Tufts’ YOLO question is a great idea

If Salon.com is to be believed, I’m about to go on record as an “out of touch dad.” But having just gotten a degree from Tufts University, I feel compelled to have an opinion on this YOLO (You Only Live Once) question.*

Fortunately for me, Salon.com is wrong. Easy as it is to mock, the question on Tufts’ application that asks “What does #YOLO mean to you?” is a great question. The reason why is simple: It challenges teens to reflect critically on popular culture, and on its effects on their own lives. Heaven forbid, a university encourage its students to do that.

In fact, isn’t that exactly what Salon does? That is, when they’re not fawning or feigning disinterest.

Sharper – or at least, harsher – criticism came from the Atlantic Wire, which wrote that “the question is an obvious instance of pandering, of Tufts announcing that it is cool, that its admission officers get it.” So, anything in the admissions process that allows teens to express themselves on their own terms, or think critically about the world they live in, is just a lame attempt at pandering? Or did they think that Tufts only wants 140 characters?

Well, never mind their lame attempts at burns, it’s pretty clear what’s really earned the Atlantic’s ire. Vitriol like this reflects the “visceral” disgust provoked by all teenage culture (see #21), which the contemptuous Bieber reference reveals as the author’s true motive. Sorry YOLO detractors, but you are being the out of touch dads.

I don’t exactly know what Tufts admissions officers are looking for in the answers. But my guess is they’re not looking for, as the Atlantic warns about, students in college just for the luxury housing. In fact, the safer money is on the opposite – YOLO can mean travel, explore, question, learn, reach my true potential. Any number of things, positive or negative.  The question doesn’t drag Tufts into the mud of popular culture; it gets students to start bringing that culture out of the mud. I’d like to see our universities (and online magazines) do more of this.

Finally, in the spirit of transparency, I confess I have another reason for writing, which is that I can’t help but feel that Tufts is trying to steal the image of “most quirky college.” Try all you want, Jumbos, but you’ll never beat the masters. Hail the Maize and Blue!

*If you missed it, applicants to Tufts this year must answer one of six essay questions, one of which reads:

E) The ancient Romans started it when they coined the phrase “Carpe diem.” Jonathan Larson proclaimed “No day but today!” and most recently, Drake explained You Only Live Once (YOLO). Have you ever seized the day? Lived like there was no tomorrow? Or perhaps you plan to shout YOLO while jumping into something in the future. What does #YOLO mean to you?


Drones in Niger, analyzed by the NYT

Surprised to see Niger featured prominently in the New York Times today – though maybe I shouldn’t be since the article is about US drones and anti-terror efforts there.

President Issoufou did take a risk letting the surveillance drones in, but perhaps it would have been a bigger one to not allow them, since there seem to be few other tools available to track militants. For now they are not armed, though according to the article that was a decision made in the White House; Niger had asked for them to be armed. This is a little worrying, and I’m glad Obama officials balked at the potential negative implications of this.

This’ll be an interesting story to follow, watching how Nigeriens and others in West Africa react to a lighter-handed American role in the anti-extremism fight, yet with such a controversial tool as drones. And whether the drones will be more helpful than training efforts of the Trans-Sahel Counter Terrorism Initiative seem to have been, at least for the Malian army.


Egyptians’ collective cry of “Bullshit”

There’s been a lot of debate about the Egyptian military’s ouster of President Morsi, following three days of massive protests against Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood. Much of the debate has centered around the question of whether to call it a coup, since the Army kicked out an elected leader but did so at the behest of millions of Egyptians. My friend Albert Trithart summarizes this debate and the implications for the international response well in the Fletcher Forum.

But there’s another big question arising from these events: To what extent does being “democratically elected” win you legitimacy on the international scene?

We’ve always known that elections aren’t the only necessary ingredient for a democracy. There are sham elections all over the world, in countries dominated by a single party or intimidated by the generals behind the curtain. Calling a leader “democratically elected” can mean no more than calling a product “laboratory tested”.

But in the international political arena, winning an election is the democracy stamp of approval. The focus on a single process – elections – has allowed governments to ignore un-democratic actions of other (democratically elected) governments. The importance of ongoing participation, and shorter democratic feedback loops, receives vague lip service, but is largely overlooked in the international election-centric narrative.

What Egyptians have done challenges this narrative.

The millions who protested against the Brotherhood’s rule did so not to undermine the democratic process, but as a last resort to claim a stake in the process that was being hijacked by a single party. The Brotherhood was undermining that democracy before it even could begin: closing off the constitution-writing process, suppressing political opponents and using their control of the state to solidify their lock on power. One could argue either way about the domestic justification or implications; personally, with no expertise on Egypt I will keep my argument to the international response.

There were the “good coups” in Niger and Hondouras in the past few years. But these were different, because they didn’t challenge the election-centric narrative. Presidents Tandja and Zelaya (ab)used their power in attempts to circumvent term limits, so their ouster by their respective armies was consistent with respecting the election process. In Morsi’s case, on the other hand, the election narrative would see him finish out his term, and let Tamarod wait for the next scheduled election to take action. By then it may well have been too late for true democratic participation.

The Tamarod movement’s incredible draw – and incredible results – was first and foremost a response to an increasingly inept yet power-hungry government. However, it’s also a collective cry of “Bullshit” to the international emphasis on the electoral process over true democracy.

Will the international community make drastic changes in the way they measure democracy? No, but this sort of change doesn’t happen quickly. I hope that Egyptians’ actions will slowly help open new ground in the democratic narrative, and lead to more support for a variety of democratic processes around the globe.

Of course, in Egypt it’s now up to the new leaders to ensure that they don’t repeat the same mistakes. Their elections plan is important but equally important is ensuring that mechanisms for participation by all parties – especially the Brotherhood – are in place and accessible. Here’s hoping that the current tensions can be calmed, and that nobody else has to lose their life for the opportunity to participate in building their nation.

Big development, Small development. Red fish, Blue fish

Development is too big.

This is a thought I jotted down in my journal one day in Niger. Today it gets more depth, but after all this time it gets more depth.

What do I mean by this? When people think of development work, they think of big projects funded by big donors implemented by Big International NGOs (one of my favorite acronyms). This view is historically how the aid industry has seen its work, and it persists among many professionals. However, Big Development also seeps into the thinking of people in poor countries and communities, making concepts like “development” and “progress” seem too removed and inaccessible. Your average Nigerien can’t do development in his or her community – that’s the job of les projets! Even local development committees, often created by NGOs in the towns they work in, often seek external funding for their activities.

What happened to the small things that people do in their own towns, with their own resources, to improve them? Upgrading a school, working with children, growing an innovative small business? In the town where I served in Peace Corps, there was a small community center that had a library, outdoor space and potential as an activity or training center for youth. But who used it? Only NGOs when they needed a neutral meeting space. I got in debates with several people about its potential for community initiatives, but everyone just wanted outside support.

My point was not that outside support wouldn’t help – it definitely would – but that small, locally-funded initiatives should count as ci gabba, or “forward progress”. Most disagreed, including the guys who volunteered at the center.

I’m not implying that people are lazy or unmotivated, which is not the case. Rather, I am arguing that since the conception of “development” and “progress” has become so associated with large-scale initiatives and external funding, community groups’ efforts are directed towards bringing these things to their communities. This makes sense, given the incentives faced by many community leaders, local NGOs and individuals. But all those efforts at “bringing development” distract from “doing development” that people have the power and assets to do themselves.

And so, the blue fish. Small development is the idea that any positive change in a town counts as “development”. It’s not just the big projects that get to call themselves development, it’s also those community-based efforts – building small change on top of small change – that constitute ci gabba

I don’t discount big development. Schools and hospitals, rule of law and good governance programs, trafficking and labor practices… all these issues have real international stakeholders and need global support. Big research and technical support organizations can provide invaluable support to developing country policymaking. The MDGs are worthwhile goals, and the conversation about post-2015 is looking promising on inclusiveness and equality. But I think in the entire international development community, there should be far more recognition – and value – given to small development efforts that aren’t necessarily contributing to any particular goal or objective.

Small development can avoid the development community, with people doing things in their own communities. An example, also from my town in Peace Corps, was a friend of mine who fenced off a portion of his yard (with the usual millet stalk fence) and planted, tended and sold a local variety of cucumber. The ground was basically sand, but he was diligent about watering, protecting and harvesting these fruits nobody else took the effort to grow. He took a patch of sand and made it productive, and made a little money to boot. I cite a few other examples here.

However, small development can also be promoted by international organizations. Slight paradox, perhaps. But many non-profits and social enterprises are providing support to organizations working on community or national issues, and reducing their need for international help. A few examples:

  • First a great one I just learned about: Eleven leaders of national civil society across West Africa were trained in the mundane-but-necessary skills for running an organization, by the West Africa Research Association based at BU. These include the leader of a youth-produced journal on youth culture in Burkina Faso, and a young Nigerien man working to spread “positive and progressive hip hop culture in West Africa.” They learned management skills and, just as importantly, formed a network and continue to share ideas and connections. Yes, small – but think if NGOs and research associations across the world poured their support towards this?
  • Savings groups, often known as “Village Savings and Loan Associations,” are another good example. Though usually jump-started by NGOs, these are groups of people (often women) who pool and accumulate assets, loan these savings out, and manage these assets entirely themselves. It’s a money management tool, AND participants see their initial investment grow. And asset accumulation doesn’t even have to be started by an outsider – the susus of Ghana or tandas in the US and Latin America are self-organized.
  • “Community-Led Total Sanitation” (CLTS) is another good example, in a more traditional development domain: latrine building. The basic approach is to convince people to build latrines for their household, but provide no external assistance, neither in latrine design nor financial support. Instead, it uses visceral demonstrations of how open defecation leads to illness, and immediately after secures commitment by people in the town to build their own latrines. In one meeting I attended to explain this to Nigerien field staff, most resistance came from the “no external assistance whatsoever” part. Surely, we can give them some plastic, or help them design cheap structures, something! But this approach is firm, and a positive side effect of better sanitation is working against the perception that any progress requires external resources.
  • The One Acre Fund in East Africa is doing pretty good small development, selling agricultural inputs to farmers and ensuring they know how to use them. They’re not (I don’t believe) importing seeds nor giving things away, but rather connecting local breeders, small farmers and markets. It’s about helping people add value to what they already do.

I’d call these small development because of that last sentence: helping people add value to what they do, or what’s already there. Supporting national organizations with management training and networking, making them more independent of external help (and not crowding them out!). Turning local raw materials and creative minds into good latrine designs. This is adding value at the community or national level, and promoting the idea of this as development.

There are far more examples than this, especially of national organizations doing excellent work in their own countries. I’d love to hear more!

On being a catalyst

At a wedding this weekend, I was talking with a chemist friend from college about the word catalyst. In chemistry, it’s a substance that creates favorable conditions for a reaction to take place, but does not itself interact with either of the reactants.

In development, we love this word, because it says so well what we aspire to be. Most development NGOs now are past the era of doing things for people, and are full-swing into the era of creating favorable conditions for people to do things for themselves. We are catalysts!

But we too often forget the other half of the definition. That bit about “does not itself interact with either of the reactants.” This is part of the collective fiction we tell ourselves in this do-good industry – that our simple presence on the scene causes no changes in the people and institutions we work with.

However, as light-touch as NGOs try to be, it’s inevitable that sometimes, they’ll resemble the bull in the china shop rather than the friendly, hidden chemical intermediaries.

We can cause reactions to take place, but we are always part of the reaction too. So planning our own role, and anticipating & measuring its impact, should be part of our analysis. Indeed, NGOs can use their power and influence for great good, to affect policies and the power of rights-holders to improve their situation. Assuming that our very presence has no side effects is naïve, or even dangerous. Our language affects our perceptions of the world, and though we may call ourselves catalysts, we should never quite believe it.

What works, and what should change?

As part of an interview process recently I was asked to name things in development that I think work and that should change. Since this blog is mainly a way for me to keep a record of my ideas & how they’re evolving, my answers below, slightly modified for this format:

Things that work

Things that should change

I do believe in the power of financial inclusion. Access to appropriate financial tools, and better access to markets, can create wealth and value for “base of the pyramid” individuals, families and communities in all corners of a country. These changes may be in small increments, but they are more likely to be well-distributed. This is not to say that these initiatives are always well-designed or implemented, and certainly there can be harmful side effects, particularly of large, “one-size-fits-all” strategies. However, my study and experience have led me to believe that financial inclusion initiatives can be among the best approaches to increasing opportunity, agency and dignity for people. Learn from failure! Development organizations are often afraid of admitting failure, which deprives them of a great learning opportunity. Because of this, similar issues can arise in many initiatives, again and again (as noted by Ashley Good in her forward to EWB Canada’s 2012 Failure Report here). Learning from failure in development was the topic of my graduate thesis, which I’ll post a summary of soon.
The increase in evaluations of development is a good trend, on the whole. It’s definitely good to the extent that these evaluations are a) rigorous and b) used to improve programming and policy. Of course, there can always be too much of a good thing, and I do worry about both the purists in the field (especially over-reliance on RCTs) and the tendency of large projects to gloss over the negatives (see the first thing that should change). Still, there are definitely examples of evaluations proving a concept, stopping a harmful practice, or most importantly, adding nuance and depth to the implementation of an idea. Ultimately, the more evidence that is available, both qualitative and quantitative, the better project and policy design can be. Information is too unidirectional. This includes data, analysis, evaluation reports, success stories, etc – all tend to flow out of Africa and other poorer countries towards the richer ones. But the communities in which development organizations work, and the people they work with, deserve access to this type of information too – in a medium and a language they can understand. This might help make development organizations a little more accountable to the low-income, low-power people they’re trying to help, which would be one step towards tipping the balance of power slightly more towards these communities. (More of my thoughts on this topic here.)

And, one more thing to change coming soon… big development, small development.

West Africa barbers are awesome

A great series of photos from barbershops in West Africa. There were many good reasons to keep my hair buzzed when I was there, but one of the best was to hang out with guys like this.