Word on the Street: New Muppet Promotes Female Empowerment

It’s not easy being a girl – especially in Afghanistan. Due to deeply entrenched cultural and religious beliefs, Afghan females are widely viewed as subordinate to their male peers. As a result, 85% of females receive no formal education. Moreover, only 12 – 24% of females are literate – one of the lowest rates in the world.

But “sunny days” may be on their way to the central Asian country. Afghanistan’s version of Sesame Street (Baghch-e-Simsin) is debuting its first Afghan character: a 6 year old girl!

Zari (meaning “shimmering” in Pashto and Dari) is a curious, lively, and confident girl with purple skin and a mop of colorful hair. She wears causal and traditional clothes, as well as a headscarf where appropriate. With characters like Elmo and Big Bird, Zari will appear in all 26 episodes, doing segments on health, exercise, and well-being. She will also interview a doctor and other professionals to determine “what she would need to do to become one herself”.

Zari’s role is not just to teach children who may lack access to other educational content. As a girl, she is also there to promote female empowerment and serve as a role model. In the words of Sherri Westin, Vice President of Sesame Workshop, “She is modeling for young girls that it is wonderful to go to school and that it’s ok to dream about having a career”. Program Manager Clemence Quint adds “we thought it was really important to emphasize the fact that a little girl could do as much as everybody else”.

Zari also has the potential to influence the attitudes of Afghan males in a non-threatening way. Research suggests that depictions of confident, educated girls “help shaped boys’ opinions as well”. According to Westin, the first 4 seasons of Baghch-e-Simsin have already “begun to open the minds of Afghan fathers about the value of educating their daughters”.

Of course, Zari’s success in redefining gender norms will depend greatly on viewership. Currently, Baghch-e-Simsin is the most watched program among young children in Afghanistan. Approximately 81% of children aged 3 to 7 have seen the show. However, TVs are less common in rural areas, where Zari is perhaps needed most.

Still, we have great hope for little Zari (as well as Chamki in India and Kami in South Africa). Maybe one street can change an entire nation!

Want to support female education and empowerment? Please give to Sesame Workshop, Plan International, or our partners, WorldTeach, DIVAS/Florida Girls Mentoring Program, and Girls Incorporated of New Hampshire.


Lingering Economic Crisis Causes Drop in International Aid

aidThe developing world has been dealt another blow. According to a 2013 OECD report, official development aid in real terms fell by 4% in 2012 (including a 12.8% drop in aid to the Least Developed Countries). This marks the largest decline since 1997. It is also the first time since 1996-1997 that aid has fallen in successive years, given the 2% drop in 2011.

To account for the decline, experts point to austerity across the developed world, largely in response to the financial and Euro Zone crises. This led to reductions in foreign aid budgets in 21 of the 32 OECD members, including all 5 top donors by volume (the US, UK, Germany, France, and Japan). Not surprisingly, the largest cuts were in countries affected most by the crises: Spain (-49.7%), Italy (-34.7%), Greece (-17.0%), and Portugal (-13.1%).

Such cuts raise questions about the “appropriate” level of development aid. In 1969, the Pearson Commission recommended a target of 0.7% of Gross National Product (GNP). The target was soon adopted by the United Nations (with exceptions like Switzerland and the US) and the OECD’s Development Assistance Committee (DAC).  As of 2012, however, the DAC average was just 0.29% of Gross National Income (roughly equivalent to GNP). The US and Canada came in at 0.19% and 0.32%, respectively.

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So is this target—or any increase in official development aid—feasible in the near future? DAC Chair Erik Solheim states that “Maintaining aid levels is not impossible even in today’s fiscal climate. The UK’s 2013-2014 budget increases its aid to 0.7% of national income, which gives hope that we can reverse the falling trend.” Luxembourg, Sweden, Norway, Denmark, and the Netherlands also exceed the 0.7% mark.

But development aid can also come from unofficial (non-government) sources. These include private foundations and charitable organizations. If you want to transform lives in the developing world, please consider donating to UNICEF, Oxfam, or one of our Op4G partners: African Soup, Develop Africa, Education for All Children, Great Good Haiti, Plant a Seed Africa, Viveperu, and World Teach.

Flickr photo credit: rogiro

Africa’s Recent Economic Gains: Who is Benefiting?

africa2Africa is rising. According to a World Bank report released this week, the continent is enjoying a natural resources boom and increasing foreign investment (particularly from China, India, and Brazil). It is also benefiting from a surge in tourism, remittances worth $33 billion/year, and strong government investment in key sectors.

These factors have translated into growth rates of 4.9% for Sub-Saharan Africa in 2013. Almost “a third of countries in the region are growing at 6% and more, and African countries are now routinely among the fastest-growing countries in the world”. Such rates are expected to rise further in coming years, to 5.3% in 2014 and 5.5% in 2015.

But not all Africans are benefiting from the continent’s mounting wealth. Staggering inequality has contributed to “unacceptably slow” poverty reduction in Africa. In fact, almost half of all Africans still live in extreme poverty (defined as an income of $1.25 or less per day).

Of further concern, “sustaining Africa’s strong growth over the longer term while significantly reducing poverty and strengthening people’s resilience to adversity may prove difficult”. The continent faces great environment risks (including droughts and floods) and the threat of conflict (as in Mali and the Central African Republic). Moreover, the continent’s dependence on a few commodities (oil, metals, and minerals) leaves it vulnerable to fluctuations in global prices.

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So what does this mean for poverty reduction in Africa? Will it be possible to achieve the World Bank and UN goal to eradicate extreme poverty within a generation? In the words of a UN working group, the goal is “ambitious but feasible”. However, as economist Jeffrey Sachs notes, it “can’t be achieved by free markets alone”. It will require continued government investment, sound public policy, and international aid.

To do your part, please support our Op4G partners: Develop Africa, African Soup, and Plant a Seed Africa.

Flickr photo credit: calips96