Tag Archives: overseas development assistance

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

15 Feb

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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.”

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.

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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.

When Less is More

8 Dec
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Photo Courtesy thethreesisters via Creative Commons

It may all be very nice of Facebook’s young Sun King to donate a big swack of cash – some $45 billion at current market value in company shares – to charity. It might encourage others to think about donating something, or to at least think about the very issue of inequality. It might even annoy Bill Gates that his $41-billion philanthropy earmark is no longer the largest such donation ever.

Yet somehow Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan’s announcement brings out not only the skeptic in me but also the critic. And that’s because previous flashy donations of big money designated to in some way confront poverty often seem to miss the whole point.

I realize that other observers of billionaire philanthropy have come out with criticisms already. One of them, Linsey McGoey was recently interviewed here on CBC Radio. She wrote a book about the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, called No Such Thing as a Free Gift, which exposes the way its vast trove of funding actually ends up enhancing the same systems that made these philanthrocapitalists billionaires in the first place.

In a recent Guardian column, she pointed out how the three items wealthy people like Gates tend to fund – microfinance, impact investing and growing grants to corporations – “there is little direct evidence of positive outcomes for the global poor and considerable evidence that such trends tend to enrich the wealthy at the poor’s expense.”

In fact, the Zuckerberg billions aren’t even going to a charity as such, or even into a foundation, but into a limited liability company. It will, presumably, disburse funding to efforts the young couple deem worthy – not that you and I will ever know necessarily what those efforts are and whether or not they achieve anything. That’s the way such companies are set up.

And for me, this is the point.

When wealthy donors choose to support certain projects and initiatives, those choices are always based on their on their world views. It is, after all, their money.

It may provide medical care or save lives, but it won’t do anything to ensure that the poor will have a more permanent system, a state system, to provide such essential services.

Or it may, like the Gates foundation has, push a lot of investment into charter schools for American children. But it fails to consider the fact that maybe disadvantaged kids would have better educational opportunities if their parents earned a decent wage.

It’s clearly not the priorities of poor people that inform the choices made by these wealthy donors, business tycoons who have little idea of what it’s like to live as a disenfranchised person in a Third World country – or even in a rich country.

In my new book, The Anatomy of Giving, I devote less time that I would have liked to the fact that the Gates Foundation initially supported, then withdrew their support from, a very worthy organization – Slum/Shack Dwellers International, or SDI.

I write about the SDI in my previous book about grassroots social movements. Their affiliates in places of desperate urban poverty like India and South Africa work to empower the urban poor within grassroots social movements to demand tenure rights, land and better services, and also to recognize the capabilities and responsibilities of the poor. In fact, organizations like SDI, or the Indian Alliance, are not charities at all. So I was surprised when I learned that, some eight years ago, they got a big boost from the Gates’.

I felt less surprised and more cynical when I learned that, a few years later, the foundation decided to place their funding elsewhere. No real explanation for that from Melanie Walker, who directed that project: Mr. Gates and his board had simply decided that it “was no longer the best use of foundation resources for the kinds of poverty alleviation we were seeking.”

For people who consider themselves on the cutting edge of technological innovation it is disheartening to see how un-innovative their ideas on poverty, and the causes of poverty, are. They may talk about inequality, as Zuckerberg and Chan do in their announcement. But they don’t seem to understand that poverty has political roots. Change means changing the system. And changing the system means changing the way people think, and the relations between poor people and local elites.

The thing is: there are many movements and approaches that do make a difference in the lives of the poor. But they don’t seem to get much attention, or support, from the world’s billionaires.

Rather, each new super-donor comes to the table with not just a lot of money but with his or her own ideas of what needs to be done with it.

In that sense, would it not be a lot more helpful, a lot more revolutionary and innovative, if philanthrocapitalists actually gave away less money, but did so in ways that recognize the notion that there are already a lot of great solutions out there?

Those solutions don’t usually include the inflation of some important person’s ego, however. Maybe that’s why they don’t get the support they deserve from people like the Zuckerbergs or the Gates.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Meet Daniel Tillias

16 Apr

 

 

DSCF1057Daniel Tellias is a person I respect a lot. He  works with young people to counter gang violence and crime in his Port au Prince district, a special place called Cite Soleil.

 

Cite Soleil is special mostly for the wrong reasons. It is a slum where people with no money struggle to make a living; it houses many of the ill-paid factory workers who toil in Haiti’s garment industry; it’s right on the Bay of Gonâves so all of the trash from the upper parts of the city come flowing down into the St. George Canal from which it spills out onto the street and into people’s shacks; its neighbourhoods are divided by pointless, usually violent rivalry; and it is the go-to place for unscrupulous politicians for all stripes to buy gang support that makes them look like “Men of the People.”

But as Daniel says, it is also a place of resistance and struggle.

I first met Daniel two years ago, when I went to check out the organization he founded, the Community Centre for Peace Alternatives, or SAKALA, to use its Creole acronym. SAKALA had organized a soccer team, called Union, built a community centre, and established a community garden on a piece of landfill using old tires as planters.

This is what it looked like in 2012 ->6758004553_18fcc3c4a3

 

 

 

 

 

 


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<- And this is what it looks like now.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Here are some excerpts from an interview I did with Daniel, who speaks fluent English, last month.

So, what has been happening in the past two years with SAKALA?

I would say that the last two years have been the most difficult because that is when the international community started to forget about Haiti. And a lot has changed for me because I have understood that it would never be the change we want to see, or the improvements we want to see, with the support of the international community. It has to be by Haitians and for Haitians.

I always use this motto that says ‘it’s not about them, it’s all about us.’ It’s us who let this country fall into this trap, into this condition, so it should be about us to have it rise again.

Why do you think the international support has been drying up?

Right after the earthquake, NGOs were mostly flirting with (local) organizations so that they can justify, I would say, money that they have received. Two years later, they don’t have this money anymore. Two years later, people don’t really see Haiti as a country that has been devastated by an earthquake. They just see Haiti as a failing state, so it goes back to Haitians to really make a difference.

You just got back from India, where you went as part of the masters program you are enrolled in with a U.S. organization called Future Generations. What did you get from that trip?

If there’s one thing that I’ve learned, and I’m very grateful, it’s that many countries that really made a difference in their lives, they did it through their own effort.

I’m glad that I know about this and that is why I am really trying to build on this seed, trying to find in Haiti things that are working so that people will remember, again, that it’s about them to make a difference. So I would say that yes, a lot has changed. We know that we can longer depend on the aid promise, or on the international community, so we have to find simple ways to make things happen.

Do you see that as a positive thing?

When you keep receiving you think there’s always going to be a way to get something from someone. Until one day you knock at one door and you have a negative response, you start questioning yourself and saying, ‘hmm, maybe it’s not that easy. Maybe I have to find alternatives.’ When someone can have a chance to really reflect on this, that’s when I think it starts. To me that’s really positive, but we need to find people channeling this positiveness toward great effort. Instead of having people say, ‘oh, we should go look for more in NGOs. Or different NGOs, from a different country.’ They should start thinking about how would we find a way to deal with this on our own.

What about peace building here?

This is a constant challenge because while we do this, government people, business people, do the exact opposite thing, trying to pay gangs, trying to pay for demonstrations in the street and it’s really like, you try to do this with all your strength, while these people are trying the negative way and people tend to try to easiest way.

Cite Soleil is a meeting place, a place that when it rises the whole country feels it should follow, because it is a place of resistance, a place of struggle.

(But) when you have control over the head guy, even if there’s a big mess in the country, you can tell the guy, you know what? I will take care of you. But please don’t have Cité Soleil  rise and mess up everything.

So they want to keep on manipulating the people here? If they have a meeting or demonstration, they want these people to show up and make this person look popular?

Yes.

It’s like they are the extras in his personal movie?

Exactly. It’s really bad because when you try to work with the guys and explain to them that we are not the enemy, that you should be working together so that we can get schools, we can get jobs, and the (politician) says, ‘you know what? I have $50,000 for you, but I need 1000 guys in the street.’ It’s like you don’t tell someone not to get $50,000.

But there have been some good changes over the past two yeas as well, right?

I am very positive about our efforts, and the kids still come from everywhere in Cité Soleil. People really respect them, and value them. People see them as the future. People see them as ambassadors. And the soccer team has even moved now to second division league. People are very excited about that.

So people talk about that, and not just about Cité Soleil as the most violent neighborhood, or the most trash neighborhood or just gangsters. They talk about these talented kids playing with a lot of fair play and a lot of happiness, and taking school and education more seriously. To me that’s good but we need to build on this to get more from it.

You were also on CNN last year!

Yeah, that was good. Coming from CNN, that has always talked about Cité Soleil for the violence and everything, it was definitely positive.  And this inspired people here, as well, to know that people really value what we are doing here.

So what are these trees that I didn’t see the last time I was here?

Those are moringa trees. Mostly they dry the leaves and use them as a food supplement. More and more people come to us and ask if they can have a couple seedlings that they can plant at home. People from all of the neighborhoods come and harvest the leaves which are really good in soup. They can come anytime they want but I really encourage them to plant their own tree.

We’ve spoken before about how international aid tends to encourage people to focus on their needs, instead of their abilities, because that is what their funding is for, and therefore fosters this situation where there is a kind of pay-off in being in need instead of organizing for systemic change.

This is the kind of vicious circle I would like to see broken, so people can start thinking they have the potential to do a lot more than what they’ve been doing so far. And that’s why I am so happy with this garden. Our wish is that we can send an example to the whole country, teach people that this is happening in Cité Soleil so it can happen everywhere. So why don’t you start your own garden? Why don’t you start eating Haiti? Why don’t you start eating what you grow? And to me this is a revolution that will make a huge difference.

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Book Review: The Idealist

13 Dec

9780385525817In April 2008 I visited a Millennium Village in Senegal called Potou with the idea of doing an article on what a bad idea the whole thing was.

Instead, it surprised me by turning out to very different from everything I had read about Jeffrey Sachs’ anti-poverty enterprise: well thought out, collaborative with local government and NGOs, and, in particular, based in large part on gathering community opinions on the project, or what its director, Omar Diouf, called “awareness raising.” Individual peasant farmers and heads of rural unions told me how sure they were that  by the end of the project’s five-year life span, they would be able to go it on their own. In fact, Mr. Diouf told me that what he had seen in Sachs’ other villages convinced him to greatly alter the MVP modus operandi.

Hence, no article.

But as soon as I got wind of Nina Munk’s book on Sachs and the MVPs, The Idealist, I was immediately curious. While she concentrates on two villages, one in Kenya, called Dertu and another in Uganda, called Ruhiira, the whole MVP set up was already getting a poor marks on the report cards of external evaluators and experts in development. Their main cavil was that Sachs’ claims of massive improvements in the quality of life for people in the poor African communities it had targeted were a) greatly inflated, b) impossible to prove, and c) could not necessarily be attributed to his project. There was no way, they said, to compare what would have happened in those villages had the MVP not come along by without looking at other similar villages that had not received this influx of aid.

And indeed, Ms. Munk’s research only supports their doubts. There were many times when I was reading this fascinating and well-paced book, shaking my head and thinking, ‘No. I can’t believe they did that.’ She describes, for example, the building of a livestock market in the village of Dertu and, in Ruhiira,  the switch from the usual cultivation of matoke bananas to corn and beans, heavily doused with chemical fertilizers — both Sachs’ idea.

The market no one asked for remained largely ignored by the pastoralist community of Dertu, even though their old market was a two-day walk away. And the bumper corn crops in Ruhiira found no buyers, being too far away from anyone who wanted to buy them. Other business ventures — like pineapples and cardamom — ran into similar brick walls.

What stands out in this book, and in the philosophy behind Sachs’ projects, is the way it simply drops its theories and advice into the desperately poor communities that have been chosen. People are persuaded to do things that make sense to Sachs and the experts working at Columbia University’s Earth Institute, only to find that they bring with them too many downsides. Millions of dollars are spent on improving health clinics, schools, and other collective infrastructure, but there is nothing to sustain them. Neither the Ugandan or Kenyan government was exactly eager to take on the expense of running them, and no one was seeing enough growth in revenue to start paying user fees. Education ministries didn’t provide text books, ill-paid teachers still went AWOL, no one cared to clean out the MVP-built latrines, and all the Sony-donated laptops disappeared.

At the same time, Ms. Munk points out, the influx of money in Dertu started attracting new residents to its arid confines, pastoralists who decided to “abandon their nomadic way of life and settle in and around (it).” Trash began to fill the ditches between people’s houses while the money the MVP local director gave  a newly formed “Garbage Committee” to cart it away somewhere vanished. The little local businesses, like Sahlan Bath Hussein’s tea shop, which  sprouted up were inundated by more competitive newcomers.

Yet what we are seeing here, I believe, is not poor people’s unwillingness to embrace progress and think about the collective, but rather a super re-tread of the whole foreign aid paradigm. “That predominant paradigm,” says Gord Cunningham, assistant director of the Coady Institute in Antigonish, Nova Scotia, “has been around fixing what’s wrong with communities. Identifying needs. And then, how we can help fix those deficits.” And while it does represent “a positive and well-meaning evolution from communities not getting much help at all and being completely exploited, the bottom line is that there have been a number of unintended consequences of this approach. One is that leaders in communities really start to look for what can come from outside, versus what they can do for themselves. They also get judged on how many resources they can bring in. That seems to be a measure of success rather than on how good the community becomes dealing with its own issues.”

Aside from the holistic approach identified by Mr. Diouf, the only thing that is new about the MVPs is the concerted push of resources, millions of donor dollars, thrown at one particular micro-region. Like the Millennium Development Goals, as the Earth Institute PR guy told me last year they were “trying to accomplish,” the idea is to demonstrate what the London-based Institute for Environment and Development’s Tom Biggs called the “effectiveness of aid, setting up the hypothetical framework that aid is hugely significant in the delivery of change, when it can only ever be a catalyst, or a significant factor in only a limited number of very poor countries.”

Some reviewers have taken issue with The Idealist for seemingly concluding that foreign aid never does any good, and underline Ms. Munk’s lack of knowledge of development. But I don’t see this so much as yet another cautionary tale about the inevitable pitfalls of the way so much foreign aid works. Sometimes, as Potou would seem to indicate, yes, it can work. It can work when there are lots of existing actors on the ground, a stable government that already provides some limited services — like electricity —  local organizations that are able to take advantage of the money and training, and above all, MVP staffers who, as Mr. Diouf said, “re-visited and reworked the concept to adapt it to our reality.” This was not the situation in either Kenya or Uganda — or Mali, where one project had to be shut down after a coup.

But it won’t work when there has been no process of placing the reins of change in the hands of the communities themselves — a long process, no doubt about it, that requires a lot of listening and pondering and cooperation — and when there is no consideration given to the sustainability, to real growth, however modest, in incomes, to at least some kind of serious buy-in on the part of local governments. Indeed, aside from  the Coady Institute, says Mr. Cunningham, “there are a lot of people who are trying a more strength-based, or asset-based, approach, that essentially recognizes the power of a community building assets rather than just relying on outside solutions.”

At the end of the book, as we read about new problems, slashed budgets, and staff fired out of frustration, Ms. Munk interviews “a member of Sachs’ inner circle in New York,” who says, “In hindsight it was like we were set up to fail. It’s not that Jeff’s ideas are wrong– he’s a big, inspiring thinker. It’s that the project’s ambition moved more quickly than capacity.”

But more likely, its problems can be laid at the door of outmoded ways of thinking about aid, one that merely talks the talk of community participation and management. As one complaint went — out of a list of 14 compiled by the owner of Dertu’s drugstore — “The project is supposed to be bottom top approached but it is vice versa.”

Even so, Sachs managed to get enough fresh funding to continue his Millennium Village Project for another five years.

Aside from Potou, however, this book also reminded me of Haiti, where Cantave Jean-Baptiste, the director of Partners in Local Development, would be happy to have even a tenth of what the Earth Institute can afford to spend. When he would go to a poor village, he says, “They ask, ‘what are you bringing us?’ And I say, ‘We’re not bringing anything. We have come to understand where you live what are your challenges and together we will see if there is some means of helping you with some of the obstacles.’”

What’s for Lunch?

1 Oct
CC Photo by B.Adams

CC Photo by B.Adams

Well, if you are poor, these little creepy crawlies apparently.

A group of McGill University MBA students won a prestigious award from Bill Clinton last week, for having the best idea for a new social enterprise. This year’s challenge for the annual Hult Prize, which consists of a million bucks and some mentoring from top international business persons, was to come up with a solution to secure food for undernourished communities, particularly in urban slums. Their idea: insect farming.

That’s right. Along with Golden Rice, the urban poor might now improve their diets with ground up insects, which are nutritious, sustainable, already consumed by lots of people in the Global South and, I assume, cheaper than other protein sources like pulses or meat.

But I have an even better idea for Mr. Clinton and the Hult B-School poobahs. Land Reform!

Here’s my business plan: An astonishing number of Third World countries have both big populations of rural landless or land poor and, at the same time, enormous tracts of empty fertile land belonging either to the state or to very rich, absentee landlords. (So much in fact that they can afford to lease such land for mere pennies to multi-national corporations based in other nations.)

Take this land and divide it up among these rural families so that each one has enough to cultivate and earn a decent living. Those families will then be able to feed themselves, instead of being net buyers of food as most of them are, taking some pressure off of markets.

With the money they earn from actually selling to those markets instead of buying, they will be able to send their children to school, helping to end illiteracy and ignorance.

They will also be able to purchase things they need, helping to boost local economies, instead of abandoning their tiny plots and actually swelling urban slums seeking jobs that don’t exist.

Having enough land will also allow them to plant more trees to protect their water sources and help halt global warming. And lots of rural grassroots social movements are already organized to facilitate such transfers in an equable manner and offer agricultural advice and support.

Oh, and did I forget to mention this? It’s also inherently fair.

Maybe my idea is too logical for global decision-makers, because I don’t think any MBA students have ever thought of this. World Bank economists and big donors have also failed to suggest this as a solution to poverty. (Look at Zimbabwe! They say. Look at South Korea! I say.)

No, it is somehow more logical — and let’s face it, the market is based on rational behaviour, right?  — to spend millions of dollars tinkering around the edges of the real issue, the real cause of Third world poverty, which is the unequal distribution of resources.

Those MBA students may be congratulating themselves for their million-dollar windfall by putting bugs on the menu of the urban poor — while fighting off accusations of plagiarizing the research of a fellow student — but I’m not buying it. Nor should you, and nor should the poor. We can do better than this. And if we don’t, it’s because we don’t really want to.

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Figuring Out Amanda Lindhout

24 Sep

blue_sky_199297Amanda Lindhout has been in the news again lately and I am having a hard time knowing what to make of this young woman.

The details of her past few years are stark and dramatic. As a cocktail waitress from small-town Alberta, she saved her money and used it to travel to places where she could write the kind of exotic war correspondent articles that would make her a serious journalist. She went to Afghanistan, Ethiopia and Iraq, but never really managed to enact this transformation, the only publication anyone in North America would have seen her work being the Red Deer Advocate.

Then, 2008, she went to Somalia — where she and a friend were promptly kidnapped. Their parents managed to scrape together ransom money, the pair were freed, and upon returning to Canada, Ms. Lindhout did two things: establish a charity and write a book.

Now the latter, I can understand. Memoirs of appalling experiences and how they have been survived are popular, the best written of them garnering both acclaim and media attention.

But the former, the setting up a personal charity devoted to “empowering Somali women,” leaves me a bit uneasy.

Ms. Lindhout’s book, A House in the Sky, was co-written with a New York Times writer, an excerpt featured in its pages a couple of weeks ago. It has received positive reviews, and brought Ms. Lindhout, already a prolific public speaker, spreads in magazines like Elle and this month’s Vogue.

But she has also come in for a share of criticism. Opinionated columnists like Margaret Wente  and Andrew Cohen have called her everything from naive and reckless to narcissistic and self-indulgent. The not–so-latent subtext of their comments — that, in some way, Ms. Lindhout deserved what happened to her — are seriously disturbing.

To a certain extent I can identify because I have been a freelancer almost all my life. I financed may of my early forays with money from waitressing, and while I wonder at why Ms. Lindhout could pay for such expensive travel, including the guide and two body guards she hired in Mogadishu, with no one buying her articles, I totally get that impatient impulse to cut corners and just be there. To investigate and write about what others seem to be missing, seek out those voices that are not being heard and experience the thrill of seeing the results in print.

I also, however, remember being vigorously told off by the late Paul Ellman, the Observer correspondent in El Salvador in the early 1980s, when I said I was planning to go to the town of La Palma and make contact with FMLN guerillas. Paul was a big partier and a bit of a reprobate, but he was so deadly serious about the potential consequences — the sheer folly — of putting myself in such danger that I allowed myself to be dissuaded. Was it the right thing to do? Or was I just being chicken?

Just a few months later, I learned that Nick Blake, an affable young American freelancer I’d met briefly in San Salvador, had paid for his bold journalistic ambitions with his life. Nick had also gone off to meet guerillas, the Guerilla Army of the Poor, in Guatemala, and was captured and shot by the Guatemalan military. Back then, if you were in the wrong place at the wrong time, you were not kidnapped. You were killed.

Freelancers flocking to areas of danger and controversy is nothing new. But apparently, they are being increasingly relied on for material by news outlets that can no longer afford to send staff writers to such places. All of the costs associated with these assignments — safety training, insurance, fixers, security personnel — can be saved by agreeing to take ‘on spec’ something some enterprising young person manages to send in instead.

And it is also understandable, I realize, that Ms. Lindhout’s emotional solution to the devastation of 15 months of beating, rape, starvation and terror would be this turn towards good works. As she herself said in a television interview shortly after setting up the Global Enrichment Foundation, “Establishing this foundation is the first step towards making sense of what happened to me and using it to do something good in the world.” The psychological impulse, the need to counter something horrible by concentrating on altruistic acts, is probably quite normal.

But, does it also not raise some troubling issues? Should the motivation for offering to offset the horrors of poverty lie in the need for psychological salvation? Or because it is inherently wrong that such poverty exists? Are people donating to the Global Enrichment Foundation because of what happened to Ms. Lindhout, or because of what happens every day to people in war-torn and conflicted nations? Is there a danger that this charitable endeavour, however good its programs and intentions, is all about its founder rather than the situation of the destitute it wants to help?

Maybe I would not be writing about this if her humanitarian projects were anonymous, rather than being branded by her own personal tragedy. Maybe she is forging a vital and morally principled connection between her tragedy and those of others. Or maybe it’s an attempt to seek admiration and positive attention. In the end, these are questions probably only Amanda Lindhout herself can answer.