Archives For Politics

Bureaucracy

June 29, 2013 — Leave a comment

For several months now I have been working with the Tsunami Animal-People Alliance to try and coordinate a dog vaccination and sterilization clinic in Trincomalee. I first got in contact with the NGO after a fellow Fulbrighter told me about the work they were doing around the island, that was in the beginning of February.

On March 22 I had a meeting with the Trincomalee District Secretariat (D.S.) to receive approval for to conduct a clicic in October. Over the course of the clinic it is expected that 300 dogs will be sterilized and vaccinated. The D.S. approved the project, pending the approval of the relevant government stakeholders – namely the Government Agent (G.A.) (who works for the Ministry of Defence and Urban Development) and the local veterinarian  I met with the G.A. on the 20th of April.

Its May 8th now, and I’ve received word from the G.A. that the project is approved, pending approval from the Ministry of Health. Two weeks later, I received the final approval and the project is set to commence in October.

The bureaucracy here is frustrating, and it seems that no government official wants to take responsibility for a project. Each official I went to for approval gave it conditionally; it seemed like they were afraid to take responsibility for the plan.

Things move at a frustratingly slow pace; if you keep on people and maintain persistence, its possible to make progress.

 

The True Cost

May 4, 2013 — Leave a comment

How much would you pay for a t-shirt? Five dollars? Ten? Forty?

How much should you pay for a t-shirt? What would it cost to produce a shirt that does no harm to the environment or person? Can clothing even be produced in a sustainable way?

Clothing is the second most chemical intensive industry in the world, after agriculture. Rivers in China run blue with the dye from denim.

Patagonia is, arguably, the most responsible manufacturer of clothes in the world. For the last six years they have been named on Ethisphere’s most ethical companies list (though they were left off this year). Patagonia has served as an industry leader in transparency, and publish information on all of their suppliers and manufactures  Recently they elected to become the first Benefit Corporation in California; this form of corporate structure requires that they put their stakeholders infront of corporate profits (Bloomberg explains the benefits and drawbacks of BCorps here). Recently they’ve partnered with the Nature Conservancy to work with sheep farmers in Patagonia to ensure that the wool they buy does not contribute to overgrazing. Overgrazing has turned 20 million acres of land into desert in Patagonia. On the largest shopping day of the year, Black Friday, they ran an ad telling customers, “don’t buy this jacket.” Instead they asked their customers to try and buy used versions of their product.  All of their cotton is organic, a decision they made when they realized how many chemicals go into growing cotton – they had to find famers to buy organic cotton from directly before there was a market for it.

In light of this, I’d say Patagonia is a pretty good example of what a responsible clothing company should look like.

Patagonia sells many clothing items, among them are t-shirts. The minimum retail price for a Patagonia shirt is $39.00. That is a pretty steep cost for a t-shirt; it reflects the cost of making clothes that do little to no harm to the environment and treat the laborers well.

You can buy shirts for considerably less than forty bucks, but should you? Gap, through Old Navy and Bannan Republic, sells t-shirts ranging from $4.99 to $32.50. Its hard to think how a $4.99 shirt could be made in a sustainable way, even at the high end its questionable. Gap’s CSR policy is as good as most clothing manufacturers, but implementing the policy while maintaining a competitive pricing policy is a hard task to juggle.

Gap manufactures a lot clothing in Sri Lanka, and they promise to maintain a watchful eye on the post war situation. Despite blatant abuses by the government, Gap continues to manufacture clothes here. More prominently, Gap may have been able to prevent the death of over 507 people at Rana Plaza in Dhaka last week.

In 2011 Gap walked out of negotiations which would have implemented extensive fire and building safety standards. This plan would have implemented these regulations outside of the control of the government, with funding by multinational manufactures. The companies would have contributed up to $500,000 a year. PvH (Calvin Klein and Tommy Hilfiger) and German retailer Tchibo signed on to the plan, but the commitment of at least two other firms was needed to implement the plan.

It’s being argued that cheap clothes have helped fuel social revolutions in Bangladesh, but at what point are clothes too cheap? If these reforms had been implemented Gap could have passed the increased cost on to consumers or seen their earnings reduced by 0.0034% (Gap Inc. earned $14.5B in 2012). Instead of moving operations to a higher cost country, with more regulatory burdens, Gap could have taken the charge and led meaningful reforms in Bangladesh.

Keep this in mind next time you’re out shopping.

Costs of War

April 2, 2013 — 2 Comments

I’m continually surprised by the challenges of working in a post conflict area. Trinco, the town where I live and teach, was relatively unaffected by the war. By this I mean there were a few bombings in town, but they did not suffer from heavy fighting. Just a few kilometeres outside of the town there are areas that were really hard hit by fighting.

Over the weekend I had the privilege to travel to Mannar to celebrate Easter. On Saturday I went sea bathing with a friend and his older brothers. They are divers by trade, and collect sea cucumbers and conch shells.

Raj, the eldest brother, and I were sitting on the beach chatting. We were sipping on toddy and eating fish and crabs that we had cooked over a fire. His English is good, and he told me how he loves working outdoors. When the conversation came to my studies at university, sadness flashed across his eyes. Raj told me that he was supposed to go to uni for science, but due to the war those plans changed. He spoke of his life and how he enjoyed the simplicity of his trade.

Every year in Sri Lanka only 2% of students get admitted to university. Only the top students can study in the science or medical faculty. Raj seems genuinely happy with his life, but its hard to imagine how different his life would have been had he gone to uni. It is impossible to quantify the opportunity cost of war. How many future scientists, engineers, and doctors found it impossible to continue their studies?

Coffee is something I’ve struggled to live without while living abroad. After a month of living off of instant coffee, a friend turned me on to Hansa Coffee.

Great coffee can be found on Fife Road, in Colombo

Great coffee can be found on Fife Road, in Colombo

Hansa is a local coffee producer, and they’ve quickly turned into my favorite coffee brand. They have a small shop in Colombo, where you can purchase a variety of coffee drinks, snacks, and packaged coffee.

Hansa is unique because they roast their beans at the same altitude as they are grown, which is supposed to improve the taste and flavor of the bean. Sipping the Arabica blend – a favorite of mine – one picks up subtle notes of blueberry and chocolate. Needless to say, I’m glad to have made their coffee a part of my life.

Aside from producing coffee with a rich, fresh taste, Hansa makes coffee that you can feel good about drinking. Over the past few years I have grown more aware of the effects of my consumption on the rest of the world. My experiences in Kenya opened my eyes to the shocking working conditions and standards of living that tea and coffee workers often endure. Designations such as fair trade, organic, and rainforest alliance can help guide consumers to make more informed purchasing decisions, but there are flaws with these systems.

I recently had the opportunity to visit Hansa’s roasting operations in Nuwara Eliya. Lawrence, the founder and master roaster of Hansa, gave the Fulbrighters an open invitation to visit whenever we were in the area – I’m glad I obliged. Hansa might not be certified organic or fair trade (yet), but after visiting Lawrence I have no doubt that they are among the best coffee producers in the world.

The coffee used by Hansa is sourced from small growers in the central highlands of Sri Lanka, in contrast to the original coffee industry that existed on the island under British colonial rule. During that time, Ceylon was the world’s largest exporter of coffee in 1870, producing  51 million kilograms of coffee annually. The coffee plantations were built in deforested lands, and their monoculture ultimately led to the entire industry being wiped out by 1890. Hansa educates small scale farmers on techniques such as shade-growing, composting, and organic farming.

Hansa is trying to revive the coffee industry without causing further deforestation. Shade grown coffee has a longer yield cycle, but this slower growth leads to a coffee with more complexity and taste. By teaching farmers the benefits of a polyculture farm, Hansa is reducing their dependence on fertilizers and pesticides.

Once the beans are harvested, they are brought to the factory, where they are sorted by hand. Beans with any defect – insect damage, mold, or cracks – are removed. As it turns out, half of the coffee in America is contaminated with mold. This mold produces mycotoxins (not only do mycotoxins make your coffee taste bitter, they cause cancer and brain disease). After the defective beans are sorted out, it is time for the roasting to begin.

Hansa's Roaster

Hansa’s Roaster

When I entered the roasting room I was struck by the intense heat and the overwhelming smell of fresh coffee. The coffee is roasted in small batches, and their special Indian-made roaster is a relic of a bygone era. Periodically the beans are checked for their progress in the roasting process. Watching the pale coffee beans transform into the familiar black ones was fascinating. When I started to hear a cracking noise, the beans were released from their primary chamber and emptied into the bottom hopper. The steaming beans continued to crack. The roaster was brought back to temperature before more beans were poured in.

Hansa is my coffee of choice for a multitude of reasons. It is delicious, but it is also made in a socially and environmentally thoughtful manner. Lawrence is a humanist, who cares deeply about the tenets of organic farming. His company is both a reflection of his beliefs and an attempt to make a better cup of coffee.

While most of the world was watching the Super Bowl I was standing in the rain to watch the celebration of Sri Lanka’s 65th Independence Day.

Sri Lanka, or Ceylon as it was known at the time, gained its independence from the British Empire on February 4, 1948. For most citizens the day was unremarkable. Unlike India’s mass struggles to gain independence, Sri Lanka’s battles were waged primarily by the intelectual class.

At the time of independence Ceylon was one of the wealthiest nations in Asia – a model for Taiwan, SIngapore, and Korea. The education rate was extremely high and english was extremely common. Things were looking up for the island nation.

The Tamil minority had gained a great deal of power during colonization, they held a number of high posts in the Ceylon Civil Service. In 1956, the newly elected prime minister passed the controversial Sinhala only act – this act is usually a starting point for the historical narrative of the civil war.

In 1972 Ceylon changed its name to the “Free, Sovereign and Independent Republic of Sri Lanka”. In 1978 it was shortened to to the “Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka”. In 1977 a new constitution, modeled after France’s, was enacted; Sri Lanka became the first country in Asia to liberalize its economy. The 1983 Black July riots mark the start of brought on the start of the LTTE and the official start of the war. For many years the LTTE planned to make Trinco the capital of Tamil Eelam.

For weeks Trinco has been getting a facelift. Roads are being widened, buildings painted, and signs hung. For more about the preparations in town, see this Groundview’s Article

This was the third time that the holiday is celebrated in Trinco, the first was 1953 and the second was in 1965. I woke early in the morning, to the sounds of rain and thunder. Once into the heart of town, we had to walk a good way to make it to the parade ground. Two security checkpoints later, and I was in the midst of a crowd – jostling for a sight of the President as he gave his speech.

The speech made many references to the current UN attempts to allow an independent investigation into the end of the war. Below is selected text of his speech that I feel really sums up his message.

We respond to the publicity against Sri Lanka carried out abroad by inviting foreign countries to come to Sri Lanka. We have seen that the best answer to false publicity and propaganda carried out in foreign countries is development and reconciliation in Sri Lanka. Do not believe something just because it is said, because you have read reports, critics have said it or the media has published it. We tell the people of the world – Come! Come Over and See for yourselves!
Friends
If freedom is a heavenly state, it is not a state one can fully achieve. There was a time when you went past the road blocks in fear of death. When you trod in fear past the roadblocks you did not see the potholes. You did not have the time to think of cleanliness of the city or new road signs. But when the fear of death and the roadblocks are no more, you notice the potholes on those roads. What is next needed is a concrete road. Once concrete roads are given to the entire country and the roads are properly carpeted one notices the absence of modern signboards. When these are completed we seek roads with more lanes for traffic. 
The expectations in a free country are also like this. The more freedom is obtained; the people expect a more advanced life.
Friends
We are a nation that has suffered immensely for freedom. All political parties in this country should understand this. It is not only the Government, but the Opposition too has the responsibility to safeguard this freedom we have won. Protecting the country and building reconciliation is not support extended to the Government or the Opposition. It is support given to the country. It is doing one’s duty by the land of one’s birth. 
The speech, once I read the translated version, proved to be unsurprisingly disappointing. The New York Times published a review of it.  
All in all, this was certainly one of the most memorable days of my Fulbright. It was a great experience. 

What do Sri Lankan students, an American English Teaching Assistant (ETA), and a Korean rapper share in common? For one thing, we all possess a love of dance and music. Psy’s top charting song, Gangnam Style, has taken the world by storm. With its gripping lyrics and absurd dance, this song has profound implications on cultural communication.

Gangnam Style’s success is particularly notable because it is the first song outside major American and European music labels to become so popular worldwide. It is an interesting example of shifts in cultural dominance. The most popular YouTube video in the world, Gangnam Style has been viewed over 1.2 billion times. For years America has imported consumer goods from the Korean Peninsula, now the importation of pop music has begun. Ma Young-sam, Korea’s Ambassador for Public Diplomacy of the Foreign Ministry, has expressed how important the music industry is to Korea’s soft power. The Financial Times recently quoted Mr. Ma as saying, “as foreigners pay more attention to the singers, slowly they develop a liking for Korea … and if they like Korea, they will buy more Korean things. This is what we’re trying to promote…” The explosion of a Korean pop song may or may not mark a shift in global power; but at the very least, Gangnam Style is a catchy pop song – and it made for a great lesson in the English language.

As a Fulbright ETA, I teach three sections of language skills at Sarvodaya’s Trincomalee Vocational Training Center. Sarvodaya is Sri Lanka’s largest NGO, it maintains 34 district centers and reaches nearly 15,000 villages. My students’ ages range from 15 – 24, and they are studying either tailoring, nursery school teaching, or aluminum fabricating. The classes are provided to them at no cost through Sarvodaya and the World University Service of Canada. At the end of their training the students sit for their National Vocational Qualification exam, after which they are eligible to seek employment as skilled laborers. Prior to my arrival, the students had not received any formal English instruction. Their technical instructions are in Tamil medium, as that is the primary language spoken in this district.

The community in which I work was cut off from the world for three decades by ethnic conflict. With the advent of the internet my students are now plugged into the world. As the first Fulbrighter to be placed on Sri Lanka’s East Coast, it has been both challenging and rewarding to become a resident of Trincomalee and to expose my students to new ideas and cultures.

For two weeks I geared my English lessons toward teaching my students how to dance to Gangnam Style. The vocabulary surrounding this lesson is surprisingly complex. I began my lessons with the basic components of human anatomy, teaching words like arm, hip, legs, etc. After several classes explaining the nouns of the body, I began to demonstrate the verbs of movement: jump, squat, shake, etc. I spent an entire day with my classes utilizing a technique I learnt at the ETA Enrichment Seminar in Nepal: I distributed images of stick figures in various stages of bodily contortion, and acted as a rag doll as my students directed me to ‘lift your left hand’ and ‘put your elbow on your knee’.

The culmination of these lessons was when a fellow Fulbright Researcher and amateur dance instructor, Sarah Stodder, joined my classes for a day to teach my students and I the moves of Gangnam Style. She began by telling us the basic movements, broken down into two categories: arms and legs. As she verbalized the dance moves and physically demonstrated them, I codified her actions on the board for my students to copy. Once they had written the movements down, we cleared the desks and began dancing. At first, we referred to the directions on the board – mastering each step before moving on. Once all of the students had a command of the dance moves, it was time to play the music video and try dancing along with the great Psy himself.

As an American teaching Sri Lankans a Korean dance based upon the most popular song of 2012, I feel my students and I prove the truth of globalization. This is just one example of how the world grows seemingly smaller each year.

 

Today marks the final day of the Tamil harvest festival, Pongal. The first day of Pongal is spent worshiping the Sun; the Sun is the giver of life, and without it crops would not grow. The second day is spent paying respect to cows. They are critical to life on a farm; not only do they provide milk, but they save countless hours when it is time to till the soil. On the final day, nothing in particular is celebrated. So on this final day of the Tamil festival, Sarvodaya had a Pongal.

I arrived at Sarvodaya’s Trincomalee District Center at 7:30 in the morning, and preparations were already underway for the Pongal. Reeds were being hung, the pots were being put in place, and the food was being prepared. Pongal is both the name of the holiday, and the name of a delicious sweet rice made with coconut milk, dates, nuts, raisins, jaggery, and a healthy dose of sugar. Speakers were brought in, and not an hour later the fires were burning and the speakers were blasting. It was really quite something to see this community come together.

Local religious leaders – Buddhist Monks, Catholic Nuns, Christian Priests, Hindu Pandits,and Muslim Imams – all arrived for the opening ceremonies. Once the water had begun to boil, each religious figure filled their palms with rice and lifted it up to the Sun before pouring it into the Pongal pot. The cooking had begun!

After many years of war Sri Lanka is still a very divided society. Over the past few days I have been greeting everyone I speak to with, ‘happy Pongal‘. On more than one occasion, I was told by the person I had offered this greeting to that they were not Tamil, and they did not celebrate Pongal. Even here in Trinco, a primarily Tamil city, if I greet someone who is Sinhalese with vanikam (Tamil for hello) I will often be told that I should have said kohomada (Sinhala for hello). The environment at Sarvodaya could not have been more different.

When contextualized, the actions of these religious leaders are inspiring. I really respect the work that Shanti Sena, Sarvodaya’s peace building arm, put into this ceremony. Even my Buddhist, Christian, and Muslim students wished me a happy Pongal (in English!) when we first met this morning. The day could not have been summed up better than by a fellow staffer who told me, “we teach all Sri Lankans about Pongal, so we hope that when our students graduate they will tell their friends and family about Pongal next year. I hope they have made Tamil friends and can celebrate together.”

Reconciliation occurs slowly, one person at a time. These cultural activities are incredibly important, as they help to strengthen the sense of community across cultures. Given the affinity Sri Lankans have with sugar, you would be hard pressed to find anyone on this island who doesn’t like eating Pongal.

A Stroll Through Base

November 27, 2012 — Leave a comment

Trinco is a town dominated by the military. As you enter the main city you have to pass through multiple checkpoints, where uniform clad youths clutch their presumably Chinese made kalashnikovs. In the town itself, Tamil is the language of choice. Sinhalese is about as useful as English, many people don’t speak either.

Last Friday I headed to Fort Frederick, to look at the temple which sat atop the Portugese built fort. To get there you must walk through the army base, along the rather long uphill walk I stopped at a connivence store for a cold drink. I greeted the clerk in Tamil, and he looked at me and replied in Sinhalese. Apparently he didn’t speak any Tamil.
Later I continued on, and found my way to the top of the fort, at the temple. Here I met a solider by the name of Gayan. Like many, he only spoke English and Sinhalese. I learned that he’s spent six tours abroad, as a driver. He had just returned from Lebanon, and was on his way to Haiti, the Dominican Republic, and Jamaica to drive for someone. He was kind enough to allow me to take his photo in front of his landrover, of which he was quite proud.
The most shocking thing about my walk through the military base was that in a city where the primary language is Tamil, there is this world dominated by Sinhalese. Just one reminder, among many, that Sri Lanka is a divided society – and language is a tool to divide.

Funny Boy

November 24, 2012 — Leave a comment

For the past week the international community has been trying to grapple with a number of questions revolving Sri Lanka’s civil war. Namely, how were they so unaware of the scale of civilian casualties in the final months of the war?

It is estimated that 40,000 civilians died in the five months leading up to the surrender of the L.T.T.E. in May of 2009.  The United Nations abandoned its mission in the Tamil-controlled areas on the eve of the Government’s final blitz. In an effort to reconcile this humanitarian catastrophe, the UN published their Internal Review on the fifteenth of November.

In my own efforts to understand Sri Lanka’s turbulent past, I spent a lot of time reading old news articles and watching documentaries. During our orientation we heard from an astonishing woman who told us the horrors her family, as Tamils, suffered during the 1983 riots. More recently I’ve finished reading Funny Boy, a novel written by a member of the Sri Lankan Tamil Diaspora community, Shyam Selvadurai.

The story recounts life in a wealthy Tamil family in Colombo. It is a story of coming to age, as a boy grapples with his hidden homosexuality in a complex and divided society. It is incredibly well written, and makes for a quick read. One of the most striking parts of the book is the epilogue, which recounts some of the horrors of Black July.

The 1983 riots began when the Tamil Tigers killed a group of 13 soldiers, and the government brought them back to Colombo to be buried. At the funeral alcohol was provided, along with the names and addresses of many Tamil families in the capital. Chaos quickly ensued.

Now, some excerpts from Funny Boy:

“The radio news is beginning again. We have listened to the broadcast at 6:00, 7:30, and 8:45, but there is still no mention of the trouble. If not for the phone call … we would think that nothing was going on in Colombo” Page 288-89.

“As he cycled towards Galle Road he saw that all the Tamil shops had been set on fire and the mobs were looting everything. The police and army just stood by, watching, and some of them even cheered as the mobs joined in the looting and burning” Page 289.

“7:00 P.M. Curfew was lifted for a few hours so people could buy food. Yet there was nothing to buy. A lot of the grocery stores are owned by Tamils, and they have all been destroyed” Page 301.

“…I long to be out of this country. I don’t feel at home in Sri Lanka any longer, will never feel safe again” Page 304.

“The mob had set the car on fire with Ammachi [Grandmother] and Appachi [Grandfather] inside it… ‘We’ll have to wait until the ambulance comes and takes the bodies away… Until then, I’ll go and keep watch over the car. Someone has to look out for . . .’ he moved uncomfortably in his chair ‘stray dogs and crows’” Page 306-7.

Reading this book has given me a new lens with which to view the streets of Colombo I have leisurely strolled down countless times before.

The shocking events of the July 1983 riots were not the start of the Sinhalese-Tamil conflicts, but they marked the official start of the war. They also sparked Sri Lanka’s brain drain, when the Tamil elites fled the country. Recently it has been this diaspora community that is being courted to invest in Sri Lanka, and their hesitancy to do so is understandable.

There have been a number of projects to reconcile the atrocities of this war. Recently, a Kickstarter project was launched. Check it out.

Funny Boy (Harvest Book)

Voting as a Signal

November 5, 2012 — Leave a comment

This past week the news in Sri Lanka has prominently featured two main stories: Hurricane Sandy and the American Presidential Election. Most of the world was following Hurricane Sandy as Cyclone Nilam – which displaced 70,000 Sri Lankans – raged through the Bay of Bengal. Now, even as Sri Lanka’s Chief Justice is being impeached, eyes are on the outcome of this election.

When I was making my way to Sri Lanka, in early October, I spent a week in Germany. When people found out I was an American the topic of the election was sure to come up. It really amazes me how much the world is following our choice.

The race is incredibly close at this point, and either candidate could win.

With the election only a few hours away many in Tri-Sate area are still without power. Getting out to vote is low on the list for people as they deal with the destruction and try to catch up on lost work. But I urge you to take the time to go to the polls and cast you vote. If you’re in a State where you don’t believe that your vote won’t matter in the national election, then I implore you to vote for your local elections.

In commerce, purchasing products sends a signal to factories. There is a constant flow of information to firms, and they can leverage that data to stay current in their productions. In politics, casting a vote sends a signal to political parties. The flow of information is staggered, and it takes a while to incorporate this into a platform.

If you’re like me, frustrated by the polarization of our political system, then consider voting for a third party. In this race, a few percentage points will be the difference between the winner and loser. Third parties usually snatch a few percentage points; this year it seems like Gary Johnson might even capture 5% of the vote. Jill Stein is also polling well. If these two candidates are able to capture a significant chunk of the vote then it will hopefully influence the primaries to lean towards more moderate candidates in the future.

This post was inspired, in part, by a Seth Godin article