Human Organization: A Double Edged Sword

Humans are obsessed with organization. Since time immemorial, people have organized themselves according to different values, beliefs and physical characteristics. Religious organization into different faiths or denominations is but one example of this. Political organization into partisan groups is yet another manifestation of this phenomenon. Before the Peace of Westphalia (this is debatable but for the sake of this piece please accept it), people organized themselves in city states and loosely outlined empires and kingdoms. After 1648 however, human approaches to geographical organization evolved, and people began to establish socially constructed boundaries, creating the modern concept of states. Today, the cities we live in are organized into different neighbourhoods, districts and municipalities – fragmenting society based on socio-economic status or in some cases, ethnic enclaves. Our schools have catchment areas, enabling some parents to enroll their children, while excluding others. Social media has only exacerbated this human fascination of creating groups and categories. We now have the ability to subscribe to information from specific sources, which further solidifies groups of people that communicate only because they share common interests. Even the more intimate things in life, such as music listening, are now offered in conveniently organized playlists that are sequenced according to similarities in sounds. Perhaps this is not surprising – we are social creatures after all. It seems only logical that we align ourselves with like minded individuals, as this creates welcoming environments, where shared goals can be advanced. It can even be conceivable that perhaps by participating in activities with those who share similar interests, we actually increase our overall satisfaction, thereby increasing our quality of life. Undoubtedly, human practices of organization are convenient. However, this human obsession with social, political, and technological organization also has a potential downside. I would argue that ascribing to the values of a single group, pidgeon holes one’s way of thinking. Simply because someone joins the Liberal party of Canada for example, does not mean that he or she should blindly follow all the initiatives of the party and blindly reject the opposition’s mandates. Group-think creates a state of rigidity, fostering closed-minded approaches. In a world that is becoming increasingly interconnected, this ingroup and out-group mentality can create friction and tension, ultimately resulting in conflict. This is incredibly dangerous, and the negative impacts this entails for society are all too noticeable in 2016.

This train of thought was inspired by a political science course I am taking at the University of British Columbia. In this class, we examine the various moral and ethical theories which (supposedly) underpin our behaviours, and more specifically, political decisions of our world leaders. We have explored theories of utilitarianism, kantianism, cosmopolitanism and the likes. While all of these theories have their merits, what becomes increasingly clear from in-depth studies, is that humans utilize multiple theories depending on their situations. It makes very little sense to proclaim that you are a “realist” – because realistically, you will adopt other frameworks in different circumstances. For example, virtue ethicists judge actions based on their intrinsic qualities. In other words, actions are innately either good or bad. Adopting this framework would mean that lying is absolutely a bad act. But what if someone lies in order to serve an alternate moral purpose, such as saving a human beings life (for example, lying to hide jewish refugees during Nazi occupation)? In this situation, lying could be justified. This clearly demonstrates the limitations of adopting the singular approach of virtue ethics. Instead, one should examine situations from many perspectives, which will allow for more holistic understanding of motivations and behaviours.

Let’s return to 2016. This is a year that is marked by consequences of human organization. Ideas of outgroups such as immigrants fuelled hatred and xenophobic sentiments in the United Kingdom. As a result, British society elected to separate from the European Union, distancing themselves from the international system. This inspires ignorant nationalistic and ultra-right wing movements worldwide, and will perhaps result in further secessions and separations in the international community (i.e Quebec, Basques). Similarly, outgroups such as refugees were also subjects of prejudice. Countries refused to help desperate Syrians after they fled their failing state. In the United States, the presidential election is another example of patriotic-paranoia which excludes and marginalizes the ‘other’.

So what can we take away from this? I think that human history is a story. This story, and our current chapter specifically, should be viewed as a cautionary tale. We should be mindful about the groups we associate with and acknowledge that there are as many opinions and perspectives as there are people. Only through open-mindedness and collaboration between groups will we be able to fully self-actualize as a human race.

By: Jacob Medvedev


It’s Not just for Engineers

You’ll see it in a number of places. A series of taglines and slogans about what EWB does and who we are, and at the very end there will be the line: “It’s not just for engineers!”

That is me. Not an engineer.

I used to be.  Two years in the program and I decided to switch to a Biology Major. Two years after that and life is perfect, no regrets. Okay, well maybe a few. I definitely miss some things.

I miss being surrounded by people who saw every problem as a chance to come up with a solution.

I miss being surrounded by people who’s version of “good enough” came only after a week of long hours in the workshop trying every possible option.

I miss being surrounded by people who took the term “building a better future” very, very literally.

That is why when a friend tricked me into coming by for a meeting of EWB UBC’s Advocacy Venture with offers of free tea, I grumbled a little at first, but then decided to stick around. I was not surprised when I discovered that the familiar spirit of the world-improving engineer existed in the club. What did surprise me was that everyone else accepted, without question, that I had this spirit too. I’ll admit that I put myself on the defensive every time I had to say the words: “Oh, I’m actually not in engineering. I was, but I switched out.” And each time I scanned their faces looking for a hint of judgment, a sneer of derision, a silent mocking smile. Nothing like that ever happened. And even though I am a recent addition to EWB and plan to stick around for a long time, I strongly suspect this will never happen.

Because  intangible spirits, regrets, and my deep-seated insecurities aside, I actually do believe that EWB is not just for engineers. This is because while most members of the club do the faculty-required eating, drinking and breathing  of all things engineering, the problems that EWB tackles are far beyond the scope of any one university program. The problems EWB tackles are big. Big things like global poverty that aren’t likely to have any one solution, or even one that is “good enough”. But the power EWB has is in connecting like-minded people and inspiring them to strive for change, one goal at a time. It is in inspiring a global perspective that lasts far beyond a university degree.

These things aren’t isolated to any one faculty, and the wider the background of the people who join, the wider the impact of the whole organization.

If any of this rings true to you, then don’t be scared, take it from me. Join Engineers Without Borders. It’s not just for engineers.


The cannabis oppression secession – A case for marijuana legalization

During Harper’s nine year reign as Canada’s Prime Minister, the federal government pushed for more severe, and punitive measures to prevent the use and distribution of marijuana in Canada. Harper’s long held beliefs are that marijuana is on the same level of “hard drugs” such as heroine, cocaine, and meth and is cited saying that marijuana is ‘infinitely worse’ than tobacco and that “pot users are criminals”. Prohibition and increased police involvement on both the municipal and provincial levels are what the Conservative Party of Canada believes to be the best method to curb marijuana use and trafficking; but the data suggests otherwise. Since Harper’s to power in the beginning of 2006, the offences for marijuana possession, growing, and trafficking have steadily risen, accounting to 78,000 arrests alone in 2011; almost 70% of all drug offences in Canada. For a drug which “an estimated 43% of Canadians aged 15 or older” have tried and 12.2% of the population have used in 2012 alone; the methodology and scope for marijuana prohibition certainly aren’t applicable for the growing portion of Canadian citizens who do engage in the drug’s use. However, Justin Trudeau’s election into parliamentary office could mark the end of Canada’s war on cannabis, and the beginning of a working legalization model for the sticky icky.

The case for marijuana legalization is multi-faceted. To start off, the drug itself is far from harmful (relative to other legalized drugs). The medicinal and health benefits resulting from its use have been documented in various studies. The ability to slow the development and progression of Alzheimer’s, the relieving of arthritis discomfort, and the benefit of supporting military veterans in PTSD recovery are just some of the gains available to be had with its consumption.  But the biggest boon for marijuana use is the fact that it provides an alternative to alcohol consumption. It’s a scientific fact that “cannabis is demonstrably safer than alcohol” yet it isn’t treated the same as alcohol, not even in the same vein. Naysayers who point out marijuana’s negatives rarely make the same comparison to alcohol. Alcohol, of which the production, distribution, sale and taxation are managed by the government as an answer to the failed era of prohibition of the early 1920s; provides a much higher social and health cost than marijuana, yet enjoys all the benefits of a controlled substance. The same argument can be realized against tobacco. If history has given us its answer to the effectiveness of prohibition as a method for drug control, why do we still contemporary apply it? Especially in the face of a less harmful drug such as pot? The taxation and regulation of alcohol has provided tax revenue, eliminated the existence of its black market demand, and ensures the production of a safer and higher quality product. Colorado, which has just recently legalized marijuana in 2014, has benefited from “at least $70 million [in tax revenue] [in the] last fiscal year alone”, almost twice that of alcohol taxation. Canada’s loss of potential tax revenue from marijuana is estimated to be at $7.5 billion dollars a year, assuming it’s legalized nationwide. In the very least, we can expect a boon if Colorado’s legalization model were to be followed.

The next issue lies in the face of marijuana’s existence as a “black market” drug. Marijuana’s current status gives rise to organized crime; where the production and distribution is done methodologically with respect to profit by gangs. Not only would marijuana’s legalization take away the profit that these organized syndicates make, it would also take away the conflict and violence that these groups produce in order to protect their grow-ops and distribution territory. Another negative to be had with lumping marijuana with real “hard drugs” is that you expose the black market buyer to these “hard drugs”. Organized crime groups that exclusively sell marijuana are rarely the norm; by making marijuana only available through illicit channels the powers that be are promoting civilian interaction with these criminal groups and their exposure to “hard” addictive drugs like cocaine and heroin. With the current youth usage figures as high as they are, it’s neither pragmatic nor “moral” as Harper argues, to continue with marijuana’s prohibition. Taking away power from gangs would not only lower organized gang violence, but it “could free up officers to address other issues”, and the “opportunity could shift to other drugs”. Decriminalization would also free up the judicial system and streamline it for actual criminal cases, which would in turn free up tax revenue that’s spent on incarcerating marijuana offenders to be spent on things that would benefit from the low value of the CAD; such as infrastructure. The estimated cost of marijuana control and prohibition is at around $300 to $500 million per year, with the average cost of imprisonment at around $113,880 per person per year. All of that tax payer revenue could, and should; be invested into more worthwhile projects and programs.

Opponents against marijuana legalization raise arguments that suggest a moral panic. If the government were to legalize marijuana, everybody and their mother would be lazy, apathetic, and a drain on society. Everybody would start to blaze, and then move on to “harder” drugs through the gateway drug of marijuana.  It’s arguable that the legalization of a drug would imply a certain the loosening and the denigration of morals. To quote John Stuart Mill regarding the ethics of legislation, “it is proper that I forego any advantage which could be derived from the idea of abstract right as a thing of independent of utility. I regard utility as the ultimate appeal on all ethical questions; but it must be utility in the largest sense, grounded on the permanent interests of man as a progressive being.” Essentially, laws should not appeal to emotional or morality, but seek to produce the greatest amount of functional social utility while protecting our liberty and freedoms. The fallacious slippery slope argument that opponents raise simply do not apply in the real world; given previous knowledge and the legality of worse drugs. Alcohol and tobacco are both legal and regulated, but not everyone drinks or smokes. If marijuana were to be legalized, there’s nothing to suggest that everyone will start lighting up on the weekend or smoking a bowl after work. In fact, the opposite is true. “Countries adopting a more liberal [marijuana] policy have, for the most part, rates of usage lower than ours, which stabilized after a short period growth.” With the current amount of research presenting marijuana’s medicinal qualities, the benignity of its dangers, and the socioeconomic implications of its legalization; there should be no reason to keep operating it under prohibition.


I’m interested in hearing your thoughts on marijuana legalization and drug legalization as a whole! Please leave any question or comments that you many have and I’ll try to get back to them. 

-Vincent L

Putin: Turning point in his life that may have led to his actions today. 

Many people today often hear of Vladimir Putin and his policies and actions inside Russia and outside Russian borders. Could we predict how his policies in Russia and abroad are shaped from events that occurred decades ago?

Acronyms/Additional Information:

KGB:  Soviet intelligence and secret police agency run to military standards responsible for gathering of intelligence internally and externally through illegal and legal means. Also responsible for counter-intelligence services, some internal security, and possible kidnapping and assassinations. The KGB was feared for effectiveness and brutality (torture). Disbanded after the fall of the Soviet Union. (Comparable to some roles of the Central Intelligence Agency of the United States.)

Stasi: Ministry for State Security of the German Democratic Republic. Another intelligence and secret police agency, known for being effective and brutal. (Ex. Reports were that some interrogations consisted of being placed in front of an x-ray machine for hours on end; when the person tried passing a border checkpoint the person would immediately trigger radiation alarms.)

FSB: Current Russian internal intelligence, security agency responsible for intelligence gathering, counter-intelligence, counter-terrorism, and other internal security.

First Chief Directorate: Of the KGB, responsible for foreign intelligence gathering, such as industrial espionage, controlling field agents in different countries.

Second Chief Directorate: Of the KGB, responsible for counter-intelligence and internal security.

GDR: German Democratic Republic, aka East Germany.


Putin was born in Leningrad (Saint Petersburg) in 1952. Initially in school he was considered a troublemaker, who was often late to class. However, after the encouragement of his parents and teachers, Putin started exceling in his subjects, started to show his leadership qualities, and started engaging in various sports like sambo (Russian form of judo). Before he left high school, Putin felt destined to work for the state’s intelligence services, influenced by local cinema. He later recalled: “One man’s effort could achieve what whole armies could not. One spy could decide the fate of thousands of people.”

Vladimir Putin graduated from the Law Department of Leningrad State University in 1970, immediately working for the KGB in the Second Chief Directorate. Later, he was moved to the First Chief Directorate, monitoring official and perhaps non-official foreign diplomats in his home town of Leningrad.


In 1985, Putin was posted to Dresden, Germany. Due to its proximity to Western Europe, and the fact that its capital was shared between rival powers, the GDR had an abundance of spies, diplomats, defectors, etc. from both sides.

As the years past, Soviet head of state Mikhail Gorbachev slowly allowed eastern European nations, formerly under Soviet influence, to reform. Large scale demonstrations soon occurred, and soon enough, to Putin’s dismay, the Berlin Wall fell.

A few weeks later, on the evening of the 5th of December 1989, crowds of (former) East German citizens stormed the Dresden Stasi headquarters. The once feared and despised intelligence service was now helpless in the face of reform, democracy, and people power.1 The mob then shifted across the street to a house that served as the local headquarters of the KGB, where Putin was in. As they approached the entrance, Putin, now a Major, stepped out brandishing a pistol, and calmly addressed the people in fluent German: “Don’t try to force your way into this property. This is Soviet territory… I’m serious when I say that I will shoot trespassers.” With the determination and assurance in his voice, the crowds withdrew; the offices of the KGB were saved from being ransacked momentarily.

In the following days as the German Democratic Republic continued to crumble, the threat of demonstrators and rioting East Germans was still grave, grave enough to the point where Vladimir Putin called a nearby Soviet armoured unit to ask for protection and possible evacuation. To his surprise and horror, the armoured unit refused to do anything without orders from central command– “Moscow is silent.”

With Moscow having troubles of their own and unable to respond to the overwhelming issues2, Putin, still a staunch Soviet, decided to act. Classified and other sensitive documents such as official communiqué from KGB headquarters were destroyed to prevent them from falling into protestor’s or foreign intelligence service’s hands. The furnace that was used burst from the quantity of material.


Putin was traumatized by the fall of everything he so dearly loved and served, intent on preventing a repeat of the collapse of a state. Instead of finding a common job when he returned to Russia, he decided to maximize his skills and high level connections, allowing him to flourish personally and politically.


Vladimir Putin saw first-hand what a mass of reform-minded populous could do to a nation once controlled by feared police services. He somewhat relived that experience when Euromaiden protests started occurring, and Ukraine plunged into civil war, supported by insignia-less Russian forces Putin summoned. Holding the title of President of the Russian Federation for the third term (not consecutive), his bravado and determination to ensure such events do not repeat themselves have yielded confidence by the Russian people to him.

Perhaps Putin would like to see the Russian Federation elevated back to the superpower title in the Cold War, reminiscent of his memories of the USSR that he faithfully served. He has resumed Russian strategic bomber flights near NATO countries. In 2007, Putin ordered the Russian aircraft carrier and other naval vessels from the Black Sea Fleet into the Mediterranean Sea as a show of force projection, the major naval operation in the region since the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Recently, Russia has also concluded a large-scale military exercise in the Arctic region with tens of thousands of soldiers, hundreds of aircraft, and dozens of naval assets. With many of Russia’s neighbours aligned to a rival Western powers, could one blame him for wanting to ensure the integrity of Russia by trying to form another buffer zone of friendly nations?


But one thing is for certain; Moscow will not be silent as long as Vladimir Putin has some position of power and influence, because Putin is now Moscow.


1 The various security and police services were heavily burdened by the chaos as they were essentially trying to control the entire population.

2 Gorbachev refused to use force, changing government, possible coup d’etat forming, the USSR would be no more within two years.

3 Putin became an assistant for the Mayor of Saint Petersburg, then rose rapidly through the ranks in part due to his connections and his personality, reaching the position of Director of the FSB, and later the President of Russia. Most of the people Putin met in Dresden now also occupy senior positions in government and state-owned companies such as Gazprom and Nordstream.

4 Putin has also initiated re-armament programmes by pouring trillions of rubles into the Russian military to modernize the weapons systems and to transform the army into a professional one [comparable to Western militaries].


Mercenaries- A Different Perspective?

I will use the following example of the Sierra Leone civil war to argue that Private Military Contractors are not just moral-less, hired thugs, but are a possible solution to many problems.


1991 -start of civil war

The Revolutionary United Front (RUF) led by a former Corporal  Foday Sankoh crossed into Sierra Leone from neighbouring Liberia with a hundred men to attempt to overthrow the then government of Sierra Leone led by president Momoh.

1992 -change of government

A coup led by Captain Valentine Strasser of the Republic of Sierra Leone Military Forces (RSLMF) ousted president Momoh. Strasser was frustrated by the lack of progress made by his former leader; however, he and his companions had no political agenda to speak of. They continued to hold together the government before it fell completely.

(The inexperienced,  small, and disorganised RSLMF were unable to push back the RUF. With each advance of the RUF, the RSLMF became more desperate. They started conscripting young men right off the street, give them a few days worth of training, and then send them to the front lines.)

1994/1995 -continued rebel advances

The RUF (supported by Charles Taylor, warlord turned president of Liberia) has control over most of the control except Freetown and its immediate regions. Under RUF control are also the lucrative diamond mines, used to finance both sides of the conflict. Both the government and rebel forces commit atrocious war crimes, with the rebel forces hacking off limbs to terrorise the civilian population. Both sides also recruited thousands of child soldiers into their ranks, to guard diamond mines and for frontline combat.

1995 -mercanaries brought in

With the imment risk of total take-over by the RUF, Strasser contracts Executive Outcomes, a South-African based private military firm to turn the tide.

1996 -change of government

Captain Strasser is ousted in January in another military coup led by his defence minister, Brigadier Julius Maada Bio.

Executive Outcomes is victorious against the RUF. In less than two years, EO managed to secure the capital, oust the RUF from the peripheral districts of Freetown and stabilise the area around the diamond mines.

Ahmad Tejan Kabbah is elected president in February, signs peace accord with Sankoh’s rebels in November.

1997 -Executive Outcomes withdrawn

Government officials accuse EO of illegally extracting from diamond mines, so public support of EO declines.

1997 -Peace deal unravels.

President Kabbah deposed by army in May by Major Johnny Koroma. RUF returns and bloodshed resumes.

1998 –Nigeria intervenes with Economic Community of West African States Monitoring Group (ECOMOG)

Nigerian led West African intervention force drives rebels out.

1999 -Rebels return

Rebels backing Revolutionary United Front leader Foday Sankoh seize parts of Freetown from ECOMOG. 5000 soldiers and civilians die and Freetown is ravaged as ECOMOG is driving out.

1999 -United Nations Intervenes with UNAMSIL (United Nations Mission in Sierra Leone); peacekeepers are deployed

2000 -UNAMSIL attacked

Hundreds of peacekeepers are kidnapped by RUF elements, which also encircle Freetown. British paratroopers are deployed to evacuate British citizens and to bolster the ineffective UN mission.

Later, 11 British soldiers are captured by another hostile militia group; they are subsequently rescued by British special forces.

UN contingents from India and Jordan start pulling out due the heightened dangers

2001 -British forces deployed

Hundreds of British special forces enter Seirra Leone and start training the Sierra Leone Army. British naval vessels and aircraft provide tactical support. They also conduct military exercises as a show of force to the embattled RUF.

2002 -Peace Agreement Signed

Argument/Too long didn’t read:

For over two decades the civil war raged on in Sierra Leone, costing tens of thousands of lives and displacing millions of people. Throughout the timeline, it is clear that an incompetent fighting force, whether it be the Sierra Leone Army or the UN led missions, are incapable of maintaining peace and order. The initial UN peacekeepers may not have been incompetent, but strict rules of engagement severely limited their effectiveness. (Only when elements of the British military, a professional western army who were operating independantly of the UN mission, entered the country on a combat mission, that the tide changed. )

The two years from 1995 to 1997 saw relative stability because of Executive Outcomes, a mercenary group. (The members had plenty of experience fighting in the South African Bush Wars and other regional conflicts.) A professionally trained and equiped group certainly performs much better than child-soldiers that constitute the Republic of Sierra Leone Military Forces. In that same short span of time, the rebel forces were pushed out of population centers, and driven out of the surrounding areas (including the precious diamond mines).

The cost of the mercenary operations was 2 million USD per month. (Probably with some additional profit from previous resource mines [There is a lack of solid evidence though]. [Also, 130 million dollars worth of minerals were extracted in 2004 to put into perspective.])

The cost of the United Nations led intervention was 350 million Pounds Sterling per year.

A private military company managed to bring peace to the nation and supervise democratic elections within two years.

A United Nations force led by Nigeria (excluding the British military intervention that bailed them out) effectively embarassed itself in four years at several times the cost.

Of course there are many implications of using solely private military contractors to arrive at a solution, but in this case, thousands of lives and some dignity of the United Nations could have been saved if the civil war had been resolved earlier.

(In poverty stricken countries, especially in Africa, international aid such as food are often stolen or used as instruments of obedience by warlords or corrupt government officials. UN led missions often fail to achieve anything constructive, unless led by a western nation. Professional contractors could ensure that the mission goals are met by doing jobs western nations want to avoid).

(Please excuse any structural inconsistancies or spelling errors. I also excluded some minor occurances that did not affect my conclusion.)



African Security Review 16.4: Institute for Security Studies

Big Brother is Big Bill C-51

On the heels of the October attack on Parliament, Canada’s Conservative government set to work drafting new and improved “anti-terror” legislation which was tabled this January as Bill C-51. This bill significantly expands the powers of law enforcement (police), intelligence agencies (CSIS), shocking spectators who demand more oversight on to the bill.

Despite the critiques (which we’ll get into shortly) of raised voices, C-51 is likely to pass and become law. The reality is that the 82% of Canadians support the bill, the Conservatives hold a majority government, and the Liberals are backing it. From that perspective, C-51 seems like a winner for us all … so why should we worry about it?

The down low

Here’s a link to the full bill. There are two major components of the bill. First, it intends to streamline the process sharing of information between government departments in suspect terrorist cases. Secondly, it adds a new (the 15th in fact) criminal offence with respect to terrorism; advocating for terrorism offences will soon be a crime if the bill passes.

Why should Canadians be concerned?

      1. To make these changes to Canadian law, Bill C-51 is a bulky beast that amends several other pieces of legislation – one reason why it’s so difficult to read. When legislation is hard to read, it’s harder to scrutinize.
      2. The broad sweeping definitions – the legislation allows law enforcement to arrest and detain people without a warrant if they are “…likely to prevent a terrorist activity”. If likelihood is sufficient, well then I guess the entire country would be safer if we all were locked up.
      3. After 9/11, the anti-terror legislation put forth by the Liberals went through over 20 hearings. Not for show – because it was a beefy piece of legislation infringing on the privacy of Canadians.  Big decisions need to be talked through, and C-51 is a rush job.
      4. Lack of corresponding oversight onto CSIS and government security organizations to review that only relevant information from relevant cases are being accessed. Yes, sharing information between departments should be a bureaucratic breeze – but only if there’s evidence to back up the case for investigating someone. With C-51, a “threat” is not really defined, which rouses dissent from peaceful protesters. It was not long ago that the Conservative government and the RCMP came down on environmentalists and anti-petroleum protesters as threats to Canada. If I sign a petition for a peaceful protest, there’s no clear line that I’m crossing the line into “advocating for terrorism” in the eyes of the bill.
      5. A moment to remember Maher Arar, a sad case of anti-terrorism legislation used for all the wrong reasons to racialize and systematically destroy a person’s life.
      6. The politics of fear. The parallels to dystopian literature (Big Brother, Brave New World, The Handmaid’s Tale) are something to grimace at – in particular the degree to which people are complacent. In literature, these regimes come in to power on the heels of a crisis (famine, war, violence, etc.) and ask the public to surrender growing pieces of their privacy to abate their fears. Books have value as cautionary tales and the moral is quite evident. People hate to worry about things and will give up their freedom for security, food, and shelter.

I’ll stop at 6 points as not to encroach on new subtopics that warrant more time and space.

Do we know what’s good for us?

If the political academics and pundits scrunched over the bill are having difficulty analyzing this bill, I’m going to give myself a break for not understanding it on the first read through. And you should too – but that doesn’t mean we as a population should turn the other way and hope the politicians and activists come to a happy medium.

When asking what is good for us, we’re at a crossroads: is freedom or ‘safety’ of greater priority? I argue that the safety that we’re presented with is a false one. The shadow of Big Brother makes me feel extremely unsafe to make mistakes, sign petitions, advocate for change where I see fit in the democratic process. This bill can be used to further segment specific populations in Canada and put them under surveillance and as Maher Arar demonstrates, it is indeed a slippery slope.






Samosas in Montreal(and National Conference!)

Yea, National Conference just happened last month! Engineers Without Borders’ National Conference is an annual forum where members from chapters all across Canada come together to discuss, ideate, and plan various organization-led initiatives, and this year, to “unite to unlock.” As a first year, this was my first conference and I’ll say it was a very rich learning experience.

Coming from Vancouver, Montreal can be a big change. Apart from the frequent “Bonjour” exchanges or attempting to demystify the French signs, the chilling Quebec wind can really make it hard to feel your face. Nonetheless, this wasn’t going to stop us from exploring town! After our chapter’s night out in the lively downtown, Conference started next day with opening remarks from some key organizers from National office, including EWB’s  CEO(except totally cooler than a “CEO”), Boris. They shared their hopes that the Conference would help bring out the best in each and every one of us, and how seeing the strengths in our capabilities and uniting to work through weaknesses had been a very successful approach for EWB’s programs in Africa.

The 3-day conference was organized into time slots for 3-4 workshops every day, and one had a lot of choice with regards to the workshop you could attend. I remember, in particular, two workshops which REALLY got me interested and motivated. One was a workshop centered around using technological innovation to help solve some real issues in underdeveloped countries. My group collaborated on finding smart, low-cost solutions to improving the eroding and ineffective education system in Ghana. While our proposed solutions may/may not have held in the real world, the workshop was an eye-opener in showing me how people with even the most different of views can still collaborate, and how a collaborative solution was much more refined and thought out than an individual’s own ideas. Another workshop I really enjoyed was one regarding taking different approaches to leadership, how one must play a dynamic role as a leader (a term often misrepresented as being the boss).

One other memory I will remember for a long time was a Ghanaian woman’s speech on how she overcame all social barriers to finally start up her own business, employing underprivileged women to make “beads for hope”. I’ll never forget the pain in her story, but much more importantly, her will and sacrifice to achieve her potential.

It’s amazing how one story can inspire others to create their own. I know I for sure am much more driven to do my part in uplifting undeveloped countries. As one part of the world reaches new technological heights, there is a largely ignored part that needs just as much attention. And I think understanding that importance of EWB’s work is what makes the EWB community feel so much at home – you meet strangers, frankly, but strangers who are very much like yourself.

We ended the final day with a trip to the local market, having samosas(yes, samosas!), cookies, authentic juice, and some light-hearted conversations.

A great experience was had overall!!

-Anmol Singh Jawandha

I want to talk about Voting and Russell Brand.

Well, not Russell Brand himself, but his ideas and presentation thereof in the interview linked here.

The lowdown

Essentially, Russell Brand is interviewed by Jeremy Paxman about voting and political systems. Brand, who you may be familiarized with in a celebrity entertainer context has in the last few years made the leap to a vocal, politically engaged activist. Paxman works for the BBC and is known (less-famously) for a variety of interviews and reports which you can Google for yourself.

Power and Authority

Jeremy Paxman: Well, how do you have any authority to talk about politics then?

Russell Brand: Well, I don’t get my authority from this pre-existing paradigm which is quite narrow and only serves a few people. I look elsewhere for alternatives that might be of service to humanity. Alternate means, alternate political systems.”

Brand tells us he gets his authority from a non-existing paradigm that has yet to be created – a problematic claim. You can’t get power from things/entities/ideas that don’t exist. Brand also fails to acknowledge the power he holds as an individual, a celebrity, a man, and the political voice he’s making himself into. He holds an innate authority which means that his lack of voting is in itself a political move that exercises his power. Paxman challenges Brand’s authority by generalizing “They get their power by being voted in..”, meanwhile forgetting that the voting process isn’t always a literall process (ie celebrities are voted in by our dollar).

Exhaustion not Apathy

Brand argues that his voting abstinence is a consequence of the “lies, treachery, deceit of the political class that has been going on for generations now…” and that “…voting for it is tacit complicity with that system…”. Is this a good argument? Will it stop you from approaching the polls on October 19?

Robocalls, Senate scandals, Rob Ford, Christy Clark, Allison Ford. The lies we face as a society from all levels of government are appalling. This is not an understatement. However, contrary to Brand’s belief, our complicity with the political system go far beyond the ballots cast (and uncast). I argue that that there is a longstanding historical bind between politics, society, environment, and the economy that shape our how we cope day to day. The routines we’ve formed are our individual and social survival mechanisms as well as ‘complicity’. For example, where a person buys their clothes is certainly a political act – we just don’t have that perception of it. Brand fails to acknowledge how power is constructed and stacked in society. Abstaining from voting is not the magical Jenga piece that will tumble the tower.


The 20th/21st century world was founded and is grounded in the stern enforcement of capitalism that has resulted in the continued exploitation of people and land for maximum profit. We continue to do so – the growing economic, health, and security divide between the 99% and the 1% is a demonstration of it. So I wonder, Mr. Brand, how do you intend to convince populations of people who have not always had the vote to give it up for “higher good”? His argument may have roots in Indigenous communities where the “vote” can be interpreted is as a western colonial mechanism of ascertaining power. However, a vote can also be seen as a solitary connection to a non-traditional land – something numerous displaced Indigenous persons, migrants, refugees, and immigrants can use to connect people to the land they live on.

Re: revolution

Revolution means a lot for people and their lives. For a successful revolution, people have to see the need for change and understand they have the capacity to create and demand for it. Demanding a revolution from a lower socioeconomic class is a highly privileged and colonials task of people who are disenfranchised.

Call to action

 If we can change things, why wouldn’t we? Why is that naive? Why is that not my right because I’m an actor? I mean, I’ve taken the right. I don’t need the right from you. I don’t need the right from anybody. I’m taking it.

I actually really like this statement – I agree, and believe it for all persons. It’s the same idea that has been used to ascribe non-traditional power, and it can be used by us all to challenge our environment, our leaders, their motives, and their power. Next time, I hope Brand speaks of how he is going to use his power to support communities that are already using his language and ideas about change.

Final Thoughts

Nothing Brand said is new or revolutionary in of itself. So why did this blow up on my Facebook feed a year and a half ago, and still makes the rounds every time there is an election? Why do we like/share about this video? What nerves is he hitting?


NATO Marks End of Afghanistan Mission: Can Afghanistan Survive Without Foreign Aid?

NATO Marks End of Afghanistan Mission: Can Afghanistan Survive Without Foreign Aid?

On the 28th of December 2014, the United States and NATO announced the end of operations of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan.

Some thirteen years ago, the United States and NATO entered Afghanistan in response to the 9/11 attacks. With the Taliban government was quickly removed from power, the following goals were to stop the insurgency and rebuild Afghanistan’s infrastructure and security forces.

As of March 2013, the United States spent 92 billion dollars on reconstruction, agriculture, and other development projects, in addition to the hundreds of billion dollars used for counter-insurgency operations and for training the Afghan National Army. Such development projects included the construction of hydro-electric power stations and police stations.

However there were severe instances of poor oversight, mismanagement and rampant corruption throughout the development projects in the country. Hundreds of millions, if not billions of dollars were lost to these problems, with international aid money even ending up in Taliban hands.

For example, because aid money from various agencies is distributed by the hundreds of millions of dollars per contract, companies often subcontract to other companies, who in turn subcontract to even more companies. A police station in a rural town that would have cost $200,000 wound up costing $2 million.

Furthermore, non-governmental organizations give aid money to businesses closely tied with the ruling party. Money is squandered down the levels, and once what is left of the money actually reaches the ground, it is frequently lost to more bribes; little result is often produced from vast sums of currency.

The issues of corruption affect the Afghan National Army to a terrifying degree. Poor discipline, morale, and training inevitably causes problems in a standing army, as seen in Iraq. “Ghost soldiers” are often enlisted into the army as well by other soldiers or officers. These “Ghost soldiers” only exist on paper; their salary is collected by others. One reason how ISIS was very successful in its operations was that the Iraq military high command thought they had more soldiers at their disposal than what they actually had. Supposed army battalions with a thousand soldiers certainly seemed capable of withstanding hundreds of fanatical insurgents, when in reality only a few hundred disorganized soldiers exist.

Fuel and maintenance money for Afghan Army equipment is even siphoned. For example, soldiers in rural outposts would ask for money to service their vehicles. Large portions of the money for fuel and spare parts will be stolen, and other vehicles will be cannibalised to service the remainder. Or, the vehicles will be sold off altogether. Then, when the Taliban attacks, the unit of soldiers will be unable to respond effectively with enough manpower, firepower, and mobility.

As ISAF operations end, every single military operation, ranging from security patrols in Kabul to the protection of internationally funded development projects in volatile regions will be conducted solely by the Afghan National Army. With such cases of mismanagement, disorganization and corruption even under the direction of western militaries, one could only wonder how Afghanistan will fare without a foreign military presence since.

Pouring in billions upon billions of dollars into programs and initiatives with little management, control, or accountability into a poor nation like Afghanistan is likely bound to fail. Throwing money at problems is not a solution.


United States spent more money on reconstruction in Afghanistan than the Marshall Plan with vast aftermaths.

NATO is leading another mission called Resolute Support with key functions including encouraging transparency and accountability, and helping with budgeting and management. Although 12,000 NATO personnel will be deployed, Resolute Support is not a combat mission with combat activities placed squarely on the shoulders of the ANA.

Some may use the argument that literacy rates and accessibility rates to healthcare have risen to show some success of the foreign intervention in Afghanistan. It is true that more girls are in school, but many students, boys and girls alike, especially away from the nation’s capital, are using outdated Pakistani or Indian textbooks from the 1970s being taught by underpaid teachers. Furthermore, according to the Central Intelligence Agency, Afghanistan still has the world’s highest infant mortality rate. And, according to UNICEF, more than half of Afghani children were malnourished during their early years of life.

The Brits have failed, the Soviets have failed, and NATO will likely fail too.

Complicity of War in Afghanistan:



The Collateral Damage of Transparency

Many organizations around the world ranging from NGOs to commercial businesses praise transparency in the extractives industry as the solution to conflicts in the Great Lakes region of Africa. The theory is that if transparency initiatives can halt the purchase of minerals mined by armed groups then income will dry up and the conflicts will stop. Unfortunately, like in many other Western-led campaigns, the true impact is not accurately assessed and collateral damage unaccounted for.

In 2010, the Dodd-Frank act passed into U.S. law. Under this legislation, companies are required to show due diligence in acquiring certain minerals in order to prove that they are not sourced from conflict mines. The minerals in question are primarily the 3Ts (tin, tantalum, tungsten) and gold, which are used heavily in the electronics industry. This legislation was aimed at reducing conflict in the Great Lakes region in Africa, an area known for providing vast quantities of these minerals to the global market, some of which come from conflict areas controlled by armed groups. Though the logic is clear, the efficacy of the legislation is obscured by the intricacies of armed conflict not encompassed by the conflict mineral narrative.

Human trafficking, civilian taxation, smuggling of legal and illegal goods, among others are sources of income for armed groups. Stats on armed conflict in the Great Lakes region of Africa show little direct correlation to increased transparency initiatives. What is clear is the millions of people dependent on the artisanal mining economy are suffering under the stricter regulations. Since companies are required to prove their minerals are conflict-free, and current transparency initiatives are slow-moving and isolated, miners are largely unable to sell their goods or must settle with primarily Asian buyers who are less concerned with the origin of the minerals.

Faced with the prospect of hindering progress when we are specifically trying to stimulate it how do we as an organization, business, government, proceed? This is not to say that transparency isn’t important, or refuting its critical role in development, but it is also imperative to recognize the costs of that path. A few questions come to the fore:

Are transparency initiatives another case of “westerners feel good” aid?

Is transparency imperative in the “primary” stages of development?

If so, how can we improve transparency efforts to effectively address points of concern without crippling other “legitimate” parties?


Follow the adventures of a team of UBC students as we explore advocacy within Canada's foreign aid system