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. 


  • 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

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Return to Myanmar: Kachin State

Another trip to Myanmar in April 2014 - this time to the Kachin State... a place high in the foothills of the Himalayas and filled with Christian fundamentalists thanks to British missionaries traveling through colonial India. There were more Baptist churches than Buddhist temples differentiating it as a foreign land from Rakhine State and Yangon with its sparkling golden temples and saffron robed fascist monks. 

Besides the altitude and the religions, Kachin was a less paranoid experience. The smiles and shouts I received from teenage boys on motorcycles felt more like innocent sexual harassment than anti-UN hatred. Even if the tension is less palpable, the conflict is more active and there had been recent conflicts right before I left Yangon. I was unable to make it to the non-governmental controlled areas or to see the flags of China fluttering over the frontier from Laiza.

The international community, which is quite small, is not seen as a threat to the locals as they are in Rakhine and people in general were friendly, curious and open. The people wear very colorful traditional clothing too and the textiles were amazing. Being so close to the border with China also meant there was a very Chinese vibe to the food and the amounts of cheap consumer items available, even in poor Myanmar. The state felt richer than Rakhine State as well.

Shop in market selling Kachin Textiles

Kachin reminded me more of my time in Manipur, India where I went in 2010 with MSF.Manipur suprised me because it was notning like the "India" of my imagination. At one point, Pakistan, Bangladesh, India, and Myanmar were all part of one giant colony for the British and the ethnic groups up in the hills of Northeast India, Myanmar, Thailand, Laos and China all seem quite similar. Like Manipur, there is a big problem with intravenous drug use, particularly heroin in Kachin. It seems ironic that evangelical Christianity and IV drug use characterize parts of India and Myanmar - opiate of the masses, indeed. The Christianity is a legacy of colonialism but the drug use is more recent and tied to the conflicts and the obscene influence of mining in the region.  

The north-east Indian states of Manipur and Nagaland, which lie along the border with Myanmar, have ethnic conflict, armed civil insurgency, a heavy military presence and high unemployment which is exactly the same description as Kachin, a state that has been wracked with ethnic conflict and sits right in the "Golden Triangle" In Myanmar. It's also the site of all the jade and gold mining in Myanmar and sits on a lawless border with China.  Some estimate that up to 70% of male youths are addicted to IV drugs in Kachin.  The jade mines of Hpakant in Burma’s northern  Kachin State have long been notorious for high rates  of HIV and IV drug use. A single shot of heroin costs about 1000 kyat or about a dollar. 

But I didn't see much of that when I was there. The weather was a lot cooler than Bangkok or Kachin so I spent my time cycling to the office and training Kachin women on gender-based violence. I adore being a trainer and I always get energy from meeting with women and men working on gender-based violence and trying to instill in them the skills to help the survivors. The Kachin women are so serious and earnest. We laughed a lot and played games but they never stopped trying to learn and they always wanted more. 

Good Counseling!

Importance of Eye Contact or Intimidating stare?

Bad Counseling

Trying out counseling for themselves.

Survivor-Centred Skills


The Trainees

I went to the "Confluence" - the place where two rivers meet to form the Irrawaddy. Its going to be a site of a huge dam (a second "three gorges")  that will mostly serve China and Thailand's energy needs. The dam's reservoir will submerge important historical and cultural sites at the Mali and N'mai Hka rivers, as well as what is widely recognized as the birthplace of Burma. The areas is also seen as one of the world's top biodiversity hotspots and a global conservation priority: its a reserve for tigers and the river has an endangered dolphin species that lives in it. Groups within Burma oppose the dam not only because of its environmental impacts, displacement, and threats to cultural sites. But its also near a major earthquake fault line.  If the Myitsone Dam were to break during an earthquake, it would endanger the lives of hundred of thousands of people by flooding Myikyina.

There are some seriously sad photos of how much the gold mining and jade mining have ruined this lovely spot. It's a flashpoint for the conflicts here and the dam has been delayed, but for how long? After a relaxed day there eating grilled fish and picking up some interesting rocks, we returned to Myitkyina to discover that there had been a kidnapping there the same day we were there. The "troubles" in Myanmar are all around but only if you keep your eyes open - no wonder its becoming a popular tourist destination - but as we drove home, we saw a military patrol complete with rocket-propelled grenade launcher going through a local village. Although the women I trained didn't like to talk about it, the Burmese soldiers have been known to rape Kachin women and sexual violence is a big part of the conflict here.  
Me at the Confluence
The town of Myitkyina is very cute and not very big. Bigger than Sittwe in Rakhine but with some small interesting roads to cycle down and on the Irrawaddy river. There's a nice little market and the food is mostly vegetables and lots of fruits. It was mango season when I was there. The food was pretty tasty - much less greasy than the Burmese curries that I detest but I still was able to get my fill of fermented tea leave salads (lapet thoke), shan noodles (Shan Kauwk Swe), and Burmese fish and noodle soup - a form of Burmese Catfish chowder (mohingya). My friend Marise has set up a good life in Myitkyina and loaned me a bike and had me over for happy hour so it was the perfect balance of work, social life, and fun!


Road near the office

Training center in the Himalaya foot hills

Harvesting Guavas

Participants at the training

Lychee sellers at the market.
We culminated one long evening of wine drinking and discussion by singing Karaoke with new Kachin friends in a private karoake bar. I sang a heartfelt duet to Endless Love and received some polite applause before cycling home to my sparse little hotel.

I spent one day visiting the Women and Girls Centers that we have set up in Kachin to help empower women there. They are also a place where GBV survivors can receive support and counseling and referrals for services. I was providing some coaching and support to the center managers and met many of the women who were there for activities those days. Its the very beginning of the program but I feel proud to be involved in it and hope that my training helped in some small way to make things better.

Laughing at the WGC in Wai Maung

Feeling like a movie star in Myitkyina WGC

WGC provide day care too

Hungry WGC workers at the training

Unlike the dramatic events around the census and the attacks on aid workers that I experienced in March 2014 in Rakhine, I had an uneventful and fulfilling trip to Kachin. While I struggle from time to time with my decision to be a consultant and I feel so tired from traveling and airplanes and contracts and working from home, I love being in new places in this fascinating world of ours. I adore meeting and connecting with people from different countries. I'll always remember certain images that you can't capture with an iPhone: 
  • the kind and lovely case worker from the Wai Maung center who always brought me lunch during the trainings - her kind and calm face made me wish she was my therapist. 
  • Singing "If you're happy and you know it, clap your hands" in one of the women's centers in Myanmar, Jingpho, Japanese, and English. 
  • playing "obstacle course" with the participants, teaching them to trust each other as we wandered around the church to the amusement of the local contruction workers. 
  • watching an enormous beetle that looked like a prehistoric creature wander towards my brand new computer and freaking out until my male coworker got rid of it for me and then having to endure his jokes about my gender discrimination the whole trip
  • cycling home at 11pm on a completely empty street with a mild buzz from Myanmar beer and the wind in my hair and a million stars in the sky.
  • listening to the sound of the whistle from the train to Mandalay and imagining myself in the footsteps of George Orwell and climbing aboard to go backwards in time.

Myanmar (or Burma) is a special land. The people are amazing and beautiful and its fascinating and heartbreaking to see what the neglect and political corruption has done to this land. Trips like this remind me to be grateful for having the opportunities I have in my life and inspire me to see more and more and more.