Have a Documentary Party

Why not get together a few friends sometime over the next month and have a documentary party ? Some food, some drinks and a conversation about the issues covered in the film. Here are a few possible suggestions for you.


A film simply about dirt, that is also about the future of life. Narrated by Jamie Lee Curtis, Dirt! shows the importance and fragility of fertile soil to all life on earth. Yet fertile soil is something our societies tend to take for granted, and often abuse – sterilizing it with pesticides, chemically blasting it with nitrogen fertilizers and exposing it to erosion and crusting through industrial farming practices. Dirt! goes on to describe what actions we can take to begin to recover the situation, from better farming practices, to reducing soil sealing by hard-surfaces in our urban areas.



A film challenging the Christian church to respond to global poverty – arguing ‘we have everything we need, will we now do everything it takes ?’. The film 58 contrasts and connects the poverty of rural Ethiopia, the squalor of Nairobi’s slums, the violence of Brazil’s ganglands and inter-generational slavery in India with the affluent and consumerist, but often unhappy lives of the US and the UK. Describing itself as ‘not a call to slacktivism’, 58 is supported by several international aid organisations, advocating a range of personal responses including donations, campaigning and moving to a less-consuming lifestyle.



A film portrait of the 75 year old Canadian environmentalist David Suzuki, as he tries to pass on what he’s learned over his life in a ‘last lecture’. The film follows his life from his origins in WWII, through his career in science, activism in the civil rights movement and campaigning work for environmental protection, climate change and sustainability. A mix of environmentalism and personal history, the film does a good job of capturing David’s essentially optimistic views of the future.


Photo by Vancouver Film School, via Flickr

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The War of Ideas

In our hyper-connected 24 hour media global internet age, it’s sometimes hard to remember back to when we had to read a textbook, visit a library, or talk to ‘an expert’ in order to find anything out.

Things have changed.

We now have instant access to virtually endless amounts of information on almost every conceivable subject – deliverable right to the smart phone in our pocket, no matter where we are, via the touch of a few buttons.

In the space of a decade or so our problem has changed from one of having too little information available to us, to one of having far too much!

This means we are overwhelmed, inundated and bombarded with information – the only response is to spread our attention a little more thinly; scanning, skimming, screening and simply ignoring, many of the messages and inputs we receive.

We can easily feel that because we have so much information available to us, we’re also obliged to have an opinion about just about everything . . . But having spent relatively little time reading, checking and digesting the facts, we risk having only a superficial understanding of an issue, but of course, once we’ve committed to ‘an opinion’ it can be hard for us to change our minds – no matter what new information we subsequently encounter.

Very often we’re faced with ideas or opinions in opposition – wind turbines: good or bad, gay marriage: good or bad, nuclear power: good or bad, more austerity: good or bad ?

It’s as if we’re being encouraged to ignore any subtleties or complexity and simply choose a side and cheer our team on.

And is everything that is presented to us as fact really true ? No, clearly not. Truth is interspersed with lies, mistakes, approximations, previously truth, wishful thinking, urban myth, selective facts, one-sided arguments, emotional blackmail, smears on the messenger and any number of other things. It’s not that things aren’t checkable, it’s just that there’s too much checking to do, and mostly we don’t bother.

This is the ‘post-fact’ battleground of the various wars of ideas being fought out for our support .

Two examples caught my attention over the last few weeks: climate change (again), and the overseas aid budget (also again).

The Guardian published a piece titled Don’t Give Climate Heretics a Chance. It broadly argues that as most climate skeptics are not climate scientists we should be less willing to listen to their views, and goes as far as proposing some kind of ‘certification scheme’ for use of accurate climate facts in articles and reporting.

Much as I share the frustration of the author, Jay Griffiths (an author and English graduate – if that matters to you), with inaccurate and misleading representations of science being presented on an equal basis to peer reviewed articles and research, surely the answer isn’t some kind of ‘ministry of truth kitemark’ on all published opinions ?

The real problem is the absence of a single recognised and accepted authority on climate change science – our information age has democratised truth, we’re all free to choose our own authority, and believe their pronouncements: whether it’s James Delingpole, in the red corner, or  almost all the World’s scientists in the blue.

Until someone develops an online truth filter, we’ll just have to rely on our common sense and judgement.

The other story that caught my eye a few weeks ago was on the front page of the UK newspaper The Express: We Pay For India’s Rocket to Mars. The story, by the journalist Macer Hall, contrasts India’s planned unmaned space mission to Mars, with the UK’s aid contribution, also claiming ‘Anger has been growing since David Cameron pledged to continue increasing the overseas aid budget despite cuts’. Interestingly the article also reports “British aid is not used to fund India’s space programme. Our development aid to India is earmarked for specific purposes like tackling child malnutrition, providing malaria bednets and secondary education for Dalit girls” - which does make the article’s title seem more than a little misleading” ?

I’m a strong supporter of well targeted international aid, and broadly speaking would like the UK to not only maintain it’s overseas aid contribution, but actually increase it. The stories we often see stirring-up resentment and claiming misuse of aid donations are often misleading (as in this case), or even when accurate I would argue the solution is to better target the aid involved, rather than to cut it, an alternate ‘solution’ to the problem of ‘bad aid’ I rarely see offered in certain sections of the press.

If you want to see how divisive these kind of issues and debates have now become, you simply have to scroll down through the comments below each story – wading through the abuse, self-righteousness, hostility and rage of the full-on Troll Warfare ! Online debating doesn’t seem to be constrained by any of the social niceties we observe in the real world.

So what the answer ?

Clearly I’m not saying don’t have opinions . . . but do have a couple of suggestions:

Firstly, we should all be a little more critical and questioning of pretty much everything we read – whether we’re naturally inclined to support or oppose them. The world is a complicated place, and things are rarely back and white, we should delve a little more deeply into what we see and hear, resisting the temptations of polarisation. . . . in other words we should be smart.

Secondly, and just as importantly, we should have the modesty to sometimes profess a little less certainty about our own opinions – accepting we rarely are so expert to have considered all the full facts in detail. We should try to listen respectfully to the opinions of others, and be willing to accept new evidence, if it seems reliable, even if it goes against our previously held views. . . in other words we should be nice.

I believe it is important for those of us seeking to sway opinion and make a positive difference in the world to engage in the ‘war of ideas’ – but we won’t get anywhere by being trolls about it !


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Photo by Cali4Beach, via Flickr

Voices From Ethiopia

Guest post by Siobhan Sheerin who has recently returned from Ethiopia after three months working with the organisation Concern Worldwide.

I’ve been in Ethiopia for almost three months now, working for Irish aid agency Concern Worldwide, but sadly, I’ll soon be saying goodbye to Addis and returning home.

I’ve worked for Concern for over two years, based mainly in their London office, but I’ve always been eager to see Concern’s work on the ground first-hand.  I was just waiting for the right opportunity to take the plunge.

Like many people, I was deeply affected seeing the suffering of millions of people during last year’s devastating drought in East Africa, when Ethiopia was hit pretty badly.  So when the opportunity came to work here, I knew this was my chance. I upped sticks, leaving behind my comfortable existence in the UK.

The first thing that hit me was the altitude. At a height of around 7,500 feet, Addis is the world’s second highest capital. For the first week, I flipped between exhaustion and a strange feeling, similar to being underwater, and even the smallest exertion left me gasping for breath. Thankfully, this ‘air hunger’ as the locals call it, soon subsided.

Ethiopia is one of the poorest countries in the world, and has suffered from food insecurity for many years. Most people rely entirely on local agriculture, so when the are late, or fail, like they did last year and again this year, people’s harvests fail and they simply don’t have enough food to eat. It’s a cycle that, sadly, keeps repeating itself.

One of the worst affected areas over the last two years is the Amhara region in the north. Concern works across this entire area, in some of the most hard to reach mountainous villages, delivering emergency nutrition, providing seeds and livestock, and helping people get access to clean water.

Access to water is a real issue in the area, with many walking for hours every day just to get to the nearest water source. It was while in Bugna, a remote village in the Amhara, that I saw both young children and old ladies carrying 25kg water containers on their backs, and clambering barefoot up mountains that I could barely manage wearing my sturdy walking boots!

The inaccessibility of these areas in the north has to be seen to be believed. Getting around by car is almost impossible at times, and in many places travelling by foot or donkey is the only option. The people here eke out their living from the land – life is hard.

Yet despite living in extreme poverty, the people don’t just want hand-outs, they are resilient and hard-working – and want to help themselves and build sustainable lives.

People like Getu, who had received a container of potato seeds from Concern and planted them all himself in one day. He proudly showed me his field, and told me his first priority was to feed his family, with any surplus being sold at the market.

Or like Shewaye, the young mother whose children were treated for malnutrition by Concern last year, and who wanted to display her newly-acquired knowledge of breastfeeding with an impromptu practical demonstration.

Of course I’ve found some of it hard going. Two bouts of horrendous food poisoning had me floored for weeks, and wishing I was back at home, and the poverty I’ve seen on the streets of Addis is distressing. But I can’t really complain . . . I’ve never had to walk for four hours to get water, then carry it barefoot back uphill, and I’ve never worried about where my next meal is coming from.

The rainy season here is now in full swing, which makes going out difficult at times,  and I’ve never really gotten to grips with the staple food injera, a sort of sour pancake eaten at every meal. But there are many things I will miss now I’m leaving: hearing hyenas howling in the distance when I am dropping off to sleep, my daily commute through a bustling market whilst negotiating donkeys, chickens, goats and shouts of ‘farangi’ (foreigner), the hordes of children keen to practice their English and shake my hand; and of course, the people.

It has been the Ethiopian people who have made the real impression on me, particularly Concern’s Ethiopian staff.  Generous and friendly, and rightly proud of their country, my colleagues work long hours in remote areas, travelling on foot to help people because there is simply no other way.  The staff in Bugna have to drive for almost three hours to the nearest town just to use the internet, which certainly put my office IT problems into perspective.

My Concern Ethiopian colleagues are true humanitarians.  The work they do here makes a huge difference. They are saving lives – helping people to help themselves out of poverty, feed themselves and their families and make a living.

I’m proud to have been a part of the work they do, even for just a short time.

Photo by treessfts via Flickr

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Meet Esther Duflo

Does foreign aid make life better for the poorest people in the world, or does it actually harm development ?

Answering this polarising question is the life’s work of Esther Duflo, Professor of Poverty Economics at MIT and co-founder of ALJ Poverty Action Lab, which aims to gather evidence to make anti-poverty efforts more effective.

Esther answers the question “does aid work ?”, by asking another question “what aid works ?”

Esther and her colleagues try to look deeper into the issues and problems affecting the world’s poor, that conventional economics often struggles to answer; such as why would a man living in shanty accomodation and who struggles to feed his own family, buy a television ? The answer should perhaps be obvious: because the poor get bored too, and have precious few other opportunities to enjoy life. Interestingly Esther herself has never owned a TV in her life.

Her most recent book: Poor Economics, argues that there is no single magic bullet for alleviating poverty, but if we are to be more effective in tackling poverty, we first need to be more familiar with the lives of the poor we are actually trying to help.


Photo from Wikicommons

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The Hunger Games ?

The world is watching the 2012 Olympics – me included – an amazing spectacle, and so many remarkable personal stories.

And while the eyes of the world are on the London Olympics, something else remarkable is scheduled for the last day.

A Hunger Summit.

I think it’s important to be critical of our Governments when they get things wrong, as they so often seem to do, but I also think it’s at least as important to give them a bit of a pat on the back when they get it right – and this is one of those moments.

The British Prime Minister, David Cameron, recently said:

“It’s really important that, while the eyes of the world are on Britain and we are going to put on this fantastic show for the Olympics, we remember people in other parts of the world who, far from being excited about the Olympics, are actually worried about their next meal and whether they are getting enough to eat.”

He may never have been righter.

Despite what we might assume, the world has made tremendous strides in tackling extreme of poverty, hunger and malnutrition over the last few decades. The total number of hungry people in the world fell from 850 million in 1971 to 780 million in 1997. This might not seem that impressive, until you consider world population also increased from 3.7 billion to 5.9 billion over the same period !

Unfortunately things have changed.

The number of hungry people in the world is rising again, and now stands at around 925 million, with many millions more threatened with food insecurity from rising prices.

Population has continued to rise, now standing at more than 7 billion, with another 219,000 more mouths to feed every day.

The price of oil has massively increased, from around $12 a barrel in 1976, to over $90 today – affecting our fuel intensive agriculture and transport, and pushing costs higher.

Several formerly productive parts of the world are struggling to find enough water, or retain enough soil quality to maintain yields. Floods, droughts, natural disasters and conflict have all also caused significant disruption.

Several countries, most notably the US, have begun using farmland to grow crops for fuel, rather than food production.

Demand for food has also been increasing, as the world’s better off have been eating more and more, and more meat in particular. Westernised diets are increasingly popular and affordable in China, India, Brazil and many other developing countries.

It’s not just China of course, the rest of the rich world has been eating more too.

In 2008 1.4 billion people across the world were overweight, 500 million of them obese.

It sounds like a cliche, but it’s true: half the world is starving, while the other half is over weight !

We’re not just passive observers – we’re all partly responsible.

Our governments and food companies have negotiated unfair trading agreements with poor world producers, and as individuals we eat too much, waste too much, and focus on buying our food cheaply too much, oblivious to the consequences for the producer.

Keep watching and enjoying the Olympics – but spare a thought for the world’s hungry who have other things on their mind.

Perhaps take 5 minutes out of your busy day to fire off a quick email to your MP. Perhaps tell your friends about the proposed food summit or post something on your next Status update – don’t let this opportunity to promote food justice just pass by.

Of course , we all know our Governments are often hopeless at making and sticking to meaningful commitments. Many NGOs and charitable organisations are a little worried about what measures may be agreed at the summit. More private business involvement ? More promotion of GM ? Perhaps not ideal, but I personally have no problem with either, so long as more hungry people get fed, and the poor are not exploited.

We can also make a difference through our own lives.

If we bought a little less meat, bought a little more Fairtrade, and wasted a little less of the food we bought, then global markets would adjust, and a little more food would be left on the plates of the world’s hungry poor.

Besides, most of us could do with eating a little less anyway (me included).

If you’re too hardened to motivated by the plight of starving children to act, then I saw a couple of news reports this week that might ‘press a couple of different buttons’ for you . . . I’ll let you read them for yourself: ONE and TWO.

Photo by Alexander Kachkaev, via Flickr

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