Yikes, it’s Sykes & Picot

After seeing the first part of Al Jazeera’s interview with Noam Chomsky, I was left with a slightly frustrated feeling. On the one side because of Mehdi Hasan’s overly fanatic and slightly dominant approach and on the other side because the situation is once again demonstrated as being highly complicated and very unlikely of being solved any time soon.

Among other things, the interview brought to my attention that today has the dubious honor of marking the fifth anniversary of the Egyptian uprising that eventually led to the overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak.

It’s pretty evident that the Arab Spring did not lead to the prosperous summer we had hoped for and that Egypt has hardly moved forward at all since the removal Mubarak and the people’s strong cry for change.  It may even be worse off at this point than it was five years ago.

This reminds me of an article I read a couple of months ago and already referred to in a previous blog as well, written by Robert Fisk. In this article he stated that we have misunderstood the Arab spring from the start. We were not mistaken when we identified that the Arab world was rejecting the oppressive ways of their authoritarian regimes. For some reason though, we assumed this also meant they were taking a collective step forward towards democracy. What they were asking for was not democracy according to Fisk, but a call for “dignity and justice, two commodities that we had definitely not sought for the Arabs.”

Fisk goes back to the 19th century to justify this allegation, referring to the British invasion of Libya, Syria, Iraq and Egypt and reminds us that all the cruel dictators that followed were sponsored and supported by the West. Fisk explains as follows:

What really manifested itself that year, I now believe, was a much more deeply held Arab conviction; that the very institutions that we in the West had built for these people 100 years ago were worthless, that the statehood which we had later awarded to artificial nations within equally artificial borders was meaningless. They were rejecting the whole construct that we had foisted upon them.

The Arab world was already fed up with the borders “we” had placed upon them a century ago, making it very easy for Daesh to come in and spit on those same borders. It was a commonplace feeling among Arabs anyhow so when the Daesh drew in their own lines, based upon ancient pre-colonial standards, most agreed it was long due.

Another notion that really struck a chord with me was Fisk’s philosophy about what is now driving the enormous stream of refugees. He explains this by referring to the Sykes-Picot treaty, an agreement that I must admit rang no bells in my mind whatsoever. What this treaty was, plain and simple, was a dividing up of the spoils after World War I. These spoils just happened to be vasts amounts of land containing millions of people. People that once belonged to one family, tribe or clan were suddenly divided up by straight and invisible lines in the sand, changing their lives and history for ever.


This ruthless cartography project instilled a feeling of disdain and rebellion in the people of these countries that took nearly a century to ripen and erupted into what we now refer to as the Arab Spring. So, as none of these people ever really felt a connection to the country they were living in, nor did the borders of their country ever really mean anything to them, packing their things and moving across these borders was not very difficult at all.

As Fisk puts it:

Most of the millions of Syrian and Afghan refugees who have flooded into Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan and then north into Europe do not intend to return – ever – to states that have failed them as surely as they no longer – in the minds of the refugees – exist. These are not “failed states” so much as imaginary nations that no longer have any purpose.

If it weren’t all so deeply tragic it would almost be funny, wouldn’t it? The irony of it all is just precious… When the people came to the bottom of it and concluded that their borders really meant nothing to them, not only was stepping over them surprisingly easy, so was stepping over ours.

And all of this has got us so very confused! When the Arab Spring erupted we applauded the call for change and encouraged opposition groups to form and organize themselves. But when their wishes turned out to be contrary to ours, our hands started to itch again and we are now quivering with eagerness to meddle with their business again to coax them back to a system more convenient for us. Because:

It is we Europeans who decide where civilisations begin and end. […] It is we Westerners who have the moral probity to decide whether national sovereignty in the Middle East should be obeyed or abused.

So what about these new borders Daesh intends to emplace? There does seem to be some justification for them, doesn’t there? If they weren’t so adamant about being so brutally cruel and so outspoken and proactive in the hatred for the West, we might even be inclined to consider this Caliphate as an acceptable option. Of course, the fact that they aspire to spread so far into what we consider to be our territory is a serious deal breaker.

Daesh Caliphate aspirations.png

As Mr Chomsky says in the interview above though, unlikable as they are, it is crucial we do try to understand the Daesh movement and why so many Western born muslims are joining them.

There have been extensive studies as to what it appeal is and it turns out it is disaffected young people living in conditions of humiliation and degradation with nothing in their lives and most of them don’t have much of a background in Islam. Some of them are in fact recent converts […] and this is offering them some dignity and hope for their lives.

The most frustrating part of the whole Middle Eastern situation is the immensely complicated game of allegiances. It’s just ridiculous! You should really draw it all out to understand its complexity; who’s shooting who, who’s making the shooting possible and which parties are (not) on speaking terms. It would probably look something like this:

Anti-isis coalition

In a similar but simpeler fight you would say “where two dogs fight over a bone the third one runs away with it”, only in this case there are over a dozen dogs and in the chaos some are even biting their own legs. It also kind of reminds me of the crazy everyone-is-fighting-everyone-on-a-runaway-watermill scene in Pirates of the Caribbean.

In the meantime Daesh has found fertile ground in Egypt as well. The euphoria that the people of Egypt felt after Mubarak stepped down has made place for disappointment and despair, which happens to be what Daesh feeds on.

Seeing these news clips I can’t help but notice the absence of women in all of this. Maybe it’s time to let them give it a go…?

Posted in Africa, Middle East, news, World | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Girl Power – 2015 edition

Goal 3: Promote Gender Equality and Empower Women

The Girl Effect Movement, recently published a list of eight “developments that show girls are getting the attention they deserve”, bringing some welcome optimism into the discussion. They have said it far better than I could, so I’m just going to hand them the mic and copy their text right here:


What started two years ago as the Girl Declaration ended with girls’ needs being put on the global development agenda for the first time ever. The Sustainable Development Goals summit made history by ensuring that girls and women not only got their own dedicated goal, but by also prominently featuring Malala at the opening session they put a teenage girl on equal footing with world leaders. The SDGs will run for 15 years and influence how trillions of dollars of aid money will be spent. It’s a victory for girls and the beginning of a long journey.


The refugee crisis proved impossible to ignore any longer this year, with global headlines showing families fleeing conflict and violence. It shone a light on how refugee girls feel the impact harder than others. Their education gets disrupted, they’re more likely to be forced into early marriage, and there’s an increased risk of trafficking and abuse. The hardship, though, has provided an opportunity for leadership. Step up, Muzoon. She’s the 16-year-old living in a refugee camp in Jordan. When she noticed that girls her age stopped going to school because they were getting married, she set about advocating for refugee girls’ education. The world and Malala took notice and helped fund a girls’ school in Muzoon’s camp. Yep. Girls make great leaders.


When an 18-year-old girl opens a session at the United Nations and takes centre stage at the Global Citizen Festival in New York City’s Central Park a day later, you know girls have got the world’s attention

The benefits of educating girls are indisputable, and now that it’s in the spotlight we expect big things.

While Malala has tirelessly campaigned for girls’ education, this year saw other big names picking up the mantle. The United States launched a global girls’ education initiative, Let Girls Learn, with Michelle Obama leading the charge. The UN’s refugee agency dedicated an award to Aqeela Asifi, who made it her mission to convince a community to send their girls to school. And around the world, girls claimed their right to education in their communities. The benefits of educating girls are indisputable, and now that it’s in the spotlight we expect big things. 


Every minute, 28 girls get married. But efforts to end child marriage have gained momentum. The African Union held its first Girls’ Summit to End Child Marriage, and world leaders committed to stamping out this harmful practice at the SDGs summit. Girls proved, though, that they are best placed to speak out about child marriage, from the Afghan rapper Sonita to Dieynaba, the graffiti artist in Senegal. If this keeps up, the rate of child marriage will fall, especially if we keep the pressure on heads of state to live up to their promises.


In 2015, periods stopped being a dirty word. We saw the rise on social media of Menstrual Hygiene Day which was marked around the world. In India, girls demanded freedom from the taboos surrounding their bodies byprotesting on the streets andonline. The Indian media followed suit, representing girls and women in ways that were never seen before in advertising and film. Meanwhile, young women designers came up with an innovative solution that answered girls’ needs for sanitary products in the developing world. And a British woman, Amy Peake, made it her mission  to ensure that girls and women in refugee camps get the sanitary pads they need to maintain their dignity. The natural function of girls’ bodies doesn’t have to be shameful any longer.


This year saw a record number of people using the #EndFGM hashtag, less than a year after it was first coined. Egypt saw its first conviction and jailing of a doctor over the FGM-related death of a 13-year-old girl. Nigeria and The Gambia banned the practice, and many more countries have developed action plans to tackle FGM or to ensure robust data is collected on the practice. Girls haven’t kept silent themselves. More and more they are demanding a life free from this traditional act of violence. Girls like Naserian, who took part in an alternative rite of passage rather than undergo the cut. And women likeJaha Dukureh, who survived FGM and took her awareness-raising campaigns to a national level. Let’s make sure heads of state don’t forget the pledges they made to enforce bans on FGM.


With the SDGs in place, the next step is to ensure that the right kind of data gets collected. This year, the Clinton Foundation launched the No Ceilings report. This ground-breaking piece of research presents hard evidence of how girls and women are still being held back. Another promising development was the launch of the Data2X, a global partnership to make sure girls and women get counted. The next step in the data revolution will be when the UN decides in March how it will measure its progress against the SDGs. We’ll be watching, and so should you.


The fact that there are more mobile phones than toilets is well known. But, despite the widespread use of mobile technology to do everything from socialising to banking to actually speaking on the phone, there’s shockingly little known about how girls and women use it. When it comes to connectivity, women in developing world cities are 50 per cent less likely to access the internet than men. Education and income are determining factors. This doesn’t look good for girls, who are held back on both counts. Some positive steps have been taken, such as the launch of Facebook’s internet.org, of whichGirl Effect is a partner. And we’re seeing more apps targeting issues such as gender-based violence including ones inCambodia and Turkey. With the push for girls’ education firmly on the global agenda, we expect to see more girls becoming connected, learning to code and filling the gender gap in the tech industry. Once this happens, girls can code for girls. We can’t wait.


And neither can I!

Posted in news, under exposed, World | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

More literacy, less indoctrination please

Goal 2: Achieve Universal Primary Education

No modern day blog about global education rights is complete without at least mentioning its greatest ambassador and icon: Malala Yousafzai. I recently saw the documentary about her life and was once again won over by her. Not only did I learn about her life and the house where she was born. I saw the  immensely strong bond she has with her father and laughed at the endearing teasing of her brothers. I was also reminded of several  very relevant things.


First of all: knowledge is power. And not only that; depriving someone the access to knowledge is an act of terror and suppression.

Malala’s love for her family is evident and pure but her relationship with her mother is inevitably different. Her mother, Tor Pekai, despite being married to an open minded and respectful Pakistani man, never learned to read and write (all though she is learning now!) Being illiterate made her more fearful of the world and more compliant, as her truth was based on the conservative words of local clergymen and radio broadcasters.

My second realization was that education and indoctrination lie dangerously close to one another. I see how literacy brings a sense of freedom with it and opens a great range of possibilities to a person that were previously impossible to achieve. I also see that being able to access information through newspapers, blogs and subtitled TV can change one’s world.

Education however does not only consist of learning to read and write. It consists of geography and history as well and it is nearly impossible to teach these subjects objectively. In many cases learning about religion and culture is also part of the curriculum. I remember loving social studies but I also see now how much I was taught to see the world from a Western point of view; privileged and slightly euro-centric.

History especially is extremely subjective, and at this very moment I feel ambivalent about the necessity to teach a child what has already happened. We always say you must know your past to know where you’re heading and I have always been convinced it is the only way to avoid making the same mistakes in the future that we did in the past.

Bomb science.jpgIt doesn’t seem to be working though, which makes me think perhaps it would be better to have no knowledge of the past at all, to eliminate all feelings of revenge and retaliation. No more history classes, no more social studies and no more religious education. Just start with a clean slate and let a child’s uninfluenced conscience decide what’s right and wrong. Controversial? Revolutionary? Unrealistic? Never gonna happen? Probably yes to all of those, but luckily I am free to dream…

butterflies freed.jpg…which reminds me of the most inspiring quotes I ever heard and came from the mouth of Ziauddin Yousasfzai during a TED talk in 2014. When Malala’s father was asked what he had done to make his daughter so strong and brave, he answered:

Don’t ask me what I did. Ask me what I did not do. I did not clip her wings, and that’s all.

Posted in news, under exposed, World | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Global partnership

Goal 8: Develop a Global Partnership for Development

The eighth goal formulated by the United Nations in 2000 as part of the Millennium Development Goals revolves around “global partnership”, which in the light of recent events and the current state of the world is vital but admittedly more out of reach than ever.

A word that has filled the airwaves in every possible language in recent times, but that has always been popular in the world of development aid is:
Cool Text Solidarity 151360594883277.pngIt is a word that fills the rhetoric of every local community leader you will ever meet as it stands for unity and a willingness to help. In the case of the MDG’s we did not only require solidarity within communities but more even between countries, cultures and economies.

According to the United Nation’s reports on this specific development goal bilateral aid to the least developed countries fell 16 per cent in 2014 and 79 per cent of imports from developing countries enter developed countries duty-free”. Some solidarity, ey?

A word that often accompanies solidarity in the same local community leaders’ speeches is:Sovereignty green.pngI believe a balance between these two terms is crucial and I also believe, now more then ever, that this balance is often completely off.

If the emergence of Daesh has shown me anything, it is that imposing your idea of progress on a nation that a) has not requested it and b) is not ready for it will bite you in the ass sooner or later. Our conviction that every nation needs to be measured by our scale of development is an insult that we have been blind for for far too long.

Jason Hickel, an anthropologist, journalist and writer has challenged the concept of developed vs underdeveloped countries in an article he wrote some months ago about the MDG’s. He challenges the approach we have adopted in our fight against poverty, which is economic growth. The so-called trickle down effect would then, as by magic, lift the people at the bottom of the food chain out of their misery.

harvest time free market.gifIt’s quite evident that this model is defective, and holding onto the idea leans on the criminal. All the statistics show that the global economy has grown, yet so has the number of people living in poverty. Hickel explains:

Orthodox economists insist that all we need is yet more growth. More progressive types tell us that we need to shift some of the yields of growth from the richer segments of the population to the poorer ones, evening things out a bit. Neither approach is adequate. Why? Because even at current levels of average global consumption, we’re overshooting our planet’s bio-capacity by more than 50% each year.

In other words, growth isn’t an option any more – we’ve already grown too much. Scientists are now telling us that we’re blowing past planetary boundaries at breakneck speed. And the hard truth is that this global crisis is due almost entirely to overconsumption in rich countries.

inequality.jpgDoesn’t that make you want to vomit? How dare we call our standard of living developed? Hickel proposes to actually refer to countries we have considered to be underdeveloped as “appropriately developed” and should subsequently urge rich countries to justify their excesses and perhaps start a de-development program for them.

Colonial countries have used development aid as a ruse, cloaking their guilty conscience and white privilege in morality and good intent. As Hicks puts it in a more recent article:

Meanwhile, Europeans increased their share of global GDP from 20% to 60% during the colonial period. Europe didn’t develop the colonies. The colonies developed Europe.


It is tempting to see [Europe’s colonial past] as just a list of crimes, but it is much more than that. These snippets hint at the contours of a world economic system that was designed over hundreds of years to enrich a small portion of humanity at the expense of the vast majority.

This history makes the narrative of international development seem a bit absurd, and even outright false. Frankie Boyle got it right: “Even our charity is essentially patronising. Give a man a fish and he can eat for a day. Give him a fishing rod and he can feed himself. Alternatively, don’t poison the fishing waters, abduct his great-grandparents into slavery, then turn up 400 years later on your gap year talking a lot of shite about fish.”

The truth is that you can not evaluate MDG #8 without mentioning the world’s biggest threat since the emergence of the Nazis a century ago: the Daesh. It is an evil we can no longer deny or ignore as it is all around us. Moreover, it has put our own morality under the microscope and is now forcing to look ourselves in the mirror and confess to our sins.

The ease with which the extremist cutthroats have been able to redraw the map and lure western born muslims to fight for their cause puts the spotlight on our failures more than it does on their persuasive propaganda machine. As Robert Fisk explained to me some days ago in his article for The Independent, the Arab world was already fed up with the borders we had placed upon them in colonial times. So, when the Daesh drew their own lines in the sand, based upon ancient pre-colonial standards most agreed it was long overdue.

yin-yang white-blackEvaluating this goal and pretending that at some point we really made an effort to create a global partnership on equal terms, with solidarity and sovereignty in place is really a joke. But it’s the kind of joke you want to cry about, not laugh.

At the same time, it may be the most relevant goal of all, if we want to avoid self-destructing any further.

Posted in news, World | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Tipping the scales

MDG 1: Eradicate Extreme Hunger and Poverty

I remember seeing poverty as a child. I remember being astonished by the annoyance of people with fancy clothes and cars when being approached by a beggar. I remember asking my mother if we could give the poor lady we passed by every day some money or perhaps something to eat. I remember the shock when that lady in rags, pulled me close to her chest and gave me a hug and a kiss, when I gave her some coins.

poverty cartoon 2

The agony of poverty is something you can become numb for, but any child witnessing it for the first time will be startled and confused by it and tell you it is not fair. Why do we loose this feeling overtime? Is it because after a while it just starts to feel, -as we say it in Dutch- like mopping with the tap open? Like whatever we do won’t make a difference and remaining sensitive to it is just an extra worry in a life full of stresses of its own? And as the voice poking at your conscience becomes an inconvenience, it’s easiest to just look away and push all thoughts about this to the back of your mind.

There may even be times when you say that money doesn’t solve anything and having it can actually be stressful too. Sometimes you may even long for a life without possessions. It sounds appealing; simple and free. Low expectations, low stress and loads of time to savor the little things in life.

poverty cartoon 3

Living the simple life by choice is obviously in no way the same thing as living the poor life because you were born on the wrong side of town, with the wrong skin color, going to the wrong school (if any at all). It’s this enormous inequality that is most painful to witness. So, in my opinion we should not be talking about fighting extreme poverty but about fighting inequality. Luckily, the International Monetary Fund is getting on board as well because, as IMF’s Managing Director told BBC earlier this year, inequality in the world is actually on the rise!

People living in extreme poverty will have no problem confirming it’s not a desirable way to live and I’m sure they would agree that it best be ended asap, just as the Development Goals aimed to do. However, I’m afraid convincing those living in extreme wealth that their lifestyle is a problem, will be less easy. Billionaires will say they earned to be where they are and earn what they earn, because they worked hard for it. Oh sure, they’ll donate to charity, but never in such a way that it would threaten their lifestyle or change the world’s wealth distribution in any significant way.

Even more so, they will speculate on global markets in a way that prices on basic foods become painfully expensive for those at the bottom of the food chain, as the short video below demonstrates. The snarky old chap with his expensive suit and charming bow tie explains: 

I was a student and had a summer job on wall street and fell in love with investing. I thought this was wonderful! Because all I cared about was the world and what was happening in the world and what would be happening in the future. So I decided to become an “evil speculator”.


Politicians love to say it’s evil speculators, but the reality is; we’re running out of food. The inventories of food worldwide are among the lowest in recorded history. If we have a couple of bad crops like we did in 2008; if the weather goes bad; that’s why prices go higher. Of course investors see an opportunity and they go in and buy…


This sort of thing has happened throughout history. We’ve had periods when some people do well and other people do badly. I don’t know if it’s good or bad. It’s the way the world has always worked.

In an opinion piece in the Guardian earlier this week, Zoe Williams writes about how it’s time to point some fingers and stop acting as if poverty is just a part of the world’s fabric and that nobody is to blame. To be precises, she writes:

Poverty is not a naturally occurring germ or virus; it is anthropogenically created though wealth extraction. Any goal that fails to recognise this is not only unlikely to succeed, but can only be understood as a deliberate act of diversion, drawing attention away from what might work; in its place, the anodyne, fairytale language of hope, in a post-ideological world where all politicians just want what’s best and a billionaire is just a benefactor you haven’t met yet.

Williams sees the same hardening and indifference towards poverty I spoke about at the start of this blog and poses some interesting questions of her own:

One is constantly told, on the progressive side, that social democracy has had its day because people generally have become meaner; attitudes to poverty have hardened, and generosity has withered, the man on the street is actually very judgmental about people who can’t support themselves or their families. But how would attitudes look if we had spent the past 30 years asking questions about the rich: their characters, their honesty, their industriousness, their contribution to society? If the problem facing the British economy had been identified as the destabilising effects of extreme wealth, how long would it have been before the wealthy themselves came to be scrutinised?

poverty cartoonShe emphasizes that looking at the extremely wealthy and pinpointing things that may be hurting society are not to be pushed away as bitter remarks from envious people. It’s time to pull on those heartstrings and feel again what we all felt when we were children: it’s wrong and unjust and must be addressed, if we are to take these SDG’s seriously!

Posted in news | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A call to action

Earlier this year I published a blog in response to a debate regarding the Millennium development goals, that will come to an end this year. I promised myself I would dedicate a blog to every one of these goals.

Months have passed and I haven’t written a word here (all though I’ve been pretty busy on my other blog). It’s been on my mind though. I think part of the delay was caused by my own doubts about how to go about this.

On the one side I felt I should just analyse every goal and how much progress has been measured according to different reports. The downside of this approach is that the results would be quite dry and heavy with numbers. Not exactly an easy read. Also, it would take me tons of time to look into all these statistics and time seems to be something I keep running short on.

Another possibility would be to find one interesting case for every goal and describe how the UN development goals (and the accompanying money) gave them the boost they needed. Failure could be a possible outcome too.

To be honest I’m still not completely sure which mold would fit best and maybe I don’t even need to choose. Often just starting to write is the best solution, so that’s what I decided on doing today. I opened a draft for every MDG and hope to be able to show some results pretty soon.

Anyhow, a couple of weeks ago I stumbled upon another blog, calling me to action, which is what got me back on track..

If even J-lo thinks I should get my act together, then by golly let’s get to it.

But let’s give the last word to Kid president for a final dose of inspirational encouragement…

Let’s get to work, let’s make it happen!

Posted in news | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Fifteen years of MDG’s

cynical person

Note: This post was first posted in May 2015 on my other blog, but it just doesn’t seem to fit there very well, so I decided to move it over here, where I think it will feel more at home.

Yesterday [which was in May 2015, when the blog was initially written] I went to an event, organized by a Dutch organization called Young & Fair where people came together in a cafe in Utrecht to talk about the Millennium Development Goals (MDG’s), past, present and future. I used to attend debates like these quite regularly and even organized a couple myself, back in the days when the millennium goals were fresh and cool, hot and happening. Or could it have been me that was still fresh, young and, – as we call it in Dutch,- “green behind the ears”?

You see, I had a bit of a hard time at this debate and I’m so glad I went because it made me realize I am might be heading down cynic-avenue and I think I might be just in time to turn this vehicle around.

But let’s stay on topic; the millennium goals, what were they, how did they fare and what will happen now that their expiration date is upon us?

How it started
In 2000 a bunch of men (and maybe a lady or two) in suits got together and called their get together the MDG summit. You can imagine how these things go; they discussed a bit, ate a bit, shook hands and at the end of the event we were presented the results: a list of  important matters that should be addressed in the years to come. Money was made available, governments agreed to cooperate on these topics and everybody vowed to get it all done before 2015.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

We all knew the plans were ambitious and I don’t think anyone really believed we would really check all the boxes by 2015, but this wave of optimism was definitely a good start.

It must have been some task, back in 2000, getting all the members to agree on these goals. So what did they get right?

  • The MDGs were limited in number and therefore clear and easy to oversee and categorize
  • They were successful as a lobby tool, helping to keep important issues on the political agenda
  • They were concrete, with clear deadlines in both time and scale
  • They were created in a joined effort by all members of the assembly
  • Simple icons, easy to explain without complicated policybabble

And well, as Taylor Swift might say: haters gonna hate (hate hate hate hate), so yes there is plenty of critique as well. Here’s a couple of them:

  • They were undemocratically chosen, and strongly influenced by the richer countries
  • There is no clear or cohesive vision behind them
  • They are incomplete
  • Focus on improvement in numbers in stead of quality
  • The goals are generic, without taking into account specific needs of specific areas or people
  • Unfair to countries with a much lower starting point than others

Measuring progress
Now, I must admit that I was never good with numbers. I still get chills thinking about my math teacher’s uninspired linear thinking his tired “this is just the way it is”-rhetoric. No room for what if’s and why’s. Not only was his attempt to kill our inquisitiveness spiteful, he was also wrong. You see, there is so much room for interpretation when it comes to numbers that it is really quite exasperating. I know, I know, it’s not the numbers’ fault; it is ours as we are the ones doing the interpreting.

For example, let’s take goal numero uno: eradicate extreme poverty and hunger. When Rosalie de Bruijn, project manager at One World and promoter of the MDGs at the Dutch Ministry of External Affairs, introduced the 8 MDGs at yesterday’s debate, people objected as soon as she pulled out her stats. She mentioned 1 in 8 people in the world deals with “chronic hunger” adding up to over 840 million people in 2013.

But when is someone really officially hungry? And when is it chronic? And when is someone poor? Did anyone ever try to live below the poverty line for a while and then just above it to check if it was really that much better? Do chronically-hungry-by-choice Westerners on vegan/raw/juice-diets count? And how do you measure how much and what a farmer needs to eat to compensate for his heavy labor?

And as if just deciding where to lay the line wasn’t complicated enough, people are saying that the UN played with the scales halfway through to paint a prettier picture and show there is some progress being made, even though the previous method may have said otherwise…

Dominic Nahr summarized it in the New York Times in September 2014 as follows:

FAO-HUNGER-MDGIt’s a long story. At the World Food Conference in Rome, in 1974, when Henry A. Kissinger famously stated that “within a decade, no child will go to bed hungry,” F.A.O. experts estimated that the number of hungry people in developing regions was close to 460 million, and that in 10 years it could reach 800 million. That prediction was close: In a 1992 report, the F.A.O. stated that there were 786 million hungry people in 1988-90. It was a dramatic increase, a serious blow.

In that report, the F.A.O. revised its previous calculations, saying that its statistical method had been wrong. Now, the F.A.O.’s experts said, they believed that in 1970 there weren’t 460 million hungry people in the developing world, but more than twice that number, 941 million. This, in turn, allowed them to say that the 1989 figure of 786 million did not represent a dramatic increase but, in fact, a decrease of 155 million: quite an achievement.

The changes kept coming. In 2004, the F.A.O. said that the number of undernourished people in developing regions had reached 815 million. This would have seemed like a disappointing increase from the 786 million figure. But in that same report, the F.A.O. revised its 1990 numbers once again, and stated that in 1990 there hadn’t been 786 million but rather 823 million hungry people. So hunger had gone down after all.

Luckily, Pietro Gennari, statistician for the FAO took the time to react to Nahr’s critical piece and did so in October 2014 in the following way:

The undernourishment methodology is peer-reviewed and has been improved over the decades, accounting for the major revisions […]. Inevitably, this also means that the estimates are changing. In fact, they have to change precisely because the underlying data are updated and corrected, and methods are improved. The sources of possible adjustments include frequent revisions of population size and food availability. Such revisions are normal practice among national and international statistical agencies.

Oh, alright then. I do believe people at large institutions as the FAO do have good intentions deep down and that you can’t hold on to old scales when all the variables are changing. So, while I push the pesky cynic back a little further into the back of my mind I will try to visualize the bigger picture and what my part is in this puzzle.

How much food have I thrown away over the years? Have I bought enough fair trade products? How can I do this more consciously? How selfless am I willing to be?

And this is just the first development goal we’ve been discussing here… So you can imagine yesterday’s event wasn’t nearly long enough to do all of them justice and I am not really prepared to deal with all of them in this blog either.

So, I’m thinking maybe I could dedicate a blog to each of them before the year ends because as one of the debaters put it: “No one with the head screwed on can be against these goals”, but there is a lot to say about each of them and the challenges they have faced.

Post 2015
SDGSAnd now in recent weeks, we have been introduced to the new goals for the next fifteen years; the sustainable development goals (SDGs).There are 17 of them, subdivided into 169 targets… O.o

Aaaah there is so much to say about them it is completely paralyzing my writing flow… So I’m going to keep it sweet and simple.

The Guardian wrote a piece titled “Sustainable development goals: all you need to know” that I recommend you read to fill in the gaps.

What are the proposed 17 goals?

1) End poverty in all its forms everywhere

2) End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition, and promote sustainable agriculture

3) Ensure healthy lives and promote wellbeing for all at all ages

4) Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all

5) Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls

6) Ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all

7) Ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all

8) Promote sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment, and decent work for all

9) Build resilient infrastructure, promote inclusive and sustainable industrialisation, and foster innovation

10) Reduce inequality within and among countries

11) Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable

12) Ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns

13) Take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts (taking note of agreements made by the UNFCCC forum)

14) Conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development

15) Protect, restore and promote sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems, sustainably manage forests, combat desertification and halt and reverse land degradation, and halt biodiversity loss

16) Promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels

17) Strengthen the means of implementation and revitalise the global partnership for sustainable development

MDGs vs SDGs Guardian

Source: Sustainable development goals: changing the world in 17 steps (The Guardian, 19-05-2015)

The fact that these new goals were chosen in a more democratic fashion, after  long and complex discussions in both public and private fora, may partly explain why there are so bloody many of them… But yay for democracy! Wait, which goal is that anyway?

Posted in news | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Venezuela with a vengeance?

Last month there was a lecture on Venezuela, organized by a Dutch organization called JASON Institute. The event caught my attention as I have written blogs about this country before and seeing the title they chose for the evening (“Venezuela, an explosive country?“) I realized I was hopelessly out of the loop.

The last blog I wrote about Venezuela was in March 2014, after the elections and subsequent riots and police violence that resulted in several dozens of dead civilians. I ended this blog with the following analysis:

At this moment there are still masses on the streets, both in favor and against the government. It is difficult to predict if either group will shrink or cross over to the other side. One thing that is sure, the government can definitely not go on denying the occurrences by showing cartoons on TV all day and censoring the daily news coverage. If Maduro wants to survive, he shouldn’t have to rely on manipulating the news. If he has any integrity in him, he should show true lament for what has happened to his fellow countrymen and find a way to move forward, taking all of Venezuela’s citizens into account.

That was over 14 months ago, and now this is what the streets of Caracas (reportedly) look like:

So over a year has passed since I last tuned in and the pictures in the newspapers look pretty much the same as they did at the time of my previous blogs. So what happened? What didn’t? What should have happened? Who’s calling the shots? How dangerous / explosive is the situation really? Is it merely a national struggle or is it influencing (or being influenced by) other actors in the global arena?

And just as this issue was starting to fade back out of reach for my gold fish attention span, Venezuela was suddenly a point of discussion in the Dutch house of representatives, as members of different parties (VVD (one of the governing parties)), PVV, CDA en D66 (all three are opposition parties) expressed their concerns over the rising threat from this South American country. They commented our minister of foreign affairs, Bert Koenders, was not taking the situation seriously enough and that the Dutch Caribbean islands (Aruba, Bonaire, Curacao) were not being offered the support they needed in the face of the instability on the Venezuelan mainland, only 30 to 80 kms from their respective coastlines. VVD-member ten Broeke spoke of a “ticking timebomb”, to which Koenders reacted by saying Venezuela isn’t a threat but “a risk” that is being closely monitored by the Dutch government.

And then yesterday the former vice-minister of the Ministry of Planning, known to be a Chavista, spoke up against the current state of affairs the path on which his country is headed. As fellow blogger Giancarlo Fiorella explains in this blog:

[Giordani] also suggested that the government is “scraping the bottom of the barrel” to find dollars for importing food and medicine, and that PSUV officials appear more worried about making televised speeches than they are about running the country.

Speaking on Maduro, Giordani said simply that it was “painful and alarming” that he does not appear to show any kind of leadership at all.


Last Tuesday, the country saw the closest thing to an official statement regarding economic performance so far in 2015: The Minister of Planning, Ricardo Mendez, said that inflation between January and May grew 60%.

Sadly, I didn’t go to the lecture last month and am therefore unable to quote any of the experts that attended and am struggling to formulate some sort of clever analysis of my own, let alone a sound conclusion. What I know is that there are political prisoners on hunger strike and new protests have been announced for this weekend, while Maduro tries (and fails) at distracting us with some showdown with neighboring Guyana.

ISIS maligneThe part of my brain that usually lights up while blogging seems to be dealing with a power shortage though and all my little writer gnomes are sitting around with candles, struggling to find their way around. The only flashlight in the room is being used to read the pages on matters in the Middle East…

But I’m going to press the “Publish”-button anyway and let all of this marinate for another while and then try again in < fill in an acceptable amount of time >.  In the meantime, feel free to fill me in if you have any thoughts on any of this…

Posted in Latin America, news | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Yemen & me

Dear Yemen,

You and I never met, all though for a bit I thought we might be together for at least some years. My dad is a restless soul and his work has always involved visiting countries like you. He is always juggling several projects at once and sometimes during dinner he would tell us we might be moving this way or that. But you know how things go. You think you can plan things but it’s a fickle world and my father decided otherwise. Or maybe it was decided for him, I don’t remember, I was quite young. But I’ve always remembered your name and hearing about you always makes me wonder about what could have been…

And now I hear they have been calling you a failure. The fact that it is true doesn’t mean it doesn’t sting. There’s a big chance the majority of your people doesn’t even know you are often mentioned as an example to demonstrate the definition of “failed state”.

A failed state is a state perceived as having failed at some of the basic conditions and responsibilities of a sovereign government.

yemeni men 2You rank 8th on the 2014 list of countries according to the Fragile States Index. I recognize your people for their middle eastern looks, in combination with a tad of malnourishment you don’t see elsewhere in the region. Skinny men with anger in their eyes. Or is it hunger? Or is it just a qat-induced haze I see?

The BBC said it only weeks ago but it’s been this way for years, hasn’t it? What I am trying to understand is why. You seem to have a lot going for you. What curse rests upon you that stops you from blooming? You have some oil, as your neighbors do. Who are these people living within your borders and why are they so divided?

When former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who had ruled the country for more than 33 years, finally stepped down and a new president was elected in February of 2012, I thought you were ready to change and perhaps step into the modern world. You chose a president that was able and willing and seemed to have the acceptance of different important political actors.

And now I hear this hopeful newcomer, Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, has stepped down and you are once again spiraling down into chaos. What happened? It seems president Hadi was not the right person to guide you after all.

It saddens me, Yemen. You are being compared to Iraq and Afghanistan even though these two countries have been scarred by wars to an extent you have (luckily) not had to endure in recent centuries. Where Afghanistan can blame its invaders (i.e. Britan in the 19th century, the Soviet Union in the 20th and the US and its allies in recent times) or perhaps its difficult neighbors or the fact that they are completely landlocked for some of its troubles, you can only blame yourself.

PJ Crowley, former US Assistant Secretary of State, wrote about you last week and is not very optimistic. He says you need help but that it will take decades to get you on track. The problem is, that it is very difficult to sympathize with you and donors prefer investing in more likeable empty stomachs / pockets.

In that sense I wish I had gotten the chance to know you, back then. Perhaps then I could explain that deep down you really are quite loving and that your people are just misunderstood. I’m afraid I really don’t know where to start now. You must help yourself.

Good luck!

Hug, Epi

Posted in Middle East, news | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment


This blog has been sitting in my drafty drafts-file for a long time. For a while, all it contained was a general topic, some keywords and a title. I started writing it back in the day when we still saw Assad as the main problem in Syria. Remember those days? Ah, the times when all we thought we had to do was get rid of one cruel Syrian chief and help the people “choose” a new one and get that Arab spring train on its tracks again.

assad self defenseAnd then things started to shift…

During the final months of 2014, I saw the year-review shows passing by on the different news channels and was reminded of my intention to write this blog. I remember seeing Bashar al-Assad in the year’s review and hearing him declare that he was not bombing innocent people (despite the images of bleeding children in hospitals we kept seeing on the news) but that they were terrorists, related to Al Qaeda or worse. I can still remember my smug reaction to his words at the time, shaking my fist at the TV-screen and cursing his callousness.

Speaking of Assad, where is he these days? Did he ever take the chance to say “I told you so”?

Jolie refugeesAnd then today, I saw some of my Facebook friends posting this NY Times article, that caught my attention. In all honesty I must admit I clicked on the link because I was fascinated to see a picture of Angelina Jolie with zero make up on and wanted to zoom in. But then I started to read. The images being described sent shivers running up and down my spine. It was only later that I noticed that the opinion piece was actually written by Angelina Jolie. She describes her encounters with refugees and their stories. It’s an incredibly moving article and it drove me straight to my neglected blog and started up the word flow that had dried up months ago and I decided to re-write the whole thing.

But back to Assad. While trying to find an image to accompany my blog, I ran into a recent article by Jonathan Tepperman in the Washington, who apparently spoke to the president about two weeks ago. I quote:

Superficially, Assad said many of the right things, appearing conciliatory and eager to involve Western governments in his struggle against Islamist terrorism. But underneath the pretty words, he remains as unrepentant and inflexible today as he was at the start of the Syrian civil war four years ago. Assad seems to have no idea how badly the war is going, how impractical his proposals sound and how meaningless his purported overtures are. Which means that, whatever Western leaders might wish, the fighting in Syria will end in one of two ways. Either Assad will defeat the rebels. Or the rebels will defeat him — and string him up by his toes.

A pretty grim conclusion there …and as if the situation wasn’t bad enough already, Mr Assad seems to be heading down Michael Jackson Road. He has created his own DisneyLand reality and everyone around him helps him uphold that delusion. He has decided that the groups that revolted against him are Al-Qaedaoids sponsored by his opponents and that his army is still almighty. The fact that there are areas being occupied by IS is merely because the Syrian army doesn’t feel the need to go there…. I want to role my eyes in disbelief, but then again… you never know….

As Tepperman says:

Either Syria’s president is an extremely competent fabulist — in which case he’s merely a sociopath — or he actually believes his lies, in which case he’s something much more dangerous (like a delusional psychopath). For why would he ever strike a deal to end a war he thinks he’s winning?

In the meantime, imagine being a Syrian! Nearly half of Syria’s population has fled their home and is on the move, either within Syria’s borders or in neighboring countries. Winter is upon them. A dire situation for the people involved and a tremendous challenge for the countries providing these displaced Syrians with refuge. In Angelina Jolie’s words:

Who can blame them for thinking that we have given up on them? Only a fraction of the humanitarian aid they need is being provided. There has been no progress on ending the war in Syria since the Geneva process collapsed 12 months ago. Syria is in flames, and areas of Iraq are gripped by fighting. The doors of many nations are bolted against them. There is nowhere they can turn.


There is a great temptation to turn inward, to focus on our own troubles.

But the plain fact is we cannot insulate ourselves against this crisis. The spread of extremism, the surge in foreign fighters, the threat of new terrorism — only an end to the war in Syria will begin to turn the tide on these problems. Without that, we are just tinkering at the edges.

To just put things into perspective real quick, this is a recent quilt… I mean map of Syria:

map syria jan 2015

As good ol’ MJ once said/sang: “If you wanna make the world a better place you gotta look at yourself and then make a change”. In a way, my blog is a way to open that dialogue with the woman in the mirror. So, what can I do?

  • Maybe I should check out what my political party of choice says about this and if I really agree with them on this. That is a way for my voice to be heard, but only when the next elections arrive and I don’t even know when that will be (which means it is more than a year from now because otherwise they would have been in my face by now and I would have noticed).
  • I don’t really believe in donating money to the big organizations like Unicef or the Red Cross. It’s not that I don’t think my money will be spent well but I just like being able to track my feeble pennies. So maybe I should support a smaller organization, with clear and specific projects and actual boots on the ground and progress I can follow.
  • I could organize some sort of event in my community and make a shipment of my own; blankets, canned food, clothing, stuffed animals… But then again, I have no idea how to get these things where they’re actually needed.
  • So then what, should I go myself? Am I willing to risk my skin (and head) to lend a hand? And how much of a difference will I really make or will I only be in the way of the “real development workers”?
  • Maybe I should pay refugees within my own borders a visit and see if I can help them settle in here? Or perhaps they have relatives who are in need of something back home?

Once again, there is no definitive conclusion but I will definitely be looking into all of these options.

My thoughts are with the people facing freezing conditions in the refugee camps scattered around the region and bow my head in shame for my initial reluctance to receive refugees closer to home……

Posted in Middle East, news | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment