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thinking, seeing, helping – with the heart and the brain

Photo by unknown, via A Well Traveled Woman

Documentaries and film dramas no doubt have the ability to pull on the heartstrings, to motivate action, to inspire careers. I still credit my viewing of The Killing Fields, when I was about 9 years old, as the catalyst to engaging in a career of health and development in Cambodia.

But not all works of film are alike.  We now live in the age of social media.  Projects no longer only seek to “tell a story” and let the viewer reconcile their own mind and feelings to chart their own courses of action or inaction on a particular disease, conflict, or ongoing saga that may or may not be true.  These days, it’s all about an agenda that is being pushed.  There is a growing population of online minds to be shaped and actions to be motivated.  The rise of social marketing wishes for us – the viewers, the masses – to think a certain way and be pushed into action in a that a stakeholder wants you to do it; usually via the donation of funds or joining an effort to advocate for change; though what often happens is armchair activism, or slacktivism as some call it.

These efforts have been most effective when we already are aware a problem exists.  The fight for improving the US health care system has an obvious face that we know – either in the mirror or those close to us (I’m Canadian – so having friends who do not have access to health insurance because of the current economic recession is important to me), efforts to make gay marriage a legal reality around the world, and of course, the Occupy movement. But for crises and issues that we might not be aware of – well – that’s another story.

I mention all of this because the webosphere has been all a twitter about a certain viral video called Kony2012 and an organisation called Invisible Children Inc.  As of the writing of this post, it has had 43,354,020 viewings on YouTube and a plethora of celebrities from Oprah to Justin Bieber tweeting about it since its launch on March 5.  This collective of efforts are seeking to raise awareness of the crimes of Ugandan war criminal, Joseph Kony, with Invisible Children seeking to “save” Uganda by lobbying for a US military effort.  My first reaction was confusion.  Hadn’t we already gone through this before?  Hadn’t the problems subsided, Joseph Kony was rotting away somewhere in central Africa like how Bin Laden was hidden away with sickness in the valleys of Afghanistan/Pakistan?  Weren’t other development issues – like violence against homosexuals in Uganda, the reduction of mortality of children under 5 years of age, or poverty reduction, the new primary goals of Uganda’s development strategy?

So when all of this hubbub showed up on my Facebook newsfeed this past week, my first reaction was to see what my best friend, Andrea, was posting about it.  Not only being an amazing girlfriend and one of my closest friends despite the miles between us, Andrea is my most trusted source of information on Northern Uganda-related development activities.  She has been involved with development activities in Uganda since our days at the University of Toronto.  It began with her tireless work, starting in 2005 with the organisations GuluWalk and its parent, Athletes for Africa.  These grassroots organisations sought to raise awareness and money to resolve an issue that was ACTUALLY occurring on the ground from 2005 – the rehabilitation and assistance to child soldiers who had previously been kidnapped and recruited by Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) to fight in the oft-unknown Ugandan civil war in the north of the country.  But Andrea’s career has not been limited to this one specific issue.  Just as LRA activity has slowed to a trickle in Uganda and the Northern Uganda region now focuses on rebirth and reconstruction, Andrea’s career has also evolved and she now works on broader community development issues.  So when Andrea started to post links for voices that were critical of the Kony2012/Invisible Children movement, my eyes and ears perked.  Amid all of the Facebook Newsfeed items that were pro-Invisible Children were Andrea’s early and very informative links that deconstructed these efforts.

I won’t go more into the specifics of the Kony2012/Invisible Children debate.  But what I wanted to emphasize from this week’s events in this post was the important of evidence and knowledge.  There are a great many problems affecting the world’s most vulnerable.  At the same time, there are so many voices and actors who are engaged in this thing called “international development.”  So many efforts are being launched.  Many using the heart – but not so many involving a cooperative and supportive brain.  Some of them are truly good, sustainable and create positive change.  Others have ugly and unintended consequences.  The virality and deadly consequences of the MMR vaccine debate, with Jenny McArthy and Jim Carrey as its faces, comes to mind.  And some don’t really do anything.  As taxpayers which fund development efforts, as members of a global society, or even as practitioners of development activities and decision-makers, I believe it is necessary to look beyond what a viral sensation may deem to be real and to ask for the evidence.  In my experiences working in the field of health and development, I’ve found it necessary to stay hungry, as the great Steve Jobs said.  To delve deeper into the problem.  To ask for other sources of information and to look behind the voice and into who is really speaking.  The words and the images may tug at your heart – but what does your brain say?

If you are interested in learning more about the Kony2012/Invisible Children debate, check out this article from The AtlanticThis site also provides a very comprehensive digest of the voices who have been debating about the subject too. The drinking game is especially creative.  And if you wish to watch a truly heart-wrenching, visually stunning, but also informative documentary about the harm done by the Lord’s Resistance Army – I would check out War/Dance, 2008 nominee for the Academy Award for Best Documentary.


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Cambodia works…on film

Photo by Andrew at CubaGallery

Very recently, two great videos were released profiling the work of two amazing NGOs in Cambodia. If you’re looking to learn about some of the development activities going on in this beloved country of mine, look no further!

The first comes from an organisation whose work I should mention more.  SISHA, South East Asia Investigations into Social and Humanitarian Activities is one of the stars of the anti-trafficking effort in Cambodia.  Migration in the Southeast Asia region is most definitely part of everyday life.  However – research shows that Cambodians are of the most at risk of exploitation, violence and ill health.  Migration is an accepted mechanism to cope with poverty in Cambodia and it is impossible to stop migration – especially the undocumented movement of people.  So the most important part – is to make migration safer.  In addition to aftercare, investigation and awareness raising, SISHA also trains Cambodia’s police forces to investigate and prosecute cases of exploitation and trafficking.  The work that SISHA does, the heinous cases they uncover and help bring to trial are seriously amazing and to be praised.  My friend Erin, Country Director of SISHA Cambodia, recently shared this video on SISHA’s criminal investigation training with me that our super-talented friend, Kent made!  Check it out and find out ways you can help SISHA’s efforts here!


And this one comes from the Vanguard series on Current TV, profiling the work done by Friends International to combat meth addiction among street kids in Cambodia.  Meth addicition, also called yaba or yama on the street, has been increasingly pervasive in Phnom Penh and Cambodia – not just as a casual stimulant on the streets, but also as a tool driving exploitation by labour traffickers.  This short doco interviews David Harding – the leading authority, here in Phnom Penh, on issues of youth and drug abuse, while also profiling the work of Friends International’s local partner organisation, The Green House – one of the first and most comprehensive drug-addiction treatment centres in Cambodia.

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sicky thump….

Photo by Laura Makabresku

So it seems that I’ve fallen ill again in Phnom Penh – a situation which I absolutely abhor.  It always hits me like a truck too.  Swollen throat, muscle pain, head going to explode, fever to boot – oh the wonderful symptoms of an acute upper respiratory tract infection.  And everything I learned in school about health insurance hits me again.  Moral hazard, deductibles, co-payments – do I really need to see a doctor and what the heck did I pay that premium for?  So of course – I went local…and self-medicated.  All of these thoughts culminate in me missing my Canadian universal health care system, and thoughts about how lucky we are in countries like in Scandinavia, the UK and Canada to have quality universal health care systems which not only re-distribute health, but also wealth…to a certain extent at least.  The Strategic Framework for Health Financing in Cambodia actually has a goal of universal health care system.  I don’t mean to be a downer – but given the current health governance, funding and capacity situation, that won’t be happening for a generation or two.

Oh and did I mention that Electricité du Cambodge decided to promptly cut the power off at roughly 745am this morning? And I’ll be missing a very cool party tonight at the historic and just refurbished Phnom Penh Railway Station! I hate being sick.

But enough of the pity party.  I am equipped to survive this out!  I’m hooked on this new series called The River.  Have you seen it?  It’s amazing!  I’ve got a bunch of zombie thrillers and the Vanity Fair Hollywood Issue to read on my iPad (more about those zombie reads later)!  And a lovely textbook on Medical Statistics to while away the day.

And I found this little super inspirational video about the craft of Scott Schumann – the man behind the camera and The Sartorialist.  I just love hearing artists talk about their work!  And hopefully this inspiration will have some positive physiological feedback effects – I just want to get better!

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Valentine’s Day is not….

….National Lose Your Virginity Day.

Photo by A Journey of A Thousand Kilometers

It’s always really interesting to see how secular holidays are re-interpreted in different countries and cultures.  I remember giving away Hershey’s kisses and cool handmade cards to my besties as a kid.  For others, it may be a purely romantic holiday.  Some just forget about it and go about business as usual.

But in Cambodia…Valentine’s Day has a completely different meaning.  Tungai Bon Sangsaa (which means Day of the Sweetheart) is more or less “National Lose Your Virginity Day.”  This means that many young people see it as an excuse to have sex.  It also means that many young girls are pressured to have sex as a sign of love to their supposed sweetheart.  This, of course, happens everywhere that Valentine’s Day is celebrated.  But in Cambodia, it can pose a number of problems for gender and development.

To respond to this – the government has actually put a number of regulations on V-Day this year.  Namely the market for any goods or incentives for young people to engage in V-Day activities – including banning youth under the age of 18 from taking short term rooms at guesthouses and prohibiting V-day vendors from selling anywhere near schools.  Which explains why I was a bit puzzled while searching for a kitschy V-Day gift today.  The Ministry of Women’s Affairs has even aired radio and TV-spots advising young women that “One bunch of flow­ers does not mean we have to have sex with our boyfriends.” But these strategies don’t really tackle root issues in a society where sexual relations remain taboo and not discussed openly.  You can read more about Cambodia’s Valentine’s Day regulations at the Phnom Penh Post and here.

So does all of this mean the government is taking the battle against “inappropriate” interpretations of Valentine’s Day seriously? There must be a better way to encourage safe sex and the development of a healthy, educated and empowered youth.  Strategies like the war on Valentine’s Day are just scraping the surface of sexual equality, sexual health and gender in Cambodia.

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lazy sunday reads…and a watch

Paul Newman reads!

So I’m actually spending my Sunday working (oh the life of a consultant), but for those of you lucky enough to be chillaxing on a couch after some good eats – here are some amazing online reads to lay around with!

Nyam Penh finally reviews the Phnom Penh institution….Chinese Noodles!

For my peeps in the anti-corruption biz – Can America Lead the World’s Fight Against Corruption?

Some cool reads for socially conscious fashion!  GOOD covers what exactly Ethical Style is? And Jessica Marati (of Tout le Monde) has a new Behind the Label series (check out her exposé on H&M!).

Australia is thinking of fighting its crazy wildfires…with elephants?

And not exactly a read – but Vice Magazine’s Fashion Week Internationale went to Nigeria! Covering what it’s like to be gay in a homophobic society, Nigeria’s next Supermodel and the growing Lagos fashion scene, Charlet Duboc takes us on another very cool journey! Watch it here!

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when design, development and health planning have a threesome

Photo by MASS Design Group

Photo by Partners in Health

Photo by Partners in HealthI love it when policy, development and design get together and make a beautiful baby!

Read all about Partners in Health’s collaboration with MASS (Mobilising Architecture to Serve Society) ,here, to forge ahead the field of public-interest design.  Together, they planned and built Butaro Hospital in Rwanda, incorporating the local landscape, culture, sustainability, and demand-demographics into its blueprint.  As a result, they’ll be reaching a rural population of 400,000 with improved access to quality health care.  Truly, this is design for humanity.

For more information about this amazing field – check out IDEO (a leader in this field and major player in latrine-design in Cambodia), Public Interest Design and about human-centred design here.

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all about…Protect-IP/SOPA

PROTECT IP / SOPA Breaks The Internet from Fight for the Future on Vimeo.

I found myself confused about this one.  US federal legislation can get so thick sometimes – so many parties and interests, legal lingo and talking heads – that even this policy wonk was befuddled.  But the interweb has launched into action against this abominable bill.  Wikipedia is currently on strike – as are many of our favourite blogs!  So what’s the big to-do?

So I found this great video by Fight for the Future that b for bonnie had put up on her blog.  It’s great, it laid down all the basics of the Protect-IP/SOPA (Stop Online Piracy Act) bill and explained all the process and powers involved and the nasty implications it poses for us, the world, the internet, life, liberty and the pursuit of knowledge.  This is just simply unhealthy policy! And thanks to the quick and sturdy response by civil society and the interweb, support for this bill has been undercut!  Hopefully soon we can all breathe a little easier.

And if you’re interested in how a bill becomes a law…check out this Schoolhouse Rock video! A TA for one of my policy classes showed it to us last year and US lawmaking suddenly made more (or less) sense! Enjoy!