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The amazing reason why a Zimbabwe soap business is cleaning up

The amazing reason why a Zimbabwe soap business is cleaning up

June 5 2017 | By: GUEST BLOGGER


Stop Pres. Trump’s proposed cuts to foreign aid


Story and photos by Ray Mwareya

Rudo Mazhande, 32, stands smiling in a warehouse among several hundred huge bars of green soap. A crisp, clean scent wafts through the air. This is Rudo’s factory, where she now employs seven people. And once you hear her story, it’s easy to see why she might be happy.

Despite being a trained chemical engineer, Rudo struggled for years to use her skills. “I have never got a job in my field,” she says. “Because of limited choices, I ended up becoming a high school teacher. I quit in less than a year. I felt my skills were lost there.”

Rudo is part of Zimbabwe’s so-called “wasted golden generation” — highly educated young women and men who find it difficult to get jobs in an economy where the unemployment rate is 90 percent, according to the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions.


In 2016, Rudo became so desperate that she decided to convert her spare room to begin making detergents, polish, and soap. For a young woman living in Highfields, one of the poorest townships in Harare, it was a brave move.

“That a jobless woman could manufacture soap in a township bedroom… it was a trial and error belief,” she laughs. “My first product was a horrible failure. The soap came out appearing like a messy porridge. But I persevered.”

In March 2016, a chance encounter with USAID changed everything.


“While strolling I discovered a poster stuck on a tree,” she says. “It invited young entrepreneurs to attend free finance management skills training.”

USAID Zimbabwe was funding the course through its partnership with Junior Achievement Zimbabwe, a forum for youth business growth aggregators.

“It was the spark I needed,” says Rudo. The training gave Rudo the confidence to invest $300 savings into her new business. “Loans, borrowings, even pocket money. Everything was thrown into the adventure.”


But the initial reaction of her community to her soap was dismal, she says. “Shop owners didn’t trust us. They preferred to stock soap from Dubai, South Africa or India. We shun locally manufactured products as Zimbabweans. You have to explain to people why you are making soap from your family home and why your product has a poor township address. It is sad.”

“That is when the USAID training made a difference,” she says. “From our course, I obeyed the advice to invest in proper marketing. I sent foot soldiers, our marketing team that showed samples of our soap to hotels, restaurants, and schools.”

The response has been overwhelming, and in June 2016, Rudo was able to move her business to a proper industrial workshop. She also stopped making detergents and concentrated soap due to the amount of competition. Instead, her main product is a 750-gram laundry soap bar that sells for 50 cents, as well as a smaller bar for 40 cents.


“This is geared towards the hygiene needs of poor communities,” she says. “Our prices are more competitive than foreign soaps lumped into Zimbabwe’s economy.”

“Yesterday,” she says before pausing, “Yesterday, I sold two tons of soap.” She whistles with joy: “It was massive — two tons gone in a day! The demand and market for soap is mightier than what we can produce.”

With her new factory, her finances have improved, too.


“My income has shot up,” she says. “I now have seven employees, all hailing from Highfields township. It is my way of giving back.”

She’s also taken steps to modernize her operations, like renting a bowl mixer to help her team produce soap faster. She’d love to buy the mixers outright, but since they sell at $3,000 each in Zimbabwe, renting is the only option for the moment.

But her scientific background is apparent in her zeal when discussing her soaps’ formula: “No one has given me technical advice in making soap,” she says. “I experiment this or that ratio with oil or emulsifiers until everything settles. Great businesses are born of chaotic experiments.”

Stop Pres. Trump’s proposed cuts to foreign aid

Dear Congress, Please oppose President Trump’s proposed cuts - nearly ⅓ - to life-saving programs in the International Affairs Budget.


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1058 EDUCATION How soccer is changing the lives of girls in Kenya February 23 2017 | By: MEGAN IACOBINI DE FAZIO GIRLS COUNT Every gi

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These 10 anti-women laws will shock you

March 30 2017 | By: RACHEL TILLMAN


Every girl counts.

130 million girls don’t have access to an education. So we’re asking the world to count them, one by one.


Less than a month ago we celebrated International Women’s Day! This year’s theme was #BeBoldForChange and called on global citizens to advocate for a more equal, gender inclusive world.

Even though there are so many incredible people working towards a more equal, gender inclusive world, there are still plenty of places around the globe where women are not granted the same rights as men.

The organization Equality Now is dedicated to making discrimination against women history, and
tracks laws—including the 10 listed below—that discriminate against women and works to help change laws and attitudes. These laws range from the absurd to the horrifying, from not allowing driving to legally permitting abuse in certain cases.

1. Women can be kidnapped

In Malta, if a man who abducts a woman intends to marry her, his sentence is automatically reduced. If the man marries his victim after the abduction, he is subsequently exempt from any and all prosecution and punishment. A similar law is in place in Lebanon, where a man who commits a rape or kidnapping cannot be prosecuted if he marries the victim after the crime.

2. Women are forbidden to drive

In countries such as Saudi Arabia, it is illegal for women to receive driver’s licenses. In 1990, a fatwa on Women’s Driving Automobiles was declared, for fear that men and women would use cars for secret rendezvous and would tempt both parties into committing lewd behavior.


3. Women inherit less than their brothers

Different versions of this law exist in various countries. In Tunisia, for example, women only inherit half of what their brothers do.

4. Men receive less punishment for “honor killings”

This law has come under intense fire in many different countries. In Egypt, a man who kills his wife upon discovering her in an act of adultery is automatically given a lesser sentence than for other forms of murder. In Syria, a man who murders his mother, sister, or wife due to catching them in an “illegitimate sexual act” can receive no more than seven years in prison. Until 2009, there were no legal ramifications for this crime in Syria.


5. A woman’s testimony counts for half of that of a man’s

In Iran, a woman’s testimony in court is less valuable than that of a man in cases such as adultery. In most of these cases, there must be testimony from at least double the number of women as there are men. In cases where the punishment may be severe, a minimum of two men and four women must testify.

6. Husbands have more rights than their wives

In Israel, divorce depends solely on the will of the husband. Half a world away in Mali, a 2011 law upheld the man’s status as head of the household and mandates a wife’s obedience to him. It also declared that women must wait three months to get remarried after a divorce or death; men have no such restriction.

Kangaroo_Mother_Care.492.jpg7. Men can choose where women work

In countries such as Cameroon and Guinea, men have more of a say in where their wives will work than the women themselves. For example, in Cameroon, a husband may prohibit his wife from taking a job in a different trade or profession than him if it is in the best interest of his marriage and children. Cameroon is one of 18
 where women cannot get a job if their husbands feel it is not in their family’s interest.

8. Women can be beaten

Laws such as this are not uncommon—in fact, 46 countries have no laws protecting women from domestic violence.

TTW_Cookstoves_101.jpg9. Women cannot perform physical labor

In China, women are forbidden from working in mines, and more broadly are prohibited from performing
physical labor or work that female workers “should avoid.” In Russia, a similar law stops women from partaking in hard, dangerous, or unhealthy trades. This sweeping law includes many different types of jobs, from frontline firefighting to sailing—456 types of work in total!

10. Women cannot pass on citizenship in the same way as men

Even in the United States, men and women are viewed differently under the law. A child born out of wedlock to a foreign mother and American father has a grueling process to becoming an American citizen, and there are more requirements to meet if the mother is not a US citizen and the father is. At least 22 countries do not allow married women to pass citizenship to their children as fathers can and 44 countries do not allow married women to pass citizenship to their spouses as married men can.

For a complete list of anti-women laws by country, visit Equality Now’s website. And to join the campaign for girls’ education, head to #GirlsCount.

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What we don’t know about refugees and humanitarian aid

26 June 2017 3:31PM UTC | By: GALEN ENGLUND


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According to the UNHCR, at least 65 million people around the world have been forced to flee their homes and become refugees or internally displaced.

But like many of the numbers about migration and displacement, that headline stat comes with some caveats. For starters, 65 million is probably a serious understatement of how many refugees and internally displaced persons live around the world.


A group of refugees perform a traditional dance in the Dadaab camp in Kenya. (Photo credit: ONE)

Here at ONE, we rely on data to make the case for getting more resources to those in need. To do our best work, we have to understand just how many people have fled from violence and disasters, what they most need, and what money is being sent to help. Backing up advocacy with strong data that proves the impact of assistance on human security is a necessity—especially these days.

Sadly, the state of humanitarian data today is lacklustre at best. Critical sets of data to answer basic questions are in bad shape. Numbers of how many people are displaced can be found at a macro (country) level, but are often inaccessible at a micro (province or smaller) level. Even those estimates likely miss likely entire displaced groups: Think of women who flee domestic abuse to live with their families, the thousands in Central America forced away by drug violence, and longstanding internally displaced groups that governments don’t want to acknowledge.

Different organisations collect information in different ways, and often don’t share it with each other. A lack of transparency and detailed reporting by donor agencies makes tracing the “last mile” of funding at the local level nearly impossible. Last year, donors and humanitarian agencies pledged at the World Humanitarian Summit to improve transparency. But there’s a long way to go.


A screenshot of our new tool, MOVEMENT.

That’s why we created a new platform – MOVEMENT – which helps bring together available data in one place, while at the same time shining a light on the major gaps and discrepancies in refugee data. For example, when we tried to get data to display in MOVEMENT on what assistance that refugees and displaced people most need, we had to manually take numbers from 67 different reports across 30 humanitarian appeals and make a whole new database. From those, we found 356 differently worded metrics to describe people’s needs—sometimes a number would be for shelters, another time for building camps, and another time for building camps and providing other material support. We then had to distill as many of those as possible into similar sets, so we could show a comparable picture of needs between countries. That’s an awful lot of work for something that could be automated.

Happily, there are a lot of smart people working to address these crucial gaps. UN OCHA and others are improving their data systems — and we’re cheering them on.

A few steps need to happen sooner rather than later:

  • Data on displaced people needs to be collected in a more standardized format across organisations and countries, so it can be comparable.
  • There need to be investments in data collection and reporting systems so that data can be published in as real time as possible.
  • There need to be platforms for displaced people to directly express what they need and whether those needs are being met.
  • Donors should report in detail where aid money goes, all the way to the final destination, and do so through open data standards like UN OCHA’s Financial Tracking Service, the , and, when sensible, the International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI).

Kakuma Refugee Camp. (Photo credit: Katie G. Nelson)

In the long term, quality humanitarian and displacement data can actually save lives. Amazing things can be built with better data: early warning systems that predict refugee flight paths from conflicts or disasters; mobile apps for improving assistance programs that allow refugees and displaced persons to review how aid actually meets their needs; and tracking systems with block chain ledger tech that can cut down on corruption and make sure money gets to those who need it most.

Today, people are dying because of what the humanitarian aid sector doesn’t know. We must support and build on data improvements that are already underway, and push for innovation in new initiatives.

Want to learn more? Read our data brief, MOVEMENT: Minding the data gaps around displacement, funding, and humanitarian needs.



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This 17-year-old petitioned her govt. for clean water and WON

June 27 2017 | By: GUEST BLOGGER


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By Eva Tolage, student activist and ONE member

My name’s Eva. I’m 17 years old. I’ve lived all my life with my family in Malinzanga, a small village in Tanzania.


Almost two years ago, I decided I wanted to do something about a problem that was stopping me and girls in my community from getting our education.

Every day, we faced a two-hour journey to fetch unsafe water. Every day it meant we missed classes at school. Even the journey to get the water was dangerous. We risked being assaulted or attacked by wild animals.

But now, we’ve changed that! I launched a campaign to make sure our leaders delivered their promise to provide clean water. I stood strong with my friends and supporters around the world – many of you will have been among them.

We demanded clean water and now we have it!

Last week a new water supply was installed near my school. My community finally has clean safe drinking water.

It’s great news for me, my education and our whole community. Now it only takes 15 minutes to collect water so we can stay in school. And because the water is clean, it will also help stop us getting diseases like diarrhea.

Getting water for my community has been an incredible journey.

When I first wrote a letter to President Barack Obama in September 2015, calling for leaders to commit and deliver their promises, I didn’t know what would happen next. Then he replied. He even mentioned my letter at the global summit where the Sustainable Development Goals were agreed. Something big like this had never happened in my family. I felt happy and it inspired me to do more locally about the lack of water.


Then last year, me and my classmates launched a petition to call on leaders to give us a safe water supply. I was excited when people around the world supported the campaign using #StandWithEva – in the end, with the support of my community, Restless Development and ONE, 150,000 people signed the petition! I never expected that so many people would support us, people from all over the world. We even got our District Commissioner to sign. And I traveled to Dar es Salaam to talk about the campaign with Tanzania’s Vice President.

Next, we took this all the way to the capital. 14 girls traveled to Dodoma to hand the petition to the Prime Minister and my MP and also got an opportunity to attend the parliamentary sessions and learn how our representatives participate in debates and make decisions. It is great that Tanzania has shown leadership on the Sustainable Development Goals and to secure a better future for our community.


Eva Tolage, centre, with PM Kassim Majaliwa; local MP William Lukuvi; January Makamba, MP and minister for Union Affairs and Environment; classmates; teacher Dennis Myovela. (Photo credit: Restless Development)

I’ve learned that the voice of young people like me is important and should be heard. With friends, my community and supporters, we have proved that our power really can change things, that if we stand together leaders will listen. I am so grateful to every individual who in any way supported me. I know this is not my win, it is our win.

Me and millions of other young people know our rights and are not afraid to fight for them. Access to clean water is my right, and now I have it.


Eva with her mum, dad, and two siblings.

I am a leader and there are millions more young people like me around the world who are leading change on the issues that matter to them, just like I did. I have learned that when we use our power together, our voices become even more powerful and can make change for the better.

If we stand up and make our voices heard, we can hold our leaders to account on promises they have made to us.



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Nigeria’s first female Foreign Affairs Minister has some smart advice for young women

12 December 2016 6:41PM UTC | By: GUEST BLOGGER


Join the fight against extreme poverty


This is a guest post by Dana J. Hyde, Chief Executive Officer at Millennium Challenge Corporation. It originally appeared on MCC.gov.


Internationally recognised development economist Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala served as Nigeria’s Minister of Foreign Affairs and twice as Nigeria’s Finance Minister — the first woman to hold either post. She has held several key positions at the World Bank, and in 2014, Time magazine named her one of the 100 most influential people in the world. Currently, Okonjo-Iweala is the Board Chair of Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, and Senior Advisor at the financial advisory and asset management firm Lazard.

During a recent visit to MCC, Okonjo-Iweala joined MCC CEO Dana J. Hyde for an engaging conversation about the challenges facing Africa, how to ensure inclusive economic growth, and what young women should keep in mind when choosing a workplace. Here are some of the highlights* from their conversation.

Dr. Ngozi, through your extensive experience, what have you learned about creating economic growth in developing countries?

What I’ve learned is how difficult it is, and that there are no easy answers. Those who say they have the magic wand to make inclusive growth and development happen are really not telling it as it is.

The first and foremost thing for growth and inclusive development is a stable macroeconomic environment. If you don’t have stability in your basic prices in the economy, the exchange rate is not well-aligned; if inflation is high, which taxes the poor; if your fiscal deficit is out of control — and you have not fixed all those, all the money you are pouring into securing development isn’t going to work.

I also learned that inclusivity for poor people means that they want jobs — they are not looking for handouts. So inclusive growth means the ability to create jobs.

What is the role of infrastructure in inclusive development?

The creation of jobs in many of our countries cannot really happen the way we would like without adequate infrastructure. I say to young men and women, “Don’t wait for the government or a company to give you a job, create a job first for yourself and then for six or more people.” To do that, you need infrastructure. You can’t do it if you don’t have power — that’s the most important thing. And power is what’s most lacking in African countries. So we need power, we need roads, we need ports, we need connectivity and infrastructure for information and communications technology, and I want to commend MCC for expending its resources on these.

What do donors get right, and what do they get wrong?

It’s also what countries get right, and what they get wrong. No country can develop just with donor support. If a country cannot set out its policies, its priorities, its strategies, then there is a problem. Because what you need is for donors to come behind those and support you — that’s the best way to operate. It’s also the hardest. It’s easier to come in, craft something and implement, but MCC should stick with its country-led approach.

MCC has a very special niche because you are an organisation that can do hard things like infrastructure. Grant money is powerful, and you have a portfolio of over $11 billion. I think MCC should use that leverage wisely for two things: one is to support countries, strongly insisting that they have a view, and they don’t just give into whatever you say; second is to leverage other donors and the private sector to put up more resources.

There is much commentary about the slowdown of economic growth in Africa. What makes you most hopeful about the continent?

There are two things that make me hopeful. First, it’s the young people — I get so excited when I meet them. Although they are frustrated with older generations for having messed things up in many ways, they are full of ideas and energy about what to do next. The second thing that gives me hope is that, for the most part, policymakers on the continent have learned that macroeconomic fundamentals like controlling inflation matter. This is the reason that Africa’s economic growth is a trend, not a fluke. The continent is experiencing a difficult period now, but if policymakers focus on good policies, there will be a turnaround.

You have been such an inspiration to young women around the world. What is your advice to young women?

When women get top posts, even in developed countries, people somehow think they have too much power. You will be judged more harshly, and people expect more of you as a woman. So it’s not easy, but does that mean that you should shy away from doing those tough things if the opportunity comes? The answer is no. But you have to be wise about it, you have to have principles.

I advise everybody, but women in particular, to try to work in places where they can quantify and measure what you are doing, so it doesn’t depend entirely on somebody’s judgement. The World Bank, where I started out in the Young Professionals Program, was good in that way. You were given a task and you produced it to quality, or you did not. Even if people did not like you — your gender, your colour or whatever — if you did a good project, a good report, a good result on the ground, it spoke for itself.

Finally, there’s no easy answer to balancing work and family. You need to do what you are comfortable with. I think the best thing I have done in my whole life are my children. All my other titles pale in contrast when I think of my children.

*This is an abridged and lightly edited version of their conversation at MCC.

Want more? Read our list of 12 women who changed the world.



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"Our ambition is for every child and young person in Ireland to have access to tuition and this next phase of expansion brings us ever closer." - The Edge

Ahead of U2's VERY hotly anticipated gig tomorrow, Hot Press Magazine reports on our recent announcement, that thanks to the band's and The Ireland Funds's ongoing support, together with Bank of America & the Department of Education and Skills, we're set to complete our second phase of expansion!



Music/News: 19 Jul 2017 
Mark Conroy

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U2's Joshua Tree Tour will help fund musical tuition for young people across Ireland.

Music Generation says that proceeds from the tour has allowed them enter a second stage of expansion.

The lucrative 30th anniversary tour for U2's Joshua Tree has made over €100 million so far but some of that money is going to a good cause with profits from the globe-trotting excursion ensuring that thousands of children and young people will gain access to musical tuition.

This is according to Music Generation, Ireland's national music education programme which works to provide access to high-quality, subsidized performance music education. They know say that they will be able to expand into nine new areas in the country within five years, thanks to ongoing support from U2 as well as the Ireland funds who together raised total of €6.3m for the programme's second phase.

The band have been working with the philanthropic group for a number of years now, with The Edge calling this "a really important moment for Music Generation" and went on to say that "Our ambition is for every child and young person in Ireland to have access to tuition and this next phase of expansion brings us ever closer." Bono and co. had previously raised money for the same group through the band’s iNNOCENCE + eXPERIENCE Tour in 2015.


Currently Music Generation creates access to high-quality, subsidised music tuition for more than 41,000 children and young people annually in 12 areas of Ireland . This 'first phase' of the programme was seed-funded through a €7m philanthropic donation by U2 and The Ireland Funds in 2009.


Via Music Generation

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This came around very quickly! The Music Generation Laois Trad Summer School kicks off today and runs for the weekend. Wishing all the participants the very best for a wonderful weekend 1f642.png:-)

Read more here: http://www.musicgeneration.ie/…/beoga-to-perform-live-in-c…/


Via Music Generation

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U2 and Music Generation announce major expansion in Ireland

IrishCentral Staff
July 19, 2017 02:00 PM

Music Generation has announced that it will expand into nine new areas of Ireland within five years, thanks to the ongoing support of U2 and The Ireland Funds who together will have raised a total of €6.3 million for the program’s second phase.


This combined investment in ‘Phase 2’ of Music Generation will include donations from the proceeds of U2’s The Joshua Tree Tour 2017, as well as donations previously raised for Music Generation through the band’s iNNOCENCE + eXPERIENCE Tour in 2015, alongside further philanthropic investment by The Ireland Funds. A grant from Bank of America, through the Bank of America Charitable Foundation, forms part of The Ireland Funds’ investment in this second phase of Music Generation.

Moreover, this next phase of Music Generation has been assured of long-term sustainability following a commitment by the Irish Government, through the Department of Education and Skills, to co-fund the new areas into the future, together with Local Music Education Partnerships.

Currently Music Generation creates access to high-quality, subsidised music tuition for more than 41,000 children and young people annually in 12 areas of Ireland (Carlow, Clare, Cork City, Laois, Limerick City, Louth, Mayo, Offaly/Westmeath, Sligo, South Dublin and Wicklow). This ‘first phase’ of the programme was seed-funded through a €7m philanthropic donation by U2 and The Ireland Funds in 2009.




In January 2017, just over a year after confirming plans for further expansion, Music Generation launched an open national call for applications from new Music Education Partnerships to participate in ‘Phase 2’. As a result of U2 and The Ireland Funds’ combined donations, a total of 9 new areas will soon be selected for participation and rolled out on a phased basis between 2017 and 2021.

Speaking of this milestone achievement for music education in Ireland, U2’s The Edge said ‘This is a really important moment for Music Generation. Our ambition is for every child and young person in Ireland to have access to tuition and this next phase of expansion brings us ever closer. Huge thanks to both the Government and The Ireland Funds for their ongoing commitment to a programme of which we, as a band, are immensely proud.’

Chairman of The Ireland Funds America, John Fitzpatrick, commented that: ‘We are delighted that Music Generation has reached this latest milestone. It has been our privilege to support this outstanding project for the last 7 years and to see it unlock the talent of 41,000 young people across Ireland. Its success is a tribute to the creativity of our young people and the generosity of our donors.’

Kieran McLoughlin, Worldwide President and CEO, The Ireland Funds, said ‘Music Generation is a wonderful Public Philanthropic Partnership making a huge difference to hundreds of communities. We are most grateful to Bank of America for joining U2, ourselves and Government in bringing this great project to thousands more children across Ireland. We look forward to working with Government to build upon the remarkable success of the programme to date.’

Minister for Education and Skills, Richard Bruton, TD, commented ‘My Department whole-heartedly supports access to performance music education for Ireland’s children and young people and currently invests €2.5m annually in Music Generation. We are delighted to work in partnership with U2, The Ireland Funds and Local Music Education Partnerships to extend this access into new areas of the country. By co-funding the new phase into the future, Government is demonstrating its commitment to ensuring the future of non-mainstream music education in Ireland. Developing musical education is a great way to help children and young people to learn a new skill, gain confidence in themselves, and have a lot of fun while doing it.’

Brian Moynihan, Chief Executive Officer of Bank of America said: ‘We are pleased to once again work with U2 and The Ireland Funds to support Music Generation, which helps enrich education and contribute to the culture of Ireland. Our purpose is to help the communities where we live and work succeed, through the power of connections we can help them make.’

Responding to the announcement, Rosaleen Molloy, National Director of Music Generation, remarked: ‘We are immensely grateful for the extraordinary generosity of U2, The Ireland Funds and Bank of America whose commitment to invest a further €6.3m in the programme’s next phase will enable us to work towards our shared vision for universal access to music tuition for all children and young people in Ireland. It is through their ongoing, visionary leadership that we have already achieved such incredibly powerful outcomes for the children, young people, families, communities and many other partners with whom we work. We would also like to sincerely thank the Department of Education and Skills and Local Music Education Partnerships, without whose commitment to partnership-working and sustainable future co-funding none of this would be possible.’

Read more: The Ireland Funds raise $2.65m – announce $1m for Irish Arts Center

For more information visit www.musicgeneration.ie.

Related: Music


Via Music Generation

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Nutrition science isn’t broken, it’s just wicked hard

By Jenna Gallegos July 21 at 8:00 AM
Lattes at Counter Culture Coffee Training Center in Washington, D.C. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)

My dad is an old-school rancher who uses a flip-phone, refuses to wear a seat belt and swears by the Atkins diet. Like many Americans on both sides of the political aisle, he’s skeptical of science. But not because he thinks Al Gore invented climate change, vaccines cause autism or GMOs are an elaborate corporate conspiracy. He’s skeptical of science because of eggs.

As a truck driver in the 1970s, catching the news on late-night hauls somewhere between Willie Nelson ballads and CB radio chatter, he learned that cholesterol was public health enemy No. 1 and that eggs were golden syrupy orbs of artery-clogging cholesterol, heart-disease in a shell.

Three decades, the invention of the Internet and a cornucopia of superfoods later, a few studies showed that eating an egg or two a day did not lead to high cholesterol, and Americans put eggs back on the table.

My dad is skeptical of science because scientists can’t even seem to settle on whether it’s a good idea to eat an egg, and people have been eating eggs for eons.

So why is such a seemingly simple question so difficult to answer? As someone who has spent months on experiments that ended up in the “appendix of failures” at the back of my dissertation, I can testify that science is hard. And nutrition science is really, really hard.  “A wickedly difficult field,” as David Ludwig, professor of nutrition at Harvard School of Public Health, put it.

Because human nutrition is exceedingly complex, “truth can only emerge from many different studies with many different methods,” he said.

That’s why I get frustrated when I see headlines like “Drinking more coffee leads to a longer life.”

Had the authors dug deeper, they might have noticed the multitude of studies showing that coffee, like eggs, wine and practically everything else we eat, somehow simultaneously causes and prevents illness. In fact, hundreds of nutrition studies come out every week. Even more are conducted, but “only the exciting stuff gets published,” said John Dawson, assistant professor of nutrition at Texas Tech. And only the flashiest publications draw headlines.

[Controversial pesticides may threaten queen bees. The alternatives could be worse.]

The stereotypical problem with news covering nutrition, said David Klurfeld, a nutritional scientist with the USDA, is that studies not designed to answer specific questions are portrayed as though they do.

The coffee studies in the news last week were what scientists know as observational studies. In these studies, researchers followed coffee drinkers and non-coffee drinkers and monitored when and how they died. The problem is, when you go about searching for differences between any two groups, you’re going to find them. “That doesn’t prove that coffee is providing the benefit,” said Ludwig. For example, people who drink coffee regularly might have higher incomes, drink fewer sugary beverages, or lead more active lifestyles.

Observational studies like these are useful for identifying interesting trends, but they do not demonstrate cause and effect. To test whether coffee prevents a certain disease, the researchers would need to conduct a randomized controlled trial. In this type of experiment, volunteers (preferably hundreds of them or more) are randomly assigned to one of two groups. In this case, one that drinks coffee and one that abstains.

“Then you have to get them to comply,” Klurfeld said. People who drink coffee will be hesitant to give it up, and people who don’t might be reluctant to start the habit. And there is no way of knowing whether they’ve done what you’ve asked them to.

Assuming the volunteers in the study actually play by the rules, there’s still a possibility that some other important difference exists between the two groups by chance. In the end, “these variables make it very difficult to come up with a definitive answer,” Klurfeld said.

So while randomized controlled trials are the gold standard of nutrition research, they’re still not a silver bullet. They’re rare, long, painstaking and extraordinarily expensive. “Large clinical trials across multiple sites can easily cost millions,” Dawson said. And they sometimes raise ethical quandaries. If we had reason to suspect that coffee might be bad for you, for example, should a group of people be assigned to drink coffee regularly?

And even with randomized control trials, “one study can never answer a truly important question by itself,” Ludwig said. The next question he asks is, “Do we have a plausible reason to expect there might be an effect?” For example, is caffeine or some other compound in coffee known to influence cells in a way that could protect against heart disease or cancer or other common killers?

[Brain-training games don't really train brains, a new study suggests]

Studies in animals or cell cultures in test tubes are useful for answering this type of question. But humans have diverged a long way from mice, and the complexity of human nutrition cannot be replicated in a test tube, so these findings aren’t definitive on their own either.

Only when multiple observational studies, randomized controlled trials and experiments in animal models or individual cells all point to the same answer do responsible scientists begin to draw conclusions about nutrition. The results of all of these studies taken together can help inform us about how to improve our diets.

Unfortunately, news can’t wait until a consensus is reached. So here are a few strategies you can use to identify which headlines you should pay attention to. First, make sure the study was conducted in actual living humans. Then, determine whether the study was observational or based on a randomized controlled trial.

Stories covering observational studies will make very generalized statements about the populations studied, like: “In Europe, where the Mediterranean diet is common …” or “people who eat breakfast regularly …”

If you can’t tell from the news coverage, follow the link to the study abstract and look for terms like “prospective cohort,” “cross-sectional” or “case control.” These are hallmarks of observational studies.

Whether the news is reporting on an observational study or a randomized controlled trial, Dawson and Ludwig recommend applying the “sniff test.” Ask yourself whether the claims make sense with what you know of your own experiences and human evolution. For example, we’ve been drinking and studying coffee for decades. If it killed people or made them super healthy, wouldn’t we have noticed by now?

There are lots of dietary trends that don’t pass the sniff test. Consider the fat phobia that erupted about the same time eggs made the bad food list. Ludwig called the low-fat craze a “nutritional disaster” because it caused many Americans to give up things we now know to be exceedingly healthy, like avocados, nuts and full-fat yogurt, while reaching for sugar-packed alternatives. Claims that cutting any given food from our diets will cure us sound too good to be true because they are.

Most importantly, “don’t change your diet based on one study,” Klurfeld advised, especially if that study has a small effect or contradicts a whole lot of other studies. In the case of coffee, barring the fact that these two new studies are observational, they still only showed that drinking coffee reduced mortality by about 10 percent. To put that into perspective, your odds of getting lung cancer if you smoke increase by about 1,000 percent to 3,000 percent.

So next time you hear that chocolate will help you lose weight, cocktails protect you from heart disease, binging on sugary fruit juices cleanses your liver, ancient grains like wheat are toxic, or an extra two cups of joe a day will make you immortal, ask questions. How strong is the evidence? Are there multiple studies saying the same thing? And does it pass your common-sense sniff test?

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My dad applied the sniff test when he heard the news about eggs and went along with his normal breakfast routine. And he was right! Unfortunately, he assumed because public health officials had once advised otherwise that science is broken. Science isn’t broken. It’s just wicked hard.

Research had shown that high levels of LDL cholesterol in blood were linked with an increased risk of heart disease and stroke, and we knew eggs were packed with cholesterol. But it turns out that most of the cholesterol in our bodies is made by our liver and doesn’t come directly from our diets. You can’t fit that kind of nuance into a headline.

What we do know about nutrition comes from repeated studies with a variety of methodologies in large populations and with mechanisms tested in animal models that show the same thing: Eating lots of fresh fruits and vegetables is good for you. Eating a low-fiber, high-calorie diet packed with sugar and fat is bad for you. But that’s not new or news, so those studies aren’t going to make headlines.

Amid the headline mania, if you want some surefire dietary advice to hold onto, Klurfeld predicts “moderation and variety are the two nutrition rules that are never going to change.”

Read More:

Low-carb vs. low-fat: New research shows it doesn't really matter

The DASH diet has been proven to work. Why hasn't it caught on?

Our gut talks and sometimes argues with our brain


Via The Angiogenesis Foundation

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