April 23, 2009

causewiredA while back I wrote a post titled Letters> email> facebook, which was inspired by the book CauseWired by Tom Watson.  I have now finally finished reading it – the delay being related to the amount of time I have for reading and my reading priorities rather than book itself.  It is in fact a very readable book, and an excellent introduction to the world of online causes and digital philanthropy.  The text is littered with example of organisations and groups using the Internet in unique and exciting ways, and I have used more of my thesis work time looking these up online than I probably should have!  The discussion is also enlivened by  Watson’s long experience in the sector and the fact that he knows, or has met, many of the personalities involved.  This means he is able to bring a personal face to the topic and to the, and is well placed to bring an engaging insider perspective.

That said, I found the book to be highly uncritical of the changes it discussed -with the problems of distributing the causewired future relegated to a few pages at the end of the book.  While acknowledging that this is not meant to be an academic book (and I also admit I am now well immersed in the academic genre), I found the book to be over-enthusiastic in many places.  Watson is quite rightly, very enthusiastic about the potential of online social networks to bring about social change.  But while he has written a book about activism and philanthropy and saving the world, he has missed arguably the most important voice of all – that of the recipients of this attention, the poor and disconnected.  

Actually, that is not entirely true. Watson argues that the peer-to-peer nature of wired causes and digital philanthropy has the potential to reduce the distance between the donors and activists, and the communities and people they are trying to help.  This means that donors can choose who thier money goes to (the Kiva model for example), or get up-to-the minute micro-reports on projects they support.  This could well be true, and a is almost certainly a step in the right direction.  However I am concerned that Watson does not examine the potential pitfalls of the causewired revolution, for example the underlying power issues inherant in donor – recipient relationships, the issues of access to technology (in both developed and developing countries those that have access to technology – or to an organisation that has – have power, those that don’t are further marginalised), and the potential problems created when a recipient community or organisation does not have the capacity to use the increased funds and resources appropriately.  Maybe he’s leaving all that to an academic, but I think these are all issues Western donors and activists need to be aware of, and shouldn’t be relegated to dry academic books.

The last sentence in the book is perhaps the most profound for me.  After all the hype over wired causes, Watson quotes William Gibson – “The future is already here; it’s just not evenly distributed”.  As with all proposed solutions for global poverty and injustice, the lack of change is probably related not to the lack of good ideas, but to underlying issues of inequality and power that mean the solutions never actually fulfil their potential.  As Watson argues, it is still early days for the causewired movement.  While it is almost certainly raising awareness of global issues and inspiring a new generation of social entrepreneurs and philanthropists, only time will tell if the peer-to-peer model and long reach of the digital medium will lead to any significant change in the lives of the poor and disempowered.


I was doing a bit of ‘research’ today, looking for videos on the World Bank and IMF for a tutorial I am teaching tomorrow (I got locked out of the department video library…), and came across this 2002 documentary The New Rulers of the World, by British journalist John Pilger. Here’s part of the blurb from the producers:

In order to examine the true effects of globalization, Pilger turns the spotlight on Indonesia, a country described by the World Bank as a model pupil until its globalized economy collapsed in 1998. The film examines the use of sweatshop factories by famous brand names, and asks some penetrating questions. Who are the real beneficiaries of the globalized economy? Who really rules the world now? Is it governments or a handful of huge companies? The Ford Motor Company alone is bigger than the economy of South Africa. Enormously rich men, like Bill Gates, have a wealth greater than all of Africa.

If you have a spare 53 minutes I strongly recommend you watch this. Unfortunately my class doesn’t so we will just watch the IMF/ World Bank section but I will advise they watch the rest, if nothing else as a counter to the economics stuff they have been reading.

I have just watched an item on Campbell Live about the school holiday programme at Auckland Zoo, which is supposed to start next week. It seems that the Zoo has had to cancel the programme because the sponsors have withdrawn thier support.

The reason for this withdrawl is related to the completion of a workbook which is part of the programme.  One of the questions in the workbook was about the orangutans, specifically, it asked what is the greatest threat to the survival of orangutans. The answer is palm oil.

Palm oil is something most consumers know little about, yet eat and use on a daily basis.  It is used in hundreds of different types of processed food from margarine to noodles to crackers to chocolate.  It is also used in cosmetics and cleaning products.  And it is increasingly being used as a biofuel.  As a result vast swathes of countryside in tropical regions is being cleared to for palm oil plantations- out of sight and out of mind for most Westerners.  Honduras is one of those places.  ALthough more known for fruit growing (the original ‘banana republic’), following Hurricane Mitch much of the fruit growing land has been converted to palm oil plantations.  We travelled through miles and miles of these on our last trip to Honduras.

Malaysia is one of the worlds largest palm oil producers, and the destruction of rain forest for palm oil has been accelerating significantly.  This rainforest is the home of the orangutan, and the destruction of it’s habitat is placing the already endangered primate at even greater risk- hence the question and answer in the Auckland Zoo workbook.

Turns out the sponser for the school holiday project is Tourism Malaysia.  Tourism Malaysia objected to the workbook question and asked Auckland Zoo to remove itd.  Auckland Zoo said no, education about Palm Oil was part of the programme.  So Tourism Malaysia has pulled thier support for the programme.

Of course the supreme irony is that I’m blogging on this now.  Because I’m only blogging about it because of the item which was broadcast on national tv. The issue has obviously gained significantly more exposure now than it would have if they had just left the holiday programme alone.

Eat less meat

April 16, 2008

Following on from my post of food riots a couple of days ago, George Monbiot has posted an article about the crisis, focusing on the problem of meat consumption.

…But there is a bigger reason for global hunger (than using food crops for biofuels), which is attracting less attention only because it has been there for longer. While 100m tonnes of food will be diverted this year to feed cars, 760m tonnes will be snatched from the mouths of humans to feed animals(9). This could cover the global food deficit 14 times. If you care about hunger, eat less meat.

I’m pleased to say I have been more or less vegetarian for a week now. I say more or less because we spent the weekend at my parents home and I had decided not to tell them until I was a little more certain that this would last and wasn’t a 2-day wonder, so I did have a very small amount of lamb on Saturday night.  And we had fish on Friday night but it was caught by my Dad!  I think however, that I have reached a decision that I am happy about, and will be able to maintain.  Actually I have been very happy since making the decision, and I think it is because I have been feeling increasing uncomfortable about eating meat.

Along with the post about meat, Monbiot has also recently posted about growing your own veges.  I’ve had a garden before (with mixed success) and it is something I will do again- once we are out of student accomodation!  For now I’ll have to stick with local markets.

Food Riots

April 11, 2008

Did you know that around the world today a billion people are facing food shortages?  That average food prices have risen 40% across the world in less than a year, and as much as 300% in some places?  That a top UN official has warned that the crisis could cause worldwide turmoil and global political instability? That this is already happening- that in the last few weeks there have been riots over food in Haiti (4 people dead), Ivory Coast, Cameroon (40 people dead), Mauritania, Mozambique, Senegal,  Uzbekistan, Yemen, Bolivia, Jordan and Indonesia?

I try and follow the news as much as a busy mum and student can, and as a Development Studies student have been aware of the issues for some time- and I still missed just how immanent this crisis is.  This may be because despite the fact that some have been warning for years of the potential for a humanitarian and environmental crisis (for example this article from George Monbiot in 2004), the mainline media has largely ignored to signs.  Until now.  When the world is at crisis point and it may be too late to prevent millions of deaths.

Benjamin posted on this issue on Justice and Compassion a few days ago, linking to an article by Paul Krugman in the NY Times.  He suggested that-

The most immediate need is more aid to people in distress: the U.N.’s World Food Program put out a desperate appeal for more funds.

We also need a pushback against biofuels, which turn out to have been a terrible mistake.

I don’t disagree, but I don’t think this is enough.  This is what I commented-

I’m actually not sure that Krugman’s suggestions as to what should be done are hugely helpful either. Food aid has been linked with all kinds of ongoing problems- including undermining local markets, creating desire for imported grains over local staples and generally creating dependency.

He is right about about biofuels. however. They are a mistake. But just pushing back won’t help- we don’t need to continue our love affair with oil. I think we in the west needs to seriously reduce our dependence on fuel.

The problem is most Westerners don’t know or don’t care. I guess they think science or politicians or somebody else is going to come up with an answer, and we can just keep consuming the way we have been. For the moment the food crisis is mostly impacting on the poor in developing countries, and as unjust as it is, I don’t think the West will make significant changes until it starts to impact on our lifestyles significantly. I just hope that isn’t too late.

Change starts at home though. I have been thinking about going vegetarian for a long time… this may just be the motivation I need.

This may be a contradiction in a sense (food aid and pushing back on biofuels is not enough but my personal change is?), and I know it’s a drop in the bucket but I’m serious about the vegetarian thing. I probably won’t be 100% vege (my husband is not keen on the idea, and I’ve no aversion to the occasional NZ grass-fed/ organic/ free range meat meal) but I can’t ignore the fact that it takes far more land and resources to produce meat than grains, that livestock farming is incredibly environmentally degrading, and that I just feel selfish when so many are hungry and I have an excess of food on my plate.

Now you know about the crisis- what are you going to do?

The Story of Stuff

December 6, 2007

Please watch this teaser then go to the site to watch the whole thing- before you do your Christmas shopping!

Gap For Kids By Kids

November 1, 2007

 Following on from my post yesterday- here’s the Onion News Networks’ take on the issue:

Conflict Cocoa

June 12, 2007

Chocolate slavery and now conflict cocoa.  I really have to try to keep to fair trade chocolate.

Global Witness says that in the same way that “blood diamonds” have adversely affected the lives of people in Sierra Leone and Liberia, and oil has fuelled violence in the Niger Delta, so cocoa has done the same in Ivory Coast…

According to Global Witness, millions of dollars worth of cocoa revenue have funded both sides in the conflict, with the tacit acceptance of cocoa companies based in America and Europe.

Fairtrade on Ebay

June 4, 2007

This is great, it almost makes me wish I lived in the UK.  Will trademe ever do anything similar?

Fair Trade fortnight has just begun in Wellington.  Unfortunately I won’t be able to make it to many, if any of the events- my sister is getting married on Saturday and I seem to be caught up in the whole busy whirlwind that is wedding preparation.

In the middle of the storm I did however find time to read an article in a recent Listener magazine about the dilemma faced by the conscientious consumer- organic, fair trade or local?  According to the article this makes me a “solution seeker”, a group that wants to do the right thing with our purchasing power, and which apparently makes up 32% of New Zealand consumers.  This figure is encouraging, until you read further and find out that only 2% of coffee sold is fair trade (compare this to 30-35% in the UK).  I’m not quite sure what coffee the other 30% are buying.  Organic maybe?  Certainly not local!

It is however, a serious question, and one I have been doing some thinking about.  While some things are clear cut (buy local veges, fair trade coffee, organic bananas) others are not so.  What is prioritised usually comes down to a matter of personal conviction and experience… and the quality of the product.  As the Listener article concludes, “hopefully as business cottons on the the “solution seekers”… we won’t have to choose… we will start to see more products featuring a combination of all three.  Here’s hoping events like the Fair Trade fortnight will inspire more kiwis to think about what they are buying and add their consumer power to the movement.

Quite appropriately, my sister and her fiance are giving Green and Blacks chocolate as wedding favours.