To Syria with love…

Found this in my draft folder – from December 2012

I have a complicated relationship with Syria. As a fiercely nationalistic Lebanese, I grew up hating its army of soldiers stationed on our soil with their big menacing tanks, and blaming much of my country’s woes on the overzealous brotherly ties that held us captive and subservient. During our weekly trip to my parents’ villages, up north and down south, it was routine that our family car would be stopped at one of their many checkpoints. A soldier in worn down fatigues would inquisitively stick his neck out of his wooden barrack checkered in black, green and red – the Syrian colors. And I would hold my breath to stop the flow of my resentful thoughts, thinking surely he would arrest us if he could guess them through my head. As soon as our car would drive out of their tentacular reach, I would stick my tongue out of the rear window in a victorious (yet cowardly safe, I admit) defiance.

In my entourage, we talked about Hafez with much contempt, but only in whispers. He was the monster who crushed Hama’s children. Yet our streets adorned his pictures – a reminder of the real person in charge. As we grew older and more politically aware, friends were regularly harassed and even jailed over their political outspokenness and demands for a full recovery of our sovereignty.

Those humiliations came to an end in 2005, triggered by the tragic bomb blast that killed our prime minister and reshaped my country’s history yet again. My classmates and I skipped classes to protest the violation of our soil, the impunity of crimes, the unfairness of a system that was holding us back. A month later, I sneaked out of my sleepy household before dawn, raced the deserted streets towards Beirut, parked my car in the vicinity of Martyrs’ square, and walked resolutely towards the announced protest meeting point. There was no Facebook back then, only text messages. Yet the square was far from empty. Some had been sleeping in makeshift camps right there for days now. But the area was cordoned off by a line of armed soldiers blocking the way. Oblivious to the Kalashnikovs dangling on their shoulders, we waited to become a critical mass as more people were arriving on site, and ran towards the line of soldiers, body to body, repeatedly, until we broke it and joined the inflating ranks of those inside the square. No soldier used his arm – they had no intention to. This was the day I reconciled with my army. I can still remember the feeling of exhilaration that gripped our guts when international leaders backed our calls for a solid timetable for the retreat of Syrian troops, and Bashar obliged! Oblivious to the larger forces at play, we felt that WE had done it!

That victory – maybe the first of the Arab Spring, was pathetically short-lived as the entrenched Lebanese political system swiftly corrupted even our purest dreams, but that’s a story for another time.

I only really discovered Syria the country in 2009. One of its highest-ranking officials invited the organization I was working for at the time for talks about a governance program. Inviting an international organization to Syria was gutsy. That the work was around public reform was further surprising. Those were the days of hope, with indications of a will to change and to engage the wider international community… The people who I met during that visit were so similar to my countrymen in their aspirations and discourse – we were indeed brothers. Encouraged and intrigued by my encounters, I went back to Syria that summer. Damascus, the vibrant, the cosmopolite… Aleppo, superb Aleppo, mixing 13th century defense heritage with the quirky stillness of the 60s… Aleppo sits outside of time. And Palmyra the enchantress, lost on a map, offering itself by surprise to anyone who bothers visiting. Cities lingering in the past, waiting to lurch onto the future. Developed way below their tremendous potential. Gripping. Fascinating. A people avid of life; a little subdued, but sparkly with aspirations.

If this wasn’t enough to reconcile me with Syria, March 2011 did. How not to cheer for the unquenched thirst for dignity and freedom of the children of Daraa? The fearlessness of the bloggers, the tirelessness of the community organizers, the pride of the activists? 19 months later, Syria’s children are still dying, only in increasing numbers. The innumerable gruesome youtubes and photos revolt and numb at once. I lost track of the dead. We all have. For even the living are dead – of rumbling stomachs from hunger, of desperation, of fear, of not knowing when the end is and what the day after would look like. It is impossible to identify with those pulling triggers, throwing grenades, and pointing tank. The cause was worthy, the fight necessary. But which cause? Which fight? 647 days later, it looks damn complicated. The destruction, the broken intercommunal ties, the infiltrated extremism… As a Lebanese watching this unfold like a distant nightmare, I ask myself a million questions in disbelief. How long would it take to reconstitute the social fabric of a society that cohabited without mingling for too long – just like us? How unsettling would be the consequences of a war where no side is a winner – except imported wackos of all trade, mercenaries of death – just like for us? What would it take to reconstruct the spirit of Aleppo, of Damascus? Forget about the stones and the cities – what the hell would it take for the families of 50 thousand people to grieve?

Lebanon now counts 1.5 million Syrian refugees. The death toll in Syria? Honestly I don’t know. 150,000? What is the meaning of a number this large? 

The spirit of a People as old and as resilient as Syria’s is impossible to tame, though. Those who left are only circumstantially refugees – they’re survivors. Look at Zaatari camp where life has organized itself in streets and courts. Those who left are artists, spilling their aborted dreams on canvases, adorning the walls of galleries around the world. Those who left are entrepreneurs, building companies and products that the world is purchasing. Those who left may or may not come back, just like us. 

From Homo Economicus to Homo Sapiens

The World Bank published this week its flagship World Development Report entitled Mind, Society and Habit. While incorporating the science of behaviour for better development interventions is not news (think MIT JPAL and others), making it the central topic of the annual WDR certainly propels it to mainstream.

At the World Economic Forum I’ve been managing the Global Agenda Council on Behaviour – a group of some of the most renowned experts in the area, chaired by David Halpern, CEO of the UK’s Behavioural Insight Team (aka “Nudge Unit”). David wrote a blog about his impressions and the work plan that the council agreed on here.

Two of the most discussed agenda items during our meeting were: (1) the dissemination of some of the most impressive behavioural insights applied to policy, and (2) outlining the ‘next generation’ interventions – from rainy day savings and money management platforms for low income groups ; to the use of sport and positive role modeling with respect to violence (especially violence against women). A space to be watched!

One of the frontier idea discussed was related to parenting, and included a proposal to prompt parents to talk to their kids by printing messages on nappies – an idea that was received with mixed feelings by the public. For more on this, you can read the blog post of Michael Feigelson, another member of the council.

Behavioural science’s application to all sorts of policies and interventions is (and will continue to be) on the rise. And understandably so. Small, low cost tweaks with big returns on changing behaviour for the recipient’s and society’s benefits is an alluring proposition.

also published on LinkedIn 

Ode to Damascus

To Damascus, years are only moments, decades are only flitting trifles of time. She measures time not by days and months and years, but by the empires she has seen rise and prosper and crumble to ruin. She is a type of immortality.

                         Marc Twain, 1867, upon visiting the city.

International Women’s Day

Celebrating the 101st International Women’s Day by sharing some of my favorite links:

Here’s to hoping that the need for this “celebration” soon becomes laughably obsolete.

Husbands, love your wives and do not be harsh with them (Colossians 3:19)

Fail Fast. Fail Often – But Do it Responsibly

Quick addendum to the last post.

The “Fail fast, fail often” mantra is good advice if you’re prototyping in your lab. It is not a good idea if you’re rolling it out to the vulnerable communities you’re trying to serve. The unintended negative consequences of a failed experiment can be substantial. So, make that “Fail fast, fail often – responsibly”.

Changing the World Isn’t Easy: Advice for Social Entrepreneurs

A version of this article was originally published on Wamda. Thanks, Nina for the edits!

Inclusive capitalism, disruptive innovations, triple bottom line, scalability… My head is abuzz with catchy expressions after spending the past weekend at the 13th Social Enterprise Conference* at Harvard University, Cambridge, MA.
The crowd of 1,500 young, passionate (and caffeinated) attendees bounced around the hallways between panel discussions, hands-on workshops, and the much-anticipated Pitch for Change Competition. The excitement and entrepreneurial spirit were palpable. When meeting someone, the question was not the usual “What do you do?” with which East-Coasters usually strike up conversations, but rather, “What’s your idea?”

Change the F*ing World

Daniel Epstein of Unreasonable Institute set the tone of the conference by opening the keynote address with a reminder of what unites all attendees: a deep desire to Change the F*ing World (take note of the newest acronym on the block: CTFW). He was joined on stage by Kavita Shukla of Fenugreen, Lauren Bush of FEED, and Taylor Conroy of Destroy Normal – three young social entrepreneurs making an impact.
One of the topics discussed was fundraising. Taylor’s advice: the most effective way to raise funds for your project is to reach out to people you personally know, ask for little (microgiving), show them the tangible impact of their gift, and finally, acknowledge them (a little recognition never hurts). Lauren’s FEED Project which has sold over half a million bags, providing 60 million meals in the process, perfectly illustrates the last two points: every FEEDbag features a printed number on it that indicates how many children are being fed by your purchase.

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Microfinance Duel: SKS’ Akula gives advice and admits Muhammad Yunus was right

I spent the past weekend at the great 13th Social Enterprise Conference at Harvard University (you can find my impression of the conference here). Of the two-day gathering, one moment was particularly interesting: ex-chairman of SKS Microfinance gave a humbling talk about failure during Saturday night’s networking reception.

Akula during the Social Enterprise Conference 2012  |  Photo cred: @RxFogarty  |  Check Rob’s beautiful work at www.dearworld.me

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World Economic Forum at Davos: Old Capitalism is Dead. Long Live… Capitalism?

This post also appears on the Women and Public Policy Program of Harvard Kennedy School wire.

Last week, 2,600 of the world’s most powerful gathered in the recluse ski resort of Davos for the 42nd World Economic Forum – and I was lucky to be there. Amidst the lavish parties (Mick Jagger!), limousine/helicopter rides, and icy sidewalks, the general mood was a somber one.

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Some Favorite Quotes from World Economic Forum in Davos

“Success and likeability are positively correlated for men and negatively correlated for women. […] We never call boys bossy. Any of the women in the room who as a girl were called bossy? If you got to  Davos you were called that. I was!”
~ Sheryl Sandberg, on women as the way forward.

“I have succeeded so much in life because I only had to compete with half the population.”
~ Warren Buffet, on gender equality.

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Everyone Has a Story (Liberia Archives)

 K. Lost both parents to the war at age 13.
Taught me how to play a card game called “AK47“.