It’s a Trap!

I know I promised a blog series on some of the issues facing Bangladesh at the moment, but I felt that I had to address Malala Yousafzai and Kailash Satyarthi’s shared Nobel Peace Prize win first. I have seen a lot of posts on social media about whether the recipients deserve the prize or not, including one of my own where I suggested Malala at least has not done enough yet. I have also seen several decrying the political nature of the prize, which is hardly news given some of the previous winners (like Kissinger, Obama and the EU) and some notable absentees (like Gandhi, U Thant, Nusseibeh and Dorothy Day, and the obvious snubbing of Snowden and Manning this year). These topics will continue to raise debate and, frankly, are too subjective for me to adequately address in just one post, if at all.

What I wish to talk about is how the Nobel Peace Prize can be detrimental to the efforts of the honourees and how I really hope that Malala and Satyarthi do not suffer the same fate. Receiving this accolade is undoubtedly the highest point in anyone’s career and the prestige it affords should not be ignored. However, the concern I have is that being a Nobel Laureate has, in the past few years, become a badge of completion of the beneficiaries’ causes. Since the award is not given posthumously and since it comes with a sizeable monetary prize, one would think that the notion is to promote a worthy movement and support its growth. Despite this, recent winners of the Peace Prize have often failed to continue their work.

Al Gore has virtually disappeared off the face of the Earth he has tried so hard to protect. If one thinks of celebrity environmentalists now, the person that comes to mind the most is Leonardo Dicaprio, not the former Democratic presidential candidate. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which shared the win with him in 2007, has carried on its efforts, but he is no longer an active player in the movement. Given the recent climate change summit at the UN and the continued resistance to accepting global warming in the US Congress, it is not like his presence is no longer needed. If anything, the increasing scientific evidence in support of his cause, combined with events detrimental to it like the Tar Sands pipeline, should galvanise him to continue his work. He is probably the only individual who has both the credentials and the name recognition required to bring about the change that is required now, and it is a shame that his most significant decision since his win has been changing his diet to veganism in 2013.

Muhammad Yunus and Grameen Bank are Bangladesh’s only Nobel Laureates across all disciplines, winning in 2006. Recognised for their work in micro-credit, their victory was a historic day for the country, even with the flaws in the system that they worked to implement. The next step should have been utilising the money and the fame afforded by the victory to fix the problems faced by micro-credit, of which there are many, and I am not referring to cosmetic issues like the lack of men involved. Micro-credit had started as a means of allowing the poor to borrow collateral-free loans and break out of the traditional capitalist banking system but, for all its good intentions, it has spawned its own system of exploitation and loan sharks. Interest rates have skyrocketed and most borrowers are unable to break out of the system because they have no other means of income. Instead of tackling such destructive problems, however, Yunus, Grameen, and their supporters are quick to dismiss any criticisms, often using the Nobel Peace Prize as justification for their indifference. They have branched into other projects and have dabbled in party politics, with damaging results, but their micro-credit initiative has stagnated. Having volunteered there as an intern, I can attest to how many employees are happy to scoff at naysayers because “we have won a Nobel; what have they done?”

Laureates who are in the political sphere have fallen into the same trap. Obama, of course, is the most commonly cited example, with his drone strikes and continued use of Guantanamo chipping away at any integrity he has left. Others, like Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Leymah Gbowee and Tawakkul Karman, the trio of women’s rights activists who won in 2011, have been unable to build on their work because people are no longer interested. Unlike the other Laureates I have mentioned, they have strived to continue their campaigns, but have not been able to gain any more traction since their win. Karman has continued with her activism, being particularly vocal during the Arab Spring, but is no longer part of the conversation on women’s rights. Sirleaf has had to cut down on her commitments in order to continue her presidential tenure unchallenged. And Gbowee has struggled to deal with the pressures of superficial fame, choosing to take a break from her work because rights groups in Africa either want to use her as an ineffective mascot or ignore her because she has achieved more than them. It would seem that awarding the Nobel is as much a means of saying “thank you, now please shut up” as it is of encouraging humanitarianism.

Together, Malala and Satyarthi have been working for the improvement of children’s rights in a region where it is often forgotten. Malala’s shooting is well-known of course, but it is important to remember that her father had been working for girls’ education for much longer and she herself had been advocate for the cause for several years beforehand. Satyarthi’s quiet involvement to end children’s trafficking has gained less attention but has perhaps had more of an impact in real terms. They not only represent two belligerent nations, they also represent two completely different generations who are fighting the good fight in an arena that goes unnoticed most of the time. My sincere hope is that they break the trend we have seen in recent years by pushing ahead with their causes and by refusing to let others shut them down. By combining their resources and their newfound fame, they can create a genuine platform for children’s rights that can influence policy across the region with the support of international organisations and governments alike. As cliched as it might sound, they actually have the potential to make a difference. If they are able to do so, we can finally say that the Nobel Peace Prize means something again, if it ever did in the first place.


Aspirations of the Wrong Kind

The talk around town at the moment is how our esteemed Prime Minister, herself a woman, is planning on appointing another woman as the next Chief Justice. The Speaker of the House and the Leader of the Opposition are also women, as are a few recently appointed Vice Chancellors of public universities, and the rumoured Chief Justice move will mean that several key positions will be held by the fairer sex. If these rumours are to be believed – and they come from several reliable sources – this move is aimed more at earning bragging rights over the West than it is towards actually empowering women and achieving equality. Given the abysmal state of women’s rights at the moment, not to mention the notable lack of qualifications held by most of the women in these positions, it is hard not to believe that.

Having spent the last two years uninterrupted in the UK before returning home, one of the things that struck me the most in the first week of my return home is how blind people seem to be to the problems that Bangladesh faces. On the topic of women’s rights, the popular consensus seems to be that we have achieved complete equality because women are in visible positions. The hollow, cosmetic nature of these changes can be understood by taking a simple look at how the average woman is faring. Girls’ education has actually dropped in rural communities because people believe their daughters are assured top jobs (including 50 of the 350 seats in Parliament) due to an established quota system. Domestic abuse has shot up while the issue of marital rape, which is still not legally recognised in the country, is no longer on the national agenda. Then again, why should it be when a woman is speaking on our behalf at the United Nations?

This is not just a case of women’s rights however. Child labour, child marriage and infanticide are hardly reported on, the focus instead shifting to how some NGOs and charities have successfully taught slum children how to speak in English. Regardless of their intentions, the fact remains that the only change this has actually resulted in is that these boys and girls can now beg in two languages. Meanwhile, LGBTQ+ rights groups are yelling for visibility on TV shows and an eventual marriage amendment – both visible issues in the USA at the moment – forgetting the fact that homosexuality is still a criminal offence here. Some of these groups actually run the risk of getting their members arrested but are not able to recognise that the fight for decriminalisation is more important than getting a magazine about gay sex published.

On top of it all is the fact that we are not simply misreading the West either. Countries that have influence over our policies, like the USA and the UK, are happy to let us face genuine problems just so long as we are not creating issues for them. The recent obsession with IS has meant that the only type of religious extremism that gains any traction in the international media or in policy groups is the kind that leads to terrorist attacks on foreign soil. Never mind the fact that Hindu and Buddhist communities and holy sites have been attacked several times over the past few years. Or that many Hindus in Dhaka had to hide their identities during Durga Puja this year just so they could complete their worship unharmed.

To say that we shouldn’t aspire for an ideal society is wrong. The West, despite its advances, has not hit that pinnacle either. But in order to reach those heights, we need to understand where we currently stand. Following countries that have had centuries to develop and expecting to be in the same situation in 43 years is foolish. We need to solve our own problems first. Only then can we begin to look at what are still secondary issues for us.

I want to quickly add that I normally back up my pieces with more specific statistics and citations. In this case, I feel it would be better to address each of the issues separately; therefore, I will dedicate the next few posts on my blog to examining the problems I have outlined here, which, I hasten to add, in no way represent an exhaustive list of the problems faced by Bangladesh.

Charity and Change

The success of the ALS ice bucket challenge (or the MND ice bucket challenge if you are in the UK) has sparked a lot of interest regarding the role of social media in raising awareness and funds for charities. On the monetary front, it has been an unconditional success, as it has raised millions of dollars and pounds for the respective organisations. It has also led to a lot of debate regarding charities in general and has created off-shoots such as the rice bucket challenge to feed the homeless in South Asia and multiple clean water initiatives. What it has not been able to do, however, is initiate a lasting culture of change and support that would really help charitable causes. Nor has it been able to create a long-term commitment to tackling the problem it championed, instead amassing a gigantic fund in one go that, in reality, might not make much difference.

First of all, it needs to be noted that the majority of people who donated with the challenge are those who are likely to donate to charities anyway. They might have decided to prioritise ALS (or any of its off-shoots) due to its current popularity, or they might have made an additional donation to it alongside causes they normally support anyway, but the ones who took time to spend money on the campaign are those who would not have needed convincing in the first place. A lot of other people simply wanted to dare their friends into drenching themselves and took advantage of that trend, evidenced by the large number of videos and accompanying texts that made no mention of the charitable nature of the campaign at all and instead only focused on the participant looking tough while getting doused in freezing water.

With regards to information, the challenge did raise awareness about the disease itself by talking about its causes and effects, but it did not place it within the larger context of rare and orphan diseases. This is, of course, no fault of the charities – their job is to focus on their own work – but there has been virtually no discussion about the actual prevalence and general pharmaceutical funding for the disease. This is not restricted to the ice bucket challenge either; the recent social media campaigns for types of cancer did not try and place the condition in any context. With cancer, that does not matter as much because it is already an issue discussed regularly in the mainstream.

With orphan diseases, that is not the case and it really needs to be. This is particularly problematic because, while the challenge has raised millions, very few participants actually know how much their contributions helped in practical terms. Not this should act as a means of discouraging such donations, but we need to be aware of whether this sort of spontaneous challenge is enough on its own. Common sense would suggest it is not, but common sense usually goes out the window when we are busy congratulating ourselves on a job well done.

Challenge-specific issues aside, the one key failure of mass social media campaigns is its short-term legacy. The ice bucket challenge has been a longer trend than other similar campaigns, which is excellent to see, but it is already winding down. We have donated; therefore, we have done our part. But the work of the charities are not over and the disease is far from being eradicated. Spontaneous campaigns need to be complemented with larger awareness campaigns that encourage long-term commitments by participants. Groups like Marie Curie Cancer Care and the Trevor Project, while similarly requiring donations, tend to prioritise recruiting volunteers because working directly with the organisations provides a deeper understanding of their situation and, therefore, is more likely to make us continue supporting them.

This lack of understanding is reflected by how very few people did not appreciate the difference between the US-based ALS Association and the UK-based MND Association, often donating to the one that was across the pond for them when they wanted to support the local initiative. It did not help that allegations of misusing funds were levelled at the US charity and that they tried to monopolise the ice bucket challenge so that other charities, like Macmillan Cancer Support, could not use it to raise their own funds. The latter attempt was dropped, thankfully. The former concern, meanwhile, was created by misinformation; the US charity did use a large portion of its funds to pay its employees but no CEO bonuses were cashed in using donations.

Unfortunately, when this sort of misinformation plagues such a rapid campaign, it can lead to a sudden drop in support when there is no larger understanding to help counter it. The fact that charities work differently in the US than they do in the UK also complicated matters further because UK donors thought that the MND Association worked in the same way and withheld their support for a while. Further obstacles, such as religious opposition based on how MND research involves stem-cell techniques or environmentalist concerns regarding animal testing, means that the necessarily short-term nature of such campaigns are eventually detrimental.

Charities require substantial support. Coming from a country where most good comes from NGO’s, but where a lot of these NGO’s then feel like they can do whatever they want as a result of that importance, I can appreciate the tricky balance that needs to be struck when handling such important issues. From experience, I can say that working with a group is the best way to assuage any concerns you might have regarding a particular group. Reading a few different Google results (from reliable sources of course) is a good alternative. At the end of the day, however, there needs to be a deeper understanding of how things work, even if it might not give us the chance to brag about helping out.

This post is by no means an attempt to prevent people from donating to the ice bucket challenge. Nor is it a ringing endorsement of the campaign.* All I ask is that whoever reads this understands that charitable organisations and their concerns are complex, and they take the time to find out about a cause they want to support.

*My humble suggestion is to try and support a local initiative. In my home country of Bangladesh, concerns like homelessness, clean drinking water for slums, labour rights, LGBTQ+ rights, healthcare and education, and food distribution, are just some concerns that regularly get overlooked, and it might be more beneficial to try and support a group tackling those instead of channelling finite resources into an already-burgeoning campaign.

O Captain! My Captain!

I normally avoid writing posts that are too personal. While I have a genuine passion for all the topics I have covered on this blog, I made a conscious choice to cover “world issues” – whatever that might mean – here. Today, I am breaking that rule and I sorely wish it was for a different reason.

The first time I recall seeing Robin Williams on screen was in Flubber. Unbeknownst to me, I had already experienced his work as the Genie in Aladdin. I was too young to understand how voice acting worked. I was also too young to realise that Flubber was CGI. But, in this particular case, I didn’t care. Flubber might have been the protagonist and the plot, but it was Williams’ Prof. Brainard that held my attention.

Like so many others, I have been an avid fan of his work. Hook remains one of my most beloved childhood films and I still tear up when Peter Pan consoles Rufio at his passing. The sequel to Mrs. Doubtfire had just been announced, with Williams at the helm, and it was a sequel that I was actually intrigued by, simply because of his performance in the first. Patch Adams might have criticised by many, but I like it. No eloquence there; I just love his work.

But, for someone who is known for his comedic chops – go check out the episode of Whose Line Is It Anyway? he was in to get an idea of his improv skills – it was his dramatic range that earned him most of his career accolades. Good Will Hunting and Good Morning, Vietnam are two of the finest performances ever committed to film.

For me, it was Dead Poets Society that actually influenced my life. In that film, I saw the determination of all the teachers who inspired me, whether at school or at home. I saw, for the first time, a need to be true to yourself, to stand by your principles in the face of adversity, to live. How tragic it is that these lessons are flashing through my mind as I mourn his death.

Over the past few weeks, Robin Williams returned to my life in a big way. I had spent a week in Edinburgh with my cousin and had suggested showing Hook to her lovely boys. I wanted them to enjoy its magic the way I remember doing when I was their age. A while later, a couple of my friends came to stay and we watched Aladdin, commenting throughout how much of an awe-inspiring creation the Genie was. We might proudly monopolise a generational obsession with another magical protagonist, but it was Williams’ work that helped shape our early imaginations. I appreciate that so much more now.

His passing shows how easy it is for us to accept someone’s cheerful facade as proof that depression might not be such a big deal. I feel so much for his family; I have experienced depression first-hand. I cannot imagine losing someone to it in such a tragic way.

I don’t know whether this rambling can rightfully be called a “tribute”. I don’t care. I just wish I could say to him, “O Captain! My Captain” I just wish he wasn’t gone.

O Captain! my Captain! our fearful trip is done,
The ship has weather’d every rack, the prize we sought is won,
The port is near, the bells I hear, the people all exulting,
While follow eyes the steady keel, the vessel grim and daring;
But O heart! heart! heart!
O the bleeding drops of red,
Where on the deck my Captain lies,
Fallen cold and dead.
(Poem O Captain! My Captain! by  Walt Whitman)


Hobby Lobby: The Dangers of Imposing Values

Apologies for the delay in addressing this, but here is a piece on the Hobby Lobby Supreme Court decision in the USA. It is a worrying precedent because it is essentially arguing that the rights of a corporation are more important than those of a human being. Once again, a fundamental flaw of capitalist society seems to have been accepted. The piece is from the University of Warwick newspaper The Boar, in the Comments section:

In a recent landmark ruling, the US Supreme Court has decided, by a margin of one vote, to allow companies a religious exemption from laws that might go against the owners’ beliefs, provided that there are other means of adhering to the foundations of those laws. The Hobby Lobby case was aimed at forms of contraception that were supposed to be covered by the company’s insurance under the Affordable Care Act but which the staunchly Christian company found objectionable.

Living in the UK, where the NHS has free sexual health clinics and awareness programmes, alongside such groups as the Family Planning Association, it might be easy for us to forget how valuable free birth control really is. It might also be possible to try and objectively justify the Supreme Court’s decision. After all, the ruling’s “other means” clause implies that alternative forms of contraception must still be provided, especially since the case was only launched against 4 out of a possible 20 forms covered under the ACA.

Unfortunately, the reality of the ruling and its ramifications are very worrying. In their deluded omnipotent glory, the judges decided to put all 20 forms of contraceptives under the exemption clause and not just the 4 in the original court filings. This means that individuals who do not have any scruples using these forms and who might be unable to afford them unless covered by their employment insurance can legally be denied them if their employer happens to be more religiously conservative.

This also sets a precedent for other crucial rulings to be hampered by over-zealous Republicans and Republican appointees trying to woo over the right-wing voter base. The Employment Non-Discrimination Act, which would eliminate sexuality-based employment discrimination, has already lost steam because of the various religious exemptions added to it. It is one thing to provide religious exemptions for laws that affect religious bodies – such as the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013 in the UK.

However, the Hobby Lobby case is not one of religious protection; it is one of religious strong-arming. It was seen earlier in the ill-fated SB 1062 debate, but this time, the danger has not subsided. Values created by religious beliefs should be kept firmly in the private sphere. For a country with so many high-profile radicals, it should be remembered that the US Constitution acknowledges this by clearly separating Church and State in the First Amendment. As soon as these values are put into law, they allow prejudices to be defended.

Burwell vs. Hobby Lobby has been considered a victory for the religious right and for any politician spouting the old “family values” shtick. The truth is that is a loss for women’s rights. In a terrifying chain of events, it is also not the only loss. The Supreme Court has deemed abortion clinic buffer zones, aimed at protecting people from vitriolic pro-lifers, unconstitutional. This while the fight against abortion reaches new highs. It would seem that, in the eyes of the American judiciary, it is far more important to preserve a specific interpretation of religious rights than it is to protect women’s health.

Lessons Not Learned

I accompanied a friend to Westminster today, 100 years exactly from the day that the war to end all wars started. The Cenotaph stood serene as always, a hauntingly beautiful monument to the memories of the millions lost. Yet, barring commemorations being covered in the news, it was as if London had forgotten the 20th century’s first great tragedy.

When I was younger, growing up in a country where the word “World” in World War I seemed to be a misnomer, my maternal grandfather was busy instilling in me a love of history. Among the things he taught me, years before I experienced it in an expressionless school textbook, was the horror and the futility of the Great War. It was a lesson I never forgot, its sadness remaining as an almost romanticised constant regardless of where I encountered it later.

It was that sadness that stayed with me through my school History lessons, taught with mechanical efficiency and little else. It stayed with me when I studied History at a different school for my International Baccalaureate, where I learned for the first time the cost World War I had on Asia. And it stayed with me through my undergraduate and postgraduate years, where the war was a part of so many of my lessons.

You would think I would get used to the sadness, or at least rationalise it and move on. The truth is, the more I learned about World War I, the more real and ever-present the sadness became. London and Dhaka might have forgotten the scars of 1914-1918, but there are parts of the world still reeling from it.

Just as it ushered in the end of the Age of Empire, so too did it usher in the beginning of new sufferings. World War II, of course, is a conflict that no one fails to link with its predecessor. Yet, these same people often forget that so many of the battle lines in the world today can trace their genesis to the conditions of the Treaty of Versailles.

Syria is amidst a civil war that the world chooses to ignore because the alternative is admitting its shame in failing the country. Israel-Palestine dominates the headlines every so often, but not many remember that World War I provided the impetus to create the boundaries of the current state there. Africa’s ongoing territorial plights and the struggles of the Indian subcontinent might have peaked at various times, but the seeds were sown when the last shot rung out over the trenches. Even the USA’s championing of well-intentioned but horribly misguided interventionism can trace its roots to Woodrow Wilson’s decision to enter the conflict in 1917.

The world would like to think it has moved on from the horrors of those four years. On a material level, we have indeed made advances. But the scars run deeper than we would care to look. The Cenotaph’s inscription reads: “The Glorious Dead”. We eulogise them, praise their sacrifices and respect their bravery. Let us not then forget they had hoped theirs would be the last war ever fought. We should try to edge the world towards that utopia.

The UN’s Latest Questionable Decision

Another post from the University of Warwick’s newspaper The Boar where I look at the United Nations General Assembly’s next President, Mr. Sam Kutesa, and his questionable track record on LGBTQ+ rights, corruption and views on human rights in general:

Since its inception, the UN has strived to represent the best of humanity. It was meant to be a beacon of hope, taking the idealism of its predecessor, the League of Nations, while learning from its mistakes. While some of its bodies like UNICEF and UNESCO have been able to fulfil their potential, the more well-known organisations have unfortunately come to epitomise the very worst of political strong-arming and sycophancy.

With its current reputation for being an ineffective political entity, it is difficult to imagine the UN disappointing anyone with a bad decision. It is a mark of how horrible their latest move really is then, that disappointment would have been the optimal reaction they could have hoped for. This is because Uganda’s Foreign Minister, Sam Kutesa, has been appointed the next President of the UN General Assembly, the so-called “world parliament”, starting in September of this year.

The UNGA President is rotated between five geographical groups (Africa, Asia, Eastern Europe, Latin America and the Caribbean, Western Europe and Other States) on a yearly basis. Under their guidance, the UN’s largest organ elects the non-permanent members of the UN Security Council, members of the Economic and Social Council and judges for the International Court of Justice. It also votes on a range of non-binding international resolutions.

The role of the President is arguably largely ceremonial. Although they can influence the direction of debate, they have no executive authority or any veto. Nonetheless, they are supposed the be the spokesperson for the largest supra-governmental body on the planet and that does not come without some degree of influence. It is, therefore, particularly worrying that Mr. Kutesa has been chosen for this role.

As Uganda’s Foreign Minister, he was instrumental in pushing forward his country’s laws regarding the criminalisation of homosexuality. A vocal opponent of any “unnatural” human interactions, Mr. Kutesa is credited with being one of the people who convinced the Cabinet not to scrap the law even under international pressure. With LGBTQ+ rights being such a crucial topic around the world at this moment, the next UNGA head is expected to have to handle various discussions and resolutions on issues such as commitments to equal sexual rights.

His track record on that one significant issue is bad enough of course, but Mr. Kutesa is no poster child for any subject, never mind the fact that his outrage against homosexuality stems from a supposed belief in moral good. His record on corruption is shameful, amassing millions in a country that has significant poverty. He has regressive views on HIV/AIDS and he does not endorse the UN Declaration of Universal Human Rights,* calling the latter a matter of ethical superiority rather than unimpeachable truths.

Sam Kutesa is, by any modern standards, a loathsome individual. He has actively worked to hamper equality and he has almost medieval views on authority and privilege. If the UN’s justification for selecting him is that it is purely a formality, then the implication is that they really are a symbolic body with no power at all. The alternative is that the UNGA which elected him consists of bigots like himself. It is difficult to think which is worse.

*Based on a comment made regarding the newspaper article, I feel I must make one addition. While I concede that the UN Declaration of Human Rights is itself an arbitrary document, which therefore does not make it an unimpeachable truth, it is the basis for rights across the world and is also the basis for any burgeoning equality movement in the contemporary world. For Mr. Kutesa to so openly mock it and still get elected to the position he has now been elevated to is problematic.