Busting Bill’s myths

In the eyes of the public foreign aid and development equal altruism, ‘goodness’ and charity. In many ways this popular conception of foreign aid comes from religious beginnings and the exhortation to goodness as a binary response to sin and evil through acts of kindness and charity. Another more cynical assessment would lead me to question altruism’s true motives-do we do good for others or do we do good to feel good about ourselves? There are many contemporary beliefs around poverty and its causes. We blame it on overpopulation and culture, we blame it on bad luck or hard times or as neoliberalism would tell us-blame it on the poor themselves.

You may have recently read Bill Gates (optimistic) annual Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation letter. In it, he makes the extraordinary claim that by 2035, ‘there will be no poor countries’. He goes on to address three myths he believes “block progress for the poor”. The letter itself is not the problem. It is the oversimplification of poverty and our responses to it that make me feel uneasy.

Much of Bill’s assertions have to do with treating poverty as a problem that can be solved with the right formula, much the same as I imagine he does when creating software. The problem with this is that poverty is not just a term, static and simple. It is punctuated by history, class, race, gender, geopolitics and I would argue most significantly capitalism. To try and present it as a clean apolitical concept is to distract from the real players that keep poverty a fixed and continuous feature of our world.

Inspired by Bill’s myth busting, I’ve come up with own three myths I’d like to bust.

Three myths about poverty perpetuated by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation

Myth 1 Aid is without politics

Take Polio for example. Polio is once again on the rise in Pakistan whereas in the past, the World Health Organization used it as a standout example of a successful oral vacc campaign. Cases fell from 1155 cases in 1997 to 28 by 2005, the lowest number ever recorded in a single year.

Today Gates lamented that in Pakistan local conspiracy theories were making it hard to get ahead with administering Polio vaccinations. He blamed violence in the Northern areas and the belief that vaccinations were not religiously sanctioned. What he fails to address was the CIA’s use of a fake Polio vaccine drive headed by a Pakistani doctor to gain information and access to Osama Bin Laden in May, 2011. NGO’s and humanitarian workers were appalled at the co-opting of a humanitarian purpose for political and military means.

Predictably, a vulnerable population retreated making it harder than ever to reach those most in need of health attention. In some instances aid and humanitarian workers were kidnapped and killed with many necessary organizations pulling out. An alliance of 200 non-government organizations including well-known names like Care, Mercy Corps and the International Rescue Committee wrote to the CIA Director David Petraus directly linking the growing polio crisis to the tactics used to capture OBL. Aid and development groups have known for a long time that politics and aid are inextricably linked. Often they are cleaning up the mess left by corporations and governments in pursuit of profit and increased geopolitical power.

In turn aid and development organiations are becoming more vocal in their advocacy and criticism of governments using aid and development for political gain.

So in fact geopolitics, a fragile trust disturbed and a communities worst fears confirmed are what has led to the rise in polio cases in Pakistan-not ignorant villagers as benevolent Bill would have you believe.

Myth 2 Think poverty, not inequality

According to Gates, the idea that there will be ‘no more poor countries’ by 2035 is because Mexico City has changed a whole bunch since he and Melinda were there in the late 80’s. Today, Gates is astounded by its high rise buildings, new roads and modern bridges. He uses before and after pics of Mexico City, one from 1987 and another from 2011 to illustrate his point. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that a happy snap from the back of your photo album to illustrate a point about Mexico’s complex development is not a good way to prove a point.

The real picture in Mexico is somewhat different from Gates’s happy-people-in-high-rises analysis. The World Bank itself does not rely on GDP per capita as an analysis of poverty. A countries GDP may rise, but how is that income being distributed? Who gets it and who misses out? OXFAM’s Executive Director Winnie Byanima recently pointed out that “We live in a world where the 85 richest people own the wealth of half of the world’s population.” What we should be looking at is how wealth is distributed.

For arguments sake let’s look at Gates’s Mexico. When measuring the distribution of wealth using the Gini Coefficient found on the World Bank data site, you find that while Mexico’s GDP has increased, it is the top 20% of the population that own most of it-52.8% to be exact. Conversely the lowest 20% own just 4.9%.

The same goes for India, China and Brazil all of which make an appearance as countries who pulled themselves out of poverty-again using GDP as the only measure. In India’s population of 1.2 billion people, the top 20% own 42.8% of GDP while the lowest 10% of the population has a share of just 3.7%. Let’s look at this group a little closer. The percentage of India’s population living on less than $1.25 a day is 32.7%. That means that 404,499,000 (yes you read that right that’s 404 million) people live on less than $1.25 a day while the top 20% enjoy over 40% of the country’s 1.842 trillion dollar GDP- a cool 748 billion.

Of course there is an argument to be made for the increase of the middle class. This is more about drawing attention to the widening gap between the haves and have not’s and selling it publicly as poverty reduction. Same story in China, same story in Brazil.

Myth 3 Aid is always about charity and goodness

No it is not. Sure the foundation is a huge philanthropic organization that gives money to some areas of need in the world. An example being an immunization drive in Nigeria for polio and measles. Good step towards getting rid of these two communicable diseases. But as uncovered by the LA times in 2007, the foundation’s trust was at the same time investing in Royal Dutch Shell, Exxon Mobil Corp, Chevron Corp Total of France and Eni. If you aren’t familiar with these gigantic oil companies they are all responsible for burning oil flares in the Niger Delta, blanketing the area in pollution so severe that doctors have reported an epidemic of bronchitis, asthma and blurring in children’s vision.

It’s important to remember that the Gates Foundation is a philanthropic organization, but this does not mean it is not a for-profit entity. 5% of its worth is given away each year which is common among philanthropic organizations to avoid paying most taxes. 95% of its worth is then reinvested in a broad portfolio of companies ranging from oil, to paper, Coca Cola Amatil to multinational pharmaceutical outfits. Of the latter one was found to be pricing the drugs needed for the treatment of AIDS so high it was unaffordable for many of the patients that the foundation is seeking to treat.

These contradictions aren’t that surprising when you consider the way poverty is approached. To Bill Gates it’s all same same. Poverty is faceless, classless, raceless and genderless. ‘Poor people’ are all lumped in together in a homogenized package. In a baffling simplification he presents his data by “counting people instead of countries”. Which is fine, except that countries matter. Over simplifying and presenting the complex problem of poverty as two lines on one graph with a couple of before and after photos of Mexico City does not make a complex reasoned argument. In fact it all just ends up looking very suspicious.

All of this from the man whose company exploited thousands of Chinese workers making Microsoft peripherals such as keyboards and mice. Workers reported hot and exhausting conditions, a take home wage of just 52 cents a day and sexual harassment of female workers by security guards. What’s this got to do with poverty? Corporations creating conditions in which it flourishes. Power and its concentration and preservation is what creates and sustains poverty.

So Bill’s graphs can break it down into something easy and palatable and achievable and we won’t have to worry about labor rights, structural adjustment of corporate violence. In doing so he creates his own myth that everything is okay and nothing needs to be challenged because there will be no poor countries in 2035. In a way he is right; in the future there will be no poor countries, only unequal ones.

*A correction, the fake vaccine drive used by the CIA was not for Polio but for the Hep B vaccine. Thanks to the eagle eyed reader who pointed this out. 


Full Moon Express

I write this from atop the wooden beamed balcony of the Dili beach hotel. Naked children fresh from a rough tide cluster among the beach weed like Eve. Anchored freight vessels hover around the port and taxis crawl past on the road below. Atauro Island watches me from across the strait. Again, an overwhelming sense of home tugs on my heart as I watch Dili go by. I’m startled as I write this when a floating child in the sea seems not to surface until pop! There he is. A man waves to me with his helmet.  Ah Dili. How do I love thee, let me count the ways.

I have been here for just over one month now. If the next eleven pass as quickly I am in real trouble. I can’t help but feel a sadness already about leaving though I am still eleven months out. I am taking that to be a good sign. Having said that I have had some rough days lately, heck I had a rough ten days a few weeks ago. They were sort of a meld of missing my partner, adjusting to things on my own, acclimatizing to the heat and a dense isolation that comes from living in a compound. Cutoff and quietly sheltered, my apartment has all the mod cons like air-conditioning and a bathtub. What it lacks is humanness. I found myself timing my own bedtime to that of the Nepalese family next door’s child so that I wouldn’t have to sleep in the silence. Realizing this lifestyle wasn’t for me I have found a place through a friend that is a lot more real. I move in nine days into the top floor of a Timorese family’s house and I can hardly wait. In a lane full of children, tamarind trees and avocado vines, pigs scrabbling around in the dust and dogs nipping at one another’s tails is where I will be. This is the way that I want to be here in Dili.

Timor has been elusive and inconsistent. Incredible highs and then torturous lows. Sometimes all in one day. You wake up never knowing what to expect and you get better at expecting not too much and going with the moment to moment flow. Something that’s given me some excellent moments has been riding my bicycle. It’s a cheap creaky import from Indonesia but oh how she rides like the wind. I’ve had a deep and abiding love for cycling since I was a kid and Dili provides all sorts of challenges and twists for a rider. It’s also the best way to catch a breeze and shake off a bad mood.

A highlight has been fulfilling one of my adult dreams-to join a choir. I popped into the Dili choir several weeks ago when I was feeling blue after my beloved bossman’s departure, and what singing collectively with a bunch of over 55’s Timorese and malae did for my heart and spirit is best described as expansive. I felt open and buoyant singing at the top of my confused alto/soprano-back-to-alto voice. Tomorrow is once again choir night and you can bet I’ll be doing my throat exercises before bed this evening.

There’s always so much going on in Dili and it is up to you how much or how little you want to be involved. I’ve also joined a hash group here that does runs and walks around different parts of town. Last week the hash route was through Becora up in the hills where much of the trouble in 2006 was concentrated. It’s a very poor area with a lot of vulnerable communities perched precariously on hills made entirely of dust. The kids around there have these amazing sinewy legs that propel them up and down the hillsides. It was so amusing for them to see these large, oafish malae teeter along the dusty ridges. One kid told me we were so slow he couldn’t believe it. I agreed with him.

Work has been an interesting insight into development practice with a local community based organization. Figuring out cultural semiotics and all the densely intricate networks and connections that come with a different workplace culture, gender roles and interactions, how all of these things interact with age and hierarchy has been amazing. Being here I feel as though all my senses are on fire, my ears especially. I can almost feel my ears twisting and yearning outwards trying to pick up conversation. My eyes feel wide and my pupils dilated taking everything in, reading and understanding, connecting and comparing. My brain is full of sparks.

I’ve got the privilege of working with a local host organization working on child and housing rights in Timor Leste. I’ve been engaging in a slow and beautiful process of forming relationships with all of my colleagues. Making clunky jokes with my Tetun, then laughing about my clunky Tetun together has been pretty good. But a recent trip to the district of Baucau was a turning point. Speaking, and listening only to Tetun for three days laid a good foundation in my brain and I found myself thinking about Tetun all the time especially before bed. Sitting with my dictionary figuring out different sentences before the power ran out. I have never before appreciated communication and all its attendant gifts before. Each sentence understood is a delicious reward. Another thin silver chord that seems to reach out tying you a little more to the person you are speaking with. I returned on a high from beautiful and cool Baucau. The temperature cooled my body and mind and the quiet of the district brought us all a little closer together. We shared fish on a stick and Portugese wine from a box and in amongst it all I felt something shift. I look forward to all the tiny shifts.

*A quick note before I sign off to say how sad it has been to watch the fires in Sydney from here. Springwood was my first home and I am thinking of all my friends and family who are in the mountains. All things crossed that it fizzles to whisper of smoke tomorrow.

Dili Dally

As I closed the door behind me this evening I glimpsed a boy shaking the tree across the road from my watering hole. I looked closely expecting a cock to fall from it, fresh and quivering for a fight. Instead, it was opaque leaves that fell light and dead around his head. Not happy with one shower, he shook it again laughing to some invisible friend. I think he did it just to seem em all fall. Another gleeful flash of beautiful Dili town.

I have been here three weeks now yesterday. Writing this I sit under the cool beams of a local hotel, taking equal advantage of their happy hour and wifi to wind down for the day. Walking up the stairs to the balcony you never know what combination of malae you are going to get and add yourself to. Today, it is a father and his two sons sharing a beer and talking through another day in Timor Leste. Less benignly, a group of cufflinks and ties sit and discuss cognac, lobster and champagne. Seriously. They did that.

I’m choosing a blog format to keep in touch with y’all, near and dear and to document a portion of the dialogue that bounces around my head about my experience and where I am. Some of it is useful, some of it is not. I like the idea of seeing change in the way I think or feel about things here.

So having said that, the last three weeks have felt like a marathon. I’ve had numerous mitochondriae flood my body and my digestive system has had it’s back against the wall. I have met a lot of people, malae and Timorese and had many conversations about Timor Leste’s past, present and future. Less so the latter because there seems to be a general unknown about this country’s future. I don’t know what my next year is going to hold but no one in Timor knows what the next year will hold. For a small country, it holds a lot of big records-not in all the right areas. It is over represented in road accidents, child malnutrition and sexual and gender based violence. But I learnt today that Timor Leste also has one of the highest levels of maritime biodiversity in the world.

Timor Leste has also been a lot of things I wasn’t expecting. Living in Dili is wonderful. It is a small city, flat and excellent for biking around because the traffic though plentiful moves at a snails pace. Unlike Sydney, I find that there is a bucket-load of tolerance and acceptance of cyclists. You’re just seen as another road user. No BMW’s edging you into the kerb or dickheads in utes yelling obscenities at you along Marrickville road. Best of all, for the first time I am the fastest person on the road. Faster than microlets, faster than government vehicles, faster than motorcyclists. It is also the best way to catch a breeze in a city that is unrelentingly hot and dry.

The hills look as dry as tinder and I have heard several people compare it to the Flinders Ranges. I haven’t been but the comparison to Australia is apt. When I first landed I wasn’t able to shake the overwhelming feeling that Dili was home. Since then I’ve figured that this has something to do with the light. It’s clear and thin and stupendously bright. I don’t love wearing sunglasses but they haven’t left my face since I’ve been here. I’m also dirty. All of the time. Caked in dust and today engine oil from who knows where. Each night before I go to bed the last thing I do is sit on the edge of the bathtub and scrub my feet, working a face towel over and around my heels especially which are now permanently black. I am the filthiest malae around and I know it.

Tetun is a fairly easy language in the sense that it doesn’t have the tenses that we have in English. It is straightforward, (infuriatingly so when it comes to numbers and counting) and like much in this resilient country, is morphing and coming up with something new every day. I’ve been doing Tetun classes at an institute here and I am at the stage where I can confidently converse with most Timorese about basic things. Many a cab driver has been on the receiving end of my earnest and flawed attempts at conversation. Today I managed to thank Mana who cleans my room for me when I am out for ironing and folding my underpants. Yesterday she placed all my bobbypins which were scattered all over the house in an ashtray in an attempt to housetrain me. She also went through my drawers and took out the clothes she thought looked best hanging, washing and ironing them. All in all she is amazing and I am both humiliated and grateful every time I come home because I can’t tell her yet how amazing she is and how right she is to put my bras in the right hand side drawer.

Safety is a big issue here. Or it is not, depending on who you speak to. My initial bravado has worn a little thin with a recent and uncharacteristic spate of stabbings around Dili. A powder keg situation of a high youth population coupled with massive rates of unemployment in said population equal trouble so the recent incidents are no wonder. Getting home at night can be a bit of an issue but having said that I have made a point to walk a lot around my neighborhood and am as familiar with people and their habits as they are mine. I figure the best investment in safety I can make is being a part of community.

I leave you all now with a Tetun version of ‘Sexual Healing’ ringing in my ears. Dili is home but home is also home. Ain’t that a wiggy conundrum.