Tag Archives: Ethics

Why you shouldn’t post photos of kids to Facebook

For those us who knew Dwayne Johnson before he starred in The Tooth Fairy, he will always be fondly remembered for his wrestling alter ego, The Rock. He referred to himself in the third person and had some of the best catch phrases in the business.

We imagine he would also have some amazing advice about photographing children in overseas contexts. The Rock says, “Don’t photograph children and post them to Facebook, you candy ass!”

The Rock meme: "It doesn't matter what you think."
Meme from MemeCrunch.
 It doesn’t matter
It doesn’t matter if you are a tourist,  aid worker or volunteer; the same rules apply as if you were in your home country. You can’t go up to children, take their photograph and post it to Facebook or Instagram #cute #iwantone #kidsbeingkids.

Posting children’s photos is not only irresponsible and disrespectful, it’s also potentially dangerous.

In many countries, laws on taking photos of children have tightened up. For example, in many parts of Australia, you can’t even take photos of your own children at sporting events, for fear of photographing someone else’s child. In addition, if a child’s identity can be ascertained from a photograph, then  “the collection, use and disclosure of that image is covered by the Privacy Act“.

These laws might seem over-the-top in some circumstances, but they exist for a reason. To protect the child. If you can’t and wouldn’t dare walk around your neighbourhood back home and take photographs of children, why would you do it overseas?

The people’s consent

One of the most important, yet complex, aspects of photographing children is consent. Taking and posting photos of children in poor countries is irresponsible because it assumes a number of complex ethical issues have been fully wrestled with (no pun intended) and addressed.

A quick “Yes” or a nod of the head doesn’t necessarily mean, “I give you permission to post my image or likeness on social media or use it in any public forum”. Furthermore, if that consent was only gained from a person under the age of 18, it is incomplete. Consent also needs to be obtained from the parent/guardian. But, the biggest issue here is understanding. Do the children understand what they are consenting to? Do they understand how you’re going to use the image? Are they in a position to say “no”?

One of us (Brendan) is conducting visual research for a PhD, asking out-of-school children to document their literacy practices using cameras. The ethics application – design of research protocol, consent forms, plain language statements, image waivers, confidentiality, roles, ownership, minimising harm – took months to put together and had to be approved by two university committees. Ethics is no light matter when it comes to photography and children.

Know your role, jabroni!

Posting photos of children in poor countries is disrespectful because it assumes our own set of standards used in rich countries doesn’t apply elsewhere. “But hang on, people in Mongolia don’t have privacy laws, they’d be fine with me photographing their kids!” you might think. However, you might want to do your research on national laws regarding privacy and children protection.

We would argue that in the absence of informed consent and a deeper understanding of national laws and culture, it’s better to err on the side of caution. That is, take a photo if you must, but don’t go posting it everywhere on the Internet.

Posting photos of children in poor countries is dangerous because it strips them of their anonymity and privacy. There are inherent dangers in that. As an extreme example, a child who is an asylum seeker may be fleeing persecution. By putting his or her image up on the Internet, you’re revealing the whereabouts of this child and putting him or her at risk.

Sure, you might see this example as a one off, but would you want the location of your child, little brother or sister, nephew or niece publicly broadcasted? Probably not.

The Rock in the film "The Tooth Fairy".
Posting photos of Dwayne’s niece online would make him quite mad. Photo from The Movie Bastards.

If you ever, and The Rock means ever, want to photograph a child, this is what you should do:

There are simple guidelines you can follow. If you’re a tourist, avoid taking photos of children, no matter how cute they are. If you absolutely must take them, don’t spread them elsewhere.

If you’re an aid worker or volunteer with an NGO, for goodness’ sake, you should know better. The NGO you work with should have a child protection policy and a photo permission form. If your organisation doesn’t have a policy in place, encourage them to develop one.

It should stipulate clearly what images are to be used for – promotional materials, the NGO’s website and their social media. Not for your personal Facebook account and not as a mechanism for you to get likes. For an example of a photo permission form we like, check out this one.

So, next time you’re about to hit “post” on that cute photo of a child, think about whether you’d do the same if you were in your local supermarket, in front of your neighbour’s house or down at your local school.

And, as The Rock would say, if you ever post a photograph of a child without their and their parent’s/guardian’s consent again, “The Rock will take you down Know Your Role Boulevard, which is on the corner of Jabroni Drive, and check you directly into the Smackdown Hotel!”

Featured image shows students lined up outside a school in Savelugu, Ghana. Photo from Brendan Rigby.

The ethics of photographing locals

I was drinking a cup of tea in a village in eastern Indonesia when they arrived. The young Spanish couple looked like typical tourists – big floppy hats, beige cargo pants and backpacks. Slung around their necks were fancy cameras which they immediately started snapping, recording the faces and movements of villagers husking rice, women weaving cloth and children playing outside their homes.

The couple slowly got closer to where I was sitting, and I tried to ignore them. I was chatting in Bahasa Indonesia to a woman from the village – a friend of a friend – who had offered to take me on her motorbike to explore more of the island the following day. Yuli had fetched me tea, and the women sitting with us offered betel nut.

A frown etched across Yuli’s forehead momentarily as she noticed the couple, and one of the women beside us shifted her position on the bench, turning her back on the man now attempting to take her photo. With her face now hidden, he lost interest in her, and he turned his lens to a child sitting on the ground a few metres away.

The couple’s approach to exploring the village made me feel uneasy. It was not the first time I had seen tourists behave in such a way. The particular island I was visiting in Indonesia doesn’t receive many tourists, but the village – with its traditional thatch-roof houses and megalith tombs – is accustomed to visitors. Even so, visitors must sign a guest book and make a small donation to enter.

But just because a place is accommodating of tourists doesn’t make it a zoo.

Too often I see tourists rush in to villages, and even homes, reaching for their cameras without attempting to make any connection with the people they are so anxious to photograph. Often this is without the permission of those they are photographing, or when those people are clearly uncomfortable.

I find this strange, and question the intent of tourists in these circumstances. What value is a photo of someone whose name you don’t know, a stranger with whom you haven’t had a conversation? Their culture, clothing and home may look different to yours. But what does that mean if you haven’t built any rapport with that person? When you look at their photo years from now, what will you remember about them and the interaction you had?

When I see tourists objectify local people and take photos of them in their homes and going about their everyday lives, I wonder why they want such photos. Is it to flood their friends’ Facebook feeds with the faces of smiling children they claim to have befriended on their travels? Is it to prove how “local” they went or how much they now really understand the culture and traditions of the country they visited?

One of the best things about travel is the people we meet – and we don’t always need to speak the same language to make a connection. But making a connection of some form is key, particularly before snapping a camera in the face of a stranger when you are a guest in their home. Ask questions about the food they’re preparing, the materials their homes are made from and the beliefs and practices of their community. Show an interest in something more than just taking their photo.

When I see tourists photographing locals, I also worry about the locals’ privacy and safety. I don’t think it’s enough to ask someone’s permission to take their photograph. Even if they nod their head, say yes or accept payment for a photo, it is likely they are not aware of the full extent to which their photo and information could potentially spread. Often, in the cases where permission is sought, it is from the child, rather than their parent or guardian. Language barriers aside, it is unrealistic to expect most children to understand the dangers associated with their personal information being publicly accessable, particularly with the reach of social media.

When a tourist takes a photo of a local, even if they seek their permission, it is unlikely they explain how they will later use that photo. This can be dangerous. A photo harmlessly posted on Facebook perhaps with seemingly minor details like the person’s name, town or village can lead to that person being contactable or located.

Most international and grassroots organisations that work with local communities, particularly those that work with children, have policies and procedures in place to protect their beneficiaries from abuse and exploitation. These include strict rules around the collection and use of information including photos and personal data. When these organisations collect such information from their beneficiaries, they are required to explain how it will be used, whether it be in a brochure, a TV advertisement, a website article or for internal records. The person being photographed, filmed or interviewed must understand and be comfortable with this before the information is collected, and parental consent for children under 18 must be sought.

Reverse the situation. Would you let a tourist visiting your home country – one that you’d had little or no interaction with – take a photo of you or your child because they thought the way you looked or lived was interesting? I would hesitate, and question why they wanted my photo and what they would do with it.

If no rapport had been built and there had been no attempt by the tourist to gain an insight into my life, I would find it insulting and intrusive. I would probably refuse, and be upset if they tried to take my photo without my permission.

This is what I want tourists to consider when they travel. Why do you want a particular photo? How are you using the information you collect and are the people you photograph aware of and comfortable with this? Are you considering and protecting their privacy and safety?

Photos are a fantastic way to capture and preserve a moment. Long after our travels are over, and perhaps our memories faded, photos are what remind us of the adventures we had and the people we met. I’m not saying we should never take photos of the people we meet on our travels – but make establishing a connection a priority, so that your photograph has meaning. Consider your intent and whether that is fair on your subject. And hold their privacy and safety in the highest regard.

Featured image from DeviantArt.

How on Earth? Flourishing in a not-for-profit economy by 2050

Imagine waking up in a world where you feel good about going to work, no matter the nature of your job. You feel positive and motivated, knowing that your work provides you with a livelihood that also contributes to the well-being of others in a way that respects the ecological limits of the planet.

Welcome to a not-for-profit world, where businesses can still make profits, but any profits are always reinvested for social or organizational benefit, rather than being accumulated privately by individuals. This world emerged because, around 2013, a large number of people came to the realization that any economic system that centralizes wealth and power is, ultimately, socially and ecologically unsustainable. People were fed up with excessive executive salaries, a financial sector divorced from the real world, corporations with more say than people, endless spin from politicians and entrepreneurs about the latest technological ‘solution’, and the trappings of mindless consumption.

As the mainstream attention on the Occupy movement faded, protesters even started to question whether being fed up was worthwhile.

Then a real alternative emerged. The people already had a business structure that wasn’t centered on creating private profit and concentrating wealth and power; all they had to do was grow the not-for-profit sector, shifting power away from the for-profits. A not-for-profit economy changed the game by decentralizing wealth and power, while maintaining incentives for innovation and increasing people’s desire for meaningful work.

Before 2013, when for-profit enterprise was the main business model,  it was contributing to financial inequity and vested interests. This had led to an increase of status anxiety due to drastic differences in material wealth. The majority of people often felt that because they didn’t have as many material possessions as the wealthy classes, among whom the money had been concentrated, they couldn’t be as happy. For some people in the lowest income brackets, this inequality not only meant status anxiety and shame, but even a lack of consumption choices, affecting diet and health. For many, the solution was to consume more of whatever they could afford.

On the global level, this overconsumption went hand-in-hand with production practices that exploited workers in sweatshops to make cheap and plentiful products, while decimating key natural resources. This was clearly unsustainable.  As more and more people realized that all forms of capitalism and socialism – grounded in a growth mentality – centralize wealth and power and are therefore unsustainable, they also began to see how a not-for-profit economy offered a way to decentralize power, whilst maintaining innovation.  When a critical mass of people reached this realization and accelerated the shift to the not-for-profit business model, everything started to change for the better.

How on Earth could that be possible?

This scenario of a not-for-profit world is closer to the present reality than you might think. Across numerous countries, the economic contribution of the not-for-profit sector has beenon the rise since the late 1990s. In Canada, for example, not-for-profit institutions now contribute 8% of the country’s gross domestic product. This is possible because not-for-profit does not mean ‘no-profit’ or ‘can’t make a profit’. Not-for-profit actually means not for private profit or not for the primary purpose of making a profit. Across most countries and jurisdictions, not-for-profits can make as much or as little money as they want, they just cannot provide payouts to private individuals from any surplus.

The pioneering work of not-for-profit businesses, from sectors as diverse as construction,manufacturingbankinghospitality and healthcare, suggest that innovative, sustainable economies, with high levels of employment, can exist without the private profit motive.

Many not-for-profits also understand that generating their own income allows them to fund the good work they do (as opposed to the traditional approach that depends on grants and philanthropy). Take, for example, BRAC, the world’s biggest not-for-profit organization. Since 1972, BRAC has supported over 100 million people through its social development services, but almost 80% of its revenue comes from its own commercial enterprises, including a large-scale dairy and a retail chain of handicraft stores, all of which are run according to a holistic vision of sustainable business.

More importantly, not-for-profit enterprises could regularly out-compete equivalent ‘for-profit’ businesses in the near future, based on a combination of factors, such as:

• not-for-profit enterprises better utilizing the benefits of the communications revolution on reduced organizational costs;
• an increasing awareness of the tax concessions and free support available solely to not-for-profits;
• the trend in consumer markets toward supporting ethical businesses and products;
• the ability of not-for-profit enterprises to survive and even thrive during years of downturn, given their sustainability does not rely on making profits and that profit margins will continue to get smaller as resource constraints impact business costs.

How on Earth can you help?

Here at the Post Growth Institute, we are writing a book: How on Earth? Flourishing in a Not-for-Profit World by 2050. This will be the world’s first book to explore the prospect of not-for-profit enterprise becoming the central model of local, national and international business, by 2050. It will also outline practical steps that you, as a member of the public, can take to fast-track this evolution to a sustainable economy.

We have created a crowdfunding campaign on Indiegogo in order to gather the financial support needed to finish researching and writing the book, as well as the funds to publish, print, market and distribute it.  You can help by contributing money to the crowdfunding campaign and spreading the word about this project and crowdfunding campaign as far and wide as possible.

For an outline of the book’s main ideas, see this 2012 talk by the book’s lead author, Dr Donnie Maclurcan, at the Environmental Professionals Forum.

This post was originally published on PostGrowth.

Bodanomics: The ethics of expat negotiation

Of all the strange experiences that expats share – the all-too-graphic conversations about bodily functions, the one-upping contest of the most dangerous areas visited, the most embarrassing mistranslations – one that seems near-universal is the moment when you realise you’re arguing over small amounts with the tuk tuk, moto, or boda boda driver. It’s a rite of passage.

For me, this happened during my second week in Mbale, Uganda, when, rather than take a 2,000 UGX ride into town – for easy rounding, about $0.80, and about twice what I would normally pay – I walked away. Negotiation 101, right? Ten seconds later, the boda boda driver sidled up to me a few feet down the street, said ‘1,000 is OK’ and off we went.

We can all laugh about it later over a Tusker Lager (3,500 UGX, here, by the way) – arguing over pennies! But it’s worth thinking through the issue a bit and not just dismissing it as one of frugality.

Namely: is such negotiation OK? Why do we do it in the first place, and is that a good enough reason given the costs? Is it fundamentally different from arguing about, say, the price of a painting or another type of souvenir?

It’s important to understand the underlying reasons for ‘penny parleying,’ to think through the downstream effects, and finally, to decide under what circumstances – if any – it’s appropriate to do. Results may vary; what one person believes is almost certainly different from another. That’s OK, as the dialogue is what’s important.

A share taxi in Kampala, Uganda
A share taxi in Kampala, Uganda


So, why negotiate for a boda boda? A few of the reasons that friends have floated:

Small amounts add up on a non-existent/low salary. This is the one that I hear most often. If, like many of us, you take a boda boda a few times every day, even small amounts add up. And for those that are volunteering or earning a low salary (by Western standards, usually), it could eat a non-trivial portion of your budget. Pure fiscal prudence.

Being indignant about getting the ’mzungu price.’ If we’re completely honest, this is probably the most salient reason behind negotiating. No one likes to feel like they are being ripped off or taken advantage of, right? It’s not uncommon to hear an expat say ’that is the mzungu price – I want the local price, sebu.’

It’s a rite of passage – one that says ’I am not a tourist.’ A corollary to the previous justification, but more to signal that you’re ’local‘ – or at least more local than the tourists staying at the nearby hostel; in the taxonomy of expats, you’re a step above the others.

The most obvious downstream effect is pretty clear: by negotiating, you’re reducing the amount of money the boda boda driver gets paid. According to an article about Tegende – a for-profit social enterprise that offers boda boda loans to drivers in Kampala – a boda boda driver makes, on average, about 75,000 UGX ($30) per week, 50,000 to 60,000 UGX ($20 to $24) of which goes towards leasing the boda. This leaves 15,000 to 20,000 UGX for rent, food, petrol, school fees, etc.

So let’s put all of this together, using one final assumption: that the price that locals pay for a ‘typical’ downtown ride is 1,000 UGX – what my Ugandan co-workers and friends tell me it is after they negotiate – and I’m asked to pay 2,000. By negotiating from the mzungu price to the local price once a week ($0.40 less, remember), I’m reducing a boda driver’s take-home pay by 5-7%.

To be sure, this is simplified and stylised. One flaw in the model is that there isn’t really a ‘local price’ or ‘mzungu price’ – the real price is whatever someone is willing to pay each time they need a ride. Another is that the purchasing power of a boda driver is necessarily different in Kampala than it is in Mbale, or any other town; ‘reducing’ a driver’s take-home pay by 5-7% may mean different things to different drivers, depending on location. And a final one is that this assumes an inelastic labour market for boda drivers and other occupations, and that the boda driver wouldn’t partially substitute, or complement, boda driving with another wage-paying occupation.

Tuk tuks in Thailand
Tuk tuks in Thailand


But take a step back and put all of that aside for a moment; whatever the specific figures are, it’s probably fair to say that, right or wrong, negotiating with a boda driver can have a pretty substantial effect on his net take-home pay.

In any case, it seems to me that most expats aren’t aware of these amounts, which isn’t at all surprising – I serendipitously stumbled upon them only while writing a piece on BodAmbulances. I’m curious as to how this knowledge – or, more generally, this thought process – would change negotiating behaviour of other expats.

Personally, I’ve come to the conclusion that the relatively small amounts I am ’overcharged‘ are, in a very real sense, fair, and I’ve stopped negotiating. This comes with its own set of issues, of course – I’m distorting the market in some small way for the locals, I’m perpetuating the stereotype of the wealthy, out-of-touch foreigner, and I’m setting improper expectations for other mzungus’ boda rides – but on net, I don’t think I’m doing much damage. And anyway, since I’ve learned to stop worrying and love the boda, I’ve almost never really felt taken advantage of.

But that’s only what works for me; I don’t think there’s one right answer, except to say that thinking through issues like these is important to do while abroad. How do you deal with situations like this? Does any of this change your mind, or will it cause you to act differently during your next tuk tuk, moto, or boda ride? Am I wrong – is it not even worth thinking about?

Good intentions are enough – to ‘nearly kill’ a local kid

By Anonymous

Given the nature of today’s anonymous post, WhyDev is unable to verify the details of the story below, but we believe it is valuable to publish given the ethical questions it raises. Names and identifying details have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals.

What does ’saving‘ a child really mean? Ask 10 people and you’re liable to get 20 different answers.

Here’s a situation where this question was implicitly asked but I’ll let you decide whether or not anyone was ’saved.’ As extremely discomfiting as this situation is for me, I’m putting it out to the wider development community with hopes of starting a conversation about how we can stop similar occurrences in the future.

I am currently affiliated with an NGO that works on health systems strengthening in East Africa. Pretty standard stuff – malnutrition, maternal mortality, village outreach, and the like. Recently, the founder turned the formerly-secular NGO into an explicitly-evangelical one, and with the shift came missionaries dedicated to ‘soul harvesting’ and ‘crusading.’

But ultimately, this is a story about an 11-year-old boy, Micah (not his real name). He was found by the side of the road one evening and was brought to the nearby health centre, where one of the missionaries happened to be working. We don’t know exactly how he ended up there, though the working hypothesis was that his mother tried to poison him and left him for dead. We’d later learn that this is almost certainly not true.

Whatever string of events led Micah to the side of the road, he was in rough shape and alone at the hospital. The missionary wanted to help, made phone calls to community members, and became involved in his case.

Micah required a higher level of care, so the missionary insisted that he go to a better-run private hospital, all expenses paid by the NGO. The missionary then had the police hastily write up a note giving our organisation the right to take the child, so he went into surgery and came out with one less appendix and one additional eight-inch incision on his abdomen.

As he recuperated, the conversation shifted to what was going to happen to him after he was discharged; a group of at least six members of the organisation, along with one community member, tasked themselves with deciding Micah’s next home – with no single person responsible for the decision or for his care. Relatives were unreachable and the paucity of available information meant that no good option seemed to exist; orphanages were discussed, but shot down for not being ‘right’ and for taking too long to accept him.

And so the missionaries decided that, while they attempted to sort out proper placement, he would stay with us. They wanted to save a child. Please do not misunderstand me – all of them are extremely kind, caring people who only had the absolute best of intentions.

But, that’s exactly the point – as we all know, and as this story will show, extraordinarily good intentions can be extraordinarily dangerous.

Before continuing, it’s instructive to note a few things. First, a police report was never filed in a case of what was assumed to be attempted filicide; while we now know that it wasn’t, at the time that was the working assumption. In some areas, it would be commonplace to forego police action; here it is not. The missionaries did receive a handwritten letter giving them the authority to take the child to the private hospital, but that was the extent of police involvement. A suitable post-discharge plan was discussed but not seriously considered by the group of seven; many orphanages were available, but never truly considered as an option.

So, Micah was taken from his community into an NGO home that is teeming with foreigners and bereft of other children. He was placed in the care of people who neither share his language nor his culture. While it’s a little facetious to say that he was ’kidnapped‘ (technically, the police did give consent; whether it was theirs to give is a separate, but important, question to ask), it is fair to ask whether this was truly in his best interest or if it was appropriate to do.

If this was the end of the story, it could probably serve as the start of a good discussion on the promise and the peril of good intentions and whether these actions are ethical or advisable.

But it’s not the end of the story.

Micah arrived in the late afternoon and walked into a room full of foreigners. For the next hour or so, a member of a nearby church translated as the missionaries explained what was going on and asked a number of questions about what had happened to him. It was clear that he was extremely uncomfortable, and understandably so.

Micah became the ’house boy,’ and as no one was specifically accountable for his health and wellbeing, no one was responsible for him. None of us are able to speak more than a few words of his language, so we got by with a few hand signals. He warmed up to us, watched television, and ate.

But not in that order. By the time someone noticed how much food he was eating – including things he probably had never digested before, like burgers and chips – it was clear something was wrong with him. Micah’s a skinny kid, but he looked six months pregnant; he was eating too much and it was all staying in his now-distended stomach. With no one accountable for his care, this was allowed to slip by for far too long.

A day later, Micah was in extreme pain, so the missionaries took him to the hospital – the same one he had been discharged from days earlier. The doctor put an emergency nasogastric tube through his nose to reduce the distension; after the tube was in, the doctor said that his stomach ’deflated like a balloon.’

He later said that Micah’s stomach was dangerously near rupture, and that he was, unequivocally and without exaggeration, ’near death’ and ‘nearly killed;’ his stomach could have perforated or his abdominal distension could have put too much pressure on his lungs.

Micah spent the week writhing in discomfort, as the nasogastric tube kept him from distending. After myriad tests and consultations, the surgeon said that the valve between the stomach and intestines was not opening; this could require surgery to fix. But ’could‘ does a lot of work there – the condition could also work itself out in time.

In other words, a decision had to be made, but the medical officer of the NGO was out of the country, and we could not get a hold of him. He’s from the country but not the region, and had not been involved in Micah’s case in any meaningful way. Ultimately, the surgeon had to leave for the airport, so Micah didn’t have surgery that day.

This was a remarkable stroke of good luck, as the doctors were able to take the nasogastric tube out, and Micah began to eat. Bit by bit, his strength – and his smile – returned, and he was discharged days later, no surgery necessary.

He is back in our home once more, but this time one person is responsible for his health. I’ve had more than a few conversations with that person about the need to find him a suitable home as soon as possible, and it seems to have had an effect. I’m hoping he gets better, and finds a new home, soon.

So, uncharitably, it could be said that a NGO – with the best of intentions – took a child from a hospital and was the proximate cause of his immediate readmission and ’near death‘ experience. But even the charitable version leaves much to be desired: an outside group took ownership of a local child, failed to understand the risks of doing so, failed to take care of him, and – most importantly – failed to keep him safe.

There’s no question that his life was in a precarious situation before the missionaries intervened; he was a sick child who desperately needed help. But did he need help from his own community, or from outsiders who felt they were doing the right thing by removing him from it?

It’s possible that Micah’s community would have allowed him to overeat, or would otherwise failed to provide him the appropriate atmosphere conducive to convalescing. With a pyloric valve issue, it’s possible that, eventually, he would have returned to the hospital.

But would he have nearly died? Would major decisions about his health have been made by outsiders?

Are such situations simply unlucky or avoidable? Is this a one-time, isolated case of hubris, or is it proof positive for the broader claim that outsiders – even with the absolute best of intentions – are fated to cause more harm than good?

What if the child would have recovered as normal – how does that change conceptions of right and wrong? What if my organisation would have done a better job of taking care of Micah – then would it have been OK?

I don’t have answers to those questions, and am grappling with them myself. I only know a few things: this situation leaves me deeply uncomfortable, deeply furious, and deeply ambivalent about my tangential relationship to it, and it seems to me that no child was saved.

In this case, good intentions were enough – to nearly kill a local kid.

Why tourists should be buying from children on the streets

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.

What is the true cost of buying things like flowers from children in poor countries?

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.

Cambodian children meeting tourists. (Gloria Cheng.)

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:

To buy:

  • 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.


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?


The paradigm shift that needs to be made for sustainable development – who needs to make it?

This past week, I’ve been delayed in writing the next blog in this series as I was distracted making a personal paradigm shift, which required me to open up my mind and think about the world in a completely different way, and to challenge and change the way that I defined my personal success in life. I found this incredibly hard to do, but also liberating and enlightening at the same time. It also made me realise how many of the indicators of success and goals I’d previously made for myself in life were based on (most likely subconsciously) the status quo and what I was ‘told’ I was meant to do in my life…by family, friends, media, politicians, and society at large, without it necessarily coming entirely from ‘within’ me, or being based on anything to do with a rational ‘good’ for the world.

I couldn’t help but draw parallels in this moment in my personal life and development in the week leading up to Rio+20, with the ‘moment’ in the world’s evolution that will be provided by this conference, and the paradigm shift that needs to be made there, in order to change our current trajectory, develop sustainably, and increase human well-being.

So, a global paradigm shift – who needs to make it?

The first thing I realised is because the macro-level (eg. international delegations, governments at all scales, etc.) is made up of collective micro-level components (eg. communities, families, individual people), and because these micro-level components are influenced by the macro-level, this paradigm shift needs to occur simultaneously at all scales, through a combination of top-down and bottom-up action.

Beyond an economic, social or environmental issue, sustainable development is an ethical issue. And an interdependent world requires global ethics. I often reflect on the distressing irony that here, in the Greater Mekong region, peoples’ lives are – and will be – hardest hit by the consequences of environmental degradation and climate change, despite having had limited contributions to creating these problems. The World Bank ranks Vietnam as the second, fourth, and 10th most vulnerable country in the world to sea-level rise, storms and flooding respectively. Cambodia, Laos and Thailand are fourth, sixth and ninth most vulnerable countries to flooding, under climate change. However, with human development indices of 139 and 138, gross national income per capita annually of $1848 and $2242, and carbon emissions of 0.02% and 0.01% of total global carbon dioxide emissions, respectively, citizens of countries like Cambodia and Laos hardly created these issues for themselves.

Human rights, the “inalienable fundamental rights to which a person is inherently entitled simply because she or he is a human being”, are recognised by the majority of countries, and are conceived as universal (applicable everywhere) and non-discriminatory (the same for everyone).

However, the effective enjoyment and implementation of human rights and fundamental freedoms are inseparable from the assumption of duties and responsibilities inherent in those rights. To be the citizen of a community is not to claim rights from it without having any responsibility to it, and conversely, neither is it to be required to assume responsibilities (e.g. by paying taxes) without having rights in return.

Yes, it is your ‘right’ to use electricity sourced from coal-fired power stations, but it is your responsibility to ensure that it does no ‘net’ damage to any other person or life-sustaining form. Yes, it is your ‘right’ to live in a large house and commute an hour and a half into work in your four-wheel drive, alone, but it is your responsibility to ‘offset’ the externalities of these possessions and activities, and if it is not able to be physically ‘offset’, or there’s a net disadvantage to society, then I think we need to think about whether allowing it altogether is ‘right’.

When we will need two Earths to sustain life in 2030, as outlined in my last post, it is clear that indefinite pursuit of current lifestyles and development, together with a trend to limit one’s responsibilities, is incompatible with harmony amongst societies, with preservation of the integrity of the planet, and with safekeeping the interests of future generations.

Rio+20 is the perfect, if not critical, opportunity to redefine the way we think about what it is to live, and what the evolution and progression of humanity we should be striving for involves, what ‘success’ looks like, and to acknowledge that it is illogical, unethical, and selfish to continue along the path we have been. The current path has done wonders for humanity in many ways…but the current trajectory will not (can not) lead to any of us further prospering. We need to personally accept our responsibility to the Earth and others, and we need our leaders, who represent us collectively on macro scales, to accept collective responsibility on our behalf. If I am able to achieve such a huge change in the way I think, feel and act on an individual level, then I believe the world can do this on a global scale too.

I am, as you all are, a tiny portion of the solution and have a big responsibility to do my part (unless your name is Julia Gillard, David Cameron, or Barack Obama, for example…then you may be a bigger part of the solution, and have a bigger responsibility to do your part!).

The thing that makes us human is self-reflective awareness, which gives us the ability to feel emotion, the essence of life – let’s not stumble backwards into the relatively primitive consciousness of the algae we evolved from.

But, even if we are ready to make changes in our lives, we need to be enabled and incentivised to. Tomorrow, I will blog about how this ‘paradigm shift’ may be implemented in a practical sense, through a ‘green economy’.


Is “sustainable development” an oxymoron?

[Ed. note: Leading up to the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development in Rio de Janeiro, we will be featuring a series of three posts on sustainable development. This first one examines whether the term “sustainable development” is a contradiction.]

On June 20, 180 world leaders and 50,000 people from the development and environment sectors will arrive in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, to participate in what is expected to be the largest conference in world history – the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, better known as “Rio+20.”

In the lead-up to this conference, I couldn’t help but wonder – is “sustainable development” an oxymoron?

A term coined in 1987 by the World Commission on Environment and Development, “sustainable development” is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. It is the simultaneous pursuit of the inter-related goals of ecological integrity, social equity, and economic welfare. It recognizes that all life is underpinned by the goods and services provided by nature, and acknowledges the moral obligation of contemporary society to the well-being of both present and future populations.

This is important as environment degradation prevents poverty reduction. As stated in the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, “The degradation of ecosystem services is harming many of the world’s poorest people and is sometimes the principal factor causing poverty.” Their survival is impacted by the poor management of the natural resources they depend upon, with use out-stripping supply, trapping them in endless cycles of poverty. If ecosystems and their services continue to be degraded, it will be impossible to find a path to long-term poverty reduction.

At Rio+20, the goal will be to secure political commitment to global sustainable development…once again. In 1992 Rio de Janeiro also hosted the “Earth Summit,” where sustainable development was first identified as a top priority on the agenda of the United Nations and the international community. It concluded with 172 signatories to a number of important documents including the Rio Declaration for Environment and Development, containing 27 principals intended to guide future sustainable development, and Agenda 21, the comprehensive blueprint of action to be taken by the UN, governments, and major groups in the 21st century. It also resulted in the opening of two legally binding international agreements – the Convention on Biological Diversity, and the Framework Convention on Climate Change, which eventually lead to the Kyoto Protocol. The Earth Summit set a precedent and an agenda.

But 20 years later, our environment is getting worse, not better, as highlighted in the table below. Alarmingly, many of these changes have accelerated in the past two decades, despite the abundance of international conventions signed during this time.

Over the same 20-year period, this environmental degradation has coincided with a period of sustained progress across a range of measures of human development. Over the two decades to 2010, world gross domestic product (GDP) rose by 300%, with incomes rising faster than populations, shown by a 222% increase in GDP per capita[i]. Improvements in life expectancy, school enrolment, literacy and income are all reflected within an 18% increase in the world’s average Human Development Index (HDI) since 1990[ii].

While rising inequalities and pockets of entrenched poverty continue to consume development efforts, there is no doubt that average material human wellbeing is better than ever before.

Figure 1 below illustrates humans’ interaction with Earth’s natural capital, and how three causal factors – population, consumption, and resource (in)efficiency – are driving the degradation of the “hand that feeds them”… something my parents taught me to never bite.

Figure 1: Linking biodiversity, ecosystems services and people – the causal factors, drivers, and direct pressures contributing to the degradation of global biodiversity and the ecosystems services provided by it. Source: WWF Living Planet Report 2012.

The latest Living Planet Report estimates that since 1996, the global demand for natural resources has doubled. It now takes 1.5 years to regenerate the renewable resources used in one year by humans. This means that we are eating into our natural capital, instead of living off its interest, and therefore creating ecological debt. Humanity’s demands are greater than our planet’s ability to sustain us. We are asking for more than we have.

Figure 2: Global Ecological Footprint by component, 1961 – 2008. Source: WWF Living Planet Report 2012.

Measuring “Ecological Footprint’” tracks humanity’s demands on the biosphere by comparing humanity’s consumption against Earth’s regenerative capacity (biocapacity). Astoundingly, on average, the footprint of high-income countries is five times greater than that of low-income countries. If everybody on Earth lived like an average Indonesian, only two-thirds of the planet’s biocapacity would be utilised, while if everyone lived like an average person from the U.S.A, not less than four Earths would be required to regener­ate humanity’s annual demand on nature! Modest UN scenarios estimate that by 2030 we will need the equivalent of two Earths to support us if current population and resource consumption trends persist. Obviously, we only have one.

Figure 2 shows the growth of the world’s average Ecological Footprint over time. As you can see, the dominant component of Ecological Footprint is carbon emissions, which accounts for 55% of the footprint.

Figure 3 outlines Ecological Footprint by region, and the growth in population as well as per capita footprint in each region between 1961 and 2008. It also highlights the almost halving of the biocapacity available to each person over the same period. So despite less resources being available to us, we are consuming more.

Figure 3: Ecological Footprint by region, 1961-2008, highlighting the change in average footprint per person and population change. Biocapacity represented by horizontal bar. Source: WWF Living Planet Report 2012.

Is “sustainable development” an oxymoron then? Are we able to increase human wellbeing and quality of life, without using more resources than the Earth can produce for us?

Or is “sustainable development” actually about having more fulfilling development– an opportunity to ask ourselves what true prosperity and fulfillment really is, and to redefine the way we think about what it is to live, and what the evolution and progression of humanity we should be striving for involves?

Science points to the tipping points we are fast approaching. I believe Rio+20 will be a critical moment in history where the fate of everyone, present and future, will be determined, for better or for worse.

But I believe humanity possesses the collective intelligence and resourcefulness needed to solve the problems it faces and move forward sustainably, whilst also alleviating poverty. I will investigate ways in which this can be achieved through the prism of a “green economy” in my next post.

Additionally, as sustainable development is essentially an issue of global ethics, I will also explore the question of responsibility and institutional frameworks for sustainable development on macro- and micro-scales, in a third post in this series.


The author wishes to acknowledge and thank Kate Glazebrook for her words and ideas in relation to the human development aspects of this post.


[i] Data generated through use of World Bank Databank, 2012.

International Volunteerism: who benefits most?

An article this week in the Times of Swaziland – “Corporal punishment to be phased out soon” – first filled me with encouragement regarding the progress Swaziland has made in its development issues in comparison to other countries. Then it whisked me down memory lane, making a pit stop at one of the mini crises I had dealt with in Ghana as Project Coordinator for an international volunteer organisation. It was the classic nightmare case: a 19-year-old boy from higher income country (HIC)-X imposed his beliefs and culture on another’s after two weeks on his project.

Even with several hours of rigorous discussion courses specifically implemented to prevent circumstances such as this, he managed to do exactly what we instructed him to refrain from doing.

Our organization placed him in a teaching assistant role with a primary school. This school, along with nearly every other primary school in Ghana, uses corporal punishment as its principle form of discipline. Each of our volunteers at this school was derailed by the apathetic teachers, the swift crack of the canes across little knuckles; their winces, their tears, their shame. All for what? Jumping out of their seats in excitement to answer a question, not leaving enough space between their letters, even answering a question incorrectly.

It’s an injustice, yes, but what can one person do about it in three weeks? Or three years? A system established by colonialists, embedded into their culture to the point of irrevocability as perceived by the country’s majority, is not going to crumble easily.

Unless you are the United Nations, and corporal punishment abolishment is at the top of the agenda.

This Times article stated that the UN requested countries using corporal punishment in schools (Swaziland included) to sign a pact promising to phase it out. I’d like to find out how the UN plans to execute and monitor this, as it’s not something likely to happen in one or even three stages. “Soon,” as assured in the article, might mean a decade or longer.

But oh, to see the grin on this boy’s face when he thought he’d rid corporal punishment from this school. (Next step, the rest of Africa!) After his project work one day during the middle of his second week, he strode gallantly into our volunteer house with a teacher’s cane in hand, arm raised over head, and exclaimed, “One down, ten more to go!”

The mess was cleaned up as best as possible, and we made a big lesson out of it for the other volunteers there as well as volunteers to come.

We all want to help people – Brendan Rigby’s post on his professional identity in development expounds on this theory. But why do people want to volunteer abroad? What’s at the core of this? Is the desire to “Make A Difference” this generation’s culture? We know the desire is coming from idealism – is it too much idealism, not enough education on sustainable development? Misinformation from the media? Or is it coming from a more personal level – have we as humans progressed into individuals who act on blind determination?

I know I can’t fix this (insert HIV/AIDS, poverty, human trafficking, etc.) overnight, but I want to give it a go anyway for the fun of it.

In this context, it sounds like self-interest, arrogance, impatience and possibly even need for recognition. …

Considering my interests in aid monitoring, sustainable development and cultures different from my own, working with volunteers and occasionally defending this industry to the skeptics can be challenging. Depending on the organization, the volunteers either come from all over the world or a specific continent. The range in age depends on what the organization’s programs offer, but the majority is between 18 and 24 years old, either on a gap year or still at university – therefore, usually they have not yet acquired a technical skill. Critics may hone in on this point, condemning organizations for allowing non-experts to do work they are not qualified to do and use the world’s poor people as guinea pigs. A volunteer with no technical skill to share will not necessarily have nothing to contribute to his or her project; though, this does not mean we (my previous and current employers, and hopefully most other similar organizations) would place someone at a medical project solely because he hopes to become a doctor one day. At least for certain volunteer placement organizations, extensive scrutiny goes into matching volunteers with projects.

Some volunteers are more focused on the project; others are in it for the thrill of traveling. They have different priorities and different views. Most are only able to join the four-week programs because of lack of time or money or both; very rarely do people stay longer than three months. A few are curious about how their program funds are used, which are perhaps some of my prouder moments while at work.

How is short-term volunteering sustainable? I ask this question every day – it forces me to balance my cynicism meter.

Short-term international volunteerism is not sustainable for community members. In a twisted way I take pleasure in watching volunteers realize this – it’s practically a wasted experience if they don’t learn this lesson. I do believe these community members are positively affected by the volunteers’ interest in them and their communities, which is arguably equally important as creating sustainable change. Both parties enjoy the personal exchange, be it a specific skill, hope, enlightenment or ambition.

If a volunteer is motivated and has easily transferable skills, it is possible to “Make A Difference” by practicing capacity building and developing or improving organizational aspects of a grassroots nonprofit. The question is, will the work achieved be/remain sustainable? To ensure sustainability, the progress made by the volunteer will need monitoring. Is long-term monitoring feasible for such projects? Due to lack of funds, among other factors, it’s usually not.

People apply for international volunteer programs in order to learn. To see and experience things they haven’t before. And if after their volunteer abroad experience, their ideas and thoughts are changed for the better – their ideas more practical and thoughts more open – the volunteers are the ones who have been developed sustainably.