The Effect of Scarcity on Your Brain

I’m sharing this article from Science Magazine last month, because it is highly relevant to the work I’ve been doing for over 10 years with some of Australia’s most poverty-stricken, marginalised people.  I must think about this issue almost daily, and have intuitively known that the stress people are under contributes to the often frustrating, detrimental and seemingly avoidable behaviours that I work around.  Heavy drinking, drug abuse, spending limited funds on “fun” when the next day the family end up hungry, going against simple, useful advice, and the list goes on.  Yet amongst it all, it is so incongruent to see people coping under extreme stress in ways that I would find impossible.  The smiles and laughter amidst the chaos, the loved and happy children, finding solutions in creative and often very humourous ways, ability to distinguish friend from foe with acute discernment.  It’s a wild and woolly existence, and makes for a lot of fun amongst a lot of dysfunction!

I’m about to leave my job and have recently been discussing the qualities my replacement will need.  They relate far less to the required qualifications, than they do to temperament, empathy, communication skills, flexibility and an ability to work “outside the box”, which make working with an unusually challenging demographic not only possible, but enjoyable.  How lucky I feel, to have had the opportunity (and I guess the mental bandwidth!) to hone my personal qualities in this way – in what has been the most fun, frustrating, interesting, exasperating, challenging, rewarding and memorable ten years of my life!

Back to the subject.  This research speaks in words, what I have felt to be so, for years.

Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much. By Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir. Times Books; 288 pages; $28. Allen Lane; £20. Buy from,

THE authors of this book both study people for a living—often people who lack money. They may be vegetable sellers in Chennai, India, who borrow money at dawn and repay with exorbitant interest at dusk. Or they may be ill-paid office managers, like Shawn from Cleveland, Ohio, who lives from pay cheque to pay cheque, always finding that there is “more month than money”.

Surprisingly the authors see a lot of themselves in their subjects. As successful academics, neither lacks money (Sendhil Mullainathan, an economist at Harvard, won a $500,000 “genius” grant from the MacArthur Foundation before he turned 30). But they do lack time. The way Mr Mullainathan feels about his professional obligations mirrors the way Shawn felt about his financial liabilities. He has been known to miss deadlines, just as Shawn missed bill payments. Mr Mullainathan has double-booked meetings, promising time he has already committed; Shawn similarly bounced checks. Both were too busy putting out fires to prevent them from flaring up, and both fell prey to fresh temptations. Shawn was seduced by a leather jacket at an unbeatable price; Mr Mullainathan accepted an unmissable invitation to write about people like Shawn.

There is a distinctive psychology of scarcity, argues Mr Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir, a psychologist at Princeton University. People’s minds work differently when they feel they lack something. And it does not greatly matter what that something is. Anyone who feels strapped for money, friends, time or calories is likely to succumb to a similar “scarcity mindset”.

This mindset brings two benefits. It concentrates the mind on pressing needs. It also gives people a keener sense of the value of a dollar, minute, calorie or smile. The lonely, it turns out, are better at deciphering expressions of emotion. Likewise, the poor have a better grasp of costs.

This scarcity mindset can also be debilitating. It shortens a person’s horizons and narrows his perspective, creating a dangerous tunnel vision. Anxiety also saps brainpower and willpower, reducing mental “bandwidth”, as the authors call it. Indian sugarcane farmers score worse on intelligence tests before the harvest (when they are short of cash) than after. Feeling poor lowers a person’s IQ by as much as a night without sleep. Anxieties about friendlessness have a similar effect. In one experiment a random group of people were told that their results on a personality test suggested a life of loneliness. This random subset subsequently performed worse on intelligence tests and found it harder to resist the chocolate-chip cookies provided for them.

By making people slower witted and weaker willed, scarcity creates a mindset that perpetuates scarcity, the authors argue. In developing countries too many of the poor neglect to weed their crops, vaccinate their children, wash their hands, treat their water, take their pills or eat properly when pregnant. Ingenious schemes to better the lot of the poor fail because the poor themselves often fail to stick to them. The authors describe these shortcomings as the “elephant in the room”—which poverty researchers ignore because it is disrespectful to the people they are trying to help. But if these so-called character flaws are a consequence of poverty, and not just a cause of it, then perhaps they can be faced and redressed.

The authors discuss a range of solutions to the psychological pratfalls of scarcity. These include pill bottles that glow when they have been neglected, and savings cards displayed near supermarket tills, like lottery tickets, but which transfer the money impulsively “spent” on them into the person’s savings account.

Some of these practical antidotes are not new. But the book’s unified theory of the scarcity mentality is novel in its scope and ambition. This theory has a lot of moving parts, perhaps too many. (The scarcity mindset yields a “focus dividend”, which is offset by a tunnel-vision “tax” and a “bandwidth tax”; this can be relieved by “slack”, but although slack relieves scarcity, “abundance” creates a dangerous complacency). It is, however, easy to enjoy the book’s many vignettes and insights, leaving it to others with more bandwidth to fit it all together.


Development Projects Abound

Nine months in Cambodia is bound to be a life changing, fabulous experience, of that I have no doubt.

Meanwhile, I am signed up to a news service from East Timor and the other day I read an announcement about a vaccination program in Timor which sounded incorrect.  Here’s the correspondence that ensued.

You just never know when you reach out, who you might meet, what you might learn, and where it might lead you!


I have concerns about a couple of comments in your email.  I am a Public Health Nurse involved with vaccination programs in Australia.

Tetanus shots are no longer recommended every ten years.  Per the Australian National Immunisation Handbook, the childhood course of tetanus containing vaccine should be completed by 17 years of age, after which the next booster is recommended at 50yo unless travel to high risk countries, or a Tetanus prone wound occur – in which case refer to the handbook, at  I don’t know what the recommendations for Tetanus containing vaccine are in East Timor, but it is likely that the old recommendation of ten yearly boosters is no longer recommended there either, unless they remain a high risk country.

My second concern is with the claim that Tetanus has been eliminated from East Timor.  Tetanus is a bacteria which survives in soil and causes human infection when spores from contaminated soil enter a wound site in an inadequately protected person.  It would not be possible to eliminate Tetanus from a country, because of it’s survival in many soil environments.  Perhaps no cases of Neonatal Tetanus occurred in East Timor in 2012, but this does not mean the bacteria has been eliminated from the environment, nor that Tetanus disease (which still occurs occasionally in Australia – at least 24 cases between 2001 and 2007, but probably more as it is considered to be an under-notified disease) has been eliminated, nor that neonates are not still at risk of the disease in high risk situations such as birthing in unclean environments.

Thanks for considering my comments.

The author replied:

Hi Helen

Thank you for your email. Kiwanis International is working in partnership with UNICEF to eliminate maternal and neo-natal tetanus. My understanding and I appreciate your comments as I am not a nurse, is that once the Mother has been vaccinated the correct number of times (which from memory is three) then she is immune and all her future babies are also immune. I know that tetanus is always in the soil and the main idea of the program is to educate people about clean health procedures during birthing. It is UNICEF who makes the call about when a country is clear. All Kiwanis does is raise some of the money needed.

When the immunization program started there were over 40 countries where the disease was still active and it is down to 28 at last count. If you click on and then the Eliminate Project it will give you the details of which countries are successful and which are still in progress. Carrie Bickmore from Channel 10’s “The Project” is the UNICEF Ambassador for the program and we will be hearing from her on the night.

My comments about 10 years were personally anecdotal and do not reflect the “official” position of either UNICEF or Kiwanis International. I just want to save more future children and get as many people as possible to the dinner so that we can donate more money. It would be great if you could come along and ask some strong questions to engender a robust discussion. I appreciate that I need to be more careful about what I say.


My response:


Thanks so much for your reply.

It was really interesting to hear about your work, and I certainly didn’t mean to sound critical – rather just keen to clarify information which sounded incorrect.

I am guessing that UNICEF have some sort of criteria that they use to declare a country “Tetanus Free”, which relates to low numbers of cases of disease, rather than no disease.  Given that even countries like Australia do still see Tetanus, it was a surprising thing to read, but I will look into UNICEF’s information at the weekend and learn more!

The “ten year booster” thing is something that is in our collective consciousness, and there’s nothing wrong with what you said, because the current recommendations are potentially confusing and can’t be said in a single phrase the way “ten yearly boosters” can be!  In Australia many people are actually over-vaccinated now, because many vaccine providers don’t follow the new recommendations due to theme being so confusing.

It sounds like fabulous work that Kiwanis is doing and when I look at UNICEF on the weekend, I’ll also look at Kiwanis.  I am quite excited by all the good work going on in East Timor, where I had the privilege to volunteer briefly last year.  Next month I am going to work in Cambodia for nine months, on a TB program with MSF, and so feeling excited about that too, but after my time in Timor, my heart is still there!!

It was great to get your email, and I look forward to finding out more about the work Kiwanis does!


The author’s reply:

Hi Helen

I do hope you enjoy some service club surfing on the net. I would be most keen to have a coffee with you if at all possible before you go to Cambodia. I have been to Timor twice and am planning to set up a business in Dili and would love a good chat! <And included a phone number>.

Kiwanis International home page has this to say about the Eliminate Project (and I had no idea of the success with Iodine Deficiency Disorders that has already been achieved, either).

With The Eliminate Project, Kiwanis International and UNICEF have joined forces to eliminate maternal and neonatal tetanus. This deadly disease steals the lives of nearly 60,000 innocent babies and a significant number of women each year. The effects of the disease are excruciating — tiny newborns suffer repeated, painful convulsions and extreme sensitivity to light and touch.

To eliminate MNT from the Earth, more than 100 million mothers and their future babies must be immunized. This requires vaccines, syringes, safe storage, transportation, thousands of skilled staff and more. It will take US$110 million — and the dedicated work of UNICEF and every member of the Kiwanis family.

Kiwanis and UNICEF joined forces to tackle iodine deficiency disorders, achieving one of the most significant public health successes of the 20th century. Now, they are eliminating MNT from the face of the Earth. And in doing so, the project will reach the poorest, most neglected mothers and babies with additional lifesaving health care. The end of this one disease means the beginning of better health for so many families.

As I suspected, the definition of “elimination of Tetanus” is not about zero cases of Tetanus, which would be a very difficult, if not impossible thing to achieve.  But UNICEF define it as “MNT elimination in a country is defined as neonatal tetanus rate of less than one case of neonatal tetanus per 1000 live births in every district of the country.”

Kiwanis International’s website page “History of Global Campaigns” says this about the elimination of Iodine Deficiency Disorder, which is also interesting:

Partnering with UNICEF, Kiwanis successfully completed its first global campaign for children to virtually eliminate iodine deficiency disorders (IDD), the leading cause of preventable mental disability. Kiwanis raised and leveraged more than US$100 million, which helped change lives in 103 nations. The number of households estimated to be consuming iodized salt has jumped from less than 20 percent in 1990 to more than 70 percent, and the effort has been heralded as one of the most successful health initiatives in the world.

Kiwanis International and UNICEF have now joined forces to save the lives of babies and their mothers by eliminating maternal and neonatal tetanus (MNT), a disease that kills one baby every nine minutes. UNICEF Ambassador and actor Tea Leoni delivered the announcement at the 95th Annual Kiwanis International Convention.

From the internet : a baby having a tetanus spasm.
Neonatal tetanus

I know what you think of me

The below is stolen from a NY Times blog, and I LOVE it.

Recently I received an e-mail that wasn’t meant for me, but was about me. I’d been cc’d by accident. This is one of the darker hazards of electronic communication, Reason No. 697 Why the Internet Is Bad — the dreadful consequence of hitting “reply all” instead of “reply” or “forward.” The context is that I had rented a herd of goats for reasons that aren’t relevant here and had sent out a mass e-mail with photographs of the goats attached to illustrate that a) I had goats, and b) it was good. Most of the responses I received expressed appropriate admiration and envy of my goats, but the message in question was intended not as a response to me but as an aside to some of the recipient’s co-workers, sighing over the kinds of expenditures on which I was frittering away my uncomfortable income. The word “oof” was used.

I’ve often thought that the single most devastating cyberattack a diabolical and anarchic mind could design would not be on the military or financial sector but simply to simultaneously make every e-mail and text ever sent universally public. It would be like suddenly subtracting the strong nuclear force from the universe; the fabric of society would instantly evaporate, every marriage, friendship and business partnership dissolved. Civilization, which is held together by a fragile web of tactful phrasing, polite omissions and white lies, would collapse in an apocalypse of bitter recriminations and weeping, breakups and fistfights, divorces and bankruptcies, scandals and resignations, blood feuds, litigation, wholesale slaughter in the streets and lingering ill will.

This particular e-mail was, in itself, no big deal. Tone is notoriously easy to misinterpret over e-mail, and my friend’s message could have easily been read as affectionate head shaking rather than a contemptuous eye roll. It’s frankly hard to parse the word “oof” in this context. And let’s be honest — I am terrible with money, but I’ve always liked to think of this as an endearing foible. What was surprisingly wounding wasn’t that the e-mail was insulting but simply that it was unsympathetic. Hearing other people’s uncensored opinions of you is an unpleasant reminder that you’re just another person in the world, and everyone else does not always view you in the forgiving light that you hope they do, making all allowances, always on your side. There’s something existentially alarming about finding out how little room we occupy, and how little allegiance we command, in other people’s heads.

This experience is not a novelty of the information age; it’s always been available to us by the accident of overhearing a conversation at the wrong moment. I’ve written essays about friends that I felt were generous and empathetic, which they experienced as devastating. I’ve also been written about, in ways I could find no fault with but that were nonetheless excruciating for me to read. It is simply not pleasant to be objectively observed — it’s like seeing a candid photo of yourself online, not smiling or posing, but simply looking the way you apparently always do, oblivious and mush-faced with your mouth open. It’s proof that we are visible to others, that we are seen, in all our naked silliness and stupidity.

Needless to say, this makes us embarrassed and angry and damn our betrayers as vicious two-faced hypocrites. Which, in fact, we all are. We all make fun of one another behind one another’s backs, even the people we love. Of course we do — they’re ridiculous. Anyone worth knowing is inevitably also going to be exasperating: making the same obvious mistakes over and over, dating imbeciles, endlessly relapsing into their dumb addictions and self-defeating habits, blind to their own hilarious flaws and blatant contradictions and fiercely devoted to whatever keeps them miserable. (And those few people about whom there is nothing ridiculous are by far the most preposterous of all.)
Christelle Enault

Just as teasing someone to his face is a way of letting him know that you know him better than he thinks, making fun of him behind his back is a way of bonding with your mutual friends, reassuring one another that you both know and love and are driven crazy by this same person.

Although sometimes, let’s just admit, we’re simply being mean. A friend of mine described the time in high school when someone walked up behind her while she was saying something clever at that person’s expense as the worst feeling she had ever had — and not just because of the hurt she’d inflicted on someone else but because of what it forced her to see about herself. That she made fun of people all the time, people who didn’t deserve it, who were beneath her in the social hierarchy, just to ingratiate herself or make herself seem funny or cool.

Another friend once shared with me one of the aphorisms of 12-step recovery programs: “What other people think of you is none of your business.” Like a lot of wisdom, this sounds at first suspiciously similar to idiotic nonsense; obviously what other people think of you is your business, it’s your main job in life to try to control it, to do tireless P.R. and spin control for yourself. Every woman who ever went out with you must pine for you forever. Those who rejected you must regret it. You must be loved, respected — above all, taken seriously! They who mocked you will rue the day! The problem is that this is insane — the psychology of dictators who regard all dissent as treason, and periodically order purges to ensure unquestioning loyalty. It’s no way to run a country.

THE operative fallacy here is that we believe that unconditional love means not seeing anything negative about someone, when it really means pretty much the opposite: loving someone despite their infuriating flaws and essential absurdity. “Do I want to be loved in spite of?” Donald Barthelme writes in his story “Rebecca” about a woman with green skin. “Do you? Does anyone? But aren’t we all, to some degree?”

We don’t give other people credit for the same interior complexity we take for granted in ourselves, the same capacity for holding contradictory feelings in balance, for complexly alloyed affections, for bottomless generosity of heart and petty, capricious malice. We can’t believe that anyone could be unkind to us and still be genuinely fond of us, although we do it all the time.

Years ago a friend of mine had a dream about a strange invention; a staircase you could descend deep underground, in which you heard recordings of all the things anyone had ever said about you, both good and bad. The catch was, you had to pass through all the worst things people had said before you could get to the highest compliments at the very bottom. There is no way I would ever make it more than two and a half steps down such a staircase, but I understand its terrible logic: if we want the rewards of being loved we have to submit to the mortifying ordeal of being known.

By Tim Kreider

Cinema in the River

I’m leaving Alice Springs in four weeks from today.  It’s starting to feel very close, and there are many people who I need to leave behind, which is saddening.  As the Alice Festival is currently on, and last night Cinema in the River (ie in the dry riverbed) was featuring an indigenous movie, Satellite Boy, I decided (as I already had Sally staying), to take some indigenous friends who are forced to stay in town due to their ill health, to the cinema.

I turned up at the hostel where they stay, only two blocks from where the cinema was being set up, and a big group of patients were sitting outside, all  looking hopeful that they may end up as a passenger in my car.  I had to explain that I couldn’t take everyone, which received mumbles of understanding from them all.  Sally’s mother who I usually try to keep my distance from because she is not averse to turning the simple into the complicated, scored this time because Sally was coming.  Then I convinced my favourite elderly man, King, who I know well (we first met 16 years ago when I looked after his now-adult son on the Paediatric Ward of the local hospital), to come.  King is very weak now, reliant on a walking frame, very probably in his last year or two of life, and separated from all of his family because he has to live in town now.  Plus a woman I’ve known for ten years, who recently also developed chronic disease and has to stay in town.

I manouvered Sally’s plastic bags of belongings with King’s walking frame around in the boot, while everyone found a seat in the car, and off we went.  Two minutes later we were at the big circus tent which had been erected for the Festival.  The cinema in the river event had been moved to the festival tent on the riverbank due to blustering winds.

I pulled up as close to the tent as possible so everyone could get out, including King and his walker.  I got out to retrieve the walker, and realised the car was moving – I’d forgotten to put it in park and left the handbrake off!  Fixed that amidst gasps of shock and laughter from within the car, sorted King out and as they all strolled slowly towards the tent, I found a park, then joined them.  We sat in the baking circus-sized tent for ages while crowds slowly settled on the ground at the front, or in seats arranged in rows around the stage where the inflatable cinema screen was still being erected after the rushed decision that it was too windy outside to hang it between gum trees in the riverbed, as planned.

A bunch of women back at the hostel had missed out because I wasn’t driving a bus.  Sally suggested going back to get some of them.  So we did.  Tiny little Jenny, who is about as tall as my elbow, always wants to come with me, and always misses out, so for once I could bring her, plus a couple of community women who I know just from having spent time at the hostel, with King.  Others still missed out, but that was the only extra trip I could muster and they were very understanding.

Once again I pulled up as near to the tent as possible, Sally and the women got out and began strolling towards the tent while I parked the car, then caught up with them.  By the time I caught up, Jenny was trying her best to let go of Sally’s hand and sit on the ground, as she was too tired to walk any further!  We managed to reach the tent without incident though, where everyone was still sitting and waiting, while crowds gathered in the growing heat and the shrinking air movement.

Having got there just after 6-30pm, they finally started playing the films at 7-30pm.  A few short local films first, then Satellite Boy came on.  I kept looking down the row of seats to check, mainly on King and Jenny (who are both frail enough that there was an element of risk bringing them out at night).

The film was about halfway through when I looked down and saw King vomit on the ground at his feet!!  I went over to him and he vomited about another five times, all watery and thankfully without any odour to it.  So I helped him up (with someone behind whingeing that I was in the way!) and he walked outside the tent with his walker, where he told me that “there’s no breast in there”.  No what?  “No breast”.  OH, NO BREATH!  He could not breathe in the crowded heat, and it had made him vomit, not helped by the fact that he had not eaten any dinner.  He’s such a sick ole thing, it is really heartbreaking and so awful that he is not with his family at this time.

Anyway, he felt better in the fresh air.  I took him back to the hostel and he told me he needed a hot cup of tea.  So I rang the doorbell and the night porter, a young guy who was completely unenthused about everything, came to the door and reluctantly agreed to make King a cup of tea.

I left King in Misery Man’s hands, and told him I’ll see him this morning to check on how he is.

By the time I got back to the tent, the movie was almost over.  They had all really enjoyed it.  I took one car load back to the hostel (two blocks away – a healthy person could have walked it in five minutes), then returned to get Sally, her mother and the other two remaining passengers.

Sally’s Mum announced that she needed to go to Coles “for cigarette”.  I should have said NO.  But I said yes before realising what I was agreeing to, and sure enough it was a run-around – she has this “boyfriend” and was buying cigarettes and food for him, with Sally in the back seat telling her “Mum!  Don’t spoil him, he’s not your son”.  So they went into Coles while we waited, and they came out with shopping for this boyfriend.  Which of course, I then had to drive across town with her, before dropping her back to the hostel.

After realising what I was embroiled in (which I should have predicted, as I know her well enough), I told her “Don’t ask me to do that again because I am not going to”.  She agreed.  I suspect she just agrees because she knows she’ll manipulate you again next time and doesn’t have to debate with you about whether or not she will!  This young, rough looking guy came out of a unit and took his free meal and free cigarettes from his so-called “girlfriend”, and disappeared again.  As we left I told her that it’s not my job to feed that bloke, I don’t even know him, and next time he can pay for a taxi if he wants you to feed him.  Again, she agreed happily and I got a sense of “Whatever” from her!

We dropped her at the hostel and came home.  And as soon as we got here, Sally (who has little tattoos on the sides of her eyes, which “keep bad spirits away”), started telling me about the spirit of this house, and did the owner’s grandmother smoke this house?  (“Smoking” is a ritual used to clear spirits away from an area).  “Because I have this big spirit on my back, and he’s telling me that his grandmother smoked this house”.  This, to me, is her mental health at play.  She’s had so many terrible things in her life, and manages them by having spirits talk to her.  She did this when she was quite young.

She rang her uncle on my phone to talk to him, while I got ready for bed, then I got into bed and started watching The Wire, so she lay on my bed to watch it with me.  I told her she could, but would have to sleep in her own bed.  Then I fell asleep, and I don’t know what time it was, I woke, and the lounge and her bedroom lights were on, and she was nowhere to be seen!  I called out to her, and then found her – lying on the concrete floor beside my bed, with one of my pillows, and the blanket off her bed.  I told her to go to bed but she didn’t, and she spent the night on the concrete floor!  When I woke at 6am and realised she was still there I said “Please get off the floor and go to your bed, this is silly, I can even see that bed, it’s right through the door, so there is no need for you to be scared, and if you are not going to sleep on a bed then you’ll have to find another place to sleep tonight”.  She got up and obeyed my instructions then.  Hopefully she’ll get a sense that it’s a good-spirited bed while she’s in there this morning, and be happy to sleep there tonight!

A Life of Contrasts

In the lead-up to moving overseas for two years, I have moved out of my house and been house sitting.  I’m currently staying in a beautiful architectural home, and have use of the car while I’m here, a near-new Mazda 3 which I’m getting around in happily.

Another friend is also away.  I house sat her beautiful, newly renovated apartment on the edge of the town centre for about ten days before moving into this house.  A lot of my gear is still there, and I’m popping in regularly to organise things.

In effect, I am living between two very nice abodes.  I can’t really imagine a more privileged existence.

Ten years ago I met a small girl at one of the town camps, I’ll call her Sally.  The first time I met her she was running around in the dust naked, with her wild blonde unkempt hair giving her an electrified look.  Her story has been one of poverty, homelessness, dysfunction, ill health, victimhood and sadness.  Yet, now 18yo, she is coping with life amazingly, she has a kind and empathetic nature, wants to help people, has avoided buying into the culture of sex, alcohol and drugs, and has a genuinely responsible way about her.

When she was thirteen she was removed from her mother and put into a “Safe House”.  Her mother has been unwell for many years, and has never provided a good environment for Sally.  She rarely if ever attended school.  Oneday when she was about ten she came to my office to visit me on a school day, asking me to take her to the cinema.  When I declined because it was a school day, she replied along the lines of “but I have my own money, you just have to take me”, and produced 6 x $50 notes.  Mum being an artist regularly gave her wads of cash, and she walked the streets with no supervision and masses of available cash.  I tried a number of times to report her as a child at risk, and was told that the information was not enough for authorities to act on.  Soon enough, of course, she ended up in trouble, and had to be removed from the care of her mother.

One of the services involved with her at the time she was removed, contacted me to say that Sally had nominated me as a possible carer, and to ask if I would consider it.  At the time I wasn’t prepared to consider it.  Four months later I received a call again, she was still living in a Safe House, and still nominating me as a carer.  I agreed to try it, and she moved in with me.

In the main we had a really good four months living together.  She went to school daily, and we developed a routine.  After missing out on almost a decade of school, while she was with me she had a “reading epiphany” – she suddenly began reading independently, thanks in part to Dr Seuss and his repeating rhymes.  It was a really special thing to experience with her – we read each night at bed time and one night, she asked if she could read some of the words.  Then reading “some of the words” became reading “some of the pages”, and soon enough she was reading the books independently, which she was soon brave enough to transfer to other, less easy books, and whilst she remains at a primary level of reading, she can now read simple texts with only limited assistance.

At the end of 2008 I was going away for an extended period, and had to relinquish care of Sally.  She was moved to a “group home” with other children in care.  When I returned, there were different people involved with her care, and the plan in place for her was to keep her in the group home, where she had bonded with some of the other girls and also with some of the carers.  She came to see me on occasions, including for sleepovers, and we remain connected even now.

For her 15th birthday I purchased tickets to the Beyonce Concert in 2009, and we went to Sydney together with one of the other local girls I know.  We had a big weekend in Sydney.  Upon arrival we made our way to a Pyrmont apartment where my cousin was staying, to meet some family for dinner.  We got out of the lift of this apartment and next to the lift was a painting which looked remarkably like Sally’s mother’s style.  When we lifted this dot painting off the wall to check, her mother’s signature and name were marked clearly on the back!  As well as the Beyonce concert, we went to Taronga Park Zoo, and a number of other Sydney sights.

Today I popped in to one of the local hostels in town to see an elderly man I was helping with something.  I learned while there, that Sally has been staying there, but it is against the hostel rules because she doesn’t meet the resident criteria.  The manager has broken the rules for her, because at 18yo she is suddenly “independent” of the supports she previously had, and  has found herself homeless.  Her father died interstate, and she travelled into town from a remote community where she has been staying, to visit her mother.  She is also very much an urban child, having spent almost all of her childhood in Alice Springs, so her visits to the various remote communities she is connected to are always temporary.

She receives $500 per fortnight now, in unemployment benefits.  Staying in a room at this hostel costs $420 per fortnight.  She has nowhere else to stay, and would be very vulnerable on the streets or in the camps.  So after talking to the hostel manager, I have offered for her to move to this house sit with me whilst I’m here.

It makes me wonder what the point ever was, of removing her from her family, community and culture?  It is not as though they engaged her with a strong support system elsewhere?  It seems to have merely left her stranded.

It’s obviously a very  temporary option, as I am leaving for overseas in exactly four weeks time.  But I can’t live this privileged existence while this beautiful young girl continues to live in such deprived and hopeless circumstances.  So I’m about to inherit a housemate for a few weeks.  Here’s hoping I can use the time to work with her on what her options might be now that she’s an independent adult with limited support now available to her.

My First Cambodian Story

It’s not really mine, but belongs to a neighbour/friend.

In just over a month I am moving to Cambodia to live and work for nine months.  I would love to be going back to East Timor, but at this stage, for employment and experience purposes, Timor doesn’t offer the same opportunities.  For starters, Medecins sans Frontieres (MSF), who have employed me, are not based in East Timor.

At this stage Cambodia is very much “the unknown”, but I’m trying to read what I can, MSF have sent me screeds upon screeds of employment related information, and of course Google is always your friend where the unknown is concerned.

This afternoon I bumped into a neighbour and told her of my Cambodia plans.  She reminded me that our other neighbour has strong connections in Cambodia.  I had completely forgotten this, and it jolted my memory about a story that she told me about a year ago.  It’s worth sharing here.

The father of this particular family is a tuk-tuk driver, and the children all go to school. My neighbour assists the family, she’s purchased them new tin for a roof on their shack so that it no longer leaks during rain (leaking roofs are a very common problem in tropical countries where millions of people live in makeshift shacks).  She also contributes school fees for the kids, and other things. They are a very humble family though, and have accepted her assistance with some reluctance (only after coming to know her very well when she lived in Cambodia for two years).

Last year their 13yo daughter was hit by a car and broke her leg. She was rushed to hospital on a wooden plank carried by some men. The leg needed to be plastered, in order to straighten it back into position. However, because of the cost of plastering, doctors recommended amputation, because the family could afford this, and letting it set in the crooked position would have caused pain and immobility equal to amputation (which was far cheaper than plastering it).

A family friend contacted my neighbour and told her the story, and she managed to contact them in time, and forward the money for the cost of having the girl’s leg plastered.

This website is likely one of many giving a glimpse into some of the problems in Cambodia, and some of the work being done towards making positive change.


Australia has a new Prime Minister

Our social media has gone crazy with “funnies” about Tony Abbott’s election win on Saturday.  He’s a very conservative man, and many of us are not happy with various aspects of his politics.  But he won in a landslide victory, and so we’re going to have to “wear it”.
The only thing I want to share about it, is claims that he plans on abolishing $4.5 BILLION in foreign aid.  Those in support of this say that we can’t afford to look after Australians AND people in other countries.  However, at the same time, he plans to introduce a $5.5 BILLION paid parental leave scheme.  Australia already has paid parental leave available in various forms, so why is this necessary?  And why would ONE BILLION DOLLARS not be enough of an improvement to the existing scheme, meaning we wouldn’t have to touch our foreign aid contributions?

Elsewhere someone suggested that Australians can’t see beyond their own privileged existence, with consumerism dominating our culture and to be truthful, I think there’s an element of truth to this.  40% of the world’s poorest people earn 5% of the world’s income.  22,000 children die each DAY due to poverty.  Almost a third of all children in the developing world are malnourished.  Nearly a billion people in the world cannot read or write.  Lack of water and sanitation affects billions of people.  These are not problems Australians are faced with.  But they are problems that exist in the world which we live in, and as a wealthy nation, we should be contributing aid to alleviate this suffering.

Dr Julia Newtown-Howes said it better than I can in her open letter to Tony Abbott on Saturday, which I’m copying below.

An open letter to Mr Abbott: Invest in foreign aid for a prosperous Australia
September 7, 2013

Dear Mr Abbott,

Congratulations on your election as Prime Minister of Australia.

As CEO of CARE Australia, which last year helped 3.6 million people across 26 developing countries, I welcome your commitment this week to better leverage NGOs’ experience to deliver on-the-ground support for some of the poorest and most marginalised communities around the world.

However, your decision to cut $4.5 billion from the foreign aid budget will have a devastating impact on people living in poverty across the globe and in many of our neighbouring countries. Australia – and Australia’s last Liberal Prime Minister, John Howard – made a historic promise to contribute 0.5 per cent of Australia’s Gross National Income to overseas aid as part of the Millennium Development Goals. While I welcome your commitment to achieving this goal, I urge your Government to set a timeline for doing so.

Here is why:

As well as saving lives and helping some of the 1.3 billion people living in extreme poverty, aid also fosters economic growth and enhances our region’s security.
If we do not tackle the problem of extreme poverty, already pressing problems such as conflict, mass migration and uncontrollable climate change will be made worse.
Australia will ultimately be judged by both the effectiveness of its aid program and the extent to which it meets those internationally agreed targets for aid volume.

Mr Abbott, we do not have to choose between the needs of Australians and the millions of people who live in poverty – we are wealthy enough to take care of both. This is a view shared by the Australian public.

An omnibus survey last year showed that almost 60 per cent of Australians believe that giving aid should not be a negotiable item in the Federal Budget.

Australia is not a generous aid donor, but we should be. Our aid program is helping to create a more stable and prosperous world in which Australia will flourish. As a prominent member of the international community, the current Chair of the United Nations Security Council and the 2014 Chair of the G20, Australia must pay a fair share of assistance to the address the world’s most pressing problems.

I urge you, as our Prime Minister-elect, to consider whether Australia, one of the wealthiest countries in the world, can afford to cut the assistance required to meet the humanitarian and development needs of the poorest.

Yours sincerely,

Dr Julia Newton-Howes
CEO CARE Australia