About Me

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Policy provokes me to think and write. I currently work in ivory towers inspiring people to engage in their world. I am a student of the human condition and my classroom is the world. I don't need credentials to have an opinion but I've got paper to prove I know a few things about public health, social welfare and economics. I'm coming out of the tower and taking the words to the people and hope you will send some words back at me.

Monday, November 28, 2016

Cuba and Castro: Liberation, Oppression and Socialist Ideals

It's been two years since I have written a post because I write when I have something I need to say and not to keep the blog gods happy. So today, I decided to comment on the death of Fidel Castro from a policy perspective. 

Why Comment
I am inspired to write on Cuba and Castro because as a young Jamaican girl on the island during the 1970's, Castro had a featuring role. In many ways he was the reason my parents left Jamaica. During the worldwide recession due to the oil crisis in the 1970's, Jamaica was led by Michael Manley - a friend to Castro who loved democracy but wanted the social gains of Cuba. Cuban doctors came to Jamaica. Cubans built schools including Jose Martí Technical High School in Spanish Town. Manley nationalized hotels and my family could afford a nice holiday at a hotel for the first time. Prior to that, tourism catered to whites from abroad, not the brown people of the island. 

Manley also nationalized other industries and promoted education with a liberation theme and an Afrocentric focus. I learned about liberation movements all over the world from Angola to the Mau Maus and the Irish Republicans. I studied the kingdoms of Kush and Sumeria. I performed for Julius Nyrere on his state visit. 

Of course, the USA was not happy about the 'encroachment' of Cuban ideals on their neighbor to the south and they reacted as they would to all socialist-leaning governments in the Caribbean and the Americas. (Though there were rumors of CIA-backed interventions, there was no confirmation from the USA nor was there denial). Violence broke out in the streets, states of emergency were declared and Bob Marley performed his peace concert. In search of loans for Jamaica, Manley was asked to pay Jamaica's firstborns in interest so he was happy to get help from Castro. Michael Manley told the nation that if they didn't like the new Jamaica they could take one of the five daily flights to Miami. Though I come from a family of lefties that include Jamaican politicians, my parents reacted to the political instability by leaving with the very few dollars with which we were allowed to leave (due to devaluation and a desperate need for US dollars). We didn't go to Miami like a couple of my mom's siblings, but late in December 1977, we ended up in Ottawa with one of my mom's sisters. We never returned to Jamaica to live as a family but my parents retired there soon after 9/11 in 2001.

Social Equality and The Protection of Rights
I have always been a bit of a socialist. I like the idea of government owning key resources for the benefit of all. I like collectivism. I like the idea of providing free education and healthcare. I like the idea of equality. I like the idea of everyone having food in their bellies. 

But coming from an island (and family) of wanderers and big mouths that freely spew and are passionate about political debate, the concepts of freedom of movement, freedom of speech, and freedom of political choice are also near and dear to my heart. I hover between being agnostic and atheist but I also believe in the right to worship as one pleases.

have yet to read any political, philosophical, theological, or moral proposition that would argue that the cost of health, education and food be the surrender of the right to speak, the right to move, the right to worship, and the right to choose a leader. (Being forced to listen to 5-hr speeches is a mere annoyance). What I love about the Universal Declaration of Human Rights - which I consider the most significant and powerful policy statement ever written on the global stage - is that it doesn't force a choice between rights, nor are the rights conditional. Surrendering one for another is somewhat of a Solomonic choice.

Resistance Abroad But Not At Home
Castro put to good use the cash, wheat, arms and technology from the USSR, but he also chose the path of narcissism and despotism for which they are also known. Being held hostage in paradise for social benefits is quite the dilemma. And benevolent dictators are dictators nonetheless. As the successful leader of a resistance movement, he supported resistance abroad - with soldiers and weapons backed with Soviet cash - and yet he squashed it at home. He ironically portrayed his oppression of Cubans as the cost of liberation, and a blameless consequence of being caught in the middle of the Cold War.

My Experience of Cuba
I've lived in two countries under leaders who considered him friend - Pierre Trudeau in Canada and Michael Manley in Jamaica, and I've lived in the USA for more than two decades. I also visited Cuba in 1991 (as a Canadian tourist with no restrictions) when tourism just opened up. (A really cheap spring break from McGill on a smelly Russian plane from Montreal). So I've seen Cuba and I've been exposed to very contrasting and polarized views of Castro and what he and the people of Cuba represent. My experience - as one half of an interracial couple when I visited - was that racial equality wasn't what it was portrayed to be. People found an interracial couple so novel that we were fawned over, and it clearly wasn't something they saw very often. In our 10-day stay we didn't see any others. We also saw that there was a segregation related to roles in society. People seemed to be equally poor, but healthy, literate and fed. (It was interesting to note that at that time you could only use USD but all the beer was Canadian). Military presence was strong and though we could wander without 'supervision' and did so throughout Havana, Playa del Este, where we stayed, and along the northern coast, there were places we did not venture because the AK-carrying armed forces made us think twice. 

My then bf was befriended by a member of the national baseball team he met while out for a run and they hit and caught balls on a nearby field. One night we had an interesting - and really scary - talk with him about his desire to defect to Canada, when a plane the team was to take to the Netherlands landed in Canada for refuelling. (That conversation had me sooo paranoid and it took a while for me to trust my Spanish that it was really what he was saying). He gave my boyfriend a parting gift of a baseball jersey signed by the national team. 

Rebels and Freedom Fighters, Despots and Dictators
So though I am somewhat of a pinko, the glasses through which I view Fidel and Cuba are far from rose-colored. I have a love for rebels and freedom fighters but I have disdain for dictators and despots. Thus despite acknowledging that the social goals of literacy, public health and equality that Castro achieved in Cuba are a shining example of what is possible when states commit to them, I cannot deny that the accompanying suppression of rights did not seem to be a necessary requirement and tainted what could have been a real socialist ideal. 

Thursday, September 18, 2014

What the Wealthy Have to Offer to the Study of Poverty

I have in a previous post (October 27, 2012) expressed my intellectual, personal and ethical discomfort with the extensive 'subjectification' (more trendily termed "participation') of poor people in research with the lofty and well-intentioned goal of 'understanding the poor' or 'understanding poverty' in order to alleviate the plight of the exploited and excluded. It resonated with many people and was read by multiples of the usual number of readers of my posts. However, I offered no alternative, so here goes.

Let's interview the wealthy. Yes. Let's find them in their communities, offer them up something they desire, like to shake the hand of Bill or Hil or an invite to Davos (if they aren't already shuttling in on their private jet), and ask them pages of questions about why they do the things they do and ask them how they could do them with less harm to the world.

Community-Based 'Solutions'
Poverty is not 'created' by the poor. And though the poor shall be with us always as the Bible says somewhere within its covers, the degree to which that poverty is experienced is easily controlled by social policies that have nothing to do with an interview with a divorced single mother of 2. Just like the rich, the poor want good childcare, good schools, a decent primary care health service that is accessible and suits their needs, and good infrastructure like roads and a pipe that brings clean water inside their doors. These are good places to start. Micro-planning at the community level with some really cool 'innovative' program that is designed with 'local participation' by all 'stakeholders' is a nice hippy dippy way to feel good while not really changing the lives of the billions that hover near, and wallow in, destitution.

In full disclosure, I too have created and supported such local, community-based initiatives (Maama Omwaana in Njeru, Uganda) at the invite of a Ugandan community to which my child belongs. I struggled with my role as 'expert' that seemed to have been granted as much for my learned ways as for my foreign status. I did not want to practice what Bill Easterly described in the title of his book as 'The Tyranny of Experts' and tried hard to make myself increasingly unnecessary until I was. That the local initiative grew to national action, with the support of the White Ribbon Alliance, has provided some salve to my wounded and conflicted professional identity as community organizer and public health professional.

Social Policy and Poverty
The solutions that brought the US and the EU to 'manageable' levels of poverty (and the sarcasm is dripping from this statement as the degree of poverty in the USA and UK is far from acceptable) are a good start: government-funded healthcare, investment in a good education system that starts early and ends with a useful qualification, other necessary infrastructure such as roads, individual and industrial waste management and clean water, and a decent wage. I would argue that the money spent on a dysentery vaccine could go much farther if united with the various initiatives to get people clean water, which would make a dysentery vaccine null and void.

Capitalism as 'Solution'
It is a sad, sad story that clean water is widely, readily and profitably provided by Coca Cola, whether in fancy flavors of Fanta, or in containers with the classic red/black product logo known in every cranny of the universe, or the 'purified' H2O in their everywhere-present Dasani bottles. Why Coke has a chokehold on clean water is a much better question than asking some poor woman about where she wants her well or giving her some 'innovative yet simple' gadget to filter the crap she and her daughter(s) must go miles to fetch. (And of course there is the microloan to make it a microenterprise for her to sell said gadget to her friends). It is also a sad commentary on our own efforts at managing waste that we dump such waste unto those who can't afford to say no, whether at home or abroad.

The emphasis on individual or local community based solutions to national and international problems created by the same rich people who want to shine their ugly metal by donating some of the funds they earned through rampant capitalism and tax-dodging (through off-shore shenanigans and eponymous grant-giving enterprises), will always be broadly ineffective.

Welfare States
I am not suggesting that every country can be the idealized model of Sweden and the rest of the fabulous nanny states that are Scandinavia. However, basic needs can be met without serving pre-schoolers breakfast on white tablecloths with proper cutlery. Denmark may be forward-thinking and smartly self-serving in providing not only free tertiary education, but a stipend to make sure one can eat and house themselves without graduating into poverty (more poverty than the guy in the hut because his negative cash flow is likely to be much lower than the newly minted college grad of the UK or USA), but they need not be alone. The price of a college education need not equal the downpayment on, or full price of, a house (depending on whether it's Birmingham or San Francisco).

Human Rights and Social Welfare
There is a widely-translated document called the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) which Eleanor Roosevelt led the charging in writing that was adopted by many countries in Paris in 1948, and many more countries since then. If instead of asking poor people questions about their lives (they're happy even though they're poor!), and offering them up all manner of 'innovative' 'solutions;(because I suppose what worked for us wont work for them), we started by providing people with the most basic of rights to which the UDHR said that we all deserve, then the question of poverty would be less pressing. If countries would 'clawback' that which has been ravished from the bowels of Angola, Nigeria, the 'stans', the Congo etc ad nauseum, and provide these basic rights to decent housing, food, hygiene, education and a living wage, then we could stop poking and prodding poor people as if they are a species newly discovered.

The Elizabethan Poor Laws of 1601 began an approach towards poor people that in places like the United States has not far evolved. That which the Otto von Bismarck initiated in Germany in the late nineteenth century is still not provided in the USA in the early 21st century. It doesn't take a genius or some Ivy-housed researcher to understand the basic starting point on which all human endeavour should be founded. Neither does it take randomized controlled trials to know that clean water and a way to get rid of human waste would solve a whole lot of global health problems.

Researching the Rich
The issue is who do we think have the answers. And I propose and would strongly argue that the people who create and maintain systems of inequality, exploitation, discrimination and exclusion are the people who have the answers to the problems created by these conditions. And that IS NOT poor people.

Instead, let's ask the Forbes 400 how they feel about their wealth. Or perhaps some of the 1,645 billionaires that Forbes* says controls $6.4 trillion dollars could spend an hour or two on a questionnaire. Let's ask them how they feel when they pay wages they know remove the dignity of life from their workers. Or to have pulled the lever of internet IPOs and won the Silicon Valley jackpot. Give them the tools to learn how to share that which they took, by luck or design, and how to learn to take less and give more. (Maybe all they need is a drive through neighborhoods they only know from the nightly news or the front page headlines of the New York Times, The Guardian, Times of India etc).

If the people who settle themselves so wonderfully in the money/power fest that is Davos spent just a few minutes in conversation about collaborating on bringing pipes to South Asia the way they find a way to get minerals out of the Congo, perhaps all that poking at poor people will abate and we can live in a more just and humane world. Instead we are stuck with their eponymous foundations that live on forever as their glorious legacy while their offspring drown in their wealth for generations.

But I suppose since that is about as likely to happen as ice in the Caribbean, then we can all fall back on our prestigious documents that prove our intellect as we dither about on planes, trains and fancy automobiles changing the world one village and one family at a time. If we settle for that then we deserve broken backs as we fall.

*Kerry A. Dolan & Luisa Kroll, Forbes, Inside the 2014 Forbes Billionaires List: Facts and Figures. Retrieved on September 18, 2014 from http://www.forbes.com/sites/luisakroll/2014/03/03/inside-the-2014-forbes-billionaires-list-facts-and-figures/

Monday, August 4, 2014

New Name, Same Game: The Africa Summit and "Global Resilience"

I am not a fan of 'summits'. And this first ever African Leaders Summit is not changing my mind any. That it's the first time anyone considered Africa worthy of this kind of attention is telling but I will give someone credit for FINALLY acknowledging that Africa is a market ripe for umm.... exploitation(?). Though it isn't a far leap to think that the Chinese invasion into Africa has 'nudged' the USAID machine into action. Like Dambisa Moyo, I question if another 'aid program' is the solution but I leave those arguments for her and Bill Easterly to do it justice.

Summits get folks all fired up then they go away and come back a couple years later and have a another go at it, reporting on what happened and what didn't and what they are going to do next time (which is usually more of the same with a new name and another big splash out of media attention) and everyone travels far far away in business class and say what they could skype in and reports get written and written and written and .... yeah.... anyway....

There's a new program for Africa and the Global South called Global Resilience with #globalresilience as it's Twitter hashtag and @grp_resilience as it's Twitter handle. (The marketing of aid initiatives is a whole marketing subspecialty and the 'cuter' the names the more annoyed they make me). As usual these projects are run by the aid gods (with local partners... uh huh....) that uses development economics language that may sound cool to them but reads like a mixed pile of horse, goat, cow and pig poo in 100%humidity at 100 degrees Fahrenheit to everyone else.  Especially if you're one of the local partners. It's all newname/samegame.

Quotes below are from the USAID press release announcing the new USD$100million collaboration between USAID, the Rockefeller Foundation and 'local partners':

"the Resilience Partnership will enable communities to prepare for, withstand, and emerge stronger from shocks and stresses in a way that reduces chronic vulnerability and keeps them on the pathway to development." HUH??

"“The Global Resilience Partnership will help communities and individuals capitalize on the resilience dividend—the difference between where a region is after a shock where resilience investments have been made, compared to where the region would be if it hadn’t invested in resilience,” said Rockefeller Foundation President Dr. Judith Rodin." WHAAA??

And of course there are 'new' proposals with a new name:

"An essential feature of the Global Resilience Partnership will be a competitive Resilience Challenge—a call out to the best and brightest to present bold and innovative solutions to the toughest challenges facing the three regions. The Challenge will launch later this year and be open to non-profits, academic institutions, and the private sector, with a focus on local and regional players.".

As if that isn't what they are always saying they are doing.... Saying it again and again - competitive, innovation, local - is just [expletive] annoying. Same crap, different package. (Actually the package seems the same too: a short-term grant to do stuff that requires long-term evaluation).

I am hoping for talk of family planning because one cannot talk about desertification and other impacts of climate change without considering the numbers of people that vulnerable geographic areas must support. But I wont get my hopes up because economists don't speak much of family planning but a growing family income doesn't have much impact if the family is also growing.

My favorite line: "The need for the Resilience Partnership is clear: Over the last 30 years, total development losses as a result of recurring crises represent $3.8 trillion worldwide." Which is basically an admission that all the previous 'challenges' taken on by the 'best and brightest' to create 'bold and innovative solutions' have not worked. 

I wonder what makes them think it will work this time. 

Saturday, August 2, 2014

The 'Good' Tourist: 6 best practices for visiting the world

Tourism and Development
Many developing countries in the world (and communities in the USA) depend on tourism as their primary source of economic income and development, but the good intentions of tourists can have a negative impact on a community and leave them at the will of far-away-owned hotels, cruise-ship companies and tour organizers.

Happy Holidays
So as you plan your holidays you may want to consider the country/people you are going to visit and the impact you will have on them and their communities. If you don't want to contribute to the degradation of the environment but want to promote social and economic justice, here are a few ways to making your sustainable contribution to local economies that reduces global inequalities and builds personal, community, and organizational capacity.


  1. AVOID CRUISE SHPS. (If you're going to Alaska, you are forgiven as there's no other way to see much of it). Cruise ships are the biggest tourism offenders in destroying our natural resources - the very same ones you go to visit on their ships. The volume of waste they produce (and dispense of in the water!) is phenomenal and in general, their impact on host sites skews the economics in their favor (i.e they discourage guests from buying from locals and encourage them to buy from cruise ship approved vendors). Furthermore, they significantly change the local culture when they disembark thousands of people in one place at the same time for no more than a few hours.
  2. AVOID ALL-INCLUSIVE RESORTS. These places have no connection to their locales, very little economic impact on local communities and usually puts the local economy at risk by sucking in all the money (and sending it back to their home country or tax haven) and human resources that otherwise would be spent on building local capacity with much less infusion of capital.
  3. GO LOCAL. Buy your goods and services (hotel, food, travel & souvenirs) from locally owned businesses.  Scared of eating local? Buy/Eat it hot and fresh. Spread the wealth. Build the capacity of people and communities worldwide with your travel budget, no matter how small it is. You will contribute to the growth of sustainable economies instead of the growth of surreptitious companies.
  4. MAKE A FRIEND. Get to know at least one local person that is not serving you or are paid to be nice. Knowing people gives you a great inside perspective to the country and culture and also makes the world smaller in meaningful ways.
  5. BE A GREAT GUEST. You are a guest of the country so act in the way you would want a guest in your country to behave.
  6. LEARN THE LOCAL LANGUAGE. Learning even a few words of the local language shows goodwill. If you learn a few basic words/sentences ('travel fluency'), you will find your experience to be less stressful and more enjoyable. You will find it goes a long way in going local, being a great guest and making new friends. 

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Peace-Building in the Middle East: Joining hands across borders, religions and institutions

This is a story of peace-building amidst all the stories of war-mongering. The McGill Middle East Program (now known as the International Community Action Network - ICAN) is based on the ground even as rockets fly through the air. It is a story of hope, faith, trust, hard work, and cross-border, inter-faith and institutional collaboration. It is a story of people much more than a story of politics.

Amidst the fray of Middle East dramas (btw the USA bombs kids too - they are called 'collateral damage'), it is good to remember that that there are many people in Palestine and Israel wanting and fighting for peace. People who believe in peace despite all the reasons that make it seem impossible. People who have risked life, limb, sanity, health etc to create community-based peace solutions (that also involves politicians at high levels). 

In the interest of disclosure I acknowledge  that this blogpost is also committed to giving props to my mentor, friend and best teacher ever -- Jim Torczyner of McGill School of Social Work -- an energetic, tenacious rebel of a (Jewish and Israeli) man, who has always believed in peace solutions and has applied his incredible gifts of gab, humour, intellect and tenacity to creating peace strategies. He inspired who I am as 'intellectual', practitioner, teacher and activist as he so strongly believes in, and acts on, the belief that ordinary people are at the heart of social change and that all humans deserve basic human rights. As an academic he is brilliant and as a 'doer' he is amazing! There are many more people like him (well, not quite... as he's quite the character:-) who believe in peace and are fighting for it but it is difficult to see and hear them among the cacaphony and visual horror of Middle East geopolitics. 

This is also the story of a peace project rooted in human rights, collaboration, community mobilization, political strategy, practical 'intellectualism' and a whole lot of trust and faith. It is a story of bridge-building across cultures, faith systems, institutions, political ideologies and national borders.

"“The argument is: Look, there will be an earthquake,” Torczyner explains. “It’s not going to be a Jewish, Muslim or Christian earthquake. It’s going to kill people.” He argues that to save lives, victims must be taken to the closest medical facility, even if it’s across the border. Protocols for such cooperation are being developed now. Thanks to the efforts of the MMEP, 18 Jordanian students are now studying emergency medicine next door in Israel—instead of Australia, as they needed to do in the past."

As an example of 'practical education' and education for social change, the project builds networks of like-minded people to change people's lives. It directly links classroom and community to make education useful and relevant to the people whose lives are the focus of study.

"Each MMEP centre is founded and directed by a McGill graduate, and that initial connection blooms into even more connections on the ground. “It connects universities with practice and practice with real people,” Torczyner says." 

Despite the never-ending challenges that are presented by conflict, mistrust, history, politics, stereotypes and discrimination, Torczyner is focused on the future of the lives touched by the project, and war makes things more difficult but he plans to keep going.

"Torczyner doesn’t plan to stop anytime soon. He’s planning 20 new centres and aims to enlist young volunteers in the next five years as part of a cross-border social movement: “Imagine having 10,000 Israeli, Palestinian and Jordanian social entrepreneurs in these neighbourhoods, pushing the same message and learning from each other!”"


Friday, April 11, 2014

Why Are We Racist?

I appear on this week's episode (Friday, April 11, 2014) of the BBC World Service show, 'The Why Factor' as they explore the whys and wherefores of racism.  Listen to the podcast by clicking here.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Perkins Paranoia

When Tom Perkins, founder of Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers wrote an inflammatory letter to the editor in the Wall Street Journal on January 24th, I wonder if he knew how explosive his letter would be. He should have. We all know that Holocaust references are only made to create a firestorm. Which makes one question the editorial choices of the Wall Street Journal which most likely gets hundreds of letters a day on much more pressing issues than the brief tasteless burst of paranoia that was Mr Perkins letter.

What Mr Perkins feels in terms of hostility towards the ultra rich in America is undeniable. People want to find a target for their economic frustrations and so they find a group to pick on. That is never a good idea as Mr Perkins so inappropriately acknowledged in his short missive. Whether it is immigrants, the wealthy or bankers, making any group the target of hate does not reflect the complexity of the problem nor does it solve it or make us feel better.

However, be sure that whatever frustration Mr Perkins may feel it does not come close to the hungry bellies, inadequate housing or unstable employment that is the fate of the poor in the USA. If you are poor in the USA it is easy to feel that someone thinks you are not worthy of the basics of human life: food, shelter, a good education for their children etc.

That said, there need not be a contest for who has it hardest in the USA because noone, not even Mr Perkins himself, could possibly feel that his luxurious life is one to be pitied. His poor little rich boy pity party was quite unbecoming a man of his stature.

What is to be pitied are the policies that permit Mr Perkins his fabulous wealth while depriving others of basic sustenance. Hating rich people gets us nowhere. Instead, their should be vitriol for food stamp policies. For tax policies that give poor kids poor schools and allow the wealthy to maintain their wealth through tax loopholes and low tax rates (relative to other countries in the OECD). Even the generous who set up foundations are coddled by the taxman for their philanthropy, which is needed to plug the holes left gaping by a social safety net with holes so big it is saving noone.

I am sure that Mr. Perkins has been duly chastised by his Jewish friends for his unfortunate use of metaphor. Perhaps if Mr Perkins knew some not so wealthy people he may not feel so persecuted. In the meantime he could take his formidable legal skills and work with other rich folks like Bill Gates Sr. to reform taxes to make this country more economically equal, and thus a less scary place for Mr. Perkins.