Sep 7

by Miriam Garvi

There are many reasons these days to think about people who suffer from serious illnesses and how society handles people who are too weak and vulnerable to look out for themselves. For me, as another September 9th approaches, my thoughts go back to events that happened six years ago, events that taught me that for a system to be human-friendly it needs people who care.

That September 9th was my mom’s 55th birthday. In the weeks leading up to that day, I had been spending the mornings helping my dad finish a book project because he wanted her to see it come to fruition, and the afternoons visiting my mom in the palliative clinic where she had been hospitalized after a small surgical intervention had proven too much for her frail body. My mom’s breast cancer was particularly aggressive, and though she had been undergoing various rounds of post-surgery chemo and radiation, her long-time heart condition was making it very hard for her oncologist to find treatments that her body would tolerate.

Meanwhile, there she was, waiting for us at the clinic, while we picked up the cake, the flowers and the presents – determined to make it feel like a real birthday come what may.

But something was more than usually unsettling. A few days earlier, we had started to notice during our visits that she seemed less lucid, possibly hallucinating. This change took us completely by surprise, as my mom had always been a very sensible and clear-spoken person, even when struggling with intense pain. Now suddenly she was unable to sit up straight, hold a spoon or drink a glass of water. And from the sight that met us that afternoon, it was clear that she was being left by the staff to whatever she could manage on her own, as she mumbled something about having collapsed in the bathroom.

The scene that followed is forever etched in my mind. I found our assigned nurse in conversation with her colleagues as she was preparing some coffee to go with the cake. “So fifty-five will be her last birthday….” Startled by my appearance in the doorway, she fixed her eyes upon me and gave me the following speech: “Don’t you realize that this is it; that your mom is about to die? You need to stop coming here and disturb her, and let her pass away in peace.”

For the remainder of that day, I was unable to hold back the tears. My mom somehow opened her presents, but her mind was somewhere else - somewhere where there were burning fires and cats and dogs running back and forth, but certainly no cake or coffee or birthday celebration. And then visitation hours were up and we left her there for the night, fearing the worst but not knowing.

My mom did not die that night, nor that month for that matter; she did not even die that year. The nurse’s predictions were wrong. But then again, she might not have been aware that the senior doctor in charge at the clinic – an enthusiastic prescriber of morphine patches that had just come out on the market – was overdosing her patient, and that what we were seeing really were the effects of morphine-induced hallucination. My mom did collapse from lack of fluids and sodium/potassium imbalance that were immediately treated once we managed to get her to a real hospital. It came very close, but in that hospital she woke up, was brought home, and we had another five months together.

Five months is valuable time when you know that time is limited…

Doctors, nurses and caretakers – people who deal every day with the sufferings of others – are an invaluable resource to society. The woman who spoke to me at the palliative clinic may not have been a bad person at all; in fact someone who knows her is adamant she is not. But something is broken in society when its weaker members become a hospital bed that will soon be available – and we forget that every number is a person, a human being, who feels, thinks and breathes just like ourselves. I very much doubt that the responsible doctor will have included my mother’s story in her research on morphine treatments. And for a long time I wondered what other patients might have been withering away in clinics, their relatives having been scared off by staff protective of their ‘peace’. It won’t be happening at this particular one, though: its palliative unit was closed down last year, amidst allegations of malpractice that since seem forgotten.

Not everyone knows what it is like to feel utterly vulnerable, to be at the mercy of things that are completely outside of your own control. I am glad this is so. And yet… Vulnerability is a powerful changer of perspectives; things simply do not look the same for the one on the giving and the one on the receiving side. And it is how we deal with the vulnerable which, I believe, defines the character of our society at its very core: is it to be cold, expedient, and for the strong – or humane, empathetic, offering protection for the exposed and care for those who need it?

Aug 26

by Miriam Garvi

I’ve never been one to care much about costs as long as I think they are called for, but tonight’s attempt at clothes shopping made me think about the value of things, what I am prepared to pay and to whom. It made me realize that many times when I look at something I’m telling myself: “This might be acceptable”. As in: the fabric is not paper thin, it is one of the few items in the store that is not synthetic, the design is more than two square pieces of cloth sown together and the seams have been finished off. Acceptable quality at a decent price - though a closer look indicates it was assembled hastily and without much care.

I had almost made up my mind to purchase one such very cheap item at Zara, when the label “made in Bangladesh” jumped at me. Bangladesh, the apparel industry, and factory tragedies… And then of course value and cost take on a whole different meaning. How would I value the work of the pairs of hands that made this shirt? If I knew something about who had made my clothes for me, how much would they then be worth? And what kind of quality would I expect in return? Indeed, if setting the price were entirely up to me, what would I be willing to pay for good fabric, for nice design and for good handiwork? And if I could find exactly what I wanted, what kind of clothes - whose clothes - would I really want to wear?

I ended up buying a whole different shirt, in a whole different store, at a whole different price, simply because it looked better. But I wish I could know something about the human effort that went into making me that new shirt, and how many pieces of clothing the person behind the sowing machine would need to work on every day in order to achieve the same standard of living as myself. I feel it would help me put things into perspective. And perhaps next time when I open my closet I would feel somewhat differently about the contents, because they would not just be clothes, but something someone helped make for my benefit. And that would imbue something as mundane as clothes shopping with a little bit of deeper meaning…

Dec 16

by Miriam Garvi

Having spent the past two days submerged in thoughts about urban poverty, the growth of megacities and the persistence of slums, tomorrow’s lecture on pioneering leadership will be a welcome relief, providing anew the opportunity to consider the world as if it were a blank page waiting to be written.

In the discipline of entrepreneurship, we celebrate the virtue of spotting and exploiting business opportunities. Seldom considered, however, are the wider premises framing this picture. When the needs of the desperate sustain the growth of another, the temptation to create dependency rather than self-sufficiency or independence is too great for comfort. Too many people know that in many industries, market jargon eclipses the miserable reality of the ‘clients’, as they become part of a compelling story aimed at attracting capital and funding: aid organizations need pictures of starving and destitute children to sustain fund-raising; less cancer patients would mean the loss of a huge market for pharmaceutical companies. And, if we want to take the analogy even further, war or the prospect of war sustains the market for weapons and military technology, a main driver for technological innovation that has spilled over into many parts of civilian life, including our ability to communicate over the Internet.

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The world is full of ambiguities, more or less coated in opportunistic rhetoric, but placing high requirements on the existence of a moral compass that will steer efforts, energy and resources towards initiatives that do not sustain suffering and misery, nor create other unwanted side effects, but that seek to become redundant in the sense that the particular need disappears. This implies a dynamic perspective of constantly seeking new areas to improve that is challenging to implement in practice, and requires the support and encouragement of policy-makers, investors and the wider community. Cure or better yet prevention rather than lifelong treatment, helping people provide for themselves rather than falling victims to debt traps, making products that are better and last longer rather than encouraging people to consume and replace – all can imply the loss of opportunities from a marketing viewpoint, but gains from the perspective of human progress. In today’s world, companies and actors do still differ, though surviving without compromising one’s core values is a difficult thing to do. I hold in high esteem any drug development company, for instance, with enough moral integrity to invest massively in addressing the need for new treatment of a particular illness, while being able to consider the decline of patients in that market a success. This shows a company with higher goals and standards, unwilling to consider its own growth as detached from the wider societal framework in which it operates, and where it has the opportunity to do much-needed good. I do also realize, however, that unless society will reward this kind of behavior and enable such a company to access the support that it needs to do this well, then it will sooner or later succumb to the financial pressures of the stock market.

Be it in politics, finance, business or charity, we need more people to rise and show the way who are visionary in their thinking, and who will not shrink from addressing the combination of market and moral challenges that are inherent to any development worthy of its name. Pioneering is a spirit, free from the constraints of vested interests, where understanding, betterment and progress rather than control, self-preservation and replication constitute the focus. It is holding on to our purpose rather than what we have created, not forgetting that any product or service, however big or small, will always be used or consumed by someone – the people behind the market.

Oct 18

by Miriam Garvi

The green revolution led to large-scale, resource-intensive, heavily subsidized industrial farming crowding out small-scale farming in most parts of the world, making it increasingly difficult for people anywhere on the globe to make a decent living from farming the land. A revolution that augmented yields of a selected handful of crops up to a certain point, whilst boosting sales of pesticides and fertilizers for agrochemical companies, the environmental and human costs of which are gradually coming to light. Now a biotech revolution for agriculture and food is taking its place, where scientists make customized plants and corporations tailor species characteristics to fit their business interests. Whilst pesticide plants may be falling out of grace with the environmentally aware, the promotion of GMO species is tuned towards the “feeding the planet” debate, with new seed products pushed onto the markets of developing countries under the label “feeding the poor”. What is to be left untouched?

Golden Rice and BioCassava Plus are examples of new seed products promoted to replace subsistence crops of developing countries. Sorts of supra-nutritional strands for those corners of the world where malnutrition remains a real issue (unlike more affluent parts of the world where we suffer the causes of over-nutrition). What’s the big deal, you may wonder? Well, it is manifold. Firstly, better solutions are out there, found in nature, and viably implemented. The rich diversity of existent genetically pristine species that can naturally grow in challenging environments and produce all the nutrients that are needed for people even in arid areas to have well-balanced and healthy diets is impressive, as shown for instance by decades of work and research by the Eden Foundation in Niger, West Africa. But to know more about this, one needs to be asking the right questions, questions that seek to understand how we can work with nature, rather than change nature to suit our dominant purpose. And of course there would be little money in it for big corporations, which might help explain why the Gates Foundation is actively supporting the opposite solution that leave Third World farmers at the mercy of “benefactors” rather than providing them with the means to sustain themselves independently. If we really wanted to think progressively about farming, then we would be looking into such options as perennial farming - which merits have long been known, but fail to gain wider support as it is a less lucrative business option for those controlling the resources upon which farmers are increasingly dependent. And we would be researching and debating the functional trade-offs of promoted products such as golden rice in terms of how gearing the plant to produce vitamin A hampers its production of other elements such as vitamin E, chlorophyll and giberellic acid that have important natural functions.

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Research offers unique opportunities to better understand the function and purpose of various mechanisms in nature found at macro and micro levels. This fascinates me, but also instills a combined sense of awe and responsibility: marveling at the intricate beauty, at the combination of simplicity and complexity that I fail to see in anything man-made, whilst knowing that unless we learn to take care of this rich canvas of resources it will slip through our fingers, and we will be left with poor imitations of our own creation. For me, the choice is simple. I love the beauty of the uniquely diverse. I want people all over the world to have the means to support themselves. I want them to be able to lead dignified lives that are fulfilling to them and have constructive rather than destructive implications for other people, the nature on our planet and the generations who will inherit this earth after us. I wish some of these goals would move into the agendas of powerful corporations and foundations, though I have no illusions that they ever will. What I do know, however, is that there are more people out there who as myself find meaning in dedicating ourselves to causes that can provide good fulfillment for people, in a way that builds on and enhances purposes found in nature.

Viable and constructive alternatives matter. They offer people a real choice. And that definitely makes the effort worthwhile.

Oct 13

by Miriam Garvi

I’m not someone who follows people, who looks for teachers or masters to guide the way. Few are those who live up to what they preach and no single person has a complete perspective. But what I find particularly inspiring are tales of a new kind of heroism for our times, one that involves independent thinking, a good portion of courage and integrity, and the yearning to express in action the true meaning of over(ab)used labels such as sustainable, meaningful or responsible. It is people who choose to walk a narrower way, less traveled by, at the initial cost of ridicule (at best) and sometimes outright harassment, whose actions remind us that sometimes all it takes to crush the power of the myth that justifies something as necessary or inevitable is to show how an alternative way is indeed possible. Opening up the space of what we see, of what we believe can and should be. Pioneering actions outside of mainstream, for those of us who want it.
That’s how I conceive of freedom.

Apr 24

by Miriam Garvi

Sometimes I find myself amazed at the flexibility by which issues that seemed to be on no one’s agenda only five years ago now find their way into everyone’s rhetoric. Only recently, it was the rally for growth. Now a favorite epithet embraced across ideologies is that of sustainable, as the earth’s dwindling resources put the high-consumption lifestyle of the “developed world” into question.

Indeed, it would seem that anyone can do the talk. Some advocate for an era of the “WE economy”, of multiple voices emerging at the grassroots level and interconnecting by way of Twitter and other Internet-based social networking tools. More and more networks are professing to be addressing “world urgent issues” or “the global challenges of our planet”, suggesting that the pooling together of people in dialogues across the globe will unleash a creative force arising from turning the costs incurred by industrialization and modernization into opportunities.

And yet what astonishes me in these (business) models is the invariably short time span they encompass, as if we have but a few moments to spare on building sustainably for the future. Solutions for our world remain, for the most part, instant remedies that come to mind through the kind of superficial dialoguing that is enabled by networking. It is as if the very mindset that made us pursue a narrow-minded path of development in the first place, oblivious to the implications of a greater context, is now expected to generate solutions (called creative) to these problems. Are we left gawking at the emperor’s new clothes?

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History will tell us that it is easy to rally people with cries for freedom and revolution, picking to pieces the policies and institutions put in place by others who came before us. The real challenge, however, starts once we are the ones left to govern the land. We tend to forget that exercising the freedom we have been given entails a sense of responsibility that goes with knowing that somewhere down the line also we will be held accountable in the eyes of those who follow. Indeed, lest we forget, the eyes of history are already upon us, questioning our ambition.

Sustainable can be more than yet another umbrella concept allowing new interest groups to position themselves on the global arena where they may influence how problems are defined and label their solutions. Sustainability is not a commodity that can be produced through intellectual stimulation; it is the implication that comes from the diligent implementation of a long-standing vision that does justice both to man and nature. It can mean a return to the roots of what once was, finding one’s uniqueness in the interplay between man and nature where man is the caretaker and nature the provider.

Sustainable, pioneering commitment such as that which helped build our communities in the first place comes with a willingness to give up certain things in the present in order to sow the seeds that will allow the fruits of true transformation to be rooted in the future.

Is anyone willing to walk the talk?

Apr 1

by Miriam Garvi

Since childhood, we are told that so much in life starts and ends with money, leading us to believe that nothing can be accomplished unless there is a solid platform to stand on. We are taught to believe in the power of resources, but not in the power of enduring love.

Is there anything, really, preventing us from building and holding on to true, strong, tough-love relationships, but our own reticence of giving something up in the process which we have somehow been led to believe we cannot do without? All too often in life, love finds itself being challenged by the fear of letting go of what we already have, as if fulfilling happiness would be found by avoiding unpleasantries, rather than reaching out with a heart of good intentions. Yet until we are confronted with hardship or pain - be it our own or that of others - we might never come to see all the good that love can truly do. For through such sufferings we may discover the key that opens up a heart to receiving the love that others are willing to give, and to the joy of giving.

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The beginning is simple; it all started with love. The desire to give and to receive love just for the sake of who we are, not for what we have or will have achieved in our lives - be it accomplishments, status or power - are the fundamentals for every individual’s completeness. The love that is willing to endure all is a source of richness that will not run dry, but keep growing in fullness and in strength, moved by the compassion of an aching heart.

And when that kind of love - pure, simple, strong, sometimes even tough - is what drives us forward, then there is no limit as to what love can do.

Jan 14

by Miriam Garvi

Sometimes in life, the unexpected hits us like an earthquake, leaving behind an altered landscape where everything once familiar is suddenly replaced by the unknown. A frightening process challenging the believed possible and the believed impossible, the desirable and the undesirable - baring one’s securities and insecurities in all of their nakedness. Removing the layers covering up the vulnerable - layers believed to be protecting the heart from disappointment and hurt, yet in reality keeping it from aching with the love that will express itself in true compassion.

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I am getting to know a people with the courage to love even though it means suffering; who are willing to give of their hearts even though others will take advantage of their generosity; who reach out to others because of an inner craving to see others flourish, not because it is the smart thing to do. They are the fools who will gladly risk ungratefulness because they cannot suffer to turn down even the smallest opportunity to express what is in their hearts. The compassion they exhume mirrors a beauty that is like a breeze from a realm unseen.

Our economies would still be built on the blood of slaves, had it not been for a handful of People of Compassion two centuries ago who would not accept the logic of the world as it was then. Most acts of compassion never make it into the history books, yet such acts of the heart brought about by agents of love who derive contentment from seeing darkness turn to light, rather than from the applause of worshiping crowds can free a society from the shackles of abusive power and self-enrichment.

The true risk-takers of our times are neither the seemingly wise telling us how to make a good living, nor the voices of authority offering easy solutions on how to save our planet. The true risk-takers of our times remain those passionate few who see with their hearts, listen with their hearts, and act upon their heart’s desire. They are the ones paving the way for a transformation where society and life can align with the desire of the heart.

Anyone feeling the ache of compassion within is free to join them.

Dec 21

by Josef Garvi

Recently, somebody asked me for advice on how to improve the productivity of run-down cocoa plantations on the Gold Coast. My contact displayed a lot of good intentions, laudable and politically correct in our times: fair trade, biological farming, enhanced agricultural output. His concern was how to make sustainable cultivation systems that would solve a global supply problem and benefit the Africans in the process. The group he represented was foreseeing a sharp rise in cocoa demand on the world markets in the coming years. Yet if production levels did not follow suit, this would set off a price hike, making chocolate delicacies less accessible to common people in the rich world. Whilst the systems for upscaling production were at hand, the main problem faced by this group was how to build the necessary motivation amongst the people in Ghana.

This motivational concern highlights a question that is so easily taken for granted: is such a business ultimately in the best interest of the Ghanaian people themselves? Or is it simply projecting the wishes of a «developed» world looking for the necessary input to sustain its high-consumption lifestyle?

Ghana in 1977

Cocoa, like most widely exploited crops in sub-Saharan Africa, is not originally native. In the early 20th century, large cocoa plantations were set up on the Gold Coast by the British as a means to cash in on their colony, and an export crop it has remained ever since. As with most Third World exports, its price on world markets has been unstable, and its cultivation for a long time unprofitable. When Ghanaians grow such crops, be it biologically and under fairer trade agreements, they are subject to the whims of the world economy and forced to import that other, life-sustaining commodity: food, which price is volatile as well. They are not trading from a surplus, but using their best lands that could otherwise provide for the fundamental needs of their people. Thus they are ensuring that richer people throughout the world can buy a luxury at a decent price - not that their own children and brothers eat well.

Ever since the Portuguese fathomed the immensity of the riches of the Congo, and the Arabs set up their trading cities along Africa’s East coast, the outside world’s view of Africa can be summed up in a single, enthralling word: resources. Be it human beings, precious minerals or agricultural output, focus has been on what those outside can obtain from her.

Today, the world’s approach towards Africa may be less brutal, but the fact that a politer tone is being used has not erased its fundamental aim. It is still about what the world can obtain from the continent, not about what is best for the Africans themselves. In the eyes of the world, Africa’s primordial duty remains to supply the outside world with resources, instead of ensuring that her own children may enjoy the benefits of their birthright.

As Henning Melber put it: «The plundering continues».

Nov 17

by Esther Garvi

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Copyright Eden Foundation

If you can turn a barren field into a fruit-bearing Eden Garden, even when you reside next to the Sahara desert, you have invested in the future.

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Copyright Eden Foundation

Your family will rely on the trees and harvest fruits and leaves throughout the year, even in times of need.

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Copyright Eden Foundation

Your children will grow up healthy, enjoying a nutritious and varied diet.

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Copyright Eden Foundation

Your surplus of fruit will easily be sold at the market, giving you a source of income that you never thought possible before.

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Copyright Eden Foundation

The Eden Garden will provide activity for every member of the family; uniting brothers and sisters, husbands and wives.

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Copyright Eden Foundation

Your daughters will grow up to be self-confident young women, knowing that their Eden Garden provides them with endless means and opportunities.

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Copyright Eden Foundation

If you can turn your barren field into a fruit-bearing Eden Garden, your family will achieve self-sustainability and you will no longer be considered poor.

* * *

Eden Foundation was founded in 1985, based on the following vision:

There are more than 70,000 edible species in the world, of which merely 20 provide 90% of what we humans consume.

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Copyright Eden Foundation

Imagine what this untapped potential - the Lost Treasures of Eden - could do for the poorest of the poor!

Out of seven countries in West Africa, Niger was chosen as the starting place - where the challenge was the greatest.

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Copyright Eden Foundation

Today, a quarter of a century later, there are 2,700 registered Eden Gardens in the Tanout area in the northeastern part of the country.

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Copyright Eden Foundation

As the trees produce fruit, their guardians reach for a sustainable life, independent of outside aid.

That is vision pioneering.

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