I Came, I Saw, I Learned: My Journey into the South Pacific


For this article we are privileged to hear from MIDP’s Rowena (Weng) Veloso, who provides a wonderfully informative and reflective piece about the experience of her recent Monash internship in Fiji.

‘Bula, na yacaqu o Weng’ (Hello, my name is Weng). This was my usual introduction in the communities I visited during my month-long internship in Fiji. Perhaps it was my funny accent in the Fijian tongue, but I found it amusing that most of the women in the different villages called me ‘Wendy’.
Before ending up at Monash to study a Master in International Development Practice by some twist of faith, I was an accountant and a Master of Business Administration graduate in the Philippines. I also worked at a multinational company for 7 years doing finance and sales. I suppose due to my background, I have always found the subject of financial education interesting and how the knowledge, or the lack thereof, could spell boon or bane for people.

I was one of the 5 students who volunteered for this year’s Fiji Impact Trip. The program is a collaboration between the Monash SEED, a student-run organisation, and the South Pacific Business Development (SPBD), the largest microfinance institution in Fiji, with branches spread throughout the country. Centre Managers, who are part of SPBD’s staff, are the institution’s front liners and managed the accounts of the members who organised themselves into groups and centres. One of my main tasks was to work with these different managers to visit four to five villages a day, where women held Centre Meetings to make weekly loan repayments and savings. During these gatherings, where the women also socialise and discuss any issues, I conducted member satisfaction surveys using a semi open-ended interview format aimed at gathering data and feedback on the participants’ experiences with SPBD.

My short stint in Fiji provided me with a greater insight into microfinance and financial literacy. Microfinance has become a bridge to financial inclusion for these women, most of whom are housewives, and some of whom are illiterate. It has enabled them to become financially included despite their lack of formal documents, collateral, and their villages’ lack of proximity to traditional financial institutions. I heard multitudes of amazing stories on how these women were able to start their own businesses, turn their skills into income-generating endeavours, improve their household, contribute to their children’s education, and build up their savings. Sadly, these narratives are not reflective of everyone as there were those who have not been able to pay their obligations, leading to a worse financial standing. Some of the women have been alienated from their communities as other members had to shoulder the debts because of the group and centre guarantee clause. Even though microfinance is often hailed as the panacea for poverty alleviation, it can also be a double-edged sword. Does it truly empower women or does it make others more vulnerable? There are no easy answers. Hopefully, I will get an opportunity to understand more of how microfinance plays out in gender and development.

Conducting the field work helped me gain a much greater appreciation for the theories I learned at university since I have no prior background in development, notwithstanding the fact that I am from a developing country myself. The field work reinforced the importance of cultural sensitivity, which was not only limited to the physical observance of wearing the sulu (traditional Fijian skirt), leaving my footwear at the door, or sitting on the mats with the women in the villages. Being culturally sensitive is essentially about respect. In this context it was also a celebration of the uniqueness of the Fijians I engaged with and of my own multicultural team. The acknowledgment of differences is also fundamental in practicing reflexivity, which is the awareness of how my own background could inform my biases. I also discovered that in dealing with people, no theory can ever substitute sincerity, empathy, and deep listening. It was indeed humbling to recognise that I came to Fiji not because I could teach something to the women, but because I needed to learn from them. Being open-minded enabled me to immerse myself in the stories of resilience from the ladies who warmly welcomed me into their homes and into their lives, even if it was for just a brief period.

This same kind of openness was what perhaps drove me to feel at home. Midway through the field work, in the villages and in the SPBD branches, I decided to embrace my Pacific Islander name ‘Wendy’, which I could never help telling people without a chuckle. Maybe this sense of having a newfound identity is quite telling of what’s in store for me in the future. A shift in career may not be far behind, who knows. For now, vinaka vakalevu (thank you) Fiji!

Rowena Veloso

Why MIDP? – The Journey

Joining us on the blog today is the newest member of the MIDPA committee, Presley Kajirwa. Presley shares with us the fascinating story of why he decided to study MIDP at Monash, and what he has gained from the experience so far.

Introduction:

Habari nyote! (Greetings to all!)
I am Presley Kajirwa, a young soul embracing his 20-something years miles away from my home country. I was born in Western Kenya. To reach my home you would have to embark on a nine-hour drive from the capital Nairobi.

When it comes to Africa, many people are only familiar with South Africa, but there are fifty-three other beautiful countries on the continent. I hate to be biased, but when it comes to my country, I cannot help but be overly patriotic and proud of the home that I did not choose. I come from a resource-rich country governed by ‘poor’ leaders (at least that Is what they pretend to be). My home is Kenya, aka Kenia, and we are the power house of East Africa, although of late we have been struggling to maintain that reputation.

Background:

It was mid-2015 when I graduated from Daystar University, located in Athi River, Kenya. Through my undergraduate course I learned about numerous topics, such as conflict resolution and transformation, peace studies, international relations, & security and refugee studies (just to name a few). I figured therefore that my future would lie in the military or development worlds. After two or three unsuccessful attempts at joining the men in uniform, I decided to focus more on my passion for development. This is how I ended up seeking more knowledge and skills at Monash. Prior to this period, I had temporary employment with international rescue committees, as well as an NGO tasked with protecting refugees and providing essential services once they were safe and settled.

What did I do there?

Apart from receiving and loading trucks with aid materials, we had chats with truck drivers who shared their fascinating stories. The most common narrative concerned how insecurity and poor infrastructure was a constant challenge to their ability to carry out their job of aid delivery.

Why Monash? Why MIDP?

While pondering the next move in my life, my family members recommended that I look into furthering my studies. Following my online research, I decided to settle for an Australian university. Monash University (and I am not saying this just because I am a student here), really stood out for me. I was intrigued by the fact that, from the campus website, I was able to visualise my life as a student both inside and outside of the lecture halls. The clarity, openness, and detailed information made me extremely eager to experience learning the Monash way.

Armed with my passion and experience, I enrolled in the Master of International Development Practice. To be honest, this course is so interesting that if I had the power to wind back time, I would study International Development Practice for my Bachelor’s degree. Aside from how fascinating and enlightening it is, I find this development course to be incredibly diversified, integrative, and realistic.

The goal!

Having completed my first semester, I look forward to building on what I have learnt throughout the remainder of the degree. I am also looking forward to the events put on by the MIDPA, particularly the tremendously-informative Brown Bag seminars. I think that every aspect of the experience of undertaking MIDP here in Melbourne is benefiting me and helping me to achieve my goals. I believe that development agents have a key role in social justice, streamlining public governance, and promoting progressive development. I cannot wait to contribute to these fields. After several windy winters and hot summers full of new experiences and memorable times, I know that the time will come that I will pack my bags for the trip back home. While I will certainly miss a lot, like the many insightful debates with interesting friends, at the same time I am eager for this period, for I know that I will return to my home as a wiser, more knowledgeable individual than the one that left. One that is far better-equipped to meaningfully contribute to making my country, and my planet, a better place to live for all.

Presley Kajirwa

72nd UNGA General Debates Summary

On this occasion, the MIDPA is proud to announce the coverage of the recent developments that transpired throughout the 72nd United Nations General Assembly General Debates. In the following segment, you will find key summaries of the debates (and controversies) that occurred each day. This year’s theme was ‘Focusing on People: Striving for Peace and a Decent Life for All on a Sustainable Planet’.

Day One

– US President, Donald Trump, provided a controversial inaugural speech at the UN which justified his administration’s stand on refugees by stating that “for the cost of resettling someone in America, we can resettle ten people in their home region”.

– France’s Macron minced no words in addressing the Rohingya crisis, calling on Myanmar to cease all military operations and to reconstitute rule of law, stating: “As we know, we are dealing with ethnic cleansing here.” He also discussed the importance of fighting for gender equality, declaring that, “where the role of women is undermined, development is undermined.” He then spoke about climate change and the Paris Agreement, announcing that it can always be improved and updated, but “we will not backtrack”. He maintained that the door is always open to the United States, but threw a sly shot at them, adding that “at a time when some want to stop, we must keep going”.

– Colombia’s President, Juan Manuel Santos Calderón, praised the UN for their contribution to the countries’ peace efforts, stating: “What a time for the UN, successfully fulfilling its main goal in our country.” He also declared that 7 million people had been taken out of poverty in five years, a figure that represents 10% of their population.

– Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani, the Emir of Qatar, called for a stop to the violence against the Rohingya, for their repatriation and for an end to discrimination against them. He urged all countries to provide humanitarian assistance and demanded that Myanmar ensure “that they have their full legitimate rights as full-fledged citizens.”

– Turkey’s Erdogan announced that his country had used 30 billion euros to assist Syria and its refugees, while the EU had significantly underperformed and left many promises unfulfilled. He proclaimed that Turkey is one of only six countries to meet the UN target for aid with 0.8% of its GDP. He, therefore, called on the rest of the world to step up. He then demanded that the Kurdish Regional Government in Iraq stop the upcoming independence referendum, threatening them with sanctions. He concluded by criticising the global response to the Rohingya crisis.

– Last but not least, Costa Rica’s president, Luis Guillermo Solís, called for an end of defining development by economic indexes such as GDP and stated that we need to use more multi-disciplinary indicators. He then spoke about gender equality, declaring how unacceptable it is that “women’s unpaid work makes up 30% of global GDP, and that “women make 25% less for the same job as men.”

Day Two

– In response to Trump’s ‘Axis of Evil’esque speech, Hassan Rouhani, President of Iran, spoke of his country’s enormous economic potential, including how last year it was the country with the highest global growth rate, and how sanctions against them only solidified their resolve. Rouhani stated that Iran has always been a supporter of human rights and freedom, and remarked on the hypocrisy of “those who claim to stand for freedom, but support dictators elsewhere,” a clear dig at the US.

– Italy’s representative, Paolo Gentiloni, argued that the stabilisation of Libya is a priority objective and key to the fight against terrorism. He also acknowledged the link between climate change and forced displacements, highlighting that there were “more than 200 million displaced persons between 2008 and 2015 who were forced to leave their homes because of the devastating effects of climate change phenomena.”

– Namibia’s Hage Geingob proclaimed that “development that is not led by the people and does not benefit all people is meaningless development.” He then spoke of how, as a result of a resolution from his government to increase representation of women to 50% at all levels, women now constitute 48% of parliament, which is the second-highest ratio in Africa, and in the top five in the world.

– British Prime Minister, Theresa May, spoke of how economic inequality and weaknesses in the global trading system continue to undermine the support for liberalism and free trade, which she considers to “have done so much to propel global growth.” She also praised the UN for its achievements in the past, but also added that “throughout its history, the UN has suffered from a seemingly unbridgeable gap between the nobility of its purposes, and the effectiveness of its delivery.” May then announced that Great Britain will continue to provide large amounts of funding to the UN, as its second-biggest donor but declared that this ‘generosity’ will be results-oriented, with 30% being allocated only to those parts of the UN that achieve ‘sufficient results’.

Day Three

– Bangladeshi Prime Minister, Sheikh Hasana, spoke powerfully on behalf of the Rohingya. She also denounced Myanmar for placing landmines on their stretch of the border and preventing the Rohingya from returning to their rightful homes. Hasana also called for UN safe zones to be created if necessary to ensure the safety of the Rohingya.

– The Foreign Minister of China, Wang Yi, reiterated that “we must not associate terrorism with any particular ethnic group or religion”, a statement that brings to mind Trump’s oft-repeated phrase “radical Islamic terrorism”.

– President Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi of Samoa hailed the Agenda 2030 as the framework to put the world on the right path to achieve a sustainable future and encouraged other small island developing states to pursue the Samoa Pathway. He also emphasised the need to increase international awareness of the SDGs.

– Germany’s Vice-Chancellor, Sigmar Gabriel, also had some strong words against militarisation saying how 1.7 billion US dollars are spent worldwide on arms per years, and that just 10% of that would achieve the extreme poverty SDG, and even less would be required for the education goal. He said the World Food Program receives less than 50% of the funds needed to achieve the hunger goals.

– Jordan’s Crown Prince, Al Hussein bin Abdullah II, noted that regional insecurity has affected tourism and investment, through no fault of their own, and characterised Jordan as “a resource-poor country in a conflict-rich region.” He announced that the direct cost of Syrian crisis now consumes a quarter of their budget, and remarked that Jordan is one of the world’s largest accommodators of refugees, declaring, to significant applause, that “our soldiers dodged bullets to let refugees into our country, not to keep them out.”

– The Seychelles, Kazakhstan, and Indonesia called for reform in the UN, a common theme of today’s speeches and Denmark’s Minister for Development Cooperation Ulla Tørnæs went further by stating that the “UN development system needs to be built on the basic premise that neither governments nor institutions have the capacity or resources to achieve Agenda 2030, they need to cooperate with civil society, the private sector, innovators, NGOs, and academics.” She also called on all countries to reach the 0.7% target for aid and said that Denmark, one of the world’s largest aid donors, will allocate more funds than ever before in their 2018 aid budget. She also commented on how we must effectively manage the blend of immediate relief and long-term development assistance.

Day Four

– Margot Wallström, Sweden’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, spoke at length of the significance of female empowerment, an issue close to her heart as a representative of “the world’s first feminist government.” Female empowerment was a theme shared by Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama, who highlighted its importance to economic development and national prosperity, and announced that, for the second consecutive time, his country’s government is made up of 50% women.

– Kenyan representative Amina Chawahir Mohamed spoke of the impact of climate change on her country, explaining that it costs approximately 3% of Kenya’s GDP annually. Bhutan’s Prime Minister, Lyonchoen Tshering Tobgay, likewise told of the calamitous current effects of climate change and announced that they are the world’s only carbon-neutral country, and in fact, they are carbon negative. The PM called on all countries to fulfill their commitments and explained that as climate change adaptation costs money, the role of global financing institutions is crucial, especially for those who may have the will but not the resources.

– Thailand’s Don Pramudwinai, Minister for Foreign Affairs, stated that we need “less about debate and more about action”, and told of how their late King said that those living in a community know best about their needs, highlighting the importance of participatory methods. This was an idea that Macedonia’s Prime Minister, Zoran Zaev, also emphasised, along with the view that things will improve if we increase partnership and cooperation.

– Belize’s representative urged the UN to establish a participatory framework for the private sector, an idea that was shared by Cuba’s Minister for Foreign Affairs, Bruno Eduardo Rodriguez Parrilla, who called for a new, participatory, equitable economic order. He highlighted the wealth gap that exists between rich individuals and poor countries, emphasising that “the wealth of 8 men is worth the same as the 3.6 billion poorest people and, of the 100 richest entities, 69 are transnational corporations, not states”. The minister further contended that neoliberal capitalism is unsustainable and irrational and will inevitably lead to the destruction of our planet. He concluded by stating that military expenditure has risen to 1.7 trillion US dollars, contradicting the claim that there are not enough resources to eradicate extreme poverty.

Day Five

– Sudan’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Ibrahim Ahmed Abd al-Aziz Ghandour, spoke of how his country had turned over a new leaf and begun a new era of peace and stability. The Minister said that they were hoping to “receive peace and development funds, especially the UN peacekeeping fund and the World Bank and its mechanisms, so we can implement the approach of the government which promotes peace and the outcomes of national dialogue”. He stated that this will also help his government to convince the remaining rebel groups to lay down their arms and join the peace process. Ghandour also remarked on how much the situation in Darfur has improved, announcing that it had recovered stability and peace. He also said that the UN has been impressed with their cooperation and transparency and that, as a result, existing sanctions against them should be reviewed.

– Eritrea’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Osman Mohammed Saleh, stated that the developing world will benefit most from coming together to make a better world. Mohammed Saleh heavily criticised inequality and the fractured nature of the international community, but announced that “Eritrea is confident it will meet the Sustainable Development Goals ahead of time”. He referred to his country as “a haven of stability in a turbulent neighbourhood”.

– Jamaica’s Minister of Foreign Affairs and Foreign Trade, Kamina Johnson Smith, said that climate change is an existential issue and their reality, and explained how difficult it is for Caribbean countries, as reconstructions costs dwarf their economies. She argued that there is a need to improve global preparedness and response to climate change, otherwise countries will get caught in a cycle of recovering from disasters until the next one takes place. Jamaica’s representative called on the UN to a establish a mechanism to provide the requisite support to vulnerable countries affected by natural disasters and assist in issues such as providing viable compensation. Johnson Smith reported that her country was collaborating with Chile on an initiative called ‘Resilient 20’, to promote resilience in countries vulnerable to natural disasters, especially ones that belong to the lower-income index.

– India’s Minister of External Affairs, Sushma Swaraj, remarked that India had implemented the world’s largest financial inclusion scheme and that many youths had been able to get out of poverty as small-scale entrepreneurs.

Day Seven

– Norway’s Chair Tore Hattrem highlighted the four building blocks needed for a sustainable future: acting together towards common goals, peace and security, upholding international law and the principles of global governance, and an abandonment of perfectionist and isolationist practices.

– There were several calls to strengthen multilateralism and international governance including East Timor’s Maria Helena Pires who stressed the importance of the UN for ending conflict and restoring stability, and Peru’s Gustavo Meza-Cuadra who stated that the UN will be an essential institution in the future. These calls for calm and dialogue come as no surprise considering the escalating tensions between the USA and North Korea following a weekend of threats and alleged war declarations.

– New Zealand’s representative, Craig Hawke, argued that ongoing support to the state of Afghanistan is critical, but emphasised that its future lies in the hands of its government and people. Hawke also highlighted the importance of the Paris Agreement and praised global commitment to take action on climate change.

Anthony Huber
Content Editor (2017)

WYLT… Attend this IPCS Seminar?

Visualising Solidarity: Forging everyday humanitarianism through public representations of development

Prof. Uma Kothari

Since the 1980s there has been a vast proliferation of campaigns, charity adverts, musical movements, fair trade marketing, celebrity endorsements and media promotions to support humanitarian causes. More recently, we have witnessed a growth in the role of visual media in guiding diverse publics on how they might perceive and act upon calls for a shared responsibility. Foundational to the success of these visual representations is their capacity to invoke care and compassion for suffering others, to motivate people in some parts of the world to donate money and other forms of assistance to people elsewhere. Despite their increased profile, the visual strategies that such campaigns deploy have provoked critiques that they reproduce racialised stereotypes, reinforce colonial hierarchies and embed inequalities, notably through reproducing iconographies of, for example, conflict, famine and poverty. Nevertheless, might these popular representations of humanitarianism and development have the potential to instil ideas of global interconnectedness and forge new kinds of global solidarity? Alternatively, do visual images and the increasing involvement of public figures, celebrities and the media obscure the structural dimensions of race, racism and inequality thus limiting the possibilities for forging a common humanity? In this presentation, I will explore these issues through an analysis of colonial and contemporary uses of popular, visual campaigns. I subsequently examine forms of resistance and creative subversion that contest problematic depictions of other people and that aim to challenge the meanings that inhere in mediatised representations. The presentation concludes by considering what kinds of visual representations might lead to more critical thinking about prevalent concepts of self and other, and difference and commonality. How can such representations solicit more considered responses to charity campaigns and thereby promote and sustain new forms of transnational solidarity?

Uma Kothari is Professor of Migration and Postcolonial Studies and former Director of the Global Development Institute, at the University of Manchester, UK. Her research interests include international development and humanitarianism and migration, refugees and diasporas. Her research has involved a number of funded projects, most recently an Australian Research Council project on International Volunteering and Cosmopolitanism and a Norwegian Research Council project on Perceptions of Climate Change and Migration. Her current research is on Visual Solidarity and Everyday Humanitarianism. She has published numerous articles and her books include Participation: the new tyranny?, Development Theory and Practice: critical perspectives, and A Radical History of Development Studies. She was recently made a Fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences and conferred the Royal Geographical Society’s Busk Medal for her contributions to research in support of global development.

https://www.facebook.com/events/615493131983164/

Four things to think about when you think about poverty

Across the Mekong River
At first sight, this could seem an image of poverty, but if we were able to zoom in and look closely, we would find so much diversity, knowledge and nuance. “Across the Mekong River”, Feb. 2016.

What images come to mind when you think about poverty? Those images carry some reality, but they are also charged with political discourse, academic knowledge, misconceptions and judgement. More importantly, they have been painted with the brush of context, or in other words, your experiences. What I would like to do here is to add more “paint” to the pictures; give you a few other brushes that may help you to bring poverty from Pollock’s abstraction to the rich and dynamic compositions of Van Gogh. For those with experience in international development, the following points remain to be basic premises/debates within our field.

 

1. People living in poverty are, first of all, people
This is the first thing to remember when you think about poverty. Those TV commercials where a kid from Africa is starving and surrounded by flies, or an indigenous woman is begging, can fool us into assuming that we “see” and understand poverty. After all, we experience discomfort, compassion and sometimes we may even donate money to the advertised causes. However, seeing the deprivation may make the obvious invisible: people with less resources still have real lives. They have common and unusual interests. They feel ashamed, offended, disappointed, proud and, yes, happy.

Sometimes they live close to you (not necessarily in a third world country or another town). In Latin America, for instance, they may just be across those walls that separate the rich from the poor neighbourhoods. Also, people with scarce resources are knowledgeable. After all, education is not only experienced in school and not all who are poor are left without the opportunity of acquiring a formal education. What I am saying is that there are not “poor people”, rather there are individuals that experience poverty.

 

2. Everyone deserves the opportunity to better themselves
The previous statement has a second and important implication: lives have worth. This premise is a moral compass for development practitioners, although a contentious issue for those who see life as having intrinsic value (worth on its own) or instrumental value (leads to something else). Terrorists, can be argued, share an instrumental view on life since the violence they perpetuate against others has ‘political or social objectives’ (Butler 2002, p. 3). Pro-life defenders may identify themselves as those on the “intrinsic life worth” spectrum. I do not mean to focus or support any of these arguments, I merely suggest that poverty is not an intrinsic human condition, and everyone deserves the opportunity to better themselves and pursue happiness.

Ruthless business practices illustrate just one way in which human lives become a secondary matter and where opportunities for the most vulnerable are barely existent, or even considered. In India, for example, the change from organic to high-yield cotton seed production has been heavily promoted by Monsanto (multinational corporation), and supported by the government. This has lead to mounting debt as farmers are forced to buy Montsanto’s seeds in order to sell their crop. Eventually, overwhelmed by the debt and dishonored, they take their own lives (thousands have). Cultural expectations weigh on the farmer’s’ decision, but even if the suicides stopped, families would remain hungry and fearful for their livelihoods since few alternatives remain. One such alternative is to migrate to cities and sell their land at a loss. Furthermore, the new seeds do not necessarily increase cotton production in the region and the land is becoming infertile (for more see the documentary work of filmmakers Nandan Saxena and Kavita Bahl). The transformation of the agricultural industry seems to obviate that lives are at stake.


3. Poverty is created, and is a wealth issue
Poverty has always been present to some degree, but throughout history men have designed the conditions for wealth exacerbation and extreme deprivation. An article by Co-exist (Fast Company) provides a deeper explanation of these issues, but what should be highlighted is that colonisation was the first international process from which richer nations were able to extract wealth from poorer countries to alleviate their own lack of resources and grow economically. The ways in which wealth is unfairly distributed today are more complex.

Although debate exists around this topic, it cannot be denied that how we create and manage wealth impacts and defines poverty. This is why eradicating it by 2030, the first objective of the UN Sustainable Development Goals, is an effort that has to come from and be directed at a grassroot, governmental and international level. Hopes remain though, because if we can create the conditions for poverty, we can also design a world without it.

 

4. Poverty reduction is a shared responsibility
International development practitioners usually become researchers or field practitioners attempting to understand how the most vulnerable can be empowered through diverse approaches and become agents of social change within their contexts. Yet, professionals across all areas have to consider their role in this fight against poverty. How are we in our own areas worsening or improving the lives of our communities, or conditions in our environment? From protecting and ensuring the rights of new employees as the CEO of a startup enterprise; to lending your accounting skills to a selected charity, or advocating for refugee issues awareness, all are valid strategies and ways in which we can contribute to reduce/eradicate poverty.

So I leave you with these final questions which I hope will add some more colour to your paint:
Do you think all human beings deserve to experience a basic level of comfort for the mere fact of being human? What do you think this would entail? Please leave a comment to share your answer or any thoughts in relation to this article.

Reference
Butler P, 2002, ‘ Foreword: Terrorism and Utilitarianism: Lessons from, and for, Criminal Law’, Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology, vol. 93, no. 1, DOI: 0091-4169/02/9301 -0001

What’s your grind?

pic 4

Here we are in Vietnam, in the small village of Di Linh. The past couple of days have been very busy, and the two young boys arrived again to pick me up at my little hotel. We start the morning by a small roadside food stand eating ‘pho’ as breakfast and planning the activities of the day. We then jump onto motorcycles and ride along the chaotic highways of the village just to arrive at another house for the first interview of the day.

I came to the Di Linh with the intention to study the coffee industry, one of the biggest agricultural industries in Vietnam and the world. Di Linh is the home of several coffee farmers who are responsible for large amounts of coffee production in Vietnam. Coffee, no matter how small a grain looks like, represents the second most traded commodity globally, and is one of the most loved and consumed grains. The passion for coffee around the world inspires me, and for the last few years, I’ve developed a keen interest in understanding the trends associated with its production, distribution and consumption. The story for the producers, is however, saddening.

Vietnam happens to be the second largest exporter of coffee in the world, and farmers here share similarities with coffee farmers in the world who are mostly of indigenous heritage and owners of a few acres of land. Coffee is their primary source of income and most family members participate in its production. However, conditions associated with production and sales make it difficult for them to afford their basic needs.

Pic 1

In the last few years, Vietnam has attracted giant coffee roasters and processing companies such as Nespresso and Kraft. It appears though that coffee farmers have not benefitted enough despite these companies making significant profits. Put differently, coffee production is booming in Vietnam but for the farmer, it comes at high costs. Coffee farmers in rural areas, in an attempt to meet up with the growing demand for coffee, become vulnerable to environmental hazards. Exploitation of resources in order to meet the growing demand of the world has left these farmers with terrible environmental consequences that worsen their livelihoods.

‘Observing the life of coffee farmers, they appear to be in an endless poverty cycle with no way out. This phenomenon is almost identical everywhere; penniless coffee farmers, profiting brokers (intermediaries) and coffee roasters. The only difference between Vietnam and other coffee-producing countries is that coffee in Vietnam is pretty new’

In countries like Mexico, my home country, things are no different. A few years ago, National Geographic reported, how a fungus known as “la roya or rust” has been killing coffee plants across the major coffee producing states of Mexico and other countries in Latin America. Consequently, coffee production dropped by 70%, and this exacerbated issues of poverty for coffee farmers. Further, climate change issues and unfavorable trade agreements have negatively affected the welfare of numerous indigenous people farmers.

Limited government support to small scale farmers, the lack of sustainable practices, vulnerability to environmental changes, and lacking technology and technical support all present coffee farmers with significant disadvantages. The vast majority of coffee farmers depend (without choice) on intermediaries or ‘brokers’ offering prices for coffee which do not benefit the farmers. These challenges perpetuate issues of poverty.

Perhaps, about one in two people reading this article consume coffee. This suggests that we can make a difference. As consumers, we carry a huge responsibility. We need to be aware of the products and the brands we purchase. By opting for sustainable coffee and fair trade brands we can help coffee farmers out of poverty and preserve the environment. We can make a difference.