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  • Karim Maherali
    October 21, 2010, 12:56 am Aid Groups’ Advice in Afghanistan By NICHOLAS KRISTOF In connection with my Thursday column, I asked several NGO’s for their
    Message 1 of 609 , Oct 24 4:54 PM
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      October 21, 2010, 12:56 am
      Aid Groups’ Advice in Afghanistan

      In connection with my Thursday column, I asked several NGO’s for their advice on how to work in insecure or Taliban areas. Their advice was remarkably consistent, all about consulting local people and getting buy-in from them. And of course that’s good advice whether it’s an aid organization in the South Bronx or in southern Afghanistan.

      Here are excerpts of what they said. Susan Davis of BRAC wrote:

      Deliver value — what people want and need.

      Deliver what works cost-effectively.

      Work in a culturally sensitive way (live in same community, pray in same mosque)

      If possible, build institutions with staying power.

      Care. Don’t be afraid. People one serves are one’s best protection.

      Then Greg Mortenson offered these principles:

      NO armed guards or weapons (with the exception that some rural militia ‘commandhans’ provide armed guards, but its a tribal thing on their own volition out of honor – called nenawatay in Pashto, which means ‘right of refuge’), so its:

      1. Only local staff
      2. No armed security
      3. Elders (shura) consulted and in charge
      4. Community based

      Another aid worker with long experience in Afghanistan advised:

      You touched on rather a number of very important points, one of the ones that seems to be least understood by USAID and the military is that if local Afghans are in charge, development can happen virtually anywhere in Afghanistan. It is extremely expensive and usually counterproductive to insist that foreigners supervise and in some measure take credit for development. A related issue is the silliness of the EC and USAID in wanting their logo on all of their development activities. The important thing is that solid development work is done. Giving foreign interests credit for that development does not help the sustainability of the projects.

      Finally, Roger Hardister of Global Partnership of Afghanistan wrote:

      I think the following strategies are key to GPFA’s success:

      We provide services that deliver immediate results. Long-term development projects are of course important and critical to the future stability of the country, and GPFA has several longer-term initiatives. But short-term projects that immediately benefit individuals and communities financially can create an environment for longer-term planning and larger assistance efforts to take place. This is the only way to get buy-in from local people for projects where the pay-off is in the future.

      Our projects engage individuals and communities, not just institutions. We recognize that working with local institutions is important, and we do, but many institutions are corrupt or, at best, ineffective. This means a dispiriting lack of progress on the ground and little incentive for people to participate, particularly in areas where insurgents are active and their participation makes locals a target. Locals will not risk a relationship with outsiders if they don’t perceive an immediate benefit. GPFA’s experience shows that if we deliver results, they involve themselves in spite of considerable risks. We have also learned that security is improved if individuals and communities are engaged in larger clusters. Insurgents are less likely to oppose projects in which large numbers of people are invested.

      Sometimes, we have to work with less than ideal partners to reach the people in greatest need. As you know from your reporting, there are moderate Talibs (almost exclusively Afghans not Pakistanis) who are concerned about the welfare of their communities. We have been approached by their intermediaries and promised safety if we agree to help these communities in need. I think it is critical to consider these request; they allow us into conflict areas where poverty is more persistent and the need is greatest, and where many others can’t or won’t go. And rather than strengthen the image of the insurgents among the local villages, our experience shows that providing rural Afghans with the means to achieve greater financial stability serves as a bulwark against continuing dependence on insurgents. The US military recognizes this dynamic and often provides GPFA with support for this work.

      Small is good. It is an open secret in Afghanistan that many large agencies with projects worth tens if not hundreds of millions of dollars are just not as flexible and able to respond to opportunities as smaller, more nimble groups. This is even more the case in unstable provinces. Often it is because large agency staff, who travel in attention-getting convoys with prominent security details, simply cannot go out in the field without attracting insurgents or criminals. GPFA staff, almost exclusively Afghan, are less dependent on high profile security precautions, and are therefore less conspicuous. They are also part of local social networks, which provides a measure of support and security. They know the people and communities and can get to the field and make things happen.

      I would also underscore the importance of hiring and training Afghan nationals, which larger agencies, because of their complexity and size, often cannot do. Local Afghans, while increasingly capable, simply lack the experience of working in large bureaucracies and managing information and technical systems, so larger organizations must turn to expats. Coming from places such as India, Pakistan, the Philippines and even Tibet, these expats are often viewed with skepticism by rural people. They are also often less successful at negotiating with locals than their Afghan counterparts, missing the nuances and social cues that are critical to effective negotiations. And while I would not challenge their commitment and abilities, they often add little value to conditions on the ground. Smaller organizations can grow from within, gradually training Afghans to tackle progressively more challenging work and building systems that Afghans can manage as the work grows and develops.

      One last point I’d like to make doesn’t really relate to areas of conflict but I think is important to development groups working in either unstable or relatively peaceful regions. As you know, great importance is given to elders in Afghan culture and many organizations tend to establish relationships exclusively with them. I think this misses a critical piece of the development puzzle. Young people, who are often better educated and have been exposed to a broader range of ideas than their elders, are full of drive and desperately want to help both themselves and their country. GPFA works to give opportunities to this next generation. We of course work closely with village elders in all aspects of our work, but I can’t imagine any sort of sustained success without the younger generation. After all, it is they and all the Afghan people, not we, who will decide the fate of the country.

      Advancing Women's Rights | Afghanistan
      Studio Kabul
      Cultural change for Afghan women may come from an unlikely source: Afghanistan’s first TV soap opera.


      October 23, 2010
      What About Afghan Women?
      KABUL, Afghanistan

      For those of us who favor a sharp reduction in American troops in Afghanistan and a peace deal with the Taliban, the most vexing question is: What about Afghan women?

      Time magazine framed the issue in a wrenching way with a cover this summer of Aisha, an 18-year-old woman who ran away from an abusive husband. The article said that last year the Taliban had punished Aisha by having her nose and ears hacked off — a traditional punishment for women considered disobedient or promiscuous. Her husband did the cutting.

      Time quoted Aisha as saying of the Taliban, as she was touching her disfigured face: “How can we reconcile with them?”

      It’s a fair question, as is: Are those of us who favor a military pullback in Afghanistan sentencing more women to be brutalized? Those are questions that I came to Afghanistan to wrestle with.

      Women are fearful, no question. Here in Kabul, far fewer women wear the burqa today than on my previous visits. But several women told me that they were keeping burqas at home — just in case. The gnawing fear is that even if the Taliban do not regain control in Kabul, fundamentalist values and laws will gain ground.

      Still, it seems to me a historic mistake to justify our huge military presence in Afghanistan as a bulwark to protect the women. In fact, most women I interviewed favored making a deal with the Taliban — simply because it would bring peace. For them, the Taliban regime was awful, but a perpetual war may be worse.

      Take Pari Gol, a woman from Helmand Province whom I met here in Kabul. She despises the Taliban and told me on this trip that back in 2001, “I prayed that the Taliban would be defeated, and God listened to my prayers.”

      Yet in the fighting since then, she said, her home was destroyed and her husband and daughter were both killed by American airstrikes. She is now living in a mud hut here — fuming at the Taliban, the Americans and the Afghan government. “I hate all of them,” she told me.

      Remember also that while women in Kabul benefit from new freedoms, that is not true of an Afghan woman in a village in the South. For such women there, life before 2001 was oppressive — and so is life today.

      One man from Helmand Province, Wali Khan, told me that there would be no difference for women in his village, whether the Taliban rule or not, because in either case women would be locked up in the home. He approvingly cited an expression in Pashto that translates to: “a wife should be in the home — or in the grave.”

      In other words, oppression is rooted not only in the Taliban but also in the culture. The severing of a woman’s nose and ears occurs not only in Taliban areas but also in secure parts of Pakistan. Indeed, I’ve come across such disfigurement more in Punjab, the most powerful and populous province of Pakistan, than in Afghanistan — yet I haven’t heard anybody say we should occupy Pakistan to transform it.

      The best way to end oppression isn’t firepower but rather education and economic empowerment, for men and women alike, in ways that don’t create a backlash. As I wrote in my last column, schooling is possible even in Taliban-controlled areas, as long as implementation is undertaken in close consultation with elders and doesn’t involve Westerners on the ground.

      Often the best place to hold girls’ literacy classes is in the mosque. And the insistence of Western donors that they get credit with signs on projects they finance is counterproductive. Buildings might as well have signs reading “burn me down.”

      One impressive force for change is BPeace, which encourages female entrepreneurs in Afghanistan. Soora Stoda, one of the entrepreneurs I met, is building a potato chip factory. Another, Shahla Akbari, makes shoes. Her mother, Fatima Akbari, has 3,000 (mostly female) employees around Afghanistan, working in jam-making, furniture building, tailoring, knitting, jewelry and other lines.

      Fatima Akbari is now expanding her women’s businesses and literacy classes in Taliban-controlled areas, always working closely with mullahs and elders to gain their support and protection. “When you go and win their hearts, you can do anything,” she said.

      “I’m not threatened by negotiations with the Taliban,” she added. “In fact, it would be good for the Taliban to be involved in the country, to see that there’s nothing wrong with women leaving the house. And once there’s a deal with the Taliban, security will be better.”

      So let’s not fool ourselves by thinking that we’re doing favors for Afghan women by investing American blood and treasure in an unsustainable war here. The road to emancipate Afghan women will be arduous, but it runs through schools and economic development — and, yes, a peace deal with the Taliban, if that’s possible.

      I invite you to comment on this column on my blog, On the Ground. Please also join me on Facebook, watch my YouTube videos and follow me on Twitter.

      There is a related multi-media linked at:


      Venture Philanthropy | Rwanda • Congo • Nepal
      D.I.Y. Foreign-Aid Revolution

      This is a lengthy article but excerpt below is worthy of notice and attention.

      "That’s Scharpf’s choice. Now 33, Scharpf was interning in the summer of 2005 for the World Bank in Mozambique, helping local entrepreneurs, when she encountered a business impediment that she had never heard of. It was unmentionable, and thus unmentioned. It was menstruation.

      A female boss griped to Scharpf about absenteeism caused by women reluctant to come to work during their menstrual periods. “It was because pads were too expensive,” Scharpf recalls. “I was trying to figure out why I had never heard of this before. This was causing productivity rates to go down.”

      Scharpf began asking around, and everybody told her — in whispers — that, yes, of course menstruation was keeping women and girls from jobs. Back at Harvard, where she was pursuing joint degrees at the business school and the John F. Kennedy School of Government, she began asking friends from Bangladesh, Nicaragua and other countries if they were aware of this problem. Of course, they said. “This spoke to me,” Scharpf recalled. “Hasn’t every girl or woman experienced the inconvenience, the disadvantage and the embarrassment in her life, when her period strikes at the ‘wrong’ time? I think half the world can relate to that. What really struck me was that this was a global issue that seemingly had significant costs. From back-of-the-envelope calculations, it had huge costs. And it could have a simple solution.” She paused and smiled tightly. “I was a little naïve there.”

      Scharpf is a mild-mannered policy wonk, but the more she thought about it, the more indignant she became. Girls were missing school because they couldn’t afford sanitary pads? Women couldn’t go to work for lack of pads? And all this was taboo to discuss? Scharpf began to scheme. "

      There is also a related video in the article linked at:


      October 20, 2010, 9:00 am
      How to Change the World

      I have an essay in the New York Times Sunday Magazine about do-it-yourself foreign aid, but I know that it won’t fully answer the question that many readers will have: What can I do? Originally we had a sidebar addressing that question to go with the article, but it had to be cut for space reasons – and so I’ve found a home for it here on my blog.

      So for those who want to do more, here are my suggestions.

      First, dip your toe in the waters to get a sense of the work that is being done and to find what resonates most with you. One way to submerge your toe is to make microloans through online organizations like Kiva or Vittana. Kiva matches a donor’s loans to needy entrepreneurs around the world (who eventually pay the loans back), while Vittana offers a similar service, but for education loans.

      Another approach is to browse a comprehensive site like Global Giving, where organizations around the world have posted their wish lists. On Global Giving, my family has donated, for example, to an aid group in Bombay, India, that keeps at-risk girls from being trafficked into brothels. For Father’s Day last year, I suggested that instead of giving Dad another necktie, people sponsor a “HeroRat” through GlobalGiving. HeroRats are trained rats that sniff out landmines or TB cases, and what father wouldn’t want to be associated with a super-macho super-achieving super-altruistic oversized rat? The column raised more than $150,000, and last I heard the rats had detected 594 landmines in Mozambique.

      Another easy first step is to sponsor someone abroad through a program that lets you contribute a certain amount each month to that person and exchange letters. It’s also a way to introduce your kids to global issues, as you show photos of the person you’ve sponsored. Through Plan USA, my family is sponsoring a child in the Dominican Republic.

      Meanwhile, keep an eye out for a cause and organization that particularly speaks to you, that exhilarates you. Then dive in and focus your efforts on that organization. You’ll be more engaged if you concentrate your time and resources rather than spread them thin.

      Also, don’t limit your involvement to writing checks. People are also needed to sign petitions and write indignant letters to members of Congress. CARE has an action network that offers advocacy ideas. Or you can volunteer at a soup kitchen or mentor a child, or find other ways to help. A stay-at-home mom in Colorado, Jenny Murphy, heard about Lisa Shannon (whose work with Run for Congo Women I describe in the magazine article) but isn’t a runner and wasn’t in a position to go off to Congo. But she browsed the Internet and through Facebook connected with a remarkable man in Congo running schools there. Now she is passionately engaged in an organization, Strong Roots, that supports those schools and works on conservation issues around Kahuzi-Biega National Park in Eastern Congo. That’s a reflection of what technology makes possible: a Mom in Colorado giving people hope in eastern Congo.

      Try to visit a project that you’ve supported. For example, I’ve visited children that I’ve sponsored through Plan USA, in the Dominican Republic, Philippines and Sudan, and each time I’ve found it a fascinating and triumphal experience. Our whole family also traveled to Cambodia to attend the ribbon-cutting for a new junior high school there that we built in a rural area through American Assistance for Cambodia. We still pay for the school’s English teacher and Internet access; now we can email the teacher and students and enjoy the warm and fuzzy feeling that goes with having made a difference. That kind of experience underscores that while assistance has a mixed record helping others, it has an almost perfect record helping ourselves.

      This doesn’t work for everybody, but think about volunteering for a stint abroad. You could teach English to children of brothel workers in Calcutta through the amazing New Light shelter there (where one child of a street prostitute was just accepted by a medical school!). Or you could volunteer at Kashf, a microfinance organization in Pakistan that does amazing work lifting women out of poverty.

      Or there are many other organizations that will take volunteers to teach English or do other work, and it truly can be a life-changing experience. This is something that my wife, Sheryl WuDunn, and I talk about in our book “Half the Sky,” and in the back of the book we list a number of organizations that accept volunteers. We also list some of them at Half the Sky under the “get involved” tab. If you know of a good place to volunteer, or have questions, go to the “forum” tab and post a comment or question. It’s meant to be a place to trade information.

      I also recommend the books by David Bornstein on social entrepreneurship. His best known is “How to Change the World,” which has become the bible of would be change-makers. He has also teamed up with Tina Rosenberg, a contributing writer for the Times Sunday magazine, ” to co-write a new blog called Fixes. It focuses on solutions to the world’s problems, instead of, well, its problems.

      There’s just no limit to the ways to get involved in these issues. I just came across a group, Bald Solidarity, which is getting people to shave their heads in solidarity with women who are stripped of their rights.

      If head-shaving isn’t in your future, here are some lesser-known secular organizations focused on women that I believe are making a difference, but remember that this is only a tiny sampling and only of small organizations that you might not have heard of already. There are many other groups doing great work. Please post your own ideas about how to make a difference below, and in particular list specific organizations and ways to help. The more specific and practical, the more useful it will be to other readers.

      So without further ado, here are some worthy organizations:

      Camfed sponsors girls for education in Africa. It pays fees, helps them manage menstruation and other challenges, and encourages them to “give back” once they have completed their education.

      Afghan Institute of Learning supports girls’ education in Afghanistan and border areas of Pakistan. It is run by an Afghan woman, Sakena Yacoobi, who manages to run schools that the Taliban doesn’t burn down.

      Tostan has been extraordinarily successful in overcoming female genital cutting in West Africa, and in training women and men alike and creating opportunities for them. It is based in Senegal.

      Vital Voices is a Washington-based organization that supports women change-makers around the world, and is particularly staunch against trafficking.

      The Fistula Foundation focuses on maternal health and surgery to repair obstetric fistulas, which are horrendous childbirth injuries that leave women incontinent.

      BRAC is a Bangladeshi-based organization that focuses on education and empowerment of the very poor. It is one of the most admired development organizations from within the global south, and it is now expanding to Africa and other areas.

      Pro Mujer focuses on helping women with reproductive health and small businesses in Latin America.

      The Women’s Refugee Commission is an offshoot of the International Rescue Committee that focuses on women refugees, who are among the most vulnerable people on earth.

      New Light India runs a shelter for trafficked women in a Calcutta red light district.

      International Women’s Health Coalition is a New York-based group that works for women’s health worldwide.

      Deworm the World promotes deworming programs. Worms seem to affect girls in particular by leading to anemia, and girls are already at risk of anemia from menstruation.

      Global Fund for Women makes grants to innovative women’s programs in developing countries around the world.

      Beyond the 11th was founded by two American widows of 9/11, and supports economic empowerment efforts for Afghan women.

      Sustainable Health Enterprises, also known as SHE (and featured in my magazine story), is committed to lowering the high cost of sanitary pads in many African countries through advocacy work and by producing–and training women to distribute–lower cost products made from local materials.

      The BlinkNow Foundation, created by 23 year-old Maggie Doyne, another subject of my magazine piece, was created to help children receive shelter and education in war-torn countries dealing with extreme poverty. This is what Ms. Doyne accomplished in a remote corner of Nepal, and she hopes to replicate her model in other parts of the world.

      Run for Congo Women, also featured in my article, organizes runs and walks all over the word–even in Congo–to raise awareness and funds for Women for Women International’s Congo program, which supports female survivors of the ongoing war there.

      So now: your turn! What are your favorite organizations and ways to make a difference?
    • naaz jiwa
      are money making machines. ... From: Karim Maherali Subject: [WorldIsmailis] Items of Interest To: Received: Tuesday, November 16, 2010,
      Message 609 of 609 , Nov 29, 2010
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        are money making machines.

        --- On Tue, 11/16/10, Karim Maherali <kmaherali@...> wrote:

        From: Karim Maherali <kmaherali@...>
        Subject: [WorldIsmailis] Items of Interest
        Received: Tuesday, November 16, 2010, 5:16 PM

        15 November 2010
        Are British Muslims being priced out of pilgrimages?
        By Robert Pigott BBC News religious affairs correspondent
        Jahangir Akhtar Jahangir Akhtar says it will be a tragedy if he does not get to Hajj

        Even in Luton, the Holy City of Mecca looms large.

        In the town's Central Mosque, Muslims turn to face in the direction of Mecca, kneel and touch their faces to the floor in prayer.

        Dominating the wall in front of them are two large photographs, showing teeming crowds of pilgrims swirling in a broad river of people around the al-Haram mosque at the spot where their religion was founded.

        An estimated 100,000 British Muslims are already in Mecca for the Hajj, the annual pilgrimage that Muslims are called upon to make once in their lifetimes.

        But many more have been left behind, excluded from what they regard as a sacred duty by an extraordinary increase in prices.

        Jahangir Akhtar is one of them.

        At a stone's throw from the mosque Mr Aktar and his wife look wistfully through colourful brochures advertising "Hajj packages" they stand almost no chance of buying.

        The Akhtars are in their 50s, unemployed and live on benefits.

        They know that Muslims are obliged to go on the pilgrimage only if they can afford to, and are well enough.
        Richer person's privilege?

        But Hajj is also one of the five "pillars" of Islam.
        Continue reading the main story
        “Start Quote

        Most British Muslims, who would love to go to Hajj - whose earnings are meagre like mine - can no longer afford it, and that hurts”

        End Quote Ajmal Masroor Islamic Society of Britain

        These are the central obligations - such as giving to the poor and fasting during Ramadan - which according to Islam every Muslim must satisfy in order to live a good and responsible life.

        It means people like the Akhtars are desperate to go, but can see no prospect of ever doing so.

        "I am unemployed. I get £52 a week to live on," says Jahangir Akhtar, "and the packages are getting more and more expensive.

        "I saw in a newspaper advertisement that they cost £2,500 or £2,800 with different companies. I don't want to blame anyone but my point of view is 'think about the poor people'. In Islam they teach you to think about the poor people, not the rich people."

        But there is a growing perception that Hajj is becoming a richer person's privilege.

        Small, cheaper, hotels in Mecca have been replaced by larger, more expensive ones.

        Ajmal Masroor, of the Islamic Society of Britain, claims that increasing bureaucracy connected with the Hajj in Saudi Arabia is also inflating the cost.
        Muslim pilgrims pray around the Grand Mosque in Mecca on November 12, 2010 Some 2.5 million pilgrims descend on the Saudi holy city for the annual Hajj

        He says there has been a proliferation of agents and middlemen, each intent on taking a share.

        "I went on Hajj four years ago and I only paid £1,400, and that was affordable, or just about," says Mr Masroor.

        "Now you're talking about £4,000 or £5,000. That's almost impossible for middle class and middle income families to be able to go to Hajj, and they're the majority.

        "So most British Muslims, who would love to go to Hajj - whose earnings are meagre like mine - can no longer afford it, and that hurts."

        But the Saudi government insists that it is committed to keeping prices "affordable".

        A statement from the Saudi embassy in London hinted at other reasons for the increasing cost of Hajj.

        It said: "The cost of services provided by travel companies which operate Hajj tours is however a factor of the marketplace in the UK, over which the Saudi Arabian government has no control."

        Some travel companies have been blamed by British Muslims for the surge in prices, and some have been accused outright of overcharging vulnerable people.

        Sean Tipton, of the Association of British Travel Agents, says part of the problem is that many of the companies are unregulated, and ready to squeeze as much revenue as they can out of a market where demand is rising.
        Continue reading the main story
        “Start Quote

        It is every Muslim's dream to go to Hajj. I hope my dream will come true, but I don't think so. It would be a tragedy for my life”

        End Quote Jahangir Akhtar

        However, the pilgrimage has become increasingly crowded - a million people went in 1996, and 2.5 million went last year.

        That makes it partly a matter of demand and supply.

        "Prices can rise just as much in registered companies as in non-registered companies," says Mr Tipton.

        "When you have large numbers of people wanting to go away in a limited period of time on Hajj, then unfortunately it's going to cost more than if you were to go away at another time of year."

        Muslims can visit the holy sites in Mecca at other times of the year - a pilgrimage known as Umrah.

        But only the Hajj - which falls in the 12th month of the Islamic lunar calendar - will satisfy the longing of Jahangir Akhtar.

        "Half my life is gone," he says. "I don't know how long I will survive, it could be five years, it could be five minutes.

        "It is every Muslim's dream to go to Hajj. I hope my dream will come true, but I don't think so. It would be a tragedy for my life. I am a very sad person, you know."

        During Hajj, Muslim men dress alike, in the simplest of white clothes - rich and poor, equal before God.

        But poor Muslims say this spirit of equality will be undermined if the rising price of pilgrimage excludes them from their holy city.


        November 12, 2010
        For Catholics, Interest in Exorcism Is Revived

        The rite of exorcism, rendered gory by Hollywood and ridiculed by many modern believers, has largely fallen out of favor in the Roman Catholic Church in the United States.

        There are only a handful of priests in the country trained as exorcists, but they say they are overwhelmed with requests from people who fear they are possessed by the Devil.

        Now, American bishops are holding a conference on Friday and Saturday to prepare more priests and bishops to respond to the demand. The purpose is not necessarily to revive the practice, the organizers say, but to help Catholic clergy members learn how to distinguish who really needs an exorcism from who really needs a psychiatrist, or perhaps some pastoral care.

        “Not everyone who thinks they need an exorcism actually does need one,” said Bishop Thomas J. Paprocki of Springfield, Ill., who organized the conference. “It’s only used in those cases where the Devil is involved in an extraordinary sort of way in terms of actually being in possession of the person.

        “But it’s rare, it’s extraordinary, so the use of exorcism is also rare and extraordinary,” he said. “But we have to be prepared.”

        The closed-door conference is being held in Baltimore before the annual fall meeting of the nation’s bishops. Some Catholic commentators said they were puzzled why the bishops would bother with exorcisms in a year when they are facing a full plate of crises — from parish and school closings, to polls showing the loss of one of every three white baptized members, to the sexual abuse scandal flaring up again.

        But to R. Scott Appleby, a professor of American Catholic history at the University of Notre Dame, the bishops’ timing makes perfect sense.

        “What they’re trying to do in restoring exorcisms,” said Dr. Appleby, a longtime observer of the bishops, “is to strengthen and enhance what seems to be lost in the church, which is the sense that the church is not like any other institution. It is supernatural, and the key players in that are the hierarchy and the priests who can be given the faculties of exorcism.

        “It’s a strategy for saying: ‘We are not the Federal Reserve, and we are not the World Council of Churches. We deal with angels and demons.’ ”

        Pope Benedict XVI has emphasized a return to traditional rituals and practices, and some observers said the bishops’ interest in exorcism was consistent with the direction set by the pope.

        Exorcism is as old as Christianity itself. The New Testament has accounts of Jesus casting out demons, and it is cited in the Catholic Church’s catechism. But it is now far more popular in Europe, Africa and Latin America than in the United States.

        Most exorcisms are not as dramatic as the bloody scenes in films. The ritual is based on a prayer in which the priest invokes the name of Jesus. The priest also uses holy water and a cross, and can alter the prayer depending on the reaction he gets from the possessed person, said Matt Baglio, a journalist in Rome who wrote the book “The Rite: The Making of a Modern Exorcist” (Doubleday, 2009).

        “The prayer comes from the power of Jesus’ name and the church. It doesn’t come from the power of the exorcist. The priest doesn’t have the magic power,” said Mr. Baglio, whose book has been made into a movie to be released in January, starring Anthony Hopkins.

        There is plenty of cynicism among American Catholics — even among priests — about exorcism. Mr. Baglio noted that there are hucksters who prey on vulnerable believers, causing them physical or spiritual harm. As a result, he thought it was helpful that the church is making an effort to train more priests to perform the rite legitimately.

        With so few priests who perform exorcisms, and the stigma around it, exorcists are not eager to be identified. Efforts to interview them on Friday were unsuccessful.

        Bishop Paprocki said he was surprised at the turnout for the conference: 66 priests and 56 bishops. The goal is for each diocese to have someone who can at least screen requests for exorcisms.

        Some of the classic signs of possession by a demon, Bishop Paprocki said, include speaking in a language the person has never learned; extraordinary shows of strength; a sudden aversion to spiritual things like holy water or the name of God; and severe sleeplessness, lack of appetite and cutting, scratching and biting the skin.

        A person who claims to be possessed must be evaluated by doctors to rule out a mental or physical illness, according to Vatican guidelines issued in 1999, which superseded the previous guidelines, issued in 1614.

        The Rev. Richard Vega, president of the National Federation of Priests’ Councils, an organization for American priests, said that when he first heard about the conference on exorcism, “My immediate reaction was to say, why?”

        He said that he had not heard of any requests for exorcisms and that the topic had not come up in the notes of meetings from councils of priests in various dioceses.

        The conference on exorcism comes at a time, he said, when the church is bringing back traditional practices. The Vatican has authorized the revival of the Latin Mass, and now a revised English translation of the liturgy, said to be closer to a direct translation from the Latin, is to be put in use in American parishes next year.

        “People are talking about, are we taking two steps back?” Father Vega said. “My first reaction when I heard about the exorcism conference was, this is another of those trappings we’ve pulled out of the past.”

        But he said that there could eventually be a rising demand for exorcism because of the influx of Hispanic and African Catholics to the United States. People from those cultures, he said, are more attuned to the experience of the supernatural.

        Bishop Paprocki noted that according to Catholic belief, the Devil is a real and constant force who can intervene in people’s lives — though few of them will require an exorcism to handle it.

        “The ordinary work of the Devil is temptation,” he said, “and the ordinary response is a good spiritual life, observing the sacraments and praying. The Devil doesn’t normally possess someone who is leading a good spiritual life.”

        There is a related video linked at:


        November 15, 2010
        Where Cinema and Biology Meet
        By ERIK OLSEN

        When Robert A. Lue considers the “Star Wars” Death Star, his first thought is not of outer space, but inner space.

        “Luke’s initial dive into the Death Star, I’ve always thought, is a very interesting way how one would explore the surface of a cell,” he said.

        That particular scene has not yet been tried, but Dr. Lue, a professor of cell biology and the director of life sciences education at Harvard, says it is one of many ideas he has for bringing visual representations of some of life’s deepest secrets to the general public.

        Dr. Lue is one of the pioneers of molecular animation, a rapidly growing field that seeks to bring the power of cinema to biology. Building on decades of research and mountains of data, scientists and animators are now recreating in vivid detail the complex inner machinery of living cells.

        The field has spawned a new breed of scientist-animators who not only understand molecular processes but also have mastered the computer-based tools of the film industry.

        “The ability to animate really gives biologists a chance to think about things in a whole new way,” said Janet Iwasa, a cell biologist who now works as a molecular animator at Harvard Medical School.

        Dr. Iwasa says she started working with visualizations when she saw her first animated molecule five years ago. “Just listening to scientists describe how the molecule moved in words wasn’t enough for me,” she said. “What brought it to life was really seeing it in motion.”

        In 2006, with a grant from the National Science Foundation, she spent three months at the Gnomon School of Visual Effects, an animation boot camp in Hollywood, where, while she worked on molecules, her colleagues, all male, were obsessed with creating monsters and spaceships.

        To compose her animations, Dr. Iwasa draws on publicly available resources like the Protein Data Bank, a comprehensive and growing database containing three-dimensional coordinates for all of the atoms in a protein. Though she no longer works in a lab, Dr. Iwasa collaborates with other scientists.

        “All that we had before — microscopy, X-ray crystallography — were all snapshots,” said Tomas Kirchhausen, a professor in cell biology at Harvard Medical School and a frequent collaborator with Dr. Iwasa. “For me, the animations are a way to glue all this information together in some logical way. By doing animation I can see what makes sense, what doesn’t make sense. They force us to confront whether what we are doing is realistic or not.” For example, Dr. Kirchhausen studies the process by which cells engulf proteins and other molecules. He says animations help him picture how a particular three-legged protein called clathrin functions within the cell.

        If there is a Steven Spielberg of molecular animation, it is probably Drew Berry, a cell biologist who works for the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research in Melbourne, Australia. Mr. Berry’s work is revered for artistry and accuracy within the small community of molecular animators, and has also been shown in museums, including the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Centre Pompidou in Paris. In 2008, his animations formed the backdrop for a night of music and science at the Guggenheim Museum called “Genes and Jazz.”

        “Scientists have always done pictures to explain their ideas, but now we’re discovering the molecular world and able to express and show what it’s like down there,” Mr. Berry said. “Our understanding is just exploding.”

        In October, Mr. Berry was awarded a 2010 MacArthur Fellowship, which he says he will put toward developing visualizations that explore the patterns of brain activity related to human consciousness.

        The new molecular animators are deeply aware that they are picking up where many talented scientist-artists left off. They are quick to pay homage to pioneers in molecular graphics like Arthur J. Olson and David Goodsell, both at the Scripps Research Institute in San Diego.

        Perhaps the pivotal moment for molecular animations came four years ago with a video called “The Inner Life of the Cell.” Produced by BioVisions, a scientific visualization program at Harvard’s Department of Molecular and Cellular Biology, and a Connecticut-based scientific animation company called Xvivo, the three-minute film depicts marauding white blood cells attacking infections in the body. It was shown at the 2006 Siggraph conference, an annual convention of digital animation. After it was posted on YouTube, it garnered intense media attention.

        BioVisions’ most recent animation, called “Powering the Cell: Mitochondria,” was released in October. It delves inside the complex molecules that reside in our cells and convert food into energy. Produced in high definition, “Powering the Cell” takes viewers on a swooping roller coaster ride through the microscopic machinery of the cell.

        Sophisticated programs like Maya allow animators to create vibrant worlds from scratch, but that isn’t always necessary or desirable in biology. A company called Digizyme in Brookline, Mass., has developed a way for animators to pull data directly into Maya from the Protein Data Bank so that many of the over 63,000 proteins in the database can be easily rendered and animated.

        Gaël McGill, Digizyme’s chief executive, says access to this data is critical to scientific accuracy. “For us the starting point is always the science,” Dr. McGill said. “Do we have data to support the image we’re going to create?”

        Indeed, while enthusiasm runs high among those directly involved in the field, others in the scientific community are uncertain about the value of these animations for actual scientific research. While acknowledging the potential to help refine a hypothesis, for example, some scientists say that visualizations can quickly veer into fiction.

        “Some animations are clearly more Hollywood than useful display,” says Peter Walter, an investigator at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute in San Francisco. “It can become hard to distinguish between what is data and what is fantasy.”

        Dr. McGill acknowledges that showing cellular processes can involve a significant dose of conjecture. Animators take liberty with color and space, among other qualities, in order to highlight a particular function or part of the cell. “All the events we are depicting are so small they are below the wavelength of light,” he said.

        But he contends that these visualizations will be increasingly necessary in a world awash in data. “In the face of increasing complexity, and increasing data, we’re faced with a major problem,” Dr. McGill said.

        Certainly, it will play a significant part in education. The Harvard biologist E.O. Wilson is leading a project to develop the next generation of digital biology textbook that will integrate complex visualizations as a core part of the curriculum. Called “Life on Earth,” the project will include visualizations from Mr. Berry and is being overseen by Dr. McGill, who believes it could change how students learn biology.

        “I think visualization is going to be the key to the future,” Dr. McGill said.

        November 15, 2010
        The Two Cultures

        Many of the psychologists, artists and moral philosophers I know are liberal, so it seems strange that American liberalism should adopt an economic philosophy that excludes psychology, emotion and morality.

        Yet that is what has happened. The economic approach embraced by the most prominent liberals over the past few years is mostly mechanical. The economy is treated like a big machine; the people in it like rational, utility maximizing cogs. The performance of the economic machine can be predicted with quantitative macroeconomic models.

        These models can be used to make highly specific projections. If the government borrows $1 and then spends it, it will produce $1.50 worth of economic activity. If the government spends $800 billion on a stimulus package, that will produce 3.5 million in new jobs.

        Everything is rigorous. Everything is science.

        Conservatives, who are usually stereotyped as narrow-eyed business-school types, have gone all Oprah-esque in trying to argue against these liberals. If the government borrows trillions of dollars, this will increase public anxiety and uncertainty, the conservatives worry. The liberal technicians brush aside this soft-headed mush. These psychological concerns are mythological, they say. That’s gaseous blathering from those who lack quantitative rigor.

        Other people get moralistic. This country is already too profligate, they cry. It already shops too much and borrows too much. How can we solve our problems by borrowing and spending more? The liberal technicians brush this away, too. Economics is a rational activity detached from morality. Hardheaded policy makers have to have the courage to flout conventional morality — to borrow even when the country is sick of borrowing.

        The liberal technicians have an impressive certainty about them. They have amputated those things that can’t be contained in models, like emotional contagions, cultural particularities and webs of relationships. As a result, everything is explainable and predictable. They can stand on the platform of science and dismiss the poor souls down below.

        Yet over the past 21 months, it has been harder to groove to their certainty. To start with, the economy has not responded as the modelers projected, either in the months after the stimulus was passed or this summer, when it was supposed to be producing hundreds of thousands of jobs. It has become harder to define how much good the stimulus package is doing. An $800 billion measure must leave a large footprint, but it is hard to find in a $70 trillion global economy.

        Moreover, it has been harder to accept that psychological factors like uncertainty and anxiety really are a mirage. The first time a business leader tells you she is holding off on investing because she is scared about the future, you dismiss it as anecdote. But over the past few years, I’ve had hundreds of such conversations.

        It’s been harder to dismiss morality as a phantom concern, too. Maybe in a nation of robots the government can run a policy that offends the morality of the citizenry, but not in a nation of human beings, as the recent elections showed.

        Nor has the world come to look simpler and easier to manipulate since the stimulus passed. It now looks more complicated. It’s one thing to hatch an ideal policy in an academic lab, but in the real world, context is everything.

        Ethan Ilzetzki of the London School of Economics and Enrique G. Mendoza and Carlos A. Vegh of the University of Maryland examined stimulus efforts in 44 countries. In a recent National Bureau of Economic Research paper, they argued that fiscal stimulus can be quite effective in low-debt countries with fixed exchange rates and closed economies.

        Stimulus measures are generally not as effective, on the other hand, in countries like the U.S. with high debt and floating exchange rates. The authors of the paper pointed to a series of specific circumstances that complicate, to say the least, the effectiveness of increasing public spending: How much stimulus money ends up flowing abroad? What is the relationship between fiscal policy and monetary policy? How do investors respond to fear of future interest rate increases?

        One could go on. It’s become harder to have confidence that legislators can successfully enact the brilliant policies that liberal technicians come up with. Far from entering the age of macroeconomic mastery and social science triumph, we seem to be entering an age in which statecraft is, once again, an art, not a science. When you look around the world at the countries that have come through the recession best, it’s not the countries with the brilliant and aggressive stimulus models. It’s the ones like Germany that had the best economic fundamentals beforehand.

        It all makes one doubt the wizardry of the economic surgeons and appreciate the old wisdom of common sense: simple regulations, low debt, high savings, hard work, few distortions. You don’t have to be a genius to come up with an economic policy like that.


        November 13, 2010
        Here’s a Woman Fighting Terrorism. With Microloans.

        LAHORE, Pakistan

        An old friend of mine here fights terrorists, but not the way you’re thinking. She could barely defeat a truculent child in hand-to-hand combat, and if she ever picked up an AK-47 — well, you’d pray it was unloaded.

        Roshaneh Zafar is an American- educated banker who fights extremism with microfinance. She has dedicated her life to empowering some of Pakistan’s most impoverished women and giving them the tools to run businesses of their own. The United States should learn from warriors like her.

        Bullets and drones may kill terrorists, but Roshaneh creates jobs and educational opportunities for hundreds of thousands of people — draining the swamps that breed terrorists.

        “Charity is limited, but capitalism isn’t,” Roshaneh said. “If you want to change the world, you need market-based solutions.” That’s the point of microfinance — typically, lending very poor people small amounts of money so that they can buy a rickshaw or raw materials and start a tiny business.

        Roshaneh grew up in elite circles here in Lahore and studied business at the Wharton School and economics at Yale. After a stint at the World Bank, she returned to Pakistan in 1996 to start her microfinance organization. She called it the Kashf Foundation.

        Everybody thought Roshaneh was nuts. And at first nothing went right. The poor refused to borrow. Or if they borrowed, they didn’t repay their loans.

        But Roshaneh persisted, and today Kashf has 152 branches around the country. It has dispersed more than $200 million to more than 300,000 families. Now Roshaneh is moving into microsavings, to help the poor build assets, as well as programs to train the poor to run businesses more efficiently. She is even thinking of expanding into schools for the poor.

        Microfinance is sometimes oversold as a silver bullet — which it’s not. Careful follow-up studies suggest that gains from microloans are often quite modest.

        Some borrowers squander money or start businesses that fail. Some micro-lenders tarnish the field because they’re incompetent, and others because they rake in profits with sky-high loan rates. Microfinance has also generally been less successful in Africa than in South Asia.

        Yet done right, microfinance can make a significant difference. An outside evaluation found that after four years, Kashf borrowers are more likely than many others to enjoy improved economic conditions — and that’s what I’ve seen over the years as I’ve visited Kashf borrowers.

        On this trip, I met a woman named Parveen Baji, who says she never attended a day of school and until recently was completely illiterate. She had 14 children, but five died.

        Ms. Parveen’s husband, who also never attended school, regularly beat her and spent the family savings on narcotics, she says. The family’s only possessions were four cots on which they slept, crammed three or four to a cot, in a rented apartment.

        “One night all my children were hungry,” she remembered. “I sent my daughter to ask for food from a neighbor. And the neighbor said, ‘you’ve become a beggar,’ and refused.”

        Then Ms. Parveen got a $70 loan from Kashf and started a jewelry and cosmetics business, buying in bulk and selling to local shops. Ms. Parveen couldn’t read the labels, but she memorized which bottle was which. As her business thrived, she began to struggle to learn reading and arithmetic — and proved herself an ace student. I fired math problems at her, and she dazzled me with her quick responses.

        Ms. Parveen began to start new businesses, even building a laundry that she put her husband in charge of to keep him busy. He no longer beats her, she says, and when I interviewed him separately he seemed a little awed by her.

        Eventually, Ms. Parveen started a restaurant and catering business that now has eight employees, including some of her daughters. She bought a home and has put some of her children through high school — and a son, the brightest student, through college. She has just paid $5,800 for a permit for him to move to London to take a health sector job.

        Ms. Parveen tried to look modest as she told me this, but she failed. She was beaming and shaking her head in wonder as she watched her son speak English with me, dazzled at the thought that she was dispatching her university-educated son to Europe. “Microfinance has changed my life,” she said simply.

        That’s an unusual success story. But the larger message is universal: helping people start businesses, create jobs and support education is a potent way to undermine extremism.

        We Americans overinvest in firepower to defeat extremism and underinvest in development, and so we could learn something useful from Roshaneh. The toolkit to fight terrorism includes not only missiles but also microfinance and economic opportunity.

        The antonym of “militant” is often “job.”

        I invite you to comment on this column on my blog, On the Ground. Please also join me on Facebook, watch my YouTube videos and follow me on Twitter.


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