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BRICS Alliance and its Quest for Cultural Cooperation: Interview with Victoria Panova

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Modern Diplomacy brings you the final in the series of interviews that focus on BRICS Alliance and its Quest for Cultural Cooperation. In this interview, Victoria Panova, Co-Chair of the BRICS Civil Forum, Managing Director of the National Committee on BRICS Research, Scientific Supervisor of the BRICS Russian Organizing Committee Expert Council and Vice President for International Relations of Far Eastern Federal University, discusses most of the salient points. Here are the interview excerpts:

In 2015 you headed the NGO Working Group on BRICS, what would you say were the main non-government directions and, to what extent, these have been implemented over these past five years?

Panova:Back in 2006, when there was still the G8 and Russia was chairing the Group that year we, a group of dedicated representatives of civil society and academia led by prominent activist Ella Pamfilova, who was back then chairing the Council on development of human rights and civil society organizations in Russia together with our colleagues in the other G8 countries came up with the idea of the need of much deeper involvement and need for enhanced influence on the part of civil society of our countries on the otherwise quite closed process of governmental meetings of the G8 countries.

There were meetings with business that interested official representatives, but also parallel anti-globalist process trying to counter the official process. We thought that it is vital to make sure our governments here us, but we realized we have to act constructively and joined efforts to launch the full-blown Civil process at the G8, in fact that year was the first time that we garnered attention of all the nine Sherpas (including that of the EU) and had our ideas promoted among the governmental representatives urging them to be bolder and have a real connect with their proper civil societies.

The year 2015 came, the second time for Russia to host initiated BRICS alliance, the G8 was no longer existent at that time, but we were sure changing the composition of states is not altering the essence of what we were trying to do. And it goes without saying that in today’s world it should be two-way movement – not just people and society working for their country to be strong and efficient, but the country – its officials – should be ensuring the State does understand the vital needs and wishes of its people. And importance of this idea doesn’t change from one type of political regime to the other, doesn’t have a different meaning in the Western or Eastern hemisphere, doesn’t depend on the level of economic development of the given country and group of countries. Thus, once again, partly with the same enthusiastic civil society representatives, partly the newcomers we came up with the idea to enrich the second track of diplomacy and ensure a broader engagement of BRICS local communities in shaping the global agenda (it should be noted, that two years earlier similar process was also initiated at the Russian Chairmanship in the G20). Our goal was to create an environment for a constructive dialogue between governments and its citizens, promoting mutual understanding and acknowledgement of people’s concerns as well as encouraging strong problem-solving relations and generation of innovative ideas.

Within Russian Chairmanship in 2015, we kick-started the BRICS civil process by holding the first Civil Forum. We were looking at previous experience of the kind, but also tried to innovate with extra formats of involvement to ensure our voices are heard to their maximum. This year with the pandemic we experimented even further. In fact momentum wasn’t lost even with the travel restrictions and globally introduced lockdowns. We’ve held unprecedented number of online round tables across all the eight working groups in order to work out comprehensive and inclusive set of recommendations featuring wishes and needs of global, not just BRICS, civil society community.

This format received attention from the BRICS governments and it speaks volumes. As the BRICS governments’ officials traditionally attend some of our events, the credibility of our interaction platforms is widely recognized. I think that our important result is the creation of conditions for public sector and civil society representatives to discuss sensitive issues where they can go beyond official talking points and explore new ideas. These consultations provide policymakers with a better understanding of motivations and interests of the other actors and a clearer sense of how their policy initiatives are perceived by the citizens of BRICS countries.

Capabilities to offer policy advice and produce positive effects provided food for thought regarding institutionalization of the BRICS civil process. It would allow our societies to have more profound people-to-people connections, a wider range of joint activities, including cultural exchange. Emerging of intra-BRICS association of NGOs may also upgrade our current consultation platforms and mechanisms. It seems that we are on the way to it.

How would you argue that some of the initiatives have largely remained unrealized primarily due to diverse challenges and due to the geographical locations of BRICS members?

Panova:Challenges related to the geographical remoteness of the BRICS countries have been consistently associated with peculiarities of people-to-people cooperation. Long distances and high costs of travel within our countries, certain underdevelopment of services sectors and tourist infrastructure as well as burdensome visa procedures remain the foremost barriers for BRICS. We also have to remember that BRICS represents 40% of the world population and about 30 % world’s land surface that is why it takes time to raise awareness on BRICS and engage our societies into activities of the grouping. Our countries thereby seek to expand the geography of BRICS official events and promote each other’s cultures.

Outcome documents elaborated within the BRICS track 2 diplomacy have traditionally comprised recommendations and suggestions in these fields. Among them – to simplify visa procedures, to launch initiatives on cultural tourism, to harmonize standards of educational systems, to establish scholarship schemes promoting cultural and educational exchange. We may witness that these recommendations are gradually addressed, but tangible results could be expected in a long-term perspective only. 

Could you please discuss why empowering women, in particular, has become important as one of the latest NGO directions for BRICS? How has this stimulated interest among members of BRICS? 

Panova:A primary reason for the growing relevance of women empowerment agenda for BRICS is that in this context our countries encounter a variety of common challenges. Performance of BRICS countries in the international rankings, such as WEF Global Gender Gap Index and the OECD SDG Gender Index displays that we tend to be ranked lower than most of developed and some developing countries are. Despite the fact that our five countries demonstrate relatively high performance in the fields of education and health, we have major gaps in women’s economic and political participation.

Among these challenges, we may see the lack of transparency in gender budgeting, low participation of women in decision-making and political processes, gaps in implementation of women’s labour rights, including gender pay gap. In all BRICS countries women have to overcome barriers such as lack of professional training to obtain necessary digital skills, prevalence of informal employment and unpaid care work, lack of financing for women-owned businesses, and many others. In addition, stereotypes about the role of women in the society aggravate this situation.

I should say that this issue gained momentum in 2015, when BRICS countries made their commitments to adhere to Sustainable Development Goals, including SDG 5 on achieving gender equality and empowering all women and girls. It also encouraged women and men worldwide to take more active roles in gender mainstreaming. It evolves as a trend, and upstream initiatives began to emerge. Topics on gender equality more often appear at BRICS events organized by our civil society organizations. 

Our civil society organizations persistently draw the attention of the BRICS Leaders to the gender agenda. Our governments repeatedly recognized empowerment of women as a driving force for economic growth and agreed on a set of key policy principles to improve the status of women. This year BRICS Women’s Business Alliance was established to foster female entrepreneurship and participation of women in international trade. There is still a room for action. Recently the world has seen implications of these gender disparity trends catalyzed by the COVID-19 pandemic. I can say that balance upset caused by the pandemic revealed those pre-existing problems and pushed forward gender mainstreaming in all countries of the world, not only in BRICS.

I think that continuing efforts of our civil society in this regard will contribute to further formation of BRICS as a prominent example of an alliance uniting socially responsible economies, attaching great importance to ensuring the inclusiveness of its communities and to meeting the needs of citizens.

Despite all you have said above, in what ways would you argue that the group has a unique for developing Civil Society? 

Panova:Indeed, BRICS is the grouping of countries from different parts of the world, countries with distinctive histories and cultures, but similar values. At the same time, BRICS brings together great minds of humanity with outstanding creative potential. BRICS is paying higher attention to its human capital and it is but natural to opt for the taking advantage exactly of this potential.

There is one thing that may “kill” the most innovative idea – lack of political will. In this context, BRICS represents an open platform established by our governments as a priority. This is also an important precondition for laying a solid groundwork for the advanced development of our societies.

So, are the negative perceptions really changing about BRICS? What keeps you personally motivated working for this Civil BRICS?

Panova:For over a decade the public image of the grouping has been transforming from “BRICS as marketable product” to “BRICS as a strategic partnership”. For some time, BRICS was perceived as not a very successful interpretation of Jim O’Neil’s ideas, for another period BRICS has been viewed as “a power to confront the Western dominance”. Luckily, the reality has nothing to do with both judgements.

BRICS perception of itself is close to the ideas or Yevgeny Primakov, Russian former Prime Minister. He drafted the concept of the need for maximum multi-vector engagement, championed the idea of no other alternative to the multipolar democratic world and as one of the prerequisites of such – the Russia – India – China strategic triangle which is considered to be a progenitor of future BRIC, and later – BRICS. Still, BRICS as a newly established club mechanism had to earn its place in the system of global governance.  

I should say I see much less skepticism about BRICS lately. Probably it is changing due to certain global outcomes of the BRICS economic cooperation while it is only one of three pillars of our partnership (other two are “politics and security” and “humanitarian and cultural cooperation”). Let me give you some examples: in 2020, the total GDP of the BRICS countries amounted to 25 % of the global GDP and in 2015-2019 our GDP have been growing faster than the global GDP. In 2020, the share of BRICS in international trade reached 20 % while over the past five years the mutual exports of have also grown by 45 %. BRICS countries were capable of establishing the New Development Bank and launch effective solutions globally. I must emphasize that it became the first case in history when so called “club mechanism” managed to create its full-fledged financial institution and created it in less than five years.

What keeps me personally motivated is keen interest of our countries’ citizens to shape and take part in BRICS agenda. This interest is growing beyond BRICS – today we witness ever-increasing engagement of representatives from non-BRICS societies that is also a positive trend. BRICS is getting more demanded for people, and there is a strong message from our governments that BRICS should be a people-centered institution. I think these are the most essential conditions for creativity and innovation.

In terms of strategic outlook, is it appropriate to conclude the discussion here that BRICS is purposefully looking for a unified Soft Power as part of efforts in dealing with dominance by Western and European countries?

Panova:As I briefly mentioned in my previous answer – BRICS has never intended to be the power dealing with dominance of any states or groups of states. BRICS has grown to be self-sufficient mechanism, and it means that our governments need to respond to the needs of their citizens. These needs formulate grand strategy of the grouping, and it coincides with interests of the most countries in the world. Expanding outreach to its networks, BRICS serves as a proponent of the renewed world order that implies several decision-making centers. I think this circumstance could raise the idea that BRICS endeavors to undermine the world order.

On the contrary, our countries aim to play a stabilizing role in global affairs by promoting respect for the principles of national sovereignty, non-intervention in internal affairs, mutual respect and consideration of each other’s interests as well as respect of the international law. As BRICS stands for multipolar, democratic, just and fair world order, it undertakes efforts to make the voices of the developing world heard. And aren’t those the core features of peaceful and harmonic world?(Modern Diplomacy)

MD Africa Editor Kester Kenn Klomegah is an independent researcher and writer on African affairs in the EurAsian region and former Soviet republics. He wrote previously for African Press Agency, African Executive and Inter Press Service. Earlier, he had worked for The Moscow Times, a reputable English newspaper. Klomegah taught part-time at the Moscow Institute of Modern Journalism. He studied international journalism and mass communication, and later spent a year at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations. He co-authored a book “AIDS/HIV and Men: Taking Risk or Taking Responsibility” published by the London-based Panos Institute. In 2004 and again in 2009, he won the Golden Word Prize for a series of analytical articles on Russia's economic cooperation with African countries.

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Brazilian Favela Art Project – Global Project with Local Focus

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Brazilian Favelas, or shanty slums are some of the most underdeveloped and overly populated regions in Brazil with high levels of crime, violence, gender discrimination and poor levels of hygeine and sanitation. There is an urgent need to spread awareness about healthy lifestyle choices and improve the standards of living for people residing in these slums. This is not just the prevailing situation in slums in Brazil, but across slums worldwide. Inspired by the Misaal Mumbai project led by Rouble Nagi, aimed at painting Dharavi, the largest slum in Asia, located in the suburbs of Mumbai, it is crucial to start similar projects in other slums across the world, like in Brazil. Artwork is a great way to bring about social change and also enhance the landscape of slums. Brazilian slums have poor hygiene, lack of focus on education, higher crime rates, rampant sexism and other social issues. There is a pressing need to instill a better sense of hygiene, importance of education, reduced dropout rate from schools, fueled creativity, inspire a better future, make people aware of their legal rights (specially women), make women more aware of personal hygiene, promote healthier safer living environments, reduced family tensions, improve neighborhood relations and promote less harassment via artwork in Brazilian favelas. While it is unrealistic to expect social workers to visit slums everyday and educate people about social issues, artwork solves the purpose by acting as a constant reminder to slum dwellers about good decision making so they can partake in to be more responsible members of the community. In light of this, we have started a project called Brazilian Favela Art Project aimed at sponsoring artists to visit favelas in Brazil and create artwork on available walls and empty spaces, to promote positive social values. The project is led by me from Mumbai and involves funding from passionate donors across several countries. We work with artists from Brazil to sponsor their artwork in these shanty favelas.

Challenges

There are several challenges arising during the project, mainly because of language barriers. The most widely spoken language in Brazil is Portuguese, whereas most people who are a part of this project do not understand and speak Portuguese. To sort out this issue and to project a more global approach to local issues in slums, specifically Brazilian Favelas, we have added some Portuguese speaking locals from Goa, India to the project. Goa was a former Portuguese colony and still has over 12,000 Portuguese language speakers. These select Portuguese speakers help us to communicate with local artists from Brazil and curate artwork directed at social change in collaboration with them. Since, the artwork produced in the favelas is also in Portuguese language, the messaging is created by English speaking professionals along with Portuguese translators from Goa and Brazil. Hence, the project truly is global involving people speaking various languages across continents.

Another major challenge we face is funding by corporations. Most corporations only want to fund corporate social responsibility projects among their target audience to improve branding. Since favelas house low income populations, most corporations are not interested to heavily invest in social change in the region. Moreover, corporations also have reduced trust in favela residents and believe that the artwork produced will not bear a long term impact since it could be at the risk of mutilation by locals. However, our conversations with local Brazilian artists have proven otherwise. The artwork is preserved by local communities since they see the positive community value in the artwork, as well as benefits to external landscaping that are created. Most of the donors of this project, have therefore been individuals at the moment, and not large corporations. We need to find corporations that are more keenly interested in social change in favelas in Brazil and target them for fundraising. Though the funds required are not very high because the base costing is spent on travel to favelas and paintwork, we aim to create bigger murals across Brazilian Favelas, not just in Rio De Janeiro, where the project currently focuses.

It has also been the case, as local artists have informed us, that artwork against drug consumption is generally mutilated by drug dealers living in favelas, since it is a source of revenue for them. Hence, alternate methods to prevent drug consumption in favelas need to be better researched. There are no other cases of art mutilation in favelas.

Local initiative with global effort

In the age of digital connections, whatsapp groups, telegram chat channels, LinkedIn and other networking spots, there is little scope to go wrong with building global connections and uniting towards a cause. The main source of interaction to create impact has been on zoom, considering the project was founded during the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic, specifically in light of budding news about increased crime rates in slums across the world and increased stronghold of criminal gangs specifically in Brazilian Favelas. Various reports mentioned that Brazilian gang overlords were increasing their stronghold in favelas, enforcing lockdown with a long term focus to ride the wave of the pandemic. Consumption of cocaine and other drugs increased in favelas since drug overlords knew exactly what troubled the favela community members at distinct times during the pandemic. In light of this news, I realized it was crucial to create a global project to solve the rampant issue of crime, violence and drug abuse in favelas, among the most vulnerable communities impacted by the pandemic. I was deeply surprised to see that not enough was being done to support favela dwellers by local community members. Various local initiatives had popped up during the pandemic, but none at all to support favela dwellers in Brazil. The global project – Brazilian Favela Art Project, with a local focus  was hence founded out of the pressing need to support favelas in Brazil and promote positive social values.

The initiative involves funders, donors, artists, language translators, public policy enthusiasts and administrative officials from various countries, sharing resourcing and joining hands to bring about positive social development in Brazilian Favelas. It has been a privilege to witness and personally observe the impact of the pandemic in making us realize that we are all united in battling issues. No issue, despite being continents away, is too big for us to not solve or too far for us to care about. With a united, global approach, we can solve any major issue in this world. Social change starts with you and with everything you wish to see differently.

Vidhi Bubna, author of the article is also the Founder of the Brazilian Favela Art Project and aims to reduce crime rates and encourage social change in Brazilian Favelas, specifically in Rio De Janeiro.

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UN Geneva open exhibition “The World In Faces”

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On November 24, United Nations Geneva hosts “The World in Faces”, an exhibition of photos by the renowned Russian photographer Alexander Khimushin. The artist personally presented a collection of artistic photos of representatives of different peoples of the world, photographed in authentic national costumes in their habitat. The 170 large artistic portraits of more than 100 indigenous peoples around the world are on display in the main hall of UN Geneva’s Palais des Nations. A big part of the exhibition is dedicated to the indigenous communities of Russia’s Siberia and the Far East.

“It is gratifying that the exhibition at the UN this year takes place as the world celebrates the International Human Rights Day. It is a great pride and honour for me to present my photo project at the UN, especially on this momentous day”, said Alexander Khimushin.

The idea to create a collection of photographic portraits of indigenous peoples in national dress and in their native environment was born in 2014, when Alexander had already accumulated a considerable amount of work done in the most exotic locations – from Samoa and Fiji to Swaziland. Since then, he has never stopped traveling around the world, and his project is growing and becoming a phenomenon.

In 2018, Khimushin went to the Russian Arctic – Taimyr. The result was a series of portraits of the region’s indigenous inhabitants – Dolgans, Nganasans, Enets, Nenets, Evenks.

“Taimyr is unique in that it is a distant, cold place. For me, this was not something new, since I grew up in Yakutia (the Far East of Russia is the cold pole on the planet), but it is the peoples living there – the Nenets, Dolgans, Nganasans, they have a unique culture, their way of life and reindeer husbandry have been preserved. It was interesting to visit, thanks to Norilsk Nickel (The world’s largest producer of palladium, one of the largest producers of Nickel, platinum and copper), to get to these places. I would like to return to Taimyr, shoot more there, if there is such an opportunity, ”the artist noted.

The Norilsk Nickel company, which takes an active part in the fate of the small peoples of the Arctic, supported the Khimushin project.

“Nornickel has always interacted with the indigenous peoples of the Russian North in an atmosphere of friendship and mutual assistance. This year, the company’s relations with the indigenous peoples reached a new level. Based on the UN principles and objectives of sustainable development, we study, with the involvement of leading international experts and the scientific community, the socio-cultural specifics of indigenous life in Taimyr, and the traditions and historical memory of the peoples living in the region. This helps us make our support to indigenous peoples more targeted and effective. Cultural projects and support of traditional folklore and handicrafts are one of the most important components of our projects”, said Mikhail Kuznetsov, Nornickel’s Director of Federal and Regional Programmes.

Nornickel regularly participates in projects intended to foster economic and social development of Taimy’s indigenous communities. In 2020, Nornickel signed a cooperation agreement with organisations representing the interests of the indigenous communities of the North inhabiting the Taimyr Peninsula. Together with them, and based on proposals from the chiefs of indigenous communities, a comprehensive plan for the development of the peoples was developed for a total of RUB 2 bn. The plan is designed for five years. The programme will run until 2024 and includes support for traditional activities, protection of the indigenous habitat, and financing of new homes, hospitals, museums etc.

The photo exhibition will run until December 10, 2021.

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Sezzadio: The small village where the great history of the Aleramici began

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Photo: Pomaro Monferrato Castle (AL). Dresses from the ancient Asti tailor's "Principessa Valentina" by Samantha Panza and coordinated by Gianni Gallo. At the center Walter Siccardi in the role of Aleramo with the Aleramici families represented by the shields (photo by Marco Sala).

Men and women of culture, united by the idea of the Euro-Mediterranean Federation on Ancient Medieval Migration, challenges this difficult period of the pandemic with new historical research activities to rediscover and transmit the desire to return to normality.

As part of the project of “Le Vie Aleramiche Normanno Sveve” in Sezzadio, a village near Alessandria where Aleramo was born had been visited on the initiative of the Mayor, Enzo Daniele, the Councilor for Culture Piercarla Bocchio and the local head of FAI Anna Maria Gobello, collected the texts to create an “Aleramici Library” which will be closely linked to the “Aleramici Research Center of Sezzadio”. Two honorary presidents are members of our technical-scientific committee: Francesco Barone of the University of Catania, one of the leading experts in the Aleramici history of Sicily and Salvatore Lo Re, historian and President of the National History Society of Piazza Armerina, City of foundation aleramica which, soon, will see the Municipal Library enriched with a section dedicated to the study of its origins. Therefore, a study workshop will be commenced to work in synergy with the parallel Sicilian structure: the prestigious Palermo “Officina Studi Medievali” headed by Prof. Diego Ciccarelli.

Sezzadio, the place of origin of this fascinating story: it is said, in fact, that the noble Aleprando, on a pilgrimage to Rome, stopped in this small town near Acqui Terme with his wife about to give birth and that Aleramo was born here. The municipal administration of Sezzadio, after having already undertaken various projects to enhance the small center of Alessandria and installed explanatory signs at the entrance to the village to highlight its extraordinary historical importance, has enthusiastically joined the proposal of the promoters of the project, Fabrizio Di Salvo and the UNESCO Club of Piazza Armerina, (represented by the President Anna Maria Di Rosa Placa and the Secretary Lavinia Garsia) and took the opportunity to give life to a research center that will be formed in network with the Workshop of Medieval Studies in Palermo and the research activity in Piazza Armerina, a real study center dedicated to ancient medieval immigration “on the contrary”.

The fundamental activity was Fabrizio Di Salvo’s visit to Sezzadio last summer which allowed to define the membership of the Municipality of Sezzadio to the Euro-Mediterranean Federation on Ancient Medieval Migrations, by virtue of which it benefits from the support of the Coordinator for Northern Italy, Nadia Ghizzi.

The work of identifying the texts and training the library was supported by our technical-scientific committee which boasts among its ranks the Byzantinist Walter Haberstumpf, Prof. Salvatore Trovato, former professor of Linguistics and Glottology at the Department of Humanities of the University of Catania, the Director of Sibrium Magazine and President of the Center for Prehistoric and Archaeological Studies of Varese Lucilla Caramella, Luigi Piano, the President of “Italia Medievale”, Maurizio Calì, (who collaborated directly in the creation of the library), as well as the teachers and researchers of prestigious international universities, such as the distinguished medievalist Henri Bresc and Joanna Drell of the University of Richmond in the USA.

To realize the intent of making culture available to all, it is essential to give our research a European breath and make people understand how much the history of the Middle Ages, which took place in a Europe different from the current one, was well-defined in its supranational scope. The project connected France, Italy, and Germany and, in particular, the Municipalities of Hauteville-La-Guichard in France, (where the myth has it that Tancredi, the future lord of Hauteville and progenitor of the Altavilla family, saves the life of Duke Riccardo II of Normandy on a hunting trip); of Göppingen, in Baden-Württemberg near Stuttgart, (where tradition has it that the Swabian dynasty was born) and of Piazza Armerina, a city in Sicily founded by Aleramici in the 12th century. The cultural triangulation will also expand in Sezzadio, in the spirit of continuing to create links between historically similar realities and, currently, it takes the form of collaboration between the municipal administrations, anticipating and preparing the future twinning.

Thanks to the dedication of those who embraced and developed the project from the beginning, today, the Euro Mediterranean Federation for Ancient Medieval Migrations stands out for the adhesion of important figures from the world of culture, of high-level institutions, such as the Library of Alexandria of Egypt, of numerous Italian Municipalities, of Universities and Associations. Despite the interruptions due to the pandemic, the Project has given rise to numerous initiatives such as conferences, lectures, and meetings, and the production of a documentary film shot in the European lands touched by this research: Piedmont, Sicily, France, Turkey, Germany, Greece, and Ukraine.

A powerful work, curated for four years by Fabrizio Di Salvo, which collects precious contributions from excellent scholars and returns the atmosphere of medieval Europe thanks to the choice of splendid locations, such as the Castle of Pomaro in Monferrato, to the costumes of the ancient Samantha Panza’s “Principessa Valentina” tailoring from Asti-Italy and coordinated by Gianni Gallo. The exceptional protagonist is the actor Walter Siccardi, an extraordinary interpreter in the role of Aleramo. The shields that recall the emblems of the Aleramici dynasties and parts of the sets used for the shooting will be donated by the Euro-Mediterranean Federation to the Aleramici Research Center in Sezzadio.

We will continue our incessant work of research and historical reconstruction, hoping that it will create opportunities for recovery, resilience, and increasingly nourish the dialogue between people who are only apparently distant.

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