Walk a Mile in These Shoes

[Originally published in shorter form in the Vanuatu Daily Post’s Weekender Edition.]

Timorese GirlAttendees of this year’s World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, received an invitation from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees to ‘an event you will never forget’. The event, called the Refugee Run , is a Disneyland-style re-enactment of life in a refugee camp.

I can’t speak for the guests, but the image of champagne-and-caviar billionaires spending a couple of hours scuffing their loafers with designer dust behind artfully laid out barbed wire before returning to their luxury hotels – well, that is something I won’t soon forget. No matter how hard I try.

Not that we needed any reminder of just how out of touch the majority of those living in privilege really are, but this event starkly illustrates just how great the chasm between rich and poor really is. It is an object lesson on how easy it is for even the most high-minded among us to mistakenly confuse poverty with a lack of physical wealth.

According to apologists, the Davos refugee sideshow is really an exercise in visualisation. By simulating the experience of powerlessness and intimidation most refugees feel, our captains of industry will be brought closer to them, making it easier for them to bestow their largesse on the dispossessed.

That idea isn’t utterly without merit, but I can say from experience that even a visit to a real refugee camp does very little indeed to convey the refugee experience. It’s one thing to see patience, resignation and demoralisation in the eyes of another; it’s another thing entirely to live it over a space of months, often years.

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A Strong Foundation

[Originally published in the Vanuatu Daily Post’s Weekender Edition.]

I’m often asked for rental advice by visiting volunteers and consultants. My default response is to say, “Before you decide on a place, look around you.” With only one or two notable exceptions, relatively rich expat housing developments are surrounded by jerry-built shacks constructed of cast-off lumber and a few sheets of corrugated metal.

Housing in Vanuatu

Experience shows that more break-ins happen in places where the greatest disparities exist between expatriate and ni-Vanuatu housing conditions. But the problem of inadequate housing runs much deeper than that.

The majority of houses in Port Vila and Santo have dirt floors. This is not just a cosmetic problem. Scabies, lice, boils, fungal and bacterial infections resulting in ulcerated sores are all commonplace among children in our municipalities. More common, in fact, than they are in our villages.

In Vanuatu, you have to live with the rich to be poor.

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