Striving for perfection and new norms

Image result for embracing technology changes"

In a recent podcast featuring the journalist Will Storr, two powerful statistics were shared: 1.) in 2014, on average, 93 billion selfies were being taken on a daily basis on smart phones, and 2.) one third of all the photos taken by 18-25 year olds were photos of themselves.

Storr’s interview surfaced his strong beliefs around how neo-liberalism (“new freedom”) took hold in the early 1980s, and he quotes Margaret Thatcher as being a key – and “sinister” – architect of the movement.

Thatcher believed that a societal reframing (in the global “West” at least) around individualistic values, would pivot away from the uprising of collective movements, experienced during the 60s and 70s, and their outpourings against established government and private sector structures.

As Thatcher famously said: “Economics are the method; the object is to change the soul.”

The premise for his first book, Selfie, lays out Storr’s own perspectives on the toxicity of what then unfolded, from around 1983 onwards, up until the present time.

In particular: the rise of fitness videos; self-improvement manuals; and, in short, the slow march towards such colloquial mantras as “anything is possible” or that “all things are achievable, no matter who you are”.

Storr goes on to make strong links between individualism, social media and the current surges in the number of people self-harming, committing suicide or being affected by body dysmorphia.

For myself, living in Vietnam for the best part of 9 years now, it was interesting that Storr used as his comparison the constructs of East and West, historically representing juxtaposed cultures.

In the East, there are consistent examples of societal norms being inclined towards a collective. Whether that is through family circles, faith-based or local community structures, or through more institutional level socialist frameworks. However, I see this changing from my Asian vantage perspective, towards a more individualistic mentally superseding what has gone before.

Today, as I board yet another plane, it does often feel to me more and more that, cultural norms aside, we are all gradually morphing into one chaotic, opinionated cacophony of online noise and garbage – digital pleasure-seekers more inclined to pursue our own, rather than a shared, agenda.

As Storr points out, that we can connect with the world’s most successful people, via social media platforms, only serves to artificially heighten the potential for us to want to be that successful ourselves.

We might rationally rebut that urge, however the brain is hard-wired to make sense of the world and create the right conditions for each of us to feel justified in our actions and our personas – however we live our lives.

I step onto airplanes, for example, deftly soporific and eased into sleep as my plane makes for the runway, because I’ve chosen to believe that the carbon emissions I’m contributing to are made acceptable because I’ve recently made an effort to eat less red meat, and because I don’t own a car.

Sounds trite. And, as an argument, is bonkers. But I think it nonetheless, and I’ve no doubt other people make their own moralistic arguments to themselves, in order to dilute the guilt often felt when indulging in things we know to be morally ambivalent.

If that is the case – that each of us is susceptible to making choices and taking positions that favour our desire driven choices – then it is equally feasible that each of us is susceptible, however slight or unconscious, to wanting to achieve a form of individual perfection.

Just as connectivity offers up so many tantalizing and nourishing opportunities, so too is it driving these trends and habits rapidly forward.

If you were born in the 1990s, then your exposure to smart phones and the internet is almost as normal as walking and talking. My own children are still mostly at arm’s length to social media (aged 8 and 11) however it’s lurking around every corner of their lives.

Storr is disdainful about what is lurking around corners. Idealistic, sugar-coated calls to action, for example, that pop up in advertising or on social media platforms: “follow your dreams” they clamor, “you can be anything you want to be”.

If Will Storr had his way, all of these feel good quotes would be removed from our lexicon, given “they’re simply not true”.

In which case, what should replace these sentiments? Less incentives to dream big, and more reality checks? Is that what young people should busy themselves with instead of worrying about which filter to use on their next Instagram picture?

On the one hand, yes, 100%. We’ve lurched too hard and too quickly into the narcissistic arena that Storr is describing. But what is the compromise between utterly dismantling this digital architecture and these false-hope aspirations?

I don’t have definitive answers to this, other than to suggest limitations on what currently exists. Holding people – young people especially – back from experiencing and accessing social media would only serve to heighten their thirst for it.

Curbing screen-time for children, and at times removing the lure of it completely by breaking up routines is, perhaps, a start.

But then I also feel hopeful that the anti-social media movement is already underway.

Just as many societies are seeing drops in the uptake of drug usage and alcohol consumption across younger generations so are there spaces appearing for the fierce opposition to the growing network of tech companies who control these platforms and, by association, have crept into our lives.

There will, inevitably, be a toppling of those who currently monopolise these systems.

What remains in question is what will replace them.

 

Focus, collaboration and proof of concept: notes from a Singapore Round Table

Image result for sdgs"And so to Singapore last week, and joining a group of corporations at a “Round Table” event convened by Business Fights Poverty and Elevate.

This was the third in a series of formal discussions that the UK Department for International Development (DFID) had instigated, to support the scale up of new initiatives for responsible business practice.

The basis for our dialogue in Singapore was straight forward enough: what can DFID, and other government donor agencies, do to stimulate and enhance the implementation and impact of responsible business practice, as part of the collective efforts underway to meet the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs – listed above)?    Continue reading “Focus, collaboration and proof of concept: notes from a Singapore Round Table”

Economic Resilience: Lessons from a workshop in Kenya

market3
Local market in Westlands, Nairobi

Every day, we each make decisions about money. Weighing up hundreds of transaction options in a single week, our choices are based on quality, value, needs and desires. To do this, we require information and knowledge, and ultimately we crave the security of knowing that we can afford to buy things.

Cryptic introductions aside, this post is inspired by an illuminating week overseas with new people, and offers up some jet-lagged musings about money and about equity.

Last week I was in Nairobi, with colleagues from Save the Children who’d gathered to share their experiences on the topic of “Economic Resilience”.

In a game of ‘Non-Governmental Organisation [NGO]’ Bingo, now would be the time to mark a cross in your first box: Economic Resilience, what a buzz-word (or “fuzz-word” as someone in Nairobi suggested) indeed.

There were 14 country teams in attendance last week, each armed with definitions, approaches, ideas and stories to tell about their respective efforts at delivering projects with local communities that increase people’s Economic Resilience.    Continue reading “Economic Resilience: Lessons from a workshop in Kenya”

Can we really take big business seriously when it comes to the SDGs?

img_4461-1

Gaza, May 2017 – https://definitelymaybe.me/2018/05/11/money-is-power/

It was during a Business in the Community event in the summer of 2006 that I first met Carol Monoyios, CARE UK’s Marketing Director, and responsible (in part, at least) for the fact that I spent the next 13 years working for CARE International.

Carol and the organization’s then Programme Director, Raja Jarrah, had hatched a plan and it was to be my fate, attending that July event, to end up playing the role of their main protagonist.

Their plan was, and remains, a simple one: create a multi-functional team inside of CARE to work with businesses and markets in a new and more impactful way.

What various colleagues across CARE’s system had determined, the year before at a conference in Nairobi, was that there were many ways to work with business and markets, with the purpose of supporting CARE’s mission of empowering women and girls, but these were not being centrally coordinated very well.

Inside of the NGO sector at that time, most agencies who took money from business were using this largely as a means to fund projects. A separate department would then typically manage the organisation’s “market development” programmes – the result being that these two functions were not collaborating.      Continue reading “Can we really take big business seriously when it comes to the SDGs?”

Designing For Good

bujumbara
Dawn at the top of one of Bujumbara’s stunning hilltops.

At 8am the CARE Burundi team meet on the lawn outside their office and stand in a circle for Monday’s daily briefing. Updates are shared, stories told, priorities for the day ahead clarified.

The team’s Country Director, Juvenal Afurika, closes out the meeting and comes over to my colleague, Dane, and me, “welcome to Bujumbara,” he smiles, “how are things going so far?”

‘Things’ were going well.

We’d landed into the country’s capital early Sunday, Dane from San Francisco via Europe, and me from Saigon, via the Middle East. Several months of preparatory team calls and re-worked excel sheets, carving out the various components to this assignment, were now gratifyingly behind us, and we were finally on African soil.

A few months prior to this visit we’d had to postpone coming over at the end of 2018, as CARE and the International Non Governmental Organisation (INGO) community went through a re-registration exercise with the Burundi Government.

This time, all was going smoothly as Dane and I sought out an inaugural meal by a lake, which we took cautiously, dining just a few metres away from a sunbathing hippopotamus.

hippo
Sunday lunch with a visiting sun seeker. Lake Tanganyika, Jan 2019.

We had flown all these miles for the opportunity to engage face-to-face with our colleagues in Bujumbara. The aim was to share our ideas about programme design, and learn valuable insights from their team about the challenges they faced designing social programmes.

Inevitably, as I’ve seen in other contexts, teams who deliver social programmes in local communities are juggling a number of priorities. In addition to which they are tasked with creating an appropriate set of activities and engagements that will actually be of use to local beneficiaries in the long run.

As I am sure happens at other INGOs, once a funding contract has been won, the clock instantly starts its countdown to that work being completed and reported back on. Increasingly, and perfectly justifiably, donors and the wider world of thoughtful commentators, want to see tangible evidence of change being made on the ground.

So, with the days and weeks ticking by, local partners initially get signed up to deliver different pieces of the work, whilst community meetings are staged with beneficiary groups.

However, even in these early phases, there are many things that can get delayed and compromise an initiative. Obtaining local government licenses to operate, for example, upskilling partner NGOs, or facilitating successful dialogue with those communities who will ultimately stand to benefit from the programme – these are just some of the things that pose risks to the success of the intervention if they are not carried out in a timely way.

Midway through a programme all too often local CARE teams, like our colleagues in Bujumbara, find their diaries crammed full: donor meetings; project visits; liaising with the different internal CARE stakeholders; compiling progress reports; ensuring compliance and accounting for funds spent; and then the inevitable requirement of drafting up new proposals for the next round of funding.

During this conveyor-belt of tasks there is seldom time for project teams to conduct detailed research, nor to properly test out new ideas for future programmes, let alone then validate the different assumptions linked to these new ideas having an impact.

And so, it was in this realm of testing and validation that Dane and I were focused for the five days we spent with our colleagues.

dane
Dane sharing out ideas on design thinking. Bujumbara, Jan 2019.

Ostensibly, whilst seeking a world in which poverty and social injustice are overcome, CARE is also striving to render its services, at some point in the future, obsolete. Working itself out of being required by others, as opposed to the mandate of, say, a company which would be more akin to the opposite future state.

However, as a company would place emphasis and resources on conducting market research and product testing, so too must the likes of CARE follow suit, if we are to fulfil our ultimate mission anytime soon.

This was the message we were in town to share and to embed.

Afurika himself was sold on this approach. He and his leadership team had taken stock of CARE Burundi’s future portfolio and programme credentials, and decided on a “full makeover”. Their goal being to set the stage in Bujumbara for a new way of operating – one where design principles were going to sit higher up the list of priorities.

To help catalyse this shift, the team rented a building next to their office, and established it as an Innovation Hub – Hub Nawe Nuze. This was to be a new space to bring people together, to engage external stakeholders in, and to broadcast clearly the intentions of this team – Hub Nawe Nuze was to provide the impetus as well as the visual, practical structure in which CARE Burundi could begin its change process.

Yet, even with the excitement of launching the Hub, to actually evolve and to change a team’s approach is another matter. For CARE Burundi to discover, ideate, validate and then operationalise and scale new programme ideas in a way they’d not tried before was going to require new systems and processes, new roles and responsibilities for team members, and a new culture and mindset to absorb and adapt to all of this.

What transpired in our sessions during that week was one step in a longer exercise of accompaniment and learning to which both our teams had made commitments. Without these commitments, championed at the highest levels of the organisations, we’d simply not get off the starting blocks.

Design thinking comes in many descriptions and several INGOs are experimenting with it. At the core of a lot of what I have been exposed to, that has struck a chord for programme teams, is a commitment to organization and to rigour. Some of our colleagues in Bujumbara seemed to agree with this, too (click below to watch some sound-bites from our discussions with them…)

In practicing with our colleagues the craft of “validating a new idea” (which includes largely spending time consulting others and “sense checking” assumptions behind that idea, prior to spending decent money on rolling that idea out) we were merely facilitating the team’s own perspectives and sense of what may or may not work in their context.

In then following up our time in-country with regular team-to-team calls, and subsequently conducting a second in-person session at Hub Nawe Nuze in April, we were able to take our engagement on further.

Throughout these subsequent phases, the CARE Burundi team focused more on securing time and resources for their team to go on to share their new approach and processes with others (CARE and beyond) working in the Great Lakes region.

Not by a long shot does this ripple effect, in sharing out learning and experiences with others, stand out as new and innovative on its own. Nor should it represent the end of a blog post.

The implications of what CARE Burundi have begun to change in their organization will only take hold in the years to come, not the months and weeks between the next Hub event, or the next internal design team meeting.

What has been validated up until this point, however, are a number of previously rhetorical assumptions about organizational change. That change can be good, and that, indeed, you cannot address old problems without bringing in new solutions.

Still, how often do these beliefs and assumptions lie dormant and untested? How often, when it comes to working practices, can we truly say we’ve tried, tested, failed, iterated and tried again?

“Rendering CARE obsolete” will only be realized once we embrace, as CARE Burundi have begun to do, the inter-connected aspects of what that really looks like (new systems, processes, roles, responsibilities, culture, mindset, leadership and so on).

In this way, design thinking must remain a critical catalyst for CARE as we, along with our peers, accelerate towards making good on our ultimate goal.

Beneath the surface

BeyondMeToo_NOLogo_Square
Picture credit: http://www.wunc.org

Jeffrey Epstein is dead, and various people will now take, to their graves, information about what this man did whilst he was alive for 66 years.

To the grave also will go the horrific memories and experiences of those sexually abused, either by or because of Epstein.

I’m already sick of reading his name, and now regurgitating it onto these pages.

As with other similarly disgraced public figures, to write their names in print risks sensationalizing and glamourizing these people (99% of whom are men) and adding to the layer of protection and privilege they’ve somehow been allowed to exist within.

At 44 years old it’s shocking to admit that it was only last month, when talking to a friend of mine from work, Amelia, that I had the wind knocked out of me by an anecdote she recounted, relating to the vulnerability of women. I remember wincing at the incidental parable her recollection offered up.

In spite of #MeToo, in spite of working for the past thirteen years for CARE, and learning about how our programmes combat patriarchy – even to the extent of our more recent surge in support for the International Labour Organisation’s historic moves to mandate against sexual harassment in the workplace, and CARE’s unfettered access to women living daily with violent husbands or partners – in spite of these powerful dynamics all around me, I’ve leant into some type of denial about what this collective, compelling story-boarding was attempting to highlight.

It takes a nano second to know how you feel about rape, sexual violence, sexual harassment or sexual assault. On a training course last year in Tbilisi it took several hours to analyse the differences between each of these descriptions, but no less time to know how I would feel towards someone carrying them out.

And, yet, Amelia’s story cut through all of this, and I felt it acutely.

Her “story” was, in fact, more of an off-the-cuff reference to outdoor swimming.

We were on the way to our office having met for coffee, walking past Vauxhall Arches, home to many things, including what used to be a set of salubrious night-clubs (I know from living nearby over 20 years ago). I mentioned having read about a new club under these arches earlier in the morning – LICK – which is only open to women. In a short space of time this new venture has drawn in the crowds, partly as many straight women frequenting are doing so simply to enjoy a safe space away from men.

Amelia, it transpired, had had a similar experience at Hampstead Ponds just the weekend before, when she went along to one of the “women only” areas with a friend.

“Women only” as a concept is not a new one, and one can only hope that it will continue to grow and catch up with the predominantly “men only” staples that have existed since the dawn of time.

It was, instead, how Amelia described the feeling of walking past the particular sign at the ponds that flawed me.

“As we approached the place, there was a signpost” she explained, “which said ‘No Men Allowed Beyond this point’ and, just at reading those words, I felt this immense wave of relief pass through my body – it felt so reassuring and safe.”

That was all it took.

Either via distraction, via denial, or via some pathetic moral high-grounded sense of being so aware of gender inequality – so pervasive and festering in every crevice of society that it forms gargantuan valleys of injustice everywhere – that I was immune from feeling any sense of responsibility about it myself; whichever of these types of leanings I’d been clinging on to, for however long, were smote in that instant.

A bristling and uncomfortable realization, perhaps, that whilst I’ve been writing about gender equality in various countries around the world over the past 7 years, often drawn to describing CARE’s work in what are termed as “crisis” countries (such as Palestine and the Philippines) I’d remained blind to the reality that most patriarchal behavior, which makes women and girls experience vulnerability, exists below the surface.

As such, this behaviour is immune to “crisis” labelling, and routinely allowed to manifest simply as “status quo”.

For all the many positive gender campaigns and female role models that continue to combat these subterranean and destructive norms, I give maximum kudos a

 

 

 

 

Eyes on the prize

coco
Coco Gauff. Wimbledon, 2019.

I sat up and watched the first half of last night’s Women’s World Cup Final between USA and Netherlands, and it made great viewing. I’m no soccer pundit but I have immense respect for the idea of the game as a platform for many things. Exercise, competition, entertainment – it’s been called the most popular sport in the world.

A source of extreme sponsorship deals and extortionate salaries, soccer’s unique blend of controversy and celebrity continue to guarantee it a levitated brand status amongst millions of young wannabe players or ageing supporters.

In the UK, football is more important to some people than religion, family, work, or any truly higher plain or life calling. Without soccer, for these disciples, life would fundamentally cease to have meaning.

Where you fall on the side of loving or despising the “Great Game” itself, 2019 will surely go down as the year that the world woke up and recognized just how wholly discriminatory the world of soccer has been towards women. That will simply now never be the same again.     Continue reading “Eyes on the prize”