A Five Year Anniversary

Five years ago today I had just returned from an amazing weekend up in Edinburgh. I joined hundreds of thousands of others for the Make Poverty History rally, campaigning for a radical change in global politics to highlight key issues such as trade, aid, debt and HIV/AIDS affecting developing countries.

 Five years later, the white wristband I wore is gathering dust at the back of my cupboard, but the issues remain as pertinent as ever.

 Whilst the Make Poverty History Campaign disbanded in 2006, the coalition of organisations involved still remains committed to fighting global poverty.

 There have been many successes from the campaign; more and better quality aid has been given to developing countries allowing governments to tackle poverty more effectively. Education has been prioritised with 33 million more children worldwide now able to attend school, and antiretroviral drugs are more widely available, tackling the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Confronting the underlying injustices in trade and debt systems has seen debt burdens cancelled for 20 countries and the campaign for fair-trade has become more than just a fad.

 Yet challenges remain, targets are missed, and new crises arise. The financial downturn has impacted heavily upon developing countries, and climate change affects the poorest and most vulnerable.

 Make Poverty History inspired many and created a momentum for demanding radical change. The problems may seem insurmountable but change is possible. Poverty is not, and should not be seen as inevitable.

 “Above all, making poverty history is about supporting developing countries to make their own choices in the best interests of their people. It is about helping, not hindering.”

Jenny Ricks: ActionAid

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Published in: on July 6, 2010 at 3:52 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Let them eat cake…

The DRC celebrated 50 years of independence this week, with foreign dignitaries and the UN Secretary General Ban-Ki Moon gracing the shores of the Congo River with their presence.

Yet despite all these celebrations, the country is still torn apart by violence, and insecurity has forced many to flee from their homes. International peacekeeping forces MONUC struggle to maintain control, lacking essential resources.

It is not just rebel groups that are feared, but the government forces are regarded with apprehension, with soldiers accused of perpetrating crimes against civilians; violent attack, looting and rape.

For those who have fled, there is little hope of returning home to their villages, now associated with violent attack and terrifying memories.

President Kabila is determined to oust the international peacekeeping forces, but this threatens to exacerbate the insecurity in the already unstable country. Promises of peace seem to be merely daydreams.

Few Congolese will be celebrating independence in lavish security as the president has this week. There will be no cake for the displaced and poverty-stricken. Their celebrations may not be of winning independence from their colonial oppressors, but instead a thankfulness that they have survived (unlike millions of others – 5.4m have died in the violence since 1998).

The Congolese have demonstrated an admirable resilience over the years, clinging to each other in times of desperate need. This is what should be celebrated, their perseverance and endurance despite brutal challenges. This vision of the remarkable strength and courage of humanity is displayed beautifully in a set of photographs ‘From Congo with Love’ by Rankin.

My Heroes

Last August an air ambulance saved my life. Today I ran 5km in a bid to fundraise for such a valuable service. Lives are saved daily by the dedicated paramedic team and pilot who serve vast areas of the country and provide a vital service.

I ran alongside a girl who had been airlifted on exactly the same date as I had been last summer. She had broken both her legs in the accident she was in. Both with titanium-enhanced skeletons, pinning broken bones together, we joined family and friends and took on the challenge of the race today. Battling with the heat and driven by the knowledge that we were not just running for ourselves, but for countless others who owed their lives to the services of the air ambulance, we pushed on through the pain and ran.

It was a tremendous sense of achievement to finish the run, and express our thanks to the crew that had done so much for so many. To be able to walk, let alone run is a gift many of us take for granted, but every pace I took today was my way of saying thank you.

Air ambulances are not funded by the government, but rely on private giving. They offer a service that can make a critical difference between life and death. Without them I would not be running today.

Find out about your local air ambulance here.

Published in: on May 23, 2010 at 6:46 pm  Leave a Comment  
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‘No thanks, I support cancer’

I have just been collecting the Christian Aid envelopes from some of the houses near where I live as part of Christian Aid week.

Most people were very friendly and gave very generously. But one lady uttered a most confusing response “No thanks, I support cancer”.

I hope that means that she gives to Cancer Research or Macmillan, or a similar charity. Unless it was a very open admission that she advocates for the onset of terminal illness and suffering….

Needless to say, I shan’t be calling at her house again.

Published in: on May 12, 2010 at 7:58 pm  Comments (1)  
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‘Fair trade is just a fad…’

Last week we ran out of coffee in the office. Someone was quickly dispatched to go and buy the much-needed replacement, as the next delivery was not to arrive for another week. Unfortunately the purchase was neither good quality nor fair trade.

This was brought into sharp perspective for me when I re-watched the BBC3 episode of ‘Blood, Sweat, and Luxuries’ from last week. The series follows a group of spoilt, privileged and naive young Brits as they are put to work in the vilest of conditions in Asia and Africa in order to really find out where their luxury goods come from.

This week they were sent to work on a coffee plantation in rural Ethiopia, and were put to work alongside the locals, working in the same conditions and earning the same wage, which was to cover their food and rent for that week.

The programme is well worth watching, and despite the irritating personalities of some of the young people, others have been truly challenged and changed by the experience. One girl who had dismissed fair trade as simply a fad, was so outraged at the treatment of the local workers by multinational coffee companies that she declared that fair trade should become a universal standard.

Perhaps one day it will, but for now I will continue the small battle in my workplace to make sure that we are buying and drinking fair trade.

We cannot do everything, but we must not do nothing.

Published in: on May 10, 2010 at 6:51 pm  Comments (1)  
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A Magnetic Personality

In the ongoing saga that is my long-term relationship with hospitals, today I went for an MRI. Having been for almost every other type of scan over the past year, it just seemed like another part of the whole adventure.

I have to say I was quite (irrationally) nervous. Knowing that my skeleton now relies on several pieces of metal to hold it together, the idea of entering into a room filled with electromagnets wasn’t quite my idea of fun.

My arrival at the hospital went smoothly, I traipsed through the labyrinthine corridors and finally found the reception desk marked ‘MRI’, conspicuously empty, with only a few porters hovering around the area. The waiting room was crammed full though, and when the receptionist eventually returned and booked me in, I squeezed myself into a vacant chair in the corner.

I don’t know what it is about small children, but their presence often distracts from any concerns or worries, and even conjures a smile on the grumpiest of faces. I had unwittingly sat next to one such child. The little boy was brightening up the waiting room with a beaming smile, and an endearing giggle. Unfortunately he had also picked the noisiest toy in the play area and was trying to replicate a one-man-band on a toy keyboard that played the same repetitive tune over and over again. This soon explained the mother’s weary expression.

Eventually (my nerves forgotten) the mother and boy were called in for their appointment which provoked high-pitched screams from the child, separated from his beloved toy. Minutes later, an anxious nurse emerged from the room, retrieved the keyboard and the crying soon subsided.

When the time came for my scan, I had forgotten all about my nerves, and the nurse seemed almost disinterested in my explanation of all my metalwork. I was told to change into a gown, and then ushered into the MRI room where I lay flat on my back on a large tray, and was padded in on all sides to stop me moving during the scan.

Being inside an MRI machine is a surreal experience. It’s strangely claustrophobic and incredibly loud, even with the headphones provided to block out the noise. It sounds like being locked in an engine room of a huge ship, but with every movement of the engine directed at you. It only lasted twenty minutes, but felt longer, and I distracted myself from the onset of pins and needles in my right arm by likening the rhythmic movements to the deep bass beat in house music or the powerful drums in heavy metal. I could have sworn that the last set of rotations the MRI machine made was based on a riff from a song by Rage Against the Machine.

Needless to say, the experience was not half as nerve wracking as I had first thought, and I am discovering there is no end of entertaining events to be seen in an otherwise dreary and depressing hospital environment.

[No evidence of having been magnetised by the experience so far… but if you do find you’ve lost your phone/keys/spare change in coins etc. do let me know]

Published in: on April 15, 2010 at 7:33 pm  Comments (1)  

Did you feel anything?

As I sat at work trying to complete a fairly monotonous task yesterday, I started to wonder what it is that makes us feel detached from the reality around us so often. The task I was working on was dull, but it shouldn’t have seemed such a chore. I was filing away letters from sponsored children from across the globe.

After a while, the letters seemed less a reflection of the children’s lives and more an activity to while away the hours. The repetitive nature of the exercise undid the significance of those handwritten notes and wax crayon pictures.

Maybe that’s what happens so often when we see endless reports of war, famine and natural disaster across the globe. It seems to happen so often that we become numb to its reality.

Desperate not to ignore the meaning and importance behind my work, I decided a change of activity might do the trick. I began looking for an appropriate picture for the next project update.

Leafing through photos of the children that have been part of the project work out in Cambodia, I came across images taken last Christmas. A portrait shot of a young girl with a huge grin clutching a teddy bear gleamed up at me, and, as the toy had clearly made her day, her smile made mine.

My boss was right, sometimes this really does feel like the best job in the world.

Published in: on April 8, 2010 at 6:35 pm  Leave a Comment  

Fairtrade Fast

Sunday marks the end of the 40-day fast of Lent, and the drawing to a close of my self-imposed Fairtrade challenge. I have attempted to eat only Fairtrade or locally sourced (British) food for the lent period.

There have been a few obstacles along the way, notably the difficulties of eating Fairtrade or British products when eating out, or when invited to a friend’s for dinner. However, it has been a successful experiment, despite the initial unconvinced response from my family. I have succeeded in my mission (mostly – see obstacles above), perhaps not quite 100% of the time, but without kicking up a fuss in cafés or restaurants, and not wanting to inconvenience friends who have so kindly cooked for me, I have met my challenge more often than not.

The challenge has inspired some and confused others. My mother now avidly reads the labels on all the food she buys, and the local Fairtrade stall has had a booming business from us and others in the past few weeks. We have experimented with ordering an organic vegetable box (the majority sourced from the UK), although I’m still not sure if an extra layer of mud really is any better for you.  A variety of Fairtrade teas, cereal bars and biscuits now line the shelves in our kitchen and a visit to the local farmers market this weekend promises to bring some interesting additions to our diet.

It has been fascinating to see how far our food travels to reach the supermarket shelves, and has raised questions of supplier relations, whether giant supermarket chains are just sourcing the cheapest possible products, or whether they have any ethical standards for trading with the producers. A campaign I worked on last year lobbied supermarkets to treat producers fairly and engage in ethical trading practises. It has seen success in the implementation of an independent watchdog to monitor trading practices.

It has been encouraging to see the growth of Fairtrade, and now even in my local shop there are far more Fairtrade products on the shelves than when I first started this challenge. Whilst Fairtrade tea, coffee and chocolate are becoming mainstreamed, there is still a way to go before products like Fairtrade rice are more readily available.

I intend to carry on buying and eating as much Fairtrade or British products as is feasibly possible, but also recognise the importance of buying products exported by developing countries that play such an important part in contributing to their economy.

As I reach the end of my Fairtrade fast I’m very much looking forward to Easter Day, and hope that I might get to enjoy one of these delights!

Published in: on March 27, 2010 at 10:47 am  Leave a Comment  
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World Water Day

The UN have dedicated March 22nd as World Water Day. This year the focus is on waste water, polluting water sources across the globe and causing life-threatening diseases for those who rely on such sources for their daily water supply.

The UNEP have released a report detailing how waste water not only affects the people who drink from polluted sources but also the ecosystems dependent upon it.

A lack of clean water kills 1.8 million children a year, often dying from treatable diseases such as diarrhoea.

Yet the report suggests that many of the toxins present in waste water could also be directed to growing crops, as substances such as nitrogen and phosphorus act as powerful fertilizers.

Greater investment in the management of water sources in developing countries could therefore help to avoid millions of preventable deaths, and help provide valuable benefits for agriculture.

Published in: on March 22, 2010 at 6:03 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Water, water, everywhere, nor any drop to drink

I saw an impressive contemporary dance show last night, a piece called Scattered, performed by Motionhouse. The piece was formed around the theme of water, moving north to south across the globe, from ice in the arctic, to the desert and even a section representing the depths of the ocean. It combined dynamic dance moves, aerial acrobatics, and stunning visual projections onto a carefully curved stage that looked like a wave. It was an inspiring performance, which left me reflecting on the vital role water plays in our everyday life.

I too often take the supply of water for granted. Turning on the tap, the shower, even flushing the toilet are all actions I hardly give a second thought. Yet for many, a clean reliable source of water is hard to find. The section in the dance show representing the desert portrayed one dancer in the centre of the stage, parched in the heat, surrounded by the others all with bottles of water, indifferent to her plight until she collapses from exhaustion and dehydration. 

Without water, the simplest of tasks becomes a huge obstacle. Any time there is a water cut, life suddenly gets more difficult. For some, accessing a clean and safe water supply is just too expensive.  The urban poor, with approximately 1 billion living in slums across the globe are often denied access to basic services, with utility providers directing their supply to the wealthier areas. WaterAid estimates that it costs 37% of a person’s annual income to connect to the water supply, a prohibitive sum for many.

The 15th African International Water Congress is currently underway this week, taking place in Uganda’s capital, Kampala, focusing on perspectives facing energy challenges and climate change. The hope is that this international congress will begin to successfully tackle some of these perceptions, and advocate for improved access to services for the poor. Water is life-giving and life-sustaining, an issue that cannot and must not be ignored.