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Kidnapped UN Envoy Freed

The UN Special Envoy to Niger, Canadian Robert Fowler, who had been abducted, along with his aide, Louis Guay, back in December, has been freed. The abductors were originally thought to have been Tuareg rebels in northern Niger, but Fowler and Guay, along with two other hostages, were released by the terrorist group known Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. The circumstances surrounding the capture remain unclear -- Niger's president still thinks the Tuareg rebels were responsible -- but it's very good news that this veteran diplomat will be returning to his family in Ottawa.

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A Victory for a White House Victory Garden*

It seems that the stars have finally aligned and the Obamas will plant a vegetable garden on the White House lawn this spring.
ABC News' Ann Compton and Sunlen Miller report that the new White House vegetable garden will be dug up and planted on the South grounds of the White House -- near the fountain but out of view of the main house.
[snip]
In the April issue of [O Magazine], Mrs. Obama tells Winfrey, "We want to use it as a point of education, to talk about health and how delicious it is to eat fresh food, and how you can take that food and make it part of a healthy diet."
Regular readers know this is an idea we have been pushing ever since Roger Doiron of Kitchen Gardeners International won the On Day One contest with this very idea, which he calls Eat the View. Here is statement from Roger on today's news.
Launched in February 2008 under the rallying cry “Eat the View”, the campaign used viral videos and social networking technologies like Facebook to grow a large support base, attract international media attention, and help inspire similar grassroots efforts. The campaign’s proposal that the Obamas replant a White House Victory Garden with part of the produce going to local food pantries won the “On Day One” contest sponsored by the United Nations Foundation in January 2009, beating out 4000 other entries.
While the Obamas’ garden and the online technologies that helped lead to it might be new, the idea of an edible landscape at the White House is not. Throughout its history, the White House has been home to food gardens of different shapes and sizes and even to a lawn-mowing herd of sheep in 1918. The appeal of the White House garden project, Doiron asserts, is that it serves as a bridge between the country’s past and its future. “The last time food was grown on the White House lawn was in 1943 when the country was at war, the economy was struggling and people were looking to the First Family for leadership. It made sense before and it makes sense again as we try to live within our own means and those of the planet.”
I caught up with Doiron a couple of weeks ago and we chatted about this idea...where else, but in front of the White House. *UPDATE: The planting has begun!
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Playing My NCAA Bracket for Nothing But Nets

Readers from outside the north America may not realize the basketball mania that is about to seize many of us here in the United States. The mania is appropriately called "March Madness" and is a 65 team single elimination tournament among college basketball's elite (and some not so elite) teams. It is convention here in the United States that friends and office mates enter into friendly competition with each other over who can correctly predict the outcomes of the 64 games played throughout the month. A small wager is generally involved. This year, I decided to play for charity. And it only seemed fitting to play for Nothing But Nets, which sends anti-malaria bed nets to communities in Africa. Here is the deal: For Nothing But Nets to "win" we need strong showing from my hometown team the University of Connecticut Huskies. A UCONN victory is not too much of a stretch, they are currently the fourth seeded team in the whole country. But the plot thickens! UCONN's star is an amazingly talented 7 foot 3 inch tall center from Dar el Salaam, Tanzania named Hasheem Thabeet (above). Tanzania is relatively stable country in a dangerous neighborhood. As a result, it has the largest refugee population of any country in Africa. These refugees are disproportionately at risk for contracting malaria, which is the leading cause of death for refugees world wide. As it happens, Nothing But Nets has a campaign to donate 22,000 bed nets to four refugee camps in northern Tanzania that shelter 110,000 people. I'm playing for them.
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UN Frees Child Soldiers in Congo

You hear a lot of terrible news out of Eastern Congo these days. And rightly so. An overwhelmed and undermanned UN peacekeeping mission is struggling to keep a peace that does not exist. Still, there are occasional stories like this that demonstrate the great value that even a struggling peacekeeping mission can bring to a situation like this.
The United Nations peacekeeping mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) has demobilized 880 children associated with armed groups in the volatile eastern province of North Kivu between 30 January and 2 March, it was announced today.
Madnodje Mounoubai, spokesperson for the mission, known by its French acronym MONUC, told a news conference in Kinshasa that the great majority of the 839 boys and 41 girls are Congolese, but there are also 31 Rwandans, two Burundians and two Ugandans.
All of the children were handed over to non-governmental organizations (NGOs) for their return and reintegration into their families and communities, after they were demobilized by MONUC’s Child Protection Unit.
Unicef just posted a pretty powerful video on the subject.
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The UN in ’08

Via UN Good Works, check out this newly embeddable video of some of the 2008 highlights of the UN's busy year. And while you're at it, tell me if you think the narrator is celebrating the 100,000 blue berries or the 100,000 blue berets deployed around the world. My guess is that he meant the latter, but I think that's why we're better off sticking with blue helmets. UN Good Works also suggests campaigning your local cable provider to include UN TV in their basic service package. Hey, it may not be ESPN, but they do have George Clooney.
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World Food Program’s Super Bowl Ad

This is my third annual posting of this World Food Program Superbowl ad from Superbowl XLI featuring New Orleans Saints star Reggie Bush. It never gets old. Consider supporting the World Food Program as you watch the Pittsburgh Steelers crush the Arizona Cardinals on Sunday. And for viewers outside the United States who have never heard of Reggie Bush, this message should resonate a bit more clearly. Here's FIFA star Ronaldhino.
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Journapalooza Tonight

Special notice for readers in the Washington, DC area .
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On January 9, prepare for an all-out musical assault at the National Press Club. Four of D.C.'s best bands -- composed of journalists from the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, McClatchy Newspapers, the Washington Independent, Bloomberg News, among others -- will try to claim for themselves the title of Best Reporter-Based Washington Rock Group. Who will prevail? The bluesy thump of Nobody's Business? The New Pornographers-esque power pop of Anchorage? The eclectic sounds of Suspicious Package? The spare, dark indie rock of The Surge? Only the first annual JOURNOPALOOZA will determine who wears the crown. And just as the best journalism is that which serves the public good, JOURNOPALOOZA is a rock festival with a charitable mission. All proceeds will benefit two very worthy causes. The Committee to Protect Journalists is an advocacy organization that aids our colleagues in their efforts to bring out the truth under the harshest of conditions. Half of the money raised with Journopalooza will go to CPJ's Journalist Assistance Fund, their emergency resource to save journalists who must go into hiding or exile to escape threats; journalists in need of medicine and other material support in prison; and journalists injured after violent attacks. The other half of the proceeds will help fund the National Press Club's efforts to hone the skills of the next generation of newsgatherers with their array of training programs and scholarships.
Check it out. These are important causes.
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The Face of the Drugs Trade

The United Nations office on Drugs and Crime just released volume just released a photo essay about the lives of people touched by the drug trade in the so-called Golden Triangle of Thailand, Laos and Myanmar. The project is produced by the acclaimed photo-journalist Alessandro Scotti, who is a UNODC Goodwill Ambassador. From the UN News Center
The second volume of the photojournalism book "De Narcoticis" is produced by award-winning photographer, journalist and UNODC Goodwill Ambassador, Alessandro Scotti. The project "gives a face" to a problem that is often depicted through data and numbers, and focuses on a range of actors, including law enforcement officers, traffickers, plantation workers and addicts, notes Mr. Scotti. "It's an underworld which has been examined closely enough to give us plenty of figures and statistics, but which is less known for its personal stories," he says. "The people involved in trafficking have only a very partial perception of the overall phenomenon, and yet their lives are powerfully affected by it. They are simple people with a limited perception of the impact of their actions. "Most are in any case tied to the 'job' for their very survival; desperate people with otherwise limited life chances or opportunities," he says.
UPDATE: The embed does not seem to be working at the moment. Direct link here.