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.

 

Economic Resilience: Lessons from a workshop in Kenya

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Local market in Westlands, Nairobi

Every day, we each make decisions about money. Weighing up hundreds of transaction options in a single week, our choices are based on quality, value, needs and desires. To do this, we require information and knowledge, and ultimately we crave the security of knowing that we can afford to buy things.

Cryptic introductions aside, this post is inspired by an illuminating week overseas with new people, and offers up some jet-lagged musings about money and about equity.

Last week I was in Nairobi, with colleagues from Save the Children who’d gathered to share their experiences on the topic of “Economic Resilience”.

In a game of ‘Non-Governmental Organisation [NGO]’ Bingo, now would be the time to mark a cross in your first box: Economic Resilience, what a buzz-word (or “fuzz-word” as someone in Nairobi suggested) indeed.

There were 14 country teams in attendance last week, each armed with definitions, approaches, ideas and stories to tell about their respective efforts at delivering projects with local communities that increase people’s Economic Resilience.    Continue reading “Economic Resilience: Lessons from a workshop in Kenya”

Innovating against the inevitable

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Local street in Calamba City, Philippines

Paula Atun, a young Filipino entrepreneur living in Calamba City, thought she was filling in an online survey, with her idea on how to catch and filter rainwater. She’d seen the idea on the Discovery Channel.

A few weeks later, CARE Philippines had signed her up as one of their local ‘innovators’, tasked with investing over PHp 1,000,000 ($20,000) into this idea, and leading the production and distribution of it to 15 local households, the inhabitants of which are either elderly or living with disabilities.

Paula had, in fact, inadvertently applied to the Philippines TUKLAS Innovation Labs project. And her idea was eventually chosen as one of forty, shortlisted by CARE Philippines and three NGO partners managing this DFID and Start Network initiative.

The Philippines is the second most disaster prone country in the world, and the objective of TUKLAS is to source ideas from local communities for disaster preparedness. It then instigates a process for funding and building the capacities of local creators and entrepreneurs to pilot or scale these.      Continue reading “Innovating against the inevitable”

Thoughts on Motivation

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I’ve just listened to a lecture given by a running expert (a “Barbarian ultra-marathon runner” from Denmark) named Simon Grimstrup, who described his motivations for running.

He stressed these as being quite separate to being motivated to be ‘fit’ – he has zero motivation for that. Instead, his calling in life, and his formula for staying motivated, has always been a combination of the trails, the vistas, the mountain peaks, the comraderie, the adventure, the joy, the competition, and the “hunt” for achieving your once in a lifetime perfect race.

On Thursday next week he’ll enter as one of 10 international elite runners into a 403km Gobi Desert race. He thinks running that sort of distance is in fact utter madness, but he is driven to want to do it.

For those who’ve already sponsored me, and sent kind messages (thank you!!) – the reason for this Friday lecture is because Issy and I are up in Sapa (Northern Vietnam) taking part in the Vietnam Mountain Marathon 2017.
Continue reading “Thoughts on Motivation”

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.

 

This Is Water

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Last week I was working in Kathmandu. This is a picture I took whilst there. I think it means ‘Water’ in Nepali. If not, it’s still a pretty picture.

It’s the last day of June, a typically pleasant month, heralding in for many of us an array of sporting events and the prospect of summer holidays, before moving us into the second half of the year – as it will do in a matter of a few hour’s time…

In the US, the July 4th celebrations are almost ready. For Muslims the world over, Ramadan began yesterday. The existential crises unfolding in various parts of the Middle East and Africa clog the headlines, in spite of a planet obsessed this month with tales from the World Cup in Brazil (or, for some of those British readers amongst you who have long given up on the football, the ups and downs of following Andy Murray in the tennis at Wimbledon). Continue reading “This Is Water”

It’s Inclusion, stupid

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As so to Singapore, fleetingly, to speak yesterday at Diageo’s inaugural “Women in Hospitality and Tourism in Asia” Conference.

As an $80bn turnover corporation, Diageo were not satisfied with only launching a daytime event, comprising of a range of speeches and panel sessions looking at the women’s empowerment agenda within their own industry, no, they also pulled together the first ever women’s empowerment “Journalist Awards” the very same evening.

Hats off to them for a well organised – and at times, genuinely inspiring – watershed day for a company such as theirs, the largest alcohol beverage company in the world, who have spent the past 18 months recasting their aspirations in society around “empowering women through learning.”

CARE have been supporting these efforts, through skills training and micro-finance initiatives in Nepal and Sri Lanka, and we are also discussing how to use our own experiences over the past 10 years in Cambodia, where we have successfully lobbied the government and the private sector to implement a more responsible Code of Conduct for brewers and drinks companies who distribute their products at a local level, largely employing women as beer sellers. Continue reading “It’s Inclusion, stupid”