One Billion Hungry People

19 07 2009

In my last post, I ranted about the sour economy and how terrible it was for students in North America to try and find a job in these troubled times. Perhaps I’ve been in my own country for too long again, and searching back through media stories today, this one hit me hard:

World hunger ‘hits one billion’

The UN said almost all of the world’s undernourished live in developing countries, with the most, some 642 million people, living in the Asia-Pacific region. In sub-Saharan Africa, the next worst-hit region, the figure stands at
265 million.

Here I am, feeling a bit undervalued and thinking that students in the North American recession have got it so tough, and BAM! this headline makes you sit up again and wish you could just crawl back into your safe academic hole. True as it is painful, while most students are being beleaguered to ‘just get a job’ and ‘stop messing around’ with our lives, there remains a full sixth of humanity which is slowly starving out their years on Earth.

Chronic malnutrition affects people long after they have begun eating normally again, killing many young children and causing stunting, lower life expectancies, eye and brain damage, and causing their own children to be smaller years later, thus repeating the trend. Most people who die from malnutrition actually die from micronutrient deficiencies such as Vitamin A, Iron and Zinc. For example according to prestigious medical journal The Lancet; Iodine deficiency is the number one preventable cause of mental damage worldwide.

According to Jean Ziegler* , mortality due to malnutrition accounted for 58% of the total mortality in 2006: “In the world, approximately 62 millions people, all causes of death combined, die each year. One in twelve people worldwide are malnourished. In 2006, more than 36 millions died of hunger or diseases due to deficiencies in micronutrients”

Fascinatingly enough, when I was working in Morocco last summer, I asked my fairly educated (high school or higher) students  if people had ever died of hunger in Morocco. The answer they unanimously gave was:
no, never, not since before Mohammed (blessed be he) was alive, not since before Christ, has anyone died of hunger.

Interesting. And I bet you would find many people in countries around the world who would echo their sentiments.
– Sarah Topps

*(the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food for 2000 to March 2008)





Difficult times for university students and recent grads

16 07 2009

The economy is down, job searching this summer is tearing students apart in North America – most of my friends are having some form of difficulty finding work. And not just work that pays a decent wage, or even minimum wage, work that is any more challenging than flipping burgers or doesn’t involve someone screaming at you every fifteen minutes or so – now even these hated positions are scrapped over like the final pieces of carrion by vultures.

As a top student at one of the best and easily the most well-known university in Canada for my field of studies – I followed the same path that has previously offered the best chances for interesting and sometimes paid work opportunities this summer:

I asked my current manager if he would be able to keep me on for a summer position… no such luck.
I tapped my professional contacts… no luck.
I applied for, and was accepted to an internship program… but in the end couldn’t afford the plane ticket and visa costs to reach the country where the internship was to take place due to funding cuts by CIDA this year.
I searched on the internet for hours, finding internships, jobs and volunteer work which appealed to me and applied to dozens of spots, all well before deadline… no luck.
I asked past employers if they needed employees for the summer months… no luck, many are still downsizing.
I spoke with friends, family, friends of the family, family of friends… no one was hiring, anywhere.
I applied for jobs in the paper – in English, in French, in Spanish – in Alberta, in BC, in Montreal, even in Europe… no luck. I had some job interviews, and even a few offers, but moving and housing would cost more than the salary offered.
I took job interviews with companies I would never wish to work for, such as telemarketing and door to door sales, heavy manual labour that paid less than minimum wage or waitressing positions in sketchy restaurants that ran drug deals out the back… then I decided risking my safety and/or sanity wasn’t quite worth the minimum wage positions.
I even worked manual labour for 4 weeks while I tried to come across something more stimulating (or better paid).
And put myself in a somewhat risky situation with a bipolar boss who paid under the table cutthroat wages and screamed at us when he couldn’t find his cigarettes which were on the table behind him.

Finally… I’ve had enough. Sometimes you can put in all the work, and your luck or timing will be off by just enough that you just miss the spot you were trying so hard for. Better luck next time…

On the other hand, I have the luxury of having paid all of my bills already and not having any dependents at the moment (besides my kitty, who I have fed and taken to the vet when I didn’t have money to buy food for myself or pay all my bills on time) and realistically, I’m far more likely to wear myself down, wear myself out or put myself in the way of some serious harm – whether physical strain, mental breakdowns or simply feeling terrible about my life – than to actually make enough money to make those things worth it.
I’ve paid all my bills for the summer, and I’m not going to starve to death, I can keep my cat healthy, keep me healthy and far happier than I would be, working some shitty job where in the end, half my pay is lost due to my bosses losing track of my hours or short-changing me on my shift hours etc.

I’m lucky, and I recognize that. Not having to work for 6 weeks during a recession where finding a job as a student is a nightmare and keeping one is hellish at best, is truly something to be taken advantage of, and I intend to spend the time working on my thesis, prepping for my classes next year and taking care of myself mentally so that I might not break down when it all goes to hell next April when my thesis will be taking over my life.

For a few lucky ones, life still worked out in their favour – even more so than it did for me, and several of my most talented friends have been offered interesting and stimulating work or educational placements this summer – including my friends Alexandra in Nepal, Eric in Syria, [see their collective blog here], Lynn in Tunesia [click here to follow her adventures and those of the other AIESECers from McGill], and fellow AIESECer Amina Samy in India, and good friend Kelly Garton in Panama.

Next year I will be one of these lucky people, as the internship offer which I qualified for with AIESEC McGill still stands until February of next year, by which time I will have chosen one to undertake post-graduation in May 2010. (I’m very excited to see what I will end up choosing… there are so many options!)

As for right now, I remain happily unemployed, working hard on my thesis, my final paper for a summer class and my blog, organizing the international trips for my VP position in the McGill International Student Network for 2009/2010, coming up with ideas for my other VP position on the IDSSA (International Development Studies Students Association) academic board, keeping my body healthy, helping my cat with his physical therapy and enjoying spending time with friends I might not see again for several years after this summer.

All in all – not a bad way to spend the last 6 weeks of a summer when unemployment is rampant and most of my friends are wallowing in misery-filled jobs, huge amounts of debt, or both. I think I’ll just appreciate that for now I have the most luxurious of resources – time.

– Sarah Topps





500 Views!

8 07 2009

A small note of celebration to mark the fact that I have now had 500 views on my site, since it was launched in April 2009. I sincerely hope that I have informed at least one person of development issues that they had not yet heard of, or sparked a small change in at least one mind.

What an accomplishment: to have spoken my mind and had so many people listen.

Also noteworthy to me is the fact that one of my referring pages today was a site called Buzz Monitor on the World Bank website.

I look forward to everyone’s continuing support as I intend to pursue my writing on development issues. Thanks!

– Sarah Topps





Development Workers and Missionaries – are we so different?

6 07 2009

In my life, I always seem to go through phases of more or less curiousity about the functioning of different religious groups I have heard of or encountered. Recently, I have had several enlightening talks with friends of mine who have been missionaries in developing countries, and after stumbling across a post this blog today (July 6th) by Chris Blattman (a Harvard professor in International Development) on missionary work and development, I thought it might be worthwhile sharing my questions of the moment.

[As a prelude to this post, I’ve also been reading a book by Orson Scott Card this week; Lost Boys which centres around a Mormon family which has been relocated for work to North Carolina and all of the strange incidences which go on in their daily lives throughout the year after they relocate. There are a number of religious references in the book, and it explores some of the stranger practices and ideals of Mormonism and examines them from a Mormon point of view which explains some of their cultural practices in a very sensitive and interesting light.]

Chris Blattman wrote his post “What aid workers can learn from missionaries” based on another blog called Blood and Milk. You can see the original post here.

Here is an excerpt:

“Host country donor staff make a major difference in institutional competence, but it’s a rare donor who lets national staff run their programs. The fear is corruption, mostly, but there is also a capacity problem. The people with the education and skills to really run a donor program aren’t working for USAID, World Bank, or CIDA salaries.

When you have a really good donor representative, they are like an extra brain for your efforts. They can help you dodge problems, adapt quickly to challenges, and negotiate different government relationships. It’s a synergy that can make all the difference.

And it pretty much never happens. More often than not, your funder’s representative doesn’t speak the local language and doesn’t even know the nation’s major cities before they land. No matter how smart or committed you are, you don’t have time in a few years to get up to speed enough to be really useful. One of the very few things we know about what works in development is that your interventions need to be precisely targeted to the local context. We can’t do that if nobody knows enough about the local context to make that happen. And how do you take a long view on development when no one stays for enough time to think that way?

So that’s what we can learn from missionaries. Stick around until you know what you’re doing. Project managers, and donor representatives, should have regional knowledge and language skills. They should be deeply steeped in local culture. We need incentives to get good people to stay in one place and become experts at it. Well, first we need it to be permitted. Then we need incentives.”

I believe that there is a reason that most of humanity’s six billion people are religious in some way or another, and religion has been trying to spread ideas of goodness and improvement for thousands of years longer than development workers have even been on the scene – in a way development work is my religion – I truly BELIEVE that things can be improved for the world poor, and maybe that makes me an idealist, but I certainly have enough FAITH in the concept to dedicate my life to working towards that end. If that doesn’t make me religious, then what does?

Religions of all types have found ways to reach into the depths of people and draw out the best in people, and to improve millions of people’s lives the world over – perhaps its time we took a lesson from missionaries – the very people many development workers blame for the stratification of much of the developing world’s societies. Maybe we do need to settle down, to “invade”, to listen, to learn from them – before we can hope to understand their problems, their needs, and the best way that we can help them. And maybe, just maybe, we’ll be smart enough to learn something from them at the same time.

Although, as Chris Blattman commented at the end of his post that: “It’s worth saying, however, what aid work ought not to share with missionaries: the saving mission. Development ain’t religion, and there are no souls and bodies to be saved. Unfortunately, that actually needs to be said. I think Alanna would agree.

I have to agree – that trying to force change where it is undesired, goes along much the same lines as religion pushing itself on people who may already have their own beliefs – perhaps we are being just as sacrilegious when we try to change their methods of giving birth, of clothing themselves, of earning a living, of anything…

Just a thought. (or a series of provocative thoughts)
Sarah Topps








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