As someone who works in international development, and has been asked to perform tasks for which I am unqualified, this section of an (excellent!) article on Haiti’s reconstruction piqued my interest and guilt:
By the spring of 2010, it had become clear to many observers that imposing a lack of expertise on a situation that required a tremendous amount of it had become a hallmark of the State Department’s “results” strategy. [...]
One of Dalberg’s assignments was to do an assessment of a broad, bow-tie-shaped swath of land near the Corail camp, where thousands of Haitians had moved earlier that spring. Even as refugees were streaming onto the land and establishing squatter camps, the State Department hoped to create new communities in the area as part of an attempt to depopulate Port-au-Prince. [...]
After looking at the photos in Dalberg’s report, he said, “it became clear that these people may not even have gotten out of their SUVs.” [...]
Vastine says the entire process could have been avoided if USAID had simply relied on its own surveys of the area, which had been done on a regular basis for the past 50 years. “I kept telling these State Department people to go and look in their frickin’ filing cabinets, but it fell on deaf ears,” he says. “It was truly astonishing to me. The amount of previous study on Haiti is immense. But there was no reflection on the existing knowledge base. Instead, they would go out and hire some company to the tune of half a million dollars to barge in equipment from the United States and go punch some holes in the ground, even though we already knew what was down there. Then they’d hire some Ph.D. to study it for six months and do a PowerPoint presentation. Haiti doesn’t need any more Ph.D.s to study it. What it needs are some professionals who know what they’re doing to go out and do the goddamn work and rebuild it.”
This is what happens when you outsource your aid agencies to consultants.
Instead of developing a team of professionals well-versed with the economy, politics and culture of Haiti, who could have used their contacts to coordinate a fast, appropriate response to the earthquake, USAID relied on a for-profit firm to fulfill its core function.
This is like going to Denny’s, ordering a Grand Slam and being told by the waitress, ‘We don’t know how to make breakfast! I’ll go buy some eggs from McDonald’s across the street.’
I’ve met a number of people at USAID over the years, and it apparently conducts most of its projects this way. Get an idea, hire a consultant, hope for the best. The staff of USAID itself is basically a bunch of accountants, making sure all the Excel sheets are in order and that consultants are meeting their self-defined objectives. Oversight is limited to reading summary reports.
Professions like human rights, international development and humanitarian aid aren’t just playgrounds for bleeding-heart Harvard kids who want to ‘make a difference’ between summers in the Hamptons. They’re technical, professional fields that require long-term knowledge of the languages, economies and cultures of developing countries.
We would all find it incredibly strange if, say, the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs set up a food bank in South Chicago run by a bunch of people who had never been to the US, didn’t speak English and hadn’t asked any residents what they actually eat. So why does America’s official aid agency operate this way?
‘People with the best self-control are the ones who structure their lives so as to conserve willpower. They don’t schedule endless back-to-back meetings. They avoid temptations like all-you-can-eat buffets, and they establish habits that eliminate the mental effort of making choices. Instead of deciding every morning whether or not to force themselves to exercise, they set up regular appointments to work out with a friend. Instead of counting on willpower to remain robust all day, they conserve it so that it’s available for emergencies and important decisions.’
That’s the New York Times on ‘decision fatigue’, the phenomenon whereby your brain gets tired after having to make difficult choices or resist temptation all day.
It reminded me of a great podcast I listened to earlier this year by a dude who spent years studying the self-help industry. His main finding was that most people who turn to self-help books and seminars don’t just want to eat less, exercise more, work harder and find love, but they want to do all these things simultaneously. Instead of focusing on a specific goal, they want to become the kind of person who does everything they value at once.
Just like the NYTimes article, Burkeman says the successful improvers–the self-helped, I guess–were the ones who thought of their own willpower as a reservoir rather than a spring. You can increase the size of the reservoir, but it’s always capable of running out.
I still sometimes rely on the phrase ‘do something every day that scares you’ as a motivation to try new stuff. Maybe I should add ‘do something every day you’re proud of … and that’s enough’.
What a fucking waste. I don’t mean the deaths of the parents, or the life sentences of the sons—which, platitudinously, are horrible and tragic—but the fact that we all spent so much time talking and thinking about it in the first place.
Remember how big of a deal this case was in the early 1990s? CNN and CourtTV broadcast the trial every day. The broadsheets published gossip—oops, analysis—with every new development. The tabloids interviewed everyone who had ever met a Menendez. Wikipedia alone lists five books written about the case. The TV movie lives on VHS-ically.
Twenty years later, what are we left with? Two rich kids killed their parents and went to jail. Gee, riveting.
The murders weren’t indicative of any larger trend, or a symptom of a novel strand in American life. They didn’t teach us anything about human nature or public policy or culture or politics. The only thing we learned about was the media, who spent thousands of hours educating us on an event that, at its denouement, left us no better informed about the world we live in.
Looking back, would any member of the media argue that the thousands of hours spent reporting this case was time well spent? For them? For us? Of everything happening in the first half of the 1990s, are we glad that we spent so much time focusing on this blip?
It’s easy to identify a hollow media circus from 20 years’ distance. I wonder how good we are at spotting them close up.
Since I moved to Berlin, I’ve been constantly surprised at the number of undeveloped spaces right in the city center. You can walk past a row of bustling restaurants and cafes, only to bump into a block-sized patch of grass with a fence around it.
It’s a reminder of Berlin’s history, and gives you the impression that the city is basically too big for the number of people currently living in it.
I don’t live in a patch of grass, obviously, but my new apartment is in the middle of a strangely underdeveloped stretch of cobblestone less than 1km from the border to the city center:
Isn’t this weird? There are cafes surrounding my immediate neighborhood like an invading army, but there’s none in it. That ‘A’ up there is the closest thing I’ve got, and it’s about a 10-minute walk door to door.
It’s not that I actually mind this. Living in a dead zone is sort of a metaphor for my social life anyway. I like being close to the cool stuff going on, but not so close that I’m actually participating. I’m always the guy hanging out in the kitchen at house parties, so I feel comfortable acting out the urban-life equivalent.
But I’m genuinely curious as to why the cafe-ing of Berlin seems to have skipped the wedge of land I live on. My neighborhood is just as densely populated as the neighborhoods to the north and east. It’s not as wealthy as the area just south of me, but it’s doing better than the area north-west of me, and they have some dots. It’s not like there’s loud noises or a smell-factory artificially preventing people from coming here for recreation.
Anyway, I like living in a neighborhood that’s quiet even on Fris and Sats. The tranquility was one of the first things I noticed when I moved in, and a major reason I’m glad to be here. At first I thought it was quiet because all my neighbors work full-time, but now I know that it’s because they haven’t had coffee in decades. If they had any more energy, they would have left by now.
Last week my brother sent me a bunch of family pictures he found in my parents’ old house. Have you ever cringed so hard you’re afraid the tendons in your neck are going to snap?
I haven’t posted this week because I moved. To a real apartment. Because I am a functioning adult.
The last four days have been like a reality-show challenge: Move into a completely unfurnished apartment. In a neighborhood you’re not familiar with. In a city where you’ve never shopped for furniture before. In a country where you don’t speak the language. Do this without a car, while working full-time and while hosting a houseguest from Copenhagen.
Arrive at 10 am, pick up keys from former tenant and discover he hasn’t cleaned the apartment before moving out. Sit crosslegged on the crackling rug and negotiate with IKEA to deliver a bed before you next see Halley’s comet.
Take tram to thrift store with the canvas bags you stole from last week’s pre-emptive IKEA trip. Thrift store has nothing of use, and don’t deliver furniture anyway. Depart feeling like a spurned marauder.
On tram ride home, talk IKEA into letting a van driver pick up your furniture for you, instead of trekking to suburbs to get it yourself. Pay 100 extra euros.
Back at apartment, frantically google ‘thrift stores berlin open late’ to try and get some lightbulbs before it gets dark. Give up and go to a real furniture store, spend way too much buying two lamps for your three dark rooms. Move them around as you clean after dark.
Wake up early for more googling. Identify three secondhand furniture stores in Wedding and send houseguest to Prenzlauer Berg in likely-futile search for lamps.
Spend two hours at ‘Penny Land’ buying the kind of household items you only notice when you don’t have them: Welcome mat, cutting boards, garbage cans, soap, sponges, extension cords.
Receive text from houseguest: ‘The motherload. Get here. Bring cash.’
Bike to specified address, find acre-long junkyard of used furniture. Resist urge to drop to knees and tear off shirt like Tim Robbins in Shawshank Redemption.
Pick out all the furniture your cash will allow, put it in a pile and start haggling. Call Van Guy. He can’t pick you up for two hours, so walk to the other junkyard across the street. Wheel your items on a donkey cart back to the first junkyard before Van Guy gets there.
You haven’t eaten all day, and Van Guy refuses to help you carry anything up the stairs. Eat at your new dining table for the first time: Falafel and salad, easy on the yogurt sauce.
Spend next two hours carrying furniture to your fifth-floor apartment. Wonder how much of this houseguest can take before he deletes you from Facebook.
Think about furniture at work all morning. Go to gym over lunch to de-stress. Receive call from furniture store: ‘We’re outside your building with your couch. Where are you?!’ Dash home in gym clothes to let them in. E-mail boss to apologize for leaving computer on and ask that he pour out the coffee you left on your desk.
Attempt cooking in new apartment for first time. Realize as you turn on the stove that you have no olive oil or salt. Saute vegetables in vinegar left in cupboard by former tenant. Chicken bouillon is mostly salt, right? Sprinkle some on top.
Spend rest of evening building IKEA bedframe. Two people, three master’s degrees, two and a half hours.
Lift mattress into bedframe, feeling genuine sense of accomplishment. Sit on mattress for first time and feel it sag down the sides. Mattress is now an upside-down taco, resting on middle support bar. Lift mattress back out of bedframe and set on floor again. Note that this feeling, monumental accomplishment followed by instant failure, must be what it’s like to be elected president.
Struggle not to unload IKEA-related bile on coworkers when they ask you how The Great Furnishing is going. Visit another round of junk stores on the way home. You still only have two lamps.
As sun sets, take train to furniture-burbia. Ask IKEA employees how to solve mattress-taco problem. Buy recommended bed-slats and spend the last of your willpower staying awake to put them together. Put bedslats into frame and mattress onto bedslats. Carefully climb on top, roll back and forth, appreciate horizontality of sleeping arrangements for first time. Ask houseguest for one last favor: Take the lamp out of here.