Lauren Coletta at SCI Conference in Cairo
I'm just returning from a very interesting conference in Cairo sponsored by Sister Cities International.  The purpose of the conference was to bring organizations together from around the world who focus on public diplomacy strategies to address challenges in the areas of poverty alleviation, energy, education and cultural exchanges etc.  Folks were there from Europe, Asia, Africa, and North and South America.  My purpose in being there was to talk about the work we are doing in Mombasa, Kenya related to transparency issues in the water sector.  I enjoyed giving my talk but the real value for me was learning about the various exchanges.  I was really taken back by all the religious exchanges that go on, especially among youth.  Dr.  Mohamad Bashar Arafat from the Civilizations Exchange and Coopration Foundation gave an excellent presentation on how youth from various religions around the world benefit from coming together and learning about each other's beliefs.  And I learned a lot from Dr. Sayyid Syeed of the Islamic Society of North America who gave a fantastic speech at a beautiful 15th Century  building in Islamic Cairo.  He focused on how  Muslims immigrating to the United States in the 1970s built partnerships with Christians and Jews.  I had no idea that in many cities in the US, churches opened up their doors for Friday prayers for their Muslim neighbors because at the time there were few mosques in the US.  Great examples to follow.  I think these kind of exchanges are essential to increase understanding and fight ignorance and religious intolerance.  How else will people come to undestand each other?

In terms of how things have changed since the revolution in Cairo my sense was that things are still extremely tense.  While I was there there was a huge protest and the Israeli and Saudi Embassies were targeted.  I thought it was strange that coverage in the press didn't mention any of the Saudi Embassy protests because the crowds were much bigger there.  One other thing, I encourage people to go to Egypt, the tourism industry is really suffering so if you want to help buy a ticket.   A word of caution though, because of the transition security is still sketchy.  Make sure you get a guide to go to the pyramids etc.

 I just returned from an excellent exchange with colleagues in Mombasa, Kenya who are working on creative ways to increase access to safe and affordable water in the city and surrounding communities.  Common Cause is partnering with the group in conjunction with Sister Cities International to assist in putting together the campaign.

     The water situation in Mombasa is grave.  Mombasa doesn't have a nearby source of fresh water and has to rely on water from Mzima Springs which is hours a way (a beautiful place where the hippos live).  The water has to travel through antiquated pipes and when it reaches Mombasa it is distributed through an equally aging and leaky water infrastructure, a problem that is further exacerbated by some residents taping into the pipelines illegally and selling the water at high rates.   

     The water is under the authority of the Mombasa Water and Sewage company.  Their goal is to distribute water to residents who don't have water taps, or whose taps aren't producing water because of the deficits in the system, by contracting with vendors around the community. There are rules the vendors must abide by like;  they have to sell the water (20 liters) for 2 shillings, they have to maintain the kiosks in a hygienic manner, they have to post their licenses, they may not tap illegally into the water system.  Many vendors violate these rules and sell the water at inflated prices, poorly maintain their kiosks, and fail to post their licenses lending to community doubt as to whether they are properly licensed to sell the water.  These problems are wide spread throughout the city.

     Amina Zuberi, the leader of the group and her colleagues Saad  Yusuf, Mishi Hamis, and Farida Rashid are running a dynamic campaign to work with the community and the water company to ensure that vendors are following the proper guidelines and fulfilling their vital role in providing safe water to the community.  Of the 50 or so kiosks we examined on my trip throughout Mombasa, only one of the kiosks followed the proper rules....and it was closed.  

     To address the issue the group is taking advantage of local resources.  Kenyans love their cell phones, they pay bills on them, bank with them, send money to one another on them.  To take advantage of the technology the group is using the  Ushahidi platform (it means "witness" in Kiswahili and was developed in Kenya during the election related violence in 2008) to encourage residents to report abuses via their cell phones.   When a resident sends a text message to the platform the information is displayed on a map and allows everyone to monitor where the problems are so that water officials can address them.  You can visit the website here.  http://mombasawater.crowdmap.com/

If you want to learn more about the campaign and follow its development you can visit http://www.mombasawateraccountabilitycampaign.org/index.html where the leaders will be blogging about their experiences.