In the fun and laughter of the festive season it is all too easy to forget that for many in the world there is no celebration. 

MSF’s Top Ten Humanitarian Crises of 2008.

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I have been wanting to watch the movie Black Gold for a while so was very happy to see it on sale at the cultural festival recently.  I finally watched it last week, and was glad I did.  It is the story of Ethiopian coffee, and in particular the journey of Tadesse Meskela, a man on a mission to get better prices for his coffee farmers cooperative.  The movie deliberately and effectively contrasts the poverty of the coffee producers with the luxury of coffee consumers, which makes for very throught provoking viewing.

This is an excellent movie with an important message. But I do have a couple of little complaints.  Firstly I think the film would have benefited from a little more explanation of how the coffee markets and price setting worked (although it probably was made with a larger target population in mind then Development Studies post-grads, who may not be quite so interested in the exact mechanisms of imperialistic trade!). It did however convey well the injustice of a system that allows muti million dollar corporations and farmers with starving families to coexist.

The other little niggle is related to the niggle I have about fair trade in general. As can be esily guessed from this blog, I am already a convert to fair trade, however I don’t think it is the panacea for world trade problems and poverty that it is often promoted as. The problems are large and structural, and deeply unjust.  They are also political.  Trade favours the rich, the consumers, and those with power.  And (as the movie does show in parts), those who benefit are not in any rush to change.

At the risk of displaying my socialist tendancies, here’s a good quote from A Very Public Sociologist:

As long as production is subordinate to the market, as long as workers are not paid the full value of their labour power, superexploitation and one-sided development/underdevelopment will remain the lot of Africa. And no amount of consumption with a conscience will change that.

Unfortunately I don’t have any answers. I do strongly believe that fair trade while it won’t save the world it is better than doing nothing.  At the very least it indicates some thought has gone into the purchase (mindless consumption is perhaps a topic for another day!), and one producing cooperative/ farmer/ community may be a little better off.

Despite all that I really liked the movie, and highly recommend it (and I’ll be inflicting it on my family and friends too!).  And what impacted me the most?  I had never realised how much of a hands-on process coffee production is.  Berries are hand-picked, and hand sorted so that every bean has been touched by the hands of African (or Latin American or Melanesian…) workers.  Literally black gold.  Since watching the movie I have been even more careful when grinding and making my coffee in the morning, handling the beans is a tangible link back up the supply chain to some very real people.

Over recent years I have been gradually moving from a strongly “pro-life”/anti-abortion stand (influenced of course by my good Christian upbringing) to what I feel is a more balanced, realistic view of this issue.

I have been thinking about posting on this for a while, but I’m not sure I have much to add to this article by George Monbiot.

A study published in the Lancet shows that between 1995 and 2003 the global rate of induced abortions fell from 35 per 1000 women each year to 29(7)… When you look at the broken-down figures, it becomes clear that… the incidence of abortion is highest in conservative and religious societies. In the largely secular nations of western Europe, the average rate is 12 abortions per 1000 women. In the more religious southern European countries, the average rate is 18. In the United States, where church attendance is still higher, there are 23 abortions for every 1000 women(9), the highest level in the rich world. In Central and South America, where the Catholic Church holds greatest sway, the rates are 25 and 33 respectively. In the very conservative societies of East Africa, it’s 39(10).

…But while his church causes plenty of suffering in the rich nations, this doesn’t compare to the misery inflicted on the poor. Chillingly, as the Lancet paper shows, there is no relationship between the legality and the incidence of abortion. Women who have no access to contraceptives will try to terminate unwanted pregnancies whatever the consequences might be. A report by the World Health Organisation shows that almost half the world’s abortions are unauthorised and unsafe(16). In eastern Africa and Latin America, where religious conservatives ensure that terminations remain illegal, they account for almost all abortions. Methods include drinking turpentine or bleach, shoving sticks or coat hangers into the uterus(17) and pummelling the abdomen, which often causes the uterus to burst, killing the patient(18). The WHO estimates that between 65 000 and 70 000 women die as a result of illegal abortions every year, while five million suffer severe complications. These effects, the organisation says, “are the visible consequences of restrictive legal codes.”

An abortion is certainly something no woman ever wants to have, and in an ideal world I am sure I would probably be “pro-life”.  But we do not live in an ideal world, we live in this one, and in this one women are hurt and die for a lack of access to contraceptives and safe abortions.    For that reason I support legalised abortion, paired with good sex education and the widespread provision of contraceptives. This is what will save lives.

Fresh Perspectives

November 29, 2007

Obviously I am not doing very well at posting on this blog at the moment-  with family, work, research proposals and another small writing project I have committed to, blogging has ended up way down the list of priorities.  However in order to keep some interest in this blog (both for me and for readers) I thought I would post a great link with some amazing photos.

Panos pictures is “a London-based independent photo agency representing photojournalists worldwide. Our photographers document issues and geographical areas which are under-reported, misrepresented or ignored. In a media climate dominated by celebrity and lifestyle Panos aims to provide fresh perspectives on the world.”

Here are a couple of photos from “Climate Wars”, a collection of photos from refugee camps in the Sudan.  A sad indictment on the state of our world- there are many heartbreaking pictures, yet here we still see joy in children’s faces.

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A horribly complex issue

October 10, 2007

This morning I attended a workshop on FGM (Female Genital Mutilation or “female circumcision”). We care for a lot of refugees at the health centre where I work, including a significant number from Somalia and other African countries where FGM is practised, and so although it is uncommon and illegal here it is something we do see regularly and need to know about.

Female genital mutilation (FGM), often referred to as ‘female circumcision’, comprises all procedures involving partial or total removal of the external female genitalia or other injury to the female genital organs whether for cultural, religious or other non-therapeutic reasons. (WHO)

Girls usually undergo FGM prior to puberty- the average age is 6-8.  While it is increasingly done by health professionals under local anaesthetic, in rural areas it is still carried out without anaesthetic, with scissors, razor blades or knives while the girl is held down by female relatives.  In the short term the girl may experience excrutiating pain, shock infection, haemorhage, urinary retention and fractures.  But it doesn’t end there.  Long term issues caused by FGM include difficulty passing urine, pelvic infections, scars, cysts, fistulae, difficulties with menstruation, increased risk of HIV transmission, sexual complications, childbirth complications and negative psychosocial impacts.
While the physical trauma that girls go through is horrendous and quite harrowing to contemplate, what I found most disturbing was the psycho-social issues they face, the fact that even in New Zealand women see the pain and long term complications of FGM as preferable to the socially ostracised life they and thier daughters would lead without it.

FGM is a complex multifaceted practice deeply rooted in a strong cultural and social framework. It is endorsed by the community and supported by loving parents with what is believed to be the best interests of a young girl at heart. FGM can only be understood within its cultural context, for in the societies where it is practised — despite its harmful physical affects — FGM provides women with many social and cultural benefits…

Whether the practice is shrouded in rituals and celebrations, or whether it involves a visit to the local midwife, FGM is an integral part of a girl’s social development. The practice is deeply embedded in the social norms of the community and there is immense social pressure on all young girls to conform. A girl who does not undergo FGM is likely to be severely socially penalised, and is often despised, taunted, ostracised and made the target of ridicule. No one in her community may want to marry her, and what is clearly understood to be her life’s work — marriage and childbearing — will be denied her.

For a woman living in a patriarchal society with no access to land or education and no effective power base, marriage is her main means of survival and access to resources — and FGM is her pre-requisite for marriage. With the beliefs surrounding FGM deeply embedded from childhood, the social approval associated with FGM and the sanctions women face if they don’t undergo FGM — the benefits of FGM would seem to outweigh the physical difficulties. FGM is inevitably viewed in a very positive light and this can explain why women continue to cling to the tradition, colluding in their own daughters’ circumcision.  (fgm.co.nz)

It makes me incredibly sad and angry that women and girls are faced with these kinds of realities. I have the utmost of admiration both for the women who live daily with the impacts of FGM on thier physical and psychological health, and for those who have taken the huge step of refusing to have thier daughters circumcised.

“For every cup of Ethiopian coffee Starbucks sells, Ethiopian farmers earn 3¢.” – Oxfam, October, 2006

The trademark dispute between Ethiopia and Starbucks has ended with a bizarre and mysterious accord. Ethiopia, one of the ancient civilizations in the world, collided with a symbol of globalization and, to some extent, challenged the status-quo without success. The outcome should serve third-world countries as a reminder of the harsh reality that they have far go to get control of their intellectual property rights.

Although Ethiopian coffees command a premium price in foreign markets, particularly the US, farmers who grow the beans often live in extreme poverty. The Ethiopian coffee sector’s strategy to trademark the famous coffee brands, Harar, Sidamo, and Yirgacheffe, in all major international markets was an eye-opener for many of the coffee growing nations in Africa. But that effort hit a dead end in the US, home for Starbucks Corporation. After several months of fight, Starbucks and Ethiopia declared on June 20, 2007 that they have both emerged as winners.

Whether and how the terms of the truce will benefit Ethiopian coffee farmers remains to be seen. What is unquestionable is that, because of Starbucks and the National Coffee Association, Ethiopia has lost the trademark for Sidamo in the US and has surrendered the moral high ground that had won her support from all over the globe and has very little to show for it. Besides, all the economic opportunities that might have changed the lives of the poor farmers, who, for centuries, have been taken advantage of, have vanished into thin air.

From Coffee Politics- more here.

Which all makes me wonder why the first Starbucks in West Africa is aboard the Africa Mercy. Surely Mercy Ships can afford to be a little more choosy about thier sponsorship.

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I’ve found another reason to move to Honduras. It ranks 7th in the world in the Happy Planet Index (HPI). This is an innovative new measure that aims to show the ecological efficiency with which human well-being is delivered around the world.

The HPI reflects the average years of happy life produced by a given society, nation or group of nations, per unit of planetary resources consumed. Put another way, it represents the efficiency with which countries convert the earth’s finite resources into well-being experienced by their citizens.

Vanuatu was no. 1. New Zealand ranks 78th.  The USA 150th.  The lowest ranked country is Zimbabwe (178).  The countries that scored best were Latin American and island nations (Caribbean and Pacific).  I find this fascinating.  The richest and the poorest scored badly.  The rich presumably because of thier high resource consumption, and the poorest for thier life expectancy.  Here is the authors interpretations:

Island nations score well above average in the Index: They have higher life satisfaction, higher life expectancy and marginally lower Footprints than other states. Yet incomes (by GDP per capita) are roughly equal to the world average. Even within regions, islands do well. Malta tops the Western world with Cyprus in seventh place (out of 24); the top five HPI nations in Africa are all islands; as well as two of the top four in Asia. Perhaps a more acute awareness of environmental limits has sometimes helped their societies to bond better and to adapt to get more from less. Combined with the enhanced well-being that stems from close contact with nature, the world as a whole stands to learn much from the experience of islands.

It is possible to live long, happy lives with a much smaller environmental impact: For example, in the United States and Germany people’s sense of life satisfaction is almost identical and life expectancy is broadly similar. Yet Germany’s Ecological Ecological footprint is only about half that of the USA. This means that Germany is around twice as efficient as the USA at generating happy long lives based on the resources that they consume.

You can also calculate your personal score on the website.  My score on was 43.1. What’s yours?

Being married to one of the greediest, most corrupt and ruthless leaders in the world can be a real trial that carries a lifelong sentence. So how does a woman cope?

Here are a few tips from Josephine Fachocul, ex-wife of some dictator (well there are so many to choose from) who now lives in exile in Cannes.

If you enjoy this article and want to send her some cash (preferably in US dollars) as a token of appreciation, her bank in the Cayman Islands will be happy to accept donations. The account details are: Loot the Poor 12399999888. 

Global Snippets 2

June 24, 2007

  • A tale of two towns“Two controlled, imagined communities symbolise the global disorder and social polarisation that marks the era of war on terror.” A fascinating but sobering account of two “towns” that illustrate the world of the twenty-first century.
  • Meanwhile satellite images document atrocities in real towns- at least what once was towns.
  • Child labour and the Olympics “…basic labor standards are being violated by four Chinese factories in particular that have been licensed to manufacture goods for the games. The group reported that workers as young as 12 are working 12-hour shifts or longer, seven days a week in unsafe conditions.”
  • Slow intervention could lead to increased child malnutrition in the south of Honduras- early 8,300 subsistence-producer families lost most of the harvest during the 2006/07 agriculture cycle in this region.

Dreaming of the sea

June 14, 2007

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A couple of days ago I received an email from a former ship-mate from Mercy Ships. It was the usual mass-mailout, what-are-we-up-to now and look what Mercy Ships is doing kind of email but for once it caught my attention. Mercy Ships newest and largest ship, the Africa Mercy, has just undertaken its maiden voyage and arrived in Africa, and this email contained photos, and links to a BBC report and photographic tour of this ship, and a new song released just for Mercy Ships.

As I browsed I started getting a bit nostalgic. I remember the things I loved about the ships. Sunsets at sea. The throb of the engine and gentle rocking of the ship as I settled to sleep in my cosy little bunk. The thrill of arrival in a new port, waking to a new view out my porthole, walking off the ship to explore a new city, a new country. The feeling of actually doing something positive for the world.

And then I realised why I have been so unsettled lately. I have spent 4 of the past6 years studying development. I have spent countless hours reading and thinking about poverty, social justice and religion. And far from being more prepared for work with the poor, I feel discouraged and somewhat stymied.  I have spent too long critiquing what is happening and the problems caused by  well-meaning volunteers and development professionals and don’t feel I can “do” anything much that would help.  I miss the innocent enthusiasm with which I set out to “save the world” years ago, and I miss the secure and easy answers that my Christianity gave me at that time.  It has all been replaced with cynicism and doubt.  Maybe our Pentecostal pastor was right 5 years ago when he cautioned my husband against university studies.  To much knowledge and thinking can be a dangerous thing, especially for religious belief and idealism!

I still believe the Mercy Ships ideals are good, and I definitely believe there is a place  for the ships in medical relief work, but given the changes in me I’m not sure I could ever fit back in there.  Add to that the negative memories and the aspects of ship life I would rather not remember I guess I’m going to have to stick to following their progress online, and dreaming about the sea.