Monday, March 13, 2006

Pooh in Egypt

An unusual story appeared recently in the Christian Science Monitor. It's not about human rights, but it still seems appropriate to mention here. The story is about how the US and Egyptian officials are working together to promote literacy in rural Egypt. The program aims to provide libraries of Arabic and English titles to all of Egypt's 38,000 public schools.

Literacy is a huge issue in Egypt, of course. Two thoughts here. One is some will question the use of traditional American and European stories such as "Little House on the Prairie" and "Winnie the Pooh." We should always be skeptical of cultural bias. One of my favorite Duke professors, Ariel Dorfman, made one of his first works an examination of the cultural biases of Disney characters then flooding South and Latin America. That being said, I don't see a downside on this issue. Literacy is too important an issue to ignore, and frankly, the Egyptians need assistance on it. There isn't anyone who has looked at the educational system there and not cried out for any resources to help promote literacy. In this case, the US is doing the right thing.

The second issue is that for all the attention we try to bring to human rights issues, accomplishing our goals in the long term in Egypt and elsewhere require serious attention to cultural, economic and social issues. Literacy is ultimately a human rights issue.

Trying to figure out how human rights organizations can best advance causes such as literacy is actually not an easy job. Amnesty International has struggled with this for almost a decade and will continue to do so. On one hand, we and any HR organization is threatened with spreading itself too thin, particularly at a time of limited resources. We could end up accomplishing nothing or focusing our work in areas where other organizations already are doing good work or in areas where we can't accomplish things. That's an argument for a narrow focus on those issues that we do particularly well.

On the other hand, on literacy, AIDS and other similar issues, all the human rights work seems always precariously in danger of being swept away by tides of social and economic pressures. There are times we seem to repeat the same work over and over with new names and faces at the center, never being able to move forward in a real way because other issues make it impossible.

There's no easy answer. I don't believe human rights organizations should become literacy organizations. But somehow it has to be integrated into the work.


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