09 January 2007

Happy New Year

Happy New Year and Merry Christmas, again! Christmas for the Ethiopian Orthodox church was on January 7—so a whole other Christmas for us!!

My new year began with dinner, a sandwich, and watching CNN talk about Saddam Hussein being executed. Interesting way to start out the year, not what I had planned, but nonetheless engaging. I am still in shock they did it; I just can not believe they up and did it. I thought for sure he’d be around a few more years—at minimum for all his trials. Wow—quite a shocker.

I have grown to love the various news channels I can get here, and am sure I will miss them if ever I move. We get CNN, BBC, and my new favourite, Al Jazeera in English. It’s brilliant, quite a perspective on the world. I figure if I average out the statistics and stories between them all, I might be close to the truth. I am fascinated and annoyed by journalism. I never really thought much about it until I met Mark, a friend from Peace Corps. Mark has the dream (fast becoming, or rather has become reality) of being a reporter/journalist. Now I read, watch, Google, whatever my news with a different attitude. Journalism still leaves a bad taste in my mouth, but it is not ‘journalisms’ fault per se, rather the perception of what it is. The ‘news’ is viewed as fact, as the truth or reality of a situation. But, anyone who has been in a place, or involved in a news story, who then saw it reported somewhere can tell you—fact it is not. Actually, what are the facts? What is the truth? Even if we could report truth, can we define it? All information is based on perception, and perception is shaped by life experiences, education, culture, and possibly the biggest determinant, agenda. If a Bush fan and Bush hater watch the exact same news story about Iraq, or elections, or whatever—they both will see/perceive very different reports. The same goes for all topics; your opinion sways how you process the information. SO, if your opinion sways how you listen, how much more does the opinion of the reporter, his/her editor, or the owner of the paper/TV station sway what and how things are reported?!? American news agencies are infamous (in the circles I travel in) for biased reporting. This is easily noted when I watch my three news stations tell the same story three different ways with three different conclusions. But are the American’s the biased ones? Most people I know think so—but they are mostly African and European. So, am I to conclude they are right or in actuality is European news biased? Or, my real opinion, there is no truth and everyone, every station, and every reporter is biased. It makes understanding the world a bit more difficult to view it this way. However, I just can’t blanketly trust a journalist’s point of view—not without personal knowledge of their biases. What is their culture, where were the raised, who are their parents, what did their parents do for a living, where did they go to school, are they religious, which religion, where have they lived, what are their hobbies, with whom do they associate, etc etc. If I know all these things, I can feel more comfortable processing the information and fitting into MY point of view. Which of course leads us to two more problems—1 It is impossible to know this about all reporters and 2 I’m biased! I take all that info, sort it through my perspective, and create what I think is the truth in my mind—yet another version.

Okay—this is a random tangent, not generally what I write, but I have a point. In my field there can be a lot of ‘subjective’ information. Even when there is objective information, a person with a subjective mind collected it, analyzed it, and interpreted it. For my work, I go into an area, survey it, get data both subjective and objective, I analyze it and create a report. So, despite my best efforts to give you the ‘truth’ of what is going on, it is biased. One example of objective data is the GAM (Global Acute Malnutrition). It’s the percentage of children under five whose weight is below what is considered ‘healthy’ or ‘normal’ (which by the way, is their weight compared to a white child of the same age who was bottle fed formula and raised in the US, but that is a WHOLE other topic). So, the percentage of children who fall below ‘normal’ is reported as the rate of malnutrition. It is objective, but what the number means and if action is taken on the number is SUBJECTIVE. These numbers decide who gets funding for nutritional interventions and who doesn’t. These numbers make the news or not. These numbers vary a great deal from country to country. Even within countries in Africa, different numbers mean different things. A GAM of 15% in Ethiopia is different from the same GAM in Niger. For Ethiopia, it’s high (not uncommon) but high. For Niger, it’s practically average. GAM is always that high, so that’s just the way life is, right? But at 15% in Ethiopia, we act. I’m not saying people don’t act in Niger, it’s just that a GAM of 15% in Niger is practically expected. GAM in the US, by the way is 2% (which I think is possibly high). This means, if I did a survey in the US of malnutrition in children under 5, if I found the rate to be 7%, the US Government would PANIC!! But, that same number in Ethiopia, Niger, Zimbabwe, etc is considered normal, baseline. My point in all this is I want you to question what you hear. If you hear that malnutrition is getting better in country X, that could mean their GAM is no longer 15% rather, it’s 12%--still MUCH higher then what we have in the US or what we would accept in the US. Governments also skew the numbers to their benefit. Whether they skew them to look worse, for more donations (a developing nation), or better because it’s an election year (US). This doesn’t just affect malnutrition, but all sciences—and how things are reported. I will post a link for a speech one of my professors from Tufts gave about Human Security in the future. It’s an EXCELLENT speech—and he touches on this topic of reporting of scientific data and how it shapes the planet. Please take time to read it, it’s great.

http://fic.tufts.edu/?pid=11&c=14 Choose Walker, P. 2006. Human security and the pivotal role of science in achieving it.

In closing, I must say I was chastised for not putting ALL the possible spellings of Chat, and the supposed ‘correct’ one. So, FYI Chat is commonly spelled Khat, and can also be referred to as: qaadka, miraa, tohai, tschat, Abyssinian Tea, African Tea, and African salad. I am sure there are more, but I hope this appeases my audience.

Again, Happy New Year—and enjoy 2007!!!!!!!

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