Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Seeking Out Narrators

Puneet Goenka

Imagine a world in which everything that anyone outside the U.S. knew about the U.S. came from the news.  The country would struggle to garner respect and admiration for itself.  The only thing people would hear about is the string of senseless gun shootings, racial attacks, and Donald Trump’s media escapades around his presidential campaign – making it impossible for a non-U.S. resident to form a positive opinion about the country.

But thankfully, the U.S. is able to export so much more to the world than its domestic news.  It has a brigade of artists and musicians whose songs are played on radio stations around the world.  It has a bearded man to sell greasy chunks of fried chicken in red fast-food outlets.  It has citizens working in organizations such as Peace Corps and USAID to dispel myths and misconceptions about American life and culture.  It has the imagination and skill to recreate dinosaurs on the big-screen and enthrall audiences from Adelaide to Anaheim and beyond.  The U.S. (and several other countries) through its own efforts and that of others is able to spin multiple narratives about its country, culture, and its people.

Why then are several developing countries stuck with a single, often negative, narrative – that of being undeveloped and poor.  Either they really have a single narrative to offer the world, or there is a severe lack of narrators.  In my experience working in three countries over the summer, I have found the latter to be true.

On my last weekend in Uganda, I made a quick trip to Kigali, the capital city of Rwanda.  As an undergraduate student I raised funds for an organization that provided life-saving HIV drugs to Rwandan clinics without knowing anything else about the country.  The only thing I had known about Rwanda was that its population struggled with HIV/AIDS, and that they were largely poor.  That was the narrative that stayed with me all these years in the absence of any other news or information about Rwanda from personal discussions or from the consumption of traditional and social media.

Kigali has to be one of the cleanest, and most organized cities in the developing world.  I looked hard but wasn’t able to find much garbage on the streets or other public spaces, roads and related infrastructure were top-notch, and there was a general civic sense in following traffic rules and road signs.  How does Kigali achieve this?  Partly through a Government mandated community service program that requires all citizens to partake in community building activities once a month.  On probing further as to why this program came about I learnt that it was established as a peace building endeavor after the horrific 1994 genocide that killed millions of people from a particular ethnic group in Rwanda.

In his 2009 TED talk, Shashi Tharoor, former Indian Member of Parliament and senior UN official talked about the importance and impact of countries generating soft power, a way of attracting people to a country by its culture, political beliefs, and foreign policies.  He goes on to argue that McDonalds may have done more to improve U.S. soft power than any formal policy or activity.  In recent months, India’s Prime Minister has rolled out one campaign after the other.  ‘Make in India’ brands India as a manufacturing powerhouse, ‘Swacch Bharat’ (Clean India) aims at bringing basic cleanliness and hygiene to the forefront of Indian consciousness, while the more recent ‘World Yoga Day’ was an endorsement by the United Nations of the significance of Yoga and by extension, of India, the country of its origin. 

These campaigns can, and should, be viewed with caution.  Unless backed by the right guidelines and adequate resources, they could end up being PR campaigns that benefit the Prime Minister’s next election campaign more than it benefits the country.  However, I also realize the potential upside of this if things do move in the right direction – more so after my experiences this summer.  It gives India the opportunity to develop additional narratives for itself and its people, strengthening its soft power.

Having a dominant negative narrative define a country and its people is detrimental.  It warps public perceptions, impacts business and tourism, influences policy and Government more than it should, and leaves us all with somewhat silly and misguided biases.  Johannesburg’s single dominant narrative of being crime-ridden for example warped my own thoughts and actions a few months ago.

While driving to a performing arts show with a friend, she swerved the car to avoid hitting a man who was laying on the street.  He was delirious and was asking for help.  He could also have been drunk, or putting on a show to get people to step outside of the car while giving him easy access to their valuables, or maybe have an accomplice drive away with the car.  In that split second of decision making I was shamefully unsure of how to react – stop and help someone that may have been hurt or drive away.  All the stories of crime, mugging, and theft flooded my mind and drowned out my own personal values.  Thankfully my friend who was in the driver’s seat got to make the decision, and she made the right one of stopping to help.

Developing multiple narratives in my view is a democratic undertaking that needs equal participation by Government, business, and civil society.  Governments, businesses, and citizens are however likely to be constrained by the resources available within the country.  Access and penetration of the internet/cell phones, stable Governments that support the growth of homegrown multinational corporations, or the ability to connect globally in a universal language are all factors that could inhibit a resource poor country from exporting more than stories about its poverty and challenges to the world.  Rwandan artists for example may not be able to have the global appeal that American or British artists enjoy, their food may not transcend borders the way Italian cuisine has, and its private sector may need another decade or two to build global companies.  But, maybe the story of how a country comes together once a month to better their communities can prove to be an inspiring and workable model for other countries.  And maybe this Rwandan story is worth sharing with other young undergraduates who may still be fundraising for HIV clinics in Rwanda and developing a narrow and negative narrative about the country the same way I had several years ago.

Just as the news headlines do not come close to defining or capturing what it means to be American and living in America, the same logic should be extended when thinking about developing countries.  There are monumental challenges, and I am not suggesting we pretend they don’t exist.  The media, aid organizations, and Governments are already focusing on building those narratives but why don’t you and I focus on building more interesting, nuanced, and constructive narratives? 

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Could I Interest You in a Warm Cup of Ceylon Tea?

Michelle Gross
Sri Lanka really is a paradise island.  It is such a small country but is filled with so much biodiversity. 
Waterfall and cloud forest in high country, cooler climate
Some delicious tropical fruits, grown in the low country
I was saddened to hear about the social and environmental impact of the tea industry on Sri Lanka. Employees and managers of small and large tea corporations, government officials involved in commerce, hotel and guest-house owners, random taxi or tuktuk drivers, young professionals in the capital, Colombo, staff of Grace, the orphanage and elder care center where I was interning, and many other people I had the opportunity to speak to openly expressed their concern. It was at least somewhat of a relief to hear Sri Lankans of diverse backgrounds bring up this issue. 

Tea plantation, high country, in Nuwara Eliyah
Tuktuk to get to a tea plantation and visitors center

Meeting at Grace to discuss progress with tea companies

Some History: Social and Environmental Impact of the Ceylon Tea Industry
Sri Lanka was a major coffee producer until the late 1800s before the major outbreaks of a disease similar to coffee rust, a fungus that is a serious threat to coffee all over the world (and a topic of interest in my current research of specialty coffee in Costa Rica for my Masters project at the School of Natural Resources and Environment.)
Then, in the late 1800s, tea cultivation was introduced by the British. Sir Thomas Lipton and his business partners converted vast acres of land into tea plantations, and revolutionized the tea industry, selling individually sealed bags to lock in freshness. The new presentation and promotions of tea increased popularity of Ceylon tea, and the growing industry needed more workers. Tamils from India of the lowest caste were brought as migrant workers to work as tea pickers, given the most basic living conditions and hardly any wage. Increased deforestation of the jungle, and farming practices of monoculture, the use of non-native species of trees on the plantations, and other cookie-cutter approaches led to the current environmental state. Today there is heavy erosion all over the country, causing the rivers to literally turn brown due to the excess silt. I was amazed to see a country lush with endless bodies of water, and devastated to see many of them dark, thick brown in color, only to hear that this was not the case thirty or forty years ago. The social and environmental cost of the tea industry was incurred a long time ago, but the effects are being felt today.
"No Chemical Zone" : Some plantations are now enforcing restrictions on use of certain pesticides and fertilizer

Tea pickers carrying fresh tea sack to the factory to be weighed for their daily wage

Tea processing, near Kandy

Tea bagging facility, High-end pyramid tea bags

Mangroves near Colombo
The environmental department of the government has been looking for ways to mitigate the problem. One of the proposals is to remove the silt from the rivers and ‘refertilize’ the tea plantations; a move that would have a heavy economic cost, and only offer a short term solution, since the erosion would continue to be a reality and the silt would make its way back to the rivers once again. I hope that they find other ways to reverse some of the environmental damage.

River somewhere between Colombo and Trincomalee

Fun Ceylon Tea Facts and Other Observations 

Tea brand with buds used for Silver Tips
Tea leaves and buds
Tea buds used for Silver Tips

Sri Lanka has 6 or 7 tea regions. The exact number depends on whom you speak with. The regions vary in elevation, with 1,800m above sea level in Nuwara Eliyah, where arguably the best tea comes from. Blended tea is considered the best way to drink tea in Sri Lanka, as they say that mixing them together makes it possible to increase complexity of the flavors. Tea at high altitudes has a lighter flavor and redder color; tea produced at low altitudes has a stronger, more astringent flavor and darker color.
Teas of different grades from a single estate in Nuwara Eliyah
Different grades of processed teas
·    Tea is always picked by hand in Sri Lanka. This means that the estate can decide to only pick a few of the youngest leaves, enhancing the quality of the cup. The estates that I visited in Nuwara Eliyah and Kandy regions had some variation in number of leaves picked, but most common was two leaves and a bud. Tea in Sri Lanka is mainly processed by machinery, much of which is dated from the late 1800s or early 1900s. Hand picking and machine processing makes it possible to ‘standardize’ quality. Ceylon tea has a consistently high quality for the cup, but has low market price. Unlike in Japan, Taiwan or China, where hand picked and hand rolled teas are easier to find, and prices can be $100/kilo or more, Sri Lanka does not produce tea that is sold at these specialty prices.  However, there are only a few smaller estates in the country that hand process their teas.  Their output is very small (I.e. A couple dozen kilos per month of single estate, single origin tea).

Mural of a tea picker, Tea Museum, Kandy

Tea pickers

Having tea with owners of a tea house in Japan after the Tea Museum tour, Kandy
     Tea is not seasonal in Sri Lanka, but rather grows and is harvested constantly. There is constant rain and constant sun, so tea can be grown and harvested year-round and generally has a consistent flavor. This could be a benefit, as it only takes about ten days for a plant to produce a bud ready for harvest. However,  this can also make it [nearly] impossible to produce very unique and flavorful teas. Some say that Ceylon tea does not have a flavor that really stands out, or is not complex. In order for those rich flavors to develop, the plant needs to be under stress. In other words, lack of rain, lack of sun, prolonged dryness or drought can make the tea plant go through a process that affects its flavor… (Now, it’s up to the consumer to debate whether this causes a better or worse flavor balance.)

Cloud forest and tea plantation in the highlands

     Tea tasters use all four senses to get a sense of and fully taste tea: first they look at the tea leaves and its intricate shapes, observing from up close and arms length.  Dry, spread on a white cardboard paper, and wet, in a white tea cup (or holder). Then, they touch the tea with their fingers (usually dry) . they smell both dry and wet and finally taste the tea, slurping it in, making a huge sound, the kind that your mother tells you not to make when drinking hot soup. And then again, and again, going down the line of tea to try each sample.

Tea Tasting workshop at De Mel's Tea Academy

·     There is a lot of misinformation.  For example, I was told several times by different individuals that legally estates must sell 80% their processed tea through the Tea Auction, which happens several times a week. The Ceylon Tea Auction is the single largest tea auction in the world where about 6.5 million kilograms are sold weekly.  Tea agents and sellers who attend  the auction must be extremely prepared. They try tea samples each week before attending, and prepare their valuation of each tea they are interested in buying that week. They must be very experienced to be able to taste the intricacies of each sample, and to be able to follow the fast pace of the sellers at the auction. I was told by government officials at the Chamber of Commerce that even they do not understand what goes on; the sellers speak so fast that it all sounds like gibberish. 

      Actually, the different ratios that I was told of 70, 76, 80% of tea having to be sold at the Auction is completely false. Tea estates can sell their product to the buyer of their choice. Most choose to sell through the auction since it is an easy, standardized procedure they are comfortable with, and the payback period is just under a week.

·      Gender Divide Besides tea pickers, it seems women are absent from this industry in Sri Lanka. This is a good conversation starter, so we can talk about this more next time we meet.

Tea pickers busy at the plantation

Tea picker and Manager


Saturday, September 12, 2015

The Pearl

Puneet Goenka
(This post was written during my last week in Uganda)

As part of my English literature class in middle school, we were assigned a short novel written by American author John Steinbeck called ‘The Pearl’.  It is the story of a pearl diver who chances upon an unusually large pearl – and in an attempt to change his family fortunes he sets out to sell his new possession.  The pearl however brings with it death, misery, and misfortune.  This forces the protagonist to get rid of the pearl by throwing it back into the sea – perhaps realizing that it may be best for no one person to stake their greed and claim something so unique, so beautiful, and so valuable.

While I had done some research and Google Image searches of Johannesburg and Accra when I was in Ann Arbor, somehow I never got to researching anything about Uganda – and so my mind was blank – I had no expectations, good or bad.

Kampala is one of the greenest cities I have visited, and Uganda one of the lushest countries.  My walk to work each morning was alongside the long and windy Kampala Golf Course, and when the smell of grass and trees overpower the black smoke that is emitted from some of the matatu’s (shared vans), you can be assured that the city has something working in its favor (even if the pollution control board has much to be desired in terms or regulating emissions).

Baha'i temple complex in Kampala

Walk to work along the golf course in Kololo, Kampala
And even though Kampala is a beautiful and entertaining city in itself (tons of cafes, restaurants, and bars, beautiful sites such as the Gaddafi mosque and Baha'i temple, and the best avocados and pineapples in the world) the time I spent outside the city has been most exciting.  River rafting at Jinja - the source of the river Nile, game drives through the never ending grasslands and plains of Murchison Falls National Park, and canoeing and lazing around at Lake Bunyonyi in the South West corner of the country.  If I haven’t been explicit enough, I’ll be even clearer – plan your next vacation to Uganda!

Game drive at Murchison Falls National Park
It is now obvious to me why Uganda is known as the Pearl of Africa.  I just hope that unlike John Steinbeck’s pearl, this one isn’t exploited for personal gain but instead is respected, awed at, and enjoyed in equal measure by everyone. 

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Finishing Reflections

Carlos Robles

My last entry will be a reflection of the progression of the project in the two countries I worked in over the last three months.

I started by working two weeks in Mexico City. These first two weeks were a bit of a slow start since I was getting used to the city and trying to find a place to work, as well as develop a work plan that would allow me to complete the research objective.  I could not find any contacts to interview during this time in Mexico City, but I was able to find some valuable information regarding the changes in the Mexican bankruptcy law after 2000 as well as a lot of background information on bankruptcy practices.  After the first two weeks flew by, I headed to Argentina for nine weeks hoping to be able to interview local experts about these processes.

I had never been to Buenos Aires before, so I was really looking forward for the opportunity to get to know the city and learn as much as possible about its history, as well as the research objective. My favorite part of the project was the high level of independence I had, because it allowed me to work from different coffee shops around the city and get to see and experience the many things that this beautiful place had to offer while working toward the project.

My host was the Universidad Astral IAE Business School in the outskirts of the Buenos Aires. Similar to my time in Mexico City, my first week and a half in Buenos Aires included learning a lot about how to get around and where to go to get some work done.  Once I was able to get in touch with the people at IAE, I was able to set up a schedule that allowed me to work more diligently on the project. They gave me my own work space in the area where the PhD students worked, and I was able to meet some people that way, as well as ask for their insights on any questions I had.  Everyone was extremely welcoming and accommodating, and I felt really comfortable there. 

Universidad Astral IAE Business School Campus in Buenos Aires
Another view of the IAE Campus
Once I was more acclimated to the city and my schedule, I was able to enjoy weekends to do various cultural activities, such as museum visits, explore local restaurants, go to concerts, and (my favorite) weekly Tango lessons at a local coffee shop. 
To say I enjoyed my time in Buenos Aires would be a huge understatement. I think being by myself in such a beautiful, yet calm city, coupled with all I learned along in the project really helped me feel like I grew a lot both professionally and personally. 

Around my fourth week in town, I made a really valuable connection with a prominent law firm in the city. My interactions with two of the lawyers from this firm created a lot of opportunities to meet important contacts that provided incredibly useful information about the restructuring practices of the companies we were interested in.  Through that connection, I was able to interview the former CEO of Fargo, which is one of Argentina’s most important food companies, but was eventually bought out by Mexico’s Bimbo.  Also through that connection, I was able to attend a Boca Juniors game. This was especially great because those games are actually closed off to members only, and tourists often have to pay 150 USD and up for a “tour” and game package, and I didn’t want to do that.  But, since I developed a good relationship with the lawyers at the firm, they let me borrow their box seats for one of the games!

Watching the Boca Juniors games in Buenos Aires
On top of the interactions with people, the process of getting information about the project from different contacts was thrilling; I had very few connections, so every time I talked to someone I was eager to ask them to further introduce me to people knowledgeable on the topic.  Thanks to that, I was able to set up interviews with former CEO’s, Professors, and lawyers who were directly involved in these processes, and who worked with the companies we were interested in learning about.
Back in Mexico
After being in Argentina for nine weeks, I had a week left to work in Mexico City, and luckily I was able to make a connection with a professor in Buenos Aires my last week there who put me in touch with two of Mexico’s most knowledgeable lawyers and professors in the topic of Mexican bankruptcy and debt restructuring practices.  With a lot more knowledge about bankruptcy proceedings and a better understanding of the history of the impact of economic crises in Latin America, my conversations with these two gentlemen really left me wishing I could have spent more time researching bankruptcy practices in Mexico. I say that because, on paper, Mexico has a very good bankruptcy law, but on practice, it falls short of being effective due to the high levels of corruption and ignorance of the proceedings in court.

Reflecting back on my experiences, I am really thankful for the way both countries welcomed me. I already miss the amazing steaks and wine I had in Argentina and also going to Tango classes on Sunday evenings.  Mexico also left me with a great sense of nostalgia, especially after being away for so long.

My experiences in both countries helped me realize I want to pursue a career that allows me to travel and work on projects in Latin America, and they also allowed me to realize how adaptable I can be and that I can thrive in very different environments.  Because of that, I am extremely happy I was able to be a WDI Fellow this summer and I look forward to this upcoming year and to what will come after graduation.


Sunday, September 6, 2015

Thank You Africare!

By Samantha Madden

Post was completed the last week in Zambia (August).

It’s hard to believe my time in Zambia and with Africare is coming to a close! The second half of the summer really began to pick up speed as the management team in Lusaka completed the final hiring process for those individuals that will be working out at the two sites of the project; Lundazi and Mansa. The M&E officer, project director, and officer in charge extended contracts for the following positions: M&E assistants (2 per site) and site contractor/building specialist.
In July we all came together in Lusaka to collaborate as a team and solidify the objectives and deliverables associated with the next 18 months of the project. It was a unique experience as Africare HQ individuals were present, along with every other member involved in various aspects of the ZaMs project. We discussed gaps in the project, constraints, budget adjustments, community sensitization efforts, and the production of required quarterly reports for the donors involved.  Additionally, we assigned roles to the incoming Boston University interns that are scheduled to arrive in Zambia at the end of August. Various presenters, including myself, exposed site staff to the proposed business plan, IGAs per site, and ongoing operational and financial logistics. Overall, it was a highly effective conference. It was great to see such collaboration amongst team members, all with varying roles and responsibilities speak to their ideas or concerns in moving forward. I was quite impressed with the openness and professionalism of the Africare HQ staff from Washington; though they oversee the project from a distance, it was important that they were brought up to speed with on the ground efforts here in Zambia. In our talks, of course, were the ongoing concerns with the energy crisis and lack of water supply in Lusaka and beyond.

Outside work, I made a final in-country weekend trip to Lake Kariba and the town of Saivonga. It is the largest manmade lake and reservoir in the world and splits the border between Zimbabwe and Zambia.  It was an experience to say the least; much like my other personal travels in country!  I woke up early and walked for nearly an hour and a half just to locate the correct mini bus area where buses were headed to the area I wanted to go. (“Down this street, on your left”, “No, not here. Back that way a few blocks”, “No, not here. Over that direction”)  Yikes! I finally boarded the mini-bus around 830 on what was supposed to be a 3 hour ride south to the lake.  After a flat tire, a broken wheel rod on the trailer, a 2 hour stop in the village (because the bus wasn’t in fact going to Siavonga, but across the border post to Zimbabwe) I finally caught a bus to the village of Siavonga.  I arrived early enough (4pm!) to head down to the lake and catch the sunset and I must admit, my time spent there was some of the most relaxing and tranquil days I’ve found during my entire visit to Zambia J It was lovely! (See attached pictures!) The ride back was great- I hitched from Siavonga to the turn off to the border post without any issues and then managed to hitch a lovely ride from there all the way to Lusaka from a South African couple also visiting the lake for the weekend. I even met up with them later in the week for dinner!

Moving forward I am hopeful that I will be back to see through some other parts of this project!  In speaking with individuals from Africare HQ, that I have been in contact with throughout the summer via e-mail, and then at the conference, they were persistent on me coming back to Zambia post-graduation in December. This project won’t conclude until May-June 2018 so the opportunity still exists to come back and be a continued part of this implementation project (Yay!)  It is a bittersweet feeling to be leaving- though I’m excited for certain aspects of the States again, I will miss the simplicity (or lack thereof!) of this country.  It has been a humbling experience to come work for such an impressive organization.  I can say that I truly admire the work they set out to do and the projects for which they’ve completed.  They really stand for many of the things I value in an NGO and it was an honor to work alongside them! Thanks Africare, I will miss you all!  : )