There's no law stating that NGOs have to be run by middle-aged philanthropists with countless postgraduate degrees and years of experience. But they usually are. Which is why it's so refreshing to interview a NGO boss who's still living at home with his parents.
Twenty-six-year old Ben Peterson is co-founder and executive director of Journalists for Human Rights (JHR), a new organization that uses the media to educate Africans about their rights. The idea is simple: get the local media to step up its coverage of human rights issues thereby generating greater public awareness and wider respect for individual rights.
"If people don't understand that they have rights, then they can't articulate their grievances in any way that is useful. They get bullied, and they can't say, hey, stop, and this is why you should stop—because I have rights."
Ghana, one of the world's poorest countries, was JHR's first target. With over 15 major ethnic groups, discrimination against people of different ethnic origin is rampant: a 1997 United Nations report showed one in four Ghanaians felt discriminated against on the basis of their tribal origins. More overtly violent practices have also survived in Ghana, like forced female circumcision and the giving of young girls as slaves by parents seeking forgiveness for wrongdoing.
Peterson, when he was working for the United Nations in Ghana, was particularly shocked at the high levels of spousal abuse.
"Men talk openly about beating women," he says.
Peterson went to Ghana in 2000 to report on the implementation of the UN Convention on Elimination of all forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD). The political science graduate from Toronto was also amazed at how poorly educated Ghanaians are about their basic rights.
"If people don't understand that they have rights, then they can't articulate their grievances in any way that is useful. They get bullied and they can't say, hey, stop, and this is why you should stop—because I have rights."
He's referring to rights as basic as the right to eat, the right to sleep and the right to marry the person of your choice. The United Nations enshrined these and other basic rights in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1947.
While Peterson was assessing Ghana's record in upholding basic rights, Quebec native Alexandra Sicotte-Levesque was reporting to the United Nations on issues in the neighbouring Ivory Coast.
Both noted the immense power of the media over public opinion and decided it was the perfect tool to educate people about their rights. JHR followed in 2002, with funding from Canada's Department of Foreign Affairs. Peterson admitted their youth took most people by surprise. He was 25 at the time and Levesque, a mere 24.
"It definitely was an issue at the beginning. People thought, what the heck, who are these 25-year-old punks who think they can start and run an NGO!"
What gained them esteem was the fact that their project was unique. JHR describes itself as a second-tier aid organization, building on the work of "first-line" media organizations like Reporters Without Borders. RWB campaigns worldwide for freedom of the press. Once a country like Ghana attains a certain degree of press freedom, JHR steps in to work with journalists on promoting human rights.
Apart from growing the quantity of media space devoted to human rights, JHR is also on a mission to improve the quality of reporting. JHR urges African journalists to humanize reports on expropriations or child labour, by seeking out and giving a voice to the victims of abuses. It was a relatively new exercise for journalists in Ghana, the country where JHR first went to work in 2002.
"The media in Ghana is not for the masses, it is produced about and for the privileged. A journalist does not seem expected to present a representative picture of society," says Jocelyn Sweet on the eve of her departure from Ghana in December.
Sweet, 23, from Nova Scotia was one of three journalist interns chosen by JHR to spend six months at a Ghanaian daily. She combed the country with journalist Bennett Akuaku, of the Ghanaian Chronicle (Ghana's largest independent newspaper), in search of stories centering on human rights. From child boxing to maternal mortality and corruption in a foster home for former child workers, they found they had no shortage of material.
With the help of JHR, the Chronicle and another newspaper, the Accra Daily Mail, began publishing bi-monthly supplements on human rights. The impact on public opinion and on other media has been huge, according to Akuaku.
"JHR has made an impact on The Chronicle, so much so that it is almost changing the face of journalism in this country. People are getting fed-up with political stories that fill our newspapers. They want stories that address social problems."
Together JHR and Ghanaian journalists dig below the surface of seemingly random incidents to reveal deep-rooted inequalities in Ghanaian society. Brenda Osei Akoto and Jocelyn Sweet investigated the sudden attack on a mining company by a local community after 13 years of peaceful co-existence. They observed, among other things:
"Mining doesn't appear to have helped Tontokrom much. The town's main road is untarred and the dirt surface is so filled with holes that vehicles risk damage by travelling over it. The town has only one drinking spot and just two small shops. The center of town is quiet. Many of the men look strong and able, yet they are idle."
Akuaku says teaming up with a foreign journalist often facilitates the work of the local journalist. Government agencies, he says, promptly produce information for non-native journalists that they sometimes deny local journalists. He has also found that victims of abuses are more likely to open up to a foreign journalist than a fellow Ghanaian.
Ben Peterson is insistent however, that JHR is not out to do the work of local journalists in their place. The goal is to get Ghanaians to write about issues affecting fellow Ghanaians.
"We could just buy ad space and hammer human rights through print space. That might be more effective in the short run, but not in the long run. We want to train, enable and empower [African] journalists to write about human rights for the rest of their careers."Add this article to your reading list