Because I am their neighbour. A day at the Kingston Food Bank.

In Kingston, South-West London, amongst leafy streets and upmarket cafes, a group of volunteers meets in a church to welcome locals who have been referred by government or by other charities for food aid.

One man who has been referred for assitance used to be a night guard but is now recovering from 6 months of treatment for throat cancer that left him with only 60% of his tongue, and so is struggling to find work. “And before you ask, I never smoked. Not once. It’s hereditary.” He wants to make sure that I do not blame him for his cancer. “My Dad’s been treated for cancer too,” I share. His response floors me: “Well, to you and your father let me say this: Positive Mental Thinking, Positive Mental Thinking. It will be OK.” And I realise that he is counselling me. A volunteer brings tea. “Thank you so much,” he says to the volunteer, “that’s wonderful.” We run through a list of items he is entitled to. “Spaghetti?” “Yes please.” “Coffee/Tea?” “Can I choose? In which case, coffee.”  “What’s your favourite food?”, I ask. “Chinese. I’m just a couple of weeks out of treatment now but I’ve got the all clear and I’m gonna get a job. And then I’m gonna buy a Chinese takeaway meal. Positive Mental Thinking.”

Another man tells me of his gratitude to the Job Centre official who got a mistake corrected and a three month deduction cancelled. He’s looking forward to tomorrow’s football competition he is taking his son to. “It’s expensive,.£3, but another parent will drive us. People are very kind.”

I ask the volunteers what kind of people are referred in. “Oh, we’ve had people who are in work but don’t earn enough, we’ve had people who’ve been ill, people who have had a mistake made on their benefits, we had someone who had been well-to-do but lost his job, we get quite a few ex-soldiers, too, they find it hard.”

Is it tough volunteering here, I ask? “Yeah, it can be, when the people are crying. One man howled, I’d never heard a man howl before. He was at rock bottom. I stayed with him for two hours. It’s about more than the food. It’s about listening. Showing people that they matter. We have to help wherever there is need. That’s what we are commissioned for.” The confused look on my face shows at her use of the word commissioning. For these are volunteers, not contractors. “I mean our great commission.” She is talking of a higher authority than government.

The church partners with the local mosque and donations are pooled. People of all faiths and none serve together.

“How long would you be able to last without any job?” one volunteer asks me. I think about it. “Wow. One month. I’d only last one month.” “Yeah, that’s it, you see, it could be you.” If it is ever me, I will want to go see the volunteers of the Kingston Food Bank. Not just for the food. But because they will not judge, just help. Because I am their neighbour.

 

 

Environmentally friendly oil rigs? Well yes, Norway, but….

oil rig

Photo: Dave Taylor/www.oilrig-photos.com

We are big fans of Norway here at GD. And look – in a bid to make oil production more environmentally friendly, the Norwegian parliament is hoping to force offshore oil rigs to use electrical power rather than burn gas or diesel.  Hurrah, obviously –  what’s not to love about the Scandinaviafication of oil production.

The Norwegians aren’t alone either.  Environmentally friendly drilling (by oil workers in shiny lipstick, obviously), is a thing, it seems…

So yay and double yay.  Let’s make oil production all green and cuddly and maybe we can stop worrying about those millions of barrels that are rolling up out of the sea every day and burning…oh wait a minute….

Data revolution, meet deforestation

You will need: Some satellites. Google Maps. Trees. People. Some money.

Method:

  • Grab satellite data on forest cover.
  • Make it super hi-resolution – all the way down to 30 square metres.
  • Overlay it onto Google Maps.
  • Update it every ten (ten!) days.
  • Mash it up with boundaries of national parks and logging concessions, so that illegal logging shows up immediately.
  • Enable automatic area alerts.
  • Proactively offer funding for access to legal redress to local groups via the Access Initiative.
  • Stir well.

Your Global Forest Watch is now ready. Nice going, World Resources Institute.

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No SDGs for you, North Korea! (updated)

Gird your loins: the zero draft of the UN Open Working Group on Sustainable Development Goals is out! While most post-2015ers will have raced ahead to see what Goals are included, they’ll have overlooked a small but significant detail in the preamble. As you’d expect in a document of this nature, the usual genuflections to countries in special circumstances are naturally observed:

We recognize that each country faces specific challenges to achieve sustainable development, and we underscore the special challenges facing the most vulnerable countries and, in particular, African countries, least developed countries, landlocked developing countries and small island developing States …

But there are also a couple of additions to the usual list, lest anyone feel left out:

…as well as the specific challenges facing the middle-income countries. Countries in situations of conflict also need special attention.

Now, you might think that this diverse array of country categories must cover just about every developing country on Earth. But you’d be wrong. For as the proper development nerds among you will immediately have realised, there is a small number of developing countries that are neither least developed (according to the UNCTAD definition), nor middle income (according to the World Bank list) – Kenya, DPRK, the Kyrgyz Republic, Tajikistan, Tanzania, and Zimbabwe, to be specific.

In practice, Kenya, Tanzania, and Zimbabwe are covered elsewhere on the list, given that African countries warrant a special mention of their own. Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan? Both landlocked – so they’re included too. Which means that, uniquely among the diverse array of the world’s developing countries, only North Korea fails to warrant inclusion in a category for special attention under the SDGs. Oops. Someone call Dennis Rodman!

Update: Peter Chowla writes in to point out that all is not lost for DPRK’s SDG coverage, as it is “most definitely a country in a conflict situation”: for one thing it never signed a formal peace treaty with the US after the Korean War, and for another thing it declared war on South Korea last year. So there we are: panic over!

Patching Up Nigeria’s North-South Divide

In the post-colonial period, African politics has tended to look something like this (as excerpted from my book on West Africa, The Ringtone and the Drum):

The French anthropologist Emmanuel Terray, drawing on his experience in the Ivory Coast, identified two distinct but parallel systems of government in Africa. The first is the world of the air-conditioner. This system, which is inspired by the Western style of government, gives off an impression of bureaucratic and technocratic efficiency. It is a world of presidents, constitutions, parliaments and laws, and speaks the language of democracy, development and modernisation. It pertains to certain places and certain hours of the day, to ‘office hours (as long as one defines these relatively flexibly),’ to government buildings made of cement and steel and glass, to presidential palaces and airports with VIP lounges, to ‘glorious official soirées in illuminated gardens.’ While the air-conditioner hums in the background, the leader, in his three-piece suit and tie and speaking in fluent metropolitan French or the smooth American burr favoured by Charles Taylor, announces grand development plans to his spellbound foreign backers: hydroelectric dams, a new motorway, airports, universities – the appurtenances of a modern state. He promises elections free and fair, and looks businesslike, not awestruck, when he takes his seat at the United Nations.

But much of this is display. As Terray observed, the principal function of the world of the air-conditioner is not to govern, but ‘to show, particularly to the outside, that the country works, that it holds rank in the concert of nations’ (recall the Sierra Leone government’s gift to Haiti’s earthquake victims, and its explanation that the country needed to play its part as a member of the international community). The serious business takes place not here, but amid a second world, the world of the veranda. This is a world of palavers under baobab trees, of sharing what you have, of the impenetrable African night, of obligations – personal, not bureaucratic, obligations – to your ancestors and your community; a world, at its most extreme, of human sacrifices in sacred forests. For our leader’s real concern is not democracy, nor the provision of services to his nation, nor that nation’s prosperous future. His real concern is in meeting his obligations to his narrow band of supporters, in feeding them in the here and now so that they will sustain him in power. This second system acts as a brake on the pride and greed of the Big Men, who are allowed to enrich themselves only if part of the material and political booty they accrue is generously redistributed. Like Gulliver tied down by the Lilliputians, Terray noted, the Big Man is ‘far from being entirely the master of his choices.’ As long as he produces the goods, the little people will sing his praises, vote for him, pass on rumours and render him other services. But if he fails to deliver, and to keep delivering throughout his time in power, they will jump ship. It is a tit for tat relationship, which requires the leader to be permanently on his toes.

Some countries may have moved away from this model in recent years; a few may even have been blessed with leaders who attempt to govern for all their people. On the ground, however, this is how African governments continue to be perceived – their reputation for cronyism has yet to be shaken off.

And perception is important. In Nigeria, which has been no exception to the above rule, the perception of many people is that the informal system of rotation of the presidency between northerners and southerners that had prevailed since 1963 has been broken. It may or may not be a coincidence that the murderous activities of the northern terrorist group Boko Haram, which some influential figures believe pose an existential threat to the country, ratcheted up after the accession to the presidency of Goodluck Jonathan in 2010. Jonathan, a southerner, succeeded the northerner Umaru Yar’Adua when the latter died after just three years in office. The informal rotation had hitherto seen the eight-year tenure of a northerner followed by a roughly similar period in charge by a southerner, but Jonathan’s victory in the 2011 election meant that by the end of his term southerners would have been in power for thirteen of the previous sixteen years. That he plans to run for re-election in 2015 has exacerbated northerners’ concern.

Northern Nigeria already lags behind the south. All ten of the country’s poorest states are in the north, school attendance is lower, and infant, child and maternal mortality rates are all much higher than in southern states. With a northern president in power in a patrimonial polity, northerners at least had the hope that they would have their “turn to eat” every few years. Without that reassurance, even in the unlikely event that the gulf between north and south does not continue to widen, many northerners’ perception is that they have been cut loose, and that the ‘material and political booty’ accrued by presidents will now be the exclusive preserve of southerners.

There are a number of measures that must be taken to quell the growing anger of the north, but in a country that threatens, as Foreign Policy magazine has recently put it, to ‘come apart at the seams’, political representation is among the most important. While it waits for leaders that govern for the many rather than the few, or for institutions that force them to do so, formalising the regular geographical rotation of presidents by enshrining it in the Constitution (thereby obliging the major parties to abide by it in putting forward candidates) may help narrow Nigeria’s north-south divide. In an ideal world this would not be necessary – leaders would take into account the interests of all their countrymen and distribute resources equally. But Nigeria is not an ideal world. The north-south divide has been accentuated by the long rule of southern presidents, and has helped bring about the emergency the country is facing. Formalising the rotation of the presidency is only a patch on a wound, but it may be a necessary one for northerners again to feel that they have a future as Nigerians.

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