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Nation & World

Reporters Pick Their Favorite Global Stories Of The Decade

From left: Sekou Sheriff, of Barkedu village in Liberia, whose parents died at<strong> </strong>an Ebola treatment center; a polio vaccination booth in Pakistan; a schoolgirl in Ethiopia examines underwear with a pocket for a menstrual pad; an image from a video on the ethics of selfies; Consolata Agunga goes door-to-door as a community health worker in her village in Kenya.

It was quite a decade.

Ebola swept through Africa as never before – and has returned again just this past year.

Polio was almost wiped out – but not quite.

The issue of menstruation became a headline topic.

And a selfie debate began --- what are the ethics of posing for pictures in developing countries.

Our global health and development blog, Goats and Soda, did not start until 2014, but many of our contributors have been on their global beats for the full decade. We asked them to pick one story from the 2010s that was a personal favorite – and that captured a pivotal moment in global health and development.

Here are their selections.

Jason Beaubien: Taliban In Pakistan Derail World Polio Eradication (July 28, 2014)

If I had to choose one of my pieces it would be this one from 2014 — about the Taliban's efforts to stop polio vaccine teams in Pakistan. In the multibillion-dollar effort to wipe polio off the face of the planet, the persistence of the virus in Pakistan remains a primary obstacle to success. That was true in 2014 and is still true today. In fact, this year, the number of cases in that country has spiked dramatically. There were eight in 2018; the total in 2019 is 101.

Ben de la Cruz: Life After Death: The World Is Starting To Forget About Ebola. The Village Of Barkedu Can't (February 20, 2015)

NPR was one of the first U.S. media organizations on the ground in West Africa after the Ebola outbreak of 2014-15. Our teams of reporters and photographers filed more than 200 stories and won a Peabody award for their efforts. Ben de la Cruz, the lead visuals editor for our Ebola coverage, selected this story because its photos and text (by NPR's John Poole with additional images by freelancer Tommy Trenchard) and audio (by NPR's Sami Yenigun) offer an intimate look at a town ravaged by the virus. The story of Barkedu serves as a reminder that epidemics don't end after the last case: A catastrophic outbreak can cause trauma and disruption that affects the lives of survivors and their families for years to come.

Nurith Aizenman: People Are Finally Talking About The Thing Nobody Wants To Talk About (June 16, 2015)

The premise of this story — that talking about menstruation is a big taboo — seems almost quaint today. But at the time – almost the exact midpoint of this past decade – it was still rare for the media to cover the difficulties that girls and women in low-income countries face around managing their periods, let alone how these difficulties might hampering their ability to get an education or well-paying work. Back then even many global health advocates were, at best, oblivious to the issue and, at worst, squeamish about exploring it.

The reader response to this piece offered a hint of the change that was brewing. It was among the most widely read stories in Goats and Soda history. And over the ensuing months the topic of menstruation burst into the public discourse in such a big and varied way that by year's end NPR's health team declared 2015 "The Year of the Period."

Since then activism on this topic has only accelerated — including campaigns to lift taxes on menstrual products across the United States, end bans in India that prevent menstruating women from entering temples and stop the practice in Nepal of requiring girls to wait out their periods in "menstrual sheds." Early this year a movie about tampons even won the Oscar for best documentary short.

Rhitu Chatterjee: So Maybe Washington, D.C., Should Ask Delhi How To Run A Metro System (March 17, 2016)

Back in 2016, the Washington D.C. metro was shut down for about a day for critical maintenance work. My editor emailed me – I was living in New Delhi at the time — to ask if there was a story to write about metro rail systems in India. I jumped on the assignment because I'd been looking for an excuse to write about the Delhi metro.

The New Delhi metro system is a great example of how stories about developing countries don't have to be about things that are terrible, like disease, corruption, violence, pollution. Developing countries often innovate to solve their own problems, and sometimes, their creativity and innovation far outpaces what's happening in the West.

Tim McDonnell: How Water Gets From The Nile To Thirsty Refugees (April 2, 2017)

In early 2017, northern Uganda was the setting of one of the world's fastest-growing refugee crises, as hundreds of thousands of people fled civil war in neighboring South Sudan. When they reached safety in Uganda, there was a new challenge: the lack of access to water. As aid workers struggled to drill wells and truck water in from the Nile River, refugees like Leya Jogo, a schoolteacher supporting several children, waited in line all day, every day, for a few gallons for cooking, drinking and bathing.

This profile touched on two key challenges of the decade: The unprecedented number of displaced people globally, and the growing specter of water shortages.

Leya's story touched me deeply on a personal level. I became much more conscious of my own water consumption. The day I finished reporting this story, I went back to my hotel, which didn't have running water, and was handed a bucket of water. I used half of it just for a shower. Leya would have spent all day searching for that much water. That was a humbling moment.

Ofeibea Quist-Arcton: To Save Her Children, She Pretended To Be Crazy (October 14, 2017)

Ingenuity, inspiration, an elaborate ruse and a touch of madness. That is what it took for Zainabu Hamayaji to protect her family from Boko Haram. Her husband was killed by the terror network. And then the 47-year-old mother of 10 — four biological and six orphaned children ranging from age 5 to 15 — had to feign insanity to keep the insurgents away. Her story speaks to the great pain inflicted by terrorists — but it's not just a tale of suffering. It's a reminder that even in the face of terrible events, which were all too frequent in the 2010s, the human spirit is truly, deeply resilient.

Malaka Gharib: Volunteering Abroad? Read This Before You Post That Selfie (November 26, 2017)

One of my favorite (and most popular) stories explored a guide on how to take ethical selfies while volunteering in low-income countries. Created by a group of international development students and academics in Norway, the guide urges people to think before they post photos of themselves with those they are trying to help – especially children – warning that these images perpetuate the idea that only Western aid, charity and intervention can save the world. The how-to clearly resonated with NPR readers, pulling in more than 1.3 million views. But what I liked about the story most is that it reflects changing attitudes about how volunteers should act in these parts of the world – and a willingness to show respect to the places they visit.

Kamala Thiagarajan: In Interviews With 122 Rapists, Student Pursues Not So Simple Question: Why? (December 16, 2017)

As a woman, living in India, I've given great thought to my country's struggle to deal with the rising number of rape cases. Since 2012, India has been engaged in meaningful conversations about how to keep women safe. Our laws have been strengthened and so have our punishments, and yet, we're still reeling under reports of violent rapes. This story, in which a young woman tries to assess the mindset of the rapist, without judgement and condemnation, holds some key answers as to why rape occurs. What are the ingredients that brew the personality of the rapist? Criminal reform should be an important conversation in the decades ahead. It matters when it comes to keeping our communities and our women safer.

Michaeleen Doucleff: Is There A Ticking Time Bomb Under The Arctic? (January 24, 2018)

To do this story, I walked through a door to a red shed a short drive north of Fairbanks, Alaska, and came face-to-face with a ticking time bomb. The door leads to a tunnel that goes 1,000 feet deep so scientists can study the potential risks posed by permafrost that thaws out. As the temperature at some permafrost sites rises because of climate change, ancient bacteria, frozen for 25,000 years, could come back alive again "given the right environmental conditions," said my guide, Dr. Thomas Douglas, a geochemist at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. I hope that this story had an impact on the way people think about the Arctic and climate change. And it doesn't look as if the temperature will dip in the near future. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has reported: "Arctic shows no sign of returning to reliably frozen region of recent past decades."

Marc Silver: How Can A Burden Be A Joy? Ask A Community Health Worker (April 29, 2018)

Community health workers play a vital role in health care but are an underappreciated group. In fact, people may not quite understand who they are. They're not certified medical professionals. They may have only a high school education, if that. And they are vital to keeping a community informed and healthy, whether during a crisis like Ebola or the day-to-day tasks of making sure kids get vaccinated and people are treated for diseases. Consolata Agunga, a community health worker in her Kenyan village, sums up her work: "I feel good because I have the burden of serving my people."

Susan Brink: A Promising Anti-HIV Drug Poses A Dilemma (April 19, 2019)

The story I'd select is about the HIV drug dolutegravir — a breakthrough that is changing the face of AIDS. But because a very small number of women taking the drug had babies with severe birth defects, it's not being given to women of childbearing age in poor countries where there may not be access to reliable birth control. Because dolutegravir is so undeniably good at not only treating HIV patients but controlling the spread of disease, countries in the years ahead will have no choice but to beef up their health systems so that young women can obtain reliable birth control that will enable them to take dolutegravir. The two go hand-in-hand: a gold standard AIDS drug and reliable birth control.

Share with us: What was your favorite Goats and Soda story this decade? Email us at goatsandsoda@npr.org and your response may be featured in our weekly newsletter.

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