"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.
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. Continue reading “Innovations in Resilience”→
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?” Continue reading “A short story of self”→
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.
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. Continue reading “Drawing Down”→
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… Continue reading “Back in This”→
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.
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. Continue reading “Brexit: a view from afar”→
The genesis for CARE’s emergence into the world begun in the United States of America, in response to the ravages of the Second World War.
CARE brought relief to many countries affected by WW2 through the medium of our infamous “CARE package” – an intervention providing food, water, shelter, and protection to people in need.
Wind forward 73 years, and a high percentage of CARE’s interventions around the world today rely on the same modality, when it comes to getting aid and assistance to those in crisis. We still bring things (hardware, skills, cash) to people who lack the access themselves. Sometimes these can be locally sourced things, but the fact remains that, in many situations, agencies such as CARE are still needed to broker, facilitate and connect.
CARE is not alone in this endeavor. Like many others working in the industry of “aid” we strive to be “first responders” when an emergency breaks. However, CARE also invests in providing sustained support to the increasing number of people affected by protracted crises. In that way, we play both immediate and longer term roles.
I’ve written here about our work in Gaza, by way of an example of this. In Gaza, CARE has experience of assisting communities during times of conflict, and, we simply could not deliver the more ongoing support and assistance to Gazans that we do, were our teams not, themselves, Gazan citizens – living day by day in solidarity alongside those whom CARE is seeking to serve.
When I visited our work there last year, my Gazan colleagues spoke about the 55 day war of 2014, and turning in for bed each evening covering their faces, so as to preserve their dignity if a missile hit their house during the night. In the morning, they would covertly meet with other aid agencies, rocket fire ringing in the air, in order to design how to best support their neighbours.
Like any great pairing, humanitarian relief and longer term development bring out the best in each other. In the Gaza example, CARE is much more knowledgeable and agile in our emergency response because of the nature of our longer term status and operations there.
And so, increasingly, it is being recognized by many INGOs and institutions that there is a space of overlap between these two realms of relief and development, and this overlap has become known as the “Nexus”.
Now, a “Double Nexus” situation describes where relief and development come together. An example of this being a “disaster risk reduction” project which might seek to reduce the impact on a community affected by a cyclone, by establishing upfront an affordable micro-insurance scheme, offering property insurance to small dwellings and poorer communities.
A “Triple Nexus” takes on the third element of ‘conflict’ into this mix, and devises practical ways of intervening in such a way that positively affects not just the resilience of a community, but also the political dynamics in that same context.
All well and good, but what are some of the other frameworks into which we can deploy Double and Triple Nexus work?
Implicit in these, and affirmed by the UN this year, is the reality that the growing number of humanitarian crises in the world today (and highlighted on these pages, too) mean that a higher percentage of the world’s most vulnerable are living in contexts of fragility, conflict, insecurity and grave uncertainty.
We cannot ignore this reality and we cannot continue to deliver aid in the same fashion as we have been doing since 1945.
Secondly, the current push behind the Grand Bargain principles (taken on by donors and NGOs) to invest higher amounts of funding into humanitarian assistance that is locally owned and implemented, is a step forward in how, from a systems perspective, the dial needs to move. Away from cyclical, transactional donor funding and away from siloed programming between emergency relief and longer term development, and towards, instead, a more harmonized way of working across these areas.
These frameworks offer up some core institutional hooks for the likes of CARE, and the good news is that we also have a “proof of concept” – the evidence – that combining approaches and harmonizing our efforts and experiences not only creates opportunities for wider impact, but it saves money.
Early warning systems, micro-insurance schemes, social protection measures – each of these upfront initiatives cost less than those initiatives deployed after an emergency.
CARE’s previous calculations from 2007 were that it cost 7 times more to respond after an emergency stuck, than it did to help prepare communities in advance of events unfolding.
What CARE is committed to is working for generational change and outcomes that go way beyond a single emergency response, but which are informed, qualified and made more robust because of the experience gained from that response.
Ultimately, we want to help create a sustained and enabling environment for marginalized and vulnerable population groups to leverage.
Put another way, we demand a levelled playing ground for all communities, in all contexts, to enjoy the social and economic freedoms and opportunities that many around the world take for granted.
“If I’m an advocate for anything, it’s to move. As far as you can, as much as you can. Across the ocean, or simply across the river. The extent to which you can walk in someone else’s shoes or at least eat their food, it’s a plus for everybody. Open your mind, get up off the couch, move.”
Anthony Bourdain’s words, infectiously honest and, this weekend, hours after he took his own life on Friday, painted all over the internet, a jubilant hat-tip to an affable and engaging character.
It was after a work colleague and her husband (in their home in Dhaka) introduced me to the delights of the cocktail Negroni, that I then stumbled across Bourdain’s youtube advice on how to make one, and I became hooked (both to the drink and to the man).
Bourdain was, in his words, “still dunking French fries at the age of 44” scraping together a livelihood, before the publication of his seminal essay Don’t Eat Before Reading This in The New Yorker, in April 1999, guaranteeing him instant, and ultimately global, popularity.
What I like about his quote above, on the merits of “moving”, is the simplicity of the sentiment, rooted in the instincts Bourdain curated over years of moving around the world himself.
He’d be the first to recognize that not everyone has the luxury of covering as many contexts as he has, but I like that he’s relentlessly stuck to the same message about what he has learned in being constantly on the move. And I think it’s a great message.
Vietnam was one of his more cherished places to visit, too. When Issy and me ever visit Hoi An, we always eat banh mi from the shop – named Phuong’s – made popular by Bourdain, after he sampled one of their banh mis and declared it a “symphony in a sandwich“.
The table in Hanoi, at which he and Barack Obama famously shared bun cha just two years ago, has now been enshrined in a glass cabinet, so proud were the owners of being chosen to host them. And, if you watch some of Bourdain’s documentaries about travelling around the United States, it tends to be a spicy bowl of Vietnamese pho noodles that he goes in search of, on a morning where the hangover is particularly smarting.
In the video above, Bourdain’s unbridled joy at returning to Vietnam and eating street-food turns him into “a giddy, silly foolish man, beyond caring”.
With trademark sign off to his viewers to get out and sample food like this for yourself, his straight-laced take on the everyday importance of community, empathy, humour, and compassion resonated clearly with the millions of people who avidly followed his pursuits from country to country.
It was Milan Kundera, the Czech-born writer who explains in his novel, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, about compassion as having several meanings, depending upon the language origin.
From the Latin, the meaning is “with suffering” whereas, for other variants, the word infers more of the act of “feeling”.
Kundera goes on to state that compassion, taking the Latin derivative, means “we cannot look on coolly as others suffer; or, we sympathize with those who suffer.” For the non-Latin version, “to have compassion (co-feeling) means not only to be able to live with the other’s misfortune but also to feel with him any emotion – joy, anxiety, happiness, pain.”
What Kundera concludes for this second definition of compassion, as a form of feeling, is that it “therefore signifies the maximal capacity of affective imagination, the art of emotional telepathy. In the hierarchy of sentiments, then, it is supreme.”
In Kundera’s novel, his protagonist, Tomas, struggles with a compassion he feels for Tereza (which she “has infected” in him) and it occurs to him that “there is nothing heavier than compassion…not even one’s own pain weighs so heavy as the pain one feels with someone, for someone, a pain intensified by the imagination and prolonged by a hundred echoes”.
In this regard, compassion doesn’t seem like something which would be easy to sustain. In its purest form, it could eventually drive too many emotions round and round your consciousness and your being, that you’d be rendered trapped.
Perhaps a corollary exists here with the compassion that, I think, partly underscores Bourdain’s “open your mind” call to action.
As he moves from one culinary and cultural indulgence to the next, he consistently tells his viewers to use travel and food to gain a different perspective and appreciation of what the world is all about. By extension, he is inviting others into a dynamic whereby they could be susceptible to compassionate feelings for others.
I’m fairly sure that Bourdain’s expectations in doing this weren’t so others would embrace their compassionate inner selves and take on the suffering or the feelings of all those people they meet along the way. However, whilst he knows his shows are entertaining first and foremost, I also feel he does hope to inspire some strain of compassion by sharing his own experiences.
To me, there is some middle ground here. Your movements, your curiosities, your exposure to new things, your ability to actively listen and learn, all of these things leave an indelible mark on who you are. Sometimes this can hurt and other times it produces unfettered joy. Whether it creates compassion specifically in the way that Milan Kundera has analysed the form, or whether a different lens is gifted you through which to view the world, is perhaps less important.
Anthony Bourdain seemed to enjoy living in the present moment – “you only go round once” he exclaims, after his second bite of the Hoi An banh mi. He carried with him an authentic and hearty joie de vivre and a charmingly blunt and down-to-earth swagger, which made his worldly ebullience mesmerizing.
That Bourdain lived a life where roguish enquiry, experimentation, connection and celebration were cornerstones, the darker periods of time to which he was susceptible may also have been mutually reinforcing components to his character.
Of his sudden suicide, more will be revealed. I only hope, as Kundera’s character Tomas felt it “weighing heavy, and prolonged by a hundred echoes”, that Bourdain’s propensity to feel compassion didn’t take hold in such a way, time and again, that its indelible mark was just too much to bear.
I’m flying to Singapore on Thursday for work. For those more acquainted with my blogs on definitelymaybe (or on the sister site http://www.saigonsays.com) you’ll have picked up on the fact that I go through spells of heavy travel because of my job.
Every time a work assignment involving being out of Saigon (where I live) is conceived – by me, or by someone I work with, or work for – there are formal criteria for finalizing a decision about going, or not going.
For example, is the assignment in response to a need in that country from a CARE team, an invitation from a partner organization, or the mandate of a higher authority in the system? Who is paying for the costs? What is the detailed scope of work, the objectives? And so on.
I wonder, though, about the less formal criteria that come into play? Those that emanate from individual persuasions and from hierarchies?
Does CARE, and do other entities, in situations of deploying staff overseas to conduct their work, have open and accountable ways of prioritizing who goes where, and for what ends?
Furthermore, how should a not-for-profit agency such as CARE, working to empower marginalized and vulnerable women and girls, decide whether it is more impactful for its mission to send someone in a more “senior” role to a networking conference vs. sending a more “junior” level person on a training course?
In this example, the networking assignment might yield an opportunity to bring valuable new investments into CARE. The training course example might, instead, not only increase the quality of a specific piece of programme design but might also inspire that staff member to be retained for a longer period of time (which, as we know, tends to save organisations money, given the cost of recruiting new people.)
Is one of these examples more directly related to CARE being impactful in our work than the other?
This connundrum, perhaps, doesn’t require public consultation via my blog, and these are issues which are persuasive across sectors and institutions.
However, as carbon emissions are a dominant root cause that exacerbate poverty and social injustice around the world, it does feel incumbent upon those of us working to support those people most impacted on by poverty and social injustices, to be held to account around our standards and decision making.
The issue of how CARE goes about bringing investments into our organisation, how we build quality programmes, and how we reduce our carbon emissions must be inter-connected.
It occurs to me, too, that this use of ‘informal’ criteria is pervasive in all walks of life, and how we make decisions on many things, and speaks to our individual, collective and societal values.
When I ride my motorbike around Saigon (itself an often complex past-time, and one of the topics of an early blog) I’ll make judgements at every corner, and with every mirror check along the way. Split second decisions are calculated based on a.) what I perceive should be the (formal) rules – although it’s never 100% clear over here – and b.) what I might then decide are more intuitive (informal) reasons.
Spread over this recipe for decision making a splattering of social and cultural norms (we got into this last week, too) and sometimes the results are pain free, and other times they leave me hand-gesturing and losing face in front of a road full of people and vehicles.
The values based judgements I and others might be drawing from in such scenarios are often buried deep. And so do we always even know that we are drawing from them, particularly in situations where we find ourselves in arguments or in discussions with conflicting view-points?
I rarely quote the bible on this blog, but how often do we stop and follow the “do unto others as you would have them do unto you” mantra (from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, for anyone who, like me, just needed to google the line itself)? If I were to create for myself a strong grouping of values to lead my life by, then I think this one is a great contender.
Yet, is it possible to follow this particular biblical ethic in everything one does in life? Who knows. But I do think a small helping of it everyday would be a valuable beginning.
Just as we are taught (rightly so) not to judge a person by their appearance, I think a good deal of inspiration for me comes when you combine various valuex based sentiments together, and ‘walk their talk’.
As someone initially might take up daily meditation, repeatedly over time they might then develop the ability to use what, eventually, becomes a more ingrained technique and state of mind into how they think, speak, and behave, and how they move from each day-to-day activity and past-time.
Perhaps there is a way for those of us operating from positions of power (from wealth, health, security) to genuinely connect with those values which we often speak about, but less often act upon? Better still, can we be consistently true to these values and be honest with ourselves when we are not?
This morning, I watched a video that actress Shay Mitchell hosted for CARE, documenting a visit she made to a refugee camp in Azraq, Jordon. There, she spent time on a CARE project set up to teach young people how to make films, and give them a channel to express themselves (which I’m pleased to say is an initiative that will now continue through past 2018).
Celebrity promotions of international development work have always been ‘a thing’ and some will be critiqued positively, and some negatively. Carbon emissions were expended, and other investments were made, to make this particular visit, project and resulting video happen. It moved and inspired me (caveating that I do have a certain bias). Maybe for others it will illicit different reactions.
Click on many newspaper front pages this morning, and articles underscoring the desperate plights of hundreds of thousands of other refugees, across the globe, are waiting to be read. They demand, and also deserve, our attention.
This, in part, is our dilemma. I’m sharing the Azraq video to (even slightly) help its promotion to even more then the one million or so watches it has already well deserved. In writing about CARE’s other work from time to time, I hope to do the same. To trigger some reflection. To percolate, for any reader who stops by, a thought or a feeling.
I’ll never actually be able to conclude if this creates impact in itself, but I will continue to experiment with that.
One thing that I do know, specifically related to this video, is that I met Jameel (CARE’s Project Manager for the work in Azraq) recently, and it would be impossible to meet someone whose strong values based approach, to his work and to his life, was more profound.
What do you think of when you read the words ‘money is power‘?
Rich tycoons? Celebrity spenders? Men?
Maybe, maybe not. However, for the purposes of this post, let’s assume (and I believe there are solid grounds for such an assumption) that rich, powerful men represent a compelling ‘logo’ for the concept of money being powerful.
This post is about reframing that.
Now, CARE’s work is mainly couched in the language of poverty and injustice. These are far reaching and often misused words. I’ve written before about the way in which the international development sector overuses jargon, and we are still at it.
Within the wide parameters that ‘poverty’ and ‘injustice’ house, CARE delivers humanitarian relief, and we pride ourselves on our long term development interventions. More recently, we have been describing how we build resilience for communities.
There are then a bunch of derivatives used about each of these terms, which I’ll let you research yourself (as I’ve no doubt you now will).
This latest trend towards resilience is, in some ways, an attempt to combine the two historically distinct and typically separate areas of our work – namely, humanitarian relief and longer-term development. Continue reading “Money is Power”→