Snakes, Sudan, and Student life.

Sunday 18th January 2009

Hey everyone,
Time for another mammoth update, so prepare yourselves!
Our classes are going really well, but it’s very intense! We have a HUGE amount of work to do and this Thursday we have to submit our proposals to the ethics committee, so I have to do a hell of a lot before then if I’m going to get it in on time (if you miss the deadline, the committee don’t meet again for a month, which leaves things a bit last minute!). Also I’ve had some really good news about my research project – CHF International are really keen to host me in South Sudan, so it’s almost all confirmed, which is a relief – lots of other people in my class are nowhere near getting a hosting organisation yet.

So yay!

In other random news….

LSTM itself has two buildings now – the old red brick one, which is actually very pretty, and a brand-spanking new one next door, which Bill Gates paid for (something in the region of £50 million). In there they do all the HIV, TB and major tropical disease research – apparently LSTM are constantly doing breakthrough research and basically are just amazing at it.

This also means that on the top floor of the building we’re in (the old brick one), there’s a thing called “The Snake Room”! Literally an entire lab filled with some of the most poisonous snakes in the world, which they milk for venom. Then they send the venom off to Costa Rica, inject it into horses, as apparently it doesn’t kill them, and then after a few months when the horse has built up an immunity to it, they tap it’s blood and use it for anti-venom things (although they’ve just discovered it works much better with camels, as they have a higher blood temperature, which means the anti-venom doesn’t need to be kept cool while in transit to various African countries).
Random! So, Barry, our lecturer has promised to arrange a guided tour of the snake room for us at some point, but in the meantime it’s quite exciting coming to lectures every day knowing that two floors above you there’s a room full of really poisonous snakes!

So, as well as wresting with the ethics form, and debating the pros and cons of qualitative or quantitative research methods (gripping, isn’t it?), I’m still learning an incredible amount of fascinating and sometimes quite scary things!

In our fundraising module, we had a discussion group on why some NGO’s might refuse funding from certain donors (e.g. refusing to accept money from a tobacco company, or Nestle because of unethical practices etc). A, one of the girls in our group had found out a really frightening thing about USAID, one of the biggest donors in the world (I can’t remember if it is actually the biggest, or if it’s second to the EU). Either way, USAID, (which is the US Government funding body for NGO’s), have just piloted a new scheme in Gaza, which might be implemented soon across all of their funding partners. It’s called the Partner Vetting System (PVS) and it’s a link directly from USAID to a CIA database (sorry, “law-enforcement information sharing system”), which, if implemented, means that any NGO looking for funding from the US needs to provide detailed personal information about all of their national staff, including suppliers, which is fed into this database. The premise of it (thanks to Bush’s “War on Terror”) is to ensure that no US Government funding inadvertently supports terrorism, but there has been absolutely no proof of that so far, and the way PVS works is really pretty unethical.

Because it’s going to be used for “law-enforcement purposes” (e.g. CIA), it is exempt from all privacy laws, and there is no guarantee of confidentiality regarding the information provided. The CIA can do whatever they want with it and it could have huge implications for local staff on the ground.
For example, if Oxfam have received funding from USAID to run a project in Liberia, and then hire Alice, a local liberian girl to clean their office, they have to provide USAID with the following information about Alice (this is taken from the USAID website) :

“Personally identifiable information collected from potential USAID partners includes: Name, date of birth, place of birth, county of origin, Social Security Number or other ID type or ID number, nationality, address, phone number, email address, and organizational affiliations.”

The CIA then enter all this information into their database and if they discover that Alice’s father’s brother’s wife’s cousin once voted for the wrong people, then you have to fire Alice or risk losing all your funding. Also, Alice’s name and personal information remains on the database, with no guarantees about confidentiality, so it would affect her future chances of getting a visa for a lot of countries and if it was leaked to local authorities could lead to retaliation against Alice in some countries, and literally put her life at risk.
Even if you buy a computer for your office from Mohammed in the computer shop, you have to provide USAID with all his personal information too!

It’s utterly insane, and has led to a bit of an outcry from the NGO community – Oxfam has apparently said that if they implement this system (it’s currently only being used in Gaza as a pilot scheme), then they will stop applying for funds from USAID. Oxfam are well-established enough to afford to say that, and many European NGO’s have other funding options. However, the majority of American NGO’s get 99% of their funding from USAID, and therefore would have to either comply with the new rules or go out of business.
Several Advocacy NGO’s are attempting to sue USAID for breach of Human Rights, but seriously, taking on USAID means taking on the US Government (not to mention the CIA) – I’m pretty sure they’re not going to win!

Here are some quotes about PVS. This was taken from the advocacy blog of OMB Watch:
“Highlights from the proposed PVS:

“USAID does not believe that it should wait for hard proof that our funds are actually flowing to terrorists” before assigning a designation of humanitarian groups as connected to terror-related activities.
Permits “the sharing of information, provided to USAID by applicants, with the intelligence community.”
Some organizations fear “considerable dangers associated with USAID using its implementing partners for U.S. law enforcement or intelligence purposes in foreign countries…leading to retaliation by foreign governments against partner employees and employees of subs of partners.”
Also from OMB:

“The organization said the university had received in $100,000 in 2006 in “in-kind” aid from USAID, and it also complained that USAID planned to provide $2.4 million in scholarships for about 2,000 Palestinian students without a guarantee that recipients are not “members of the Hamas or Islamic Jihad student unions, have participated in their events, or have given any support to Hamas or Islamic Jihad, including voting for them in the council elections.”
The fact that the U.S. government is responding to the appeals of an organization which is concerned about the political beliefs of students who receive scholarship funds from U.S. funds and may or may not have voted for Hamas is disturbing. This politicizes aid and violates the principle of a secret ballot.”

So in other words, we’re all for democracy in the US, but we’re going to need to know who you voted for, and we may penalise you if you voted for the wrong people!

Sorry for all that if it was boring for most of you, but I find it fascinating, and also a bit scary!

Anyhoo, on to other things, I’ve been really loving Liverpool as a city – it’s so much fun and there’s loads to do. However, I am once again starting to really feel my age, as although I’m only 27, I’m a long way from my own undergrad student days, and being surrounded by really young students does make me feel terribly old and boring!


My flatmate S is lovely, she’s doing a Masters degree in micro-biology, but is only 21 and I hadn’t really noticed the age gap until we went out last Friday night. She had suggested we all get together and have a few drinks at our flat before going out (the old student trick of getting drunk before leaving the house to save money!). That was fine, but Dee (another girl on my course – also 27) and I only managed a glass and a half of wine before we left, and it was only when we reached our first destination that I realised how bad it was going to be! We arrived at Flares, 70’s theme bar, complete with light-up dancefloor and mega-cheesy music. It was completely empty – we were literally the only people there, and as the others all headed straight for the empty dancefloor it slowly dawned on Dee and I that everyone else in our group was actually already hammered!

70's steph

I personally wasn’t nearly drunk enough to dance alone in an empty club, and although the discovery that there was a stripper-pole in the window did cheer me up, I still wasn’t actually drunk enough to fully appreciate it!

So, we moved on to another club, which was equally empty, and the music selection was even worse. I was hovering on the edge of the dancefloor, watching the others drunkenly fall about the empty stage and attempting to down pints before running off to throw up, debating how many rum and cokes it would take before I actually enjoyed this.

Then I suddenly thought to myself “I would have so much more fun right now if I was at home with a bottle of wine and a good film”. That was around the time that I also realised I’m so over student life! I’m clearly far too old to appreciate the finer points of stripper poles and the ability to drink a pint in 30 seconds. Ah well, probably for the best, what with all this work I have to do!
That’s about it from me for now – I’m sure this email is long enough by now!

hope you’re all well and happy,


love Maya

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