Friday, November 14, 2014

Been slacking


I've been slacking... I haven't written in a while. So I'll just leave this here for now until I can get my writing brain engaged. 

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Live to Fight Another Day: A roundup of what I've been up to.





So I had quite an intensive June work-wise. I traveled from Bangkok to New York City for 10 days to attend an annual global retreat for GBV professionals, then I headed to London to attend the star-studded Ending Sexual Violence in Conflict Summit hosted by Angelina Jolie and William Hague, the Foreign Minister for the UK, and then I sat around Qatar for 10 days writing a manual while waiting for a visa from Saudi Arabia. Finally, I went to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia for 3 whole days to lead a training. Then I was back to Qatar to hang out with my college roommate Ann-Michelle on her birthday and finally, home in Bangkok 32 days later.

That was quite an airplane ride... 

BKK-DOH-JFK-DOH-AUH-LHR-AUH-DOH-RUH-DOH-BKK. 

The jet lag never seemed to end. I had no idea what time it was. I couldn't find my "deep vein thrombosis" stockings for one leg of my journey and any leg cramp sent me cowering in fear that I was going to die from "economy class syndrome". Jet Lag is why black out curtains were invented and god bless the person who did that. On the way to NYC, I worked maniacally on a paper that was only read by one person but on the other legs, I watched movies, tv shows, and played endless addictive rounds of tetris. Playing tetris is maddeningly addictive on long flights. I find myself in a zone where the little part of my mouse brain just wants to hit that bar and to receive a pellet. Very good for turning off the incessantly negative critic. Although I am pretty sure my therapist would say that its just numbing it out.  I DO NOT talk to my seatmates. Except for when I get trapped. My Bose noise-cancelling headphones are my savior. I've worn them so hard that the stuffing is falling out of the pads. 

This trip seemed to be a maddening whirlwind of happiness, exhaustion, and irritation. I got to see old friends, I connected with colleagues from work, and saw family. I saw people I hadn't seen in years. My emotions were heightened due to the jet lag and I had to keep reminding myself that the desire to slap the ambassador from South Sudan was just the jet lag talking. I had to remember that the feeling of being on the verge of tears was also just the jet lag talking. But the combination of jet lag, mindless meetings and disillusioning conference ennui made me wonder what happened to June? It's all a blur. Here's some snapshots as they whirled by...

Positives: 

Meeting up with my sister in NYC and spending some quality time with her. Being in Asia makes me feel so far away...but when I'm with her she never judges if I'm feeling lame and just want to lie on the hotel bed for another hour. Thanks for that, Alyson! 

Meeting up with my colleagues Lina and Devanna who I co-authored a presentation with... they were tired and exhausted from their work but the camaraderie, laughing, and quick creative thought never gets old. They inspire me and help me get through dull meetings. I also got to catch up with other favorite people like Beth, Sophie, Joan, Nicole, Jeanne, and Lauren. And meet new people as well. The GBV AoR meeting might have been dull but the after hours  (or bar module as we called them in MSF) were great. 

Fancy NYC restaurant with smart crazy Alec and Susanne in a funky haze of report writing and jet lag which culminated in sparkling Sake! Delicious! Then Brunch with the Esser-O'Leary boys and Alec's sister in Park Slope. 

Mexican food in NYC! And mixed drinks in the early summer sunshine. And walking through Manhattan in the warm summer night without sweating. I've been in Bangkok so long, I had forgotten what it felt like not to sweat. 

My tuberculosis/ smallpox/ mental asylumwriter's barhigh line tour of Roosevelt Island with my sister and friend Eoghan. It was hard to imagine Charles Dickens' words about Roosevelt Island that "everything had a lounging, listless, madhouse air, which was very painful" as we sat drinking beers in the sunshine and being marched in a quickstep by the intrepid Eoghan around NYC. I think we walked 15 miles that day according to my pedometer. But it was wonderful.  



Meeting Angelina Jolie in person and getting quoted in US Weekly about my "Brad Pitt" spotting! That's right- others aim for the New York Times, Huffington Post, or even the Guardian. But I know that all aid workers read US Weekly and this will bring me more recognition than those publications ever will... ;)

The positive benefit of being an unwanted visa applicant to Saudi Arabia - spending a week with my college roomie, Ann-Michelle and her family. Doha is not really the most exciting place in the world but their house is like an oasis of family in the middle of the desert. Always warm and welcoming and home made Dosas from Reema for breakfast! I also got a highly exciting tour of the underbelly of immigrant Doha as my Indian driver and I went on a mission to find travel agents, iPhone repair men, and other services provided by the mostly Indian/Pakistani/Bangladeshi men of Doha. I didn't see a woman that whole day. 

An unexpected dinner at a Gordon Ramsay restaurant, the Narrows, in London with my favorite person at MSF, Meggy. We met for dinner on the banks of the river Thames on a lovely warm summer evening and she gave me her lovely warmth to help me cope with remaining bad memories from those difficult 2008-2010 years. She was always the best hug to help me during those dark days.

Finally dropping off my documents to pursue my British citizenship. Let's hope I didn't leave it too long! I understand there is a huge queue at the UK passport authority! 

Negatives: 


The Ending Sexual Violence in Conflict Summit - while it was good to be in the presence of many activists, it ended up feeling like a huge waste of time and energy. Now that William Hague has resigned his position, I wonder even more what that was all about. There was an international protocol for documenting sexual violence in emergencies that to me, looks like it will never be used by service providers in emergencies as it doesn't allow any confidentiality. Check out the link above for my thoughts about the summit.

Running into former colleagues from those aforementioned unpleasant 2008-2010 years. While time has passed, I hadn't confronted my feelings about that time face-to-face and I needed to. As my therapist says "a growth opportunity". But I guess a positive too. 

Eating in restaurants for 25 of those 32 days. No wonder I can't lose weight or stay on a diet.  No exercise aside from the quickstep around Manhattan. But delicious food... lovely delicious food.. :)

Non-stop jet lag. It gets harder and harder and harder to recover. I feel like I"m taking 15 years off of my life everytime I step onto an airplane. That there is no plus side too. 


Yet to be seen: 
My 3 days in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia...





Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Books that have been influential for my way of thinking


A short and random list of books I have read in graduate school, at MSF, and during my career as a development and Humanitarian Aid worker that have influenced me. 

History/Colonialism and Development

  • Scramble for Africa, Pakenham A comprehensive look at how Africa became colonized. The surprising part is how late in the 19th Century it actually happened. Another is how Belgium, created as a "buffer state" between France and Germany and ruled by one of Victoria's favorite uncles, became a major player. The events in this book lead to actions and reactions that are still being played out on the continent of Africa.
  • King Leopold's Ghost, Hochschild. On King Leopold of Belgium and his rule of terror that would culminate in the deaths of 4 to 8 million. Draws heavily on eyewitness accounts of the colonialists' savagery, brings this little-studied episode in European and African history into new light.
  • The Early Spanish Main, Sauer. Reissued for the 500th Anniversary of Columbus's Voyage to the Americas, Carl Sauer's Classic Account of the Land, Nature, and People Columbus Encountered The history of Columbus's four voyages has been told many times. But Sauer's book is still the only work to provide not only a narrative of the voyages and of the colonizing ventures that followed them, but also an exploration of their impact on the peoples, the flora, and the fauna of the Americas. For Sauer, Columbus was simply "a Genoese of humble birth and small schooling," obstinate and increasingly paranoid. His obsession with gold and the rights he had secured brought the first Spanish venture overseas to the edge of failure. His successors were more competent administrators but continued the quest for riches, destroying the native ecology and the lifestyle of the indigenous peoples. Sauer attempts to show that native Americans had a balanced and highly productive livelihood that gave them abundance, leisure, and satisfaction. This book offers a unique view of the "cultural landscape" Columbus encountered and how it was transformed by the Europeans, establishing a pattern of conquest and settlement that was repeated all over Spanish America
  • Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origins and Spread of Nationalism. Benedict Anderson What makes people love and die for nations, as well as hate and kill in their name? While many studies have been written on nationalist political movements, the sense of nationality--the personal and cultural feeling of belonging to a nation--has not received proportionate attention. In this widely acclaimed work, Benedict Anderson examines the creation and global spread of the 'imagined communities' of nationality. Anderson explores the processes that created these communities: the territorialization of religious faiths, the decline of antique kingship, the interaction between capitalism and print, the development of vernacular languages-of-state, and changing conceptions of time. He shows how an originary nationalism born in the Americas was modularly adopted by popular movements in Europe, by the imperialist powers, and by the anti-imperialist resistances in Asia and Africa. 

The Politics of Development

  • Lords of Poverty: The Power, Prestige, and Corruption of the International Aid Business A comprehensive and controversial study of the 60-billion-dollar-a-year world foreign-aid business, Lords of Poverty was a bestseller in hardcover and earned the 1990 H.L. Mencken Award honorable mention for an outstanding book of journalism. Hancock investigates why huge aid projects often fail and demands a response from those in the industry
  • Aiding Violence: The Development Enterprise in Rwanda, Uvin explores the contradiction inherent in the existence of massive genocide in Rwanda, a country that was considered by Western aid agencies to be a model of development. The first part of the study focuses on the 1990s, and the second part with the profound long-term structural basis upon which the genocidal edifice was built
  • Pathologies of Power: Health, Human Rights, and the New War on the Poor, Paul Farmer uses harrowing stories of life—and death—in extreme situations to interrogate our understanding of human rights. Paul Farmer, a physician and anthropologist with twenty years of experience working in Haiti, Peru, and Russia, argues that promoting the social and economic rights of the world’s poor is the most important human rights struggle of our times. With passionate eyewitness accounts from the prisons of Russia and the beleaguered villages of Haiti and Chiapas, this book links the lived experiences of individual victims to a broader analysis of structural violence. Farmer challenges conventional thinking within human rights circles and exposes the relationships between political and economic injustice, on one hand, and the suffering and illness of the powerless, on the other.Farmer shows that the same social forces that give rise to epidemic diseases such as HIV and tuberculosis also sculpt risk for human rights violations. He illustrates the ways that racism and gender inequality in the United States are embodied as disease and death. Yet this book is far from a hopeless inventory of abuse. Farmer’s disturbing examples are linked to a guarded optimism that new medical and social technologies will develop in tandem with a more informed sense of social justice. Otherwise, he concludes, we will be guilty of managing social inequality rather than addressing structural violence. Farmer’s urgent plea to think about human rights in the context of global public health and to consider critical issues of quality and access for the world’s poor should be of fundamental concern to a world characterized by the bizarre proximity of surfeit and suffering

Infectious Diseases

  • Malaria Capers Robert S. Desowitz's classic about kala azar and discovering malaria.
  • New Guinea Tapeworms and Jewish Grandmothers: Tales of Parasites and People, Robert S. Desowitz. Examines the threat posed by disease-carrying parasites and insects and identifies the conditions--miracle drugs, destruction of natural controls--that have encouraged them to flourish
  • My Own Country by Abraham Verghese. My Own Country, was a landmark in the literature of AIDS and of medicine. Verghese, an infectious disease physician who had practiced in rural Tennessee, chronicled the impact that AIDS had on both his own life and the conservative, small community in which he worked.
  • War In The Blood: Sex, Politics and AIDS in Southeast Asia by Chris Beyrer. Chris Beyrer is a physician-epidemiologist who has spent the last seven years studying the exploding epidemic of HIV in Southeast Asia, particularly Thailand
  • Surviving the Fall: The Personal Journey of an AIDS Doctor by Peter A. Selwyn, M.D. In the early 1980s, Peter Selwyn found himself in the midst of a growing epidemic of AIDS in the injection drug users he cared for in his Bronx methadone clinic. Over the ensuing years, Selwyn carried out groundbreaking research on the natural history of HIV in this group and provided medical care to many of those whose infection progressed to AIDS.

Economic Development

  • Globalization and Its Discontents, Joseph E. Stiglitz explains the functions and powers of the main institutions that govern globalization--the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and the World Trade Organization--along with the ramifications, both good and bad, of their policies. He strongly believes that globalization can be a positive force around the world, particularly for the poor, but only if the IMF, World Bank, and WTO dramatically alter the way they operate, beginning with increased transparency and a greater willingness to examine their own actions closely
  • Development as Freedom Amartya Sen Cambridge economist, 1998 Nobel Prize, argues that open dialogue, civil freedoms and political liberties are prerequisites for sustainable development. He tests his theory with examples ranging from the former Soviet bloc to Africa, but he puts special emphasis on China and India. How does one explain the recent gulf in economic progress between authoritarian yet fast-growing China and democratic, economically laggard India? For Sen, the answer is clear: India, with its massive neglect of public education, basic health care and literacy, was poorly prepared for a widely shared economic expansion; China, on the other hand, having made substantial advances in those areas, was able to capitalize on its market reforms. Yet Sen demolishes the notion that a specific set of "Asian values" exists that might provide a justification for authoritarian regimes. He observes that China's coercive system has contributed to massive famine and that Beijing's compulsory birth control policy "only one child per family" has led to fatal neglect of female children. Though not always easy reading for the layperson, Sen's book is an admirable and persuasive effort to define development not in terms of GDP but in terms of "the real freedoms that people enjoy."

Humanitarian Aid

  • Bed for the Night by David Rieff  reveals how humanitarian organizations are often betrayed and misused, and have increasingly lost sight of their purpose. Drawing on firsthand reporting from war zones around the world, David Rieff shows us what aid workers do in the field and the growing gap between their noble ambitions and their actual capabilities for alleviating suffering. He describes how many humanitarian organizations have moved from their founding principle of neutrality, which gave them access to victims, to encouraging the international community to take action to stop civil wars and ethnic cleansing. By calling for intervention, humanitarian organizations risk being seen as taking sides in a conflict and thus jeopardizing their access to victims. And by overreaching, the humanitarian movement has allowed itself to be hijacked by the major powers. Rieff concludes that if humanitarian organizations are to do what they do best -- alleviate suffering -- they must reclaim their independence
  • Emergency Sex and Other Desperate Measures by Kenneth Cain, Andrew Thompson, and Heidi Postlethwaite. It's the early 1990s and three young people are looking to change their lives, and perhaps also the world. Attracted to the ambitious global peacekeeping work of the UN, Andrew, Ken and Heidi's paths cross in Cambodia, from where their fates are to become inextricably bound. Over the coming years, their stories interweave through countries such as Rwanda, Bosnia, Somalia and Haiti - war-torn, lawless places where the intervention of the UN is needed like nowhere else. Driven by idealism, the three struggle to do the best they can, caught up in an increasingly tangled web of bureaucracy and ineffectual leadership. As disillusionment sets in, they attempt to keep hold of their humanity through black humour, revelry and 'emergency sex'. Brutal and moving in equal measure, Emergency Sex (And Other Desperate Measures) explores pressing global issues while never losing a sense of the personal. Deeply critical of the West's indifference to developing countries and the UN's repeated failure to intervene decisively, the book provoked massive controversy on its initial publication. Kofi Annan called for the book to be banned, and debate was sparked about the future direction of the UN. Brilliantly written and mordantly funny, it is a book that continues to make waves.
  • The Road to Hell: The Ravaging Effects of Foreign Aid and International Charity by Michael Maren and Carla Bolte. Despite the overstated title, this book is a forceful and disturbing portrait of Western intervention in Somalia, plus an investigation of underscrutinized aid foundations. Perhaps because of the book's ambition, Maren's narrative is disjointed, but readers will find it worth the effort. "[D]oing relief and development work in the context of oppression is counterproductive," he asserts, and his personal experience in Somalia, where, after a Peace Corps stint in Kenya, he returned as an aid worker and journalist, bears this out. While the Cold War fueled aid to Somalia, much of the aid was channeled by local power brokers to further their own ends. Indeed, while Somalia was once self-sufficient, it is now chronically dependent on imports of foreign food. Maren is equally scathing about prominent charities such as CARE and Save the Children, which he terms mercenaries more concerned with self-perpetuation than actual famine relief. CARE, he charges, once shipped food to armed fighters in Somalia, while Save the Children "projects don't work." His portrait of the aid biz emphasizes that it is driven mainly by grain-trading companies eager to unload excess capacity, even as their advertisements feature starving victims. Maren's brief report from Rwanda suggests that there, too, aid is falling into the wrong hands and thus financing a war. Maren maintains that journalists are too dependent on such aid organizations to properly evaluate them, and he proposes that an independent agency be established for that purpose. 

War

  • My War Gone By, I Miss it So, by Anthony Loyd. Nothing can prepare you for Anthony Loyd's portrait of war. It is the story of the unspeakable terror and the visceral, ecstatic thrill of combat, and the lives and dreams laid to waste by the bloodiest conflict that Europe has witnessed since the Second World War. Born into a distinguished military family, Loyd was raised on the stories of his ancestors' exploits and grew up fascinated with war. Unsatisfied by a brief career in the British Army, he set out for the killing fields in Bosnia. It was there--in the midst of the roar of battle and the life-and-death struggle among the Serbs, Croatians, and Bosnian Muslims--that he would discover humanity at its worst and best. Profoundly shocking, poetic, and ultimately redemptive, this is an uncompromising look at the brutality of war and its terrifyingly seductive power