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





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





The Power of Back-Linking

18 05 2009

Now that the blog has been running for about 6 weeks, I’m really starting to see how my traffic fluctuates, and on which days it sees more readers and why. The biggest difference seems to come from what I tag things with (affecting search engines) and links to my page from other websites – whether other bloggers, or Facebook, or my friends and family or just from people who decide they like what I’ve written and pass it on.

The magic of the internet and the huge power of social change or education through blogging comes from back-linking and word of mouth. The more people that know about you and share links to your site, the more traffic you will get, and thus the circle continues. I was very excited today when I was reading a blog by a friend who I met while doing volunteer work through AIESEC in Morocco, Caitie Hawley, to read that she was linked to Nisha Chittal’s blog which is a decently well-known dot.com about politics and social change.

Nisha recently wrote about 25 ways to use your blog or social media to create change, and I found her suggestions quite interesting, and also that I had already instinctively done at least a few of them in trying to keep the blog interesting for my readers:

1. Start simple: write a post on an issue you care about. Chances are, most people don’t know much about it. Inform them.

7. Highlight nonprofits that are creating change, like this one: Global Giving.

11. Write about your experiences with volunteer or nonprofit work. >>> This one’s coming soon guys!

12. Write your own ideas on how global human rights issues can be alleviated.

15. Discuss how social media plays a role in the non-profit community.

16. Write about advocacy in digestable ways for would-be donors, supporters like The Girl Effect video.

17. Highlight events related to advocacy efforts.

18. Interview or profile someone involved in social justice/human rights efforts like Vandana Shiva.

25. Include a link in your blog to great websites that allow you to make a difference with just a click, like The Hunger Site.

These are the ones I particularly liked from Nisha’s blog, but there are SO many ways to use new media such as blogging to get the word out there and be heard…I also find it interesting that the three people involved this time are also all linked through the global student network AIESEC.

Feel free to send me links to your own blogs or websites and I will pass on the magic of internet traffic!

– Sarah Topps





Flu Pandemic

7 05 2009

Since the H1N1 virus first emerged, panic about the possibility of a global flu pandemic has subsided substantially. It seems that while the virus may be moving fast enough to kill people, it is not moving fast enough to scare them. However, a press report released today said that this outbreak could infect up to 2 billion people – one third of humanity!

The World Health Organization raised their estimation of the threat of a widespread pandemic to phase 5 on April 29th, but more recently a spokesperson has mentioned the possibility that it will go to phase 6 – the highest level of threat, indicating a widespread outbreak in communities in at least two WHO regions globally.

pandemic-phases

Interestingly, while browsing the available information on what exactly we would do if a full-blown pandemic were to erupt, I found startlingly little concrete information and almost no one who said they would actually be in charge during such an event. Would it be the local governments? The state? The UN or the WHO? The Red Cross perhaps? No one really seems to know.

I also came across a talk given at TED by Laurie Garrett in 2007 in response to the outbreak of Avian Bird Flu, which is shown below. It is quite a riveting 20 minute video and she really covers, or at least asks, all of the questions and common answers that we would find ourselves giving if a flu pandemic were to occur.

– Sarah Topps





Farmer Suicides

5 05 2009

Recently I was horrified to learn that mass suicide due to debt is not uncommon in some parts of the world. Some 1500 farmers committed suicide last month in India due to their debt from crop failure. A further 200 000 have died since 1997, a mere 12 years ago.

The article goes on to talk about Australian farmer suicides – they’re killing themselves at the staggering rate of one farmer every four days! I am blown away by these numbers – surely in a developed country such as Australia there must be other options for these people? I feel I have to question a system where individuals are driven not only to debt and unemployment, but actual suicide over their crop failures.

vandanashiva1Vandana Shiva is a well-known activist in this area, working mostly in India, she gives hope to the people, helping to organize countless protests and demonstrations against everything from major-scale dams and hydro-electric projects funded by the World Bank, to the maltreatment of individual squatters in the cities.

– 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





The Land Tenure Debate

14 04 2009

hernando-de-sotoHernando de Soto Polar, a famous Peruvian economist, first suggested giving title to land as a way to use globalization to fight poverty at the most basic level in his book: The Other Path in 2000, and has since won international acclaim for his suggestion. Hernando de Soto himself explains the process best, using the simple analogy of an apple at a 2001 speech in Brussels:

I hope by now you have noticed that I have an apple here on the desk. This apple is my apple. […] what makes this my apple is a consensus about its ownership. However, if we look closely at this apple, there is nothing on or in it that says it is mine. Nothing in the physical context of the apple gives us that information. A stolen apple and a legitimate apple both look the same. […] Nothing in the apple says whether I can pledge it, lend it, deposit it as a guarantee, use it as collateral, or whether I can export or import it or cut it up among partners. In other words, the commercial and social life of my apple is not determined by the apple itself, but rather from the rules which we establish among ourselves to allow the apple to be traded and be attributed with commercial and financial functions that allow it to be globalised. […] Globalisation as we know it today is only possible through law that provides rules and through neatly organised standards that provide information.”

De Soto estimates that there are millions of dollars trapped in what he calls ‘dead property’ around the world due to the fact that its owners do not have official title to their land. Over 80 percent of the assets owned by the poor in developing countries cannot enter the market because they have no legal representation, he claims (De Soto 2001). Through changing property law, he sees us overcoming these hurdles and connecting a further 4 billion people to the capitalist land markets of the world. Giving title to property, he argues, gives the poor leverage to change their ownerships into capital – collateral or credit, will stem development as they take on entrepreneurship and not stay trapped in their subsistence agriculture or other small livelihoods (De Soto 1986).

De Soto’s idea was revolutionary and captured the minds of many, but not everyone agreed that his solution would work in all cases. John Bruce questions whether just handing out titles to plots of land is necessarily going to help the poor, arguing that “Tenure change cannot create more land” (Bruce 1993). He explains that giving title to those who informally own the land is useful if there is a system in place to recognize that legal title, if it is carefully documented when the title to the land changes hands and if there is a market – i.e. a demand for the land which is being titled. If there is no one who wishes to buy the land, he argues, then it is not helpful to be able to legally sell it and banks will not be willing to give you credit for such undesirable collateral (Bruce 1993).

Speaking specifically of indigenous lands, he says that critics of indigenous tenure systems often fault the indigenous for being unwilling to recognize the sale of their land, or to make investments in the land which cannot be converted to liquid assets. He also notes problems with community-sanctioned land use; certain innovations may tie down land use for longer than is appropriate, destroying the ecological balance or disrupting the community commons (Bruce 1993).

Bruce argues against these critics, saying that: “The causes of insecurity are diverse, and many have little to do with the rules of indigenous systems. It may arise from the abuse of power by traditional land administrators in hierarchical systems, or from their ineffectiveness in enforcing rules in political or economic circumstances which have undermined their authority. Competition between ethnic groups, land grabbing by new elites, and such arbitrary government action as taking without compensation or granting concessions inconsistent with existing rights are emerging sources of insecurity of tenure that may prove in the long run more serious than deficiencies in the substantive rules of indigenous systems” (Bruce 1993).

*The following is an excerpt of a paper I wrote on the land tenure debate in Peruvian indigenous communities*

“Despite growing international pressure to recognize and protect the rights of indigenous communities, and the fact that Peru signed and ratified the ILO Convention 169 on the group rights of indigenous peoples, Peru made very little progress in these matters during the 1990s (Smith, et al. 2003). This was due mainly to the Fujimori government and the state’s non-interventionist neo-liberal stance – little attempt was made to protect the communities, focusing instead on individual land titling: exactly what Hernando de Soto had recommended (Smith, et al. 2003). Unfortunately, this was not in the indigenous communities’ best interests, because they generally had no individual rights to the land they were using – particularly in the case of the Machiguenga and other neglected Amazonian groups.

While de Soto’s arguments may hold true for urban slum dwellers and highland indigenous farmers, the jungle-dwelling Machiguenga and the island-constrained Taquileans had very different starting points and neither is an appropriate case for implementing de Soto’s theories in order to gain credit access.

The Taquileans already had title for their lands, but could not use it for collateral to gain credit access because of community consensus that non-Taquileans should not be landowners on the island of Taquile. In addition, Taquileans had already created their own access to capital due to their burgeoning tourist trade.

The Machiguenga on the other hand, had a strong desire for capital, but have two restrictions on gaining title to their lands for use as collateral: first, they require the use of a wide range of land for their traditional type of subsistence swidden-fallow horticulture, and secondly, as Bruce has pointed out, there needs to be a demand for the land before it is worth taking as collateral by banks, who manage the credit. The sustainable use of their forest reserves involves moving their dwelling and their field to a new location about every five years (Henrich 1997).

These constraints on the Machiguenga may change as more and more of them become involved with western-style labour markets and as the demand for the natural resource bases contained within their land (such as gold, timber, forest products, natural gas) increase. Then the Peruvian government may be faced with the dilemma of trying to reconcile the sale of precious nature reserves by the so-called conservationist indigenous groups, the Machiguenga among them, to resource extraction companies, with the fact that it is a simple and legal (currently) way for those indigenous people to advance their own development, and obtain the things that the westernized world sees as so desirable: health care, education, houses, electricity etc.

Alternatively, the individuals in the Machiguenga group may suffer because their community leaders are trying to freeze-frame their culture and way of life and if the land rights are communal, then individual actors are disempowered to make choices about their own futures because they can’t legally sell their land and go elsewhere.
Infosheet 6 v  4 0

Entirety of the above article written by Sarah Topps © April 14th 2009

If you are interested in reading more about Hernando de Soto’s work – read this interview with him by PBS.

**References:
Bruce, J. “Do indigenous tenure systems constrain agricultural development?” In Land in African Agrarian Systems, by T. Basset and D. (eds.) Crummey, 35-56. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1993.
De Soto Polar, Hernando. “Most People Cannot Participate (Speech) .” Brussels, October 21, 2001.
De Soto, Hernando. The Other Path. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 1986.
Henrich, Joe. “Market Incorporation, Agricultural Change and Sustainability Among the Machiguenga Indians of the Peruvian Amazon.” Human Ecology 25, no. 2 (1997): 319-351.
Smith, Richard Chase, Mario Pariona, Ermeto Tuesta, and Margarita Benavides. “MAPPING THE PAST AND THE FUTURE: GEOMATICS AND INDIGENOUS TERRITORIES IN THE PERUVIAN AMAZON.” HUMAN ORGANIZATION 62, no. 4 (2003): 357 – 368.








%d bloggers like this: