jhr’s Bookstore

April 23, 2009



jhr has a new online bookstore! Check it out here.

For every book you buy here, 4%-8% of your purchase is donated back to jhr.

We’re just setting this up, so please give us any comments for books to include or ways to improve it.

Ultimately, we hope it’s a great source for the best books on human rights, the media, Africa and NGO’s.


Grab Bag (Earth Day, South Africa Votes and PC’ness)

April 22, 2009

So much is happening today, and I want to share some random thoughts on some of it.

earthday2Today is Earth Day. If only every day could be so lucky. At least it’s better off than Earth Hour. In general, celebrating ‘days’ or ‘hours’ is a great idea. But does it rid the public consciousness of its guilt, slowing down the ‘greening’ of our world the rest of the year? Or do the lessons learned carry over? Not sure, and there is no easy answer. One interesting stat I saw years ago, released by DFID (the British government’s international aid arm), showed a marked decrease in interest around world poverty issues after the Live 8 concerts in July of 2005. Over exposed to it perhaps, or maybe people just felt that they did their duty and it’s now time to move on.

Vote for ANC?

Vote for ANC?

South Africa is voting today. This is a seminal moment in African politics and perhaps in African history. South Africa is the economic powerhouse of Africa, but is on a dangerous path that could either be accelerated, or reversed, with this election. . This week’s cover story in The Economist was the best crafted and most purposeful analysis I’ve seen on the matter. It offered hope for the future under Jacob Zuma, but also fretted about what could go wrong if Zuma, as many think, acts like a ‘typical African big man’. It was written not for an international audience as much as it was for Zuma himself. Knowing the article was going to be read and paid attention to in the highest circles in South Africa, the Economist editors clearly made the decision to try to push Zuma into being the type of leader South Africa needs. It was respectful of Zuma without being brownnosing, and it was apprehensive about the future, yet cautiously optimistic that Zuma will respect the rule of law. In short, it left the door open for Zuma to impress, but was clear that door won’t be open for long.

Using the word ‘whore’ in one of my earlier blogs got me into trouble with some people today. They have told me that it is a derogatory term that I, as a leader of human rights organization, should not be using. I used it in a throwaway sentence, meant to highlight my inexperience using twitter (me writing about twitter, I offered, was like a virgin teaching sex to a whore.”) I would like your thoughts on this. In short, I understand that is an offensive term and admit that I shouldn’t have used it. But, at the same, it was not meant to offend, and I feel that sometimes people are too quick to take offence when no offense was intended. Thoughts?

Trouble in Togo

April 21, 2009



The beleaguered government of Togo, a small West African nation, announced today that it was banning all radio and television shows where the public is able to express its opinions.

This follows a week of tense political maneuvering capped off by a failed coup attempted launched by the President’s own brother. To read the latest news, click here.

This is a grievous attempt to limit the press, which should be targeted by the world’s many press freedom organizations.

But for the purposes of this blog it also serves as a stark reminder of the seemingly insurmountable communications gap between the West and West Africa.

Imagine, if you will, that the government of Canada decided to cut off all public debate. Radio and TV would be only the beginning of their worries. They would have to put a stop to online communications as well, a much bigger and more difficult beast to handle.

But Togo, a country of around 6 million people, has less than 800 points of internet access in the entire country.

We sit here and talk about the power of blogs and social media to transform the world, but in places where the most ‘change’ is needed it’s almost a moot point. Let the bloggers go crazy, the Togolese government is probably thinking, as long as we control radio and TV, we’re good as gold.

I could (and probably will) dedicate some blogs to the different (and often creative) ways governments around the world try to sensor their media, and the various ways people get around these attempts. Regardless, the fewer media channels in a given country, the easier it is to shut it down. Bring the internet everywhere.

Reporter and You

April 20, 2009

On May 5th I will be answering questions after a screening of Reporter, a documentary film about the work of Nicholas Kristof, the celebrated New York Times reporter and op-ed columnist. It’s an event being put by The Globe and Mail as part of the Hot Docs Film Festival.

Laurent Nkunda

Laurent Nkunda

The film centers around three days of Kirsof’s life in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), where he meets and writes about victims of the deadly conflict and one of its chief protagonists, the Tutsi warlord Laurent Nkunda.

It takes the viewers on a fascinating journey. But I found myself starved for more information on the techniques used by Kristof to maximize the impact of his stories. He is clear about his intention to make the west take notice and ultimately take action about the various problems in the DRC and elsewhere. The documentary touches briefly on how he works to achieve this end—namely by shining light on one person among the millions suffering, putting a face and a name on otherwise faceless and nameless victims.

I think this is smart, but I want to learn more. I want to dig deep into his work, and the work of others, to figure out what elements are needed to get people to pay attention.

I always say “One story can change the world.” And that’s why I co-founded jhr. But I want to dig deeper. What else is at play?

That’s one of the reasons I’ve been thinking (and writing as you can see on this blog) about social media. With broader definitions of social media, anyone can put together that story that changes the world. You don’t need a famous name or the New York Times machine behind you anymore. Some of the elements needed to extract a response out of people are constant, but some vary from medium to medium.

I want to find the way forward. I want to help you change the world one story a time.

The Lost Art of Storytelling

April 17, 2009

Once every two weeks our entire head office has lunch together in the boardroom. Someone on our team ‘teaches’ the others about a particular skill they have. I covered public speaking two weeks ago, Jon did a session on HTML, Carissa did one on participatory learning techniques, etc.

Today, Bill Killorn, jhr’s Domestic Programs Director, focused on storytelling in journalism. He handed out an article by Peter Jackson, published in the Toronto Star, about dying oak trees in Toronto.

It is a brilliant article.

It brings the oak trees to life, forcing the reader to see the slow death of Toronto’s storied oak trees from the tree’s perspective.

It does this in part by casting out the typical ‘inverted pyramid’ story structure (where the most important information is in the first paragraph of the story, the most common technique used in newspaper writing). Instead, it gives the reader credit, and builds a story with far more emotive power than is possible by using the inverted pyramid.

Peter Jackson...or is it?

Peter Jackson...or is it?

The catch: Peter Jackson is a pseudonym used by Ernest Hemmingway, who worked at the Star before he became a novelist of world stature.

Read the article here.

Journalism has moved a long way since Hemmingway was allowed to write like that. And with the emergence of online and citizen journalism, will journalism ever be like that again?

Can journalists afford the time to tell stories? Can the readers find the time to read it? Or is the future of journalism all headlines and inverted pyramids?

I’m Tweeting!

April 16, 2009

Today is my first day on Twitter.

I just tweeted about my blog. And now I’m blogging about my tweet. What?

I don’t have any great insights to share about Twitter—that would be like a virgin teaching sex to a whore—but I’m really excited to get into this whole social media space.

The truth is that I’ve been so focused on African media (which is dominated by radio) that I’ve neglected to pay much attention to the trends of our media environment at home. I can wax poetically on the theoretical change from traditional media to more participatory forms of communication. But you don’t know something well until you’re knee deep in it. And now it’s my turn to get down and dirty.

Welcome to the world of intellectual democracy.

And please follow my tweets—my name is jhrben.

Susan Boyle—You Make My Heart Sing!

April 15, 2009

For all the trash, superficiality and downright ridiculousness of reality TV, every once in a while a truly heartwarming moment comes alone that reminds us we are all human.

Please watch this video. CLICK HERE (they won’t let me imbed it into my blog for some reason). It’s a reminder of the hidden talent in all of us, that we should never ever judge a book by its cover. It’s why, in some ways, everyone deserves respect.

What is ‘Media’ Anyways? CNN vs. Ashton

April 15, 2009

If you are interested in using the media to get a story or message out, it’s a complicated time. The face of the media is changing so fast that it’s difficult for anyone to keep pace. But if you think CNN or the New York Times are the place to be, you’ll be sitting all alone pretty soon.

The New Ted Turner?

Nothing highlights the radical shift in media power more than Ashton Kutcher’s battle with CNN on Twitter.

The semi-star recently issued a challenge to CNN—who could be the first Twitter feed with more than a million followers? Right now CNN news feeds are in the lead with about 900,000, Britney Spears is second with 850,000 and Kutcher has around 800,000. As Kutcher points out, it’s now possible for one person to reach more people with information than an entire news organization.

Good for you Ashton. But imagine instead of Ashton reaching a million people with his every thought, real intellectuals could reach that many people. In the process of democratizing media there will be more cnntrash available to average consumers, but certainly the potential for really thoughtful and mind provoking info feeds will improve as well.

People Arrrrrrrrn’t Paying Attention

April 14, 2009

Many that work in international development rant and rave about the lack of media coverage on the tragedies that plague them.

Britney Spears get’s more coverage than the Somali civil war. Brad Pitt hogs more headlines than John Atta Mills. George Clooney gets more press than all the active conflicts in Africa combined. And don’t even get me started on Madonna, Michael Jackson, or hell, even Stewart vs. Cramer.


An Arrrrrpolsion

But international development workers need to get in line. Almost every single non-profit leader I’ve met in the last seven years has complained about the lack of media coverage on the issues they deal with. Child poverty, homelessness, environmental issues, etc. For many it’s a thinly veiled attempt to get themselves or their organization more coverage, but for many it’s genuine frustration. If only the world heard my case, they would feel the passion that I feel—they will join my cause!

I love that passion—but unfortunately there are only so many newspapers, TV channels, blogs, etc, out there.

And while I (and some others) try to change the way the media reports on these issues, it’s an upward climb. For those with some patience, join me. But for those that need to get their story out NOW, stop complaining and figure out how to make your cause news worthy.

There is no simple formula for getting noticed by the media. But some recent examples of where the media HAS been paying attention might help point you in the right direction.

1) Somali pirates. This is a great media story because it combines: A) people’s fascination with old-school pirates, B) terror on the high-seas, C) international intrigue and D) the helplessness of the world’s great powers to do anything about it. Combined, it’s a sensationalist storyline with real life implications—many people are getting injured and killed.


Jacob Zuma

2) Jacob Zuma. The almost-President of South Africa has been covered up-and-down the press because of the horrific allegations against him. The silent juxtapose between him and Nelson Mandela frames this story, making it compelling. In a way, this story isn’t dissimilar from the crisis of Zimbabwe and Robert Mugabe. Both turn the storyline of one individual into a metaphor for an entire nation.

3) Kaylee Wallace’s heart transplant. The Toronto media were absolutely obsessed with this story last week. It combined two babies, a medically difficult procedure, ethical questions around passive euthanasia and a small miracle. A perfect Toronto Sun type story that the entire media community jumped on board with.

If getting your cause media attention is your goal, do yourself a favour and study how and why the media covers stories. Then frame your issue in a way that the media will bite into. So many people in the non-profit world believe they will get coverage simply by shoving an issue down the neck of a journalist or two. Be smarter than that.

And be smarter than to think that ‘the media’ that matters is only the media you consume.

More on broadening one’s perception of what ‘the media’ is later.

Precious Life

April 9, 2009

Early last Saturday morning, Heather Menear came out of a downtown Toronto bar with a group of friends. She stumbled backwards onto the street. She was hit and killed by an intoxicated driver. Heather was only 25 years old.

I didn’t know Heather but she was very close with my girlfriend’s sister Sam. From all accounts she was full of life, energy and intelligence.



There were over a thousand people at her funeral today. They collectively mourned her loss, their loss and the loss of a life too young to vanish.

The priest overseeing the service also mourned the destruction of another life—the life of the woman who was driving at the wrong time and the wrong place. She was only 23 years old.

One stupid decision. Two lives ruined.

A death like this puts a number of things in perspective.

Why get upset over the weather or the Leafs where there are far greater tragedies to worry about?

But it also brings me to a far darker—and lighter—place.

War, famine, genocide and disease are realities for so much of the world.

I cannot imagine mourning Heather’s death a thousand times—yet alone a million times over.

I am, Heather was and we, as Canadians, are infinitely lucky. Most of us know relatively little grief.