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.



90 Days with AIDS

28 Nov

The final three weeks of the semester are here. So even if I had the brain power to write a post, it would be irresponsible to write one instead of working on a paper or project that is due in, oh I dunno, three days.

But as we move into the Christmas season, here’s an excellent, albeit depressing video promoting Anti-retro-viral drugs. I saw this clip months ago, and then lost the link. A shout-out to Emma Stewart for finding it for me.  (Note that they received permission from the subject to film her for promotional purposes).

Poverty Professionals

5 Oct

2010 UN MDG Summit Meeting

I could argue that this is not a huge problem for me or my classmates: that we are not yet at a place where we have to live with the tension of being well off off of poverty. I mean, we are grad students – those somewhat silly folks who take out loans to get another degree, scrimp and save (or more honestly, spend any disposable income we have on beer instead of spending it on a mortgage or a vacation or a new car), and dream of the day when we have “real” jobs. I might even sidetrack the entire conversation by talking about relative poverty, by asking what do we even mean by “poverty”? Who’s to say anyone should want what I have anyways?

But that’s a different conversation entirely. Instead, let’s own up to the fact that compared to the people we spend hours studying, researching, and writing about, we’re not doing so poorly. I live a very luxurious life, which does and should sit uncomfortably with the topics I have chosen to study and (fingers crossed!) someday work on . This must be why I keep coming back to this short paper by Ravi Kanbur.

An excerpt:

What is striking about the class of poverty professionals (of whom I am one) is that the good living (granted, not at the billionaire or millionaire level, but pretty good nevertheless) is made through the very process of analyzing, writing, recommending on poverty. To me, at least, this is discomforting and disconcerting. I feel slightly ashamed within myself when I turn up to a poverty conference (perhaps even one where I am the keynote speaker), having flown business class, staying in an expensive hotel and (sometimes) being paid handsomely for attending. I recall many years ago, when I was in my twenties, telling the anthropologist Mary Douglas about how I was starting to do consulting for the World Bank on poverty issues, and how important it was to do this work. “And it’s not too bad for one’s own poverty either, is it?” came her worldly, knowing, reply. The seeds of discomfort sown by that comment have germinated and taken root, and now won’t let go.

I recognize of course the paradoxes of making so much of my discomfort, with the implication that others should feel it too. First, it seems to let off the hook those who make a good living without attempting to help the poor in any way. Surely the moral dilemma of living well in the midst of poverty is one that should apply equally to all, and not particularly and peculiarly to poverty professionals? Why pick on those whose chosen profession is to help the poor, and berate them for doing well out of it? By suggesting that their pay and benefits should not be “too high”, does this not penalize the children of the poverty professionals for their parents’ calling? Secondly, if highly skilled personnel are needed to attack poverty, then what’s wrong with paying the market rate for that skill? Surely the alternative is that these skilled professionals will find equally well paying jobs making widgets, and the attack on poverty will lose its best troops? Surely, the poor deserve the very best talent to address their needs?

And yet my doubts and discomforts remain. Yes, living well amidst poverty should be a dilemma for everyone. But am I wrong in thinking that it should be a problem particularly for those who live well out of attending meetings on poverty? At the very least the moral superiority that they (read I) might claim or feel because they work on poverty has to be tempered by the fact “it’s not too bad for one’s own poverty, is it?”

The point is not to make us all feel guilty about having it good (by our standards). The point is to recognize the tension, instead of explaining it away.

Dogon Meeting Place

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 AidWatchers.com 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.


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

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!”