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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.

It’s not worth calculating anymore whether we’ve passed the “tipping point” of no return, and allowed ourselves a get-out-of-jail-free moment. Many claim the moment in which irreversible damage will be done to the planet has indeed passed.

Those who believe this moment is still way, way off in the distance, are living in a land not of trees and clouds, but cuckoos.

If you think that our reckless hurtling towards impending doom and extinction, like some driver-less car picking up pace down the street, is suddenly going to change its course and reverse, based on the last 30 years of us ignoring all the signals, then you are either an optimist or, like me, you’ve just been hoping it will all disappear and everything will just turn out alright in the end.

It doesn’t seem to matter who is warning us, so many of us just seem to brazenly push on.

At the institutional level, this can be in the form of a multi-national corporation, obsessed with shareholder profits, and employing greedy individuals – not satisfied with millions in their bank accounts, they want billions. The truth is that, not all, but too many of these organisations simply don’t care about the pastoralist farmer. They sell things and make money and get rich.

Or, we could be talking about a Government, regulating the industry of that same multi-national corporation but, again, obsessed with making decisions that will result in some kind of net gain – profit, usually, for those sat fat at the top of the chain. Government decisions and gains of course also come in the form of securing the popular vote – more critical, it would appear, than influencing the lemming-like trajectory of our species.

In the roundest of terms, what is the ultimate point of any of these gains, that so obsess and corrupt people, if we are all set to blow ourselves up and off the planet inside of the next handful of generations?

Coming down to the level of individuals, what do we know?

It now appears to be ‘fact’ that grounding all the planes, vegan-izing all the meat-eaters, recycling all the paper – take your pick – what were once noble endeavours that every responsible person could employ, to crowd source solutions to the problem are, today, recognized as simply being of too little consequence, too late in the day. “Our restaurant only serves metal straws” – the sign reads. That’ll fix it, will it?

Metaphorically speaking, we are ‘circling the drain’ in the most colossal way possible as a species, by ignoring the last several decades of warnings.

Billions are spent every day by Governments on their nuclear capabilities and, from what many learned scientists are predicting, it may yet appear more likely an outcome for everyone that the effects of climate change are standing by, draped in Grim Reaper garb, ready to render anything associated with nuclear capabilities utterly redundant. No point fretting about World War III if we’ve caused irreversible damage to our one planet.

And you will have heard this all before. I expect you watched Al Gore’s movie and you’re halfway through Blue Planet II as I type this. Maybe you are already donating to an environmental organization. You’ve switched coffee brands. You “do your bit” to recycle your wine bottles and your cereal boxes. And, maybe, like me, you might have felt a frission of excitement at the story last week about Mumbai’s militant banning of plastic bags. Just think of the scale potential in India, right? It all adds up, doesn’t it?

In Taiwan, regulation came out which mandated citizens to reduce their air conditioners by 3 degrees. What if all air conditioners made in every country followed suit with similar regulatory controls? Maybe this is our ticket to our salvation after all?

Maybe (to quote a friend from this weekend) the development of Artificial Intelligence will end up resolving the issue of our rising temperatures by creating a solution that we’d never ourselves be able to conjure up?




Siam Reap’s flooded fields. A remarkable reminder of the effects of climate change as the flood waters rise higher each year. Good for kayaking though!

What I did learn recently is this: not only do we have the knowledge on how it is still possible to cool down the temperature of our planet, but that knowledge and know-how is not all steeped in technological and scientific jargon and intangibility – which, I feel, can so often be a barrier to engaging one and all in uniform messages and ideas.

Let me introduce here Dr Katharine Wilkinson’s Project Drawdown.

Simply put, the research and resulting data that exists, in relation to reversing the effects of climate change, has been prioritized by Dr Wilkinson into a list of the top 80 actions which can be taken to draw down global temperatures. A shopping list, if you will, of the most significant things which can save us from extinction.

Top of this list is the reduction of HFCs, and the various institutional regulations that are in effect related to our use of refrigerated units. The size of the prize when it comes to what this #1 entry to our list carries would be an 89.74 Gigaton/GT (so, 89 billion ton) reduction of CO2.

Here is a direct lift from the site to explain this in detail:

“Every refrigerator and air conditioner contains chemical refrigerants that absorb and release heat to enable chilling. Refrigerants, specifically CFCs and HCFCs, were once culprits in depleting the ozone layer. Thanks to the 1987 Montreal Protocol, they have been phased out. HFCs, the primary replacement, spare the ozone layer, but have 1,000 to 9,000 times greater capacity to warm the atmosphere than carbon dioxide.

In October 2016, officials from more than 170 countries met in Kigali, Rwanda, to negotiate a deal to address this problem. Through an amendment to the Montreal Protocol, the world will phase out HFCs—starting with high-income countries in 2019, then some low-income countries in 2024 and others in 2028. Substitutes are already on the market, including natural refrigerants such as propane and ammonium.

Scientists estimate the Kigali accord will reduce global warming by nearly one degree Fahrenheit. Still, the bank of HFCs will grow substantially before all countries halt their use. Because 90 percent of refrigerant emissions happen at end of life, effective disposal of those currently in circulation is essential. After being carefully removed and stored, refrigerants can be purified for reuse or transformed into other chemicals that do not cause warming.”

Closely following HFCs, we have onshore wind turbines (84.60 GTs) and reduced food waste (70.53 GTs).

These top 3 combined come with a hefty positive net impact.

What is also intriguing about this list, is that after #8 the impact of each entry diminishes considerably, meaning that the highest ranked eight actions, together, take on the large majority of burden (or, if you prefer, the solution). Air travel, in at #43, whilst still important, comes in at only 5.05 gigatons.

But wait, what are those in at #6 and #7? I here you gasp? They don’t sound climate related?

Indeed, #6 is Girls Education and #7 is Family Planning and, for someone working for, and writing about, women’s empowerment for a few years now, these two highly ranked topics certainly caught me by surprise. The logic less so, but the potential impact they could have is mesmerizingly high.

That these core social development realms sit so high up the charts – with a combined potential of a 119.40 GT reduction – perhaps shouldn’t have surprised me so much as they did. CARE has formulated theories on how levels of poverty and social injustice will decrease in a more “equal” world for a long time.

The twist, for me at least in this tale, is a question that Dr Wilkinson’s campaign poses, as an accompaniment to this research, which is this: “can we reduce the effects of climate change if we don’t dismantle patriarchy?”

If this science pairs as concretely with these two social development interventions, as is being indicated by Drawdown, then the answer to this question can only be an emphatic “no – we cannot”.

And so we must.


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…


Dana, a dance teacher by trade as well as a tour guide, shows us round the park next to the 16th Street Baptist Church, in Birmingham, AL.

Headline surfing this morning, landed me on an interview with Spike Lee, about his new film BlacKkKlansman and I watched the palpable sense of rage unfold in Lee’s answers, particularly around how global governments, including his own, are stoking the right wing fires of political persuasion.

With the dark accompaniment of so many global news channels ready to fan these flames and paper over the cracks of corruption and exploitation, what are we to really do and feel and believe the future holds, when it comes to ensuring the values we believe in, and live out, are the right ones?

In many ways, my time in the USA offered up a “full circle” experience in the face of this question: during my first few days in country, the foreboding politics of this particular genre of time jarred and stifled my thoughts; until I was then grounded, as always, by the perspectives and insights of my peers; after which, a sensory sky rocket was lit during the New Orleans weekend, itself an explosion of diversity and of how things should be; starkly contrasting to the proceeding five days of immersion across Alabama.

And then I found myself playing pool with my godson, Sam.


Sharing this broad, beautiful and flawed space we all find ourselves inhabiting will forever confuse and challenge and inspire.

My real sense, of what feels like endless speculation on my part over the last ten years (my eldest is 10 years old this week and so, perhaps, this is no coincidence) is that we have a duty today and everyday towards each other, in some shape or form. In how we connect, in how we value and in how we behave with one another.

This mini odyssey in the USA only served to reinforce that, along with the complexities attached to how this plays out.

Many have landed on the conclusion that love, tolerance and understanding are our strongest of tools. I am not here to challenge this, per se. That compassion, and the ‘content of one’s character’ – to quote King – and being true to one’s self, are part and parcel of living out the right values are not, for me, up for debate. Indeed, my trip helped reinforce why these values are so powerful, for one because they help combat the feelings that, biologically, exist in each of us, which can lead to the oppression of others and that can result in hurt and pain and destruction.

Overwhelmingly, the stories I listened to in Alabama made me angry. Stories both from the mouths of those who addressed our group, as well as viewed in various curated archives preserved, like amber, in art form now – such as at The National Memorial for Peace and Justice (also know as ‘The Lynching Museum’) or at EJI’s own museum, which hauntingly yet quite beautifully, brings back to life the era of public segregation, and prior to that the agony and suffering caused by the practice of slavery.

The experience of reading, watching, feeling and taking in this barbaric and brutal recent history, as I have no doubt could be invoked in other countries and contexts around the world, is an emptying one.

And as it should be.

Through the EJI and others, the lives and the stories of the many hundreds of thousands of men and women and children of colour, trafficked from Europe or domestically throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, sold between families and institutions, predominantly across the Southern States (Montgomery itself being home too nearly 500,000 slaves at one time) and subjected to inhumane forms of torture, confinement and corporal and capital punishments, are being told.

Fast forward to the modern day reality faced by young black men, in these same States, generation after generation – where one in three will be arrested in their lifetime and where thousands, today, either sit on death row or are facing life in prison without parole – and it is hard to let go of that anger.


The Lynching Museum, Montgomery, AL.


Joe Mintor, at his home in Birmingham, AL.

Bryan Stevenson set up the Equal Justice Institute, and in his book Just Mercy he writes about the cases of the many hundreds of young black men he has set out to defend.

Each chapter of the book provides page after page of saddening and thought provoking stories. In one, a 14 year old boy, named Ian, was caught up in a random shooting incident with the police. No one was hit or injured and yet Ian was incarcerated for life for the role he played (cajoled as he had been at the time into joining two other older teenagers to carry out a kidnapping). Ian had been handed a gun by the older boys and he fired at the police in the shootout.

He was so small that, upon entering the adult prison, Ian spent the first eighteen years of his prison life in uninterrupted solitary confinement, for fear of what would become of him in the main prison. Eighteen years living in a concrete box the size of a walk-in wardrobe. Ian has now been locked away for the past 32 years and is receiving support for appeal due to the efforts of the EJI.

In 2018, the laws in these States continue to prejudice men and women of colour. Discriminatory behaviours of the past remain.

In embracing equality, we are also, it seems, encouraging platforms for others to embrace hatred.

Many of Martin Luther King’s public speeches and calls to action are emblazoned in the EJI museum and elsewhere (indeed, the world over) and his oratory will forever mark a moment in our history where the power of equality stood firm. The image of water being one we saw adopted to moving effect during our trip. Used to reflect healing, progress and strength and inspired, in part, from King’s adaptation of the Prophet Amos’ line: “let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.”

That my godson, and my own daughter’s, formative years somehow connect with what it means to promote equality is, to some extent (although, clearly not exclusively) out of my hands. Nor should Sam and his peers feel the full burden of official ‘adulthood’, two years from now, with some kind of simultaneous inheritance of society’s continued inequalities. And, yet, young people who experience a childhood of any form of privilege must one day have the chance to cherish that. Their eyes open to it.

It seems to me that only through generational, tectonic shifts of form and attitude and resolution, will we ever move the dial on any of the social spectrum’s we currently use to diagnose the underlying causes of injustice and poverty.

Bryan Stevenson believes the opposite of poverty is not wealth, but injustice itself. At CARE, and since 1945, our commitment to support people in crisis, and to be resolved in our continued fight to tackle gender inequality, in all its forms, defines our very core values. For other social development entities, their choice of influencing agendas might be holding to account multi-national corporations, or challenging the more recent resurgence in right wing extremist groups. There is room for all us in this arena and we can and must collaborate.

As CARE contemplates how to intervene meaningfully in the USA, bringing to bare our learning from 93 countries, our theories for how change occurs, and joining others in addressing societal issues, for the policy maker and advocate, Ayanna Presley, at the heart of all of these spectrums lies a plain and simple vision, which is that: “Those closest to the pain, should be closest to the power”.

To draw a line under this post, I offer up Presley’s statement for you, my (very patient) reader to consider.

And I would suggest that, again, we each have a role to play in turning this vision into respective life missions. Each and every day, over and over again, moment by moment, encounter by encounter: gestures, thoughts, actions, being.


CARE Innovation Team with Richard and Lecia of The Southern Poverty Law Centre, Montgomery, AL.

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. 

You only go round once


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.


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.


Anthony Bourdain eating in Vietnam. Photo credit:

Value judgements



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 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.


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.

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