Top 15 blogs of the year in 2017

Yukiko Suzuki: Through a Japanese lens

Joint winner of  the 2017 Trinity College Dublin and developmenteducation.ie development issues blog series, Yukiko Suzuki explores development through a Japanese lens.

When discussing development, it is most often measured by a country’s economic growth or through it’s performance based on the Human Development Index (HDI). Although developing countries have seen it as a global issue, most people living in developed countries might not often consider why ‘development’  matters so much.

Since I have grown up in Japan, where we are economically and technologically very highly developed, living in a developing country appears to be quite stark, by comparison. I can see a basic gap between people in developing countries and developed countries’ lives. Here, from a Japanese point of view, I would like to introduce two points that I think illustrate some differences between developed and developing countries.

Japanese demand for Washlets*

*This is a Washlet (Multifunction toilet (10th June 2012) Kambayashi (CC BY 2.0) via Flickr)

If you have ever travelled to Japan you would have been surprised by how Japanese toilets have evolved. If you have not, let me explain. Many Japanese public toilets are equipped with heated seats, automatic flush, bidet and noise generator. I must admit that there’s a certain Japanese genius in imagination that seeks a high quality of life in the bathroom.

The reason I mention our toilets is because it directly relates to a lack of access to clean water and proper sanitation; an important issue in many developing countries. Poor sanitation is one of the world’s biggest killers: it hits women, children, old and sick people hardest. Further, according to Unicef, poor water and sanitation result in economic losses estimated at £153 billion annually in developing countries, or 1.5% of their GDP. India, Nigeria, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Tanzania and Kenya are the highest-ranking countries in which people do not have access to proper, sanitary toilets and clean water.

In this sense, toilets in Japan may be too luxurious as compared to people in developing countries who experience a lack of access to proper sanitation and clean water on a daily basis. Once you have used Japanese toilets, on the other hand, you won’t find finer toilets anywhere else in the world.

24-hour convenience stores in your neighbourhood

You can see many convenience stores in Japan, and amazingly most of them are open 24/7. The variety of foods, drinks, sweets, magazines and daily necessaries can be obtained at a low price. For instance, if you buy a sandwiche in Dublin, it will cost on average at least €4. On the other hand, sandwiches cost only €2 in Japan. Further, if you need to use the toilet on your way home and it’s after 10 p.m., and of course most buildings and offices are closed, you can just drop in to a convenience store and there’s a bathroom you can use for free. Having convenience stores means ‘everything you need can be found in convenience stores in your neighborhood.’

On this point, it is easy to assume that there are no 24/7 convenience stores in developing countries. On the other hand, demand for 24/7 convenience stores would never decrease in Japan as there are so many people working until very late in the day to get food and drinks, and many college students go out and buy sweets and alcohol for their all-night parties from midnight.

In terms of food security, Japanese people pop into nearby convenience stores whenever they feel hungry or thirsty. At the same time, about 800 million people around the world remain chronically undernourished, most of whom live in countries across Africa. Such large numbers of people cannot get food even if they are starving, and suffering from extreme malnutrition.

When considering infrastructure in developing countries, in this context, stores shouldn’t open for 24/7 as it wouldn’t be profitable. In addition, there are many security issues raised if young women were to walk home at midnight, which would be considered too dangerous in many poorer countries.

‘Development’ makes our lifestyle much easier and more convenient, but only if you have access to those resources and technologies. Developed countries like Japan are eager to develop new technologies for further innovation, but they seem to be only expanding the gap between ‘developed’ and developing’ countries.

For people living in developing countries, washlet toilets and 24/7 convenience stores may not be necessary but access to proper sanitation and secure food sources for their basic needs (at a minimum) and livelihoods certainly is.

Terence Mullally: GDP – Good Development Policies or Grand Delusional Policies?

Joint winner of  the 2017 Trinity College Dublin and developmenteducation.ie development issues blog series, Terence Mullally dons his philosophy hat to explore what ‘development’ means.

Is development having a Google headquarters in your country?

Is development having large institutions in your country?

Is development a booming economy in your country?

Is development the presence of multinationals in your country?

Is a development a low corporate tax rate in your country?

Is development a better standard of living for people in your country?

Is development a better future for children in your country?

Is development having bicycles instead of horses in your country?

Is development having cars instead of bicycles in your country?

Is development having electric cars in your country?

Is development a house with slates rather than thatch in your country?

Is development feeling safe in your country?

Is development access to healthcare in your country?

Is development a more mundane concept?

Is it clean drinking water in your country?

Is it a bed to sleep in at night in your country?

Is it three meals a day in your country?

Is it free education for all in your country?

Is it equal opportunities for all in your country?

Is it a job to go to in your country?

Is it a Leviathan state that provides some level of equality between all in your country?

The answers to the above are determined by which country you live in.

Ask someone in Sweden.

Then ask someone in sub Saharan Africa.

Catriona O’Connor: Dinner party development

Catriona O’Connor’s blog is a runner up in the 2017 Trinity College Dublin and developmenteducation.ie Development Issues blog series

The topic of development is one of constant discussion between academics, socialites and bar-stool politicians in modern society. We analyse the concept from an economic perspective, detaching ourselves from the lives it touches and assess from an economics perspective; is it sustainable? will it grow? will we ever reach a point of total development or just continue to play a game of catch up in the standards that divide different parts of the world? Some of us are more empathetic in our approach to the issue, discussing the quality of life, exploring socio-economic factors that influence the inequalities of wealth in our world, discussing the choices and events that lead us each to the position we hold in the world today. But can we ever, as the ‘developed’, truly comment on the inequality and importance of development without sounding just that little bit privileged or ignorant?

Development is a complex and multi-faceted expression that considers social, political and economic factors. It cannot really be discussed without reference to inequality. It is not a blanket term; something is not simply developed, or not.

In modern society, we explore development within a country predominantly with comparisons to another. In 1998, Indian economist Anartya Sen explored development as ‘concern with the achievement of a better life’ and from this perspective, whether born into the 1% or the 99%, we can all understand the journey of development. We will never quite have the life we want, always striving for more. So the term “developed” is redundant. It is a never-ending journey, never quite achieved.

Coming from a ‘developed’ country, I think it is particularly difficult to speak accurately on the topic of development when so much of our position comes down to luck of the draw. We discuss poverty, hunger and deprivation as if we have any personal understanding of these things ourselves. We casually explore the ‘means of progression to bridge a gap of inequality’ but most of us cannot even comprehend what it is like to be personally restricted by the country to which we were born.

Photo: Escondido (31st December 2008) Alex Lanz CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 via Flickr

We analyse through statistics and data, foster theories from our conclusions, but we are not empathetic to the struggle presented by the gap. I do not assume to say that one must have personally gone through the struggle to be able to empathise or aspire to help, but I fear that we become to detached from these struggles through our privilege. We remove humans from our equations and have a tendency to consider these less developed countries only as the statistics they present on a page.

We are not coming at development from a bad place but perhaps in a bad way. The inequality gap has become so great that it’s created an ‘us’ and ‘them’ attitude in our eyes. Sen explores development in a way that is not purely focused on economic factors – income is not the beginning and end of our value. The inequality that exists today makes it more important than ever to bridge the gap but it also makes it more difficult to do so.

It is important and necessary to discuss and tackle issues of unequal development and, crucial to remember when we do so, not to dismiss other types of living simply because to us they appear to be missing something.

As a concept, a theory and a conversation topic ‘development’ is problematic but it is, however, essential.

Photo credit: Escondido (31st December 2008) Alex Lanz CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 via Flickr

Dillon Hennessy: Development is…

Dillon Hennessy’s blog is a runner up in the 2017 Trinity College Dublin and developmenteducation.ie Development Issues blog series

What is development? Does it matter? What does it mean to me to live in an unequal world? Today I want to talk about what I think development is, drawing on the work of Nobel Prize winning Indian economist Amartya Sen.

I am inclined to agree with Sen that development is essentially about freedom. Freedom is an elusive concept. People have been willing to fight and die for ‘freedom’ as an ideal, but people are also prone to take the reality of freedom for granted.

The freedom that Sen refers to is the ability to make meaningful decisions about your life and the path you wish to take. In this instance, meaningful means that you have at least two options available to you when it comes to making important life decisions, such as where to go to school or what career to pursue. It does not mean always getting what you want, but rather having the option or ability to make a decision that ultimately, may not work out. This definition is both the most useful and the most problematic of all the available definitions.

It is useful in that, I believe, it encapsulates what we all really want from a ‘developed’ society. It is problematic because it is difficult to measure. When people speak about using Gross Domestic Product (GDP) to measure development I believe they are actually referring to the benefits wealth brings people in terms of personal freedoms. A wealthy individual can choose whatever they want in life, from where to live to what car they drive. Poorer people are often restricted in their choices based on limited resources. They may not be able to afford college or a car and so those choices are not available to them. They’re restricted in their capabilities.

Basically, there are two dominant schools of thought about how best to measure how developed a country is, each one focusing on different metrics. Firstly, there are those who purely measure the GDP of a country and argue it correlates directly with ‘development’. This is the most predominant school of thought.

Secondly, there are those, such as Sen, who argue that the best way to measure development is to look at several different factors, including life expectancy, mean years of schooling and GNI per capita to put together a Human Development Index (HDI). This HDI, which embodies Sen’s capabilities approach, serves as a criterion by which development is measured.

Whichever way you choose to measure development, I think we can all agree it is of paramount importance.

There is an altruistic argument for development, which is very straightforward. It is not right that some people, by a fluke of birth, enjoy the benefits of development while others do not. For the altruist, it is important that we lift people out of destitution and into a situation where they can flourish and contribute to society. They see it as morally good and noble to help others. For those who are more pragmatic and less selfless, fostering development still makes sense.

In our increasingly globalised world, we can no longer ignore or quarantine the problems created by underdevelopment. From environmental damage leading to climate change, to terrorist states sending shock waves across the globe, to the dwindling supplies of resources we need to survive, the suffering of those in developing countries has practical consequences for us all.

For me, living in an unequal world means missing out on the contributions of incredibly talented people who never had a platform to express themselves. Einstein, Picasso, Mandela, Ray Charles, and people from every field of human achievement have benefited from greater inclusivity and accessibility to the trappings of development. A world without a stable architecture to foster learning and the pursuit of knowledge in diverse environments is a sterile one, and inequality perpetuates that sterility.

Photo credit: Development (2008) tgraham. CC-BY-SA 2.0 via Flickr

Kick-Starting our Humanity : Compassion Fatigue and Syria’s “Lucky Few”

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Eimhin O’Reilly’s  blog was a runner up in the 2015 Trinity College Dublin and developmenteducation.ie Development Issues blog series. All photography courtesy of Alexandre© . 

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It is a tragic fact of life that the issues that need to be talked about the most are often the things we have the most trouble saying. Discussions of development and the unequal state of our world today are no exception.

When we are faced with the unconscionable suffering of so many of our fellow human beings, it is easier to shy away from the problem than to face it head-on. We fall victim to compassion fatigue all too often. We find ways to shut off our natural empathy. Yet every once in a while, something comes along that reinvigorates our humanity.

It can be explosive – the image of a dead child on almost every newspaper in Europe – or it can come in a quieter form, a personal moment of harrowing clarity. I’d like to take a minute to share one such personal moment.

It’s five in the evening in Brussels’ Grand Place, and the city is bracing itself for another chilly October evening. I’ve arrived uncharacteristically early, but there are worse places to be left waiting.

I’ve arranged to meet with another expat – someone who is more or less equally lost here. I know next to nothing about him, not even where he’s from. I just know his name. Let’s call him Alexandre. Short, slight, and charming, Alexandre spoke in slightly broken English, but with an admirable confidence that allowed him to talk about anything and everything.

We walk and chat about the usual fare – interests, books, travel. For two strangers in a strange land, we get on remarkably well.

As we’re meandering through the city, trying to find our bearings, we stumble across a razor-wire barricade, flanked by two rifle-bearing soldiers. I, like any Irishman abroad, mention how eerily bizarre it is to see guns out in the open. I don’t think I’ll ever forget Alex’s reply: “In Aleppo I saw blood on the streets every day”.

These words were a much-needed reality check – something to bridge the distance between me and the images we all see every day of almost uncountable groups of displaced people. The numbers are simply so staggering that they can be hard to picture in material terms.

At the start of 2015, over 60 million people worldwide had been displaced by violence – the highest number since World War II. Over a million refugees crossed over into Europe in 2015, the majority coming, like Alexandre, from war-torn Syria.

Yet here was someone who had lived through it, a real, tangible link to the events that had captured the world’s attention. I had been talking to him for almost an hour, but the moment I heard him talk about his homeland, I was struck by a range of emotions. I felt sorry for the suffering that entailed. I felt selfish for having spoken about myself for so long. Most of all, I was awed by our similarities – and our differences.

We both want the same things – education, friends, family. For me, these things can come almost organically, for Alex, it’s a struggle.

He’s starting to take classes in Dutch; a stepping-stone to studying full-time. He wants to become a doctor – he says he wants to help people – but he’ll settle for biomedical engineer. Alex counts himself lucky – a miracle, to use his words. Many of his friends are still in Aleppo, and they miss each other deeply.

As for his family, they thankfully made it out alive. As Christians, they have faced brutal persecution – a situation which led the Belgian government to evacuate and grant asylum to some 240 Syrians last July (as reported by the BBC). Twenty of those that were rescued were Alexandre and his family.

Alex had a small garden on his balcony in Aleppo
Alex had a small garden on his balcony in Aleppo

It has been said time and time again that the refugees crossing into Europe are the lucky few – those who were able to flee the conflict, those who could afford the crossing, those who were physically able to make the dangerous journey. Last year over one million made this journey. We’re only 61 days into 2016 and 132,791 people have put their lives on the line in making the perilous journey to Europe, according to the UN Refugee Agency.

The view from Alexandre's balcony days later
The view from Alexandre’s balcony days later

 Alexandre, with his official visa and forthcoming citizenship (thanks to his Belgian grandmother), thinks of himself as even more privileged. He even spent his summer in Greece, helping in any way he could as a volunteer translator of Syrian Arabic.

Alex’s case surprised me in many ways.

His experiences tell a story of remarkable resilience, and incredible good fortune. He is, in everything he does, a deeply empathetic person- a quality that we could all use a little more of.

Alexandre's balcony today
Alexandre’s balcony today

For now, it seems that the Irish people are, at the very least, trying to do their part, pledging over 10,000 beds to refugees over the summer period last year. But with the intensification of the migrant crisis, and the recent Irish general election, it is now more important than ever to keep this pressure up, to keep our empathy at the forefront of this discourse.

For me, Alexandre’s story highlights the human side of this crisis. By sharing it, we hope it can do the same for you too.

We round a corner and stop at the church of Notre-Dame du Sablon. We feel almost compelled to enter. Standing under its gothic arches, I felt for the first time that this building was someplace truly special – sacred even. After all, I was in the presence of a miracle.

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The Trinity College Dublin development issues series is run in partnership with undergraduate students on the Democracy and Development course in the Department of Political Science and developmenteducation.ie

First World Problems…for Irish college students

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Ciara Molloy‘s blog was a runner up in the 2015 Trinity College Dublin and developmenteducation.ie Development Issues blog series.

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For a middle-class, native Irish college student born in the 1990s, development is a relative concept. Having not been immersed in a developing country or experienced the conditions of life that the Third World imposes my conceptualisation of development is sadly limited. Although ‘Third World’ is a highly contested term, a comparison of First World problems with their Third World counterparts allows for a general understanding of development to emerge.

In this way, grounded through the problems that characterise life in the developed world, even a sheltered Irish college student can achieve enlightenment. Below are the five most common First World problems that Irish college students experience:

#5 Having to break a €20 note to buy a Luas ticket.

Photo: Luas at night (22 Oct 2007) Thomas Fitzgerald. CC-By-NC-2.0 Via Flickr
Photo: Luas at night (22 Oct 2007) Thomas Fitzgerald. CC-By-NC-2.0 Via Flickr

Especially since the Luas machines only give out coins as change, this first world problem renders transportation a chore at times. However, in developing countries such as Pakistan, these key infrastructures remain unconstructed due to government inefficiency, corruption and bad planning . Despite 15-25% of annual expenditure in Pakistan comprises infrastructure projects, chronic problems such as congestion and extensive commuter times remain.

The next time you board a jammed Luas clutching €18.20 in change, smile at your fellow commuters and enjoy the fact that you are moving towards your destination; no matter how uncomfortable that journey may be!

#4 Your laptop decides to install Windows updates…midway through a tutorial.

A personal pet hate of mine, Windows 8 always seems to need to reboot itself at the most inopportune moment. Though technological developments such as mobile phones are becoming more widespread in developing countries, room for improvement is needed. Just 29.8% of the population in developing nations have access to the internet, compared to 76% in the developed world.

An increased diffusion of technology could assist in boosting the level of development in developing country , as well as fostering tolerance of cultural diversity. So next time your laptop decides to update itself when you most need it, remember to pause and take a deep breath – the situation could be far worse!

#3 Having more than 3 lectures per day (for Arts students).

Or even worse, having these three lectures in a row can result in loss in concentration, general lethargy towards the topics being discussed and significant incentives to skip the final lecture and go grab a cup of coffee. In stark contrast, developing countries are characterised by a lack of educational opportunities relative to their developed counterparts. In sub-Saharan Africa, over 11 million children do not complete primary education.

Over 66% of the world’s illiterate population are female, and according to the UN 12% of the world’s population could be lifted out of poverty if students were given the opportunity to develop basic reading skills. This almost makes the busy timetable of an Arts student seem somewhat manageable…

Photo: Classroom photo 2 (May 17 2011) Steven Tan. CC-NC-ND-2.0. Via Flickr
Photo: Classroom photo 2 (May 17 2011) Steven Tan. CC-NC-ND-2.0. Via Flickr

#2 Going on a night out even though you have an assignment to write for the following day.

Sometimes a night out in Coppers is just the therapy you need to de-stress from college pressures. Yet this high quality of life and high level of discretionary income is sometimes lacking in developing countries. In Ireland, the personal discretionary income of an individual per month averages between $2500 and $3000, while in Uganda this is less than $400.

Many individuals in developing countries survive on a subsistence basis, with discretionary income a relative rarity. The moral of the story is: be grateful for Coppers, and more importantly, the high quality of life you enjoy that aids such ill-advised night-time excursions.

#1 Your roommates don’t leave you enough fridge space for groceries.

There can always be adjustment problems with moving into new accommodation, especially when it involves sharing communal facilities. Though rents are notoriously exorbitant, especially in Dublin city centre, generally student accommodation at least comprises a roof and four walls.

The UN International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights asserts that realising the right to adequate housing is essential to improve living standards among low-income households. However, demand for housing exceeds supply as population growth in developing countries is rising exponentially.

Based on the 2011 Indian Census, it is estimated that 64 million Indians live in slum housing that is ‘unfit for human habitation’. Perhaps having roommate problems is not so bad after all.

Overall, growing discontented at times with college life is frequent and to some extent natural, but such problems pale in comparison to the challenges that developing countries face. Though this blog emphasises statistical evidence to highlight the discrepancies between the First and Third World, quantitative analysis is not the foundation of understanding development. Rather, only through empathising with the plight of our counterparts in the developing world can we begin to move towards greater equality.

Placing our First World problems in perspective is the first step towards gaining this empathetic outlook – and consequently, is also the first step towards development.

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The Trinity College Dublin development issues series is run in partnership with undergraduate students on the Democracy and Development course in the Department of Political Science and developmenteducation.ie

Fair Trade – a Rich World solution to a Rich World problem

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Craig Allen’s challenge to the Fairtrade movement is a runner up blog in the 2015 Trinity College Dublin and developmenteducation.ie Development Issues blog series.

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Fair Trade is envisioned as a modern mechanism that allows every day westerners to aid people in poorer countries by paying a “fairer” price for Fair Trade goods such as coffee, cotton or bananas. It’s different to aid or charity, because we’re helping others help themselves and allowing them to create a sustainable base to grow their communities and local economy.

On paper, that sounds excellent – exactly what Foreign Aid should be doing. So why is that a bad thing?

It Doesn’t Work

The Fair Trade movement is a bit like a child who puts a tortoise in deep water. All they’re trying to do is help, but they don’t realise that the tortoise can’t swim. When you explain this to them, they don’t understand because they have seen turtles swim and to the child’s mind, a turtle and a tortoise are the same thing.

In a similar way, the Fairtrade movement’s intentions are geared towards helping poorer farmers, but they don’t understand the deeper economic implications of their actions; that artificially raising prices only makes people worse off in the long run.

How does this happen?

Take a simple example: Rodrigo is paid €1 for each pound of Arabica coffee he makes.

The Fairtrade movement doesn’t think that’s enough and wants to pay Rodrigo €2 for a pound of Arabica coffee. Rodrigo now has double the amount of money compared to what he had before, so how can he actually end up having less?

Photo (Flickr) : ' It's really good to see fair trade products in supermarkets' (Dec 30 2005) jaimelondonboy. CC-by-nc-nd.
Photo : ‘It’s really good to see fair trade products in supermarkets’ (Dec 30 2005) jaimelondonboy. CC-BY-NC-ND . Via Flickr

First, the setting of a price floor (paying a minimum price for goods) distorts world supply and demand. Now that coffee is worth more, there is a larger incentive for coffee growers to grow more of it (why sell eggs for €1 a pound when you can sell coffee for €2?).

This increases the world supply of coffee, but the increase in demand is artificial. Coffee growers outside of free trade schemes, therefore, and the coffee Rodrigo sells not under free trade will devalue. When there’s an oversupply of a good the price collapses (short briefing on this provided by Joe Leadbeater of Oxfam  in 2003).

While Rodrigo will receive €2 for some of the coffee he sells the rest he may receive €0.50 for, and if you happen to be Hans, the coffee grower that lives next to Rodrigo, and don’t have a Fair Trade contract then you just receive the new actual market rate of €.50. Why? Because there’s a third guy, Jonas, who used to grow wheat for €1 a pound, but now that he thinks coffee can make him much more money, he switches production.

But there’s nobody to buy all the extra coffee – us westerners only want one Mocha Latte a day so the price for everyone falls because we end up with too much coffee. If all of your coffee is sold under Fair Trade then sure, you’re making more money, but all of your friends, and the community as a whole, are making a lot less.

An Adam Smith Institute report picked up by The Guardian in 2009 on ‘unfair trade’ concluded that Fairtrade is responsible for impoverishing non-Fairtrade farmers:

By guaranteeing a minimum price, Fairtrade also encourages market oversupply, which depresses global commodity prices. This locks Fairtrade farmers into greater Fairtrade dependency and further impoverishes farmers outside the Fairtrade umbrella. Economist Tyler Cowen describes this as the “parallel exploitation coffee sector”.

Why does this happen?

When Fair Trade started it had such a small impact on the market that these things weren’t a problem. If you go out and pay the local fruit seller double the odds because you think he deserves it then you’re not affecting any sort of global, or even local demand.

However, Fair Trade is now a billion dollar industry all by itself. Which means its actions have a knock on effect on the entire market.

Coffee-dependence3

By artificially increasing the demand, we make sure those regions produce as much coffee/bananas as possible and don’t produce other goods such as corn. This devalues the real value of the good (oversupply), leading to reduced income and can lead to an under supply of other goods (such as wheat/corn).

This can possibly benefit the wheat and corn farmer, but overall, it leads us to messing with the market rates of developing countries which, now that fair trade is a multi-billion dollar industry, can be quite drastic. I’m sure I don’t need to explain the effects of having a wheat shortage.

Photo: 'Bono in Mali' (21 May 2006) Ofam America. CC-BY-NC-ND. Via Flickr
Photo: ‘Bono in Mali’ (21 May 2006) Ofam America. CC-BY-NC-ND. Via Flickr

Fair Trade policies create a system that devalues the price of commodity goods worldwide.

It does, however, make the plethora of westerners who enjoy a nice warm cup of coffee on a cold weekday morning happy that they’re doing what they can to help poor in the best possible way.

It removes their guilt for exploiting those in other countries.

Fair Trade acts to ease the conscience of western consumers worldwide rather than making significant improvements in living standards across the developing world.

It’s a solution by the rich, for the rich and the only way to develop a serious system that helps those in poorer countries is to remove how “good” Fair Trade is from the western psyche and develop something entirely different that actually understands how the world markets work.

We need a knowledgeable adult, because as it stands, Fair Trade is an ignorant child.

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The Trinity College Dublin development issues series is run in partnership with undergraduate students on the Democracy and Development course in the Department of Political Science and developmenteducation.ie

Development Travel Guide: Reflections on global development issues through my travels

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Ellen Brennan’s  blog was a runner up in the 2015 Trinity College Dublin and developmenteducation.ie Development Issues blog series.

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When I was 5 years old I made my first trip abroad to Nogales, Mexico, only one hour from my home in the US. Up until that point I had grown up in a sheltered and affluent suburb of Tucson, Arizona. I always had enough to eat, I lived in a nice home, and I went to a good school. These were all things I took for granted as a child, things I assumed all children around the world had access to.

While I don’t remember much from that age, I remember vividly the shock I felt when I first crossed that border and saw children my age selling packets of gum on the street to help feed their families. It didn’t make sense to me that people who came from a place that was, at least geographically and culturally, very similar to my own home lived such a drastically different life.

Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson shed some light on this ‘tale of two cities’ so to speak in their book Why Nations Fail. They conclude that the extractive institutions set up by Spanish colonial powers in Mexico’s early years are to blame for the drastically different levels of development north and south of the border.

Development has been an uphill climb in many, if not all, of Spain’s former colonies because of the legacy of corruption, exploitation of people and resources, and nepotism the Spanish conquistadors left in their wake. Democracy has only been a reality in Nogales since 2000 and while this is a major step forward for development, many of the old issues still persist.

However, it’s wrong to blame these issues on the Mexican people; they are a victim of history and circumstance. Understanding the depth and origin of the problem is the first step to finding a solution so that someday Tucson and Nogales won’t be so different.

Fifteen years after my first trip to Mexico I find myself living and traveling around the most developed part of the world, Western Europe. People in Europe live extremely well. It’s easy to see that walking around the immaculately clean streets of Vienna, shopping in the design shops of Copenhagen, driving through the chateaus in the south of France, having a drink on the side of the river in Prague or eating pretty much anything in Italy.

Photograph: Venice, Italy. Courtesy of Ellen Brennen.
Photo: Venice, Italy (April 9th, 2014) by of Ellen Brennen.

Europeans are lucky enough to enjoy this lifestyle because education is available to everyone. Anyone can start their own business. It is easy and beneficial to invest. You can complain about the government, the police genuinely protect us, war is a thing of the past and jobs are based on merit and skill. Most Europeans, and really anyone in a so-called ‘developed’ nation, are proud of their culture, freedoms, and ‘advanced’ way of life. That makes it easy to visit a poorer place like Nogales, rural Turkey or Vietnam, and feel not only lucky to live in a ‘developed’ nation, but also judgmental, like somehow ‘we’ are doing things better than ‘them’.

However, the reality is actually the opposite. As Hans Rosling explains in his Ted Talk ‘New Insights on Poverty’ the nations many view as underdeveloped are not only catching up, but also developing at a rate faster than the currently rich and advanced European nations could have ever dreamed of. Rosling shows that nations in Africa have gone from 5th century Europe to 20th century Europe in barely 50 years. That incredible change makes it clear that it’s actually these nations that are doing things not just right, but better than we ever did. While today the differences are still stark, the potential is enormous.

Parc naturel régional des Causses du Quercy, France. Courtesy of Ellen Brennan
Parc naturel régional des Causses du Quercy, France. Courtesy of Ellen Brennan

When we travel we see very little of a place. It’s like watching only one second of a movie and assuming you’ve seen the whole story.

The reality is that without genuinely learning about a nation’s past it’s impossible to understand its present and future.

Mexico’s past was shaped by Spanish colonialism. That legacy lives on today not only in language and culture, but in the institutions. When you’re pulled over in Mexico by the police for no reason and asked for a bribe this is not because Mexicans are inherently more corrupt than everyone one else; it’s because that’s how the nation has functioned since the beginning and changing that will take time and collective action.

Likewise, farmers across Africa don’t use old-fashioned farming equipment and techniques because they don’t know about the new advancements. They do it because there’s no incentive for them to produce more food because ever since colonial days the government extracts everything they produce, no matter what.

Understanding the backstories of a place allows us to look forward and realise not only how to help make a positive change worldwide, but also how far they’ve really come.

The ‘developing’ nations of the world deserve more credit. They’ve achieved the unimaginable and, as history has shown, their future is bright.

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The Trinity College Dublin development issues series is run in partnership with undergraduate students on the Democracy and Development course in the Department of Political Science and developmenteducation.ie

Cradle to Grave

trinity-seriesLynda Kelly’s blog was the overall 2015 winner of the Trinity College Dublin and developmenteducation.ie Development Issues blog series. The shortlist of blogs will be published as part of the series in the coming weeks.

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What is development? Does it matter? I think the best way for me to answer these questions is to share what I call my eureka moment. Some might say it happened too late in my life, I was in my 40s, but it changed my life all the same.

For me the only development I ever cared about was here in Ireland. How the government was planning on securing more foreign investment and encouraging more U.S. companies to locate in Ireland was my only concern.

Like most people of my generation, emigration was our only way to find work. In the 1980s I joined the thousands of Irish in Britain looking for work. Finding employment was my only concern.

In truth, what was going on in the Third World, developing world as it’s called now, did not affect me in any way. It never touched my life directly.

Over the years I heard my mother talk about collecting money for the ‘Third World’ babies when she was a child and we always had a Trocáire collection box in the house. I guess these helped me to become desensitised to images of starving children and endless news feeds of yet another famine. As shamed as I am to say it, I just didn’t care.

My life started to change in the 1990s with the wave of US companies locating manufacturing in Ireland; Intel, HP, 3Com, Panasonic, Philips and Gateway all set up locations in Dublin, offering secure jobs and good wages. The city had never experienced such high levels of employment.

The transformation from slum city to cosmopolitan had begun.

People had money in their pockets and liked it. At this time I worked in Dublin as a logistics administrator, and over the next twenty years progressed up the career ladder to the role as logistics/supply chain manager for a leading global logistics company. My company’s catch phrase was “Cradle to Grave” and by this we meant that our company could move electronic components around the world to and from manufacturing sites and back again.

Within the supply chain this is known as a cradle to grave solution.

Photo: img_0050 (1st Jan, 2010) by baselactionnetwork. CC BY-ND-2.0 via Flickr.
Photo: img_0050 (1st Jan, 2010) by baselactionnetwork. CC BY-ND-2.0 via Flickr.

It was only when I saw photographs of some electronic e-waste mountains in the developing world did I realise what the true cradle to grave process for electronic components is.

We in the west legally ship our e-waste to the developing world. These mountains of e-waste kill thousands of people each year. They seep gasses and toxins into the air and into the land so it can never be used for agriculture again.

These toxins also leak into the water supply killing fish. They destroy the farming community. Our rubbish is killing people and destroying our planet.

I worked in the industry for over twenty years priding myself on how well I did my job. Now I wonder how we can fix this. What ‘development’ means to me today is working to create a cleaner healthier world for all humans.

Photo: 2 minutes 23 seconds (28th June, 2007) by CAVE CANEM. CC BY-SA 2.0 (via Flickr).
Photo: 2 minutes 23 seconds (28th June, 2007) by CAVE CANEM. CC BY-SA 2.0 (via Flickr).

We are all so busy manufacturing these electronics and buying into the retail hype to have the latest and greatest gadgets that we never stop to think what happens to the old units.

Development is not just about governments and democracy it is also about the protection of humans, natural resources and our planet. The phrase ‘cradle to grave’ has a very different meaning for me today.

I now know what happens to the electronic components I worked so hard to help manufacture, ship and sell. These are the very units killing whole generations of communities and destroying our world.

I am studying political science and geography in Trinity College Dublin in the hope that my years of logistics experience with my degree will lead me to a role helping to find solutions to e-waste management. We need to find ways to stop the west dumping its electronic waste in the developing world under the illusion of recycling.

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The Trinity College Dublin development issues series is run in partnership with undergraduate students on the Democracy and Development course in the Department of Political Science and developmenteducation.ie

For more on e-waste see: