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. 

Wednesday, 28 February 2018

The kindness of strangers: exhibition celebrating solidarity towards refugees

Museum With A Home at the School Life and Education Museum in Athens

I’ve been working with Oxfam on a story celebrating the kindness and solidarity of ordinary people towards the men, women and children who are seeking peace and sanctuary in Europe.

It’s a story of the Museum Without A Home, a touring exhibition showcasing every-day objects that ordinary people have donated to refugees to make them feel more welcome. 

I loved this project: it’s such a creative and beautiful way to remind people that refugees are people like us, to celebrate those who are trying to make them feel a bit more at home in their host countries – and to encourage other people and governments to follow suit and support dignity and safety for all.

After touring in various cities across Europe, including Leicester and Cambridge, the exhibition was supposed to come to London and be displayed at City Hall and Parliament, then move on to Oxford and Cardiff. But because of the sex scandal which engulfed Oxfam, the plans had to be cancelled. Oxfam was hoping for lots of media coverage and support from MPs, NGOs and members of the public. It was not to be. But Positive News still agreed to run a short piece on it and I wanted to tell a bit about the Museum here too:

A cooking pot, a pair of running shoes, coloured crayons, a skipping rope. These are some of the everyday objects that have been ‘exhibited’ in the Museum Without A Home. The touring exhibition, which can be viewed online here, celebrates acts of kindness by ordinary people towards the men, women and children who are seeking peace and sanctuary in Europe. 

The museum was originally created by the Greek section of Amnesty International and Oxfam to acknowledge the solidarity of the Greek people towards refugees. Organisers also hope to call on people – including political leaders – worldwide to support dignity and safety for all.

In autumn of 2016, the entire city of Athens was transformed into a  “museum” showcasing real objects that residents donated to refugees to make them feel welcome. Each object was accompanied by personal testimonies of the people who donated the objects and the people who received them.

Next to the photo of a board game reads the caption: “Stelios lives in Piraeus. When his school teacher proposed to the class to collect toys for the kids in the port of Piraeus, Stelios offered one of his favourite board games. He then found out that the game had reached the hands of Ishmael, a boy his age.”

Accompanying an image of a kettle reads the caption: “Vasso lives and works in Konitsa. Mafida from Syria is being hosted in the same region. When the two women met, Vasso offered a water kettle to Mafida so that she can easily heat water to wash her baby.”

Since 2016, the exhibition has travelled to Belfast, New York, Belgrade and Canada, as well as Leicester and Cambridge. Since it came to the UK, organisers displayed alongside the Greek objects several items that have been donated by the British public. Among them were a cooking pot and a quilt sewn by people from Witney, Oxfordshire, who hope to sponsor a family from Syria.

“This is a celebration of small acts of welcome and generosity, that make all the difference to refugees as they rebuild their lives in the UK,” said Sally Copley, Oxfam’s head of policy, programmes and campaigns. “We are calling on the government to extend its own hand of welcome by allowing refugees to reunite with their families in the UK.”

Friday, 26 January 2018

Gina Lopez, maverick environment activist fights Philippines’ mining

Courtesy of Gina Lopez

I felt so energized and inspired after interviewing Gina Lopez, the Philippines’ former environment minister, for this issue of New Internationalist.

She is both a philanthropist and an environmentalist - a fiery, fearless, maverick activist who is not afraid of fighting the Philippines' powerful mining industry.  She believes that protecting the environment and promoting social justice go hand in hand.

She is irreverent, funny, full of energy and always in action – rolling her sleeves, campaigning, cleaning slums, jumping into a river to make a point, climbing a rock – and giving ministers and industrialists a piece of her mind.

"Yes, mining creates a few jobs and perhaps a few schools, and a few people enrich themselves, but thousands suffer and water sources are polluted for generations afterward.  Mining is just greed and selfishness."

As a minister, she banned open-pit mines and moved to shut down more than half of the operations of the country’s mining companies, after audits showed massive violations against the environment and the law. It cost her her job.

She is not your typical environmental activist. The daughter of one of the country’s wealthiest families, she fled the Philippines in 1972 to avoid political persecution during the Marcos regime, but returned in 1986 after being educated in the US, becoming a yoga master, and then working with disadvantaged communities in Africa. She still meditates every day.

She uses her connections as a shield in a country that is one of the world most dangerous places to be an environmental activist. “My family owns the biggest media company, I don’t think someone would want to harm me. I am not afraid of anything,” she told me matter-of-factly.

“What is needed is not a shift in economic priorities - but a greater realization and awareness of the damage some economic activities (mining, logging, rampant quarrying) inflict not only on our economic potential, but on our well being as a people. What is needed is a total economic valuation (monetizing the costs, the benefits) of these activities and then asking the very pertinent question - is it worth it?"

Last year, she received the Seacology Prize, awarded to those showing exceptional achievement in preserving island environments and culture.

You can read my story in New Internationalist here.    

Monday, 30 October 2017

Global study shows unease about immigration around the world – but Britain is more positive

From Argentina, Australia, Belgium and China to Britain, Hungary, India, South Korea and the United States, most people believe that immigration is increasing and has had a negative impact on their country.

New data from the Ipsos Global @dvisor survey shows very clearly that immigration remains a major global concern.   The survey, conducted among online adults aged under 65 in 25 countries across the world, reveals that people are twice as likely to think that immigration is bad for their country than think it is good, and twice as likely to agree than disagree that there are too many immigrants in their country and that this is changing their country in ways they don’t like. 

Most countries are also concerned about immigration placing pressure on public services.

And there is a sense that the issue is increasing: three-quarters think there are more immigrants than 5 years ago.

 But there are huge differences between individual countries, and significant change in views in some.  Surprisingly, Britain’s view on immigration has increased positively since 2011. We are now the third most likely country to say that immigration has a positive impact on us, behind only Saudi Arabia and India – with 40% saying immigration is positive, up from only 19% in 2011. 

On the other hand, Turkey, Italy, Hungary and Serbia are most negative with at least three in five (58%) saying it has had a negative impact.

The more positive attitude of Britain toward immigration surprised me as the media coverage around this issue has been rather relentlessly negative, especially in the context of Brexit.

But Bobby Duffy, Managing Director of Ipsos Social Research Institute, says: “This may be explained by both those who had positive views being encouraged to express them more following Brexit, but also those who supported leaving the EU being reassured that we’ll have more control in the future.

As the refugee crisis continues, the Ipsos research also shows that a narrow majority still believe they should keep their borders open to refugees, however many still have serious security concerns.

Wednesday, 11 October 2017

Refugee Exhibition: "Claiming a New Place on Earth"

If you are in London this week, please come and see our exhibition “Claiming a New Place on Earth” at Protein Studios in Shoreditch, London.  Through photographs and interviews, photographer Caroline Irby and I have recorded the journey of 10 refugees or asylum seekers aged 18-24, who arrived in the UK as minors and are now coming of age in this country. 

How is it to grow up in an Afghan village with no water and no electricity, then to find yourself alone in London at 18, not speaking a word of English?

How does it feel when life is passing you by, when you cannot get your driving license, go to university or get a job because you are waiting for your papers?

Thousands of teenagers arrive in the UK every year seeking asylum. Many have missed out on education and have been scarred by war and by having to leave their home countries.  In the UK, they have to navigate complex systems to get the support they need. Yet, they are also young people with talent, pride, aspirations and dreams.

The young refugees are from Syria, Ivory Coast, Iran, Afghanistan, Nigeria, Pakistan, Ukraine and Uganda. They talk about the life they have left behind and their new experiences in this country - the hurdles and challenges they are facing, especially around the asylum and education systems - as well as their dreams and aspirations for the future.  They were photographed in the context of their dream job. 

The portraits and interviews are part of the exhibition “Claiming a New Place on Earth” at Protein Studios in London, Oct. 10-15 (the title is from Lesbos 2015  by poet Ruth Padel). The exhibition was commissioned and curated by Breaking Barriers (BB), a wonderful charity helping refugees to find meaningful employment.

Caroline and I have worked together on a number of humanitarian stories overseas – particularly in Africa and Asia - and in the UK.   We have a keen interest in refugee issues because we have seen some of the causes that trigger people to flee their homes. We wanted to meet some of the young refugees who have settled here to learn what propelled them to move so far, and to hear about their experiences of trying to make a new life here.  And, at a time when Brexit negotiations are pressing on and immigration is such a loaded topic, we wanted to let some young refugees tell their own stories in their own words.

This is our second collaboration with Breaking Barriers. Last year, Breaking Barriers’ exhibition portrayed refugees at the place where they first felt free or safe in the UK.

You can see some of the portraits and interviews in this Guardian article

Friday, 22 September 2017

#LivingIsWinning – Olympics inspire refugee awareness campaign

No matter the distance, the height or the fight

For them, living is already winning


Athletes perform amazing physical feats to win; men, women and children fleeing war, poverty and violence also surpass themselves. But they do it simply to survive.

This parallel struck two young French creatives, who wanted to counter the negative portraits of refugees in the media. They took the opportunity of the official announcement of Paris 2024 Olympics to talk about the dangerous journey many refugees have to take – crossing lands, deserts and seas and facing countless obstacles - in order to win their right to live.

The result is  “Living is Winning”, a refugee awareness campaign launched on September 14, the day after Paris was officially set to host the 2024 Olympics.

The campaign, which features a series of posters, three films and a campaign website, was created and directed by Valentin Guiod (Josiane Paris) and Min-Hyung Choi (AdamandeveDDB London), with the support of Josiane and OTSO Paris, and led by La Cimade, an independent humanitarian organisation protecting refugees’ rights.

“In France, some people started to see migrants as hobos whereas they are just humans who are forced to leave everything, surpassing themselves to flee conflict and persecution,” explains Min-Hyung Choi. “This idea of surpassing yourself rang a bell.  They are doing it not to win golds, but just their right to live with dignity. Then there was this debate on Paris 2024 in the French media, which we saw as the perfect opportunity to bring back another debate on the table.”

Their initiative has received lots of support, including from the award-winning photographer Espen Rasmussen, who lent his images to the campaign - and was extensively covered in the French media and on social media with more than 140k views and 2900 shares on Facebook.  

Now, they want to spread their message to an international audience. So please, do share it.