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Innovations in Resilience



Monday commuters at the end of our street this morning. Photo credit: Stephanie Le @saigonsteph

Over the last 24 hours Saigon has been submerged by Typhoon Usagi – officially the “longest and heaviest rainfall ever recorded in Saigon history”. Earlier last night, me and the girls schlepped home from a friend’s house, up to our knees in water and, overnight, our downstairs bathroom and kitchen were mildly flooded.

Thousands of other city residents here were less fortunate – one man was killed by a falling tree not far from where we live, and stories were shared overnight of people abandoning their homes and finding refuge elsewhere.

I’ve written before about storms in Saigon, and the natural occurring disasters in South East Asia more generally, but this current season has been busier than normal.

Vietnam often escapes heavy storms, thanks to the Philippines, a country well versed in combating typhoons, hurricanes and tropical storms. I’ve visited the country twice this year, working with CARE team in Manila who manage the TUKLAS Innovation Labs – a initiative supported by UK Aid and The Start Network that seeks out new ideas and solutions from local communities, to help them better prepare for the typhoons and storms which routinely batter the country’s shores.

In my previous blog about the TUKLAS Labs, back in April, I’d written about how CARE had evolved its collaborations with local communities since re-opening our offices in the Philippines, following the catastrophic Haiyan Typhoon of November 2013.

And then, just last month, I made a return visit to a TUKLAS event, six hours drive north of Manila, in Dingalan – the Ligtas Art and Resilience Fair – to see how a specific part of the initiative had unfolded.

The Ligtas Fair brought together a range of community groups – coast guards, fire wardens, police units, women’s groups, teachers, artists, youth associations, and the like. The objectives of the Fair being to train participants with practical and technical skills designed to enhance the community’s overall resiliency in the face of future emergencies, and also to showcase some of the ideas that the TUKLAS Innovators had inspired, including a 3D Mapping project which re-created the topology and contours of the surrounding coastlines in Dingalan, marking out individual homes and buildings.


3D Mapping innovation designed by a TUKLAS innovator – Ligtas Art & Resilience Fair, Dingalan.


Individual homes marked out with scaled version of surrounding mountains and access roads.

From orienteering and rope work, through to geo-mapping techniques and community-managed early warning systems, the day helped align the community’s sense of understanding about how, in coordinating upfront preparedness together, the effects of future cycles of bad weather can be more practically combated, as well as lowering the costs of recovery (a CARE study back in 2007 in fact calculated that, on average, it costs seven times as much to rehabilitate and recover communities from disaster events after they have happened, compared to the cost of investing upfront in appropriate training, coordination and early warning systems).

The TUKLAS initiative couldn’t be more urgent.

In September, Typhoon Mangkhut struck the northern part of the country, causing widespread damage and fatalities and, on the morning of the Ligtas Fair, a second large storm, Typhoon Rosita, was making landfall in a similar part of the country.

The Philippines has been ranked time and again inside of the top 3 countries in the world most affected by natural disasters, and there are no signs of these events reducing in regularity, nor velocity.

Whilst the country has absorbed and recovered from different disasters over many hundreds of years, the Haiyan Typhoon was the largest ever recorded landfall made, since records of such things were first kept. The scale of the damage afterwards was unprecedented yet, since Haiyan, other countries around the world have also been exposed to a degree of more ferocious and unrelenting climatic events that simply cannot now be undermined by the ignorant skepticism of the many who continue to de-link these seismic calamities with mankind’s contribution to our rapidly changing climate.

Where a campaign such as Draw Downwhich I flagged here recently – is targeting institutional and regulatory changes in the face of our warming planet, the work of our team in the Philippines, through the TUKLAS initiative, is 100% focused on mobilising grassroots organisations and local communities to design innovative ways to better prepare for when the next disaster strikes.

Noticeable in the TUKLAS initiative is an over-arching commitment around two things: 1.) that the nature of this work has to be designed by those closest to the pain (see my weekend post about this very phrase!) and 2.) that the learning from this work must be made accessible to all.

The results of sticking with this formula, as we saw at the Ligtas Fair, could well stand as benchmarks for other to adopt and adapt – both from the perspective of practical application, as well as from one of sustainability.

The young people in Dingalan who attended the Fair, and who are growing up increasingly informed about the issue of disaster preparedness are, in many ways, themselves the living and breathing answer to the Philippines moving one step closer to coping with the future shocks which will visit their doorsteps.

At Ligtas, there were several workshops facilitated for young people (including using soil to paint pictures about the natural environment whilst learning about the importance of preserving it, as well as a board game curated especially to teach youngsters about climate change) and a strong collective sense of safe guarding their futures by the very act of involving them in all aspects of the community’s disaster preparedness and overall resiliency.

Similar interactions are no doubt happening in other parts of the world. And long may that continue.

That regulatory decisions, and Government commitments in the face of climate related events, will always be required, is not in question.

What is in question – for me at least, and motivated this year from the privileged time I’ve spent with local Filipino communities – is the extent to which these institutional perspectives take fully into account the situation, norms and resiliency of those people who are most affected by any of these particular crises?

Like many of my neighbours here in Saigon this morning, whose livelihoods might have been compromised by last night’s storms, the answer to this question is of paramount importance if we are going to not only save lives, but also create appropriate solutions and the right environment for those closest to the ‘pain’ of the next emergency, to have more ‘power’ to deal with what transpires afterwards.

We must never cease in ensuring, above all else, that addressing this question is at the centre of everything.

soil painting

Young children at Ligtas Fair using soil to paint and learning about climate change in the process.


A short story of self



I remember the moment I started really thinking about inequality. I was 22 years old and part way through a year of teaching in Uganda. As cliched as that year has the potential to be (for the privileged expat that I am) and as eye-glazingly pathetic as this anecdote might come across, I’ve thought it through a fair few times over the two decades since, and it was out there, halfway down the main orange dustbowl of a road outside of the room I rented behind a local bar, that things changed for me.

It took only one minute – and it will forever raise the hairs on my arms.

It was Sunday, and I was walking into the local town – Kiboga – with Julius, the headmaster of one of the schools at which I was employed as an English (and football!) teacher.

As was customary, a walk into Kiboga, on any given day, would involve multiple greeting stops, and smiles and gestures to my neighbours. Students on bicycles might swing past me shouting “yes, Master!” or a group of half dressed toddlers would canter several metres towards me from out of their houses yelling “Mazungu! Mazungu! how are you Mazungu?”

Julius and I had paused to talk to a man walking in the other direction to us, carrying what looked like a cardboard shoe-box. I didn’t get to meet him, Julius took the conversation on himself, mumbled and curt and, within thirty seconds, we were on the move again. I glanced behind me to take another look, as the man and his box shifted further on down the road, when Julius explained “he is burying his baby daughter,” and, without looking over at me he continued, “she died this morning.”

I don’t remember saying anything much after that, until we reached town and lost ourselves in whatever errand we’d been on in the first place.

The frailty and cruelty of that man’s reality was at best heart breaking and yet, the part that kept getting caught in my throat, and in my heart and in the pit of my stomach, was the very mundane and matter-of-fact ness of Julius’ report out on the tragedy.

Uganda, at that time, was enjoying relative peace. There were conflicts in the north, and reports of kidnappings not far from Kiboga over in the Rwenzori Mountains but, by and large, President Museveni, who’d been in power for some time, was continuing to oversee a country recovering well from the horrors of the Amin and Obote regimes.

And yet.

And yet, time and again during the years after I returned from Uganda to London – setting out on a initially quite meandering job pilgrimage, navigating through the private sector, the civil service and then a brace of UK charities, before finally landing a role with CARE UK in September 2006, along with a warming realization that this was where I wanted to stay – time and again, I imagined the folded arms and legs of that man’s daughter, neatly nestled inside her makeshift coffin.

Perhaps, if I’d actually seen her, the image would be less haunting. Maybe the sheer guilt of all I have to be thankful for in my life continues to torment me through the sustained fascination I’ve kept about her, and for what her short lived life might stand and count a generation later. She would have turned 21 this year.

In all the writing I’ve scattered over these pages it occurs to me that each post I attempt –  like some fanatical pilot intent on making the pitch perfect touchdown, gently lining up the landing strip and deftly easing the wheels onto the tarmac in silent and smoke free respect – each post is designed to invoke thought. Thought from me, and from my reader.

If only we all thought in the same way about each other, and we all felt full of desire not for the now, or for the indulgence once more of the self, but instead that we re-directed the natural fuel and intention of our feelings elsewhere. To those closest to us, yes. But, beyond that, to those we meet each day on the street, in the park, on our travels.

These are what many of my blog posts seem to be trying to hope for. I’m sure many of them skirt this topic, concluding all too often (for them to really have any originality at all) that love and tolerance and understanding are the only lynchpins worth fighting for in life.

Out of guilt, or frustration or simple fascination with things I experience (more so than ever before since working for CARE) I’m nowhere near to articulating any of this any better than when I first set out.

If only, as usual, to find solace in some kind of summary (not quite landing the plane but dealing with the headwind, perhaps and at least) it seems to me, clearer than ever, that connection is all that we really have in life that comes to us for free, and which has the agility and a striking kernel of gravitas, to address some of life’s deepest anthropological and philosophical lines of enquiry.


Chaperoned back in Kiboga, in 2016, by my friend, Michael Mayanga.

In Kiboga, for I’ve returned several times since 1997, there are, of course, disagreements and arguments and strife amongst the town’s inhabitants. Not a lot of the infrastructure seems to have changed all that much (something I noted when I last visited) and life felt much the same two years ago when I stayed with an old friend of mine, Michael (pictured.) Mobile phones and wifi are the main new additions to when I lived there from 1996-1997, but many other facets of life remain constant.

However, as Uganda and other countries on the continent, combat centuries of resource cursed transactions with pillaging nations (my own country sat fat at the top of that list) it does sometimes seem to me that my Kibogan friends have such an acute sense of connection, and of understanding about some of the pervasive issues that the likes of CARE grapple with from the cosy confines of our HQ offices, that we must ensure our continued work with local communities around the world finds the right balance of intervention at all times.

By which I mean – and this is to borrow the words of Ayanna Pressley when she said that “those closest to the pain need to be closest to the power, and inform public policy“.

This is a mantra my team at CARE have adopted recently. I like it. I’m mindful, too, that in adopting it, we still have a long way to go when it comes to finding appropriate means to provide “help” to others who are experiencing injustice.

The needs and the answers to how to resolve inequity in the world lie, this mantra would suggest, in the experience of those living out these unequal daily dynamics, each and every day.

In exploiting Africa’s minerals and profiting from the proceeds, we cannot now do the same in mercilessly extracting the very knowledge that resides in the hearts and minds of people who, this morning, might themselves be burying a young child in a cardboard box.

Many of us in the world – overwhelmed and socially impotent under the weight of materialistic distraction and click-baited detritus – seek out the type of connectivity and resilience that can be found sweetly fermented in the day-to-day culture and interactions of local communities around the globe. Conversely, many of these local communities dream for the type of economic gains that others continue to take for granted

In balancing, ultimately, any relationship that an entity such as CARE might have with those we are seeking to lift up, our intentions to bring about change often fall short. Building trust through connection remains one of our best hopes, but that still requires nuance and thought and the art of listening.

If ever a starker reminder of how many local communities around the world today remain closed to the “Western” world’s humanitarian interventions, the incident this week of the man killed trying to visit India’s Andaman Islands takes some beating. In so comprehensively preserving the islanders’ eco-system and ways of life, the refrain of their message to the world around them, in acting as they did, is a powerful one.


My musings will likely repeat and roll on for some time yet.

Exquisite and maddening truths uncovered, whilst an insatiable thirst for reason unfolds over and again.

The hairs on my arm, the tingle in my belly – those sixty seconds with Julius and the girl in the cardboard box, frozen in time.


Me, Flora, Julius and the school football. Brain Trust School, Kiboga, Uganda, 1996.


With Julius, circa. 1997, in Hoima, his home town.

Drawing Down


Running in the forests of Siam Reap this weekend

Over the weekend I was in Siam Reap and, for whatever reason, found myself enchanted by the trees and the colours and the red earth. Not in any particular novel way, but in a way that connected to something I may have simply been ignoring for my entire adult life: that simple truth about the fragility of life and changing our own lives whilst we are fortunate enough to be here.

It’s not as if I haven’t been listening to the scientists and the campaigners. Even on these pages I’ve been known to write poetry about nature, have routinely made calls to action on various related themes, and posted pictures of me and my daughter 9 years ago taking part in a climate change march (the same daughter who now, aged 10, just returned from a school camp fully signed up as a pescatarian.)

So, you know, I talk a good game and encourage others to do lots (plus I now have one daughter doing her thing to contribute towards lowering the demand for meat) versus I fly 1,000s of miles every year, like a bit of air conditioning in the Saigon heat and probably, on most other climate friendly criteria, would likely score pretty poorly.

And yet, the science on climate change has been public for years now. As much as a decade ago, I remember seeing a campaign in the UK to highlight the effects of climate change on the poorest communities the world over. The strapline’s call to action being: “turn down the thermostat – it’s getting hot over here.” The accompanying picture was of a pastoralist with his herd of livestock, sweltering in the heat of an African savannah.

Wind forward to the most recent round of climate change headlines (momentarily competing on the front pages with the familiar and depressing daily churn and circus) and the news about our warming planet remains bleak.     Read more…

Back in This


CARE’s Innovation Team working the camera at Goodlight Studio, Birmingham, AL.

This time last week I returned from the USA – a giddy eight flights and two weeks of work and immersion into some of the country’s civil rights history, as CARE contemplates setting up programmes in America.

I’m still absorbing all that I saw and heard…

From talking to activists outside The White House the day after I arrived; to discussions with colleagues in D.C. about CARE’s future presence in Nigeria, where we are aiming to build the resilience of those affected by ongoing humanitarian issues there; through to time in Atlanta with my incredible team, exploring ways to lift up the opportunities for innovation across CARE’s network; before pausing for a weekend’s moment of Southern Decadence in New Orleans, a city whose authenticity and openness (in more senses of the word during that particular weekend, and which requires it’s own discreet blog post) to diversity and to humanity really are as creative and appealing as one imagines they could be; followed by road tripping up and into the State of Alabama, for more planning sessions at the fabulous Goodlight Studio in Birmingham, and a whistle-stop dive into some of the iconic civil rights moments of the 1960s, which unfolded in this infamous part of the country (from the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing of 1963, to visiting Joe Mintor’s garden displaying thirty years of work in bringing to life historical events in his garden, through the medium of scrap metal and every day objects); all of which culminated in a final leg in Montgomery, meeting the team at the Equal Justice Institute (EJI) and hearing from Lecia Brooks and Richard Cohen at the Southern Poverty Law Centre, privileged encounters (amongst others had that week with lawyers, journalists, pastors and advocates for change) offering up precious, honest and heart wrenching insights into the social justice journeys that so many generations across the “Deep South” have been experiencing, each story a momentary platform to quench the individual (and increasingly collective) thirst for action which pulsates through the corridors of these justice-focused institutions, and through the determination of those who inhabit them on a daily basis; until, with my last 24 hours to spare, I flew up to Connecticut, to spend time with one of my oldest and dearest of friends, whose son, my godson, Sam, and I played pool whilst, trading insights about the speeches of Martin Luther King, taught at Sam’s high school, and equipping him and his peers with knowledge, in a way that left me more inspired about how this next generation of power holders and decision makers, of mothers and fathers, of politicians and business executives, might be gifted the intuitive sense of how their fingerprints and footprints can have positive meaning and a place in future history books, as they embark on their own life missions to become their best selves…     Read more…

Defining our paradise


The aftermath of the San Francisco earthquake of 1906. Picture credit:

It’s the weekend, and I am up the coast of Vietnam, on An Bang beach, enjoying ocean scenes, blue skies and the lazy movement of palm.

A paradise of sorts.

I brought with me Rebecca Solnit’s A Paradise Built in Hell – a fantastic read: with its insightful and brilliantly constructed chapters, many of which seek to dispel long held preconceptions about what ‘makes us all tick’. And, in particular, how people cope with, are affected by, and grow from the impact of natural and man-made disasters.

I’ll want to quote some of Solnit’s beautiful prose at the end of this blog – for the posterity of one day re-reading this – and I am sure to post again about many of the perspectives her narrative offers up: indeed, my own organization, CARE International, like many of our peers, is heavily invested in learning from our experiences of intervening before, during and after crises.

For now, poolside, and warming my feet on the scorched tiles, this is merely a momentary toe in the water of something I am sure will consume me time and again.

Solnit makes a variety of thought provoking points in her novel.

Some of the most compelling centre around our own philosophizing about what we want to get out of life, how we want to live it, and who we want to live it with?      Read more…

Brexit: a view from afar

I’ve been living outside of the UK for more than 7 years, although I doubt am any less informed or confident about what lies beyond March 2019 – post Brexit – were I to have continued living in South West London, rather than shifting to Vietnam, as I did, in early 2011.

I was in Da Nang listening to Radio 4 when the Leave Campaign victory was announced. I’d not managed to organize an overseas vote in time, yet was one of the first to hear the result at 6am local time here. This was followed by a majority of my old school friends waking up back home and immediately affirming their dissatisfaction and shock at the new reality.

Appreciating the indulgence of writing about a decision that I was unable to organize myself to participate in originally I have, nonetheless, followed the foreboding sequence of Brexit shenanigans over the past two years.

An inherent sense shared on the day of the result was that there had been a melding of different persuasions, which conspired to produce the unexpected outcome: some voters swayed by ‘red-top’ immigration propaganda; some by a sense of wanting, once and for all, to be heard through the ballot box midway through the tenure of a government administration who were cockily prepared to bet their Notting Hill mortgages on the final numbers; others by a more considered and ultimately frustrated feeling of sustained economic unease, exacerbated by the centralized powers of Brussels policy makers; or, an equally frustrated commitment to vote nostalgically for a societal and political construct which more resembled the UK’s former standings in the world.      Read more…

Harmonizing “Aid Industry” approaches


Photo credit: @Samuel Jeffrey

The genesis for CARE’s emergence into the world begun in the United States of America, in response to the ravages of the Second World War.

CARE brought relief to many countries affected by WW2 through the medium of our infamous “CARE package” – an intervention providing food, water, shelter, and protection to people in need.

Wind forward 73 years, and a high percentage of CARE’s interventions around the world today rely on the same modality, when it comes to getting aid and assistance to those in crisis. We still bring things (hardware, skills, cash) to people who lack the access themselves. Sometimes these can be locally sourced things, but the fact remains that, in many situations, agencies such as CARE are still needed to broker, facilitate and connect.

CARE is not alone in this endeavor. Like many others working in the industry of “aid” we strive to be “first responders” when an emergency breaks. However, CARE also invests in providing sustained support to the increasing number of people affected by protracted crises. In that way, we play both immediate and longer term roles.

I’ve written here about our work in Gaza, by way of an example of this. In Gaza, CARE has experience of assisting communities during times of conflict, and, we simply could not deliver the more ongoing support and assistance to Gazans that we do, were our teams not, themselves, Gazan citizens – living day by day in solidarity alongside those whom CARE is seeking to serve.

When I visited our work there last year, my Gazan colleagues spoke about the 55 day war of 2014, and turning in for bed each evening covering their faces, so as to preserve their dignity if a missile hit their house during the night. In the morning, they would covertly meet with other aid agencies, rocket fire ringing in the air, in order to design how to best support their neighbours.

Like any great pairing, humanitarian relief and longer term development bring out the best in each other. In the Gaza example, CARE is much more knowledgeable and agile in our emergency response because of the nature of our longer term status and operations there.

And so, increasingly, it is being recognized by many INGOs and institutions that there is a space of overlap between these two realms of relief and development, and this overlap has become known as the “Nexus”.

Now, a “Double Nexus” situation describes where relief and development come together. An example of this being a “disaster risk reduction” project which might seek to reduce the impact on a community affected by a cyclone, by establishing upfront an affordable micro-insurance scheme, offering property insurance to small dwellings and poorer communities.

A “Triple Nexus” takes on the third element of ‘conflict’ into this mix, and devises practical ways of intervening in such a way that positively affects not just the resilience of a community, but also the political dynamics in that same context.

All well and good, but what are some of the other frameworks into which we can deploy Double and Triple Nexus work?

Well, The Sustainable Development Goals offer us 17 specific themes that, collectively, frame an answer to addressing societal problems.

Implicit in these, and affirmed by the UN this year, is the reality that the growing number of humanitarian crises in the world today (and highlighted on these pages, too) mean that a higher percentage of the world’s most vulnerable are living in contexts of fragility, conflict, insecurity and grave uncertainty.

We cannot ignore this reality and we cannot continue to deliver aid in the same fashion as we have been doing since 1945.

Secondly, the current push behind the Grand Bargain principles (taken on by donors and NGOs) to invest higher amounts of funding into humanitarian assistance that is locally owned and implemented, is a step forward in how, from a systems perspective, the dial needs to move. Away from cyclical, transactional donor funding and away from siloed programming between emergency relief and longer term development, and towards, instead, a more harmonized way of working across these areas.

These frameworks offer up some core institutional hooks for the likes of CARE, and the good news is that we also have a “proof of concept” – the evidence – that combining approaches and harmonizing our efforts and experiences not only creates opportunities for wider impact, but it saves money.

Early warning systems, micro-insurance schemes, social protection measures – each of these upfront initiatives cost less than those initiatives deployed after an emergency.

CARE’s previous calculations from 2007 were that it cost 7 times more to respond after an emergency stuck, than it did to help prepare communities in advance of events unfolding.

What CARE is committed to is working for generational change and outcomes that go way beyond a single emergency response, but which are informed, qualified and made more robust because of the experience gained from that response.

Ultimately, we want to help create a sustained and enabling environment for marginalized and vulnerable population groups to leverage.

Put another way, we demand a levelled playing ground for all communities, in all contexts, to enjoy the social and economic freedoms and opportunities that many around the world take for granted. 

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