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Last Lessons from Nepal

Karie Cross | Posted August 23rd, 2010 | Uncategorized

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It’s my last week at the office: thus, time for final reflections.  When a 10-12 week fellowship gets cut to a mere 6 weeks because of Indian bureaucratic messes, it’s unbelievable how quickly the  measurement-defying Nepali time can go.  I feel a bit as though this summer has galloped right past me, and I’m watching its receding back and crying, “But wait, I’m not finished with you yet!  There’s still too much to learn, and I will miss Nepal too much!”

BASE staff teaching me how to be a Nepali woman
BASE staff teaching me how to be a Nepali woman

So what have I learned? 

Children are incredibly vulnerable, and we must protect them from exploitation at all costs.  Most of them are unable to stand up for themselves, so they rely upon us to take notice and DO something. 

Rescued child laborer Sangita of Santi Ekala Bala Child Club, photo credit: Michal Kaczor
Rescued child laborer Sangita of Santi Ekala Bala Child Club, photo credit: Michal Kaczor

“Happiness” does not equal development.  Just because children laugh and play here, just like they do in Maryland or in Arkansas, does not mean that they have no need of health care and education and affection from their families.  They are content with the bare minimum because it’s all they’ve ever known.  But in a country of corrupt politicians and no social safety nets, one accdent or illness in an impoverished family can mean years of labor for an innocent child.   Subsistence living is a constant risk, even if it looks happy from the outside.

I’ve been weighing my options and contemplating my future all summer long, and it’s official: I want to dedicate my life to this.  Hello, PhD in human rights?

And on a lighter note:

2 gallons of cold water in a bucket is perfectly adequate for the morning shower (?) (bath?).

I really can eat dhal bhat every day and not get tired of it.  I’m already dreading a dahl bhat-less existence in the US.  (Although I’m going to try to cook it very soon!  Who wants to come over for Nepali food?)

Tastes better if you use your hands!
Tastes better if you use your hands!

Nepalis are some of the warmest, most generous, and most considerate people that I have ever met.  Is it possible for an entire people group to be universally kind-hearted?  There’s a lot wrong with this country (e.g., they can’t elect a prime minister, the lack of bridges paralyzes transportation during the rainy season, and 2.6 million kids are working instead of playing and studying), but they’re definitely doing something right.  Americans could learn a thing or two from Nepalis about hospitality and taking the time to really talk to each other and build deep relationships.

Finally, take a look at my latest video.  (One more to come, but it’s long so I’ll post it from the Land of Fast Internet sometime next week.)  There’s not much new information here if you’ve been following along on the Child Friendly Village initiative, but my goodness, these kids are cute!

Thank you so much to all of my readers, commenters, donors, and well-wishers.  Even though I’m so far away from most of you, I haven’t felt lonely or abandoned for a single minute.  Your support made this incredible experience possible for me, and I really do believe that together we have made a small dent in the child labor problem in Nepal.

One Response to “Last Lessons from Nepal”

  1. Pam says:

    Good work Karie. It certainly sounds like the Nepali people have touched your heart. Safe travels!

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Remember the Boys

Karie Cross | Posted August 20th, 2010 | Uncategorized

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Growing up in the American south is at once a spectacular privilege and a frustrating experience for a young girl.  The boys tend to be rather better gentlemen than anywhere else in the world, but Southern decorum also means that girls can’t always do many of the things that boys get away with.  Inevitably, living with this daily disparity turned me into a bit of a feminist, and I’ve become increasingly interested in gender issues in international development

This interest has been reaffirmed by my time in Nepal, as seven of the eight child laborers that I met last week were girls.  Impoverished Nepali parents send their daughters away more often than their sons.  Female child labor is such a big problem that they have a special name for the girls: Kamalari

Freed Kamalari (photo credit Adrienne Henck)
Freed Kamalari (photo credit Adrienne Henck)

Because of this discrimination, I left for my field visit rather predisposed to tell the stories of the girls that I would meet.  But, as always, Nepal surprised me.  On two separate occasions, I was told to remember the boys.  Apparently, many NGOs see the need for programs that target young girls, so they fill that need.  But in so doing, these programs refuse to fund many young boys who share the same plight as these girls.

In the Bardiya district last week, I had a very confusing conversation with a 14 year-old young man by the name of Ram Kumar Chaudhary.         

Ram Kumar Chaudhary of Tarkapur
Ram Kumar Chaudhary of Tarkapur

I was meeting with the Child Friendly Village Committee of Tarkapur, and began the conversation with my usual questions: “Are there any returned child laborers in this village?”  “How about parents who sent their children away?”  “Now that the children are back from working in urban areas, do they stay in school?”  “What is your drop-out rate?”

Ram Kumar was singled out as a drop-out, right in front of about 50 people who were discussing child labor, education, and children’s rights.  He had reached class 7 before quitting school, which is a pretty high class for a 14-year old in rural Nepal.  Sharada, a BASE staff member and my translator, and I spoke with Ram quietly so that he would not be too embarrassed.

Ram feeling shy
Ram feeling shy

“So Ram, why did you drop out of school?”

“I have no uniform, and no money to pay for a new uniform.”

“Why doesn’t the Child Friendly Village committee pay for your uniform?  They have a public fund to help kids go to school.”

“Room to Read (the NGO that sends children to school in Tarkapur) supports only girls.  There is no funding for the boys.  I want to go back to school, but I am too poor.”

I thought I had uncovered something scandalous.  Had the tides turned so much that boys were now discriminated against in rural Nepal? 

Then I addressed the entire Child Friendly Village Committee.  “Can you not find some funding to help boys like Ram Kumar go to school, too?”

Tarkapur Child Friendly Village Committee meeting
Tarkapur Child Friendly Village Committee meeting

The meeting erupted into a cacophony of Nepali arguments.  I had unwittingly caused a stir, and I sat in confusion for quite some time as Sharada ingested the conversation before relaying its contents back to me.  Apparently, the CFV management committee had given Ram Kumar a scholarship for books, supplies, and a uniform some time ago, but he still did not attend school although he said that he would. 

Who is to blame for Ram Kumar’s truancy?  Although everyone in the village knew that he was still not attending school, the management committee offered him the scholarship once and just left it at that.  His parents were uneducated themselves, and they did not force him to go to school.  Ram himself ought to know better, and he should make himself attend school even if he does not want to.  But he is a fourteen year old boy, and I know several American teenagers who would also prefer the freedom of dropping out to compulsory attendance at a public school.

Ram is not a returned child laborer, but another girl from who had been a laborer also dropped out at age 16.  At least she was training to become a tailor, but tailoring is almost certainly all that she will ever do.  Ram Kumar could not give a satisfactory answer when I asked what he does with his time when he’s not in school, but he’s definitely not pursuing vocational training.  So whom should I believe?  Ram, when he says he wants to go to school but can’t afford it, or the committee, who say that they funded him but he refused to go?  Someone isn’t telling the full truth, but regardless of who is right and who is wrong, I came away having learned two things:

Children’s education is the responsibility of entire communities.  If parents let their kids down, then other mechanisms must be in place so that children do not slip through the cracks.

Nepali boys need help too!
Nepali boys need help too!

Women’s rights are terribly important, but only because they are humans, just like men.  Supporting young girls does not mean that we can forget the boys.

One Response to “Remember the Boys”

  1. Adrienne says:

    Great points, Karie!

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Karie Cross | Posted August 18th, 2010 | Uncategorized

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Nepal is a land of many incongruencies.  Beneath the bright, summer sunshine, the women’s salwar kurtas sparkle and snap with brilliant colors, sequins, and embroidery.  The ubiquitous music, incense, and spices can make daily life seem more like a Bollywood set than genuine existence.  But then the monsoons chase away the sunlight, and at nighttime, the electricity disappears as an impoverished nation resorts to daily load shedding for at least a couple of hours.  Nepal quite literally becomes a land of darkness that just dresses herself with a bright façade.   

Hindu temple in Nepalgunj, photo credit Michal Kaczor
Hindu temple in Nepalgunj, photo credit Michal Kaczor

Unfortunately, Nepal treats its children with the same carelessness as its electricity generators.  Most of the time, they are happy, funny, cherished lights in their parents’ lives.  But if some impoverished parents become too desperate, they send their children away to work for food and clothing.  Like load shedding, nobody likes it.  But also like the blackouts, child labor practically becomes necessary for these families unless they receive aid from the outside.  But these children do not disappear for a couple of hours—they face years of separation, exhaustion, and deprivation during the most formative times of their lives.

Namaste, child club members!
Namaste, child club members!

I had the pleasure and the pain of speaking with returned child laborers for the first time while on a recent field visit to the Bardiya district in southwestern Nepal.

Sarbourati Chaudhary was terribly shy.  Although she is fourteen, she would barely mumble her answers to my simplest questions, such as “what is your favorite food?” (apples, oranges, and mangoes) or “do you have any brothers or sisters?”  (lots of brothers).  When I asked about her favorite thing to do for fun, she couldn’t supply any answer at all.  (Fun?  Incomprehensible.)  But at least Sarbourati’s broken life is on the mend. 


Sarbourati Chaudhary of Aansubarma High School
Sarbourati Chaudhary of Aansubarma High School

She worked in a private home in a bustling metropolis of 64,000, Nepalgunj, for two years because her family was very poor.  Although Sarbourati was sent away, her older and younger brothers stayed at home and attended school.  Like many daughters of impoverished families across Nepal, Sarbourati was singled out from her male counterparts to become the child laborer who left the family. 

Sarbourati told me that she missed her family very much while she was working in Nepalgunj.  When Child Friendly Village committee members asked her if she wanted to go and live at the Girls Rescue Hostel and attend the Aansubarma High School, she jumped at the chance to stop working, travel to a new place, and gain new knowledge.  Sarbourati still misses her family today, since they do not live near her new school.  But she wishes to study science and become a doctor, and she knows that a good education is the only way for her to achieve her goal.  Despite missing two years of school, Sarbourati is already in class 5.  I have no doubt that she will make a fine doctor someday, even though she’s not yet sure how she feels about blood! 

Child labor in Nepal is a crisis.  It is easy to become overwhelmed and to feel helpless in the face of such a complex, sobering situation.  But then brave, persistent girls like Sarbourati cut through the hopelessness like pinpricks of light on the far side of a darkened city.  So let’s light up this entire, load shedding landscape with the smiles of the 2.6 million other Nepali child laborers who still need rescuing.

5 Responses to “Darkness”

  1. Pam says:

    Wonderful post Karie! It’s heartbreaking to think of what these families go through. As you said, it seems overwhelming to realize how many children are in distress and need help. But each rescued child is a priceless victory.

  2. Grandma Cross says:

    I shudder to think of those children being sent away like that when I think of the formative years of my own children and how much we enjoyed doing things together as a whole family. Hoping that your letting others know will help to change things there.

  3. Stacy says:

    Beautifully written. And I love that you end with a bright call to action, giving US a sense of hope that something can be done. It’s too easy to dwell on the tragedy, letting that darkness obscure the reality that there are things that can be done, that change is possible. Thank you!

  4. Michal says:

    Very nice Karie, you’re drawing a very vivid, yet 100% true picture (I can confirm!). Looking forward to the next posts.

  5. Karie Cross says:

    Thanks so much for the comments and support, everyone! At times, it’s pretty rough to meet these kids face to face and just to be confronted with their reality. But as Pam (hi, mom!) says, each individual child is a victory! That keeps my head above water.

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Applying Amartya Sen’s Capability Approach to BASE’s Child Friendly Village Model

Karie Cross | Posted August 8th, 2010 | Uncategorized

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We humans cannot help but see the world through the lens of our particular worldviews.  Even though I am literally half a world away from my school, my views of development work in Nepal have been colored primarily by my ongoing studies at the University of Maryland on Amartya Sen’s capability approach (largely thanks to the influence of my outstanding development ethics professor, Dr. David Crocker). 

Amartya Sen (Photo by Stephanie Mitchell, taken from the Harvard Gazette)
Amartya Sen (Photo by Stephanie Mitchell, taken from the Harvard Gazette)

The more I learn about Child Friendly Villages, the easier it becomes to distinguish the extent to which this model for fighting against child labor follows Sen’s emphasis upon capability and agency.

Here is a snapshot of Sen’s philosophy and the way it has been carried out by BASE’s Child Friendly Village initiative.  

  Sen’s Philosophy[1] Application to Child Friendly Village
Functioning Current state and activity of well-being Children should never be child laborers, but the absence of child labor is not enough
Capability The presence of real opportunity to change the status quo Education must be universal so that all children have real opportunities to further themselves
Individual Agency The freedom to pursue goals that a person has reason to value, even if that goal does not improve his or her personal well-being Child Friendly Villages consist of individuals acting to pursue their own goals; this may include parents who deprive themselves of certain things so that they are not forced to send their children into urban areas to become bonded laborers
Group Agency Democratic deliberation is the best way for an entire group to exercise its agency and realize its own goals Child Friendly Villages are created only upon community demand; within each CFV, Child Clubs allow children to unify and make their voice a major part of the discussion about their fate

You may not believe that Sen’s idea of development as freedom is the best way to go about development, but I find that his approach’s emphasis upon human beings, rather than economic growth, is an important distinction that is too often overlooked.  Even though the World Bank reports favorable economic growth and a reduction in poverty from 42% to 31% in Nepal (1995-2004),   Nepal’s HDI (Human Development Index) numbers  indicate that its citizens still have huge numbers of unmet needs, as it is ranked 115th on life expectancy at birth (66.3 years), 130th on adult literacy rate (56.5%), and 136th on gross enrollment rate in schools (60.8%). 

Economic growth tends to register as positive social change, but that is not always the case (such as in Augusto Pinochet’s Chile).  At any rate, growth alone must not be equated with development when human beings, or the rightful ends of development (as opposed to mere means), suffer poor literacy, low life expectancy, and little opportunity to bring about positive change in their own lives.

This empasis on social change at the individual level is why I respect the Child Friendly Village model so much.  Not only is it creating real change by lowering the number of child laborers in Nepal (481 children freed in 2009, according to the BASE Child Friendly Village Concept Paper), but it is also ensuring that the next generation of Nepali parents will be well-educated and committed to keeping their children at home instead of sending them away to earn money.  By promoting the current capabilities of children, the CFV model expands the future freedom and agency of all of its citizens. 

[1] Ideas taken from David Crocker and Ingrid Robeyns, “Capability and Agency,” in Amartya Sen, ed. Christopher Morris, (New York: Cambridge UP, 2010), 60-90.

7 Responses to “Applying Amartya Sen’s Capability Approach to BASE’s Child Friendly Village Model”

  1. Pam says:

    I can see the value in Sen’s approach. I like the idea of emphasizing the individual. However, it seems that it must go hand in hand with overall economic growth so that when these children achieve their personal goal of getting an education they can follow that up with a way to earn a living as an adult. Of course BASE with its limited resources can only focus on one aspect of the problem and the Child Friendly Villages seem to be an excellent method for helping these kids to have a chance at a better future. Good for them.

  2. Karie Cross says:

    You’ve definitely spotted my anti-economics bias. And you’re absolutely right; some economic growth is a necessary part of development. But it is not sufficient for development, as many economists would have us believe. Often, economic growth leads to increased levels of inequality among citizens of a country, so that although poorer people make more money, rich people have earned so, so much more that inflation rises and the poor are then able to buy less than they could before the growth, despite having a greater income. It’s maddening.

  3. Stacy says:

    Great post, Karie. @Pam and Karie: Karie’s argument does not preclude economic development; it emphasizes that it should be a means to improving people’s lives, not an end in and of itself. I think the link you’re both missing is in the definition of “capability” in Sen’s sense. If Karie is arguing that “good” development should focus on expanding individuals’ real capabilities (rather than on economic development as an ends in itself), then the presence of real opportunities in the child’s future is part of the equation. Education does not offer greater capabilities (ie, opportunities, well-being freedoms) if it cannot help the learner achieve some of her goals. Education, like economic development, is a tool. It is not itself, in a vacuum, capability enhancement or a guarantee of a better life. This is part of the beauty of this way of thinking about development: it makes us think holistically. (“Okay, we are on track to achieve universal primary education. What else do we need to do to ensure that these kids’ lives actually improve? Oh! We need to work on job creation! And they’ll need better roads to get to work…” etc, etc…)

  4. Karie Cross says:

    Very well put, Stacy. I agree with you completely. And thanks so much for stopping in!

  5. Mick says:

    I see a parallel to the ‘Nature v. Nurture’ argument. Think of education as the nature part of the argument; it’s the underlying foundation that has to be in place. But, what is the nurture part? These children need not only access to education, they need teachers, parents, community members who are directly engaged in building upon the base. Teach a lesson – but follow up with an opportunity to apply it. Explain that there is a horizon – but provide a means to explore it.

  6. Karie Cross says:

    Good point! And this is where the child friendly village model comes in. When uneducated parents send their children away to work, the CFV committee members from the village go to the parents, explain the importance of education, and convince them to bring their children back. (Convincing is usually in the form of offering to pay for the child’s schooling out of a public fund. It’s not like the parents WANTED to send the kids away, anyway!) So when the parents let the kids down, the community steps in. This seems to be working pretty well in the villages that I’ve visited.

  7. Owen says:

    Not to mention, maybe that decrease in the poverty levels came due to more parents sending their kids out to work (and this added income pulls the family out of the “poor” category)?

    Or in China, where the country is booming, but there is mass flooding, poisoned rivers, people dying due to inferior products, 9 day long traffic jams, etc…

    The only reason economic development remains a measure of anything is because the developed world can make money off of poorer countries “developing”, and because it gives the World Bank something to measure… :)

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Not your average highschooler

Karie Cross | Posted August 2nd, 2010 | Uncategorized

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This time, I’m going to let Sithal do all of my talking for me.  I should just add that I’ve been terribly impressed by the good humor, gracious manner, and intelligent, social awareness of all of the Child Club members that I have spoken to in BASE’s Child Friendly Villages.  They obviously need more school supplies and better teachers, but these kids are incredibly dedicated to education and to self-improvement. 

By the way, Sithal is 15 years old and approximately 25 miles away from the border of one of the technology capitals of the world, and he has never used a computer.

One Response to “Not your average highschooler”

  1. Adrienne says:

    Great video, Karie!

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Impressions from the Field

Karie Cross | Posted July 28th, 2010 | Uncategorized

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A few days ago, BASE staff member Birbal took Adrienne and me out into the field to visit the local Child Clubs of two villages to learn about their activities and to encourage their participation in a district-wide advocacy project (which will be revealed in great detail at a later date).  I had been under the impression that Tulsipur was rural, and indeed it is after the bustle of Kathmandu.  But out in Chootkighumna, Tulsipur’s bus horns, political announcements via loudspeaker, clattering of spicy dishes and smells of sweaty, striving humanity are all a distant memory. 

The Deukhuri Valley

It would be very easy to romanticize the seemingly idyllic existence in Chootkighumna.  The pastoral landscape is one of the most beautiful I have ever seen, and all of the children seemed happy and well.  But beneath the shy smiles and positive attitudes of the children lies a different story of poverty and desperation.  The thatched roofs leak.  The poorest children cannot afford school supplies.  Too many children in rural areas, especially above age fourteen, become unmotivated, drop out of school, and turn to drugs and alcohol. 

Child Club members

As impoverished as it is, Chootkighumna’s Child Friendly Village status makes it one of the better environments for children in this area.  These particular Child Club members did not know any child laborers personally because the practice has been eradicated in their village.  But they are still working very hard to ensure that all children of school-age stay enrolled in classes. 

What impressed me the most in Chootkighumna was the resolve and strength of the Child Club members.  They were courteous to the strange, older Americans, but they were not afraid to truthfully voice their concerns (a leaky roof and the drop-out rate) and hopes (education for all and good teachers) when we began a discussion about child labor and education in their village. 

One young lady in particular, the 16 year old President of the club named Nilam Chaudhary, spoke many times about the club’s activities and the importance of education.  I could see why she had been elected President, as her charisma and confidence demanded the attention of everyone in the room. 

Nilam and her friends emphasized independence and standing on their own strength.  They seem to realize that education is the one, sure-fire way they can help themselves.  BASE and other NGOs will continue to do good work, but these kids know that the strength of their united voice is their own greatest asset.

One Response to “Impressions from the Field”

  1. Gregory C. says:

    I can’t decide which is more compelling, your advocacy or people like Nilam. Truly important and uplifting work!

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Becoming One With Nepal, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Unexpected

Karie Cross | Posted July 23rd, 2010 | Uncategorized

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After 5 flights and a 5-hour bus ride over the course of 5 days, I have finally reached Tulsipur, Nepal, where I will be working on child labor issues for 5 weeks with BASE (Backward Society Education).  In keeping with this unintended theme of fives, I’ve decided to share this strange, new life of mine through a few lists of superlatives.

Five best sights thus far, in chronological order:

1)  London!  I’d never been before, so I took advantage of an eight-hour layover and walked along the Thames for a couple of hours, taking in Westminster Abbey, the Globe, and St. Paul’s.

2)  A Nepali stranger holding up a sign with the words “Karie Cross” when I walked out of the Kathmandu airport with all of my luggage.  The International Guest House picked me up and took me straight to a blessedly Western-style shower and bed in the Thamel district.

3)  The Himalayas.  Some of the mountain roads are a bit harrowing, but you couldn’t ask for a better view of these foothills.                                                                                                             

View of the Himalayan foothills from Tulsipur
View of the Himalayan foothills from Tulsipur

4)  Kate Bollinger and Adrienne Henck, fellow Peace Fellows with The Advocacy Project.  Kate showed me around Kathmandu, and I’m working with Adrienne in Tulsipur until she leaves at the beginning of August.

5)  Smiling Nepali school children, one of whom was bold enough to say “hi” to me on the street.  Nearly all of the children that I’ve seen here just giggle and smile at me.


New neighbors
New neighbors

Five biggest surprises:

1)  Taxi drivers in Kathmandu don’t let unfamiliarity with a destination come between themselves and a customer.  They’ll just drive to the district and yell at people on the street until they find it.  They (and all other vehicles in Nepal) also pay no attention to lanes, speed limits, and traffic lights, and apply their horns liberally.

2)  I rode from the Nepalganj airport to the local BASE office on the back of a motorbike with Suraj, a BASE staff member.  Motorbikes can comfortably seat two.  But two people and two backpacks (one large, one small) is not quite so comfortable.  We made it work, but we earned a lot of funny looks.

3)  On the bus ride out to Tulsipur, every time we stopped to pick up passengers children would crowd around the windows of the bus, thrusting bottles of filtered water and freshly made Nepali treats up at our faces.  The young men working the bus were very kind to these children, but it was such a sad thing to see school kids on the bus contrasted to the children their age hawking goods outside the bus.  BASE is trying to find a way to get all kids onto the bus, so to speak.

4)  Tulsipur’s influential FM Chairperson, Devi Prasad Dhital, was murdered last week.  Because of this, nearly all of the local shops have closed in protest (bandh), local police are out in full force, and there was a big procession through town a couple of hours ago.

5)  I can apparently plan on being awoken at approximately 6 a.m. each morning by bleating goats.


Five important things to learn about BASE’s work on child labor:

1)  BASE was begun in 1985 to fight against human exploitation in impoverished Nepali communities.  It focuses on many human rights issues including bonded labor, illiteracy, marginalized communities, and child labor.

2)  Children usually become laborers because their parents can’t afford to keep them.  Landlords will often exchange land for a child or two.  BASE fights these practices by educating Nepalis in rural villages about children’s rights and the illegality of child labor.

3)  Child labor includes children who are “engaged in an economic activity and who are below the minimum legal age of employment” (CFV memo, Bal Mitra Gaun).  Children may legally work with their families as long as they are enrolled in school.  They are designated as child workers instead of child laborers.

4)  BASE promotes the Child Friendly Village model, which consists of a community formally acknowledging child labor issues and committing to stop the practice in their area.  Many Nepalis see child labor as an unwanted but traditional way of life.  But just because that’s the way it is does not mean that that’s the way it should be.

5)  Through Child Friendly Villages, BASE hopes to promote universal education by rescuing and rehabilitating the children who have been sent away to work in urban areas.  They aim to reach 100% enrollment in schools and create Child Clubs through which children lead in their communities, express their views, and raise funds to pay for school supplies for the poorest children.

Stay tuned.  I’ve already learned so much.

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Do we need advocacy on behalf of activists?

Karie Cross | Posted July 12th, 2010 | India

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Well, it’s nearly mid-July and I’m still in the states.  I’m beginning to suspect that the Indian government simply doesn’t want me to come to Delhi.  Perhaps they’ll be accommodating enough to grant me a visa in another month or so, at which point I will have two weeks left until the second year of my Masters program begins at the University of Maryland.  Better late than never, Indian government!  (Not entirely true in this case, unfortunately.)

This visa snafu can be chalked up to three possibilities:

1) The requirements recently changed on unpaid internships, requiring employment rather than entry visas for the first time.  Changes in bureaucracy = delays, delays, delays.  This is just your run-of-the-mill, bureaucratic problem.

2) The Indian government has done an extensive background check on me, and they have come to the conclusion that I am up to no good.  Can’t be trusted.  Clearly a threat.  Notorious for:


And even:

Baking chocolate chip cookies
Baking chocolate chip cookies

3) This is merely indicative of much of the world’s changing attitude toward activists and the trouble they cause. 

Let’s explore option 3.  On July 3, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton gave a speech in Krakow, Poland, about a “global activist crackdown.”  Clinton says that the “walls are closing in” on NGOs and non-profits that advocate on behalf of human rights.  She particularly cites Zimbabwe, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, Cuba, Egypt, Iran, Venezuela, China and Russia, but I have to wonder whether changing the visa requirements for volunteers headed to India should not add the sub-continent to her list.

Here’s an excerpt from Clinton’s admirable speech:

Too many governments are seeing civic activists as opponents, rather than partners. And as democracies, we must recognize that this trend is taking place against a broader backdrop.  In the 20th century, crackdowns against civil society frequently occurred under the guise of ideology. Since the demise of Communism, most crackdowns seem to be motivated instead by sheer power politics. But behind these actions, there is an idea, an alternative conception of how societies should be organized. And it is an idea that democracies must challenge. It is a belief that people are subservient to their government, rather than government being subservient to their people.

 Now, this idea does not necessarily preclude citizens from forming groups that help their communities or promote their culture, or even support political causes. But it requires these private organizations to seek the state’s approval, and to serve the states and the states’ leaderships’ larger agenda.

In the interest of full disclosure, I should admit that this is all just conjecture on my part.  Perhaps India recognizes the need for activists who work to further develop human rights in its comparatively new and widely admired democratic society

OR…perhaps the Indian government is embarrassed by the way it deals with many of its poorest citizens, like the wastepickers of Delhi who try time and again to tell their government what they need to live a dignified, healthy life.  Rabble rousers like me can only make that worse.  No wonder you won’t let me in, India.

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On My Best Laid Plans and Carbon Footprints

Karie Cross | Posted June 29th, 2010 | India

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Robert Burns warned me that this would happen.  Then, as if his glorious Scottish brogue weren’t enough, Steinbeck followed it up with a warning of his own in Of Mice and Men.  Bottom line: don’t make solid plans, especially where developing nations are concerned.  My passport and visa are inexplicably stuck somewhere among an embassy, a ministry of labor, and an outsourced visa servicing company.  Good-bye, hostel deposit.  So long, plane ticket reservations in June.  Namaste, emotional instability! 

Unfortunately, I’ve not been able to learn as much as I’d like about environmental issues in India.  Although I would dearly love to tell you more about the wastepickers in Delhi, I’ve very nearly exhausted my knowledge about their work until I am able to get out to the field.  But what’s the state of the environment in the U.S.?  What are some small things that we Americans can do to make this world a more live-able place?

Reduce, Reuse, Recycle
Reduce, Reuse, Recycle

Forgive my blatant thievery, AA, but the first step to solving a problem is admitting that one exists.  Does America have an environmental problem?  Al Gore thinks so.   Rush Limbaugh doesn’t. 

I’m rather inclined to agree with Al, myself, so I’ll carry on with the radical assumption that most of us disagree with Rush: it’s not terribly ethical for us to set our air conditioners on 68 degrees fahrenheit.  (Am I the only one who gets cold if it’s less than 78 degrees, anyway?)  Still, even environmentally-conscious Americans contribute to our nation’s 20-ton carbon footprint, which is much, much higher than the world-wide average of 4 tons (courtesy of The Encyclopedia of Earth). 

 The average U.S. diet generates about 0.75  tons of CO2 annually, before accounting for food transportation.  But the average distance that food travels from its American source to its American market is 1,500 miles, so greenhouse gas emissions from food transportation are anything but negligible.  Meat eaters leave even bigger carbon footprints than vegetarians, generating about 1.5 more tons of CO2 per year. 

But is this really a problem?  Yes, when one considers how much Americans love eating meat.  About 30% of the world’s ice-free land is involved, at least indirectly, in raising livestock.  Meat production also accounts for about 20% of the world’s greenhouse gases.  This becomes more important when you begin to think about the links between personal meat consumption and world hunger.  People who are hungry on the other side of the world, or possibly in our backyards, could be eating the grain that’s currently feeding our food.  When we eat meat, we do not do so in isolation. 

I do not absolve myself from responsibility.  I’m in Arkansas right now, and it’s a typically muggy, late-June, Faulkneresque kind of day that requires air conditioning by most people’s standards.  I’ll be eating meat tonight when we make Greek wraps for friends who will drive an hour to join us for dinner.  AC, meat, gas— we cannot just give all of these things up all of the time.  But perhaps we can go without them more often.

3 Responses to “On My Best Laid Plans and Carbon Footprints”

  1. Emily says:

    “This becomes more important when you begin to think about the links between personal meat consumption and world hunger. People who are hungry on the other side of the world, or possibly in our backyards, could be eating the grain that’s currently feeding our food.”

    That’s my biggest reason for avoiding meat. Add to that environment, health, and animal cruelty concerns, and it’s the lifestyle that makes most ethical sense to me.

    A point of trivia: People who generally avoid meat but will eat it occasionally (such as to avoid giving offense to a host) are sometimes called “flexitarians.” People who will eat fish but not other types of meat are called “pescatarians.” I’ve combined these terms and now occasionally refer to myself as a flexipescatarian. This keeps me from taking myself to seriously. :)

  2. I’m really impressed by this blog, check out our blog at http://www.greenjobsready.com, we are focusing on the GREEN industry. We have 4000+ jobs listed on our jobboard and we try to stay most up-2-date on current events.

  3. Gregory Perez Marco-Laurent Culmer says:

    Way to go Karie! I get cold at 78 degrees! You accomplished your goal, you’re not in India but somehow you tied American dietary habits to the underprivileged – capitol !

    I’m a fan!

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Are we human?

Karie Cross | Posted June 18th, 2010 | India

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I’m supposed to leave for New Delhi in 22 hours.  Ordinarily, this circumstance would find me slipping 3 oz. bottles into ziploc bags, counting shirts, and making copies of my passport.  But alas, I’m sitting on my couch in Arkansas wondering whether India will ever decide to let me in!  My visa still hasn’t arrived.  I’ve called the embassy too many times to count, and IF I’m lucky enough to get through, they ask for my passport and application numbers instead of my name.  It’s enough to make anyone feel inhuman.

So I’m taking this opportunity of unexpected, extra summer couch-time to read everything I can get my hands on.  Here’s a passage from one of the India books I’ve been reading that really struck me:

In Adiga’s Booker Prize-winning The White Tiger, a lot of Indian drivers are parked outside a glittering shopping mall in New Delhi, waiting for their rich masters to emerge from the air conditioning.  As they wait, one poor man (distinguished by the sandals on his feet, as opposed to the real shoes of rich men) attempts to enter but is stopped by guards at the door. 

Instead of backing off and going away– as nine in ten in his place would have done– the man in the sandals exploded.  ‘Am I not a human being too?’

I imagine that this is how the wastepickers must feel sometimes, when the government disregards their rights and privatizes the very recycling services that the wastepickers have been performing for decades.  Are they not Indian citizens too?  Should not every citizen of the world’s largest democracy be able to speak freely about his or her rights?

Ghazipur landfill in Delhi

In an article published in 2009, Neha Sinha writes about the inherent dirtiness and subsequent discrimination that comes from a career in wastepicking.  Relying upon research done by Chintan, Sinha reports:

We [insert Indians, Westerners, government officials, whatever you like] think wastepickers take irreverent pride in being dirty, or do not care about being dirty.  But a study done by Chintan in Delhi shows that it is the “dirtiness” of the wastepickers which prevents them from finding a place in hospitals, toilets, public watering points, and society itself.  Further, the study shows that the dirt is not just a consequence of work conditions, but also wastepickers’ living conditions, with most of them simply not having access to facilities for cleanliness.  And finally: nearly 100 percent of the wastepickers say they aspire to be clean. 

Just because the wastepickers have grown used to their living conditions does not mean that those living conditions are acceptable.  Of course they aspire to be clean!  They are human beings too. 

Wastepickers, for what it’s worth, I’m coming as quickly as I can.  I can’t wait to meet you!  Here’s hoping the Indian embassy will let me.

5 Responses to “Are we human?”

  1. Walter says:

    Go Karie! You can get to India!

  2. Adrienne Henck says:

    Karie, I admire your determination! Please keep this attitude when you get to India. You will likely find yourself in future situations in which someone tells you something is not possible. Keep your head high and your eyes on the goal. Stay strong, and I know you will be successfull! Looking forward to your first post from India! Oh and by the way, I found a few random English books in the apartment where I am staying, likely left by previous volunteers. White Tiger is one of them, so I will definitely have to give it a read!

  3. Karie Cross says:

    Thanks for the encouragement, guys! I’ve pushed my flight back a couple of weeks, to give the elusive visa more time to arrive. Adrienne, let me know what you think about The White Tiger after you’ve finished!

  4. Kerry says:

    Great post, Karie!
    I just read Adiga’s second book, In Between the Assassinations. You should check it out for sure; most of the stories address poverty and dehumanization.

    I hope everything worked out with your visa.

  5. Chris says:

    India has been very difficult within the past year or so for usa visa applicants.

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