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?      Continue reading “Defining our paradise”

Value judgements

 

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CARE staffer Ana Mazen at Azraq camp, in Jordon. Picture credit Sarah Rashdan/CARE.

I’m flying to Singapore on Thursday for work. For those more acquainted with my blogs on definitelymaybe (or on the sister site 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.

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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.

Money is Power

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CARE colleague at a project visit to a Women’s Centre in the West Bank

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”

Making good in a modern world

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Local knowledge exchange in Zemalak, Cairo (2016)…
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….re-visited in 2018

You’ve heard the statistic about the ‘world producing as much information every day as we have in all of humanity’. You maybe read it on Twitter. Or your friend sent you a link to it via WhatsApp. It was probably something like that.

Then there’s the one about our brains only using a small percentage of their capability, and yet we now struggle to absorb more than just bite-sized amounts of news, or information, at any one time.

Sensationalist media headlines fight for our attention in an ever cluttered communications arena. Pictures of Syrian children splattered in blood are up against celebrity scoops, and Trip Advisor adverts mapping our movements and intruding onto our screens and into our lives. The extent to which we depend on, and benefit from, technology is growing exponentially, at the same time as it is eerily replacing so many aspects of our identity, and how and what we fill our waking hours doing.

Do we embrace or reject these advancements? A goose-bump inflection, back to school days of reading Orwell and Huxley, leaves me choosing the latter, and wondering into what flying spaceship fantasy futures my daughters will be subject.      Continue reading “Making good in a modern world”

One day

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One day,

The wind beneath the wings of a soaring bird
will be felt on his face.

The scent of a crashing wave
will touch his soul.

The freedom of a child at play
will melt his eyes.

And the choices made by a woman living a life free from inequalities
will stir inside of him such unequivocal calm that

he, too,

will soar in the skies,
move with the ocean,
embrace freedom,
and choose to be all these things,

Every day.

Boycott the red tops

In silencing those who have been complaining recently that the topic of sexual harassment is currently peppering news editorials the world over, many commentators have rightly couched that this particular metaphorical surface has only just been scratched.

With each new industry’s public acceptance (and condemnation) of the prevalence of sexual harassment, endemic across their own sectoral landscape, others trivialize the issue, committed it seems to end their days affixed to a depth of denial that even your average canary would shy away from examining…

The gods were indeed having their fun with us mortals to take away the life of Christopher Hitchens, while the caustic barbs of his brother, Peter, run free to propagate so vile a perspective on the topic as they did yesterday that even the Game of Thrones’ own Ramsey Bolton would have taken umbridge.

In his eloquently titled piece: ‘What will women gain from all this squawking about sex pests? A niqab‘  yesterday in The Mail on Sunday, Hitchens offered us this useful perspective:

“The welfare system is about to melt down. And you think the most important thing in your lives is a hunt for long-ago cases of wandering hands, or tellers of coarse jokes?”

And there it is, ladies and gentleman, served up on a plate, a steaming pudding of an indictment, reflecting far too many men’s dismissive attitudes when it comes to sexual harassment. Water under the bridge. Generations of despair and psychological trauma conveniently swept, like human dust particles, under society’s all forgiving moral carpet.

Even by Hitchens’ low-bar standard, yesterday’s article is tour de force material.

As if taking on the mind-set of a man whose lost his worldy possessions at a game of poker, and is being escorted out the door, our protagonist flails and raves at the page. Billions of women enduring lifetimes of objectification? I’ll see your bet, and raise you with a rant about what’s really important, which is that our country is “wobbling on the precipice of bankruptcy”.

Is this the same country who voted to leave the economic safety of Europe, and where corporations, politicians and the country’s own Monarch have spent decades mastering the art of tax avoidance, Peter? If so, maybe take your infantile vitriol out on them.

However, not content with a simple down-grading of sexual harassment in the face of economic meltdowns, our gambling stooge persists.

With one foot out of the casino, and a bouncer’s hand on his shoulder, he can’t resist: “In our post-marriage free-for-all, why should we expect either sex to be restrained? All that’s left is the police or the public pillory of Twitter.”

According to this veritable shitbag of a human being, ever since gender equality started making strides, and the sacred institution of marriage was questioned, society has nose dived.

466 words in, and I’m annoyed that this man has so riled me that I’ve written this (and I apologise for that to the three people who might actually read this blog).

So, let me make a simple recommendation. Boycott this red top propaganda. Boycott the likes of Hitchens, and his poisonous opinions. Boycott Paul Dacre’s lewd, bigoted and fearful curating of these toxic publications. Boycott them all.

Whatever it takes to ensure sexual harassment does not remain a topic analysed only at the surface level, and then filed under a “not that important” index, needs to be done. Those who have committed sexual harassment, whether 80 years ago, should face up to that and pay a penalty. In the public eye, or the private one.

And, all I know, is that there is not one single syllable to be found in yesterday’s vomit inducing Hitchens heckle that will ensure any positive or supportive progress is made in that direction.

 

 

Freedom of Self

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Rest and relaxation in Dar Es Salam, after last week’s HEAT training course

In the confined parameters that determine air travel, as I whirl back on this particular occasion from Africa to home, the experiences learnt on last week’s work trip (comprising an intense training course on Safety and Security) seep through into my consciousness as stone traced markings through paper.

The sharp seam of learning from this particular course was about coping. Coping with confrontation, dilemma, trauma, danger, but mainly, coping with having one’s freedom stolen from underneath your nose.

Since I boarded at the sleepy port of Zanzibar (where 24 hours of “RnR” were spent, and were, for once, an essential bookend to the training course itself) the all too familiar rituals deployed to keep oneself either awake or entertained were running on auto pilot: movie watching; email triage; a few chapters of a novel; social media; face-timing; eating; drinking; freshening up.

With each slice of indulgent escapism, as we are prone to seeking out the most special film to watch, or song to absorb, the constant hunt for ego inflating ‘likes’ and ‘mentions’, that buzz of booze from miniature bottles, all such things, in the end and inevitably, skim the surface of satisfaction, treading the waters high above that particular ocean of Self, rather than dropping lower, as a pearl diver would, in search of deeper treasures: the Soul, and the spirit of being, fathoms below.

This, or, in round terms, just taking things (but mainly, one’s freedom) for granted.

Ironic then that it is only when these freedoms are removed that we get the chance to sink that bit lower and nearer to this Self of ours and, beyond that, to our own truths.

What I mainly reflect on, now that the adrenaline from last week has receded, is how adaptive we all are to crisis situations.

How the unthinkable very quickly can be rationalised and dealt with. Deprived of the freedom to move, see, talk, choose, organise we, in fact, thrive. A bodily revolution of senses takes charge, a new paradigm of prioritising, thinking and imagining rises up, the respective captains, colonels and generals of Being.

We are forced to find new ways to take back control, to inch forward in spite of our inability to behave and feel as free as we are used to and, in that brief chapter of time, we transform, we resolve, and we experience resilience.

Stripped down in that raw state, devoid of our regular freedoms (and in some cases, addictions) we allow ourselves the space and conditions to more profoundly understand.

For that momentary eclipse of the ordinary, arming me with a wholeness and with peace, I will be indebted for a long while yet.

 

“Scale, impact and partnerships” – seeing through the buzz factor

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Cartoon credit – http://www.stillwaterhistorians.com

I’m back on the regional conference circuit at the moment, and it’s awash with talk about “scale” and “impact”.

Sound-bite central, indeed, with events I’ve attended recently also still obsessing with how to achieve scale and impact by working in “partnerships”. As suggested in my last post we need to look beyond semantics in the sustainability arena, and instead get real about what some of these terms actually mean as, all too often, our preoccupation with the vernacular distracts us from action.

The UN’s new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) have included “global partnerships” as their 17th Goal. The proof of authenticity around what the UN thinks can be achieved with this Goal will be revealed over time. However, right now, it seems to me that if you are not talking about “scaling your programmes”, or “measuring the impact” of your efforts (in terms of playing a positive role in society) then you are not “on message” – and that, for many, is a public relations cardinal sin.      Continue reading ““Scale, impact and partnerships” – seeing through the buzz factor”

Partnership musings at 33,000 ft

Photo credit @saigonsays
Photo credit @saigonsays

Over the last couple of months I’ve spent time at various “partnership” themed events. Bangkok, Singapore, Hanoi, even the leafy outskirts of Atlanta, Georgia, many thousands of miles away from the hustle bustle of Saigon. Different venues, but similar take-away recommendations about how, if we are truly to tackle social and environment issues and bring about change in the future, for the future, we must join forces with others.

In some cases, forming alliances which might seem oxymoronic: for example, big business in partnership with local communities; municipal governments working with large NGOs.

Previous case studies on this blog site (where CARE is partnering with companies in the region, including GSK and Diageo) are backed up by hundreds more out there, many of which are breaking new ground and offer hope for replicating models which others can adopt, adapt and improve. Continue reading “Partnership musings at 33,000 ft”