Friday, May 29

Quid pro quo

Charity comes with a catch.

Yes, donors intend to improve lives, do good, help others. But the donations serve other purposes. The donors define the "good" that is accomplished. The recipients can be empowered, given some measure of decision-making capacity. But the donors must set conditions, and they use charitable programs to add a glossy humanitarian veneer to their reputations.

In Allure of Deceit, one of the characters - a victim before first page begins - has a reputation for critiquing charity. She points out the origin of the word "forgiving" is "giving" and how charitable practices can imply that recipients are wrongdoers, weak and deserving of no control.

Charities must tread carefully not to insult those they serve, and that requires lowered expectations on compliance or cooperation. As a result, charity is not the most efficient form for delivering needed services.

The description of Petra Nemcova's gala for the Happy Hearts Fund in the New York Times article by Deborah Sontag, "An Award for Bill Clinton Cam With $500,000 for his Foundation," bears eerie resemblance to the first chapter of Allure of Deceit. 

Orange from Songag: "She special-ordered heart-shaped chocolate parfaits, heart-shaped tiramisu and, because orange is the charity's color, an orange carpet rather than a red one. She imported a Swiss auctioneer and handed out orange rulers to serve as auction paddles playfully threatening to use hers to spank the highest bidder for an Ibiza vacation. The gala cost $363, 413."

Green in Allure: "Lime, peacock, moss, sea mist, forest and fern - gowns in every shade of green swirled about the ballroom floor. Aromas of mint and rosemary drifted from all-green centerpieces.... The meal was vegetarian, with ridiculously delicate portion sizes for the salads, fruit, and grilled vegetables.... Such attention to detail did not prevent the wrong people from making decisions or the wrong groups from receiving awards."

Life and art go hand in hand.

Sontag's story focuses on Nemcova offering a $500,000 contribution to the Clinton Foundation, presumably in exchange for his attendance at the gala to accept an award: "Happy Hearts’ former executive director believes the transaction was a 'quid pro quo,' which rerouted donations intended for a small charity with the concrete mission of rebuilding schools after natural disasters to a large foundation with a broader agenda and a budget 100 times bigger." Happy Hearts and Clinton Foundation officials deny that the donation was solicited.

The article echoes the purpose of the gala in Allure of Deceit: The foundation "operated in more than thirty nations and could be counted on to distribute at least $400 million annually for a mix of organizations. GlobalConnect was influential, yet it limited support to some fifty groups per year. Competition was intense."

In Allure of Deceit, Lydia Sendry is powerful, overseeing the world's largest charitable foundation. She wants to change the world, but she also wants to find out who murdered her only son.

The time has come to analyze society's dependence on charitable giving, especially for basic services like health care or education, and perhaps end tax write-offs for all charitable donations.

Note:  On September 1, Charity Navigator has given the Clinton Foundation four stars, its highest rating, after a review of the finances.

Review copies are available. Photo of reception, unrelated to charity, courtesy of  Tracy Hunter and Wikimedia Commons. 

Tuesday, May 12


The shrike may have all the appearance of a sweet songbird, but it's a predator known for catching small birds or rodents, and impaling them on thorns or sticks for later dining. The eating behavior is described early in Allure of Deceit:

Parsaa did not let up swinging the scythe, carving gentle arcs into the field, the wheat falling in line on either side, while keeping his eyes on the shrike. Suddenly, the bir dove into a nearby section of uncut wheat and emerged with a plump mouse. Clamping its beak tight, the shrike returned to the edge area. Once there, the shrike took careful aim and impaled the mouse against a long thorn. Stepping back, the bird leisurely pecked at its writhing meal. 

"With every swing of the blade, Parsaa was a co-conspirator.

Afghanistan has eight of the world's 31 species of shrikes. The one that appears in Allure of Deceit could be the bay-backed version, a bird that can be found in Afghanistan, India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka."A strikingly coloured, delicately built and fine-billed shrike, the bay-backed shrike is a beautiful bird of South Asia," notes Wildscreen Arkive. The colors include soft gray, warm chestnut with solid black markings. "The most distinctive feature of this bird is the black facial mask extending from the side of the neck through the eyes to the based of the hooked bill."

The bird's habitat includes cultivated fields and scrubby areas, notes Bird Forum. 

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology, a leader in the study and conservation of birds,  collects their songs and the bay-backed shrike can be heard here. 

Photo of the bay-backed shrike in India, courtesy of J.M. Garg and Wikimedia Commons.

Tuesday, May 5


Reducing clutter can keep us calm.

Reducing clutter requires a regular assessment of belongings. But just because an item has not been used for a year or more does not necessarily mean they should be tossed. Place such belongings in storage and label the boxes. Opening the box a few months later can offer a pleasant surprise and new appreciation - or perhaps the realization that the time has come to give the possessions away.

And then there is mental clutter. This requires regular assessment of routines, shedding unwanted priorities, distractions and anxiety.  Ryan Nicodemus explains in an essay for the Minimalists: "...once I decided I’d had enough of the mental clutter, I had no choice but to to change my circumstances - I had no choice but to remove myself from circumstances that added to my mental clutter. I stopped associating with certain people, I changed my spending habits, I downsized my possessions. I started with myself, and I changed my circumstances." Nicodemus co-authored of Live a Meaningful Life with Joshua Fields Millburn.

Farnoosh Brock of Prolific Living urges focusing on just one thought at a time and not letting competing ideas bombard the mind.

Individuals can become more than our circumstances, and this becomes obvious with some streamlining. For example, minimize technology. Cellphones can become a ball and chain, forcing users to be at the beck and call of family members, co-workers and friends.

Warning, though: Pushing others to reduce clutter can make them cling to the oddest of possessions. Individuals must make their own choices, and attempts to control another individual almost always backfires.

Writing the books set in Afghanistan, Fear of Beauty and Allure of Deceit, prompted appreciation for the comforts in my life and the value of simplicity. Before making a purchase or a commitment, Stephanie Vozza, interviewing Scott Eblin, author of Overworked and Overwhelmed: The  Mindfulness Alternative, for Fast Company, suggests asking one's self:  "Is this necessary?"

And the answer is often no.

Photo of Afghan market in 2009, courtesy of Staff Sgt. Russell Lee Klika, US Army National Guard, and Wikimedia Commons.

Monday, April 27


Laashekoh, the fictional village that is the setting for Fear of Beauty and Allure of Deceit, is unusual in many ways. But perhaps the most distinguishing feature of this village is the many trees. In truth, Afghanistan has few forests. A lack of forest management, few government regulations, minimal enforcement combined with war and tribal competition led to rapid deforestation - another version of the tragedy of the commons. Trees are cut for fuel and building. Without replanting, the soil has eroded, discouraging replanting and regeneration.

"Commercial timber harvesting is illegal in Afghanistan - which leaves a massive smuggling industry...," report Sean Carberry and Sultan Faizy for NPR. With so much conflict and corruption, preserving trees is a low priority.

All of Afghanistan's forests could be gone in the next 30 years. "As the forests go, so will lots of wildlife species, further damaging Afghanistan's biodiversity," reports Afghanistan Online. "Moreover, not only will Afghanistan suffer economically, but there will also be an increase in fatalities and damages as a result of flooding and even avalanches.

Afghanistan's hillsides were not always so bare. "Good policy and planning, forest law, sufficient budget, specialists and experiments, technology and sufficient time are needed to solve this problem," notes Cropwatch.  

A few forests remain. Varying elevations contribute to specific micro-climates, and Laashekoh is one such place. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization reports that only about 2 percent of Afghanistan is forested, not including small patches of other wooded land.

Campaigns to replant trees are underway. Up to 25 million tree seedlings were planted near urban areas, reported IRIN in 2010, though only half could be expected to survive because of water shortages.

The Afghan Child Project describes entire towns without trees and launched projects to plant trees near schools. Each child planted a tree and cared for it, sharing his or her own water.

The International Security Assistance Force donated more than 400,000 almond, pine and other seedlings in 2012. "The trees do not only play an important role for the environment, but also for the psychological health of the residents," notes Afghanistan Today, with independent reports financed by the German Ministry of Foreign Affairs. "Many Afghans attach great cultural value to trees." One vendor reported selling more than 150 saplings a day.

Some trees mentioned in Allure of Deceit are transplants from other lands.

The novel refers to a stand of black locust trees near the village of Laashekoh. The tree is not an Afghan native plant, but saplings were purchased and planted early in the 20th century. The plant has since been shown to produce rapid growth and high yield, according to researchers from the Energy Biosciences Institute at the University of Illinois. Trimming the trees in early years also encourages more branch growth.

A black locust can reach 30 meters in height and grows quickly at the start, with growth rates going into decline after 30 years, reports J.C. Huntley for the US Forest Service.

Likewise, the stone pine, which endures drought well, grows fast in its early years, reaching a height of 15 feet in five years. Full height is not reached for another 50 years. Pines like Pinus longifolia is moderately fast-growing.

A yew, cyprus, banyan, chestnut or pine can live 1,000 years or more. Without much thought or planning, communities too often cut down trees that provide shade, soil protection and beauty and cannot be easily replaced.

The photo "Morning in Badakshan": John Scott Rafoss, Afghanistan Matters and Wikimedia Commons  The photo of conifers in the snow: Mark Jurrens and Wikimedia Commons. Photo of tree stand taken from a helicopter: Andrew Smith, Afghanistan Matters and Wikimedia Commons.

Tuesday, April 21

A plan

Calm resilience is better than panic during a time of crisis. When a job, marriage, friendship, activity is not going well - that is the time to assess priorities, opportunities and dreams.

For many the economic crisis meant a loss job, need to downsize to a smaller home, less shopping. The crisis also contributed to simpler lifestyles, with greater focus on home, family, career or health.

One key to setting priorities is to imagine your future self and think about where that person wants to be five years from now, ten years from now. What milestones do you want to reach and what are the strategies for achieving them? Once the priorities are known, women can immerse themselves in the activities and people that contribute. They can allocate time and work on projects and activities that build the dreams with every day. 

Draft a plan. Putting dreams into writing makes them more tangible and reinforces our determination to turn them into reality. Literacy is a first step to empowering women and turning their hopes into reality, as suggested by USAID. 

Find a close friend, family member or mentor who shares similar goals or supports your goals. Monitoring progress can be easier with a partner. But focus on "doing" more and "talking" less.

Photo of Afghan women in the Support to Women in Skills Entrepreneurship and Literacy project, courtesy of USAID, One Woman Makes a Difference and Wikimedia Commons. 

Wednesday, April 15


Five  aid workers with Save the Children were found shot to death five weeks after they were abducted in Trinkot, the capital of Uruzgan province.

"A spokesman for the provincial governor blamed the Taleban for their deaths after their bodies were found on Friday, saying the militant groups had demanded a prisoner exchange," reports AFP. The article points out that Humanitarian Outcomes describes Afghanistan as the most dangerous place for relief staff in the world in 2013.

So many Afghans are grateful for the aid. It takes but a few to ruin the work and connections. Aid workers are an easy target for extremists. Allure of Deceit describes the resentments, confusion and potential danger as one foundation director uses funds, programs and personnel in Afghanistan to investigate the death of her only son and his wife.

Charitable work can have a hidden agenda.  "The road to hell definitely is paved with good intentions in this well-written, intelligent, engrossing thriller," writes reviewer Si Dunn.

To request a review copy, contact Cheryl Quimba at CQjimba @

The photo of wheatfields in Uruzgan province, courtesy of the US Department of Defense and Wikimedia Commons, offers a small  hint to why some might fear the change that comes with aid and global connections.

Tuesday, April 14

Old friends

Nothing brings a wave of nostalgia than re-visiting an old neighborhood where we lived long ago, walking old trails or reading a book or watching a film enjoyed long ago, especially during a pivotal point in our lives. It's a reacquainting with our former selves and feelings. It's a checkup on our goals and dreams.

I never expected to enjoy a Broadway musical revival. But when a tour stop for Pippin, the Musical, was announced on our local public television channel, I immediately ordered tickets for the best seats available. Because for some reason, while attending high school, I fell in love with the show without ever having seen it – perhaps because it won Tony awards in 1973 or because the snow originated as a student production at a nearby college campus – Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh. At any rate, I purchased the album, one of about 20 in my collection at that time.

During my senior year in high school, the following summer, and the first year of college, that was the album played over and over, with its haunting and invigorating music, the story of a young man who does not want to be king but wants to be extraordinary. He doesn't care how. By the show's end, Pippin realizes the truest happiness comes from family, friends and life's simple pleasures. 

The Pippin revival combines Broadway music, dancing and acting with the wild acrobatics of 7 Doigts de la Main to songs like "We've Got Magic to Do." The show offers a powerful message about the search for identity that stands the test of time in this era of social media. And the show was magical for another reason. As the feelings and dreams of an 18-year-old came rushing back, there was comfort and gratitude that the two selves, more than 40 years apart, would get along quite well. 

Some art stands the test of time. Now, come on, "We've Got Magic to Do" ... 

Photo of cast, courtesy of Pippin, the Musical.