Monday, November 15, 2010

Pause and Rewind: Annapurna

I got told recently by my colleagues that I'd stopped smiling in the office. My honest response was that there is little to smile about at the moment, but I know it is their polite way of saying I need a break.

3 weeks in Nepal, with (hopefully) a 17 day trek round the Annapurna Himalayan range. No internet, no work, no Bangladesh, and a chance to grow a beard. In fact only what I can pay a porter to carry for me...

The main appeal seems to be mainly the possibility that this is that it is like a purge, cleansing me physically of all the stress and fatigue that has built up over the past 18 months. That combined with the complete unknown of embarking on such a long walk, and the fact that even the Annapurna trek isn't safe from civilsation any longer and will soon be a roadside path.

Twice I've tried to train for the challenge, especially knowing that I'll be going up to 5,416m where apparently there is half as much oxygen in the air as in Dhaka, and twice work has got in the way. So I'll get trained as I go along I guess.

Back in 3 weeks.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Development as Distraction: The dilemma of Intefering

Last month when I was in as part of my NGOs flood response, I read an article on the BBC in which the following question was posed: “When is it right for a journalist to help a weak and possibly dying baby?”

Whilst there are many possible answers around this one, I would expect them all to draw on the general response of: "all of the time."

However, it turns out that in the Manichean world in which journalists live such a simple, no-brainer answer can’t be assumed, as their job is only “to bear witness in a tragedy and to report - but not to interfere.”

It’s a relief to see that journalists are human too, and clearly pose themselves some hard questions about the things they see in their work. But the noble assumption that a person can arrive to a situation such as the floods in Pakistan and interact with those people affected, and then file a story without interfering is nonsense. By virtue of being in such a situation you interfere, and once you conduct an interview with an affected person or a doctor in a clinic you further interfere. Taking a photograph you interfere, and when all of that is then reported and analysed through an editorial position on the BBC, that is a whole further level of interference. Those interviews and photographs push an agenda, which is not simply to report facts from a moral vacuum of non-interference. If you don't want to interfere, don't get on the plane to Pakistan.

I chose not to post when I first read the story as I was in the field in South Punjab and unsure as to whether my judgement was affected by my proximity to the story, or the ridiculously long hours which we were working every single day. But a month-and-a-half later and I’m still astonished by the evasiveness of the report in which the journalist is unable to admit that she proactively tried to save a newborn baby that she found “lying motionless on her back, on a small mat under a tree… her eyes were closed and lifeless.”
It was a difficult birth, by the roadside, with no-one to help (C) BBC

Having met the mother and newborn baby at the side of the road, the journalist interviewed a doctor who she then informed of regarding the birth. The next day the baby was still alive. But for the amoral world in which journalists perceive themselves to float through, a real dilemma had now been created:

“He [the doctor] may have saved her, but was it at the expense of another patient?”
Errrrrrrrrrrrr, maybe, or maybe not? But he saved the life of a newborn baby and likely the health of the young mother who had just gone through a difficult labour. So why focus on an unknown possibility to undermine the basic humanitarian action and positive outcome?

Is it unethical to attract resources to one family, when millions of others may be equally deserving?”
Yes, if a world in which utilitarian principles are applied with no regard for human emotion. Otherwise no, because all you did was help a weak and possibly dying baby of which there were not millions of others in Pakistan on that day.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Development as Distraction: Murals in the Field

There is no better way to promote yourself as an NGO, than by painting the walls of your office with promotional murals. A couple of them that I saw today raised some doubts as to the actual messages they wish to convey:

As opposed to motherly love, this lady seems to be a little disappointed with her new born baby. Perhaps its the bug eyes? Hopefully its not because she's a girl.

Thankfully this mural preserved the decency of the child by not showing their private parts, but makes sure that we're clear as to where the poop is coming from. God forbid anyone  actually eats those chicken after the dinner they've just had.

More poop, this time seeping gently into the village pond. I assume the message is "don't bathe". Hopefully the man in the water is blind and therefore couldn't see the open defecation before his dip. I guess he also hopefully has no sense of smell...

Friday, November 5, 2010

Development as Distraction: Through Our Own Eyes

My first ever job in the development sector was as a volunteer working with street kids, at two rehabilitation centres in Honduras. From that experience, I wrote my masters dissertation on how best to tackle the problem of street kids in Central America, and came up with the rather depressing conclusion which I still hold today: [There will be always be] an NGO sector that can provide immediate assistance, but that is not able to provide for all of their [street kids] longer term needs. Even more worrying is that there is nothing to stop them being joined by more and more children, as there is little preventative action or family social work that the NGOs can undertake. Until the state chooses to address the issue, the gap remains, and the kids will remain on the street.

I also contributed to the first ever report State of the World's Street Children and now I monitor a day-support project in Dhaka. I've just developed a new savings and training project for Bangladesh street kids and am helping to transform all that into an integrated programme that will have some kind of positive, though very limited, impact on the 315,000 street kids in this country. If there is a group that motivates me to continue working in development, its street children and the need is pressing: in Bangladesh alone their numbers are predicted to increase to 930,000 by 2014.

The INGO I work for had a project that was reported on CNN. Through Our Own Eyes provided street kids in Dhaka with the chance to produce their own short-films, and host their own photo exhibition. It was a good event, especially as the kids themselves came to the premiere. And for me it brought back a lot of memories and the realisation that of all the work I have done with street children, my one outstanding feeling is a very deep respect: these kids are hardcore.

They can survive anywhere and don't need NGOs, they don't need their families, they don't need the protection of the police or health services of a clinic. They will survive, regardless of how much we adults choose to exploit them, political, social and economic institutions refuse to support them, and their parents are unable or unwilling to care for them.

As I was presenting my new street kids project to the expert donor panel, I was struck by how little we still know about their true lives, and how academic arguments such as my own about what the state should do to stop the problem are ultimately irrelevant. The state isn't going to do anything. And I can get on with a street kid really well, share a joke and engage in a play fight. I can understand that they have most likely faced some form of abuse forcing them on to the street. But I have no comprehension of how bad their lives must have been, at such a young age, that they felt able to walk away (though more likely run) from it all.

Projects like Through Our Own Eyes are a start, and we have to learn more from them about their own lives, in order that the work that we do with them is as good as possible (and I learnt very harshly in Honduras that you can force them to become something they don't want). These kids are so common that they don't shock us any more, and they are the outcome of so many different negative forces that it is impossible to provide them with a single article in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (say like child soldiers) to better protect them. They will find a way to survive if we do nothing, but how long can we all allow for that to be the case?

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Development as Distraction: Perks of the job

One of my best personal hypocrisies is to moan about the lack of perks that you get working in the NGO sector. I have a friend who works in Bangladesh in the gas industry and as a result of a particularly hard period of work, his company paid for him to upgrade all the hotels on his next holiday to Nepal. The best I can look forward to us a t-shirt that is so ugly that not even the extreme poor wear it, or a notebook to put on my unused workshop notebook pile. That was until the visibility items were produced for a project I run, just in time for Christmas shopping planning.

Desk Set
My dad is the headteacher of a high school which repeatedly scores highly in the government's inspections, and who is now flirting with the idea of following the new UK coalition government's policy of decentralising high school management away from local authorities. The increase in power that this would afford him needs to be matched with a pretty impressive executive desk-set, so he is the happy receiver of the first lot of visibility items.

Mugs are great. In fact the only item I have kept from all those received is the travel mug so that I can go to the place round the corner from the office in Dhaka where they serve real coffee and bring it back to the office. Child Rights is hard work, so you need to know when to treat yourself. I'll give my girlfriend the other mug for her birthday, and pass it off as a British ironic tradition (as previously done when I gave photoframe and candles when I was otherwise lacking birthday gift inspiration).

Desk Clock
My soon-to-be father in law works as a nuclear technician. I have previously commented on whether he is the French Homer Simpson, but this was not found to be a funny observation to please don't make a similar connection. However, every nuclear technician needs up to the minute information on the desk, so what better than an electronic desk clock that even tells you the temperature!

Key Rings
No idea why a project would require 3 key rings, nor what relation key rings have to a child-centred NGO, nor to the particular project. But it does have a special design which allows you to work out exact date for the next 50 years by turning the dials (or you could just look at your phone). My brother-in-law is a sailor so this seems best for him. The other two will make good gifts for my brothers as they both live away from home and so own their own set of keys. 

Other stuff
There were some other items: another desk clock, and a work satchel. But I couldn't photograph as it was too difficult to hide the name of the donor and organisation. What a great job though!