25 August 2010


There has been a developing discussion and debate centering around the transparency of organizations in Georgia who receive USAID grant money.  It has been very interesting, but a lot to soak in with so many posts on so many blogs.  So, I want to try to post a condensed form of the discussion for anyone who wants to make it a quick read or play catch up.  Of course, I will link to the full posts and encourage everyone to actually read each post as I will just be summarizing and picking out a few quotes.

Please point out anything I may have missed or misstated as there is a lot and I want to reduce it as much as I can without missing the arguments made by each post.  I will update as I find more posts and more responses come in. 

Aug 26 - Lova Rakotomalala post
Aug 27 - Counterpart Int'l response
Aug 28 - TI Georgia supports Bruckner
Aug 28 - TI comments
Sept 1 - CARE comments

The Conversation Continues…

and keeps getting better.
A new post at Staying for Tea looks at the debate that arose around 1 Million Shirts and the Hughes family and goes further to provoke a better form of discourse in aid blogging.  Aaron hits it out of the park arguing to be a moderate elitist.  Here are some of the best sections:

24 August 2010

2,000 Hits and 83 Comments Later…

I am learning a lot from the MetaFilter beating I took over the past two days.  There are some interesting and constructive comments that have and will lead to some learning on my part.  So, I am going to try to show some of the comments here that were posted on MetaFilter and show what I have learned. (In going through them the post deviated a bit as I wrote a few reactions, pointed out some comments and shared where I made mistakes).

I would encourage anyone else to jump in with ideas in the comment section here.

23 August 2010

Because They Should Be Honored

Ok I am a little late.

But, even when critical of some things, humanitarians who sacrifice in ways beyond what I can personally understand should be celebrated and thanked.

Though belated, a big thanks to those who commit their lives to the humanitarian endeavor.

Stirring the Pot

This post showed up on MetaFilter Yesterday:

If You Can't Buy 700 Bicycles, Don't Buy Any
August 22, 2010 10:27 AM

The Hughes family does a good deed and gets beaten up by some in the international development community, reigniting the debate on poverty tourism.(previously)
posted by Xurando (79 comments total)
If you check out the links, you will see that they lead back to one of my posts, one from Tales From the Hood and a collection of poverty tourism posts at Good Intentions are Not Enough.  I really holding back commentary for the moment.  I love criticisms, but the stream of comments become quite hateful and defensive almost immediately.  I am glad to spark conversations, it is my goal to do so, but this is not what I had hoped for.  The back and forth I had with Jina Moore is a bit more of what I was hoping for.
On the positive side, never having gone much above 100 or so page views, I had 1,334 yesterday.  I exceeded the previous month’s page views, ~1,000, in a day.

20 August 2010

There is No Such Thing as Normal

The debate over poverty tourism and this post from Tales From the Hood have caused me to reflect more on the idea of what is normal.  The natural place to start is the dictionary. 

Normal is defined by Merriam Webster is, “2 a : according with, constituting, or not deviating from a norm, rule, or principle b :conforming to a type, standard, or regular pattern.”  There are other uses for the term, but that is the only one applicable to considering living standards and expectations in development.

19 August 2010

Smart Aid at South by Southwest

The Smart Aid Initiative has submitted a panel idea to South by Southwest (SXSW) for their 2011 Interactive session. Our idea made the first cut and is now out for public vote. If you’re interested in seeing this topic make it to SXSW please take a minute and vote for it on the panel picker. Here’s a summary of our proposed panel:

18 August 2010

Radiolab and NPR Present Words

This is a complete change of what is usual, but I have to post this because I am beyond enamored by this video. Put together by Radiolab and NPR, this video strings together words through imagery. It is the type of narrative that I enjoy most. To me, this is brilliant.

A Taxonomy of Poverty Tourism and What is the Best Form

Aaron at Staying for Tea puts together the following taxonomy for poverty tourism:
He then goes on to explain all of his classifications that I encourage everyone to go read over at the original post: http://ow.ly/2rm6b .  I could have put it here, but I think that he deserves the traffic for all the effort put into piecing it together.

17 August 2010

DfID drops PD

The Aid Thoughts blog posted this yesterday:
A leaked memo reveals that DfID will be dropping its commitment to the Paris Declaration on Aid Effectiveness.
This is a massive blow. The PD (as it’s known)  is very imperfect, and even the refinements we made in Accra in 2008 left plenty to be desired. But it’s the only real commitment the international community has made to improving donor systems for the management of aid – to making it easier to use, receive, negotiate. What’s worse, it’s one of the few places where recipient Governments are tied down to improvements in the way they themselves manage aid and their domestic resources.

11 August 2010

Are Charity and Philanthropy Modern Indulgences? (as Slavoj Žižek Sees It)

Yesterday morning, I woke up to a tweet from Trevor Mainza suggesting that I check out this video of Slavoj Zizek discussing charity:

You can see the full 30 minutes of the talk (which I highly suggest if you have the time) to get a more complete picture of what Zizek is arguing.  However, the animation and shortened version make it more enjoyable and get across the point.  Plus, Zizek is not a great speaker to watch as he rocks side to side with firm double hand motions and constant brushing of his hair or clearing his nose.  On second thought, at least watch him speak for 2 minutes as it is enjoyable to physically see what it takes for the man to think.  There has to be something tied to his manner of thought and physical gestures.

I am not entirely sure what conversation that I was having that inspired Trevor to send me the tweet, but I watched the video.  After watching, I found the full version and watched that.  I then went on to learn more about Zizek throughout the day as I considered his ideas on charity.  It would take up far too much space to try to sum up what Zizek said in his talk and I would do it incorrectly.  However, for this purpose I will bring up two points.

First, he makes the claim that charity is essentially demeaning to the recipient.  Second, the image of Soros destroying with one hand and building with the other.  The best illustration of Zizek’s first claim comes when he discusses Starbucks, Tom’s Shoes and organic apples.  All fall under what he calls “cultural capitalism;” consumers buy into an idea that still engages in capitalism but leaves them with a greater sense of responsible action (ie. fair trade, giving to the needy and helping the environment, respectively).  He sees it as a combination for those who reject and accept capitalism.  To him, there is no difference other than the feeling that is created when participating in a form of capitalism that has a relation to social justice.  In the end, he does not see this as a solution; then goes further to say that charity acts in a similar way.  People feel better about what they have done, but it is not making things better since the person is still in the same situation.  To relate it to my Pedals for Pets discussion, Zizek is saying that it is nice to give people bikes, but they just end up being poor people who now have a bike.  The circumstances that created and continues the poverty remains.  For him, the changes have to be systemic.  Based on the premise that charity is an inherent part of capitalism, the Communist Zizek sees that it is unable and unwilling to create real change since it is a part of an inherently unequal system.

This leads to the second part I want to point out: the image of Soros.  He basically says it is disingenuous to be a person who makes massive amounts of money through the capitalist system and once the wealth is acquired, give away large sums because it does not really affect the wealthy person.  By name, he pulls Gates into this group.  In short, Zizek claims that the act of destruction and building accomplished at the same time by these kind of people.

This leads me to ask what you all think.  Is Zizek right?  Or maybe a bit misguided?  One thing that I struggle with is the idea of the intent of an individual.  Are Gates and Soros to be celebrated for their achievements or condemned for their participation in a system that creates and perpetuates extreme poverty? Are the actions of charity and philanthropy simply modern indulgences? I would like to add some more comments as I continue to process this and also get feedback from some readers (if you are out there).

Update: I read this post by Joe Turner when it came out that was influenced by his coming across Zizek.  Although he does not really focus on Zizek, I believe that some of my thoughts after hearing his talk had in some way been influenced by Joe.  So, since I am not really sure how I cannot point to something specific, but I think that the correlation to indulgences is there and I would be remiss to not give him his due credit and citation.

Are There Any Positives to Slum Tourism?

I wrote up something quickly last night and did not post it before bed. Lesson. Learned. Today.
And I thought that I was too negative:
To be fair, many foreigners come to the slums wanting to understand poverty, and they leave with what they believe is a better grasp of our desperately poor conditions. The expectation, among the visitors and the tour organizers, is that the experience may lead the tourists to action once they get home.
But it’s just as likely that a tour will come to nothing. After all, looking at conditions like those in Kibera is overwhelming, and I imagine many visitors think that merely bearing witness to such poverty is enough.
Nor do the visitors really interact with us. Aside from the occasional comment, there is no dialogue established, no conversation begun. Slum tourism is a one-way street: They get photos; we lose a piece of our dignity.
The above is an excerpt from a wonderful Op-Ed by Kennedy Odede in the NYT on Tuesday.  In the piece, Mr. Odede speaks of his experiences as a young man living in Kibera slum in Nairobi and the tourist groups which pass by his home.  I cannot express how encouraged I am that the NYT are running pieces like this one.  It is vital that the voices of those who are coming from the nations receiving all the aid, development, and tourist attention are clearly heard.
This is a subject I would like expand on soon, but I want to get some reactions to it.  Is there a place for slum tourism.  Mr. Odede argues, swiftly I might add, that they provide no good to the tourists and the slum inhabitants.  Do you agree or disagree with him?

07 August 2010

A Response Post to A Response Post

Jina Moore takes me to task in response to my thoughts on the Washington Post article about Pets for Pedals.  She brings up a lot of points that I want to address and expand on.  So, I will go in order with her post and add some of my thoughts (please read Jina’s entire post as I have severely edited it so that I can provide a frame of reference to my comments):

[The Hughses] stopped at a local school and learned the kinds of things the rest of us yawn about knowing: that there's no power; that the kids walk forever and a day, barefoot, to get to school; that they have to fetch water on top of that...  Etc.  For this the Hughses, though, that's new knowledge.  And I think we're allowed to be patient about that.

I would change ‘allowed’ to the word ‘should,’ but that is agreeing.  It is easy to forget that not everybody knows and has a full understanding until confronted with poverty/hardship.

So over in the cave, the critique basically goes, "WTF?  This article is terrible, missing all kinds of follow up question sin Tanzania, and this bs should not continue to pass through editorial gates."  A friend and fellow expat-in-Africa journalist had sent me the same article and said, "WTF?  I can't believe this stuff gets printed."

I hope I was not that crude!

It's a piece in the "local living" Sunday features section, written from Loudon, Virginia. . . editors like profiles of locals, especially ones doing nice things, and especially for the Sunday paper.  There's a journalism structure at work here.  So is it an article that fails to do all kinds of important development aid stuff?  Yeah.  But that's not the kind of article it tries to be, and I don't think it's fair to trash it for that.

Point taken and something I had not considered.  It is not the fault of the writer that the piece is what the audience is look for.  However, it is troubling that these kind of feel good stories are encouraged and easily accepted.  Scale matters, as Jina points out, and it is different when a nationally syndicated writer like Nick Kristof writes articles like this or when a small town reporter does.  So, to Miss Gibson, the writer, I am sorry for being too critical.  However, I do hope that you might have come across this discussion and will learn more about the international aid and development for future stories.

[W]hat can get lost in the typical aid critique, like the typical media critique, is the meaning of the kind of thing the Hughes' tried to do. They've bought 45 bikes to help kids get to school.  Karatu has 700 kids.  Obviously there's an imbalance here, and there are all kinds of questions to ask about that.  But does the fact that that's all they can do mean they should do nothing?

This is far too simple of an answer, but if it is sustainable, needed, wanted, beneficial to local economy and people, and so on; the answer is absolutely yes.  How to know that for sure is the tricky part.

My experience with communities in extreme need is that they share the remedy someone offers them, even if that remedy is limited.  Not always, and not always without problems, but that's what I've seen.

Agreed and it is what I attempted to say as well (apparently that did not come across well and that is on me).  My point being that the kids themselves would likely not be the sole users of the bikes.  I agree with the benefits and acknowledged that I went with worst case scenario, but the organization says it is donating bikes so kids will get to school more easily.  I pointed out that there is a good chance the bikes will not be used for that purpose.

And I think that people who are determined enough to be part of a solution to anything, from the crises in Darfur and Congo and beyond to getting bikes to kids in Tanzania -- deserve to be taken seriously.  How do the rest of us help leverage what those with good intentions want to, and clearly simply will, do?

Beautifully said and right on.  It is precisely what I am hoping to learn as well.  To go further a bit, we need to ask, “how do we lift up and encourage these people to be smart about how they get involved in aid and development?”  More people are having experiences like the Hugues, so how can their new passions can be put to a positive use?  I would love to spend more time discussing this topic and invite you to share what you think as either a guest post or as future post on your blog.

These are decisions that are fundamentally about human relationships.


But I'm also for acknowledging that there is meaning and importance is the small-scale human endeavor.  It may not be perfect, but I think it's based on exactly the kind of human connection we're all hoping might the basis for change.

I am in lock-step with you here.  I do not at all want to discourage small scale or individual efforts (in many ways I would be discouraging myself if I did since I have been building up my blog alone).  I see people like Geoffrey Canada as a perfect example of the power of an individual with a great idea, energy, and a deep connection and devotion to a community.


I want to thank Jina for her comments and post.  I really love it when people jump in and tell me where I have made mistakes.  I have stated many times that my goal is to use this as a tool that educates both myself and whatever small audience I have.  Conversation is necessary and encouraged.  Positive comments feed the ego, but negative/constructive ones are the kind I value most as they force me to re-evaluate what I had previously thought.  So thanks and keep the comments coming.

02 August 2010

How American Media Gets it Wrong

Update: This has quickly become my most popular post as a feed in from MetaFilter.  It has lead to some really strong reactions. Unfortunately, the links to not include this response post from Jina Moore: http://ow.ly/2tvKe where she corrects many mistakes I made.  I followed up to her post with this: http://ow.ly/2tvCO  that addresses where I still disagree and where I have now seen that I made a mistake.  It also acts to flesh out some of my thoughts that started here.  So, I welcome all new visitors and encourage you to read the two companion posts.  Comments are great and I hope you will see that I really want to learn more through this.  Please stay respectful and let's try to see if we can learn from each other.  Tom

Update 2: I have created a post based on the lessons I have learned through this process and Aaron Ausland writes a great reflection that calls for 'moderate elitism' which should be read as well.

The Washington Post featured the story of Mark and Naomi Hughes in their Sunday edition.  It tells of the ‘life changing trip’ the two made through East Africa that lead to their realization that students needed bicycles to get to school.
Students were often late because they were walking distances from two to 10 miles and would arrive exhausted. In a village without electricity, the long walk home also meant that they frequently arrived after dark and had no light to study under. And because the nearest secondary schools were even farther away, many children couldn't go at all.

01 August 2010

If You Have Been Living In a Cave….(yea I went there)

One Million Shirts is over.  Jason wrote last week:

It is with a heavy heart that I write this blog post. The past few months have been an eye-opening experience and one that I’ve learned a lot of life lessons from. I am making the decision to indefinitely cease operations for 1MillionShirts. I believe that life is all about timing and that with my other business, now is not the time to undertake building a non-profit organization. I don’t want to completely remove the website as I do see an opportunity to revisit it, and by leaving it up, it’s my hope that others may learn from this experience.

The negative feedback, the angry blog posts, the scathing emails, all of that has had no effect on this decision. Trust me, I had a lot more negative feedback with iwearyourshirt.com.

I think he misses the point of the criticisms that he received when the idea started.  The point was to show that beginning non for profit projects is not easy.  The discouragement was not aimed to say it is impossible, but to show that there needs to be significant thought, planning, time, and energy when starting something like One Million Shirts. 

So, as he says that he cannot continue due to lack of time and then follows up by saying that the feedback had nothing to do with it, Jason still does not seem to get it.

Jason, here is a secret, we are not having a party because you did not succeed.  Champagne was not uncorked with hearty back slaps and chuckles in the aid blog community.  We did not want YOU to fail.  There was a recognition that your idea was put together with some poor advice and propelled by good intentions.  Some reactions were strong, but many, such as myself, encouraged you to put your talents to use in a better way.  One Million Shirts is not a program that uses your talents to their fullest.  With your ability to launch, maintain and grow I Wear Your Shirt, it is undeniable that you have a talent to leverage social media with innovation and little resources.  So, I do not want to entirely discourage you.  However, I caution that you approach your new project (or the continuation of 1MS) in a more deliberate manner. 

To finish, here is a final secret: the people who criticized you would much rather work with individuals who have dynamic ideas and talents to develop programs that will be effective and sustainable.  Smart Aid is not an idea that espouses the destruction of innovation, it wants to encourage it.