Category Archives: International Aid

Wangari Maathai on the Kenyan Crisis

maathai.jpgIf you are following the tragic and heartbreaking news from Kenya and are not sure of what to make of it all, I recommend this excellent article by one of my heroes, Kenyan environmental/political activist and Nobel Prize receipient Wangari Maathai. (at right)

I’m especially taken by her analysis of tribal loyalties (what she calls “micro-identities”) against the broader context of Kenyan society (the “Nation State”). Indeed, the challenge of respecting diversity within a greater sense of national unity should be familiar to us all – and is an important rejoinder to those who tend to dismiss tribal conflicts as just an “African issue.”

Here’s an excerpt from Maathai’s article below. If you’d like to contribute to ongoing relief for the victims of the crisis in Kenya, click here.

Kenyans should not lose site of the fact that it has been an ongoing struggle, that goes back to the colonial period. Kenyans, and indeed all African need to embrace their micro-nationalities because they need culture, language, values and purpose. They do not have to melt into the Nation State: it is impossible anyway. Rather, they ought to consciously and deliberately work to strengthen the Nation State by bringing on board the best from their micro-nationality and enrich the heritage at the level of Nation State.

…We can make a deliberate choice to move forward together towards a more cohesive Nation State, where we can all feel free, secure, and at peace with ourselves and our neighbours. In such a Nation State there would be no need for any Kenyan to organize tribal clashes against their neighbours. The micro-nationalities would begin to see the benefits of unity in diversity.

…The rest of the leadership is all of us, playing our part wherever we are, and maintaining peace and goodwill. The international community will help us but we are the ones who must rise up and walk towards, truth, justice, healing and reconciliation. That is the path to a lasting peace.

Feed the World, Improve Your Vocabulary

egyptian_white_rice.jpgNow this is interesting: a website called hosts an online vocabulary game that actually feeds the hungry. Here’s how it works: you’re given a specific word and are asked to click on the multiple choice answer that best defines it. For each word you get right, they donate 20 grains of rice to the United Nations World Food Program.

Apparently, is a sister site of – a private website dedicated to raising awareness about world poverty. (According to their tally, Free Rice has donated 9,868,446,910 grains of rice to date.)

Having played this game several times, I can safely attest two things: it is seriously addictive, and my vocabulary isn’t nearly as stellar as I’d like to admit. But what more noble reason to bust out the thesarus?

Cyclone Sidr Relief


From today’s New York Times:

The number of people left dead after the powerful cyclone that swept through Bangladesh on Thursday rose to more than 3,100 yesterday, the government said. The United Nations estimated that a million people had been left homeless, many of them in remote areas without predictable food supplies.

The Bangladesh Red Crescent Society warned Sunday that the number of dead could conceivably be 5,000 to 10,000, and the United Nations World Food Program said yesterday that it would not be surprised by such a tally.

To contribute to Cyclone Sidr relief efforts, contact:

American Red Cross


Lutheran World Relief

Save the Children

Emergency in Tabasco

An enormous humanitarian crisis continues to unfold south of the border. Since the beginning of November, the state of Tabasco, Mexico has been hit by widespread flooding due to steady rains – currently, more than 80% of the state is completely flooded, leaving thousands homeless.

Recent reports from the Red Cross indicate:

– The evacuation phase of the operation has ceased

– Over 1 million people have been affected in Tasbsco and neighboring state, Chiapas

– Mexican officials estimate it will be another two to three weeks before water levels recede

– An estimated 70 percent of Tabasco’s capital city, Villahermosa, remains under water

– An estimated 80,000 people remain in 365 official and unofficial shelters

– The flood has resulted in widespread destruction of homes, building, infrastructure, agricultural crops and livestock.

True to form, the mainstream media briefly glanced in the direction of Tabasco before resuming their coverage of Britney, Paris and OJ. Meanwhile the crisis has been growing to tragic truly proportions. (The immense scale of this disaster can be clearly viewed in the clip above.)

For in-depth information, check out this post from the blog, Global Voices. To contribute to ongoing relief efforts, click here.

A Father Kvelling

unite-for-sight-009.jpgAnd now for some serious kvelling from a proud Dad…

For his Bar Mitzvah tzedakah project last September, my son Gabe decided to raise funds for Unite for Sight, an organization that promotes optical surgeries and eye care around the world. To date he has raised over $7,000.00, which enabled an eye clinic in Tamale, Ghana to purchase a much-needed visual field machine (medical equipment that diagnoses and manages glaucoma.)

Gabe was honored this past Saturday at Unite for Sight’s annual convention at Stanford University School of Medicine. (His entourage for the occasion: his mother Hallie, and grandparents Al and Esther, Larry and Ruth – plenty of naches to go around!) That’s Gabe above with Dr. Seth Wanye, Director of the Tamale eye clinic.

Here’s what Gabe had to say upon receiving his youth volunteer award:

When I was ten years old I received an eye injury in a soccer accident. Two days later I was taken into surgery to fix a detached retina in my left eye. If I did not have this surgery, I would have gone blind in that eye. At first I was apprehensive about the surgery, but then I realized that I was in good hands and that I was lucky to have this state of the art treatment.

Two years later, when it came time for my Bar Mitzvah, and for my Social Action Project, I decided to donate money to Unite for Sight. The advanced procedure I received made me appreciate how fortunate I was to be in a wealthy area of the world. My Dad and I looked up organizations that supported eye care in developing countries, and we found Unite for Sight. I liked that Unite for Sight was able to make a difference in peoples’ daily lives.

The Torah says, “Cursed be he who misdirects a blind person on his way.” This is what I said about this line in the my Bar Mitzvah speech:

“On one hand, this could mean taking advantage of someone like a tourist that doesn’t ‘know the ropes’ in a situation. The Torah teaches that we have a responsibility to be trustworthy and help others find their desired destination.

In a more literal way, we can interpret this commandment to mean we have a responsibility to help people who suffer from the curse of blindness, especially preventable blindness.

What would it take to stop the curse of preventable blindness in developing countries? More affluent countries should realize that they have a responsibility to stop the diseases and would need to donate money for more optic surgeons and more hospitals in these parts of the world.

I don’t believe that God can curse you or bless you. I believe that some people have good fortune and some people have rotten fortune and God has nothing to do with it. You have good luck if you’re born in a wealthy part of the world and you have bad luck if you live in a poorer part of the world. Poorer people don’t deserve to be poor, they just happen to be born in countries with less resources. They are not cursed by God but they might feel that they are cursed.

Even though I don’t believe God can curse or bless people, I did learn a lesson from my portion: It is our responsibility to help the world feel less cursed. We could help the world by donating money, food, and other resources to those who need them. We could send doctors to treat preventable illnesses in other countries that need our help.”

I would like to thank Unite for Sight for this honor. I’m especially honored that I could help the people of Tamale and Dr. Wanye to purchase a visual field machine for their Eye Clinic.

Thank you very much.

You can donate to Unite for Sight by clicking here. (A donation of $50.00 can restore sight to one individual – yes, sometimes it’s that easy to make a difference in the world…)

International Women’s Day 2007

460_0___30_0_0_0_0_0_1077941.jpgIn honor of International Women’s Day, I encourage you to check out this very informative link from Women’s Human Rights Net. It contains a wealth of important articles and interviews ranging from abandoned girls in India, sex trafficking in Latin America, the “One Million Signatures” campaign in Iran, and much much more.

Here’s a quote from the latter article, a powerful and inspirational essay by Nayereh Tohidi:

Just as slavery was once considered a natural and even divinely ordered phenomenon, but today belongs to a dark and embarrassing chapter of history, the era of patriarchy and sexism (in modern as well as traditional pre-modern forms) will come to an end sooner or later. Today, we are confronted with those who are still trying to justify male-domination and perpetuate patriarchy and violence against women by resorting to patriarchal constructs of religion and male-centered interpretations of scriptures as some religious proponents of slavery did in the past. But the women’s movements and global feminism, despite its young age, have made important inroads in many realms of culture and society. Purposeful convergence of diverse groups of women at both grassroots and elite levels can only expedite the process of change toward equality, justice and peace.

As perfect a statement for International Women’s Day as I can imagine…

Buy Less Crap!

99672494-16a2-4ad2-8908-894bd0f0ff6b_sp.jpegIf you’re thinking of buying a Red Razr phone to fight AIDS in Africa, you might want to check out first.

As it turns out, the well-known (RED) Campaign (a “shop-to-give” charity that raises money for the Global Fund) has spent over $100 million in marketing but has raised barely a tenth of that amount for charitable ends. The Buy (LESS) Campaign was launched last week as a protest/alternative to buying over-priced Gap clothes and red Ipods. Their very clever website encourages folks to give directly to the Global Fund and other causes they solicit from the public.

There is no denying that shopping charities like the (RED) campaign tend to be patronizing appeals that pander to the “feel-good” dimensions of our consumer culture. (I’m sure I wasn’t the only cringing at news reports last October of Oprah and Bono proclaiming, “We’re shopping to save the world!” as they swept down Chicago’s Michigan Avenue, adoring throngs in tow.) The (RED) campaign likes to frame itself as a new kind of mass movement that is somehow harnessing the latent power of “first world consumers.” But let’s not delude ourselves: corporations exist to make money, not to give it away.

At the end of the day, shopping charities seem to be better at consciousness-raising than fund raising per se. There’s certainly nothing wrong with the use of corporate marketing muscle to spotlight critical global crises that deserve attention. But is buying more stuff really the answer? In his blog, Charity Navigator founder Trent Stamp astutely points to the crux of the problem:

I just worry that the teens who buy the products will think that their philanthropic commitment to the less fortunate ends when they leave the store. The RED campaign can be a good start, or it can be a colossal waste of money, and it all depends on whether this edgy, innovative campaign inspires young people to be better citizens, or just gives them an excuse to feel good about themselves while they buy an overpriced item they don’t really need.

Stamp is not optimistic about the prospect and, frankly, neither am I.

Objectifying Africa

ga_dish_madge200×1511.jpgDuring the summer of 2005, I spent a month in Nigeria, traveling and working with the Igbo tribe. (I plan to write much more about my trip in future posts, but you can click here to read an article about my visit).

As it turned out, my sojourn in Africa happened to coincide with the G8 – the high profile summit of international leaders who met to discuss world economic policy. As you may recall, international aid – and in particular African debt relief – was foremost on the agenda of the G8. You may also recall this was the time of the Live 8 concerts that took place simultaneously in the US, Britain, and South Africa.

It was a remarkable and edifying experience for me to watch the G8 unfold from Africa. I recall one evening in particular: I was watching CNN International’s coverage of the G8 with a group of Nigerians – at the time the network was running one of it’s ongoing special reports, entitled something like”Africa in Crisis!” Every fifteen minutes or so, they’d plug the report, along with the obligatory images of emaciated children and ominous music. The commercials were interspersed among the network’s coverage of the G8 rallies and concerts, with crowds of thousands urging Western governments to do right by Sub-Saharan Africa.

As we watched, the woman next to me made no effort to hide her disgust. She was particularly mortified by the portrayal of Africans largely as pathetic victims desperately in need of the largess of the “developed world.” She was profoundly cynical about the noblesse oblige of the West, as well as the objectification that invariably went along with it.

I think of my Nigerian friend a great deal when I read about the increasingly high profile efforts to aid Africa. As I have written in earlier posts, as a Jew I do believe that my spiritual tradition commands us to do our part to alleviate poverty in the world. And to be sure, most would agree that affluent nations cannot turn a blind eye to the scourge of extreme poverty anywhere in the developing world. But beyond the academics of this important debate, there is a deeper and even more complicated issue to contemplate. To what extent do our efforts, with all good intentions, serve to objectify Africa and, in a sense, dehumanize Africans?

As I have also written earlier, Judaism urges us to engage in charitable acts in such a way that does not deprive the recipients of their essential humanity. Indeed, I would venture to guess that for most Westerners, when we think of Africans, we think of them largely as helpless objects of our pity – and not as living breathing human beings. But we must not forget that what we routinely call “Africa” is in reality a vast continent that contains 53 countries, with hundreds of distinct tribes, languages and cultures.

So while we find our place in the worthy efforts to support efforts in Sub-Saharan Africa, here’s a suggestion: let’s also make efforts to learn more about real Africa and real Africans – and not merely the pre-digested images served to us through Western cultural sensibilities. Here are some great Internet resources that can provide you with a helpful starting point. (Thanks to my friend, congregant and reference librarian extraordinaire Lesley Williams for helping with the research!)

News From Africa

A great source of news about Africa, this website publishes regular news, features, press reviews and editorials. It is the initiative of Koinonia Community, a not-for-profit development organisation based in Nairobi, Kenya. All the articles published in News From Africa are written from the perspective of the African grassroots people, their struggle for freedom, dignity and justice.

Science in Africa

A monthly magazine containing popular articles, research findings, events, scientific developments, and resources about science in Africa. Intended to promote local and international awareness of science conducted in Africa, the site also lists job, funding, and educational opportunities for scientists, educators, and students.

African Studies Quarterly

ASQ is an interdisciplinary, refereed, on-line journal dedicated to publishing the finest scholarship relating to the African continent.

Africa Focus

This database of over 3,500 digitized visual images and 50 hours of sound files from 45 African countries is search-able by keyword, subject, or country.

The Story of Africa

The Story of Africa tells the history of the continent from an African perspective. Africa’s top historians take a fresh look at the events and characters that have shaped the continent from the origins of humankind to the end of South African apartheid. There are many pictures and over 40 sound recordings.

African Voices

An examination of the diversity, dynamism, and global influence of Africa’s peoples and cultures over time in the realms of family, work, community, and the natural environment. It covers prehistory through the 20th century . Themes include various forms of wealth, working and living in Africa, the Kongo people of Central Africa, and the African Diaspora.


The Africa page of a wonderful music community website devoted to fans and practitioners of rhythm music.

Afropop Worldwide

Afropop Worldwide is PRI Public Radio International’s weekly series showcasing the contemporary musical cultures of Africa and the African Diaspora in the Caribbean, the Americas and Europe. It is a great source of general information about the music of Africa and the African diaspora.

Mirembe Kawomera

coffee-beans.jpgYou should buy Fair Trade Coffee.

If you drink coffee, that is. If you aren’t, I’m not recommending that you create a new addiction, but if you happen to be like me and millions of other hopelessly addicted caffeine junkies, you should at least be aware of the larger economic implications of your habit.

Some basic facts: coffee is the second most actively traded commodity in the world, after oil. Since 1990, retail sales of coffee have increased to $80 billion from $30 billion. Globally, about 2 billion cups of coffee are consumed a day – and 400 million of those are in the United States. Four multinational corporations (Philip Morris, Procter & Gamble, Nestle, and Sara Lee) control 70% of the world coffee market, with the international price determined in New York and London.

At the other end of the equation, more than 25 million farmers and coffee laborers depend upon coffee cultivation for their livelihood. Most of them live in dire poverty because the price of coffee has fallen drastically in recent years. By drinking Fair Trade Coffee, you are supporting efforts to guarantee coffee farmers and workers a fixed price for their product, which in turn will help support the sustainable development of their communities. (Fair Trade has more than just economic implications, however. Click this link to learn more.)

Why is a rabbi going on about Fair Trade Coffee? Because I believe it’s a mitzvah to drink it. After all, Judaism teaches us over and over again to be socially responsible consumers, to act justly toward workers and to alleviate poverty in our world. So what could be more Jewish than drinking Fair Trade Coffee?

My personal favorite is Mirembe Kawomera (“Delicious Peace”), a Fair Trade Coffee produced by a Ugandan Jewish/Muslim/Christian cooperative. It is distributed in the US through Thanksgiving Coffee and can be easily bought via the Internet.

So you should drink Fair Trade Coffee. And if you want to support economic justice AND interfaith cooperation in a world that desperately needs both, you should drink Mirembe Kawomera.