"the reinvention of daily life means marching off the edge of our maps" (Bob Black)
This blog began as a journal of my family's time living in Saigon, Vietnam, but is now more of a repository of thoughts about work, family, and the incredible and often hilarious moments confronting ex-pats living in this weird and wonderful city.
I am originally from London (for anyone from London, I'm actually from Amersham, but this tends to mean not a lot to the vast majority of people I work with and meet in Asia).
In January 2013 I started a new writing project, following some changes in my life - www.definitelymaybe.me - and I welcome you to join in the discussion over there, too.
I am probably drinking a coffee as you are reading this. 'Cheers' for stopping by (I am lifting my cup as we speak) and enjoy today.
I’ll push off at dawn tomorrow on my bike, and carve down towards the coast. A new route, snaking through swampland and through rivulet shards, broken off from the Mekong River.
Countdown to midnight on December 31st is well underway over here. Stranded in Vietnam for another Christmas, another long drawn out year of waiting.
With each gear shift and wheel cycle, splattering droplets of mud off the road’s hard shoulder, I’ll be seeing off 2021, with its pain-staking lockdowns and startling monthly ennui, as the world kept seeking out answers from pasty, fat-faced figures of authority.
Turning each corner as I sail off, briefly, on another routine voyage of escape, gripping the handlebars of my bike tightly, hoping for some normality in this coming year.
Hoping for travel outside of Vietnam, hoping to see our family. Hoping Flo and Martha’s school re-opens after another protracted seven months of online tuition.
I’ve not been short of work this year, nor different types of focus, but the familiarity and comfort of forward planning has again been cut off at the legs.
As I reach my 11th Tet in this country, all the many daily wonders on offer here remain: hot, black drip coffee supped at a local cafe, street vendors nearby, all smiles as their livelihoods come out of a four month hibernation. “3 jabs” points the pho seller to me, proudly pointing to the top of his arm.
With each rise and fall of tropical sun here, I count the smiles received from locals as sacred moments. And there are many smiles. So many locals here are fully focused at any one time, focused at hustling, surviving, making it all work. Accepting full-heartedly that things “are what they are.”
Me, I’m still learning how.
In the meantime, as I walk by my house, the smell of fried pork sizzles with the roasting of garlic, and coffee bean steam rises up from the local factory. Conical hats bob up and down my street, one on a bicycle peddling re-cycled boxes, one carrying a wooden yoke of coconuts.
The Year of the Water Tiger – a year of stability and self-esteem – is coming.
Over the last twenty years I’ve had no reason to doubt my career choices. It felt very comfortable, reassuring and affirming to decide to work in the non-profit sector in 2000, having come out of brief dalliances in both the public and private spheres, and that hasn’t changed since.
For each new organisation with whom I committed my time, the binding employment contract I accepted came second (in my subconscious, perhaps, at the time) to the far more important criteria of attaching my own modus operandi to each new organisational mission that hired me.
I moved first through the genres of disability and cancer, before being lured into to what has ostensibly become my main discipline, namely the role that the private sector plays in social development.
It was then inside the world of international development, from 2006 to 2019, whilst working for CARE, that I probably become the most entrenched. If adopting today’s parlance, I would go further and say that it is with this “group” of people (ie working in similar roles inside of global NGOs) that I identify with being closest.
It feels like the older we get, the more potential there is for us as individuals to incorporate areas of knowledge from our professions, alongside some of the other identifiers available to us, such as gender, geography, religion, politics, race, age, and on and on.
For the best part of 11 years now living in Saigon, I’d be adding “ex-pat” to the list of characteristics that define aspects of who I am and how I come to process truth, make decisions, and show up in the world.
This, in addition to: originally being from the UK (from the “South-East” of the country and also for a long time as a “Londoner”); to being a father; to feeling more artistically oriented; to requiring more collaboration and contact in my everyday; to being Caucasian; or, even, through to being a committed dawn runner, and perhaps various other things in between.
What I’ve enjoyed from working in the development sector has been the connections with so many different people along the way, the collective interest in bringing about change for others, and finding solutions in different contexts.
I don’t see that altering now, either. As a freelance consultant, my radar is set to a similar setting, the rewards from which, for me, feel the same as before. Success through connection and through the working out of problems together.
One difference I’d like to posit, today, is to pose a question about the under-pinning of how organisations working in social development (and I’m particularly thinking about the likes of CARE) might benefit from a radical reframing of their mission statements.
By which I am specifically asking: does an organisation categorising groups of people around the world as “most vulnerable” or “marginalised” or “poor” in fact compromise their own efforts in fulfilling their mission to bring about “change” or “positive impact” to these groups by using categorisation in the first place?
One academic exercise I won’t carry out at this point (as I’d like to try and entertain the idea that a few people reading this might persevere and make it to the end of the blog) is to ask what we mean by each of these words in quotation marks above? Answering that question is important but not for right now.
Instead, I’d like to suggest that, in arranging society into these categories, and then by claiming that the logical change you want to bring about would be to stop a “poor” person being poor, could be a highly flawed claim to be making.
Testing one’s central hypothesis for such things is key, and many development entities would tell you that their approach to change is rooted in “localised” ideas and solutions to local issues. Or, that they fully consult with the groups they are seeking to help.
As a process for validating an assumption about what might work, this type of inclusive approach is fine. I wouldn’t also suggest, too, that the aid industry hasn’t in fact moved away from its foundational principles of why it was ever necessary to give aid to others, back in the mid-forties when the Marshall Plan was established. Much has changed since then, in terms of how to achieve impact. Technology, innovation, learning lessons, sharing models – such things are helping streamline operations and interventions.
However, does it still make sense to orient an end state for all, that seeks out equity, balanced prosperity, equal rights and opportunities for all, that aims to harmonise and align societal norms and behaviours so that all voices are heard and all valued?
I don’t think it does anymore. And this is the first time I’ve really challenged the assumption.
I’ve been finding social media can perpetuate aspects of what I’m describing here, and maybe that has been the trigger for this post.
Internet platform such as Facebook or Twitter, offering everyone the space and the audience to share truth-seeking philosophies is, in my opinion, creating an out of control paradigm, where identifiers are more important than facts, and have more online utility than scientific data. As well as predominantly being platforms through which young people curate the content and the processes for public discourse, the result of which is seeing substantive numbers of moralising arguments, solely based on identifiers, rather than based on knowledge.
I don’t see this new reality changing much in the near term, either.
What I would advocate for would be longer form discussions, debates and shared learning about solutions to what, of course, remains a long shopping list of social and environmental inadequacies, inequities and injustices. We should always want, and need, to find ways to discuss these topics, however, is social media the right vehicle for doing so?
It seems to me that, whilst the world has advanced and evolved, and can lay claim to some significant achievements over the past 75 years, many individuals are not currently living the lives they want to live. Many people, similarly, can’t fully follow the dreams they have. Or, are unable to access services and products they need. And this is happening across many countries, of differing dynamics and historical contexts.
A commitment to changing this, would be a good commitment to have. But not at the expense of dehumanizing people through categorization, and in such an assumptive and alienating way.
In some religious dogmas, the after-life is represented as a utopia. For non-religious organisations such as CARE, this utopia is typically summarised in a vision for a world “with no poverty”, or such like.
I would argue against visioning or believing in any form of utopia. Which is not to say one shouldn’t work hard in life to be supportive and compassionate, and to display qualities of grace and forgiveness, and ultimately to want to make improvements for oneself and for others.
What I think is missing, in these grandiose organisational mission and vision statements – the language and sentiment of which is used to professionally baptise employees from Day 1 – is a more fundamental enquiry and validation of whether these outcomes are the rights ones to be targeting?
Otherwise they simply become meaningless sound-bites, and monikers (onto which one can spend disproportionate amounts of time pinning aspects of one’s own identity) and which can then pull people away from the actual task in hand of addressing critical societal questions.
In my work going forward, I will continue to delve into these elements of enquiry. Across the diversity of organisations and individuals with whom I engage, I think, in many ways, this might be the most important pursuit to try and honour.
The answers might not always come back as we should be investing in “organisational development” or in “brokering multi-sector partnerships and collaborations” (all popular rubric from the past 15 years) the answers could instead be to leverage social media in new ways, or to catalyse a new way of learning about what change means and how to make it happen.
The answers could be all or none of these things.
What matters, perhaps, is that, on this particularly journey of learning, we are each “empowered” to ask and answer these questions along the way.
Novak Djokovic, losing the US Open final on Sunday, has won over many of those who’ve mocked his countless victories. At least that’s what Jonathan Liew from TheGuardian believes.
I’m not sure it matters if Jonathan Liew is right or wrong (these days, truth is a thankless commodity to peddle, in any case) but it’s easy to lean into Liew’s sense of how this epiphany moment for Djokovic is worth highlighting.
One game away from a heavy defeat and then, and only then maybe, did the throng of spectators whoop with gusto at the prospect of a Novak Djokovic fight-back. In the presence of this wave of emotional support, Djokovic broke down in tears. His defeat a matter of points away, he found himself emotionally unraveled.
If Liew’s hunch is correct, then this could have been the most glorious of defeats, outshining past triumphs, insomuch as it allowed the Serbian protagonist to connect with his audience in a way that had been out of this reach up until then, for the 17+ years he’d played professional tennis.
Whilst there have obviously been a cadre of die-hard fans, following Djokovic’s every perfectly weighted backhand, their collective heart skipping a beat with each t-shirt ripping tournament climax, it would seem (from a brief survey) that an uncomfortable majority of us have felt quite the opposite about his sheer awesome ability.
Rather than challenge the datasets here, I’d wager it might be possible to broadly agree that it can go against our better judgement to consistently praise the same person. Particularly when that person sits up high, undefeated, resplendent in their continued pursuit of winning.
After several years of such carrying on, watching Djokovic, I think it was just instinctive for me to want him to lose.
This isn’t typically the same with team sports. Or during times when we dedicate, say, a fortnight of our life to proudly cheer on anything vaguely “national” – from Eurovision to the Olympics, we don’t pay too much attention to egos, instead we keep churning out only positive sentiments, for our respective flag-bearers and brave gladiators.
With teams, I think even the less hardened patriots are also more forgiving in defeat. If Brazil wins the World Cup – again – whilst there’ll always be supporters of both sides, I feel we’d generally harp on less about them being so infuriatingly unbeatable than many of us have done over the years about Djokovic.
With Djokovic, there seems to have been something else at play all along, when it came to truly appreciating his talent for the game.
I think, sadly, I bought into the idea that he was this smug, robotic, charmless man. Knowing, all along, that this was most likely entirely bullshit.
I’m drawn to plenty of other people, held up in the celebrity spotlight, who ooze passion and determination about their chosen profession or past-time. Without ever questioning why. And, I’ve no doubt, many of them likely possess unappetizing traits, and sizeable egos.
Djokovic maintained identical characteristics to these same people, and yet I never threw down my support for him.
Why, I wonder? An inert desire to see someone, who thinks he’s unbeatable, get beaten? Was I suckered into the media propaganda, carping on about his posturing and his arrogance?
I don’t suppose it matters what has gone in the past. One can’t ‘un-feel’ an emotion, or take back a sentiment that might have been ill-advisedly shared.
Djokovic’s end of game breakdown on Sunday, followed soon after by his admission of being the “happiest man alive” – basking not in another victory, but in the face of this new, unbridled public warmth – is a marvel to watch, and from which to learn.
What shapes our attitudes and perspectives of others is a fundamental, if not the most fundamental, piece of emotional hardware that we have both the luxury and the curse of owning. We’ll never always get it right, that’s for sure. But we should be aiming to condition ourselves towards constant improvements.
Bestowing upon others the praise they deserve, is a reasonable starting point.
Giving them that, however gritted the teeth are through which you do so, would be a welcome change from a status quo where pulling people down seems all too often to be the main show in town.
“It could be that there is something incompatible between us and our needs and our desires and our nature, and the idea of a human system that can guarantee everything, that can control everything, that can know everything, and that can control and know and run everybody.”
Christopher Hitchens, (Commonwealth Club of California lecture, 2014.)
Down a Hitchens’ rabbit-hole this morning I was, as ever, inspired by his take on a range of topics, and wondering what his column would be saying today about the recent events in Afghanistan, were he to still be alive.
A firm supporter of the decision to invade Iraq, Hitchens’ erudite perspectives over the last decade would have likely propped up a good deal of my knowledge about the world’s various armed conflicts, and the decisions taken by the US and the UK, and others, pertaining to involvement in them.
Covid-19, and its effect on the types of “human systems” to which Hitchens’ analysis alludes, will certainly stand, for a while yet, as a topic for political studies.
One of my friends recently described the last 18 months as an “enormous global bed wetting exercise” which, choice of metaphors aside, can easily be backed up, in terms of the clear evidence we have of the economic and social downturns being experienced, in particular due to lockdowns and the restrictions imposed on society by the world’s governments.
Whilst proven to be deadly, and growing deadlier through its variants, we’ve also growing proof that this virus is manageable. That vaccines are effective. But then, again – and critically for so many millions of people – that knowledge has come at the considerable loss of all the conditions necessary for economic development.
Which is fine if you have savings in the bank and access to the internet, however if you possess neither of these, and happen to also be living in a country experiencing humanitarian crisis, all you can possibly hope to do each day is earn some money.
From a very basic survey of the differences between countries, it’s become clear to me that locking down lower middle income categorised countries, such as Tanzania, Vietnam and Sri Lanka (Sri Lanka is borderline “upper middle” in fact) is an enterprise fraught with issues.
It is possible to lower transmission rates through lockdown but, in a lower-middle income country, it is simply untenable to enforce this for too long.
Talking to friends in Colombo and Dar-es-Salaam just this week, it’s also quite clear that the lower the income classification, the more unrealistic it can be to expect lockdown to be effective at all. In Dar, by all accounts, lockdown hasn’t been a tactic, given the expected disruption, and reaction, it would receive. Sri Lanka’s current lockdown is quite stringent, however many are choosing to bend the rules.
Here in Saigon, we’ve been fully housebound for the past 11 days, and there are plenty of signs that this a.) has not reduced the # of daily cases and b.) is being increasingly questioned by residents, whose businesses have suffered directly, not just recently, but over the last 8 weeks, during which lockdown rules have gradually tightened.
All of which, I think, provides a fresh set of data and assumptions to tackle the question of what type of governance structures, and what over-arching principles of governing, are actually fit for purpose? And, furthermore, which of these, ultimately, will provide optimal future gains for countries, both economically and socially?
Huge question, and no doubt my inability to answer it is what has left me glued to Christopher Hitchens’ monologues, and now penning this blog.
To borrow Hitchens’ line, there may well never be a perfect human system. Instinctively, I’d wager we’ve more examples from the last 100 years of how not to govern, rather than the other way around. Although I led with the mention of Afghanistan, it will surely take another twenty years to understand the full implications of the governance changes undertaken there, since the turn of this century. Not least, the changes of the past fortnight.
Purely from listening to the experiences of others, living in different countries, it’s a somewhat limiting exercise to list out examples of countries in which citizens are currently satisfied with the political status quo. In some cases, people’s whole lives appear to have been dedicated to illustrating the grievances to which they’ve been subjected, due to incompetent and unrepresentative politicians.
Sure, a modicum of vocal support for one’s country is easy enough to come by from these same people. I’m guilty as charged when I think of the unfounded fixation experienced during the recent Olympics, cheering on teenager skateboarders and pensioned show-jumpers. In every sense, since the pandemic took hold, any momentary and welcome distraction, sporting or otherwise, away from the topic of Covid itself, should have been embraced, like a long lost family member.
However, when people are drawn on the subject of welfare systems, of racial equality, government accountability, capitalism, communism – all the way through to exchanging stories of lockdown measures, contact tracing, vaccination brands, and everything in-between – it’s safe to say we’re very quick to get ourselves hot under the collective collar.
Will we undertake the type of “reset” that some are hopeful will, like a silver lining, provide a positive seam of learning to take away from this pandemic?
I was skeptical, earlier in the week, about this, within the context of organisations embracing the concept of collaborating with one another, sharing resources and objectives in the face of difficult social and economic conditions.
However, as individuals, with the respective desires, needs and nature, to which Hitchens references, can we actually reset ourselves? What does this look like even? Donating more time to good causes, loving thy neighbour, learning new skills, teaching old ones?
Once more, I can only conclude that, to do any of that – viscerally, actually – remains the privilege of the few, rather than of the many.
To even contemplate how “resetting” what we want, and how we go about getting it, for far too many people (from Kabul to Ho Chi Minh City, from London to Leeds) is at best an impossible proposition.
The adage about “quality over quantity” is, perhaps, a useful moniker to attach to the behaviour of much of what has defined the last 30 years of Western society. If only more people invested less on satisfying their own need to consume and amass money.
I remember Oxfam’s hard hitting inequality campaign about the 85 people on the bus earning more than half the world’s wealth. Suitably appalled at the notion, I carried on with my life. The Panama Papers brought out a similar reaction, and I maybe spent as much as 15 minutes spluttering into my morning coffee about that one, before moving onto the next item.
Is it possible we are becoming immune to these well articulated and researched realities, when they’re plastered over a Guardian front page, because these issues are too enormous for us to do anything useful about? In which case, have the last 18 months helped curate reasonable conditions for the world to begin what many have called a “re-set” – when it comes to consumer greed and wealth – or does lockdown, instead, simply reinforce individual survival instincts?
I see zero changes in the status quo – the richest in the world continue to set the conditions for life as we know it, the dividends of which are only enjoyed by the people on the bus.
I also see no chance of this status quo changing in the next ten years. The role of China in that time will surely be one of the decade’s defining legacies however, in the meantime, whilst as individuals we can make daily choices about how we conduct ourselves, who we support, and how we “show up” in the world, this post focuses on the coalescing of organisations and institutions.
These are all buzzwords. In particular, but not exclusively, they’re used across the international development industry, bandied from website to website, embedded in keynote speeches from Washington DC to Ho Chi Minh City.
In the non-profit world I’ve inhabited, for nearly two decades now, if I had a dollar for every time I’ve spoken about each of these these words and phrases (or been lectured to about them) I, too, would have been tweeting moronic selfies from space by now.
In spite of what feels like a decent collective effort, by many in the public, private and non-profit sectors, I simply don’t buy it that the majority of those organisations, pontificating and evangelising about their partnerships, are actually properly invested in them, and committed to partnering, operationally, in the ways that they say they are.
Given the UN helpfully convened and framed a new set of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) for the world, six years ago, a good starting place to find evidence of how organisations have been partnering with each other, to support the SDGs, can be found via http://www.sdgsinaction.com or directly through their app. There are some great insights here, and it’s a good way to start to familiarise yourself with each of the Goals, and behind which specific organisations are rallying.
My daughters learnt about the SDGs at primary school. A positive marker of progress, in my opinion, in terms of how the issues of poverty and social and environmental injustice have become mainstreamed through education, and through easier access to information.
Still, I’m skeptical that organisations are only just touching the edges of potential, when it comes to truly partnering with one another.
Having worked with UN agencies, with large International NGOs, smaller non-profits, and with a range of corporations, in different regions of the world, I see the attention to detail lacking. The processes and systems for partnering are not in place. The commitment to rigour – in brokering partnerships, in their execution and in their assessment – are all below par.
Why is that?
1. Many organisations bolt-on these partnering skills to the responsibilities of already “very busy” people;
2. Others don’t secure the buy-in from important decision-makers, which usually results in under-performing partnerships;
3. And, categorically, too many organisations are prone to talking a good game in public about their reasons for partnering, but then oversee (or are forced to oversee) a compromised reality, when it comes to what their organisation is able or willing to invest in that partnership.
Like other things in life, practice makes perfect.
Organisations might do better securing all the resources, time and energy that they do have, into a smaller number of partnerships. Even starting with one. Managing just one partnership really well could have far-reaching and longer lasting results, than managing five mediocre ones.
The Partnering Initiative is a great outfit for those organisations looking to upskill in this area. They offer tools and policy guidance for setting up partnerships, as well as examples on good and bad practice.
There are other good resources out there, too, for those organisations ready to reframe and reinvent how they conduct their partnerships, and especially for those whose objectives are not exclusively designed for the 85 on the bus.
My tip, is to shoot for quality over quantity: make one partnership truly count for something, and this will pay valued dividends in the future, to those who deserve it more.
I wrote over 8 years ago in support of George Osborne and his measures to improve transparency over corporate tax, and at the time the UK Government’s continued commitment to spend 0.7% of its gross domestic income (GDI) on overseas aid and development.
Some of the details about how the UK Government has performed against its original pledge, back in 1970, to invest this 0.7% figure, can be found in this round-up piece from last month.
45 years on from that pledge, and Britain did finally join other countries, about 6 years ago now, in achieving the 0.7%.
The writing was on the wall then, and the Covid-19 pandemic helped ensure the latest announcement, made as Britain hosts the G7 Summit this week, that the UK will be cutting aid by $4bn. The news sent the House of Commons into a frenzy yesterday, with Tory rebel MPs challenging the Government’s decision.
These latest proposals for cuts mean as much as 42% reductions for some countries and, ultimately, an overall drop down to 0.5% of the UK’s GDI. A decision which many organisations and commentators have pointed out will sever vital funding to countries around the world, such as Yemen and Syria, currently facing respectively inhumane levels of social disruption and economic uncertainty.
Whilst the Government sees the cuts as temporary, there remains a chance of reversing the decision over the coming days. Let’s wait and see. The UK held a strong seam of respect during the Labour administration of the early 2000s, of being innovators in aid and reframing ways of ensuring funds were well spent. It was also that administration which championed the 0.7% target. This respect will evaporate if these cuts go ahead.
And so why this constant going round in circles when it comes to overseas spending?
Those in the UK who voted to leave the EU in 2016, and the many who have switched from Labour to Conservative since, may well represent one reason why these cuts have been put forward. The Covid pandemic has wrought havoc for many, through sickness, job insecurities, and generally uprooting people’s previous priorities. The Government’s recent success at rolling out vaccinations has also piqued public support for Team Boris. He’s “getting the job done”, as he said he would.
Ironically, perhaps, some of these same Leave voters, whilst in theory jubilant now that their votes weren’t cast in vain, could easily be supporters of a reduction in overseas spending, given the unclear economic picture for Britain now that the country isn’t free to trade with its European neighbours.
The same argument would also work for a Remainer, pissed off at Brexit, but concerned at the consequences facing a new dawn of trading and travel agreements – usefully illustrated below by Statista.
Whichever your chosen political preference, or your views on Brexit, isn’t the case for investing in the social and economic development of other countries around the world, with whom the UK shares business and cultural ties, not good enough a reason to stick to a 0.7% investment?
Last I checked, the UK is host to a multitude of ethnically diverse towns and cities, and home to generations of overseas diaspora, working and paying more taxes than your average multi-national corporation manages to cough up each year.
All sorts of pompous claims are made by the UK about its “global credentials”, most of which rely 100% on Britain’s multi-cultural make-up and diversity – because it certainly isn’t the case that these global credentials can draw any currency from harking back to a time when Great Britain colonised other nations.
Whether the UK has a right to make any of these sorts of claims, or not, the country simply has to find its humanitarian footing in the world.
As a G7 country alone, the wealth commanded by the UK is colossal, when compared to other nations. The decisions made about how the UK invests that wealth is critical in combating social and environmental issues which are stressing everyone, no matter where they are from.
To be in that category of prosperity, to carry that decision making power and influence, impacting not just the 70 million people in the UK, but hundreds of millions of others around the world, is a privilege that many other countries will never experience in the next fifty years.
And, still, with this fortunate positioning in the world, the UK Government is in massive debt and cutting costs wherever it can. It always seems to have been that way. Which means the UK cannot afford to loosen any grip it has on its connections with other countries, in whatever form – its economy and society relies on other nations for so much.
Countries like Bangladesh, one of the places to have benefitted in the past from UK aid, and which could now have that support diluted, supply UK fashion retailers with millions of items every week.
From all across the continent of Africa, where UK aid has historically been of vital importance, the UK imports a range of products – vegetables, fruits, nuts, metals, beverages, chemicals, crude oil, to name a few – and as an import market Africa is key for the UK motor industry, for medicines and electrical equipment.
To Pakistan, one of the UK’s largest recipients of aid, the UK also relies on exporting industrial and power generation machinery, telecoms equipment and pharmaceuticals to the tune of $1.5bn a year.
For these trade partnerships to thrive in the future, it is in the vested interests of the UK to see social and economic development thrive in partner countries. It’s a win-win. It has to be seen like this, or else we will forever be circling the drain in terms of this debate about overseas expenditure.
There was a time when Britain sought aid and support from the world: 1945, at the end of the Second World War, during a period when my old organisation, CARE International, was established, and “CARE packages” were sent to war-torn Europe.
That commitment, by the USA, laid a foundational brick for the CARE network, which has succeeded year-on-year since, in supporting the most vulnerable and marginalised around the world.
Now is not the time for the UK to be trimming the fat off the very same type of budgets which came to the rescue of the many millions of British families effected by conflict 75 years ago.
On the contrary, it is the time for the UK to aspire to actually being a global leader and decision maker, known for raising the bar of investment in the wellbeing of others, rather than lowering it.
For the past eighteen months, Coracle Consulting has taken on several client assignments, respectively seeking to tackle a common goal: how to best engage the Private Sector on the subject of Gender Equality?
Tackling outlandishly sized issues, such as the emancipation of women and girls, can be an equally daunting as well as inspiring proposition.
There have been notable public advocates for women’s empowerment, who have given traction to the surrounding causes, and possible solutions to redress, gender equality, and to bring more attention to the disparities that have always existed.
From the suffragette movement that influenced the British Government’s position on introducing womens’ right to vote, through to the more modern day, global ambassadors such as Malala Yousafzai, speaking out for young girls and their right to an education.
Very rarely, however, through the archives of campaigns and individual acts of sacrifice, in the fight for gender equality, has the private sector surfaced as a likely protagonist and champion for women’s rights.
If, by “private sector” we assume a definition that both includes profit-making entities, as well as the market systems within which they grow these profits, there has been a vacant chasm of inactivity and ignorance between how the private sector could impact positively on gender equality vs. what it has historically, and actually, done.
Although there are more women than men in the world, the trillions of dollars of revenue and capital flow connected to global markets are almost exclusively governed by men. Men monopolize high level political spaces, they monopolize multi-national corporation board rooms and, in the majority of countries still, the purchasing privileges of any one given household.
To turn this trend around, or at least to begin the process of re-calibrating the direction of this metaphorical ship, will take generations. However, that process, slowly but surely over the last decade, is underway.
This post won’t focus on the contrasting examples of progress seen from one country to the next. For every success story and anecdote of gains made and celebrated in one context, another more chilling chronicle of discrimination or vulnerability can be told from somewhere else.
Instead, we want to share Coracle’s recent experiences of how to best influence and engage an ever growing queue of companies, eager to take seriously their role in the pursuit of a new norm when it comes to treating men and women equally. To capture some of what we have learnt, the following lessons are shared, for those looking to invest in running their businesses in a more gender responsive way:
1. Don’t shy away from auditing how your existing business is performing in terms of addressing gender (and other diversity) issues. One of the most effective ways for the private sector to change, is through the influence that comes from within the sector itself. Just as companies react to how their peers innovate new products, or leverage technology, the same rule applies when one company actively publishes their progress to develop new policies and practice around issues of inclusion. It’s better to be a pioneer and fail a few times before making progress, than to aim for mediocrity at best, or at worst, remain enshrouded in antiquated operational past-times.
2. Work with others who can ensure you get the basics right. A myriad of recent research and tools have been published by institutions including the UN, USAID and international NGOs such as CARE International, that offer step-by-step guidance for companies when it comes to how to initiate and implement more gender responsive behaviours and outcomes. Becoming familiar with these is one minimum task for a company, but forging partnerships with NGOs and CSOs over a longer period of time, to collaborate more fittingly with experts is also going to significantly accelerate a company’s journey, both in defining standards and then designing long term plans for enacting these.
3. Create spaces and platforms for women to share their perspectives and suggestions on how to change the status quo. Female employees, women producers in a company’s supply chain, female customers and consumers of company products – where are their voices in your company’s strategy? If a company is dis-connected from its own eco-system of stakeholders, and their data and research excludes the perspectives of women writ large, then whatever changes are made will always be compromised.
4. Find the money and resources to make the changes to your business lasting and meaningful. Do not consign issues of diversity and gender equality to be the mainstay of a suitably titled “Corporate Social Responsibility” manager, or else farm them out to your human resources department. The CEO of your company, or equivalent, should be accountable for this, with no exception, and if your company tracks its operational progress using a catalogue of measurable indicators, these should feature gender-related criteria across all aspects of the company’s operations.
5. Don’t fall into the trap of making “socially responsible” decisions because you have been advised this will enhance your company’s reputation. The fact is, there is a way of balancing positive social and environmental impacts from your business, alongside growing your company’s revenue. The sacred “win-win” scenario does exist and an ever increasing number of companies – from the largest to the more discreet start-ups – are curating their strategies based on this very triple bottom line objective. An exciting legacy can be left by the private sector when it comes to environmental stewardship, social impact and financial profit making.
How your company chooses to embrace designing, and seeing through to fruition. a more blended set of outcomes such as these, is up to you.
Coracle’s commitment will always be to offer you our ideas and our experiences from collaborating with non-profits and the private sector for the past twenty years, and are aim will always be to inspire your business into action.
The advancement of technology, like a powerful wave in the ocean, has been unstoppable. Exponentially accelerating year on year, week on week.
Steve Jobs’ role in this epic production sticks with me. Those black, turtle-necked onstage monologues of his, the famous “Here’s to the Crazy Ones” ad in 1997. Carefully choreographed to invite us all in – you don’t want to miss this, don’t want to be left behind.
Apple devices swooped into the marketplace like a swarm of locusts, and millions of consumers dutifully opened their windows and doors.
Over time, their loyal customers flocked to keep up with each new iPhone edition (while others, instead, chose to wake up each day to Android versions, their addictions claiming a higher moral foothold, on an already flawed landscape) as we were collectively being herded forward like lemmings at break neck speed.
I’ve already checked my phone three times since I began this pathetic bleating – sat, as I am, rather ironically next to a wall full of second-hand books, in a café that served me, almost, my first meal here in Saigon, over ten years ago.
If I’d captured that moment on my phone (I can’t recall, but in 2011 I was probably glued to my Blackberry, and the penchant for Instagram-ing photos of your meals wasn’t yet cresting) no doubt Google would have reminded me of the moment recently. As the corporation surely did, on cue, first thing this morning, as I turned off the phone alarm at 5am and automatically thumbed through a sequence of familiar apps, freshly pinned with their new red message counts.
This morning at dawn, it was the turn of ‘2015’ to beam at my half blinking eyes, as I acclimatised in the dark bedroom to my waking reality, with a brace of colourful photos from a mate’s wedding in Bangalore, followed by images from the couple of days work I did in Dhaka after that, six years ago “this week”.
High fives Google, you get me every time. Can you make me a cup of coffee and charge it into my veins whilst you’re at it?
Deflated at such over-reliance on this these types of rituals, I nonetheless flicked through the selected photos, curated just for me. The bright hue of those local market crowds in Dhaka, froze forever in time, somewhere in my iCloud, spellbound me for a split second, firing up the memory bank – the bustle of people, the cackle of tradesmen and women, and the stench of that particular drainage system, which I recall all too nauseously as being horrific.
St Patrick’s Day, last week, produced a throwback to my frenzied escape from Laos on the very same day last year, as I fanged it back over the Vietnamese border to avoid a fortnight in a government quarantine camp.
Who knows what gems from my archives will be brought to my attention tomorrow?
The lure of expectation (more so than the final execution of actually finding out) is, perhaps, the secret to understanding how our devices take control over us so easily. No doubt millions has been spent on algorithmic nuance, and we know all too well (because those responsible went on TV to admit it themselves) of the manipulating tendencies of the tech companies to feed our insecurities and addictive persuasions.
Yet, armed with this knowledge, we pander to it and carry on regardless.
Arguably, however, the plain reality is that these profit-making entities are simply all taking part in respective races to the top. They all need more consumers, buying more. The same goes in other sectors (which, you could say, play to our addictive personalities): media giants; pharmaceutical companies; the tobacco and alcohol industries, as well as others – without profit these industries would go under, and without strong profit margins, they’d not have the resources to invest in technology and innovation.
On the one hand, choosing to invest his $2billion in June 2020 cannot be sniffed at, no matter how slim a percentage some might feel this represents. Knowing how much global publicity this would create for his company, many argued that it was a ‘PR stunt’ (which of course these things always are).
Warren Buffet famously donated all of his wealth into the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation back in 2006. Maybe Bezos should have done the same? That said, what if all of the world’s CEO’s donated the same percentage as Bezos did last year – surely this would drum up some decent money and set a precedent and benchmark for the future?
Bezos has catapulted to the top at such a fast pace that he’ll never be able to win over all hearts and minds. Depending on how your newsfeed is manipulated, you’ll either hate him for underpaying his workers, or revere him for his innovation.
It is, like so much now in so many people’s 2021 lifestyles, all about the brand.
Ask yourself why you choose a certain brand of toothpaste and, part of the answer might hark back to an earlier time in your life when toothpaste adverts were competing for the #1 spot for that particular commercially exploitative past-time.
There was a time when Colgate outsold Coca-Cola annually based on the number of items shifted. And, yet, Forbes’ latest list of most valuable brands pegs them at #72, with Apple, Google Microsoft, Amazon and Facebook taking the top 5 spots.
None of this so far is new intel, or indeed news-worthy at all: me, a middle-aged man stuck for a year in a foreign country, wholly reliant on technology and his phone to survive, bitching about technology and his phone (kind of) and highlighting the unstoppable forces of capitalism, fake news and digital products…the very same middle-aged man who sent his god-daughter a belated birthday Amazon voucher last week…which took about 3 minutes to do, on my phone, whilst I was in the queue at our local Viettel shop paying our monthly internet bill.
If it wasn’t so darn hot and humid in Saigon at the moment, I’d get my coat.
So, what does make news these days anyway and who is in control of it?
As history books will record 2020 as the year of COVID-19 (as well as a rather fabulous wedding!) will they also reflect on just how life changing our technologies have proved themselves to be, during these protracted months of pandemic lockdown?
Without video conferencing, without online shopping, online schooling, online voting, and so on – without the myriad of possibilities that technologies have opened up for us, perhaps the current “war-time” footing we are experiencing would have been even more isolating and acutely uncomfortable for many millions of people.
COVID has cost and destroyed many lives but, for those not working in healthcare, the pandemic can also be credited with reframing for some the once predictable, normative aspects of how society and our economies function. Millions have used this reframe to re-boot their sense of who they are, and where they are going.
Some have become immersed in new pursuits, or more simply just abandoned their phones and social media completely (or at least beveled down the edges of their screen time and online binges) – rewarded and nourished, instead, from the very absence of technologies in their lives.
However we look back on the past 12 months, the resiliency of human nature, matched with the entrepreneurial DNA of the private sector has, pixel by pixel, started to “etch-a-sketch” out the intricacies and familiarities of life as we knew it before – socialising, schooling, travelling, learning, loving, playing – a long list, in a short time.
Going back to the topic of our phones, and like all vices, it seems our relationships with them are very much a personal thing. Steve Jobs may well have been pleased with the results so far: most of us are hooked to them 24/7.
As addicts, we don’t like to be judged on usage, we don’t take well to being told that our phones are distracting us from other things, and we fall into the trap of hastily judging others for their dependencies, whilst failing to recognise our own.
I’m noticing, too, how when out with others, someone (me included) might take their phone and look up the name of something or someone that is being discussed and, in so doing, mentally claim “helpful” rights within the group, for that half minute – at the same time, of course, momentarily enjoying the thrill of reviewing the five whatsapp messages which had teasingly pinged their arrival, whilst said person was pretending to listen to their mate’s story about the latest episode of Line of Duty.
Even how one uses their phone in these social scenarios is part of modern day etiquette. I went out without my phone recently and was rebuked for doing so, however my evening was instantly improved by not having it with me.
When we are out, are our phones in our pockets, or on the table, at the ready? Face up, or face down? Face down means we’re really concentrating on what another person is saying, right?
A group thing I heard about a few year’s back in the US, was to lock your phones in a box when out for dinner and then, should anyone feel so distraught that they had to check their phone during the meal, they also picked up the bill. Not a bad idea.
In any case, our phones have become higher currency to us than perhaps was ever envisioned, even by Jobs himself.
As the ego naturally leads so many of our decisions – and is largely responsible for our daydreaming about who we will be, what we will achieve and how we will carve out a legacy on this planet – technology has leveraged our egos tremendously well.
Although I’ve not been on Facebook now for almost a decade, is was their trail blazing of the ‘like’ button that instigated a flood of subsequent sneaky digital marketing tactics, with their suggestive ways of keeping us on the hook.
“Clickbait” and “kudos”, “reviews” and “comments” sections, “shares” and “hashtags”. And on, and on. These days, you can’t hum a tune in the shower without it being leaked to Amazon or iTunes and, through some glitch in the matrix (or simply through the microphones in our phones and our laptops) an advert for the same band’s new album lands in your lap the next morning.
And so, once more, and for the last time in this post, hats off to you Google, and well done Facebook wizards, you deserve the kudos (and the bonuses your bosses reward you) for product development, for your digital savvy and, yes, for your manipulative ways.
You have delivered so much, so quickly. And you have created so much dependency.
Just as I chastise you, I do respect your efforts, because I respect the contributions being made, fingers crossed, towards what will become a more conscientious technological movement in the future.
Tomorrow will mark 6 months since I last posted on definitelymaybe. Like others, I have found the groundhog day experience of this pandemic somewhat distracting. Being “stuck” – in the proverbial and the literal sense – does often feel like you have to reinvent the way you not only go about your daily work/life routines, but also how you source and manage your energy flows.
For some people, I know this new norm hasn’t been as challenging as it has for others. During this last year, I think, whatever our persuasion, we’ve all had the chance to imagine new norms and new realities. Some days this newness has an appeal, and some days it provokes a more panicked sense about the future. The very visceral, physical dawning reality that many of your closest friends and family will remain available only via zoom calls, doesn’t sit well in the conscience or the stomach.
Until, perhaps, you place that reality into the mix of things more generally, more globally, and are reminded about the realities of others – those fleeing countries, or caught up in genocidal regimes, those trafficked for money, those unable to go to school. Etc.
Albeit a predictable way to find perspective in a muddled world, it always remains powerful to imagine your anxieties within a wider context. I understand why this can feel like an artificial exercise. It is also unrealistic to strut about pontificating evangelically about the plight of others, whilst simultaneously expecting to retain any friendly acquaintances who won’t, after a period of time, feel the compulsion to knock you over the head with a blunt instrument.
As vaccines roll out, and 2022 comes into a sharper focus with the passing of another day, and soon, the second month of another year, it is through the mediums of art, music, and sport, through the familiar past-times of newly curated interaction and camaraderie, that many of us, fortunate to be healthy and active and employed, seek refuge.
As I buy street-food here in Saigon, I wonder to what extent the foundations of day-to-day existence have really altered for the vendor who sells to me? In Vietnam, the virus has been kept out, and in such an effective way that it has had minimal impact on the local population. The government decisions on response, from the outset, were transformative in spite of appearing quite the opposite to any onlooker, including myself.
I hope attention to these efforts, to how a country such such as Vietnam has curated its own reinvention, doesn’t go unnoticed.
In the international development sector, it’s commonplace to read about “systems change”. This is a broad objective. There are many different types of systems in the world, and many ways to change them. There’s a system for how banks distribute money, and how utility companies manage the flow of clean water to households. A system for how to hold your government to account on social welfare measures. A system, more culturally nuanced, for how families inherit assets. A system for addressing global health pandemics. And so on. Millions of systems and ways to both disrupt them and to improve them.
Typically, the INGO industry champions those citizens directly facing marginalisation, vulnerability and injustice. At CARE International, where I spent thirteen years, the target group supported are women and girls. One particular area of focus that I worked on was how to bring the potential of businesses and markets to bear, for the women and girls CARE sought to assist. Many of you have been subjected to years of my posting here, on related experiences from this starting objective. For which I am most grateful.
Having recently completed a consulting assignment with a very special CARE team, based in Palestine, we’ve published a ‘Compendium‘ for those practitioners in the sector who are looking at systems change in the context of fragility and crisis. Better still, for practitioners who are also advancing their engagement with the private sector and their women’s economic development efforts.
The Compendium is titled “Resilient Market Systems” because its goal is to influence not just the economic opportunities for women and girls (enhancing their resilience to economic fluctuations) who are faced with crisis situations, but to improve the resiliency of the wider market systems, themselves impacted by the same crisis.
2020 has also produced Covid-19, a merciless ‘crisis’ that has touched the lives of everyone, and which calls for organisations to pull together. Enabling more ‘resilient market systems’ is clearly not an overnight project, nor something that CARE can do without collaborating with others. However, as a global confederation with a strong cadre of practitioners working in some of the world’s most complex crisis contexts, just aligning CARE’s own teams can be a challenge in itself.
In many ways, this Compendium is a call to action to us all to think about our own role in the market systems within which we operate.
What is a market system? Well, at the heart a market system (captured in the schematic below) exists goods and services value chains, running from production to consumption, and linking up national, regional and global markets. From essential services (eg banking or health) to the production of a range of consumable goods, the roles of the many stakeholders that participate in this chain, who are affected by each of the various external environmental, political and societal influences, are all inter-related.
CARE’s work sets out to trigger a range of improvements that make crisis affected market systems more resilient, inclusive, and profitable in such a way that addresses the previous inequalities which prevented women from benefiting from markets on the same footing as men.
The Compendium aims to help practitioners think through how to do this. From the type of analysis at the beginning of planning the work, through to considerations of how the work will transform gender dynamics favourably for women, to the ways in which the private sector can be engaged, through to how to test people’s resiliency to dynamic economic change.
I commend the concepts behind this publication, and the range of experiences and case studies (ten of which are featured in the Annexes) contained inside. Not just for the more technical components to the document, but because of the nature of how the contents and the spirit behind the work was conceived. Drawing from across the Middle East and North Africa region – countries including Palestine, Turkey and the Caucasus featuring prominently – but also wider, this Compendium walks the talk of how a large confederation such as CARE should be working collegiality across its teams, diversifying its thought leadership in the pursuit of the right solutions, for those most in need of them.