Current affairs

The Good Life

South China Morning Post, 9 May 2015

Dubbed the most influential philosopher alive, Peter Singer is loved and loathed for his controversial views. Now he wants us to give away a lot of our money. Jo Baker reports

For a man who sparks volcanic public debate wherever he goes, Peter Singer comes across as remarkably mild mannered.

“I do cause some controversy, but there are also misunderstandings,” acknowledges the renowned moral philosopher, softly, as we plumb a few of the inaccuracies that have tainted the public reaction to his work. Although dubbed by The New Yorker magazine as “the most influential philosopher alive”, Singer, known also as a bioethicist and activist, has been maligned during his career for tolerance or support, from a moral standpoint, of euthanasia, abortion, the rights of animals over some humans, infanticide and forms of bestiality – not to mention his calling “the whole edifice of Judaeo-Christian morality” terminally ill. And these charges have now swollen to include the belittling of wealthy philanthropists. This is a serious charge-sheet indeed.

[Original article at the South China Morning Post]

An academic, with appointments at the University of Melbourne, in Australia, and Princeton University, in the United States, the Australian visited the University of Hong Kong recently to publicise his new book on the ethics of giving charitably, parts of which have also managed to cause indignant emissions from the public. The Most Good You Can Do is a challenge to the affluent (and not so affluent) people around the world who might consider themselves to be “good”. In it he argues that many of us, if we were truly good, could afford to give about a third of our income to charity.

Yet as a proponent of the “effective altruism” movement, certain good deeds and charities rank much higher in Singer’s book than others – which is where the belittling comes in. In an interview earlier this year, the philosopher criticised the donation of US$100 million by an American tycoon for the renovation of a concert hall at New York’s Lincoln Centre for the Performing Arts, which would later be named after the philanthropist. Singer pointed out that just US$100 can restore the sight of a blind person. The basic needs of people around the world must take priority, he said. “Then help people listen to concerts in beautiful concert halls.” In certain circles, hackles were raised.

But Singer has supported his moral argument with another one. Effective giving is not only the hallmark of an ethical person, he says, but a happy one, too. “I think a lot of people do want to find more fulfilment, do something that is more worthwhile than just displaying their wealth,” he says, having noted that, according to studies, a sense of wellbeing is not increased by wealth accumulated beyond about US$75,000. In a city that is home to 732,000 millionaires, and in which around one in five children lives below the poverty line, this in itself is a racy statement.

SINGER WAS BORN IN MELBOURNE, Australia, to a family of Austrian Jews that had been decimated by the Nazi genocide. This legacy prompted his preoccupation with ethics and morality, he says, although less so an investigation of them as a philosopher (which was more because he “liked to have a good argument”).

Told by his father that he would never earn a living as a philosopher, Singer nevertheless rejected law in favour of philosophy, and after taking bachelor’s and master’s degrees in Melbourne, he won a scholarship to Oxford University, in Britain.

It was there, as a postgraduate student and a lecturer, that he developed and refined his adherence to utilitarianism – the view that the greatest happiness for the greatest number is the measure of right and wrong – and set about popularising and applying this perspective in modern society. He developed a knack for presenting compelling – though not always pleasant – arguments in both academic circles and the public eye.

“If you are utilitarian you work on the basis that we should minimise suffering and maximise happiness,” says Singer. “Obviously, a lot of other people think that you must minimise suffering, too, but they may believe, for example, that there are moral rules that you shouldn’t break, that there are independent principles like justice and equality, which weigh independently of whether they reduce suffering or produce wellbeing.

“Utilitarians don’t think this – they think these things are desirable when they are a means to an end.”

Singer’s views have seen him confronted by baying mobs, receive reams of hate mail, likened to Hitler’s deputy and described as “the most dangerous man on Earth” by his most vehement critics, including The Wall Street Journal and disability rights activists. And yet his starting point, he says, is compassion.

“The topics I want to influence the public on are ones where I think there’s a great deal of unnecessary suffering that could be prevented, if only we did a few things differently – things within the ability of individuals to do in their own lives and that don’t require government [intervention],” he says, in his soft-spoken manner.

It was in 1975 that the philosopher began to prove his father wrong by publishing Animal Liberation, which gained considerable public attention. In the book, he argues that the suffering of animals is comparable to human suffering, and that because some animals are smarter than young children and severely impaired adults, they should be given greater consideration. It became a founding text of the world-wide animal-rights movement.

“I’d say we don’t really know enough about how we compare the tragedy of a family losing a child with the suffering of chickens confined for a year in a crowded space [where they] can’t stretch their wings,” he said in an interview with The Wall Street Journal.

At the root of Animal Liberation – and Singer’s theories on euthanasia and abortion, among other issues – is the belief that the welfare and value of beings should be measured by their capacity to have self-aware experiences and hold preferences, rather than a supposed innate right. Singer has argued, for example, that the life of a chimpanzee or an elephant is of more value than the life of a severely impaired human.

“I don’t think that if you’re a member of the species Homo sapien, your life is more precious than if you’re a member of any other species, irrespective of other capacities or abilities,” clarifies the philosopher. It similarly makes no sense, he has argued, that while there are more differences between a great ape and an oyster, compared with those between a human and a great ape, the former two are lumped together as “animals” while we are “human”. He famously challenged this boundary further in 2001, when he suggested that “mutually satisfying activities” of a sexual nature between humans and animals should not necessarily be opposed.

Similarly, Singer argues that fetuses and newborns lack the essential characteristics of personhood, including self-awareness, which means that the killing of either can never be equivalent to killing an aware being that wants to go on living.

“I think it’s reasonable to say that compassion, empathy and concern for others underlie my ethical position. I think the most vehement critics of my views of the sanctity of life are people who come from a religious foundation, usually a conservative Christian foundation, and think that all human life is sacred in the way that non-human animals can’t be.”

In 2012, when the philosopher became a Companion of the Order of Australia, the nation’s highest honour, the response was predictably split, and predictably fiery. On one side were those who consider Singer an advocate of genocide. On the other were those, such as the leader of Australia’s Greens party, Christine Milne, who applauded “his global reputation for challenging people to reconsider their views on ethical behaviour, animal welfare and the human condition”.

For some, the philosopher’s latest focus on charitable giving may be no less confronting than his previous topics of inquiry. This is particularly so in a city that is famous both for its wealthy tycoons and its impoverished rubbish collectors aged well into their 70s and 80s. Singer remains optimistic.

“Obviously, there’s great wealth in this city now,” he says. “When countries are struggling to establish themselves at a certain level of economic security, philanthropy is less prominent, but once they get to that point, then people who made a lot of money start to ask themselves, ‘What am I going to do with this, what am I doing it for?’ They sort of realise that the ninth Ferrari doesn’t make any difference to their happiness.

“It’s questionable whether the first did.

“That’s something that, if you haven’t had money, is exciting for a while and gives you some kind of status, but I think a lot of people tire of it.”

Singer points to the rise of effective altruism as a movement, which has been influenced by a small core of moral philosophers including himself, and grown fast in the past few years. Now, more than ever, believes Singer, people are transforming their lives to have the biggest impact on changing the world for the better, whether through donations, lifestyles or the careers they choose.

“In the US, you find people who made a lot of money quite early in life, much before they thought they would, through IT stuff, start-ups, working for hedge funds. So they’re thinking, ‘I’m 25, I’ve already got tens of millions, what am I going to do with the rest of my life?’ Somebody said to me, ‘I could travel the world and stay in luxury hotels for years, but after that, what?'”

Singer believes that the difference between the conventional forms of giving charitably and this new movement lies in information technology. We now live with considerable awareness and data about the inequalities of our world. Where it was once difficult to feel certain that donations would be well spent, now a reliable group of independent organisations investigate, calculate and then rate charities for the impact of their work. This has shown that some charities are hundreds, or even thousands, of times more effective than others.

“There are excellent websites that you can now go to, to find organisations to donate to,” he says, mentioning Give Well, which was set up by a group of donors employed full-time in the hedge-fund industry, and The Life You Can Save, which Singer himself set up.

In a 2013 TED Talk, viewed more than a million times online, Singer underscored his controversial style with images of two-year-old Wang Yue, who was run over by a van in Foshan, Guangdong province, and later died of her injuries, having been ignored by passers-by as she lay on the ground.

“How many of you said to yourselves, ‘I would not have done that; I would have stopped to help’?” he asked, as the majority of his audience raised their hands. Then he gave the statistic that in 2011, 6.9 million children aged under five died from preventable, poverty-related diseases, according to the United Nations Children’s Fund. Now that we can be connected within seconds to organisations that can save them, he argued, the location or the nationality of these 19,000 per day makes them no different, morally, to a child you pass in the street.

Singer applauds the clear rise in effective philanthropy among the millionaires and billionaires of the start-up and tech era. Warren Buffett, and Bill and Melinda Gates have saved 5.8 million lives and improved the health of many millions more, he says, with no one – not even renowned American philanthropists Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller – having come close to any one of them in impact. Yet Singer is more focused on the hundreds of thousands of others who are making the change.

At a Hong Kong International Literary Festival talk last month in Wan Chai, Singer spoke of Australian academic Toby Ord, who, on a modest salary, calculated that he could give enough throughout his career to cure 80,000 people of blindness in developing countries and still have enough left for a good standard of living. Ord later founded Giving What We Can, an organisation that unites people who want to do the same. The organisation now has more than 1,000 members and has pledged more than US$350 million to “evidence-based global poverty interventions”. Singer spoke of those who have saved numerous lives by making simple sacrifices – forgoing a new car, a holiday or even bottled water in countries where tap water is safe. And he spoke of Matt Wage, a Princeton philosophy graduate who decided the best thing he could do was not to go into development and aid, but to work in finance – which he currently does in Hong Kong – and give a six-figure sum each year to effective charities.

“Because, if you earn a lot of money, you can give away a lot of money, and if you’re successful in that career, you could give enough to an aid organisation that it could employ, let’s say, five aid workers in developing countries,” says Singer, explaining why that would be so much more beneficial than volunteering yourself.

The philosopher has largely lived by his own moral code. He has been a vegetarian for 45 years and, for the past four decades, has donated to charity between 10 per cent and 33 per cent of his income, and aims to eventually reach 50 per cent. As a father of four, he remembers bringing up his children to inquire in a similar manner.

“[Their upbringing] can’t have been too bad because we’re still a close family,” he says. “Sure, we talked about ethical issues; there was a bit of a … philosophy for children movement, which prepares educational materials for primary-school-age kids, and I remember reading them with my children. I think we did a couple of classes in their primary school.”

His wife, he says, has been supportive of many of his choices – although she did suggest, on his turning vegetarian, that he start cooking a little more.

More serious has been Singer’s grapple with issues surrounding his mother, who died of Alzheimer’s disease – a condition that largely robs its victims of the qualities, such as self-awareness and autonomy, by which the philosopher measures a life’s value. Singer did support her financially while she was ill and has admitted that the decision to end a person’s life feels “different” when that life belongs to someone close, which resulted in charges of hypocrisy. Yet other family members, including Singer’s sister, shared the decision-making and care, and, he says, with difficulty, his mother would probably have died six months earlier than she did had he been in sole charge.

Yet what comes through most clearly, overriding the Australian’s zeal as an activist and his knack for hitting the human heart where it hurts, is the distinctive and too-rare calm of someone who is at peace with his place in the world. When he dies, he says, his tombstone will make for a modest read.

“It would say something like, ‘He did what he could to make the world a better place’,” he says, after some thought. “You know, I don’t see myself as somebody who’s transforming the whole world, I see myself as part of a long tradition that dates back to Socrates, that has always been trying to make the world a more human, more compassionate place.

“If I’ve helped a little bit to move things forward, that’s enough.”

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: The good life

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Turning terror into terrines

South China Morning Post, 24 Aug 2014.   Anti-terrorism expert and social entrepeneur Noor Huda Ismail tells Jo Baker about attending school with a future Bali bomber and helping jihadists to reform




A GOOD MUSLIM I was born in Yogyakarta, in Indonesia, and brought up in a strong Javanese culture. My dad is a Muslim but was raised in a Catholic family, and my mum comes from Muslims but her father was a puppet master, so knew a lot of Hindu stories. I was sent to Islamic boarding school when I was 12 to become a "good Muslim". This changed my life forever because a number of the students went on to be notorious Islamic militants who brought atrocities to the region. The founder of the school started (militant terrorist organisation) Jemaah Islamiah, and its members were involved in the first Bali bombing and the Marriott bombing (in Jakarta). For many people, terrorists are a faraway issue, but I have a very personal connection. I played football with them, I ate with them.

SURVIVING SCHOOL At first I was disappointed with the rudimentary school: a dingy dormitory, sleeping on the floor and no girls in my class. Boring! But I made a close friend and he said, "You can survive." He helped me learn maths and martial arts. When I was 17, I qualified to be part of a scholarship group that would go to Pakistan to study military training because I was smart and physically fit. During those years I believed that Islam was the best way to solve social problems. There was a struggle back then between Islam and the nationalists, and the (Indonesian) government made me sympathetic with Muslims by targeting them aggressively. In all these boarding schools there

South China Morning Post, 24 Aug 2014.   Anti-terrorism expert and social entrepeneur Noor Huda Ismail tells Jo Baker about attending school with a future Bali bomber and helping jihadists to reform

A GOOD MUSLIM I was born in Yogyakarta, in Indonesia, and brought up in a strong Javanese culture. My dad is a Muslim but was raised in a Catholic family, and my mum comes from Muslims but her father was a puppet master, so knew a lot of Hindu stories. I was sent to Islamic boarding school when I was 12 to become a “good Muslim”. This changed my life forever because a number of the students went on to be notorious Islamic militants who brought atrocities to the region. The founder of the school started (militant terrorist organisation) Jemaah Islamiah, and its members were involved in the first Bali bombing and the Marriott bombing (in Jakarta). For many people, terrorists are a faraway issue, but I have a very personal connection. I played football with them, I ate with them.

SURVIVING…

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Making scents: saviours of the incense tree

South China Morning Post Magazine, 9 Mar 2014. 

The heady fragrance of agarwood gave Hong Kong its name, but it has become so valuable its source is under threat. As Jo Baker discovers, though, there are those for whom the incense tree is worth more than money.

Ho Pui-han makes her way along the fringes of a country path, through a patch of trampled undergrowth and then points to a deep gash at the base of a tree.

"You can see where they

South China Morning Post Magazine, 9 Mar 2014.

The heady fragrance of agarwood gave Hong Kong its name, but it has become so valuable its source is under threat. As Jo Baker discovers, though, there are those for whom the incense tree is worth more than money.

Ho Pui-han makes her way along the fringes of a country path, through a patch of trampled undergrowth and then points to a deep gash at the base of a tree.

“You can see where they’ve cut the wood as a test,” says the conservationist. “They’ll be back in a month to check and, if it’s the right tree, they’ll just chop it down and carry it across the border.”

Close to extinction in the mainland and internationally protected as a species, Hong Kong’s dwindling stands of Aquilaria sinensis, commonly called the incense tree, have become a holy grail for smugglers. The tree’s resin, which gives off a heady scent – like a muskier, more complex sandalwood – has been prized as a spiritual and medicinal tool for centuries throughout the…

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Thrills and Kills: Interview with Frederick Forsyth

South China Morning Post, 3 November 2013.  Forsyth’s latest political thriller – cold war intrigue made new for the age of Al Qaeda – is heavy on the thrills and light on the politics. He speaks of spooks, Snowden and Cyberspace with Jo Baker.

AT 74, FREDERICK FORSYTH allowed himself a small concession in researching his latest book. In Mogadishu, he hired a bodyguard. “I’ve only done it once before,” says the veteran novelist, reclining at a desk his Hong Kong hotel suite. “We didn’t stay inside what’s called The Camp – a kind of sandglass-walled and barbed wire enclave used by most foreigners – but in a hotel in the city. Which was... interesting. My wife said I was a stupid old fool, but I felt like if I was going to describe it I had to see it!.”
 
Fans might have forgiven Forsyth for researching one of the world’s more dangerous cities, in Somalia, from a distance. But the British thrill master felt that his latest look into the world of modern-day terrorism, The Kill List, should be held to the standards that helped take his other novels to the top of bestseller lists.

Debuting as a novelist in 1971 with The Day of the Jackal, Forsyth has become known for his melding of fictional characters and plot lines with real political intrigues, using research techniques from his days as a journalist.

“I’ve always been intrigued in the things the establishment don’t tell us, rather than those they do.” he says with a smile. “Nowadays we think we know it all, and Mr. Snowden tells us, ‘oh no, you don’t know the half of it – what they’re listening to, eavesdropping on’.”

A journalist in the 60s and 70s, Forsyth has certainly developed a sense for the world’s lurking dangers and blind spots. Growing up in a small ‘one horse’ town in Kent with little money, he failed to secure the career he wanted with the RAF, but dreamed of travel. The idea of ‘diplomatic corp. cocktail parties’ was less than thrilling. “So the only alternative was the by-lines in Dad’s morning paper from cities with amazing names, like Hong Kong, Singapore and Beirut,” he recalls.

From the offices of a daily provincial paper, to London’s Fleet Street and then to the Reuters news agency, by age 23 Forsyth was reporting from Paris, covering the almost daily likelihood of an assassination attempt on president Charles de Gaulle by French extremists.  It was a ‘baptism by fire’ he says. This fire raged onward in the mid 60s, with two years in the thick of Nigeria’s civil war, first for the BBC and later – since he was unwilling to toe its editorial line and return to London – as a freelance reporter and writer.

At that time, few had attempted to blend modern-day politics with fiction, and the decision to use his experiences in France and skills as a reporter to write a political thriller, produced Jackal, his sleeper hit. Surprised but gratified, Forsyth continued to write his novels to a similar template, tackling subjects from the underground Nazi movement in Europe (1972’s Odessa File) to international drug cartels (2011’s The Cobra). In researching his books he was able to pursue the once-imagined thrills of a Kent boyhood, with ‘hairy moments’, as he calls them, galore. There was Afghanistan and Pakistan; Equatorial Guinea, where he blithely recalls almost losing a leg to septicaemia; and Guinea-Bissau – ‘a horrible place’ – where he came close to being caught up in a gruesome coup.

Each adventure produced new material for adrenalin-fuelled accounts of dark places and dastardly deeds, with a reporter’s eye for detail. “Travel was the main impulse for fifty years of my life,” he says. “And as an investigative journalist one learns where the knowledge reposes, and how to get at it. So that is how I approached fiction.”

The Kill List, which hit shelves in September, fits squarely into this oeuvre. As cold-war intrigue made new for the age of Al Qaeda, it follows a US government-sanctioned assassin on the trail of a charismatic jihadist, and takes readers into the administrative bowels of an American organisation tasked with tracking and killing ‘enemies of the West’. It then leads them across the gullies and firewalls of cyberspace to various havens of Islamic extremism, from London to Kismayo  Deftly paced, the thriller has been reviewed as the usual meticulous yet macho Forsyth romp: heavy on action and intrigue; light on moral complexity and character development.

 

IT WAS A NEWS REPORT on drone attacks that inspired Forsyth to pick up his pen again. Not long after the extra-judicial killing of Osama Bin Laden by US Navy Seals, the author became curious about how modern-day manhunts take place. Originally called The Tracker, the novel’s name was changed when his American publishers called – in high excitement, he says – to verify that such a list actually exists in the White House. Forsyth was able to tell them, rather smugly, that it does. In 2012 the US government had admitted publicly that it authorizes ‘signature strikes’ on certain targets, with the decision centred around the counter-terror chief in the White House.

Yet this batch of research posed a new kind of challenge. The author had covered the technicalities of espionage and warfare with the Arab world before, in the Fist of God and The Afghan. But for a 74 year-old who, until last year had refused to own a cell phone, and continues to churn out his 10 pages-per-day on a steel-cased portable typewriter, Cyberspace was an alien landscape.

Forsyth has joked that if his first novel had been set now rather than the 1960s, with photos that could be e-mailed and data instantly accessed, it would have been ‘a very short spy novel’.

South China Morning Post, 3 November 2013.  Forsyth’s latest political thriller – cold war intrigue made new for the age of Al Qaeda – is heavy on the thrills and light on the politics. He speaks of spooks, Snowden and Cyberspace with Jo Baker.

AT 74, FREDERICK FORSYTH allowed himself a small concession in researching his latest book. In Mogadishu, he hired a bodyguard. “I’ve only done it once before,” says the veteran novelist, reclining at a desk his Hong Kong hotel suite. “We didn’t stay inside what’s called The Camp – a kind of sandglass-walled and barbed wire enclave used by most foreigners – but in a hotel in the city. Which was… interesting. My wife said I was a stupid old fool, but I felt like if I was going to describe it I had to see it!.”
 
Fans might have forgiven Forsyth for researching one of the world’s more dangerous cities, in Somalia, from a distance. But the British thrill master felt that his latest look into the world of modern-day terrorism,…

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Uyghur battles to escape painful past while rebuilding life in Albania

South China Morning Post, 28 September 2013. Abu Bakker Qassim was tortured in China and wrongly incarcerated in Guantanamo – but is finding a semblance of peace in a small Balkan state, writes Jo Baker




For a loaded question, it gets an understated reply. “Back in time?  I would tell myself not to get involved in politics,” says Abu Bakker Qassim, wryly. “Not unless I knew what I was doing.”

Meeting in the leafy, low-lying Albanian capital, this one of Tirana’s more politically controversial residents is now far from the Americans who held him incommunicado at Guantanamo Bay Detention Camp for more than four years. He is far too, from the Pakistanis who sold him and others of the Uyghur ethnic minority to the Americans for 5,000 dollars a head. And he is perhaps farthest from his family in Xinjiang province, western China, who he feels certain that he will not see again.
 
With seven years in Albania now behind him, Qassim’s days are defined by the slow burn of the unemployed. There’s morning coffee, Koran reading and a walk in the park with his small daughter; then searching for work, and training at a halal pizza parlour owned by a friend. He feels both frustrated, and lucky. He has certainly seen worse.

After participating in the well known ‘Ghulja incident’ – Uyghur demonstrations in 1997 which were violently dispersed by the Chinese military – Qassim was among those rounded up and detained by the Chinese police.  He was beaten, tortured psychologically and interrogated with electricity, he says. Released after seven months without charge but facing threats and harassment, he decided to try and reach Turkey, find work in a leather factory, and send for his family.

But the slow route through Central Asia and Pakistan put him in contact he says, with a ‘Uighur village,’ just across the border in Afghanistan.  Here he says he agreed to train to fight in return for food and accommodation while he waited for his Iranian visa to process. Post 9/11 bombings in 2001 sent Qassim and many of his companions into Pakistan’s then-freezing mountains, and it was almost a relief he says, to be handed to the Americans.

Except it then took four-and-a-half years before US officials decided that Qassim posed no threat to America, and could be released. By then he had spent six months on a US base in Kandahar, a full year in a 2x2Sqm isolation cell, three more years detained in communal accommodations with some 20 other Uyghur men;  and his family thought he was dead.  “We just had to be passionate,” he says. “And remind ourselves that the situation in China was bad too, so all we could do was wait and hope to be declared as innocent.”

Qassim has found some peace in Albania: a country with food, religion and customs similar to those that he knows, and where he gets by on free accommodation and a USD$300 government stipend. Yet ‘politics’ still weigh heavily on the Uyghur.  A seven-year promise for ID cards and passports by Albania’s Ministry of Interior has yet to materialise for he and the handful of other resettled dissidents, and they can’t find out why. Qassim speaks Albanian, but the ID card issue – along with public suspicion and generally high unemployment rates – leave him a permanent pizza trainee.

The trauma of leaving a family behind has yet to fade. He left a wife and three children in Ghulja, and his ageing parents remain closely monitored, and largely barred from using the internet he says. Although he can call them, with both they and he barred from travelling, he doubts he’ll ever see them again. Qassim’s appeal to have his wife and children join him in Albania failed when China allegedly refused to comply. He has since convinced his former wife to divorce him so that they could both marry again.

Yet he harbours little anger about his time in Guantanamo. “They know that they were wrong, and they acquitted us,” he says. And he explains that they ‘protected’ the Uyghurs from those they feared the most: the Chinese authorities – who visited the men in Cuba, and requested their extradition as terrorist suspects, (as they have done since without success from the Albanian government). “I can’t forgive,” said an Uzbek friend and fellow ex-Guantanamo survivor in Tirana, Zakir Hasan, who alleges worse treatment by the Americans. “But you’ve got to take into account where  came from, what he experienced before.  Ill treatment is relative when you’re not aware of your rights.”

One former US deputy assistant secretary of state has called the situation of Guantanamo’s 22 Uyghur detainees as ‘nothing short of

South China Morning Post, 28 September 2013. Abu Bakker Qassim was tortured in China and wrongly incarcerated in Guantanamo – but is finding a semblance of peace in a small Balkan state, writes Jo Baker

For a loaded question, it gets an understated reply. “Back in time?  I would tell myself not to get involved in politics,” says Abu Bakker Qassim, wryly. “Not unless I knew what I was doing.”

Meeting in the leafy, low-lying Albanian capital, this one of Tirana’s more politically controversial residents is now far from the Americans who held him incommunicado at Guantanamo Bay Detention Camp for more than four years. He is far too, from the Pakistanis who sold him and others of the Uyghur ethnic minority to the Americans for 5,000 dollars a head. And he is perhaps farthest from his family in Xinjiang province, western China, who he feels certain that he will not see again.
 
With seven years in Albania now behind him, Qassim’s days are defined by the slow burn of the…

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No Woman’s Land: a new book recalls the frontline experiences of female reporters

UN Women, 2 May 2012




“I have never thought of myself as a female journalist. I think of myself as a journalist full-stop.”

So says award-winning Egyptian reporter, Shahira Amin, in a new book on frontline reporting by female correspondents, supported by UN Women. “No Woman’s Land”, released this spring by the International News Safety Initiative, compiled by Hannah Storm and Helena Williams, features the voices of over 30 journalists as they recall episodes of harrowing assault and inspirational bravery in contexts from conflict to civil unrest.

The reflections were collected shortly after the violent sexual assault of CBS correspondent Lara Logan by a crowd of men as she reported from Cairo’s Tahrir Square in February 2011. Logan, who wrote the foreward to the book, has been credited for voicing concerns that many female reporters have formerly suppressed, out of fear for their professional freedoms and reputations. It signifies a new chapter of debate on the safety of women journalists in the changing landscape of media security.

The collection features correspondents’ experiences of sexual threat and hostile crowds; of dealing with protectionism from male editors, yet also the awareness of their differing vulnerabilities in global hotspots. Many are matter-of-fact about the challenges. “I felt vulnerable,” said freelance journalist Agnes Rajacic, who was also molested by male activists while covering the Arab Spring in Egypt. But, she adds, “I saw it as an unavoidable evil that one could face in any crowded European football stadium.”

Other female journalists have been frustrated by the overt and gender-specific focus on the threat of rape. Tina Susman, former bureau chief for the Los Angeles Times in Baghdad, writes that rape has long been the least of her worries, including during her three-week long captivity in Somalia. “Perhaps because rape is not a job-specific threat like bombs and missiles (and giant bugs), it doesn’t occupy my mind on assignments the way those other threats do,” she writes.  “Like our male colleagues, our main concerns are staying alive and keeping our brains and limbs intact.”

The common sense and security training most often used by female correspondents on assignment is directed at neither gender. However cultural norms, which restrict women’s mobility in many countries, can both help and hinder their work.  As many note, in very conservative contexts they may be shrouded and reliant on male colleagues, but here too they often gain access to women-only environments, and therefore a broader range of stories and perspectives.

Being underestimated at work – a major frustration – has also been used to many a female reporter’s advantage. Journalist Nisha Roshita recalls being assigned to conduct tough high profile interviews in Indonesia specifically, she says, because of her gender.  “And as a woman, it was easier to talk to local people without them becoming suspicious,” she adds.

Yet what emerges most strongly from these recollections is the diversity of experience among women reporters, and the need for a strategy that empowers their work instead of restricting it.

“Rather than questioning the wisdom of sending women into potential perilous duty or worrying for their safety, editors and news organisations should focus on preparing women (and men) for the threat of sexual violence and helping them avoid it.” says Susman.

UN Women, 2 May 2012

“I have never thought of myself as a female journalist. I think of myself as a journalist full-stop.”

So says award-winning Egyptian reporter, Shahira Amin, in a new book on frontline reporting by female correspondents, supported by UN Women. “No Woman’s Land”, released this spring by the International News Safety Initiative, compiled by Hannah Storm and Helena Williams, features the voices of over 30 journalists as they recall episodes of harrowing assault and inspirational bravery in contexts from conflict to civil unrest.

The reflections were collected shortly after the violent sexual assault of CBS correspondent Lara Logan by a crowd of men as she reported from Cairo’s Tahrir Square in February 2011. Logan, who wrote the foreward to the book, has been credited for voicing concerns that many female reporters have formerly suppressed, out of fear for their professional freedoms and reputations. It signifies a new chapter of debate on the…

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Hit the Ground Running

South China Morning Post, Hong Kong, 22 April 2011

A humanitarian design group is redefining crisis response across the globe, writes Jo Baker. 



Twelve years ago a designer caught in a disaster zone might have been at rather a loss at how to pitch in; but when the quakes hit Japan last month it took very little time for the architects to rally. There were readymade chapters in Tokyo, Osaka, and Kyoto with access to a global network of nearly 5,000 volunteer design professionals, a template for crisis response, and an online bank of designs, all relevant to post-crisis reconstruction and free for the download. And joining all these dots was the only international humanitarian-oriented organization to have pioneered design as a tool to fight disaster: Architecture for Humanity (AFH). Throughout the last month AFH has been working to link the Japan Institute of Architects (JIA) and professional building associations with designers and funders across the world as they start the long rebuild of safe, sustainable housing and community structures; just as it has done before in Christchurch, and before that in northern Pakistan, in coastal Sri Lanka, in New Orleans, and numerous other trouble spots across the globe.

Yet twelve years ago AFH founder Cameron Sinclair had been one of those lost designers himself.  Disappointed by an industry awash with slick branding and star-struck developers, he wanted to explore the ‘re-humanising’ of architecture, and to try and apply good design principles to communities in the tradition of  legendary but long-gone modernists like Swiss architect, Le Corbusier. By 2005 Sinclair and his wife, journalist Kate Stohr, based in the States, had managed to convince hundreds of architects to donate designs for mobile health clinics, transitional houses, and for sports centres that doubled as HIV outreach clinics across the globe. By 2007 these were uploaded onto an online Open Architecture Network for anyone to use for non-profit work, anywhere in the world; and designers were devising schools made of bottles, homes out of straw bricks; there was even an ‘origami homeless shelter’ made out of a single sheet by architecture student Yossi Steinberger for victims of the Sichuan earthquake (as seen on You Tube). It was the materialization of Sinclair’s mission to “design without ego”, and a challenge to the idea that any prefabricated solution can be lumped upon people hit by crisis or extreme poverty. “The idea of using adaptation as opposed to repetition was a really big shift: saying, different neighbourhoods have different issues, adapt the building to that,” explains Sinclair.  “With an architect you can create something the community wants, rather than something they just get given.” 

But although the AFH reach was expanding, with local chapters springing up from Detroit to Dhaka, Sinclair found that it had little control over the finished products. “We were doing everything right: the projects would be thoughtful, with integrated stakeholders, used the right materials and technologies,“ he recalls. “Then we’d hand it off and they’d just build crap.” So a few years ago AFH moved into construction management, and started to self fund. It sets up community advice centres, gives free design advice and creates programmes to boost construction standards by training local designers, masons and metalworkers. Soon, NGOs from Oxfam to Save the Children started asking to partner, as did Oprah, the Clinton Bush Haiti Fund, Nike and The International Federation of Association Football - FIFA. In just over a decade AFH transitioned from a US$60,000 design services firm to a now, roughly US$6 million global powerhouse.

Yet in a large world with innumerable crises it is still necessary to pick and choose projects. Enter ‘urban acupuncture’: the rather slick-sounding strategy that directs the AFH focus on small-scale building projects, in a bid to knit torn communities together, and produce a ripple-effect of opportunity and change. In 2010 a London-based AFH architect, Susi Jane Platt, was shortlisted for one of the highest honours in the architectural world, the Aga Khan Award for Architecture, for just such a project: a modest little village school in Sri Lanka set between a fishing village and a reservoir. Platt’s Yodakandiya Community Complex had not only moulded itself to the needs of the community around it – including built-in deterrents for rampaging elephants – but had done so via community meetings and training sessions that involved hundreds of villagers in its design and construction; Platt herself spent two years living there. This project also gave Sinclair another good reason to focus on schools: plagiarism. “The school in many instances is a 24-hour building, the heart of the community,” he says. “If we can improve design and construction quality in those schools, people will steal the best ideas locally.  It’s like open sourcing!” When designers returned to Yodakandiya after a few years they found that most of the homes around the facility had been influenced by its design, whether in the roof details, or the ventilation and rain-water catchment systems.

These projects also aim to go beyond local communities. According to Sinclair the organisation’s most dedicated core of global support is under eighteen years-old. The recent Students Rebuild: Haiti campaign rallied students and teachers around the globe in efforts to rebuild safer schools in the country. While much of the world may be looking elsewhere now, “high school kids are really the engine that is keeping us in Haiti,” he says. “We’re a fun organisation: donate 50 bucks and there’s a physical structure that you get out of it.”

Both concepts have influenced the AFH approach in Japan. While its head office has worked to raise funds for reconstruction and assessment efforts with the JIA, before starting to identify small scale building projects to work on, Students Rebuild and Do Something.org started to secure funding via the Bezos Family Foundation, which pledged $2 for every paper crane that was sent to them.

South China Morning Post, Hong Kong, 22 April 2011

A humanitarian design group is redefining crisis response across the globe, writes Jo Baker.

Twelve years ago a designer caught in a disaster zone might have been at rather a loss at how to pitch in; but when the quakes hit Japan last month it took very little time for the architects to rally. There were readymade chapters in Tokyo, Osaka, and Kyoto with access to a global network of nearly 5,000 volunteer design professionals, a template for crisis response, and an online bank of designs, all relevant to post-crisis reconstruction and free for the download. And joining all these dots was the only international humanitarian-oriented organization to have pioneered design as a tool to fight disaster: Architecture for Humanity (AFH). Throughout the last month AFH has been working to link the Japan Institute of Architects (JIA) and professional building associations with designers and funders across the world as they start the long rebuild…

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The World’s Forgotten

‘The World’s Forgotten’, Asia Sentinel Hong Kong, 19 April 2010, reprinted as an Op-ed in the Jakarta Globe, Indonesia

Millions of detainees across the globe remain in filthy, crowded and unsanitary prisons (See online version here)

As the UN’s top investigator into torture and punishment prepares to end his term later this year, he has focused on a group people whom he has long called the globe’s “most vulnerable” to discrimination and to neglect. Detainees, says Dr Manfred Nowak, have become the world’s forgotten.

The theme has become central to the Austrian professor’s six-year tenure, and in the most recent session of the Human Rights Council this March he strongly reiterated his call for a new convention to protect them.

Where other forms of discrimination are strongly represented in global social movements, the plight of those considered “criminal” tends to raise much less interest and certainly less sympathy. Media coverage is sporadic. While it took sexually explicit photographs…

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Man on a mission for women’s justice

 March 8, 2009, South China Morning Post, Hong Kong

 

Nasir Aslam Zahid has led the struggle for equal rights in Pakistan, where women remain in chains. But the former judge vows to fight on.

For a free man, Nasir Aslam Zahid spends a lot of time in jail. “It does sometimes baffle callers,” says the Pakistani in clipped, wry tones, at the Asian Legal Resources Centre in Hong Kong. “Most of my phone calls these days are taken from prison.”

The former chief justice runs LAO, a legal aid organization based out of Central Prison Karachi, which helps women and children incarcerated across his home province, Sindh. These days he is more worried about the renovation of toilets, administering of medicine and arranging of bail than passing judgments, but both roles  have exposed him to the glut of problems facing women in his country: from honour killings and sweatshops, to drug use and the high rate of domestic violence.  Also director of the Hamdard School of Law, Zahid has taught…

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The Great Land Grab

The South China Morning Post, Hong Kong, 7 October 2008: SCMP land grab (PDF)

15,000 Cambodians are at risk of eviction from their homes as developers exploit a corrupt system which fails to protect property rights.

In June 1975 waves of black-clad guerilla fighters entered Phnom Penh and emptied it – by persuasion, coercion and violence – in just a few days. The Khmer Rouge north had beaten the south, and as a first step, more than two million bewildered people were banished from the city and sent to live in the countryside. Today, facing the prospect of its first skyscraper, a rash of Special Economic Zones and numerous foreign-backed developments, Cambodia is boasting of a new era. Yet some things haven’t changed.

“See that tree?” asks Son Chhay, a bespectacled Cambodian minister, as we stand on the steps of the new national assembly building and look south. “Behind that there’s a company, 7NG Group, that’s trying to move 600 families more than 20km away. They’re…

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