New Years

Happy Chinese New Year! Or Lunar New Year. Tet. What ever you call it. Monkey has arrived.

This year, 2016 as we see it in the Gregorian calendar, aka known as the western / christian calendar (you know, the globally accepted one) there’s been already 2 further New Year celebrations. Russians celebrate theirs at the begin of January, followed by the Lunar / Chinese one. It’s quite interesting we are able to celebrate so many “new years” and still keep track of birthdays and meetings.

My decision to work over the public holidays for Chinese NY, gave me a chance to experience the busy business district turn into a ghost city. There was no one around, not a sole. I stood in the middle of a normally busy crossroad, just waiting to see at least one car. Eventually I gave up and went to the office. For the first time I wasn’t cold as the air-con had been turned off for the holidays. Advanced thinking, Singapore! I had been warned I might go hungry but luckily in this food-paradise city-state someone is always willing to cook for me. This time it was the Indians who kept me fed.

Singapore seems to value it’s multi-cultural existence by providing an equal amount of public holidays for all major ethnic groups. Chinese, Indian, Muslim and christian holidays get a pretty equal share of the public holidays.  For other expats, it’s an opportunity to dive into many cultural happenings and celebrate life and new beginnings.

Isn’t that the connotation of a new year – it’s a new beginning. A chance, an opportunity. Some of us are lucky to get that chance a bit more often than others. If you missed yours, no worries. There are more new years coming up – a fun one is coming up in Thailand in April. Thailand’s Songran is celebrated for at least 3 days by throwing and sprinkling water. Mostly throwing. Don’t get fooled though, although it’s a New Year celebration, their calendar has already turned to 2559 aligning with 2016. But hey, let’s forget the calendars, and just celebrate! Cheers, to all the new years equally!

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Food is not Waste

My parents brought me up with a strong ecological sense of never wasting food, by filling my sensitive mind with images of starving Russian kids. Russia was a much more understandable context rather than Ethiopia or another developing country of which I certainly had never heard of as a young kid. I was always told to finish my plate and show respect for the meal. My parents succeeded so well in touching my conscience that to this day I think of starving babies every time I’m unable to finish my plate and feel miserably guilty.

30 years later, and the world is still full of hungry people. In Russia, in Ethiopia and in many other countries – malnourishment affects one in three people worldwide and is linked to nearly half of deaths among children under the age of five. This is happening, despite the fact that enough food is produced to feed every single person in the world. There’s no global food shortage yet hundreds of millions of people are hungry and severely under-nourished. The world doesn’t lack food, but we do lack sufficient infrastructure.

I’m currently working on organizing a large forum focusing on food and agriculture, with an aim to bring global leaders from governments, businesses and non-profits together to find solutions for improved agriculture, food production and farmer livelihoods. Food waste is one of the interesting topics I’ve had a chance to learn more about, adding now facts to the bad conscience.

FAO publishes interesting statistics and insights into the food waste:

 

  • Roughly one third of the food produced in the world for human consumption every year — approximately 1.3 billion tonnes — gets lost or wasted.
  • Food losses and waste amounts to roughly US$ 680 billion in industrialized countries and US$ 310 billion in developing countries.
  • Global quantitative food losses and waste per year are roughly 30% for cereals, 40-50% for root crops, fruits and vegetables, 20% for oil seeds, meat and dairy plus 35% for fish.
  • Every year, consumers in rich countries waste almost as much food (222 million tonnes) as the entire net food production of sub-Saharan Africa (230 million tonnes).

The list keeps going on:

  • Even if just one-fourth of the food currently lost or wasted globally could be saved, it would be enough to feed 870 million hungry people in the world.
  • The food currently lost or wasted in Latin America could feed 300 million people.
  • The food currently wasted in Europe could feed 200 million people.
  • The food currently lost in Africa could feed 300 million people

Then this:

  • At retail level, large quantities of food are wasted due to quality standards that over-emphasize appearance.

Exactly. This is about those misshaped cucumbers and odd-looking peppers. Which are often simply thrown away because retailers and customers care about the looks. Both sides take their part of the blame.

Over-eating is not a sustainable solution to the problem, but neither is letting food go wasted. We in the developed countries with the abundance of choices, we bear a major responsibility. We should only buy what we need, take as much as we can eat. A Dutch website had a great advise – taste before you waste.

Now a similar project is getting started in Finland – a food recycling center and a restaurant are to be opened this spring. Top-chefs will be preparing meals on ingredients available from selected partner stores and restaurants, using items which would otherwise go wasted. Perfectly edible obviously – products which wouldn’t otherwise sell. The From Waste To Taste – project is further looking to create social impact by employing for example unemployed youth and immigrants and raising awareness on ecological behavior and food wastage.

I know me finishing my plate is not helping the world’s hungry but I am thankful that my parents taught me early on to appreciate what I have. To respect food. Which should be shown not in over-eating but in choosing wisely. I’m doing my best on my part and am always happy to support initiatives which truly are trying to address this global problem. Hopefully through our forum I will learn of many more inspiring projects around the world. If you have great projects and stories to share, you’ve found a good listener in me.

Now it’s time for dinner. All this talk about food has made me so hungry I will certainly not waste a bite.

 

 

 

How Can I Help?

There’s plenty of good-will in the world, kind and well meaning people. Unfortunately, good intentions don’t always lead to desired outcomes.

After typhoon Yolanda hammered over the Philippines, I go approached by quite a few well-meaning people seeking for my advise (having lived in Manila before and at the time working for a Manila-headquartered non-profit) on how to volunteer in the disaster areas. As these people had no medical background or other actually helpful skills needed at the disaster zone, I tried to give them advises on what could be done without traveling to the Philippines. But without exceptions they were only interested in witnessing the catastrophe themselves. Being in the front-line. Volun-tourism, in other words.

Well-meaning people don’t like to be questioned in how can they help. They are willing to offer their time, so they see it should be accepted. What these well-meaning people failed to understand, was that they could likely end up being in the way of the professionals, drinking the precious water the victims urgently need and potentially in their inexperience and without proper skills and training, ending up needing saving themselves.

Disaster areas are not a tourism sight. People in despair don’t need a well-meaning person playing the hero of the day. They need help. At first they might need clean drinking water, perhaps clothing, food, medicine and a shelter. And dignity.

If you really want to be of help, ask what kind of help is needed and what you can do. If you want to help victims of natural disasters, probably the best is to donate money to big aid organizations who have the resources and expertise to organize the aid operation. If you want to help abandoned animals, ask an animal shelter how you could best do that. If you feel bad for orphans in Cambodia, check with a reputable organization what could and should be done. Often the help they need, and what actually would be helpful and not making things worse, is much different than what the well-meaning person had anticipated.

It’s great to be willing to help. Absolutely. But find out first what’s actually helpful. Traveling to a disaster zone, bringing “treats” to abandoned animals or hugging an orphan are unfortunately not helpful. Instead of buying flight tickets to a disaster-prone country to deliver a bag of clothes to the victims, why not donating the ticket money to an aid organization or a non-profit onsite? If you want to do something, try organizing a fund-raising activity.

Meaning well is a good start, but doing well is the real aim. The first step for achieving that, is to ask what kind of help is needed.

Plan B if God is Busy

When browsing through Facebook this morning, I started reading a story a friend had re-posted, about a poor boy trying to sell rambutans to earn money for an operation he urgently needed. Living with a sick grandmother, he had no choice but to drop out of school and earn money for his own survival.

The girl who originally had posted the story, said she had observed the boy for a while before approaching him to enquire what the boy was carrying in the heavy plastic bags. After finding out the sad story of the boy, she had offered to buy one of the fruits and had felt proud for the boy’s sake when he had refused a tip as he was “showing self-respect to his age”. According to the storyteller, it’s a good trait when a sick poor boy refuses alms and wants to overcome his burden with only honest earnings.

Having posted the exact location and time for this encounter, she urged her friends to help the boy. In the thousands of replies she had received, one thing was being repeated. May God help him. God knows his name even if we don’t, God will come to his aid. God is great, God will take care of the boy. Pray for God to help the boy.

Now, there’s nothing wrong in praying or believing in God. But it’s alarming and frustrating when otherwise sensible people thrust all the responsibility to a god’s hands to help a young boy in need and see or consider no other solution. Such as taking action and helping him out. Worse even, there were many sharing the story, saying they go to the same location often and hope to see the boy and pray for him. Really? He’s not a sight, an attraction to go look and wonder at. He doesn’t need people looking at him pityingly or even in awe for his “self-respect”. Prayers won’t buy him his medication nor pay for the operation.

Was it to a god or to the state, it’s trending to leave the responsibility for ourselves and for others to someone, anyone but ourselves.

If there’s a god, we can hardly influence his actions. But in democratic countries where those in possession of power have been elected by people, by us, we can start demanding for universal healthcare coverage. We can donate money to organizations helping those in need. We can show compassion and be willing to act. There is a lot everyone of us can do when we meet someone who needs help.

Say a prayer and ask God for help. But if he’s not listening or has other plans, why not step up yourself and take action? If there’s a God, I bet he too would appreciate compassionate actions from his followers toward each other. Do it yourself. Let’s help each other. I’m sure God wouldn’t mind.

 

 

Passion for Doing Good

There are times when it’s just that much easier to believe our planet might have a bright future after all.

I had an extremely inspirational call today at work with a young-ish social entrepreneur from Indonesia. He had been recommended by an important stakeholder to speak at our Responsible Business Forum and I wanted to get better acquainted with him to understand in what kind of role he could best play a part. Based on the website I knew to expect a good chat but this young guy really blew me off. Articulate, passionate, a true expert and sincerely determined to improve farmers’ lives.

It’s always heart-warming to meet people with a genuine passion for creating social impact and respecting environment. I have been lucky to meet many, and be involved and engaged in excellent initiatives. It’s a pity the news aren’t filled with stories of these exceptional, bright-minded people and their projects. The world should hear how much goodness there exists.

Today I learned a great deal of corn farming in Indonesia, of farmers’ challenges and of solutions to the same. I understood how small a small-holder farmer-s farm can be. I found out about more associations and organizations dedicated to supporting small-holder farmers and what could be done for empowering them. I got again new insight into Indonesian agriculture policies and ideas for how to engage them better for multi stakeholder dialogue. I got to know a social entrepreneur who had given up a space in a secure family business to utilize his expertise and skills for benefiting others.

Imagine, I learned all that in a call that last less than an hour. I can’t wait to have him speak at the Forum and engage and discuss with other experts of the field. I want him to be heard, I need him to share his message with the world.

Today no drama with Trump, no wars and crisis could keep me from being happy and confident. Never lose hope. There’s always the next generation that might get things right and save the world. One social entrepreneur is certainly doing his share.

 

 

 

 

Black and White

I’m white. I’m a caucasian women with very fair skin (which just refuses to tan, no matter what and how hard I try) and blonde hair. Not completely naturally but that’s not the point in here. I know I’m in a privileged position by birth in many ways.

I have friends from all over the world, representing many cultures and religions. Muslims, catholics, atheists, not-sures-as-religion-is-not-important-s, Christians, hindis, Buddhists. Whites and blacks, and all the shades of colors in between. Those who want to be whiter and those who admire the tan.

The color of one’s skin matters. The religious views, cultural background and family relations matter. But one is not better or worse than the other. These things matter and should matter as a part of the person’s identity and heritage. They tell part of our story, give it a frame. They don’t need to define us though. They might be part of the story of where we come from, but not where we are going to.

That’s why the Thailand-based campaign for skin whitening products, suggesting that white wins, was absolutely outrageous. Unfortunately it’s true in Thailand. The fairer one’s skin, the higher the respect and career and mating chances. The campaign used a picture of a white and a black women but equally this discrimination is felt by many Thais who face criticism and open mockery for not being pale enough.

Sadly the claim of the campaign has some truth in it. Too often it’s true that white wins. But the solution is not skin-whitening. The solution is making the claim ridiculous. I don’t want to be privileged based on my skin color. I want to live in a world where every person is deemed and recognized as equal by birth. Where the beauty of different looks is admired. Where white is one equal part of the color palette. I want a world where whitening lotions and tanning products are irrelevant. I want to live in a color blind world where the skin color isn’t used to define a person.

Profits Matter

Working with global companies on sustainability projects and promoting responsible business practices is not a simple task. The private sector is still often considered an enemy of sustainable development, the obstacle to overcome on the path of creating a better world. All the more so when their area of business is not considered the most sustainable. Take tobacco companies, refineries, pesticide or GMO producers.

I remember well a moment at a global sustainability conference, where the organizers were questioned by a delegate why they would let a representative of an ”evil company” speak at a responsible business-  focused forum. My question is, Why not? Aren’t those companies most in need of support from others, requiring partners and watchdogs to develop their operations to be as sustainable as possible?

Companies are needed, there’s no getting around that fact. They actually hold the key to the future development of our planet. They have long-term business interest to sustain their operations, make profit now and in the future. The interest of making profit defines their motivation for sustainable development.

I’ve been challenged in my field of work with remarks on the private sector only being interested in green-washing and maximizing their profits no matter what. Surely I don’t disagree the motivation on doing good sometimes being the hoped-for improvements in company images. More often though, the motivation for better, greener business is that it’s good for business. Companies can save big amounts with investments to renewable energy or by training their supply chain.

Is that green-washing? Doing good because it’s good for business? Do the reasons for the motivation really matter? If a corporate shifts to using renewable energy, commits to reducing water consumption, develops the capacity of their local supply chains or creates affordable products for the people at the bottom of the pyramid, shouldn’t we embrace the development despite their motivations?

Companies are not charities nor should they be. By focusing on profit making, they trigger new innovations, are able to fund relevant research and can focus on long-term development plans. Innovations from life-saving vaccines and medicines, improved nutrition to healthier heating and lighting technologies are all outcomes of profit-seeking companies’ efforts, in their quest of making profit.

Certainly we need to be watchful and ask for better practices. But that’s what the collaboration is needed for. With NGOs demanding for more responsible business and consumers asking for more transparency, we’ll be on the right path. Companies have the power to change the world and we need to make sure they are taking it to the right direction.