Blog post on Women & Food Waste @FoodWasteStudy

I just published a blog post here for the Food Waste Studies Group International on
Food Waste – What do Women Have to do With It?

Check it out and the group for an active discussion, resources and community on all things food waste.

Follow us on Twitter @FoodWasteStudies


Why we still need International Women’s Day

And my biggest pet peeves when discussing gender and women’s rights issues from this past year

Happy International Women’s Day! #IWD2016 It is my favourite day of the year because I have an excuse to discuss one of my favourite topics: gender justice and women’s rights. If you have me as a friend on Facebook, or follow me on Twitter, you know that I go out of my way to create spaces for dialogue and debate. I want to continue to embrace disagreement and conflict both because it is uncomfortable, and because it fosters that dialogue.

Every now and then I have a friend (typically a woman) send me a private message asking me about how I deal with the loud, brash, seemingly entitled people (mostly men) who enjoy filling my wall or feed with their opinions about women’s issues. I respond by assuring them that I am ok with these comments, that I see them as dialogue and as an opportunity to learn, to challenge, and to practice communicating complex ideas to people who think differently than I do. It can be annoying, and it often brings me stress and even sometimes keeps me up at night. But it is important to be uncomfortable, to challenge yourself and discuss issues (respectfully) with those who differ from you, otherwise I would be just preaching to the choir.
3ed24edd6bd9be32690a448806dfd481 I would like to tell you about some of my biggest pet peeves that I have discovered in creating these spaces for dialogue, and in the process highlight my favourite posts online from this past year.

Here they are:

1. Why do we still need feminism? Isn’t it 2015? Aren’t you satisfied yet?

No. Here are 15 reasons posted here or another 100 reasons posted here of why I am not even close to being satisfied.

  • Canada is falling behind on gender equality, we moved to 23rd in the UN’s world rankings
  • Many places (like the USA) still do not have parental leave and Canada has been defunding it for more than 10 years
  • Politicians still want to try and control women’s health care and their bodies
  • Women make less money than men even with the same job and credentials – in Canada it is more than twice the global average. Even the winning women’s soccer team will get less money than the men’s team
  • Twice as many men dominate fields of decision making in every career all over the world
  • Implicit perceptions of women who take leadership positions as masculine AND that we expect twice as much from them as men
  • Sexual assault and harassment is still widespread even in Canada
  • Women’s products in stores cost more even when they are the exact same as men’s products
  • Women have been erased from history – look at all of the cool women and their biographies we never heard about in our Grade 10 history class
  • Or the books by women about our rights that we never read

But also because men are still discriminated against as care providers and kindergarten teachers, that they still also experience a lot of violence (mostly from other men and authority figures like the police); that men are committing suicide at alarming rates; men are losing the right to be fathers in court and feel isolation in fatherhood and pressure to keep working (instead of taking parental leave). The economic recession hits men hardest because of patriarchal ideas of who good men are and how they should be as providers and protectors.

That is why we still need feminism and International Women’s Day, because patriarchy hurts men and women.


2. Women do not have it that bad here – I mean, it is so much worse in other places

According to several UN experts who are from countries that we would label as ‘one of those other places’ are shocked by the level of discrimination against women in the USA. See here and here quoting them by saying, “While all women are the victims of countless missing rights, women who are poor, belong to Native American, Afro-American and Hispanic ethnic minorities, migrant women, LBTQ women, women with disabilities and older women are disparately vulnerable,” the experts stressed.


3. Men and women are naturally…

Naturally what? Naturally better toilet cleaners, cooks, diaper changers? Really? What is it about our brain and vagina that makes us better at these things? According to this study published at the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences reveals that brains aren’t distinctly “male” or “female.” Scientists from Tel-Aviv University hypothesized that if the brain is truly gendered, MRI scans would reveal consistent structural differences between sexes.  Instead, they discovered that brain features vary across a spectrum like a mosaic. The study concludes that brains are not classifiable as male or female, but instead vary by the features of each individual.

Also this interesting video dispels some myths on the nature v. nurture debate about how biology is somehow separate from society. The two actually shape each other and are interdependent. So, if you could prove that there are genetic differences between females and males and that this shapes women and men’s behavior, to suggest that it is deterministic makes little sense.


4. Why do we call it Feminism? We should call it Humanism

If we called it Humanism, then we are reinforcing a different (already established) theory that historically left out women and other minorities (such as men without property). We call the movement feminism because it is still important to acknowledge that equality and empowerment for women is as important as it is for men.

“The reason why it’s called feminism while advocating for gender equality is because females are the gender that are the underprivileged, underserved gender,” Shives says in his video response. “You attain gender equality by advocating for the rights of the underprivileged gender.”
—And also the fact that people will still listen to his video response more so because he is a man talking about feminism

Feminism emerged out of women’s rights movements. Thus it comes from a challenge to the inequality of women. Feminism today exists as an agglomeration of past and present efforts to address forms of inequality facing women. This post provides excellent answers to some more questions.


5. Female celebrities who say they are not a feminist

This song found here would be my response if I was musically or comically inclined.
“Just take a look at the checklist: You like voting? You like driving? You’re a feminist,” Goodman sings as images of women’s suffrage flash on the screen. The video, which includes a nod to Gloria Steinem and the work of second-wave American feminists who fought for reproductive rights. When you say these things you just prove how you probably shouldn’t quit your day job and tackle social issues. You might actually hurt social efforts and justice and do more harm than good. So use your power for good and just leave it to people who have given it a bit more thought, or maybe do some further reading.

6. Feminists believe women should have more rights than men

Yes, in fact we are angry cat ladies, who don’t shave and have horns.
This stereotype has been fabricated for decades, and negative stereotypes about feminists have actually been created, see here which explains a bit about this history of making you think these things that have little bearing in reality. They are based more on the fear of change than anything else.


7. Feminism does not include me

Feminism has been talking about intersectionality for more than 20 years, explained here. People of multiple minority groups face both distinct advantages and disadvantages. Biases based on gender and race do not always simply pile up to create double disadvantages, for instance. Although feminism at one point in time has ignored certain groups and rendered them invisible, feminism has also learned a lot from this. Those who continue to ignore intersectionality are not up to speed with their theory *tsk tsk*.


8. The gender wage gap exists because women do not want to work and take lesser paying jobs

Skeptics of the gender wage gap say it’s misleading to cite the statistic that women overall are paid 78 cents on the dollar compared to men. This does not account for women’s choices, whether it’s working fewer and more flexible hours, or in industries or college majors that happen to pay less. But advocates say this misses the point. It’s true that the 78 cents figure does not account for different industries and education levels. But controlling for those factors still doesn’t erase the gap—women are paid 7 percent less than men a year out of college even controlling for just about every possible difference other than gender.

The gender wage gap is not only bad in the STEM fields, but also in social sciences. This article talks about how bad the problem of sexism is in the social sciences, such as economics.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

9. Policing women’s bodies? Don’t be so dramatic!

Here is a list of items of clothing women have been told not to wear in 2015 – from a skirt that was too short, or too long (or skirts in general), from pants that were too tight and hair for being in braids, from flat shoes to high heels. The list goes on and on. Remember all of those times you or your daughter came home for disobeying the school dress code? Now do you believe me?

I always shock my friends and colleagues who live outside of Canada and the USA when I tell them that women cannot breast feed in public where I live. I mean they can, but there are always the dirty looks and side glances, and even sometimes that person who feels so entitled that they tell you it is gross. Women literally have to hide in toilets or cover their child with a blanket in order to breast feed. My friends do not understand because that is what women’s breasts are primarily for (they are not just play things), and also because nipples are so harmless (especially since we see men’s nipples all the time). We wonder why women get so lonely and suffer post-natal depression and make them feel even worse for being bad mothers for suffering depression. Perhaps it is because we cannot go anywhere because breast feeding is actually very demanding. Don’t believe me? Check out this video here.

Objectification of women’s bodies goes so far that even this study says that certain female students get higher grades because of their attractiveness. Wow.

10. We can empower her by…

You cannot empower someone. Empowerment only comes from within. This means that empowerment is by definition someone’s ability to imagine their world differently and be able to act upon it. You cannot just throw money at her and BOOM all of her problems are solved, she is empowered—doesn’t that sound like objectification? And I find it even more worrying when women’s empowerment is used to sell products that reinforce gender differences, and are ultimately disempowering. For example, this Dove commercial that continues to patronize and remind us that we need to think we are beautiful.


11. Feminism is Un-African

Some of the most popular current feminists are African, so really what are you talking about? Here is a list of 18 phenomenal African feminists: from Theo Sowa, Abena Busia, Osai Ojigho, Leymah Gbowee, and of course Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Liberate yourself from mental slavery, please.


12. Men’s Rights Movement (in North America)

This blog post exposes the terrifying types of men who are part of this movement. “No longer a fringe movement constricted to static ideology, MRAs have become a persistent, often violent force online, stooping to rape and death threats when defending their stance.” I recommend reading this post of an interview with one of the leaders and those attending an annual conference. This movement is an injustice to men’s issues and men everywhere. The issue of disproportionate suicide for men, experiences of violence (from other men) lack of access to formal health services, isolation in fatherhood are all symptoms of the same system that also hurts women – patriarchy. One of the most destructive forces in our social construction of masculinity is this notion of having to be the tough guy, the provider who does not feel emotion (until he explodes) or feels so much pressure resorting to violence (even to oneself). This same construction of masculinity is part of the reason that holds men back from accessing services, such as child care and health.

The men’s rights movement recognizes these issues, but places the blame not on social gendered norms, but on feminism. I know, I don’t really get it either. The worst part is when women’s issues come up and are raised, the conversation gets diverted (i.e. #notallmen) making issues to be again all about men. If I was a man, I would be more horrified with the level of misplaced anger that the men’s rights movement has – #notinmyname seems appropriate.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Please share the post, resources and leave comments debating these points. I know the resources are not gold standard or peer reviewed. I know the facts are communicated in definitive and simplistic ways – but this is my attempt at being clear, concise and interesting. I assume you will take issue with something – and I respect that. I look forward to what you have to say.

GMO food is ‘Generally Missing Observation’ & Why Smallholders in Africa are so Against Growing it

To all of the converted – to those who turn to the quick, technical solutions of GM food for saving the ongoing food crisis – there is something you should know.

We actually have enough food in the world to feed everyone (FAO, 2014).

Those who are often the hungriest tend to be farmers (Watts, 2013).

Despite all of the gains we have made in technical improvements (we are producing 17% more food per person than we did 30 years ago) close to a billion people are hungry and this number has not changed for decades. In some regions, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa, the situation is getting worse.

So if hunger and malnutrition still exists despite improved technology and food production to meet the growing population, than what is going on? Why are so many people still hungry?

Like any technology, genetically modified organisms (GMOs) do not exist in a vacuum. Whether they are successful in increasing food production by deterring pests and insects, or add nutritious elements to the crop itself, this is by no means something that farmers want to grow or consumers want to eat.

Worse still, there is actually very little research conducted about GMOs. The recent article we published here finds very little evidence pointing to the health, environment or political economic gains from biotechnology.

Food for thought

In this paper we ask important questions about equality issues: will an innovation cause unemployment or migration in rural communities? Will the rich get richer and the poor get poorer? Have the negative impacts of an innovation been considered?

Uribe, Glover, and Schnurr’s (2014) contribution makes clear that contextual factors such as governance and policy frameworks, credit availability and seed markets, as well as local agro-ecological factors such as insect pests, shape food security outcomes of GMO technology.

So what is the actual evidence?

Evidence of positive gains from GMOs in Africa:
– In a most recent meta-analysis, Klümper and Qaim (2014) details that herbicide-tolerant crops have lower production costs although insect-resistant crops have higher seed prices.

– Production levels of GM crops for herbicide tolerance rose by 9 and 25% above that for insect resistance. For example, average yields for GM cotton in South Africa from 1998 and 2001 were 25% higher than for conventional cotton with average increased earnings of 77%. Additionally, in Burkina Faso Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis) cotton hectares increased by 126% in 2010 from the level in 2009. According to Clive (2013), biotech cotton in low- income countries increased the income of 16.5 million smallholder farmers in 2013, including success in India (Kathage & Qaim, 2012).

Despite the few positive studies, evidence of gains for most is quite mixed and uncertain. If one thing’s for certain, an overwhelming majority of farmers have collectively organized against GMOs across the continent of Africa. Particularly against the private-sector-led agriculture investment strategies for food security that pushes GMOs.


The evidence supporting farmers concerns in Africa are many:
– Cases exist where industrial agriculture pushed by large corporate investment and their respective technologies have contributed to a decline in community development and environmental conditions (Patel, Torres, & Rosset, 2005) because they have no mechanisms or incentives to ensure basic rights (Carney, 2012; Patel et al., 2005, p. 430; Shepherd, 2012; Yengoh & Armah, 2014)

– Related neoliberal economic models of deregulation policies to allow for technology have weakened government services that regulate markets, which push vulnerable smallholder farmers to give up farming and migrate (Kuuire, Mkandawire, Arku, & Luginaah, 2013).

– The focus on technical and short-term fixes by public–private partnerships shifts funding away from fundamental structural problems (DFID & Wiggins, 2004).

– Even the focus on incorporating the smallholder farmer into the value chain has been found to work for only the top 2–20% of small-scale producers, who are often only men (McKeon, 2014, p. 10) and typically excludes farmers themselves in the planning process.

-Generally, smallholder farmers are unable to afford traditional agriculture technologies and especially not the more costly new biotechnology (Patel et al., 2005).

– Due to the monopoly of power on biotechnology by certain major corporations, GM crops would result in the costs of inputs increasing and the diversity of seed choice declining (Shiva, Jafri, Emani, & Pande, 2000).

Terminator technologies ensure that farmers must either purchase new seed for each season or buy chemical keys to activate bioengineers’ crop traits, which will also put certain farmers at a disadvantage.

– Engineered genetic constructs may contaminate other farms unintentionally (Bailey, Willoughby, & Grzywacz, 2014).

-Leakages of GM crops into the food and feed supply have been reported with Prodigene corn, Syngenta Bt10 corn, and Liberty Link rice pointing to larger implications if done in places with poor infrastructure regulation (Bagavathiannan et al., 2011).

kill gene

In current political economic conditions, should we really be pushing this stuff?

So even though there is some positive evidence that points to increasing yields and lowering production costs for farmers in Africa, the political economy of production (cotton in South Africa for example) has resulted in inequitable profit-sharing, coerced eviction, and widespread indebtedness of farmers (Witt, Patel, & Scnurr, 2006). It is unclear in the range of studies accounted for in the meta-analysis (Klümper & Qaim, 2014) whether these factors are considered and how they relate to food security or nutrition.

“When are you people going to stop coming into our continent with your recipes for solving our problems rather than supporting our own solutions?” – USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah in Rome in May 2012 speaking to the National Alliance. (McKeon, 2014, p. 13)

Policymakers, planners, donors tend to blame farmers for being ignorant, backward, lazy and low to uptake the technology. The implication is that farmers do not know what is good for them. That they do not understand the vision for modernization and progress for the future of their agriculture systems and food security.

However, perhaps it is the farmers who know what is best for their own farms.

The bioethical concerns over GM crops and other biotechnology needs to be situated in the much wider related issues of poverty, inequality, and social justice that puts the smallholder farmer at the centre of analysis, which is why debates of biotechnology must be understood within the broader context of neoliberal agrarian policies.

Making women out to be the saviours – a hard look at women’s empowerment initiatives

I just came across this paper by my Masters degree convener Andrea Cornwall and Althea-Maria Rivas that I think has profound insights for the way women’s empowerment initiatives are being deployed to fix the deeply rooted, context specific and complex gender inequalities that exist. In my line of work, women’s empowerment in agriculture strategies commonly entails ‘closing the gap’ in improving access to agriculture inputs, extension, finance and investing in labor-saving, female-friendly technologies to progress women’s efficiency in food production. Mainstream policy and planning tend to frame women as in a vulnerable position, undervalued, constrained and left out by a range of institutions related to food production and who are also disproportionately responsible for the provision of food at the household level. Renewed calls to place women centrally within development policy and planning (even for their empowerment) I think have been woefully inadequate.

These initiatives often look like encouraging women to produce female oriented food crops in gardens or care for small ruminants close to home by providing them with the tools and skills needed, even for free. This is to encourage her to be more productive so she can make more money and have more authority over her own life. It often looks like providing ‘new’ technology, like the old story of cheaper, energy efficient cook stoves, that are supposed to reduce her burden of work by making it easier on her. The women’s empowerment initiatives stipulated in policy and planning problematically tackles issues of power imbalance through an instrumentalist rationale. This “making women work for development, rather than making development work for their equality and empowerment” (p. 398).

Bad theory sucks

The problem with these initiatives is that it puts a lot of responsibility on the individual woman to solve the problems facing her family, like that of hunger. It actually places the solution and change on individuals, often in a way that reinforces traditional gender norms, further women’s work burdens and limits adaptive capacity, by providing those things that are female friendly. The danger is that this focus in policy may not reflect the lived realities of people’s experience, while possibly reinforcing the gendered status quo. Ultimately, the present empowering women strategies do not address the socio-economic inequalities that have led to her marginalization, such as the political economic dynamics and cultural geography. It also does not acknowledge the positions of power and agency she also has, afforded by privilege.

While there is recognition in policy and planning of the important contributions men and boys make and a detailing of human rights based approaches, women’s empowerment initiatives are pursued without deconstructing the underlying, unfounded assumptions about women and men. The narrative about women’s empowerment in development planning includes a number of myths, portraying women as hardworking, more caring and responsible than men and a better investment.

Kids get it

Although improving women’s opportunities is important, whether this will lead to transforming the unequal rules that are engendered is unclear.
– Even a small plot of land can reduce the risk of poverty, by acting as a bargaining point for attracting further resources from the State and from within the household, yet this link is by no means clear.
Technology to relieve domestic duties like cook stoves do not shift work loads, i.e. women still need to cook on top of the other income generating activities that you have given her, like that goat.
– New technology can also end up being labor-displacing. It could encourage women to take up work in collecting water or processing grain for wealthier farmers in return for wages reinforcing inequitable class dynamics.
Microcredit offered to poor women are typically under conditions that few affluent individuals would find acceptable and which few developed countries would allow. Moreover they remain small, recent evidence pointing to these loans as not having much of the intended transformational effects.
Training some women is also likely to have limited impact as having to attend training courses may benefit only those better off and who can sacrifice the time to attend the training
– Focusing on women can reinforce the gendered status quo and result in alienating men from contributing anything to the household.
– Targeting women also often include backlash from men, who feel left out from interventions, widening inequalities in different ways.

Moreover, the problems with targeting women who are labeled as victims of discrimination are that it may alter incentives and encourage them to adapt to this label so they receive development assistance. According to Ann Whitehead this framing of women without agency largely explains why the market-based strategies of the last 15 years in SSA (1987-2002) have not resulted in significant improvements for food security or agricultural development.

What can be done that is transformational?
Mainstream gender policy and planning maintains a post-feminist logic of empowering women through improving their productive capacity. The implications for this post-feminist logic that focuses on the individual woman are that it can reinforce traditional gender norms, increase work burdens, further intra-household conflict and, limit people and community’s adaptive capacity. In the least, policy needs to take a longer view and offer a broader range of opportunities people can choose to opt in or out of. Most of all, feminists should reclaim policy and planning spaces to politicize addressing the gender bias across various institutions for improving well being.

Why arent there more women?

Other more specific actions include,

1. Be informed by broader sets of interconnected inequalities, which involves a range of actors and activities embedded across various institutions. This includes recognition of discrimination of other oppression and differences, such as ethnicity and age, and other experiences of stigma and violence.

2. Intangible resources need to be considered, which are beyond asset provision, money and commodities include informal networks and associations-collective consciousness and building group solidarity. Moreover, human assets that focus broadly on the labor power, health and skills of individuals are critical.

3. Gender mainstreaming in reforms requires gender consciousness that goes beyond the staff of the programs to also include traditional authorities, men, and women to redress social inequality. This is not just about simply involving or engaging men, but also about holding them accountable to address any inequitable privileged positions of power.

4. Create conditions where people are not only able to express concerns, but also ensure they are listened to for increasing participation in decision making.

5. Most of all we need to examine the extent to which we harbor assumptions, myths, stereotypes, and limiting beliefs that prevent us from treating everyone with dignity and respect.


The slant of women’s empowerment initiatives in current policy discourse logic restricts women and men’s ability to contribute to their own development in multiple ways and ignores the need to transform institutional arrangements that control access, which is what actual empowerment looks like. Providing a group of woman with micro-loans for their shea butter production for example does not address the underlying socio-economic inequalities they face as peasant farmers engaging in a political economy that is actually shutting them out. This can be done by at least having a longer term perspective with the hope of providing a greater range of opportunities for people to decide what is best for themselves and their communities to adapt to changing circumstances.
im the boss

Empowerment only comes from within – thoughts on grassroots development from a development critic

I received a message this morning from someone who is consulting for a BIG agriculture development project in Northern Ghana. The consultant met with me recently because part of their project is in agriculture extension service capacity building, which is my line of work. They met with me to gain insights about the local context, especially since they will be working with the same staff in the Ministry of Food and Agriculture district office I was based in for a year and since very few others have actually spent time with farmers.

The good news is that the project’s initial assessment speaks to the importance of the work we did and the importance of grassroots development that so many NGOs and development projects no longer do (or did they ever?). When I say grassroots development I really simply mean spending time with farmers on their fields and developing strategies with them as opposed to for them.

The project consultant mentioned that even after 2.5 years the local staff in the office are still using the capacity building programs we developed and in new and improved/different ways.

I am always hesitant to work with BIG projects and consultants, especially for capacity building because the project activities are always too short term and the -fly in and out of a place strategy, in which many consultants work, can disrupt longer term localized goals and strategies for development, and waste money on very expensive flights, hotels and other travel related expenses. I understand this because I worked at a local office in Ghana, which saw a lot of this fly in and out of a place strategy.

This development work is funded because of the underlying (false) assumptions of what development should be: technical infusions of cookie cutter ‘expertise’ that seeks to work in different contexts – geography, culture, policy environment – this is the implicit bias in most scale strategies.

I understand this because for the past year I was working as a consultant and managed to convince the company quite easily to keep me in country as opposed to flying me back and forth several times. It makes economic sense -give me a reasonable salary instead of wasting it on air flights etc. It makes sustainable sense – let me get to know the context better so we can co-develop strategies with local partners and monitor more closely. And it makes personal sense as travelling is hard on the body and soul.

So when the project consultant came to me I was happy to relay this information: long term, sustainable development needs to be demand driven and developed with local farmers and partner staff. And the only way to understand these demands and co-develop new strategies to overcome context specific barriers is to be in the context, with local people, testing and trying new things and then communicating that back up in the system.

This is what grassroots development looks like.
This is what my PhD research hopes to focus on, in addition to supporting local social movements that represent smallholder farmers who have no voice in Ghana. The PhD is the only space that has yet allowed me to focus and encourage this work. Differently than many PhD students, it is ideal that I am working closely with African development critics to do this research.

Development ‘experts’ from abroad should merely facilitate problem solving and provide ideas/possibilities to local people, especially farmers. And we should not just work with any farmer, but with those farmers who are most vulnerable – the ones who fall between the cracks of formal, private sector development because they are not profitable enough to work with or who are physically inaccessible.


Agriculture development work that focuses at the top of systems change without accounting for a gendered, racial or class based theoretical understanding of oppression and vulnerability will, and always has, left the most vulnerable people behind.

Political, economic and social systems need to regulate growth and depression for justice – to reduce inequality by working for and with those who are often left behind. The ideal way to do this is to provide spaces for their expression of specific needs and interests, and then feeding those voices back into the systems that oppress them for change. It is not development that should change those oppressive systems, but those who are oppressed. It will not be profitable and it will not be technical, but this is what welfare, wellbeing & justice looks like. It looks like listening, networking and communicating – a lot like a social movements working in a democracy.

Providing a simple functional literacy training program, or extension ‘innovation’, such as ICT, GIS, improved varieties of seed, cook stoves or goats – is never enough. Once you provide to one community and not the other, you are shifting the balance of power, perhaps widening inequality. This is precisely the feminization of labour story we have seen in the past 30 years. Even if farmers agree, it is never enough to assume that your understanding as a foreigner of what is best to solve a problem that you have never experienced yourself because complex power dynamics that are historically, socially embedded are at play.

To provide credit, technological innovation or even capacity building programs that have not been co-developed with those living in a local context, quite simply is an imposition of your own concepts of what development looks like. Development thinks we have the answer – but not only have we been failing for more than 50 years, but what we are doing now (land grabbing, resource extraction, de-regulation for export happy policies) looks an awfully lot like processes of colonialism and structural adjustment.

I gave a lecture yesterday about gender and development in sub-Saharan Africa for an undergraduate course at the university I work at. One of the questions asked was about what works: top down or bottom up development. My answer was of course that the story is complex – that development should never just be one or the other, but should be a blend of the two.

Top down and/ bottom up level development will never progress well-being/welfare if it fails to create empowering spaces for vulnerable populations to express their own ideas of progress, met with resources and facilitation to make those ideas a reality. This is a fundamental ideological shift that we acknowledge as important, but is rarely put into practice.

There is no such thing as a development expert. To assume you have expertise – the answer- the skills, the innovation, the money to empower someone else is not only arrogant but impossible. Empowerment only comes from within.

Ebola – My Experience, Understandings and Recommended Action

Ebola – My Experience, Understandings and Recommended Next Steps

By Siera Vercillo

I have not posted in 6 months because I have been distracted and consumed by the international public health emergency of Ebola that is in West Africa. It is affecting thousands of people’s lives (some of which I know), directly impacting my work and leaving me with sleepless nights. I need to do and say something, so I am raising money to conduct awareness discussions in Pujehun, Southern, Sierra Leone and buying sanitation materials like chlorine that will be implemented by trusted religious, youth and community partners to fight the battle. Check out the fundraising campaign I started to donate here and help me with this. I am also in discussions with international and local NGOs to inform their health and safety policy & project activities.

What You Should Know In Summary

  • Ebola is out of control not just because of the ignorance of local people. Simply put, it is because of poor health infrastructure, trust and denial from local governments and the international community.
  • Solving the Ebola emergency requires drastic measures: quarantined areas, health screening, more training, more resources and materials, but also ‘sensitization’ or education using trusted sources: local religious and youth leaders.
  • This crisis reveals people’s mistrust of the state, that’s why they do not listen to health professionals. People believe that Big Men are using the state to enrich themselves at the expense of ordinary people.
  • For Canadians and others abroad a bigger concern closer to home is that some equally as infectious diseases which we once vanquished, like measles, rubella and pertussis, are now making a comeback.
Map of Ebola Outbreak

Map of Ebola Outbreak

My Story

When I was in Pujehun back in March I got a call at midnight by my mother anxiously yelling on the phone: Ebola is in West Africa, a country called Guinea and might have travelled to Canada. Annoyed because I needed to wake up in a few hours for farm visits, I told her that it is ok, Guinea is not Sierra Leone. But she explained and questioned: it has been around since February why isn’t anybody talking about it? Why only now when there is a suspected case in Calgary (which turned out to a bad case of malaria -god, rest the man’s soul). I searched online, I spoke to a few people from Guinea and there was very little information. I was not worried.

In April I was in a community enjoying a homemade lunch of bushmeat stew with rice after a long, typically hot morning in the garden trying to assess the potential value of peppers, eggplant and other vegetables. I then travelled back to the office where the Project Coordinator mentioned Ebola. I soon realized that no one at the office knew anything about Ebola. I quickly searched on the internet and saw the Ebola incidents were reaching historical records in Guinea with possible cases in Liberia. I had an informal staff meeting and naively announced: Ebola is coming here, we should stop eating all meat and we should be afraid. I did this because I was taught that Ebola is the type of virus that is our worst nightmare. Back home it is described as the modern day plague that has no cure, no vaccine and kills almost everyone in the most horrible kind of way- by bleeding to death. The staff I spoke to laughed at me. I realize now it was not because they thought I was being dramatic, but because they have been through this before with Lassa fever and were afraid.


Lunch with colleagues in a community

Over the next few weeks I had received all sorts of information from across the continent: there was a vaccine, there was no vaccine; Ebola is air born, it is only through body contact; you can only get it from people who are dying, but also through sweat and animals. Email chains, text messages were passed around with a lot of contradictory information. Senegal and Mali closed their borders with Guinea – Sierra Leone did nothing. I contacted the Canadian Embassy that sent me the same information that was in the email chains I previously received. It was not until I heard that there were incidents on the Liberian border an hour away from where I was did I contact my Manager in Canada to inquire. I was calm, not afraid and a bit annoyed with the miss information. So I was shocked that night when I was called at 9pm from a conference call from Canada. I was trying to find a quiet enough place to speak, maneuvering in the dark as the EPL soccer game got out. I was told that the next day I was to go to Freetown and then taking the next flight home.

All I kept thinking is what do I tell the staff I am working with and friends I have made. How do I not panic them? How do I advise them? Because I have very little knowledge and information about what to do if I was in their shoes. My own family in Canada was glad I was leaving, my partner in the UK did not believe me and the family I was with was worried and confused. My coach calmed me, making me realize how stressful the situation would be if I stayed and got sick. Even something as easily curable as malaria would cause panic, as well as if the borders closed who knows what quarantine would happen if I was stuck. The next morning, I packed my things with the help of friends and explained to some staff who thought the decision to leave was drastic. But I knew (and they did to) there was information that we were not privy to because the news, government, NGOs were talking about it.

I got back to the United Kingdom in April and learnt that I was not the only one pulled out or prevented from going back to Sierra Leone. Other foreign staff from international NGOs were not sending consultants, PhD students were delaying their flights for research, local community organizations were not accepting volunteers. I knew within a week of being back home that this was the right decision. All I kept thinking is, why is this information only available once I am out of the situation? Why am I (the foreigner) the only one where precautions are made?

The outrageous thing is that in May I travelled to Canada for meetings where I am now, and was preparing to go back to Sierra Leone because the WHO deemed it all under control. Despite Doctors Without Borders calling it an outbreak. Now the WHO is calling it an international health emergency. Borders are closed, people are quarantined at airports having to go through tests, airlines have stopped flying, whole communities are locked up, project activities put on hold, even public meetings are banned. Ebola is plaguing three of the countries least equipped to cope with it. There aren’t enough clinics with resources, knowledge where tests are false positive, and rumours are going around. West African countries are watching it closely as Nigeria now has cases and I get emails about potential cases from Ghana on a weekly basis.

The outbreak started in February. It is now August. What has gone on in the past 6 months?

Hearty meals from the farm

Hearty meals from the farm

Power and Politics – Outbreak Could Have Been Prevented

I agree with this article: Ebola cannot be cured, but it could have been prevented. I am outraged, as should you be. This is not the result of war over land or resources – Big men fighting for power with man-made weapons. This is a virus that is killing innocent people. People like you and I with families and no idea about what to do or who to trust.

But this needs to be said: the virus has gotten out of control because of power and politics: denial from the international community and local governments. This has also led to denial from ordinary people as well. Evidence of when politics gets in the way is regarding the all of a sudden Hail Mary of a cure coming from the USA. As a Nigerian-Canadian friend on facebook rightfully stated: “So this experimental serum helped the American doctor. Great! BUT HOW COME NO ONE MENTIONED THE SERUM WHEN AFRICANS WERE DYING? Sigh”. Me also insisting with organizations that there are cases in Pujehun and that it would be naive to think otherwise when there are cases an hour away. But until there is ‘proof’ there are no actions taken, which is why the outbreak has turned into an emergency. Thankfully I did what I could and stopped all the activities I am responsible for. But it is not good enough.

As said here, although we should not just blame government or international communities because curbing the spread of Ebola does not happen overnight, what has been done has not been working and public services are still poorly equipped. This is because of the many actors involved in the Ebola response has complicated the response, especially since it’s unclear who is in charge.

Home garden

Home garden

Unfair Cause of the Outbreak – It’s not just the ignorance of people

Fear and ignorance are increasingly said to be playing a role in the spreading of the virus, which is unfair. The news coverage I have heard on the BBC, CNN etc. focuses on how dangerous it is for local people not to comply.  Local practices such as the consumption of bushmeat (like the meal I was eating earlier) and traditional funeral practices are the go-to explanations for Ebola’s outbreak. However, decades of anthropological research indicates: “not only that this picture is an over-simplification, but that disease control policies based on these ideas may be unhelpful”. Yes, part of the problem is that heath officials have been attacked, rumors that the disease does not exist, belief that people who go to the hospital will not come out alive is resulting in more and more Ebola cases. People are going ‘missing’ or families are taking them out of hospital is not helping.

This is explained better here by Susan Shepler “When someone has the symptoms—fever, vomiting, diarrhea—they are supposed to report to the health center, where they will be taken away from family, and if they die, be buried by men in protective gear with no family present.  You can see why people might be loath to turn over their loved ones. Really who among us would want to turn a sick loved one over to a hospital staffed with foreigners, knowing we might never see them again?  … People’s apprehensions about the failings of the healthcare system come from experience, not from ignorance.” This crisis reveals people’s mistrust of the state. That is why communities are taking sick people out of hospitals and keeping them at home. This is understandable in the aftermath of war, but also people believe that the state is actually out to get them or that Big Men are using this to enrich themselves at the expense of ordinary people.

We need to understand history from an anthropological perspective and use local knowledge to tackle the problem. For example, Lassa fever, another viral haemorrhagic disease is relevant, with longstanding rumours about medical staff administering lethal injections and people avoiding the hospital in Kenema, Sierra Leone where Ebola is treated is something that should have be recognized.

In Kenema doing a role playing exercise

In Kenema doing a role playing exercise

In Mende areas where I was living, there are general categories of big and small fever, and ordinary and hospital sick. Diseases can be understood as caused by multiple things, including ‘witchcraft’. The importance of burial practices cannot be underestimated as they are strictly controlled by the male and female societies. Key to understanding health provision is to “understand how disease categories shift as the illness progresses.”

Swamp Valley Rice

Swamp Valley Rice

Our Perspective from Abroad

We also need to remember that Ebola is not the exception as outlined here, but one example of the terrible norm – where thousands of men, women and children are dying from a range of horrible diseases every day. Dengue, measles (spread through air-droplets) and hepatitis B (spread like HIV but 50 times more infectious). There is no cure for rabies either with an equally as slow and painful death as Ebola.

In reality, the news likes to create a stir of fear for gaining more viewers, which results in unwarranted panic. A bigger concern closer to home is that some diseases which we once vanquished, like measles, rubella and pertussis, are now making a comeback.

Community meeting

Community meeting

More Reading

Most heartfelt story from the front lines here – Trigger Warning- it is a bit gross but reflective of how strong ordinary people can be.

Voices from the heroic people – health care professionals working on the front line here.

How Ebola spread outlined here

What am I worth to ‘Development’?

Hello blog world, it has been a long time since we connected – more than one year to be precise. Some of you know that this is because I was completing a Masters degree in Gender and International Development and I got distracted with academics. After spending my year primarily learning about the social, economic and political challenges across ‘developing’ countries from a book, I find myself reflecting further about going from reading about ‘development’ to doing it. Some of the common challenges that cross people’s minds in this industry are about how to put policy into practice, or theory into action; how to translate complexity of a specific context into a generalizable statement, actionable item or evaluative indicator. However, I find myself asking a different set of questions and having different conversations with fellow recent graduates regarding our (individual) role within development. More specifically, these questions are about our worth as recent graduates to this industry. We have been handed a set of powerful analytical tools, introduced to networks, developed important skills that are both tangible and intangible, yet I find myself still asking what is it worth? What am I worth?

There has been a common thread circulating Twitter and Facebook that I have read consistently over the year that has put forward some key points: that the volunteer internships, the high levels of education, the indebtedness is not translating into rewarding or sustainable career paths for youth. This post highlights how the current economy continues to fail for our generation. This was made in response to generalizations made about how our generation expects too much. In reality, the barrier to entry or cost of building a career in relation to our ‘passion’ is very high, possibly too high. For example, it is said here that we might have very high levels of education, but this is insufficient to find a job in that respective field. This draws my attention to the opportunities and experiences I have had to build a career related to my passions and forces me to reflect on my privilege and what this will translate to for myself. The question I have distilled from this self-reflection is at what point do I as an individual demand more compensation for my efforts?

Volunteering and volunteer internships have likely always existed in development as non-profits and government, who are major actors in this field, have tended to have limited funding. Currently, this is also translating into private businesses that operate for profit, such as banks hiring marketing interns, which might make less sense. This is not to say that there is no money in development. On the contrary, development is a multi-billion dollar industry where many directors, project managers, researchers, and administrators get paid a market wage equivalent to that of the developed world.

To undergo this self-reflection, particularly now when I have decisions to make following graduation on where to go next, is critically important. In 2013, I was offered several volunteer positions, two of which were ‘prestigious’ positions within the United Nations. All of which I ultimately declined with the hope for something that compensated me alongside all the benefits of unpaid work, but that actually paid me enough to cover my living costs per month. At the beginning of the year I had adopted a new principle: I would no longer work for free (be the change you want to see right?). I decided this because I do believe I have given my fair share of free time – completed several unpaid internships, gaining the equivalent of a local person’s wage in a developing country and self-funding all education and training – but also because I do not want my privileges as an upper-middle class, white woman from the largest city in Canada and who holds dual passports to further distort the market that requires you to do all of this. I think this system is distorted not because volunteer work is not meaningful or useful for those without a set of skillsets or experience, but because it seems to be a requirement for those even with experience and skills to offer. I think something is wrong when a recent graduate who has volunteer experience and $35,000 worth of training is still expected to work for free or is paid less than minimum wage for the number of hours they work. Financial compensation is important, as it is a basic necessity of life. At what point is this industry exploiting or actually widening social and economic inequality? At what point are they working against the principles of equality and poverty reduction that they are striving for?

Reflecting on the work I was doing with Engineers Without Borders Canada (EWB) in Ghana, I do believe I got as much out of my experience as I put into it. Although I got paid the equivalent of a local person’s wage in Northern Ghana (and not Canada), the opportunity benefitted me in ways that were not predictable. Today I still feel like I am growing because of my experiences from working with EWB. Extrapolating further, I do believe that colleagues there are choosing to volunteer their time or take a salary that is below minimum wage for the hours they work because they feel compensated individually in other ways. EWB benefits because without these volunteers, it would not be able to function and do the good development work that it does. But I have to ask further: how are we contributing to the broken or distorted system? The system that under pays its entry-level staff? Perhaps, EWB is not the best example because it is a non-profit and the level of underpayment is consistent across the organization from the CEO to the field staff to the administrator, which is uncommon across many NGOs. Even so, what are the implications of this on ‘development’? I do not think it a coincidence that the majority of people working in non-profits are women and that this further reinforces the gendered income inequality. Nor do I think that the percentages of minority ethnicities are sufficiently represented, which affects the quality of the work. There are many reasons and the topic is complex, but before I digress…

Positively, it has worked out for me. I declined the ‘prestigious’ volunteer internship opportunities with the UN and it turned into a well-paid job doing the exact same work that was instead on my own terms. Moreover the paying job has been alongside a strong mentor who has worked to develop my self-confidence and self-worth. It has worked out for me so far because of my hard work, my strategic decisions, principles, partnerships and most of all – my privilege. My mentor has helped me to dream big and remember that I am worthy of being compensated. But I cannot help to think of those who also are, but are not so privileged.

I have been offered a different position as a consultant for a large development programme doing work similar to what I was doing in Ghana, only this time I will be receiving consultancy-level wages. Despite my arguments to the contrary, the programme leadership has reminded me of what I am worth by refusing to under pay me, literally saying “do not underestimate what this is worth – what you are worth”. I see this as a good opportunity to take the well thought out and tested approaches of EWB and scale its impact, while at the same time giving back to EWB so they can continue to do the good quality work they prefer to do in other areas.

The aim of this blog post is to humbly, share reflections with fellow recent graduates, colleagues and to those working in development. I may not be living the dream yet (of having a stable job that I get excited about) but I am extremely happy and satisfied. I want to provide you with the same advice that was given to me: you are worth it! Remember to have principles, set standards that are unique to you and your needs, and stick to them. Dream big, and work hard!