The good ol’ hockey game…

20 03 2010

Written: February 24th 2010

Today I had a revelation: sitting in my chair, reading a fictional novel by the bright sunlight streaming through my window, I realized that electricity had only been in use by humans for about a century. As I was contemplating this, and the sheer technological advancement of the last century, I heard a cheer go up from the 300 people around me. Surprised, I looked up, and saw that the first goal had been scored against Russia in the Olympics. ‘Oh right,’ I think to myself, ‘it’s 4:40pm, the hockey is on.’ Pressing the buttons on my armrest, I change the T.V. in front of me to the big game, and glance out my window through the clouds to admire the glacier-topped mountains thirty-five thousand feet below me. My ears pop as the captain announces the weather in the city where I will be landing shortly, and I try to imagine how mind-blowing this situation might be for someone who was born in the 1880s rather than 1980s.

In this day and age, when we talk about ‘development’, we never stop to consider that we ourselves are developing at a remarkable rate of change, and that any nation who didn’t begin their ascent with the affluence and influence that countries such as Great Britain…*GOAL!* …or France, or even Russia, I suppose (although we’re still beating them in hockey) started with, who is still keeping up with us in terms of economic prosperity and social development indicators must be a great nation indeed. It is mind-blowing to consider that whole countries are simply skipping points of technological development which we underwent, such as landline telephones, and jumping straight into portable internet phones – The UN is projecting over 5 billion cell phone accounts, over 1 billion of which are broadband accounts also, by the end of 2010. This is mind-boggling, considering the current population of the planet.

There is something remarkable and empowering about being on a plane full of cheering Canadians while the national men’s hockey team battles for a medal forty-thousand feet below and 400 kms away.

– Sarah Topps





To master or not to master?

18 03 2010

As an honours student at a top university, I have been frequently asked what my post-grad plans are in the months leading up to my graduation. Many of my peers have applied to grad school, and many will succeed, given the competitive push amongst those of us who have lasted through our undergraduate degrees. I thought I would investigate this line of thinking and see how common my choices were…

My top choices currently stand as follows:

1. Masters of Public Health at Simon Fraser University

2.  Travelling to Cameroon to work with Aquacare, a locally-founded organization which is promoting SODIS (solar water disinfection) – the topic of my current thesis

3. Travelling to Angola to work with Karen Henriksen and the Centro Evangelico de Medicina de Lubango (although I would need to learn more Portuguese first)

4. Masters of Public Health at Queen’s University (although more of an Epidemiology focus than SFU)

5. Working as the Morocco consultant for the Rickshaw Travel company located in Brighton, England

6. Working temporarily for Norwegian Cruise Lines (NCL) – a job I’ve already been interviewed for, that would help me work off my student debt, let me travel and improve my language skills

There are others, but those are the top ones which appeal to me at the moment. Several internships also appeal, although I plan to find out if my applications to grad school are successful before applying.

Being at university, and especially as a B.A. student, I often feel as if everyone and their dog has a university degree these days – which can be seen in both a positive and a negative light. After applying to grad school, I thought about the number of my friends from high school who didn’t go to university, and wondered what the national statistics had to say about the matter.

The answer is surprising – only 19.4% of Canadians (2007) have completed a university degree. This includes all bachelors degrees, masters and PhD’s in the country. If you also include CEGEPS, colleges and technical degrees, diplomas and certificates, the number rises to 46%, which is apparently the highest proportion in the world!

Wow. I feel much smarter now – thanks Google! I have been so immersed in the academic environment for the past 5 years that I haven’t stopped to realize both how lucky and how talented we students are as a group of people in this country, and globally. Having realized this, and knowing that the rate for a master’s program must be that much lower, I’m still keeping my fingers crossed for being accepted. I just hope that I have eased someone else’s mind in the process of writing this!

– Sarah Topps





Homeless but harmless, and probably smarter than you are.

12 02 2010

For today’s post, I’d like to take a brief trip down memory lane…

Tuesday, May 29th 2007

Today I met a bum. He was a nice guy… and he made me laugh. He was one of those Montreal classic twenty-something homeless punks, with the battered leather jacket and the dog.
As I walked past he called out “Have my dog read your tarot cards, miss?”
I laughed, but I had somewhere to be like everyone else, so I kept on walking.

Later, I was at home and I realized that I’d be heading back up that street later. So before I went out, I cut a piece of the banana bread I’d made, buttered it, wrapped in some plastic wrap and stuck it in my bag. When I saw him again, I handed it to him and said I was sorry that I didn’t have any money…. I’m a student, I said.

He understood. He said he’d also been a student… graduated with a bachelor degree, majored in ethnobotany (useless nowadays unfortunately) and a minor in English Literature. Said he’d just finished paying off his debts, short of a hundred bucks, which isn’t bad.

We talked some more, and I relaxed a little – we talked about the times each of us had spent in South America… how different it was from here, and the good and bad times. I learned that he had grown up with his mum in Vancouver – learned to read tarot cards from her crazy gypsy family…. I asked about his dog – Koko, eleven months old, who he had stolen from a crackhead down in San Diego. He said he had to get out of there… you spend time just wasting your life, doing drugs… etc. So he had left.

He used intruiging phrases like “pretty ladies” for the women think they’re so damn gorgeous as they’re walking down the street – deeming themselves too good to talk to strangers. He called himself belligerent, which most average citizens can’t even spell, let alone use properly in a sentence…

He asked about me, politely of course – just as you would exchange information with any other stranger you might meet. He introduced himself : Andrew, he said, as he held out his hand for me to shake, fingers blackened with life. I gripped his hand, and found him gentle and kinder than I’d imagined him to be – with his chains and studded jacket, his dog wearing a fake muzzle and a spiked collar. I’m glad I met you, Andrew, I said. I’ll see you around.

– Sarah Topps

*Note: Photograph is not of Andrew. It was obtained from homelessworldcup.org





How to Make Money and Change the World

1 12 2009

Recently a good friend of mine and his family heard that I had never experienced an American Thanksgiving and were thoughtful enough to invite me down to visit with them for the weekend. Needless to say, the meal was decadent, and both the conversation and the wine were sparkling. [An extended thank you to the Vitek family!]

While I was down in the USA, my friend took me to meet some friends of his for a night out in small-town America. We visited a local bar, ate bagels slathered in cheese and spicy meats and chatted about our various university degrees and jobs. One of his friends, Tsewang, was a young woman from Nepal who I chatted with for an hour or so about international development and social entrepreneurship (two of my favourite topics!) as well as some less cumbersome subjects. At one point near the end of our conversation, I mentioned to her that I was hoping to start a pilot project for solar water disinfection (SODIS) in Angola next year, and she told me that, being from Canada, I ought to look up an organization called Dream Now“.

After returning from the weekend, I had all but forgotten about her wonderful suggestion when I stumbled onto their website this afternoon. Reading descriptions about how they literally built blanket forts in various rooms across the country in order to facilitate comfortable discussion, I was absolutely intrigued. Ravenous for more of this truly out-of-the-box approach, I dug a little deeper on their website and discovered this jewel of a bookHow to Make Money and Change the World

Not only was it one of the most helpful and innovative books I have read on the subject of finding a job in our generation – it was free! Beautifully designed and available online for download, and redistribution, I thought – well! that’s my Christmas shopping done for every friend I have who’s about to graduate from international development! (On a fair note, being a student, I otherwise probably was just going to wish them Merry Christmas on their facebook walls or twitter, so this is quite the improvement as far as free gifts go...)

Occupation: Change the World

I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in working for positive change – either in international development, or other fields of social change.

– Sarah Topps





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





CASID Conference!

5 05 2009

I’ve been wondering lately whether or not to attend the upcoming conference at Carleton University in Ottawa. It’s the annual conference hosted by the Canadian Association for the Study of International Development (CASID).

The theme this year is International Development in Times of Crisis and Opportunity so it could be really interesting. Also, the people I meet at these events are always really interesting. It will run from May 27 to 29, Wednesday to Friday.

It’s open to the public as well, so if you’re interested in development, you should at least check out the program.

– Sarah Topps





Uniting the pro-development Canadians

5 04 2009

Last week I had the pleasure of being invited to a conference which was c0-hosted by the new Institute for the Study of International Development at McGill University and the Public Policy Forum.

The conference was entitled “The Challenges of Development Today: Practitioners’ Perspectives on Where to Move Forward” and was addressed by several impressive speakers, including David Morley (President and CEO of Save the Children Canada), Canadian International Development Agency President Margaret Briggs, and International Development Research Centre President David Malone, along with the Right Honourable Joe Clark, former Prime Minister of Canada.

Rt. Hon. Joe Clark had something very interesting to say, which I had always thought was the case, but apparently it is not yet, and that is that ALL of the groups who are interested in promoting international development in some way, across Canada, ought to have some kind of forum, a means of communicating with one another, sharing ideas, technical advice, knowledge and expertise, contacts, and meeting shared common goals together.

He suggested that it would invite and involve the entire development community, from the NGOs to the not-for-profits to the youth groups to the government to the individuals to the religious groups to the university students and everyone in between. He said that ideally, it would not focus on specifics, except to learn from one another, but instead it would ask: how will we, as Canadians, build a road to a brighter global future, together? How can we collaborate and work side by side to obtain this new world?

Personally, I would love to see a forum such as the one suggested by Rt. Hon. Joe Clark being set up… but it does beg the question: who is in a position to set up such an arrangement? How would it be done?

I would like to propose some kind of online working group, internet forum or other idea-sharing tool, to facilitate this kind of broad cross-national participatory approach, which would be complemented by an annual (or bi-annual) conference to enable and empower those who strive to do global development work across Canada.

What are your thoughts?

– Sarah Topps








%d bloggers like this: