Archive | June 2010

Updates from Peru

So far, Peru has been an interesting experience. The change in climate, culture, and views has been somewhat shocking. The 20+ hour bus ride to get to and from our first mining town was also an ordeal in itself.
I stayed two days at a mining town deep in the mountains and was able to see first-hand how Peruvian miners live. Unfortunately, although this was supposed to be a case study on a successful union fighting for fair working conditions, the successes have been quite small. The workers were able to organize a strike and a union, which is very difficult, almost impossible, in Latin America, but their living and working conditions were far from just. Being there just two days, I could feel and see the pollution being dumped from the mine into this poor town. On top of that, the measly salaries of the miners barely covered the expensive necessities in the town.

It was difficult to experience and heading on the bus out of the town, I oscillated between anger, depression, and guilt. I felt guilty that I was able to leave that place and come to a comfortable hotel in Trujillo. I also felt guilty that these people looked to me and my boss for answers to their problems, which we certainly did not have. We had come to learn from them, but in two days, I still could not understand how this town could put up with these conditions day in and day out. I felt anger that I could not do more, and how development work is often about very small changes and often takes more than it puts in. My main contribution would be to tell this town’s story and hopefully build some international support for their cause, but is that enough? With millions of similar stories around the world, and the massive changes that would need to be made, my depression set in. Am I truly contributing to change or are these small wins not enough to confront the tide of rapid expansion, globalization, and neoimperialism?

On the bright side, it seems that the next union we will visit has achieved some more concrete successes. Change is a long process, fraught with failures, and many times, it feels like “one step forward and two steps back.” In the end, I just hope that the small steps forward will be enough to overcome the many steps back, and that my role in creating change will be much clearer and more contributive.

Welcome Back to the Third World

It has taken exactly two seconds for me to get back into my Third World mode, or as I like to call it, 3D. I’ve adjusted to the fact that things just move a little slower and that while something may seem “urgent” at work, even urgent has a different connotation. This is a world I can totally roll with. But there have been other challenges that I almost just forgot about. Two days ago, we lost power at work and our generator blew up. So we spent the entire day with no power. We had deadlines on proposals, projects, and even a documentary that needed finishing. But we all just had to let go since it was beyond our control. Today, our driver fell ill and called sick to work. This meant that those of us who rely on his transportation to get to work, were not able to come. Instead, I’m spending my day “working” at a wireless cafe.

And things like this keep happening. Things that are out of our control but have a lot to do with systems and infrastructure. It has been making me think a lot about what we mean when we say we want to support “building civil society”. Do we want to build visionaries, like the Ashoka fellow I work for who has a dream (and a plan) of creating a just society in Kenya. Or do we also want to build up the supports and infrastructure that enable visionaries to do their work? To help CREAW, we need to have institutions in place that will take care of electrical issues, or have safer public transportation options for the millions of workers in this country who spend far too much time finding ways to get to work.

But I have also experienced something in Kenya that I have never experienced elsewhere. I am treated like a superior class of person, and it is extremely difficult to get my brain around or to understand how to cope with it. I’ll give you some broad strokes of how this has showed up. If I go to a black Kenyan’s house, I’m told that it’s an “honor” for them to host me, even if I’m there to get work from them! I’ve been complimented on my beautiful skin color (a weird compliment for a Paki) and repeatedly called beautiful. It reminds me of the way that we treat foreigners in Pakistan. Any party attended by the British High Commissioner, or a rep from Shell, is the BEST. Teachers from the American School are treated like royalty and it actually makes me sad to think about how many proud men have made fools of themselves just to please the foreigner.

Is this a remnant of colonialism and neo-colonialism? And how am I, as a hybrid North/South student to react to this? Questions to ponder for the week!


Stories on Africa

On my long journey to Nairobi, I picked up two fictional books based on real-life events in Nigeria. The first, Little Bee, is about a Nigerian girl who escaped the Oil Wars in her country and became an asylee in England. Written by journalist Chris Cleave, it paints a story that many of us have read in various permutations on the tragedies of Africa. While it certainly brings light to an issue that many of us have not been aware of, it tells a familiar tale of African victims who are mistreated by a foreign other and then abused by the Western powers that be. In an unsurprising turn of events, this young black woman befriends a white woman who learns so much and finds that they share more than they could ever know.

I found myself once again enjoying what I can only describe as a “real page-turner”, yet questioning the assumptions and simplicities with which it described a complex situation. Like so many books that came before it, it portrays the main African character as the wise old soul; saying the perfect thing at the perfect moment, often at the bewilderment of her English friends.

I was forced to compare this book to my other travel companion (I had a 14-hour layover in Heathrow) Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngoze Adichie, one of the books featured in IPSA’s Summer Book Club. I know that the books cover two completely different topics, the latter focusing on the Nigeria-Biafra War, but I couldn’t help but be struck by the differences with which the authors profiled characters and described events. Each of Chimamanda’s central characters is deep and complex, often horrificly flawed. She takes time and care to go beyond the surface and portray all sides and psychologies not only of her characters, but of the contexts in which they acted.

Now that I’m in Nairobi, I’m left wondering whether these books represent the attitudes and tones with which people view Africa and the “African Problem”?

As an Ashoka Africa Summer Associate, I am working with the Center for Rights Education and Awareness, a local NGO that promotes a free and just society for all men and women. In addition to supporting its core operations, I will be exploring economic and livelihood development opportunities for women survivors of gender based violence, which means that I will be interacting with businesses, development partners, microfinance institutions, and faith based organizations. While each organization carries a unique mission, I wonder if each also ascribes to one of the general views on Africa. These views undoubtedly shape development efforts. This question will be a theme of my posts and I hope to unpack at least a little bit of this complex question while I’m here. I’d love to hear your thoughts.


First week down!

Trying to sum up the week is proving to be challenging. Where to begin? Mexico City is a beautiful place, minus the pollution and traffic. It’s filled with rich history, contemporary culture and some US influences (for better or for worse). It’s also HUGE, so I’m still learning how to get around the city! So far, so good!

Tomorrow is my first official day of work. This past week has been an intense training and crash course on organizing, research, and corporate accountability. The organization I am interning for, PODER (Project on Organizing, Development, Education and Research) aims to find ways to create long term corporate accountability in Latin America by organizing civil society and training them to use strategic corporate research to make sure companies are truly held accountable for their actions. What does that all mean? Basically, PODER wants to equal the playing field so that civil society can have leverage over companies to make sure they do the right thing. Easy to say, hard to do. In Mexico, although the laws protecting workers are the most liberal in Latin Americam, those in power find ways to circumvent the laws and keep things in their favor, unfortunately,

We have some deep conversations throughout the week about corporate accountability and whether PODER can truly accomplish their mission. The interesting thing about them is that they aim to incentivize companies by making them internalize their externalities. However, this is definitely more complicated than it seems, and strikes or workers threatening to cost the company money, are not the only tactics one should use to achieve this. The nagging questions arises though, is capitalism in general as a profit maximizing structure to blame tor these issues? Can we truly make companies be responsible? How do we make people care enough to keep corporations accountable in the long run and not get lost in the next crisis flavor of the month? I’m an eternal optimist so I hope that we can, but just looking at the BP oil spill and the joke of a clean up effort makes me wonder.

Fortunately, one of my projects this summer is to go to Peru and interview mining workers who, through organizing and perseverance, were able to get the rights they deserve. I’ll be doing research all this week before I head to Peru on the 16th, so I’ll update you all once I am there and learn from some true fighters! In the meantime, keep the faith, and enjoy this Mexican YouTube sensation:



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