Tag Archives: development

The Millennium Development Goals Were Bullshit. And That’s OK.

All year I’ve been trying to decide what I think about the Millennium Development Goals. You remember those, right? In 2000, 189 countries and 23 international organizations committed to eradicating poverty, promoting gender equality and improving global health by 2015.

As the deadline approaches, the internet has filled up with equally unconvincing arguments for and against the MDGs. Most of the ‘they’ve failed!’ condemnation is by people who think foreign aid shouldn’t exist at all, and most of the ‘they’ve succeeded!’ cheerleading is by people who were there for creating them.

So a few months ago, I started reading institutional and academic reports on the Goals. Their creation, their progress, their data, I wanted to know what the evidence, what the people gathering it, actually said.

I came away even more conflicted than when I started. Defenders of the Goals say they were great PR, an excuse for the global north to start sending money southward again. Critics of the Goals say they were unrealistic, a top-down tickbox exercise inflicted upon the developing world without their consent.

I think they’re both right! Here’s the arguments for and against the Millennium Development Goals, and why it’s so hard to pick a side.

1. The MDGs resurrected development aid

Let’s start with the non-arguable stuff. In the mid-1990s, development aid was in crisis. The Cold War had just ended, and without communism-prevention giving rich countries a reason to give money to poor ones, the air was slowly leaking out of the field.

International organizations needed a big idea to shake governments out of their ennui, to inject enthusiasm—and more importantly, money—back into poverty reduction. After years of deliberations, they come up with the MDGs, eight quantitative(-ish) targets for the world to rally around. By 2015, they pledged, they would halve extreme poverty, cut maternal mortality by three quarters and reverse the spread of HIV/AIDS. Oh, and reduce hunger and battle child mortality and improve sanitation and provide safe water and achieve universal education.

Almost immediately, donations started increasing. Between 2000 and 2005, aid flows went from $60 billion per year to $120 billion. Health spending doubled; primary education spending tripled. Donor countries started coordinating their projects, rallying around specific outcomes and quantitative monitoring rather than the ad hoc before-and-afterism they used to work under. As one evaluation puts it, ‘a cascade of statistical and analytical work got underway once the MDGs gained currency.’

The MDGs increased donor commitments and coordination; that part’s undisputed. But just as fast as the new money came in, though, so did the question of whether it was actually making a difference.

2. The MDGs aren’t going to be reached

Look, we’re not going to make the MDGs, not even close. I’m not going to go into a whole big thing where I talk about each Goal and how X number of countries are falling behind or whatever. Even a cursory glance at the Goals themselves shows that reaching them was never the point.

Take Goal 1, ‘eradicate extreme poverty and hunger.’ It’s split up into a few targets, components defining what reaching the Goal means in statistical terms. The first target for eradicating poverty and hunger is pretty reachable: Halve the proportion of people living on less than $1.25 a day. We did that years ago. Check.

But the next target under that Goal is ‘achieve full and productive employment and decent work for all.’ Oh is that it, MDGs? A job for every single person on the planet?

It’s like this going down the right down the list, reasonable targets alternating with utter fantasy. Goal 2 is ‘achieve universal primary education.’ Denmark doesn’t have universal primary education. The rest of the world was never going to get there with 15 years and a 60 extra billion dollars split 40 or so-odd ways. One analysis points out that 38 countries started the MDGs with enrolment rates below 80 percent. Achieving the goal by 2015 would have meant ‘improv[ing] enrolment at a rate that has not been achieved by a single country for which post-1960 data is available.’

This is why I’ve spent the first six months of this year rolling my eyes at op-eds gloating about how the aid community has ‘failed’ to reach most of the Goals. Of course we did! Half them are ridiculous!

I should also mention here, speaking of ridiculous, that many of the targets don’t have particularly trustworthy data behind them. Lots of the statistics are based on household surveys, dudes with clipboards wandering through villages, asking people about their kids’ birth weights and whether they use mosquito bednets. Only one African country, Mauritius, even registers births and deaths according to UN standards. Maternal mortality rates for the year 2000, the year the MDGs were signed, were estimated to be between 210 and 620 per 100,000 births. Reducing something by 66 percent gets a lot harder when the baseline has a margin of error of 300 percent.

3. The MDGs might not have made a difference

But the real debate isn’t over whether the Goals, measured by their own science-fiction targets and fingers-crossed data, fail or succeed. It’s about whether they had a galvanizing effect, whether all those extra donations resulted in leaps forward for the indicators the international community decided to work on. It’s incontrovertible that nearly every indicator of human well-being—life expectancy, literacy, income, mortality—has improved in the years since the MDGs were adopted. The question is whether that would have happened without them.

By now, there’ve been a few studies on this, and it doesn’t look great for the MDGs. In 2010, an analysis found that only five indicators (out of 24) accelerated after the MDGs were adopted, and that was only in half to two-thirds of the countries where they were being applied. China, the greatest poverty-alleviation success story of the last generation—28 million Chinese people were lifted out of poverty every year between 1990 and 2008—barely participated in the MDGs. The latest MDGs Progress Report notes that when in 2000, only 6 percent of the world’s population had access to the internet. Now, it’s 43 percent. Considering all the technical and economic changes that have happened during that time, is anyone really going to argue that that it was a set of donor targets that were the critical factor in that rise?

That critique, though, only works when you look at the global picture. Zooming in, you find specific places, specific ways, where it seems like the MDGs have worked. The Center for Global Development’s Charles Kenny, for example, has shown that according to trends from before 2000, primary education rates in developing countries should have reached 76 percent by 2010. They actually reached 81 percent. Maternal mortality should have been 221 per 100,000 births; it ended up 203. That same analysis that found only 5 indicators improving globally post-2000 also found that, in Africa, 16 of them did.

But you can julienne the statistics however you want. The challenge of the MDGs, and why it’s so hard to make up my mind about them, is because the ways in which they’ve failed are so easy to measure, while the ways in which they’ve succeeded are so not. As Kenny and others have pointed out, coordinating donors around measurable goals, renewing the reasons for rich countries to invest in poverty reduction, these things matter. They’re just not as quantifiable as literacy rates or HIV prevalence. In the least developed countries, where aid makes up a significant percentage of the national budget, they may even have been decisive. The shittiness of the data, and the non-existence of the counterfactual, means we’ll never know for sure. 

4. The MDGs don’t measure what matters

Another, slightly more convincing, criticism of the MDGs isn’t about whether we reached them, but whether they were worth reaching at all.

Remember Goal 2, ‘Achieve universal primary education’? The way the MDGs chose to measure this was through enrollment rates, how many kids attend school every day. By that measure, poor countries have made significant headway toward the Goal. By the measure of whether they actually learned anything, however, the evidence is less inspiring:

In many cases the rapid expansion of schools aimed to grant an increasing number of students access to primary schools had in many cases a deteriorating effect on the learning quality, first and foremost due to teacher shortages, resulting in single teacher schools with one teacher responsible for one multigrade classroom, or the hiring of so called para-teachers with considerable less educational qualification as regular teachers. … 130 million children completed primary education but without being able to read or write.

This, according to MDG skeptics, is their real weakness: They focus on inputs, the ability of a country to provide a service, rather than outcomes, whether those services are actually improving people’s lives. In doing so, they’ve encouraged governments to work on means and ignore ends. It’s like pledging to lose weight but never actually weighing yourself, just counting how many Cinnabons you eat.

I’m tempted to accept this critique—I’ve been bitching about measuring ‘gender equality’ by the percentage of women in national parliaments for years—but it’s worth pointing out some caveats in it too. Not all the indicators measure inputs. Some of them, like the target on providing access to HIV treatment, really do measure the outcome the MDGs are trying to reach.

And yes, enrollment rates are not a perfect measure of learning and women in government is not a perfect measure of gender equality. But what is? ‘Education’ and ‘equality’ are inherently qualitative concepts—so is ‘development’, while we’re at it. Maybe the Goals should have used test scores rather than enrollment rates to measure education, or the gender pay gap to measure equality, but those are just as jukable, just as subject to over-emphasis by logframes and donor tickboxes, as any other proxy. These are problems with quantification itself, the map versus the territory, not the MDGs in particular.

5. The MDGs were for donors, not governments

The MDGs might have been signed by a huge number of developing countries, but they were written almost entirely without them. The original idea, the Millennium Declaration, was developed by a country-club of rich development agencies in hotel conference centers throughout the 1990s. By the time the rest of the world was presented with the Goals, donors had already identified the problems they wanted to solve and the indicators they would use to measure them.

The result, condensing all the world’s development challenges into fewer than 10 goals, has encouraged countries to zero in on donor-approved problems, rather than solving the ones they actually have. Rwanda, according to one analysis, devoted 24 percent of its health spending to HIV/AIDS, even though only 1.6 percent of its population has it. Malaria might be a huge cause of death globally, but in Mongolia, one of the poorest countries in Asia, it doesn’t even register.

Again, it’s easy to say that donors picked too few goals, conducted too little consultation. But consider the opposite scenario, a set of Goals that included every development problem, that were perfectly applicable to every country in the world.

Actually, don’t. Just look at the sequel to the MDGs, the Sustainable Development Goals. Where the MDGs were primarily a tool for donors, the SDGs (stick with me on the acronyms here) have been the most inclusive, taking shape over a five-year, international consultation process that deliberately sought feedback from every institution with an incentive to push their pet issue onto the list.

The result is a jambalaya of impossible ambitions, utopian targets and unmeasurable indicators. Where the MDGs sharpened their attention down to 8 goals and 24 indicators, the SDGs leave no societal challenge behind, comprising 17 goals and 169 targets. Check out everything we, the world, will achieve before they’re finished:

In just sixteen years’ time we will have been able to end poverty in all its forms everywhere; achieve full and productive employment and decent work for all; end hunger and malnutrition; attained universal health coverage; wipe out AIDS, tuberculosis, malaria, and neglected tropical diseases; provide universal secondary education and universal access to tertiary education; end gender discrimination and eliminate all forms of violence against all women and girls; ensure adequate and affordable housing, water, sanitation, reliable modern energy, and communications technology access for all; and (strangely) both prevent and significantly reduce marine pollution of all kinds alongside preventing species loss. If that’s not enough, we will have also eliminated all discriminatory laws, policies, and practices.

This is why I have trouble dragging the MDGs for condensing development challenges down to just a few issues. The MDGs worked, to the extent they did, by coordinating donors around a discrete set of objectives, a consensus on what the world needed to fix and how. That necessarily meant leaving some development problems un-addressed, prioritizing some issues over others. It may sound crass in development, when you’re talking about letting people live with one disease while you work on curing another, but in every other area of human endeavor this is called having a strategy.

6. The time for development goals has passed

The closest thing I come to having a conclusion about the MDGs is that yes, they were bullshit. And yes, they were probably worthwhile.

But I’m not sure the next round of bullshit is going to be. During the 15 years we’ve spent debating the MDGs, the nature of the problem they set out to solve has changed. In 1990, the ostensible start date for the MDGs, 79 percent of the world’s poor lived in stable low-income countries. By 2010, only 13 percent of them did. These days, the vast majority of the world’s poor remain that way either because their countries are riven with conflict (Yemen, Syria, Somalia) or because they have political systems too captured or too gridlocked to be worthy of the term (Zimbabwe, Bangladesh).

In other words, the MDGs may—may—have been the right development initiative for the world of the late 1990s, but they are increasingly irrelevant to the one we have now. Only 1 in 10 poor countries get more than 20 percent of their budget from aid. Even in the poorest countries, domestic health and education are orders of magnitude greater than aid flows. Poor people in China are not poor because their country lacks to resources to make them not be. They are poor because their government would rather spend those resources on high-speed trains.

Maybe that’s a defensible decision for the long-term and maybe it’s not; we shall see. But what the MDGs never did, never could, was pressure governments to develop their own systems to solve their own problems. In 2030, only 8 percent of the world’s population will live in countries classified as “low-income.” Most of the world’s poor will live in cities; many of them will be employed. Informal employment, exploitative working conditions, dysfunctional education and healthcare, they will persist in other countries for same reasons they do in our own.

So did the Millennium Development Goals fail or succeed? I still don’t know. What I do know is that rallying around a set of utopian, un-enforced, top-down targets seems to have worked in the places where development agencies, where we, mattered. If we want to solve the next generation of global poverty, we should ask ourselves where we still do.

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The Role of the Media in Development Aid

So USAID asked me to speak at one of their conferences last week about the role of media in development. Being utterly unqualified for this task did not stop me from doing it, and below is an adaptation of my little talk!

Let’s start with a thought experiment.

Think of all all the companies you know that didn’t exist 30 years ago and are now worth more than a billion dollars. It’s easy, right? Facebook, Google, Starbucks, Amazon, Whole Foods, Uber, we could go around the room for ages.

Now think of all the development NGOs or national nonprofits that didn’t exist 30 years ago and now get more than, say, 100 million in donations.* Doctors without Borders: 1971. Human Rights Watch: 1978. Amnesty International: 1961. Greenpeace: 1969. And those aren’t even the big-big ones. Red Cross, Oxfam, Save the Children, Care International, we’re talking World War II or before.

And what’s weird about this comparison is that in those 30 years, we’ve made significant progress some really hard problems. A lot of countries that were desperately poor three decades ago aren’t now. But, somehow, we haven’t created social institutions at the same pace we’ve created profit-making ones.

I think this is, at least partly, the media’s fault. The media struggles, has always struggled, to tell good news, to tell slow news, and to tell stories that happen more than once. That’s exactly what social progress consists of, and it’s why an alarming percentage of people think we now live in a world that is poorer and more dangerous than it used to be, neither of which are true.

But I think this is getting better! If you want to understand the role of media in development, you have to understand how it is changing.

1. Social media is making traditional media obsolete

The first change is the most obvious: Social media. We all know that Twitter and Facebook allow organizations to communicate directly with their audiences and bypass traditional media. However you feel about Kony 2012 or the ice bucket challenge, they’re not the last nonprofits that are going to go viral. The media only came to those organisations, those issues, after the rest of the world already knew about them.

This direct communication makes the media increasingly obsolete, and gives institutions the opportunity to play on their turf. Last year the World Bank did an analysis of all the pdfs on their website and found that 87 percent of them had never been cited; 31 percent had never been downloaded at all. If the World Bank wants to get its research, its conclusions, more widely talked about, it doesn’t need to call the New York Times or the BBC. It needs to record Ted Talks, to make animated explainers, to bundle its research into infographics, tweets, summaries for distinct audiences. For organizations with something to say, the media isn’t an amplifier for telling their story, it’s just part of the background noise.

2. Traditional media is getting slower

There was this story in the New Yorker in September about how Salt Lake City beat homelessness. The city was spending $20,000 per homeless person on emergency services, extra policing, jail time, temporary shelters. A free apartment cost just $8,000 per year. Salt Lake City decided to simply give each homeless person a free apartment, no (well, few) questions asked. The homeless population fell by 72 percent.

This is exactly the kind of bureaucratic innovation that development is made of. Since it came out, the story has gotten tons of attention. I mean, the Daily Show did a segment on it.

In journalism school they used to tell us the old cliche that ‘journalism is the first rough draft of history‘. For media companies these days, it seems like that’s not enough anymore. ‘27 Maps that Explain America‘, ‘What We Know About Inequality (in 14 Charts)‘, these are not attempts to tell you something new, but to reframe, contextualize, what you already know.

When Vox media, one of the most prominent digital-native startups, got an hourlong interview with President Obama, they barely asked him anything about current events. They asked him about the state of the world, what Americans get wrong about foreign aid, why he’s been so polarizing. They specifically designed the interview to be evergreen, reflective, to offer insight to the news cycle rather than stay in front of it.

For development practitioners, this should be hugely encouraging. You don’t have to package your organisation around a news event, include those cheesy anecdotes (Sally walks two hours every day to school…’) at the beginning of your annual report. You can tell a longer, slower, larger story (‘why weren’t the roads paved? It all starts in 1978…’)—and the media will help you.

 

3. The line between media and NGOs is blurring.

Last February, the editor-in-chief of the New York Times left to work for a ‘nonprofit news organization‘ explicitly dedicated to reforming the criminal justice system. Since it launched, its stories have appeared in The New Republic, the Chronicle of Higher Education and the Washington Post.

It’s not just newspapers, not just criminal justice reporting. ProPublica, a progressive nonprofit, works with NPR to do stories on pharma company payments to doctorsgovernment cuts to workman’s comp (yes, there are charts). As early as 2005, ABC News was running stories produced by International Crisis Group, a conflict-prevention NGO.

It goes the other way too. Human Rights Watch has deliberately started doing work that is, if you took the logo off it, indistinguishable from journalism.

 

All three of these changes tell the same story: The media is getting squeezed into a narrower and narrower band. As revenue shrinks and newsrooms atrophy, the things that journalism used to do—publicize institutions, bring attention to societal changes, retell press releases—are being done around it.

So if development NGOs want to get their message out, they need to meet the media where it is and where it’s going. Get stories directly to the people you’re trying to reach, let the media come afterwards. Tell the story of your issue—homelessness, teen pregnancy, water scarcity—not your organization. And if you don’t like the way the media is telling your story, tell it yourself.

 

* I stole this thought experiment from Gerald Chertavian, the guy who runs the charity Year Up, who I interviewed for a story the week before the talk.

 

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I’m in the New Republic Again!

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This time talking a bit more about my trip to Dhaka:

I am in a tiny steel cage attached to a motorcycle, stuttering through traffic in Dhaka, Bangladesh. In the last ten minutes, we have moved forward maybe three feet, inch by inch, the driver wrenching the wheel left and right, wriggling deeper into the wedge between a delivery truck and a rickshaw in front of us.

Up ahead, the traffic is jammed so close together that pedestrians are climbing over pickup trucks and through empty rickshaws to cross the street. Two rows to my left is an ambulance, blue light spinning uselessly. The driver is in the road, smoking a cigarette, standing on his tiptoes, looking ahead for where the traffic clears. Every once in awhile he reaches into the open door to honk his horn.

This is what the streets here look like from seven o’clock in the morning until ten o’clock at night. If you’re rich, you experience it from the back seat of a car, the percussion muffled behind glass. If you’re poor, you’re in a rickshaw, breathing in the exhaust.

Me, I’m sitting in the back of a CNG, a three-wheeled motorcycle shaped like a slice of pie and covered with scrap metal. I’m here working on a human rights project related (inevitably) to the garment factories, but whenever I ask people in Dhaka what their main priority is, what they think international organizations should really be working on, they tell me about the traffic.

It might not be as sexy as building schools or curing malaria, but alleviating traffic congestion is one of the defining development challenges of our time. Half the world’s population already lives in cities, and the United Nations estimates that proportion will rise to nearly 70 percent by 2050.

Of the 23 “megacities” identified by the United Nations, only five are in high-income countries, places with the infrastructure (physical, political, economic, you name it) to deal with the increasing queues of cars snarling up the roads. Mexico City adds two cars to its roads for every person it adds to its population. In India, the ratio is three to one.

Dhaka, the world’s densest and fastest-growing city by some measures, and its twentieth-largest by population, is a case study in how this problem got so bad—and why it’s so difficult to solve.

I realize that it’s problematic for a rich white foreigner to visit somewhere for a short period of time, then come back and start making sweeping generalizations about it. I hope this doesn’t come off gawking, like ‘look how fucked up poor countries are!’

I’m amazed when I travel for work how not-different the problems of developing countries are from our own, how the solutions we propose for their cities (‘build more roads y’all!’) would be considered simplistic and utopian in our own. I hope a little of that comes through. Or at least that I conveyed how incredible the traffic in Dhaka is. Because that shit is bonkers.

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The Devil you know

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I just got back from a week in Zimbabwe.

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I took these pictures last year, when I visited Victoria Falls for a few days.

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Going on a safari is a shitty way to get to know a country.

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But so is visiting its capital.

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I’ve never met a country with such a suicidal set of national policies.

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Zimbabwe has an acute liquidity shortage. There is not enough money to go around. The unemployment rate is 80 percent. Its per capita GDP is among the lowest in the world.

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Yet instead of bending over backwards to attract investment, its politicians are stepping forward to repel it.

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The country has a policy called ‘indigenization’—All foreign companies must be 51% owned by Zimbabweans.

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In other words, to invest here, you have to give away the majority of your company. You don’t get to pick who you give it to or what they do with it. You are asked to simply simply fork it over, and trust what the government does with it.

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Not to sound all Tea Party about it, but that’s fucking insane.

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The only companies willing to invest here are Chinese and Russian ones. And only under conditions of total secrecy. None of the investment contracts have been made public.

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There was a scandal last month when it was revealed that some of the government officials who were cut in on these contracts were earning $500,000 a month.

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I remember talking to a private equity guy last year just after my first trip here. I asked him if he would ever consider investing in Zimbabwe.

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He told me he hasn’t looked at the country in years. ‘You can’t even read the fucking Wikipedia entry without losing money’ he said.

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You can hardly blame him. The most important thing for investors is certainty. And that’s in even shorter supply than currency here.

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And yet somehow, people tell me that Zimbabwe is doing better now than it was last year.

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I ask my Zimbabwean colleagues about this and they tell me it’s because of the election.

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‘For the last four years we had a coalition government’, they tell me. ‘Mugabe’s party and the opposition sharing power.’

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‘It was chaos. Each minister would tell you a different set of government priorities, depending on which party he was from. Right, left, legal, illegal, you never got a clear answer.’

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‘Since Mugabe won the last election, at least we know what to expect.’

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‘What, for everything to keep getting worse?’ I ask. ‘At least’, they tell me, ‘we can plan for that.’

 

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Doing Development in Dhaka

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There’s this Bjork song, ‘Pluto’,
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Where she sings ‘I’ll be brand new. Brand new tomorrow’.
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I listened to this song a lot last week, jogging through Dhaka in the early mornings.
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Six am, before the horns and the smells and the stares.
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I always go jogging when I travel for work.
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Headphones on, faster than the walkers, slower than the drivers, I feel invisible, apart, a non-participant.
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There’s this book on systems theory, ‘At Home in the Universe’.
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Where it says that any complex structure—an ecosystem, an economy, all the cells in a living body—are more than the sum of their parts.
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No matter how much you know about the laws governing each component, you can never predict how they’ll react if one of them changes.
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Like, we all know how the post office works.
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And that if all the post offices in the country closed forever, we wouldn’t get our mail.
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But, says systems theory, a million other unforseeable things would happen too. Maybe Amazon.com would start collecting our letters when they bring us books. Maybe we would get rid of paper altogether.
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What would happen to all the post office workers, the factories that make those little carts they carry around, all the stamp collectors?
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Like the proverbial butterfly flapping its wings, maybe we would look back 10 years later from the carbonized remains of our downtowns and say ‘it all started the day those fucking post offices closed.’
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Or maybe something great would happen. Or maybe nothing.
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The point is, no matter how well you understand any one of the parts, the relationships between them are too complex to predict. When you hold something up to the light, you dim everything else.
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I’m in Bangladesh to do a project on the garment factories.
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Everyone I meet here tells me they are sick of foreigners coming and asking them about Rana Plaza. We are more than our disasters, they say.
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I agree and then I apologize and then I ask them about Rana Plaza.
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This is what I am here to do. This is my place in the system.
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Just days after the accident, they say, the delegations started coming.
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Senators, MPs, CEOs. They tour factories, they express into microphones their melancholy and their concern..
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I am part of the second wave. I am here to fix it. I am here to pull this part of the economy away from all the others and make it better and then put it back.
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One of my colleagues does factory audits here and everywhere and I ask him about what he sees, whether things have gotten better.
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Whenever you raise standards, he says, some companies will become sophisticated to reach them and others will become sophisticated to avoid them.
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That is how it works, he says, we are here to stack rocks in the riverbed. Where the water goes after that…
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And I think about this as I am jogging and I do not feel invisible.
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Maybe he’s right. Maybe calling something complex is just an excuse to ignore it.
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Maybe people who do good, real good, know the limits of their powers and apply them anyway.
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Maybe they look  at Bangladesh, a country trying to hard to make itself a nicer place to live.
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And they learn to listen to the part of it that tells them, I’ll be brand new.
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Brand new tomorrow.

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Why Don’t I Give Money to Poor People?

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Originally posted on The Billfold

“Hey, you want necklaces? I sell you necklaces!”

He’s dishevelled, but not more so than most people you see on the street here. He’s wearing a bright green soccer T-shirt, a team I’ve never heard of, and a goatee. He introduces himself as Paul.

This is Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe. I am backpacked, sunglassed, earbudded, on my way to the waterfall. The only way I could be more obviously a tourist is if I had a fanny pack and an “I ♥ Zim” T-shirt on.

“Thanks, but I’m not interested,” I say. I may have actually physically waved him away.

He walks with me for a few minutes, pushing necklaces, wooden giraffes, 50 billion Zimbabwe dollar notes into my chest. I repeat the same thing: Sorry, not interested. Sorry, no.

Everywhere it’s different but the same. In San Francisco it’s the guy who could visit his sick sister in Portland if he could just get 10 bucks for the bus fare. In Paris it’s children with their arms out. In Istanbul it’s amputees on a sheet of cardboard, literally begging.

And my answer is always the same: “Sorry.” I don’t know when I started saying this, when I stopped bothering to lie about being out of spare change, when I stopped thinking before I said it.

Right after Paul peels off, I take what I think is the turnoff to the falls. The path peters out, I turn around and when I get back to the road, Paul is there.

“Where are you trying to go?” he says.

“Just to the park entrance,” I say.

“Oh there’s a shortcut just up there to the right,” he says. “It’ll only take you five minutes. Make sure you make it to the gorge before dark. Spectacular, man, spectacular!”

I thank him, and realize that as he was talking I was thinking oh, he’s a person.

You’re not supposed to give beggars money. That’s the conventional wisdom, right? You don’t know what they’ll spend it on, you might be encouraging them to stay on the street, you’re not addressing any of the structural issues that got them where they are. I used to live in Copenhagen, and whenever I got panhandled (yes they have panhandlers in Denmark), I wanted to roll my eyes, like, all this free money in your country and you want mine?

Needless to say, that attitude is a lot harder to maintain in Zimbabwe. It’s even harder to maintain for me, considering I am here working for a human rights organization. How do I justify spending two weeks in Harare attending conferences, meeting NGOs, working on statements and recommendations to make this country less poor and then, the minute I’m on vacation, neglect to do the one thing I’m actually equipped, actually qualified to do: Give it some fucking money.

The sun is setting when I come out of the park, and Paul is at the exit, soliciting another tourist. He sees me and breaks off.

“How was the park, my friend?” he says.

“Good,” I say. “How’s business?”

“Not so good today,” he says, the full bouquet of necklaces still dangling from his hand. “Look, can you help me out, just with a dollar? I’m hungry.”

I feel like Paul has taken his mask off, he’s talking to me outside of his role as a street vendor, like we’ve both stepped out of character for a second and it’s just us, man to man. I give him two bucks. He thanks me profusely, leaves without asking for anything else.

Two hours later I see him again. This time I’m on a trail behind Victoria Falls’ fanciest hotel. I’ve just eaten a French croissant pudding that cost 7 times what I gave to Paul.

“My friend!” he says.

“Hi Paul,” I say, weirdly happy to see him. I’m travelling alone, and he’s the only person I’ve spoken to all day.

“Hey, do you have some dollars for me?” he says.

“I just gave you two,” I say,

“But I ate with those, man,” he says. “Can you give me some more for dinner?”

As much as I hate to admit it, this irks me. I already gave you money, dude, coming back for more just makes me feel like a mark—like this is a business model. If you don’t get tourist money with merch, get it with sympathy.

“Sorry,” I say.

Later, I wonder what outcome I was actually trying to protect myself against. Giving money to someone who is demonstrably worse off than me? Maybe Paul used that money to buy himself lunch, maybe he didn’t. What am I, USAID? Who cares what he spent it on. If those two dollars (or 10, or 20) magically disappeared from my back pocket, I never would have noticed. Why am I Jay Gatsby when it goes to making me better off, but Ebeneezer Scrooge if it does that for someone else? All that shit about enabling, it’s just an excuse for me to keep what I feel is mine.

In development circles, everyone is all excited about this “just give money” thing. The idea is: Poor people know better what to do with their money than we do, so if you want to help, don’t tie a donation to some entrepreneurship scheme, behavior modification, Excel-sheeted output, just hand over some scrilla, no questions asked.

Apparently it worked in Uganda, another country I have visited to do development work in the daytime and say “sorry” on evenings and weekends. If this idea is real, maybe I should be refusing all the conferences and acquiescing to all the beggars.

I have no idea what I should do. When I travel to developing countries for work, should I set a daily amount that I can afford, say $20, and hand it out randomly? Should I start donating regularly to charities who do that? What is, as the MBAs say, ‘best practice’?

I am in Victoria Falls for two more days. I will probably run into Paul again. He will probably ask me for money, and I will probably give some to him. I might even give him enough to try that French croissant pudding.

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Happiness is Irrelevant

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Claude S. Fischer’s terrific article about happiness research in the Boston Review:

What do we know about happiness? We know that people’s reports of immediate joy and misery fluctuate from activity to activity—sex is an upper; commuting is a downer—and often diverge notably from the summary answers they give to questions about their happiness “these days.” We also know that subjective well-being can be complex. People can be happy about work and sad about love; the latter usually matters more. The opposite of happiness, research suggests, is not necessarily despair, but rather apathy; some people just don’t feel much of anything.

Nonetheless, people who say they are generally happy tend to be economically secure, married, healthy, religious, and busy with friends; they tend to live in affluent, democratic, individualistic societies with activist, welfare-state governments. The connection between reporting happiness and personal traits often runs both ways. For example, being healthy adds to happiness, and happy people also stay healthier.

Human rights organizations debate these issues endlessly. What is development? If ‘happiness’ increases in Somalia, but access to drinkable water and primary education don’t, have we really achieved anything?

After doing this for eight years I’m convinced that happiness is too murky and conditional a concept to be measured. It’s like quantifying ‘grooviness’, or Gross National Awesome. Happiness is meaningless outside of a specific context—short-term, long-term, past, future, work, family. It’s liquid, it takes the shape of whatever container you put it in.

Imagine trying to measure its antithesis, something like frustration. We all want less frustration in our lives. But the things that cause frustration are so infinite, and so specific, that we can’t say anything about the feeling without them. Trying to measure or reduce frustration for a million people—or, hell, even two—at once is like trying to build a house with no nails. The means are so important, the end won’t exist without them.

All we really know about happiness is that everyone definitely wants it, and everyone probably deserves it. I’ll stay interested in the measurable stuff—corruption, public services, livelihoods—and leave happiness to the economists and self-helpers. Either that, or I could just work on cutting everybody’s commute times.

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Education and Development Don’t Need Great Ideas, They Need Great People

Here’s a crackerjack story about how a school in New Jersey improved student performance by teaching the basics of grammar, vocabulary and composition:

One teacher noted that the best-written paragraphs contained complex sentences that relied on dependent clauses like although and despite, which signal a shifting idea within the same sentence. Curious, Fran Simmons devised a little test of her own. She asked her freshman English students to read Of Mice and Men and, using information from the novel, answer the following prompt in a single sentence:

“Although George …”

She was looking for a sentence like: Although George worked very hard, he could not attain the American Dream.

Some of Simmons’s students wrote a solid sentence, but many were stumped. More than a few wrote the following: “Although George and Lenny were friends.”

[..]

By fall 2009, nearly every instructional hour except for math class was dedicated to teaching essay writing along with a particular subject. So in chemistry class in the winter of 2010, Monica DiBella’s lesson on the properties of hydrogen and oxygen was followed by a worksheet that required her to describe the elements with subordinating clauses—for instance, she had to begin one sentence with the word although.

[…]

By sophomore year, Monica’s class was learning how to map out an introductory paragraph, then how to form body paragraphs. “There are phrases—specificallyfor instancefor example—that help you add detail to a paragraph,” Monica explains. She reflects for a moment. “Who could have known that, unless someone taught them?”

Homework got a lot harder. Teachers stopped giving fluffy assignments such as “Write a postcard to a friend describing life in the trenches of World War I” and instead demanded that students fashion an expository essay describing three major causes of the conflict.

There’s a tendency to read specific stories and try to wring generics out of them. Maybe all of America’s students are deficient in basic grammar! Maybe a nationwide curriculum on prepositions, argumentation and sentence structure would make up our education gap!

I don’t know anything about education, but after spending most of my career working in NGOs, I’ve realized that in development, the hard part isn’t coming up with a great idea, or even implementing that idea in a specific place. The hard part, every single time, is making that idea work in more than one place at a time.

Whenever we face this problem at work, I can’t help thinking about the Hawthorne effect:

This effect was first discovered and named by researchers at Harvard University who were studying the relationship between productivity and work environment. Researchers conducted these experiments at the Hawthorne Works plant of Western Electric. The study was originally commissioned to determine if increasing or decreasing the amount of light workers received increased or decreased worker productivity. The researchers found that productivity increased due to attention from the research team and not because of changes to the experimental variable.

In other words, people don’t work harder because the bosses change the environment, they work harder because the bosses are watching them, and care what they’re doing. It’s like a group placebo.

This has societal implications. As William Baumol’s new book points out, the story of the last 50 years is steadily increasing productivity in farms, factories, computers, all the hard stuff. Efficiency gains in the soft stuff—healthcare, education, hair salons—haven’t kept up because in the service sector, someone fundamentally has to pay attention to someone else.

Some sectors of the economy, like manufacturing, have rising productivity—they regularly produce more with less, which leads to higher wages and rising living standards. But other sectors, like education, have a harder time increasing productivity. Ford, after all, can make more cars with fewer workers and in less time than it did in 1980. But the average student-teacher ratio in college is sixteen to one, just about what it was thirty years ago. In other words, teachers today aren’t any more productive than they were in 1980.

Growing 10 acres of corn doesn’t take 10 times as much effort as growing one acre. The more land you have, the more you benefit from irrigation, tractors, etc. But giving two haircuts takes exactly twice the effort of giving one haircut. There’s no way (now, anyway) for a doctor to examine 100 patients, or a teacher to pay attention to 100 students, the same way a factory makes 100 iPods.

And this is the hard part. Every time we come up with a new paradigm for education (Sentence structure! Standardized testing! STEM programs!) or development (Microcredit! Millennium goals! Mosquito nets!), we’re trying to get around the fundamental nature of the activity: Someone has to be there. They need to watch. They have to care.

I don’t want to take anything away from this school, its students or its achievement. What this principal has done is remarkable, and teachers and administrators everywhere should be given the freedom to try approaches that respond to the specific challenges of their students.

But every time an anecdote becomes a paradigm, and a paradigm becomes a rule, we risk forgetting that education and development aren’t always driven by great ideas or great methodologies. Sometimes they’re just great individuals. Standing there, turning the lights up and down, and paying attention to what happens.

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