Monthly Archives: October 2012

Because if there’s one thing any EAW [expat aid worker] worth her or his hardship allowance knows, it’s that integration and process are “good things”, always, by definition. Regardless of the task at hand, integration and inclusion can always be assumed to add value. There is virtually no facet of the aid industry or the EAW’s experience which does not benefit from additional process and/or the inclusion of other participants.

There are few doctrines in the church of aid so sacred as the doctrine integration and process.

Process = accountability.

Integration = transparency.

Process + Integration = impactful aid.

And so as you no doubt expect, there is no EAW sin quite so egregious as the opposite of integration and process: “working in silos.”

It has been proven, established fact since at least 2001  that working in silos has been the cause of every bad thing from the fall of Rome right up to yesterday’s badly implemented handicrafts project. “If only they hadn’t been working in silos…” is the common refrain from undiscovered humanitarian prodigies and reasonably paid evaluation consultants alike. Working in silos is at the root of what keeps MONGOs from becoming BINGOS, and LNGOS from becoming SLoNGOs. If things are going badly at the NGO, UN agency, or project the culprit is almost certainly that people – maybe even you – are working in silos. Any new leader coming in from outside or EAW recently promoted to management will serve her/his career well by rambling on about how everyone needs to stop working in silos.

For those EAWs so naïve as to think that they can simply focus on their tasks, do their jobs, or keep their heads down, think again. Everyone in the agency is relevant to whatever it is that you’re working on. Just getting on with your job and doing what needs to be done with out a lot of ponderous discussion is just proof that you’re not really committed to saving the poor from poverty.  So no, actually you can’t make this decision on your own. An inclusive, integrated process matters at least as much as what actually gets done.

–J, Stuff Expat Aid Workers Like,  #176 Not working in silos

As someone who recently worked in strategy, planning & evaluation in a BINGO integrating its work, I can verify this also applies to human rights workers in London. Sigh.

Our minds have a depth of field, much like the lens on a camera.  When we think about one thing, everything else becomes unclear or temporarily ‘forgotten’. To pay attention to a thing means we must ignore everything else, if only briefly. The more complex a thing is, the more uninterrupted attention is required.

Do the things that make you interesting.

There are many things vying for our attention, and while some of them are a good use of time, many of them are only keeping us from what we *should* be doing. Our time and headspace are the most valuable things we have, and what we can do with them is virtually unlimited. I am learning (or perhaps re-learning) that cutting out distractions can be more valuable than any to-do app or time in front of a screen. We need to spend less time looking to others for interesting things, and start spending more time doing the things that make us interesting. Perhaps you need to dedicate more time to that thing that got you where you are or that thing that will get you where you want to be.

–@ableparris, “Focus Means Ignoring

Here he is. Matches in one hand, petrol bottle in the other. He removes the bottle cap, drops it to the ground and douses himself in liquid. He does everything slowly, methodically, as if it were part of a routine he has practiced for years. Then he stops, looks around, and strikes a match.

At this moment nothing in the world can bridge the gap that separates the self-immolator from the others. His total defiance of the survival and self-preservation instincts, his determination to trample on what everybody else finds precious, the ease with which he seems to dispose of his own life, all these place him not only beyond our capacity of understanding, but also outside of human society. He now inhabits a place that most of us find inhabitable. Yet, from there he does not cease to dominate us.

“As he burned he never moved a muscle, never uttered a sound, his outward composure in sharp contrast to the wailing people around him.”

Journalist David Halberstam describes the death of Thích Quàng Đúc, the Vietnamese Buddhist monk who set himself on fire in Saigon in 1963. The quieter the self-immolator the more agitated those around him. The former may slip into nothingness, but his performance changes the latter’s lives forever. They experience repulsion and attraction, terror and boundless reverence, awe and fear, all at once. Over them he now has the uncanniest form of power.

The experience is so powerful because it is so deeply seated in the human psyche. In front of self-immolation, even the most secularized of us have a glimpse into a primordial experience of the sacred. Originally, the sacred is defined as something set apart, cut off from the rest, which remains profane; what we feel towards such a radically different other is precisely a mix of terror and fascination. Self-immolation is a unique event precisely because it awakens deep layers of our ultimate make-up. In a striking, if disguised fashion, self-immolation occasions the experience of the sacred even in a God-forsaken world like ours.

Self-immolation has little to do with suicide. “Suicidal tendencies almost never lead to self-immolation,” says Michael Biggs, one of the few sociologists who have studied the phenomenon systematically. Self-immolation is a deliberate, determined and painfully expressive form of individual protest.Under certain circumstances, the gesture of an individual self-immolator is enough to ignite large-scale social movements. Thích Quàng Đúc’s self-immolation triggered a massive response, which resulted in the toppling of the Ngô Đình Diem regime in South Vietnam. Only six years later, Jan Palach, a Czech philosophy student, set himself ablaze in protest to the Soviet Union’s crush of the Prague Spring. His death did not cause a regime change right away, but it shaped in a distinct manner the anti-communist dissidence in Czechoslovakia. Twenty years later, in 1989, it was a “Palach week” of street protests and demonstrations that set in motion the Velvet Revolution. More recently, in December 2010, Mohamed Bouazizi, a young Tunisian street vendor, stroke a match that not only burned him to death, but set the entire Arab world on fire; we are still witnessing the aftermath of his gesture.

Self-immolation is a fearsome, compelling act, but it would be wrong to infer that whenever it occurs it has significant political consequences. Michael Biggs estimates that between 800 and 3,000 self-immolations may have taken place over the four decades after 1963. Yet, only a handful of them had any political impact.What makes a death by self-immolation politically consequential is its capacity to become the focus of a community’s social life. Self-immolation is “successful” in this sense when it is not anymore about the one who performs it, but about the community in the midst of which it occurs and which suddenly recognizes itself in the predicament of the self-immolator, it feels “shamed” by his gesture and compelled to act. Thus, that individual death is re-signified, and turned from a biological occurrence in the history of someone’s body into a “founding” event of mythical proportions, something that renews the community’s political life.

Politically “successful” self-immolations are extraordinary events. There are no “recipes for success” here; no science can satisfactorily explain when they should occur or why they shouldn’t. To use some kind of analogy, they are not unlike artistic masterpieces; you can recognize one when you see it, but they cannot be produced “on demand”. As such, they are inimitable and unrepeatable. Bouazizi, Đúc and Palach had many imitators, but they never managed to get out of their masters’ shadows; the more they were the less their gestures meant.

This brings home the point that a politically consequential self-immolation is usually the first one in a series. Since February 2009no less than fifty-one Tibetans, mostly Buddhist monks and nuns, have self-immolated in Tibetan parts of China, yet they have not caused any significant political changes so far. Why? Because fifty-one self-immolations may be fifty too many; the more Tibetans self-immolate the clearer it becomes that there are no Quàng Đúc, Jan Palach or Mohamed Bouazizi among them.

The fact that self-immolation as a form of political protest could even appear in Tibetan monastic circles may seem puzzling. Buddhism notoriously rejects violence; moreover, Tibetan Buddhism is eminently based on compassion towards all sentient beings. One of the four vows that any Tibetan monk has to take when joining a monastery is “never to take a life”. The Dalai Lama’s total embrace of Gandhi’s satyagraha is only the logical corollary of such a religious mind-set.

…That self-immolation, by all means an extreme and extraordinary act, tends now to become a routine form of political action is a very dangerous development. And, yet, just as the Chinese authorities do not signal that they want to make concessions, the Tibetans find it inconceivable to give up. The fact that all those who set themselves ablaze are young (some are teens) is telling. These are people who don’t have the memory of a pre-communist Tibet; all they could possibly have is the hope of a post-Chinese one. But, then again, with Tibet’s new demographic structure and China’s super-power status, even such a hope is unsustainable. So all they are left with is despair…

–Costica Bradatan, “The political psychology of self-immolation

Yes, self-immolation is on the list of dark/twisted/perverse things that fascinate me. Protest meets death meets mythology meets attempts to instigate social change = right up my alley.

Longer post on this definitely overdue, but for the time being Bradatan’s essay in the New Statesman is fantastic (hence me copying and pasting almost all of it).

…We need to talk about families, but we also need to talk about sex. We need to talk about mothers, but we cannot ignore the existence and the rights of women who are not mothers.The GOP is waging a “War on Women”, and the Democrats are fighting back – but only on behalf of certain kinds of women.Women-with-children-first framing is politically potent: it humanizes women who use birth control, or patronizes Planned Parenthood. It enables the Democrats to speak about family values (political ground that is usually ceded to the Republicans). And it makes the case for reproductive freedom without having to talk about sex – a subject that apparently makes Americans terribly uncomfortable. It’s far less awkward to talk about families and motherhood, and women who get pregnant through terrible acts of sexual violence, rather than through consensual, orgasmic, sweaty hay-rolling.

It boggles the mind that in a year when we all learned the phrase “transvaginal ultrasound”, we are somehow still uncomfortable talking about why women like me and my friends take the pill. We don’t take it so we can be good mothers, we take it so we can have good sex. There’s nothing wrong with that. And as a party that claims to be fighting for women in this political war, the Democrats need to stop implying that there is. The same goes for the pro-choice advocates – myself included – who are speaking out against Republican encroachments on reproductive freedom.

We should keep talking about mothers of three and about pregnant rape survivors, because those people exist and they need birth control. Their stories are also far more likely to sway people who are on the fence about birth control access than my friends’ tales about casual consensual encounters. But the point that pro-choicers ought to be making is that every woman is entitled to reproductive freedom, regardless of marital status. Every woman, regardless of how many kids she has. Every woman, not just the ones who make for good talking points or political props. Every woman, even the ones who dare – unspeakable though it apparently is – to have pleasurable, non-procreative sex.

–Chloe Angyal, “Sex: The missing term from the contraception and abortion debate

Yes. Yes. Just yes.

I should probably write some insightful analysis reflecting on Angyal’s brilliant points. But you know what I got? Just frustration.

A lot of us ladies wanna have sex and that is reason enough to want access to contraception and abortion. Our reproductive and sexual rights are not conditional on our marital status, if we have experienced sexual violence that resulted in pregnancy, or if we already have kids.

Dunno if reproductive & sexual health and rights will come up in the debates tonight (maybe through a question on if contraception will be covered by insurance) but I’d put money that neither Obama or Romney will be saying the word ‘sex’.