Haiti Braces for Tropical Storm / New U.S. Central Bank Initiative / Social Media, Social Change

The U.S. is helping Haiti prepare for tropical storm Tomas. The Federal Reserve announces an aggressive new economic plan while the U.S. Treasury announces new sanctions on terror groups. Americans celebrate their heritage in many ways; explore a photo gallery showing some of them. And finally, watch a video of students from America and Kosovo discussing the potential of social media for effecting social change.

Haiti Braces for Storm, With U.S. Help
U.S. civilian and military personnel are helping the Haitian government prepare its people for tropical storm Tomas which is bearing down on the island nation. Of special concern: More than one million Haitians who have lived in temporary shelters after being displaced from their homes by the January 13 earthquake. At right, a man holds a child in a refugee camp.

New Action by U.S. Central Bank
The Federal Reserve has stepped in to boost the sputtering U.S. economy with an aggressive plan to buy $600 billion in U.S. Treasury securities aimed at reducing interest rates and spurring employment. Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke, right, says the buying of Treasury securities has helped in the past and looks to be effective again.

New Sanctions for Terror Groups
The U.S. Treasury Department announces actions against the financial and support networks of two Pakistan-based terrorist groups, including sanctions to seize or freeze the assets of their key leaders. The two terrorist groups, Lashkar-e Tayyiba and Jaish-e Mohammed, “have proven both their willingness and ability to execute attacks against innocent civilians,” says Under Secretary Stuart Levey.

Americans Preserving Cultural Heritage
Americans preserve music, dance and other cultural expressions by living and celebrating them in communities both large and small. This photo gallery explores ways Americans celebrate their cultural heritages. It includes shots from a Vietnamese Cultural Center in Boston, Massachusetts; a steel drum performance in Houston, Texas; and a Scottish Heritage Festival and Celtic Gathering in West Virginia. The photo gallery is part of an eJournal called “A Living Legacy: Preserving Intangible Culture”

Student Dialogue: New Media and Social Change
In the below video, students from the United States and Kosovo meet in Washington, D.C. to discuss the role of new media tools, such as Facebook and Twitter, and their profound effects on social change. One woman says that the international view of Kosovo as a whole has changed because observers see that young people in Kosovo are up-to-date on movies, culture and global issues and are not “all about war.” Another woman discusses how social media “gives people a voice who didn’t have a voice before.” See what others had to say.

Celebration of Education

On By The People we have talked a lot about the importance of democratic institutions. But as I have traveled through the region, I’ve realized how important access to education is to a thriving democracy. Education is necessary for these institutions – and the people who lead them – to operate properly.

I think Patricia Rader, Kosovo mission director for the United States Agency for International Development, summed up this issue well when she spoke at the opening of a new primary school October 2. “Education is the single most important aspect for the future of Kosovo,” Rader said. Rader made a good point about access to education, particularly for minorities. Education opened the doors for two of America’s most visible leaders: Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.

I made a (very amateur) video of the school opening celebration. It shows just how excited the community was for its new school, an indication of how important the people of the Drenas municipality take education. Check it out!

Music Bringing People Together?

A few days ago I discussed how basketball in Serbia is bringing youth from the former Yugoslavia together. Today I saw how music is also a cultural bond for youth.

In northern Kosovo, the town of Mitrovica is divided by the Ibar River. To the north of the river is a Serb community, the south is Albanian. Rarely do the communities interact.

But they both enjoy rock music. In fact, Mitrovica used to be referred to as Kosovo’s capital of rock, though in recent years it’s been most known for local conflicts.

Each side of the town has its own rock music school for teenagers, organized by the local NGO Community Building Mitrovica and the Dutch NGO Musicians without Borders. While the two music schools can’t perform together in Mitrovica due to security reasons, they do bring some of their most talented musicians together for a summer music camp in Skopje, Macedonia. There the students form inter-ethnic bands and perform a big concert together.

For these teens, this summer camp is often the first real interaction they have ever had with their peers from the other side of the bridge. I asked some of the Albanian students how they got along with their Serb peers. Speaking different languages and coming from different cultures, at first they weren’t sure they could get along, said 15-year-old Gjylizha Cena. But they quickly became friends. And until they can play in bands together again, they keep in touch over the Internet, she said.

Why was it so easy to become friends? Because, despite their differences, they have one important similarity. “The music is the same for everybody,” said 17-year-old Shaban Behzami.

Building a New Country

Greetings from the Republic of Kosovo, one of the world’s youngest countries. The country declared its independence in February 2008. Today about 60 nations – including the United States – recognize Kosovo’s independence.

Building a new nation is not easy, but Kosovo has gotten a lot of help from the United States and other international partners. The international community’s presence is widely felt here, as it is difficult to go far without spotting a sign outside a building representing the European Union, United Nations or some other organization. These international organizations have played a large role in helping Kosovo write its first Constitution and establish a National Assembly. The assembly is designed to ensure minorities participate in government affairs.

You don’t have to look far to see progress either. Driving around the capital of Pristina, you will likely pass by construction as the city works to improve its infrastructure. And in what I consider a sign of a vibrant democracy, citizens are busy talking about the upcoming municipal election, speculating about whether the improved conditions will help politicians keep their positions.

How to Build a Democracy Part 2: Let’s Find Out!

A few weeks ago, I discussed the complexities of establishing a democracy. I asked people to weigh in on what a new democracy needs in order to thrive. I was really impressed with the answers I received.

Whether through comments on this blog or in other conversations, I kept hearing the same message again and again: democracy is more than just a system of governance. It is a way of life.

Democracy “is flowering of a nation’s cultural ethos, which comprises tolerance, open dialogue and rule of reason,” Jitendra Kaushal wrote. “Democracy is not a set of institutions. It is a mindset,” says Sankar of India.

Readers also noted that building institutions is not enough to make a democracy work. People I talked to often cited improving education and strengthening tolerance of others from different backgrounds as two important elements for a strong democracy.

On Wednesday I am embarking on a journey that I hope will help all of us more closely explore this question. I will be visiting Serbia, Kosovo, and Bosnia and Herzegovina (typically referred to as BiH.) Serbia and BiH became new nations after the collapse of Yugoslavia in 1992. Kosovo – one of the youngest nations in the world – declared its independence from Serbia just a year and a half ago. All face a number of challenges, yet much progress is being made, in part with the help of U.S. and other foreign aid and assistance.

I will be blogging, tweeting and even uploading photos during the trip, so I hope you will follow along and share your thoughts.

Bad news, good news and even better news

Bad news first: tomorrow will be my last Obama Today blog posting for a few weeks.

Good news: The blog will continue to be updated, thanks to my friend Stephen Kaufman, who has graciously volunteered to keep the conversation running. Stephen follows the Obama administration as closely as I do, so I know he will have great stories to share.

Even better news: I’m still blogging (and tweeting!) Over the next few weeks, you can find me on America.gov’s By The People blog. I will be traveling through the Balkans, visiting the young countries of Serbia, Kosovo and Bosnia and Herzegovina. I will be exploring the challenges each faces in establishing new democratic institutions and the progress being made. I’m looking forward to the assignment and hope many of you will virtually join me on the blog!

How to Build a Democracy

“Which came first – the chicken or the egg?”

It’s a question that many say has no right answer. A chicken lays an egg, but an egg hatches a chicken. They are intrinsically connected.

Let’s say you are creating a new country, and you want it to be a democratic one. What do you do first? You’re going to need some leaders who respect the will of the people. Institutions are necessary too – like a judiciary. Some processes – from the complex ones like tax collecting to the mundane like garbage collection – will have to be established.

I have been thinking a lot lately about how a new government is formed because later this month I will be travelling to some of the world’s youngest democracies – Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia and Kosovo. The United States has built its system of governance over hundreds of years, and as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has said before, it “is still not perfect.”

All this makes me think that building a democracy must be one of the world’s toughest tasks. So while you may never have a perfect democracy, one has to start from somewhere. What does a new democracy need in order to thrive?