Saturday, November 14, 2009


Sunday, November 01, 2009

The Middle East, South Asia link

Part of my new job at AIDemocracy involves putting together awareness, advocacy and action events in the context of global peace & security.

Having grown up in Oman and India, I learned early that peace and security go hand in hand, chicken AND egg, both at the same time. I also learned that without development, peace and security measures often died still-born. According to Noeleen Heyzer,

"Peace is the absence of war, but beyond that peace is a commodity unlike any other. Peace is security. Peace is a mindset. Peace is a way of living. Peace is the capacity to transcend past hurts -- to break cycles of violence and forge new pathways that say, “I would like to make sure we live as a community where there is justice, security, and development for all members.” At the end of the day, peace is an investment; it is something you create by investing in a way of life and monitoring where your resources go."
An investment. Something tangible, even. Gandhi once said, "There are people in the world so hungry, that God cannot appear to them except in the form of bread."

I believe the same holds true for human security: how can you worry about democratic processes, the global significance of the war in Iraq or climate change if you don't have access to clean running water, if your government changes every 8 months or if you have to bribe your way into a school or a job?

When it comes to Peace, Security and Development, I can't imagine the Middle East without thinking of South Asia. I think of the similarities in cultures, traditions, recipes, family structures and community values, both positive and negative. I think of shared histories and religions.

I think of how folk from ME/SA are always in shock the first time we get to the U.S. and find out there's no water spray attachment/lota available in loos, just toilet paper: I mean, how do you live with using just toilet paper? How? Why?

Over the past two months, I've spoken with people at all levels about my pet project at AIDemocracy viz. organizing a set of events/performances/discussions that underline moments, both depressing and heroic, that make up the many diverse, current realities in the Middle East and South Asia, the moments that don't necessarily get covered by CNN or Fox, the moments that are often at the heart of key issues of social change.

Many have been ecstatic about the idea. They love stories and situations brought into the limelight that go beyond Bollywood, hummus and ________ (insert your favourite stereotype here).

Some have asked me to reconsider. To "narrow down" my focus, make it "more realistic". The same folk tell me that talking about both the Middle East and South Asia will dilute my ask.

I understand that they are speaking from experience: most grant makers, for instance, ask for a proposal that is dedicated to one specific world region. Bureaucracies like universities, community organizations and yes, even most some non-profits will tell you that their target audience/funder is invested in one or the other region, that current events behooves concentrating on only one region.

I understand that these naysayers mean well. I understand how easy it is to try to do too much with too little resources, and fail. I understand the downside of throwing too much information around in an attention-deficient world. I've spent weeks trying to cut ideas, realign my program.

No dice.

Blame my pigheadedness on the Department of State folks. Yup, it's their fault: they put together funding for the PLUS program, a two year embedded education initiative that I was accepted into. They made me live with kids from all over the Middle East and South Asia. They ensured that for two years my head and heart was filled with information from various ME/SA home towns and life experiences, that we traveled around the U.S. together, sharing stories, battles, kitchens and dorm rooms.

Also, blame folk like those at UC Davis, for investing in Middle East/South Asia studies, setting up a whole separate department dedicated to the study of relationships between these two regions and their relevance to global peace, security and development today.

And don't forget the House of Representatives! It's their fault too! They support the Sub-committee on the Middle East and South Asia, a body of representatives who address issues of foreign assistance, development, security, fledgling democratic processes in the ME/SA.

What would these leaders in education, law and social initiatives know anyway.

Some folk turn around and say that there is sufficient economic growth, exposure to western culture and education levels in the ME/SA to enable people in these regions to deal with their own problems and fight their own battles without bringing in outsiders. After all, there are other countries and communities in far worse conditions.

But what about the minorities in ME/SA fighting for a voice, often silenced by a complacent or hesitant middle class?

What about the sexual and reproductive rights and health of folk in Malaysia and Indonesia who are being persecuted?
What about adivasis in India fighting for social justice and being met with criticism for being revolutionary?
What about farmers across Asia who are at the receiving end of the GMO stick?
What about young people in Nepal, concerned about the staying power of their fledgling government?
What about female education in Afghanistan and the North-Western provinces?
What about illegal settlement building in Gaza and the West Bank?
What about Tamil Refugee camps in Sri Lanka?
What about the lack of competitive employment opportunities in Morocco?
What about censorship and drought in Syria?

What about all these flip-sides, underdogs and undercurrents that don't fall neatly into the "Western world versus Islamic world" dichotomy that so many well-meaning folk urge us to "address" and "dialogue" about?

Till someone finds me an answer, here I go-- writing Middle East AND South Asia. Over, and over again.