Bangladesh - my reading wishlist

14 August 2013

I've been looking for some books to read about Bangladesh for a while now, both fiction and non-fiction, so when a discussion about books covering the historical and political context of the country came up in an online group, I wanted to make sure these great suggestions didn't get lost.

Thanks to Jenny Gustafsson, Uzumaki Kyuubi, Allison Joyce, and Andrew Bostrom for the following suggestions! (And if you needed any persuading as to why you might want to find out more about this gorgeous country, check out this A-Z of what to love about Bangladesh by Jenny Gustafsson)

Non-fiction - history and culture

Economics/development

Literature

Memoirs/personal experiences

Any other suggestions, tweet me @zararah! 

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Mohammed Yunus, the Grameen Bank, and knowledge-brokers

07 August 2013

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. 

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A lazy person's guide to learning German

29 July 2013

Somehow I've been living in Germany for just over two years now, and with this experience I've found myself in the position of trying to give friends who are settling advice on coming over here, how to deal with German bureaucracy (argh) and, most recently, tips on learning German. So, just in case these links and resources are useful for anybody else out there, I thought I'd collect them all here.

To be completely up front, though; my German learning has been of the laziest kind. I have (or, had) many excuses; moving to a new country, starting a new job, not wanting to study after 8/9 hours sitting in front of my computer, and, shamefully, when I first arrived, thinking it wasn't actually that helpful, as I wasn't planning on staying in a German-speaking country quite as long as I have done!

But even without hours slaving over vocabulary lists, and grammar rules, and all sorts of not-so-entertaining means out there, there are other ways...

My first port of call was Deutsche Welle, an international public broadcaster based in Berlin. They have an incredible range of online German learning resources- and even better, they're all free.

My favourite: the Interactive German learning portal (click on the box on the right, “Start the Course”. It's an online portal that starts from the very basics (level A1, in language-learning speak); you sign in, and it remembers where you're at each time you leave the platform. It includes a range of activities; matching up words, listening comprehensions, grammar lessons, filling in the gaps.

It provides tests at the end of each mini level so you can assess how things are going, and you can choose whether you want the portal to be in English or in German at the top of the introduction screen. It's a good one to pick up and do for 10 minutes or so every few days until you get the basics, as it doesn't require too much time commitment each go.

If you want something to learn from that doesn't require you actually actively doing anything, I'd recommend their Langsam gesprochene Nachrichten – or, Slowly Spoken News podcast. Every day, a new 6-7 minute podcast is released of a native German man or woman reading out the day's news headlines, slowed down. In terms of language-learning this is a truly brilliant idea, as it gives the listener updated material that is genuinely interesting to hear, has a podcast for the same section of news read out at the actual speed, and you can also find the text that is read out, if you want to follow along.

Listening to this on my commute to work helped me hugely, though it did take me a while afterwards to get used to people speaking at a regular pace! Deutsche Welle also have a range of other resources, though I've never really used the others.

Other resources I've found helpful; this online dictionary from Leo. Before moving to Germany, my foreign language online dictionary of choice was always, always the great Wordreference.com – but it turns out their English-German section isn't great. (NB, for French and Spanish though, they're wonderful!)

On my iPhone I have an offline dictionary downloaded from dict.cc which has proven very helpful when needing to ask for insect repellant at the pharmacy, or double cream at the supermarket, for example.

I also downloaded a flash card app, after hearing that language-learning with flash cards was all the rage. I must admit though, that I'm not such a fan; perhaps it was just the way that I was using it, but coming across new words in conversation and learning them in context worked a lot better for me.

And last but not least; conversation! Speaking to German people. Making an idiot of myself, getting words mixed up, misunderstanding, but making people laugh and having lots of fun at the same time. I started speaking just a couple of minutes a day, and have gradually, over 18 months or so built up to having friends with whom I only speak German (though with many, many grammatical errors, the odd English word mixed in, and frequent confusion on my part!)

Caveat: the methods you use to learn a language depend a lot on two main things; first, what do you want to get out of it? For me, it was just speaking to people, understanding conversations, and not having to ask groups of German people to speak in English just because I was present. Writing good German is way down on my priority list, as I'm fairly certain I won't be needing it extensively in my job.

And second, how do you learn best? If you don't know, then try a few different things and see what sticks. Maybe it's flashcards, or podcasts, or simply writing yourself 10 words of new vocabulary a day for a few weeks. German is the first language I've learned without regular grammar classes and studying a few hours a week at least; but (and again, the excuses!) - I've just not been motivated to sit down and study after working all day. As I've found, though, not wanting to study so much is definitely not an excuse to at least giving it a go, and it really does make living in Berlin a much nicer experience!

**Updated, June 2014**

Learning while singing is easily one of the most fun ways to learn. There are various ways you can do this; listen to the song, for example, try and identify as many words as you can, and write down what you hear. Or, read through the lyrics while you're listening and try and sing along, or have a go at translating the lyrics to check you've understood. (and if you haven't- no big deal!).

I've used the songs of a friend of mine, Alin Coen, a lot for this, as lots of the lyrics are online, which helps a lot: she has some gorgeous songs, including Wolken (lyrics hereIch war hier (lyrics here); the heartbreaking 'Kein Weg Zurück (lyrics here), and the lovely Einer will immer mehr (lyrics here). There's lots more, but those are a few of my favourites, and happily lots have the lyrics already up online

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"Developed world" ≠ "unprejudiced world"

25 July 2013

Recently, I've been coming across a misconception that I'd like to address – that prejudices like racism and sexism don't exist in the so-called “developed” world.

I told some friends yesterday about some blatant sexism another friend of mine has been facing in her job in an investment bank in London.

“Seriously? In the UK?! That's unbelievable!”

Yes, believe it or not, sexism exists in the UK. Crazy, eh? You mean it didn't disappear after the Industrial Revolution?

Another example. One of the worst examples of outright sexism, or racism, or whatever you want to call it, that I've experienced came from a lawyer. Instead of putting out his hand to shake mine at a meeting, he gave me a 20 euro note, and told me to get him an avocado sandwich.

“Oh, you're not a secretary? Err... great. I'm still hungry though. And thirsty, actually. A coke would be great.”

And he, this great human rights lawyer, was from the United States.

One last story. A British friend of mine recently got back from Saudi Arabia, and he commented that while it was a good trip on the whole, he found it difficult to be in a place with such terrible domestic violence and terrible women's rights. Of course, women have far more civil liberties in the UK than those in Saudi Arabia, but are Brits really in a position to be judging others when there were 2.0 million cases of domestic violence in 2011/2012 in the UK?

His comment also reminded me of an article I had recently come across, citing that “More than a third of all women worldwide – 35.6% – will experience physical or sexual violence in their lifetime”. I've just been back to look at the article, and:

“Even in high-income countries, 23.2% of women will suffer physical and/or sexual violence from a partner in their lives”

It's the use of the world 'even' that I'd like to talk about here.

There seems to be a belief that people living in countries which are lucky enough to have developed infrastructure, who might happen to be further ahead with the Millennium Development Goals than other countries, who have access to water and high living standards, are inherently less prejudiced than those living in other parts of the world.

This belief is entirely misplaced. The fact you may have grown up with access to energy and water and education and food does not have any relation to the way in which you treat your fellow human beings. In fact, I have faced far more compassion and open-minded attitudes from strangers in global south countries than in the UK, where I grew up, or in Germany, where I live now.

The sexism and racism I've faced in my professional life has overwhelmingly come from people who grew up in, or consider themselves to be from, “developed” countries. Let's be clear here; the word “developed” refers only to living standards- high, or low. Access to water, a roof over your head, enough food to feed your family; that's it. It means that by some lucky fall of the dice, some of us have enjoyed higher living standards than others; nothing more, nothing less. Shockingly, there isn't a magical point at which an economy grows to a certain point and then racist and sexist people suddenly see the light.

Prejudices like racism and sexism transcend borders, cultures and societies. Sure, there are some countries or cultures who have worse track records in these than others; but to assume that wealth and living standard are the deciding factors in this is to ignore a whole range of other considerations. Assuming that we, in what we like to call “developed countries” are immune to such offences is naïve, offensive and plain wrong.

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Sexism and online bullying - Not in My Back Yard!

21 June 2013

Yesterday, I came across this article, "What happened when I started a feminist society at school" and it still has my blood boiling. In brief - a group of 16-18 year olds started a feminist society at school, and took part in the brilliant Who needs Feminism campaign.

The response from their male peers was horrific online abuse. The response from the school was encouraging the girls to stop the campaign and take down any photos in order to stop the abuse.

Even worse for me- the school in question is my old secondary school, Altrincham Girls Grammar School. It leaves me almost (but not quite) speechless to think that an institute of education for almost 1000 girls is trying to convey the message that sexist abuse is a problem of the victims and not of the abusers. It's not. 

The school's reaction should have targeted those carrying out the abuse, the boys writing those shamefully ignorant comments. I'm curious to find out whether the boys' school down the road, Altrincham Grammar School for Boys, reacted to this at all, or any other schools in the area.

Trying to make the girls keep quiet to 'avoid the bullying' isn't a solution, and it astounds me that anyone would ever try and make teenagers NOT stand up for the basic human right of equality. In my mind, the appropriate reaction to this horrible incident is speaking to those boys, and educating them about gender equality. Has this happened? And if not, why not?

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Data geek words - an English/Spanish vocabulary list

17 June 2013

I'm preparing for tonight's Datatón, and have been looking up lots of words in Spanish that I've never come across. True to language-student form, I've made myself a vocabulary list of data/internet/programming/punctuation words...

Data geek vocabulary list

to select - seleccionar

to choose - elegir

to look for/search for - buscar

to move - mover

to type - escribir a la máquina

to open - abrir

to cut - cortar

to copy - copiar

to paste - pegar

to extract - sacar

to obtain - obtenir

to inspect - examinar

to substitute - sustituir

to return to - regresar

to click on - hacer clic

to move your mouse over - pasar el ratón sobre...

right click on - hacer click derecho, o hacer clic usando el botón derecho

to scroll up/down - desplazarse hacia arriba/abajo en el texto

code - el código

tag - una etiqueta (eg, html tag = una etiqueta de html o simplemente una etiqueta html)

attribute - un atributo

field (of data) - campo de datos

cell - la celda

column - la columna

row - la fila

tab - una pestaña

top of the page - la parte superior de la página

bottom of the page - la parte inferior de la página

spreadsheets - las hojas de cálculo

mouse - el ratón

datasets - los sets de datos

data repository - el repositorio de datos

brackets ( ) - los paréntesis

square brackets [ ] - los corchetes

curly brackets { } - las llaves

angle brackets < > - los paréntesis angulares o corchángulos

browser - el navegador de internet

forward slash / - barra

backwards slash \ - barra inverso

pipes/vertical bar | - la pleca

@ symbol - arroba

quotation marks ”; ”; - comillas

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Uruguay (part 2)

16 June 2013

“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!

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Uruguay - meat, mate and Montevideo

15 June 2013

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!

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Understanding Contracts booksprint - how did it work?

13 November 2012

This blog first appeared on OpenOil.net

As you may already have seen, our “Understanding Contracts” booksprint was a success, and the book is now available for download from the OpenOil site. I had the chance to see the sprint from the start, and as you can imagine, it was a fascinating process.

One main point from the week was that, among the melting pot of experience from the authors, we brought together a group of people who would rarely (if ever) get the opportunity to pool all of this experience and work together, rather than simply remaining within their area of expertise and having a passing coffee at industry conferences.

This is a key point; it seems as though frequently the development world around extractive industries remains entirely separate to the industry world around extractives. As one of the authors commented; often, in terms of governance, all of the extractive industries (oil, gas, mining) are lumped together in one programme. However, this classification would never happen on a technical level; the number of companies that work in both oil and mining is very few, and on a more human level, I would guess that it is impossible to find someone who is both a petroleum engineer and a mining engineer.

Within the booksprint participants, we had a third whose experience lies heavily in the industry side of extractives; not CSR representatives, but oil and gas specialist lawyers, and an environmentalist who is consulting now to a large mining company. I like to think that this inclusion and genuine engagement of the industry in such a project gives it much more depth and value. It is great to see discussions of how to engage industry have become much more mainstreamed in initiatives such as EITI, through the multi-stakeholder group, but it’s also important to include technical experts from within the industry, not just social responsibility representatives.

The booksprint provided a great opportunity for people from these two ‘worlds’ to actually sit down and work together, and feedback from the participants showed that this was one of the aspects of the week that they most valued.

On another note, seeing the 10 participants work in such an untraditional method, which must have been quite a change to workshops that they are used to, was also very interesting to watch. It was facilitated by Adam Hyde, founder of BookSprints.net, who has now completed some 50 sprints, but none until now around the extractive industries. Some of the main principles of the book provided quite a departure from more conventional work ethics – for example, that nobody ‘owned’ their writing. Watching your writing being cut, edited, re-edited, and moved around, meant that any sense of proprietorship towards it had to be got rid of fairly quickly, to avoid being offended by future (or immediate!) edits.

The fact that all decisions had to be consensus driven also provided for some interesting discussions, but I’m pleased to report all fistfights were successfully avoided. Of course, those with expertise in certain areas took temporary ownership of writing certain sections, but once those were written, ownership was transferred and the chapters went through a thorough procedure of editing and re-editing. The collaborative software, Booktype, that we used for this was great too, as it allowed everyone to see what others were working on, as well as comparing back to previous ‘versions’ of specific chapters with coloured highlights of what exactly had been changed.

My role as ‘target reader’ for the book taught me a lot, and gave me the liberty to sit down with the authors of particular sections, ask for detailed explanation of complex issues within sections, and request rewrites, or in some cases simply rewrite it myself. However, my experience at OpenOil gave me a slight headstart to the actual imaginary target reader for the book, so to get this level of non-knowledge, we brought in someone with absolutely no experience of the industry.

It was great listening to complicated contract terms, or industry basics, being explained to him (with many questions!) – until they were in simple enough words for him to understand. Then, we would sit down and rewrite the section to a level that he understood, and voila, you have a guide for the non-specialist.

Of course, there are some sections (fiscal terms, for example) which are undoubtedly complex. With these, we had to accept that complex ideas need a lot of explanation, but I can testify that upon reading the section a couple of times over, and looking through actual contracts themselves, it does actually sink in and your understanding will deepen as you go along.

Having an illustrator in the room through the booksprint provided one (fun) way to try and explain complicated issues. Lynne’s method of asking people to come up with a title for their graphic before going into detail with her what it was about, was an efficient way to make sure that actual concepts were being explained in an easier way, rather than simply pictures to break the text up. And seeing an idea being turned into a beautifully illustrated graphic is great motivation to keep going!

As the pdf you can download now is the very first version of the book, complete with the occasional typing and formatting error, we ask everyone to bear with us while we go through the final copy editing procedure. Not all of the lovely graphics are included quite yet, but the final version will be released on November 30th.

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