The Politics of Strawberries

19 Jul


The other day I went to pick strawberries. Since I live near countryside these days, that’s easy to do. In ten minutes I was at a strawberry farm, several acres of long, low, leafy rows, and no trees. Among the rows, small groups of foreign workers from Jamaica were filling green, plastic mesh quart boxes that then go into a cardboard flat, ready to then go on to a supermarket somewhere.

When you bend down to pick the strawberries here, you find that they do not in any way resemble the enormous red globules that come in plastic clamshells from Mexico or California. These berries are small and clustered beneath jagged leaves, close to the ground, on runners. They really are what their name in Dutch is – aardbaien, or earth berries.

In fact, it reminded me of the last time I picked berries, which was maybe ten or fifteen years ago, with my mother, who was from Holland. And the taste of the berries, again utterly unlike the kind I buy all winter long, also remind me of the past. At one time in my life, I think, this was the only kind of strawberry I knew or had tasted.

I am glad to buy berries from this local farm but at the same time, I wonder how the owners make much of a living from their berry fields. Because the other thing that has changed radically from my earlier years is the whole financial aspect of farming.

The hundred-acre farm on which I grew up, which in the 50s might have been worth $9000 or $10,000, is now priced at more than a million, from what I’ve heard. According to a 2013 article in the Globe and Mail, prices on average ranged from $6000 an acre to $14,000, across ten counties near me. Thanks to higher commodity prices and lower interest than in my Dad’s day, some are as high as $20,000 per acre, an amount he’d have never imagined.

But it also means viable farms are much bigger, highly leveraged, and more mechanized. Produce has to sell, and that also means that fruit and vegetables that are not perfect get trashed.

A recent study done in the U.S. found that half – that’s right, one half – of produce is thrown away or left rotting in the field or fed to animals. Food waste accounts for 8 per cent of global climate pollution and, according to the EPA, is the single largest component of landfill and incinerator waste. That makes it a significant source of methane, a greenhouse gas more powerful than carbon dioxide. Add to that the waste of water, land and other resources and the picture just seems head-shakingly stupid.

How did we get here? Why are people going hungry while potatoes, apples and strawberries have become the Stepford Wives of the food chart?

I honestly can’t figure it out, despite the economists’ explanations. All I can do is look for alternatives in my small corner of the agricultural world and turn those fresh berries into ruby-coloured jars of strawberry jam.

But yes, someone should write a book about it.

Of Monsoons and Monsanto

6 Jul


I guess you could file this in the ‘What were they thinking?’ file.

Thirty-something actress Louise Linton, perhaps finding it difficult to drum up work in L.A., decided to publish a book about her younger self helping poor black people in Zambia.

And indeed, In Congo’s Shadow hits all the classic White Saviour high notes. Presence of dangerous armed rebels who might rape and kill her: check. The desire to teach poor Africans something “about the world”: check. Personal tragedy in the form of a beloved family member recently lost to cancer: check. References to her slim shape and long, blond ‘angel’ hair as a counterpoint to everyone else around her: check. Friendship with a small, innocent child who inspires not only compassion but a deeper understanding of the really important things in life: check.

But rather than the expected esteem of First World readers in awe of her youthful courage and selflessness, Linton was met by a wave of opprobrium – especially from Zambians – who called bullshit on the mawkish memoirs.

‘Delusional White Woman Louis Linton Draws Ire of Zambian Twitter for Egregious “African” Memoir,’ ran a headline in the culture magazine Okay Africa.

In fact, in contrast to Linton’s syrupy prose, some of the best Twitter remarks stood out for their wit and right on-ness. They hit on the arrogance, the stereotyping and the absurdity of the mindset that Africans exist to make white people feel good about themselves.

The Twittersphere was soon joined by CNN, the BBC, The Guardian and Buzzfeed in pointing out the book’s howling inaccuracies. Rebel militia spilling over from Congo? Not much of that in 1999 and not in the area where Linton said she lived. Hiding beneath the jungle canopy? Not much of that either in Zambia, which is mostly savannah. And monsoon rains? Well, as one Twitter user put it, “Monsoon season in Zambia? Yes, after the snow melts.” Said another, “All that’s missing is Tarzan and Mowgli.”

There are (so far) 170 negative reviews on the book’s Amazon page – (“White Savior” Trope Taken to Shocking New Lows is just one example), and a hashtag – #LintonLies – has begun making the rounds. Linton herself, meanwhile, has deleted her own Twitter account.

I don’t think this was quite the reaction she was hoping for.

In some ways though Linton is an easy target. In my book, The Anatomy of Giving, I have a chapter on celebrity do-gooders, including what I consider a new subset, the would-be celebrity – like Greg Mortensen or Alison Thompson – who attempts to parlay their aid work into fame, and with whom Linton shares not a few aspects in common. They’re targets because their lying gets found out, or because their ideas of themselves are ridiculed.

But I have always seen them as symbols of our more prevalent First-World conviction that anytime an attractive celebrity goes and helps a poor person the important and marvelous thing is the fact he or she wants to help, that they’re even aware of poverty. The fact that vast numbers of people are poor, and it’s because of many complex factors, including political ones? That’s the bit that inevitably gets missed.

Because, in the end, how different is Linton from the IMF or Bill Gates or the New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition? You may not have heard of the latter, but it’s a body with over a billion dollars of funding that essentially wants African countries to make business-friendly policy reforms so that companies like Monsanto, Coca-Cola and Nestle will feed their people for them.

Delusional? Luckily I’m not the only one who thinks so.

But I’d love to see Twitter users get their verbal knives sharpened for these particular White Saviours.


An Anatomy of Giving Giveaway

25 Mar

Well, it’s almost a giveaway.

Digital copies are up for only 99 cents today, and only $1.99 tomorrow.

Check it out at


And now, a word about Honduras

7 Mar


People always refer to Haiti, the country I write about in The Anatomy of Giving, as the poorest country in the Western hemisphere. But not too far away from it on the poverty stats list is Honduras.

Canada gives it about $30 million in foreign aid; its biggest donor, the U.S., more than $80 million. That sounds like a lot.

Yet like Haiti, it remains a nation where no amount of foreign aid can make up for the lack of democracy and government accountability that keeps people poor, disenfranchised – and dependent on that foreign aid. Try to stand up and demand the kind of basic rights that will allow the poor to earn more and have more, and you can get yourself killed.

The latest is a woman named Berta Cáceres. A coordinator of the National Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras, she campaigned for indigenous and environmental rights, in particular helping to organize protests against a hydro-electric dam project that has displaced thousands and will prevent impoverished peasant farmers from irrigating their land. Her murder is particularly tragic because she had denounced the death threats, on the one hand, and because she had the support of many social justice and environmental organizations. In many ways, Berta Cáceres was not alone.

But none of that stopped the people who wanted her dead.

Worse, the official response to her campaigning is not an anomaly. More than 100 people have been murdered in Honduras between 2010 and 2014 for defending the rights of the poor. That number, according to a study by the NGO Global Witness, represents of the world’s highest death tolls relative to population.

Honduras has been plagued with social unrest and by extraordinarily blatant attacks on the poor by their governors for a while now. And by “a while” I mean since the 2009 military coup against former president Manuel Zelaya, who had been taking a few modest steps towards improving things in the country. That coup was wholly supported by the U.S. government, including President Barack Obama (something I still can’t quite understand) and his then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (which I can.)

The current president, Juan Orlando Hernandez, has been described thus by Dana Frank in Foreign Affairs magazine: “In the past six years he has proven himself to be a terrifying thug. Now, a little more than a year into his presidency, it’s clear he is perpetuating an ongoing human rights crisis while countenancing a cesspool of corruption and organized crime in which the topmost levels of government are enmeshed.”

So, despite the foreign aid flow, poverty has increased; impunity and violence has grown – and no one is connecting the dots.

I highly recommend Dana Frank’s article for a full accounting of the terrible things happening in Honduras. It sets the context in which the murder of Berta Cáceres is one more detail in an ongoing saga of land grabs, economic chaos and a kind of war against the Honduran people.

Yes, it’s time to mourn the tragic end of one woman’s story of courage and selflessness. It’s also time for people to get angry about the appalling price of such hypocrisy. It\s a price both the people of Honduras and we, the taxpayers of the richest countries in the Americas through our official aid agencies, are paying.

In Honduras at least, there has been a pushback, with anti-government protests throughout the country. We can support them by demanding our politicians and representatives stop coddling Cáceres’s killers.

Canada’s development aid: will Trudeau make a difference?

15 Feb


So maybe they weren’t the unequivocally happiest people in Canada when the Tories lost the elections last October.

But they had to be among the most relieved.

As Liam Swiss, a sociology professor at Memorial University who studies Canada’s development assistance, put it, many international aid people “had been waiting with bated breath” for a new government. And while he preferred the New Democratic Party’s aid-policy platform, it didn’t even matter who won in the end. “The notion was that things couldn’t get worse than they had been in the recent years under Harper,” he said.

Now the development community is cautiously optimistic that, with Justin Trudeau in power, things will change. While it is still early days, “the mandate letter that the Prime Minister sent to [Marie-Claude Bibeau] the Minister of International Development is very encouraging,” said Ian Smillie of the McLeod Group, “because it starts with poverty eradication, poverty alleviation, as being the basis for her mandate. And that is as it should be.”

But for the Conservative government it wasn’t. And while this was taxpayers’ money they were spending, their blatant attempts to win back benefits for Canadian corporations with money meant for the poor didn’t get much play in the press.

Yet the new policies, practices and funding cuts created havoc within the international charity sector. Every NGO had to make do with less but small- and medium-sized organizations were adversely affected, losing out in favour of the bigger players. Support for social justice advocacy disappeared pretty much completely.

“If you look at some of the organizations that were defunded, or have ceased to exist as a result of the collateral damage of that decision,” said Swiss, “it’s a really sad story.”

Then, in what used to be called the Partnership Branch, there was “ a move,” said Chantal Havard, spokeswoman for the Canadian Council for International Cooperation, “from responsive, predictable, long-term funding mechanisms to a call for proposals, a competitive process, more in line with priorities identified by the government. There were fewer opportunities for organizations to make proposals and the bureaucracy was quite heavy as well.”

Indeed as one anonymous respondent to a survey carried out by the CCIC described it, “this new system has been a colossal failure in every way for the development sector in Canada, and has devastated partnerships with civil society overseas.”

Harper also had the Canada Revenue Agency carry out tax audits, questioning whether what organizations were doing actually even amounted to “charity.” “There was a trend where organizations that were more critical of government policies were targeted,” said Havard, (a trend I wrote about last August).

So now that sorry picture is improving. Last month the government announced that the tax audits would be stopped. And at December’s climate change conference in Paris, it pledged $2.65 billion to help developing countries with adaptation and mitigation. For Smillie, “This is certainly part of the long-term development perspective. It’s not very clear how much of that money will go through normal machinery, or how much would go some other way – I don’t think they’ve figured that out yet either,” he added. “But I think that is a promising sign.”

But aside from revitalizing the agency the Tories re-christened with the anodyne name ‘Global Affairs Canada,’ will more be done to make our collective response to the global poor more useful? Isn’t it time to think about why its help, along with that of most wealthy countries, has done so little to really fight poverty?

Ian Smillie thinks so. “In addition to supporting NGOs for the good work they do overseas, I think government should also pay attention to the kind of work they do in Canada,” he said. “And this business of showing fly-blown children sitting in the dirt and tugging at heartstrings is not really about development. It is not a good way, it’s not an adult way, of portraying the challenge to Canadians.”

It is practically the default image to appeal for donations, “almost like a drug,” he said, but does a huge disservice to the people of the developing world and simplifies a complex problem.

“It is almost counterintuitive to promote good development overseas through NGOs and ignore this retrograde message they are putting out in Canada,” he said. “Diaspora communities in Canada hate it. African Canadians hate that kind of message. I’m sure governments of African countries don’t like it either.”

So while, as Havard and others have pointed out, the aid community has high hopes that the Trudeau government will stick to a promise made by the previous minister, Christian Paradis (who, in fairness, was somewhat more sensible and approachable than his Tory predecessors) maybe those consultations should take on this aspect as well.

“I think it is definitely something the government could and should do,” said Smillie. “As far as matching grants are concerned, look at what value NGOs are adding to the development question, and the value added is not only overseas, it is here. We want Canadians to understand why development assistance and poverty eradication, why all of that is important to Canada. It isn’t just to get short-term contracts. It is to make the world safe for everybody in every way, healthier and better able to trade and all the rest of it.”

Past Liberal governments have also struggled with the purpose of Canadian aid, and used it for goals other than straightforward development.

Maybe this time they will be different. Maybe they will be open to better, more effective, approaches to aid.

“It shouldn’t be a question of going back to where we were before the Harper government came in,” said Smillie. “I think we can move forward in a more intelligent way.”

Is this what happens when you start with Twitter?

19 Jan

You begin by trash-talking justifiable targets like Donald Trump and Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto, branch out into meeting movie stars, and end up back in jail?

images.jpeg It’s a question Joaquin ‘El Chapo’ Guzman might well be asking himself at this very moment.

Following his headline-making escape from a maximum security prison last July, the diminutive drug lord accrued more than half a million Twitter followers, enjoying his occasional insults to people most Mexicans don’t like anyway.

But the fame seems to have gone to head. He started thinking that what he really needed was a movie made about his life, and got in touch with Mexican actress Kate del Castillo. She, in turn, got Sean Penn to come along with her on a trip to one of El Chapo’s jungle hideaways so he could write an article about it for Rolling Stone.

Now Mexican justice authorities are suggesting that El Chapo’s yen for fame, not just notoriety, contributed to his capture earlier this month. That clandestine visit with the stars apparently played some role in giving police, according to the New York Times, “the break they needed: actionable intelligence of his specific location.”

The truth is, I myself have consistently wondered if I too should be on Twitter. After all, I have just published a new book, and could use the publicity. Twitter, I guess, is one way to get publicity although I’m still not quite sure how.

But I do recognize that tweeting and celebrity-dom are somehow entwined. Not only can you follow your favourite celebrities’ thought processes via their tweets, but you are, in a sense, a sort of celebrity yourself if you are on Twitter, if you can boast vast crowds, or even small crowds, of anonymous followers.

All of which has got me pondering the very nature of celebrity. After all, El Chapo is already well known as a larger-than-life character who controls a vast empire of crime and death, and has earned gazillions in the process. He’s got a beauty-queen wife, a legion of gun-toting minions, and sway over a considerable number, no doubt, of Mexican politicians.

And it’s interesting how Penn himself, along with his 11,000-word article underscores that celebrity power.

His article, as Joel Simon points out in the Columbia Journalism Review, “was not an interview and certainly not a piece of investigative journalism. It fits more neatly into another journalistic genre: The celebrity profile. Penn’s story is an exercise in myth making that for the most part lets El Chapo tell his own story.”

The context is important here. Mexico is a dangerous place for journalists who question and illustrate the extraordinary damage to Mexican society by its combination of unaccountable politicians and unassailable drug cartels.Way too many of them have paid with their lives.

However Penn’s article was, first of all, mostly about himself – naturally. He’s a celebrity too. But he also shied away from asking Guzman hardball questions about the consequences of what he does for a living, and even had the magazine send him a prior copy of the article to make sure he was okay with everything.

This is probably normal for celebrities. When I approached Penn’s organization in Haiti for my book about aid, I was told I had to sign a similar agreement before they would consider allowing me into the Internally Displaced Persons camp he was running in the Pétion Ville Golf Club. (In the end, I signed it, but never did pass on what I wrote before publication.)

Our obsession with celebrities, as opposed to the newsworthy, seems to have opened up an increasingly ample definition of what the term even means. It has provided an ever-broader platform to the talentless and unremarkable, people who have nothing worthwhile to offer, not even entertainment value. And in the case of El Chapo, quite simply a violent cartel boss with no idea of the harm he and his ‘business competitors’ are causing.

Maybe El Chapo is now regretting his desire to clamber onto this platform. Maybe he is seeing how fame can also be a two-edged sword. As the pathetic images of him post-arrest inspire everything from piñatas to popular social media jokes, he seems to have very quickly gone from being an unlikely counterculture icon to a figure of ridicule.


Anniversary of a Bad Day

13 Jan


4293703325_3868444d23(Photo: Colin Crowley)

I’m having some renovations done to my house these days.

Walls and ceilings have been taken down, heating ducts rerouted, and old carpet pulled up. I’ve had to turn my office into a pantry, dining room and sitting room. There is rubble and dust everywhere, and while I know it’s ridiculous, I keep thinking about the Haiti earthquake as I step on pebble-sized chunks of plaster (or worse, once, a nail) and battle the endless dust.


Ridiculous because if it gives me a tiny glimpse of what it must be like to live in an environment where destruction has occurred , my circumstances are infinitely better than anything people had to deal with – and are still dealing with – after January 12, 2010.

Close to 60,000 homeless people woke up today to begin their seventh year in a tent in what is still a disaster zone. That alone is unbelievable in this day and age. Tens of thousands more live in utterly sub-standard housing, including the desert-scape of shacks outside of the Port au Prince called Canaan.

But everyone today woke up to a political situation that is distressingly same-old same-old. Hugely flawed elections continue to be the way a group of squabbling politicians divide up resources among themselves and their pals.

In eleven days, Haitians will go back to the polls, for the third time since August, to choose a new president. This final run-off is the last chapter in a sorry but repetitive tale of fraud, voter intimidation, and outside interference in the electoral process.

That horning in by outsiders has been taken care of by something the Core Group. Made up of representatives of some of Haiti’s biggest foreign assistance donors, it has, according to Prospere Charles of the 1804 Institute, “been pushing by all mean necessary to ensure the continuity of Haiti’s elections, no matter the flaws.”

So while the Provisional Electoral Council found that 47 per cent of the vote results it verified were questionable it is still going ahead with the January 24th vote with all the mechanisms of fraud in place. Despite their findings – and what many have simply observed – Council members seem to have been swayed by voices such as that of American ambassador Peter Mulrean, who said, “The world cannot wait for Haiti. There is no evidence of massive fraud in these elections.” After all, the country he represents put $30 million into making them happen.

What’s more, Mr. Charles summed up three big issues that neither aid nor history has resolved in Haiti. The first: “The abject failure of the international community to build and support effective public institutions after at least 30 years of unaccountable, astronomical spending and broken promises.” He also cited the complete inability of Haiti’s institutions to create a political system that is fair and free from local and foreign manipulations, as well the two-hundred year old “rift between the bourgeois elite and the mass poor in Haiti that is more pronounced than ever.”

To be honest, it is difficult to perceive much difference among or between Haiti’s presidential candidates. The whole ‘building back better’ theme failed to get through to them. They still couldn’t care less about making their nation better, or more about grasping power and money.

As I found while researching my newly published book, The Anatomy of Giving, there are many, many thousands of Haitians working hard to build a better nation, but they are being swamped by that “bourgeois elite”, the Core Group, and the deep trench of poverty in which most Haitians must try and survive.

My rubble will eventually be cleared away and my home rebuilt.

I wish I could say the same of Port-au-Prince, but that’s not on the cards – not while the same groups of unaccountable politicians continue to fight over their country’s resources and its future.