Archive | Uncategorized RSS feed for this section

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


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.

Definitions of Aid: Conservatives Vs. Alternatives

12 Aug

The Quebec City Summit of the Americas – remember that? I do, if only vaguely at this point — it was 14 years ago – but the three-day peoples’ summit organized by dozens of local grassroots movements and groups was truly one of the most awesome experiences of my life.


Super well-organized with transport and lodging, really interesting lectures, people of all ages from all over the hemisphere with whom to get into all manner of spontaneous chats and discussions, the sense of solidarity among just regular folk so at odds with the powerful enclosed behind their chain-link fence barriers. And where did they find all those awesome bands for the Saturday night concert?

The whole thing just rocked, and one of the groups I got to know a little bit about there was called Alternatives. All about solidarity in action, it was working to support social movements in many developing world countries, helping them to leverage and reinforce their efforts to cut at the root causes of poverty. It is exactly the kind of organization that should be involved in development work, understanding that poverty is all about politics. The status quo divests the poor of their right to a better life and to protest against that is, in my opinion, both noble and essential.

Photo by Travis Lupick, Courtesy of Creative Commons

Photo by Travis Lupick,
Courtesy of Creative Commons

But now, all these years later now, Alternatives has come to the attention of the Harper government. And what its self-righteous and narrow-minded bean-counters are doing is horrible, enraging and scary – especially for the poor.

According to its general director Michel Lambert, the Montreal-based NGO supports movements “working for social justice all over the world. Including Canada. And we do that in different ways, sometimes talking about their issues, providing resources when we can, networking, for example, helping organizations meet other groups doing similar kinds of work in their region.”

Alternatives also defends human rights by supporting local rights defenders under attack in their own countries. It also does some humanitarian work — when there were humanitarian emergencies in places where they already have programs.

And Alternatives has received support from the Canadian International Development Agency for these efforts. “Since we were created in 1994, we have received a lot of support from the Canadian government,” said Mr. Lambert, between $2 million and $5 million a year for different programs, depending.”

In the past, added Mr. Lambert, organizations like Alternatives would approach CIDA’s Partnership Branch with an idea for a project. Discussions ensued and if CIDA decided the idea was a good one, some funding came through. The Branch disappeared several years ago, however, and of course, CIDA itself has been vacuumed into the Department of Trade.

But now the Harperites have gone a step further, challenging the very notion of aid as something that ought to empower the poor. Last year, said Mr. Lambert, “we

received a letter from Revenue Canada, saying, ‘when we gave you this charitable status 20 years ago, somebody was tired or drunk or something, and we made a mistake. Because now, according to the law as we understand it, what you are doing is not charity work.’”

Since then, he added, “we’ve had many discussions with them, and they have said they will be sending us a new sort of contract, but we are still waiting for it. We still don’t know what’s happening.”

And while he didn’t waste time speculating on the anachronistic philosophy that might be informing the Conservatives’ approach, he did say this: “They have been trying to restrain aid to a very, very limited definition. Everything that is outside of humanitarian work does not get resource support. The other thing is that, many organizations doing work which is not exactly in line with the foreign policy of Canada are in difficulty.

“Concretely,” he added, “Revenue Canada is telling many organizations ‘you should not work with local partners. If you work with local partners in Iraq, for example, you can no longer guarantee that the money will be spent in a charitable way.”

Indeed, according to RCA’s original letter, he organization is in the wrong because it doesn’t administer its programs itself. Rather said, Mr. Lambert, the directive to Alternatives and organizations like it is to “not involve local people when you work there. Just do the job and then go away.

“It’s contrary to all of the ethics of international cooperation,” he pointed out, which “basically starts with partnering with local people, with working, involving, and engaging local people, because at the end of the day, you are going to leave.  And those people are the ones who are going to have to deal with what is happening in their countries. If you want to strengthen something, you have to engage them, you have to give them the power to make decisions with the resources they have and to support them in this. So it is contrary to all of the basic rules of international cooperation.”

The irony I see is that even as the Harper government narrows the definition of aid to simple charity, more and more development aid organizations are recognizing that this is not working. As Oxfam’s Duncan Green has emphasized, “effective states and active citizens are the main actors in the drama of development.” What we need to do, he suggests, is become active global citizens, giving our solidarity “to the struggles of poor people and their communities within developing countries. ”

But these ideas – accountability, protest, solidarity with those who struggle for social and economic justice, — are anathema to the government we’ve been stuck with for too long. For them, rather, development aid is all about the advantages already privileged people can derive from it, whether it’s mining companies or big agri-businesses. They don’t care whether it works for the poor or not.

And it’s not only with Alternatives but with other Canadian organizations that they are making this abundantly clear. “I don’t know how anybody is going to work if this continues,” said Mr. Lambert.

A final irony: Alternatives is still getting funding for the work it does from other sources, like the European Union and even the United States. That’s right. We as Canadians are no longer giving official support to an excellent Canadian NGO whose work most of us viscerally care about, while other countries are.

And while this story is getting almost zero attention in the Canadian media — CBC being one exception — it should be. We should all be aware of the travesty our government is committing when it tells an organization like Alternatives that, as Mr. Lambert put it, human rights is not charity and empowering the poor is not their job.

El Chapo Tweets

24 Jul

Personally I’ve never understood the appeal of Twitter — celebrity spam, politicians’ pronouncements, links to other links – but whatever. Lately, though, it has come to my attention that Twitter has been adopted by the most-talked-about man in Mexico right now. No, not a footaller, and not an actor. I’m talking about Sinaloa cartel leader and skilled escape artist Joaquin ‘El Chapo’ Guzman.

Okay, maybe it’s an imposter. Maybe it’s some wit having us on. But, apparently, those in the know believe it really is him, and certainly his more than a half million followers seem to think they really are picking up the billionaire drug lord’s innermost thoughts.

So I’ve been checking out (on my lap top) El Chapo’s tweets. And, with a photo of him in his 1990’s prison garb, they are certainly amusing, if mostly anodyne.

Here’s his opinion of Wednesday’s controversial Gold Cup soccer match between Mexico and Panama (controversial because of the apparently unfair decisions of the ‘arbitro,’ or referee.)

                  Joaquín Guzmán Loera ‏‪@ElChap0Guzman 15h15 hours ago

Nunca espero nada de la Selección Mexicana y aún así terminan decepcionándome. — “I never expect anything from the Mexican Selection,” he says, “and even so I end up being disappointed.”


Joaquín Guzmán Loera ‏‪@ElChap0Guzman 14h

14 hours ago

El mejor jugador del partido fue el árbitro. — “The best player of the game was the referee.”

Guzman is also handy fellow with thought-of-the-day-type aphorisms, like ‘Better a stupid question … than a stupid person who doesn’t ask questions’ (from Nov. 7); Good people suffer the most’ (from Feb. 26) and, from earlier this month, just days before making his escape from prison by means of a carefully constructed tunnel, this gem: ‘a single mom is like any other mom, except she has the balls the dad didn’t have.’

But what might be the reason he has become so popular are not these bons mots but the stuff he has been saying about President Enrique Peña Nieto. Like this one:

Joaquín Guzmán Loera


Y tú ‪@EPN no me vuelvas a llamar delincuente porqué yo doy trabajo a la gente no como tu pinche gobierno corriente. –‘And you @EPN don’t you call me a delinquent again because I give people jobs unlike your shitty cheap government.’

The irony, of course, is that El Chapo really owes his ease of escape to EPN and governors like him, to the entire culture of which EPN is simply the current most obvious representative of its greed and unaccountability. A culture where trying to help out the police is not just pointless but all too often a big mistake.

“Money makes the dog dance,” he has also proclaimed, summing up the main reason he and other traffickers have been able to earn vast amounts of cash from illegality. His money has made a lot of dogs dance, no doubt, and injects millions of laundered dollars into a Third World economy in which about half the population still live in poverty.

“The Sinaloan economy depends, in large part, on these guys,” says a banker in Culiacan, the state capital. “It’s their cash and investments that provide the work.”

El Chapo’s feistiness, and the embarrassment he has brought an unpopular government, has turned him into a kind of pseudo Robin Hood for many Mexicans. There were big protests in Sinaloa when he was captured and jailed last year. He’s in some way like Mexico’s version of Donald Trump, criticizing the government, posing as a man of the people (absurd as this in in Trump’s case), just a regular guy smart enough to mine a golden business opportunity – and reinforcing the idea that the only worthwhile purpose of life is to become fabulously wealthy. But to the joy of many Mexicans, El Chapo has also tweeted that he will make the racist real estate developer “swallow his words” of criticism against of immigrants from that country.

It’s the Mexican’s government’s huge number of failures, however, that make El Chapo look so, well, so innocent, somehow. He’s a dangerous criminal, proud and grandiose as his tweets indicate, but he doesn’t pretend to be anything else.

Meanwhile the politicians making decisions about the lives and welfare of more than a 100 million people are no less criminal and no less dangerous when threatened, but they pretend to be respectable. They read their lines from their prepared statements, average folk ranged behind them like an admiring Greek Chorus, and admit to nothing but how much they are doing to improve Mexico.

That’s what makes El Chapo this strange local hero, and even now is brings fresh questions to the entire escape. Maybe he didn’t use that tunnel to escape – maybe he was let out , because of all the inside info he’s got on those respectable politicians. After all, as some journalists have pointed out, the police has never let them actually traverse the entire tunnel, only explore either end of it.

What’s more, the Solicitor General has convinced no one with his explanations of the 43 Normal School students presumed murdered in Iguala, Guerrero, or the killing of 22 presumed delinquents in a ‘shoot-out’ in Tlatlaya, or the many other murky incidents that have left large numbers of dead.

So when a country’s elected leaders make a cartel leader look more trustworthy than they are, you know there’s something very wrong – even if the guy was out to lunch about that Mexico-Panama match.

Haitian Hearts: the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

28 Jun

pain-de-singeDr. John Carroll is one volunteer whose work in Haiti has never been, as Teju Cole puts it, “about having a big emotional experience that validates privilege.” One of the few, I’d say.

Today I am going to do something I’ve never done before, and re-post one of Dr. Carroll’s blog posts for the Peoria Journal Star. ‘The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly’ reflects the reality of the charity he and his wife run, Haitian Hearts, more viscerally, I think, than any annual report, fund-raising brochure or heart-tugging television ad. 

Recent conversations and social media texts:


Jean-Michel texts, “I hope they want me to come back and visit.” He doesn’t know that shortly after his heart surgery, when he was a little boy, his ICU nurse overdosed him on fentanyl and he quit breathing. But we got him back.

Sadly, a number of health care professionals very quickly arrived at the same conclusion why Jean-Michel quit breathing that morning. It wasn’t good. And a heart surgeon banned Jean-Michel’s nurse from ever working with his patients again. Are you sure you want to return, Jean-Michel?


I terminated my pregnancy today, Dr. John. My OB doctor told me that my last pregnancy with my heart disease was just too difficult. But I know the medical system does not want to make the effort for Rose’s baby or for Rose. They are poor Haitians and don’t count. I have to hang up because her healthy three-year old is crying loudly next to the phone. And I feel sick.


My abdomen is swollen and I can’t walk. Plus I have a fever. I still take my blood thinner and see the Haitian cardiologist. When will you be here?


My heart valve was replaced years ago and I am 30 weeks pregnant. Please write me a letter to get me to “Miami”. The C-section for my first baby three years ago at the General Hospital in Port almost killed me. I am scared. I can’t do this again. Dr. John, please write the letter and get me out of here.


Can you order my medication from France? I heard it is cheaper there.


Please, my Father, get me a visa to come back to be with my host family again. And how is your family, Father?

But, Dieudonne, your wonderful host mom is gone forever.

Please, Father, help me. Do something. (Sixty-six desperate phone calls over the weekend from Dieudonne and they continue now.)


I lied to you and used the money for my rent, not for the echocardiogram. I live in a tiny room in Carrefour. My landlord will take my key if I don’t pay. (Sobbing…) I have lost my children. No one here cares about me. I walk the streets a lot and think about death.


After her breast biopsy in Port, Keket gave birth on the tap-tap, or was it in Saint Marc? Others say she had the baby in Cap Haitien. Who really knows or cares? Both Keket and baby are doing well. But she refuses to leave her village high in the mountains because she is breastfeeding and she feels good. And she has no money to take the bus back to Port, let alone to pay for her mastectomy.


Your patient is cleared to go back to Haiti. He is doing great and anxious to see his little boys and wife again. He had no hope nor future six months ago. Now he does.

(Names have been changed but not the details.)

(Some names have been changed, but the details have not been altered.)