Avaaz?

26 02 2011

Sleepily browsing the world wide web this morning when a mysterious by-line caught my eye:

“You should message me if you can give me some intelligent feedback on… www.Avaaz.org

My curiousity having been sufficiently aroused by the fact that I had never heard of this website, I cautiously typed it into Google to find out what it could be about. What I discovered was exactly the type of website I have been looking for to write a post about for the past few months, ever since the online conversations sparked ongoing protests across North Africa and the Middle East.

Avaaz – which means “voice” in several major language groups around the world, is an online forum where registered users can take actions including signing petitions, funding media campaigns and direct actions, emailing, and lobbying governments, towards a large range of issues. Their strength comes in numbers, and the fact that they focus on the things they agree on. Avaaz seems to garner strength from individualism, and rather than trying to find consensus about the specifics of any one issue, each member decides individually where to focus their efforts and whether they will participate or not in any given campaign or movement.

The result is phenomenal – for example perhaps not everyone shares the same view points on gay marriage or whether being gay is something you choose or something you are born with, but when almost half a million people sign a petition to stop the passing of a bill which would sentence gay Ugandans to death, suddenly you see that there are over-arching human rights concerns which many agree on.

Some of the descriptions of Avaaz.org listed on the site include:

“Avaaz is closing the gap between the world we have and the world we want, one campaign at a time.”

…and…

A transnational community that is more democratic, and could be more effective, than the United Nations.”

— Suddeutsche Zeitung

…and…

Avaaz is a global web movement to bring people-powered politics to decision-making everywhere.”

While Avaaz is only a few years old (2007), it has already had a major impact internationally in forums such as climate change, human rights, the international sex trade, emergency response, state corruption, protecting natural resources, and the list goes on… Some of Avaaz’s concrete achievements are listed below:

*****

  • a drive for a “million-signature Citizen’s Initiative in the EU” for a moratorium and independent testing and regulation of Genetically Modified crops.
  • almost $700,000 raised for an intensive, long-term campaign to fight the “rape trade”–the sexual enslavement of women and girls around the world
  • strong backing for indigenous communities “petitioning Chevron’s new CEO to clean up his company’s toxic legacy” in the Amazon.
  • support for a democratic resolution to the January 2008 election crisis in Kenya — tens of thousands of Avaaz members asked their foreign ministers to refuse to recognize any President until Kofi Annan’s negations could produce an acceptable compromise.
  • worldwide pressure for democratic rights in Pakistan during the November 2007 crisis, and an ad campaign in Pakistan calling for President Musharraf to end the state of emergency.
  • a global call for a WTO ruling to ban subsidies for dangerous corporate overfishing of the world’s oceans, in which Avaaz members sent tens of thousands of messages to their trade ministers.
  • an effort to increase transparency in the UN’s selection of the next High Commissioner for Human Rights that “made international headlines through a blog” and a fake job advertisement in The Economist.
  • a petition, rally, and protest video supporting efforts to oust Paul Wolfowitz from the World Bank after the May 2007 corruption scandal
  • a call for regional governments to increase aid donations to help Mexico cope with flooding in November 2007
  • co-hosting, with Chatham House, David Miliband’s first speech as UK Foreign Secretary — and bringing him questions from Avaaz members around the world.

*****

I plan to join Avaaz and dig a little deeper into their campaigning process over the next few weeks. I’m sure that the mass appeal of being able to have a real impact on international issues will bring Avaaz.org more and more to the centre stage of how the internet can be used to have a real impact on the real world.

– Sarah Topps

(I’d also like to say thanks to Arteri, who originally directed my interest towards this site.)

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7 Things I Never Travel Without

10 02 2011

As an event and trip coordinator, and a frequent traveler in my personal time – both clients and friends often ask me: What should I pack?It’s the age-old traveling question, and I have often found it makes the world of difference in the quality of my trip.

To be honest, it really depends on the trip – how long is it?, where will you go?, who will you go with?, do you need fancy clothes?, how will you get there?, where will you stay?, what activities will you be doing? etc. I could go on and on about the various factors that come into play when I am deciding what to bring. (Look out for upcoming posts as I begin my quest for one-bag international travel starting with a trip to Taiwan in April.)

However, if I have to give a short answer, I always love the quip about the necessary “Big 3” my parents used when we traveled: “Tickets, passport, money. Everything else you can buy, borrow, or make do without.”

While I truly believe this motto, and have followed it to the letter before in extreme circumstances, there are several other items which make my “necessities” list on (almost) every trip these days, rounding out to a nice 10.

1. Good walking shoes & SmartWool socks

Okay, so technically this one is two things, but it’s not like you would use one without the other, right? After years of walking in many kilometres, in many conditions, all around the world, I have come to the conclusion that I absolutely LOVE SmartWool socks. They are comfortable, they don’t smell, they take YEARS to wear out, their colours hide dirt well, they look good on everyone, and they prevent blisters! To learn more about the science behind these awesome socks, they made us a pretty website!

2. Pencil and notebook

Same deal as above… paper is pretty useless unless you’re using it for fire starter in the woods (and I think open fires are illegal in most wooded places now anyways). Great for remembering details such as addresses or opening hours, for learning words of the local language (a great opener for talking to locals) and for detailing your adventures in.

3. Sunscreen

This brings us to one of my absolute all-time favourite travel stories, and perhaps the best one to illustrate my parents unique manner of raising me to be the independent, responsible and interesting human being (I hope ) that I am today.

When I was 17 years old, and full of young restlessness I used to spend hours and hours (actually who am I kidding, I still do) on airline websites, trying to find the best travel deals to my dream destinations. One night, my parents had asked me to babysit my younger brother while they went out for dinner and a show. After my brother had gone to bed, I was on the computer, chatting with some friends from Australia and skimming my usual travel sites. Suddenly, I spied an incredibly good deal for a flight to Brisbane from Vancouver… after doing about, oh… maybe 3 minutes of intense cost research and asking my friends if the weather was nice, and whether they thought I could get a job there, I had bought a plane ticket. For the next morning. To Australia.

By the time my parents got home, later that night, I was halfway through packing for my spontaneous 3 month trip down under. My Mum took one glance in my room, asked me where I was going, stared at me for a moment after my reply and then shook her head and went to bed. The next morning, around 6 a.m. she padded back through to my room in her slippers and asked if I was serious. I held up my bag in one hand and my plane ticket in the other, then cheekily asked if she could give me a ride to the airport in an hour. She thought about it for a second, nodded, and then padded to the kitchen to make herself a cup of tea.

An hour later, we were driving to the airport and we were chatting about mundane things when she suddenly seemed to realize that I was actually planning to spend the next three months in Australia. She turned to me abruptly and said:

“So you’re really going to Australia today?”

“Well, yes, although I won’t get there until tomorrow. I’ll call when the time difference isn’t too bad.”

“Did you pack sunscreen?”

“Uhhh… no?”

“There should be a bottle under the seat. You can take that one.”

I dug it out and tucked it into the top pocket of my bag. We drove the rest of the way to the airport in that comfortable silence that only comes from everyone feeling that all that is needed has been said. I think it officially marked the moment in my life where I felt like an adult in my parents’ eyes. And I still remember to pack sunscreen, every time.

4. Digital Camera

I have found over time that I never remember my trips as well if I don’t have pictures to spur the memories. Take pictures! Take LOTS of pictures. Take pictures of new friends, old friends, yourself with friends, yourself alone, local quirks, colourful signs, famous locations, not-so-famous-but-just-as-cool locations, your favourite dish, your favourite camel… you name it! If you’re motivated enough, you can even make yourself a scrapbook when you get home. (Just don’t force your poor friends to sit through an 800-picture slide show… really, after 50 pictures, no one cares.)

I currently own one digital SLR; the Canon Rebel T2i (EOS 550D outside the US, but I like the flashier name… no pun intended) which I love for it’s smaller grip – perfect for my female hands, and a smaller Canon Powershot from a few years ago when it had a slimmer design.

5. Universal Plug Adapter

Really? You want an explanation? Just get one. You can thank me later…

6. Goody’s Ouchless Hair Elastics

Weirdly useful… and not just for putting hair into a ponytail.

These amazingly durable, colourful bands are perfect for securing things together (bunches of pens, flowers, rolls of bills, you name it!) or for hanging things. As hair elastics go, they are very comfortable since they don’t have the traditional metal bar holding the elastic together which pulls your hair out when you remove it. They come in a great variety of colours, last forever and are super cheap and easy to find (any major drugstore will carry them). I find them so useful that I often have an extra one on my key chain or in my bag – in fact, I’m wearing one on my wrist right now!

7. MP3/USB player

Again, you can buy them in any electronics store or major drugstore – cheap, not flashy, easily concealed, good for storing digital pictures or e-versions of important documents. Wear it around your neck under your shirt on a cord necklace for easy but secure access to your music. The one I use is similar to this one. Get as much memory as you can find/afford… even your favourite songs get old after you’ve been on the same bus for 18 hours.

And of course – don’t forget your tickets, passport or money!

– Sarah Topps (2011)





CUSO-VSO celebrates 50 years!

10 11 2010

Since 1961, more than 15 000 volunteers have worked overseas for CUSO-VSO, one of the largest international development organizations in North America that works through volunteers. Now 50 years later, they have some major clout in the field.

Suitably impressed, I looked for a way that I could volunteer with them myself, and have just been invited to work at their 50 year celebration event!

The main kickoff event is taking place in Vancouver, Canada at the University of British Columbia on December 4th and 5th. The theme for the event is: “Celebrating the international volunteer – yesterday, today and tomorrow”.

Registration is $50, and there are still spots open if anyone is interested. Hope to see you there!

– Sarah Topps





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








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