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Never waste a good crisis: memories in times of COVID-19

There’s no denying: COVID-19 isolation measures play tricks with people’s minds. They made Izabella Toth, whose job is to find institutional funding for Cordaid’s mission to counter inequality, reflect on 20+ years of working for ‘the good cause’. How is she keeping up the spirit?

This blog is written by Izabella Toth, Manager External Relations and Business Development at Cordaid.

Staying inside is confronting. It tells me I am getting old. Which is not a bad thing, but still. It makes me feel I am standing still. And standing still reminds me I need to accelerate.

Having been part of the ‘good cause’ for the past 20+ years, it somehow saddens me every new day that we didn’t manage to change the world into a better place than it is now. Sometimes I feel like Brain from Pinky and the Brain. He wants to take over the world. Every day he wakes up bright and shiny with his ‘plan for the day’. He fails, every single day, but he just keeps going. Wrong aim, good attitude.

Food stamps & Galeano

Never waste a good crisis. COVID times are good to clear up one’s library and paperwork. What’s that? An old notebook from when I was 17 years old, living motionless in Romania, under the repressive regime that would be turned over in December 1989. I had never heard of ‘international cooperation’ or ‘poor countries’. Never heard of ‘international solidarity’ or ‘NGOs’, let alone ‘civil society organisations’. Beirut was the place where fathers of classmates had big jobs that paid loads of money. Ghana and Mozambique were befriended countries whose intelligentsia studied at universities in my country.

But growing up on food stamps, I felt some things even before I knew about them. Like the need for social justice. I can see that 17-year old girl. Look, here’s Eduardo Galeano’s Memoria del Fuego. Leafing through the pages, I stumble upon these words:

In order for the workforce to be more submissive and cheaper, poor countries need legions of executioners, torturers, inquisitors, guards, and informants.
To feed and arm the legions these poor countries need loans from rich countries.
In order to pay off these loans, poor countries need new loans.
To pay off the interest on the loan, poor countries need new loans.
To pay the interest on loans added to other loans, poor countries must increase their exports.
In order to increase exports of cursed products, doomed to a continuous decline in prices, poor countries must reduce production costs.
To lower production prices, poor countries need more submissive and cheaper workforce.
For the workforce to be more submissive and cheaper, poor countries need legions of executioners, guards, and informants.

Fast forward 34 years. I am no longer 17 but 51 and have been privileged to work in international cooperation for the past two decades. I started because I wanted to stop the grinding spiral of exclusion Galeano describes. It still is the reason I continue doing this work.

Turning despair into hope

But it hurts to see that we are still dealing with the same issues. It makes the Sustainable Development Goals look like something utopian. Especially in fragile and conflict-affected countries, which is where we try to make a difference. Let’s be honest. Can we ever reach those goals by 2030? Will the everyday lives of the people they are meant for in the first place be radically different after 2030? These questions have a two-lettered answer.

We will beat this virus. Just as we will take on the virus of exclusion and inequality. And we will do our job better and faster, as disparities for those we work with and for are getting bigger.

I choose to turn despair into hope. Not only because I can or because I am privileged. Also because, even though we can’t change things as fast as we’d like, we are moving forward as a global community. We have Hans Rosling to remind us of that.

Maybe because, even though we are dealing with the same challenges and I am old, I am not jaded yet. Maybe because the young today are an inspiring force of change. Together, across borders and social divides, we seize the collective power to never give up, never give in. And to come up with a new plan – and new action. Every day.

Dark screens and quiet phones

COVID restrictions are tightened. The Hague, where Cordaid has its Global Office, is possibly one of the reddest spots on the globe. Shame on us. It means that for the time being we will be staying put and do ‘the good work’ from home.

We will beat this virus. Just as we will take on the virus of exclusion and inequality. And we will do our job better and faster, as disparities for those we work with and for are getting bigger. By joining hands online, we are still together, never alone.

And when our screens are dark and our phones are quiet, I always have my library, and Galeano’s words, burning in my back.