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!


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.

Hugh Laurie has the answer

After all the stress and money of grad school – here he solves it all in one song.

h/t A View From The Cave

Cynicism and Graduation

Having just received my Master’s degree*, optimism still dominates my and my fellow graduates’ minds. But as I head into a career in development, cynicism will certainly rear its familiar head. One favorite moment from graduation weekend was a conversation with a professor, who himself has long experience in development. In the course of talking about my future I joked that “I’m a slowly-developing cynic.” He immediately responded, suddenly serious, “Oh – don’t ever become a cynic.” Just as he has been an inspiration to many of us, our freshly-graduated sense of idealism and possibility was inspiring to him, and he didn’t want to see that spoiled.

It reminded me of a recent op-ed in the New York Times from Nora Shenkel, a Master’s candidate in Scotland who recently worked briefly for an NGO in Haiti. She describes how she quickly was faced with a moral dilemma: her work appeared to be having little effect over the long term, and she wonders how she “earned” material comforts and career success in a place where so many people have incredibly immediate needs. Her solution to this dilemma was to leave Haiti early and leave a development career completely; this is, she says, “the most honest thing I could do for Haiti.”

Perhaps that is true for her situation. But I can’t let the implication that giving in to cynicism is the best possible solution to this dilemma go unchallenged. Browse through blogs of young aid workers, Peace Corps Volunteers, and graduate interns, and you’ll see a great variety of takes on this dilemma.** Aid workers – even PCVs – nearly all live in relative privilege in the middle of often desperate poverty, but with their responsibility to address immediate needs “purged” by the fact that their work is meant to help over the long run.

This does not make Nora’s experience invalid, and in fact I rather like the solution she finds for herself. She ends her piece by describing her return to Haiti – as a visitor. She’d come to celebrate the country and the friends she’d made there, and she did not have to feel dishonest about trying to fight poverty while living in luxury. Ivan Illich, in his insightful 1968 speech “To Hell With Good Intentions,” proposes the same solution: come to visit, not to help.

Still, there are other equally valid ways to deal with this dilemma, even if at the time they feel less of a strong, morally unambiguous statement. One fellow PCV in Niger had a policy I admired very much – she would help some of her neighbors with medical costs but always accompany them to the heath center. Personally, I would not pay for medicines (to keep from getting swamped with requests) but would participate in informal social safety nets in other ways, by sharing food and coins with beggars and buying extra milk powder and soap for a struggling neighbor. These strategies are attempts to find a balance between a) not being taken advantage of, and b) the desire to use your privilege to make an immediate positive change.

Beyond the material, there is also simply a matter of treating people with dignity and not letting yourself think of them as an “other.” Amid delightfully snarky development blogs, Aaron Ausland at Staying For Tea*** stands out as positively confronting this dilemma with five principles of community development work. Ausland’s principles focus on honesty, personal connections and process.

A theme of these strategies, of course, is that relationships with people offer a direction and a means to express empathy (whether materially or personally). I have previously posted on how I try to be “present” in the places I end up. Most aid workers, unlike PCVs, have cars, nice houses and other benefits that may make it more difficult to build relationships. I have not yet faced this situation, but while the dilemma may feel different it will still be there, and need to be confronted.

Alas, many in this field do seem to just accept the “purged responsibility” argument and move on. Nora noted this phenomenon in her op-ed too, colleagues who would even get angry at Haitians for asking for money, thinking incredulously, “Don’t they know we’re here to help?”  This, to me, is the essence of the Cynical Aid Worker – feeling toughened by living amid poverty yet not putting in the extra effort to maintain the dignity of poor people or to understand of how the aid worker him/herself is viewed.

The key, I believe, is continuous self-reflection.

This doesn’t mean having a few “fluffy” discussions, nor constant anxiety about the moral ambiguity of it all. It does mean  not simply accepting one solution and sticking with it. As we journey through life and through the world, new experiences should keep informing our values and our judgment, and the solution should  evolve with us. This is my graduation pledge to my professor: I’ll keep an aggressive, adaptable defense against threats to my optimism. I’ll do this through reflection on my role in a situation, critical analysis of moral ambiguities, and most importantly, empathy and relationships with people wherever I am in the world.

I’d be interested in others’ thoughts as well, especially as the ink on my diploma starts to dry. How have you or others you’ve seen dealt with this dilemma?

doonesbury values

*Officially, in Law & Diplomacy, though in fact I studied neither of these. Congratulations to all in the Class of 2013! 
**My first recorded thoughts on the matter here, from a younger Nathan in Mali as a visitor. Disclaimer is that this blog was more about the wonder of the place, not so much critical reflection on moral ambiguities. 
***NOT the same as “Three Cups of Tea,” the book by the guy building schools in Afghanistan who turned out to be dishonest about his story and mismanaging donations.

It’s not just Clint Eastwood – we’re all talking to empty chairs

Clint Eastwood’s cute little empty-chair act at the Republican Convention made for good political comedy, both the action and the reaction. But it is also a symbol that, sadly, reflects our political culture these days. It’s like we’re all Clint pretending that empty chair is Obama – because nobody’s making an effort to actually talk to each other.

Politicians of different stripes won’t talk to each other. Democrats and Republicans in Congress use their floor speeches, news shows, press conferences and everything else to lay a hard line in debates, and to talk to their base. They refuse to even address an opponent’s plan unless they can think of snappy lines to insult or attack it, as Clint did at the convention. Even the Simpson-Bowles commission recommendations were voted down by Republicans on the commission (including one Paul Ryan) and ignored by the Democratic president (one Barack Obama) who wanted the thing in the first place! What chance do any realistic plans have in a climate like that?

TV news loves pundits who don’t listen or engage with the other side. Their show has to be snappy too, and they need lots of good take downs to get the ratings up. So they bring on pundits who talk  to… nobody. They talk for themselves, to raise their own profile and get on more shows.

Internet and social media allow us to pidgenhole ourselves online, and read only those articles and tweets that we agree with. Anything that goes against our ideas, we can dismiss easily as crazy or unfounded, because hey, it’s the internet! You can’t believe everything you read. So we’re talking to empty chairs there, too.

No wonder Rick Warren cancelled his Civil Forum.

Shields and Brooks on the PBS Newshour is my refuge. They have actual debates, and engage with each other’s ideas. Unlike what I suspect we’ll see in the Presidential debates.

I suggest this: before the election, try to have a civil conversation with someone of the other side. Whether you’re liberal or conservative. What do you have to lose?

We’re all Americans, after all.


Turn the “Africa Rising” debate back towards Africa

This has been a prime year for debating how Africa should be presented to the west. Ian Birrell lamented in The Guardian that the image presented by media and NGOs hasn’t kept up with the rapid progress made by countries such as Ethiopia or Mozambique. In June, the debate flared up on twitter & blogs between Nick Kristof of the NY Times, who highlights under-reported conflict and disasters in Africa, and a few critics who suggest that Kristof is promoting the story of Africa’s problems and ignoring its successes. And most (in)famously, 2012 will always be attached to the advocacy group Invisible Children, whose Kony2012 video promoted the “white savior” idea – whereas other NGOs like Mama Hope work to sell a more humanizing and dignified image of Africans to westerners.

I want to throw in my two cents, and suggest that while this debate is important, there’s an equally important one that these tweets, articles and videos ignore. True, we should be discussing what responsibility reporters and advocates have in relaying stories from Africa to the west. But just as relevant – especially for NGOs and aid agencies – is: what story is told about Africa in Africa?

Not being a close follower of African media, I can’t say whether a particular image is typically presented in most countries. I can say that Niger’s news was usually a pretty boring roundup of what various ministers did that day. I can also say that, at least in the Sahel countries I’ve visited, people’s perception of their own country’s prospects tends to be pretty glum. Dare I suggest (or even point to evidence) that confidence is just as important in community development as it is in financial markets?

My taxi driver the other day in Dakar is a good example. We were talking about the unmarked speed bumps, after he’d had to jam on the brakes to avoid hitting one at full speed. We mentioned a couple relatively simple solutions – signs, yellow paint – but then cynicism took over:

     Him: “Well, this is Senegal.” (aka: we shouldn’t expect even simple problems fixed)

     Me: “That shouldn’t be a good excuse.”

     Him: “… we learn to deal with things as they are.”

That cynicism I have heard over and over throughout West Africa – in schools, in markets, even in NGO offices. This I can’t fault anyone for, since so many have so few opportunities, and it’s certainly not unique to Africa. When the barriers are huge, it’s hard to see how slowly chipping away at them will get anywhere.

But there are lots of capabilities in these poor, rural Sahel communities. I have seen people doing pretty extraordinary things with really lousy tools at their disposal. How some of those bush taxis keep running I will never know. The ingenuity of mechanics & drivers in Niger, in Senegal and in many other countries is pretty unbelievable sometimes. But their skills are rarely exalted or even acknowledged. They definitely don’t show up in NGO community asset surveys!

Just as rarely are those skills turned towards creating more sustainable solutions to problems. Mechanics can MacGyver an old Peugeot truck with the best of them. But for the most part, in Niger at least, innovation with local products or local ideas is simply undervalued, and not very rewarding for the innovators (in social or $$ terms).

There were, however, a few examples that I saw. (I’d love to hear more!)

  • In the town where I served as a Peace Corps Volunteer, my good friend Moussa not only was the town’s only baker (with the town’s only real functioning brick oven), but he also built a small garden of local cucumbers that, after investing the upfront costs of water, fencing and time, filled a gap in the market and earned him a nice profit. Just the fact that he managed to protect the plants from the ubiquitous chickens and goats is worth a medal.
  • In markets all across Niger, you can buy a little battery-powered light made from an old CD and Christmas light bulbs. (To my lasting regret, I didn’t get a good picture of one but I’ll keep looking online.) It’s a simple little device – punch holes in an old CD, glue the small bulbs in the holes and wire them up to a homemade battery pack. (I was told this was invented in Nigeria and sarcastically named the “Obasanjo,” after the former Nigerian president who didn’t deliver on his promise to bring electricity to the rural areas.) It’s cheap, made with available materials and helps kids do their homework at night when they don’t have electricity. Imagine what could happen if people had better materials available – as one particularly sharp consultant suggested to me, small cheap solar panels…
  • Another volunteer in Niger helped to organize and finance a sesame oil cooperative in her village – and the women who grow the seeds and process them into oil are marketing and selling their product in some of the most expensive stores in the capital. They’re creating value and growing their business. While they are vulnerable to shocks like drought or flooding, this is the type of business that can build resilience.
  • Looking bigger-picture, the Africa Rising Foundation is a South African organization dedicated to changing the image of Africa within Africa. Board chairman Ndaba Mandela (a grandson of the famous Mandela) spoke to this idea at Harvard’s African Development Conference earlier this year, as part of a panel of other young African leaders, all of whom have accomplished a great deal.

Why is this relevant for the west? Obviously, it’s not up to the west to decide what image of Africa should be presented on the continent. But we do have cultural and political influence: eg. American movies are pretty popular here, and Obama’s visit to Ghana was highly covered in African media, including the democracy angle.

More importantly, aid agencies and NGOs are working on the ground in many African communities, but their communications are always focused outward, towards the west and the donors. Their very presence can perpetuate the white savior myth and a culture of dependence. Organizational culture can easily reflect the negative and cynical image, in part because colleagues in the west are constantly demanding sensational (read: negative) stories to market themselves above the crowd of NGOs. This organizational culture must be avoided, and NGOs have a responsibility to approach their work with a positive mindset that explicitly values and promotes the ingenuity, and possibilities, within their host communities.

Positive, inspiring stories about ordinary Africans should be told in Africa – by NGOs, by media, through school curricula, and through the grapevine. Doubtless this is happening in many countries already. When I traveled in Ghana, for example, people from all walks of life seemed far more optimistic and empowered. But in Niger I rarely saw this, and even more rarely in the areas where optimism was most needed. In schools, on rural radio and national TV, in the NGO discourse, the image presented was pretty much always the same – here’s the huge problems, and here’s how huge contributions from government or NGOs can help you. Slow progress wasn’t exalted, only big leaps – and such leaps were beyond the reach of poor rural communities.

Growing up in white, middle-class America*, we had The Little Engine that Could, we had the Founding Fathers who struggled and won against great odds, we had Bill Gates who started Microsoft in his basement (or garage, or wherever). Our language has expressions like “rags to riches” and “pull yourself up by your bootstraps.” We had heroes in sports and war and music. They were ordinary people who accomplished extraordinary things. We wanted to emulate them.

But we didn’t even need to. We also saw value in the everyday woman or man who contributed a little something to making her or his community better. And even though we knew most of us weren’t going to be rich or famous, we still (usually) felt proud and rewarded for our small, individual contributions to our communities.

Development doesn’t have to be big and game-changing. Telling the story of slow progress can help make it feel like progress, and help push it along.

I would love to hear comments on this piece. And examples of small-scale ingenuity & innovation from Africa!

*The messages and images presented to other demographic groups in the US are very different, and not always so inspiring. Many others have promoted this positive-imagery strategy in low-income neighborhoods already.

The Present Place (or, questioning my career path part II)

Many people talk about living in the moment. Life goes fast, and there’s always the future to think about – but take some time to enjoy the present moment. This focuses on time, on being present at the when.

But rarely do people apply this same concept so explicitly to the where. Just as with the moment, it’s possible to live in a place but not really be engaged in it – not be connected to people or aware of what’s going on. My generation especially is so mobile, and at the same time so connected to so many places, that the present place easily gets lost. It’s easy to withdraw mentally, physically or digitally to somewhere more comfortable. But always withdrawing can mean missing the good things a place has to offer, not to mention the simple pleasure of feeling grounded.

A phrase in the Hausa language illustrates this. As a Peace Corps Volunteer in Niger, I’d walk up to people who’d say “kana nan” “you’re here.” It seemed a silly, obvious statement. But eventually, I realized people said it with surprise – as if they expected me to not be there. Most foreigners only come to Kornaka when I needed to be there, and lived in big cities. So they were surprised – and happy – that I’d stay in town and that I worked to become a part of it. (Of course, that was my job, but I did enjoy it.)

I am very engaged in this particular place

Point is, kana nan meant more than simply, “you’re at this spot in this moment.” It also meant that I had committed something of myself to that place. That I wasn’t counting the days until I could go somewhere else – I wanted to feel a part of the town.

It brought home the importance of being present where you are. I have tried to apply this living at home in Kenosha, WI after Peace Corps, and now in Somerville, MA during graduate school. When I’ve succeeded, I’ve found much more satisfaction in both places. But it’s hard when you know you’re in a place temporarily, and when you’re busy with graduate school. I admire my colleagues who are more engaged in Somerville than I.

And when I take this concept a level up, I run into a bigger dilemma. I’m proud to be American. But I struggle watching my country struggle – with politics, with inequality, with acceptance. I’m launching a career to help people in poor countries claim their dignity, while my own country denies so many of its own citizens dignity. How can I be a proud American – and be present in this place – while directing all my efforts to other nations’ problems?

I’ll leave this open for now. Comments welcome, and more to come on this topic I’m sure.