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(The following commentary was published on July 28th by GlobalPost. A longer version was earlier published by The Lesotho Times and The Mantle in New York.)

Basotho women await immunizations for their infants outside a sunny, rural clinic. (Photo: mjj)

Basotho women await immunizations for their infants outside a sunny, rural health clinic. (Photo: mjj)

MASERU, Lesotho – Some rankings instill pride. Others instill shame, and should inspire every effort to get off that list.

Two years ago, in a report for GlobalPost, I described how tiny Lesotho, a landlocked country high in the mountains of southern Africa, achieved a first for the entire region: a peaceful handover of power from ruler to opposition.

Two years later, the Basotho people of Lesotho have quietly climbed the wrong list. UNAIDS, reporting the “hope that ending AIDS is possible,” now ranks Lesotho as suffering the world’s second-highest rate of HIV infection; at 23 percent, the tragedy has touched nearly every Basotho family.

The rate of Lesotho’s HIV affliction hasn’t changed in a decade. The country, under a fragile coalition government, has become a case study for the limits of international development assistance, and a cautionary tale for what happens when a country is reluctant to tackle the real issues that plague ordinary people.

The Basotho resist the need to confront the broader health crisis that makes their country, by nearly every health indicator, one of the world’s sickliest.

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(The following commentary was published on July 24th in Lesotho, in The Lesotho Times. It was originally published in New York, on July 15th, on The Mantle.)

A Basotho nurse preps an infant for immunization in a rural health clinic. (Photo: mjj)

A Basotho nurse preps an infant for immunization in a rural health clinic. (Photo: mjj)

MASERU, Lesotho – Lesotho, a mini-model of African democracy!

That’s what I trumpeted two years ago, when reporting the great political achievement scored by the ethnic Basotho of Lesotho.

In the latest test of democracy in Africa, Basotho political elites produced their first elections without violence, then carried out a peaceful handover of power – a first for southern Africa.

Today, though, this beacon of democracy flickers dimly. Amid the jockeying for power, some whisper of a coup. Even South Africa – which surrounds “The Mountain Kingdom” and sent in soldiers before – warned Lesotho to cool tensions.

Yet all this gamesmanship obscures the real crisis: in Basotho health. Indeed, while the politicians fiddle, Rome burns. (Or in Lesotho, while Roma burns.)

The 1.8 million souls who dwell in Lesotho rank, by virtually every health indicator, among the sickliest on the entire planet. Moreover, Lesotho has become a case-study for the limits of international development assistance – and a cautionary tale for what happens when a nation is reluctant to tackle the real issues that plague ordinary people.

For starters, Lesotho suffers an HIV infection-rate of 23 percent, a tragedy that has touched and traumatized every Basotho family. I’ve seen this first-hand, while preaching the virtues of Health Journalism here for two years. All along, I’ve cited Lesotho as enduring “the world’s third-highest rate” of HIV infection – among those within the most sexually active ages: 15 to 49 years old.

But while Basotho lawmakers play politics, Lesotho quietly achieved a bit of notoriety: the UN agency, UNAIDS, elevated Lesotho from third to second place. (Behind only Swaziland, our neighborhood’s other mountain kingdom.)

Curiously, Lesotho’s new ranking is not because the infection rate has risen.

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[The following article was published June 1, 2012, in The Christian Science Monitor, then republished on Yahoo News.]

After a number of setbacks, with disputed elections leading to civil war, the African kingdom of Lesotho holds an election that boots the incumbent. A coalition government is in the works.

By Michael J. Jordan, Correspondent / June 1, 2012

Some Basotho outside Maseru say they waited up to three hours to vote. (Photo: mjj)

MASERU, Lesotho – Lesotho – the tiny mountain kingdom surrounded by South Africa, with the best (ok, only) skiing in Africa, and one of the world’s highest HIV infection rates – is getting recognition for something else: carrying out a peaceful election with a likely transfer of power.

After elections held this week, a majority of Basotho voters turned against the 14-year rule of Prime Minister Pakalitha Mosisili, expressing frustration with empty promises. With no party enjoying a convincing majority, five opposition parties this week cobbled together Lesotho’s first-ever coalition government and claim at least 61 seats of the 120-member parliament – with an ex-foreign minister, Tom Thabane, tabbed as the new premier.

With its straightforward process and absence of violence thus far, Lesotho gives a lesson in democracy that many other African countries — such as Mali, Guinea-Bissau, Cote D’Ivoire, Kenya, and even nearby Madagascar, Zimbabwe, and South Africa could learn to emulate, political observers say.

“If a sitting government actually leaves office gracefully, this will be a first for southern Africa,” says Nqosa Mahao, a coalition-government expert at South Africa’s University of the Witwatersrand, who advised the major parties here prior to the May 26 elections. “It will put Lesotho on the map for its democratic credentials – and set a tone for the rest of the region.”

Setbacks in African elections — notably the four-month civil war in Cote D’Ivoire in 2010, after the losing President Laurent Gbagbo refused to step down — have recently raised questions about whether democratic culture is actually taking root on the continent. Far too many elections feature heavy vote-rigging, intimidation, and sporadic bouts of violence, rendering the final vote count questionable in the eyes of election observers. Yet the election results in Lesotho shows that some African countries can hold world-class elections, even in a country with plenty of excuses for failure, including poverty and rugged terrain.

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[The following article appeared April 30, 2012, in The Christian Science Monitor. It was republished on Yahoo News, and posted May 22 on The Mantle.]

Political violence has flared ahead of May 26 Lesotho elections, but Archbishop Desmond Tutu urges candidates to keep the peace and respect election results.

By Michael J. Jordan, Correspondent, Christian Science Monitor

Bishop Tutu exhorts Basotho politicians to keep the peace. But will they listen? (Photo: mjj)

MASERU, LesothoArchbishop Desmond Tutu, the legendary anti-Apartheid activist and Nobel laureate, is officially retired from public life.

But he made an exception Friday for the tiny mountain kingdom of Lesotho.

Political violence in the enclave encircled by South Africa has flared up ahead of May 26 elections – an ominous sign in what one analyst calls the latest “stress test” for democracy in sub-Saharan Africa. Cracks have emerged here with high-profile assassinations, rumors of a “hit squad,” and clashes at campaign rallies.

So the United Nations invited Archbishop Tutu to bolster democracy in the land, where, before launching his crusade against Apartheid next door, he served his first bishopric from 1976-78. On Friday, his “prayer meeting” extracted a pledge among political rivals to keep the peace and respect election results.

Citing the past political violence of South Africa, Tutu urged an audience that included the prime minister of Lesotho, “Please, please, please, please do not let the same happen to this stunningly beautiful land. Nothing can be so precious that it can be bought with innocent lives.”

Lesotho’s election is more than a contested vote in a remote country rarely heard from. It comes on the heels of successful elections across the continent: Ghana, Guinea, Liberia, Niger, Nigeria, and Zambia have recently all experienced peaceful elections. There have been a few notable blemishes: a couple of coups des états in Mali and Guinea-Bissau, and a contested election in Cote D’Ivoire in late 2010 that briefly turned into a civil war.

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[The following article appeared on Oct. 4, 2011, in The Christian Science Monitor. It’s the third of my three-part package to commemorate the “Red Sludge” tragedy, with Part I here and Part II here.]

Since last year’s ‘Red Sludge’ disaster, Hungary’s worst environmental tragedy, Hungarians have used the tools of democracy to seek restitution – a rarity in this former Communist state.

By Michael J. Jordan, Correspondent

DEVECSER, Hungary – On Oct. 3, 2010, Jozsef Konkoly finished installing a new heating system in his home in the Hungarian town of Devescer, in advance of winter. Overall, he’d invested a small fortune on renovations.

Jozsef Konkoly, standing where his home once stood, has inspired hundreds of neighbors. (Photo: mjj)

The next day, red sludge cascaded through his windows.

Mr. Konkoly is just one face of Hungary’s deadliest ecological tragedy, the toxic “Red Sludge” calamity that struck this small Central European nation last October. But one year later, he’s also become a rare – and unlikely – symbol of Hungarian democracy-in-action.

Konkoly successfully sued the factory that was responsible for the disaster, becoming an inspiration for hundreds of other ordinary folks in Devecser and Kolontar to do the same. Victims include not only those who lost homes and are now moving into new, government-built homes, but the unscathed neighbors who saw their property value collapse overnight.

At the same time, Konkoly and fellow plaintiffs illuminate a stark truth about Hungary today, two decades into the transition from Communist dictatorship to capitalist democracy: despite growing disillusion and revisionist nostalgia for a ruthless ancien régime, democracy and rule of law are slowly taking root in these post-authoritarian lands.

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[The following Dispatch appeared Oct. 3 in Foreign Policy (with five of my photos in the FP Slideshow The Red Monster). It’s the second of my three-part package to commemorate the “Red Sludge” tragedy, with Part I here and Part III here.]

One year later, Hungary is still reeling from its worst-ever environmental castrophe.

BY MICHAEL J. JORDAN | OCTOBER 3, 2011

DEVECSER, Hungary—Imre Vagi, 56, doesn’t scare easily. Even when facing a flood of biblical proportions.

Hungarian Imre Vagi, with his young poplars, has bounced back from the lethal flood. (Photo: mjj)

Vagi has scraped for survival ever since Hungary’s communist regime crumbled in 1989. As industries collapsed, he was laid off in the early 1990s by Magyar Aluminium (MAL), a huge state-owned employer in the western half of this small Central European country.

Many folks in Veszprem County are like the stocky Vagi, with his unshaven face and long sideburns, and trace their roots to the peasants who harvested holdings of the nobility, on undulating fields of potatoes, corn, wheat, even strawberries. The Catholic Church claimed the first portion; nobles, the second; and the miserable souls who’d actually picked the stuff, the last.

Agriculture has been a way of life and mode of survival for centuries, yet as the communist system disintegrated, party-run farms were also in crisis. Nevertheless, Vagi tapped into his farming genetics and in 1995 bought his own plot of five sandy hectares. By last fall, he was tilling up to 400 hectares of mostly grain, cereal, and sunflower — an impressive feat of post-communist entrepreneurship.

Then, the “red sludge” hit. On Oct. 4, 2010, MAL’s communist-era but still active reservoir of toxic waste ruptured, unleashing a crimson wave of 184 million gallons of the caustic byproduct of aluminum production. The noxious goop washed over a swath of 15 square miles, including Vagi’s land.

The first to be walloped was the village of Kolontar; 10 people drowned in the alkaline muck, including a toddler. The torrent then splashed across the town of Devecser, burning scores of victims, poisoning hundreds of homes, and killing off most of the plant and animal life in the Marcal — a tributary to Europe’s second-largest river, the Danube. It was Hungary’s worst-ever chemical accident: one part Chernobyl, one part Pompeii.

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[The following commentary appeared June 6, 2011, in Harvard’s Nieman Reports.] It was republished June 10 on The Mantle.]

BRATISLAVA, Slovakia – Western intervention in Libya – and in the Arab Spring itself – has revived debate over “exporting our values,” especially the kinder, gentler, non-militaristic forms of soft power.

Then along comes James Miller’s exquisitely timed broadside, “Questioning the Western Approach to Training,” against one of those soft-power instruments – Western journalism training – in the Spring 2011 issue of Harvard’s prestigious Nieman Reports. (Full disclosure: I’m a contributor to the magazine.)

I’m compelled to respond because Miller – a Visiting Professor at the Center for the Study of Global Media and Democracy, Goldsmiths, University of London, on sabbatical from Hampshire College – sounds like he’d dispatch with overseas journalism educators like me. There it is, in black and white, when he derides “media missionaries.”

I do indeed preach the gospel, whether to university students in post-Communist Slovakia and Czech Republic, or in Hong Kong to Chinese students from the heavily censored mainland, or to minority Roma (a.k.a. “Gypsy”) journalists in the Balkans, or to hundreds of international participants in a biennial foreign-correspondent training course in Prague. I’m not unlike the proselytizing, wholesome-looking Mormons I see around the globe, in their white shirts and black name-tags. Except I do my sermonizing in the classroom, about what I call serious, responsible journalism.

In his essay, Miller writes, “This is a time of unprecedented international efforts to codify and inculcate Western-style news reporting and editing – to train on a global scale what its proponents assertively call ‘world journalism’ – in places quite different from American newsrooms and classrooms, with nothing like the journalistic or political-cultural history of North America and Western Europe.” It’s unclear if he’s calling for a less-Western, more sensitive style to such training, or urging that it be scaled down altogether. Both views are wrong.

He cites the case of post-Communist Eastern Europe – a place I know well, after 16 years as a foreign correspondent out here. “Cold War modernization theory,” says Miller, has fostered “a surprisingly idealized version of mainstream journalism” as a “necessary means of democratization.”

My question for Professor Miller: What’s wrong with that?

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