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The Top 10 Unsung Global Thinkers

4 years ago
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Joann passed along Foreign Policy's first annual "Top 100 Global Thinkers" list yesterday morning -- an ambitious (if impossible) list, which is probably (definitely) an answer to Time's 100 Most Totally Relevant Pooh-bahs or whatever they call it. I'm all for FP's inclusion of folks like Paul Farmer, Aung San Suu Kyi, Anwar Ibrahim and Vaclav Havel, but I do think the good dudes over there might've dug a little deeper, especially as far as humanitarians, writers and thinkers are concerned. (And, um, women -- come on guys, only 20 ladies of note outta 100?) With that in mind, here's my not-nearly-thorough-enough list of "Top Ten Unsung Global Thinkers" or, if you prefer, "Mind Gods of 2009" -- in no particular order.

1. Morgan Tsvangirai: Much respect to POTUS on this one, but Zimbabwean Prime Minister Tsvangirai was on the short list for the Nobel Peace Prize this year for his extraordinary (herculean!) efforts at unknotting the mess made of his country by President Robert Mugabe. From raging cholera epidemics to complete economic meltdown, Tsvangirai has tried to put the country back together, bringing much-needed new blood into its government -- all while having to work alongside Mugabe himself. Awkward!

2. Lubna Hussein: "Let them wear pants!" This was the clarion call of Sudanese activist Hussein following her arrest for wearing trousers in public, purportedly violating the country's Islamic Sharia law. Hussein faced public lashings for the infraction but stood up -- mightily -- to the courts, unafraid to fight against what she believed to be a repressive, offensive law unfairly targeting women. Fashion has never been so fierce.

3. U Kyi Win: Imprisoned Burmese leader Aung San Suu Kyi deserves a boatload of respect pretty much perennially, but there are a few folks around her whose tireless work on behalf of democracy and justice often gets lost in the shadows of the Lady herself. For years now, U Kyi Win, Suu Kyi's lead counsel, has been given the highly unenviable task of trying to win the release of his client from the crooked Burmese penal system. The Alan Dershowitz of Burma (if you will), his latest client is imprisoned Burmese-born American Kyaw Zaw Lwin. Needless to say, getting a fair trial is a victory in and of itself.

4. Rebiya Kadeer: Who doesn't love a good revolution fomented from afar? Following the riots in China's Xinjiang province earlier this year, Beijing pointed to Kadeer as the mastermind behind the uprising. Known as the "Spiritual Mother" of the movement to combat the repression of the Uighur people, Kadeer has said she considers herself "the voice of millions of Uighur people. I consider myself as their tears." I consider her an exiled bad ass.

5. Dave Eggers: Mouth-frothing for Malcolm Gladwell is at near-fever pitch this year. I'm not saying the guy doesn't make an interesting argument for how success is nurtured (or can't be nurtured . . . or whatever the theory of "Outliers" is), but can we get some love for author and McSweeney's publisher Dave Eggers? Firstly, the guy is seriously committed to educational reform -- setting up his 826 tutoring centers in cities across the country. More importantly, perhaps, he's putting out some of the most compelling contemporary writing on victims of injustice (both domestically and internationally) through titles like "What Is the What," "Zeitoun" and his "Voice of Witness" oral history series. But beyond being worthy endeavors, they're actually really good stories.

6. Jestina Mukoko: Head of the Zimbabwe Peace Project, Mukoko is a journalist, activist and voice of conscience against the state-sponsored violence perpetrated by President Mugabe and his cronies during 2008's national election. For this, she was abducted, arrested, tortured and presumed dead for months on end. Unsurprisingly, impossibly, she remains as defiant as ever.

7. Kathryn Bigelow: I'm going out on a limb here and saying that the "Hurt Locker" was the best film of 2009. And I think so not just for the genius in its storytelling but because of the subject matter itself -- namely, the wars we happen to be in right at this very moment. It was a nuanced, tense, perfect little movie, but it was also an incredibly important film for an American audience -- especially as we look to 2010 and watch 30,000 more Americans go to battle.

8. Nicholas Kristof & Sheryl WuDunn: OK, so they don't really fall into the category of "unsung," but as long as everyone is shouting out Thomas Friedman and Paul Krugman, why not go for the New York Times trifecta? (Sorry, MoDowd). With the release of their book, "Half the Sky," this husband and wife duo have made one of the most compelling arguments for the education and economic empowerment of women and girls as a viable answer to many -- if not all -- of our global woes.

9. The Yes Men: Back in the day, if the role of the court jester was to offer a sly critique of the king guised in the cloak of comedy, then the Yes Men are the joker's modern incarnation. A collective of performance artists, the Yes Men stage elaborate high jinks in an effort to shed light on very serious injustices and bring about some version of corporate accountability. Among the things they've tackled: Dow Chemical and the Bhopal India disaster, Halliburton and global warming, and the WTO and, um, slavery. It wouldn't be funny if it weren't so funny.

10. Natalya Estemirova: A moment here for the men and women who have died this year fighting for human rights. Based in Chechnya, Estemirova was a journalist, advocate and human rights defender focused on extrajudicial killings and abductions. This summer, she was kidnapped while heading to work and found dead later that day with a bullet wound to her head. Journalism is, of course, only one way to seek justice, but Estemirova's life brings to the fore the bravery and commitment of those who make it their life's work to defend the defenseless. Here's to hoping that her legacy inspires countless others to join the fray and seek a more decent, just future for all of us.

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