All posts by Allison Smith

Allison is a freelance writer and communications professional. She is a contributor to Beacon, and her work has been published in Matador, Killing the Buddha, and In/Words Magazine & Press. She currently lives in Cambodia. For more Allison, visit her website at and follow her on Twitter at @asmithb.

Poverty continues what the Khmer Rouge started

This post originally appeared on Beacon Reader and is reprinted here with permission.

Susadey, srei sa-art.”

It’s the cheerful greeting I receive in Cambodia. Hello, pretty sister.

Srei means sister, and is the polite way of referring to a woman, so it’s a word I hear often. The idea of family is woven into the Cambodian language. Cambodians refer to each other as brother or sister, or to older Cambodians as aunt or uncle.

But when the Khmer Rouge came to power in Cambodia in 1975, they abolished all the traditional forms of address. No more sister, brother, aunt, uncle. Just one word: comrade.

The language change was part of a broader Khmer Rouge policy to weaken the family and ensure loyalty to Khmer Rouge above all else. Family relationships were frowned upon. In some cases, husbands were separated from wives, and children from parents.

Today, the Khmer Rouge are gone, and the traditional forms of address are back.

But this does not mean all is well for families in Cambodia.

How poverty breaks up Cambodian families

Decades later, poverty continues what the Khmer Rouge started. It presents families with difficult choices that often lead to them being pulled apart.

Cambodia is a very poor country. In 2013, the annual per capita income in Cambodia was just over US$1,000. One in five Cambodians are below the poverty line, living on less than US$1.25 per day, and they face hard choices when it comes to supporting their families.

In some cases, these choices lead to the doors of orphanages. The majority of children living in Cambodian orphanages are not orphans, but have been brought to the orphanage by families hoping to ease their financial burden or give their child the opportunity for a better education.

Children blow bubbles at an orphanage in Cambodia. Photo by: Neon Tommy.
Children blow bubbles at an orphanage in Cambodia. Photo by: Neon Tommy.

Though in the last decade, Cambodia has been stable and the economy has improved, the number of children in orphanages nearly doubled between 2005 and 2010. Of the 12,000 Cambodian children living in orphanages, over 70% are estimated to have at least one living parent.

Some orphanages exploit poverty by actively recruiting children from poor families. Overseas donors who fund orphanages and well-meaning tourists who visit orphanages provide financial incentives for this disturbing practice. This is one reason “voluntourism,” or volunteering while travelling, has been heavily criticized in recent years.

Similarly, poverty is one cause of human trafficking in Cambodia, whether for forced labour or sexual exploitation. Children from poor families are much more likely to be trafficked into forced labour. Many end up in Thailand or Vietnam, where they are forced to beg. Often, these children were sold to traffickers by their parents.

Other parents do what they can to keep their children in Cambodia, and leave the country themselves. An estimated 200,000 Cambodians work illegally in Thailand, drawn north by the hope of finding better jobs than are available at home.

Many of these workers leave behind children in Cambodia. Sometimes grandparents or older siblings are left in charge, and sometimes children are brought to orphanages or to other charities.

How fewer families will face these situations

Of course, not all Cambodians live in poverty. Many families live together without ever considering placing their children in an orphanage, or working illegally in Thailand.

In the past decade, the economy in Cambodia has steadily grown, and this is the best hope for families to be able to be together. As household incomes rise, fewer families will have to choose between being together or apart.

But while the economy is improving, and while Cambodians say sister or uncle rather than comrade, it is nonetheless disheartening how poverty continues what the Khmer Rouge started by making it hard for families in Cambodia to be together.


Three ways to avoid being misled by humanitarians who lie

This post originally appeared at Beacon Reader and is republished here with permission.

Somaly Mam was the kind of hero that captures people’s imagination. Her story was inspiring: a Cambodian woman overcomes a tragic childhood, which included being sold into a brothel, to become a crusader in the fight against sex trafficking in Cambodia.

The only problem is the first bit of the story wasn’t true.

In May, Newsweek broke the story to the international community. It revealed key details of Mam’s backstory were fabricated. She hadn’t been a domestic slave as a child. She hadn’t been forced to marry a violent solider when she was 14. And she hadn’t been sold as a sex slave.

Mam’s deceit has become big news, with hundreds of articles online and counting.

Many of them mention Greg Mortenson, whose story of building schools in Afghanistan also turned out to be too good to be true. In 2011, his account of how he established his charity to build schools in Afghanistan was exposed as a sham.

As Jon Krakauer investigated Mortenson, he “… felt ashamed at being so easily conned. How could those of us who enable his fraud — and we are legion —have been so gullible?”

The Somaly Mam scandal again raises this question – how could we have been so gullible? Why do we continue to be so gullible?

Truth, lies, and telling the difference between them

We’re gullible because we’re suckers for a good story.

Stories hold our attention and activate our brain in unique ways. As Fast Company describes, “… story acts like a drug that reliably lulls us into an altered state of consciousness.”

In other words, a good story puts us into a haze, making us vulnerable to absorbing false stories from people like Mortenson and Mam.

This is your brain on stories.
This is your brain on stories.

There are three ways we can be better at identifying stories like Mortenson’s and Mam’s as false.

1. Be wary of creation myths

Both Mortenson and Mam had compelling creation stories that were really myths.

Mortenson’s went like this: While trekking in Afghanistan, he was separated from his party and got lost. Weakened from the trek, he was nursed back to health in an Afghan village. Before he left, he promised to return to build a school. Later, he was kidnapped by the Taliban. When they released him, they threw him a big party and gave him money to build more schools.

Mortenson’s creation myth is breathtakingly dramatic, as is Mam’s tale of being sold into prostitution and escaping the brothel. A story should raise red flags if it seems so sensational as to be crafted with a Hollywood script in mind.

2. Be sceptical of exaggerated threats

When someone is sounding alarm bells of a grotesquely dire threat, it may be an indication that something’s off.

In Mam’s case, she misrepresented the nature of the sex industry in Cambodia by claiming girls as young as three years old were being held in brothels.

Yet research on child prostitution in Cambodia demonstrates that few minors below the age of 15 are in the sex industry, and children as young as three are almost unheard-of.

Similarly, Mortenson mischaracterized his schools as bulwarks against Wahhabi radicalism in Afghanistan.

The introduction to Mortenson’s Three Cups of Tea states “… Mortenson goes to war with the root causes of terror every time he offers a student a chance to receive a balanced education, rather than attend an extremist madrassa.”

Another great soundbite and another exaggeration. As Krakauer says in his Three Cups of Deceit, “Only a small fraction of his schools are found in locales that might be characterized as breeding grounds for terrorists. In Afghanistan, the majority of schools CAI [Mortenson’s charity] has established are in areas where the Taliban has little influence or is simply nonexistent….”

If someone is raising a grave threat, it’s possible they’re exaggerating the severity of that threat.

3. Stop the hero worship

Hero worship is too common within the social sector.

Daniela Papi summarizes the problems with elevating humanitarians as idols: “By focusing on the individual, we not only miss out on supporting the opportunity to learn about or highlight the true impact of the work, but we also fuel a market of praise which attracts non-profit leaders who might be more interested in the publicity than the impact.”

The Mortensons and Mams of the world are able to capitalize on our awe of individuals who accomplish great things, because it blinds us to checking the facts too closely. We need to keep this tendency in check.

As the Atlantic pointed out in its discussion of Mam, Ernest Hemingway once said, “The most essential gift for a good writer is a built-in, shock-proof, shit detector. This is the writer’s radar and all great writers have had it.”

This is true not only for writers. When it comes to evaluating the claims and work of public figures and humanitarians, we all need this type of detector.

Why poverty porn is like shoulder pads and leg warmers

You think maybe it will finally be over only to find it’s still there, like a bad head cold you can’t shake. 

No, I’m not talking about the Big Bang Theory or Two and a Half Men. I’m talking about something even worse: poverty porn. 

Rachel Kurzyp wrote about Save the Children’s recent foray back into the world of poverty porn, and the reasons poverty porn is bad have been articulated many times, so I don’t want to solely focus on that again. (I do, however, want to point out this article, which argues reality TV may be the antidote to poverty porn.) 

Rather, I want to ask the question of how we got here in the first place. Where did NGO marketing start? Where is it going? What have we realised along the way? 

Conquest, war, famine and death

While people often point to the Ethiopian famine in the 1980s as the beginning of humanitarian aid, many NGOs have their roots in the wars of the 1930s and 1940s. Plan International was established in response to the Spanish Civil War, and Oxfam was founded in 1942 to relieve famine in Greece caused by the Nazi occupation and Allied naval blockades.

Unfortunately, this was well before the advent of the Internet, and easy access to marketing campaigns via Google Images, though this one was on Oxfam’s website, dated 1943. 

Oxfam image from 1943.

Which brings us back to 1984 and the Ethiopian famine, when the disaster was well-televised and the charity appeals very public. 

The images used at the time were shocking and disturbing, precisely because their intent was to shock and disturb. They were intended to move people to action, and quickly, and that was as far as the thought process went. 

1984 Oxfam appeal.
1984 Oxfam appeal.

Somewhere along the way, however, we started to realise some of the issues with using these kinds of images, such as how they misrepresent poverty and the poor, fail to respect people’s dignity and can further stigmatise them.

The last issue, the one about stigma, is particularly serious, and can undermine the very work charities are trying to do in making people’s lives better.

Just one example: By sticking photos of a person on materials imploring “Donate now to stop HIV/AIDS,” we’re suggesting that person has HIV/AIDS (regardless of whether or not it’s someone with HIV/AIDS or a stock photo of someone of whose health the person choosing the photo knows nothing about) and likely making it more difficult for them to have relationships or find employment. 

There are similar issues of stigma that come up when showing people as poor, the victims of trafficking, etc.

These issues started to be acknowledged by NGOs. Let’s be consistent and stick with Oxfam. Here’s how it reflects on one of its collection tins from the 1960s: with a firm “don’t do this.” 

Screen Shot 2014-05-14 at 10.41.54 PM

Happy smiling faces

Because of the way we’re wired, we’re drawn to images of people and personal stories, to the degree that organisations like Kiva and the entire child sponsorship model allow us to give to and connect with individuals.

So most NGO marketing still features individuals, it’s just that now they are happy. Many NGOs now choose to speak about people’s strengths and potential, rather than their weaknesses or problems.

Compared with the decades of marketing that came before, this is a dramatic shift.

From a 2013 Oxfam campaign.
From a 2013 Oxfam campaign.
Screen Shot 2014-05-14 at 10.43.16 PM
A page out of Oxfam UK’s brand guidelines.

Yet in some cases, even if individuals are portrayed with dignity and as actors with agency in their own lives, there are still issues. 

A good example of this is children, who as minors require more protection than adults, and do not have the same ability to consent to their representation as do adults. 

In these cases, the next frontier may be to show the teachers, the social workers, the engineers, the doctors, and all the other various people that we know as aid workers, doing their work. Note again the emphasis on the individual. 

From the Friends International website. Friends works with at-risk children and young people.
From the Friends International website. Friends works with at-risk children and young people.

If done well, this can not only protect beneficiaries but also break down some of the stereotypes concerning aid and development. Showing Laotian mechanics working in Laos shows development is not us and them, “us” as the foreigners coming in to save “them.” 

Desperate measures

This little history lesson and musings on where aid marketing has been and where it’s going helps to contextualise Save the Children’s recent ads and show why many other charities have stopped using such exploitative images. 

Last year, a group of media professionals and NGO and UN agency workers met in New York City to discuss poverty porn. The Humanosphere quoted a participant as saying, “The use of poverty porn is a desperate attempt by charities to stay relevant.”

A desperate and, I would add, misguided attempt.

Poverty porn doesn’t make NGOs relevant. Like shoulder pads and leg warmers, it’s a relic of the 80s and is best left there.

Featured image is an Oxfam billboard. Photo from First Person Blog.

Raising awareness of why we don’t need more awareness

Ah, awareness. That buzzword of viral marketers and social media experts everywhere.

“Awareness” is a great rationale for almost any communications-related endeavour. Why do we need to amass a social media following? To raise awareness of our charity, of course. Why do we need to take selfies with penises in socks? To raise awareness of testicular cancer, naturally (link NSFW).

“Awareness” isn’t the objective of a good communications or marketing campaign. There are many good reasons for charities to be on social media, driving traffic to their website and encouraging donations among them, but anytime the vague rationale of “awareness” is thrown around, it probably means things haven’t been thought through.

Good public health campaigns, like those against drunk driving or smoking, may be called awareness campaigns, but even they do not have “awareness” as the end goal. They have a much more specific objective: to change behaviour.

These thoughts about social marketing are of course prompted by the recent #nomakeupselfie trend, ostensibly to raise awareness and funds for cancer research.

The campaign had mixed success at best, given both UNICEF and the World Wildlife Fund received funds from confused donors who thought they were contributing to cancer research. Now both charities are sorting out giving the misplaced funds to Cancer Research UK.

Due to an SMS mix-up, some people trying to donate to Cancer Research UK accidentally inquired about adopting WWF polar bears.
Due to an SMS mix-up, some people trying to donate to Cancer Research UK accidentally inquired about adopting WWF polar bears.

There are many reasons to have reservations about this campaign before even returning to my main point about awareness. Some of them:

  • the gendered nature of the campaign meant men couldn’t participate
  • the campaign doesn’t make it clear there is any link between makeup and cancer – a missed opportunity given many cosmetics contain known cancer-causing agents
  • fetishising the bare-faced woman is the opposite side of the same coin as expecting women to appear with make-up; I’m in the camp saying the campaign is bad for women

We are all aware of cancer

It’s interesting too to note that large-scale awareness campaigns often concern causes everyone already knows about. The best example of this is breast cancer, a cause which has benefited immensely from slick marketing.

Interestingly, breast cancer is among the most treatable cancers. In Australia, 90% of women are alive five years after diagnosis, compared with lung cancer, with a five-year survival rate of 14%, or pancreatic cancer, with a five-year survival rate of only 5%.

So why does breast cancer get all the attention? Is it because we don’t like to choose a losing cause like pancreatic cancer? Is it because we make value judgements on different types of cancer; if someone has lung cancer we assume it’s because they smoke so it’s their own fault?

Or is it just as simple as it’s easier to make breasts sexy and marketable than lungs, even when we’re talking about cancer?

A real disadvantage for lung and pancreatic cancer is that they don't lend themselves to sexist ads.
A real disadvantage for lung and pancreatic cancer is that they don’t lend themselves to sexist ads.

It would be easy to say it doesn’t matter. If people are donating to breast cancer rather than lung cancer, at least they’re giving something somewhere.

The problem is that this type of thinking leads to major gaps in what is funded and what makes it onto agendas, as this article on cancer funding in Australia shows.

This tendency is not limited to cancer funding in rich countries; as my friend and WhyDev colleague Weh Yeoh has described, important causes get left off the international development agenda, in favour of sexier causes like (in Cambodia) land mines or malaria. This leaves others, like people with disabilities, out in the cold, regardless of how important the need is.

Coming soon to a poor country near you: pink ribbons for breast cancer awareness? 

There is a lot of attention given to cancer in rich countries like Australia because infectious diseases are not the same concern that they are in poor countries.

But as progress is made on eradicating diseases like tuberculosis, malaria and polio, non-communicable diseases (NCDs) like cancer will become one of the next big things in global health. As NCDs receive more attention in poor countries, it would be a shame for them to be addressed in the same haphazard way they’re being addressed in rich countries.

Want to do something even more useful than posting a selfie to raise awareness? Pick a charity working on an unpopular but important cause, like pancreatic cancer in Australia or disability in Cambodia. Make a donation to them.

It does not matter whether or not you are wearing makeup when you do it.

8 reasons Orwell matters to aid workers

After the recent National Security Administration (NSA) scandal in the United States, people other than English teachers and lit majors started talking about Orwell. Sales of his classic 1984 skyrocketed.

Obama even referenced 1984‘s authoritarian Big Brother character in his defence of the program, reassuring everyone the program had not overstepped any lines, so that was a relief. (Although German Chancellor Angela Merkel might disagree with Obama on that point.)

While 1984 is certainly worth a read if you haven’t already read it, I also recommend Orwell’s first novel, Burmese Days. After reading it, it’s clear why Orwell matters to aid workers.

Burmese DaysThe novel paints a dark picture of British colonialism in 1920s Burma. John Flory is a British timber merchant who befriends Dr. Veraswami, an Indian supporter of the British Empire. The doctor needs Flory’s help, as the magistrate of their district is plotting his downfall, and Veraswami’s membership into the all-white British Club is the only thing that can save him. As Flory decides what to do, the beautiful Elizabeth Lackersteen arrives from Paris, appearing to provide Flory an escape from his solitary life and the stresses of colonial life.

As a depiction of life in imperial Burma, the novel has nothing and everything to do with aid work. You should read it, but in case you don’t, here are eight relevant lessons from the novel. (Some spoilers.)


1. Our existence is full of competing tensions. 

Flory has an uncomfortable relationship with British imperialism. On the one hand, he hates it and the racist attitudes it perpetuates. On the other hand, if it comes to an end, he’s out of a job.

Similarly, a good development worker should be working themselves out of a job, so there is an uneasy tension that as life improves for poor people there won’t be (or shouldn’t be) jobs for development workers.

Additionally, there is the tension that if the standard of living where we work improved to the standard of the places we come from, we wouldn’t be able to afford the comfortable lifestyles many of us enjoy. Gone would be our easy existence of eating out and drinking cheap beers, and of being able to afford spacious apartments and maids to clean them.

(For an interesting discussion of this issue, see this article on living well while doing good.)


2. Despite their choice to live in whichever country you find yourself, there are people who despise the nationals of that country.

Orwell describes a character who hates the Burmese, describing him as “one of those Englishmen – common, unfortunately – who should never be allowed to set foot in the East.”

You will meet people who should not be in the country you live, given their prejudice against the people who live there. It will be weird. You will be tempted to point out to such people that if the nationals are so terrible, an easy way to avoid them is to leave their country.

Don’t think the aid world is immune to these attitudes. A friend living in Cambodia recounts hearing an aid worker casually comment “we all know that if we leave the (Cambodian) child here (in Cambodia) with a foster family or whatever, they either going to be trafficked, or become maids.” Um. No, we don’t.


3. Getting involved with a national can be messy… 

Flory takes a Burmese mistress and learns that disentangling himself from the relationship is more difficult than he had thought. Plus after being involved with him, the other villagers view her as damaged and she cannot find a husband to support her. It’s not a great situation.

Different cultural norms and various power dynamics make cross-cultural dating difficult, particularly if “dating” as a concept doesn’t really exist in one of the cultures. I know someone whose ex-girlfriend didn’t really understand the “ex” part of that title, and so she popped up in his home country long after he’d returned home. It was awkward.


4. … but sometimes it’s one of few dating options. 

After various romantic encounters, including one with a guy who leaves town rather than pay his debts, a young British woman in the novel settles for marrying someone much older than her.

Having rigorously studied the topic at WhyDev, we can confirm that you may be able to sympathize with this predicament, particularly if you’re a woman.

Screen Shot 2013-11-10 at 1.47.25 PM
Working in aid may leave you feeling like Jane Austen’s character Charlotte Lucas, from “Pride and Prejudice.”

5. Not having people around that you can talk to is detrimental to your mental health.

As is a common experience while living in a foreign country, Flory is sometimes stifled by his loneliness and feels there is no one who truly understands him.

This, combined with the stresses of work, can be a huge problem for aid workers. Make sure you are taking care of yourself and have a support network around you.

We’ve had some bright people write their thoughts on this topic and provide some resources on self-care, if this is something you’re struggling with.


6. Feeling torn between places is painful.

When you’ve shuttled between countries or just been away from your home country a while, it will probably mess with your head and your idea of “home.”

Flory describes the loneliness of not quite knowing where home is far better than I ever could:

“It is devilish to suffer from a pain that is all but nameless. Blessed are they who are stricken only with classifiable diseases! Blessed are the poor, the sick, the crossed in love, for at least other people know what is the matter with them and will listen to their belly-achings with sympathy. But who that has not suffered it understands the pain of exile?”

This feeling will be really hard to explain to those back home, some of whom may perceive your life to be nothing more than one big exotic vacation.


7. You will probably have an uneasy relationship with missionaries. 

Granted, in Burmese Days the complaint about missionaries is that once they converted the Burmese, the Burmese Christians had the nerve to believe they were as good as the British.

Hopefully this won’t be your complaint, but it’s likely that your relationship with missionaries will be complicated. (Even if you’re religious. Maybe even more if you’re religious.)


8. Your life will be challenging, but it will also be good. 

Orwell describes Flory’s life as being “a good life while one was young and need not think about the future or the past.”

What was true for a twenty-something timber merchant in 1920s Burma is true ninety years later for a twenty- or thirty-something aid worker in Kenya or Ecuador or Kosovo or Cambodia.

It’s a strange and sometimes frustrating life, but it’s also a good one.


What has literature taught you about aid work? Tell us in the comments below.

Travel is not education

Recently, I came across the following quote on a personal blog:

“Don’t tell me how educated you are, tell me how much you have travelled.”

The quote was unattributed on this blog, but Google attributes it to the Prophet Muhammad. Google also indicates that it appears on many lists and blogs with titles like “25 Inspiring Travel Quotes,” “Top 50 Inspirational Travel Quotes,” “Travel And Open Your Mind,” and “The 80 Greatest Travel Quotes of All Time.”

As much as it pains me to argue against words offering so much inspiration to so many, reading them made me roll my eyes so hard I think I popped a few blood vessels.

Though it is patent nonsense, I understand why the sentiment exists.

We’ve all felt that way, haven’t we? Particularly for those of us who have not only traveled, but who have also lived and worked overseas. Amongst aid workers, it can be a source of pride to boast about the countries we’ve been to or worked in, and how “rough” they were.

Our experiences in these countries shape us, change us, and teach us things we would never have learned at home. They help us understand the gap that often exists between theory and practice, as well as the complexity of issues and places for which we were fed simple narratives. Traveling and living elsewhere also helps us understand ourselves and our home countries better.

And that is nice for us. But our appreciation for these lessons sometimes leads to a smug worldliness that views those who don’t travel as lesser beings. (Even worse are those who not only stay in their country, but also stay in their hometowns, and incredibly seem to enjoy themselves there.)

This attitude is not only arrogant but also misguided.

Here’s why travel does not equal education: it is not necessarily an antidote for ignorance and it is no replacement for curiosity.

One of my family members doesn’t like to travel, and has never been to Portugal, yet knows more about their harm reduction approach to drugs than I do. Does my firsthand knowledge of Lisbon’s bars trump his knowledge of Portuguese public policy?

I’ve met people who have lived on multiple continents that scoff at the idea they would know anything as obscure as the heads of state of any African countries (it is good to suss these people out to avoid having them on your team at a trivia night). I’ve also met Cambodians who haven’t left southeast Asia, yet know about the French nuclear power industry, and the Canadian banking system’s resilience during the 2008 recession.

Which leads to another reason that conflating travel and education is really stupid – the ability to travel is largely dependent on your wealth and your nationality.

As a Canadian, I get really irritated when countries require me to have a visa to visit. It is just such a drag to have to get the passport photo, go to an embassy, and fill out the paperwork, you know? The worst.

I stopped complaining about that when I fully comprehended that for many, their nationality means they can’t just pay the visa processing fee and go. It means that they can’t go at all.

For a Cambodian to visit the United States, they require a host in the US, a ton of money in their bank account, proof of their English proficiency, and they are also screened via an interview process.

For a Canadian to visit the United States (or Europe or Morocco or Malaysia or, or, or…), they have to show up at the border with a passport.

So if we’re valuing travel above education, we’re valuing a very Western experience that is unavailable to many. We’re also undervaluing our own formal education, something I’ve come to appreciate more and more as I live in a country where the public education system is terrible.

Let me be clear: I like traveling. I’ve spent considerable time and money on travel because I think it is enriching and worthwhile. Given the often negative aspects of voluntourism, I often wish people would just visit the countries they’re interested in, and go see the Taj Mahal without bothering to build the school or visit the Amazon without running the day camps for kids.

But I’m not deluded enough to think that travel replaces education.

Robert Delong is right: sometimes we think travel and being somewhere different are progress. Or even education.

But it’s just movement.

Aid, trade, and foreign policy: a natural fit or a recipe for disaster?

To what degree should foreign policy shape foreign aid? Could we see the end of aid through trade? Does an emphasis on trade sideline the poorest of the poor?

These are not new questions in the development sphere, but the restructuring of Canada’s aid agency means they are being asked with new fervency in the country, along with another related question: What is the role of mining companies in development?

Recently, the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) was merged with the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade (DFAIT), creating the Department of Foreign Affairs, International Trade, and Development.

This requires us all to become comfortable with a new acronym, DFAITD, but all told we’re down one government acronym, so that’s definitely a win.

DFAITD Minister John Baird. Which portfolios will he get next? How long will the acronym grow to be?
DFAITD Minister John Baird. Which portfolios will he get next? How long will the acronym become?

It’s not the first change for these departments. In 2006, international trade was merged with the Department of Foreign Affairs, and in 2012, CIDA began to prioritize public-private partnerships in development, and particularly partnerships between NGOs and mining companies. Together, these shifts demonstrate how aid, trade, and diplomacy are increasingly being conflated.

(Although perhaps that is an unfair claim; certainly those of the realpolitik variety would point out that aid has always been influenced by governments’ foreign policy, and thus this merger does not represent a substantial change in that regard.)

What’s actually going on here? What are the Canadian government’s motivations and what does this mean for those that receive Canadian aid?

Cheerleaders, critics, and mining companies 

CIDA spent about $4 billion in the world’s poorest countries and has had a tumultuous past few years, with some dodgy funding decisions, a spendthrift minister, and other various missteps.

CIDA funded the work of many Canadian NGOs, which have reacted to the merger with mixed feelings. World Vision Canada released a statement expressing that it is “extremely concerned,” while Plan Canada declared “cautious optimism.”

Academics and development practitioners are similarly divided on the move.

Lloyd Axworthy, former Minister of Foreign Affairs, called the change “welcome and needed,” while Scott Gilmore, founder of the social enterprise Building Markets, asserted the merger would strengthen Canada’s aid program.

Gilmore and other supporters of the merger argue it is good for these reasons:

  • it will increase coordination between development officials and diplomats and increase the coherence of our foreign policy
  • it recognizes that trade is an (or even the most) important way to alleviate poverty

Gilmore, whose organisation builds markets and helps entrepreneurs in developing countries, points out that foreign direct investment into Africa is now larger than aid transfers. He argues that “This increased trade, much of it coming from Canadian mining companies, is what is winning the war on poverty.”

(Note that mining keeps coming up, as we’ll return to that.)

Critics counter these assertions by saying:

  • foreign policy coherence won’t be achieved by making the CIDA minister subordinate to the priorities of the foreign affairs minister
  • the change means Canada’s prosperity and security, rather than the prosperity of the country receiving aid, will be the driver of development assistance,

Though it is too early to really tell, it’s possible critics’ concerns are overstated. One of DFAITD’s priorities is to “Lead Canada’s international effort to reduce poverty in developing countries and provide humanitarian assistance to vulnerable people in crisis.”

The goals it includes under this priority do seem to be about the poor rather than Canadian foreign policy. Goals include “increas[ing] food security in developing countries,” which includes initiatives like encouraging food security funding by donors, promoting school feeding programs, and strengthening national and regional food reserves, and “secur[ing] the future of children and youth in developing countries,” which includes an emphasis on child and maternal healthcare as well as a focus on ensuring access to education.

Yet another one of the department’s goals, “Work with the private sector as partners in development,” lends credence to critics’ objections that Canada’s own economic well-being will be the motivating driver of its aid. It raises further red flags because in Canada, talking about the private sector’s involvement in development means you are mostly talking about mining.

You likely didn’t know that 75% of the world’s mining companies are headquartered in Canada. For all of the interest in China’s mining activities in Africa, it’s actually Canada that dominates.

The government’s new emphasis on public-private partnerships means mining companies have become big players in the Canadian development scene. As one example, in 2012 CIDA gave out $6.7 million in funding to World University Services Canada, Plan Canada, and World Vision Canada for projects with Rio Tinto Alcan, Iamgold, and Barrick Gold.

Too bad Canadian mining companies’ human rights and environmental reputations suck. Seriously, they’re just terrible. So it’s understandable that many donors have been leery about these partnerships.

mining tibet
A protest in Vancouver over mining in Tibet. Via Flickr.

As Samantha Nutt writes, “The central tension is whether these NGOs are serving as bagmen, advancing Canadian mining interests with taxpayer funding by appeasing local communities with gifts of health care and education, or whether they are simply piloting a new model of co-operation that might positively influence corporate behaviour overseas while simultaneously addressing development gaps.”

The same tension exists with DFAITD. Is this a new model for coordination between aid, trade, and foreign policy, or is it just NGOs advancing Canadian trade and foreign policy interests?

Lots of questions, few answers

So, is the merger of CIDA with DFAIT a good move? Will it make Canada’s foreign aid more effective?

Your answer to that question likely depends on your answer to a few other questions: how much should aid be influenced by a country’s foreign policy? Is trade the most effective way of alleviating poverty? Do the economic gains outweigh the human rights costs of the abuses occurring in mines headquartered in Canada?

Though the merger has its cheerleaders and its critics, for now I suspect there are many more of us somewhere in the middle, waiting to see what the impact of this change will be on the ground.


Twenty years after Cambodia’s first election, were the pessimists right?

Election frenzy is at full pitch in Cambodia. The election is in mere days, on July 28, and  it’s nearly impossible to walk through one of its cities without being held up by an enthusiastic political rally, waving flags from motorbikes, trucks, and tractors.

Yes, it is a campaign tractor and it is awesome. (Justin Lorenzon)
Yes, it is a campaign tractor and yes, it is awesome. (Justin Lorenzon)

While visiting Phnom Penh last week, I met with a friend for drinks on a rooftop bar. It was the day that Sam Rainsy, the exiled leader of the opposition party, had returned to Cambodia after being pardoned from some more than dubious political charges.

His supporters made their way up the street in a motorcade and our waiters looked at it, looked at us, and then apologized, they had to go down to the street. It’s their party and they needed to show their support.

We gave them our blessing and they went. I have never seen employees abandon their posts to demonstrate their political support during an election in Canada. It’s heartening to see here.

Yet for all the enthusiasm, the general consensus is that the election will change nothing, and the current prime minister will continue his 27-year autocratic reign. Hun Sen, now 60, has said he wants to remain in office until he is 90. Already, he is one of the 10 longest-serving leaders in the world.

A Cambodian friend explains that though he has his own political opinions, he has to vote for the ruling party. His uncle is a big supporter of Hun Sen’s Cambodia People’s Party (CPP), and each ballot is numbered, so if he votes for another party his uncle will know and it will cause trouble for his family. “What’s the point?” he asks. “They might as well fill out the ballot for me and save me the time.”

The election is a formality. Articles casually describe how Hun Sen will win the election on Sunday, no need to count the ballots. As Freedom House asserts, Cambodia is not free, and neither are its elections.

CPP supporters at a rally in Battambang. There are reports that the party has been paying university students to attend such rallies. (Allison Smith)
CPP supporters at a rally in Battambang. There are reports that the party has been paying university students to attend such rallies. (Allison Smith)

As it happens, I’ve recently moved to Cambodia and so am devouring everything I can read about the country, with a particular interest in what has been written about the first Cambodian elections, which were sponsored by the United Nations 20 years ago, in 1993.

The three books I’m reading offer distinct perspectives on the election, from the personal to the academic, and the idealistic to the cynical.

Journalist Tiziano Terzani’s A Fortune-Teller Told Me: Earthbound Travels in the Far East falls firmly on the cynical side of the spectrum. He largely views the election as an exercise in absolving the West’s guilt for failing to act during the genocide. Writing about the fallout from the Khmer Rouge and the international community’s determination to get the country back on its feet, he says:

“And so, for little Cambodia, the ‘Great Powers’ had found one those solutions that serve to justify any immorality: a compromise. […] the massacres were forgotten, executioners and victims were put on the same level, the combatants on both sides were asked to lay down their arms, and their chiefs to stand for election. May the best man win! As if Cambodia in 1993 were the Athens of Pericles.”

Offering a more idealistic view (though it cannot be described as an idealistic book) is Emergency Sex and Other Desperate Measures, a memoir by three UN workers. Heidi Postlewait, one of the authors, describes working at a polling station in rural Cambodia:

“At daybreak on the first day, thousands of Cambodians are already calmly waiting outside my polling station. They squat on the ground, silent and patient. We didn’t expect this at all. We thought they would fail to understand how democracy works. We thought they would be afraid of the Khmer Rouge. We thought they would passively accept their fate. We were wrong.”

It paints a beautiful picture of a fledging democracy, where over 90% of Cambodians cast a ballot in that first election. This rosy view is challenged by professor and former journalist Joel Brinkley. In his Pulitzer Prize-winning Cambodia’s Curse: The Modern History of a Troubled Land, Brinkley describes the election violence that Postlewait was fortunate enough to avoid:

“Khmer Rouge gunners shelled polling and police stations in Kampong Thom, Kampong Chhnang, Siem Reap, and elsewhere. Election workers fled; several were killed.”

He further describes the various politicking in the aftermath of the election, describing how “Cambodia’s leaders, all of them, were plotting, scheming, bribing, and backstabbing to come out on top, as if the election had never taken place.”

Eventually, Hun Sen assumed full control of the government, despite the fact that he had lost the election (minor detail). Twenty years later, he’s still in power and Cambodia’s elections arguably have as little impact as they did then.

So twenty years later, it is easy to side with Terzani and Brinkley’s cynical assessment of the impact of Cambodia’s first elections. What has changed? Same prime minister, same endemic corruption, same political repression, everything same same.

Yet it’s possible to channel some of Postlewait’s optimism if you are take solace in small signs of progress. No, the opposition leader has not been allowed to run in this election, but he has been allowed back into the country. And countries like Myanmar demonstrate that decades of political repression can crack at any time.

Perhaps the greatest cause for optimism comes from the attitudes of Cambodians themselves. Just as there’s a consensus that nothing will change this election, there seems to be a growing belief that there could be real change in the next election, five years from now. “Change” is a word on their lips – people are changing their minds, things have changed since the last election, when there wasn’t such support for the opposition. Maybe things will change next election.

Supporters of the opposition party make their way through the streets of Battambang (Allison Smith)
Supporters of the opposition party make their way through the streets of Battambang (Allison Smith)

It’s a much slower pace of change than many would like, and certainly slower than many accustomed to healthy democracies would tolerate. But Postlewait was right to be inspired by the resolute determination of Cambodians voting in their first election twenty years ago, and her optimism is worth keeping alive. So a slower pace of change is what those of us who care about Cambodia will have to be content with.

Blood pensions: how your retirement savings fund war

Last year’s tragic shootings in Aurora, Colorado, and Newtown, Connecticut, have again made the availability of guns a hot issue in the United States.

Yet while gun control is debated in the US domestically, few are aware of how arms exports in industrialized countries fuel conflict internationally.

Even more concerning is how planning for your retirement fuels conflict.

The arms industry and developed and developing countries.

First, the obvious. There is big money in the arms industry. Annual worldwide military spending is more than $1.5 trillion, and the top 100 arms manufacturers made USD $419 billion in 2010.

Developing countries currently account for 75% of all global arms-transfers agreements. It would be nice to think that these arms are going to stable democracies, but that would be naive.

Often unconcerned by pesky things like ethics, the arms industry ensures weapons go to whomever is willing to pay for them. So weapons go to authoritarian regimes, or are resold through illegal channels.

There are the notorious examples, such as Iran and China continuing to supply Sudanese president Omar Al-Bashir’s odious regime with arms while the genocide raged on, and certainly these governments along with others such as Russia should be held to account for their arms transfers. Yet countries like the US and Canada are also culpable.

Take for example the civil war in Sri Lanka. During the three years prior to the war’s end, Britain, other European countries, and the United States approved the export of arms and military equipment worth tens of millions of dollars to the government of Sri Lanka. The government (as well as the Tamil Tigers, the other side in the conflict) is now accused of committing war crimes and crimes against humanity near the end of the war.

While my home country of Canada prides itself on its history of peacekeeping (despite the fact it currently has fewer peacekeepers deployed than Yemen and Slovakia – but I digress) and its general niceness, it is in fact among the top ten arms exporters in the world. Over the past number of years it has had one of the lowest international Arms Transparency ratings among industrialized countries.

Further, in 2011 the Saudi Arabia National Guard used armoured vehicles bought from Canada to support the Bahraini government’s violent suppression of civil dissent in Bahrain.

So at the same time that many Canadians were cheering the efforts of activists to bring democracy to their countries during the Arab Spring, Canadian armoured vehicles were being used to violently suppress these activists.

The sales of such vehicles continue, and NGOs have raised concerns about how these vehicles will be used in Colombia.

“We are consumers of war.”

It’s not just governments. People like you and me are also implicated in the arms trade.

How? By engaging in what seems an innocuous and even laudable thing to do: saving for retirement. All too often pension plans invest in companies selling weapons that fuel atrocities around the globe.

Indeed, “killer pensions” is what one think tank in Ottawa calls pensions from the Canada Pension Plan (CPP), due to the plan’s investment in war industries. All Canadian workers pay into the CPP, which holds more than $200 million in 24 of the world’s top arms-producing companies.

It is the same in the United States. As one example, the New York State Teachers’ Retirement System has almost $2 billion invested in arms producers.

These and other public-sector worker funds in Canada and in the United States profit from the sale of military munitions including small arms, land mines, and cluster bombs. We as pension owners profit from the sale of military munitions without our knowledge or consent.

There is a dark irony in this for Canada, as it led the crusade for the Mine Ban Treaty and is a signatory to the international convention banning cluster munitions, yet has failed to follow the example of New Zealand, Norway and others that have divested completely from land mine and cluster bomb producers.

Commenting on these funds in her book “Damned Nations,” Samantha Nutt puts it succinctly thus: “we are consumers of war.”

Ensuring you don’t profit from conflict

They say money talks, and what our pensions say about our values isn’t flattering. Yet there are things you can do to ensure our governments and our pensions do not fund and profit from conflict around the globe.

You can begin at an individual level. Divest your personal investments from funds that invest in arms manufacturers, and ask questions of your fund managers – many funds with “ethical” investment policies nevertheless invest in military munitions.

The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute complies a list of the top 100 arms manufacturers, which you can consult to see which corporations your investments should avoid.

Further, you can demand your government do the same. If the governments of Norway, California and other places can see returns while investing ethically, so can yours.

Additionally, this month the United Nations conducts its final negotiating conference on the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) to regulate the global arms trade. Control Arms, a coalition of NGOs, has information about this treaty available on its website and will be engaging supporters in its Global Week of Action March 11-17, before the negotiations on ATT begin at the end of the month.

We in industrialized countries are fortunate to live largely freely and safely, without fear of violence. It is not just that our comfortable retirements in these safe societies be funded by arms sales and conflict in other countries, and it is not necessary.

Moving from stew to stewardship: eating sustainably in 2012

It used to be so simple. Buy or harvest food, cook food, enjoy food.

That is probably an oversimplification – food has always been political, as anyone familiar with the history of sugar or bananas knows, but it seems that now its politics have entered the mainstream, and that with the rate of our economic development, its politics have become more urgent.

In this politicised environment, hosting a dinner party becomes an exercise in diplomacy and a test of how many dietary restrictions one cook can accommodate. You’ll have people who eat white meat but not red, vegetarians who prefer not to eat tofu, those who are lactose intolerant, and people who prefer their bananas organic – and that’s just if you’ve invited me and my roommate for a meal.

How did it become this way? What does eating ethically and sustainably look like in 2012? How do we balance a desire to eat sustainably with a desire to respect cultural attitudes toward food?

Growing up with dinner in the backyard

Food at its most basic exists as sustenance, but it also a powerful part of culture. Many religious rituals centre on food or refraining from eating it, from the Christian breaking of bread, to the Jewish Passover Seder, to Islam’s Ramadan. And religion aside, what would any wedding or gathering of family be without a meal to bring people together?

My brothers and I were forbidden from telling our younger sister that this guy would end up on our plates. (Jane Smith)

Food was important to my upbringing. As a child, the vegetables I ate were from the garden, and the steak on my plate came from the pasture behind our house. (One year my mom christened the bovine my dad chose to be butchered “Stu,” as stew was his ultimate fate.)

I wear this history on my skin. Years ago, I caught my arm on one of the barbs of the barbed wire fence that pens the cattle in. The scar remains there today, my agricultural roots  tattooed on my body.

We all have powerful memories associated with food. Learning to cook from our mothers. The first time cooking for a partner. Experiencing the hospitality of those with far too little yet always enough to share a meal.

Facing our upside-down food system

Yet as many of us know, food is much more than our culture and our upbringing. Sadly, much in our food system perpetuates inequality, drives unsustainable growth, and harms our environment.

Here are a couple of facts about food and our food system that continue to boggle my mind:

Pippa Black in a dress made of leaves
As all vegetarians do, I own a dress made of leaves but I generally save it for special occasions. (PETA Asia-Pacific)

When looking at these figures, and taking into account other concerns about health and animal rights,  it’s no surprise that new dietary habits like eating local and vegetarianism are becoming more common, and they’re making their way beyond environmentalists and food activists. (Although there are those who challenge the focus on agricultural productivity when discussing food security.)

I gave up meat four years ago, initially making an exception for the cattle raised on my family’s farm, but then giving that up too. (My family is very proud of me.)

It’s become a point of connection with others, providing instant affinity with other vegetarians.

Yet when a vegetarian colleague, who has previously had postings Tajikistan, Congo, and other far-flung places across the world, told me she used to decline meat from Tajiks and Congolese, I was taken aback. Something about it rubbed me the wrong way – is it rude to  refuse such hospitality, even with the best of reasons?

And if so, then why is it okay for me to refuse such hospitality from my family?

I don’t know the answers to these questions. I feel the tension between wanting to eat sustainably and wanting to respect and partake in others’ (and even my own) culture.

Tensions at the intersection of food, culture and sustainability

My own complicated relationship with food illustrates the difficulties of untangling the personal and political aspects of food. While I haven’t had meat in years, I can’t quite bring myself to completely sell my (much more symbolic than lucrative) shares in the family farm.

I remember cold nights spent bottle-feeding newborn calves in the barn with one of my brothers, the way the cattle would lift their heads from grazing and run towards my dad at the sound of his voice, and the memorable times the cows broke free from the pasture and traipsed through our vegetable garden, and I can’t bring myself to sever ties with this.

Yet in the future we may have to, collectively as a society. Our rate of economic development may make meat a thing of the past (or a thing of test tubes), and there are many other elements of our food system that need to change.

While I understand that, I still wonder about the impact on cultures, on traditions, on families.

So I’ll keep holding onto my shares in the family farm even as I decline its meat, and I’ll continue to think about these tensions every time I make myself a lentil burger or pass on the roast my family is having.


What is your relationship with food like?