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The Work that Links us

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A herder in Ethiopia watches over his cattle in a parched pasture.
A herder in Ethiopia watches over his cattle in a parched pasture.

Caterpillars are crunching through the crops in Liberia. Twenty million migrant workers in China can’t find jobs. And in the US, the unemployment rate continued its upward climb to 7.6 percent last month when 598,000 more people found themselves out of work.

That’s the news that jumped out at me this morning and that I can’t help lumping together into a scary heap of headlines.

What have caterpillars got to do with migrant workers in China and factory hands in the United States?  The ravenous black bugs represent a major threat to many subsistence farmers in West Africa—the same kind of threat as the global economic forces that are gobbling up the jobs of millions of factory, office, and retail workers in other places around the world.
In the parlance of aid workers, what’s at stake here are livelihoods—and the well-being of families both close to us and far off.

When I first started writing about global emergencies for Oxfam, I struggled with that word “livelihood.” What did it mean? Was it a job? Was it something you chose, or stumbled into, or inherited from your elders? It can be all of those things. It’s a catch-all word for work in places where work doesn’t necessarily come with a paycheck at the end of the week or a benefits package or bosses and corporate hierarchies.

But work on a parched field, on a sea in a battered boat, or on a pasture with shriveled grass is no less important to a family’s ability to survive—and thrive—than the work that goes on in the rows of cubes in metropolitan high rises or on the factory floors of auto parts manufacturers. And that’s why news about the caterpillars munching their way across Liberia and over the border into Guinea where much of Liberia’s food comes from is so unsettling. Livelihoods will be lost.

Here, in the land of plenty, we’re beginning to know all too well what that feels like.

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