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You only go round once

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The table where Obama and Bourdain shared a beer and some Vietnamese bun cha

“If I’m an advocate for anything, it’s to move. As far as you can, as much as you can. Across the ocean, or simply across the river. The extent to which you can walk in someone else’s shoes or at least eat their food, it’s a plus for everybody. Open your mind, get up off the couch, move.”

Anthony Bourdain’s words, infectiously honest and, this weekend, hours after he took his own life on Friday, painted all over the internet, a jubilant hat-tip to an affable and engaging character.

It was after a work colleague and her husband (in their home in Dhaka) introduced me to the delights of the cocktail Negroni, that I then stumbled across Bourdain’s youtube advice on how to make one, and I became hooked (both to the drink and to the man).

Bourdain was, in his words, “still dunking French fries at the age of 44” scraping together a livelihood, before the publication of his seminal essay Don’t Eat Before Reading This in The New Yorker, in April 1999, guaranteeing him instant, and ultimately global, popularity.

What I like about his quote above, on the merits of “moving”, is the simplicity of the sentiment, rooted in the instincts Bourdain curated over years of moving around the world himself.

He’d be the first to recognize that not everyone has the luxury of covering as many contexts as he has, but I like that he’s relentlessly stuck to the same message about what he has learned in being constantly on the move. And I think it’s a great message.

Vietnam was one of his more cherished places to visit, too. When Issy and me ever visit Hoi An, we always eat banh mi from the shop – named Phuong’s – made popular by Bourdain, after he sampled one of their banh mis and declared it a “symphony in a sandwich“.

The table in Hanoi, at which he and Barack Obama famously shared bun cha just two years ago, has now been enshrined in a glass cabinet, so proud were the owners of being chosen to host them. And, if you watch some of Bourdain’s documentaries about travelling around the United States, it tends to be a spicy bowl of Vietnamese pho noodles that he goes in search of, on a morning where the hangover is particularly smarting.

In the video above, Bourdain’s unbridled joy at returning to Vietnam and eating street-food turns him into “a giddy, silly foolish man, beyond caring”.

With trademark sign off to his viewers to get out and sample food like this for yourself, his straight-laced take on the everyday importance of community, empathy, humour, and compassion resonated clearly with the millions of people who avidly followed his pursuits from country to country.

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It was Milan Kundera, the Czech-born writer who explains in his novel, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, about compassion as having several meanings, depending upon the language origin.

From the Latin, the meaning is “with suffering” whereas, for other variants, the word infers more of the act of “feeling”.

Kundera goes on to state that compassion, taking the Latin derivative, means “we cannot look on coolly as others suffer; or, we sympathize with those who suffer.” For the non-Latin version, “to have compassion (co-feeling) means not only to be able to live with the other’s misfortune but also to feel with him any emotion – joy, anxiety, happiness, pain.”

What Kundera concludes for this second definition of compassion, as a form of feeling, is that it “therefore signifies the maximal capacity of affective imagination, the art of emotional telepathy. In the hierarchy of sentiments, then, it is supreme.”

In Kundera’s novel, his protagonist, Tomas, struggles with a compassion he feels for Tereza (which she “has infected” in him) and it occurs to him that “there is nothing heavier than compassion…not even one’s own pain weighs so heavy as the pain one feels with someone, for someone, a pain intensified by the imagination and prolonged by a hundred echoes”.

In this regard, compassion doesn’t seem like something which would be easy to sustain. In its purest form, it could eventually drive too many emotions round and round your consciousness and your being, that you’d be rendered trapped.

Perhaps a corollary exists here with the compassion that, I think, partly underscores Bourdain’s “open your mind” call to action.

As he moves from one culinary and cultural indulgence to the next, he consistently tells his viewers to use travel and food to gain a different perspective and appreciation of what the world is all about. By extension, he is inviting others into a dynamic whereby they could be susceptible to compassionate feelings for others.

I’m fairly sure that Bourdain’s expectations in doing this weren’t so others would embrace their compassionate inner selves and take on the suffering or the feelings of all those people they meet along the way. However, whilst he knows his shows are entertaining first and foremost, I also feel he does hope to inspire some strain of compassion by sharing his own experiences.

To me, there is some middle ground here. Your movements, your curiosities, your exposure to new things, your ability to actively listen and learn, all of these things leave an indelible mark on who you are. Sometimes this can hurt and other times it produces unfettered joy. Whether it creates compassion specifically in the way that Milan Kundera has analysed the form, or whether a different lens is gifted you through which to view the world, is perhaps less important.

Anthony Bourdain seemed to enjoy living in the present moment – “you only go round once” he exclaims, after his second bite of the Hoi An banh mi. He carried with him an authentic and hearty joie de vivre and a charmingly blunt and down-to-earth swagger, which made his worldly ebullience mesmerizing.

That Bourdain lived a life where roguish enquiry, experimentation, connection and celebration were cornerstones, the darker periods of time to which he was susceptible may also have been mutually reinforcing components to his character.

Of his sudden suicide, more will be revealed. I only hope, as Kundera’s character Tomas felt it “weighing heavy, and prolonged by a hundred echoes”, that Bourdain’s propensity to feel compassion didn’t take hold in such a way, time and again, that its indelible mark was just too much to bear.

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Anthony Bourdain eating in Vietnam. Photo credit: http://www.eater.com

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Value judgements

 

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CARE staffer Ana Mazen at Azraq camp, in Jordon. Picture credit Sarah Rashdan/CARE.

I’m flying to Singapore on Thursday for work. For those more acquainted with my blogs on definitelymaybe (or on the sister site http://www.saigonsays.com) you’ll have picked up on the fact that I go through spells of heavy travel because of my job.

Every time a work assignment involving being out of Saigon (where I live) is conceived – by me, or by someone I work with, or work for – there are formal criteria for finalizing a decision about going, or not going.

For example, is the assignment in response to a need in that country from a CARE team, an invitation from a partner organization, or the mandate of a higher authority in the system? Who is paying for the costs? What is the detailed scope of work, the objectives? And so on.

I wonder, though, about the less formal criteria that come into play? Those that emanate from individual persuasions and from hierarchies?

Does CARE, and do other entities, in situations of deploying staff overseas to conduct their work, have open and accountable ways of prioritizing who goes where, and for what ends?

Furthermore, how should a not-for-profit agency such as CARE, working to empower marginalized and vulnerable women and girls, decide whether it is more impactful for its mission to send someone in a more “senior” role to a networking conference vs. sending a more “junior” level person on a training course?

In this example, the networking assignment might yield an opportunity to bring valuable new investments into CARE. The training course example might, instead, not only increase the quality of a specific piece of programme design but might also inspire that staff member to be retained for a longer period of time (which, as we know, tends to save organisations money, given the cost of recruiting new people.)

Is one of these examples more directly related to CARE being impactful in our work than the other?

This connundrum, perhaps, doesn’t require public consultation via my blog, and these are issues which are persuasive across sectors and institutions.

However, as carbon emissions are a dominant root cause that exacerbate poverty and social injustice around the world, it does feel incumbent upon those of us working to support those people most impacted on by poverty and social injustices, to be held to account around our standards and decision making.

The issue of how CARE goes about bringing investments into our organisation, how we build quality programmes, and how we reduce our carbon emissions must be inter-connected.

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It occurs to me, too, that this use of ‘informal’ criteria is pervasive in all walks of life, and how we make decisions on many things, and speaks to our individual, collective and societal values.

When I ride my motorbike around Saigon (itself an often complex past-time, and one of the topics of an early blog) I’ll make judgements at every corner, and with every mirror check along the way. Split second decisions are calculated based on a.) what I perceive should be the (formal) rules – although it’s never 100% clear over here – and b.) what I might then decide are more intuitive (informal) reasons.

Spread over this recipe for decision making a splattering of social and cultural norms (we got into this last week, too) and sometimes the results are pain free, and other times they leave me hand-gesturing and losing face in front of a road full of people and vehicles.

The values based judgements I and others might be drawing from in such scenarios are often buried deep. And so do we always even know that we are drawing from them, particularly in situations where we find ourselves in arguments or in discussions with conflicting view-points?

I rarely quote the bible on this blog, but how often do we stop and follow the “do unto others as you would have them do unto you” mantra (from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, for anyone who, like me, just needed to google the line itself)? If I were to create for myself a strong grouping of values to lead my life by, then I think this one is a great contender.

Yet, is it possible to follow this particular biblical ethic in everything one does in life? Who knows. But I do think a small helping of it everyday would be a valuable beginning.

Just as we are taught (rightly so) not to judge a person by their appearance, I think a good deal of inspiration for me comes when you combine various valuex based sentiments together, and ‘walk their talk’.

As someone initially might take up daily meditation, repeatedly over time they might then develop the ability to use what, eventually, becomes a more ingrained technique and state of mind into how they think, speak, and behave, and how they move from each day-to-day activity and past-time.

Perhaps there is a way for those of us operating from positions of power (from wealth, health, security) to genuinely connect with those values which we often speak about, but less often act upon? Better still, can we be consistently true to these values and be honest with ourselves when we are not?

This morning, I watched a video that actress Shay Mitchell hosted for CARE, documenting a visit she made to a refugee camp in Azraq, Jordon. There, she spent time on a CARE project set up to teach young people how to make films, and give them a channel to express themselves (which I’m pleased to say is an initiative that will now continue through past 2018).

Celebrity promotions of international development work have always been ‘a thing’ and some will be critiqued positively, and some negatively. Carbon emissions were expended, and other investments were made, to make this particular visit, project and resulting video happen. It moved and inspired me (caveating that I do have a certain bias). Maybe for others it will illicit different reactions.

Click on many newspaper front pages this morning, and articles underscoring the desperate plights of hundreds of thousands of other refugees, across the globe, are waiting to be read. They demand, and also deserve, our attention.

This, in part, is our dilemma. I’m sharing the Azraq video to (even slightly) help its promotion to even more then the one million or so watches it has already well deserved. In writing about CARE’s other work from time to time, I hope to do the same. To trigger some reflection. To percolate, for any reader who stops by, a thought or a feeling.

I’ll never actually be able to conclude if this creates impact in itself, but I will continue to experiment with that.

One thing that I do know, specifically related to this video, is that I met Jameel (CARE’s Project Manager for the work in Azraq) recently, and it would be impossible to meet someone whose strong values based approach, to his work and to his life, was more profound.

Money is Power

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CARE colleague at a project visit to a Women’s Centre in the West Bank

What do you think of when you read the words ‘money is power‘?

Rich tycoons? Celebrity spenders? Men?

Maybe, maybe not. However, for the purposes of this post, let’s assume (and I believe there are solid grounds for such an assumption) that rich, powerful men represent a compelling ‘logo’ for the concept of money being powerful.

This post is about reframing that.

Now, CARE’s work is mainly couched in the language of poverty and injustice. These are far reaching and often misused words. I’ve written before about the way in which the international development sector overuses jargon, and we are still at it.

Within the wide parameters that ‘poverty’ and ‘injustice’ house, CARE delivers humanitarian relief, and we pride ourselves on our long term development interventions. More recently, we have been describing how we build resilience for communities.

There are then a bunch of derivatives used about each of these terms, which I’ll let you research yourself (as I’ve no doubt you now will).

This latest trend towards resilience is, in some ways, an attempt to combine the two historically distinct and typically separate areas of our work – namely, humanitarian relief and longer-term development.      Read more…

Innovating against the inevitable

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Local street in Calamba City, Philippines

Paula Atun, a young Filipino entrepreneur living in Calamba City, thought she was filling in an online survey, with her idea on how to catch and filter rainwater. She’d seen the idea on the Discovery Channel.

A few weeks later, CARE Philippines had signed her up as one of their local ‘innovators’, tasked with investing over PHp 1,000,000 ($20,000) into this idea, and leading the production and distribution of it to 15 local households, the inhabitants of which are either elderly or living with disabilities.

Paula had, in fact, inadvertently applied to the Philippines TUKLAS Innovation Labs project. And her idea was eventually chosen as one of forty, shortlisted by CARE Philippines and three NGO partners managing this DFID and Start Network initiative.

The Philippines is the second most disaster prone country in the world, and the objective of TUKLAS is to source ideas from local communities for disaster preparedness. It then instigates a process for funding and building the capacities of local creators and entrepreneurs to pilot or scale these.      Read more…

Making good in a modern world

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Local knowledge exchange in Zemalak, Cairo (2016)…

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….re-visited in 2018

You’ve heard the statistic about the ‘world producing as much information every day as we have in all of humanity’. You maybe read it on Twitter. Or your friend sent you a link to it via WhatsApp. It was probably something like that.

Then there’s the one about our brains only using a small percentage of their capability, and yet we now struggle to absorb more than just bite-sized amounts of news, or information, at any one time.

Sensationalist media headlines fight for our attention in an ever cluttered communications arena. Pictures of Syrian children splattered in blood are up against celebrity scoops, and Trip Advisor adverts mapping our movements and intruding onto our screens and into our lives. The extent to which we depend on, and benefit from, technology is growing exponentially, at the same time as it is eerily replacing so many aspects of our identity, and how and what we fill our waking hours doing.

Do we embrace or reject these advancements? A goose-bump inflection, back to school days of reading Orwell and Huxley, leaves me choosing the latter, and wondering into what flying spaceship fantasy futures my daughters will be subject.      Read more…

One day

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One day,

The wind beneath the wings of a soaring bird
will be felt on his face.

The scent of a crashing wave
will touch his soul.

The freedom of a child at play
will melt his eyes.

And the choices made by a woman living a life free from inequalities
will stir inside of him such unequivocal calm that

he, too,

will soar in the skies,
move with the ocean,
embrace freedom,
and choose to be all these things,

Every day.

Boycott the red tops

In silencing those who have been complaining recently that the topic of sexual harassment is currently peppering news editorials the world over, many commentators have rightly couched that this particular metaphorical surface has only just been scratched.

With each new industry’s public acceptance (and condemnation) of the prevalence of sexual harassment, endemic across their own sectoral landscape, others trivialize the issue, committed it seems to end their days affixed to a depth of denial that even your average canary would shy away from examining…

The gods were indeed having their fun with us mortals to take away the life of Christopher Hitchens, while the caustic barbs of his brother, Peter, run free to propagate so vile a perspective on the topic as they did yesterday that even the Game of Thrones’ own Ramsey Bolton would have taken umbridge.

In his eloquently titled piece: ‘What will women gain from all this squawking about sex pests? A niqab‘  yesterday in The Mail on Sunday, Hitchens offered us this useful perspective:

“The welfare system is about to melt down. And you think the most important thing in your lives is a hunt for long-ago cases of wandering hands, or tellers of coarse jokes?”

And there it is, ladies and gentleman, served up on a plate, a steaming pudding of an indictment, reflecting far too many men’s dismissive attitudes when it comes to sexual harassment. Water under the bridge. Generations of despair and psychological trauma conveniently swept, like human dust particles, under society’s all forgiving moral carpet.

Even by Hitchens’ low-bar standard, yesterday’s article is tour de force material.

As if taking on the mind-set of a man whose lost his worldy possessions at a game of poker, and is being escorted out the door, our protagonist flails and raves at the page. Billions of women enduring lifetimes of objectification? I’ll see your bet, and raise you with a rant about what’s really important, which is that our country is “wobbling on the precipice of bankruptcy”.

Is this the same country who voted to leave the economic safety of Europe, and where corporations, politicians and the country’s own Monarch have spent decades mastering the art of tax avoidance, Peter? If so, maybe take your infantile vitriol out on them.

However, not content with a simple down-grading of sexual harassment in the face of economic meltdowns, our gambling stooge persists.

With one foot out of the casino, and a bouncer’s hand on his shoulder, he can’t resist: “In our post-marriage free-for-all, why should we expect either sex to be restrained? All that’s left is the police or the public pillory of Twitter.”

According to this veritable shitbag of a human being, ever since gender equality started making strides, and the sacred institution of marriage was questioned, society has nose dived.

466 words in, and I’m annoyed that this man has so riled me that I’ve written this (and I apologise for that to the three people who might actually read this blog).

So, let me make a simple recommendation. Boycott this red top propaganda. Boycott the likes of Hitchens, and his poisonous opinions. Boycott Paul Dacre’s lewd, bigoted and fearful curating of these toxic publications. Boycott them all.

Whatever it takes to ensure sexual harassment does not remain a topic analysed only at the surface level, and then filed under a “not that important” index, needs to be done. Those who have committed sexual harassment, whether 80 years ago, should face up to that and pay a penalty. In the public eye, or the private one.

And, all I know, is that there is not one single syllable to be found in yesterday’s vomit inducing Hitchens heckle that will ensure any positive or supportive progress is made in that direction.

 

 

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