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December 18, 2011

Vaclav Havel, Leader of the Velvet Revolution, Dies at 75

None of us know all the potentialities that slumber in the spirit of the population, or all the ways in which that population can surprise us when there is the right interplay of events.
– Vaclav Havel

In this quote, Vaclav Havel might have been talking as much about his own life as of his Czech countrymen.  Sometimes it seemed his life mimicked one of his absurdist dramas.  Martin Palouš, one of the leaders of what came to be called the Velvet Revolution, characterized Havel’s life thus:  “Havel was the man who was able to stage this miracle play. The sacrifice was to cast himself in the main role.”

Havel was born in 1936, the son of a rich building contractor.  He was denied a good education after the communists seized power in 1948 and stripped the family of its wealth. He became interested in drama and his first job was as a theater stagehand.


Vaclav Havel, playwright

He soon rose to directing and writing plays, most notably The Garden Party, which was his first international success. His career as a playwright ended abruptly, however, with the 1968 Soviet-led invasion of Czechoslovakia.  Following that event, his works went underground, read only by a small circle of Czechoslovak dissidents. Havel was frequently arrested, harassed, and imprisoned by the police and soon became the most recognizable symbol of resistance to the Communist regime.  In his works, he denounced the absurdities of totalitarian regimes, but also the apathy of a society which never rebelled against its oppressors.  He helped found the Charter 77 movement for democratic change.

velvet-revolutionIn 1989, the citizens of Czechoslovakia woke from their political torpor and in a few short months, overthrew one of Eastern Europe’s most repressive communist regimes.  Havel, who played a leading role in the Velvet Revolution, was elected President of the newly freed country by the Interim Coalition Cabinet.  But, as Reuters reports, his transition to political leadership proved difficult as Czechs’ initial enthusiasm towards free market democracy collided with the reality of economic reforms, questionable business deals, and corrupt politics.

“. . . he struggled to uphold his ideals. Dismayed at the looming breakup of Czechoslovakia, he quit as president in 1992, but soon became leader of the newly created Czech Republic.

Much of his two terms was also cast as a struggle for the soul of democratic reforms against right-wing economist Vaclav Klaus, who eventually replaced Havel as President in 2003.”

Human rights remained a key element of Havel’s political agenda.  He repeatedly angered Chinese communists by hosting the Dalai Lama, and also met Burmese dissident Aung San Suu Kyi, who won the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize on his nomination.

European Fighter for Human Rights has Died – BBC News

While his political idealism was less appreciated by his fellow Czech citizens in the years following the Velvet Revolution, there is no doubt in their collective consciousness that his passion and commitment to ethical leadership provided the inspiration for the country’s transition to democracy.  Havel never wavered in his belief that politics had to have a moral foundation.  As W.L. Webb noted in his obituary, he wanted

. . .to carry the moral clarity and authenticity of the politics of dissidence into the hurly burly of late 20th-century market democracy politics. Nor was this effort directed only at a domestic audience. “Experience of a totalitarian system of the communist type,” he once said, “makes emphatically clear one thing which I hope has universal validity: that the prerequisite for everything political is moral. Politics really should be ethics put into practice … This means taking a moral stand not for practical purposes, in the hope that it will bring political results, but as a matter of principle.”

Since the announcement of Havel’s death, many tributes have been paid by leaders from around the world.  Perhaps the tribute given by President Barack Obama best summed up his life and legacy:

“His peaceful resistance shook the foundations of an empire, exposed the emptiness of a repressive ideology, and proved that moral leadership is more powerful than any weapon.”

The ethical leadership provided by Vaclav Havel can serve as a model for the many countries just emerging from long periods of repressive government like Libya, Tunisia and Egypt.

November 14, 2011

IMC – Giving the Gift of Self-Reliance

These are busy times for the world’s disaster relief organizations.  International Medical Corps (IMC) is one of many global relief organizations that  provide emergency assistance to countries stricken by natural disasters or violent conflict.  However, International Medical Corps goes beyond providing assistance.  It also rehabilitates devastated health care systems and helps bring them back to self-reliance.

Introducing International Medical Corps

imc volunteers with babyIMC accomplishes this by setting up programs training local people to provide medical care so they can carry on when the relief organizations leave.  For example, in its first year in Haiti, International Medical Corps physicians worked with Haitian medical staff, local organizations, and the Haitian health ministry to identify gaps in knowledge and skills.  Together they developed training programs and provided on-the-job support to improve quality of care throughout the existing health care infrastructure. IMC trained primary health care staff on triage, drug and pharmacy management, infection control, STI/HIV management, disease surveillance and outbreak preparedness, vaccinations, nutrition, and mental health diagnosis and case management.  IMC also established a program in coordination with the Hopital de Universite d’Etat d’Haiti (HUEH), which will train 50 physicians and 100 nurses in nearly every component of emergency care delivery. The program goal is to rebuild Haiti’s virtually non-existent health care system.

As Jocelyn Zuckerman observed in a recent article she wrote about IMC’s work in Haiti for Fast Company:

Most important, the organization encourages its trainees to return to their native communities to serve, using skills they never would have developed without IMC. This commitment to empowering locals–the whole teach-a-man-to-fish thing–is what distinguishes International Medical Corps from such better-known NGOs as Doctors Without Borders.

robert simon in afghanistan

Robert Simon in afghanistan

The founder and chairman of IMC is Robert R. Simon., M.D., Professor in the Department of Emergency Medicine at Rush University, Stroger-Cook County Hospital in Chicago, Illinois.  He started International Medical Corps in 1984 in response to the need for medical services and training inside war-torn Afghanistan. During that time, he developed the model that IMC now uses in all its deployments.  He  recruited locals from underserved areas of Afghanistan, trained them for nine months, and then sent them back to their communities with supplies, medications, and skills to set up clinics. By 1990, IMC had graduated more than 1,000 health-care workers who helped establish 57 clinics and 10 hospitals throughout rural Afghanistan.


Nancy Aossey

Since that time, IMC has delivered more than $1.1 billion of humanitarian assistance, health services and training to tens of millions of people in more than 65 countries.  It now has 4,000 staff and volunteers.  Overseeing its operations is Nancy Aossey, President and CEO.  She joined the organization in 1986 and manages the delivery of assistance to the world’s hardest-hit places, including Haiti, Darfur, Congo, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Somalia, Uganda, and Iraq.

Recently, IMC has been active in Libya, where through a $1 million grant from USAID’s Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance (OFDA), it is addressing immediate health care gaps in the strife-torn country.  Teams are also assisting in establishing a unified mechanism for reporting needed medical supplies and coordinating donated items.

Despite its size and scope of operations, IMC has avoided the bureaucratic inertia and waste that can plague not-for-profit organizations.  Charity Navigator, which evaluates and ranks charitable organizations, gives IMC its top 4-star rating (62.7 out of 70) for its financial stewardship and accountability / transparency.

With its focus on training locals to take over the delivery of healthcare, International Medical Corps provides a gift that keeps on giving.

November 7, 2011

Cognitive Surplus – A Potent New Force for Social Change

clay-shirkyThe rapid growth of the Internet and the low cost of collaborative technology (e.g., Facebook and other social media) offers us an extraordinary new opportunity to apply our creative energies to the world’s problems.  Clay Shirky, social media commentator and author of Here Comes Everybody, has written a book, Cognitive Surplus, which explores the implications of this.

Shirky defines cognitive surplus as the free time we have available to us.  It grew out of the forty hour work week.  In the second half of the last century, this cognitive surplus had few outlets and was channeled mainly into consumption.  Most of our free time went into watching television. Media production costs were high; as a result, what got produced and how it got distributed was the province of experts.  We were consumers, an audience, a collection of target markets.

Today the Internet and social media have given us new ways to connect and apply our creativity that are not constrained by geography or economics.   Online collaborative communities can organize around the need to solve specific problems.  These range from the social to the scientific.  These communities tap into and are driven by the generosity and intrinsic motivations of the individuals who participate. As Shirky points out, these communities are not chaotic; members establish their own rules and governance.

The emergence of these online communities offers the tantalizing prospect of directly funneling time, talent, and energy toward the solution of social and political problems in a way that bypasses institutional inertia and politics.  What’s exciting about the emergence of low cost online tools for collaboration is that they provide us with both awareness and the power to act; we become both audience and actor.  For would-be social entrepreneurs who want to tap into the cognitive surplus, Shirky provides some guiding principles for successful communities, based on his study of these communities.  These were nicely summarized by Valeria Maltoni over at Conversation Agent:

  1. Start small — See if it works, first. And the best way not to have an idea killed prematurely is by testing a small version of it, then bring results to the table.
  2. Ask “why?” — It’s still surprising how this is often overlooked. Why would people do this, whatever this is that you want them to do, over something else? Why will they choose you/this system?
  3. Behavior follows opportunity — Can you design a system that provides opportunity people understand and find valuable?
  4. Default to social — Social value is stronger than personal value, so allowing people to see what others are sharing and bookmarking is a better setting to encourage adoption.
  5. A hundred users are harder than a dozen and harder than a thousand — The middle ground between large and small can be confusing for users trying to figure out how to interact with each other.
  6. People differ. More people differ more — As in they will have different behaviors, things they like to do, etc., so think about tiering levels of involvement.
  7. Intimacy doesn’t scale — You either have large groups all paying attention to one thing, or people split into smaller active groups.
  8. Support a supportive culture — This taps into people’s sense of fairness.
  9. The faster you learn, the faster you’ll be able to adapt — And the best way to learn is by watching how people behave using the tools at hand.
  10. Success causes more problems than failure — Planning down to the details and potential problems you will have is a poor substitute for experience; planning won’t teach you how to solve the problem that arises while you do.
  11. Clarity is violence — This point is about putting process in front of experience and before its time; regulate something too soon, and you won’t know what you’re regulating.
  12. Try anything. Try everything — The applications are many and there is no “one-size-fits-all” approach that works in every instance.

angry-birdsYou would be forgiven for questioning whether our cognitive surplus will actually be applied in this manner.  After all, consider that Angry Birds, a popular game for smart phones, consumes 1.2 billion hours of that surplus each year.  But in fact, when the surplus is so large worldwide, it doesn’t take much of a shift to make a huge difference.  Using data from ComScore, Adam Hevenor created a table (see below) which shows the difference that applying just 1% of our collective average time online toward socially meaningful activities would make.

With such a potential reserve of creative energy, the prognosis for the beneficial use of our cognitive surplus is hopeful; the impact could be astounding.



November 7, 2011

Women – An Essential Ingredient in the Recipe for Sustainable Peace

“There’s no way you can fix a community and say you can find a solution for that community when you only use half of the community. When men make peace, it’s not a total peace.”

Leymah Gbowee
Nobel Laureate, 2011



The remarkable Leymah Gbowee is, at only 39 years old, a Nobel Peace Laureate and recognized as an integral part of the sustained peace enjoyed by her country of Liberia for the past nearly 12 years. Ms. Gbowee was just a teenager when the devastating Liberian civil war that would last 14 years began, but from that tragic experience grew her resolve and identity as a peace activist. She emerged as a strong leader in women’s activism and illuminated the power of women as peacemakers. Ms. Gbowee is uncompromising on the goal of attaining global peace by nonviolent means, and she teaches us by example that the way to reach that goal is by establishing sustainable peace community-by-community.

In an interview with the Christian Science Monitor on October 31, 2011, in which Ms. Gbowee comments on how she views the peace in Liberia today, she said that people are just now “…learning to live again.” It may be difficult for those living in Western countries to comprehend what a 14-year-long civil war with well over 200,000 people killed and untold numbers injured or forced to flee from their country as refugees is actually like.  Imagine a young woman of just 17 consumed with thinking of how to change this terrible path of destruction on which she found her country, and realizing quite clearly that without the activism of half of the population, that is, the women of Liberia, there could be no sustainable peace.

Leymah Gbowee shared the Nobel Peace Prize for 2011 with the President of Liberia, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and fellow women’s peace activist, Tawakkol Karman of Yemen. Ms. Gbowee is not, however, interested right now in a government position, telling the New York Times that “I still like bouncing around…I say, can you please just let me protest and do things I like?” She talked to the Times during her book tour to promote her memoir Mighty Be Our Powers. (Follow this link and read an excerpt from this fascinating account of Ms. Gbowee’s life during the Liberian civil war and her evolution into a peace activist.)

Watch and listen to Leymah Gbowee as she inspires us all to find our own unique way to advocate for nonviolent pathways to peace in our own lives, in our own communities, in our own countries, and ultimately globally on this planet we share.

Peace Activist Leymah Gbowee gives a powerful speech at the 5th Annual Living Legends Awards For Service to Humanity at the Emmanuel-Brinklow Seventh-Day Adventist Church in Ashton, Maryland



October 6, 2011

A Life of Truth

An active global citizen who embodies the values and virtues that the world needs now, Archbishop Desmond Tutu has chosen to stand up for the vulnerable. He has chosen to speak out against injustice. He has chosen to confront those who provide poor leadership. He has been committed to the values of environmental sustainability and he has galvanized a whole generation of activists to work for good environmental stewardship and an end to poverty.


Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela

Birthday Controversy

Archbishop Tutu’s birthday celebrations have been marred, as his friend and fellow Nobel laureate, His Holiness, the Dalai Lama was unable to attend. The South African government failed to issue the Tibetan spiritual leader a visa, in what critics say was a move to placate China, a major trading partner.

In typical fashion, Tutu was vocal in his criticism of the ruling African National Congress (ANC), vowing to pray for its downfall, just as he did for the demise of the Apartheid government in the 1980’s.  He summarized the situation by saying, “We betrayed our struggle. All the people involved in our struggle are turning in their graves.”

Still an Untiring Activist

Desmond Tutu continues his activism and rarely refrains from criticizing the South African government’s policies, whether on HIV/AIDS or the ANC’s dominance of politics.

His concern for human rights and democracy extends beyond his own country.  He demands freedom for the people of Myanmar and promotes the rights of Palestinians, often irking pro-Israel lobby groups. His latest campaign, championed through The Elders, a group of fellow global leaders, is to ban child marriage wherever it is practiced.  Under Archbishop Tutu’s leadership, people around the world have grown up, and now demand an end to ancient, primitive practices that are widely abhorred, like child marriage.

The Tutu Legacy


Archbishop Desmond Tutu and daughter Rev. Mpho Tutu

Recently, Rev Mpho Tutu, the youngest daughter of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, returned to South Africa to become the founding director of the Desmond and Leah Tutu Legacy Foundation.  The foundation will preserve his papers, regulate the use of his name and continue to provide an honest commentary on moral issues.

She has also published a biography of her father entitled Tutu: The Authorized Portrait. Mpho interviewed dozens of world leaders for the book.

Across the world, people of all religions, races, ages, ideologies and social classes have been touched directly or indirectly by Desmond Tutu. They have been impacted by his actions. Their lives have been changed by his choices. Even now his legacy continues, influencing generations to come.

Desmond Tutu is a leader who has elevated truth to its rightful place at the top of the list of human virtues.  Without seeking the truth and always speaking the truth, even in the face of danger, we cannot know courage or effect the changes needed for survival.  Archbishop Tutu reaches out now, as he always has, to the new generation with his powerful, timeless message of global peace.  His example is one of showing that to pursue this noble goal takes a tireless commitment to, and a deep respect for, all life.  People around the world can join in celebrating our great good fortune of Desmond Tutu’s birth and remarkable life of 80 years so far.  May the future bless us with his presence, wisdom,and inspirational leadership for years to come.

October 6, 2011

An Epidemic of Bullying


Ryan Halligan

One of the first places a child may encounter conflict is being the victim of bullying by his or her peers in school. Bullying Statistics, an organization which tracks data on bullying, reports some sobering facts in its 2010 survey:

  • Over half, about 56 percent, of all students have witnessed a bullying crime while at school.
  • 15 percent of all students who don’t show up for school report it as being out of fear of being bullied while at school.
  • 71 percent of students report bullying as an on-going problem.
  • One out of every 10 students drops out or changes schools because of repeated bullying.
  • One out of every 20 students has seen a student with a gun at school.
  • Some of the top years for bullying include 4th through 8th graders in which 90 percent were reported as victims of some kind of bullying.
  • Other recent bullying statistics reveal that 54 percent of students reported that witnessing physical abuse at home can lead to violence in school.
  • Among students of all ages, homicide perpetrators were found to be twice as likely as homicide victims to have been bullied previously by their peers.
  • Each year, 282,000 students are reportedly attacked in high schools throughout the nation.

The Internet has fostered a new and sometimes deadly form of bullying – cyber bullying. Cyber bullying can occur when a child is the victim of harmful or embarrassing messages posted online or sent via text.   Consider the story of Ryan Halligan as told by his father in the video below.

Teen Bullying Prevention – A Cyber Bullying Suicide Story

Many  efforts, both official and grassroots, are underway to help prevent bullying through educating teachers, school administrators, parents and especially kids themselves.  Some examples include:

  • The Bully Project, a documentary recently featured at the Tribeca Film Festival
  • It Gets Better, a comprehensive project featuring a series of YouTube videos and other information to help LGBT kids combat bullying
  • Webisodes created by StopBullying.gov to help younger children understand bullying

There are many actions we can take to stop bullying.  But, as Ryan Halligan’s father observed, the first thing we can all do is stop being bystanders in this epidemic.

Join our family of donors.  Help the Desmond Tutu Peace Foundation create educational programs that a new generation of young people can use to end bullying and make their world a better place.[paypal-donation]