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More on Famine

11 Aug

I’ve been working on a blog post for about a week now on my opinion of TOMS shoes (it’s not entirely positive). But, as I read through news article after news article, and blog post after blog post, on the famine in Somalia, airing my concerns over a shoe company just seems irrelevant. I’ll finish it and post it eventually, but right now the very real risk that 11.5 million people in East Africa will die of starvation, deserves all the attention we can muster and more.

But this is not a post that will tell you that if you act now, you can save lives in Somalia. It is not a post that will tell you that we have a solution for widespread starvation, or even the capacity to limit this tragedy. It is a post written with a strong aversion to oversell and dishonesty about emergency and development aid and what we can accomplish with it. Because first of all, by “we” I assume I am talking to people very much like me: Western, middle-class, educated, busy but not unmoved by the images of this famine that are showing up in newspapers and online. But let’s broaden  “we”. Let’s broaden it to include our policy-makers, both domestic and international, African governments, the UN, other donor governments. Basically, anyone that might actually have power to prevent or respond to a famine. Because when these actors are included, it becomes true that “we” have the technical capacity to avoid widespread famine. But “we” don’t have the political capacity. This famine is no surprise to anyone who was paying attention to this region. It was predicted nine months ago.

It is, like most famines, a human disaster, not a natural disaster. The distinction is fundamental not only to how “we” respond, but also to who we blame.  And this is where I would like to be very clear: some of us in this collective “we” are to blame, and let’s be careful who we blame. Because it is not just one party of the collective “we” that is to blame, but many parts.

I think, when the “we” that is limited to people like me, sees people dying in other countries, especially in Africa, for reasons that we poorly understand, we assume that there is something we can do to make it right. We see that something is lacking, food and water for instance, or something that is happening, mineral mining in the DRC for instance, and blame ourselves for not doing something. I would like to say this delicately, because I believe the desire to help and to end suffering is fundamentally good, and should be encouraged and pursued, but there is an amount of arrogance in our response. By assuming that we, by donating money or signing a petition and trying hard enough, could end the suffering of millions of people far from us, we turn a story that is about regional politics and war, lack of political will to consistently invest in viable agriculture in African drylands, a fundamentally broken food chain to and from Somalia, the politicization of aid, and Somalis as active agents, into a narrative about ourselves. This is not a story about how if we just do something we can save people. Nor is this the sequel to that story, about how you and I just can’t get enough people to care about starving Somalis. Famine in Somalia is not an excellent opportunity to reflect on how lucky we are in comparison, to talk about how selfish and rich we are, and feel bad about how little we are doing. This is a time to do what is necessary to ease the immediate suffering of millions of Somalis, yes. But it is also a time to realize that we are a part of one of the systems that failed to prepare for this famine, but not a part of many of the other causes of it.

The truth is, there is only a little you and I can do alleviate the situation in Somalia. That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t do the little we can. At the same time, most of us are indirectly linked to some of the main culprits – U.S. foreign policy, agricultural policy, and development policy, due to the people we elect and budgets we push for. And I don’t have any helpful hints on how to change those. Yet perhaps the blame that belongs to those systems, through our indirect links, falls on us as well. This is what it means to live in a globalized world: that we are ALL implicated in this famine, and the causes are so dispersed that it is impossible for anyone to escape some amount of guilt – with some deserving more than others. So if we are truly concerned with famine in Somalia we will recognize that the reality of how and why this is happening now, has happened before, and will likely happen again, is more messy and complex than the story we are hearing on the news. If this were as simple as a drought or people needing to donate more to emergency aid, this famine wouldn’t be happening.

But please donate, because it saves lives, but do so with humility and sadness, and maybe even anger. You can’t fix this. Terrible, terrible things happen, and people do terrible things to other people, there is little we can do and there is no way to not feel terrible about all of this. We must remain uncomfortable knowing that we can’t do enough, but do the little we can anyways. This is what Paul Farmer calls “the long defeat”.

Those of us who are in a position to, should push the broader “we” that includes policy makers and governments and development systems, to take responsibility for their role in creating this catastrophe. But even then, much of it is out of our control, and it is hubris to think otherwise. You can read a (passionate and scathing) critique and explanation of what is happening in Somalia and why, with greater details on who is largely responsible, and the limits of our responses, here.


On Faith

27 Apr

Pastoralism Post I

26 Mar

According to the screen on the back of the seat in front of me, I am writing this a couple hundred miles south of Iceland, just about halfway between London and Toronto. I’m around five hours shy of my landing time in D.C., which should give me plenty of time to write this post, which is one I’ve been thinking about for a while. So go grab a cup of coffee, sit in a comfy chair, and get ready to sit for a little while, because this post is going to be loooooong.

Anyone close to me knows that throughout my graduate school career, there has been one topic that continues to capture my interest: pastoralism in Africa. To date, I have written three modest papers addressing different aspects of pastoralism, and have acquired a substantial body of research on the topic as a result. Last summer, for better or for worse, I pitched the idea of pursuing a consulting project framed around pastoralist populations to my graduate capstone group (our school’s version of a Master’s thesis). While we have had disappointments, our team is now consulting for a large international organization to provide recommendations for their programming in a particularly complex and fragile area of Uganda, largely populated by (take a guess!)… Pastoralists. This semester I’m working on a paper discussing pastoralist water resource management in African drylands. And today, I am returning from an international conference titled “The Future of Pastoralism in Africa”, which was hosted in the capital of Ethiopia. This explains why I am flying over the Atlantic.

What remains to be explained, however, is: why pastoralists? Why do I keep coming back to variations on this theme? Why do I care? What is the draw and where do I see as my role in these issues?

Fula pastoralists in Mali, photo by Betsie Frei

Pastoralists are, broadly speaking, those people and groups that rely on livestock (cattle, camels, and/or goats and sheep) for their livelihoods, and who’s lives are marked by a degree of mobility. Often the terms “nomad” and “pastoralist” are used interchangeably, but “pastoralist” refers to those groups whose social and economic livelihoods are centered around raising livestock, while “nomad” does not necessarily imply livestock herding. There are an estimated 268 million pastoralists globally, with most of these found in Africa. Some of the most well-known pastoralist groups include the Maasai in East Africa, and the Woodaabe and Tuaregs of West Africa, and groups spread across the continent.

While “pastoralist” is an adjective referring to people, “pastoralism” is a noun and refers to a livelihood system. A phrase like “livelihood system” might sound like a bit of development gobbley-goop, but it is an important to make the distinction between pastoralism as a livelihood strategy and pastoralism as a mode of production. Researchers of pastoralism and pastoralists themselves, generally regard pastoralism as a livelihood and an identity. This goes beyond merely raising and selling livestock as means for income, and includes an array of cultural, social, and ecological values. This understanding of pastoralism runs counter to decades of past and current attitudes towards to pastoralism, which regard pastoralism as irrational, backwards, and wasteful. Pastoralism is still often regarded as obsolete and illogical by development practitioners and governments, and pastoralist cultures are portrayed as inherently adverse to progress.

Regarding pastoralism as a pre-modern, un-productive way of life has influenced a great deal of national policies and development strategies, which up until very recently in most places have prioritized sedentarization as the only rational future for pastoralists. What this essentially means is that many governments, as well as NGOs and other development actors, have regarded pastoralism as opposed to development – that until pastoralists are no longer pastoralists (that is: settled in one place, dependent on farming or some other activity for income), they will not contribute to national development and remain “uncivilized”. This has lead to the political marginalization of many pastoralist groups, as their lifestyles, livelihoods, and values in many ways stand in opposition the values of modernization and “development”. How can these people, who are often moving from one place to another, including across national borders, and who seem to be irrationally obsessed with livestock, possibly be incorporated into the large-scale development schemes of their countries? Hasn’t mankind’s progression been a move from hunter-gatherer, to pastoralist herder, to farmer, to industrialist, to whatever we have now in developed countries? Why shouldn’t governments encourage pastoralists to move to the next stage of development? How in the world do you offer services, such as education and health care, to people who are always moving?

This unresolved tension between the promotion of pastoralists interests versus those of larger development interests can be viewed as a failure to understand and appreciate the specific role pastoralists play in unstable environments, especially in Africa.

Contrary to decades of policies and thinking that promoted sedentarization and assumed that herds threaten fragile dryland ecosystems, pastoralism is increasingly recognized as one of the most ecologically friendly forms of land use (Cotula, Toulmin and Hesse 2004).[1] It not only “makes little human impact on the environment and gives wild fauna the greatest opportunity to survive in the area”, but also has “a beneficial impact on many aspects of the Sahelian ecology” (Hammel 2001, 18).  African drylands have evolved alongside movement of herds, which play a role in the ecology by dropping seeds through dung, consuming residual fodder, and contributing to soil formation and retention (Millennium Assessment 2003).

In addition to its positive environmental impacts, mobile pastoralism is often recognized as “the only way humans can make productive use of most of the natural resources in the arid Sahelian savannah” (Hammel 2001, 19).  Nomadic and semi-nomadic pastoralism is both “necessary and economically rational”, evidenced by the fact that it makes up 84 percent of the agricultural GDP in Niger, a country where nearly 20% of the population is pastoralist (Davies and Hatfield 2007, 93, 96). In Ethiopia, it is estimated that pastoralist products make up 44% of GDP. Pastoralism provides direct values: livestock sales, milk sales, hide/hair sales, and leather; as well as indirect values: inputs to agriculture (manure, traction transport), inputs to drylands, and forward and backward linkages.  In Mali, it has been estimated that, “transhumant pastoralist systems yield on average at least two times the amount of protein per hectare per year compared to both sedentary agropastoralists and ranchers in the US and Australia” (Bremen and de Wit, quoted by Davies: 96).  Further unmeasured values include employment, knowledge and skills, environmental management, and global climate control.

Loading camels in Southern Ethiopia, photo credit to Future Agricultures.

The point here is that pastoralism is an adaptation that allows people to efficiently utilize available resources.  Davies and Hatfield point out:

“It is sometimes assumed that pastoralists spend their time running away from one climatic event after another, but the opposite is often true: for example, rainfall in the drylands of the Sahel makes protein-rich vegetation available for a short period of time, and enables pastoralists to leave the comparatively disease-ridden and low-grade zones to access these other, ephemeral resources (92).”

Pastoralism is a way of life that allows populations to go “where the resources are, when they are available.”

A further adaptation of pastoralist production systems “is their capacity to establish and develop reciprocal and interdependent relations with neighboring sedentary communities” (Nori, Taylor and Sensi 2008, 7).  Pastoralism and sedentary crop production are “complementary production systems”, and grant favorable terms of trade to both parties.  Land and water has traditionally been appropriated and utilized according to customary land tenure arrangements (McCarthy, et al. 2004, 39).  These arrangements are the product of decades of interaction and negotiation between different pastoralist groups and sedentary farmers, where the key factor in both the arrangements and the groups has been flexibility and the ability to adapt.

Recognition of pastoralism as an important and logical livelihood strategy and use of marginal land is widespread, especially in academic literature.  However, with the exception of Mongolia, this knowledge has seldom influenced large-scale development plans and strategies in places where pastoralists are present.  When it has been recognized, it has most often been in terms of pastoralism as a production system.  Separating “pastoralism as a way of life from pastoralism as a way of production,” assumes that “individuals will be ‘emancipated’ through education from their traditional way of life as pastoralists, but will maintain the same productive role as herders” (Carr-Hill and Peart 2005, 40).  This assumption both minimizes pastoralism as an identity, and fails to take into account the concerns of pastoralists, who in the face of shrinking resources and social marginalization tend to frame their concerns in terms of “their own existence and cultural identity rather than an economic concern about the necessity of modernizing their production methods” (Krätli and Dyer, 2006, 16).

To summarize: pastoralism is a logical livelihood and production strategy in many parts of Africa. There are, however, many problems, and the information above could sensibly lead one to believe that all there is to be done to allow pastoralists to thrive is to leave them be. This is, unfortunately, unrealistic. Pastoralists live in the same rapidly-changing world as the rest of us, and are impacted by local crises (droughts, etc) as well as international crises (market changes, the War on Terror, etc). Pastoralists do not exist in isolation to the broader problems in many African countries: resource management, climatic events, lack of clean water, disease, hunger, conflict… “Pure” pastoralism has become less common, as pastoralists supplement livestock with other ways of earning a living, in the face of shrinking pastures, privatization of land, population growth, and restrictions on their mobility. Yet even when pastoralists drop out of a pastoralist lifestyle, many continue to identify themselves as pastoralists, and income earned from supplemental activities will often be invested in restocking herds.

What initially drew me to studying pastoralism was my time in Benin, where I saw firsthand the political marginalization of Fulani pastoralists. What has continued to draw me back has been the complexity of it all. As if trying to figure out “development” weren’t complicated enough, trying to conceptualize realistic futures for pastoralists, in which they are able to pursue their own goals and also contribute to national economies and politics, is exponentially more complicated. Pastoralists, while often marginalized, often contribute to the marginalization of other groups. While the victims of conflict in some cases, they are perpetrators of conflict in others. How does this challenge our tendency, as Western development pracitioners, to work within oppressed/oppressor frameworks? Pastoralist livelihoods also challenge me to reconsider what it is that “development” is aiming to do: What do we mean when we say all children should be in school? Must pastoralist children stop being pastoralists in order to learn to read and write? Surely the U.S.’s industrial model for meat production is not the ideal: what can it learn from pastoralist models, and how might future markets for meat be influenced by pastoralism in Africa? How imaginative are we willing to be?

Pastoralist boy in Karamoja, Uganda. Photo by Lokange Ekamais.

The conference I just left concluded that there are many different futures for pastoralism: some pastoralists will drop out of pastoralist lifestyles, many will supplement pastoralism in new and unexpected ways. Some will be able to tap into international markets for meat and secondary products, others will not. The resiliency of pastoralists and their ability to adapt will be key. Working out what policies and programming will best serve the interests of pastoralists AND other groups is mind-bogglingly difficult, yet necessary. Implementing those policies is even more difficult. It is up to pastoralists, sedentary Africans, and African governments to direct the future for pastoralism in such a way that benefits are encouraged and problems are mitigated. As an outsider, I look forward to finding ways to support that process.

Note: Portions of this post are taken and edited from the paper “Pastoralism and Development in Niger”, that I wrote in December 2009. I apologize if it is too wonky and/or too long!

For more information visit:

SOS Sahel

Future Agricultures

The Feinstein International Center at Tufts University.

[1] Zimbabwean-born wildlife biologist Allan Savoy, engineered a model of land management (tested in the West Africa Pastoral Programme) after unlocking the “key” to why “unmanaged” grasslands of the African savannah were able to support enormous wild herds throughout droughts, without compromising biodiversity, whereas grasslands grazed by domestic stock under human management tended to degrade.  He found four “keys”, which have been applied to land use in the Sahara and Sahel regions:

“1. The health of ‘brittle’ environments, characterized by low humidity, a prolonged dry season, and erratic precipitation, depends on animals to recycle the carbon sequestered in plants.  In brittle environments, rest leads to stagnation of the plant community and loss of soil cover and fertility.

2. Large ungulates, wild or domestic, are the most efficient recyclers of plant material, both through trampling and digestion, and are thus NECESSARY to maintaining diversity, productivity, and stability in brittle areas.

3. Overgrazing and overtrampling are principally functions of time, not numbers.  Dense herds of great size that move frequently and allow plants to recover before regrazing them recycle nutrients without weakening plants.  Even single animals that do not move overgraze the most palatable plants in the areas where they linger.

4. On the enormous unfenced ranges of pre-colonial Africa (and similar brittle environments elsewhere), pack-hunting predators assured beneficial herd behavior, and nomadic herders generally developed similar patterns that have undoubtedly slowed the desertification process.  Limited lands, however, demand management that is “holistic” to the extent that it responds to ever-shifting conditions of weather, economics, culture, and environmental conditions. “ Sam Bingham, “Managing Wholes,” A Short History of the West African Pilot Pastoral Program 1993-2002, 2004 йил 12-4, (accessed 2009 9-11).

What do you think of federally-funded foreign assistance?

29 Jan

Times are tough. We were reminded of this yet again during last week’s State of the Union address, with President Obama’s emphasis on the economy. Part and parcel with his discussion of “the economy” came a discussion of our country’s deficit and our need to curtail unnecessary federal spending.

Here is the rub: what is necessary and what is unnecessary? Where can we afford to cut costs, and where can we not afford to? Similarly, where should we cut costs and where shouldn’t we? What sort of criteria do we use to determine what is necessary and what is unnecessary?

When looking at the federal budget, a group of congresspeople have zoned in on the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), the main agency responsible for U.S. foreign assistance. The proposal they have drafted, which aims to reduce the national deficit, would essentially eliminate USAID.

This proposal is not completely unexpected, since USAID’s budget has always ebbed and flowed (eh, maybe it has never really flowed) with the tide of politics, both domestic and international. Senator Jesse Helms called for the elimination of USAID ten years ago, when he famously described foreign aid as the equivalent of throwing tax dollars “down a foreign rat hole”.  Naturally, I bristle at this. All of us have our own “special interests”, and this is mine.

I’m not the only one to have bristled. In his response to this latest proposal, the head of USAID, Rajiv Shah,  said that the cuts “would have massive negative implications for our fundamental security”, especially in relation to the strategic role U.S. development aid is playing in Afghanistan and Iraq. The U.S. Department of State, which controls USAID, has employed a lot of rhetoric meant to elevate official development assistance (ODA, the general term used to describe bilateral foreign assistance) as a key element of U.S. foreign policy. This policy is often referred to as “the Three Ds”: defense, diplomacy, and development.

Rajiv Shah, bristling

Now, I know what I think about this. But I’m not going to write about it yet. All of this has me wondering: what do other people think about our country funding development projects in other countries? Before I write a blog about why I think developed countries, especially the U.S., should have development budgets, I would like to pose to you, friends, the following questions:

  1. Do you think the U.S. should provide assistance to developing countries?
  2. Why or why not?

Before I set you free to answer, I would like to equip you with some fun facts:

–       The U.S. government spends about 0.44 percent of its budget on foreign aid.

–       Besides USAID, there are about 25 other federal agencies involved in foreign aid (which are included in the percentage above). USAID is the agency explicitly charged with this, but others do as well.

–       The top five recipients of US ODA are Israel, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Egypt, and Jordan.

–       The five poorest countries in the world are Niger, Ethiopia, Mali, Burkina Faso, and Burundi (based on the UN’s Multidimensional Poverty Index).

–       Learn more about USAID here.

I look forward to your responses!

What am I even talking about???

15 Jan

I recently spent two-ish weeks in my hometown in California. This by itself probably could provide me with plenty to reflect on, but the “Small Town Girl Moves to Big City and Then Returns to Small Town and Has Some Thoughts” genre of writing is a little too dramatic for my taste. So I’ll happily abstain. But since I did go home, and since I did think about some things, I will allow this blog to fall under a slightly more nuanced sub-genre: “Student of International Development Tries to Explain What It Is They Study to Family and Friends Back Home”.

There are some phrases and concepts that people who live in Washington D.C. seem to generally understand, even if very superficially. These include phrases like “government contractor”, “networking”, “Ovetchkin”, “Escalefter”, as well as “international development” and “aid”. (By the way: phrases and concepts ill-understood in D.C. seem to include “Mexican food”, “farm”, and “coffee shop”). What this means is that when someone asks you what you do or what you study, you can say “international development” and people will nod and the conversation continues on.

The reaction back home, however, is different. When I tell people I’m studying international development, often the response is, “What’s that?” And then I stumble over my words and say something like, “Oh mmm… addressing poverty in developing countries. I’m focusing on humanitarian assistance and post-conflict development. I mean… haha! Saving babies and stuff. Well! Anyways. How are YOU?”

By now my friend is thoroughly convinced that I really have no clue what I’m studying and am probably just wasting a ton of time in D.C.  Meanwhile I am left feeling like I’ve not only done a disservice to my field, but have also insulted the intelligence of whomever I’m speaking with by boiling down what I study to a few pithy catchphrases. This is something I’d like to work on: being better at explaining what I’ve studied and what I’d like to do with what I’ve learned.

But I’m not the only one with this problem. I recently took a very formal and scientific poll of several classmates, and they agreed that they generally sum up what they do by saying things like “Poverty reduction”, “Foreign aid”, “Have you heard of World Vision? Stuff like that!”

It’s probably fair to also mention that explaining international development work becomes a little easier once you have a full time job in the field. I asked a friend of mine, who works for an organization that improves health services around the world, how she explains her job. She summed it up by saying, “I work on strengthening supply chains for public health commodities like condoms and bed nets. Everything has a supply chain- most things we buy someone had to know we wanted it before we bought it. It’s the same for health commodities, but you’re working in situations where maybe people can’t pay, or the product is donated so it gets a little more complicated. The bottom line is that we procure and distribute these products for the US government to foreign governments.” Huh. Pretty good!

This helps because it is something specific. But this is also one of the dilemmas of defining international development: the term can be used to describe something very specific, like providing certain goods or services, or something more general like increasing access to markets, or something really smooshy like building democracy or improving governance. In fact, this is a good start to a list of things that fall under the umbrella of international development:

– Providing goods: often donated, but also includes increasing people’s market access to goods.

– Providing services: education, healthcare, etc.

– Improving infrastructure: building roads, wells, sanitation systems, clean water, etc.

– Improving governance: decentralizing authority, increasing accountability, improving the rule of law, addressing corruption, building institutions.

– Empowerment: Advocating for the rights of minorities, women, and children, training people on their rights, improving marginalized people’s access to goods, services, government representation, etc.

– Building economies: large-scale private investment, micro-credit, decreasing barriers to free enterprise, improving access to markets (for both consumers and sellers), increasing employment opportunities, creating more equitable economic systems.

– Food security: increasing agricultural productivity, improving terms of trade for exported goods, improved farming techniques, emergency food supplies, etc.

– Peacebuilding: this is not always considered to be “development”, but in places where civil conflict is rife, disarmament, peace talks and negotiations, peace keeping, displacement camps, and reconciliation processes are often considered to be important elements of development.

– Democracy-building: ensuring free and fair elections, securing freedom of press and speech, promoting representational government, etc.

I could really go on. A distinction is also made within the field between relief and development. Relief (also referred to as humanitarian assistance) is the organized response to a natural or human disaster, such as the earthquake in Haiti. Immediate life-saving goods and services, generally supplied by foreign governments and international organizations, are considered relief. Relief, ideally, is provided only as long as it takes for the dust to settle. Organizations that are generally in the field of relief, but not development, include the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), Doctors Without Borders, and various UN agencies. Extended humanitarian disasters however, such as the situation in the Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo or the HIV/AIDs epidemic, often blurr the line between relief and development. But this is a topic for a later blog post.

The relief-development distinction I think is also important when describing what it is that development professionals actually do. I think often the image of an aid worker is one of a swash-buckling doctor, barking orders in a makeshift operating room as he/she prepares to do an emergency c-section in the middle of a war zone. Or perhaps, the more tender image of a sun-leathered woman running an orphanage in Africa. The reality is that most (most) people I know who work “in development” work in offices. Whether in D.C., where they write proposals, review invoices, create programs, haggle with donors, fundraise, research, sit in meetings, attend summits, create monitoring and evaluation mechanisms, and skype with field offices; or whether they are abroad, also sitting in offices, meeting with government officials, reviewing numbers, keeping budgets, signing contracts, doing assessments, asking for more funding, etc, etc – development work is often much less glamorous than the images it can conjure (when it conjures an image at all). There are certainly aid workers who fit the stereotype, and who put themselves at incredible risk by being willing to work in some of the toughest places in the world. But development workers can also be logisticians, lawyers, doctors, public health experts, business people, scientists, IT technicians, and on and on and on. This why I hate myself for telling people (although with tongue-in-cheek) that development is “saving babies”- it’s just really, really not true that most development workers are out there saving babies.

I did not save this baby.


The point here though, is that succinctly summing up “international development” is very difficult. For many, the term has come to mean everything and nothing, and numerous academics have sought to replace it with something else. But regardless of the particular language used, I would argue that international development is a field, both of study and of practice. It is also an industry, and like any other industry people profit and people fail. The fact that it is all these things, however, does not make it any easier for me to answer the questions posed by people outside this line of work.

I should also recognize that this can be the case in many other fields. My brother is a Chemical Engineer for a private contractor and works around the country designing control systems for different companies… I think. He was somehow involved in designing the SunChips solar plant in Modesto, CA, and designing the controls for a bottled water production plant that was switching to bottling tea… I think. Really, what he does is too nuanced and complicated for me to understand as an industry outsider. What I know is that he travels a lot and has to make sure things don’t blow up. And really, I think most of us who are not engineers working in his field are content with not fully understanding what goes into designing a production control system.

The field of international development is similar to this, in that it is often difficult to explain what development professionals do. On the other hand, it is dissimilar to this for two reasons. First of all, development very directly affects people, and therefore implies more immediate ethical and moral judgment. Secondly, there is very, very little agreement on what the end product should look like.

There’s plenty to say about this, but the purpose of this post is to attempt to explain what it is that I mean when I say I study international development. For me, specifically, it means I take classes on management, on writing proposals, on disaster response, on what we might want to think about doing in the case of civil wars, and on and on. It means I will (fingers crossed) get a job where I work in an office, both for the sake of having a job and with the goal of somehow, in some way, making life a little better for poor people, even if not very glamorously. There is a lot of debate within the field on how to actually do this, and you can meet two people who both work in “international development”, but who would also argue tooth and nail that what the other person is doing more harm than good. And both of these people will probably have strong logical and ethical arguments for why their methods and goals are better. And this too, is part of the international development industry.

Are you more confused than ever now? That’s ok. After two years working in a developing country and two years studying development, I’m still a little confused too.

Aid Worker's space.



22 Aug

If the world were merely seductive, that would be easy. If it were merely challenging, that would be no problem. But I rise in the morning between a desire to save the world and a desire to savor the world. This makes it hard to plan the day.
– E.B. White

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.