It’s been just over two weeks since the US Presidential election, and like many around me, I’m still gathering my thoughts. At some point, I think I’d like to think more carefully about some of the things running around my head - but for now, here are some main thoughts, in no particular order.
I recently spent a couple of weeks in South Africa. Beautiful landscapes aside, it was a fascinating trip, and I was lucky enough to come across some wonderful books to give me a tiny insight into the culture and history. Anyway, I love reading lists, so here’s a post of book-related recommendations about, or from, South Africa.
A couple of weeks ago, one of my best friends handed in her PhD, in geology, and the TLD .rocks went on sale. Clearly this was a sign, so I bought her what has to be the best domain for a geologist named Sorcha to own: http://sorcha.rocks.
I built her a little present on the site, too – a memory game, with photos she took during the PhD, and the place names, meaning that she's basically the only one who will recognise the pictures and be able to do it really from memory. Once the game has been completed successfully, a 'to do list' appears at the bottom of the page, so it's hidden to most viewers.
I just finished reading Mohammed Yunus' first book about the Grameen Bank, 'Banker to the Poor'. I'm starstruck, and impressed, and in awe, of the incredible work he's done. He took an idea and turned it into real, concrete action, having positive effects on millions of people's lives, in a tough environment to work in.
The distinction he makes between the poor and the very poor – the most destitute, those who don't have a roof over their heads, or enough food for themselves or their family, is key to the scheme. He rightly identified that identifying the poor and the most destitute together in one bracket generalises over some key differences; namely, that the most destitute have just one chance to get out of their poverty, and they were given this chance by being allowed to borrow tiny portions of money. They had everything to lose if they didn't make the most of this chance; this, as Yunus describes, makes them ideal borrowers, as they needed to pay the loan back if they were to continue on their path away from destitution. (and the figures have proven that his hypothesis was correct, with over 96% of loans being paid back on time – this is higher than in most commercial banks)
Identifying that women were the key change makers in families living in extreme poverty made a huge change, too. At least in Bangladesh, it is/was traditionally the man's role to deal with financial matters for the family; subverting this trend has proven to be a great success, and the associated issues of men feeling threatened by their spouses' newfound 'power' is also dealt with in the book. Receivers of loans from the Grameen Bank are 97% women, and the bank is actually owned 95% by its borrowers.
From the conclusion of the book, one paragraph in particular stood out for me:
Information and communication technology is raising the hope that we are approaching a world which will be free from power-brokers and knowledge-brokers... Any power built on exclusive access to information will disintegrate. Any common citizen will have almost as much access to information as the head of government. Leadership will have to be based on vision and integrity, rather than the manipulation of information.
This book was written in 1999. Nearly 15 years later, these predictions haven't come true, but they should have. In part, I was thrilled to see that the the basic message of the organisation I work for, the Open Knowledge Foundation, is/was shared by Mohammed Yunus; but isn't it sad that we need to be actively campaigning and working towards a world free of 'knowledge-brokers', as he puts it? Shouldn't it have justhappened naturally?
Happily, the tide is beginning to turn, thanks to the incredible open movement across the world, but Yunus' hope that 'any common citizen will have almost as much access to information as the head of government' is still a long way off.
One last quote to think about:
Easy access to credit, and easy access to a global network of information for the poorest women and men anywhere in the world will eliminate poverty from our planet more surely and speedily than anything else will.
“What do you know of Moldovan citizens, or of Mauritanian culture?” Shamefully, very little. This is how Mateo introduced the topic of Uruguayan foreign policy; Moldova, Mauritania and Uruguay all have similar populations and statuses in global politics. They're fairly small, they're surrounded by bigger and more powerful neighbours, and they all have approximately 3 million inhabitants.
But there's one aspect of Uruguayan politics that sets it apart from many, if not all, other countries. Their president, José Mujica. Labelled by many as the world's poorest president, he lives on a little farm, and works on the farm alongside his presidential duties. His evident lack of interest in material goods is a shining (and reassuring) sign to citizens that their head of state is clearly not stealing from the state! His background is also fairly impressive, (and provides a stark contrast between heads of state in other countries – can you imagine Cameron or Merkel standing up next to him?) ; he used to be a guerrilla fighter, who spent 14 years in prison and was shot a total of 6 times, and underwent torture, isolation, and other horrifically inhumane treatment. Now, aged 77, he grows chrysanthemums on a farm owned by his wife, while being President of Uruguay.
His example, and that of other politicians not seeing themselves as anything 'above' normal citizens, means that it is perfectly normal to bump into them in regular spots in Montevideo. Unfortunately, we didn't see any! But this normality, meaning that paparazzi have an incredibly easy job of getting photos and even sitting down with the president himself, has resulted in a distinct, and wonderful, lack of celebrity-fawning.
Though the President is very left-leaning, Uruguay's foreign policy, as I learned, is distinctly middle of the road. I don't mean to make it sound like they have been sitting on the fence, or simply remaining undecided; rather, taking the 'middle ground' is a distinct policy choice. It's important to remember their geographical situation, as they are very much surrounded by 'big brothers' Argentina and Brazil, and their fairly tiny population; at 3 million people, their entire country is a quarter of the size of Sao Paulo, and approximately the same number as Berlin. Pretty tiny!
But they've taken this middle of the road policy, and applied it amazingly successfully; they've recognised Palestine as a country, while remaining on good diplomatic terms with Israel, and they enjoy good relations with both Cuba and the US.
Similarly in terms of society, the 'middle-road' policy can be seen; I heard about how the vast majority of the population would rather identify themselves as middle class, rather than aspiring to be upper class. Moderation, in both politics and society, seems to be the word of the day, and, happily, it seems to be working admirably.
One recent project implemented under Mujica in particular fascinated me; the successful implementation of the One Laptop per Child programme means that every child in Uruguay now is the owner of a laptop. The potential here is truly immense. With kids learning from a young age how to program and write code, who knows what they might come up with in a few years?
Unfortunately, as I heard, the problem now is that many children are far ahead of their teachers in using the technology; there appears to be a big need for training either teachers to work with children, or to go directly to the children and provide more technical assistance, and make sure that these kids and laptops live up to their full potential.
I have complete faith though, that with passionate and intelligent activists like Mariana, Daniel and Fabrizio working on transparency and open data in Montevideo with their organisation DATA, this potential will be fulfilled, and fun will be had at the same time! I'm looking forward to returning to Montevideo in a few days time for Latin America's first Open Data unconference, AbreLATAM. For now, though, Chile awaits!
Uruguay. Home to 1 million dogs, 3 million people, and 6 million cows- it's no wonder they're big on beef. It's a tiny country with some great quirks; a president who gives away 90% of his salary to a development fund, for example. A complete lack of social class hierarchy means you can find said president in drinking holes around Montevideo – and have a chat with him, no matter who you are. It's likely, if you're Uruguayan, that you'll probably have a friend or acquaintance in common, actually (3 million people is really not a lot). And the lack of social hierarchy drawing from job positions or ancestry has been replaced with a kind of 'culinary hierarchy' instead, with prestige bestowed upon the best meat preparer (asador) or pourer of mate tea (servador).
Those are just a few of the quirks that I found out about when I was welcomed by Mariana and Mateo in Montevideo; so warmly welcomed, in fact, that I'm now still wearing Mariana's jacket, despite now being in Santiago, Chile. This perhaps is another key characteristic of the Uruguayan people – as the people in my shuttle service taxi in Montevideo told me, “You'll have a wonderful time here! Uruguayans are so caring!!” – and my experience can definitely confirm this.
It was my first time in Montevideo, and undoubtedly my lack of knowledge of the culture shone through. For example, though I had heard a lot about the meat, especially beef, from Uruguay, I had never tried a true “asado”- a kind of barbecue, cooked on wood. Last night was my first, and I think I'm still recovering; we ordered a dish for two people, which actually ended up feeding 5 people, and leaving some left over. I'm still baffled as to how any two people could ever eat that amount of food, but they reassured me that such people do, in fact, exist.
The practice of holding an 'asado' barbecue for your friends, thus becoming the 'asador', puts you in a high position on the culinary hierarchy. I imagine it a bit like hosting Christmas dinner for a huge group of friends; “Hey, look – I'm the best chef!”
Similarly in the field of drink, Uruguayan culture rallies around drinking mate tea. In groups of friends sitting and chatting together, walking along the street with friends, studying late at night ; any excuse, mate seems to pop up. Preparing it is a true skill; good 'servadores' can use the same mate leaves to produce multiple cups of tea (tip – look out for foam, the sign of a good mate!) - and those less fortunate can ruin their mate leaves within two cups. Within groups of friends, the especially talented servadores are known, and you can tell how seriously someone takes their mate drinking by their mate container. Mariana's had her initials engraved on it, and looked beautiful – the sign of a good servadora.
They told me that, although mate drinking was a key point in cultures of other countries in the region, Uruguayans were the only ones who would carry their mate around with them, complete with a thermos full of hot water, and drink it while walking on the street. And, true to form, when at Montevideo Airport, I saw lots of people taking out their mate from their special mate bags, and pouring themselves a cup while waiting at the departures gate!
But enough of food. For now. More later, on the fascinating politics, poorest president, and middle-road foreign policy!