31 May 2011

The Rogue Ambassadors: Two undiplomatic American diplomats to Kenya (guest post)

The following is a guest post by Abdullahi B Halakhe. Abdullahi worked as a journalist in both Kenya and Uganda for various media outlets. Currently he reside in New York City, and his area of interest lies at the intersection international security policy, communications and climate change, in Africa.

Two American ambassadors to Kenya, Smith Hempstone and Michael E. Ranneberger, have had undiplomatic relations with the host country.

Opinions about them were divided down the middle: opposition groups saw them as the vanguard of democracy, while the government regarded them as undiplomatic.

Smith Hempstone served as the American ambassador to Kenya from 1989-1993. He was appointed by George H. W. Bush, arrived in Nairobi towards the end of the Cold War, and stayed until 1993.
The nascent opposition movement in the 1990s regarded him as the guardian angel; however, the government considered him a racist. The then-Minister for Foreign Affairs, Wilson Ndolo Ayah, once branded him a “racist with a slave-owner mentality,” to which he replied, with good measure, “All the people I am helping are blacks”

Hempstone’s arrival coincided with the period when the Breton Woods institutions were pushing for expansion of the democratic space as a precondition of disbursement of any financial aid to most African countries. This placed him on a collision course with Moi, who saw that as interferences in the internal affairs of Kenya.

This led to strained relations between the two countries. The fact that Kenya was in the West’s corner counted for little when it came to the push for democracy from the United States. In fact, the ambassador and Washington continuously catalogued the regime’s abysmal human rights record, entrenched corruption, and incessant crackdown on opposition groups.

27 May 2011

Weekend Tunes: Beardyman

I saw him perform on some late night TV show Tuesday and was impressed. Plus, he has the best name ever.

Happy Friday!

Filter Bubbles in Control?

As web companies strive to tailor their services (including news and search results) to our personal tastes, there's a dangerous unintended consequence: We get trapped in a "filter bubble" and don't get exposed to information that could challenge or broaden our worldview. Eli Pariser argues powerfully that this will ultimately prove to be bad for us and bad for democracy.
What strikes me about this TED talk is how easy it is to create our own bubbles.  In the space of twitter, I actively follow people who consistently discuss development and aid.  My tweets and blog posts largely reach that audience, yet I worry about reaching the audience that has a passing interest.  They are the majority and the ones which have an enormous impact on the way that aid is implemented and communicated through their collective purse.

I want to be able to expand my created bubble to communicate with more and further understand what differing views exist and why they are formed.  Specifically, it interests me that some really bad aid projects get a lot of attention and support when they clearly are not doing what they claim to be doing.  Support for these projects is built on slick communications, the feeling of doing good and the creation of a greater community.  All of those things are noble, but create bubbles which do not include critical thought about the effectiveness of the programs.

To some extent we (including myself) actively create these bubbles of thought.  I would love to have more people convinced that critically looking at aid projects is a good idea and that good intentions should largely be put to the side when discussing if something actually works.  In doing so, I am creating a bubble around myself with the hope that others will join; thus not making me too different from the projects I criticize.

In this space, conversations are largely between those who are apt to using social media tools and are already actively thinking about the subject in a critical manner.  Some will enter the space when a topic or organization of interest is brought up, but the bubble exists.  Worse yet, the few that want to actively engage can feel shut off by the aid blogging and twitter clique that has emerged.

What I try to do is to actively encourage people who might not otherwise have considered engaging to do so. We need more people than myself and a few others blogging and tweeting around these topics so that the bubble, which is inevitable, will get a little bit bigger and bring in more people who can push things out a bit further. Until then, the echo chamber abounds and thought stays largely insular.

26 May 2011

Football + Gender + Kenya + Soap Opera

I recently stumbled across the Kenyan television show The Team on ViewChange. The website describes the show:
This series is a metaphor of Kenyan society. The team members and the coach have been brought together from many of Kenya’s tribal groups to play together on a co-ed league. The league has been formed and financed by a group of wealthy international philanthropists and businessmen who believe sport will be a way to neutralize the ethnic hatred that shook Kenya after the last elections.

The characters are from broken families, even as Kenya itself, is a broken country. In that way, the team becomes a surrogate family for our players. They all want a ‘family’ but no one knows how to reach out and get it. Each of the players, and the coach, struggle to overcome ethnic hatred that sparked violent confrontations after the elections. The purpose of the series is to show that it is possible for people to overcome their differences for the good of all.
 I have only watched a bit, but it is on my list of shows to explore.

25 May 2011

Things I Like: Engineers Without Borders

This is a continuation in my weekly series Things I Like. Last week I featured Beyond Good Intentions. You can follow the series by going here. Comments are always encouraged; especially suggestions.

So they got me with the nerdy campaign above, but Engineers Without Borders (EWB) is not just about being a development nerd. They are also responsible for sharing organizational failures and creating a space where others can share information and admit failure. Any organization which is brave enough to say that it is nor perfect scores some bonus points for me.

EWB leans on the skill set of its members to find and implement innovative solutions in development. It is encouraging to see people who can bring new skills to the table so that others may benefit and learn. This creates a shift in focus which is now evident in their admission of failure and the above graphic which forces the viewer to think about the continuity of projects after the cameras have flashed and celebrations take place.

In terms of skills, it allows for them to be shared in a way that can lead to project sustainability.  In order for wells to be successful, there has to be training to enable people within the community to maintain the well.  This understanding builds the foundation for individuals to develop and maintain projects within their community.  By passing along skills, EWB makes itself less needed.

Note: As Stephen comments below, I am specifically talking about EWB-Canada. The website notes,"Most of these organisations started between 2001-2003, following EWB-Canada's inception. Each is legally independent and there is no formal affiliation among them."  There are some informal connections between each of them, but there are differences in things like mission and structure.  I have a positive view of the other EWB organizations, but the Canadian one is what I am talking about in this post.

23 May 2011

Think Tanks Takeover Aid...

This was an idea which I have certainly never considered...
So what if, instead of attempting to pay for irrigation canals and nursing schools, some of that aid money instead went to pay for political think tanks?

That was the unlikely idea proposed to me recently by Rakesh Mohan, the renowned Indian economist, former central banker and economic reformer...

“Now that it’s 50 or 60 years since these countries won their independence, it’s high time they started to develop their own institutions of independent governance,” he told me. “Too many of their problems are caused by the short-term nature of the political system, and the lack of lasting knowledge. This is what leads to corruption.”

...Mr. Mohan is part of a group of economists who are backing an unorthodox international project called the Think Tank Initiative, in which Western government aid agencies pay for the creation and long-term operation of dozens of political and economic think tanks in the poorest countries of Africa, Asia and Latin America...

Financing a think tank is more radical than it seems: It implies paying for change, debate and risk rather than for stability and certainty. It may well end up helping political parties we find disagreeable, such as the Muslim Brotherhood – but it also increases the odds of those elected parties becoming more moderate and effective; isolating them does the opposite. Besides, we have learned what happens when we pay for stability at all costs. Well-informed dissent is good aid. It is time to let a thousand political arguments bloom.

I am going to jump into this debate next week, but I wanted to at least share parts of the article and get some conversation going in the comments section. What do you think?

Microfinance USA

I will be tweeting live from Microfinance USA in New York City today and tomorrow. Sorry if I blog up your feed...I will also put up a few posts during the two days and over the next week or so to share the panels and a few reflections.

You can see the schedule here and even watch some of the sessions live by going here.

I have signed up to attend the following sessions. If you have interest in any of these choices or feel that I should see something else, let me know and I will do my best to accommodate.

Monday May 23
Financial Diaries: New Focus on the U.S. from the Authors of Portfolios of the Poor 1:00 PM
Promise and Peril of Microfinance Impact Evaluations 2:00 PM
Social Entrepreneurship & Microfinance 3:45 PM

Tuesday May 24
Lessons Learned: Transformative Technology in Microfinance 11:15 AM
Lasting Access: How Pioneering Institutions are Making a Business Case for Serving the Unbanked 2:45 PM
Case Study: State of Microfinance in India 4:15 PM

21 May 2011

Reacting To Kagame/Birrell Exchange

Nkunda is a Rwandan blogger I met last fall. After the heated exchange between Kagame and Birrell lead to an extensive debate in the comments section of this blog I reached out to Nkunda for him to share his thoughts on the leader and twitter exchange. With his permission I am cross-posting his reaction.
Kagame vs Journalist: What Kagame's Twitter Fights Reveal

The twitter exchange between President Paul Kagame and veteran journalist Ian Birrell has sparked the kind of media interest unusually generated by twitter. The conversation has attracted wide coverage either in the form of news and op-eds. Similarly, both the content and medium have raised question. Some have asked whether Kagame’s confrontational style is compatible with the normal decorum of a head of state. To his credit, Birrell has defended Kagame arguing that, “It is admirable to see a leader engaging so personally with new means of communication.” Still, it is very clear that the twitter exchange exposed Kagame’s much darker side: a rabid intolerance to even the slightest form of criticism coupled with near dogmatic belief in his invincibility. These characteristics are exactly what hinder democratic development in Rwanda.

As with every instance that gives Kagame a public relations nightmare, The New Times Kigali is often the first to fire back. To Rwanda watcher, its standard procedure is already clear: any attack on Kagame is an attack on Rwanda. Never can Kagame be wrong. Sadly, this exactly the approach adopted by Rwanda’s foreign minister, Louise Mushikiwabo. Instead of addressing the issues under discussion namely; Kagame’s interference with media’s independence, she found it worth her time to launch personal attacks against he journaist. She wrote, “Let me preface my account by revealing that Ian Birrell is no stranger to most observers who follow how Western journalists treat Africans as a people who need foreigners to decide what is good for them.” She goes ahead to indicate that only those journalists who agree with Rwanda’s point of view deserve to be taken seriously. Of course this is hardly surprising coming from a regime with a strong distaste for free thought.

On Mushikiwabo a brief disclaimer is necessary. Unlike Kagame, Mushikawabo is hardly a despot. If she is then her life story reveals no such indication. A polyglot, she lived in the United States since 1986. She belongs to the family of the late Lando Ndasingwa, a pro-democracy activist and a member of Habyarimana’s cabinet whose entire family was massacred during the genocide. Like many Rwandans, Mushikiwabo would return to Rwanda to help with the reconstruction effort. How she ended up an apologist for a dictatorship, which his late brother would have undoubtedly opposed, is something I feel unqualified to explain. It is one of those tragic episodes in Rwanda’s long and bitter history.

Her blanket attack on “foreigners” is most unfortunate. Rwanda has spent the last decade marketing herself as safe bet for foreign investors. There is reason to believe that their efforts have garnered considerable success. However, if you want foreign investment you must be willing to open yourself up to (foreign) scrutuny as well. An undemocratic Rwanda cannot be good for foreign investment. I suspect that the prime motivation for Kagame to aim for investment rather than aid is the desire to be a full blown, autonomous dictator. He wants to be able to imprison who he may without having to explain to foreign embassies. At the moment, he lacks such freedom. However, even putting investment aside, Kagame has foreigners to thank for his celebrity status around the world. Journalists aware of his contribution towards ending the 1994 have been reluctant to criticize him and have helped create his personality cult. Unforutantely, his message is that foreigners are only good if they fit his personal agenda.

Also criticizing Ian Birrell was Fred Oluoch-Ojiwah, who heads the editorial at New Times. Ironically, Oluoch Ojiwah, a Kenyan citizen, is more of a Rwanda expert than the Rwandans who oppose Kagame. But this is also not surprising at all. Try to debate with Andrew Mwenda on Rwanda and you will not fail to notice how zealously he defends Kagame. I have no problem with that. However, other views should also be respected including those that disagree with Kagame. Mr. Kagame might well be a hero but that does not canonize him beyond criticism.

I am unsure where social media will lead us next. Deep inside my heart though, I can’t help but wish that some of these conversations would be held in Rwanda. Like one commentator said, “it is a shame he [Kagame] doesn’t allow such debate in Rwanda with his own people.” They are easy to have on twitter!

20 May 2011

Weekend Tunes: Trinity Orchestra

When you have an entirely student run orchestra some bold decisions are bound to be made. The Trinity College orchestra fits the bill and performed Daft Punk's album 'Discovery' in its entirety earlier this year. Sadly, they do not share the entire performance, but they did post the medley encore that leaves me wanting to see the full performance. From what it looks like, they performed Radiohead's "OK Computer" last year.

Anyone out in Dublin been to a performance?

Happy Friday!

HT The Fox is Black

Pretending to Be Poor is Fun! (and Useless)

When I learned about "Live Below the Line," I was going to shoot off a snarky post about the idea. Unfortunately, I have been on a semi-vacation and did not write the post. Fortunately, Good did write a post and it was much better and snarkier than anything I would have written.
Live Below the Line makes its first mistake in using the word "live." To live, at least in my mind, means to really experience something, to understand an existence in such a way that you could describe its nooks and crannies with your eyes closed. Not spending a lot of money on food isn't "living" below the line, because regardless of how you eat, chances are your home is still stocked with Ikea stuff, a comfortable bed, hot water, air conditioning, digital cable, etc. People forced to spend no more than $1.50 a day on food are also forced to live with violence, exposure to the elements, disease, and war. Saying you're living like them because you've decided to give up fancy sandwiches for five days is like someone saying they can empathize with Nelson Mandela because they spent a night in the drunk tank.
What strikes me is that this is "One Day Without Shoes" packaged with new wrapping paper and a shiny bow. Although two different writers, Good was much kinder to TOMS than it was to the Global Poverty Project when the two did the same thing. If you take the excerpt above and change the context to not wearing shoes for a day the appropriateness of the criticism would remain.

Author Cord Jefferson gets at the idea of the fact that it is patronizing. These types of campaigns want people to take a short period of time to experience what it is like to be living in poverty with a short-term projects meant to make them uncomfortable. The push is to say that it is an act of solidarity by living as many people around the world live every day.

What is missing from this is the fact that nobody is asking for people to experience it. I am sure that going to Kibera and telling people there that Americans are living on $1.25 a day to know what it is like to be from a slum would be met with a confused glare.

That aside, the exercise has no value because it is a simulation. The people living on very little money for a week have an end in sight. They have made the choice to enter simulated poverty and will leave it as soon as the week ends. Even if they were homeless for the week* they still get to go home with a bank account, job, family support, material goods, etc.

No matter what, the safety net will always be there. For someone living in poverty the net was never there and likely never will. Struggling to meet the needs of a family is constant, not a vacation. So, rather than continuing these exercises which miss the point and demean those living in poverty, let's look at poverty solutions through aid and development.


After writing this, I read this comment by David Week on Ed Carr's post on the campaign:
One of my favourite books is “Instructions to the Cook”, by Bernard Glassman Roshi. This is a re-interpretation of an 800 year old Zen text, for modern times. And one of my favourite parts of this book is a description of how Glassman’s Zen community in NYC decided to set up a program for the homeless. Before doing so, they decided that they couldn’t help the homeless unless they understood the homeless, and the only way to understand them was to become homeless for a while. So all the workers in this program, including Glassman, spent two weeks homeless, living on the streets of NYC, meeting up just once every 24 hours to ensure everyone was okay.

The outcome: almost every preconception they had about the lives of the poor was turned its head.
I do not think this refutes my original argument in regards to the lack of permanence in such exercises, but does suggest that there might be an effective way to accomplish broader awareness. Living homeless for two weeks is very different than staying at home and surviving on $1.25 a day for a week, but they both still do have an end point. Overall, it would be impractical for every person to live among the homeless for two weeks, but personal experience can be a long-lasting solution.

Knowing David, he would want to also add the comment he shared with Ed, so I wanted to present it as something else to consider.

*A really good satire of this is the film Sullivan's Travels. See it.

19 May 2011

Howard French on Rape Story in the DRC

There is something wrong when the narrative of the Democratic Republic of the Congo is one of rape when thousands of people have died due to the conflict argues Howard French. In the video, he questions the draw to stories of rape and less coverage of death. To me, he does an excellent job in saying that rape is terrible and should be reported, but it is not the only thing happening in the DRC. In fact, it is not the only atrocity.

The question is how to add to the existing narrative. I do not see it changing any time soon.

HT Texas In Africa

18 May 2011

Things I Like: Beyond Good Intentions

This is the fourth post in my weekly series Things I Like.  Last time I featured the Imagining a World Without Atrocities series.  You can follow the series by going here.

No, this is not a repeat of Things I Like, although it does sound similar to More than Good Intentions the book by Dean Karlan and Jacob Appel. Beyond Good Intentions is a series of short videos by filmmaker Tori Hogan that attempt to determine "how international aid can be more effective." Each of the 10 videos run about 5 minutes and cover topics such as aid workers, volunteering, faith, and micro-loans.

The videos provide a good introduction to the topic for those who may not have considered all of the parts which go into international aid or have ever examined those parts with a critical eye. She presents the topic, shares her personal thoughts, but largely allows the people featured to share their opinions and motivations.

"For me,the goal of this series is to catalyze a much-needed dialogue about aid effectiveness, and to start a movement towards change," says Tori and I believe she accomplishes her goal through these videos to get the conversation started. The videos will not win anyone over, but should serve as a way to induce discussions and force people to be confronted with a complex picture of international aid.

17 May 2011

Africa: From Charity to Industry

Matt Muspratt, who writes an excellent blog, provides some additional comments to my post on the Guardian discussing poverty tourism.
But more problematic than poverty tourism per se is the prism through which NGOs like Water 1st insist their visitors gaze: The prism of Africa as charity case.

Indeed, for all the eyes these trips open, I strenuously reject the assertion from a Water 1st staffer that “It's a better way of seeing real life in a country than you can see any other way.” This is because rather than providing a “better way,” Water 1st is in actuality requiring visitors to view African communities “their way” -- that is, primarily as objects of Western aid.

A trip organized and hosted by a Western NGO inherently reinforces the instinct embedded in 11-year-olds. These NGOs are asserting there is no such thing as Africa on its own terms, just Africa in the context of Western aid...

Requiring the public to view tough Ohio schools as needing rescue by a white calvary -- or requiring “poverty” and “hunger” to be synonyms and Mortenson’s narrative to describe AfPak aid -- yields undesirable consequences and prevents Ohio schooling, the poor, and Afghanistan and Pakistan from being understood on their own terms.

That NGOs are packaging Africa trips with Western-aid tinted glasses does not bode well for adding nuance to an 11-year-old’s concept of Africa and Africans.
I think that Matt effectively gets to the heart of one of the most significant problems with poverty tours. In my original post, I came from the perspective of accepting the desire of people to have first-hand experience and for NGOs to provide it. It does not make me comfortable, but it does exist.

Therefore, I advocate for immersion trips as a way to address the issues Matt brings up conceding that the trips will in fact take place. If an experience leaves people feeling no different than his 11 year-old cousin that it is a wild failure. Seeing the complexity of poverty can be a way to introduce the nuance that both Matt and I would like to see.

I hope for the day when Matt, or anyone, can be in the same situation and the question is not about what charity work he does in Ghana, but what industry he works in. No different than that of a person who does any other line of work in any other country. That will be the day when Africa is no longer seen as the 'dark continent' full of charities, but one with many countries and industries that contribute to the global economy just like any other high-income nation.

16 May 2011

Weigh In: The Challenges of Advocacy

Bec Hamilton, author of the fantastic book on Darfur advocacy, Fighting for Darfur, is in the process of creating a discussion guide for those wanting to use her book in the classroom. To that end, she's asked several bloggers (including UN Dispatch's Mark Leon Goldberg, Laura Seay of Texas in Africa, and me) to host discussions on these questions. 

When given the opportunity to select a question, I went with the one which I struggle with the most.  In this blog I often discuss how the answers are not found at the extremes, rather somewhere in the middle.  This question from Bec asks if the middle is appropriate when considering advocacy efforts for situations like Darfur.  I would love to hear your opinions on the questions posed and I too will weigh in through the comments section of the post. Be sure to also check out the discussion as it happens on Bec's blog.
There are views along a spectrum about the appropriate role for citizens in the foreign policy process. On one view, citizens should focus solely on “noise-making” - akin to the ‘bumper-sticker’ model the Save Darfur movement was pursuing until 2006. Under another view, citizens should be pushing for specific policies generated by advocacy leaders – akin to the model the Enough Project follows. What are the risks at either end of the spectrum? What would be the challenges in pursuing a middle-ground?

15 May 2011

Chanel 4 News Covers Kagame-Birrell Twitter Exchange

This evening, Ian Birrell sat down with the UK's Channel 4 News to discuss his thoughts on the exchange he had with Rwanda's President Paul Kagame.  The report does a good job of providing a short summary of the exchange and hits on the key points.

You can read the full exchange here.

14 May 2011

Ian Birrell vs Paul Kagame on Twitter

I am now also including media coverage and blog posts about the exchange at the bottom; please tweet me or comment as more cover the story.

Journalist Ian Birrell got into a spirited exchange with Rwandan President Paul Kagame over twitter today.  In addition, Louise Mushikiwabo, Rwanda's Minister of Foreign Affairs & Cooperation, joined in the discussion. Yes, you read that correctly.  The President of a nation engaged with a critic on twitter.  Below I have assembled the exchange between the two.
IB: No-one in media, UN or human rights groups has the moral right to criticise me, says despotic & deluded @PaulKagame http://on.ft.com/kfJyia 
IB: Kagame refused to even answer if he is a religious believer. When asked, he replied 'Yes and no.' 
PK: @ianbirrell. Not you either...no moral right! You give yourslf the right to abuse pple and judge them like you r the one to decide ... 
PK: @ianbirrell....and determine universally what s right or wrong and what shd be believed or not!!! Wrong u r ...u have no such right .. 
IB: @PaulKagame Fail to see why you think I have no moral right to offer criticism and opinions. Pls explain further 
IB: @PaulKagame And once more, pls explain how and why I 'just pretend' 
IB: @PaulKagame Although aware of what happens with regard to press freedom and those who criticise you in Rwanda 
PK: @ianbirrell. Ask Rwandans they will tell u I am not what u call me and I am sure they r not what you think they are...! 
PK: @ianbirrell. You have no basis for your comments and you dont kno what you r talking about me or Rw. I will only hold all that in contempt! 
IB: @PaulKagame Plenty of evidence - & your statement that no-one in media, UN or human rights groups can criticise you underlines the point 
IB:@PaulKagame Presume this is why you dislike human rights groups http://bit.ly/kTG9eD 
PK: @ianbirrell. Africa-Rw- will need Africans to work in the lead n in concert with others globaLly who r genuine to put things right.... 

13 May 2011

Weekend Tunes: Bon Iver

Bon Iver, now better known for being used by Kanye West, performs Flume. Yea, it is a bit of a slower tune, but feels very spring to me.

Happy Friday!

Freakonomics Philanthropy Flop

Freakonomics is giving James Altucher another go to explain why he does not donate to major charities. The first time took on the topic, Altucher garnered a lot of justified criticisms in regards to his post. The second time around does not fare much better. In fact it further exposes some of the major misconceptions he has about how nonprofits work.

3) I don’t like paying administrative overhead. For every $1 someone donates to the American Cancer Society, 9.8 cents goes to administrative costs. I’m happy that people have jobs and are hired and I have nothing against those that work for the ACS. But I bet if I used that money to start my own company (or, again, directly help people through my own micro-charity), then more people would have jobs as a result, and more people would get their problems solved. And the ACS is probably one of the best-run major charities out there.

4) I don’t like paying marketing costs. I didn’t realize this until I looked it up. But for every dollar I give to the American Cancer Society, 21.8 cents goes toward furthering their marketing efforts. I thought I just gave them money. Now they need more money already? So only 70 cents of my dollar goes to actually helping the families with cancer.

Nobody, except for people working for a nonprofit, actually likes overhead. It is just like nobody likes paying taxes. However, how does Mr. Altucher expect his donation to be used effectively? If 10% of his donation goes to people who ensure that the rest has a far-reaching impact it is a small price to pay for high impact. Mr. Altucher comes from the world of stocks where he can make the personal decision to make investments and live with the consequences of his own choices. The services provided by a nonprofit cannot be evaluated by simply looking at the return on investment through personal satisfaction and making a person fell better. Major charities exist to address the root causes of poverty and work to alleviate them. Not one is perfect, but they are not as bad as Mr Altucher would like his readers to believe. If that is not sufficient he starts to unravel long before the end of the list, claiming that global warming has "a lot of mixed evidence" did a sufficient job in undermining his thoughts.
Example: there are many charities that try to do something about global warming. However, there is a lot of mixed evidence of global warming. If people stopped donating to these charities, even if all the evidence suggests that their cause is meaningless, a lot of jobs would be lost.

Finally, I am disappointed by Freakonomics in posting the two from Mr. Altucher. I have admired their book and recently blogging. Dean Karlan has had a post or two talking about RCTs and effective interventions. Opposing views and ideas should be encouraged, but well reasoned.

12 May 2011

Simple Narratives in Sports

Joe Posnanski, who writes for Sports Illustrated, also maintains one of the best all-around sports blogs. His latest post takes a look at post-steroids era baseball and the simplicity of attributing lower offensive output to no more steroids in baseball. At the start he gives one of the best examples of the 'simple narrative' which rears its ugly head in the development world but is pervasive in just about everything else.
One of the constant themes here is the power of narrative in sports. We like a good, clean narrative. Take Tiger Woods. Let's say Tiger Woods never wins another major championship. I think he will win again, but let's just say for argument's sake that he does not. What will the narrative be?

It will be this: Tiger Woods was well on his way to becoming the greatest golfer who ever lived when his personal life spiraled out control and he never recovered from that. 
AT&T National Golf Tournament @ Congressional Country Club - Hosted by Tiger Woods
Would that be the whole story? No. I don't think so. I'm not sure it would even be the major part of the story. If Tiger Woods never wins another major it will be because he hit his mid-30s when most golfers begin to lose their game, because his knee never came all the way back, because putts stopped dropping (as they tend to do), because talented younger golfers came along, because equipment changes flattened his advantages, because ... because ... because ... the world is more complicated than any single line. Was Tiger Woods' six-month romp through the tabloids devastating? I have no doubt. Did it play a role in his slump? I have no doubt. But there are a thousand other factors flying around here.

Over time, I suspect, those thousand other factors will be lost to time and the story will be: Tiger messed around, got caught, and never was the same.

Why? Because that's an easy-to-follow narrative. And because the public explosion of Tiger Woods' personal life is the most interesting part of the story.
We like simple narratives. This is an old topic, but I bring it up because it is always in the context of development. This is not development related in topic at all, but the same problem exists. While being critical of the use of simple narrative by a given NGO, I think I have neglected to mention or even consider that it is pervasive in everything else.

The Red Sox ALCS comeback in 2004 almost always has people talking about Curt Schilling's bloody sock. What they forget is that Schilling, while serving up a gutsy performance, was not all that great in the game. The Yankees line up continued to swing at pitches out of the zone. The past two games the Yanks had the chance to put the series away and failed to do so. Energy was lacking in the New York line up and hope was building within the Red Sox and it could be heard throughout Fenway. In other words, the Yankees choked and the Sox pulled themselves together.

The simple story is that the will of the Sox defeated the evil Yankees. That sounds really nice but is just not true. Many small things came together to put the Yankees up 3-0 and eventually lose 4 straight.

Even when working together, a single actor does not have complete control over an outcome. It probably made many Red Sox fans sleep a little easier to have Bill Buckner as the scapegoat for losing the 1986 World Series. Did they forget the wild pitch that tied up the game before Mookie hit the fateful grounder down the first base line? How about the barrage of singles that came before that with two outs and in some cases, two strikes? For Cubs fans the name is Steve Bartman and there are other examples in other sports.

Simplicity is problematic because it betrays the truth of what took place and caused an event to happen. NGOs and governments have the opportunity of moving away from simplicity by engaging in a continuous dialog with their donors and advocates. Social media is a great space for this since a series of posts can develop a conversation and unveil some of the finer points of how aid and development work.

Queens - Flushing: Shea Stadium - 1986 World Series Celebration Banner
Unfortunately, there is little evidence that any large organization is doing this in earnest. World Vision USA has done a mediocre job and the same goes with Oxfam by having Duncan Green blog. The model, to me, still is the Center for Global Development who use different platforms with many of their lead researchers and fellows participating, but they only half count since they are more of a think tank than an NGO.

So who is going to step up to the plate? Or are we going to still hear more stories about Bill Buckner?

11 May 2011

The Guardian Does Poverty Tourism

Poverty tourism takes center stage at The Guardian Travel section (subheading 'ethical holidays'). The focus is square upon NGOs who, according to the report, are increasingly more likely provide tour opportunities for donors.
"We try to make this affordable for as many people as possible while covering our costs," he adds. The trip, excluding flights, cost $1,600 (£980) a head. "We don't demand anything in return. But we make our money in donations when people get back home." Some donors increase their donations from three figures to five figures, while others become loyal fundraisers for life.

Those who went on the Ethiopia trip said they had an "awesome", inspiring time and learned a lot. The children were "like sponges", said one mother, absorbing the reality of a world where children laugh and take care of each other despite having flies crawling on their faces and no shoes.

"The children were very dirty, very happy and excited and very welcoming. I played with a little girl who was really cute and super smart," says Ghislaine, who is eager to go back.

The group is aware that critics may accuse them of poverty tourism – paying to look at the poor to assuage their guilt. But most of those who travelled to Ethiopia talk of something more positive.

"We live in a little bubble – we are comfortable, we have nice houses, food on our plates, clean water," says Susan Sercu, 39, who took her 12-year-old daughter Giuliana on the trip. "What this does is give us more of a global perspective. It's a chance to expose our children to what happens in the rest of the world. We want our children to be empathetic and informed...

Last year, for the first time, the US branch of Plan International turned to a specialist travel agency to organise a group donor trip to Ghana. Elevate Destinations says that its "donor tourism" business is growing fast – it is organising trips to three more countries this year for Plan USA donors alone.

Many though, and particularly those focused on emergency relief, are scathing of the idea of an aid agency regularly taking larger groups of visitors to see its work. Two years ago MSF Switzerland instituted a policy of taking donors to the field two at a time. But, says communications chief Laurent Sauveur, "we are a far cry from any concept of humanitarian tourism. We are not acting as a tour agency."
The article does quite a good job of showing the issue, describing how the trips work, and exposing some of the criticisms and ethical concerns related with the trip. I continue to believe that immersion trips, if done well, can be an effective way to expose people to global poverty without stripping the locals of their dignity. The fact is that supply and demand both exist, so an argument over if they should or should not take place misses the opportunity to make them better.

For an NGO, having donors see their projects is an excellent way of building connections with long term donors who can then tell other people of their experience. Couple that with strong education and information while on the trip and a more informed global citizen has been created. Not everyone can afford such trips, but some will go and there is an opportunity to use the time to make the world of a few people just a bit bigger or even burst their "little bubble."

10 May 2011

Microfinance USA: A Pre-Conference Post

This past fall, I was fortunate enough to have been invited to attend the Microfinance Impact and Innovation Conference in New York City. There, the top researchers and practitioners gathered to discuss some of the latest findings in the field of microfinance with the intention that the two groups would be able to connect. Abhijit Banerjee presented an idea on the gap between small and large businesses. He was struck by the fact that few small businesses were able to make the leap to larger growth. Siezing on the idea of the 'missing middle' I reflected on the conference writing:
There were some who were encouraged by the dialog taking place in New York, but a ‘missing middle’ remains between the practitioners and researchers. RCTs are too slow, but they are by far the best way at doing the research necessary to understanding what works in development in aid. What I see missing in the middle is that there needs to be an understanding that they can provide information to each other that can lead to the innovations which can significantly shift the trajectory of poverty. There is a need for both, each knows that, but they need to learn to play nice.
The Microfinance USA Conference in two weeks aims to accomplish the same end by bringing together researchers and practitioners to encourage more conversation between the two. What I will be looking for is if the gap between the two has grown smaller since September.

With books like More than Good Intentions and Poor Economics coupled with the recent happenings in AP and the ousting of Yunus, I feel safe in saying that the microfinance landscape has changed rather significantly in a matter of months.

My focal post will be on the "Savings: The Future of Microfinance" session with Robert A. Annibale, Citi Microfinance and Community Development; Dean Karlan, Yale University; Lisa Mensah, The Aspen Institute, Initiative on Financial Security; and Stephen Rasmussen, World Bank. Savings looks to be one of the most promising opportunities in the field of microfinance but gets far less attention being that it is not as sexy as loans that can be used to grow a business or ensure a child's education. What has been lost is that savings, with the right incentives, can have an even greater impact.

Throughout the conference I will be live tweeting to share information and add quick commentary. In addition, I will put up some rapid posts based on my notes and more thoughtful posts which will reflect on specific sessions and the overall event.

Please feel free to use the comments section here if you want to share some ideas before the conference or have any requests for coverage. I am open to requests and suggestions. You can view the entire agenda by going here.

Country Breakdown of Population living on < $10 a Day

Via The Economist

09 May 2011

Breaking News: One Dimensional Loans Are Problematic

Oxfam and Concern Worldwide have a report which examines the impact of targeting women with microfinance programs, reports The Guardian.
The report found many NGO programmes in Zimbabwe and Kenya targeted women, but did not actively involve men – a policy that can alienate or disempower men or negate feelings of responsibility.

Amina Abdulla, programme manager at Concern in Kenya, said men shied away from requesting assistance when food prices spiked in 2009 because their cash transfers targeted women, assuming men would not spend it wisely. However, the 10% of men who did receive cash in hand spent the money quite responsibly, contradicting stereotypes, she said.

06 May 2011

Weekend Tunes: John Butler's Ocean

I skipped through him babbling on about the song to get to the good part; the song itself.  I hope you enjoy it as much as I do.

Banerjee on NPR

Abhijit Banerjee discusses how to work with human behavior rather than against it as he discusses the points he and Esther Duflo make in their new book Poor Economics.  It is a rather quick listen (3 minutes), but a reasonable introduction to the topic for those who may not be aware of the research, new books and the ways in which aid programs can shift.

10 Billion People by 2100

The global population will hit 7 billion to celebrate Halloween, but the growth projections for the century paint a remarkable picture.  By 2100, it is predicted that 10 billion people will be on the planet and the present population distributions will be vastly different.

The Economist shares what this looks like in the picture to the left where you can see the rapid growth of Nigeria in comparison to the estimated decline in population that India and China will see starting in 2050.  

What is remarkable is the fact that India will see sharp growth over the next 40 years and then an immediate decline.  I do not know all that goes into a nation's income classification, but wonder if it is possible that the 'middle income' designation will be called into question if the growth rate continues at the projected pace and poverty levels either grow or stagnate.  I am not at all sure what poverty will look like in India by 2050 (hopefully the comments can clear that up), but am wondering aloud.

Conversely, what will the drop below one billion mean for China?  It has build capacity for cities to address present demands which will eventually decline.  What will this mean for the economy?  Will less live in the countryside?  Will productivity decline?  Will the GDP contract or slow down in growth?  I am curious to find out more answers in regards to these questions.  

If you know an answer, have a resource or even an opinion, feel free to jump in and use the comments section.

The Economist adds this caveat:
Such forecasts need to be taken with a bucketload of salt: tiny shifts in today’s birth rate extrapolated over 90 years produce huge changes. But the general picture is probably right. Sub-Saharan Africa’s current population, at 856m, is little more than Europe’s and a fifth of Asia’s. By 2050 it could be almost three times Europe’s and by 2100 might even be three-quarters of the size of Asia. By any measure, Africa is by far the fastest-growing continent.

05 May 2011

John Kufuor Says Investments Not Charity

Former Ghanaian President John Kufuor is interviewed on CNN where he talks about business on the continent. This is from late March and has sat in my draft folder for awhile. So apologies for being a tad delayed. Never-the-less, it is still worth watching as it is less timely than it is informative as to how the former leader views the development of his own nation during and after his tenure. 

Of note, Kufuor says in the interview:
It's good governance, is the main thing. Not only good governance, but a good legal framework which would generate a business-friendly atmosphere. 
If an investor comes to find it's a safe place for investments, finds that the infrastructure is in place for business to grow, finds the social atmosphere such that the personnel that were coming in would not feel endangered -- and in Ghana people walk around so freely, 24 hours of the day, they enjoy themselves -- they won't pull out easily 
Especially where Ghana is situated geographically -- six hours you are in London, you are in Paris, you are in Berlin, you are in the Middle East; United States and New York, eight hours or so you are there. 
Accessibility is so easy. I don't know who would want to come in and make a quick buck and run away, because you don't feel threatened at all.

04 May 2011

Mo Ibrahim's Vision for Africa

Alex Wagner reports on Mo Ibrahim for the Huffington Post. Essentially it is a summary of his life peppered with quotes from the above video. To save you the time, I have embedded the video and included that most notable quote below.
Speaking to the efforts of the Bill Gateses and the Bonos of the world, Ibrahim says, “We thank all the philanthropic [institutions], the wonderful people who are helping the needy in Africa. But the job in our foundation is to really stop all that by changing the political outlook of Africa, changing the way we’re managing our affairs. There’s no need for us to beg for money.” He adds, “I don’t want Africa to forever be the recipient of aid. Aid is also humiliating for the recipient. And it touches a human indignity. Why? We are able-bodied people. We are not sick people.”
The point of highlighting this section is not to bask on celebrities but to lift up the idea that Africans can contribute to their own poverty alleviation. This can be lost in the messages coming from some celebrities and NGOs. To achieve meaningful and lasting development, I believe we must start with the the capability of the poor as one of the first truths.

03 May 2011

Schooling the World To Be Western...

I am going to file this under "very interesting" based on the trailer above and description below. Having not seen the actual film, it is impossible to say much of anything in regards to the ideas put forth. I would like to hear from anyone who has in fact seen the film.

It examines the hidden assumption of cultural superiority behind education aid projects, which overtly aim to help children “escape” to a “better life.”

It looks at the failure of institutional education to deliver on its promise of a way out of poverty – here in the United States as well as in the so-called “developing” world.

And it questions our very definitions of wealth and poverty – and of knowledge and ignorance – as it uncovers the role of schools in the destruction of traditional sustainable agricultural and ecological knowledge, in the breakup of extended families and communities, and in the devaluation of ancient spiritual traditions.

Finally, SCHOOLING THE WORLD calls for a “deeper dialogue” between cultures, suggesting that we have at least as much to learn as we have to teach, and that these ancient sustainable societies may harbor knowledge which is vital for our own survival in the coming millenia.

02 May 2011

The Impact of bin Laden

This is bin Laden’s lamentable victory — he has changed America’s psyche from one that saw violence as a regrettable-if-sometimes-necessary act into one that finds orgasmic euphoria in news of bloodshed. In other words, he’s helped drag us down into his sick nihilism by making us like too many other bellicose societies in history — the ones that aggressively cheer on killing, as long as it is the Bad Guy that is being killed.
- David Sirota for Salon

Video taken last night in the library at the College of the Holy Cross, my alma mater.

Global Malaria Death Interactive Map

I came across this after reading an article about World Malaria Day in the Guardian Development section, but dug a bit deeper to try to get an embedded and interactive version. This map shows worldwide malaria deaths, 1990 - 2009, based on data from the WHO 2010 World Malaria report.

Worldwide malaria deaths in 2009: 117,704