Do we really have first world challenges?

I was recent in a trivia debate with a good friend discussing who invented the pie chart, honestly I looked completed at the ceiling when he said Florence Nightingale, I challenged him to the real answer which was William Playfair (22 September 1759 – 11 February 1823) – he was a Scottish engineer and political economist, the founder of graphical methods of statistics. He invented several types of diagrams: in 1786 the line, area and bar chart of economic data, and in 1801 the pie chart and circle graph, used to show part-whole relations.

We both discussed the challenges of that era, 1759 in Scotland was described as a period called the Enlightenment, a Golden Age in the arts, sciences, industry and commerce, so what was so different to the present day?

In 1759 we had the battle of Quebec, Guinness was first formed and James Watt invented the steam engine, today we have unsettlement and war in the middle east and an app and robot for practically any function and desire in life, were people so unhappy in the 1759 era believing they have 1st World Challenges and change?

According to urbandictionary.com, “first world problems” are defined as “[p]roblems from living in a wealthy, industrialised nation that third world persons would probably roll their eyes at.” There is even an entire website dedicated to highlighting the petty complaints and struggles faced by people in the first world.

This video named First World Challenge, gives some insight to the pettiness and struggles faced by people in the first world:

The people I hear using this phrase are usually relatively socially conscious. I think the intentions behind this term are probably genuine and rooted in the desire to check their privilege. Still, this term is half-baked in its intentions, and I think we can do better in this realm of social consciousness.

We need to examine the rhetoric involved in conversations surrounding privilege, the distribution of wealth, industrialised societies, and the global South. Specifically, I want to take this opportunity to consider the sorts of things that the phrase “first world problems” implies. As feminist and writer Laurie Penny recently wrote in her article, “Gender Neutral Language is Coming Here’s Why It Matters,” the terminology we use has a lot of power over the way we perceive the world around us.

It is a known fact that the way of life in our developed regions is having negative impacts on the environment. Although we are witnessing increasing levels of consciousness regarding consumption, we are still far off a sustainable mode of conduct. One person consuming on our current level might not have a wide impact on our nature. But billions of people make negative impacts of scale. You shopping a chocolate latte in a disposable cup might not be bad, but millions of cups make up for a complete landfill. Seemingly harmless choices multiplied by sheer quantity and automation potentially leads to tremendous negative results. Or to put it into another great German saying: ‘Small animals, too, create manure.’

But, changes are on the way, right? We are shopping the highest number of sustainable products than ever before and the invention of new efficient technologies is seemingly rising. Unfortunately, our efforts for more resource-efficiency don’t always work out. Fuel-savings in home heating technologies, for instance, has increased the size of homes people have built for themselves. This in turn has lowered the effect of fuel-savings, as less energy usage on more volume today equals more energy usage on less volume from before. In the end, we are still consuming the same amount of fuel. This principle is called the “rebound effect” and has had tremendous negative effects on our environment. It leaves us with a bitter truth: we might think that we are changing to a more sustainable lifestyle, while in fact we are consuming and thus wasting more than before.

To make matters worse, we are exporting our societal and ecological issues elsewhere. As most products are not made in Europe, North America or Australia, problems are accumulating in countries of the global south, where most production takes place. For us, this turned out to be the perfect mix. We crave cheap consumer products, but we are also asking for clean air, well-paying jobs and good regulation. By exporting most of the negative effects, we can easily live under the impression that we are consuming more sustainably, while others bear the burden. This leaves the global north with a huge challenge: we are unable to see our negative effects because we are very effective at hiding the real price of our actions, either through seemingly sustainable practices or through exporting our external costs.

There is one area, however, where we are able to see that our levels of consumption have backlashes: a rising number of diseases of affluence. Although it is quite clear, that a person living in poverty is more prone to diseases – especially to infectious diseases – our abundant lifestyle has had negative effects on our own health, too. In the global north non-communicable diseases, like obesity, asthma or cancer are on the rise. But it is the less obvious and less visible diseases that are most detrimental. Take mental illnesses as an example. In Germany, there is estimated to be between half a million to 1 million people with severe mental illnesses. Mental illness is a collective term for many different forms of mental health disorders, such as anxiety, depression or drug addiction.

These illnesses are called severe if they are persistent and constrain a person in their everyday-life. The cause of the constant rise of mental diseases since the 1950s in the global north is not totally clear, but it seems to be connected to isolation and personal overload. Our liberation from conservative systems, our ability to choose for ourselves who we want to be, puts us into a dangerous situation. We are constantly confronted with too many choices and inflated demands. Suddenly, seven different types of chocolate ice cream might be six too many. What is clear, though, is that people with mental illnesses have more troubles finding a job, often leaving them without an income and even more isolated. They are amongst others more prone to poverty and for failed marriages. With too few people talking about this huge societal issue – but with rising numbers of people with mental illnesses, the problem will become more pressing and there will be a search for more and better integration.

Income per household in the global north is rising constantly. This in turn improves our material quality of life. But this improvement is by far not accessible to everyone. The most marginalized (and seldom addressed) groups in Germany are still lacking access to some of the most basic societal services: hundreds of thousands of women over the age of 65 for instance live on less than 400 Euro a month – and the number is growing. These women are being punished today for having raised children in the past and putting family before their career. This problem will grow even further in the upcoming years and extend to all new retirees – female and male. By 2030, it is estimated that every second retiree will be living in poverty. On the other side of the trench, the German super-rich elite is on the rise – slowly but steadily. Looking at the rising Gini coefficient for wealth in Germany, it becomes apparent that less and less people own more and more of German assets.

Our society is growing more an more unequal. If this trend of inequality continues, we might get into serious trouble. Our society is built on a fragile equilibrium. Imagine the overall energy (time, effort, resources, etc) that is needed in order for our societal system to work. We are constantly busy maintaining the current state of our infrastructure and the social order we rely upon. All the gardeners, janitors, repairmen, doctors, lawyers, politicians and chocolate ice-cream makers spend most of their time just keeping the system running. Day in and day out they go to work to pull all the little levers so that you can drink your chocolate chai latte with soy milk “to go” every morning. This balance is, as improbable as it sometimes may seem, quite frail. We have to constantly fix and improve the status quo so that our society can prosper. The higher the developmental status of our societal systems, the higher its fragility becomes. Inequality might pose the biggest challenge for this societal equilibrium.

Using the third world as a means of noticing how lucky we are implies that value is in material things. It shifts focus from the fact that our own culture of consumption makes us not as good at counting our blessings as we should be. We are often so preoccupied with wanting more stuff and stressing over petty material things because our culture and our economy are so deeply intertwined with consumption. For a healthy economy, it is critical that we go on feeling this way. In citing “first world problems,” we focus instead on our relative luck over those living in some arbitrary “third world,” as defined in material terms. We are reinforcing the idea that there is inherent value in material stuff. To me, it sounds like we are suffering a case of idolatry

This video, I think puts life into prospective:

To be a White Whiner your complaint must convey, simultaneously, that you are both fortunate and irritated. Nothing gets people whining more than flying to an exotic location so they do not lose their holiday time at the end of the year. A study was carried out among 2,000 adults aged between the ages of 18 and 65, with alleged 1st World Challenges and the results are listed below:
• Earphones becoming tangled in your bag, Weetabix not fitting into a round breakfast bowl and weak tea have been named on the list of common British first world problems.
• Problems range from the trivial – the shop running out of semi-skimmed milk or remote control batteries running out – to the downright ridiculous.
• Some of the more absurd worries include: “Heel getting stuck in the decking of a boat or yacht” or “a neighbour using the same Laura Ashley wallpaper”.
• A spokesman for survey website, OnePoll, which carried out the study, said: “Sometimes we forget just how good we’ve got it.
• “While we enjoy a lifestyle much more fortunate than some parts of the world, we still find time to moan about those more trivial problems during everyday life.
• “Of course it’s frustrating that our earphones get tangled, or that some shops only sell cheap wine when you want to splash out a bit.
• “But when these moments occur, we should take a second and reflect on what aspects of our life aren’t so problematic”.

Meanwhile, we are also failing to acknowledge that it is the same system that brings us an unbalanced level of material wealth, which creates much of the poverty and exploitation for those living in poor countries. This is where we ought to put our focus. Having too much stuff to consume in our commercial culture is not psychologically healthy for anyone.

When we complain about how putting frozen water into our water makes it too cold, we should check ourselves. It’s important to feel gratitude and to not sweat the small stuff in our lives, to be happy with what we have and to appreciate when our basic needs are consistently met. Yet we should not do so at the expense of other people.

What we are actually doing when we exclaim ‘first world problems’ is projecting our white guilt onto people in the third world. Even defining first world problems as things “third worlders would probably roll their eyes at” is a projection. We are assuming this based on our own sense of guilt and Western ways of thinking. This is rather presumptuous because in actuality we have no idea how people residing in the third world would react to hearing our first world problems.

Finally, I feel we need to question the very ways we define what is poor and what is third world. We need to stop equating “first” with industrial output and consumption. We must realise that these labels don’t fit. There are many poor people in the industrialised, first world and there are wealthy, intelligent, wise, talented, and complex individuals living the third world.

A great quote by Lee Kuan Yew which rings reality to some of the alleged 1st World Challenges, he once said:

“What I fear is complacency. When things always become better, people tend to want more for less work.”

From Louis Braille to leading edge technology that helps people see again

I recently visited the theatre in London to see The Braille Legacy, a fascinating theatrical story about Louis Braille – the man who invented braille for the blind.

Louis Braille was born in Coupvray, a town in north central France, on January 4, 1809. At the age of three, he accidentally blinded himself in one eye with a stitching awl taken from his father’s leather workshop. His other eye went blind because of sympathetic ophthalmia, an inflammation of both eyes following trauma to one.

Louis was a young blind boy who wanted the same chance in life as those who see and ended up improving the lives of millions of blind people around the world.
When he was 15, he invented a universal system for reading and writing to be used by people who are blind or visually impaired that now bears his name. He published the first Braille book, Method of Writing Words, Music, and Plain Songs by Means of Dots, for Use by the Blind and Arranged for Them, in 1829, at age 20. A talented musician, he also developed a Braille musical codification.

In Paris in the 19th century, blind people were victims of profound discrimination. Louis Braille, a bright young mind with a mad dream, arrives at the Royal Institute of Blind Youth, searching for the same chance as everyone else: to be free and independent. But he soon discovers that people and things aren’t always what they first seem. By sheer determination and courage, he stumbles upon something revolutionary: a simple idea, a genius invention, a legacy.

Two hundred years ago, Louis Braille changed the world by inventing the tactile system of communication the Braille alphabet, liberating the “People of the Night” and introducing literacy, knowledge and culture to a people who were otherwise trapped. It was their journey into the light.

As an adult, Braille became the first blind apprentice teacher at the New School for the Blind in Paris, France. There, he taught algebra, grammar, music, and geography. He later became the first blind full professor at the school. Braille saved enough money from his teaching position to buy himself a piano so he could practice whenever he wished. Despite his small salary, he also made many personal gifts and loans to his students to help them purchase warm clothing and other necessities. Braille developed tuberculosis in his mid-20s, and for the rest of his life had periods of health interspersed with times of pain and illness. When in good health, he maintained a heavy teaching load and held several jobs playing the organ.

Braille is read by passing one’s fingertips over characters made up of an arrangement of one to six embossed points. The relative positions of these points represent different alphanumeric characters. Braille can be written with a Braillewriter (similar to a typewriter) or by using a pointed stylus to punch dots through paper using an instrument called a Braille slate, which has rows of small cells in it as a guide. Braille has since been adapted to almost every known language and is an essential tool for blind people everywhere.

It’s hard to think about language as being endangered or replaceable. But as our culture and means of communication evolve, certain languages find their utility in decline.

Braille and sign language are in just such a predicament. Technological advancements, such as voice-to-text, digital audio, and the cochlear implant have steadily decreased the demand for these once-revolutionary facilitators for the disabled.

Those who master Braille can reap big benefits. Blind children struggle to learn spelling and grammar without it. Calculations and musical scores are easier to hold at the fingertips than in the head. Even so, more blind people are deciding not to bother.

In the 1950s half of blind American children learned Braille. Now 10% do, and the share globally has fallen so steeply, says Kevin Carey of the London-based Royal National Institute of Blind People, that Braille is on “life support”.

One reason is a shifting market. Since doctors learned 60 years ago that pure oxygen in incubators damaged premature babies’ sight, the number of blind children has fallen in rich countries, where Braille was most used. Changing educational norms mean more attend mainstream schools, where Braille is less likely to be taught. As the population ages, more people are losing their sight late in life, when they are less likely to invest in new skills.

PwC uncovered the compelling link between restoring sight and economic development. It found that for every £1 invested in ending avoidable blindness, there was a £4 economic benefit for a country’s economy. By looking at our key goal through an economic lens, it was demonstrated that ending avoidable blindness has benefits reaching far beyond health alone. If more people in a nation can see, more people can go to school, work, raise children or start businesses. Ending avoidable blindness improves the economy, equality, skills, GDP and development of a nation, while reducing its financial and social burden.

Here are some findings from the research:
• An estimated 32.4 million people are blind around the world
• A further 191 million are visually impaired
• 90% of people who are blind live in developing countries

It’s not just people who are suffering
• Ending avoidable blindness could inject as much as £517 billion into struggling economies over a decade
• Every year, avoidable blindness costs developing countries around £49 billion in lost economic activity
• Ending avoidable blindness in the developing world can be achieved for as little as £2.20 per person, per year

Another is stiffer competition. In the 1960s schools started to use cassette tapes; by the 1980s computers could convert written words to speech, albeit clumsily, or display magnified text. Today’s phone apps read text aloud almost flawlessly.

The advancement with technology now enables reading using a Braille display that sits unobtrusively on a person’s lap and connects to a iPhone via Bluetooth, electronically converting the onscreen text into different combinations of pins. A person reads by gently but firmly running their fingers over the pins with their hand navigating through the phone.

Ebooks could be a game changer if they’re properly designed because it would allow blind people to get access to the same books at the same time at the same price as everyone else. Publishers and manufacturers have to ensure they are designed to be accessible to work with braille displays.

And for partially blind people there are even glasses to improve one’s sight of vision. Blind people can now effectively ‘see’ thanks to a brilliant new British invention – glasses that tell wearers what they are looking at. The glasses, which contain tiny cameras, can identify everything from shop doorways to the contents of a fridge – giving a verbal commentary through a phone app and earpiece. Users can even have printed text read out loud simply by pointing at the words, while those with partial sight can zoom in as they need.

However, for those who own both an iPhone or laptop and a Braille display, having to choose between audio and Braille isn’t necessary. Nowadays, the two go hand in hand – literally. Many of the technologies that convert text to speech also convert it into a form that can be read on a refreshable Braille display, making Braille far more accessible for those who own both devices.

Now technology is offering Braille a shot at reinvention. And whilst Apple are leading the race for Braille technology and innovation, Sumit Dagar, an Indian designer, is working on a smartphone exclusively for the blind. The National Braille Press, an American charity, has developed a prototype Braille tablet. Both emboss Braille by using an alloy that changes shape according to temperature.

In the longer term, built-in cameras could take photos to be etched on screens. And tactile touchscreens being developed by Disney’s researchers could do away with the need for embossing. These use electrical impulses to trick fingers into feeling bumps and ridges. Vibrations create friction; the level of resistance matches the on-screen pattern. Thus rebooted, Braille could live alongside audio technology instead of being replaced by it.

The Technology That Could Make Blind People See Again

Louis Braille created reading for the blind, he was revolutionary in his time improving the lives of millions of blind people around the world – with further investment into technology we now have the ability to improve sight across the world within communities and support people through disability and vision.

As professor Fred Hollows once said:

“To help someone to see was a tremendous feeling and with medical and technological advances, we have greatly increased the ability of eye doctors to give that help.”

Fight to end child trafficking!

Love146 LogoOn Saturday 14th June, I was invited to a charity event by one of the charities that I support Love146. They staged a high tea and presentation in the West End of London. Love146 supports Anti-Human Trafficking internationally.

There has been much media focus on the subject recently and positive steps have been taken certainly in the UK to increase security at airports, ports, and train stations to protect innocent children from sexual crimes and trafficking. This is a subject that I feel incredibly passionate about and I support the charity in their projects and fundraising and hope you will join me.

In 2002, the co-founders of Love146 travelled to Southeast Asia on an exploratory trip to decide how they could serve in the fight against child sex trafficking. In one experience, a couple of their co-founders were taken undercover with investigators to a brothel where they saw children being sold for sex.

These children were vacant, shells of what a child should be. There was no light in their eyes, no life left. These children…raped each night… seven, ten, fifteen times every night. They were so young. Thirteen, eleven… it was hard to tell. Sorrow covered their faces with nothingness. Except one girl who wore the number 146. She was looking beyond the glass. She was staring at the founders with a piercing gaze. There was still fighting left in her eyes.…

The experience left the team with emotions that broke them. Because they went in as part of an ongoing, undercover investigation on the particular brothel, they were unable to immediately respond.

But they took her number so that we could learn and they could remember why this all started. It is a number that was pinned to that one girl but represents the millions enslaved.

Model with the number 146Four years ago, Love146 UK recognised the need for a presence in Europe and have since opened an office in the UK with a vision to offer Survivor Care for trafficked and exploited children and young people. There are four stages strategically covered to make sure the highest quality of care and awareness is delivered:

  • Identification
  • Prevention
  • Survivor Care
  • Action

This June, Love146 Europe hosted a Tea Party event in London parallel to supporter hosted tea parties across the UK to raise awareness and share the news of the first home called “Safe Accommodation” due to open in September 2014. They also introduced the European team who are clearly passionate and active abolitionist, but also highly skilled and qualified in their individual fields.

Emotionally impacting, the event opened with a dance piece arranged by the professional dance group ‘Rebirth’ portraying a scene from a brothel with young girls being sold – it mirrored the story of how Love146 was birthed and it brought the audience right to the core of what this charitable organisation is fighting to eradicate.

In 2012, the UK Human Trafficking Centre identified 549 children who were potential victims of human trafficking.  Sixty% of trafficked children go missing from local authority care. Nearly a third that go missing are never found again.

Set up cost for each new ‘Safe Accommodation’ is £77,105 and Love146 Europe depends on financial support from people, community groups, corporate’s, and grants/trusts. They need people us.

Please find more information on their website with options to take action, and  how to donate.

The video shows you the harsh reality and has brief graphic moments.

Their registered address is Love146, PO Box 883, Altrincham. WA15 5ND, United Kingdom

You can contact them by email: info@love146.org.uk

For tax purposes, their Registered Charity number is 1144930

Please join me in this fight to keep children safe!