Though a straight line appears to be the shortest distance between 2 points, life has a way of confounding geography. Often it is the dalliances and the detours that define us. There are no maps to guide our most important searches; we must rely on hope, chance, intuition and a willingness to be surprised.

Monday, December 08, 2008

dollar a week

In Australia, $120 buys you a designer t-shirt. In Laos, it can help you train as a carpenter, allowing you to provide for your family. In Australia, $21 gets you a ticket to the movies and a tub of popcorn. In Sudan, it can put a mosquito net around your bed to protect you from malaria – a disease that is likely to kill you. In Australia, $1 is spare change. But in Uganda, it can change your life.

Just wanted to stick on a link to another great poverty relief website. I think this site does a fantastic job in expressing one of the most stunning facts about poverty - solving poverty isn't about making big sacrifices, if each of us gave just a small amount, we could end poverty, now.

Rebekah Nolan is a colleague of mine at Opportunity International and I’m so impressed with the work she’d done writing this site.

And a site written by young people for young people is a great idea - just a shame it makes me feel like an old-timer. (Thanks Rebekah!)

Click on the link below to find out how a dollar a week can make a difference.

Counting Down

I leave for the UK in just 5 days. This will be the first annual leave I've taken all year. That I've survived this long without a holiday must be a reflection of how much I enjoy the job. However, I'm definitely hitting the wall now.

Like an under-prepared marathon runner hitting the 24 mile mark, I'm now struggling towards the finishing line with wobbly legs and a nodding head.

And in the holiday spirit, I spent all weekend in 'Maximum Socialite' mode on the premise that i am going to miss out on the xmas party calendar in Sydney. Ping-pong at 5am, an ex-girlfriend of (a very young) Russell Crowe, a half-hawaiian Bjork lookalike and a French molecular biologist may all have been part of the weekend. Or perhaps it was all just a weird dream.

In any event, I'm once again packing bags, catching up with washing and dreading the jetlag.

And what's this about 16cms of snow...???

Friday, November 28, 2008

A Great Week in India, and an Unsettling Week Back Home

I meet clients for the first time! This group of women in Chennai, Tamil Nadu (on India's SE coast) meet to make a repayment on their loan and find out about the benefits of co-operation.

I’ve gotten quite a few messages asking if I’m safely back from India. Thanks for that. I am in Sydney, and quite safe. From here the attacks on Mumbai seem almost surreal, but they will have a very real impact over there. This is a tragedy for India as a nation. I feel this will change things a lot, and in ways we can't yet predict. I worry that India could become a new focus for terrorism.

India can be proud to be the largest democracy in the world, and proud that, generally, religious tolerance is extremely high. There are over 150m Muslims in India. But ironically democratic freedoms will make it all the harder to contain terrorism.

For myself, and Opportunity, this development is upsetting and could - potentially - have real implications for what we do and how we work in India, though I wouldn’t want to make swift judgements. We don’t tend to travel to Mumbai much – I’ve only been once – whereas we travel a lot to the other big cities.

On my day off I went back to my favourite tourist site in Delhi, the Qutb Minar. It's sad to think that I will have a niggling doubt in my mind the next time I visit a tourist site in India.

It’s been a strange week indeed. As I finally feel completely settled and happy at work, the organisation suddenly (post credit-crunch) seems set for upheaval and ‘paradigm change’. I won’t say any more about that now. Though it’s no more than coincidence, I have to mention that, on the brink of summer, the weather in Sydney has gone wintry. Everything has suddenly gone a bit odd… I think it’s time for a break. I’m looking forward to my trip back to the UK.

I promised a review of the Bond film.

It’s great.

There we go.

I have to mention a couple of things that tickled me about the screening though. Not that it was in Hindi – thankfully I managed to book the English version – but that there was an interval in the middle, as Indian tradition dictates.
Asking women clients some questions (through an interpreter).

This threw me! Bond films are the ultimate in movie escapism. But switching the movie off half way through, turning on thumping Bollywood music and sending out a bloke selling chai in paper cups from a large canteen did a good job of destroying that sense of escapism! And all this coming after a tense chase scene across Italian rooftops. I had to laugh – it was the ultimate in surrealism.

Sorry, this picture is very blurry. The woman on the left is a member of a tribal community in rural Andhra Pradesh. These people have a very traditional way of life and it would be very unusual for her to come to even the smallest of towns. It would be even more unusual for her to meet a foreigner. I felt a little embarrassed about taking her photo. Not a typical tourist event.

I’ve now seen the last two bond movies at the cinema in Belize and India. Does this qualify me in the same jet-set league as bond himself…?


I can do the accent…

These photos are from the second week of the India trip. After 9 days in Delhi, I had a pretty hairy travel plan for the rest of the second week. With the help of our Indian team, I somehow managed to stick to the plan and covered another 4 cities in the last 4 days. Exhausting doesn’t begin to describe it. But it was a great experience. I met clients for the first time – a group of women who have borrowed money from one of Opportunity’s partners in Chennai, and another group of women who have taken health insurance from an amazing NGO working near Hyderabad.

Meeting another group of clients. These women are members of a health insurance scheme for the poor, which allows them access to health care. When I talked to the women it was clear that their priority is their family. They want insurance to protect their children.

It was great to be truly ‘out in the field’. And it was a real privilege to have the opportunity to ask these women questions – through a translator – about how their lives have been changed by the loans and insurance that they have received, to be able to ask them about their hopes and plans for what they might do in the next weeks, months, years to improve their lives and more importantly (for them at least) improve the lives of their children.

I also saw some people in far less optimistic circumstances. In fact I saw people living in some of the worst conditions I’ve ever seen, even worse than on my last trip. I saw the utter destitution of slums in Delhi where the poor are forced into prostitution because there is no alternative but starvation.

I found this extremely hard to take.

I didn’t feel as frustrated as I have in the past. And I don’t feel any need to point fingers now. There’s no point in people beating each other up over this. But it is very sad. And there’s something wrong with a global society in which these things are allowed to persist. But some people are trying to do things about this. I hope Opportunity can support these people.

This lovely couple run a 35-bed hospital in a small town south of Hyderabad. Poor clients can access quality healthcare there.

There was so much packed into that week. I could write a lot more. I might save that for some day in the future, and some other forum, when there’s been more time, much more time, for all these things to sink in.

I was exhausted by the Friday night when I got on the plane at Cochin for the long flight home. But it was a ‘good’ exhausted. I’ve got plenty of work to do yet to make the most of the trip. If I can get this done in the next two weeks before I leave for the UK it would be the best end to the year possible, whatever might be coming up in 2009…

This little guy is just a few days old. This light treatment will protect him from jaundice.

Amid all the turmoil, it's possible to forget that amazing work is going on in India, work that we need to support, even as things get 'tough' at home.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Bride Wanted. Convent Education Preferred.


Today I had my ‘day off in the middle of the trip’. In high spirits and curiosity I sought cultural stimulation from two sources. I might have stretched that to three but it took me just 10 minutes on the first night to conclude that the 70 TV channels available in this hotel are all appalling (and 3 of them were Hindi versions of Big Brother).

Firstly, I visited the Qutub Minar, which I reckon is the most attractive visitor site in Delhi. Photos will follow. And secondly, as has become habit on these visits, I turned to the Hindustan Times classifieds section, for a gander at the Matrimonial ads.

As an entire section of the paper, this is home to a host of intriguing cultural insights. Here's a good example:

Alliance invited from a well settled, well educated Brahmin boy, preferably from Delhi, for marriage with March ’83 (168cm) very fair, slim, charming, beautiful, convent educated, MSc Economics graduate, belonging to a well established Brahmin family. Please send photo, biodata and horoscope details.


This format is by no means standard with a good proportion of the ads focusing particularly on the spouse sought, while others wax lyrically on the aesthetic appeal of the would-be celebrant proferred, these latter type often consisting of 5, 6 or more synonyms of the word beautiful.

Touchingly, some of the ads can veer from comical to heart-breaking in one sentence:

Looking for a well educated effluent (well i'm full of it!) tall boy (furnish me with a groom?) belonging to a rich family, upper-caste preferred, for marriage with 30 years, 5' 5", qualified, very fair & extremely beautiful girl (i'd need to see a photo) of a highly educated and affluent (so they do know how to spell affluent - the plot thickens!) family. Innocently cheated in first marriage.

Check that last bit. Awwww. :(


Two examples are probably enough. But I did have a good skim through for other highlights and turned up these gems:

  • slightly healthy (ie not dead???) with pleasing mannerisms (now if that doesn't set your imagination racing...)
  • 32 (looks much younger) - seriously this appears a lot, and always in brackets as if to be read sotto voce!!!
  • with slight stammering problem – well I guess that’s something you’d want to know before you got to the vows…
  • greedy people must not contact at all – to reduce the cost of the wedding banquet??
  • convent educated - haven't they seen St Trinians???
  • son, never married, 38 but looks 27-28 - well i guess thats the benefit of never being married!
  • girl with modern and traditional values - I think this might be the Indian equivalent of 'a cook in the kitchen and a vixen in the bedroom'!


Seriously, I find all this fascinating. Though arranged marriages are not nearly as universal as they once were, they still account for a significant proportion of marriages in Indian society.

And, I mean no disrespect. These ads are funny because the terms appear so esoteric to the uninitiated. But of course when something becomes familiar, you no longer think of it as esoteric. The average singles column offers just as much bemusement potential for the novice. Who is this ‘Mr Right’ that everyone wants to find, and what exactly constitutes a ‘good’ sense of humour???

And maybe what makes all of these ads more humorous is the fact that the ‘human-ness’ is – by convention – truncated from the language of classified ads. Go to the ‘motors’ section and you’ll find wordings such as ‘Car for sale. One owner. Comes with manuals and full service history,’ rather than ‘I’m selling my car. I’ve had the car since new and once I’ve hoovered all the grit and fluff out from under the seats I’ll be fishing out the manuals and including them with the sale.’

So we get passive-verb laden gems like ‘convent educated’, ‘alliance invited’ and ‘innocently cheated in first marriage’.


If I were looking for a wife through a newspaper ad, I’d like to put all the nice bits of the language back in. It'd probably go something like this:

Hi ladies (‘parents’ for the Indian version of the ad). I’m on the look out for a young – or at least a fairly young looking – lady with a big heart and a curiousity to find out what we’re supposed to be doing on this crazy planet (though not through horoscopes). I’ve been single for a couple of years now, though I have dated often (amusing stories will be shared in the event of marriage, though full service history has been lost in transit). A wilfully quirky sense of humour would be a real bonus as my humour on occasion seems very odd to the largest part of the population excepting a few mates who are as ‘eccentric’ as I am. I’d love to meet someone who is honest and open because those things matter a lot to me. And my experience suggests that the sort of person who appeals to me is passionate. It doesn’t matter what you're passionate about (a love of drum ‘n’ bass would help - is that too specific?), and in fact I would be especially taken with someone who could make me share their passion for something that I would have thought I’d avoid like the plague. But I’m never going to another Julia Roberts move as long as I live…

Ahhh crap. That’s gonna cost me a gazillion rupees. Oh well, it was a nice thought. The search for a soulmate will have to continue to bypass the mainstream media. I am still curious about the convent education though…

Coming next week – a review of that Bond movie and notes from rockstar tour of Southern India.


Saturday, November 15, 2008

Namaste! Meera nam Bond hai, James Bond.

Greetings from India.

This is my fourth trip to India this year, my fifth in eighteen months, and at two weeks, its also my longest visit yet. You might think I’d be getting tired of it. But if anything, I’m loving this trip more than any other.

I’m almost wholly consumed with work, from getting up at 6am until getting back to the hotel at 7 or 8 in the evening. This suits me fine though. I’m getting so much out of the job at the moment. (And believe me – I’m not always this hard working!) The projects I’m here to develop are really starting to move forward and I’ve got plenty scope to shape the future of these initiatives myself.

I’m recycling photos again – for shame!

Plus, I’m more and more convinced that Opportunity is the right organisation to affect change in poverty in India. Not simply because we do microfinance but because, even within the Indian microfinance field (of which I saw a lot more this week), Opportunity seems to be most closely focused on social impact and really helping the poor. This is immensely empowering.

There will be a break from the work schedule tomorrow. I’ve got the day off and I’m going to the cinema in the morning. Not to see a Bollywood movie I’m afraid, but to catch the new Bond movie. It’s just out here so 11am was the only showing I could get a ticket for. Actually, I hope I bought a ticket for the English showing and not the Hindi-dubbed version. Yikes…

As with every trip to India, I’ve seen a few things that have brought me close to tears. I will never get comfortable with the children who beg at the car windows at Delhi’s main junctions, and live just a few feet from the traffic, perhaps 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. I’ve also seen the manic development in and around Delhi (think ostentatious dark-glass tower blocks and luxury malls to rival anything in the UK), which seems if anything to be intensifying in pace. It’s impossible to see a positive connection between these two things – the poverty and the opulence. Some people say that India doesn’t need aid because it is a high growth, rapidly developing country. No-one who spent any time here could make that argument and sleep soundly at night.

Next week will be pretty crazy – Monday is Delhi, Tuesday – Chennai, Wednesday – Hyderabad, Thursday – Bangalore, and Friday – Kerala. Chennai, formerly Madras and sitting in SE India on the edge of the Indian Ocean, and Kerala, on the SW coast of India, will both be new to me. I’ll fly home exhausted on Saturday but I should be pretty happy at this rate. I’m sure I’ll sleep soundly at any rate. Oooh… mind you, I’ve just remembered that dead dog I saw at the side of the road on Monday (and Wednesday). That will haunt my dreams for weeks…

Monday, November 03, 2008


A quick shout out to Keith who is taking part in Mo-vember. In fact, I'll pass the mic over to the man himself:

"During Movember (the month formerly known as November) I'm growing a Mo. That's right I'm bringing the Mo back because I'm passionate about tackling men's health issues and being proactive in the fight against men's depression and prostate cancer.
To donate to my Mo you can click this link Keith's Mo Appeal! and donate online using your credit card or PayPal account."

Great stuff Keith. Having seen the appalling effect that 3 days without shaving has had on your coupon, I hope you raise plenty.
Movember - Sponsor Me

What an Obama win would mean to me

I've been to the US just once since Bush started his second term (back in September '06). My next visit will be during a Democratic administration, whatever happens this week!

This will be the second US Presidential Election I've followed from Australian shores. Back in 2004, I sat on the beach in Byron Bay and wept into my cornflakes as the American people did the unthinkable and re-elected the worst US President in living memory. That was a real downer, in the middle of what was otherwise just about the best week I’ve had on holiday. A group of us surfed, sunbathed and partied through the first week of Chris and Caroline’s honeymoon.

Times have changed much since then, both on a political level, and on a personal level for this author, (boy have they!!) and this time round I’m having a party on election night. The Grumpy Old Men are coming over and I’ll be supplying them with hamburgers, hot-dogs and a bucket of icy-chilled bottles of Bud – all in honour of an anticipated Barrack Obama victory in the November 4th US Presidential Election.

I don’t throw many parties. The downside of a studio apartment is the difficulty of entertaining multiple guests. So why do I see such a need to celebrate an Obama win? Well, I can’t remember when the choice has ever seemed so stark.

Don't take that from me... The New York Times has just published a detailed account of all the major issues, concluding with a resounding endorsement of Obama. It is a lengthy article, but worth reading to realise just what is at stake, and how feeble a proposition McCain offers. Check out the article here:

Though I wouldn’t have come near to the outstandingly well written prose of the Times article, I’d have loved to expound on a couple of the issues, but I’ve got a hair-raisingly busy week this week – Melbourne Cup, sailing and Obama nights, aside from a huge workload before I fly out to India again on Sunday. More on that trip soon!!

Halloween Outfit? No...

Hair raising? Arguably...

Hair-straightening? Certainly.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008


So the need is still out there.

And Opportunity International are continuing with a great series of new and innovative events. Our last official event of 2008 was 'eightsixty', a beautiful exhibition of photography by Rick Carter, taken on his last trip to India with Opportunity.

I was at the VIP night a couple of weeks ago with Dom, and I thought it was a really atmospheric event, totally in tune with Opportunity's position as an organisation that offers something different, and full of care, attention and respect - something that's also embodied in Rick's photos.

The book is still available to buy on the eightsixty website. All proceeds from the book will go to Opportunity International's India program.

Dom loved the event too and had a few stories of her own, from a trip she took to India a few years back. Four months of travelling and painting as a single woman in India sounds rather adventurous to me, but led to a successful exhibition of paintings in Melbourne. Maximum respect.

In times of need.

All picture in this update are from a visit to the 2008 Sculptures By the Sea exhibition last Monday.

One view of the world.

It’s 2008, turning into late 2008. Markets crash, then countries crash. Your workmates suck their teeth and tell you that the ASX has fallen 10%, then your friends invite you to share their disbelief – ‘haven’t you seen that the ASX has fallen 20%?’ – and then your mum tells you that the SAX has fallen 40% and so you reckon you’d better start following this ‘credit crunch’ yourself.
So you start reading the business news section of the newspaper. But by this time the business news has become front page news.

It was bemusing when large banks with vaguely familiar names bit the dust. It was downright alarming when your bank went bust. Now it’s nothing short of bizarre – are you reading that right? The government is buying your bank and you’re about to become your own bank manager...?

Who’s going to pressure you to cut your spending when you’re your own bank manager? Well, no need actually. Peer pressure will do that alone.

The Australian last weekend ran their ‘Melbourne Cup Fashion Tips’ article. Headline – ‘how to look like a million dollars on a hundred dollar budget’. Frugality is this season’s flair.

If cutting back has gone beyond need and is now fashion, it's time to ask what to cut first? Well the mortgage payments might be falling (the one plus-point of the credit crunch so far) but they’re not crashing. Maybe the holiday will have to go, or it’ll have to be 4 stars again, not five. And maybe it'll be another 6 months before it's time for a new car.

One cut tends to be implicit though.


Why? Well, in the hard-nosed economic view of the world 'Discretionary Spending' is the first thing to be cut when times are bad. In this context, discretionary means optional, expendable (or non-expendable!) – essentially… ...non-essential.

And if there’s one thing that’s not essential, then surely it’s giving money to charity.

One view of the world.

Another view of the world.

What role for the poor in all this? The credit crisis is hitting us bad, but what about the poor? After all, they don't have shares, or pension funds, or banking jobs.

Inflation pushes up the price of food - the poor spend 75% of their money on food, compared to 15% for Australians. The economic slowdown is reaching even the developing countries now, with growth in India stalling and interest rates rising. And those interest rates affect the poor too, through their impact on the Microfinance Institutions (MFIs) the poor rely on. The credit cruch has pushed through the roof the rates that MFIs borrow money at, and this affects the interest rate that the MFIs pass on to their clients.

Even in good times, life is hard for the poor in India. Half of children under 5 are stunted or too short for their age, 20% are too thin, 43% underweight. 7 in every 100 will die before the age of 5.

When times are good, most fair-minded people expect that there will be some effort to spread the wealth around, as Obama would say. Implicit in this is the idea that when times are bad, that charity will dry up.
But I hope that won't happen this time. I hope that crashing markets and shrinking investment funds will bring about a more fundamental shift in people's attitudes to charity. I hope people will see value in other things aside from a new car and a fancier holiday.

What greater achievement than to help end poverty.

And finally…

A recession is when your neighbour loses his job, a depression is when you lose your job. Is a credit crunch when you go broke without even losing your job?

Talking of which, where are all those job losses? Does anyone know anyone who’s lost their job yet? Well obviously we’re told that the financial sector is ‘hard-hit’, but surely a depression means more than financial sector job losses?

I think they’re coming. It will get worse before it gets better. But if this is a chance for a fundamental shift maybe better could be much much better.

That’s something to hope for.

The economy might be off the rails, but I truly hope it's not the end of the line yet for charitable giving...

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

10^100 - The SEWA Ashram Video

Our application for the Google 10^100 project is in. And thanks to our friend Christa, we also have a rather great 30 second clip of the work of the Ashram to accompany our application. And here it is:

Hopefully, with a large slice of good fortune, this video will be seen by thousands, come January.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

10^100 (Ten to the Hundredth) - SEWA Ashram

There's so much going on in the battle against poverty just now, including a couple of particularly innovative ideas that have come across my radar - 10 to the Hundredth, and Blog Action Day. Read on to find out more.

As part of Google's 10th birthday celebrations - must surely be the wealthiest 10 year old in the world - they have put out a "call for ideas to change the world by helping as many people as possible."

My colleague Stephen and I can't think of a much better idea than SEWA Ashram, and we've put together the following application. With a bit of good fortune, we hope we will be one of the 100-strong shortlist. Expect a very excited post here, with a link to our youtube video (being put together as we speak) if that happens!

What one sentence best describes your idea?
To provide shelter, healing, education and training to the most destitute in society through a new form of community that will become a model for rehabilitating the extreme poor.

Describe your idea in more depth.
Two hours north of Delhi, SEWA Ashram is a small volunteer-run community that for the past 8 years has provided shelter and healthcare to destitute individuals who have been found on the streets of Delhi, abandoned by society. It’s budget is $4 a day. But many of those who are helped fall back into destitution, as they have no skills or opportunities to integrate themselves into society when they leave the Ashram.

The current Ashram can only house up to 150 individuals so with a larger site and the introduction of education, training projects and microfinance, SEWA Ashram plans to extend the work it does to truly re-connect the most destitute into society. It will grow its community to around 750 people.

This project would build a bridge between the most destitute, excluded individuals, and one of the most innovative developments in the not-for-profit sector in the last 30 years: microfinance. By providing shelter, healthcare, training and – ultimately – microfinance opportunities in one community, this project could provide a model for rehabilitating the most destitute.

The aspiration for SEWA Ashram community is to provide a model of society in miniature, tackling many social issues we face today. As such, this idea could equally fulfil any one of the 10^100 categories:

- It provides shelter and healthcare to the sick, through loving, non-judgemental treatment. One in ten current patients have HIV, and around 50% have TB.

- Through education and livelihood projects, it provides individuals with the capability to help themselves.

- As a purpose-built community it provides a platform for clean energy solutions. Through its scalability across the world’s second largest country and beyond, the implications for the environment could be profound.

But most of all, this idea is about community. A community is literally built for those who have none.

What problem or issue does your idea address?

In urban Delhi, 100,000 people are homeless. Many of these people leave behind family and have no local support networks to turn to when trouble arises.

Javed was born 33 years ago. His family home was made of mud and grass. His father left the family when he was 3 months old. He seldom had clothes and was always hungry. He ‘left home’ at eight, jumped trains and begged until he was 13.

Eventually he escaped to Delhi, where he lived under a flyover for 5 years. Uneducated of the dangers, he contracted HIV through his drug use.

When Sewa Ashram found Javed, he had infected wounds, TB and was seriously ill. He was in a coma for 8 days. After hospital, Javed came to the Sewa Ashram. The early days were difficult.

The Ashram gave Javed the chance of a new life. This project gives more people that chance.

If your idea were to become a reality, who would benefit the most and how?

It will benefit the most destitute in society; those – like Javed – whos’ lives have been tougher than we can imagine, lacking hope, love and opportunity. Many of the poorest are capable of doing much to help themselves and others. Sewa Ashram encourages this capability.

However, it is not just those who are helped who will gain from this project. This project gives all of us the opportunity to understand our fundamental similarities, and explore how we can overcome society’s most intractable problems.

Javed grew whilst in the care of the Ashram and discovered a talent for painting, which provides him some income. He met and married Jyoti, another Sewa Ashram patient. They have now adopted Jyoti’s 14 year old niece.

Javed still leads a life that most people would shudder at. But for him, he has “made it”.

Our idea is to make more stories like Javed’s a reality.

What are the initial steps required to get this idea off the ground?

Implementing this project and testing the SEWA Ashram model will require significant resources, both human and financial. These are the steps that will make the SEWA Ashram model a reality:

- a draft detailed business plan has already been developed for a community village for the destitute that will provide a financially and environmentally sustainable solution to the problem of the destitute homeless in Delhi. It’s feasibility needs assessing.

- this village will be built on a site outside Delhi, incorporating medical services, family homes, school buildings, livelihood training projects as well as other community initiatives. This will cater for a community of 750 people and will cost an estimated US$3m for the initial 12 month period.

- 12 months after the Ashram launch, the community acts as an inspiration and model for communities across India and other countries.

Describe the optimal outcome should your idea be selected and successfully implemented. How would you measure it?

With the support of the 10^100 project, we will develop an innovative and cost-effective solution to the problem of extreme poverty in urban India.

Impact is not measured simply by the number of people helped, but by whether and how their lives have been transformed and the sustainability of the solution.

The project mission will be to take the homeless, impoverished and sick, and heal them, give them shelter and ultimately give them the capability to move forward with their lives and become part of society again. We would measure success by the numbers of people who successfully complete this process.

Success will be measured by meeting people like Javed and listening to their stories on how they “made it”.

This posting was created for Blog Action Day 2008.

Monday, October 06, 2008

In Her Footsteps

I've been busier than ever at work recently, and I'm not the only one. Opportunity has been very busy working on some exciting projects. And, there’s one big first that Opportunity wants to tell everyone about!

On Wednesday 1st October, “In Her Footsteps”, received its world premiere at the Dendy Cinema Opera Quays, in front of an enthusiastic audience of about 250 people from Sydney’s business and entertainment world.

In Her Footsteps is a feature-length documentary about a group of women from Australia who travelled to India in early 2008 to experience the reality of poverty in the developing world and the potential of microfinance as a solution to the indignity of poverty.

After the very warmly received premiere, the film was shown again the following night, and another 200 people, including myself, had the opportunity to catch a glimpse of what represents a pretty interesting and novel departure for OIA.

First off, though I’m bound to be biased, you can take it from me that the film is a real triumph. It’s very professionally done, it holds the attention throughout, and it does exactly what – I presume – was the intention: to show the depths of poverty in India and how unsolvable these situations can appear, and then to show how Opportunity’s partners are helping the poor to help themselves out of poverty with the aid of microfinance.

After getting over the shock of seeing my big head on screen – in a mercifully brief non-speaking role at the start – I settled into the story of the group of women travelling from Australia to India. Told in the words of the women themselves (and those of Anita, the Opportunity tour-leader), we saw poverty through their eyes, and heard them describe in very personal terms their impressions on being confronted with the slums of Delhi.

What comes across in the first half of the film, as we follow the women on a day trip to one particularly deprived area is that these trips can have a profound impact on both staff and participants. Being confronted by the squalor that some people live in, by simple consequence of where they are born, gives rise to feelings of anger and disgust. That people – who are patently very much like us – have to live with so little in conditions we wouldn’t consider fit for our pets, is inhumane. For many people, seeing extreme poverty first hand brings out a personal determination to do something to make a change.

The first half of the film can be difficult to watch, focusing as it does on the extremes of poor peoples' lives, but it’s when the women visit one of Opportunity’s partners and meet Indian women who are using microfinance to transform their lives that the film really grips us, and gets across the message that we are powerful, we each can – and should – do something about poverty.

I’m sure everyone will be personally touched by something in the film. For me, I was reminded how easy it is to assume that poverty is “too big a problem for me to do something about”. Before I first tried doing some charity work in Belize in 2006, I did very little to help with poverty, believing I couldn’t have any impact. There was a real personal growth for me when I turned that idea on its head. Today I make my own very modest contribution. More importantly, I can’t imagine ever again not doing something. I know the women in the film now have the same feeling.

In Her Footsteps will be shown again in Brisbane on , 29th October and – I hope – many more times after that. I hope this film becomes another powerful medium for the message of microfinance. My big head notwithstanding.

I wore a suit for the premiere, and at some cost to my personal comfort! Sydney is experiencing some exceptionally unseasonable weather at the moment. On Thursday, the temperature hit 30C, an incredible temperature considering that we are still closer to winter than summer. This was only to be outdone the next day, with Friday’s high reaching 35C by some accounts, 38C by others. That’s at least 15 degrees hotter than the October average. I am going to be very careful with my skin this year.

For once though, the good weather couldn’t hold out over the weekend. With the Parklife music festival to go to, and the biggest racing day of the Spring Carnival, I would have paid good money for sun over the weekend. Instead I was shelling out for an umbrella. Still a great weekend though and photos of Goldfrapp, Dizzee Rascal and Keith and I in our Sunday finest will appear shortly.

Thursday, August 07, 2008

At Last!

You thought I’d given up didn’t you!

Ok, so it’s been more than two months. And that's not good. But winter isn’t a good time for me. I tend to go into a semi-hibernating state. Like a NASA robot on Mars, all non-essential systems are shut down to conserve power to survive until conditions are favourable for a return to full action. But it’s been 28C today. That’s enough to bring anyone out of hibernation. So – much belatedly – here’s an update on the most interesting part of my last trip to India...

SEWA Ashram is a volunteer-run refuge for the destitute homeless people of Delhi. Opportunity International has a connection with the Ashram through their shared mission to provide opportunities to the impoverished, in response to Jesus Christ’s call to serve the poor. In July 2008, I visited SEWA Ashram’s one-and-a-half acre site, just north of Delhi, to see first-hand the challenges faced by the Ashram in providing medical care, shelter and rehabilitation to around 150 of the most vulnerable people on the very fringes of Indian society.

As we approach the main entrance of the Safdarjung hospital, one of Delhi’s largest hospitals, Nino spots a guy sitting on the bare ground. He could be around 20 or 30, or older. It’s hard to tell. He has a filthy bandage around his right leg. He looks confused, drugged even.

“This guy is typical,” Nino tells me, “he knows he needs help, he knows this is the hospital, this is where the care is, but what he should do next… he has no idea.”

“This is what it means to be destitute and ill in Delhi.”

Nino, one of the two volunteers who run Sewa Ashram, had picked me up from my comfortable central-Delhi hotel that morning.

As a veteran of 16 months working with the poverty-stricken in Delhi, Nino had volunteered to give me a ‘day-in-the-life” of SEWA Ashram. We would visit the Ashram itself, take a tour of the Delhi streets where they find most of their patients, and visit one of the government-run hospitals in Delhi, where I would see the challenges facing those who want to do something for the welfare of the poorest.

Softly spoken, passionate, and thoroughly non-judgemental, Nino is a great teacher. Spending time with Nino is learning about poverty at the coal-face. Everything Nino does seems to be a product of both a passion to change, and an acceptance of what is. At first glance, these two things might seem incompatible but I learn from Nino that a real, respectful and lasting contribution to the problems of poverty in Indian society comes from managing the clash between these two emotions.

After a few minutes we are driving through Delhi’s chaotic morning traffic in the tiny Toyota that doubles up as delivery van and ambulance for the Ashram. As with much else in India, Delhi’s traffic problems are pretty much the same as anywhere else in the world – no more or less stressful than in London or Sydney. It inconveniences you, it raises your blood-pressure, it gives you something to moan about when you get in to work.

But imagine chaos in a hospital. That is something far more harmful. What more difficult time to manage stress, confusion and disorientation than when one is ill?

Unfortunately, in Delhi, this too is a fact of life – for the poor at least. The young guy lying on the ground in front of us is a victim of this chaos, and it’s when Nino and I walk through the front entrance of the hospital, that I realise why. And I also start to understand what it really means to be poor and ill in Delhi.

Getting care and attention is a fight against a multitude of obstacles. The first problem is finding the right department. With no reception desk, and no obvious staff to direct you, it’s difficult to know where to start. There are signs, yes, but if you are illiterate how do you know where to go? It’s not hard for me to imagine this problem – with my extremely limited Hindi, the Hindi script is meaningless.

Maybe if you are self-assured, assertive and well-spoken you can find someone who will help you find where you want to go. But many of the poorest lack the confidence and strength that they need to help themselves.

Moving beyond the entrance hall, Nino takes me round to one of the hospital’s main admission departments where maybe as many as 50 people are waiting in two queues to see a doctor. This is the key to being admitted to the hospital – to be seen by a doctor and for him to assess your condition and decide that you should be admitted. It sounds straight-forward, but…

Some people will wait here all day, just in the hope of getting their few minutes with the doctor. And though the hospital is clean, the atmosphere is intimidating. It’s busy, noisy and dark, more like a city-centre bus station than any hospital I’ve been in before. We stay for a few moments and I feel a real desire to be able to help, mixed with not a little helplessness.

But as well as showing me the problems, Nino also wanted me to understand from the start that this hospital was not only of a better standard than many of the other hospitals in Delhi, but also on a steady – and in places rapid – curve of improvement. The A&E ward has modern trolleys and expensive diagnostic equipment. Two new large buildings are being built next to the main hospital building, to provide specialist surgery and care.

And past the admissions department, I see patients who are being treated, and treated well. In the Orthopaedic Department, we visit a ward that is bright and well-equipped. And the staff we talk to are caring and attentive.

But though things are improving, people still fall through the safety net.

In the ward, Nino introduces me to a sometime patient of the Ashram. The man lying in the bed in front of us had tried 15 times to be admitted for treatment for a badly fractured leg. Not all of those attempts had been unsuccessful. Through a misfortune which would have caused me to lose my senses, he had been admitted on one occasion, only to be thrown back on the streets when the nursing staff in the department had – for what may well have been very understandable reasons – gone on strike.

We spend some time with the patient, and Nino talks to one of the nurses. The Ashram staff have a good relationship with the hospital, built up over time and through personal connections. Many of the things that make a difference in public healthcare in India appear to me to be dependent more on trust and personal motives than policies or regulations.

As we leave, we pass the admissions department again. Looking at the long queues of weary patients, I see some determination, some resignation and plenty of bewildered, confused looking people. It strikes me that this weighting room is like a force-field, bouncing back the weak, and those lacking in confidence.

Back outside the hospital again, we see those who have neither the capability, nor the help from relatives to breach this force-field. In the competition to be admitted to the hospital it is the weakest who lose out. And around the Safdarjung hospital, you can see them sitting on the steps and lying under the trees and at the corners of the buildings.

After the visit to the hospital, Nino and I drive over to the streets around the Yamuna, the river that cuts through the Eastern half of New Delhi.

The van pulls up under one of the city’s newly built overpasses, and I can see a number of figures sitting or lying in the shade, taking some relief from the pre-monsoon sun. As we park up, someone approaches the van and directs our attention to one figure lying on the ground.

As we approach him this figure looks notably different to others I’ve seen sitting at the side of Delhi’s roads. Firstly, his condition is shocking to me. He is obviously a tall man, but Nino guesses that he weighs “less than 40kg”. He is all arms and legs. There was another difference too. He had a dignity, even lying prone on the ground. When Nino asks him his name in Hindi, he answers in English. He is not looking for charity, but rather Nino has to persuade him that he desperately needs treatment. TB of this severity has a very poor prognosis if left untreated.

But back at the Ashram, some kind of future can be offered. The first step was to take the new patient to the clinic in the local village for chest x-rays to assess the extent of the damage. Then a prescription would be made for the patient (at least 6 months of drugs in the case of TB), followed by education for the patient. In the case of TB, a disease all but forgotten in the developed world, success of the treatment is dependent on strictly following the prescription. All this could happen in the clinic over a couple of days. Recovery and rehabilitation would take many months, hence the need for the safe and loving environment provided by the Ashram.

In fact, by the end of that day the impact of the Ashram was already obvious. The guy we had picked up off the streets was lying on a sarpoy (a simple Indian bed). He had been at the Ashram for just a few hours but already looked like any of the other residents. For a moment my mind couldn’t quite grasp how quickly he had become part of the community.

I wondered why this seemed so odd to me. The answer was in my own experience and prejudice. I was used to the idea that, to become part of a group, especially a group that offers love, care and community, there is a kind-of ‘probationary period’ when you are not afforded the privileges, trust and rights of established members.

I was seeing this guy as a ‘new patient’, when in fact there is no such distinction at the Ashram. He was part of the community from the moment he arrived.

I wondered if I should feel encouraged that we had ‘saved’ him, made a difference. But I remembered too what Nino had said about the false impression that could be picked up from a visit to the Ashram site, about how the picture was only half-complete without seeing what was outside the Ashram.

My thoughts turn to all the people who we had seen earlier in the day who didn’t have this opportunity. As easily as some are ‘saved’, many others were just as easily left out. It unsettles me that there could be such a difference in outcome, for want of so little. My mind races on. How can I sit aside and accept that people are just as easily left outside, sleeping under bridges, alone, with serious, untreated, bewildering mental and physical problems?

I was also troubled that finding answers to these questions was more about addressing my guilt. I had felt good that one person had been saved, and this made me wonder at how it was possible that people could just stand by and let people suffer for so little. But this was to misunderstand the whole nature of the problem. Poverty is about the big picture in Delhi. Lasting solutions – as Nino fully appreciates – need an understanding of what is, as well as a will to change.

SEWA Ashram, with the assistance of Opportunity International, are currently considering options for expanding their existing operation, both in size, and through providing more sustainable solutions to the problems facing Delhi’s destitute homeless.

I love the colours in this photograph. It's almost like a painting with the marble-y coloured floor.

Monday, August 04, 2008


Update on India to come soon, but in the meantime...

It's whale watching season again in Sydney as Humpback and Southern Right Whales migrate north along the New South Wales coastline.

But you would never expect the whales to come quite as close to the coastline as this:

These whales are right in the middle of the bay at Bondi!!! When I go to my ocean swimming class (on a winter break at the moment) I go out past the surfers!

Amazing Stuff...

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Its time to be proud to be from San Francisco

Yeah, its another political post, but quite a funny one i reckon. :)

Monday, June 30, 2008

Outraged, Depressed, Upset (!)

Thabo Mbeki: a failure, and an embarrassment to the good people of South Africa?

Nothing upsets me quite so much at the moment as the situation in Zimbabwe. While I do like to give vent to some political passion on this site, I tend to keep those messages short and infrequent, in between the usual updates on life in Sydney.

However, I can't bring myself to give the usual jovial update this week. I've got a much greater compulsion to point out what I think is an understated travesty in the current Zimbabwe situation.

Since Ghana was the first African country to gain independence in 1957, far too many African countries have spent too long under the regime of leaders who fail to have any respect for the rights of their people.

Robert Mugabe is clearly such a leader. Since taking power in Zimbabwe in 1980, he has steadily showed his real colours as a despot, a criminal and a murderer. Recent events are part of a steady progression towards anarchy in the country, which Mugabe must be held responsible for.

And now, Thabo Mbeki appears to be another. When South Africa finally emerged from apartheid in 1991 it got a leader that it richly deserved. Nelson Mandela is rightly lauded as one of the greatest leaders of our time. That his successor has been such a disappointment is not what the South African people deserved.

Mbeki too has been in his own downward spiral. Corruption among his closest associates was disappointing, his policy of denial on AIDS/HIV (South Africa has more HIV sufferers than any other country in the world) disturbing, but it's his support for the Mugabe regime that is the most depressing development.

The situation in Zimbabwe brings me to tears. I wish there was more that countries such as the UK and Australia could do to instigate a resolution. But with Mugabe oblivious to pressure from outside of Africa, the only way that social, economic and humanitarian disaster can be avoided in that country is with pressure from other outside parties that Mugabe must rely on - his neighbouring countries.

South Africa is foremost in those, so we should be shocked and outraged that Thabo Mbeki is now trying to persuade his fellow African leaders to recognise Mugabe's completely specious electoral win.

That's the basic facts. I'm not going to go into Mbeki's motives. This article gives a few more details if you are interested:

I am relieved to say that Mbeki is leaving office next year, and will be replaced by a rival in his own party, who has made clear his anti-Mugabe sentiments. But in the meantime, anarchy in Zimbabwe will go on.

The South African people are suffering in this too, albeit in a very different way. I don't believe they share Mbeki's wish to shelter an evil dictator. Rather, the front page of one of the daily newspapers in South Africa today called Mbeki's leadership into question over the issue. It's also worth pointing out that, while the paper costs 10 Rand in SA, across the border in Zimbabwe, the price is 15 billion Zimbabwean dollars. Aside from the violence, I can't think of anything else that so well sums up the astonishing failure of leadership... in Zimbabwe, and South Africa.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

And we just stand idly by...

Please read this. You will hear plenty about it in the next two weeks. My guess is that it will then disappear from tv screens, as we once again do nothing about it:

A Trip to Fraser Island

I love the greens in this photograph. Beautiful.

For the holiday weekend, Dom and I took a trip to Queensland’s rainforest and beach paradise of Fraser Island.

I already have my big holiday for this year planned – in December I’ll be back in the UK for 3 weeks over Christmas and New Year. As this will drain most of my annual leave, I’m having to be pretty scrooge-like with my holidays for the next few months.
Those crazy, crazy 'roads'.

So with the office closed for a long weekend, and the Sydney weather turning a little more wintry (well, 18C and rainy), it made a lot of sense to get out of the city and seek the warmer climes of Queensland.

Hervey Bay is a 90 minute flight north from Sydney, and the stopping off point for the ferry to Fraser Island. Dom and I had organised a 3-day hire of a Landrover Discovery (see pics), which would be our trusty steed for getting around the road-free, sand-dune covered expanse of Fraser.
Right: eagle-spotted ray, seen from the cliffs at Indian Heads, Fraser Island.

After an unconventional safety video – “do not drive in the salt water, deflate tires to extract yourself from swamps, do not feed the wild dingos, etc…” – we were off on the ferry.

We had been told about the island’s dirt tracks, but hardly expected the all-terrain assault course that awaited us. Half-sweating in fear, and half-laughing hysterically, we tackled the outrageous cambers, giant pot-holes and sand slides that make up the navigable tracks. In fact, this was one of the key attractions for me – awesome fun, and really just like a big advert for 4x4 off-roading.

It got even better after we’d traversed the 15 mile-wide island and reached 75-mile beach on the far side. Driving at up to 90kmph along the beach, running through wash-outs and scattering wading birds was just too much fun!

I should say a little about the natural attractions too. As you can see from the pics, the island has some beautiful scenery – a natural result of the combination of desert, rainforest, lakes and ocean, which is actually pretty hard to find, even in Australia.

One less natural attraction is the wreck of the Moheno, a passenger liner washed ashore in a storm in 1935. The ship had been bought by the Japenese, but was shipwrecked during delivery to its new owners.
Given that it would probably have been used against the Australians in WWII, the grounding can now be considered somewhat fortunate.

Great place, great weekend break, back to work now.