Post-Mubarak Life for the Zabaleen Community

October 17th, 2012

In 2010, Sorensen Fellow and Brandeis alum Madeleine Stix ’12 worked in Manshiett Nasser in Cairo with the Zabaleen, a Coptic Christian community in predominantly Muslim Egypt. A summary of her experience and her insights can be found in her essay “Treasure Amidst Trash: Preserving Community in the World’s Largest Garbage City” in the Brandeis Ethics Center’s publication Shifting Perspectives: Encountering Community in a Changing World. The Zabaleen are the largest community of informal garbage collectors in the world and are the focus of the widely acclaimed film Garbage Dreams, which Madeleine helped to promote during her time serving in Egypt. In her essay, Madeleine describes the origin of the Zabaleen community and the religious and economic discrimination they face in current-day Egypt. Migrating from Upper Egypt to Cairo 70-80 years ago, the Zabaleen used to work as rural pig breeders, but were forced to relocate to the Cairo landfills due to agrarian reforms by Pres. Gamal Abdel Nasser that evicted the Zabaleen minority from rural lands.

In 2009, in an effort to “clean up” the Zabaleen landfill slums in Cairo, the Egyptian government enforced the mass slaughter of 300,000 of their pigs, destroying the livelihoods of many waste scavengers. Stix interned with the Spirit of Youth Association, started by local Zabaleen waste scavenger Ezzat Naim Guindy, to help implement a Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation grant to introduce the marginalized Zabaleen community into the formal waste system in Egypt. To do this, she helped promote a strategy known as source separation, where the Zabaleen, rather than scavenge the waste in the landfill, actually start separating their waste at the source in waste management facilities to make it easier for them to recycle. The Spirit of Youth Assoc. also established a Recycling School for Boys, where boys bring plastic containers to the school and fill out a form showing how many bottles they’ve retrieved (learning reading, writing, and arithmetic in the process) to aid their work.

Since the fall of Mubarak, the Zabaleen have continued to face adversity and discrimination. Since the Egyptian Revolution, progress on the Gates grant and the recycling project in Egypt has been suspended due to continued religious and socioeconomic discrimination against the Zabaleen community (Madeleine Stix, Oct. 17, via e-mail). According to Stix, when Mohammed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood Party was elected President of Egypt earlier this year, he promised to resolve Egypt’s waste management issues through the “Clean Homeland Campaign”, that models a new waste management system based on Turkey’s current system. The question still remains whether the marginalized Zabaleen will be introduced into the formal waste management system and permitted to work at the source of waste collection sites, or whether the reforms will abandon the Zabaleen community and only involve multinational waste management companies. Although the Zabaleen and the Spirit of Youth Association would like to continue their work on their Gates initiative and would like to work alongside the multinational organizations to build an effective organic and non-organic recycling process, few know what to expect for Egypt as a whole, let alone the Zabaleen community, under the new Morsi regime (Madeleine Stix, Oct. 17, via e-mail).

“Choosing One’s Commitments to Causes”: A Review of the February 2012 Ethical Inquiry

October 9th, 2012

During the past two weeks, I have attempted to examine, promote, and engage the ethical factors underpinning one’s chosen commitments to causes (as outlined by Leah Igdalsky ’14 in the Ethics Center’s February 2012 Ethical Inquiry). Igdalsky’s Ethical Inquiry attempts to elucidate several rich and complex issues regarding one’s selected path of social justice by juxtaposing and analyzing methods of committing to a cause. The issues discussed include the relative impact of local versus global action, the comparative effects of advocating for one’s own identified group versus demonstrating global justice advocacy, and the relative effectiveness of contributing money versus time to a social justice organization.

As I read the issues presented, several firsthand and secondhand experiences of social justice action came to mind. For instance, the discussion of local versus global justice reminded me of a heated discussion at the Friday night panel in the Millennium Campus Conference in Northeastern (Sept. 16-17, 2012) between Daniel Cordon, Director of Transitional Employment for the nonprofit Haley House Bakery Café in Boston and Maya Cohen, Executive Director of the student-led global health organization GlobeMed. Cordon highlighted the hypocrisy of students seeking to affect global change when they neglected to first face challenges of poverty and inequality in their own backyard. Cohen, in contrast, underscored the fact that dollars go further in developing countries where the need is greater and that solving community issues abroad can help find solutions for local problems at home and vice versa.

It became readily apparent, however, that criticizing one method in favor of another was an unproductive and unhealthy conversation as both are worthy paths that deserve equal fervor and attention. When I asked Brandeis professor and RESULTS Boston Global Leader Cynthia Tschampl about this dilemma, she gave me this piece of advice (quoting American theologian Frederick Buechner): “vocation is where our greatest passion meets the world’s greatest need”. One may discover their vocation through a series of “a-ha moments” that expose them to issues (local or global) that inspire them to act. Brandeis Heller School Professor Sarita Bhalotra encountered her “pivotal experience” when she went to medical college in India and was for the first time exposed to the dire conditions in which the majority of India actually lived. These experiences shaped her vocation to study medicine and health policy and teach students about global health care delivery as it relates to social inequities.

In her discussion of in-group help vs. supporting foreign groups, Igdalsky also brings up several valid points. For instance, when she states how helping one’s own group is often beneficial because the individual already is aware of the group’s dynamics and needs, I was reminded of a fellow intern during my global health service trip to Venezuela last year. Because she was Venezuelan herself, she was able to infer local customs and language better than us, giving our otherwise foreign group greater legitimacy in the eyes of the local community. On the other hand, striking a balance between supporting one’s own native or local community and pursuing global justice is a responsibility of the informed global citizen. Professor Tschampl advised me to keep in mind that one’s commitment to local and global actions changes as one’s obligations evolve through life’s various stages. She describes how as long as she was single, she could contribute more than 10 hours a week to groups working against local and global poverty, but as she begins to start a family, she will have to alter her time commitment to these causes and contribute in other ways.

In the section “How to Help? Money vs. Time”, Professor Tschampl agrees somewhat with Igdalsky’s assertion that foreign aid to developing countries can create opportunities for misuse. However, she disagrees with the contention (which cites a 2006 report by the National Academy of Public Administration called Why Foreign Aid to Haiti Failed) that the Haitian government should be blamed for its mishandling of the “billions” of dollars in foreign aid prior to the earthquake in 2010. The source cited in the inquiry claims that the presidential election in 2000 won by Jean-Bertrand Aristide had a participation rate of only 5% by registered Haitian voters. However, according to several sources (such as Melinda Miles and Eugene Charles’ book Let Haiti Live and the International Coalition of Independent Observers of the 2000 Haitian election), the participation rate was closer to 60% and the election of Aristide was deemed free and fair.

As a result of skewed U.S. opinion that the election was a fraud, the Bush administration led a crippling embargo on the Haitian government in 2000 that impeded improvements in education, roads, health care and water supplies (according to Tracy Kidder’s 2004 New York Times article “Why Aristide Should Stay”). Concurrent U.S. policies led by Rep. Hyde and Sen. Helms assured that no aid was provided to the government of Haiti, helping to ensure the ineffectiveness of both “aid” and government  (C. Tschampl, via e-mail, Oct. 7, 2012). After reviewing several sources, it becomes clear that the mishandling of aid was the result of U.S. interference at multiple levels rather than the Haitian government’s misuse of the aid.

Another revision was suggested by RESULTS Educational Fund Advocacy Associate Allyson Goldsmith (Brandeis alum ’10), who proposed that the “How to Help” section should also include advocacy and policy change. This issue is implied in the “More Questions” section, but could be elaborated on further as it is often just as important as direct service or money contributions in changing global and local policies and is an important aspect of the Ethics Center’s work. For instance, the Ethics Center launched Advocacy for Policy Change in 2009 along with the Legal Studies Department at Brandeis, giving undergraduate students the tools to advocate for legislative reform. Students such as Ethan Davis ’11 and Mark Garibyan ’11 were given the opportunity to become educated on local issues such as human trafficking in Massachusetts by speaking with advocacy leaders and calling their Congresspeople about passing important bills (page 16 of the Sept. 2011 Student Report) .

Their advocacy efforts undoubtedly made an impact as Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick finally signed anti-human trafficking legislation into law in Nov. 2011 (H. 3808, “An Act Relative to the Commercial Exploitation of People“). Likewise, global advocacy for legislative policies related to human trafficking is just as important. For instance, the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000, which authorized the State Department to establish global standards for confronting trafficking and slavery, has currently expired and has yet to be renewed by Congress (S. 1301, “Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2011). This issue deserves equal if not greater attention as many agree that human trafficking is modern day slavery (see Pres. Obama’s speech on 9/25/2012 at the Clinton Global Initiative Annual Meeting). All in all, the inquiry brought up many interesting ideas and dilemmas, but could be revised to address the above suggestions.

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