Walking the Talk

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Dawn exercise in Hanoi, last week.

So, I’m 43 years old and last week I was taught how to walk properly. Turns out I hadn’t quite got it right these last four decades of trying.

The reason I needed the refresh, for something I’d taken for granted for so many years, was the amount of running I took on last year, to complete the personal challenge of finishing the Sapa Vietnam Mountain Marathon – a sizeable 70 kms, 3,000 metres and 13 hours of mountain running on the day itself.

By New Year’s Eve, I’d clocked up over 3,500 kms of running for 2017. Enough, it transpired, to ensure a memorable time in Sapa, but also to cause a serious malfunction in my left heel.

Many people in the world today have their sights set on personal challenges and an ambition for satisfying outcomes. Longer, faster, tougher –  the pursuit of something that seems unobtainable, combined with the thrill of proving, ultimately, that it isn’t.

I’ve written about why I like to run in previous posts. The programme of rehabilitation I’m now on, following 6 months of chronic heel pain and various misdiagnoses, I hope, will get me running again.

However, first, I’ve to fundamentally change a number of things I do in order to walk.

[For those of you interested, in addition to some sturdier inner soles, the tweaks made to my walking style include: keeping my chin up; shoulders further back; hips up and forward; feet pointed slightly inward; and then pushing off of the bottom of the ball of the big toe. There you have it, I’ll give that to you for free!]

It ended up being of little shock to learn that, when it comes to walking and running, I’ve been doing some of the basic things not quite right for many years now, and without realizing. A situation which feels analogous to other things in life.

To anyone familiar with my writing, it’s the development sector – my precious development sector – that springs to mind when making such comparisons, and how organisations, like CARE, seek to bring about change, and understand what change means.

Change can happen in a day, it can happen in a week, and sometimes it can take a lifetime. The type of change that CARE, and many working in this sector aim for is, you’ve guessed it, long-term change. Sustained, meaningful, generational outcomes. How does that manifest? As a sector we’ve collectively tried different ways and forms of intervening, and we’ve learnt a lot – some of which I’ve covered through blog posts, here and over on http://www.definitelymaybe.me.

Details aside, I think the biological analogy is a good one. After 6 months of trying to repair my heel using various interventions (including acupuncture, laser treatment, shock wave therapy, white blood cell injections – you name it, I experimented the hell out of it) the root cause of the issue was revealed to be connected to a bunch of things located far, far away from my Achilles heel. My neck, my shoulders, my core, my hips, my glutes, my quads, pretty much all the other parts of my body were conspiring against my heel.

It became instantly clear then that my heel would never improve unless all these constituent parts had received a full, physical makeover.

I’m fortunate to have found, just a week ago, a Vietnamese sports physio, named Danny Dong. Danny’s is a name I’ll not forget for a while, not merely because of the sheer charm it conveys (never since being introduced to a ‘Mr Phuc Dat’ the second week I arrived in Saigon, in 2011, has a name left such an endearing impression on me) but because Danny has helped put me on a road to recovery that feels as close to empowering as I’ve felt in a good long while.

This has not been without some ‘growing pains’. Earlier today, Danny took me through an agonizing session, reinforcing his instinctive advice (when first watching me move) of how the right side of my body is so much more flexible and stronger than the left.

Suspicions he had about this (and about the nature of my overly stiff hamstrings, and soreness in my right shoulder) he readily set about confirming, as he attacked the solid lumps of innate muscle tissue underneath my left foot – dormant for months since being rendered too contorted to be otherwise – and subjected me to a form of foot torture the likes of which I’ve never experienced.

Moments of writhing pain later, and an initial softening of some of the muscles in my foot, and he set to work on some of the other culprits (alas, there were many). But, as the old adage goes – there is no gain without pain.

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In social development terminologies, we know that to bring about change in a meaningful way, in countries such as Pakistan or Egypt or Sudan, does not always necessitate placing more resources directly into those contexts, but instead can be served better by resourcing elsewhere – around the policy making tables in Washington or in Brussels, perhaps.

Similarly, for many garment factory workers around the world, CARE has been able to build their individual agency and skills directly (through training courses, for example) however it is in dialogue with the world’s leading retail companies (whose procurement teams tend to be head-quartered in Hong Kong) that we stand more chance of influencing the conditions and the lives of garment workers, operating as they do out of the myriad of countries from where these buyers source products.

CARE does not have an office in Hong Kong, but there are ways and means of engaging these companies, provided 1.) we are clear on how the particular eco-system operates, and 2.) we are open to trying new approaches, and driving new conversations.

Just as I am now being schooled in how various parts of my body, overlooked for too long, each have an important role to play in the act of me walking.

Danny tells me that next week he is going to teach me how to run. Let me hope I can live up to his expectations and do so, and better than before and, fingers crossed, for another 43 years.

It seems to me that to do that – ie running “better” – requires me to make a continued shift (in my case, a literal ‘pivot’) on the topic of what I think running looks like in the first place.

And, as a concluding call to action from this particular reflection, I’d suggest, as a sector, that we take that spirit of reframing into as many of our discussions as we can.

We should take it into the exchange of ideas and engagement we have with our peers, or with the private sector and those companies with whom we partner, with policy makers, with local community leaders, activists, social changemakers, and the many others in society who are so often excluded, yet who we absolutely know hold the keys to unlocking many of the issues of the day, and of our time.

Let us never assume we know everything, and strive to be open to new ways of getting the job done – working, walking, running, scaling mountains, whatever our pursuit.

These things are all connected, and we can always find ways of improving, so that the learning curve each of us is on will never, in our lifetime, need plateau.

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Get Up, Stand Up

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Image credit: http://www.cesie.org

This time last week I was waking up in Tbilisi, a tad dusty from an extended evening’s drinking with a colleague of mine, a Dutchman named Gerard, who has been living there for a while, and who naturally felt it appropriate to show me a variety of places, for the short time I’d be staying in “his town”.

We begun the night hosted by CARE’s local team, at a Georgian restaurant, where each new plate of food was brought out under a fanfare of live music and dancing, along with rounds of increasingly hearty toasting.

Post-dinner, and several watering holes later, I found myself sampling the country’s famous “cha cha” – a sweeter version of the grappa I’ve had in Italy – which came as a welcome tonic, given my stomach walls were still adequately fortressed with cheese and carbs, enough to keep out the most stubborn of digestifs.

We decided, bleary-eyed at this stage, to hit up one more venue close by – a favourite “low-key” bar of Gerard’s. Upon arrival we found it morphed into a darkly lit techno den, complete with strobe effects and a whole new type of Georgian dancing, quite distinct to what we’d witnessed over dinner. Nonetheless, we indulged in a nightcap, and then left for home, our ears ringing.      Continue reading

Yolanda

Image courtesy of Ted Aljibe/AFP/Getty images

Image courtesy of Ted Aljibe/AFP/Getty images

You don’t need me to point out where this photo was taken, nor what messages sit behind the faces within it.

I only have admiration for those people who are on hand in the Philippines at the moment, helping, and only great sadness and hope for those whose lives have been altered forever.

For any long standing visitors to my blogs, it will hopefully have been made obvious by now that I have involved my organisation, CARE International, and the developmental issues we address around the world mainly as a platform from which to couch ideas and thoughts – mainly, in other words, as a lens through which I can write.

The world has collectively reacted to the images created by the Haiyan (Yolanda) typhoon, and we have all shared our thoughts with loved ones, friends, colleagues, people sat next to us on the bus.

Pointless as it typically is to try and immediately draw any conclusions as to what events like these ‘mean’, or what they reinforce to us all as fellow citizens on the planet, the one thing that remains tangible and easy for many of us to do, is support the work of those agencies who are, today, right now, saving lives.

It is not my intention to use this space again to promote CARE or the work of the other DEC (Disaster Emergency Committee) members, but today, and right now, that is what I am doing.

Here is a link through which you can lend your support:

http://www.careinternational.org.uk/news-and-press/latest-news-features/2459-typhoon-haiyan-this-will-haunt-me-for-a-long-time-

Migrating towards a better future

Many of you reading this post would likely say that you enjoy travelling overseas.  For individual reasons, there are those of us who are not always satisfied keeping within our own country borders, held back from roaming around new places, discovering new things.

As an Englishman living in Vietnam, there have been times when the systems have felt against me here in Saigon (the acquisition of Martha’s birth certificate a particular low point).  There are days when you want to close your eyes and re-open them back amongst more familiar surrounds and comforts.

At the same time, the benefits on offer to my family living over here are significant, and there are so many things I cherish about my day-to-day.  I am lucky: I have a good job; access to credit and to purchasing power; access to information; the ability to set up a bank account in a matter of minutes; a driving licence; a work permit.  All of which give me a sense of security and belonging here.

Several years ago, CARE launched a project in Bangladesh, India and Nepal, exploring ways in which we could support Nepali migrants who were forced to travel, live and work in India and Bangladesh.

The project is called EMPHASIS, and perhaps unwittingly, for anyone in the UK reading this who has ever bought a National Lottery ticket, you yourselves may have helped contribute to the work of EMPHASIS, as the initiative was funded by the Big Lottery Fund – http://www.biglotteryfund.org.uk – which uses some proceeds from UK Lottery ticket sales to invest in overseas programmes.

Last year I was in Kathmandu, Nepal, working with colleagues there on extending this project, and last week I got to visit one of the EMPHASIS Community Centres in outer Delhi, and in doing so got to meet an incredible group of people…

<a Continue reading

Choosing to be active

I have been in Dhaka this weekend, speaking at a conference about sustainable development in South Asia.  Sunday morning’s national papers in Bangladesh carried articles about the event, but also featured news about a tragic incident which took place in the city on Saturday evening.

Whilst conference delegates were stretching their legs between the day’s final session and the evening buffet dinner, a fire broke out in a garment factory in Ashulia, on the outskirts of Dhaka.  Reports currently offer figures of 120+ factory workers who perished in the blaze, and many people are still unaccounted for.

Another story about a factory fire in Asia.  This time it was Bangladesh, most recently it was one in a factory in Pakistan which made international news.

We are familiar with the “sweat-shop” issues raised so publically in the 1990’s, in terms of the disturbing conditions to which factory workers across Asia can be subject.  Many organisations since then, including CARE, have addressed the often hugely complex issues associated with the manufacture of items such as garments and electronics, and have successully run development programmes on factory floors, with factory owners, and in conjunction with the global buyers who sit at the top of the chain. Continue reading

And the result is…

Big day today.

Millions of Australians will end it comatose, as the annual Melbourne Cup tradition of drinking-your-entire-body-weight-in-beer-before-lunch will ensure that particular country’s collective outputs for 24 hours will be, at best, sub-optimal.

As the table-top dancing down under comes to a close, the United States of America will awake to Election Day, with polls still saying the result is “too close to call” – hopefully this is a canny angle to ensure media sales rather than pointing to the prospect of the world’s most powerful nation being led by Mitt “The Binder” Romney.

In Saigon, very little attention is being given to either of these events by the locals today.  Many international media outlets have tried to express what the US Election outcome will mean to the rest of the world.  For the lady who sold me a coffee on the street outside our office just now, it is implausible to find a connection between her daily grind with that of the politics playing out on the other side of the world.

But this gap is shrinking.  It will continue to take further generational change for some of the positive aspects of global citizenship to really shift the status quo.  But it will happen.  And the role of the private sector in accelerating this is finally being recognised.  Business as usual is changing. Continue reading

Human Wellbeing in the 21st Century

About 4 years ago I won a memorable hand of poker at Las Vegas’ Bellagio Casino (the one with the musical fountain display out the front, and which George and Brad robbed in Ocean’s Eleven).  Two red aces and $200 better off, and I’ve not since then allowed myself the chance of losing these winnings by making a return visit.

If I was a gambling man, I would put money on the fact that next time round I’d almost certainly come away empty-handed…

The Bellagio Initiative, a much newer institution than the casino, caught my eye last year not just because of the euphoric memories its name stirred within me, but because of the organisations who had established it, and the mission they had set themselves – namely, the collective pursuit of answers to some of the world’s most pressing and current questions. Continue reading

When in Islamabad…

The last day of August, and a setting sun has just drawn a very memorable week here in Islamabad to a serene close.

A final cup of tea out in the backyard of the CARE staff house, as our security guard bows his head onto a prayer mat on the front lawn, and Islam, CARE’s resourceful housekeeper, beams at me as he bounds off for a game of cricket.

I have grown fond of Islamabad, and this staff house, since arriving here a week ago, dog-tired as I was at the time from a day’s travel, trying to process the sounds and sights glimpsed in the dark through the window of the car that whisked me from the airport.

Over a final lunch with colleagues earlier today – who insisted on taking me to one of their favourite local BBQ restaurants – the true diversity, turmoil, humanity, and sheer respect for life, that course through the heartbeat of this country, finally sunk in. Continue reading