Journey to Nepal

In about a week, I leave for Nepal to shoot my first official international documentary. CAWST recruited me to work with them to produce an educational resource that can be used in high schools to spur conversations on global issues. We’ll be working with a local group of youth in Kathmandu who is working with the Nepalese on water sanitation and education. I’m giddy with excitement, but I’m also anxious about shooting in a hot foreign developing country in the middle of a monsoon.

20120624-183910.jpgThe easy parts are done. I’ve been vaccinated for polio, typhoid, cholera, hepatitis, rabies, and something else I can’t spell. My passport and plane tickets are in order. All my critical equipment is ready to go each with backups in case one fails. All that remains of the logistics is figuring out where to pack my clothes in the remaining space.

The hard part is the mental preparation. After taking CAWST’s travel risk management course and discussing emergency scenarios, evacuation routes, and crisis mitigation, I’ve realized there is an important difference between this trip and other trips I’ve taken.

This is not a vacation.

With a vacation mindset, you can rely on the tour company, the cruise ship, the tourist board to plan your day and take care of your survival needs. If you’ve read Deep Survival, you’ll recall that taking a vacation mindset when headed into unfamiliar territory is generally bad practice. With the Deep Survival mindset, you would prepare for critical failures such as civil unrest, disease, severe weather, equipment malfunction. You would prepare yourself to be co-responsible with a foreign culture you don’t understand recognizing that much of the planning will happen on the ground. The difference is stark. A vacation is meant to conform to your expectations of having a “great experience”. International development work requires dealing with your own preconceptions and lack of understanding.

I am not the most observant person on the best of days, so it is fortunate I’ll be traveling with an experienced partner and we will be working with local hosts as our guides. The risks are low. Kathmandu is a big city and I don’t doubt I’ll adapt. Nevertheless I’m conscious of the fact that my usual networks, institutions and other assets are not as readily available to me there. It’s worth reflecting on as we usually associate travel with learning about other cultures, when the real eye-opening lesson is what you learn about your own culture. I have no doubt this trip will be as transformative as other experiences I’ve had. Culture is a force to be reckoned with.

20120624-184454.jpgI intend on being open to the experience and building relationships. Even though spending four weeks in Kathmandu to work with a local organization is a brief moment in a culture with thousands of years of history, it is a beginning. It occurs to me that having a successful relationship with a stranger requires the same qualities for any good relationship: a willingness to learn and understand, an openness to different perspectives, a sense of one’s own identity and culture, and a sense of the other’s identity and culture. I hope to cultivate these qualities further in myself. I find somehow when you grow up and live in the same culture for too long you can lose that inherent curiosity in other people. We assume too much about each other.

There is one other thing that weighs on me. Samantha Nutt’s book Damned Nations highlights the problems with most international aid and development work. North Americans send piles of t-shirts to developing countries to “clothe the poor people” and in the process decimate the local textile economy. Or we’ll buy goats or build wells, but develop no capacity to sustain those gifts. We want to feel good more than we want to do good. I would like to not do harm as a starting point, and that takes more than good intentions. It takes good thinking.

Despite it all, I am cautiously optimistic that I’ll be able to keep my eyes open, my mind sharp and my curiosity well stocked. Nepal, bring on my education!

Meet the Human Race

This is quite possibly the most important video I have cut together to date. Not because I shot it. In fact, I’ve taken liberally from HOME, Journey of Man, and Short History of Progress.

It’s important not because the ideas are original. They are drawn from Leadership Calgary and from the work of the Action Studies Institute.

It’s important because it’s a vivid reminder to me every day that I am part of the human race whose history is my history, and whose journey is also my adventure.

I use to think my history was tied to who my grandparents were or where I was born. As it turns out, that is only a tiny part of my ancestry.

I used to just assume I was a global citizen perhaps because I’m part of that “new generation”. In reality, scientifically, historically, pragmatically we must learn to become global citizens.

And so this video is in a way an introduction to the human race and the situation we find ourselves in and the need to move forward.

I’d much enjoy hearing your response to it.


Flowers for Our Democracy

Election Day is like Mother’s Day; we pay special attention to our homeland on the one day because we feel guilty that we’ve neglected her all year. The easiest thing to do is just bring some flowers, check the box, and be done with it.

20110501-063146.jpgUnfortunately, if voting was all democracy was about, then we are doomed. Flowers, as every guy knows, doesn’t make up for a lack of quality time.

Democracy seems simple enough. We elect representatives to act on our behalf to make sure that our city, province, country prospers as a whole. Since we have differing views on what that looks like, we elect different representatives who hash it out in parliament. If we don’t like our representatives then we can vote them out. It’s messy and there’s lots of arguments, but the theory is the more people who can participate, the more likely we will find a better way forward together.

Nevertheless there are plenty of ways democracy can go sideways. Let’s play the what-if game.

WHAT IF people were ignorant of the most important issues of our time. Is ignorance bliss? Is democracy possible without the ability to make intelligent decisions?

WHAT IF people did not care about people, ALL people. Is scapegoating marginalized populations the only solution? Is democracy possible when some people are considered more human than others?

WHAT IF people cannot change their minds once decided. Is stability and conformity the goal? Is democracy possible if societies cannot adapt to new complex situations?

WHAT IF the system of government, economics, society did not protect people against exploitation and domination by select groups of people. Is it still democracy if a few people have power without restraint?

The conclusion? Voting alone is insufficient to make a democracy. If corporations did not have campaign contribution limits, then they would be given a disproportionate amount of influence over government even though corporations do not represent people’s interests. If the media did not investigate government officials or financial fraud, citizens could not hold them accountable. If big money ran our democracy, then we’d look like our neighbours to the South.

Isn’t it ironic that democracy is more often defended abroad than it is at home?

Knowing that there is more to democracy than voting should be a relief. Watching lusterless federal elections where politicians spout carefully crafted messages, you’d be tempted to think voting is an exercise in futility. Fortunately for every “what if” of where democracy can fail, there is an opportunity for us to stand for it.

WE CAN fight ignorance. If we can understand better and more deeply ourselves and the world, we can build a better democracy.

WE CAN care about others. If we can actively empathize and be curious with people different than ourselves – be it language, culture, ideology, ethnicity, social class – we can build a better democracy.

WE CAN be open. If we are open to new information, don’t simplify what is complex or make complicated what is simple… if we are open to change our minds, then we can build a better democracy.

WE CAN defend democracy. If we protect our institutions from being dominated by the worst of our natures… if we reject status-seeking, power-hungry, self-serving behaviours in our institutions, we can build a better democracy.

Democracy stands for something more important than political parties or ideological beliefs. It stands for protecting the civilized yet messy tussle of a society trying survive in a constantly changing world. For that we have to hold ourselves, our friends, our opponents and even our enemies to a higher standard.

I’m tired of the plea to “take twenty minutes” to vote. I expect much more of Canadian citizens. I expect them to take part in our collective journey.

Egypt’s Example for Us

I confess. I’m overwhelmed. In a month of catching up from my trip to Sri Lanka, I’ve witnessed millions of people rise up to overthrow their government, observed revolutions spread like wildfire sparking events as far as Wisconsin, and seen an earthquake and tsunami devastate whole towns. Humanity is experiencing shock, and it’s hard not to feel numb to it all.

So I want to stop for a moment to reflect on how significant the Egyptian revolution is to us. Even as Egypt fades from the headline news, the events continue their twists and turns. It would be a shame if we didn’t draw into ourselves the example that Egypt has provided for us.

If the revolution of Tahrir Square seems hazy to you now, then here is a good re-telling.

To start with, I find myself frustrated with the one-dimensional interpretation of Egypt. Trumpeting social media as the lesson learned from Egypt or fearing the revolution as a threat to US foreign policy doesn’t help us learn from the richness of all that it represents in this moment of history. Every image coming out of the Middle East should serve as a seed of thought that grows our caring and understanding of the world.

Here are a few seeds that sit in my mind:

  • The Power of Image to Reveal Injustice: When Khaled Saieed was dragged from an internet cafe and beaten in front of witnesses, the images of his assault spread on the internet to the Egyptian consciousness. This image later became the rallying cry of Wael Ghonim’s (Google VP) Facebook page, “We are all Khaled Saieed”. Images make it hard to deny injustice. Consider that it was the Kodak Camera that made the abuses of King Leopold in the Congo blatantly obvious in the US.
  • People Can Self-Organize (duh): In Tahrir Square, protesters with different views organized to arrange their own security detail and cleaning duties. They organized food, water, shelter and wi-fi internet all without a formal bureacracy. In an age where everything is run and organized by institutions it surprises us when people self-organize. Yet, that’s how human beings have done it for millions of years, and we should well remember that in our highly modernized and institutionalized environment.
  • People Learn from Example: I think it was Einstein who said, “Learning by example isn’t the best way to learn. It’s the only way to learn.” When you watch a revolution starting in Tunisia, spread to Egypt then to Libya, Jordan and other Middle-Eastern nations, you can’t help but notice how societies learn from the example of others. In this way, social media and the internet allow us to learn from others more easily. The protests and strikes in Wisconsin show that we have as much if not more to learn from them than they do from us.
  • The Revolution is Never Done: Despite the inspiring example of they Egyptian revolution, we have to remember that currently the military is still in control. It was because of their restraint that Egypt’s revolution did not turn into what Libya is experiencing now. One has to wonder why the army hasn’t intervened. The army claims that they will release power six months from now, but historically armies have not so easily given up their reins.
  • The Power of Delusions: C. C. Colton, an English cleric from the 18th century, said, “Power multiplies flatterers, and flatterers multiply our delusions by hiding us from ourselves.” Mubarak’s 30 years as a dictator had insulated him from the realities of Egyptians on the ground. Like Nixon’s slip of the tongue that “when the president does it, it is not illegal” or Wall Street’s rationalization of fraud, people with power often become enamoured with their greatness to the detriment of all. If this is the case, then it is up to all of us to see reality more clearly and demand it of the institutions we have built.

There is so much more to be said about the history of Egypt and the Middle-East that I do not understand. I hope that you will add your understanding and interpretation of the unfolding events below. Hear from you soon.



What If You Didn’t Pay the Banks?

Old Western Bank

Old Western BankFor some reason, when I think of banks back in the “good ol-days” I think of the banks that bandits use to rob in the wild, wild west. And in that small frontier town, what is a bank? Well, it was a place where the community can store and pool their money so it can be loaned out to those who needed the capital. Simple really.

It’s not so simple today when banks are massive institutions dealing in a wide range of investments, loans, mortgages, and other financial instruments that most people do not understand. In becoming too big to fail, they’ve become so complex that they can’t accurately assess the value of the money they are investing… the same money that we have collectively deposited.

What if you decided that the interest you paid to banks didn’t serve the interest of the common good? Might there be a way to stop relying on large complex institutions vulnerable to critical mistakes?

Turns out Rob Sinclair from Conscious Brands came up with one way to do just that with his mortgage. In the following twenty minute presentation he explains how he developed an alternative financial arrangement where the interest payments would go back to his local community.

This may not be the solution for everyone. It also doesn’t guarantee that your interest payment to Uncle Joe is getting used any better. It does however remind us that banks don’t have the monopoly on money matters. While banks make it easy for us to not think about our money and where it goes, it also takes away our responsibility for what we choose to invest in.

I’m pondering diversifying my portfolio these days. What about credit unions? Or loaning a part of my RRSPs to local organic farmers? Or providing micro-loans to local businesses? Because I have this nagging question in my mind: if all of my money is invested in the global economic casino, maybe I should think about following my financial advisor’s advice and not put all of my eggs in one basket.