Communicating Research on Global Change: How to engage policy-makers?

What is to be done? With a few strategies, this gap can be bridged...
What is to be done? With a few strategies, this gap can be bridged…

How to ‘Bell’ the policy ‘cats’? I posed – and tried to answer – this question in October 2013 when addressing a group of Asian research leaders gathered in Bangkok, Thailand.

It’s a question without easy or simple answers. Policy makers come in different forms and types, and gaining their attention depends on many variables — such as a country’s political system, governance processes, level of bureaucracy and also timing.

I revisited this question this week when speaking to a group of young (early to mid-career) researchers from across South Asia who want to study many facets of global change. They were brought together at a regional workshop held in in Paro, Bhutan, by the Asia-Pacific Network for Global Change Research (APN) and the National Environment Commission of the Royal Government of Bhutan.

Nalaka Gunawardene speaks at APN South Asian Proposal Development Training Workshop in Paro, Bhutan, 14-16 Dec 2016. Photo Xiaojun Deng, APN
Nalaka Gunawardene speaks at APN South Asian Proposal Development Training Workshop in Paro, Bhutan, 14-16 Dec 2016. Photo Xiaojun Deng, APN

Titled as the ‘Proposal Development Training Workshop (PDTW)’ and held from 14 to 16 December 2016, PDTW aimed “to raise awareness of APN among early career scientists and practitioners, and to increase the capacity to develop competitive proposals for submission to APN”.

The workshop involved two dozen researchers and half a dozen mentors. I was the sole mentor covering the important aspect of communicating research.

I urged researchers to try and better understand the imperfect, often unpredictable conditions in which South Asia’s policy makers operate.

Researchers and activists who would like to influence various public policies. Everyone is looking for strategies and engagement methods. The policy cycle cannot run according to text book ideals when governments have to regularly cope with economic uncertainties, political upheavals and social unrest, etc.

Asia-Pacific Network for Global Change Research (APN): Proposal Development Training Workshop 2016 — in Paro, Bhutan. Photo by Xiaojun Deng, APN
Asia-Pacific Network for Global Change Research (APN): Proposal Development Training Workshop 2016 — in Paro, Bhutan. Photo by Xiaojun Deng, APN

Imagine what keeps your policy makers awake at night, I suggested. Are they worried about balance of payment, disaster responses or a Parliamentary majority? How can research findings, while being evidence based, help solve problems of economic development and governance?

I also suggested that researchers should map out the information behaviour of their policy makers: where do they get info to act on? Is there a way research findings can be channeled to policy makers through some of these sources – such as the media, professional bodies and international development partners?

I suggested two approaches to communicating research outcomes to policy makers: directly, using own publications and/or social media; and indirectly by working with and through the media.

Finally, I shared some key findings of a global study in 2012 by SciDev.Net (where I was an honorary trustee for nearly a decade) which looked at the different contextual settings within which policy makers, the private sector, NGOs, media organisations and the research community operate to better understand how to mainstream more science and technology evidence for development and poverty reduction purposes.

Love that Bug: Spinal Beetle completes charity run across South Asia

Here's looking at you, people! The Love Bug had only two eyes, but the Spinal Beetle has four. Photo by Nalaka Gunawardene

Deep down in our hearts, we are all Volkswagen Beetle fans: some of us have owned one (my first car was a red bug!), others dream of doing so. The world’s most enduringly popular car design has a particular appeal in South Asia.

And now, South Asian VW Beetle fans have a adorable new mascot. Move over, Disney’s Love Bug (thanks for tons of fun); welcome, Spinal Beetle!

My friend – and hero – Kanak Mani Dixit and his wife Shanta have just completed a 2,200 km (1,100 mile) journey in their nearly 40-year-old Beetle that took them from Kathmandu in Nepal to Peshawar in Pakistan. It was a 12-day, 3-country drive that was to raise funds for spinal injury treatment in Nepal.

By happy coincidence, I was in Kathmandu on 4 Nov 2011 when the President of Nepal waved off Kanak and Shanta on their journey from the President’s House. It was an informal gathering of friends and well-wishers — with none of the pomposity usually associated with heads of state.

So the photos in this post are all mine. The text that follows is from Kanak and his media team:

President Ram Baran Yadav about to send off Kanak Mani Dixit and Shanta Dixit on 12-day journey in Spinal Beetle - Photo by Nalaka Gunawardene

The ‘Great Nepal-India-Pakistan Spinal Beetle Drive’ arrived in Peshawar on 16 November, ending a 1100-mile odyssey that took the 1973 VW Beetle from Kathmandu through Lucknow, Agra, Delhi, Amritsar, Lahore, Islamabad and Rawalpindi.

“It was an exhilarating journey across the friendly landmass of Southasia, and I hope a pointer towards easy land-crossings for people from all our countries,” said Dixit. “Most of our journey was along the Grand Trunk Road, built originally by Sher Shah Suri in the 16th century. The 21st century demands that we open this highway for the people, commerce and ideas to flow.”

The journey of the sky-blue Beetle was conducted with three goals of promoting ‘land connectivity’ in Southasia, developing links between spinal injury institutions across the Subcontinent, and raising funds for the Spinal Injury Rehabilitation Centre in Nepal.

“The matter of land connectivity is important because airline links can never provide the mass-level contact that our people and economies deserve. One would want to see the same cacophony at the Atari-Wagah border as at the Nepal-India border of Bhairahawa-Sunauli,” said Dixit.

The trip was helpful in developing linkages between organisations such as the Spinal Centre in Nepal, the Indian Spinal Injuries Centre in Delhi (ISIC), the Mayo Hospital in Lahore, the National Institute for Rehabilitation Medicine in Islamabad, the Armed Forces Institute for Rehabilitation Medicine in Rawalpindi, and the Paraplegic Centre in Peshawar.

As for the goal of raising emergency funds for the Spinal Centre-Nepal in order to cope with sudden rise in demand for its services, Dixit said that a little over half of the USD 110,000 goal had been raised. “We hope to complete our goal through a retroactive campaign because the spinally injured of Nepal badly need support,” he said.

Dixit is a civil rights activist, writer and journalist who injured his spine in a trekking accident a decade ago. The Spinal Centre was started in 2002 and inaugurated by the late Sir Edmund Hillary.

Kanak and Shanta Dixit setting off on their long journey in Spinal Beetle from Sheetal Niwas on 4 Nov 2011 morning - Photo by Nalaka Gunawardene

In the ‘Spinal Beetle’ driven by Dixit, he was accompanied by Shanta Dixit, educator and founding member of the Spinal Centre-Nepal. The back-up car, a Mahindra Bolero, included VW Beetle specialist Naresh Nakarmi, Spinal Centre staff member Suman Khadka and Eelum Dixit, doing videography and photography. Social worker Meera Jyoti is chair of the Spinal Centre-Nepal.

The Spinal Beetle drive was flagged off on 4 November by President Ram Baran Yadav of Nepal. In New Delhi, it was received by Maj. H.P.S. Ahluwalia, founder of ISIC, as well as journalist Kuldip Nayar and actor Om Puri. The physicist and peace activist A.H. Nayyar received the Spinal Beetle at the Wagah-Atari border. Throughout the Southasian drive, the team was graciously hosted by members of the Pakistan-India People’s Forum for Peace and Democracy and other organisations, such as the Indian Doctors for Peace and Development in Agra, and Asha for Education in Lucknow.

Among the many interesting aspects of the trip, from the emotional to the historical, Dixit includes the following:

• The Spinal Beetle team responded to the request of 96-year-old Barkat Singh ‘Pahalwan’ of Jalandhar (Indian Punjab) that some earth be collected from his childhood village of Fatehgarh near Sialkot (Pakistani Punjab). Taking a detour from the GT Road, the team found the place, which had now become an urban suburb of Sialkot, and collected a jarful of agricultural earth for Barkat Singh. (for a picture of Barkat Singh and other images, go to ‘Selected Photographs’ on

• The memory of Sher Shah Suri, the Afghan sultan from present-day Bihar who ruled from Agra, followed the team through much of the route, which he had regularised in the mid-16th century as an administrative and commercial artery. His memory was revived by the ‘kos’ markers along the Delhi-Chandigarh stretch, a neglected postal station outside Wazirabad, the great roadside banyans providing shade to travellers then and now, and the Rohtas Fort on the approach to Rawalpindi.

A Nepali on wheelchair watches Spinal Beetle about to depart on a long journey to raise funds for people like him - Photo by Nalaka Gunawardene

• Having started in the Lumbini region of Nepal, where the Buddha was born more than 2,500 years ago, the Spinal Beetle ended its journey in the Gandhar region around Peshawar, a vast centre for Buddhist learning, art and architecture where the Sakyamuni was first etched in human form a few centuries later. In the Potohar Plateau near Islamabad, the Spinal Beetle visited the gigantic Buddhist stupa at the village of Manikyal.

• Arriving in Agra, the Spinal Beetle visited the Taj Mahal on the day of Eid ul-Azha. It arrived in Amritsar and visited Harminder Saheb (the Golden Temple) on the Guru Nanak’s birthday. Passing Gorkha District of Nepal (named after the Gorakhnath temple situated there), the Spinal Beetle traversed Gorakhpur, the base of the Nath sect, and ended its journey in Peshawar where the team visited the Gorakhnath Temple there, opened only a month ago after 60 years of closure. The Delhi-Amritsar leg of the journey was started with a visit to the dargah of Nizamuddin Aulia.

• After watching the mock-militarist show at the Wagah-Atari border between the Indian and Pakistani goose-stepping men in khaki, that very evening the team attended a play on Bhagat Singh and his fight for independence, put on by the Ajoka Theatre of Lahore.

• The Bharatpur government hospital in Chitwan District of Nepal was the first stop of the Spinal Beetle out of Kathmandu. The Bharatpur hospital sought help for setting up a spinal injury rehabilitation unit, which is in line with the Spinal Centre’s belief in decentralising rehabilitation. As a gesture of goodwill for the Nepal-India-Pakistan drive, the hospital committee donated NRs 50,000, which was gratefully received.

• In New Delhi, Maj. H.P.S. Ahluwalia of ISIC suggested that Dixit work to set up a Southasian network for spinal injury rehabilitation, given the specificity of the need. There was an enthusiastic response to this idea throughout the rest of the trip all the way to the Paraplegic Centre in Peshawar.

• At the Mayo Hospital in Lahore, the Medical Superintendent Dr. Zahid Pervaiz and Head of Rehabilitation Medicine Dr. Waseem Iqbal provided information on spinal injury and trauma response that had been developed in Pakistan. They graciously offered four-year full fellowships for two doctors to be sent by the Spinal Centre-Nepal.

Only a Nepali team and a German Bug could get past border babus like this!

• In Islamabad, the Nepal team got specific information on the response to the 2005 earthquake which hit Kashmir and the Hazara division. The team invited Pakistani specialists to Kathmandu to share information on the medical, rescue, social work and humanitarian aspects, so that Nepal would be better able to tackle the mega-tremor that is projected to hit Kathmandu Valley and surrounding areas before long.

• In Islamabad, activist and politician Nafisa Khattak introduced the team to the Melody Theatre, which had served as a staging ground for the sudden rush of victims from the 2005 earthquake. Poignantly, this only cinema hall of the city had been set to torch by a radical mob some years earlier.

• In Agra, members of the Indian Doctors for Peace and Development reminded the team that while there were 8-9 neurosurgeons in the city, there was no rehabilitation centre.

• The Volkswagen Club of Pakistan (VCP) took the Spinal Beetle under its wings in Islamabad and made sure that the car was made ship-shape after the climb up from the Punjab plains. Discussion was started with the club members about organising a VW Beetle rally from Islamabad all the way to Dhaka through India and via Kathmandu, as an exemplary means to develop people-to-people contact in the Subcontinent. This would require cooperation between the VCP, the Association of Nepal’s Beetle Users (ANBUG), the Volkswagen Club of Bangladesh and the Volkswagen Beetle community in India.

• At a meeting organised by the Pakistan-India People’s Forum for Peace and Democracy and the Islamabad Cultural Forum, Dixit spoke on the theme of ‘land connectivity’ in Southasia. “If on an old VW Beetle can do the Kathmandu-to-Peshawar trip with ease, imagine how easy it will be for everyone else.” At this time of geopolitical rapprochement between India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, a special push must be made for land connectivity, he added. “Let a hundred thousand networks bloom across Southasia, in the spectrum from spinal injury to VW Beetles and beyond, to bring the people together.”

More on the Spinal Beetle drive: The sudden rise of the number of patients over the last year has forced the Spinal Centre-Nepal to raise its service from 39 beds to 51. We seek to raise USD 110,000 from the 1,100 mile journey of the Spinal Beetle, at the ‘rate’ of USD 100 per mile from friends and supporters worldwide. By the time the Spinal Beetle arrived at Peshawar on 16 November, a little over half that amount had been raised. The Spinal Beetle Rally is also an effort to raise awareness of spinal injury prevention, rescue, care and rehabilitation in the Subcontinent.

The Spinal Beetle has done the Kathmandu-Dhaka stretch twice, in 2002 and 2005, and touched base at the Centre for the Rehabilitation of the Paralysed (CRP) in Bangladesh. The CRP would be a key institution in the networking of spinal injury rehabilitation institutions that is proposed.

The Spinal Beetle will carry their hopes and dreams across three countries, driven by that small man standing behind - Photo by Nalaka Gunawardene

Wanted: More courageous little ‘Mack’s to unsettle Yertle Kings of our times!

Yertle the Turtle King: My mental image of a despotic ruler!

Related blog post on 7 Feb 2011: Of Dictators and Terrible Cockroaches: A Russian children’s story…from 1925!

January 2011 has been an eventful month for democratic reform in the Middle East. As People Power successfully toppled the deeply entrenched dictator Ben Ali in Tunisia, and the ordinary Egyptians intensified their pressure on own 30-year-long regime of Hosni Mubarak, commentators around the world have been trying to make sense of the rapidly unfolding developments. One of them, David Kravets, writing in Wired linked to a blog post of mine that talked about the experience of one of the earliest successful demonstrations of people power — in the Philippines, when they toppled a long-misruling dictator in 1986.

Amidst all this, and while following the developments on the web, I have been re-reading my Dr Seuss. In particular, the delightfully inspiring tale of Yertle the Turtle King. To me, that is the perfect example of People Power in action — cleverly disguised as children’s verse!

The story was first published in April 1958, in a picture book collection by Theodor Geisel, published under his more commonly-known pseudonym, Dr. Seuss. In 2001, Publishers Weekly listed it at No 125 on a list of the best-selling children’s books of all time.

For those poor Seuss-deprived readers, here’s a helpful summary I have adapted from Wikipedia:

The story is about Yertle the Turtle, the king of the pond in the far-away island of Sala-ma-Sond. Unsatisfied with the stone that serves as his throne, he commands the other turtles to stack themselves beneath him so that he can see further and expand his kingdom (he considers himself the master of all he can see). However, the stacked turtles are in pain. Mack, a very ordinary little turtle at the very bottom of the pile, asks Yertle for a respite, but Yertle just tells him to shut up. Dissent is suppressed.

King Yertle is still not happy: he wants ‘to expand his kingdom’. So he commands more and more turtles to add to his throne. Mack again asks for a respite because the increased weight is now causing extreme pain to the turtles at the bottom. Again Yertle yells at Mack to shut up. At this point, little Mack decides he has had enough and decides to do something to vent his anger and frustration: he just burps. That simple action shakes up the entire stack of turtles, and the mighty king comes crashing down into the pond — and all turtles are freed at last!

Required reading for all despots?Years ago, when I first read the story to my then very young daughter, I could immediately see strong parallels between the vain, merciless Yertle the turtle king and the equally egotistic megalomaniacs in the world of human politics and governance. I would later learn that Dr Seuss meant Yertle to be Adolf Hitler: the turtle’s rule of the pond and takeover of the surrounding areas signified Hitler’s regime in Germany and invasion of surrounding Europe.

The ordinary but courageous Mack epitomises long-suffering Everyman and Everywoman in all countries where autocratic or dictatorial regimes rule, piling ever more burdens on their people. Like the turtles in the stack, the people can go on for years taking a great deal of suffering and sacrifice while the despots plunder and make merry. But there comes a day when a ‘Mack’ says enough is enough…and emits a humble ‘burp’ that shakes up everyone.

As Dr Seuss wrote (and this is my favourite part!):

But, as Yertle, the Turtle King, lifted his hand
And started to order and give the command,
That plain little turtle below in the stack,
That plain little turtle whose name was just Mack,
Decided he’d taken enough. And he had.
And that plain little lad got a bit mad.
And that plain little Mack did a plain little thing.
He burped!
And his burp shook the throne of the king!

And Yertle the Turtle, the king of the trees,
The king of the air and the birds and the bees,
The king of a house and a cow and a mule…
Well, that was the end of the Turtle King’s rule!
For Yertle, the King of all Sala-ma-Sond,
Fell off his high throne and fell Plunk! in the pond!

And today the great Yertle, that Marvelous he,
Is King of the Mud. That is all he can see.
And the turtles, of course… all the turtles are free
As turtles and, maybe, all creatures should be.

Read the text of Yertle the Turtle King

I don’t mean to oversimplify or belittle the enormous courage and resolve it takes for ordinary people to take on a brutal regime, but as pop-culture metaphors go, it’s hard to find a better one than Mack and his defiant burp. That little burp by a tiny turtle brought a vain king down, and its real-world equivalent is called people power: when long-oppressed ordinary people take to the streets to protest against the accumulated excesses of their rulers, demanding reform or regime change.

Not all such ‘burps’ bring all ‘Yertles’ down in the real world. The mighty Soviet Union crumbled in the late 1980s thanks to the courage and persistence of ordinary people who stood up and stepped out. It also worked twice in the Philippines: first against an outright dictator (Marcos) in 1986, and then against a renegade elected president (Estrada) in 2001. A variation of it happened in Nepal against the brutal King Gyanendra, who was dumped into the dustbin of history with the entire monarchy in 2006. Each case had its own history, dynamics and outcomes but shared the common feat of people power.

Sounds familiar? That's because it's all too common!
But elsewhere, as in Tiananmen Square of China (1989) Burma (2007) and Thailand (2010), people power failed to change regimes and led to much violence and bloodshed. What particular combination of social, political and technological factors make people power work is currently the subject of intense study and debate among scholars, diplomats and activists.

But there’s no doubt that recent history has been shaped and made by Macks who broke the silence and, figuratively speaking, burped. Some such burps were heard around the world, and some Macks went on to lead prolonged revolutions that ended with them becoming rulers themselves: Lech Walesa, Cory Aquino and Valclav Havel come to mind.

For every ‘Mack’ who succeeds, though, there are many who go unsung —or much worse. We still have no idea what happened to that much photographed and celebrated ‘Tank Man’ who stood up against the Red Army’s tanks on Tiananman Square one fateful day in June 1989. We don’t even know his name, but his defiance against such enormous odds still inspires assorted Macks all over the world.

For sure, our world is a tiny bit larger — and more complex — than that muddy pond in far away Sala-ma-Sond. And we have an abundance of Yertles, of various colours and hues, riding literally on the backs of their fellow people.

At least some of these tyrants must be following the recent developments in Tunisia and Egypt with growing anxiety. We can only hope that there will be a steady stream of courageous little ‘Macks’ in all such countries who will finally speak up and say: ‘Oi, Enough is enough!’

And then…BURP!

PS: Interesting footnote: Dr Seuss was the first to use the word “burp” in print. That apparently was cause for some concern before publication. According to him, the publishers at Random House, including the president, had to meet to decide whether or not they could use “burp” because “nobody had ever burped before on the pages of a children’s book”.

See also this interesting poem The Vain King, by American poet Henry Van Dyke (1852 – 1933)

Exploring our crowded planet, One Square Mile at a time…

Vasanthi Hariprakash exploring One Square Mile in Kathmandu, Nepal

It’s funny how, more than a generation after most of the world adopted the metric system of measurements, relics of the earlier, ‘imperial’ units still linger in our language and popular culture.

Frequent flyers stlll accumulate air-miles, not kilometres. Disaster managers grapple with the challenges of communicating credible early warnings on that the crucial ‘last mile’ (it’s not yet the ‘last kilometre’). And many among us, including those who have grown up in a metric world, can better grasp a square mile than a square kilometre.

One Square Mile is also the name of an interesting new TV series produced by One Planet Pictures of the UK, and first airing this month on BBC World News. In this series, reporters visit a neighbourhood in different parts of the developing world and try and find out what the residents’ hopes and aspirations

Says its producer Robert Lamb: “One Square Mile is an experiment. So much in television is set up. In this series our reporters explore a small patch of a city with the aim of providing the viewer with an authentic slice of life.”

According to Robert, One Square Mile takes the lid off a neighbourhood. Reporters wander around a marked out section of a town and city and talk to the people they meet to find out what their everyday concerns are.

Of this months shows, two are presented by Zeinab Badawi . In one, she goes walkabout in Juba, capital of south Sudan which is on the verge of becoming an independent state. In the other, Badawi encounters murder on the streets in Guatemala City.

The other two are presented by my friend Vasanthi Hariprakash, whose day job is with India’s leading TV news network NDTV. These two are of particular interest to me as she travels to countries in Asia that are closer to me in distance and closer to my heart.

In one show, Vasanthi travels to Kathmandu, the capital of Nepal. The blurb says: “Despite a recent record of political instability that has seen a monarchy overthrown and an uneasy peace struck with the Maoist insurgents, reporter Vasanthi Hariprakash finds a city population surprisingly upbeat. But a long dawn queue outside the passport office tells a different story – young Nepali men are desperate to get out to find work in the Gulf and Southeast Asia.”

I’m familiar with that city having made multiple visits since 1995, and have shared the pains and anxieties of my Nepali friends as they went through political turmoil and a bloody insurgency. I saluted them when their ‘people power’ got rid of the despotic king in 2006.

Vasanthi did remarkably well in presenting her first-time appearance on a BBC-broadcast show. She came across as informed, eager and empathetic to the people and place she was exploring. Not once did I notice a hint of cynicism or condescension in her voice. This is quite in contrast to regular BBC reporters, many of who are far too judgemental and dismissive than good journalists should ever be. We can only hope vasanthi never aspires to those despicable professional levels…

Amidst political intrigue and uncertainties, life goes on in Kathmandu...

In her second show, Vasanthi travels to a small village in Laos next to the old Ho Chi Minh trail where the dominant concern is unexploded cluster bombs from the Vietnam war. The synopsis reads: “From the capital Vientiane it takes 10 hours for reporter Vasanthi Hariprakash to reach her square mile – a village next to the old Ho Chi Minh trail. Today it’s a peaceful highway for enterprising Vietnamese traders but during the war it was a target for the B 52 bombers with their deadly cargo of cluster bombs. 40% are live – called UXOs – Unexploded Ordinance – and Hariprakesh finds the villagers’ poverty leaves them no choice but to run the gauntlet of the unexploded munitions as they work in their paddy fields.”

This reminds me of a short film I saw in Cambodia many years ago about a poor, rural community who faced a similar dilemma living and working in a countryside littered with unknown and unexploded landmines. The Cold War conflicts in Southeast Asia may have ended decades ago, but local people still live in the shadow of their deadly legacies…

I can’t wait for more real-life stories in One Square Mile, and I hope Robert Lamb will send out his intrepid and charming reporters to far corners of the real world where real people are taking on life’s many challenges 24/7. These people’s resilience and resourcefulness inspire us all.

And that’s what good television is all about. Moving images, moving us all!

Remembering Saneeya Hussain of Absurdistan, five years on…

Saneeya Hussain (1954 - 2005)
Exactly five years ago today, journalist and activist Saneeya Hussain left us. Hers was a needless death that left a deep impression in numerous friends she had around the world. We still remember.

We remember Saneeya as a journalist who took a special interest in environment and human rights issues. All her working life, she campaigned tirelessly for a cleaner, safer and more equitable society for everyone, everywhere.

We remember Saneeya as one who supported pluralism – not just in her own country Pakistan, but everywhere. She hated autocrats and military dictators. She spoke out and wrote against unfair domination and agenda setting by a handful of (usually graying) men. She had the courage to suggest re-naming her country as Absurdistan!

We remember Saneeya as a fun-loving, easy-going if slightly absent-minded friend. She wasn’t the most organised person, but was diligent and relentless on causes and issues that she passionately believed in.

Saneeya’s worldwide network of friends have keep her flame alive, and this blog post is as much a tribute to them as it is for Saneeya. Officially, the Saneeya Hussain Trustcontinues her vision and mission.

In fact, the chairperson of the trust (and Saneeya’s mother) Najma Hussain just wrote us a group email, saying: “Let’s share happy memories of Saneeya and celebrate her life.”

She asked: “If you have any anecdotes to share with us please write back. We will love to hear from you.” Saneeya Hussain Trust can be contacted here.

Read my blog post written on Saneeya’s second death anniversary, 20 April 2007, for more of my own memories

Our mutual friend Beena Sarwar has made a 14-minute documentary called Celebrating Saneeya. Here’s the shorter version available on YouTube:

Celebrating Saneeya (August 2005; 14 mins; language: English; Filmed in Karachi, Pakistan, with archives and footage from Brazil, South Africa and Nepal)

Synopsis: Saneeya, with her joyful laugh, lightness of spirit, striking height and long hair, embodied “feminism” and “women’s rights” in the most un-dogmatic way. Living life on her own terms, she countered the trends that militate against women’s individual freedoms in Pakistan. During the repressive years of military dictator General Ziaul Haq she worked as a journalist and was active in the women’s movement that defied the military rule. She also pioneered environmental journalism in Pakistan. Later, while working with the World Commission on Dams in South Africa she met a Brazilian geographer eleven years her junior. Their love story transcended age, culture, religion and nationalities.

In 2004, a severe allergic reaction stopped Saneeya’s breathing and her breathing stopped during a traffic jam in Sao Paulo, preventing her from reaching the hospital in time and sending her into a coma. This documentary is a celebration of her life and all that she stood for, through interviews with her husband, family and friends, and archive material. Sticker on Saneeya’s fridge: “Life is uncertain, eat dessert first”.

Read more about Saneeya Hussain on the trust website

Afghan boy with a plant: Reza Deghati on nurturing a culture of peace

Capturing the hopes of a nation...

Every photograph has a story behind it, if only we care to ask – or dig deep enough. In October 2007, I wrote about a now iconic photo showing an old Nepali man (Ram Bahadur Tamang) holding a video camera. That image is the logo of Film South Asia festival.

From Reza Deghati, the renowned Iranian-French photojournalist (who works under the name Reza) comes another story – this time from Afghanistan, where the above photo was taken in 1990.

Reza recalls how the photo was taken: “In 1990, the United Nations asked me to put aside my cameras in order to run a humanitarian program in an Afghanistan recently freed from Russian occupation. I had to open a route for wheat shipments needed to feed the population in the Northern Provinces. Eleven years of war against the Soviet Army had devastated the country. Fields lay fallow, roads were impassable, mined or destroyed, and buildings like hospitals and schools were nothing but ruins. I could have given away the wheat. Instead, I decided to barter it for work so as to avoid one of the unfortunate consequences of some humanitarian programs that foster dependence rather than offer new ways to live. Throughout the Province, a new army took shape. This time, men did not carry rifles but shovels.”

“I remember seeing a young Afghan boy coming out of school one day, holding a plant in his hand. He had been watering it carefully. A shoot had sprouted out. I took a picture of him, and asked: ‘What are you going to do with this plant?’ His answer….’I am going to make a tree with it’.

Reza Deghati, photo by Ali Khaligh
Looking back, Reza thinks this may have provided part of the inspiration for setting up Aina, a third-generation humanitarian association that he founded in 2001 in Taliban-free Afghanistan.

Aina now works in Afghanistan, “contributing to the emergence of civil society through actions in the area of education (particularly focusing on women and children), information and communication.” It promotes independent media development and cultural expression as a foundation of democracy.

Reflecting further on the power of images, Reza says on Aina website: “In the early 80s, I discovered wars and the harshest moments of the world as a young photojournalist. I could not just stay there as a mere witness. I was led into thinking over conflicts, repressions, exodus and their burden of known pain, answers as well. As canon roars fade, urgency requires tangible reconstruction. An army of shovel-carrying men starts marching, determined to erase any remaining sign of ruin. Others take care of suffering bodies. Yet, there is an invisible destruction, only known to wounded dignities, that can ruin physical rebuilding efforts in a country and keep it from recovering.

“Those who are not given any intellectual and cultural weapons will go back to their unique reference. The culture of war fosters war. That is how Aina was founded. A third-generation association, Aina has been working on independent media development and culture, everywhere freedom of speech has remained a fragile value. It provides logistical support, state-of-the art technology access and local media and cultural actor training.”

Reza adds, optimistrically: “Today, Aina is like that plant. I hope that it will become a tree of culture, peace and freedom in Afghanistan…”

Radio Sagarmatha: Voice of a Valley and Hope of a nation

Location filming Saving the Planet in Nepal
Location filming Saving the Planet in Nepal

I have written more than once in this blog about Radio Sagarmatha of Nepal, the first independent community broadcasting station in South Asia.

In May 2007, on the occasion of their 10th anniversary, I called it Kathmandu Valley’s beacon of hope. I have known and admired the Nepali friends who are running the award-winning, public-spirited radio station.

I’m delighted, therefore, to be able to make a short film about one facet of Radio Sagarmatha: their contribution to education for sustainable development, ESD for short.

Radio Sagarmatha’s path-breaking work in the resort town of Nagarkot is the story in one film of Saving the Planet, TVE Asia Pacific’s new regional TV series showcasing communities thinking globally and acting locally.

The six-episode series, which was 18 months in the making, features outstanding efforts in education for sustainable development in South and Southeast Asia.

It goes in search of answers to these key questions: Can ordinary people help save our planet under siege from multiple environmental crises? How can everyone change attitudes and lifestyles to consume less and generate less waste?

Here’s the official synopsis of the Nepal story, titled Voice of a Valley:

Tourism generates incomes, jobs and markets for the people of Nagarkot, a popular resort close to the Nepali capital Kathmandu. But it had a bumpy start when hoteliers initially bypassed local communities. These tensions were diffused by Radio Sagarmatha, the country’s first independent public radio station, which brought all interested parties together on the air. This example shows how media can do more than just report. By inspiring discussion and debate, media can help communities to find the best solutions or compromises for their development needs.

Watch Saving the Planet: Voice of a Valley

Many thanks to friends at the Nepal Forum of Environmental Journalists (NEFEJ), for their help in making this short film about one of their most outstanding efforts.

Find the full credits of the film here

‘Saving the Planet’ new Asian TV series is ready for release!

It's planet saving time...and everybody is invited!
It's planet saving time...and everybody is invited!

Can ordinary people help save our planet?

What does it take to change their attitudes and lifestyles to consume and waste less?

For over two years, my team at TVE Asia Pacific and I have been working on a new TV series, modestly called Saving the Planet. It will be released at a regional conference in Tokyo, Japan, on 22 August 2009.

In this Asian series, produced in partnership with Asia Pacific Cultural Centre for UNESCO (ACCU), we profile successful initiatives that combine knowledge, skills and passion to create cleaner and healthier environments.

It was filmed in six countries in South and Southeast Asia: Cambodia, India, Laos, Nepal, the Philippines and Thailand.

The groups profiled in Saving the Planet often work without external funding and beyond the media spotlight. They have persisted with clarity of vision, sincerity of purpose and sheer determination. Their stories inspire many others to pursue grassroots action for a cleaner and safer planet.

Watch the series trailer here:

The dedicated website has just been revamped for the launch.

Watch out for more updates!