Monday, November 23

Thomas Mann: An Exploration of Philosophy and Practicality

I haven't read his magnum opus, buddenbrooks but I have read the magic mountain book son. And believe you me, it was tough going. The word dense comes into the picture. I think I was 20-22 when I read it and I was much more bolshie and obstinate then than now. So I struggled through it. 

But I never read about how the author felt or his connection with the books and its characters. German literature is something that I haven't really gotten deeper into son. Big fault and hole in my education there. But well we have some time :) so I'm hoping to have fun learning more about this area. 

The first book was interesting and the underlying thesis is something that we all struggle with son. What's life for? What do you do? I was quite taken by Steve jobs words when he was on his deathbed. You know what he said? Do you think he talked about iPhone design? Or Mac operating systems? Or the iPad? No. You know what he said? He said that once you have sufficient money, spend time with your friends and family. Thought provoking no? Well he can afford to say that but you do have to get sufficient money in the first instance. 

We all have to answer that question son. And another thing. The answer changes. As life goes on, and if you keep asking this question, the answer keeps on changing. You'll find people who find AN answer early in their lives and stick with it. And then there are some like your baba who are ever restless and always thinking there's an answer just beyond the mountain in front. 

May you find your answers son. I was so happy to hear the good news tempered by the fact that you're not that well. Hope you get better soon Kannu. 

Love you and look forward to seeing you on Thursday :) 


Thomas Mann: An Exploration of Philosophy and Practicality
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Thomas Mann was born into the Hanseatic ruling Mann family, a wealthy clan who held great influence over the city republic of Lübeck, in what was then the German Empire. Mann grew up under the aegis of privilege, raised by tales of his ancestors' prosperity and the ethos of bourgeoisie practicality. The Manns, as ruling families are wont to do, were preoccupied with the maintenance of their influence, wealth, and respectability. Thus, when the 21 year-old Thomas Mann announced his plans to become a writer, his family took his artistic calling as a betrayal of his auspicious pedigree. Despite his family's protests, Mann would not abandon his vocation, and he was effectively disowned. The irony of this event, of course, is that Mann would go on to win the Nobel Prize in Literature, and earn the reputation for being the most significant scribe in German letters since Nietzsche, becoming the most revered member of the very family that spurned his artistic pursuits.

The conflict between the Mann family and Thomas placed the young man in the middle of a plangent clash of culture and philosophy. On one hand, there was the bourgeoisie pragmatism of the Mann family and the European world at large. It entailed the management of power and wealth, of creating a life that was more abundant, efficient, and comfortable. It earned its many disciples the boons of influence, land, beef, tea, firewood, and all else that made life more ostensibly pleasant. All Mann's comforts, his privileges, were indebted to the work and labors of his parentage.

While Thomas Mann appreciated the efficacy and work ethic of his family, he felt it lacking a greater purpose. To Mann, the pursuit of mere money, comfort, and influence was the recipe of a myopic life. He believed careful thought and philosophy were the necessary tools to rescue oneself from the self-centered paradigms of work and leisure, of toil and compensation, and the like. But the artist's life was not a panacea to the spiritual deficiencies of his European milieu. Mann understood, too, that as nice as they are to have, well-wrought morality and philosophy cannot pay anyone's rent.

Mann's struggle, the grand antagonism between philosophy and practicality, between the artist and the businessman, was the thematic spine of his first novel, Buddenbrooks (1901). Published when he was 26 years old, the title lends itself to the name of the noble family it follows over four generations Mann based the family on his own noble roots. The novel begins at a family feast in 1835. The patriarch of the family is Johannes Buddenbrooks, the head of a prosperous although fraudulent grain company. Here, Mann sets the stage for the ideals of laborious pragmatism and purposeful thought to begin their tug of war, one that will last the entire book.

The fate and history of the Buddenbrooks family significantly mirrors Mann's own. Much like the ruling Manns, the Buddenbrooks experience a decline in influence and prosperity as Germany industrializes and the values and hierarchies that supported them in the past no longer apply. The most prosperous Buddenbrook, Johann, thrives as his determination to succeed permits him to swindle his partners and suppliers. His progeny, like the third generation Thomas and his son, Hanno, yearn for more than the fortune of the family business. Thomas' intellectual and financial success are at odds within him. He says, "what is success? That awareness that alone by virtue of my presence I can exert pressure on the movements of life all around me." Thomas is deeply affected by the works of Schopenhauer, and Hanno is captivated by the music of Wagner. But art does not, and cannot, completely solve their spiritual emptiness. In this family saga, Mann simultaneously brings to life generations of characters and dramatizes a great cultural and psychological crisis. Mann objectively captures this paradox of life, or as critic Daniel Burt says, "the conflicting forces in human behavior and thought that give life its fullest meaning and at the same time constitute its greatest peril."

The Nobel Prize typically honors an author's entire oeuvre, but Mann's honor is somewhat anomalous. In 1929, he was awarded the Nobel Prize for "his great novel,Buddenbrooks, which has won steadily increased recognition as one of the classic works of contemporary literature." William Faulkner considered Buddenbrooks to be the best book of the century, and he enthusiastically owned an edition of the novel signed by Mann himself.

Buddenbrooks' success as a work of art is undeniable, but many readers prefer Mann's more mature effort, The Magic Mountain (1924). Called "the great philosophical novel of the 20th century" by Daniel Burt, it illustrates the culmination of Mann's ideological thought, and renders masterfully the very practice of assessing and acquiring beliefs. It has been credited as a grand example of the bildungsroman, as well as a formidable interrogator of the foundations of Western culture itself.

The novel was inspired by Mann's visit to his wife with tuberculosis. Mann caught a cold at the sanatorium where his wife was receiving treatment, and was not allowed to leave. Like his creator, the protagonist of The Magic Mountain, Hans Castorp, cannot leave the sanatorium atop the mountains of Davos. During his stay, he encounters a cast of characters who all introduce Hans to a variety of ideologies. There's the humanist Settembrini, the sensual and carnal Chauchat, the dutiful Ziemssen, and more. The characters often debate and challenge each other, letting Hans listen and take note of the strengths and weaknesses of each philosophy.

Critic Theodore Ziolkowski said that The Magic Mountain, "approaches perfection to a degree rarely achieved on such a monumental scale." Its scope of theme and thought shapes a truly dense novel, leading Mann himself to suggest that one read the book twice to better comprehend it. Much of Mann's thought in other works reaches its apotheosis in this book. Death in Venice, the novella which The Magic Mountain was originally intended to satirically complement, gives way for Mountain to elaborate on the idea of a life of ecstatic triumph over dutiful order.

Illness and death fascinate the novelist, too. Mann wrote of his book, "There are two ways to life: One is the common, direct, and brave. The other is bad, leading through death, and that is the genius way. This concept of illness and death, as a necessary passage to knowledge, health, and life, makesThe Magic Mountain into a novel of initiation." And, as in Buddenbrooks, Mann investigates further the virtues and disadvantages of the bourgeoisie and artistic life, and extends his vital thought to the subjects of political radicalism, time, music, the philosophies of Nietzsche and Schopenhauer, and beyond.

The magic of The Magic Mountain is in part due to the fact that no ideology is given preference. The novel centers on Castorp's exposure to the many contradictory and beneficial ways to live and interpret the world. When Thomas Mann was asked by high school students what Castorp's fate after the novel's end was, Mann offered a fitting answer. If Castorp had survived the Great War, the author said, he would have likely remained "the learner, the listener, testing, rejecting, choosing." This is a fitting prediction for his character, as Mann has created a book which does not purport to have found any "proper" philosophy for life. Rather, Mann has presented an imaginative illustration of how a philosophy may be gained, and how one may continue to be a student of life, dedicated to its full appreciation.

Reader, specializing in Twentieth Century and contemporary fiction. Committed to spreading an infectious passion for literature, language, and stories.

The French Way of War

This made me blink. Kannu. My image of the French forces wasn't good. The dien bein phu disaster, the Algerian mess. The Vichy regime and the performance in the two world wars. Etc etc all combined to make me doubt the efficacy of the French forces. This article may be tending a bit too on the other side. But the last line was good. If they decide to hurt somebody, they will. Now that's power. Reminds me of the clint Eastwood quote, if you want to shoot - shoot. Don't talk. And then the Eisenhower quote, speak softly but carry a big stick. And hit when required. That's where power comes in. You have to use it. British fail many times in this matter. 

Still this promises to be a fascinating study of military tactics. Politically a mess, the military charge  will be fun to observe. 

Hope you get better soon son. I felt like cuddling You to me :) but you're a bit too big now :) 



The French Way of War
(via Instapaper)

France's military may suffer from a poor reputation in American popular imagination, dating from historical events like the rapid fall to Nazi Germany in World War II and the colonial-era defeat at Dien Bien Phu. This is a mistake: The French airstrikes on Islamic State positions in Syria are only the beginning of the counterattack against ISIS, as French officials themselves are promising. And as anyone familiar with France's military capabilities can attest, when it comes to war the French are among the very best.

Moreover, whatever France does probably will not look like anything the U.S. would do. There is a French way of warfare that reflects the French military's lack of resources and its modest sense of what it can achieve. They specialize in carefully apportioned and usually small but lethal operations, often behind the scenes; they can go bigger if they have help from the U.S. and other allies—which they will probably have in any case and know how to put to good use.

Friday, November 20

Story of Nazeya - a Waste Sorter in Nayandahalli, in Her Own Voice


Here are two articles. The first one is about a woman in India. It's a short story about her life. If you read the article you'll see it's very unemotional. And that's what really hits you. The girl went through problems which would have laid me flat on my back. I don't think I could have done what she did. That's what happens when you aren't careful with money or save kids. You live on the thin edge. And even a tiny problem can really screw up your life. Never kids. Never let yourself get out of the habit of savings. Ever. That's your cushion. Of course we are there to help you out if you need but we wouldn't be there all the time. 

And then the second article is more generic. It's about waste management. Human civilisation is throwing out waste like crazy and we will have to pay the price. Heck. We have to pay £79 per year to the council just to take away the sodding garden waste. Stupid or what? I can take care of the waste myself and save a ton. 

We are facing a giant problem there and we need to sort it out. 

Looking forward to seeing kannu tomorrow and to have fun with you Diya. 

Fun times :)



Story of Nazeya - a Waste Sorter in Nayandahalli, in Her Own Voice
(via Instapaper)

Notes from Nayandahalli

Naziah - waste sorter
Nazeya – waste sorter

My mother left me in Bangalore under the care of my uncle. He worked in a Government office. Later, he asked my family to move to Bangalore as there are more employment opportunities in the city. He managed to get us a hut to stay. My family shifted here but we didn't have any money to buy food, to eat one has to earn. I was 7 or 8 years old then and I was the eldest amongst all my siblings. We picked vegetables from river side and sold it for Rs.7 or 8 and with that I purchased dal (pulses) and rice.

I started work as an incense stick maker. I was able to buy 2 kilos of flour by rolling 4000 "battis" or incense sticks. Paid INR 20 daily, that was the only money which my family was getting.

One day a man approached me, and told me that instead of working so hard, for nothing, join my plastic factory. Initially I was skeptical as I did not know sorting and the types of materials. He challenged me by saying that I can do it. And thinking of my family, I decided to take it up… I was quick at work, and the money was decent. Things improved.

Soon after my mother contracted TB and fell very sick. We had to admit her for 3 months in the hospital. My father at that time was not working. I went to the owner and agreed to do the work of three people. He paid for my mother's treatment. I earned 600 /- and my siblings too dropped out of school. They began helping in the plastic factory and that way we supported the family.

Two to three times, our hut was burned down by the government officials, because we were living there illegally on government land. When we first came here, the hut we lived in was built of mud and leaves it was easy for it to catch fire.

Water was scarce and we had to walk two miles for it. There was no electricity and the toilet was common and out in the open. We had to go find logs to flame for cooking. I was just 8 years old and working harder. The water we used for drinking was toxic. Dead people were thrown in the place where we used to go for fetching water. A lot of people were murdered there. Earlier, people were scared of coming to Nayandahalli because of the reputation.

I was married when my mother fell sick, as that was her wish. My husband was drunkard and not at all nice to me. He made me abort four of my children and looked at women in a very wrong way. I had no say in all of this.

I have 2 children, of 12 and 8 years of age, and I want them to succeed in life. I am happy now. I have admitted them into an English medium school for that very reason. My brother and sister are married and they are leading good lives. Now, my only wish is to see my children get out of this squalor we are living in, and lead a respectable life. People speak to me with respect, seeing the amount I worked for my age.

The post here is a part of the Notes from Nayandahalli series and is a reflection of an ongoing study supported by Indian Institute for Human Settlements and WIPRO Cares.You can find the previous posts here… Post 1, Post 2, Post 3, Post 4, Post 5 and Post 6.

You can listen to the audio of the interview. It is in Dakhani.

Interviewer: Usha

Transcribed by Pinky Chandran & Ashwini Raj

Audio interview edited by Usha

Notes from Nayandahalli

Shreyas Sreenath*

"Often, in the red light of a street-lamp
Of which the wind whips the flame and worries the glass,
In the heart of some old suburb, muddy labyrinth,
Where humanity crawls in a seething ferment,

One sees a rag-picker go by, shaking his head,
Stumbling, bumping against the walls like a poet,
And, with no thought of the stool-pigeons, his subjects,
He pours out his whole heart in grandiose projects."

Charles Baudelaire, from Fleurs du Mal (1985, trans. by William Aggeler)

You arrive at the Nayandahalli bus stop to encounter a swirl of dust and unearthed soil. Standing on the Outer Ring Road, your gaze promptly turns from the construction below to the remarkable Mysore Road flyover, zipping above you without a pause to connect the heart of the city to Ramanagara and Mysore. Right beside is another overpass, this one being the new metro line that is scheduled to connect the Bangalore University area to Vijayanagara, and then onto Majestic, the city's central transportation hub. One could easily mistake the turbulent waters rushing below, thick in viscosity, striking in its dark greens and iridescent greys, and emitting a deeply pungent aroma, for one of Bangalore's many open sewers. It is only upon further inquiry that you realize that this is the Vrishabawathi River, a tributary of the Arakavati. A river which, after sustained intake of domestic and industrial waste, has acquired a distinctly man-made quality. Nestled underneath a city consumed by vertical and horizontal growth, Nayandahalli is one of many small towns and gullies that people pass by while traveling on main roads, bridges, and flyovers. One seldom notes their existence; these are places subsumed by greater Bangalore's growth, appearing awkward and anachronistic in its midst. However, their very existence indicates that they occupy a key strategic position in the city's developmental aspirations, as areas responsible for managing the tremendous debris produced as a natural consequence of human progress. From the 19th century rubbish heaps north of London described so vividly in Dickens' Our Mutual Friend,to more recent examples such as the Thilafushi Island in the Maldives or the Zabbaleen settlements in Cairo, communities that extract value from waste have played a crucial role in recycling urban debris into material used for further growth. Their work has often gone unacknowledged, even if their actions have proven politically decisive.

The relationship that a society has with its wastes can reveal much about the circumstances of its past and present making, as well as indicate broad outlines of its future direction. Nayandahalli, as one of Bangalore's main hubs for plastic, metal, paper, and cloth recycling, is one such indicator, a yardstick that epitomizes the relationship Bangalore has with its detritusandwith its own material becoming. Tucked away in dusty corners, underneath flyovers and metro rails, it is physical evidence of the strained relationship that a city, in a moment of technophilia, has with the vast matter it leaves behind, substances with dormant value, regularly drawn upon for the continuation of urban life. It is a relationship that subdues communities that engage in waste work, the work of putting materials into reuse, through active forgetting.Over the course of our interviews with various recyclers, I am struck by how sharply this sentiment is articulated by the various waste segregators, haulers, and godown operators. "Land," says Fatima, "is the most important thing for all of us." A local activist, she comes from a family of scrap dealers.[1]Her husband, Sameer, drives a truck transporting scrap plastic to and from various godowns across the city. "Nayandahalli is filled with hundreds of godowns that constantly have to move about," she elaborated, "because in one way or another, we are all renters. Often, our godowns are rented and so are our dwellings." Fatima explained how, for rentiers, recyclers are never the first priority, especially in the midst of a booming Bangalore property market and rising rent prices. Echoing many others, she cited instances of being chastised by rentiers or neighbors for putting scrap material out in the field for loading, where it was visible for passersby. "Moreover, the haulers and segregators themselves have no place to go back to, they often sleep right in the godown, fearing for their security" she remarked, pointing to the conditions of the workers. Waste work is tolerated only when it is out of sight and out of mind.

Picture Courtesy: Pinky Chandran
Picture Courtesy: Pinky Chandran

Sameer and Fatima take us to an open stretch of land underneath the metro station, on the banks of the Vrishabawathi, where around ten godowns are situated. There we meet Ahmed Pasha, a Godown operator who has formed an association with his colleagues to lobby for political and legal recognition. "We were all situated further in the city," he says, "but when the houses started coming up, it became harder for us to move our materials around." When we ask who owns the property now, he laughs and points to the tea seller's shop next to the godown. "We'll see how long we can stay here", he remarks, turning his gaze to the unfinished metro line above.

Ahmed Pasha and his colleagues are keenly aware of the political and economic processes that delegitimize waste work. For example, a recurring problem faced by godown operators is with tax personnel who seize unsorted waste, fining godown operators upwards of Rs. 1000 when they cannot produce a bill of purchase. That is in addition to the regular bribes one pays to the police for not having professional identification. "In our old neighborhood," states Ahmed Pasha, "we didn't feel so much like outsiders.Here, we need licenses to appear legitimate". In a strange twist of fate, recyclates generate much value for public coffers even in their criminalized form. Waste, to paraphrase theorist Michael Thompson (Thompson 1979), is never simply 'dead weight'; rather, it is that in-between space that allows for one form of value to disintegrate and a new form to be born.

Recycling is paradoxical in that the further one goes down the value chain, the finer and more intricate the valuation process becomes. Here, materials become more intertwined and complex in form.Weighing scales can misguide as much as they measure, since much low value materials have a tendency to soak up moisture as well as mix with forms of biodegradable material. In plastic, lower value material often comes in darker colors, mixed with impurities such as soil or other plastic, making them more brittle and tougher to melt down. An example of this is what the recyclers in Bangalore call the 'kadak' variety of plastic—even here, 'pani-kadak', which is clearer, is more valued than 'kala-kadak', a black or brownish variety.

We meet Badri, who deals primarily in such low value recyclates, at his godown, located on an empty rented lot in a swiftly developing housing bloc. Along with medical waste and small plastic widgets, the godown houses piles of outmoded electronics, such as BSNL land-line telephones, keyboards, ball-based computer mice, as well as rubber coils, CD's, hard plastic motor casings—discarded 'state of the art' technologies of Bangalore's yesteryear, awaiting redemption and re-evaluation. Badri picks out a soiled PVC pipe with an intricate metal and cloth lining that acts as a supportive buttress for the brittle plastic. He says, "to sell this, I have to pick apart the cloth, metal, and plastic. The categories of material that I work with range in the hundreds, each with their market price." After speaking with the segregators at his godown, it is clear that the work takes months to learn, over a period where an individual has to attain the skill of multi-sensory discernment. Some plastics are differentiated upon touch, others have to be broken and smelled, and some dropped or knocked on to bring out a particular sound.

The lower down the waste value chain one goes, the more contested certain political, economic, and social relationships become. Badri explains how his landlord was more than happy to have him set up shop when the housing bloc was still undeveloped. At a time of low growth, his operation served a dual function for his rentier. Not only was his godown a constant source of rent, the hustle and bustle of the godown provided also provided cheap security from those seeking to encroach on the property. In addition to increased rents—Badri approximated that his rent had increased ten-fold—development often brings increased harassment from landlords and neighbors. "When we hosted a health clinic sponsored by a local organization for recyclers," he said, "the landlord told us that he had received complaints from neighbors about suspicious people roaming about on the property. He often threatens to rent out our space to a textile operation." Needlessly to say, segregation is dangerous work that, more often than not, brings ill health—flying glass and plastic shards, along with rusting metal and used medical supplies, are a common sight as workers hammer through materials. .

He recounts one incident when a theft had occurred at the godown. "The police had brought the suspects to the station", he notes, smiling in disbelief, "and had asked these characters why they hadn't stolen something more valuable, like gold. The officers quipped, 'if that was the case, we could have all gained something from this.'"By elaborating on some of the initial interviews we conducted, I have attempted to briefly highlight the substantial human energy and skill that is marshalled to make the vast piles of accumulated urban waste fit for reuse. But it has also been my intention to frame waste as an active material agent, and an invaluable source of value, one that shapes the way our cities function. It bears an imprint on our lives with or without our consent, or our awareness. If we are forced to think of waste, as we often do, as dormant and lifeless, if we are forced to forget its marks on our everyday existence, perhaps it is because of the particularly active role that certain parties play in political and economic subterfuge.

The work of Nayandahalli's recyclers demonstrates that the old adage "where there's muck there's brass" is self-evident. In the last instance, value is always derived from waste, one way or another.

*I would like to thank Malleswari Baddela, Kabir Arora, and Nalini Shekar from Hasiru Dala, as well as the recyclers and activists we spoke to in Nayandahalli, for their support and patience during these interviews. I also thank the Social Science Research Council for providing the research funds that made my field study possible.

The post here is a part of the Notes from Nayandahalli series and is a reflection of an ongoing study supported by Indian Institute for Human Settlements.You can find the previous post here.

Works Cited

Thompson, M. 1979 Rubbish theory : the creation and destruction of value. Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press.

[1] All names have been changed to protect the identity of the interviewees.

*Shreyas Sreenath is a graduate student in the Department of Anthropology at Emory University. He volunteers with Hasiru Dala whenever he is in India.

The post was earlier titled as "Thoughts on Informal Waste Economy and the Challenges Faced by its Workers"

I am still learning


I'm reading a new biography of this hero of mine. It's not the same as stone's book, drier but what a man. 

70 years old and he's still learning. 

As I told Kannu, just because you're out of school doesn't mean you stop learning. 

Wednesday, November 18

So I send this photo to my little girl

And her response? 'baba, this looks like something you would do!' 

No respect at all for their elders I tell you. I just don't know about parents these days raising cheeky monkeys like her. 

Tuesday, November 17

How the Red Cross Raised Half a Billion Dollars for Haiti and Built Six Homes

The title is itself shocking isn't it son?  This is unfortunately far too common all the time. The literally trillions of dollars poured into the foreign aid budget since world war 2 has been a spectacular failure. Blunt truth. If I had a choice, I'll not give a penny to these big charities. And I don't. I prefer to give my time and energy and ideas. Yes I do pay for few things like the operation for baby Jovita but that's direct help. 

Read Bill Easterly's book called as the White man's burden son. It's a tragic indictment of how the aid industry corrupts basic common sense. 

And here's a giant example of how the Red Cross failed Haiti. And no lessons are learnt. We keep on doing this shit. Like the kids company. Truly you can fool some people all the time. 

It was good to see you son. I'm proud of you and happy for you :)



How the Red Cross Raised Half a Billion Dollars for Haiti and Built Six Homes
(via Instapaper)

Marie Arago, special to ProPublica

How the Red Cross Raised Half a Billion Dollars for Haiti and Built Six Homes

Even as the group has publicly celebrated its work, insider accounts detail a string of failures

by Justin Elliott, ProPublica, and Laura Sullivan, NPR June 3, 2015

The neighborhood of Campeche sprawls up a steep hillside in Haiti's capital city, Port-au-Prince. Goats rustle in trash that goes forever uncollected. Children kick a deflated volleyball in a dusty lot below a wall with a hand-painted logo of the American Red Cross.

In late 2011, the Red Cross launched a multimillion-dollar project to transform the desperately poor area, which was hit hard by the earthquake that struck Haiti the year before. The main focus of the project — called LAMIKA, an acronym in Creole for "A Better Life in My Neighborhood" — was building hundreds of permanent homes.

Today, not one home has been built in Campeche. Many residents live in shacks made of rusty sheet metal, without access to drinkable water, electricity or basic sanitation. When it rains, their homes flood and residents bail out mud and water.

The Red Cross received an outpouring of donations after the quake, nearly half a billion dollars.

The group has publicly celebrated its work. But in fact, the Red Cross has repeatedly failed on the ground in Haiti. Confidential memos, emails from worried top officers, and accounts of a dozen frustrated and disappointed insiders show the charity has broken promises, squandered donations, and made dubious claims of success.

The Red Cross says it has provided homes to more than 130,000 people. But the actual number of permanent homes the group has built in all of Haiti: six.

After the earthquake, Red Cross CEO Gail McGovern unveiled ambitious plans to "develop brand-new communities." None has ever been built.

Aid organizations from around the world have struggled after the earthquake in Haiti, the Western Hemisphere's poorest country. But ProPublica and NPR's investigation shows that many of the Red Cross's failings in Haiti are of its own making. They are also part of a larger pattern in which the organization has botched delivery of aid after disasters such as Superstorm Sandy. Despite its difficulties, the Red Cross remains the charity of choice for ordinary Americans and corporations alike after natural disasters.

One issue that has hindered the Red Cross' work in Haiti is an overreliance on foreigners who could not speak French or Creole, current and former employees say.

In a blistering 2011 memo, the then-director of the Haiti program, Judith St. Fort, wrote that the group was failing in Haiti and that senior managers had made "very disturbing" remarks disparaging Haitian employees. St. Fort, who is Haitian American, wrote that the comments included, "he is the only hard working one among them" and "the ones that we have hired are not strong so we probably should not pay close attention to Haitian CVs."

The Red Cross won't disclose details of how it has spent the hundreds of millions of dollars donated for Haiti. But our reporting shows that less money reached those in need than the Red Cross has said.

Lacking the expertise to mount its own projects, the Red Cross ended up giving much of the money to other groups to do the work. Those groups took out a piece of every dollar to cover overhead and management. Even on the projects done by others, the Red Cross had its own significant expenses – in one case, adding up to a third of the project's budget.

Where did the half billion raised for Haiti go? The Red Cross won't say.

In statements, the Red Cross cited the challenges all groups have faced in post-quake Haiti, including the country's dysfunctional land title system.

"Like many humanitarian organizations responding in Haiti, the American Red Cross met complications in relation to government coordination delays, disputes over land ownership, delays at Haitian customs, challenges finding qualified staff who were in short supply and high demand, and the cholera outbreak, among other challenges," the charity said.

The group said it responded quickly to internal concerns, including hiring an expert to train staff on cultural competency after St. Fort's memo. While the group won't provide a breakdown of its projects, the Red Cross said it has done more than 100. The projects include repairing 4,000 homes, giving several thousand families temporary shelters, donating $44 million for food after the earthquake, and helping fund the construction of a hospital.

"Millions of Haitians are safer, healthier, more resilient, and better prepared for future disasters thanks to generous donations to the American Red Cross," McGovern wrote in a recent report marking the fifth anniversary of the earthquake.

In other promotional materials, the Red Cross said it has helped "more than 4.5 million" individual Haitians "get back on their feet."

It has not provided details to back up the claim. And Jean-Max Bellerive, Haiti's prime minister at the time of the earthquake, doubts the figure, pointing out the country's entire population is only about 10 million.

"No, no," Bellerive said of the Red Cross' claim, "it's not possible."

When the earthquake struck Haiti in January 2010, the Red Cross was facing a crisis of its own. McGovern had become chief executive just 18 months earlier, inheriting a deficit and an organization that had faced scandals after 9/11 and Katrina.

Gail McGovern (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Inside the Red Cross, the Haiti disaster was seen as "a spectacular fundraising opportunity," recalled one former official who helped organize the effort. Michelle Obama, the NFL and a long list of celebrities appealed for donations to the group.

The Red Cross kept soliciting money well after it had enough for the emergency relief that is the group's stock in trade. Doctors Without Borders, in contrast, stopped fundraising off the earthquake after it decided it had enough money. The donations to the Red Cross helped the group erase its more-than $100 million deficit.

The Red Cross ultimately raised far more than any other charity.

A year after the quake, McGovern announced that the Red Cross would use the donations to make a lasting impact in Haiti.

We asked the Red Cross to show us around its projects in Haiti so we could see the results of its work. It declined. So earlier this year we went to Campeche to see one of the group's signature projects for ourselves.

Street vendors in the dusty neighborhood immediately pointed us to Jean Jean Flaubert, the head of a community group that the Red Cross set up as a local sounding board.

Sitting with us in their sparse one-room office, Flaubert and his colleagues grew angry talking about the Red Cross. They pointed to the lack of progress in the neighborhood and the healthy salaries paid to expatriate aid workers.

"What the Red Cross told us is that they are coming here to change Campeche. Totally change it," said Flaubert. "Now I do not understand the change that they are talking about. I think the Red Cross is working for themselves."

The Red Cross' initial plan said the focus would be building homes — an internal proposal put the number at 700. Each would have finished floors, toilets, showers, even rainwater collection systems. The houses were supposed to be finished in January 2013.

The Red Cross promised to build hundreds of new homes in Campeche but none have been built. Many residents still live in crude shacks. (Marie Arago, special to ProPublica)

None of that ever happened. Carline Noailles, who was the project's manager in Washington, said it was endlessly delayed because the Red Cross "didn't have the know-how."

Another former official who worked on the Campeche project said, "Everything takes four times as long because it would be micromanaged from DC, and they had no development experience."

Shown an English-language press release from the Red Cross website, Flaubert was stunned to learn of the project's $24 million budget — and that it is due to end next year.

"Not only is [the Red Cross] not doing it," Flaubert said, "now I'm learning that the Red Cross is leaving next year. I don't understand that." (The Red Cross says it did tell community leaders about the end date. It also accused us of "creating ill will in the community which may give rise to a security incident.")

The project has since been reshaped and downscaled. A road is being built. Some existing homes have received earthquake reinforcement and a few schools are being repaired. Some solar street lights have been installed, though many broke and residents say others are unreliable.

The group's most recent press release on the project cites achievements such as training school children in disaster response.

The Red Cross said it has to scale back its housing plans because it couldn't acquire the rights to land. No homes will be built.

Other Red Cross infrastructure projects also fizzled.

A Red Cross effort to save Haitians from cholera was crippled by internal issues. "None of these people had to die," said a Haitian official.

In January 2011, McGovern announced a $30 million partnership with the U.S. Agency for International Development, or USAID. The agency would build roads and other infrastructure in at least two locations where the Red Cross would build new homes.

But it took more than two and a half years, until August 2013, for the Red Cross just to sign an agreement with USAID on the program, and even that was for only one site. The program was ultimately canceled because of a land dispute.

A Government Accountability Office report attributed the severe delays to problems "in securing land title and because of turnover in Red Cross leadership" in its Haiti program.

Other groups also ran into trouble with land titles and other issues. But they also ultimately built 9,000 homes compared to the Red Cross' six.

Asked about the Red Cross' housing projects in Haiti, David Meltzer, the group's general counsel and chief international officer, said changing conditions forced changes in plans. "If we had said, 'All we're going to do is build new homes,' we'd still be looking for land," he said.

The USAID project's collapse left the Red Cross grasping for ways to spend money earmarked for it.

"Any ideas on how to spend the rest of this?? (Besides the wonderful helicopter idea?)," McGovern wrote to Meltzer in a November 2013 email obtained by ProPublica and NPR. "Can we fund Conrad's hospital? Or more to PiH[Partners in Health]? Any more shelter projects?"

Jean Jean Flaubert says the Red Cross promised to transform his neighborhood. "Now I do not understand the change that they are talking about," he said. (Marie Arago, special to ProPublica)

It's not clear what helicopter idea McGovern was referring to or if it was ever carried out. The Red Cross would say only that her comments were "grounded in the American Red Cross' strategy and priorities, which focus on health and housing."

Another signature project, known in Creole as "A More Resilient Great North," is supposed to rehabilitate roads in poor, rural communities and to help them get clean water and sanitation.

But two years after it started, the $13 million effort has been faltering badly. An internal evaluation from March found residents were upset because nothing had been done to improve water access or infrastructure or to make "contributions of any sort to the well being of households," the report said.

So much bad feeling built up in one area that the population "rejects the project."

The Red Cross says 91% of donations went to help Haitians. That's not true.

Instead of making concrete improvements to living conditions, the Red Cross has launched hand-washing education campaigns. The internal evaluation noted that these were "not effective when people had no access to water and no soap." (The Red Cross declined to comment on the project.)

The group's failures went beyond just infrastructure.

When a cholera epidemic raged through Haiti nine months after the quake, the biggest part of the Red Cross' response — a plan to distribute soap and oral rehydration salts — was crippled by "internal issues that go unaddressed," wrote the director of the Haiti program in her May 2011 memo.

Throughout that year, cholera was a steady killer. By September 2011, when the death toll had surpassed 6,000, the project was still listed as "very behind schedule" according to another internal document.

The Red Cross said in a statement that its cholera response, including a vaccination campaign, has continued for years and helped millions of Haitians.

But while other groups also struggled early responding to cholera, some performed well.

"None of these people had to die. That's what upsets me," said Paul Christian Namphy, a Haitian water and sanitation official who helped lead the effort to fight cholera. He says early failures by the Red Cross and other NGOs had a devastating impact. "These numbers should have been zero."

So why did the Red Cross' efforts fall so short? It wasn't just that Haiti is a hard place to work.

"They collected nearly half a billion dollars," said a congressional staffer who helped oversee Haiti reconstruction. "But they had a problem. And the problem was that they had absolutely no expertise."

Lee Malany was in charge of the Red Cross' shelter program in Haiti starting in 2010. He remembers a meeting in Washington that fall where officials did not seem to have any idea how to spend millions of dollars set aside for housing. Malany says the officials wanted to know which projects would generate good publicity, not which projects would provide the most homes.

"When I walked out of that meeting I looked at the people that I was working with and said, 'You know this is very disconcerting, this is depressing,'" he recalled.

The Red Cross said in a statement its Haiti program has never put publicity over delivering aid.

Malany resigned the next year from his job in Haiti. "I said there's no reason for me to stay here. I got on the plane and left."

Transitional shelters like these on the outskirts of Port-Au-Prince, paid for by the Red Cross, typically last three to five years. (Marie Arago, special to ProPublica)

Sometimes it wasn't a matter of expertise, but whether anybody was filling key jobs. An April 2012 organizational chart obtained by ProPublica and NPR lists 9 of 30 leadership positions in Haiti as vacant, including slots for experts on health and shelter.

The Red Cross said vacancies and turnover were inevitable because of "the security situation, separation from family for international staff, and the demanding nature of the work."

The constant upheaval took a toll. Internal documents refer to repeated attempts over years to "finalize" and "complete" a strategic plan for the Haiti program, efforts that were delayed by changes in senior management. As late as March 2014, more than four years into a six-year program, an internal update cites a "revised strategy" still awaiting "final sign-off."

The Red Cross said settling on a plan early would have been a mistake. "It would be hard to create the perfect plan from the beginning in a complicated place like Haiti," it said. "But we also need to begin, so we create plans that are continually revised."

The Red Cross says it provided homes to more than 130,000 Haitians. But they didn't.

Those plans were further undermined by the Red Cross' reliance on expats. Noailles, the Haitian development professional who worked for the Red Cross on the Campeche project, said expat staffers struggled in meetings with local officials.

"Going to meetings with the community when you don't speak the language is not productive," she said. Sometimes, she recalled, expat staffers would skip such meetings altogether.

The Red Cross said it has "made it a priority to hire Haitians" despite lots of competition for local professionals, and that over 90 percent of its staff is Haitian. The charity said it used a local human resources firm to help.

Yet very few Haitians have made it into the group's top echelons in Haiti, according to five current and former Red Cross staffers as well as staff lists obtained by ProPublica and NPR.

That not only affected the group's ability to work in Haiti, it was also expensive.

According to an internal Red Cross budgeting document for the project in Campeche, the project manager – a position reserved for an expatriate – was entitled to allowances for housing, food and other expenses, home leave trips, R&R four times a year, and relocation expenses. In all, it added up to $140,000.

Compensation for a senior Haitian engineer — the top local position — was less than one-third of that, $42,000 a year.

Shelim Dorval, a Haitian administrator who worked for the Red Cross coordinating travel and housing for expatriate staffers, recalled thinking it was a waste to spend so much to bring in people with little knowledge of Haiti when locals were available.

"For each one of those expats, they were having high salaries, staying in a fancy house, and getting vacation trips back to their countries," Dorval said. "A lot of money was spent on those people who were not Haitian, who had nothing to do with Haiti. The money was just going back to the United States."

Soon after the earthquake, McGovern, the Red Cross CEO, said the group would make sure donors knew exactly what happened to their money.

The Red Cross would "lead the effort in transparency," she pledged. "We are happy to share the way we are spending our dollars."

That hasn't happened. The Red Cross' public reports offer only broad categories about where $488 million in donations has gone. The biggest category is shelter, at about $170 million. The others include health, emergency relief and disaster preparedness.

After the earthquake, Red Cross CEO Gail McGovern unveiled plans to "develop brand-new communities." None has ever been built. (Marie Arago, special to ProPublica)

It has declined repeated requests to disclose the specific projects, to explain how much money went to each or to say what the results of each project were.

There is reason to doubt the Red Cross' claims that it helped 4.5 million Haitians. An internal evaluation found that in some areas, the Red Cross reported helping more people than even lived in the communities. In other cases, the figures were low, and in others double-counting went uncorrected.

In describing its work, the Red Cross also conflates different types of aid, making it more difficult to assess the charity's efforts in Haiti.

For example, while the Red Cross says it provided more than 130,000 people with homes, that includes thousands of people who were not actually given homes, but rather were "trained in proper construction techniques." (That was first reported by the Haiti blog of the Center for Economic and Policy Research.)

The figure includes people who got short-term rental assistance or were housed in several thousand "transitional shelters," which are temporary structures that can get eaten up by termites or tip over in storms. It also includes modest improvements on 5,000 temporary shelters.

The Red Cross also won't break down what portion of donations went to overhead.

How the Red Cross' Overhead Claim Stacks Up

The Red Cross says that for each dollar donated, 91 cents went to Haiti. But here's what actually happened in one $5.4 million project to improve temporary shelters.

Overhead and Management
Spent on Doing the Work
What They Say
What Actually Happened
9% 91%
9% Red Cross' overhead
24% Red Cross' program management and other
~7% Other groups' overhead

Source: American Red Cross and ProPublica Analysis
Credit: Sisi Wei/ProPublica

McGovern told CBS News a few months after the quake, "Minus the 9 cents overhead, 91 cents on the dollar will be going to Haiti. And I give you my word and my commitment, I'm banking my integrity, my own personal sense of integrity on that statement."

But the reality is that less money went to Haiti than 91 percent. That's because in addition to the Red Cross' 9 percent overhead, the other groups that got grants from the Red Cross also have their own overhead.

In one case, the Red Cross sent $6 million to the International Federation of the Red Cross for rental subsidies to help Haitians leave tent camps. The IFRC then took out 26 percent for overhead and what the IFRC described as program-related "administration, finance, human resources" and similar costs.

Beyond all that, the Red Cross also spends another piece of each dollar for what it describes as "program costs incurred by the American Red Cross in managing" the projects done by other groups.

The American Red Cross' management and other costs consumed an additional 24 percent of the money on one project, according to the group's statements and internal documents. The actual work, upgrading shelters, was done by the Swiss and Spanish Red Cross societies.

"It's a cycle of overhead," said Jonathan Katz, the Associated Press reporter in Haiti at the time of the earthquake who tracked post-disaster spending for his book, The Big Truck That Went By. "It was always going to be the American Red Cross taking a 9 percent cut, re-granting to another group, which would take out their cut."

Given the results produced by the Red Cross' projects in Haiti, Bellerive, the former prime minister, said he has a hard time fathoming what's happened to donors' money.

"Five hundred million dollars in Haiti is a lot of money," he said. "I'm not a big mathematician, but I can make some additions. I know more or less the cost of things. Unless you don't pay for the gasoline the same price I was paying, unless you pay people 20 times what I was paying them, unless the cost of the house you built was five times the cost I was paying, it doesn't add up for me."

A resident in a Port-Au-Prince transitional shelter paid for by the Red Cross. (Marie Arago, special to ProPublica)

This story was co-published with NPR. Mitzy-Lynn Hyacinthe contributed reporting.

Read about how the Red Cross botched key elements of its mission after Superstorm Sandy and Hurricane Isaac in PR Over People: The Red Cross' Secret Disaster. And about how the Red Cross' CEO has been serially misleading about where donors' dollars are going.

If you have information about the Red Cross or about other international aid projects, please email

author photo

Justin Elliott is a ProPublica reporter covering politics and government accountability. Previously, he was a reporter at and TPMmuckraker and news editor at Talking Points Memo.

Laura Sullivan is a NPR News investigative correspondent whose work has cast a light on some of the country's most disadvantaged people.

America dumbs down: a rising tide of anti-intellectual thinking


Here's an example of how people lose their arguments. A laudable objective. Stop war. I concur with that. I hate war as well. But the author forgets few things. That a state has to first and foremost keep its citizens safe and there are competing ideologies and missions which stop them from doing so. Think about the police. Why do you need them? 

Second is to make silly comparisons. Don't make an aircraft carrier and instead use the money to build water systems. Good. Whose going to pay for that? Running costs for the next 30 years? The American taxpayer will pay for the world's water system? There's that little matter of democracy to worry about. 

When people make arguments like this,, they cause more damage to their own cause. Just noise. 



America dumbs down: a rising tide of anti-intellectual thinking
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Bill Pugliano/Getty Images
Bill Pugliano/Getty Images

Furthermore: This US Memorial Day Remember War Is Murder

BY GLEN BARRY · MAY 25, 2014, Ecological Internet: We must stop glorifying war murders and their perpetrators, and demobilize globally in order to address the far greater threat of abrupt climate change and ecosystem collapse. Murder has not, nor will it ever, make us free.

Ramanujan surprises again

This was another pleasant surprise kids. Did I tell you that I went looking for his house in chennai last year? And found it? It was just a normal house. Perhaps I was reading too much into it. Or was hoping to see some plaques or something but nothing. Maybe that's the right metaphor. India has these brilliant people but they aren't recognised at all. The man was brilliant and his work is still being recognised in amazing ways. That's one of my regrets. That I'm not able to spend more time doing mathematics. So much to learn and so little time. It's so much fun doing maths. Specially when you're trying to derive things. Pure mathematics was beyond me though. This was more applied maths that I liked. I couldn't get my head around the pure abstract thinking that pure mathematics requires. But I'm happy both of you like mathematics. It's fun and games. 

Anyway read and admire kids :) 

Ramanujan surprises again |
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Ramanujan's manuscript
Ramanujan's manuscript. The representations of 1729 as the sum of two cubes appear in the bottom right corner. The equation expressing the near counter examples to Fermat's last theorem appears further up: α3 + β3 = γ3 + (-1)n. Image courtesy Trinity College library. Click here to see a larger image.

A box of manuscripts and three notebooks. That's all that's left of the work of Srinivasa Ramanujan, an Indian mathematician who lived his remarkable but short life around the beginning of the twentieth century. Yet, that small stash of mathematical legacy still yields surprises. Two mathematicians of Emory University, Ken Ono and Sarah Trebat-Leder, have recently made a fascinating discovery within its yellowed pages. It shows that Ramanujan was further ahead of his time than anyone had expected, and provides a beautiful link between several milestones in the history of mathematics. And it all goes back to the innocuous-looking number 1729.

Ramanujan's story is as inspiring as it is tragic. Born in 1887 in a small village around 400 km from Madras (now Chennai), Ramanujan developed a passion for mathematics at a young age, but had to pursue it mostly alone and in poverty. Until, in 1913, he decided to write a letter to the famous Cambridge number theorist G.H. Hardy

Monday, November 16

Indian Ocean Slavery in the Age of Abolition.

Here's an interesting book review son, on the slavery issue around the Indian Ocean. This area actually saw greater numbers of slaves and for longer compared to the Atlantic side and that wasn't anything less. It's just that we know more about the slavery trade to the Americas than we know about the Indian Ocean trade, the Arab trade, the intra-African trade. That was brutal as well. India has a huge slavery market and elements of that in terms of indentured servitude still survives to this day! 

But still this book gives some perspectives on the slavery trade in the Indian Ocean despite the lacunae. 

Look forward to seeing you tonight son. 



H-Net Reviews
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Indian Ocean Slavery in the Age of Abolition. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013. 264 pp. $35.00 (paper), ISBN 978-0-300-16387-2.

Reviewed by Marina Carter (Research Associate, School of History, Classics and Archaeology, University of Edinburgh)
Published on H-Slavery (November, 2015)

Indian Ocean Slavery in the Age of Abolition, edited by Robert Harms, Bernard K. Freamon, and David W. Blight, is the latest of several publications that help to address the comparative neglect of the Indian Ocean vis-à-vis the Atlantic in the literature on slavery and the slave trade, while emphasizing that the two are not readily comparable. As Harms notes in his introduction, "the older Indian Ocean commercial economy never lost its identity. Underneath the dominant European capital and shipping, networks of indigenous traders travelling in traditional vessels remained vibrant and even expanded in the nineteenth century" (p. 3). The collected essays in this volume navigate carefully through these choppy waters of complex identities and competing spheres of influence and cover much ground.

Finding Alice’s ‘Wonderland’ in Oxford


This is the article which we discussed on Saturday. You remembered the natural history museum where we saw the dodo. I'm not sure if you remember the Christ church college where we went 2 years back when dada was being interviewed or the dining room which is mentioned here. 

What a lovely backstory about Alice. She was real! And she had kids. It brings that story alive. I think we need to read the book again and also maybe go see the movie again. I think they've released a sequel again. I love the book and how the imagination runs riot there. 

You can ask dada when he's home today about the  colleges if you want :)

Hope you feel better today choti. Gives you a big hug and cuddle :)



Finding Alice’s ‘Wonderland’ in Oxford
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Alice was Alice Liddell, the 10-year-old daughter of Henry George Liddell, the dean of Christ Church, the largest college of Oxford University. Mr. Dodgson was Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, a mathematics lecturer at Christ Church, a recently ordained deacon in the Church of England, brilliant logician and consummate storyteller.

He acceded to her request, and over the next few months recorded the story in a manuscript he eventually illustrated and gave to Alice as a Christmas gift in 1864.

Encouraged by friends, including the fantasy writer George MacDonald, he expanded the book, commissioned illustrations by the political cartoonist John Tenniel, and had it published at his own expense under the name Lewis Carroll. In the 150 years since the publication of “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland,” it has influenced creations as varied as “Finnegans Wake” by James Joyce, illustrations by Salvador Dalí and a mock turtle soup from the British chef Heston Blumenthal. The book and its author were remarkable: the one for its utter departure from moralistic children’s stories into a world of subversive nonsense, the other for talents as diverse as mathematics and logic, photography and poetry and an ability, nurtured in his childhood home of 11 siblings, to entertain and connect with children.

Fantastic as it was, “Wonderland” was rooted in the place Dodgson lived and worked: the city and environs of Oxford with its ancient university, its “dreaming spires” and its surrounding countryside. Oxford is a city teeming with tourists and traffic, whose shop windows, in the sesquicentennial year of “Wonderland,” overflow with Alice merchandise; but if one listens closely, if one ducks through stone arches, opens creaky oaken doors, and descends to quiet riverside paths, one can still find the Oxford of Charles Dodgson and Alice.

I set out to discover that place, beginning with the college of Christ Church, where Dodgson lived from 1851 until his death in 1898 at age 65 and Alice lived from the time she was 3 until her marriage in 1880.

Visitors enter the college through the Meadows Buildings, erected by Dean Liddell in 1862. Dodgson’s first rooms in the college were in the cloisters, and here I saw the great Norman doorway to the chapter house — now called the Queen Alice door after a similar doorway in Tenniel’s illustration of Queen Alice in “Through the Looking-Glass.”