Thursday, October 27, 2011

OWS' main achievement: unveiling a weak rule of law

I’ve been meaning to write about the Occupy Wall Street protest but haven’t because, well, because I feel very ambiguous about it. 

I know that if you are a liberal you are expected to support them, but I don’t feel comfortable supporting something  that defines itself in the negative.  I don’t feel comfortable doing a blanket approval, even if I agree with a lot of what they have to say. They are protesting against a system with many flaws, but also many benefits and privileges that should not be taken for granted. I don’t feel comfortable supporting a movement that criticises but does not offer constructive alternatives, we already have too many politicians doing that.

Amidst all this ambivalence I decided to go and have a look first hand. 

The first thing that shocked me is how small Zucotti park actually is. It is tiny, and that is something that the media –which has been so criticised for not covering this “historic event” properly- at no point has made evident in my view.

The second thing that called my attention is that without a doubt if you put together the photographers, media and tourists  they outnumber the actual protesters.

The multiple signs asking for donations were equally disturbing. For what? For whom?  One such sign was quite specific:

“to take my girlfriend out for dinner”

not the most convincing politically argument.

I walked around amidst an excited atmosphere. It was a weekday, so the weekend hordes were at bay, and us curious passer bys as well as the media could go about our business fairly comfortably. Tourist busses passed by snapping away what might become a new tourist attraction.

There was a drums band, a jazz band, and towards the end a classic band set out with multiple violins and other instruments.

On that particular afternoon there were Queers Occupying Wall Street, Muslims Occupying Wall Street (about 80 of them, and the women sat in the back during the speech, which is a system that I would like to protest against myself), and once the Muslims where finished,  the praying mats were replaced by bright green foam to make the space child friendly for the Parents Occupy Wall Street sleep over.

That these three groups can coexist in such a small space is both exciting and confusing. I can’t imagine they would agree on too many things were they to actually sit down with each other. Still, they were all there, that says something.

Back at home going over the photos I continued to feel equally confused and excited. There were artists about. The idea of a street library seemed grand. The atmosphere reminded me of the many pacifist protests that I attended in my student days in Spain.

Spain has an amazing tradition of pacific demonstrations. Actually, many would be surprised to know that before OWS a similar thing took place in Spain earlier this year. On May 2011 a pacific demonstration turned into an overnight stay at Madrid’s main square, the Puerta del Sol. Their slogan was “indignados” (outraged), opposing the same system flaws.  They had sofas, libraries and  cafeterias with food donated from the restaurants around the square,  and were soon organised into action groups, both for mundane tasks such as clean up or more strategic ones such as communications with the media. The movement soon spread to other cities: Barcelona, Segovia, Valencia…

On May 27 hundreds of wounded were reported as the protestors were evacuated in order to clean the Plaza de Catalunya, sound familiar?

Eventually it was disbanded. Nothing happened. I’d heard nothing  about it since, which furthered my sense of futile  endeavour around OWS.

In trying to understand what is going on I’ve been reading around and recently discovered that the occupy puerta del sol has continued, albeit not as a protest but a civil political movement #acampadasol  which still functions through monthly open popular assemblies putting forward specific political agendas. Not sure how much of the 99% is involved but certainly seems like an interesting and efficient civil action proposal.

Although still confused generally I can say this: Zucotti park is clean, the protest is not violent, there are people of all ages, creeds and gender.

But there is another aspect  that is increasingly becoming clear as a result  of all this. The state/police reaction to what (to me) appears to be a pacific and harmless civic action  is  worrisome to the point of ridiculous (see arrest of Naomi Wolf  for … well, obeying the law).

[....that guy is never going to hear the end of it.]

More worrisome is the fact that she was diverted to another police station to keep her lawyers away, and that “homeland “ security was invoked when people asked to approach the police station.

[click on video to hear full explanation by Ms Wolf herself]

This otherwise irrelevant incident has exposed a weak rule of law that can be trampled over “a couple of middle aged couch potatoes” who haven’t broken the law.  

 I find that unveiling this trend is so far the most important achievement of the OWS movement. Ironic that this is coming out just as the Arab spring is taking place

Responsible  citizens need to keep watch, listen, read and make sure that the basic freedoms America so proudly declares as her birth right  remain intact.

on Occupy Wall Street - a prelude

Click on the image to see it full size

I'm working on a long photo + story post on OWS.... but in the meantime thought I'd give you a little peek 

Monday, October 24, 2011

October family (self) portrait

Don't read too much into it. There isn't some deep meaning to this photo. These masks were given to the monkeys last christmas and I think they are amazing. I had been planning this one for a while, and quite chuffed with the result.

I think I'm finally on to something....

To see the other months  press below:

Friday, October 21, 2011

too cool for your shoes...

admit it, you love this photo.... you just have to.

have a nice weekend y'all

Thursday, October 20, 2011

On Admitting failure, otherwise known as learning

This post is part of this week's forum on admitting failure

When I first joined the “aid world” coming from the  private sector, one of the first things that struck me was to see how off-the-cuff calculations were presented as numbers, as opposed to what they were, estimates, (for example, gender breakdown for families).  When I suggested we call them "estimate" in the reporting I was received with a look of both shock and horror:

-"then they’ll think we don't know what we are doing!"

Anyone who understands anything about development will know that in most situations it is almost impossible to know the  gender composition of family that is benefiting from some type of assistance. You can estimate according to country statistics how large the family might be, as well as the gender composition, but it will always be that, an estimate. So why the concern of stating it as such?

At least part of the problem is (me thinks)  that development is a relatively new social science. As any new science, it is learning by doing, which necessarily implies doing mistakes. As any social science, there are no hard and fast rules, no laboratory situations that can be replicated. 2+2 only equals four in a maths class, anywhere else it will depend on the context.

So why do we have this big chip on our shoulder about being something we are not? Didn’t medicine (actually, doesn’t medicine) learn by doing? Didn’t NASA drop a couple of spaceships? Why are we expected to be perfect from the start?

Donors and the public alike need to be educated about this, which actually really means we have to stop assuming they are dumb and can’t grasp these concepts. They can.

also, we also need to understand this ourselves. We need to have enough confidence to give ourselves space to learn, to sit down and think:

“ok, what went wrong, how could I’ve done it differently, how could I do it in the future?”

which brings us back to the part where we educate donors and the public, because in order to do that not only do we nee them to understand, but we also need for them to support and fund that part of the process.

I’m constantly shocked to find projects without the support of a  Monitoring & Evaluation (or reporting) officer. The requirement to monitor and report is there (always), but the funds are assigned to the implementation, and  the implementing staff is expected to design tools that will capture the relevant information, document, collect the data, and put it into a report, (as well as implement). None of which they are trained to do, and which usually translates into process monitoring:

“how many x did we do”

as opposed to: “what do we want to achieve by doing X, and how can we measure that we are having an impact on that?”

The requested report gets written and filed. Box gets ticked. No one has the time to analyse the information, to look for synergies, to see what other organizations are doing and how they can reinforce each other, or what we can learn from them. The lessons learned get filed away, hidden or camouflaged if possible, no one really benefitting from them.

Admitting failure isn't about marketing or a mea culpa, it's about incorporating the process of learning from our mistakes as part of the management process. Anything that gets brushed under the rug does double harm: first when you did the mistake, and then every time someone else has to make it because they couldn’t learn from you. Which to me sounds like a highly inefficient and expensive way to move forward.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

The long horn of Africa- Blog action day 2011

Somalia, food distribution recipients

 I was back home in the summer. My 8 year old niece was very concerned about the images  she was seeing coming out  from the horn on Africa on TV, so my sister asked me -the aid expert that had lived in Africa and worked in Somalia- to explain to her about the famine. It went something like this:

"well, it's really about power and politics. There’s a lot of different clans, clans are like families, and they all want the power, and so the people, mostly women and children, get crushed in the middle of it" 

I’m not sure either of them understood or believed me, but that’s my version of the affair.  And you can see how –from my perspective- no amount of food distribution is going to solve the problem.


Sometimes we (the aid community) just need to get the f*ck out. Sometimes not only are we not helping, but we are actually making things worse, maintaining a status quo that should be unsustainable. Making the powerful stronger. The rich richer.

When I say something like this out loud people often argue that it would be unethical to walk away. That it would mean penalising the poor not the rich. That hundreds might die before anything actually changes, and they are right, actually, they often use Somalia as an example that no matter how bad a situation gets, it IS sustainable,   and they've got a point.

So maybe it comes down to aid with accountability.

We hate the idea of enforcing our values because a) we've been wrong so many times and b) it feels like colonialism all over again. But lets face it, aid without accountability is not only unethical but simply irresponsible. The donors and aid agencies  need to bite the bullet and ensure that certain values are enforced, that the vulnerable benefit, like really benefit, and no, number of women that attended a workshop or received a bag of food does not count as a gender strategy, (for example). Especially if those same women have no control over what happens to that food once it gets home, or have no way of earning an income because it is deemed unacceptable for women to take a job outside the home. If you don’t address the root causes you are not helping, you are just putting a band aid over an infected wound. Maybe it’s time to  learn how to walk away when we see there is no change, but more importantly, when we know there is no will to change. Why? Because for the most part they know that no matter how unaccountable they are to the money that has been distributed, how little things change, the money will keep flowing in. And for the most part, they are right. We need to start making them accountable in order to be accountable ourselves. 

Maybe its time to look at laws and national budgets, see where the country’s money is going, making them participate (economically) whenever they want us to donate. If they think it is important enough for us (the development community) to invest in it… then they should too.

Because in a civil war situation, and Somalia is a type of civil war, handing out food is not any more neutral than handing out guns. We have a responsibility to know what we are doing, where it is going, and who’s really benefitting.

food distribution center

NOTE: This post was originally a reply to a post on Tales From the Hood: simple  it got so long I decided best to keep on ranting over here.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

for those of you complaining that I haven't been writing lately...

For those of you complaining that I have not been writing lately,  I just wanted  to let you know that I have written a couple of guest  post and articles  recently you can have a look at:

I'm on Tales from the Hood, a great site for deep critical thought on the aid world with "Finding the G spot", which is about gender and the  work place in the aid world, (or anywhere else really).

I wrote "why I'm a survivor" on  Band Back together, which is a group weblog that provides educational resources as well as a safe, moderated, supportive environment to share stories of survival.

and the "survival kit for moving away" on Matador life

so enjoy!

...(and stop complaining)

Sunday, October 9, 2011

cause us privileged people that can read and access a computer have a responsibility to give a damn - The girl effect

UN food distribution center. Somalia
I saw this video a while back. I was flabbergasted  (do you even spell it like that?) I knew already everything that was in it. I do this for a living. What really shocked me was how simple  they had managed to make the message.  So simple and in-your-face that it was impossible to ignore. 

I'm a feminist. I've said it before and I'll say it again. I don't care how out of use or abused the word is, I believe that men and women are, like the t-shirts in Thailand put it, "same same, but different". I believe in the beauty of that difference, but I think it would be irresponsible for privileged women to ignore the abuse and disadvantages that most of our ... sisters? .. live under. And by the way,  if you are reading this, you have access to a computer AND you can read, so you are already a part of that privileged group. 

There are a lot of fights still pending. The developed countries do a lot of preaching, but the reality is that when everything has been said and done, there is usually a lot more said than done. You'd be surprised to see that indigenous women  in some mountain in Colombia are fighting for some the same things that we are: like equal pay and equal opportunity. I certainly was.

But even those women are fortunate. They are fighting, that means they have a voice, that means that someone, at some point in their life taught them that, and that is already more than many women (girls) have.

One of my most traumatic experiences  was reading "The road of lost Innocence" by Somali Mam.  Somali is a brave Cambodian woman that was sold into prostitution by her uncle at the age of  13. She survived, and by taking in one girl at a time founded an organization that helps other girls escape and survive that same experience. She tells her story in a brave book. Nothing I didn't already  know, but to read it told in first person rather than in cold statistics. To read it while living in Cambodia and holding my new born  daughter..... your heart breaks a little.

My mother often asks me why I went back to work after my children were born. She asks why I put myself in harms way when I have two small children at home that need me, that only have me, that would never be able to replace me. The answer is simple: I can't know what is happening and ignore it. I just can't. More so now because I have children of my own and all the statistics have become personal. Those girls are no different from my girl.

So here are some sobering statistics behind the so-called girl effect:
Drawing by the princess
When a girl in the developing world receives seven or more
years of education, she marries four years later and has 2.2
fewer children.
(United Nations Population Fund, State of World Population 1990.)

An extra year of primary school boosts girls’ eventual wages
by 10 to 20 percent. An extra year of secondary school:
15 to 25 percent.
(George Psacharopoulos and Harry Anthony Patrinos, “Returns to Investment in Education: A Further
Update,” Policy Research Working Paper 2881[Washington, D.C.: World Bank, 2002].)

Research in developing countries has shown a consistent relationship
between better infant and child health and higher
levels of schooling among mothers.
(George T. Bicego and J. Ties Boerma, “Maternal Education and Child Survival: A Comparative
Study of Survey Data from 17 Countries,” Social Science and Medicine 36 (9) [May 1993]:

When women and girls earn income, they reinvest 90 percent
of it into their families, as compared to only 30 to 40
percent for a man.
(Chris Fortson, “Women’s Rights Vital for Developing World,” Yale News Daily 2003.)

Out of the world’s 130 million out-of-school youth,
70 percent are girls.
(Human Rights Watch, “Promises Broken: An Assessment of Children’s Rights on the 10th Anniversary
of the Convention on the Rights of the Child,”
html [December 1999].)

Wondering how you can help? it's the girl effect blogging week. Write a post, or just share this one or  one of the  others posts written by other bloggers you like with your friends. Get the word out. In the words of Steve Jobs "Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world are the ones who do."


Unfortunately it seems that Somali Mam's story might have been somewhat.... made up. the sobering fact remains that thousands of women (and boys) are sold into prostitution every year.

on caffeine

I thought this was an appropriate Monday morning post. Morning y'all. and hope all the best for the week for ya.

related post: first coffee photo post 

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

on clouds

I'm obsessed with the clouds in New York. There is something quite spectacular about them. The sky is always cyan (if you are a photographer you know what that means), and then there are these thick clouds that look like someone just came along and painted them on.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Mona Lisa - Photo post

this one is a bit of a mona lisa for me, not that I think I'm anywhere near a Michelangelo, but in so far as I find it haunting, can't work out if he's tired, scared, or if I'm going to have to scream to him for something he just did