We have just returned from a week in Senegal. Dave and I came along with me so that I could attend I workshop for capacity building of civil society, parliamentarians and the media in budget analysis and advocacy for the health of mother and child.

I hope I haven’t lost your interest already. 

Budget tracking may seem like a boring topic, but I find it so interesting.  For years now, countries across the globe have been saying that maternal and child health is one of their top priorities. Statements have been made, coalitions built, strategies have been developed. On the surface, it would seem as though a lot is happening. But when you look a little closer you find that despite all the rhetoric, little progress has been made in improving the health of mother and children, especially in the poorest countries in the world.

Ever since I have worked in this field,  every time we question why contraceptives are not available in the villages or why health centers are not staffed with qualified personnel, we almost always get the same answers: there’s no money, we don’t have the funding, and we can’t afford it.

A budget is the single best indicator of a country’s priorities.  It is the best way to tell whether a country is putting its money where its mouth is and whether or not it has taken steps towards fulfill the commitments that it has made to maternal and child health.

The three day workshop was attended by delegations from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Niger, Mali, Burkina Faso and Senegal.  Each country was represented by members of civil society organizations and the media, along with parliamentarians, and their ministries of finance and of health.

The countries represented in the workshop have budgets that rank among the least transparent in the world. Of the countries represented, Burkina Faso’s had the best transparency score  in the International Budget Partnership’s Open Budget Survey – a measly 23 out of a 100, Niger, with the least transparent budget scored a depressing 4/100, with zero meaningful opportunities for civil society to contribute  to the country’s budgeting process. The survey evaluates the transparency of a budget by looking at what information is made public and when, as well as who gets to contribute to the process and how often.

The aim of the workshop was to have members of these delegations first understand the important role that the budget plays in reproductive, maternal, newborn and child health (RMNCH) and the financial costs of not investing in RMNCH. It also taught how good health policies are developed and costed, and provided options for increasing fiscal space – the money to fund these policies – within the existing budget.  A budget is public property, it represents the money that belongs to each and every citizen of a country and therefor, the public should have a genuine say in how the money is distributed and how is has been spent. This workshop provided participants with an outline of the steps that should take place in the budgeting process, and all of the opportunities in which civil society should be able to contribute. At the end, each of the delegations developed advocacy objectives and strategies to improve civil society’s contribution to the budgeting process in order to prioritize health.

A good friend of mine who works in finance once told me that talking about money scares people, that people often feel as though they don’t have enough knowledge to contribute and are too embarrassed to say so. That definitely explains how I have felt and I know some of the participants agreed. We were afraid that the workshop might be too long, too technical and hard to follow, but we could not have been more wrong. The participants lapped up every word on every slide, and were thrilled to be equipped with the knowledge of the role they can plan in ensuring that their country’s budget prioritizes maternal and child health.

The presentation on increasing fiscal space even got a standing ovation!

Ile de Gorée, Senegal
Ile de Gorée, Senegal
Ile de Gorée, Senegal
On a more personal note, attending a conference with my baby and husband was busy, to say the least, and stirred up a lot of feelings that I hadn't anticipated. When I returned to work at the beginning of April, I felt like I was struggling to be the parent that I wanted to be and struggling to do the job that I wanted to. I could no longer stay with the baby all day and I couldn't stay late at work either.  In many ways, the workshop only made these feelings worse.

Usually, when I attend a conference or workshop, I spend the coffee breaks networking with other agencies and donors, or helping out in some way. On this trip I spent my time running through the halls of the now-faded King Fahd Palace Hotel so that I could get back to the room to breastfeed. At the end of the day, rather than debriefing with other facilitators, I was stressing about getting back to Ben and Dave, who had taken a week off of his own work so that I could travel to Senegal. I felt like I was no just falling short at work and parenting but also at being a wife, and questioning if the trip had truly been worth it.   I worried about the precedent that I had set in my office: would other parents now be expected to travel when their babies are 4 months?  Would they be expected to foot the bill for their families to join, as I did?  Had I just done my colleagues a huge disservice? Then I started to beat myself up for being such an over-thinker: do I have to make all the right decisions all the time?  Does everything I do have to be perfectly feminist all the time? Why do I always second guess myself?

Am I the only one that does this, feeling guilty about feeling guilty?

Luckily, in the last days of the trip reminded me of another reason that I went to Senegal: I really do love traveling. After the conference ended, Dave, Ben and I went to Les Collines de Niassam, a beautiful eco-lodge three hours outside of Dakar, were we relaxed, bird watched, ate delicious food, went for a long walk to the salt wells, and took a boat ride, where we gorged ourselves on freshly picked oysters. It may not have answered any of my questions, but it sure was lovely. For now, it feels like it was the right decision to go.

Dave, relaxing on the balcony of our room at Niassam
Senegalese women harvest salt in Palmarin, Senegal

Salt wells in Palmarin 

 Benny came along for the ride.

A man cleaning his fields in Palmarin

Thomas, our boat guide and oyster-picker.
Freshly picked oysters
I think we had about 40 oysters each.


I'm a stereotype

This morning I was walking through the aisles of a store with Ben in his stroller when I kept on bumping into the same man. The first time I said, "Sorry" as I tried to squeeze past him -not so bad. The second time, I walked past him, and said, "sorry" as though anticipating that he might accidentally back up and bump in to me - kind of bad.  The third time I saw him the man said, "Hello again!" to me and I responded with "Sorry!" That's really bad!  I actually apologized to him for just being there. How ridiculous is that?! Sometimes I say sorry when other people bump into me!

Have you ever realized that you fulfill a stereotype?

Sorry, I couldn't help myself.
PS: the video is from Anchorman 2


Our baby essentials (so far)

Ahh! Babies require so much stuff! Brooklyn is a very fertile place these days, and a number of people have asked me about what baby gear we would recommend them, so here goes:

Stroller: We use the Chicco key fit caddy with the Key Fit 30 car seat. We love it. It's small and affordable, with a huge basket underneath. We bring it on the subway, out to restaurants and the caddy folds up pretty small for car rides. The car seat comes with a base that you leave in the car so you can just click it in when you use it, but it can also be used without. The combo was also perfect for travel as we avoided having to bring a full stroller and a car seat. We bought the car seat on craigslist for 1/3 of the price of buying it new. Often parent groups and online communities will have lots of posts of things for sale. If you keep your eye out you can find a lot of stuff for great prices.

Swaddles:  When the baby was born we loved the stiff flannel swaddles from the hospital. They are cheap and stiff enough to keep the baby tightly wrapped, which is key.  When the baby got a little bigger, we used the Halo sleepsack swaddle which is amazing. At first I was horrified by it (it looks like a straitjacket) but I soon fell in love when I saw how quickly Benoît falls asleep in it.  We have them in the organic cotton variety and the microfleece variety.  I personally prefer the microfleece ones because they pin the arms down extra tightly, ha! I have also used  Summer brand which was fine. I have also heard good things about the Miracle blanket.
* Note on Aden and Anais swaddles: they are beautiful, but they are not great swaddles - they are too big and don't stay snug.  As a winter baby, we hardly used ours. We have, however, used them as extra blankets in warm weather, as stroller covers and nursing covers.  In short: they are great for warm weather, but don't expect to actually use them as swaddles.

Diapers:  We use DiaperKind cloth diapering service with prefold diapers and covers made by Thirsties, Flip and Rumparooz. All the covers are great.  These are the less expensive covers that have snaps to adjust for size. We also use Snappi fasteners which make putting on the diapers really easy (honestly just as easy as disposables, once you get the hang of it). We use the service because we didn't have a washer dryer until yesterday, and love it.  While travelling we use Honest diapers.  We don't use any diaper creams, powders or products at all and Benoît has never had diaper rash.

Crib: We have the Alma Mini, which is small but perfectly sized for Benoit's room. We haven't had any problems with it yet.

Carrier:  We got the Baby K'Tan as a hand-me-down and I loved it as soon as I could figure out how to use it. Its packs small enough that you can always keep it in your bag, and its not bulky underneath a jacket.  Caveat: you need to buy it sized for the parent, so its not easy for both parents to share, unless they are the same size. The Moby is quite similar in feel but the size can be changed. Also, this type of carrier is not very supportive so might be better for younger babies.

Another carrier:  Now that Benoît it getting heavier, we really like the Ergobaby. We currently have the Ergobaby Performance, which is a more breathable fabric. This is the carrier that is the most comfortable for longer uses without causing neck and back pain, it also has a napping hood which is great. Ergo baby just came out with a 4 way carrier which looks awesome.

Running stroller: We have the Bob Revolution SE and love it. Because Benoît is still only 4 months we use it with a car seat adapter, which also has an infant adapter.  Its a little on the pricey side, but we just didn't want to have any excuses not to exercise. We have been using this since a few weeks after the baby was born. It folds easily, maneuvers well, has a big basket underneath and fits in the trunk of our car. We also bought an attachment that holds two bottles and our phones / keys, etc...

Baby bouncer: We have really liked the BabyBjorn bouncer. Ben loves to sit in it. It can be bounced by the parent or an older baby and it can be reclined to be more conducive to sleep.

Diaper bag:  We have this SoYoung diaper bag. It was kind of a splurge, but we love it for longer outings or when we have the stroller to strap it too.  It is also perfect for plane rides: it fits a change of clothes, loads of diapers and wipes, a changing pad, swaddles and a couple of bottles.  We also have this SkipHop pad that is great for throwing into another bag.

Pacifier: We love Wubanubs!  They are a stuffed animal and pacifier in one, and perfect for bed time because the stuffed animal can rest on the baby's chest, making it more likely to stay in place. It is also easier for the baby to grab a hold of it and move it around.

Nursing cover: I don't think that a woman should have to cover, but there have been times when what I am wearing does not really lend themselves to nursing and the cover allows me to nurse discreetly. I also use it when I am pumping because, lets be honest, no one wants to see  that.  I think these are all more or less the same, so its really about finding a pattern that suits you, just make sure it has a wire that allows you to look at your baby easily.   Here is the one that I own.

Baby clothes: We have been extremely fortunate to have received a lot of hand me downs. But my favorite baby clothes, by far, are from Zara. They are reasonably priced, totally adorable, and great for big, cloth-diapered bums. I also like plain-old, white onesies.  Any brand will do, but  Gerber has some nice affordable ones.

I think those are the major ones. Is there anything that I am missing? I would love to know...  Also, we are on the hunt for a high chair.  Any recommendations?


Camille Lepage

Camille Lepage in Central African Republic.  AP Photo/Sylvain Cherkaoui, taken from US News
I am completely obsessed with Camille Lepage, the 26 year old photojournalist who was recently killed in Central African Republic.

Camille wanted to show the world about the most neglected conflicts and spend the last two years living in South Sudan and the Central African Republic.

In an interview last year she said, "I want the viewers to feel what the people are going through. I'd like them to empathize with them as human beings, rather than seeing them as another bunch of Africans suffering from war somewhere in this dark continent. I wish they think: 'Why on Earth are those people in living hell; why don't we know about it and why is no one doing anything?' I would like the viewers to be ashamed of their government for knowing about it without doing anything to make it end."

I am not sure what it is that I am drawn to in her work. Maybe its that she took beautiful, often shocking, photos; or maybe its that she worked in countries and on issues that I care about deeply. Maybe its that somehow, she reminds me of myself at 26. I was 26 when I started working for MSF. At the time, I was willing to go anywhere and to do anything to help people in need, particularly those in conflict settings.  Help is a loaded term and probably not the best description of what I was actually doing, but I can't think of a better way to say it, that is truly what I wanted to do. I have changed a lot as a person since then and in some ways better than others, I may be more effective at my work, even more thoughtful and conscientious, but I can get caught so up in skepticism, pragmatism, and diplomacy that I lose my inspiration along the way. In many ways, I miss my 26 year old self and the confidence that I once had.

Some people might say that Camille took too many risks or that she was too young, or even that she died in vein.  I hope they don't. We need more people like her.

Please please please check out her work and learn about the conflicts that she covered in the the New YorkerNew York Times, The Washington Post (here too), AFP and her website.


Our family photos

There are few things that I was really insistent on after having Benoît, but one thing that I really wanted was a professional photographer to come take pictures of the family together. I knew that if we didn't we would only have pictures with either Dave or I in them, but not with both of us. They would also probably all be taken with our phones, which is less than ideal.  We did some initial looking around and found that baby photographers were either really expensive (!)  or were taking pictures that just weren't our style (picture babies in costumes tucked into baskets).

We reached out to Lev Kuperman, our wedding photographer.  He knew exactly what we wanted and took beautiful photos at a really reasonable price.  I was super excited to see that he posted some of our pictures on his blog.  I can't say enough about Lev. He has now shared two very special moments with us, and it just felt right having him come into our home when Ben was so young.