Alison is a U.S. attorney with a diverse background working in human rights issues in Southeast Asia, West Africa and Central America. Her repertoire includes land tenure, legal empowerment and aid, indigent defense and anti-corruption. She is currently in Miami adjudicating refugee and asylum claims and spending lots of time on the beach.
This post follows up on episode 5 of the MissionCreep podcast.
You may remember hearing about a family of four from Tuvalu who fled their country, moved to New Zealand and applied for protected status or residency last year. They claimed that if they were returned to Tuvalu, their life would be endangered and they’d be subject to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment. The family stated that they had no land or relatives in Tuvalu, that the father could not find a job there and that they had a lack of access to drinking water. The difference between this and many other asylum cases is that the main perpetrator wasn’t other people or groups; it was climate change and the resulting sea level rise.
You might have been hearing about Bitcoin in the news lately. Maybe you’re already familiar with it, but odds are you probably don’t know the details. Bitcoin is breaking barriers as the world’s first de-centralised digital currency. Basically, Bitcoin is digital money you can send person-to-person via the net and without a third party. This means fees are much lower, accounts cannot be frozen, and there are no pre-requisites or limits to having a bank account. Continue reading 3 ways Bitcoin can change development→
Media hype around the Band Aid 30 single has died down, but we keep hearing it playing everywhere…
The video begins with two workers in hazmat suits lifting an Ebola-stricken woman from her home. End scene, fade in to the smiling faces of One Direction, Seal, Bono, Sinead O-Connor, Paloma Faith, Rita Ora and several other celebrities crooning, “Where a kiss of love can kill you / and there’s death in every tear… A song of hope where there’s no hope tonight.”
The Band Aid 30 single, “Do they know it’s Christmas?”, originally written in 1984 to raise money to fight famine in Ethiopia, has already drawn much criticism from the people it tries to help, with headlines like these:
Africans, aid workers and pundits have offered plenty of deserved critique for the new song and video, but a Sierra Leonean friend once told me that anyone who has experienced Africa in a positive way has a responsibility to challenge harmful perceptions of the continent, such as those perpetuated by this new song. As I was living in Sierra Leone around this time last year, I’m following my friend’s advice and offering a short critique of the song’s tendency to reinforce negative, needy stereotypes of Africa. More importantly, I want to share some positive examples of what African artists are already doing about Ebola.
There’s no doubt Ebola is a tragedy, but only a few countries in Africa are affected by it, out of 54 incredibly diverse nations. Projects like this one that portray Africa, the continent, as being diseased and poverty-stricken harm its global image. When I lived in the beautiful, fertile, and resource-rich country of Sierra Leone, my experience was mostly positive—it is not a place that needs patronising pity. The perception that Africa, the whole continent, needs help and is unable to help itself hinders investment and tourism, and inspires more “White Saviour” projects…
…such as this one. The song is yet another example of a neo-colonial campaign that draws lines on who is the saviour and who needs saving, fulfilling Westerners’ desires and meeting their need to feel good about themselves. Raising awareness in such a way does little, aside from fulfilling the ill-informed longings of the involved Westerners.
In Sierra Leone, it’s an understatement to say music is an important part of the culture. Rather, it’s integral to the lifestyle, blaring from a radio, speaker or cell phone near you at all hours of the day. One of my neighbours in Freetown was a fairly successful reggae artist. I met him while I was walking home from work—he was standing along the roadside singing, with his friend playing the guitar. He asked me to record him with my phone and put it on YouTube. He felt as though making music was the best way to make a mark on the world, especially with the new tool of the Internet. We’re living in an age where Africans can finally show us their views directly and broadcast them across the web.
Over the past several months, African artists, including my Sierra Leonean friend, have represented their culture and made their mark by creating and re-mixing several songs about Ebola, many of which have been hits. Ebola music is on the radio non-stop in affected countries. The songs range from hip-hop to reggae to gospel; the lyrics can be informative or uplifting. Many artists have also posted their songs on the web.
The efforts of these artists should not be undercut, but “Do they know it’s Christmas” has done just that.
For perhaps the first time, the pet projects of white saviours can also be immediately posted on the Internet, projecting the image of Westerners as the solution to African problems into the worlds of Africans. Whereas before, we could get away with keeping patronising projects inside our privileged sphere, they no longer remain within our walls—Africans are listening, too. Their work can be insulted on their own turf.
The West African artists who’ve been singing and rapping about Ebola for months deserve recognition, not the perpetuation of negative stereotypes and the promotion of outsiders as liberators. You might have heard Africa Stop Ebola by legendary African artists Tiken Jah Fakoly, Amadou and Mariam, Salif Keita, Oumou Sangare and others (which raises money for Doctors without Borders), but that’s just the beginning of African artists’ efforts.
Check out some of the catchiest songs about Ebola by local artists—some were produced independently, while others were made with development groups.
Ebola is real, by Hip Co (Liberian hip-hop) artists F.A., Soul Fresh, and DenG (in partnership with UNICEF)
For more, check out this crowd-sourced database of song lyrics of 23 songs that “shout out Ebola,” all by African rappers and in five different languages. Let’s let African artists speak for their own countries.
Featured image is Liberian musician Black Diamond. Photo from Photos Liberia.
This post is part of Blog Action Day, which aims to unite bloggers around a topic of global importance on one day each year. The theme for this year is inequality. You can check out posts from other Blog Action Day participants and follow the conversation on Twitter (and watch inequality-related segments from Last Week Tonight).
We round the bend. Another hike up a sharp incline reveals a tiny silhouette of a town, scattered huts on stilts surrounded by wandering livestock, with a blue tarped tent in the middle. Somehow, they had managed to bring a tarp and twenty red plastic chairs to the middle of the most remote province in northeastern Cambodia in the worst part of the rainy season. The community is ready. They have been preparing for this for weeks.
A couple years ago, this community started the process to title their land, prompted by local NGOs. For the indigenous people of Cambodia, like billions of people around the world, land is their most valuable, sacred asset. It’s the source of their livelihoods, water, history, culture, and religion, and they will do anything to protect it. Many people have owned or used their land informally for decades or even centuries under customary law, but titling efforts are becoming increasingly necessary as wealthy actors attempt to use local people’s land for mining, timber extraction, or agro-industrial farms.
Land ownership and use is becoming vastly unequal. If a land title will tip the scales in the community’s favour, they’ll try their best to get one.
The community I visited in northeastern Cambodia has a spirit forest where the residents pray and worship. The tent is set up next to it. Elders walk amongst the trees and plead with the forest spirits to rule in their favour today. We sit down in some of the red plastic chairs. A large banner hangs, denoting the purpose of the ceremony (in Khmer): “Self-Identification Ceremony, Sponsored by [NGO], Partnered with the Department of Rural Development.”
The event is one of the first of many steps in the community land-titling process. This particular ceremony is where the government recognises the community’s “self-identification” as an indigenous community, which will mark them down in the official national records and start them on the long (practically endless) course to obtain a land title to formally secure the rights over all the land they own, use and worship.
The stakes are high for the community. Powerful foreigners have been doing “research” on their land and surrounding forest. Over half of Cambodia’s arable land and one third of the country’s total area has been sold to foreign companies, owned by one percent of Cambodia’s population. The village knows this is a trend that’s not slowing down.
Land grabs have become the norm around the world: land is in demand. Governments all over Africa, Asia and South America are granting millions of hectares to investors for agro-industrial development, mining and deforestation projects. As developing countries attempt to incorporate themselves into the global economy, they often use the most readily-available market: natural resources. Much like indigenous people rely on Cambodia’s rich soil to support their livelihoods, the government depends on the land to support the economy – and officials rely on it to pad their own pockets. Some estimate that over 33 million hectares of land have been granted or are under contract around the world – this is likely a gross underestimate due to the lack of reporting on land deals, but even so, it’s over twice the size of the United Kingdom!
The government officials arrive and are welcomed into the tarped tent with a well-rehearsed song. They start asking questions about how the community identifies as their particular indigenous group, the Tumpuon.
In response to the ongoing worldwide land-grab, more countries are adopting laws that allow people and communities to register or title their lands. In theory, legal recognition of ownership increases tenure security, as it helps people stake a claim for their land when they have to compete for it against wealthy investors.
In practice, titling processes are convoluted and cumbersome. Even where titles are granted, investors’ interests trump. Investments often take place in countries lacking rule of law and infrastructure. Most communities are poor and powerless, easy targets, and many live on good soil. The law rarely works in their favour. The investments themselves do little good locally: the agreements lack basic considerations for human rights and the environment, and there is a lack of vetting or oversight throughout the implementation.
This village knows Cambodia’s story, and they don’t want to become a part of it. The government officials get the answers and documents they need, and the ceremony closes with another song, voices and gongs ringing together. The village elders thank us and declare the ceremony a success.
They will likely get through this first step in the process. Unfortunately, it’s less likely their land will be fully recognised. It is this same arable, rich-soiled land the government wants to grant to multi-national corporations. In Cambodia, hundreds of communities have already completed this multi-stepped process, and only a few titles have been granted (compared to the statistic cited above, where over half of the country’s arable land has been granted to investors).
For this community and thousands of others around the world, the need to secure land in the face of more powerful outside actors will continue to escalate. How can communities like this one secure their land – and thus their livelihoods, culture and history? How can they navigate their unequal treatment under the colour of law? Our world is rich in natural resources, with the potential for us all to have a piece. How can we ensure those resources are equitably distributed for all to enjoy?
As I was leaving the ceremony for a long trip home down the rainy roads, an elder approached me with fire in his eyes and said, simply, “Struggle.” He knows this is a fight that will continue, a question that has not yet been answered. Most importantly, he knows his community cannot depend on external actors to secure equal rights of ownership – success will have to come from within.
Featured image is a village in Ratanakiri Province in northeastern Cambodia. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.
We’re excited to announce that we’ve got a couple new writers joining us as regular contributors. Today we’re introducing Alison Rabe, who’s previously written for WhyDev on buying from street children and working in “the field.” You can look forward to monthly articles from Alison on a variety of topics, and stay tuned for introductions of other new contributors.
Voluntourism has become a booming business, inviting well-off foreigners to pay large sums of money to travel to faraway lands and “help people,” often children in orphanages – even when hosts do very little advertising and charge people thousands of dollars to participate.
How are so many drawn to provide expensive (to them) labour? The industry depends on its voluntourists to advertise for them through social media.
An Onion article accurately jokes that a six-day visit to a rural African village can “completely change a woman’s Facebook profile picture.” The article quotes a fictional 22-year-old, Angela Fisher: “I don’t think my profile photo will ever be the same, not after the experience of taking such incredible pictures with my arms around those small African children’s shoulders.”
The article is not far from the truth, with 1.6 million voluntourists spending 2.5 billion USD each year and posting endless selfies while “doing good,” with hashtags like #instagrammingafrica. Social media instills in us a need to show everyone on the Internet how amazingly good and beautiful and interesting we are. Voluntourism provides lots of photo ops – easy advertising in a culture of social media addicts.
The fictional Angela Fisher goes on to encourage all her friends and family to visit Africa, “promising that it would change their Facebook profile photos as well.” As her friends scroll through the perfect filtered photos of her posing with adorable children, and the hundreds of likes and admiring compliments, Angela knows they will get the dreaded FOMO (that’s Fear of Missing Out for you oldies). And then they too must go to Africa to take those coveted selfies.
But really, I do not think my profile photo will ever be the same, not after the experience of dumping such an incredibly cold bucket of ice on my head. #IceBucketChallenge #socold #brrr
Like voluntourism, the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge tapped into the deep veins of narcissism and FOMO that social media sites have nurtured in us all. For weeks, our newsfeeds were incontrovertibly consumed by videos of wet people and others complaining about wet people. Those complaining were then obliged to join in because they got “called out” – and they already had a healthy case of FOMO and would never miss out on an opportunity to post a video of themselves doing something trendy.
And somehow, millions of dollars were raised because people posted themselves all over the Internet, self-indulgent and squealing, compelled by the madness of social media that we are all slave to.
For those involved in development, the question is not whether social media is shifting marketing and advocacy, but whether we’re ready for it. I’ve worked with non-profits struggling to get followers, likes and shares, all while attempting to navigate the scary world of crowdsourcing. Traditional private fundraising trips to philanthropist brunches or other face-to-face networking events can no longer be justified when there are millions of potential donors at one’s fingertips, hungry to do something cool and exciting on social media.
As other similar social media-driven campaigns continue to arise, we should remain aware of some of the valuable lessons voluntourism has already taught us – not only those on how to best capitalize on self-obsession. Just because a campaign is sexy does not mean it is useful: even the Ice Bucket Challenge has been criticized for waste. Our approach should remain community-directed, not focused on creating “catnip for narcissists,” to both protect our planet and ensure mankind’s actual needs are being addressed.
To remain relevant, we must also continue to encourage others to go beyond silly profile pictures and develop meaningful partnerships that foster mutual understanding and interconnectedness. Lasting supporters to a movement deeply consider and value their ongoing involvement, while shallow connections that foster convenient, made-for-Facebook contributions are not sustainable.
But, perhaps it is always better to do some minor good rather than no good at all, and we should take narcissism by the horns and ride it to the bank. Like voluntourism, the Ice Bucket Challenge and other crowd-sourcing campaigns allow wealthy Westerners to “do a little good, experience something . . . and have a story to tell that places them in the ranks of the kindhearted . . .” while also having the coolest profile picture on the Internet.
This post originally appeared on Alison’s blog, Land of the Blind, and is reprinted here with permission.
Development workers are living developed lives. Getting out into the romantically portrayed “field” is a rarity, a special opportunity, something to be bragged about over the internet. Although development workers are mostly working on rural development issues (in most developing countries a majority of the population is rural and depends on agriculture for livelihoods), they are living in the cities, far from those they are supposed to “develop.” The separation between cities and the countryside is not only geographical, but also cultural. How then can development workers in the cities know how to resolve issues affecting their “beneficiaries” in a faraway land?
To be most effective, development workers need to go to the field and stay there.
Working in the field would give development workers an opportunity to have a new lifestyle, localize their experiences and knowledge, cut costs, and ultimately give them the ability to do their jobs and deliver aid more effectively and efficiently.
There is very little information on this, but I think all of we development workers can agree that most of us live in city centres packed with expats of all shapes and sizes. It is unclear how this happened.
From higher-up academic-y levels that often influence how we do our jobs, some have argued that NGOs need to be close to country power centers in the city. Ironically, decentralization is now widely promoted as a vital component to “good governance” and “democracy-building.” And in developing countries where rule of law is often lacking, the top-down, state-centered approach tends not to work anyway. This point alone has made up many a doctoral thesis.
NGOs continue to perpetuate concentration of power in city centres due to their inability to communicate with local governments. International aid workers’ largely urban presence legitimizes undue power-wielding by national authorities and perpetuates the unequal development progress they are supposedly mitigating.
Theoretical issues aside (this is just a blog entry, after all), development workers’ distance from the field is problematic from the most practical point of view. The field is where the people are and where the culture is. We’ve all bragged about our Western “efforts” to “get down with the people” and “be more local,” which, in the cities, is much more difficult to do.
Development workers believe they are making an effort by taking a language course once a week with friends during their two-hour lunch breaks. They claim they love the local cuisine because they have a cheap set meal with English-speaking co-workers a few times a week in an open-air restaurant. They are so close to the local people because they had a five-minute conversation with their English-speaking landlady last night. Of course, this is all a cynical exaggeration, but there is some truth to it.
Locals know what’s up
Our best resources are the people affected by the projects we are trying to implement, and most likely these people are not in the city. International development workers’ main cultural and human resources are their local co-workers in their white-walled, air-conditioned offices. When working on issues affecting disadvantaged populations, however, local development workers are not omniscient. They too have a geographical and class distance from the populations that NGO projects tend to target.
From my experiences in Asia, getting at the root of the problem takes time and intimacy with the local people and culture in “the field” – a field visit or two is not enough. A person can ask as many questions as they possibly can think up over a three-day period and not get a straight answer that touches on the real issue. Situations are most effectively and thoroughly assessed through everyday relationships, through which free-flow, long-term conversations can take place.
The result of this would be actual outcomes, realistic approaches, improved partnerships and lines of communication, and generally more effective projects. (Not to mention the theoretical decentralization advantages of giving local governance a voice, see above.) The field gives easy access to our most knowledgeable informant: the beneficiary.
Culture is good for you
Sure, living in the field is difficult. I’m an extrovert, and the quiet of the countryside has sometimes felt isolating. I’ve been frustrated by cultural working differences. The internet speed leaves something to be desired. I crave a good burger every once in a while. Yeah, life is so hard.
Some might argue that because life in the field lacks pristine living conditions and Western-ish salaries, it might not appeal to the best and brightest. The assumption here, however, is that development workers have the same motivations as those that go into other lines of work, i.e., money.
On the contrary, many fellow aid workers I know came into this line of work wanting to accomplish the cliché but genuine goal of “helping people.” I’ve heard many development workers say how they were surprised, and even felt guilty, at the Western form their foreign lives have taken. They generally eat the same food, hang with similar people, and spend their days typing over their computers without breaking a sweat, much like they did in their home countries.
Many aid workers I know are not satisfied with this lifestyle– they recognize their distance from the “beneficiary,” shamelessly and blatantly noting the ineffectiveness of their own work. Many took on aid jobs expecting them to be more local or exotic, but city life sucks them into an international lifestyle, increasing their distance from the people they came to help. Although it is “difficult” to live and work in the field, at the same time, many aid workers in the city crave the experience.
Development jobs should fulfill their expectations and send them to the field.
The added bonus is that administrative costs would be greatly reduced. Office spaces in the field are exponentially cheaper than in the city. Overhead would further plummet when you cut out field visits and per diem expenses, which spoil us (get real people, we’ve all pocketed per diem money). Due to decreased living expenses, international salaries could also be reduced. Donors, are you drooling yet?
Western people flock to Western things, and some might argue that all of this will only bring Western food, lodging, and entertainment (in its worst forms) into the field. Studies have shown that people prefer to associate with people and places that reaffirm who they already are. This argument assumes that development workers may always prefer distance from local customs and populations, preferring instead to associate with each other over three dollar cappuccinos.
This may be true for some people that work in development, but much like we came into this field to help people, we also did it because we love living in a totally different place, we are fascinated by cultural differences, we enjoy ethnic foods, and, again, we have a heart for the disadvantaged. If this fact isn’t enough, development jobs could be re-drawn to attract people who are dedicated and passionate about foreign culture, language, and people, not just wanting an opportunity to be cool living in a city where they can have a fancy Western lifestyle. Job advertisements should promote cultural intimacy from the beginning.
Living in the field is sometimes difficult , but it is not agonizing. It is always possible to fill some of my Western desires (a lady I know at the market always sells peanut butter). At the same time, being deprived of the opportunity to eat a burger over English conversation every night has made my experience much more enriching. It didn’t hurt, either; the countryside life easily drew me in once I let it.
As for the rest of us still in the cities, we must make a concerted effort to resist our every Western whim and try to our best to get in touch with the local culture –that is, until the donors buck up and put us where we belong. Send them to the field!
Update 27 July
Reactions and comments from Twitter in response
Featured image shows the outskirts of Chipata, Zambia. Photo by Jennifer Ambrose.
On a breezy Tuesday night on the riverside of Phnom Penh, Cambodia, I met up with a Cambodian friend for dinner. As we sat at our street-side table enjoying an elaborate and ridiculously cheap meal, a small, dirty girl carrying a fistful of long-stemmed roses walked up to me, reached out her hand palm-up, and looked up at me with her best sad face.
I immediately said my token, “No thank you, I’m sorry,” and averted my eyes. To my astonishment, however, my Cambodian friend pulled 500 riel (USD $0.13) out of his pocket, picked out a rose, and sent the little girl on her way.
As an aid worker, I was enraged. “How can you support that lifestyle?” I gasped. “Don’t you know the conditions they live under? You just allowed that little girl’s enslavement!” He just rolled his eyes, shrugged a little, and said, “Well, maybe she needs it to go to school.”
I wasn’t sure how to respond. Instead, I had a flashback to a political economy class that I took during my undergraduate studies, when my professor told me whether or not I voted in the next election really didn’t matter (shout-out to Professor Jasper LiCalzi at The College of Idaho).
According to political analyst Kenneth Shepsle, the best motivating factor to get people to vote is to make the act personally, symbolically meaningful. Why do you vote, if you vote at all? Most people choose to vote for the symbolism, but few people vote for the actual effects of their vote. A rational person knows that their single vote won’t change the election, even in a more democratic country. Instead, people want to vote for the symbolism.
I always immediately want to refute Shepsle’s point by saying, “But if everyone thought that their vote didn’t matter, then no one would vote at all!” Unfortunately, that’s probably part of the reason why only about 60% of Americans voted in the last presidential election. In Cambodia, many people do not vote because they know that the outcome will be the same no matter what. They are focused on the effects of the act of voting, not the symbolism. Maybe if the symbol was more important, more people would vote.
I keep comparing this idea with the issue of buying things from kids. Most foreigners I know refuse to buy things from children for the mere symbolism of supporting child labour, but maybe, unlike voting, the effects are actually more important.
For those of you that have already lived or traveled in countries like Cambodia, you may have encountered kids in tattered clothes, walking the streets at night, carrying knick-knacks in overloaded baskets. A simple walk leads to encounters with eight-year-olds selling books, bracelets, or flowers. Lounging on the beach is inevitably mixed with kids trying to paint your nails, thread your hair, sell you fruit, etc.
Even the simple act of stopping at a stoplight cannot be enjoyed without children peddling decorative, fragrant jasmine flowers for 13 cents each. I’ve seen a seven-year-old girl beaten up by a 17-year-old boy for trying to sell books inside his restaurant. A five-year-old jasmine flower seller stole 500 riel right out of my pocket while I was sitting on my moto at a stoplight. I’ve had long conversations with 12-year-old girls with no parents as they braided my hair and tried to convince me to give them three dollars. A young boy once asked me to give him eight dollars in exchange for a bottle of water so he could pay for a month’s worth of schooling. Persistent, entrepreneurial kids are selling stuff everywhere.
The first time I came to a poor country, I read some books beforehand that talked about horrible things, like adults taking in orphans and employing them as slave-peddlers, taking all of the money for themselves, or wealthy or middle class parents who refuse to send their children to school and employ them instead.
Similar stuff to what you may have seen in the movie Slumdog Millionaire. After reading about all of the problems associated with child labour, I stopped buying things from kids for the symbolism, refusing to support these horrible adults’ acts.
But my friend’s comment got me to start thinking about the effects of my imposing morality. Even if I don’t buy, and continue to theoretically oppose child labor, it still continues and the kid remains sad and hungry. If I buy, maybe they’ll have some food to eat, maybe to go to school. Then again, maybe it will go to their alcoholic father.
As Shepsle and my professor recognised, the symbolic act of voting only affects the citizen and their romantic, patriotic feelings about participating in democracy. One unused ballot doesn’t determine whether or not the candidate of choice gets elected. But children peddlers are real and raw. Their face is in your face, their bony, dirty hands clutching huge baskets that are far too heavy for them to carry.
So now, sometimes, I buy stuff from kids. Maybe by the end of my time in Cambodia I’ll have two wrists full of bracelets, and I can think about each bracelet, each child, and hope that I lightened the load of their burdensome baskets. Maybe I can even help send one of them to school.
I do not claim to know the solution, but the right answer is much grayer than many of us recognise. I do think it’s important that we think about each situation on a case-by-case basis, using our best judgment. What is most important is that we think about it, instead of immediately imposing our aid worker ideals on irrelevant situations. Here are some pros and cons of buying stuff from kids to mull over:
Pro: The kid smiles and probably even gets excited.
Con: The happiness, though perhaps genuine, is fleeting.
Pro: The kid has some money, maybe to go to school, maybe to eat. Education and food are good things.
Con: Maybe not. You’ll never know where the money goes.
Pro: It creates a positive interaction between you and another person that would not have happened otherwise.
Con: You still don’t know where the money is going, a factor which may be dependent on whether or not the interaction can count as positive.
…or not to buy:
Pro: You’re symbolically telling the kid that you do not promote his work activities.
Con: The kid keeps working anyway, and so do all of the other kids. Your high-falutin message goes unheeded.
Pro: You save money. You can’t rescue all of the street kids by buying all of the bracelets in Cambodia.
Con: But maybe you can feed one? Also, you miss out on buying some nice-smelling flowers or pretty bracelets, which you may have wanted anyway.
Pro: It’s easier to forget about the kid if you avoid eye contact.
Con: You have a negative interaction with the child, or pass up on having any interaction at all.
What do you think? Do you buy stuff from kids on the streets? Let us know in the comments.
Update 22nd October
DevEconHealth responds to this post with a thoughtful and challenging post about the economics of buying from children. You can read it here.