important now as famine is affecting a large swath of East Africa, threatening the lives of millions. I have recently been focusing on what I call an “integrated, grassroots development movement” to help East Africa through microloans, education, women’s rights, environment etc. etc. I have introduced this community to my efforts in diaries like THIS and more extensively THIS. I have been focusing on a long term, grassroots, intelligent approach to helping Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania as well as surrounding nations. But I had been avoiding discussing the famine because I wanted to focus on hope and on long-term solutions. I still want to do that, but the short-term needs of East Africa cannot be ignored. Hence this diary, trying to focus our attention on BOTH the short and long-term needs of East Africa.
My original vision is this: a coordinated effort by the progressive blogsphere (that’s you and me, my friend, not someone else) that will focus on several interconnected issues with a view towards REGIONAL and COMMUNITY based development. The target area of Uganda/Kenya/Tanzania (roughly the Rift Valley/Lakes region of East Africa) is an excellent place to start because of the critical environmental issues, the presence of excellent groups like Kiva, and the fact that these nations have a chance for becoming more stable if the immediate crises can be survived. Some ask me why not focus on America rather than Africa. There are many answers to that. One is that I DO focus on America and that doesn’t exclude my focusing on Africa as well. But these two regions need different things from a grassroots movement like ours. America needs political activism because here in America we have all the resources to help every American citizen if only the reactionary Republican extremists would allow us. A political shift alone could go a long way to bettering all Americans. So my focus on America is mainly (though not exclusively) political. We are far less able to affect African politics, we don’t necessarily have the right to affect African politics, and we are better able to help Africa in other ways. A small loan of $500, made up from smaller loans of $25 or so from people like us, can mean the difference between the success and the failure of a family in East Africa. It doesn’t help so much for a family in America.

Finally, the earth is now a single unit–economically, politically, environmentally. Decades of instability in Africa affect America as well. This is an area of al Qaeda activity because of that instability. The loss of lakes and forests in East Africa affects the global environment, leading to problems right here at home. In a very indirect way, loss of forests in Africa, in addition to making droughts and famines more likely in Africa, contributes to global warming, including probably the increased storminess that America’s gulf coast has been experiences. This isn’t an either/or situation. Yes, America has to help America. But if the rest of the world is ignored, the instability, economic problems and environmental impacts of the rest of the world will hit us right here at home.

My call for a blogsphere-led, grassroots development plan for East Africa is a humanitarian call, but it is also a hard-headed, intelligent call for actions that will indirectly benefit Americans as well as Africans. It is, quite simply, the correct and intelligent thing to do. And I think we can do it!

Can the progressive grassroots rally around BOTH? Helping with the short term, critical need in the face of famine AND helping with a long term, ambitious development plan that can help prevent future droughts? It is tough, but I think we can do it. And it strikes me that Booman Tribune, even more than Daily Kos, could be where this takes off. Read on and let us do what we have to for the future of Africa and the world. If we put enough effort into this today, in 20 years we may look at East Africa, see the improvement, and know that we took part in a historic effort.

Some have complained about the extent of what I cover, saying that it is overwhelming. Well, I agree. But that is the nature of an integrated approach. Each aspect of what I propose below depends on all other aspects, and I want to give a good sense of that interdependence. For those who find this overwhelming, find the single category that you find most compelling and only read/act upon that one category. Below I cover the famine, environmental issues (including population control), women’s rights, education and economic development (focusing on small businesses). Pick your favorite issue and PLEASE act upon it in a big way.

An outline of my proposal:

I. Dealing with the immediate famine: East Africa needs food. Now. That cannot be ignored. The scale of the famine is huge and so far is not being addressed by the international community anywhere near adequately. The only way they will get it is if human beings from all over the world, including us, help them out. You and I can start by helping to get East Africa food aid. A donation to Oxfam is probably the best thing you can do to help East Africa in its most immediate crisis.

II. Dealing with the environmental root causes of drought and famine: What are the root causes of this famine? People can point to several. But fundamentally there are some fundamental problems that quite simply trump all other root causes. Currently Africa is facing, simultaneously, a rapid decline of its fresh water lakes, a rapid decline in its forests, and a rapid increase in population. The combination creates an environmental situation that inevitably will lead to more and more droughts and hence to more and more famines. These environmental issues are on all levels the most important long-term issues that need to be addressed. No economic development plan, no food aid, no political changes from within can end African instability if these environmental crises are not addressed. These African environmental issues are also part of a global trend. The entire WORLD is facing a decline in fresh water sources, decline in forests and increased population and these trends are leading to wars, famines, and global warming.

Across the globe, one of the most destabilizing factors in any society’s history, be it Japan or Haiti or Kenya, is deforestation. Sane forest management, after economic problems caused by deforestation, is one of the secrets of Japan’s success. Bangladesh, on the other hand, faces an annual cycle of devastating floods followed by devastating droughts because of deforestation in the Himalayas. The theme of the devastating effects of deforestation and the benefits of forest management and reforestation recurs often in Jared Diamond’s book Collapse though it is also obvious to anyone familiar with the problems of a nation like Bangladesh. Diamond simply argues it more formally and globally than I have heard before. And, of course, deforestation is also one of the factors contributing to global warming. One of the most important thing that any human being can do to help Africa as well as the world is to contribute to forest management and/or reforestation.

The NY Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) has three programs trying to preserve the forests, lakes and wildlife of East Africa. Their focus is on BOTH the environment and the human populations in the area, integrating the economic and social needs of communities with the needs of the environment. One program focuses on preserving the entire regional environment in Albertine Rift region of Africa, mostly centered on Uganda, Rwanda and the Congo. This is one of the most critically threatened regions of Africa’s environment. Preservation of this region is critical for the economy and freshwater supply of the region, the ecotourism industry of the region, and for preservation of the world’s forests as a buffer for global warming. I strongly urge a donation to the WCS Albertine Rift Program. A second program focues on the preserving the Uganda environment in particular. The third program focuses on preserving the entire habitat of the mountain gorilla, an effort that includes some of the East African environment that provides the watershed for the nations we are focusing on. I include this program partly because it covers some of the same environmental regions as the other two programs, but also because the preservation of the Mountain Gorilla is another of my pet projects. So this is an opportunity to urge people to help two of my pet projects: helping East Africa and saving the Mountain Gorilla.

Overpopulation is also a global problem, as many pointed out in the diary on Daily Kos discussing the politics of African famines. We are all familiar with Planned Parenthood, which addresses BOTH population issues and issues of women’s reproductive rights and health. To those who view Africa’s and the world’s problems as primarily a population issue, Planned Parenthood’s International organization will be of considerable interest to you. But this concatenation of population and women’s issues leads to my next section.

III. Women’s Rights: One of the most important measures of development is the place of women in society. As a first approximation, women’s rights go along with development. A more equal role of women in society seems to correlate well with improvements in health, education and prosperity. The equation is not simple, but women’s rights are, in my view, an integral part of stable, sustainable development. Furthermore, in addition to access to family planning services (see above for International Planned Parenthood Federation for this), the best means for controlling population increase is through women’s literacy and economic empowerment.

So, I want to highlight some groups in East Africa that are addressing women’s rights. The Uganda Women’s Network (UWONET) is an advocacy and lobbying coalition of National Women’s NGOs, institutions and individuals in Uganda, founded in 1993. UWONET was born out of the East African Women’s Conference held in Kampala in 1993. Their aim to “engender policies, laws and programmes, structures and processes in order to address the needs of both women and men leading to the achievement of gender equity and equality.” In Tanzania, Kivulini Women’s Rights Organization is a registered Non-Governmental Organization based in Mwanza, Tanzania. In Kiswahili, Kivulini means “in the shade.” The word implies a place under the tree where people discuss and support each other.

IV. Education: Education is one of the most important aspect of any individual person’s or any society’s formula for success. In East Africa, education is not free. School fees prevent many individuals from getting even a basic education. Girls, in particular, are poorly served by education in Africa. You can help sponsor the secondary school education for a child in Kenya or Tanzania, though in this case you have to send a check to the Canadian Harambee Education Society. Find out more on their website.

V. Economic Development (small businesses): One of the most important aspect of any local economy are small businesses. And the development of small businesses in East Africa is the focus of two excellent organizations Village Enterprise Fund (VEF) and Kiva. In many ways these two organizations work in tandem to help small business owners in Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania to get started and to expand. In general, VEF helps get people started running a business but giving them a microgrant (generally around $100) and some training in effective business practices. This alone will make a huge difference to many people in East Africa seeking to better their economic life and in some ways VEF may be one of the best organizations you can give to if you want to help improve the local economy in East Africa. These small businesses are not part of an export economy, but are mostly simply small stores, tailors, fish mongers, goat herders, brick makers, restaurants, bike shops, etc. that will improve the local economy.

Once a business has shown some success after being sponsored by a group like VEF, they can then be considered by Kiva as a recipient of a microloan to help expand. Kiva.directly connects you and a small business owner in East Africa so that you can help that business owner with a small loan. For those new to this idea, Kiva connects small lenders (you and me) who can lend as little as $25, with small businesses in East Africa who need small loans. All small scale! You get your money back within 6-12 months, though without interest. This method of helping can make a large difference for a small business, and it is a great source of pride for a business owner to receive a loan, improve their business, then repay the loan. The recipients of Kiva loans do very well and are very proud of the partnership with lenders.

Please find at least ONE thing you can do and please spread the word. This effort depends on a broad, grassroots outpouring of help. You’ll feel good about it and in the long run it does help America as well.

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