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peace ???

8 Sep

Classes have begun, which means a few things:

1. I will have more to think about

2. I will have less time to write on this blog

3. I will be eating a lot more $5 footlongs from Subway. Since the powers that be decided to install a Subway on the first floor of the Elliott School, I somehow can’t avoid them. Try as I might.

But since this is only the second week of classes, I’ll use this precious free moment to toss around a few things from one of my classes.

One of my classes this fall is Intro to Conflict Resolution. It’s going to be a doozy. And depressing. I’ll report back on this in three months.

Here’s what we covered today: 1. What is Conflict? 2. What is Peace? 3. What is Violence?

Don’t answer too quickly.

Conflict will involve two groups, and their pursuit of incompatible goals. As well as attitudes and beliefs. And behavior. And a context.

Peace: is it the absence of violence? Is peace to be maintained, or is it to be obtained? Is peace stopping war? Or is it building a just society? And these terms – “peace” “just society” – are laden with political beliefs. What I perceive as just may fly in the face of what another group perceives as just. But somehow, this doesn’t stop us from chasing after these things.

Violence. This is defined by some of our readings (Galtung) as the cause of the difference between what we can potentially achieve and what we actually achieve. If the world has the means to cure malaria, but does not, and millions die each year of something that could potentially be cured, this is violence. If we did not have a cure, it would not qualify as violence. But who is the agent of violence in this scenario? Who is to be held accountable? With this definition, there will always be violence, as there will always be groups of people who are not achieving what they could potentially achieve.

At this point, this just begs more and more questions (which I’m not opposed to). Because as our professor pointed out, the entire field of conflict resolution is partly about answering the question: how do we change the future? How do we not only stop current violent conflicts, but also change structures that can escalate beliefs and attitudes into violent behavior? How do we not only make peace, but also build it?

And the scariest part is that, as was pointed out in my last class, things can always get worse. And you can always make things worse. International intervention in Rwanda prior to the genocide in 1994 is an example of this. I might also argue that the Sudanese Comprehensive Peace Agreement may be another example. Tread lightly, with fear and trembling.

So on that note, I leave you with a song from le meaningful band de jour:


links to rock the boat

22 Aug

“Ground Zero Mosque” If you’re like me, you’re a little tired of the discussion on the Cordoba House Islamic community center in NY. But it appears that there are lots of folks out there who are not tired yet, and are still pretty fired up about this. The Economist’s column on this from a few weeks ago is still the best argument I’ve read to date:

But something about America—the fact that it is a nation of immigrants, perhaps, or its greater religiosity, or the separation of church and state, or the opportunities to rise—still seems to make it an easier place than Europe for Muslims to feel accepted and at home.

It was in part to preserve this feeling that George Bush repeated like a scratched gramophone record that Americans were at war with the terrorists who had attacked them on 9/11, not at war with Islam. Barack Obama has followed suit: the White House national security strategy published in May says that one way to guard against radicalisation at home is to stress that “diversity is part of our strength—not a source of division or insecurity.” This is hardly rocket science. America is plainly safer if its Muslims feel part of “us” and not, like Mohammad Sidique Khan, part of “them”. And that means reminding Americans of the difference—a real one, by the way, not one fabricated for the purposes of political correctness—between Islam, a religion with a billion adherents, and al-Qaeda, a terrorist outfit that claims to speak in Islam’s name but has absolutely no right or mandate to do so. Why would any responsible American politician want to erase that vital distinction?

Read it in its entirety here. I give a loud amen to Jon Stewart’s reaction as well.

Immigration Bill Easterly posted this quote on his blog:

Why should the Palatine Boors be suffered to swarm into our Settlements, and by herding together establish their Language and Manners to the Exclusion of ours? Why should Pennsylvania, founded by the English, become a Colony of Aliens, who will shortly be so numerous as to Germanize us instead of our Anglifying them, and will never adopt our Language or Customs, any more than they can acquire our Complexion.

This is Benjamin Franklin writing about German immigrants to Pennsylvania in 1751. Hmm…

Pakistan Floods and Donor Fatigue The death toll due to the floods in Pakistan is still rising. So why aren’t we talking about it? The Christian Science Monitor gives their take on donor fatigue here. Thanks again to for this information:

Ideas on where and how to give:

  • One reader wrote in about perceptions that there are no Pakistani NGOs participating in the relief efforts, or that all of them are inherently corrupt. She countered that organizations such as the Edhi Foundation and Islamic Relief (which is an international NGO but has worked in Pakistan for many years) have solid reputations in Pakistan and abroad and have been effective in the past in getting aid to where it is most needed.
  • Hillary Clinton announced last week that Americans can text the word “SWAT” to the number 50555 to donate $10 to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees to provide tents, clothing, food, clean water and medicine to Pakistan.
  • The Global Giving website has a list and description of their partner organizations working on flood relief.
  • BRAC is the largest non-profit based in the developing world (it was launched in Bangladesh in 1972) and it is accepting donations through its US-based branch.
  • Tonic and Interaction both have lists of organizations accepting donations for flood relief.

Glamorous Geocoding!

14 Aug

A few months ago a couple of classmates and I got wrangled into spending a day at the World Bank. I can’t remember exactly what we were told we would be doing – but I remember that it was going to be something about geocoding and that free food was involved. I may have been expecting a short talk on the work the World Bank was doing with geocoding, with light refreshments. Oh, and for some reason they told us to bring our laptops.

Whatever I was expecting was way off base. After sitting down in a room crammed with undergraduate and graduate students, listening to a short pep talk from a German Senior Governance Specialist on the potential of impact of geocoding aid projects, we were given some coffee, split into groups, and given lists of World Bank projects. And then we were told: break out your laptops, split up the countries where projects are taking place, start weeding through digital World Bank documents to find the projects’ locations, compile this information into an Excel spreadsheet, and keep doing this until all the projects can be accounted for.

Come again? It turned out we had actually been duped into doing free work for the World Bank. Maybe students from the other schools who were there went into this knowing what they were getting themselves into, but our GW delegation did not. Needless to say, I was a little miffed by it all, and the food wasn’t that exciting.

I ended up geocoding projects in the DR Congo. This was slightly challenging not only because we had to go through a number of documents to find the projects’ location (which was slow going on my ol’ iBook), but also because nobody seems to know how many provinces the DRC officially has. After working for about five hours, my friend and I skipped out to go work on a school project instead. The second we got out of the building, we burst out, “How did we get sucked into doing THAT?”

Fast forward, a few months later, to today, when I read this on one of the development blogs I follow regularly:

A team of researchers from Development Gateway and AidData have worked with the World Bank to add detailed subnational geographical information to all of the Bank’s active projects in the Africa and Latin America region. This isn’t just pins in a map showing the country where the money is spent: they have looked through the project documentation to find out as far as possible the geographic coordinates of the actual locations where aid the activities take place. (read the entire blog entry here).

With this video:

It’s great to know my unpaid labor went to some good use, less exciting to know that the World Bank didn’t think knowing the actual location of its thousands of projects was something worth even paying its employees to do. I say, Kudos to whoever thought of asking a bunch of overeager and hungry students to do it. Pure genius! And why wasn’t I interviewed for this video?!

But more seriously, a question I had after our pep talk from Bjorn-Soren, and still have now, is: why wasn’t the World Bank keeping track of its projects’ locations all along? Unfortunately, many development donors, both large institutions and NGOs, don’t track where they are working, or what they are doing there. This makes accountability very difficult. It also makes it hard to track results: if a donor has been funding anti-malaria projects in a country, but isn’t seeing a decrease in the national rate of malaria-related deaths, it could be easy to say that the project is failing. But what if it turns out that the project was only being carried out in the two largest cities in the country, which already have low rates of malaria, and isn’t even reaching areas with the highest rates? Geocoding aid also carries the potential for greater cooperation amongst donors, if they can find out who is already doing what and where. And most importantly in my mind: it could let recipients (both governments and individuals) in developing countries, find out about projects taking place in their communities. Don’t be shocked – there are plenty of stories of people having no idea that a development project is being carried out near them.

I’m glad that this dirty work is being done, even if it means luring starving grad students with the promise of a ham sandwich with chips to do it. I really am. But my reaction isn’t “Kudos to you, World Bank!”, but “It’s about time!”

Not to crush your spirit, but…

30 Jul

Sorry, but they already have shirts. (photo by Malik Sidibe)

A few months ago there was a raging discussion on the development blogosphere surrounding an NGO called “1 Million T-Shirts”. The guy running the organization got shredded by a number of experts, and he has since discontinued the work. Really, I think the discussion was more about intentions vs. expertise. A good summary:

“A number of NGOs – most of which are driven by western funding and ideas – are household names, while others are micro-projects that are off the radar of most media but are nevertheless helping to improve the day-to-day lives of many Africans. Yet there are also many wannabe rescuers who are actively doing harm in Africa: bad ideas are duplicated across the continent, objectives and deadlines missed or efforts badly targeted, and promises broken, while mediocrity and incompetence are rarely challenged, leaving the poor ending up where they started. In extreme cases their work is not only inadequate but actually destructive in social, economic and environmental terms, crushing the hopes and dreams of millions.

Given what is too often a lack of accountability and credibility along with the huge funds that pass through NGOS, there are growing calls for closer regulation. We also need to end the often corrupt relationship – characterised by favouritism and bribery – between certain NGOs and some African governments. This situation cannot continue.”

Read the rest of the article here.

toutes les filles a l’ecole

21 Jul

School Girls in DRCongo

Some very, very good news: girls and women are gaining more and more attention, and gender issues are becoming increasingly integrated into development work. Gender components are required of all official US government development programs (translation: all development projects funded by U.S. tax dollars must address their impact on gender, usually their impact on women and girls). The United Nations recently created an entity focused entirely on gender issues, which has streamlined a number of UN bureaus in the hopes of increasing the UN’s ability to address the challenges faced by women and girls the world over. Nike, Oprah, Ban Ki Moon, and a multitude of other individuals and organizations have increased funds and attention focused on women and girls. This is exciting stuff, in large part because it will enable the countless women and men around the world, who have been working to end discrimination, increase equity, and empower millions of girls and women who, for many reasons, are limited by their gender.

This isn’t just feminist, feel-good mumbo-jumbo. This is cause for celebration, not because it furthers some sort of Western feminist agenda, but because it brings resources and attention to real problems women and girls face in places across the globe. Discover:

  • Studies show that more women die or are disabled due to violence against women than from severe diseases, wars or accidents.[1]
  • While girls’ access to education has increased over the past decade, in 2008 for every 100 boys in primary school, there were 96 girls. For every 100 boys in secondary school, there 95 girls. In Benin, as in much of sub-Saharan Africa, the statistics are even more dire: only about one in five girls are enrolled in secondary school, compared to nearly half of all boys.[2]
  • Every year, more than 500,000 women die during pregnancy or childbirth. In Africa one in 16 women, and in Asia one in 43 women, will die from maternal causes. Contrast this with one in 2,500 women in the United States.[3]

With such depressing news, it can be overwhelming to try to imagine how to develop policies and programs and systems and inputs that might change these numbers. Oh, my god, where do we start?

A growing body of research is emphasizing one place to start: Education.


  • “An extra year of primary school boosts girls’ eventual wages by 10 to 20 percent. An extra year of secondary school: 15 to 25 percent.”[4]
  • “Research in developing countries has shown a consistent relationship between better infant and child health and higher levels of school among mothers.” [5]
  • “When women and girls earn income, they reinvest 90 percent of it into their families, as compared to only 30 to 40 percent for a man.”[6]
  • “Investing in girls’ education globally delivers huge returns for economic growth, political participation, women’s health, smaller and more sustainable families, and disease prevention.”[7]

If you haven’t already synthesized this information, allow me to help:

More schooling for girls contributes to higher average income for women, healthier children, greater investment of income into families, and lots more good stuff.

With all the benefits that come from empowering women and girls, not to mention that it’s just the right thing to do, how have organizations gone around spreading this good news? Many, I believe, have done a good job of explaining why educating and investing in girls is important. Others, have decided to do this:

Allow me to be blunt: this clip sort of makes me want to bang my head against a wall. While I encourage, no implore, anyone reading this to spend a bit of time looking into issues of gender and development more, and to support work that seeks to address gender inequalities, I also ask you to keep these points in mind.

Correlation is not causation. This is statistics talk, and any researcher worth her weight in gold will be incredibly careful to point out that just because you can demonstrate a relationship between two things, let’s say girls’ incomes and schooling, does not prove that one thing causes another. Which is to say, there is no formula. Sending girls to school will not necessarily increase girls’ incomes. There is a connection, but these things are not related in the same way as, say the amount of time I spend in the sun and my getting a sunburn. Besides, if the point is to empower girls, how is it empowering to treat them as if they were part of mathematical equation?

Beware of oversell: As I just discussed, educated girls do NOT always avoid HIV, or wait until later in life to start a family, or start their own businesses, or magically multiple one cow into a herd of cows. This is the trend, this is generally the case, especially when you educate lots of women (I could add another point here about units of analysis, but decided not to). But it is NOT necessarily an input/output scenario. If there is one thing that anyone in development work can agree on, it’s that THERE IS NO SILVER BULLET. Educating and allocating money towards helping girls is so, so important, and so, so good. But if anyone tells you doing so will solve the world’s problem, exercise some judgment. Keep in mind that poor girls are first of all, people, with the same proclivity to vices as you and I. They are also living in environments that may have much more power over their lives than you or I.

Be aware of language: “Invest in a girl” is a sticky phrase. “To Invest” is an economic verb. You only “invest” in something if you have some reason to expect to see, not small, but large substantial returns. You don’t always see this when you “invest” in people. Sometimes people make poor decisions, even women (gasp!). Obviously development funds should be allocated where they will affect the most positive change – but what if there are only small, incremental improvements? Does this mean the “investment” wasn’t worth it? Especially in an environment where development programs are expected to show quantifiable results in a few years, or even months, it is scary to think that the funding being funneled towards girls could disappear if the investment doesn’t deliver in the amazing, exponential way that we have promised “investors”.  I’m not Nicolas Kristof’s most energetic cheerleader by any means, but I appreciate that his book Half the Sky points out, “Maternal mortality is an injustice that is tolerated only because its victims are poor, rural women. The best argument to stop it, however, isn’t economic but ethical” (by the way, Half the Sky is a fairly good intro to the challenges faced by women and girls in developing countries). Helping people, challenging inequality, and opposing oppressive social structures does not always make economic sense. It’s kinda nice when it does, but let’s make sure that we find our inspiration from sources other than our bank accounts from time to time.

Don’t let people talk down to you. The argument for marketing this inspiring, albeit not so accurate, package is that the “average” reader or viewer, is not moved by subtlety or nuance, but by exaggeration. I have read, and been told numerous times that the “average” person will only respond to the most extreme portraits of poverty and the grossest generalizations when it comes to solutions. I am uncomfortable with this, not only because it justifies dishonesty in order to achieve an admirable end, but also because I imagine that the people termed to be “average” are the people I care for and love most. My parents, my siblings, my friends – basically anyone who doesn’t spend their careers reading development research papers and reports. These are the people who have taught me the most about complexity, limits, critical thinking, and kindness. I refuse to believe they are incapable of only responding to over-simplified information. So if something seems too good to be true, or if the solutions presented seem so easy that they seem hilarious, don’t be satisfied. Ask a couple more questions. The odds are, even the most basic problem is a part of a complex web of other problems, and someone is probably leaving out some details.

Now that’s I’ve completely bashed The Girl Effect’s marketing strategy, I would like to return to my original point: more attention on the problems faced by women and girls in developing countries is worth celebrating. But addressing these problems is not easy. There is no recipe for success, just lots of hard work, brains, sweat, mistakes. Luckily, there are not only big name development institutions and celebrities involved in work aiming to increase women and girls’ access to education around the world, but also women (and men) in every developing country who are leading the way. My former Peace Corps supervisor, Maria Soumonni, who has been involved in women’s issues in Benin for decades, is one of them. Even more than the American volunteers, aid workers, policy-makers, and reporters promoting girls’ education, these people are involved in their own communities and governments, fighting for better and more education for girls (and boys!) against economic, political, social, and biological barriers and obstacles. THESE are the people that more funding and international support should aim to empower and strengthen.Here are some links on how to help people

who are already doing good work in this area:

An educated girl: not every girl should be given a cow




[4] George Psacharopoulos and Harry Anthony Patrinos, “Returns to Investment in Education: A Further Update,” Policy Research Working Paper 2881 [Washington, D.C.: World Bank, 2002]

[5] George T. Bicego and J. Ties Boerma, “Maternal Education and Child Survival: A Comparative Study of Survey Data from 17 Countries,” Social Science and Medicine 36 (9) [May 1993]: 1207–27.

[6] Phil Borges, with foreword by Madeleine Albright, Women Empowered: Inspiring Change in the Emerging World [New York: Rizzoli, 2007], 13.

[7] Herz, Barbara and Gene B. Spelling, What Works in Girls Education: Evidence and Policies from the Developing World. [Council on Foreign Relations: 2004], Overview.


25 May

lie tee: part one

9 Feb

The title for this blog is the phonetic pronunciation (of my own design) for “Haiti”.  I have been avoiding a blog on Haiti for some time.  Since before the earthquake, believe it or not.  But now, as Washington DC sits under a couple dozen inches of snow, and headlines for city newspapers refer to this as “Snowmaggedon” and “Snowpacolypse”, I am left with some spare moments to gather my thoughts and share some of them.

First of all, it is incredibly revealing that the city of Washington, District of Columbia, has ground to a halt.  When it was announced last week that a major storm would dump 20 – 30″ of snow on us, the grocery stores were soon jammed with customers, hoping to stock up on –    well, I actually don’t know what.  Milk? Beer? Organic artichoke hearts? The eye witness accounts I heard, were that people were grabbing whatever was on the shelves.  When Whole Foods closed an hour early, a friend reported a woman standing in front of the closed doors, yelling, “Let me in!!! I need coffee!!!”

Tomorrow is the third snow day in a row for city schools, universities, many businesses, buses and the Federal government.  Did you catch that?  Federal agencies are closed thanks to TWO feet of snow. And rumor has it that the city has run out of salt for the streets.

The point I’d like to make is this: before any of us start bemoaning the state of affairs in Haiti, and make proclamations over the United States’ ability or responsibility to “take over” Haiti, we should keep in mind that a mere few feet of snow has our country’s capital shivering in its fur-lined boots.  The lesson of this snowfall, not to mention of Iraq and Afghanistan, should be that the United States is not in the greatest shape to save anybody.  And we Americans, who go beserk at the thought of 2 feet of snow blocking the entrance to Starbucks, should check ourselves before we pityingly shake our heads over the Haitian government, or looting in the earthquakes’ aftermath.

The idea that Americans, by ourselves or in cooperation with other developed countries, know how to “fix” Haiti is not new. We’ve actually had a go at running Haiti a couple of times: from 1915-1934, 1994-1995, 2004.  As has the U.N.  Not to mention other official (embargoes, debt, etc) and  unofficial (ousting presidents) ways in which France, the U.S., and other international players have heavily influenced events and patterns in Haiti.  Haitian history is a history of foreign meddling, and it is frightening how quickly that history has been forgotten.  This being said: how many of Haiti’s woes can be linked to these aspects of its history?  If the US has “run” Haiti before, is it possible that our handling of the country has been the source of some of its current woes?  If we couldn’t “fix” Haiti those times, what makes us think we can now?  Or that we ever even had the will to?  It would take in-depth research regarding the policies and activities carried out by the US during its past occupations of Haiti to know how to answer these questions.

US President Clinton reinstating Haitian President Aristide in 1995

If I can make one point in the post, its this: while we (Americans, both as citizens and as a government) are responding to the disaster in Haiti with admirable generosity and sympathy, we seem to be utterly lacking in humility and brains.  The Baptist missionaries who are now being charged with kidnapping are a small-scale example of short-sighted, messianic, uninformed heroics.  If we are really interested in someday seeing a stable, prosperous Haiti, we should begin by looking at our part in Haiti’s problems.