30 January 2012

Obama's Look Inward to a Zero-Sum World

R.A. analyzes President Obama's State of the Union speech in the Economist. This section is worth pointing out:
Americans are motivated by competition and patriotism, and if that's the only way to rally the country behind fundamentally sound policies like subsidies for basic research, then that's the card you play. And, in practice, Mr Obama's reforms will probably not do much more than offset the crummy, mercantilist choices made by other governments elsewhere. No one is talking about going back to the early 19th century, or to the days of communist containment.

I don't see that that's an acceptable excuse. People who live outside of America are people just like Americans, and we should all rejoice in their rising prosperity, the more so when it occurs through additions to the stock of human knowledge that will benefit people everywhere. If an American president can't communicate that simple idea to his citizenry, out of fear that he'll be drummed out of office on a wave of nationalistic outrage, then he doesn't deserve to be president and his country doesn't deserve to win a damned thing, least of all the right to call itself "exceptional", a beacon of hope and freedom. A zero-sum world is a world without hope, and if Mr Obama is convinced that's what we're in then I don't see much need for him to stick around.
It is no mistake that the SOTU neglected to address foreign aid in any meaningful way. Being that it is only 1% of the budget makes it a marginal issue from a financial perspective. However, given the tone of the address, it is not a part of US economic interests. This contradicts when Obama told the UN General Assembly in September, "we will work with emerging economies that have rebounded strongly, so that rising standards of living create new markets that promote global growth. That is what our commitment to prosperity demands."

If asked explicitly, there is no doubt that Obama would say the same thing again, but when facing the national spotlight in a broadcast speech to Americans he focused on domestic needs first. My concern is less the words of the President as much as it is the audience. Speaking to the American people, Obama believed that they want to hear about new jobs programs that will restore the manufacturing sector and compete with countries like China.

In essence, Obama is calling for the space race 2.0. The US is less attractive to manufacturers because the field is not level, he argued. In arguing that point, Obama plays into the fallacy that hard work alone will make the difference between success and failure. If the US and China were to be on equal footing it wouldn't even be a match in his eyes.

Somehow the argument ignores the ways that the US has stacked the deck in its own favor. One example is farm subsidies that maintain the present level of US agriculture. There is little movement to remove the subsidies so farmers in Mexico and Kenya can stand on even ground with US farming giants.

By looking further inward, the United States continues to ignore the impact its actions have on the other 6.7 billion people who share this planet. Taking such a stance throws support to a pervasive world view among Americans that we live in a zero-sum world.  In doing so, an opportunity to look at ways to raise the level of living for people, no matter their nationality, is lost.

27 January 2012

The Future of Foreign Aid Money

Reuters AlertNet is stepping up to provide more comprehensive coverage of humanitarian aid. Recently, they launched the 'Future of Aid' section that is filled with graphics, stories and videos about humanitarian aid. The present focus of the section is centered around aid spending.

In a survey of 41 relief agencies, AlertNet asked aid experts to weigh in on how money is spent and advise what ways the humanitarian sector can be improved. Based on the feedback,  AlertNet  came up with a list of ten ways that aid agencies can stay ahead.
1) Be better prepared for an increase in climate-related disasters
2) Devise new ways of operating in urban areas like city slums
3) Work more closely with local people to avert disasters and reduce their impact
4) Lobby governments to invest more in reducing the risk of disasters
5) Spread the word about why humanitarian aid must be provided impartially
6) Be more transparent about how aid is delivered, as well as its successes and failures
7) Train aid workers to be better leaders and learn from their mistakes
8) Cut red tape at the U.N. and improve coordination between U.N. agencies and NGOs
9) Operate more like a business, with a clear focus on results
10) Look for new sources of funding, including the private sector
When asked which factors are most likely to increase humanitarian need in the coming years, the respondents overwhelmingly pointed to climate-change related disasters. "The rising trend in the number of disasters over the past five years shows no sign of slowing down," said Gareth Owen, humanitarian director at Save the Children UK. "Year on year, we are responding more frequently and on a larger scale to increasing numbers of disasters."

The agencies surveyed seem slightly optimistic, but largely think that many things will be the same in the coming years when asked about changes in funding and the role of the UN.  Advocating for disaster preparedness is not a new call from NGOs.  Evidence overwhelming points to it being more cost effective and the best way to mitigate large scale disaster.

The Horn of Africa is a prime example where Kenya and Ethiopia, who were focusing on drought preparedness in arid regions, were able to better handle the drought that southern Somalia.  The problem is getting donors behind the idea. "Funding for disaster risk reduction and disaster preparedness is not very 'sexy' for donors -- global, domestic and private," said Jouni Hemberg, director of international cooperation for FinnChurchAid.
In 2010, governments gave $12.4 billion in humanitarian aid, almost three times as much as private contributions, which amounted to $4.3 billion, according to estimates from Global Humanitarian Assistance, a British-based aid monitoring group.

But 22 agencies forecast a drop in government funding for humanitarian aid over the next five years.
One casualty of the recent economic downturn has been the Global Fund. It came under fire after an internal audit found rampant graft among recipients. As a result, countries pulled funds and the Fund announced that it would not offer new grants in the coming year. The good news is that Gates announced he will inject $750 million to help keep the fund afloat.

Although the scandal contributed to the loss of funding, it also provided an out for donor countries with cash-strapped economies. Foreign aid is one of the first cuts suggested when money is tight and there are plenty of calls across the G20 to make those cuts a reality. In the United States, a budget proposed by the House Republicans included a complete cut of USAID.

As seen in the video below, the status quo is ill equipped to adequately address disaster relief. The cause is not due to lack of ability; the relief sector is excellent given the many constraints under which it operates.  Providing disaster relief is hard and complex. IFRC's Matthias Schmale, suggests that humanitarian organizations "Provide more credible leadership through less marketing and spinning, and ensure actions match words."

The survey respondents, seemed to agree with Matthias with calls for greater transparency. What individual and large donors can do is hold NGOs accountable. Additionally, large donors can cut down the burden of red tape and individuals can make donations that are not earmarked so that agencies can properly respond to the disasters that are not splashed across the front page of the New York Times.

26 January 2012

Mapping Twitter Trends in Africa

A survey of twitter use across Africa by Portland Communications finds that the majority of tweets come from South Africa, well ahead of the next three in Kenya, Nigeria and Egypt.  Here are some interesting facts from the survey:
  • 57% of Tweets from Africa are sent from mobile devices.
  • 60% of Africa’s most active Tweeters are aged 20-29.
  • Twitter in Africa is widely used for social conversation, with 81% of those polled saying that they mainly used it for communicating with friends.
  • Twitter is becoming an important source of information in Africa. 68% of those polled said that they use Twitter to monitor news. 22% use it to search for employment opportunities.
  • African Twitter users are active across a range of social media, including Facebook, YouTube, Google+ and LinkedIn.

Looking at the numbers, I can't say anything really stands out. I makes sense that most tweets are coming from mobile devices and the majority of users are young people looking to connect with their friends and read news.

What I would like to know is diversity of follower base. For example, how many people does the average user in Africa follow and what is the average range, in distance, of followers. We may find that it is still a rather local endeavor given that many tweeters are using it for social reasons. However, we could find that connections are expanding to bring in more continental and global connections.

Finally, I want to know more about North-South and South-North twitter trends. I am personally trying to do more to ensure that I find and follow as many people in the Global South as I can that are engaged in aid and development discussions.  Unfortunately, I have not found as many people as I would like.

Anyone else have reactions or new questions based on the study?

25 January 2012

Who Are the Top NGOs in the World?

Update 1PM 1/25/12 at bottom of post.

According to the Global Journal, the top 10 NGOs in the world are:
  1. Wikimedia Foundation
  2. Partners In Health
  3. Oxfam (GB)
  4. BRAC
  5. International Rescue Committee
  6. PATH
  7. CARE International
  8. Médecins Sans Frontières
  9.  Danish Refugee Council
  10.  Ushahidi
The first 9 are not terribly surprising, but Ushahidi sticks out like a sore thumb.  Not because it may or may not deserve the #10 ranking, rather it is the new kid on the block.  Wikipedia is also a young NGO compared to the rest, but its ubiquity and use is so wide that it feels a bit like an old hat.

Ushahidi, on the other hand, was born as the result of the Kenyan post-election violence in late 2007 and early 2008.  It is the toddler among a group of adults. It is also the most polarizing of the group. There are the supporters who say that crowdsourcing information can bring about more transparency by putting power in the hands of the citizens.

Critics argue that one size does not fit all and the context for gathering data varies greatly from country to country.  Even when the service is used, it is a question of what can actually be done in response.  Finally, the down side to crowd sourced information is that you are trusting that people will provide factual accounts.

It appears that the Global Journal was persuaded by what Ushahidi could do in the future.
The organization is quick to point out, however, that Ushahidi’s products hold far more promise. As Executive Director Juliana Rotich explains, some of the uses will be humanitarian, but the software has already been utilised in unforeseen ways: “I think that is telling; we are a platform company, we make technology that can be used and customized in different ways, and this affords people a lot of creativity”. Ultimately, the possibilities for combining social activism, public accountability and geo-spatial information are limited only by the imagination of the organizations and groups seeking to drive change. It is for this reason that Ushahidi has had such a pervasive impact in such a short period of time, and why it has opened eyes to the potential for other fruitful marriages of new technologies with longstanding NGO priorities.
I would have not included Ushahidi in the top 10 if I was making the list, but they would not be too far off.  Potential is important, but it should be tempered with a little patience.  Kwame Brown was supposed to be the next great NBA superstar and he is now the poster-child for how everything can go wrong when a player has an unlimited upside and little discipline.

All in all, the list is a who's-who of the international NGO world. I am glad to see that Water for People received some well deserved recognition by being ranked #17. The water sector has become one of the sexier development areas thanks to the rise of celebrity driven NGOs like Charity:Water and Water.org, but there are organizations that have been at it for a while and do it right. Water for People is one of those NGOs.

Noticeably absent from the list are World Vision.  The global giant of an NGO has one of the largest (maybe the largest?) budgets in the world and for some reason was not included on the list. I cannot find any explanation as to why WV was not included in the top 100 and I frankly cannot venture a guess.

Yes, there is good reason to criticize the organization for its sponsorship programs and Super Bowl t shirt give away, but there is no doubt that World Vision does a lot of good in the world.  Certainly it is deserving to be listed among the top 100 NGOs. There is not a single one in the bunch that is without its flaws.

(Update: Tom Paulson points out that the Gates Foundation is also missing from the list in his post yesterday. That too is a gap, but it may have been relegated due to being a largely grant-giving NGO.)

The editors do deserve some credit. The overall list is quite good. It does not make the mistake of filling space with celebrity-driven NGOs. Not that they are bad, rather they are the ones that garner a lot of attention without any consideration for their program design or impact.

My suggestion to them for the next list would be to devise an open scoring system and share how each NGO was rated with a correlating score.  This may help explain how the rankings are determined and why ONE, Charity:Water, the Enough Project and World Vision did not make the list.

Who else do you think is missing from the list or should not have been included? Check out the rest of the rankings below and add your thoughts in the comments section.

Update: Global Journal responds to Tom Paulson's post where he raises similar questions.  They tell him that Gates did not fit the criteria of an NGO (fair enough) and World Vision was considered, but did not make the cut (also fair).  He is then pointed towards the website that will publish the methodology.  I went there and found this letter from the editor that was supposed to answer the question of how the decision was made.  To save you the trouble, the letter only gives the way the Global Journal decided to define what qualifies as an NGO.  How exactly the list was determined and how it was to be weighted is not shared.

24 January 2012

The Unifying Force that is Football

Members of Ghana's Black Stars singing the night before their opening match with Botswana at the African Cup of Nations 2012.

HT Bonnie Koneig

Feeling Conflicted

By John Bowman

On October 4, 2011 the Duke Chronicle published an article addressed to Coach K, otherwise known as Mike Krzyzewski, Duke’s men’s basketball coach and the university’s best claim to fame. The article, penned by two well-respected Duke students, vented frustration over the university’s refusal to let the Enough Project advocate and Entourage star Emmanuelle Chriqui judge a dunk contest in Cameron indoor stadium as part of “Countdown to Craziness,” the first Duke basketball event of the year. 

Chriqui’s appearance was to be the highlight of an event to showcase the efforts of Duke students to implement the Enough Project’s Conflict-Free Campus Initiative. The initiative seeks to scale down the investments of universities in companies with ties to “conflict minerals,” minerals mined in the Congo that are valued for their use in electronic devices, so named because of claims that they are fueling the current violence in the Congo. 

The article’s primary frustration is that the decision to exclude Chriqui seemed financially motivated. Many of Duke’s donors are being targeted by the Enough Project for using Conflict Minerals in their products, donors who might balk were Duke to feature an organization that all but accuses them of funding mass murder so publicly.

The article was hugely popular. Hundreds of students posted the article to their Facebook pages and hundred more “liked” it or commented to show their support. I followed suit, outraged at the apparent injustice and underhandedness of Duke’s actions. After all, the issue seemed so simple: because I think the murder and rape of civilian women is intolerable and because electronics manufacturers finance the rape and murder of women in the Congo, I should use my purchasing power to support products that don’t fund the violence in the Congo in order to starve those carrying out the murders of funds. 

It seemed like a simple solution to a pressing moral problem. In fact, the article piqued my interest so much that I decided to pursue a research project in one of my classes on the conflict minerals and their role in the Congolese conflict. But my project proved difficult. Few sources on the conflict in the Congo mentioned conflict minerals and those that did downplayed their role in the conflict. Instead, a confluence of political and ethnic factors dominated the books and articles that I read. 

So what began as an inquiry into the role of conflict minerals the Congolese conflict became an exploration of their role in American discourse on the Congo. I wondered why talk of conflict minerals dominated the discussion if the minerals themselves did not dominate the conflict. If political ambitions and ethnic tensions played an equally large role in the Congolese conflict, why were they not included in its videos and advertisements? The answers I found were frustrating and disappointing.

The Enough Project succeeds in garnering such widespread support because the strife in the Congo is unequivocally branded morally intolerable and unjust, as opposed to other international conflicts, in which Americans can identify political motivations and implications. 

Conceptions of peace in politically sensitive regions like the Middle East run a broad gamut. For example, some view peace in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as the creation of a Palestinian state while others see it as the complete eradication of Palestine. Any organization lobbying for peace in Israel-Palestine would face questions about its political agenda, and yet the media ignores the limits of Enough Project’s advocacy for peace in the Congo, instead lauding it as courageously humanitarian. 

Even the name of the Raise Hope for Congo campaign glosses over the Enough Project’s specific objectives in the Congo; the Enough Project’s zeal to meaningfully “raise hope for Congo” substitutes a generic and nebulous desire to alter the status quo for a concrete goal and a clear means to achieve that goal.

By painting the DRC as a pit of senseless violence, sadistic rape and human rights abuse, the Enough Project strips the Congo of political viability. The Enough Project thus distills the Congolese conflict so as to cast it purely from the perspective of human rights and humanitarianism. Such a characterization of the conflict casts the Enough Project’s cause as sacrosanct—few Americans would not wish to save helpless women and children from rape and death.

The implications of the Enough Project’s oversimplified characterization of the conflict are far-reaching and potentially devastating. The Enough Project seems all too willing to ignore by failing to acknowledge the political and ethnic intricacies of the conflict in its promotional material (Mamdani 2009). One example of such a misunderstanding of appropriate policy mechanisms is the Enough Project’s recent backing of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street reform act, which was created to increase the accountability of electronics companies so as to discourage them from obtaining minerals tainted by the Congolese conflict. 

Because the Enough Project “succeeded in framing the debate as a contest between [itself] and greedy corporate interests,” it marginalized the economic needs of the Congolese civilians that it purported to be defending (Aronsen 2011).The bill’s passage resulted in a steep drawdown in the presence of American electronics companies in Congo and an equally steep decline in the livelihoods of local miners uninvolved in the conflict who were stripped of a reliable source of income.

I do not intend to cast aspersions on the Enough Project’s aims or motivations. Much of the Enough Project’s work brings valuable American attention to an issue that might otherwise remain ignored. Despite the fact that some experts have dubbed it the deadliest conflict since World War II, the conflict in the Congo has remained largely untouched by the mainstream media. Though awareness does not constitute meaningful change, it certainly begins to muster the political will necessary for systemic reform. The Enough Project itself recognizes that “there’s no magic-bullet solution to peace in Congo,” as noted by Enough Project associate David Sullivan, but it continues to vaunt itself as the broker of such a remedy (Sullivan in Kristof 2011). 

The Enough Project not only draws American attention to the Congo with its promotional materials, but also attempts to educate consumers about conflict minerals, providing them with a spurious sense of information. While these materials are not entirely inaccurate, theirs is a characterization of the conflict fraught with an imprecision that denies Africa substance and complexity. The videos convey an American ascendency over Africa, characterizing conflicts in Africa simplistic and caused by American consumerism, while simultaneously imploring Americans to sacrifice a small piece of their First World privileges to help the innocent victims of the Congo. 

Though this portrayal does not necessarily paint Africa as inferior, it nevertheless fuels an American sense of entitlement and fosters a modern-day “white man’s burden” that it expects American consumers to shoulder. This moralizing and guilt mongering doubtlessly proves valuable for both consciousness-raising and fund-raising, for what it lacks in exactitude, it compensates for with an ability to rouse the viewer to action while failing to relate a comprehensive understanding of the conflict.

In order for a comprehensive solution that truly alleviates the violence in the Congo to be designed and implemented, meaningful discourse is necessary, discourse that the panacea-peddling of the Enough Project precludes. In order to truly raise hope, and not merely hype, the Enough Project should acknowledge the complexity of the Congolese conflict to allow for broader and more meaningful dialogue on how to understand the Congolese conflict and how to prevent it from claiming more lives.

Works Cited
Aronson, David. 2011. “How Congress devastated Congo,” The New York Times, August 7. http://www.nytimes.com/.
Kristof, Nicholas. 2010. “Death by Gadget,” The New York Times, June 26. http://www.nytimes.com/.
Mamdani, Mahmood. 2009. Saviors and Survivors. New York: Pantheon Books.

Born and raised in Charlotte, North Carolina, John Bowman is a Robertson Scholar at Duke University. Yet to declare a major, John hopes to chart a course of study that will allow him to explore the ethics, economics and environmental considerations of international development. He is particularly interested in how sustainable development in the Global South can address both humanitarian and environmental needs. You can contact John directly at jtb27@duke.edu.

23 January 2012

The Unsustainability of Sustainable's Usage

XKCD nails it with this cartoon. Adding the word development after 'sustainable' makes the cartoon all too perfect.

20 January 2012

Weekend Tunes: Dog is Dead

Oh hey there weekend tunes. It has been awhile.

I am getting back into the swing of things and that means that more of the fun stuff like this finds its way into the rotation.

Happy Friday and enjoy the upbeat 'Glockenspiel Song' from Dog is Dead.

Bonus to anyone who knows why I know about this song.

Book Review: Next Generation Business Strategies for the Base of the Pyramid

Countries in the Global South, like India and Ghana, are still seen by many as charity recipients.  It is due to the fact that ‘developing’ countries like them receive a sizeable amount of aid from international donors.  This long held view is beginning to shift in as nations move to middle income status and people understand that innovation and growth are possible at all levels.

What has followed has been a decade of growing investment in what has been termed the “base of the pyramid.”  The BoP represents the estimated 1 billion people who live on $1.50 or less a day.  Although incomes are extremely low, there is an untapped market in this group that will only grow as incomes and livelihoods grow.  Corporations and individuals realized that by playing a part in the growth of the BoP, they can not only improve the lives of 1 billion people but tap into a giant market of consumers.

In Next Generation Business Strategies for the Base of the Pyramid researchers Ted London and Stuart Hart have complied a set of lessons learned and ideas from leading researchers and practitioners.  Each chapter focuses on how to access and work with people living in the BoP.  “[T]he debate is not anymore about how many are really poor; it is about how to bring the benefits of gold standards at affordable prices and increase access,” write the authors in their introduction.

The book grew out of the 2009 Creating and Shared Roadmap: Collaboratively Advancing the Base of the Pyramid Community conference attended by roughly 100 people ranging academics and NGO workers to entrepreneurs and corporate executives.  Through this collaboration, the 8 authors gained insight into how to make their chapters as instructive as possible to actors looking to participate in the BoP space.

From the development perspective, the book’s strength lies in its discussions of lessons learned and consistent message of patient development.  Jacqueline Novogratz, CEO of Acumen Fund, is emblematic of this arch by describing her idea of ‘patient capital’ in her chapter co-authored by Robert Kennedy, William Davidson Institute & Ross School of Business, University of Michigan.

“A patient capital investor may need to be willing to tie up money for ten years or longer,” say Novogratz and Kennedy.  They argue that change will be a slow process that needs consistent investment to allow change to emerge.  An important lesson BoP investors, whether it may be an individual, an NGO, a corporation or USAID, should take to heart.

Nogogratz and Kennedy provide the most tempered section on the book in terms of the need to balance monetary profit with social gains.  They say outright that patient capital organizations must be willing to forgo maximized profits for higher social impact.

Patient innovation is an equally important aspect in ensuring that the needs of the BoP align with investors’ goals.   The Chotukool mini-refrigerator exemplifies this need for patient innovation as described in Patrick Whitney, Institute of Design, Illinois Institute of Technology, explains in his chapter on reframing design for the BoP.

Indian manufacturer Godrej and Boyce set out to make a cheap ($50-$100) cooling unit where people could store or even freeze food.  Rather than design the unit first and ask questions later, the team from G&B went directly to the people they hoped to buy the final product. 

What they learned was that there was no need for freezing food, the unit did not have to get all that cool to extend the life of food, and it had to be mobile for when items in the house are moved around or the family moves into a new home.  The final product met all of the needs learned by the G&B team and came in a price point, Rs 3500 that was within the desired range and half of the price of the cheapest available refrigerator.

The book is weaker at points when it focuses too closely on markets and comes off as a ‘how to get rich off the poor’ guide.  Those moments are few and far between doing little to detract from the book’s overall strength.  I do recommend it as a whole.  The chapters I highlighted are the ones that I found to be most relevant to international aid and development, but are not the only sections worth a read.

 “We should not promote BoP venture development – or indeed, any poverty-alleviation approach – if we do not also have the ability to assess and enhance its on-the-ground impacts. By building impact assessments and community engagement into the business model from the start, BoP ventures may succeed in providing value for all stakeholders simultaneously, rather than elevating one over the other,” say London and Hart in the concluding chapter. The lessons shared are simple.  In order to reach and support the poor, we must first begin to work with those living in the BoP.  When it is done right, innovations, like the Chotukool, can develop into successful offerings for the business and the consumer.

Disclosure: I was provided a review copy by the authors of the book. They requested that I write a fair and honest review.  The thoughts here are entirely my own.

19 January 2012

How to Pitch a Softball to Sachs

JM Jeff, you are outspoken about results-based aid – but people often take the opportunity to have a pop. Does that ever get to you?  
JS I think there are two things that are completely different. One is the words, and there's a lot of words flying around. And then there is the fact of malaria down 40% over a decade. Believe me, the only thing that matters is the second one. 
There's a lot of verbiage around this issue – a lot of it by critics who don't seem to ever leave their offices, don't know what's happening in the field, don't really see it. 
...and on to Bono with the next question.

Read the full interview on the Guardian Development site.

HT Bill Easterly

"I want to sing like Michael Jackson!"

The World Food Programme gave 12 year old Molly a video camera to document her life in Mathare slum in Nairobi, Kenya.  Above is the first episode and I look forward to more from the series.  I have to admit that I am a bit of a sucker for these projects since they give people the ability to tell their own stories.  It is ultimately edited by WFP , so that does not completely break down the traditional narrative structure, but this does move the needle forward just a bit.  Also, the focus is on a major Kenyan slum, the go-to place for NGOs and their stories.

With that aside, the video does succeed in providing a short glimpse into live in Mathare for Molly.  The best part being the end with her cousin exclaiming, "I want to sing like Michael Jackson," and then dancing around while singing the phrase over and over.  The second piece that shines through is the roll of the letter 'r' off the tongue of Kenyan children as they speak English.

18 January 2012

Global Health Numbers Tempting Towards Shore

Numbers are dirty liars. They are like the sirens singing to tempt Odysseus to steer his boat towards the dangerous rocks. Unfortunately, we are not prepared enough to either employ beeswax or tie ourselves to our boat's mast. So, they sing away; making us feel comfortable to believe them when confirming our long held beliefs.

Numbers are most dangerous in the aid and development world when championing great achievements. The most recent example is that of health gains in Afghanistan. November's USAID-funded Afghanistan Mortality Survey appears to be the most recent example numbers coming into question.

Comparing 2004 to 2010: life expectancy rose from 42 years to 62 years; child survival until the age of five fell from 25 percent to 10 percent; and the maternal mortality rate fell from 1,600 to 327 deaths for every 100,000 deliveries.

Take a moment and compare those numbers again. People were living 20 years longer and maternal mortality fell by 75%. Those are staggering returns.

NPR reports that the November release of the report was due to further review after the big numbers were gathered.
"Conditions for data collection are desperately difficult," he says. "Knocking on someone's door and asking them details about their children and their household is not something most people would want to do."

Three of the six experts on the survey's technical advisory group told NPR they still have doubts, even after the extra analysis. That includes Julia Hussein, of Aberdeen University.

"You've got to match what you know in terms of evidence with what you see with your eyes," says Hussein, who has worked on maternal mortality in Afghanistan since the 1990s.

"My instinctive reaction to figures reported in the survey — I just find them unbelievable, knowing what sort of care is available in Afghanistan," she says.

It is possible that some parts of the data in the USAID study are correct. The point is not to question the validity of the assessment (I am unqualified to do that anyways), rather it is to drive home a healthy skepticism about big data announcements. In collecting news stories each evening with a global health bend, the number of reports using new data points and studies are staggering. The challenge is how to be able to engage so as not to crash the boat or be forced to tie yourself to the mast.

16 January 2012

Happy MLK Day

"Make a career of humanity. Commit yourself to the noble struggle for equal rights. You will make a greater person of yourself, a greater nation of your country, and a finer world to live in."

MLK in 1959

Taken at the MLK memorial in Washington DC.

11 January 2012

Seeing Beyond the River

In December, the Institute of Development Studies (IDS) published a video they commissioned on the relationship between the British media and the global south.  The 10 minute video brings forward the not-so-well-kept-secret that "news is about bad news."  When it comes to the global south, there is plenty of bad news to tell.

Take right now.  There is famine in Somalia, war in Somalia, rape in the DRC, war in the DRC, Syrian crackdowns, bombings in Afghanistan, bombings in Iraq, flooding in the Philippines and mudslides in Brazil.  That is only the beginning as I neglected to mention the growing sectarian violence and oil subsidy protests in Nigeria as well as many other places with famine, war and drought (FWD anyone?).

In the video, Richard Kavuma of Uganda's newspaper The Observer describes the way Africa is portrayed to a river.  This river is full of blood, guns, starvation and disease.  These are the stories.  However, he says, there is beauty growing right on the banks of that very river of reporting.  If there ever was a strong simile for Western media's reporting on the global south, this is it.

Teasing it out a bit further, the proximity of the banks are important.  They are impossible to miss, but easy to ignore when concentrating on the flowing river.  Furthermore, it is the banks that are a major determinant of how the river flows.  A narrowing pass forces the water through more quickly while wider portions slow it down and dams can completely control the flow.  There are times when the river overflows, touching all that surround, but that is the exception rather than the rule.

Unfortunately, the times that reports look to the banks are when they are consumed by the water.  That is not to say that the terrible things happening that make up the water should be ignored.  Rather it is to say that the banks, the people, have a part in the story.  Ignoring these people not only fails to honestly depict the river scene, it misses the opportunity to understand why the river flows the way that it does and how it can be changed for the better.

HT to Shotgun Shack for the video

10 January 2012

More Reporting Vs Better Reporting

Nick Kristof wrote last week:

Look, as a journalist, I’m proud of my profession. Yet it’s also clear that commercial pressures are driving some news organizations, television in particular, to drop the ball. Instead of covering Congo, it’s cheaper and easier to put a Democrat and a Republican in a studio and have them yell at each other. 
Frankly, it’s just humiliating when news organizations cover George Clooney (my travel buddy on one Darfur trip) more attentively when he breaks up with a girlfriend than when he travels to Sudan and uses satellite photos to catch the Sudanese government committing mass atrocities. 
So here’s my hope for the new year. That our “leaders” in Washington will pause in their supercilious narcissism and show a hint of the seriousness and moral purpose of, yes, celebrities.
What is strange is that there is a lack of self reflection.  Having been criticized for doing the very same thing that he discusses in this section (and does in the whole column), Kristof pointed towards readers lack of response to stories about the Congo.  His trick is to employ a protagonist that can serve as a bridge to the story.

It is important that the DRC receive more coverage, but it is just as important that it receive high quality coverage.  As Africa is a Country pointed out yesterday, there were plenty of articles about the 100th anniversary of South Africa's ANC political party.  Unfortunately, there was some pretty poor reporting in the mix.

Bottom line: More stories would be great, but neglecting quality will amplify damage when the wrong reporting reaches more people.

09 January 2012

Tossing the Old Hat into the Echoing Green Pool

Sunday evening, we hit the send button to apply for a fellowship with Echoing Green.  In short, it would give us the opportunity to plug into a fantastic network of social innovators and a little financial backing over two years.  For DAWNS, it is the perfect opportunity given the goal of the fellowship to support early social enterprises.

The application is quite tricky and has strict word limits.  The first question asks us to summarize DAWNS in one sentence with a 150 character (including spaces) limit.  In the remaining questions we were limited to 500 to 1,000 characters per answer.  There was no way to say everything we wanted, but it was a useful way to condense thoughts into short information-packed statements.

We were fortunate enough to collaborate with Kalsoom Lakhani, founder of Invest 2 InnovateSunkyo Im, co-founder of Kushiri; and Jimmy Levi, Founder and Director of Development, Haiti Communitere. Through the beauty of Google Docs, we all shared our applications, learned from each other's applications, asked questions and provided feedback to each other. Thanks goes to all of them and their respective teams. It certainly helped DAWNS to have fresh eyes read over and probe our ideas.

Given that we put in all the time and work into the application, we would be remiss not to share it with you all. It is submitted as you see it, but your feedback is always appreciated. If we make it to the next step, your questions will help us prepare for what Echoing Green will ask.

Also, check out the #eg2012fellowship tag on twitter. There are many excellent organizations that are applying for the fellowship.

Head on over to the DAWNS blog to read the answers to our questions.

06 January 2012

FWD Needs a 'Suck My Kiss' Moment

I have kept a close eye on the USAID FWD campaign.  It is a new endeavor for the agency and a promising first step towards using media to engage, inform and education on a specific global issue.  The strongest point of the campaign has been the maps.  They provide information about the Horn of Africa in an accessible manner.  The weakest area of the campaign is the videos.


Hidden behind the glamour of celebrities, they all share one commonality. One person or a group or people are talking at the American public to tell them about the crisis in the Horn of Africa.  The faces, settings and words are different but they are all the same.  The conversation is one way.  Celebrity A tells you that there is a crisis affecting 13 million people across the world and you should 'forward the facts' or even make a text donation because you care.

This is the long existing model of aid communications.  Sally Struthers told us about starving children every Sunday and musicians did the same when performing at Live Aid.  A quarter of a century later it is the same other than it looks a bit more like the celebrities are right in front of us thanks to 1080p.

FWD is desperately looking for an amp that goes to 11, but is rocking as hard as John Denver. "Take Me Home, Country Roads" is a crowd favorite for people of all ages, but it is not like "Suck My Kiss" Red Hot Chili Peppers.  They song and even the music video is in the face of the audience daring them to transcend the song itself and challenge Anthony Kiedis when he sings, "hit me, you can't hurt me." Better yet, RHCP are able to make giving cool (yes, the song is really about altruism) with "Give it Away."

It will take time for USAID, and aid agencies in general, to change their tactics.  If the music metaphor is expanded further, we are just at the beginning of Rock n' Roll.  Musicians like Chuck Berry gave way for the stadium anthems that are now played by RHCP.  On this front it is the early 1950's.  Great innovators are doing new things on the edges, but it will take an Elvis, then The Beatles and so on to pull the fringes into the mainstream.

05 January 2012

Bad Eggs Harming Markets in Rwanda

The season of giving passed by in a hurry to give way to a new year.  What did not change as we changed from a 1 to a 2 on the calendar is the desire to give stuff to people.  Whether it is doing a local giving tree, putting clothes in the large yellow bin or giving an extra few bucks to the panhandler on the street, everybody feels just a bit more generous.

Is it possible that our generosity is doing harm?  Well, it is not such an easy question to unpack. If we struggle with saying with saying that generosity and giving are absolutely bad, why is there a willingness to accept it to be absolutely good?  The story told in the video is quite simple.  A church in Atlanta responded to the genocide in Rwanda by sending eggs to communities outside of Kigali.  The motivation was full of good will and should be commended.

However, the influx of eggs meant that prices suddenly dropped due to large supply of freely distributed eggs.  Farmers who sold eggs in the market could no longer compete and sold off their chickens in order to make up for income lost.  The following year, the church group moved on to a new project and the market for eggs bottomed out.  The people on the ground adapted to the new supply source and switched to other farming.

Without the cheap supply, prices rose because eggs have to be imported from other communities.  In the long run, this donation placed a greater burden on the community by raising the overall price of a good and putting some farmers out of business.

This is merely an anecdote and does not necessarily reflect every time a good is given away.  What it does show is that such aid can cause long term damage that makes the lives of some worse than they were before.    Ed Carr makes an excellent argument for why looking at the community level impacts informs how development and aid have been crafted incorrectly.  That point will be expanded in a review of his book. I want to end by saying that it is a mistake to continue applying the same solutions in every context.  It is not a radical statement, but it seems that giving things continues to occur.

There are times when donated items are needed, but there are also times when it is better to give nothing.

HT to Daniela Papi for the video

04 January 2012

Toto's 'Africa' Ripped to Shreds

Dear drought-plagued continent,
You really remind me of a girl I want to sleep with.
Author Steve Almond rightly analyzes and rips apart the song "Africa" by Toto.  The above quite is not nearly as good as the quote from the keyboardist explaining his inspiration drawn from UNICEF ads of starving children in Africa.

This talk is as good as it gets when talking about the problems rife with the portrayals of the 'dark continent.'  The era that brought us Toto and Live Aid has given way to poverty tourism.  Fortunately, there are less songs such as 'Africa,' but that is probably because more people are traveling down to save children.  That is not to look down on the desire to help and have empathy for others in the world; we could use a whole lot more of that.  Rather, it is to illustrate that the status quo presents the continent as a monolith that lacks any diversity or really anything else than people in need.

As long as this persists, true development will be unattainable.  It will be driven by the idea that outside help is necessary to pull people out of poverty.  It subverts the possibility that people living in an enormous continent are able to achieve anything in their own right.


03 January 2012

DAWNS Opens First Grant Pool

DAWNS is committed to lowering the barriers associated with humanitarian journalism and story telling. With revenue collected through the sales of DAWNS Digest, we will issue grants to writers, bloggers, citizen-journalists, photographers, documentary film makers or any other manner of storyteller.  Nominations are open until January 25. We will announce the recipients of our first grants on February 8.
About the Grants: Each grant will not exceed $500. Do you need a new lens for your camera? Do you need help covering the cost of a plane ticket? If you are a humanitarian storyteller and can demonstrate how $500 will help your project, you should consider applying. We realize that $500 will probably not cover the entire cost of your project, but we hope it can help. As DAWNS grows, we will begin to issue larger grants.
The Application: Go here to apply. In your application, explain what humanitarian goals you seek to accomplish through your project. Explain the stories you seek to tell and how this small grant can help you meet your storytelling goals. Please also describe how you will help spread the word about DAWNS Digest–our ability to issue future grants depends on attracting more paying subscribers.  Your project description, name and affiliation (if any) will be made public. So please only apply if you are willing to go public with your project.
Selection process. On January 26, we will open up the nominations to our community who will be given the opportunity to vote on their favorites. We have two tiers of subscribers: paying subscribers and those still in their free month-trial. Paying subscribers get 3 votes; non-paying subscribers get 1 vote.  If you not a subscriber but would like to vote you must sign up for a free trial of DAWNS Digest. 
The voting will help inform our decision about what the community believes is a worthy project worth supporting, but we reserve the right to make the final decisions. Our goal is to support high quality storytelling about people, places or things that are not typically well represented. So, when voting, please keep in mind the project itself rather than your relationship with the individual or group.
Input from our community is important to us. After all, we are only able to issue these grants because we have a community of subscribers who have signed up for DAWNS Digest.  If you have ideas and suggestions, feel free to contact us.
Go here to fill out an application.