Friday, 30 November 2018

Outdoor Education - Bringing back nature into our children's lives


Children at Into the Woods nursery and Ark Franklin Primary Academy/Credit: Caroline Irby


“Nature breeds curiosity; it helps grow explorers rather than robots.” Ben Palmer-Fry, outdoor learning teacher, Ark Franklin Primary Academy.

Children in the UK spend less time outside than high-security prisoners, according to a recent report While their grandparents roamed unsupervised outdoors, our children spend their days cooped up inside, glued to a screen.  We have displaced nature from their lives: selling off their outdoors spaces, feeding them technology, keeping them inside with our fears and lack of time.  

A few years ago, the National Trust published a report on the phenomenon of "nature deficit disorder", a term coined in 2005 by the American author Richard Louv, who argued that the human cost of "alienation from nature" was measured in "diminished use of the senses, attention difficulties and higher rates of physical and emotional illnesses".  

Nature deficit disorder is not generally regarded as a medical condition. Yet, in the UK as in many other countries, rates of obesity, self-harm and mental health disorders diagnosed in children have climbed significantly since the 1970s.  

What if we could ‘rewild’ their childhood - bring back nature into their lives?  Could it produce healthier and happier young people?

Many people believe so, and a growing number of schools across the country (and elsewhere) are trying to do just that: they are re-introducing nature into children’s lives.  It is seen as a new trend, but the UK has a rich heritage of outdoor learning going back at least to the 19th century with Wordsworth, Ruskin, Baden and many others.

Some schools are following the Forest School philosophy, drawing on the Scandinavian model of Nature Kindergartens, while others are developing their own outdoor learning organically, adapting it into their curriculum.  Many community programmes, projects and social enterprises are also trying to reconnect young people with nature.

And the results are amazing. A solid body of research show the significant health, social and emotional benefits of outdoor learning. Forest School teachers say their children are healthier, more independent, confident, creative, socially minded and caring for the environment than other children. Yet, outdoor learning is likely to remain on the margins of education until the benefits are  recognised by policymakers and reflected in policies.

Photographer Caroline Irby and I have visited two London schools, which represent two different approaches to outdoor learning.  Into the Woods, a nursery where children spend their entire days in the woods, rain or shine, and Ark Franklin Primary Academy, which has transformed a piece of urban derelict land into a green oasis with a storytelling grove, a bug hotel, a vegetable garden and more.  The outdoors lessons include sciences, literacy and maths, but also “weaving and knot-tying and everything we think will be useful,” says headteacher Janine Ryan.

“Education is increasingly dominated by academic targets and a narrow curriculum,” says Emma Shaw, founder and manager of Into the Woods, London’s first Forest School nursery.  “The concept of play is lost along the way. ‘Let’s do the Maths earlier’: everything is measured. We all live our lives on screen all the time…  Here, the children can be themselves. They have space and time to explore, learn and do their own things.”  

You can read our story “Learning Outdoors: Growing Explorers, not Robots”  published in Positive News.




Friday, 17 August 2018

Claire Nouvian: Guardian of the Deep


Claire Nouvian with her book: The Deep: The Extraordinary Creatures of the Abyss/Courtesy of Goldman Environmental Prize


This is a story I wrote for New Internationalist on how an encounter with strange creatures of the abyss tuned a French filmmaker into a passionate guardian of the deep and an untiring campaigner. Against all odds, Claire Nouvian managed to convince France to ban deep-sea bottom trawling, a devastating fishing method, which annihilates everything in its path.  In 2016, the entire EU banned the practice. This was an amazing victory for Nouvian and her small environmental NGO Bloom. 

She had hoped to catch her breath after the long campaign, but then another destructive fishing practice caught her attention: electric ‘pulse’ fishing. “It’s the same story, but with a different destructive practice...”

Here is the story of her fight:

A glimpse into an unknown world alive with mysterious and strange creatures turned Claire Nouvian into a formidable defender of the deep sea – one who survives on little sleep - armed with passion, hard facts and a steely determination.

In 2001, Nouvian, 44, a French wildlife filmmaker and journalist, who grew up in Algiers, Paris and Hong Kong and speaks six languages, was filming a documentary at the Monterey Bay Aquarium in California. “I discovered deep sea creatures – extraordinary creatures I couldn’t have imagined, like giant jellies, dragonfish and vampire squid,” says Nouvian, who has recently won the 2018 Goldman Environmental Prize for ending deep-sea bottom trawling in Europe. 

 The deep ocean is the largest habitat on earth and home to some of the oldest living creatures on the planet, such as 4000-year old corals. But this huge diversity is being destroyed by deep-sea bottom trawlers – boats, which tow a heavily-weighted net that is dragged multiple times over the seafloor. “It is one of the most destructive forms of fishing, which annihilates everything in its path. The fishing industry practices a boom and bust model: they go somewhere new and take everything there, then move on to the next fish stock. It’s serial depletion. They are roving bandits,” says Nouvian, still visibly upset.

Determined to challenge this, Nouvian founded the NGO Bloom in 2005. “I was naïve. I thought that if we could tell the world that the deep sea is full of life and is being destroyed, it would stop.” So she put together a book and an exhibition describing the wonders and fragility of the deep sea. Both received a lot of media attention, but it was not enough.  “I understood the need to take it to a political level.”

In 2008, as the EU was preparing reforms of its deep-sea fishing laws, the young activist saw her chance to influence policy at both the French and EU levels. In Europe, the main deep-sea fleet was French and belonged to supermarket chain Intermarché.  “A EU campaign could only succeed if we could change the French position. But in France, fishermen were heroes and the public didn’t care about protecting the ocean. So Nouvian and her Bloom colleagues launched a sustained campaign, addressing the issue from all fronts. They worked with scientists to publish fact-based reports and launched a public consumer campaign that ranked French supermarkets according to their fishing practices - Intermarché came last. This was followed by a media blitz, with giant anti-trawling posters in front of Paris’ gare du Nord (from where politicians boarded trains to Brussels), newspapers ads, press statements and social media drives. They also visited schools, organised demonstrations, and collected 900,000 signatures for an anti-trawling petition, with the help of a brilliant cartoon based on Nouvian’s TEDx talk, which went viral.

The relentless campaigning paid off: in January 2014, Intermarché announced that it would no longer fish below 2,600 feet (800 meters) and would phase out the sale of deep-sea fish by 2025.

A year later, France - in response to overwhelming public pressure - finally agreed to a ban on deep-sea bottom trawling below 2,600 feet (800 meters). In 2016, all EU member states followed suit.

It was a huge victory, but it took a toll on the small team. “We were dead tired, completely toasted. It was a very violent fight. I was not a big NGO, so the fishing industry assumed I would let go if they put enough pressure. They tried to discredit and smear me. I got death treats and intimidation. It was constant.”

She adds with a grin:  “It was not pleasant, but the more I get threats, the more I think that I am doing the right thing!”  And after a short pause, she continues:  “I am blessed to be in Europe because in other countries, I’d be blown up by now.”

Nouvian had hoped to catch her breath after the long campaign, but then another destructive fishing practice caught her attention: electric ‘pulse’ fishing. “It’s the same story, but with a different destructive practice,” and this time, the Netherlands is the main culprit.

So, with Bloom, Nouvian is now campaigning for a full EU-wide ban on electric fishing, which she describes as “putting a Taser in water, electrocuting marine life and destroying ecosystems”. She also wants to end harmful fisheries subsidies at the international level as they encourage overfishing and destructive fishing practices around the world.

“It’s an on-going fight. But it’s a privilege of living in a democracy to be able to open our mouths, so we need to do it. We will not let go.”





Friday, 3 August 2018

"It's Just Good Journalism" - Constructive Journalism at Thessaloniki International Summer Media Academy


Students at Thessaloniki International Summer Media Academy looking for constructive angles/credit: Veronique Mistiaen


“Do we need to call this ‘Constructive Journalism’?  It’s just good journalism,” one student at the back said.  All over the room, heads nodded in approval.

Most of the 46 students at the International Journalism Media Summer Academy in Thessaloniki had never heard of the term “Constructive Journalism” before, yet it just made sense to them that when journalists expose a problem, they should try to explore solutions as well. And that reporting on progress and possibility has its place, alongside covering crisis, crimes and tragedy.

I had been invited to the beautiful city of Thessaloniki this summer, along with colleagues from Croatia, Germany, Russia and Ireland, to present lectures and workshops on ‘New Trends in Media and Journalism: Disinformation, Verification of News and Constructive Journalism in a Changing World’.

It was wonderful to see students from Greece, Russia, Croatia Ukraine, Germany, Brazil, Bosnia, The Netherlands, Slovenia, the US, China and other countries, debate and build connections - and listen to their various perspectives.

When we discussed the coverage of the refugee crisis in their respective countries, most students said that the media mostly stressed the problems posed by migration and the burden it imposes on social services, but others had another take.  Greek students, for example, said that while the coverage was alarmist and negative at first, over the years, there were also stories of solidarity and on the contribution made by migrants. This was unexpected as Greece is one of the countries most affected by the influx of migrants and in the midst of a serious economic crisis.

We found examples of constructive stories from a rapidly growing media pool - from the New York Times and the Guardian Upside to the BBC World Hacks, Positive News and De Correspondent.

We explored how to interview the so-called “victims” in a way that doesn’t reduce them to their situation, but shows their resilience and preserves their dignity.  And we looked at how we can ask different questions to those in power, the experts and those who hold different views.

The idea that journalists can facilitate engagement between people from different religious and ethnic groups, political views or age, rather than fuelling polarisation and conflict, led to heated discussions.   We concluded that it’s not the journalists’ role to advocate a solution or campaign for integration, but to show how communities can come together across these lines to engage with one another, and how problems that they are facing are being tackled elsewhere.

At the end of the day, the students decided to call this type of journalism “Responsible Journalism.” I kind of like that!


 

Friday, 15 June 2018

Another Day in Baghdad – Iraqi women tell their stories


Maysoon Pachachi and crew members



A couple of weeks ago, I went to a wonderful event at the Royal Court Theatre in London: a fundraiser for “Another Day in Baghdad”, a film, which tells the story of post-invasion Iraq from a women’s perspective and that of ordinary citizens. It is the first ever-Iraqi feature film authored by Iraqi women - and it unites cast and crew from the Middle East and Europe.


The fundraiser started with a short documentary about the recent test shoot (which you can view here), followed by a reading of part of the film’ script by 14 actors, including, to my delight, the mesmerizing Ben Whishaw and Lizzie Wells (Matilda The Musical).   

I was deeply moved by the script, but also the aim of the film and the way it is being developed – and since they still need to raise £19,600 in order to be able to film in Iraq and support Iraqi talent, I wanted to help spread the word.
 
“Another Day in Baghdad” is based on journal notes and the real life experiences of the two female authors - Irada Al Jabbouri, a Baghdad-based novelist, and Maysoon Pachachi, a London-based filmmaker of Iraqi origin.  The film tells the intersecting stories of ordinary citizens, unfolding in the last week of 2006 in Baghdad. All the characters are Iraqi and many are strong female ones.  

“The time of extreme sectarian violence in which our story takes place foreshadows what is happening in Iraq and the Middle East at the moment,” says Pachachi. “We feel that in the context of the extreme militarized male violence we are seeing in the Middle East, it is crucial to have stories told from a female perspective.

 “These stories are absent in the media and absent from the conscience of the world. Iraq has been presented for decades as a source of evil and cruelty and a threat to its neighbours and the world,” Pachachi adds.  “We feel that it’s especially important now for stories of individual resistance and hope to be told about the area, where so many still maintain solidarity with one another as human beings, in spite of the intensely divisive pressures of religion and politics, with which they are living.”

Co-written by Pachachi and Al Jabbouri, the script won the IWC Schaffhausen Script Award – presented by Cate Blanchett in 2012.

Pachachi and Al Jabbouri have secured the funding needed for filming in Jordan, as well as for the post-production of the film in Europe, but are now raising funds to shoot in Baghdad - where the light and the river are irreplaceable - and hire Iraqi cast and crew.  Part of the film will also be shot in Jordan with Iraqi refugee actors.  

“For Iraqis inside and outside Iraq, opportunities to shape their own narratives – far from Hollywood-style fiction and newscasts – are limited. Through this film, we aim to generate an authentic and meaningful opportunity for Iraqi actors and filmmakers." Pachachi says.

In 2004, she co-founded a free film-training centre in Baghdad and has taught film directing and editing in Britain and Palestine. 

If you want to support this project, you can contribute here.





Monday, 4 June 2018

RIP Kevin Headley, who died too young - like too many homeless people


Kevin Headley graduating from the FDGU journalism training programme at Groundswell/photo: Veronique Mistiaen

This is what I find most poignant:  Kevin, wearing his ubiquitous black hat,

looks straight at the camera. In his deep, quiet voice, he says: “Life expectancy for rough sleepers is probably between 42 and 47.”

Kevin was interviewed for a video during an awareness day at the homeless charity Groundswell.  People who have experienced homelessness, NGOs and members of the public had been invited to discuss how to improve public perception of homelessness and create engagement. As always, Kevin came armed with lots of statistics and strong arguments.

A few weeks later, he was dead. 

Kevin Headley, who sold the Big Issue outside Hackney Wick station in London for many years, died in hospital on May 5 after suffering a suspected heart attack. He was only 52. 

Homeless people die on average 30 years younger than the national average, according to a study by the homeless charity Crisis. These statistics are a terrible indictment of the way our society treats homeless people - and something that Kevin campaigned and worked hard to change.

I’ve met Kevin at Groundswell in September when I began training a dozen of people who were homeless or had experienced homelessness on how to be journalists.  The six-month project, called From The Ground Up (FDGU), is a collaboration between Groundswell and the Pavement, a pocket size magazine (and website) full of useful articles and resources for homeless people. The FDGU project is funded by Comic Relief.

FDGU’s aim is to equip “peer journalists” as Groundswell calls them with the tools they need to identify and report on issues important to them – issues often overlooked by the mainstream media.

The peer journalists had decided to report on shame experienced by homeless people and the impact it has on their health, well-being and ability to improve their situation. Kevin didn’t like that theme because he strongly felt that homeless people have nothing to be ashamed of and that it is society, which should be ashamed. And of course, he was right. The peer journalists also  wanted to talk about suicide, which is much higher among homeless people than among the general population. They’ve produced amazing work, which has been published in the Pavement in Jan/Feb 2018 and Marc/April 2018 and they keep contributing to the magazine.

During our workshops, Kevin would often sit on the side, hiding behind dark glasses. At first, I thought he might be dozing off, something not unusual as some peer journalists spend their nights on the streets or in noisy hostels and night shetlers. But there was always a mischievous smile on his lips and then, when feeling inspired, he would make a contribution – not always on topic, but always full of facts and interesting ideas. He had just been given his own page in the Pavement – the problem page, “done with a light and practical touch”, as Nicola Baird, the Pavement's editor described it.

He drew beautifully and loved working with artists and curating local art events and festivals.  He also worked as “health peer advocate" with Groundswell, helping people who are homeless access appropriate healthcare.

Kevin had so much to live for. He was dearly loved by so many and was full of projects and ideas. Let’s never think of Kevin as just another dreadful statistic. Homeless people shouldn’t have to die young. Homelessness is not inevitable.






Tuesday, 24 April 2018

The Women who Stopped the Nuclear Deal

Liz McDaid and Makoma Lekalakaka in front of the country’s only nuclear power station - Koeberg/Courtesy of the Goldman Environmental Prize
 
 
Two South African women, Makoma Lekalakala and Liz McDaid, yesterday have won the Goldman Environmental Prize, the world’s largest award honouring grassroots environmental activists, for stopping their government’s massive secret nuclear deal with Russia – a deal that would have threatened the country’s health, environment and finances.

Their improbable victory against the powerful nuclear industry and South African government shows that, in McDaid’s words, ‘people can make a difference and that the country will not be sold to the highest bidder. It is a victory for democracy.'

I’ve met both women, who have been fighting injustice most of their lives, in London last week, while on their way to collect their award in San Francisco. Here is their story, which I have written for the New Internationalist.

Exposing corruption

In 2014, under the leadership of President Jacob Zuma, South Africa’s government made a secret deal with Russia to build eight to ten nuclear power stations throughout the country (currently the country has one station, operated by the state-owned electricity utility, Eskom). The $76 billion deal was unprecedented in scope and cost, and its terms assigned all liability for nuclear accidents to South Africa.

It looked like a done deal, but the two women stood in the way.

 ‘I work with women who don’t have access to electricity - they cannot afford to pay for it - so building a trillion rand nuclear power project with taxpayers’ money was never going to be the answer,’ said Lekalakala, 52, the director of the environmental organization Earthlife Africa.

Research has shown that nuclear is not needed for the country’s energy future, added McDaid, 55, climate change coordinator for Southern African Faith Communities’ Environment Institute (SAFCEI), which had long advocated for renewable energy to address climate change and had taken a stance against South Africa’s nuclear industry.

The women started asking how the government was making decisions about the country’s energy needs, and when they started scrutinizing the processes, they uncovered unlawful activities. Earthlife Africa obtained a copy of the secret South African-Russian agreement, which they shared with the Mail & Guardian, who published it in February 2015. The newspaper investigation uncovered more corruption and misconduct.

Both women decided they had to act. ‘You just don’t roll over when wrongdoing happens: you fight,’ McDaid said.

So Lekalakala, who is from Johannesburg, and McDaid from Cape Town, pooled their shoestring budgets, resources of skill and constituency within their small environmental NGOs to create a formidable collaboration. Along with their organizations, they highlighted the health and environmental risks, and financial implications from this massive nuclear upscaling.

For more than two years, they woke up early every Wednesday to greet ministers with anti-nuclear banners as their shiny black cars approached Parliament. Sometimes, it was just McDaid in the rain, sometimes they were dozens of protestors. They also organized pickets in front of the department of environmental affairs and the state-owned energy company Eskom, as well as countless protests, rallies, public meetings and petitions.

Seeking a just energy future

In the process, they built a broad coalition of various interest groups: women’s groups, youth groups, civic society groups, organizations against corruption, religious groups, trade unions and businesses. ‘So many different people and so many different organizations got involved. They could relate to what we were doing, they could see the impact of the deal on their own lives,’ Lekalakala said.

‘It started with the environment, but now, it's a whole movement for a more just future: us standing up and holding our government accountable in a democracy. And the movement keeps growing,’ McDaid added.

Along with their organizations, the two women also took the Zuma government to court on the grounds that the deal had been kept secret and bypassed legal process, without any public consultation or parliamentary debate. For many people, the deal was emblematic of the lack of transparency and corruption in the Zuma government in which a few people benefited while the rest paid the price. ‘The nuclear deal was never about energy. It was about the greed of a few individuals,’ as McDaid puts it.

The court battle was fought over a year and a half. But on April 26, 2017, the Western Cape High Court ruled that the nuclear power project was unconstitutional, invalidating the agreement and stopping the nuclear programme. The landmark legal victory also means that any new nuclear deals for South Africa have to be disclosed and approved by Parliament.

‘When the judge made the announcement that we got everything we had asked for, I broke down in tears,’ remembered Lekalakala. ‘And I shouted right there in court, although I knew that you have to keep silent in court,’ added McDaid.

‘So many times we thought that the forces against us were too great. Our first court appearance got postponed and we were running against time. They attempted to block us, to wear us out, to make us run out of money (we did run our of money, but our legal team were amazing: they kept carrying on), but all this only made us more determined to fight,’ said McDaid.

Despite their huge victory, the women fear that the nuclear build could be resurrected once more funding becomes available. So they are continuing their campaign and are calling on the new South African government to remove the entire nuclear build development from its integrated energy plan.

Yet Lekalakala and McDaid are optimistic, believing that their campaign for a transition to a low carbon economy with a decentralized and socially-owned energy supply has never had a better chance of success. ‘The science and the economy are on our side,’ said Lekalakala. ‘The international community agreed that we have reached an unprecedented level of greenhouse gas, so we need to act quickly – there are alternatives to fossil fuels that are more beneficial for the planet and individuals. The world is changing. Everyone is pushing for renewable energy.’
 
 

Saturday, 24 March 2018

Yegna – a cautionary tale in humanitarian aid


Yegna in concert in Bahir Dar/Courtesy of Girl Effect

 

Should humanitarian aid be about food parcels and vaccination campaigns? Or could it be something more intangible and holistic?

Yegna,  a project trying to reframe the place of girls in Ethiopian society - a country where discrimination and violence against girls and women are common - crystallized that debate in the UK.

Over the past few years, the right-wing media waged a campaign against Yegna - which was co-funded by the UK Department for International Development (DIFD) - calling it “the most wasteful, ludicrous and patronizing” aid project in Africa and “blood boiling waste of taxpayers' money.” 

The articles caused widespread outcry from MPs and taxpayers. In January 2017, DIFD, which had previously given the program high marks and had planned to give it £11.8m between 2015 and 2018, cut all funding. 

Although the right-wing media dubbed it “Ethiopia’s Spice Girls”, Yegna is not just a girl group, but a brand that addresses issues such as early forced marriage, violence and barriers to education through a very popular radio drama, music and talkshows – all critical channels in a developing country with a strong musical and storytelling tradition. 

The radio drama, also called Yegna, features the five band members representing characters with different backgrounds, facing and overcoming many of the challenges experienced by Ethiopian girls. 

Take Mimi, for example. In the drama, she is a street kid who ran away from early marriage when she was 13 and had to sacrifice her education. She lives on the street and sells chewing gum and trinkets to passers-by. 

“Mimi is my favorite character because she is most like me. She’s very strong and does not give up,” says Alemtsehay Berihun, a 17-year-old Yegna fan who lives with her aunt in Wonka, a village in the Amhara region.

In Amhara, where Berihun lives, and in Addis, the two regions where Yegna is distributed, one in every two people listen to Yegna, according to Girl Effect. 

 “In our school, I don’t think there’s anyone who doesn’t know Yegna. You would walk into a random house in our town and find a Yegna poster inside,” Berihun says. 

The decision to cut funding disappointed Girl Effect, the charity behind Yegna, as well as other aid organizations, which are developing less traditional and more creative approaches to impact long-term changes.  “We were surprised and disappointed,” says Gaya Butler, the Ethiopia country director for Girl Effect. “Girl Effect addresses the demand for aid rather than the supply of it. For example, many organizations are building schools, but they are not filled because lots of cultural norms are preventing girls from attending school. We tackle those social norms.”

And they were having an impact. For example, 84 per cent of girls listening to Yegna, report that it has helped them become more confident, while 76 per cent report it has inspired them to continue their education, according to a 2014 audience survey, conducted by an independent local research agency.

Boys have also been inspired: 95 percent of boys who regularly listen to Yegna agreed that they would speak to someone if they saw a young girl being forced to get married. 

And Yegna has helped change parents’ attitudes, says Asnakech Kebede, 48, a mother of four girls and a primary school teacher. “It used to be culturally unacceptable for girls to stand up straight and speak up, but now parents see their value.” 

For aid workers and activists, the fate of Yegna is a lesson not only in tactics, but also in the limitations of foreign funding — and how much anti-aid sentiment exists in many countries.

Here is the story I wrote for Broadly on Yegna, explaining what Yegna is trying to achieve and how, and why I think it's a project well worth supporting, in spite of the smear campaign by the right-wing media.  Let me know what you think.