Separation, Settlements and Guerilla Graffiti: The West Bank in Pictures

With construction beginning in 2003, the Israeli authorities erected the 8m concrete wall with incredible speed. It’s aim, they say, is to help stop Palestinian suicide bombings on Israeli soil. Since then, the number of attacks has declined by more than 90%.

Banksy at the Bethlehem Checkpoint

However, the wall makes life for many Palestinians even more difficult. For a start, Palestinians cannot get through the checkpoints and onto the other side of the wall without a permit, and permits are very difficult to come by. If you have a job on the Israeli side, and you have kids, it can be easier, but your permit will still only last 3 months, meaning that people have to withstand constant questioning and bureaucracy in order to go about the simple business of getting to work.

Wall Graffeti

Separation

What’s worse for many however is the fact that the wall separates them from family and friends. I met one woman – Sarah – who used to live next door to her aunt, but now the wall travels along what was once the fence between their homes. Sarah is now only able to get a permit to travel across the border to see her family-member once a year.

Annexed Olive Groves

The wall also habitually separates Palestinians from their land. These olive groves have been split in two by the wall, with a substantial portion annexed into the Israeli side.

In this case, the diversion from the ‘Green Line‘ is due to the fact that Rachel’s tomb happens to be several hundred yards into the Palestinian territory. Rather than stick to these UN agreed boundries, Israeli authorities simply built the wall into Palestinian land, annexing the tomb and the olive groves around it.  The farmers have not received compensation.

Refugees

Aida refugee camp is just within the boundaries of the wall on the outskirts of Bethlehem. It homes around 5000 Palestinians, most descended from the original 800 or so that fled to the UN led camp in the 1948 “war of independence”.

All in all, around a million Palestinians fled their homes in what is now Israel, and most have resettled in the West Bank, where they now number at around 2 million.

The boys school in Aida Refugee Camp

Aida isn’t what you might imagine from a refugee camp. There are buildings, streets, schools and community centres holding theatre classes and dance workshops for kids.

One organisation in particular, Al Rowwad, does some amazing work teaching young people photography, theatre and journalism – it aims to help Palestinians tell their story to the world’s media.

Still, the walls are covered in bullet holes and barbed wire. Not sure anyone would choose to live here.

Resistance

Banksy – Separation Wall Graffiti

The wall has become a canvas for political graffiti, communicating messages of peace, anger, hope and despair. Banksy set the trend, coming out here a couple of times over the past few years, usually with a crew of 4-5 other graffiti artists

This one (above)  is one of his. Some argue that this trend is a bad thing, as it somehow trivialises people’s traumas and injustices.

Separation Wall Graffiti

For others, it is an essential way means of protest for Palestinians; taking this symbol of oppression and, somehow, making it their own.

Settlements

Meanwhile, Israeli authorities continue to build towns (‘settlements’) and roads on the Palestinian side of the wall.

Palestinians are not allowed to travel on many of the Israeli built roads or enter the settlements, which are most often populated with ultra-orthodox Jews from America and Eastern Europe who see this land as their own, as promised by Abraham in the Torah and captured by Israel in the 1967 ‘six day war’.

Israeli roads and settlements

Settlements continue to be built at an incredible pace, despite pleas from the international community, including America, to freeze this activity in order to give the peace process a chance of success. It seems like a peculiar brand of craziness (not to mention a double injustice) to go to the trouble of building a mammoth barricade between these two peoples, only to continue colonising the land on the other side.

Four Ways Israel and Palestine Defies Expectation

Having escaped the bustling streets in favour of nursing a strong macchiato in the wonderful Educational Bookshop in East Jerusalem, I got talking to a girl on the next table who, it turned out, worked for the Palestinian News Network. Mentioning this blog, we got talking about the challenges of writing about the conflict here in the Middle East.

“The easiest thing to do is just choose a specific, small incident and use that as a way of reflecting the wider issues. Otherwise there are just too many angles; it’s tempting to want to write about the whole damn thing, but you’ll only end up losing your reader, and probably your argument, in the process.”

I’m therefore approaching this article with some trepidation. Having had such a mind-blowing experience, with my understanding and viewpoint evolving and shifting on virtually a daily basis with every new conversation, it’s proving difficult to know where to start.

However, what’s top of mind for me right now is the massive number of ways this place challenges and defies any and all expectations and prejudices you might hold about this land and its people. Here are a just a few of the ways my eyes have been opened, which might help you too if you’re thinking of travelling to this region.

Expectation 1: Israel is unsafe for travellers.

Wrong. Wrong, wrong. I can honestly say I have never felt more safe travelling around a country than I have here. When I asked whether I should be careful about pick-pockets in Jerusalem’s bustling old city (as you would in London, Barcelona, New York…) I was laughed at. And when a friend mentioned that a couple of rockets had just hit Be’er Shiva from Gaza, I looked around the chilled Tel Avivian bar we were in and realised that these kind of occurances didn’t even register on people’s nervous systems.

Maybe it’s because everyone speaks English. Maybe its because people are pretty friendly and always keen for a chat. I don’t know. But I can honestly say that the only time security crossed my mind was when a friend from England might text / email imploring me to ‘stay safe’.

Expectation 2: People of different religions can’t live alongside each other

At sunset every Friday, hundreds of Jewish people from the secular to ultra-orthodox pour into the Muslim Quarter of Jerusalem’s old city and make their way on mass towards the Western (Wailing) Wall. When they have finished their prayers, finished off their catch-up chats with friends and rounded up their children, they walk back towards Damascus gate to the soundtrack of the Muslim call to prayer.

The next day, at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre (which is said to have been built on the place where Jesus died and was resurrected), Greek Orthodox monks wait for the midday call to prayer for the Omar Mosque to finish before ringing the church bells, while pilgrims step in the (alleged) steps of Christ down the Via Dolorosa, dodging Arab market stall owners intent on selling them scarves/sweets/really good shwarma.

I’m not saying it’s a vision of multi-cultural harmony. I’m not saying people from different religions and backgrounds sit around in circles holding hands and singing “all you need is love”. But every day, the most hardcore followers of the world’s three theistic religions go about their business with a respect and tolerance for one another which, I think, is a pretty amazing achievement.

Expectation 3: Israel is a bit scary

You’ll be interrogated for hours at the airport. There are eighteen year olds carrying guns on public transport. The people who live there hate all ‘Arabs’. These were all things I had been told before heading off on my trip, and I would be lying if I said it hadn’t coloured my perception of what Israel might be like.

Imagine my surprise.

Yes, I was asked more questions at Ben Gurion airport security than I would have been if I was departing from, say, Frankfurt or Rome, but to be fair I had just travelled in from Egypt just after the revolution. And the security guards seemed really sorry about having to hold me up and made sure I was fast tracked through the rest of the airport so I didn’t miss my flight. And on my way into Israel over the land border with Egypt at Taba, the major question the guy at Passport Control wanted to know the answer to was whether I liked Cliff Richard. Because he did. A lot.

Yes, the military kids carry their guns with them on public transport, which is undoubtedly a bit weird, but as one of them told me; “we get really shouted at if we don’t look after them. And we travel a lot – what are we supposed to do; dismantle them and pack them in our back packs? Where would we put our clothes?”

And as for the attitude of Israeli citizens towards the ‘Arabs’, saying all Israelis hate all Arabs is like saying all Brits hate all immigrants. If you read the Daily Mail you’d probably think it’s true, but speak to anyone with half a brain and you realise that most people aren’t that one dimensional.

Expectation 4: The West Bank is a war zone

Let’s be clear; there is some very dark stuff happening in the West Bank. People’s homes are bulldozed. Some children’s classrooms are covered in bullet holes. The Separation Wall has cut ordinary people off from their land, or worse, their families. There are still many UN supported refugee camps. Unemployment is rampant. Everyone knows someone who has been killed.

But the thing that struck me most about the West Bank is the incredible power people have to carry on as normal under trying, sometimes desperate conditions. Given these are a people under occupation, people are still starting businesses, going to school, relaxing in cool bars and cafes, sending their kids to dance classes. Parents I spoke to talk about how they hope their children will go to university one day. Children I spoke to were desperate to test our their English and talk about football.

I’m about to use a massive cliche, but I don’t care. Here it comes. People are people are people. It doesn’t matter where you’re from or what you’re going through. For the most part, people pretty much want the same things; happiness, a relative degree of security, a good life for their children and something to laugh at once in a while.  Even in a ‘war zone’.


What Egyptians think about the revolution

I have spent the past 5 days in a quiet, peaceful corner of Egypt, where the only real signs that a revolution has occurred is the fact that is very little money left in any of the cash machines. It seems the country pretty much ground to a halt over the past three weeks, and now the army and the people are working very hard to get things (including the bank clearing system) moving again. So much so that when my iphone finally started working yesterday my first text message was from the armed forces, telling me and everyone else on the network to ‘go back to work’. It was in arabic, and the man who translated it was kind enough to reassure me that this particular instruction did not apply to me.

One of the other quirks of arriving in Egypt the day that Mubarak finally stepped down is that I have fast developed a reputation for being pretty much one of the only English tourists in the Red Sea town of Dahab. Every other country in the world stopped flying here as soon as the protests started – easyjet seem to be the only airline not to have halted their flight schedule. This means of course that everyone in town seems to know my name and is keen to sit me down and share their views over several cups of Bedouin tea. Everyone is talking about the revolution, keenly aware it seems that the eyes of the world are on them.

“People need freedom,” one man just told me as we sat in his coffee shop watching protests erupting in Libya, Bahrain and Algeria on an old 24inch tv. “And now, we know we can have it. We didn’t know this before. Now, we know. And they know.”

Although, while most seem happy, the overall level of jubilation has been more under-stated than I expected. This, it seems, is not a part of the world where it pays to be overly confident about what the future might hold. For the most part however, people seem happy that Mubarak has gone, and happier still that it was the people that forced him to leave. On my first day here, I met a man called Aimon who, typically, owns an Egyptian rug shop. He was the first to tell me that Mubarak had left and when I asked him if he was happy his response was positive but measured; “it is a good thing he is gone, yes. It was very bad for the country – you cannot make money unless you know someone in government. Now, maybe, it will be better.” Aimon used to be a teacher in Suez, but because he could only earn 1200 Egyptian Pounds (around 130 GBP) a month he decided he could improve his prospects by moving to the Red Sea, opening a shop and capitalising on the ever growing tourism industry. His family, including his wife and four children, are still in Suez. He has worked here in Dahab – about a 5 hour drive away – for 11 years. “If I knew a government person, I could earn much more. Maybe now things will change. We need teachers, so it is important they can live on what they earn.”

Among the younger Egyptians, rumours of their bright new futures abound. “Now Mubarak is gone everyone will get 50 dollars a day from the Suez Canal! Before, Mubarak take it all. Now, it will be given to the people.” When we questioned them on where they had heard this news, they simply said “everyone is saying this”.

Others however are more concerned. I talked at length with a guy called Zavvi – a friend of a friend – who was asking the same question I was asking – what next? He is heading to Berlin to study for degree in electronics in March having served in the army for two years. He met Mubarak on two occasions and when he heard the news of his leader’s departure, he cried. “Yes, he should go, but why now? He said he will go in 6 months, why can’t we trust him to do this? Now we have no leader, and many people want power. It is dangerous for us, for the country. But the young people can’t see the consequences – they are not educated and they just want action now. But Egypt is too important for there to be uncertainty.”

Much like everyone else here though, Zavvi has absolute faith and trust in the army. “They are for the people. They are educated and they want the best for this country – I think we will be safe with them for a while. But they have many jobs to do; they can’t run the country forever.” Furthermore, everyone is incredibly proud of the way the people have conducted themselves in the global media spotlight. “Now, everyone knows about Egypt because of the the strength of the people, not just the pyramids,” everyone is saying.

Maybe it is easier for people to rest easily in this beautiful place. Hours away from any of the major protests, Dahab has been relatively untouched by the chaos and while the reduction in tourists is proving difficult, everyone is confident that in a few weeks the industry will be back in full flow. From what I’ve seen, it’s the people arriving here from Cairo who have be most affected. Ben, a British journalist, arrived here yesterday, delighted to be somewhere where he was going to be kept awake at night not by gunshots but by the sounds of the crashing waves. He said Cairo felt like a warzone these past three weeks, and that many people have been killed. Foreigners were targeted and quickly fled. He thinks it’s starting to settle down, but I couldn’t help but think that it’s not often you see a journalist look so nervous. It was a reminder that while Dahab remained peaceful, other parts of Egypt have had to suffer to achieve this revolution, and for some it will take a long time to recover from the experience.

Picture Credit: Denis Boquet on Flickr

 

Egypt: Why restricting the internet won’t stop this tide

In the 16th Century the Catholic Church faced arguably the greatest threat of its long history, not from armies or kings, but from the spread of ideas and information. The printing press was at this time becoming a common feature in cities and towns across Europe, and printers and writers were generally considered to be radicals and rebels intent on disturbing the status quo. A threat to stability. A threat to traditional notions of power.

Luther nail's his 95 theses to a church door

The church and state made various attempts to wrestle control of this new communications technology – printers had to apply for licences to operate their machines, while at the same time the Index Librorum Prohibitorum (Index of Prohibited Books) swelled in Italy, France and the Netherlands, banning the works of scientists, astronomers, theologians; anyone with ideas and evidence that might challenge traditional thought.

Of course, you know the rest. Efforts to restrict the flow of information might have slowed things down, but it couldn’t stop the tide. Lutherism and Calvinism charged on regardless, leading to the reformation and the birth of the Protestant church. Copernican theories of astronomy, such as Galileo’s findings that the Sun did not move around the Earth, eventually became considered scientific fact. Like many leaders after them, the Catholic Church found restrictions on ideas almost impossible to enforce, at least over the long term.

At this point, you might be wondering why I’ve started this post with a history 101 (one relating to religion at that). Well here it is. When I read this weekend’s article in the Scientific American about how the Egyptian government had systematically turned off the ISPs disabling the bulk of their country’s internet access, while millions of Egyptians continue to take to the streets demanding that their voices be heard, this story from my Year 9 history class suddenly came back to me. And I think this is why.

It seems to me that popular revolutions the world over have been slowed down by the efforts of the authorities to control and restrict the spread of information and means of communication. Slowed down. But not stopped. You cannot stop information, ideas and freedom of expression. Whether it takes days, weeks, months or even years, it seems that sharing ideas, developing our knowledge, gathering together, having our voices heard; these things are more than simply strange quirks of history but intrinsic aspects of human nature.

Egyptians march on Tahrir Square (Bloomberg)

We have an intrinsic need to learn. To develop our thinking. To improve our understanding. To express our ideas. And ultimately, to try to influence the world around us in a way that reflects these deeply held values. Freedom of opinion and expression, to receive and impart ideas and information are not arbitrarily enshrined in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights because they’re ‘nice to have’. They’re human rights because they are an intrinsic part of who we are, and to stifle them is to stifle our humanity.

So, while I was pleased to hear Barack Obama state in his remarks on Friday night that the Egyptian government must reinstate internet and mobile phone access on the basis that these are human rights which “do so much to connect people in the 21st Century”, I do not believe this revolution is going to be stopped by the restrictions on internet access any more than the Reformation was held back by restrictions on the printing press. Online technologies will help the Egyptians get their story out and make their voices heard, I grant you, but without these technologies, the people finding other ways to make their point, to share their ideas and experiences, to demand a better future. Whether that means getting around the restrictions by using dial-up modems or ignoring new technologies altogether and camping in their hundreds of thousands in Tahrir Square until their government finally listens to them, the people are finding a way. Yes, it might take a little longer. But history tells us you can’t stop the tide.

Five of the Best: International Courses in Digital Culture

It probably hasn’t escaped your attention that the world is undergoing something of a digital revolution. So it makes sense that more and more people are devoting their time and money to trying to understand what impact that revolution in connectivity is having on us – as individuals, as communities, as nations and as a civilisation.

It therefore isn’t a great surprise that all over the world top universities are adding digital anthropology courses to their under-grad and post-grad curriculums. Here’s a quick overview of some of the programmes and schools throwing their intellectual and technological might at developing a deeper understanding of this emerging field.

1. Masters in Digital Anthropology, UCL

This MSc brings together three key components in the study of digital culture:

1. Skills training in digital technologies, including their own ‘Digital Lab’, from internet and digital film editing to e-curation and digital ethnography.

2. Anthropological theories of virtualism, materiality/immateriality and digitisation.

3. Understanding the consequences of digital culture through the ethnographic study of its social and regional impact.

Sounds pretty cool.

2. Master of Digital Communication and Culture, University of Sydney

What might be marginally cooler however is heading to Sydney’s top university to hang out on Bondi at the same as studying. It’ll cost you though – $25,000 to be exact which is no mean feat when the pound is struggling so.

While not as ‘heavy-weight’ as the UCL course – the course description certainly uses fewer words with four or more syllables – it is comprehensive, covering practical study in digital design to more theoretical approaches to the impact of technology on society. Plus, it’s in Sydney (have I mentioned that already?).

3. McLuhan Institute, University of Toronto

Even from their old (soon to be updated) website you can tell this is an institute of real calibre. It isn’t clear if they’re involved in the pedantry of Masters study, opting more for full on PhD research programmes in things like information ethics, ‘techno-psychology’ and ‘the era of the tag’.

Having met a few people who have done their PhDs here, it’s clear that it’s a place with a solid history in researching the impact of technology on the world – they have been so since the 60s, decades before the term ‘social media’ was even invented.

4. MIT, Boston, USA

Of course this would be no list at all without a mention for MIT and their Doctoral Program in History, Anthropology, Science, Technology and Society (or HASTS for short). While the site states ‘it is impossible for any program to cover the full range of problems raised by the multiple interactions of history, social studies, science, and technology‘, they seem to be giving it a fairly good go.

This one isn’t explicitly about digital technology – it covers everything from nuclear weapons to biomedicine, but they do run a course on the digital divide and it’s implications for development. Just up the road from Harvard, this is something of an intellectual technologist’s mecca.

5. Masters in Digital Culture, University of Jyvaskyla, Finland

Taught entirely in English, this programme focuses on various aspects of culture and its digitalization, placing special emphasis on the relationship between humans and technology.
The best bit about this one is that there seem to be no tuition fees, which will come in handy when living in a place as expensive as Finland. Plus it’s in a pretty small town, so you’ll certainly have the chance to focus on your studies.

The Reut Report: Why criticising Israeli policy just got tougher

Those of you following the Israel-Palestine situation closely will have noticed the development of a new conflict in recent months – that between Israel’s Reut Institute think tank and the prominent author and Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) activist, Naomi Klein. The debate centres on the fundamental issue of legitimacy; under what circumstances is criticism of Israel legitimate? And what can the Israeli state legitimately do to counter this criticism?

On 14 February this year, the Reut Institute in Tel Aviv published a paper entitled The Delegitimization Challenge: Creating a Political Firewall which was immediately presented to the Israeli cabinet. This landmark paper centres on the fundamental conclusion that Israel’s existence and security is facing a emerging threat – the threat presented by ‘the forces of delegitimacy’ comprised of two parallel developments.

The first of these is the change in strategy of Middle Eastern based resistance networks such as Hamas and Hezbollah who, the report outlines, seek to undermine attempts to end Israel’s control over the Palestinian population in order to pursue a one state solution. The second, and arguably more intriguing development highlighted in the paper, is the rise of solidarity and resistance movements based in the West such as the BDS movement. These movements bring together organisations and individuals who object to Israel’s policies and activities on grounds of achieving justice and human rights for the Palestinian population, launching campaigns such as boycotting Israeli goods from illegal settlement areas in order to make their point. This growing movement is tarnishing Israel’s reputation among the general public and elites and, more dangerously the paper argues, risks the advancement of the one state solution and the eradication of Israel altogether.

This paper flies directly in the face of the standard discourse of Israel’s political elites, who have traditionally perceived the most urgent threat to Israel as being potential physical attack from their enemies in the region. As a consequence, the preferred strategy and policy to counter this threat has always been a military one. To this extent, the fact that this paper was published at all reflects a shift in the discourse. Israel’s policymakers, finally, are starting to realise that the fact their policies are the focus of increasingly vocal outcry across the major cities of the West is probably something they need to take seriously. This in itself is a small victory for the BDS movement – they are gaining strength and forcing their way onto the Israeli government’s agenda.

However, as Naomi Klein argued on her blog a few weeks later, the response recommended by the Reut Institute to this emerging threat is seen by some as “most worrying”.

…the report explicitly urged Israeli intelligence agencies like Mossad to take unspecified action against peace activists using entirely legal methods: “Neither changing policy nor improving public relations will suffice…Faced with a potentially existential threat, Israel must treat it as such by focusing its intelligence agencies on this challenge; allocating appropriate resources; developing new knowledge; designing a strategy, executing it.” The think tank also called on the Israeli government to “sabotage network catalysts” – defined as key players in the “delegitimization network.”

Klein it seems was in part goaded into this response (“I’ve gotten a taste of Reut-style “sabotage” myself”). Eran Shayshon, a senior analyst at Reut, explicitly names her as being one of the key players in Toronto’s ‘deligitimization hub’ and makes the claim (denied by Klein) that she is working to undermine the existence of the Jewish state.

What follows is a bit of a ‘he said, she said’ altercation, played out on Mondoweiss and on their respective blogs. Klein states she has never advocated any particular outcome in Israel-Palestine. Shayshon points to examples where Klein suggests a one state solution (essentially ending the Jewish state) might be a way forward. Klein laughs at Shayson’s attempts to drag up statements she made in a student newspaper over 20 years ago, and puts the rest of her quotes in context, while landing some Reut body blows by pointing out that she does not single out Israel for BDS style tactics; she uses the same style in any fight against injustice including against her own government in its violation of the Kyoto Protocol. Shayson takes a week or so to regroup, and responds with a discussion on the rise of what he terms ‘Kleinism’; “a simplistic, artificial view of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that has led many who consider themselves human-rights activists to focus their criticism nearly exclusively on Israel”.

No response from Klein, as yet. But what this altercation demonstrates quite clearly is that lines on what the Israeli government considers legitimate in terms of comment on its policies from Western critics are being restated and reinforced. While Shayson states this is only his opinion, he lists the following as ‘no go areas’ from the Israeli side of the debate; challenging the two state solution, singling Israel out, demonising Israel, or suggesting that Israel is “a state born in sin”.

Moreover, if the Reut report is taken seriously by the political elites, no longer will such criticisms and viewpoints go (relatively) unnoticed or unaddressed by the Israeli intelligence services. In future we’re likely to see even more coordinated and strategic attempts to counter and discredit the major international critics of Israeli policy. Battlelines are being redrawn.

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How the world changed in 2009

Perhaps it’s the end of a decade that gets you thinking about how things have changed, and are changing. This post just pulls together some of the articles and sites that I’ve enjoyed for giving a useful insight into the shifts happening in global economics and international relations, which you might find interesting too.

In global politics, Copenhagen cemented a seismic shift and global power and interplay, with Mark Lynas’ article in the Guardian; How do I know China wrecked the Copenhagen deal? I was in the room as essential reading.

Copenhagen was much worse than just another bad deal, because it illustrated a profound shift in global geopolitics. This is fast becoming China’s century, yet its leadership has displayed that multilateral environmental governance is not only not a priority, but is viewed as a hindrance to the new superpower’s freedom of action.

Meanwhile, whatever you might think about Gordon Brown, his TED talk on the web and our growing interconnectedness is, I think, a fantastic 15 mins on showing how the growing power of technology is strengthening global humanity to fight poverty and injustice.  At the same time, Evgeny Morozov‘s RSA talk warning of how the internet is being manipulated to, at best, influence popular opinion and, at worst, to find, target and destroy dissenting voices is both compelling and terrifying.

The economic crisis has caused many to question whether a debt-fuelled money system is really the best way for the future, reinvigorating economic thinking in the effort to try, test and prove what might make things better. The New Economics Foundation, among others, are doing a lot of research in this area, and argue:

Money and credit have become disconnected from the real economy, from productive investment and sustainable growth. New, more democratic forms of money are required in the transition to a low-carbon economy.

Amidst all the economic turmoil, some have looked at the paltry sums of money dedicated to development assistance and aid in the developing world and asked themselves what exactly is the point? Given no one any longer has much of a clue how to sustain growth in an unpredictable global economy, can development aid really make a difference? Yes, says development specialist and blogger Owen Barder in his excellent article on Open Democracy and on his blog:

Although the effect of aid on economic growth is uncertain, there can be no doubt that aid makes a huge difference to people’s lives.  Aid provides food, health care, education, clean water, financial services, and modest incomes which transform the lives of the people who receive them.

Finally, I loved the AP new’s picture of the decade. A picture is worth a thousand words.

Got any other interesting links, sites, pictures or articles that show us how the world is changing? Post them here.

For Tibet, With Love

I just finished reading Isabel Losada’s ‘A Beginner’s Guide to Changing the World; For Tibet, With Love’ and am 3/4 of the way through the Dalai Lama’s autobiography, ‘Freedom in Exile’.

I guess, like a lot of people, I had heard bits and pieces about the Free Tibet campaign, and knew it had something to do with China and human rights abuses. It’s only after reading these books that I’ve started to get a sense of the sheer injustice in this situation; of Mao’s China effectively invading Tibet under the auspices of ‘reuniting’ this vast country, with its unique history and traditions, with the Motherland in 1950.

Slowly but surely, China took complete control of the country, crushing Tibetan groups who tried to resist them, torturing and imprisoning 1000s of monks and nuns, and destroying 6000 monasteries which had been the cornerstone of Tibetan life and culture for centuries. Fearing for his life, the Dalai Lama – Tibet’s spiritual leader – fled to India in 1959, and has been there (along with over 100,000 Tibetan refugees) ever since.

China continually refuses to recognise the Tibetan plea for independence, or even autonomy. And Western governments, while occasionally taking issue with human rights abuses in the region, have reaffirmed their stance that Tibet is part of China.

In October, 2008, the British government clarified their official position on Tibet’s status:

Our ability to get our points across has sometimes been clouded by the position the UK took at the start of the 20th century on the status of Tibet, a position based on the geopolitics of the time. Our recognition of China’s “special position” in Tibet developed from the outdated concept of suzerainty. Some have used this to cast doubt on the aims we are pursuing and to claim that we are denying Chinese sovereignty over a large part of its own territory. We have made clear to the Chinese Government, and publicly, that we do not support Tibetan independence. Like every other EU member state, and the United States, we regard Tibet as part of the People’s Republic of China.

Who knows whether they are right or not – historians throughout the centuries have grappled with Tibet’s legal status – is it an independent nation? An autonomous region of China? Or part of China proper? And arguably, it doesn’t really matter. Surely what’s important is what is in the best interest of the people who live there, and the refugees who were forced to leave. They have a right to safety and self-determination, particularly with regard to their religion, and China has an obligation to give this to them.

To find out more, read Isabel Losada’s ‘A Beginner’s Guide to Changing the World; For Tibet, With Love’ or the Dalai Lama’s autobiography, ‘Freedom in Exile’. Alternatively, visit www.actontibet.org or check out Amnesty’s view on human rights in Tibet here.

Picture Credit: TiagoPeriera on Flickr

Climate Crisis: This recession could be good for us

Is it just me, or has climate change fallen a few places in our agenda this year?

Thinking back to a couple of years ago, when it seemed like anyone with an altruistic bone in their bodies was getting to grips with the inconvenient truth that a) the is world heating up, b) the consequences are fairly terrible, and c) we’re the ones responsible. Buoyed by the urgency of the situation, we all swiftly began recycling our rubbish and calculating our carbon footprints. I think it was the Christmas of 2007 that my brother told us instead of giving us regular presents, he had put money towards planting trees in Wales to offset all the flights we had taken that year.  

But no one is talking about climate change anymore. Instead, we’re focused on cash flow. We’re interested in reducing our gas bills, but that’s because it’ll save us some money. We’re not flying as much, but who can afford to go to Europe when the euro is so strong. Up and down the country people are organising clothes swap shops and growing their veggies in their back gardens. But ultimately, the underlying reason for our new found excitement for sustainable living has been the possibility of saving some cash, with saving the planet being a welcomed side-effect.  And once the economy gets back on its feet, the chances are that most of us will forget our sustainable credentials in favour of long-haul holidays and a new wardrobe.

The stark reality is that, in the short term at least, a strong economy does not make for a sustainable environment. And while green fuels, electric cars and low-carbon technologies might help the situation in the longer term, in the short term the planet is just going to keep getting hotter, having a devastating effect not just here in the UK, but more importantly on people already living in hot countries in extreme poverty, who are reliant on farming, agriculture and rapidly depleting water supplies to stay alive.  

According to DFID, climate change means that in just 10 years time farming harvests in Africa will have been cut in half. At the same time as thousands of farmers are losing their livelihoods, up to 270 million people will be struggling to get hold of the water they need to stay alive. And in those areas where the annual rainy season makes water shortages less of an issue, longer and more intense monsoons will not only destroy homes and communities, but make malaria, dengue fever and polio even more prevalent.

Climate change is an inconvenience for us in the UK. But for people in developing countries, it’s an ongoing and life-threatening catastrophe.  And they’re not the ones pumping carbon into the atmosphere, so it’s a pretty cruel twist of fate that they would be the ones to bear the brunt of decades of Western industrialisation, rather than us.

So, as the economy drags itself out of recession, why not hold onto some of those new found sustainable habits and help our friends in the developing world? Why not take the bus or ride your bike instead of driving? Why not discover what the English coastline has to offer before jetting off to the southern hemisphere? You’ve already started on the vegetable patch, so why not keep it up? And if you must rush back to the high street, choose your purchases wisely – trying to buy ethically can be a bit of a minefield in terms of what actually helps people in developing countries, but at least  fair trade can be a good place to start. None of these things will be too terrible for us to endure, and while no one thing is going to save the situation, together these small changes could actually make a big difference not for us, but for the lives of people who live not so far away.

Written for Blog Action Day. To take part, visit http://www.blogactionday.org/

TEDxManchester: On the hunt for new ideas…

Yesterday I was lucky enough to go along to TEDxManchester – an independently organised TED event where Manchester’s great and good joined together in BBC Philhamonic studio hall to hear and share some new ideas worth spreading. 

You can’t argue with the concept, and this being Europe’s largest TEDx event, it brought with it some good speakers and interesting discussions. But as I walked into the hall for the third session after 4 hours of talks to listen to Hugh Garry’s presentation on mobile filming and Paul Coulton’s presentation on online gaming (both of which were enjoyable), two things suddenly struck me, keeping me awake until the small hours last night as I mulled them over in my jumbled and exhausted head. I’m going to try and deal with the first of these thoughts in this blog post. It goes like this.

Bar Phil Griffin’s brilliant talk on urban spaces and architecture, virtually every live presentation at TEDxManchester had been in some way about technology and social media. While in part this is likely to be down to the fact this is the main interest area of most of the organisers and attendees (demonstrated by the fact that the event was primarily promoted through twitter), it does raise a question about whether the digital space has become the primary home for ideas and innovation.

After all, throughout the world entrepreneurs, academics, creatives and social commentators are flocking to digital and social channels as their main means of doing what they do. And as a result, we think that this is where the innovators live. The assumption is that if someone has something worth saying or doing, they’re probably saying or doing it online.

And more than that, the unbridled development of the internet has had and is having a profound effect on almost every area of our society, from how we manage our lives, businesses and relationships to what we expect from governments, corporations and media giants. You would struggle to talk about creativity, innovation and social change without mentioning the digital world, which is probably why the digital world featured so prominently in yesterday’s programme.

But it would be really, really dangerous for innovators to look only to the digital space for inspiration. The very basis of TED is that good ideas – ideas that inspire you and change the way you think – can and do come from anywhere. History, philosophy, politics, international development, economics, literature, nature, quantum physics, health research, psychology…it’s a massive world out there and it’s filled with people taking routes to try and understand it that are not purely digital. Or (shockingly!) are not in any way digital!  

Think about the people in your life and world that inspire you and make you think about things differently. Or even think of those people in the public eye who challenge the way you think about the world. For me, it’s been statesmen like Al Gore, writers like Liz Gilbert, explorers like David Attenborough, not to mention all the musicians, artists, campaigners and journalists out there. And while some of them might have a blog, their ideas are usually about people, nature and what it means to be human, and have absolutely nothing to do with technology.

‘So what?’, you might say. Let’s face it – a lot of the innovation happening out there is happening online. Does it matter if this is the main place we go to when seeking new ideas? Well…yes! If people in the digital space are only hearing ideas from the digital space, then the sphere of inspiration narrows and you end up with the same ideas churning and repeating, putting them in danger of becoming stale. Without external stimulus, progress and innovation grinds to a halt pretty quickly.

The beauty of TED is that it reaches into virtually every field and craft on the hunt for ideas, oiling the wheels of global innovation by giving you access to the minds and thoughts of people you would never ever come across otherwise. TEDx has a massive opportunity to take this philosophy and bring  it into our local towns and cities, and while yesterday was great, I really hope that a) it happens again next year and b) it throws the speaker net wider to bring us ideas and perspectives from fields we wouldn’t have thought to look in ourselves.