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Your Opinions Please…

15 Jun

“What freedom has our subsistence farmer? He scratches a bare living from the soil provided the rains do not fail; his children work at his side without schooling, medical care, or even good feeding. Certainly he has freedom to vote and to speak as he wishes. But these freedoms are much less real to him than his freedom to be exploited. Only as his poverty is reduced will his existing political freedom become properly meaningful and his right to human dignity become a fact of human dignity.”

– Julius K. Nyerere, President of Tanzania (1964-1985)

This question has probably been up for debate for as long as “development” has been on the international agenda: Should economic development take priority over civil/political rights? Or are the two inextricably linked, and therefore need to be built up simultaneously?

What do you think?


Water Wonders

12 Jun

My host sisters are very excited today. We’ve just gotten news that the town’s water system is getting fixed. The system has been down for over a week now, but within the next few hours there should be water coming out of the tap in our compound again. In Canada, we have faucets and toilets in every house, water fountains in every public space, and irrigation systems for every industrial farm; but here it is not so common to have running water. The fact that our household has a private source of running water is a mark of my family’s relative wealth.

Yesterday, when we went down to the public well to collect water in jerry cans, I had my first real slap-in-the-face confrontation with privilege. As I walked down the hill with Irene, Fiona, and little Peter, I immediately spotted the well – not because of any special signs, but because of all the people standing around with empty jugs.  When we got closer, I watched women and children leaning out over the pool of murky white water, and was disgusted. Disgusted to think that anyone would drink that water, and disgusted with myself for judging people who probably have no other choice. Less than a metre away, a broken water pump seemed to say, “NGO XYZ cares about you and your access to clean water… sort of… but not really.”

I felt so lucky, knowing that the water we were collecting would only be used to wash clothes, since we still had some clean water stored up  for cooking and drinking. I have the privilege to choose to never drink water from a well like that one. Being aware of this privilege filled me with a queasy combination of gratitude and sadness. The United Nations says that, “The human right to water is indispensable for leading a life in human dignity. It is a prerequisite for the realization of other human rights”. But that doesn’t mean that everyone actually has access to safe water.

I know that the easy solutions – like installing another water pump or distributing LifeStraws – wouldn’t solve much, because the real problem comes from much larger constraints in political, financial, infrastructural and social systems. However that doesn’t dampen my fairy-tale urge to snap my fingers and have the world’s problems magically disappear. Being powerless sucks.

On a lighter note, if you see me randomly kissing water fountains when I get home, you’ll know why…


For anyone who’s interested in learning more, I’m going to pull a cheap move: Go check out EWB’s work on Water and Sanitation in Malawi at the EWB Website. Or check out some of my friends’ blogs here.

AVC: The Basics

14 Mar

Last week I found out that I will be working with EWB’s Agriculture Value Chains(AVC) team in either Kenya or Uganda.

My initial thoughts on this: East Africa? Sweet! I’m gonna climb Mt. Kilimanjaro! But AVC? I’ve been part of EWB for two years, and I still don’t understand what AVC does! I have no idea how to explain this to my friends…

Since last week, I’ve done my best to boil down AVC’s approach and strategy to the absolute basics, in infographic form. This is definitely over-simplified, but now I feel like I have a better understanding of the system I’ll be working within, and hopefully this will make sense to you too. If you have any questions about AVC, or feedback on the infographic itself, I’d love for you to comment below!

(Click to enlarge)


I know that the circular visual above has been a bit unclear to some of my friends. I’ve copied it from an AVC team powerpoint, but here’s how it works in my mind: “Organizational Capacity” is like the axle of the wheel. It provides support and stability, but it isn’t attached to the wheel. “Relationships”, “Ownership”, “Incentives” and “Light Touch & Exit Strategy” are the active outcomes that drive the market system forward. When the wheel gets spinning fast enough, you can carefully pull the axle out, and the wheel will continue spinning on its own. (Engineer friends, this is a very loose analogy. Please don’t get too caught up in analysis of the physics behind this. Things get shaky if the wheel hits a bump in the road… Haha, I’m soo punny!)

Also, Market Facilitation seems to be a bit like Enterprise Facilitation (which I touched on in an earlier post) applied to larger systems, rather than just individual entrepreneurs.

Found Around the Internet

24 Feb
Just thought I’d share some blog posts that I found to be interesting/educational/awesome:
It’s an eclectic mix, but what’s the point of limiting yourself to only one style of thinking, right?

More Than Words

22 Feb
Last week, I wrote a pretty lengthy post about capitalism, but I’m still sceptical about a lot of modern socio-economic practices, so I thought I’d do a bit of comparative reading. I read a chunk of the “Communist Manifesto” by Marx and Engels, since that seemed like an obvious contrast. And, just out of curiosity, I also read some of Mikhael Bakunin’s writing on Anarchism ( I highly recommend reading both!)
It was pretty cool to be able to compare Capitalism with Communism with Anarchism, and each reading challenged my values and assumptions in different ways. I found that all three readings were highly persuasive and pertinent to current political movements. Each author had their own proposal for driving societal change, but many of their values and goals were similar. Although discussions of left-wing vs. right-wing policies tend to be highly polarized, the truly powerful discussion points come from the areas of commonality. I could summarize each work, and draw out a comparison of similarities and differences, but I’d rather just show you:
(For those unfamiliar with Wordle: relative size of words = frequency of the word in a particular text)
Wordle created from text sample of  Adam Smith's "Wealth of Nations"
Wordle created from text sample of Adam Smith’s “Wealth of Nations”
Wordle created from Ch.2 of the “Communist Manifesto”
Wordle created from text sample of  Mikhail Bakunin's "Where I Stand"
Wordle created from text sample of Mikhail Bakunin’s “Where I Stand”
Here’s what I see when I look at these graphics together:
Each writer has their own favourite ideas and words, which are repeated frequently, and therefore dominate our understanding of their work. But, if we look at the less pushy underlying themes, there are a number of shared trends in their ideas and values. For instance, the words society/humanity/mankind  appear with moderate frequency, alongside the words development/progress/improvement  in all three works. This shows how, as a part of their proposals for new economic and social orders, each author expressed their concerns for the greater well-being of society. Another trend worth noting, is the way in which these works discuss society in terms of  resources and control, with words such as: capital, property, ideas, labour, people/man, equality, freedom, organization, division, production, and exploitation. These are all words of power and ownership, but not explicitly “money”; it is as if each author tacitly acknowledges that what a person can buy (money) is not nearly as important as what a person controls (power).
All three works propose that there will be greater stability and contentment within a society, if members of the society are provided with equal opportunity, are able to meet their own needs as a result of their own labour, and are allowed to contribute in the ways they are best suited to. When there is extreme disparity of opportunity, power, and wealth within the hierarchies of a society, it is detrimental to the progress of the society as a whole, and creates instability and the desire for revolution.
These conclusions are necessarily over-simplified, but I want to emphasize that all of these men had similar goals and hopes for humankind. What distinguished them were the methods that they advocated for, and the words that they chose to express their ideologies. The three philosophies have been implemented in various powerful ways throughout history. They have motivated and influenced many people, and are still quite relevant today, but they have also led to some terrible outcomes. They show the great power that words can have, and are proof that rhetorical flourishes can change the course of history. However, the real-world outcomes of these ideas remind us that persuasion is not equivalent to proof.
We are at a point in history where we need to move away from paradigms of ideology and subjective values. In the 21st century, big ideas need to be supported by data, not just eloquent arguments. This is especially true for development work, where the livelihoods of vulnerable communities are at stake.
This is a topic for another post, but I just want to touch on why using data and scientific thought processes are EWB-relevant and important for international development: 1)Data can help us to understand the complex systems we operate within, and reveal unexpected relationships and power dynamics. An interesting example of this is “The Network of Global Corporate Control“, which examines how the structure of the control network of transnational corporations affects global market competition and financial stability. 2) Evidence-based decision making allows us to design more effective solutions based on past projects and experiences, so that benefits are maximized, and harmful failures are minimized. For an example from the education system, check out “4 surprising lessons about education learned from data collected around the world“.
To sum up, I am finding it useful to read the works of political theorists from the past because it challenges my assumptions, provides insight into how our existing systems were formed, and highlights important lessons we have learned since the initial ideas were put forth. All three of these works were fascinating to read, but they also reminded me of why it’s important to look further than the eloquent opinions of privileged, white men, for facts and alternative perspectives.
19 Jan

I found this graphic to be pretty informative. One of my pre-departure goals is to learn more about colonial history, and the implications it has for current politics and African development.

What is Beyond Complicated?

19 Jan
International development is complex.” I’ve heard that phrase about as many times as “Eat your vegetables,” but what does it really mean? How does one begin to understand this complexity, and how does this understanding direct real-world actions?
To be honest, I don’t think that anyone -not even the “experts”- fully understands all of the inter-related systems within the development sector. But if I’m going to be even remotely useful while working  in Africa (more precise location to be announced in March) this summer, I have to at least have a beginner’s understanding of the complex systems I will be immersed in. But before this gets tooo wordy, here’s a diagram to explain the confused mush between my ears!
Basically, people tend to work with ideas and problems that are either simple, complicated, or complex. Hopefully my drawing makes enough sense that I don't have to define each individually.
Basically, people tend to work with ideas and problems that are either simple, complicated, or complex. Hopefully my drawing makes enough sense that I don’t have to define each individually.
International development work is often complex, because it deals with many components and people, each with intertwining, continually changing relationships and influences. The second drawing shows just a few of the things that I will have to consider this summer. There’s no way I’ll ever understand it all, but I will try to learn all that I can, and I will begin with books… The goal is to get  my thoughts further than Simple and Complicated ideas, to a more sophisticated understanding of Complex concepts: moving my brain-space beyond Complicated.
I have already been reading a couple of books, so I’ll post summaries and learning-points here. This will mostly be for myself, but if anyone else is interested or is doing similar learning, I would love comments, feedback, and suggestions for things to read next!
Eventually my learning process will have to evolve, and in May I’ll have stories to tell about my on-the-ground experiences, but this is where I’m going to begin.
I know an itty-bitty bit about all of these things, and practically nothing about how they interact in real-life systems.
I know an itty-bitty bit about all of these things, and practically nothing about how they interact in real-life systems.
Yours in anticipation of mind-blowing awesomeness,