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Just Keep Going

 

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Last sunrise of 2018 in Saigon, complete with my favourite ferry crossing.

Happy New Year from Saigon!

There’s nothing like the arrival of January to spark action. Resolutions, I’ve had a few. The most plausible so far being a commitment to eat and drink more slowly, rather than inhaling meals and bottles of wine as if food rationing and prohibition laws were about to be imposed.

Less plausible resolutions include: writing more; drinking less; reading more; and looking at my phone less.

I say ‘less plausible’ in that I’m fairly confident of being able to strike a balance with objectives like these – it’s just a fear of setting myself up to fail by insisting on rigid, self-imposed restrictions. Moderation, it’s often touted, is key, but then so, too, is our ability to feel in control of what we are doing.

More’s the pity that, in many ways, I simply enjoy so many of these pursuits (including my job, and the ebb and flow of travel and time it requires) that I feel more practice is still required to find a useful daily cadence to accommodate all the ‘things’.

After a year of injury I’m resolute, also, to run more again this year. The theory being the hours spent pounding pavements will, it is hoped, help provide more time and space to think and to feel energized. There is a discipline to this and, once you’ve cracked the code, it can also become an addictive past-time.

Can one over-exercise? I’m not sure I’ll ever be in danger of that, but perhaps the trick here is to find a balance whereby the physical outputs and the resulting endorphins help re-charge purpose elsewhere in your day.

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In other news, towards the end of last month – on Friday 21st, in fact – the US Congress passed a piece of bipartisan legislation called the Women’s Entrepreneurship & Economic Empowerment (WEEE) Act. CARE International played a role in getting it across the finish line, with high-level leadership and support from both sides of the aisle. An encouraging reflection of CARE’s convening and consensus-building power, and the credibility of our policy expertise that stems from our deep programmatic experience.

I’ve added in sprinkles about CARE’s work to flavor the discursive and meandering blog posts I’ve put out over the past 7 years because, in so many ways, working for CARE has taught me a lot about myself, as much as it has about the discombobulating world around me.

Above all else, CARE’s continued commitment to strengthening gender equality and women’s voice around world has inspired for me what some of the many opportunities might be in a future society where gender norms are equal and not, instead, so heavily bent in favour of men and boys.

CARE’s global strategy behind this work aims to help 30 million women gain greater access to, and control over, economic resources by 2020. This past year, we have worked to advance these goals through a variety of US policy efforts, but the centerpiece has been the WEEE Act. This bill improves USAID programs and activities that focus on women’s entrepreneurship and economic empowerment globally. It expands access to tools, resources, and skills for women entrepreneurs, emphasizing financial inclusion, which is critical for the one billion women left out of the global banking system.

Two things occurred to me when reading about the WEEE Act:-

Firstly, no one is treating this Act as a final solution. There is a long way to go before organisations and power brokering ambassadors for gender equality put down their tools and consider the job done;

Second, that the dogged and determined nature of how many organisations, including CARE, seek these types of outcomes, encapsulates a grit and a resiliency that these same organisations have been privileged enough to have learnt about from the very people we are seeking to support.

Every day CARE teams meet with, talk with, listen to, and learn from thousands of people: female entrepreneurs; youth groups; local community spokes-people; teachers; midwives; street-vendors; local business owners; factory workers; tea plantation pickers; young mothers; elderly grandfathers.

Our organizational ‘DNA’ relies on our ability to convene, connect and put into practice over 73 years worth of knowledge gained from all of these individuals and groups.

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To “keep on keeping on” is a phrase not well documented in terms of its origin, but often now found emblazoned on t-shirts. The trendy livery of the ‘Keep Calm’ franchise and, in many ways, a subtle call to action that has lasting connotations – whether one is influencing policy agendas and tackling entrenched societal constructs or, as the second day of 2019 unfolds, one is contemplating work-life balance, and a dedication to self-maintenance and clarity of purpose.

The enormity of the challenges laid out on the collective plate of humanity very probably need to be tackled in bite-sized pieces. They each almost certainly need to be met with the type of persistence and spirit that to keep on keeping on conjures up in my imagination when I hear those words.

As consistent as the ferry which crosses the river just north of my house here in Saigon, dutifully turning itself around time after time to complete its three minute journey, and affording me a well needed break from my dawn run; as reliable as the most dedicated of CARE’s project managers, grinding out the scant hours they have to complete their tasks; as driven as the poorest of local small-holder fishermen, up on the Vietnamese coast, repairing nets and casting off in the dead of night for tomorrow’s catch; as predictably macabre and inspiring, in equal doses, how each and every woman and girl around the world wakes up and breathes in their day’s agenda, and the hurdles ahead.

All of these realities, each of us. As regular as clockwork itself – just keep going.

Just Keep Going.

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Innovations in Resilience

 

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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.

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

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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.

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

A short story of self

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Uganda.

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.

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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.

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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.

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

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

Drawing Down

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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

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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

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The aftermath of the San Francisco earthquake of 1906. Picture credit: http://www.onthecommons.org

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…

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