Signs of Life :: Spring 2010

Small stories about big change

One of the largest refugee camps in Port-au-Prince is in the city’s football stadium, the Stade Sylvio Cator. Thousands of homeless earthquake victims have made shelters scavenged from fallen buildings.

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Haiti: Aftermath of the Earthquake

Photo by Willie Davis.


  • “Pro-poor” Relief for Haiti


  • Protests Mount Against Blockade of Gaza

Also ... Study shows, legalizing undocumented immigrants would boost the U.S. economy


  • Chicago Ward Tries Citizen Budgeting

Also ... Oregon voters approve taxing corporations



  • Bolivia to Host Climate Summit for the People

Also ... Scotland's Isle of Eigg committed to renewable energy

  • Appeals Court Rules Inmates Entitled to Voting Rights


  • Sweden Labels Food With CO2 Data

Also ... Washington State bans BPA in baby bottles; World Watch Institute calls for shift towards simplicity


“Pro-poor” Relief for Haiti

In the aftermath of the Jan. 12 earthquake that is believed to have killed more than 150,000 people, a call is growing for more long-term, sustainable solutions, such as debt relief.

The Caribbean island nation, which suffers from a legacy of political unrest, environmental devastation, and financial ruin, has staggered under the weight of debt since it won independence from France more than 200 years ago.

Today, the poverty-stricken nation of some 9 million people is more than $1 billion in debt, and relief organizations and some government leaders are pushing for solutions that allow Haitians to focus on “recovery, not repayment.”

The World Council of Churches and other groups have pushed for aid to come in the form of grants, not loans, so that Haitians can move forward with rebuilding their country without shouldering ever more debt. Canada’s more than $100 million in assistance, for example, comes from grants; Canada canceled Haiti’s debt last fall. In late January, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez canceled Haiti’s $295 million debt to Petrocaribe, Venezuela’s regional energy distributor.

Humanitarian aid was disorganized and debt relief contentious—and ultimately, limited— after the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. Nick Dearden, director of the Jubilee Debt Campaign, appealed to the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and governments around the world to avoid the “half measures” that followed the tsunami and to pursue debt cancellation.

Robert Glasser, international secretary general of CARE, said help needs to extend beyond the immediate emergency to reconstruction. He urged donors to back not only debt relief but policies and programs that are “pro-poor.” “This is not the first, nor will it be the last natural disaster to hit Haiti,” said Glasser. “But it is our chance as a community to relieve the country from a terrible debt burden and help Haitians build a new future on a new foundation of equitable development.”

—Kim Eckart is associate editor at YES! Magazine.


  • Beverly Bells Blogs from Haiti: After 30 years working for democracy, women’s rights, and economic justice in Haiti, Beverly Bell is documenting the impact of the earthquake on Haiti's grassroots movements.
  • A Victory for Haiti: How an international, grassroots mobilization helped spur the G7's decision to cancel Haiti's onerous foreign deb
  • Debt Relief: The Results Are In: Debt relief has allowed poor nations to pay for schools and health care instead of loan interest.

bill-clinton.jpg“Haiti isn’t doomed ... If we rally around them now and support them in the right way, the Haitian people can reclaim their destiny.”


Former President Bill Clinton,
U.N. special envoy to Haiti, on relief efforts following the January earthquake



Protests Mount Against Israeli Blockade of Gaza


In a series of protests across the Arab world, activists have demanded an end to the siege of the Gaza Strip and expressed outrage at the Egyptian government for actions that reflect the political will of Israel and the United States.

The largest of these protests was the Gaza Freedom March, in which 1,362 activists from 43 countries gathered in Egypt to attempt to cross the border into Gaza. The march, which began Dec. 30, occurred one year after an Israeli bombing campaign left approximately 1,400 dead in the Gaza Strip.

The march was meant to raise awareness of Israel and Egypt’s blockade of Gaza, which is considered illegal under international human rights and humanitarian law. Despite extensive planning and initial approval from Egyptian authorities, the Freedom March was halted when Egypt restricted the number of entries to just 100 participants and canceled the buses that would take the activists to the Rafah border crossing, citing “security reasons.”

Israel has maintained its blockade since June 2006, preventing desperately needed food and medical supplies from reaching Gaza’s 1.5 million citizens. Exports also have been almost completely restricted, devastating the Gazan economy. The siege could worsen in the coming months as Egypt continues construction of an underground security barrier meant to block the tunnels running between Gaza and Egypt. Israel maintains that the tunnels are used to smuggle munitions into Gaza. The tunnels, however, also have become a main thoroughfare for food and medical supplies not allowed through the sealed borders.


Demonstrators in Los Angeles last year release 100 white doves at a rally for immigrant rights. Photo by Rise Media.

In the weeks following the Gaza Freedom March, crowds gathered in other Arab nations protesting the building of the underground barrier and accusing Egypt of acting as an agent of the Israeli and U.S. governments. 

—YES! Magazine staff


ALSO ...
Legalizing undocumented immigrants would boost the U.S. economy by $1.5 trillion over the next decade through new jobs, higher wages, and increased consumption, according to a study by the Center for American Progress and the Immigration Policy Center.

The study comes as Congress is expected to take up immigration reform. There are an estimated 12 million undocumented residents in the United States.



Chicago Ward Tries Citizen Budgeting

Thumb Up IconIn a city with a history of corruption and lack of transparency, one  elected official is restoring meaning to the term “public funds.”

Participatory budget meeting in Brazil

Residents of Porto Alegre, Brazil, gather in May for the annual Regional Participatory Budgeting assembly. Porto Alegre was the first city to use participatory budgeting, and during some years all budgeting decisions were discussed and as much as 10 percent was decided directly by residents.

Photo by Michael Fox

Alderman Joe Moore, of Chicago’s 49th Ward, has launched what is believed to be the United States’ first experiment with “participatory budgeting,” a grassroots process that lets residents allocate municipal funding as they see fit. The residents of the far north-side ward will oversee the budgeting of this year’s $1 million in infrastructure funds. The city allocates these funds annually to alderpeople to use at their discretion. Moore decided his residents would know what infrastructure improvements were needed better than any government official.

The process started in November 2009 with neighborhood meetings facilitated by ward officials. There, any ward resident could express an opinion about how to spend the money. The process was first used in Brazil in the 1980s and has become popular in Latin America and around the world.

In the 49th Ward, suggestions ranged from more street lighting to installing community gardens. From the neighborhood meetings, residents elected representatives, who then divided into subcommittees to deal with the different project categories, like arts and public safety.

In March, committee representatives will present ward residents with a list of final projects for review. By April, the projects should be underway. If everything goes well, Moore has promised to do this every year and encourage other politicians to follow his lead.

—Jeff Raderstrong is a Washington, D.C., writer who blogs at

ALSO ...

Oregon voters in January approved two measures that will increase the income tax on wealthy households and on corporations.

Interested? Beyond Tea Party Politics: Oregon voted to increase taxes on corporations and the wealthy to help fund programs that assist low and middle-income families.



Bolivia to Host Climate Summit for the People

Thumb Up IconBolivian President Evo Morales has called for an alternative climate-change conference, this one involving governments as well as non-governmental organizations, indigenous groups, scientists, and environmentalists.


Bolivian President Evo Morales wants a followup climate-change conference to unite nations that want a stronger agreement.

Photo by Paulo Filgueiras / United Nations

Following the weak, nonbinding Copenhagen Accord that came out of the United Nations climate negotiations in December, the World Conference of the People on Climate Change aims to unite nations that want a stronger agreement. Heads of state from Venezuela, Nicaragua, and Cuba are expected to attend the conference in April in Cochabamba.

The conference will explore the issue of climate debt, the idea that industrialized nations—those most responsible for greenhouse-gas emissions—should give substantial aid to the poorer countries that most often suffer the consequences of climate change. Also on the agenda is the proposal of an international court for environmental crimes, which could try nations for crimes against nature, such as the dumping of toxic waste or the destruction of natural resources.

Bolivia was one of five countries to block a consensus on the Copenhagen Accord, claiming a small group of wealthy nations had drawn it up in secret. Many saw Morales as a roadblock to an agreement. Along with advocating for climate debt, he challenged the conference to hold global temperature increases at 1 degree Celsius (as opposed to the 2-degree limit the conference decided upon). This stricter limit on temperature increase would require a far faster and more costly response from industrialized nations to curb greenhouse-gas emissions.

“Our objective is to save [all of] humanity and not just half of humanity,” Morales said in a speech at Copenhagen. “We are here to save Mother Earth. Our objective is to reduce climate change to under 1 C. [Above this] many islands will disappear, and Africa will suffer a holocaust.”

—Margit Christenson is a freelance writer based in New York City.

ALSO ...

Thumb Up IconScotland’s remote Isle of Eigg has been awarded a share of a 1 million-pound prize from the United Kingdom’s National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts. The organization’s Big Green Challenge gave Eigg 300,000 pounds to support the island’s commitment to renewable energy.

Residents purchased the island in 1997 and have since installed solar and hydropower facilities that generate nearly all of Eigg’s electricity needs. According to the Ecologist, Eigg residents will use the prize money for additional energy-efficiency projects.

Thumb Up IconCalifornia has made mandatory its green-building code, “Calgreen.” The nation’s first statewide green-building law requires all new buildings to use recycled materials and reduce water consumption. Critics, including the Natural Resources Defense Council and the U.S. Green Building Council, say the regulations aren’t strict enough and may conflict with stronger municipal green-building codes.


“I don’t think American elections should be bankrolled
by America’s most powerful interests, or worse, by foreign entities. They should be decided by the American people.”

President Barack Obama,
referring in his State of the Union address to the U.S. Supreme Court decision easing restrictions on campaign spending


Supreme Court Justices John Roberts and Samuel Alito, left, prior to President Obama’s State of the Union address in January.

Photo by Pete Souza / White House

Interested? Read Fran Korten’s 10 Ways to Stop Corporate Dominance of Politics


Appeals Court Rules Inmates Entitled to Voting Rights

Thumb Up IconA federal appeals court in January ruled that felons incarcerated in Washington State have been illegally barred from voting. A panel of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals said the state’s prison system is “infected” with racial discrimination and therefore violates voting laws.

The majority ruled that the ban violated the 1965 National Voting Rights Act on grounds of racial discrimination. According to a University of Washington study, racial and ethnic minorities make up 12 percent of Washington’s population, but account for 36 percent of prison inmates. African Americans are nine times more likely to be incarcerated than whites; because of this, 25 percent of black men in Washington are disenfranchised from voting.

A single plaintiff first brought the case to court in 1996; by the time of this ruling, five more had joined. All are members of minority groups claiming political discrimination by the state.

Similar cases in other states have gone to trial, but this is the first ruling in favor of inmates. Only Vermont and Maine allow incarcerated felons to vote.

Washington State Attorney General Rob McKenna has appealed the 9th Circuit decision to the U.S. Supreme Court.

—Jeff Raderstrong is a Washington, D.C., writer who blogs at



Sweden Labels Food With CO2 Data


Sweden’s largest national chain of burger restaurants, Max, was one of the first to add emissions calculations next to each item on its menu boards.

More than 92 percent of Swedes want more information about the “green credentials” of their food, and producers responded to satisfy customers. Some Swedish companies have labeled their products to show how many kilograms of carbon dioxide were released into the atmosphere during production.

One Swedish burger chain, Max, offers beef alternatives and signed on enthusiastically to the new recommendations. It became the first restaurant chain to publish carbon footprints of menu items to encourage people to eat less beef.

Determining food’s carbon footprint is difficult and nuanced. Complex production lines make it difficult to track the carbon footprint of an individual product, and consumer suggestions are not as simple as “eat less meat.” For example, the guidelines discourage Swedes from eating cucumbers and tomatoes because in Sweden they can only be grown in energy-consuming greenhouses. Low-impact vegetables like carrots are recommended over the less climate-friendly ones.

—Jeff Raderstrong is a Washington, D.C., writer who blogs at .



Thumb Up IconWashington State lawmakers have banned BPA (Bisphenol A) in baby bottles and food containers for children younger than 3.

Washington joins Minnesota and Connecticut in prohibiting some BPA products. The state of Wisconsin is considering a ban.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration recently reversed a 2008 finding that BPA, the main component of polycarbonate plastic, was safe. The agency said BPA should be studied further for potential health risks to children.

Plastics made with BPA typically have a number 7 on the bottom or the letters “PC” in the recycling triangle.

The legislature will have to hammer out differences in House and Senate versions of the bill; the House version extends the ban to sports bottles. The rule will go into effect in 2011.  

The Worldwatch Institute’s State of the World 2010 warns that global consumerism is unsustainable and urges a substantial cultural shift .

The economy may propel consumers in that direction. Last fall, a New York Times/CBS News poll found that Americans are spending less money and instead turning to cultural events, hobbies, and family activities. Lower consumer spending is expected during a recession, but the trend toward “doing more,” experts said, is new.

Read the full report here:



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