Off to India

Gujurat earthquake
2000: On the Gujurat airport strip, waiting for a truck

I'm off to India tomorrow. A couple of days in Hyderabad to give training on social media, followed by a week of Punjab and Bihar interviewing farmers about their climate change adapation techniques.

I have not been back to India since the 2000 Gujurat earthquake, when we flew in from Islamabad with a plane load of relief goods. Was that before or after the Orissa floods? I can't remember. Might be after that. Hmmm. I do remember I celebrated my birthday in Orissa.

Anyways, will be an interesting and hectic two weeks coming up. Wish us luck!

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News blogs now on mobile

mobile blogs
The old look and the new look on a mobile...

My news blogs now detect if you are using a mobile phone to browse, and the blogs are automatically reformatted to show properly and readable on a small screen.

Check out AidNews, AidResources, News On Green, AidBlogs, The NonProfit Blogs, Blogging Today and The Weird Bit on your mobile!

And no, "The Road to the Horizon" is not one of them. Poor old Blogger lags behind on mobile support. One day...!

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Food crisis?! What food crisis? Cargill cashes in.

food is a weapon

Food price crisis, what crisis? 'Cargill, the world’s largest agricultural commodities trader, announced on Wednesday that its profits had tripled year-on-year in the second quarter of its fiscal year, as the company profited from supply disruptions in the global food chain and rising prices’. (Source: From Poverty to Power)
Post filed under: "corruption", "food scammers", "Right Wing", "Flaud US Foreign Policy", "F**k the Poor", "How to mix aid and business to your financial benefit" and "Money First, Ethics Later".

I wonder what the quarterly report of Monsanto looks like.

More about Cargill on The Road.

And for once I will not link back to the source of the picture, as they don't deserve to be linked back to.

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About Peace Corps, aidworker security, and self-serving mechanisms.

The family of a 24-year old Peace Corps volunteer from Atlanta, Kate Puzey, says agency personnel set her up to be murdered by revealing her role in the dismissal of an employee she accused of sexually abusing children at a school in the African country of Benin.(..)

As part of the report, Chief Investigative Correspondent Brian Ross also talked to a half dozen female volunteers who said that after they were sexually assaulted the Peace Corps response was incompetent and insensitive.(..)

(Source article and followup article)
Watch also part 2 and part 3 of the video.

The video series, and the articles in ABC news, point at series of issues inside the Peace Corps. It starts off with the insufficient protection of Kate Puzey, a volunteer in Benin, whistleblowing on a local colleague she believed to be sexually involved with pupils he taught, and she suspected of raping some of her students. This lead to her murder.
But as usual, the problem is more general.

ABC dug deeper into the issue, and came up with a number of "1,000" ex-Peace Corps volunteers testifying to have been raped, and/or sexually abused. Few of them attested to have found an ear within the Peace Corps open to their complaints about feeling insecure, and received little or no support after being assaulted. On the contrary, apparently many were encouraged to "keep it quiet".

I have written many times about security of aidworkers here on The Road, an issue which lays sensitive for aidworkers and aid organisations alike.

While decennia ago, aid and development workers might have been safe pretty much anywhere in the world, this is no longer the case. Aid workers are more at risk today than ever before, punto. Be it because of terrorist attacks or plain crime, the push for humanitarians to be more at the frontline,... We can no longer work like we used to.

Some organisations have taken pro-active decisions to expand the security awareness amongst their staff, expanded security measures of personnel and premises, ensure the safety of whistle blowers, and in general become more sensitive to any issues in sensitive areas.
It seems others still work under the modus operandi of the sixties, where aidworkers were close to untouchable. Very often, these are development agencies, rather than aid organisations, and very often based on low key and lower funding projects in rural communities. And unfortunately also often working with volunteers, who can not base themselves on their personal experience and "sixth sense" for problems.

Having lived "in the field" for many years, I often worked in higher security environments, where movements were restricted, premises were barbed-wired, and where we had extensive security communications... Only to find next door, an NGO who pretty had much nothing of the kind, with employees or employees fresh from Europe or other "civilised parts of the world", with no clue.

When I look at the video and see the house Kate Puzey was living in, I can tell you that this would not be allowed in many front-line organisations, no matter how "safe" the community was. No fencing, no night guards, sleeping on the porch.. Ayyyy...

Part of the responsibility is with the individual aidworker, but for those organisations working with "freshman"-volunteers, like Peace Corps, the first step lays with the organisation itself to sensitive their employees. And to ensure they keep a close eye and ear to any signs of insecurity or complaints.

Worse then comes when incidents happen. Then kicks in the self-serving or self-protecting mechanism of "Oh God, we won't let anyone know about this". Bad press is a killer for a humanitarian organisation depending on donations or public funding. "Reputation protection" is a very deeply instilled tradition in the humanitarian world. Look at the ecological disaster at the scale of BP's oil well spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Did they go out of business? Did they do less business at all? Bah, no. If an aid organisation would have been receiving the amount of bad press BP had, they would have been out of business in the first month.

Thus, "covering up", is the message. And when you cover up, you can not tackle problems at the root, which is the only approach for "the sensitive issues" like abuse, security, misuse, theft, etc...

Maybe we should start an "AidLeaks", the Wikileaks equivalent to report abuse in the aid community, if that is what it takes to break open the cans of worms.

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Farmers in Africa and mobile phones - Part II

Farmer in Ghana with mobile phone

Remember I wrote in an earlier post about my surprise to see how mobile phone technology had proliferated in Africa since my last visit?

That was in Kenya, a country which always stood on the forefront of connectivity. I was curious to see the difference during my trip to West Africa, back in November.

Well, I can tell you, while travelling through the remote areas of Mali, Burkina Faso and Ghana, my observations are the same as in Kenya. Actually, my conviction of how mobile phones have changed the lives of farmers in Africa, is even stronger now.

I talked to many farmers, as part of the interviews I did on the way they adapted to changes in the climate. Curiously enough, mobile phones played a significant role in that.

To really understand it, one has to comprehend the difference between living in a remote village in Africa, and living in Europe or North America. Up to recently, even the simplest of tasks was complex, because people could not get in touch with each other.
In Africa, if my neighbour Charles left for the market, 10 km further, there was no way to get in touch with him. I could not ask to buy a bag of fertilizer, or to check on the prices of maize, or to see if a supplier had sorghum seeds in stock. Short of actually going there, I would not know. I would never know, as Charles might not have looked for the information or goods while he as at the market.
Information did not flow. And information is power, certainly in rural Africa.

Helene, in Burkina explained how she called around to colleague farmers in different areas to check on the market prices for vegetables. Andrew in Ghana uses his mobile phone to get in regular contact with his extension worker. During the planting season, Petri uses his GSM to trace the contractor who has a tractor. And during a visit to a studio from a farmer's radio in North Burkina, I saw how different farmers from all over the region called into a live programme, with advise on a particular problem a farmer had with pests in his tomatoes. Using their mobile phones.

Farmer in Ghana with mobile phone

Naapi, in Lawra, on the border of Ghana and Burkina, explained how matters as simple as "talking to the guy next door", were complex. "In the past, it often happened I saw a colleague, on his field further down the hill, but I could not contact him. Unless if I walked to his field, I could not even ask him if he had a axe I could lend. So in the past, I would walked to him, often in vain, as what I needed, he did not have. Hours and efforts wasted. Now, I just pick up the phone and call him."

Wherever I stopped on the 2,000 miles we drove in West Africa, there were scratch cards available, and different networks covering the areas, no matter how remote they were. People used mobile phones, even if it meant they had to go to the next village to charge the phone, as many had no electricity in their house.

True, in West Africa, the use of mobile phones for farmer support "call centres", was not as developed as in Kenya. And the system to pay, or transfer funds, through mobile phones (like the M-Pesa system from Kenya's Safaricom), was just starting up, there is no doubt that mobile phone connectivity is key to rural development.

And it has just started.

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United Nations Home Security: The Solution for Safety at Home

The United Nations now offers your home the same security that countries have enjoyed since 1945. If your house is broken into, the UN will send unarmed observers to watch the burglars and debate the appropriate response.


Video courtesy BabelGum, discovered via AidBlogs and Alpha

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Slave to technology

Apple upgrade

I keep most of my applications and software on my laptop and iPad/iPhone up to date, but this starts to become a full time job.

I don't have many applications that I don't need, or don't use. Some I can not do without. For instance I need iTunes as it is the only "easy" way to get music on my iPhone/iPad. And I need Safari to test browser compatibility on different blogs I am working on. So am bound to Apple. But that means I am bound to upgrade the software regularly.

Then I get notices of (make the calculation 43 + 4 + 34 +93 = 174 Mbyte ?!?!) of Apple upgrades? That does not even include the latest iPhone OS upgrade. People, people where is this going to lead us?

I have nightmares of how depended we will become on IT suppliers, and how much overhead this will cause for us. Will we start to be a slave to technology?

Nightmares... How far are we off from this (fictional) scenario:

I overslept this morning.My iPhone had a bug, and the alarm clock did not go off (nonfiction Jan 1 2011 scenario). I can't afford that excuse twice or my boss will fire me. It's like "the dog ate my homework" excuse. So I decided, as I was brushing my teeth, to upgrade my iPhone's operating system. But, as I was avoiding to get toothpaste on the screen, I found out that it is not that simple. Need to do that via iTunes.
But that needs the latest iTunes version. Which is 93 Mbyte (non fiction). Decided to do that. Takes an hour to download (non fiction). Then download the new OS. Another hour (non fiction). Then need to upgrade the iPhone, another half an hour (non fiction).

Only to see that half of my apps then also needed to upgrade. Decided to upgrade the apps on on my iPhone. But when I came home in the evening, saw that also requires I download them in iTunes. Which also upgraded the apps on my iPad, and installed iPhone apps on my iPad (all nonfiction).

As I was getting into the car, I found out my Bluetooth did not work anymore, so could not pick up my calls while driving. Found a patch for that. Installed the patch, but then found that the patch conflicted with an earlier patch I needed to direct my Internet 3G home to the right page. So now I have Bluetooth, but no Internet. Installed a patch upon the patch.

To find that that crashed my iPhone. Which crashed my iTunes. Which crashed my computer. Found the patch for the patch actually contained a virus. Upgraded my computer virus programme, but it did not detect the virus. Installed another antivirus programme, which crashed the first one. Decided to reinstall my computer's operating system.


So tell me.. how far are we away from this fictional nightmare scenario? Not far I think...

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Don't worry. I am putting my life in your hands at least once per month

Brussels Airline website error

A significant and self explanatory error message popped up when I wanted to send an email to Brussels Airline using their website.

Why do things like that always remind me of the "relativity of flying"?

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Floods... Is this the future?

Australia floods

Darned. Flooding everywhere:

Is this how the future will look like?

Picture courtesy Rex and The Independent.

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Haiti, one year and one day later.
Wanted: Honest NGO.

presidential palace Haiti

As we passed the sad anniversary of "One Year after Haiti", it is interesting to go through the stream of commemorative articles coming out...

It looks like every single humanitarian entity eagerly reported on their activities in the past year.

I am looking for one article where an NGO or humanitarian agency does an honest self-evaluation, highlighting not only what went well, but also why the relief effort sucked and what THEY could do better.

Give me one article. One honest NGO. It will foster my hope that honesty in the humanitarian world has not completely disappeared.

Picture courtesy Bahamas Local

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Aidwork? Or did you mean Paid Work?

aidwork - paid work?

Google is funny. I Googled "aidwork" and they asked if I meant "paid work"...?

Is Google suggesting I should go for a decent job?

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So you wanna join the Peace Corps?

Ah those idealic youngsters. Where would humour be without them?

"You don't know how to farm. You have never been on a farm."

Discovered via Chasing Carla and AidBlogs

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Haiti, one year on.

January 12th 2010, around midnight, I was sitting in my living room, in Rome, browsing through the latest updates from friends on Twitter. As many of the people I follow work in the "aid business", a few started tweeting about an earthquake in Haiti. The news was that "fresh" that the main news sites (CNN, BBC,..) had not picked it up yet.

I opened a window displaying the latest Tweets on Haiti and found plenty of people tweeting from the ground. A feed with the latest Haiti pictures on Twitter showed plenty of images posted from mobile phones. The devastation showed this was a heavy earthquake, which took a high toll. It was clear from that moment on,

It was strange, sitting by myself, in my living room, and watching the tweets and pictures scroll by in real time as they were posted,  but that is how my story with the Haiti emergency started. A few days later, I flow to the Dominican Republic, to start the emergency support office. I came back six months later.

We are now one year later, almost. It is interesting to see the articles, and more so, blogs and agency websites picking up on the "one year anniversary" of the earthquake. Already since December. Normally, that never happens for an emergency. At least not on that scale. To me, that is a sign something stinks.

It seems the stream of "Haiti, one year on" has people split in two camps... On one side, the press hammers the relief effort. And on the other side, you have the relief agencies trying to justify how well they did their part.

Check out the aggregation of those articles via Humanitarian News, also available on RSS.

Mmmm.. and I am biting my tongue weighing to what I can say, and what I can't say here, on this blog. What I should say, and what I shouldn't.

Let me summarize it in one sentence: What, for reliefworkers, should have been a pretty standard schoolbook example of "a sudden on-set emergency" (typical for natural disasters), has turned into a humanitarian relief disaster.

Picture courtesy AP/BBC.

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Our microfinance project now passed the $40,000 mark

microfinance loans in Kyrgyzstan

Remember we started "Change Starts Here", our microfinancing project, here on the Road?

Well, in two years, our Kiva lending team grew to 82 people, who issued over 1,000 loans, for a total value of $42,000... Not bad, hey?

The latest loan was issued to Sobirahon Ahmadalieva (on the left on the picture) in Aravan, Kyrgyzstan. Sobirahon breeds cattle for resale after fattening. In this way she earns about $85 per month. With her microfinance loan of $1,066 she wants to purchase two bull calves for breeding.

We funded 10% of her loan request, which she will pay back over the course of the next 18 months.

The scorecard overview of our project, you can find on Have Impact.

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Introducing three new blogs

News On Green screenshot

To start the year on a good footing, I am redoing a number of my blogs. Several of them used to be hosted on Tumblr. Unfortunately Tumblr is losing its edge, so I am now migrating them in WordPress, hosted to my own server.

  1. The Weird Bit is the new format for my aggregator of weird and offbeat news. A bit of fun in this world of continuing bad news... The updates are tweeted via @TheWeirdBit. Oh, and I also migrated over about 20,000 blogposts from the old blog.
  2. Aid Resources aggregates the latest articles from a large number of sites with reference articles in the aid and humanitarian world. Updates via Twitter on @AidResources (used to be @ChangeThruInfo). I moved over 40,000 posts from its old blog home.
  3. News On Green collects the latest blogs and articles on the environment, climate change and nature conservation. Tweeted via @NewsOnGreen. I migrated 86,000 articles from the past 28 months on this new blog.
Each of the blogs have a faster aggregator, a better search mechanism, an improved RSS generator and an easy way for people to subscribe by Email for automated updates.

I am still fine-tuning the layout. If the new blog-hosting works out OK, I will move over the remaining blogs one by one.

Check out my full bloglist.

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More aidworker blogs

African Child

To start off the new year, here are six more aidworker blogs:

  • Alpha Bah is a blog from fellow aid worker Alpha.
  • Laurenist" blogs "about international development, advocacy, and taking over the world..." (sic)
  • In Under the mosquito net, Michael Hudson shares his experiences working in rural Kenya, doing agricultural development and microfinance.
  • Wanderlust mixes photography, travel and the "aid profession".
  • Moving on to the more funny/satirical: Stuff Expat Aidworkers Like is a joint blog by fellow aidworkers/aidbloggers @talesfromthhood and @shotgunshack both celebrating and complaining about The Aid System.
  • And talking about satirical: the find of the month must be Hand Relief International where Dr. Alden takes us down the road of the pure insane. Written wickedly sharp...

All are added to my Aid Workers Blogroll, and are aggregated on AidBlogs.

Picture courtesy Wanderlust

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