Making a connection in difficult times

This morning I woke up to a flurry of whatsapp messages from my cousins in the UK.

The messages drew from our respective memories of making child-hood visits to our grandparent’s house, down in Ramsgate, Kent.

What felt, for my brother and me back then in the early to mid 1980’s, like a life-time spent in the back seat of our parent’s car (playing ‘I-spy’, stopping at service stations, before – at last – pitching up alongside the seafront, and knocking on the pale green back-door, awaiting our Grandad’s inevitable greeting of “not today, thank-you”) was brought back to life in the moments of recall described in my cousins’ whatsapp chatter.

The instant recall and sentiments that popped up in these messages was palpable. Our Nan’s signature offerings (cherry cakes, iced fingers, Dandelion and Burdoock fizzy drinks, apple and blackberry pies) alongside our grandparent’s familiar household ornaments (a glass-topped table displaying our school photos, KP salted peanuts in a bowl, and a walnut cracker proudly stood between a family of wooden elephants) and then the excitable excursions we all took in between being served up huge quantities of food (down to the games arcade, “moving the flags on the putting green” and throwing little parachuted plastic soldiers off the white cliff tops).

The picture painted was so very satisfying and instant. I sensed we’d all happily opened our hearts to it, and to being back there again.

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Me, Mum and my brother, Matt, in our Grandparents’ garden in Ramsgate, circa 1980.

Amid so much turmoil right now, these moments are sacred and unifying.

When markets recover and normality is restored, regardless of how shaped it will be from these recent times, there is a sense (shared by some commentators) that our ambitions and values, and sense of civic responsibilities, might have been enhanced in a positive way. That we will, perhaps, think more about each other, and less about our own desires.

Part of the anxieties surrounding these present and future scenarios could well be the ‘not knowing’. The lack of control we have in the current moment. The diminishing returns being presented to those of us unaccustomed to such a reality.

Already, in the international development sector (the core realm from where my definitelymaybe posts typically begin their journey) much is being written about the fact that, for years now, we’ve designed development programmes for marginalised communities around the world that ultimately try to build people’s capacities to be resilient in the face of crisis. How to best absorb, adapt and transform when “shocks” occur.

The related concepts and tools published about resiliency are multiple.

The learning cycles that unfold in typical social development programming have never been easy to fully articulate, nor, ironically, to learn from. I imagine, in current times, powerful lessons will be captured about resiliency, from countries around the world who are themselves locking down right now, freezing their economic development, and moving into unprecedented waters.

The reasons that programme learning cycles might not be up to scratch are many. There can, for example, often be no clear learning strategy made early on in the design of a programme, which then undermines learning at a later date. There are awkward funding processes, too, which mean organisations aren’t always readily resourced to invest in their partnerships, and in their learning, because they are under pressure to chase down the next grant.

I think there also exist fundamental divides between the different stakeholders engaged in social programming. Namely, and crudely, those designing and implementing and then those on the “receiving end”. Whilst there are a plethora of human-centred design frameworks growing in number (where the emphasis on design is led by “end-user”) too often organisations are not localising their solutions.

We devise a micro-loan product, for example, without properly testing the assumption that micro-loans are needed or desired. A training course might provide women with new skills and the confidence to earn better income, without involving their husbands in the process, and considering the consequences of the dis-empowerment which this new dynamic might cause the men.

Right now, one of the outcomes of Covid-19 is that some people are turning more attention “inwards”, to their families and friends – looking for answers, for reassurances, for distraction, for compassion and empathy, for something light-hearted, something human.

These acts of unity and solidarity are, in many ways, the same acts playing out everyday, and across every local community, acts born out of survival and respect, given freely and with humility. From the street-vendors I pass here in Saigon, to the farmers harvesting rice in the fields outside the city, and the young woman working in a garment factory and sending home her earnings.

There is a unifying chemistry binding people here in Vietnam who are, one day at a time, hustling to make a living, coping, ready for things to change one way or the other, determined to keep moving forward.

Theirs is as wide spanning a connection, in a country of 96 million, as can be made. A rich network of knowledge and intuition, of grit and resilience.

Have we, perhaps, missed the simplicity of answering some of the world’s weightiest development challenges by trying to invent solutions too complicated, with processes and systems too politically charged, when the actual answers are staring us in the face?

What does sustainable development look like beyond the horizon of this current pandemic, and in light of what can be learnt from it, I wonder?

That is to be seen.

However, it feels our biggest chance to learn from one another – on so many levels – and to put that learning into practice in the future, could come from these inward facing instincts and, indeed, in this very moment of our time.

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My Grandparents, Ron and Lilian, with my Mum and her brother, Brian. Early 1970s.

 

Partnering for Good

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Click here http://www.coracleconsulting.net to check out my new partnering venture!

I’m fast approaching 9 years living in Saigon, and the welcoming in of the latest lunar New Year celebrations (the “White Metal Rat” no less) with all the usual anticipation of things to come, has coincided with a flurry of global and personal chapter headings…

Only this weekend I read about the terror attacks in my old London neighbourhood, Streatham Hill, have mourned the initial days of Brexit slipping into reality, genned up on Coronavirus (as my daughters’ schools close for the week as a precaution) and am stomaching the prospect of a future Trump administration, post 2020 election, following the collapse of his impeachment and the latest news from the Iowa caucus this morning.

In home news, Issy and I married 4 weeks ago in Sri Lanka, and this week I am soft launching a new business idea to improve the quality of partnership work that co-exists inside and between the worlds of Non-Profits and Business.

Under Coracle Consulting, I’ll be facilitating training and coaching for those organisations keen to join forces with others to address different social and environmental issues.

So, why should organisations choose to Partner in the first place?

For the many years that I was lucky enough to experience the highs and lows of cross-sector “collaborations,” poverty alleviating “partnerships” and multi-sector “platforms” I never lost sight of the importance of experimenting with the idea that partnering with others can reap rewards.

I saw these rewards not only for those doing the partnering, and those positively impacted by the outcomes of good partnering, but also from the perspective of growing an overall learning about how different approaches to partnering can offer up new solutions fit to tackle many of our existential, societal flaws.

Countless partnership case studies exist (featured on these pages too) that highlight positive practice, and many teaching aids are available (TPI’s Partnering Toolbook, or The Partnership Brokers Association for example) to help guide practitioners.

Over the years, I’ve spoken at various conferences in Asia about partnering, and have supported the work of organisations such as Business Fights Poverty and Elevate (a CSR Asia company) in moving the dial on this topic – in particular, the nexus where international NGOs and large corporations join forces, and together seek to make sizable social, environmental and economic gains.

Overall, it seems to me that there is a significantly long way to go down the partnership road before systematic standards, principles and ways of working come naturally to the many millions of public, private and non-profit entities out there who want to “make a difference”.

What I hope to do in 2020 – global fluctuations in politics and personal milestones aside – can be summed up by these two goals:

  1. To raise awareness about, and demonstrate why, there huge potential exists when organisations invest in partnerships; and
  2. To offer up my time and experiences to support organisations in their respective pursuit of finding the right partner in their eco-system, and then turning their ideas and innovations into important and scalable solutions for as many people, communities and societies as they can.

I’d love to hear from anyone on this topic, and will always find the time to discuss ideas and suggestions for how large scale improvements and enhancements can be made to partnering.

Do get in touch, either in the comments section here or over on the Coracle pages: http://www.coracleconsulting.net

Thanks for reading and have a great Year of the Rat!

Striving for perfection and new norms

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What remains in question is what will replace them.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Eyes on the prize

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Coco Gauff. Wimbledon, 2019.

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

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

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

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

A Letter to my 18-year-old Self

Dear Me,

Congratulations on your recent birthday, and on finishing up your ‘A’ level exams this morning!

Who’d have thought you’d make it through those intact, after such appalling mock results, and no University offers in the bag. You can now, at will, rapidly forget all those Shakespeare and Aristophanes quotes you learnt in the woods with ‘JR’, deliriously smoking packs of cigarettes, whilst counting down the days until this one – the day you got to put your biros down, walk out of the familiar, and off into a world of new.

Full marks, too, for all the extra-curricular activities safely executed upon these past two years at boarding school. It gives me considerable joy to report that no long-term damage was caused by any of said activities and exploits. In fact, you may well have been all the better shaped from them. Who knew?!

The summer holidays you are about to embark on will be some of the very best times of your life. Bettered only by each and every chapter that unfolds, year after year, from now on – all the new twists and turns you will encounter in the process offering up maddening and exhilarating experiences in equal measure. But, don’t worry, I can vouch for the fact that you at least get through to 44 years old, relatively unscathed.

I’ve no wisdom to impart to you that will be any more influential on your life than by learning it yourself, on your terms, and when you are ready. Although, if you are reading this, then a few things maybe to throw into the mix (you know how much you/I like to offer up nuggets, when given half a chance):-

With these unfolding chapters and experiences that I have just forewarned you about, seeking comfort and reassurance from different sources can tie you over (books, physical challenges, bottles of wine shared with entrusted friends) however, the trick is to create your personalized palate of truths, from within your own ample stock of resources. You don’t have to rush this. Let it come when the time is right;

We do all, of course, only go round once (as one of your future inspirations will reaffirm) and so, where we can, we’re the more fulfilled in the end if we spend these days with our ears open and our perspectives in a constant state of flux. You will travel, you will place yourself in situations to do just this – over and over – and you’d be wise to never stop doing so, even if that means staying in one place for a long period of time. There will be ways (technology, you’ll see) to do this, that haven’t been invented yet;

Be thoughtful, even when you don’t think you need to be;

Be present, even when you are not;

Moreover, find connection in as much as you can. People, places, objects, activities. Love.

All the rest is an assortment of choices, indulgences, emotions and circumstance. Life’s tombola. Full of surprises it can be, so don’t be afraid to ever buy a ticket and put your hand in to see what is there.

Believe in yourself (just look what you pulled off with those exams) and be sure to write to me in the future.

Your ever-loyal Self,

Me

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Day of my last ‘A’ level exam. June, 1993.

 

Innovations in Resilience

 

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Monday commuters at the end of our street this morning. Photo credit: Stephanie Le @saigonsteph

Over the last 24 hours Saigon has been submerged by Typhoon Usagi – officially the “longest and heaviest rainfall ever recorded in Saigon history”. Earlier last night, me and the girls schlepped home from a friend’s house, up to our knees in water and, overnight, our downstairs bathroom and kitchen were mildly flooded.

Thousands of other city residents here were less fortunate – one man was killed by a falling tree not far from where we live, and stories were shared overnight of people abandoning their homes and finding refuge elsewhere.

I’ve written before about storms in Saigon, and the natural occurring disasters in South East Asia more generally, but this current season has been busier than normal.

Vietnam often escapes heavy storms, thanks to the Philippines, a country well versed in combating typhoons, hurricanes and tropical storms. I’ve visited the country twice this year, working with CARE team in Manila who manage the TUKLAS Innovation Labs – a initiative supported by UK Aid and The Start Network that seeks out new ideas and solutions from local communities, to help them better prepare for the typhoons and storms which routinely batter the country’s shores.     Continue reading “Innovations in Resilience”