26 May 2010

Three Cups of Bulls***

I have always refrained from saying too much when people have asked me if I read Three Cups of Tea.  I guess I do not want to get into a lengthy discussion (in reality rant) about how Mr. Mortensen made a bunch of huge mistakes and somehow came out with success (measured by an Oprah book club book about him).

The blog Double Negative took on the book this past January.  For the most part, I want to share the thoughts of the author and then add a little bit of my own to the end.

DN writes:

So why do I hate it? The dude, bless his poor lumbering heart, got ripped off. He ain’t no saint. He came to the same old conclusions all development professionals have known for years – invest in women, invest in communities, empower locals. Fight Islamic extremism in poverty alleviation and improved access to education. Talk to the locals.

----- (I love that DN just rhymed ain’t and saint)----

When you work in the field and you meet yahoos who have been inspired by this kind of book and have ditched everything to “DO something”; and have to stoop to the level of this book to discuss what you do…. you get a bit sensitive about this sort of thing.

I don’t begrudge Mortensen for doing what he did. Bully for him. Really. But please, don’t assume that the dude approach to development is how things should work.

One thing I always say about Mortensen is that he should be the template of what not to do.  He stumbled into a town, lost, and made a stupid promise to come back and build a school.  He, by luck, found one giant funder, went back to build the school and was asked to build more.  Thinking that he had already pulled it off once, he agreed to build more.  The experience allowed for him learn how to practice good development, but it took a massive amount of luck and bad decisions to get there.

What is most damaging is the fact that his story perpetuates the idea that wanting to help is enough to make everything alright.  We have the resources that others do not.  It becomes easy to think that we can drop in and save some lives.  There is some truth to that, but success must also be measured in terms of sustainability and continuity.  Creating an NGO that remains in one place for decades is a failure.  People need to hear that and they need to demand more out of the longstanding NGOs that have done little to remedy this problem.

I do not want to go too far into this because I feel wrong to tread on ground that has already been sown.  Tales from the Hood highlights and adds to a great post by Carla Murphy (no relation) that addresses what books like Three Cups of Tea help to continue.  I suggest checking out the links to read more. 

Here is just a clip from Miss Murphy’s post:

Do something, anything is like USDA grade D meat. It's the lowest standard of human intervention in the plight of another. But the American public accepts and nurtures it because our humanitarian value system is the run-off of a foreign aid project that, in large part, privileges donor wishes over the needs of the receiver. There are arguments to be made for doing so but none excuse the fact that morally, according to humanitarian precepts, this is wrong. Real world bulletin: some lives are more valuable than others. I say that with as much feeling and judgment as I'd say, the sky is blue. It's an unremarkable fact of human life. What I cannot tolerate though, is the pretense of doing more than we actually are. I cannot tolerate the dressing of a low standard in the purple robes of a high one.


HT to TalesFromthHood

24 May 2010

Flash Mob in Philly!

No, not the bad kind. The opera kind. Wish I was at Reading Terminal on April 24.

21 May 2010

What Top Down Looks Like

City Year is jumping from 1,500 to 6,000 to solve the problem of High School drop outs. Seems like the top down approach is the way that AmeriCorps is heading when dealing with domestic problems.

20 May 2010

Sean Penn’s Missing Notes

Here is an excerpt of Sean Penn’s statement to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee with the notes he did not include when sharing it with the Huffington Post.

Mr. Chairman, members of the committee, my name is Sean Penn (speak humbly, low tone, head down, make it seem like they don’t know who I am when it is impossible to not know me, I am Sean Fucking Penn baby!). I have been in Haiti as Director and CEO of my NGO J/P Haitian Relief Organization (say it slowly so that people will know where to send their money), and have been on the ground in Haiti since the first week (emphasize this point so people know that I was there right from the start, try to make it seem like I was the first person there and care more than everyone else) following January's earthquake. Since that time, my team and I have lived in a tent camp (going native might be a better phrase) in the Bourdon area of Port au Prince, adjacent to and administering aid to a 55,000 person (inflate number to sound like it is most of the country) IDP camp (super dangerous, be sure to look worn and brave/fearful at once), one of the largest ad-hoc camps in the country. My organization (gimmie money) has been designated by the UN International Office of Migration as camp management for this IDP camp.

From our first days in Haiti, my team and I witnessed amputations without anesthesia (graphic picture and/or long pause) or IV pain medication, things we soon were able to supply to hospitals and clinics throughout the city and the country (Sean Fucking Penn saves lives!). Limbs severed in spontaneously raised tent operating rooms, dusty and mosquito ridden (picture of me in scrubs looking on with concern while operation is taking place). Limbs severed from children with tools more familiar to our local hardware store (make sure to check images of that online to be sure they still look the same as they did the last time I went in 1986) than to those we traditionally expect in the hands of surgeons. It is true that this stage of post quake trauma and drama (got a little poetic with that rhyme SFP!) has largely subsided.

Only 2 weeks ago however, a less tangible, visible or fundable emergency raised its head. Our camp clinic diagnosed what became the first confirmed case of diphtheria (take that Red Cross!). I rode in the back of the ambulance while the patient was refused from several hospitals because the 15-year-old boy, Oriole Lynn Peter (didn’t bother to ask it if was alright to use his name or video him, but who cares? I saved his ass), was diagnosed with a disease for which those hospitals had no treatment capability. In this city of ruins, 5 (hold up hand with fingers spread apart, Senators are dumb and need to count my fingers) fully functional hospitals have been allowed to close despite these emergent disasters, facing financial under-support and over-scrutiny (get these people asking where the money is going off my back, now). In many cases, the bureaucracy of international aid is protecting people to death. Diphtheria is among the first five things that an American traveling to Haiti is inoculated against (only needed one shot but five makes me sound tougher), and yet, in this devastated country with hundreds of millions of American donated dollars of dedicated emergency aid and billions pledged (to go to pay for my next trip to Venezuela) for reconstruction, there were no isolation wards, few ventilators, and despite the all out last minute efforts of the American Red Cross (too slow!), the administrations of every major hospital in the city, the dedicated and beyond job description effort of the commander of the US military forces (keep it together, do not smirk or show disdain for US military) in Haiti (Major General Trombitas), the WHO, USAID (ha!), and the CDC, along with a fractured Haitian Ministry of health (make it clear that they are unable to function with out me, their savior, SFP!), it took 14 hours (always double the actual number) between all of these organizations to locate a single patient dose of the immunoglobulin that would likely have saved this 15 year old boy's life had it been readily available.

As we rode through the rubble and traffic blocked streets in search of his care I held the ankle of an animated and normal 15-year-old boy who to his own knowledge was merely suffering from a sore throat and a bit of a fever (oh the ignorance of the poor). He couldn't have known that the grey hued bacteria would kill him within a day and a half (dramatic pause) and it did. Since that day, a series of diphtheria cases have come to light, including another one in our camp brought to our hospital four days ago. But diphtheria is only one of many diseases that threaten (OK generalize about conditions so that they still think I am needed and can go back), in particular, the 1.8 million displaced today, living in compressed and unsanitary camps, where tent to tent construction would take one match to create the inferno that could incinerate thousands (note to self, do a fire movie like Backdraft). In a city with nearly no access to electricity there is little fuel to run generators (because I am using all of it), few lights to generate, and the rapes of women and children occur at will (hat tip to Nick Kristof for including that one). It will be the rain of this season that spreads the diarrheal diseases that globally finds its victims - 80% among children under 5 (there are no adults in the third world, especially men). There are hundreds of thousands of them in Port au Prince alone. It should be said that while there are claims to grand programs of immunization it is the simple truth that most Haitians remain unprotected and that there is little evidence that those that have been immunized have records or access to establish boosters and follow up necessary with all immunizations (re. I will do it for you if you give me more money to fund my brand new non-for-profit). It should also be said that in a city the size of Port au Prince, as with all the densely populated areas in Haiti, the idea that, as in the case with the diphtheria immunoglobulin, a single warehouse maintains what little supply may exist is an unacceptable acceptance (let me in so I can hand it out and they will make me king!).

Prevention is difficult to get people excited about (maybe we should have another Live ___). But cold chains for the transport and preservation of these necessary immunizations and treatments must be established throughout Port au Prince and Haiti, as must stockpiles of the necessary remedies for the dehydration that comes with diarrheal diseases. It must also be said that the quality and training of pre quake health care in Haiti was already at a minimum (they needed my help before this happened, but I waited around for a disaster to be able to be on CNN and speak to you fools) and that with the death and flight of so many among the most capable in the Haitian medical community, that it will be some time before the international medical staff will be relieved of the humanitarian and training demand (I will stay for-ev-er).



To do the whole thing would have taken up too much time and I wanted to lift up the end of Penn’s statement because he does discuss the very important issue of transparency:

Make no mistake, this is a war against our ally and neighbor, and we have only this chance to show the world that we are willing to fight that war to save its victims and are not dependent on hating and killing their assailant. It is a war against the diseases and preventable disasters caused by nature and poverty. We must also not underestimate the likelihood, known to all of us on the ground in Haiti, of violent social unrest. As Americans, we should call on the Government of Haiti and on our own government, to acknowledge that a state of emergency still exists. To demand FULL TRANSPARENCY in the way that aid is distributed and accountability for how aid organizations advertise themselves in the solicitation of funds. Full and total transparency. Now is the time for all concerned parties to acknowledge that an "emergency phase" is simply an economic determination, and that the prevention of foreseeable human tolls on massive levels, in particular young children, cannot be summarily dismissed by the aspiration of a monumental reconstruction, offering empowerment, demanding independence and governance, or claiming it as a distraction from the rebuilding of a country that in many ways was never built in the first place.

Yeah, I do think Penn is a bit self serving, but I hope that at the very least he can hold his own organization to the standards he has set in regards to transparency.  He is correct that it will take a long time and at the end discusses a vision of sustainable projects.  Most of all, I want to see him call out Wycliffe for running a poor organization that pays his buddies well and delivers little in terms of service (prior to the earthquake).


Commentary added was done in jest and not meant in any way to lessen the importance of good aid and development in Haiti.  Sadly, voices like Mr. Penn’s are sought over experts who can speak more specifically to how the effort in the country should move forward.  I will admit to being bothered by the fact that someone like Mr. Penn can sweep in and all of a sudden become an expert who reports to the US Senate.  For me, it trivializes the great work of the people who have labored in this field to improve it for many years.  I am not in that position, but I personally would like to hear more from someone who has dealt with Haiti and disasters before.

1 Million Ebook

G. Kofi Annan and Raquel Wilson put together the ebook titled “No Tees Please” based on the 1 million shirts debate.  Read it here or download it.  Most of all, check out Mr Annan’s blog at: http://annansi.com/.

I want to offer a special thanks to Kofi and Raquel for putting it together in a single space that makes it easy to share and hopefully prevent this from happening again.


No Tees Please: Why Africa aid campaigns #FAIL

18 May 2010

Imposition of Values?

I have had the rant by Mia Kirshner about the arrest of Malawi’s first married gay couple as an open tab open for the past three days. My initial reaction to it was mixed, so I wanted to let it sit with me for a few days before reacting.

Her post essentially expresses her frustration with the fact that the pair have been arrested for breaking the Malawian law against homosexuality. Her argument states that it is a breech of human rights by imprisoning the couple for their marriage.

Next week they are to stand trial. They face up to fourteen years in prison and hard labor. This is an outrage. I am concerned that they will be killed in the prison either by disease or the inherent violence that is part of prison culture.

Something must be done to stop this.

Malawi is a beautiful country and is rich in culture and diversity. This ruling will be a stain on its beauty and richness.

Please. I ask that the international community of activists, the United Nations, politicians in Malawi and international human rights lawyers speak up and help these men.

(Mia’s use of bold)

I will begin by agreeing that the decision to marry between two adults should not be be legislated against or prevented in any way. Two people should have the agency to make a choice in their lives to spend their time with a partner that they feel is right. At the core, I agree with everything that Mia says.

However, I am unable to ignore the fact that I am troubled whenever I hear someone shouting that another country or culture must accept what the person believes to be just. I do not see it as simple as right and wrong when looking at the reality of a nation. Should we condemn the actions of Malawi? Yes. Is it our role to be the parent of every country and wag a finger when they do not do what we like? Not really.

I am a firm believer that change must emanate from within. Malawi is capable of taking care of itself and the action of these two men was done knowing that their action would result in an arrest. They were upfront and public about their nuptials and likely did them publicly as a challenge to the nation’s government. The arrest took place quickly after and now it is the role of activists in the country and from the country to force change with their government.

A petition is nice, but the reality is that it is just a bunch of words. Call me pessimistic, but I do not see it as an agent for change (I am rooting to be proven wrong). Great social change (ending apartheid and American Civil Rights) is locally driven at the core. A pardon or change in policy will not change the fact that countries like Malawi and Uganda have large social oppositions to homosexuality. Certainly a government change will need to happen and can lead to the change of peoples thoughts on the issue, but consider the fact that even the United States has not completely dealt with the issue. We do not imprison married gay couples, we just do not recognize their unions on a national level. No, not the same form of repression but still an overall rejection.

So, let’s support Tiwonge Chimbalanga and Steven Monjeza for their bravery in standing up to the government of Malawi. Press should continue to cover what is happening, we must reject homophobia of every kind, and a respect must be given to allow for a country to develop at its own pace. With organizations that report human rights violations, we now are better informed as to what nations are doing. I wish that I had the power to right this situation.

Ultimately, we have to apply this in both directions. How would Americans feel if (insert any country name) decided to tell us how to live (funny, actually the countries that do are the ones we hate the most, like Bolivia, Cuba, Iran and Venezuela (not saying they are right))? It has not been well received and will never be because they other country is not ours and how dare they tell us what to do. We must apply that to other nations when considering what we say and expect. There are certainly cases where action is necessary (Rwanda and Darfur), but intervention can not be used in every case.

To finish, I do not want to or intend to beat up or take cheap shots at Miss Kirshner. She should be upset. If what she is doing currently in Malawi is being done with good aid policy in use, I support her continuing to be involved with the nation. At the very least, I want to complete her piece by saying that there is a lot involved in this issue and one must consider it in a complete way.

I can be a bit long so I wanted to include this comment on the her piece that is a bit inflammatory but I think speaks to what I was trying to say:

The extreme homophobia in Malawi is no different from that obtaining throughout Africa. It is part of the rich culture referred to.

It goes along with many other African cultural niceties like chopping up Albino's for "medicine", cutting off peoples heads to advance business or political fortunes, murdering young children so as to harvest genitals for use aphrodisiacs. The extent of witchcraft is such that "witch finders" make a good living off of denouncing "witches" and then cleansing them , usually by killing them.

Homosexuality is seen as a "white man's" affliction that has been imported to Africa by the colonists and is seen as one of the worst social depravities. Worse by far than raping babies to "cure" AIDS, worse by far than burning children's hands in boiling fat for lacking discipline.

I live in Zimbabwe, not far from Malawi , our own President being of Malawian descent and he is on record as calling gays "worse than pigs and dogs". He brushes past the fact that our first President , Canaan Banana, was a flaming homosexual.

Accepting African culture means accepting all of it and not being misty eyed about the bits you like while ignoring that which is , by western standards, quite evil. The American religious zealots who are pushing their homophobic agenda are pushing at an open door in Africa. The American liberals who think that homosexuality is an innate human right will find their philosophy has very few takers here in Africa.
Update: Post from Alex Engwete calls to cut funding entirely for 'Banana Republics' like Malawi. I agree to the extent that it does not pull the rug out from under people and businesses that are not involved with this and use aid to grow.

17 May 2010


Rachel (@Civoknu) out in Goma vents some of her frustrations of being a perma-volunteer.  Her combination of snark and sarcasm make it less of a rant and more pointed discussion concerning the fact that labor of ‘unskilled young people’ can be exploited by making them work for free in jobs that require skill and learning with little or no compensation (I use quotes because it is a liberally used term that applies to anyone with little experience and allows for organizations to exploit people with talents that may not be apparent on a resume or college transcript). 

The point of humanitarian aid is to do such an awesome job that we become unemployed, right? Then I must really be AMAZING. Taking that as our main criteria for success in the aid world, I’m basically one of the top workers out there – I have never ever, ever even been employed. Beat that.

My myriad of supervisors here shake their heads and tell me to not give up hope – that I’m doing a great job – that eventually something will fall into place. They say that the lack of response that anyone in HR departments gives me is embarrassing. They say not to take it personally – it’s not personal – it’s not personal. They say oh how they wish they could keep me here. And then they ask me to work Saturdays, and Sundays, too, to complete this budget narrative or that work plan, quickly, now, before the aid world throws me back out on the street at the end of the month. And I do. Because I care about the “beneficiaries”, I care about the “beneficiaries”, I care about the “beneficiaries”.

Person after person after person talks about volunteers disparagingly. Volunteers: People who aren’t real aid experts, just off to find adventure or to feel good about themselves while on holiday. Volunteers: We aren’t the doctors, we are the people who lie and introduce ourselves as doctors at cocktail parties in order to get the attention of the hot men in the room. We’re the idiots who want to make a difference in the lives of gang-raped orphans by hugging them, because we don’t understand the true complexities of the profession. No wonder I get no response, often not even cut-and-paste form letters, from job applications – I’ve been a volunteer in four different countries.

Volunteers: We shouldn’t even exist.

I think that there is a place for volunteerism and it is always hard to pay every person in the non-for-profit world.  However, someone to play with children for free is different than someone who writes you a grant proposal.  In full disclosure, I am sympathizing with Rachel because I am feeling equally as disappointed in the fact that it is very hard to find jobs in this field.

I have been able to reason it out to myself so far because I feel that this struggle has made me better realize what I want to do and solidified that this is the field in which I want to enter.  Certainly there is more I can do for myself (ie. add my CV to this blog and actively use it is a tool to garner a job in addition to just sharing my thoughts).  Suggestions are, of course, welcome.

16 May 2010

A Reformed Kristof?

Nicholas Kristof admits in his op-ed today:

Readers have sometimes complained that my win-a-trip journeys focus on the wretchedness of the developing world — warlords, malnourished children, maternal mortality. Frankly, I’ve always thought these critics had a point. So Mitch and I are starting this trip by covering an African triumph: Gabon’s bold steps to preserve its natural heritage.

Unfortunately, he does not help himself out much because rather than open with the above, he starts with this:

The moment I fell in love with Gabon was when my companions and I walked along the beach at sunset: an endless strip of white sand with no one in sight as far as the eye could see in any direction. Then we spotted movement, and we realized we were sharing the beach after all.

With three elephants.

I am not as hyper critical as some of the description of the surroundings when traveling. It would be unfair being that I was enamored by the escarpment that ran along the edge of Malava and continued down a bit past Kakamega. I was also taken by the exotic birds and animals that surrounded me. With that said, I was and still am not (yet?) writing a consistent article for the New York Times. I also did not pretend as if I was writing anything more than my personal observations.

Kristoff on the other hand, uses an article that is supposed to praise Gabon and uses it to discuss the beach, elephants and gorillas. Missing from his piece are the Gabonese (is that the right use?). I am happy that he has recognized the need to show that the continent of Africa is not filled with rape and murder, but the focus has to be on the accomplishments of the people. Why not talk about the reception of the communities that are affected by the national parks? Or how about talk about the other accomplishments of a country that you are claiming to be a success story that involves interviewing natives?

Overall, I would be lying to say that I was not happy that Mr. Kristof is aware and trying to work with his critics. However, he can still do better.

Third World Poverty Views Harmful to US Poor?

I have been bothered, more like plagued, by the way that poverty is discussed abroad and domestically. What has struck me most is the fact that attitudes concerning both are often entirely divergent. People feel bad for those in the third world, yet chastise the poor of the West. My hypothesis is that it is based on the depictions of third world poverty and the fact that it often (and many ways rightfully) dominates the discussions when concerning poverty. There are few things that I feel have led to this split. To keep things simpler (for myself mostly) I am going to go with a Huffington Post format post (aka a list).

  1. Images of Poverty (or the distribution of third world poverty porn) – The US [Feed+the+Children_1.jpg]used to be a great place to find sad pictures of the the poor thanks to the Great Depression. With times better and the spread of media, there are no longer images like the one to the right coming out of the US. Conversely, the rise of media here and concern with Africa has provided for the rise of the image on the left. When looking at the child on the left, even relative to the Great Depression image, we have it pretty good. Certainly it is true that the standard of living here is much higher and the relative difference is significant, but when you see images of a starving naked skeleton, you cannot help but feel bad for the child. This links to the next…
  2. Higher Standard of Living (or we are richer so poor doesn’t look all that bad when there are starving children in Africa) – How can they be poor if they have _______? (insert: a cell phone, a nice car, a place to live, multiple children, nice clothes, etc.). Related to number 1, people are confused when they see that a woman has an Iphone and her child is playing a PSP. They say to themselves that the person cannot be struggling that badly when they these things. What is not seen is the fact that the mother had to get another credit card to pay off previous debt and is on her third phone line because the previous two were cancelled and the afforded the PSP by spending her last pay check. With more material goods at a relatively cheap price, it becomes easy to accrue them while neglecting the more important things. I have experienced this first had as a teacher where a mother drove a Lexus but was evicted from her home. As misleading as the image of a starving African child is, the American poor with an Iphone is an equally misleading instance in the other direction. This is compounded when considered in a sense relative to third world poverty. Again, I am not suggesting that starvation is equal to not paying for a cell phone, but there is just as much complexity to American poverty as there is to third world poverty.
  3. The American Dream (or how you can pull yourself up by your bootstraps but the third world is helpless and needs the nurturing of the compassionate first world) – This concept is actually damaging to both groups. Americans believe that hard work is the solution and that it is enough to overcome any circumstance. We like to think of Chris Gardner being portrayed by Will Smith in The Pursuit of Happyness and nod along as if it is possible for anyone to escape homelessness through hard work. There are plenty of studies and research that proves this to be untrue, but Gladwell’s Outliers is the easiest and most accessible on the subject. Due to this belief, it is natural to then accept that the poor of America are lazy. One might imagine them laying around collecting welfare and food stamps to then go out and buy cigarettes (sadly have seen this too) and new televisions. Unfortunately, this image is not struck down because people actually do that with their government money. Still, there is a much deeper issue going on when this happens that cannot be summed up with the word ‘lazy.’ For the third world, the opposite exists because most believe that they cannot help themselves to buy a t-shirt, so we send them our used t-shirts, crayons and bras.
  4. American Exceptionalism (or we are super awesome and there is no way that someone can actually be poor in the greatest most free country in the world) – This relates to the idea of the American Dream, but goes a step further. For many, there is a belief that America is the greatest country in the world. They champion our freedoms, global hegemony, and giant economy. To me, there seems to be a bit of a cross between Dorian Gray Syndrome and Narcissism. America is so perfect that it does not need to change, is the attitude that has become a regular part of American politics and political discourse (re. Sarah Palin, John McCain, Clinton(s), and so on). Being that America is so great and free, it is just not possible to have a population that lives below the poverty line (hence little change in the minimum wage and an absurdly low poverty line designation).
  5. The End (or I made a list and 4 points did not seem like a rounded number because lists, for some reason, often have to come in 5 or ten)

14 May 2010

Geography Mistake?


I am going to give WGN in Chicago the benefit of the doubt that the above graphic that was meant for South Africa was a mistake.  However, something makes me think that the mistake was based in a lack of knowledge of geography rather than a simple confusion between ‘South Africa and South America.’  The question to ask is, how many other media outlets will make similar mistakes during the coverage this summer?  I would bet that they just default to showing the entire continent of Africa to be safe.

12 May 2010

The Brilliance of Fox News and How We Can Learn From Them

No, I am not trying to trick anyone.  Fox News is a brilliant organization.  They have packaged a form of news that people not only consume, but regurgitate to their friends and family.  They go out and organize political rallies and campaign for the candidates that they hope will carry their values.

Fox News tells people, “we report, you decide.”  The brilliance starts with this slogan.  By announcing that they simply report stories, Fox News sets itself up to be the place where Joe Friday would be proud to work.  Just the facts, ‘fair and balanced’ reporting just says what is going on in the world today.  They are free from bias.  Of course this is misinformation and is what makes their ploy so smart.

The average viewer of Fox News will believe that this is a place for honesty and truth.  With the acceptance that what appears before them is the truth, Fox News is in the position to say anything they want.  Most of the time Fox News is telling its viewer that it is being fair and giving the full picture.  Megyn Kelly says that there are two sides to every story and she will report them both.  Bill O’Rilley is the King over the realm of ‘no spin.’  Greta takes you ‘on the record’ and you have ‘friends’ every morning on Fox News.  Glenn Beck will pour over the facts and say that he is a philosopher and a historian. 

All the while, small suggestions are made about other news sources.  They tell the viewer to question everyone else because they are biased.  Starting to notice a trend?  Fox News begins every show and segment with deflection and finger pointing.  In the court of public opinion, reasonable doubt is a conviction.  Fox News has created this doubt in their media competitors and has flourished because of it.

Now, they have created a position where every attack is refuted by saying that the attacker is biased.  Attackers are portrayed as stifling facts and reason and trying to keep hold of their brainwashing tactics.  While the transition from Bush to Obama has helped things along, it is not just this event which has allowed for Glenn Beck to become a superhero and Fox News to grow in popularity.  The brand has been building for some time now and most ignored it because people with sense thought it to be silly and useless.

So, we have come to a point where Glenn Beck can tell people to leave their churches if they hear the phrase “social justice,” Obama can be considered a Socialist, and all forms of media, save one, are evil.  The Obama administration has attempted to take on Fox News with little success.  Jon Stewart does a song and dance against Bernie Goldberg, people laugh, and the audience for Fox News gets stronger. 

So what does this have to do with aid and development?  The growth of the industry and awareness in the 80’s and 90’s was made up of starving children in rags with flies covering their faces surrounded by half-built homes and no adults.  In order to gain acceptance, the industry played on the heartstrings of Americans and convinced people that there was something terrible going on across the world that only they could help by donating to some place like Feed the Children.  Now, 20+ years later, we are left with a public who still believes that we must save the African children by sending our used crayons or tshirts.  The information exists, but there is a large force working against those who are trying to increase education.

So, much like dealing with Fox News, how can people who actually understand the intricacies of development reach a large audience and transform a thought pattern that is so ingrained.  Snark seems to be the favored weapon of choice (one which I love to read and use on occasion, but also is the weapon of the unsuccessful opposition of Fox News), but it has yet to make much more than a small dent. 

As frustrating as it is, it appears to be a part of American psyche to take in what we are told or what we see.  So maybe we should take some cues from Fox News or really Feed the Children.  They have created a climate for their own successes by being shameless and just.  I do not quite know how to be shameless when remaining mindful of the dignity of the people discussed in aid and development, but there has to be a better way to reach a larger audience.  How do we un-teach Sean Penn and Jessica Simpson?  How do we make it so someone who wants to donate a bunch of t shirts does not decide to start an NGO?

Nobody has seemed to know the solution to those questions, but maybe we need to look to what we are opposing and see them as opportunities to learn.

09 May 2010

Happy Mother’s Day, So Save the World

Or so says Nicholas Kristof in his NYT column today.  Doing what he does what he does best, Kristof uses statistics to make us feel guilty and highlight the fact that the world outside of America is a horrible place filled with mothers dying at childbirth or ending up with obstetric fistula.  Of course, once he has made his reader feel guilty, Kristof offers up some places where you can send your money to ‘save the children’ (yes, he did suggest that as one of a few places to send your money) rather than buy mom some flowers.

I am all for responsible spending and am entirely against over consumption, but I do not think it is useful to make people feel guilty for what they have because there are others without.  Guilt is a horrible weapon that Kristof continues to aim at Americans with his columns.  Rather than expand the understanding of the average American, Kristof uses his column to create a pipeline to his favorite charities and guilt his audience into hooking in. 

If I didn’t know any better, Kristof could easily be a paid advocate for specific issues and charities.  I guess, when you think about it, he is.  His employer is the New York Times and they enable and encourage him to write columns like today’s or even last week’s where he managed to discuss Africa, the Catholic Church, and how the two are saving the helpless Africans.

With an education gap between donors and responsible aid, Kristof continues to advocate for an approach that includes little research and only good intentions. ‘ Good intentions are not enough’ has become a bit of a mantra for the development community and Mr. Kristof has missed out on the secret (or so it seems when he does everything to say that good intentions are more than enough).

So, I want to wish all the mothers a very happy mother’s day that is full of joy and appreciation, not guilt and sadness.

07 May 2010

I Agree with Sachs?

Jeffery Sachs calls out the Wall Street Journal on the Huffington Post today.  I do not agree with his development models, but I am happy that he has decided to take on the misrepresentation of European welfare states.  Like development, why is it that reason and research cannot trump sloppy work and fear-mongering?

Just an excerpt:

The data are telling. It is the U.S. with by far the highest budget deficit as a share of GDP, the highest unemployment rate, and the highest poverty rate. America's productivity (defined as the purchasing-power-adjusted GDP per man-hour) is in the middle of the group, lower than in Norway and The Netherlands, and slightly higher than in Denmark and Sweden. The social welfare states have not hit the wall.

06 May 2010

My Motivation

for my previous post idea is explained at Good Intentions yesterday.  I am aiming at the big guys (Bono and Kristof) because I think that there needs to be a strong public voice that provides sound advice.  While charity raters are very practical and completely needed, we need to get it to the point where people know to use them.

Busy the past few days

but I will be coming out with a post that compares Glenn Beck to either Bono or Nicholas Kristof. Bono is a much tougher comparison, but would be a bit more fun. The idea is to show how both paint a distinctly one sided picture that is oftentimes more harmful and ultimately leaves an audience with warped facts and viewpoints. Suggestions are still welcome as I try to figure out how to best shape my argument.

04 May 2010

How do Domestic Programs Impact International Development/Aid?

A small yet vocal community (re: Kiva and 1 Million Shirts debates) has grown in the face of poorly created, managed and implemented NGO’s in the developing world.  Whomever one chooses to follow of the big three (Sachs, Collier or Easterly), there is a consensus that the American public are both misinformed and uniformed.

In response, some have taken to creating ways to educate people about how to evaluate programs. Today, Professor Laura Seay wrote a piece on her blog ‘Texas in Africa’ titled Savior Complex. In the post Seay tries to unpack why there has been a growing interest in the development world and why Africa seems to be the focal point.  In short, she says it is because of visibility, HIV/AIDS and celebs.  She goes in to much further depth in regards to these points and I encourage reading the post to get a full picture of what she argues.

I fall under the generation of complete Africa exposure, so I can appreciate how it has come to be.  For myself, I was never particularly interested in the continent.  A trip after graduating college to Mexico led me to understand the impact of globalization on the third world, but my interests were firmly in domestic politics and issues.  I took a position as a teacher as an AmeriCorps member.  Realizing that I did not want to be a teacher, I lept at the opportunity to spend a year in Kenya as an admin assistant for a center for disabled children in Western Province.  This blog came out of that decision and records many of my experiences.

My time there, while short, exposed me to both the value and harm of NGOs.  The center where I worked was founded and run by Catholic sisters and provided a place where the community’s disabled could access therapy.  Staffed by Kenyans from the area, the program’s strength was in the fact that the services were not provided by imported health professionals.  Unfortunately, being run by wazungu hindered community ownership.  An understanding of this has allowed for the slow process of handing it over to a full Kenyan staff and management team.

Ironically, it was an orphanage founded and run by a Kenyan that exposed me to many of the negative aspects of international involvement.  At this time, I will not use the organizations name, but it brought mission teams to the orphanage throughout the year to educate the children about Jesus and the bible.  The missionizing was presented through sports.  With bags and containers filled with balls, the group of college and high school kids played with the students and scared them into believing Jesus is their savior.  They were empowered by the spirit of the children, took pictures of them to make their Facebook profile pictures, listened to songs performed by the kids, ate their American food that they brought with them and then went home.

The kids had fun for the week.  Who does not like playing around for a week?  They had new balls to play with.  Basketballs, footballs, volleyballs, soccer balls and Frisbees soon broke or were not used because they did not know what to do with them (ever see kids play soccer with a football? it is both bizarre and funny because the game is made up of squib kicks in every direction but the one intended).  Back home, the young men and women returned to tell tales of eating ugali for one meal and the African kids who did not have shoes until we came and bought some for them.

A week later, the kids forgot that they even had visitors and returned back to their school work.  They had fun, but lost a week that could have otherwise been spent learning.  Knowing that they come and go, the kids perception of wazungu was becoming one of quick visits and gifts.  It is no wonder that people expected me to be able to financially support every program they proposed.

I have taken a bit of a rounded approach to what I wanted to get at and why I titled this post what I did.  Many Americans are exposed to some sort of volunteering work.  I can’t pull on statistics but I feel safe in making this claim based on community, school and church programs.  Some will just give money, but a lot will join in one-off things like a Thanksgiving soup kitchen or a walk-a-thon.  People get to do something that helps others in need and it makes them feel good.  They feel better because it makes them feel good to help out.  Most likely, they will do it again because of how it made them feel.  Does this sound familiar?

While there is a larger investment in going to Africa for a service trip, the goal and the outcome are the same.  Many people who doe these trips already did something similar like Habitat for Humanity.  They got to build a house and feel good because they made a home for a family without one.  What they do not realize is the fact that this new home now goes to a family who cannot pay the taxes to keep it.  It is too easy to not follow through and with a focus on the good feelings that come out of the experience, people do not want to imagine that they were possibly doing harm.  “How can I be doing harm when I am helping a person have shelter?” one might ask.

The big organizations like, Teach for America, are a great example of this (full disclosure, I am now working at an AmeriCorps grant receiving organization).  Everyone knows what TFA does, but what is it doing in terms of sustainability?  Are they working with their communities to not only educate the children but to make it so that the children want to come back and take the jobs of TFA members?  What is the TFA exit strategy?  There is no doubt a need to improve the quality of American schools but is bringing in untrained college grads the complete solution?  I believe that it can have a part in the change, but it is not a sustainable program.

Where is this going?  How can we expect to remove the paternalistic views on Africa when we do it to ourselves?  We have a welfare system that punishes people for trying to find jobs.  You either get your welfare check, MediCare, and food stamps or go to work.  Of course it is not always that simple, but that is the general way the programs work.  The American people treat the American poor as if they are individuals who are in need of our saving through programs like TFA and welfare.  Some of the larges push back seems to come from an equally wrong point of view that says we need to allow the markets and hard work to fix the problem.

As long as the savior complex exists, in regards to the poor of America, it will be even easier to maintain the same view when looking to the rest of the world.  I suggest that the first thing to be done is the removal of the word ‘help’ from the discourse.  As Teddy said in the 1 million shirts phone conference, “it is time for the world to take off the training wheels.”  There is no better way to describe the way that the poor in general are treated.

01 May 2010

In the process of changing my header image. Letting it sit open to see it a new way and am open to suggestions while I consider possible changes. Nothing too flashy but I think an image would be nice to have.

Also added and amended the about section to explain more about how I came to title this blog.

Groupthink Break Up

A Lot has been said against Jason Sadler and his project 1 million shirts. A lot of it I agree with, but I want to try to present some things that may linger from a different view point. Some of this is a personal exercise to learn more about how and why this idea started. My goal is to get people to attack some misconceptions and thoughts in regards to this issue. So please, no personal attacks, this is an exercise and an attempt to change the direction of the conversation to look at this in different ways. If I miss anything please make suggestions and try to think of ways to not only prove me wrong, but to also think of how to combat these ideas.

  1. There is an existing market for second hand clothes in Africa. How can 1 million shirts spread over a continent of 1 billion people be anything more than a drop in the bucket when spread out over the continent?
  2. If it does flood the market, what is the harm in providing even cheaper shirts for people to buy? Won’t this give people the ability to spend less on clothing and more on investing on other projects?
  3. How is it ‘trash’ or ‘insulting’ to send second hand clothes when people happily buy and wear second hand clothes?
  4. Isn’t it a good thing that we are not just throwing the shirts away?
  5. By using social media and connecting people to the travel of the donation, isn’t it positive that people will be able to easily remain connected to what they contribute (ie. see where and how the project is growing and developing live via twitter and Facebook)?
  6. There are still some people who do wear rags and little to no clothes. Wouldn’t this help to clothe these people and improve overall hygiene of the continent?
  7. Who says the shirts have to be used as clothing? Doesn’t this provide a cheap product that can be used to make other items by innovative Africans?

That is what I can think of right now. Please let me know if I should add anything and please consider this as a discussion point not as a case in either direction for the issue.

Update : 6pm clarify question 5 and add buy to question 2

Update 2: 8pm changed opening phrase from 'plenty' to 'a lot' to reflect that this is not the end of the discussion

No Surprises

John Sides writes for Salon about the drop in interest for Haiti. Not a surprise that it is no longer a significantly discussed issue.  I warned a friend who asked about how she could engage her middle school students in the issue that it would be easy to get them motivated for the first few weeks, but a long term project would be much harder because they will stop caring.  So it appears that we have done as a public:

"American public attention rarely remains sharply focused on any one domestic issue for very long -- even if it involves a continuing problem of crucial importance to society." So wrote the economist Anthony Downs in 1972. He described the "issue-attention cycle": "Each of these problems suddenly leaps into prominence, remains there for a short time and then -- though still largely unresolved -- gradually fades from the center of public attention."

Three months after the earthquake in Haiti, it is clear that it's not only domestic problems that  receive this kind of attention. Indeed, a comparison of New York Times stories about three recent natural disasters -- Hurricane Katrina, the 2004 Indonesian tsunami, and the earthquake in Haiti -- shows that the issue-attention cycle characterizes news coverage of each.

The Issue-Attention Cycle for News Coverage of Natural Disasters

HT Chris Blattman