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Disaster Professionalism and Weekend Life, CAR Part 5

In Appropriate Technology, Capacity Building, CAR, International Development, Organizational Development on November 19, 2014 at 1:30 pm

11/18/14
10am, Bangui

Working conditions here can be really up and down. Maybe a lot of people interested in working in humantarian response and recovery or international development would be into understading the context…

Like I said in a recent post, staff capaity is low. So most international program managers find themselves either covering other’s shortcomings or spending all their time following up to see if things got done and were completed the right way. There is a lot of settling for “good enough.” You can react in one of two ways – you can be angry and gruff and complain all the time and get terse with your colleagues. Or – you can try to see it from the side of the locals – they are doing the best they can and they probably could wait you out. They know we won’t be here forever. There are a handful of expats that love it here and have been here forever. The vast majority though are here 1-2 years and they move on, having “done their time.”

Each viewpoint is understandable, there is enormous pressure here, both from the political and physical context, to the professional. You have to deliver on the promises of your organization; the NFI’s (Non food items) have to be delivered, the farmers have to be trained, the displaced have to be sheltered. All this has to be done under various donor regulations, which can be difficult to meet when there is such little understanding on the part of the local staff about the minutae of federal acquisition regulations.

The main street I take to work every day, they’re building a culvert along the road for drainage, it’s a pretty big project, probably funded by a melange of the UN and other foreign governments (France, among others). The other day they were painting crosswalks at various points where there are bridges to the other side of the culvert (it’s several feet wide). The idea of crosswalks must be so foreign… I can imagine standing at these crosswalks for hours without a vehicle even once thinking that because I’m in the crosswalk they should stop – there is just no foundation for having these crosswalks here – but it’s probably being done to be compliant with donor regulations. WIthin 24 hours they were covered in the omnipresent red dirt and invisible anyway… The metaphor being that the local context will always prevail – we have to adapt to it.

Expatriate staff here have very little to do other than work all the time. The security situation makes it difficult to go on excursions, such as to a game park or hiking. In better times, I could imagine boat rides on the Ubangi or camping along the river somewhere. Some expatriates go running but it’s only really recommended (or tolerated) in certain areas. There are some restaurants in nice spots, but I’m struck with how shabby they are. Even when I was in Niger, just as poor as CAR if not more so – restaurants run by internationals were usually pretty nice; they would understand the little things like having a clean bathroom, keeping the tables clean, etc. Here it’s like everyone’s just let it all go. While there is a certain charm to that – you can only take rustic for so long. After a while you need to just get off your butt and clean, make sure the toilets work and buy some bleach. It’s not like it’s not available here. This is something that would take time for me to understand, to comprehend how they prioritize.

The internet is so bad, even with a private connection, that going home to watch YouTube or stream anything is difficult, let alone download new movies. So there is a certain disconnect with popular culture, even with CNN, Al Jazeera, and other French channels available. But in some ways that’s not a bad thing, it gives an ascetic vibe where you can choose more deliberately what to focus on.

So, in general – if you’re going to work in the humanitarian realm, you have to go where the large emergencies are. This is where a large emergency is, one of the largest in the world right now – there are at least 4 UN designated “L3” emergencies in the world and CAR is one (Iraq, Syria, and South Sudan being the others, not to mention Darfur and Somalia, etc.) As this is a man-made emergency, this is a chronically poor place with structural and cultural disadvantages that a place like the Philippines would be less affected by under a natural-disaster context, for example.

In the end it’s all about loving the mission and having patience, and enjoying being with lots of different kinds of people. That’s as simple as I can make it.

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Mixed First Impressions – CAR, Part 2

In Appropriate Technology, Capacity Building, International Development on November 16, 2014 at 12:17 pm

11/11/14, Tuesday
Bangui, Central Afgrican Republic

I arrived last Saturday, I wish I could say the same for my checked bag, it’s apparently on extended leave from me in Douala, Cameroon, where my plane stopped on a layover. I didn’t deplane but I think by bag did there. I can expect my bag tomorrow, hopefully. My Anti-Malarials are in there, I only had enough for 3 days and my dose wears out today… It’s nice to be back in Africa, this is more familiar to me – the sounds, smells, the African French… Using CFA… Eating local-ish food with the super spicy peppers that we can’t seem to find in the US.

So CAR is a really messed up country. It’s beautiful and lush, the trees and birds are amazing, I’m sure at one time there was amazing wildlife and gardens here. It’s not rainy season but it still can rain, so I’m sure they can grow almost anything here. At least water is not the problem here.

The roads are awful, comparable to Juba. There doesn’t appear to be the one nice area or colonial-era neighborhood with the nice stuff – it’s all pretty run down. There are decent places to live, in terms of the expat apartments. There are a couple of good supermarkets that I haven’t visited yet, but I’m told you can get most things you could buy in France, for exorbitant prices.

There are a lot of European UN Peacekeepers, which is new to me. There are Peacekeepers from several countries but seeing the Europeans feels unusual to me, maybe I’m being a noob.  When I was in South Sudan the peacekeepers were all African or non-European it seemed. Seeing French or Italian Military out there, the truckloads of European soldiers tells me that it must have been really bad here for it to get to this point. People were at each others throats here, literally.

The capacity of the professionals here is frustratingly low. Many well-intentioned people but they seem to have trouble really following through with things to a level of thoroughness or completeness that seems to frustrate those with more experience.  But in my experience, you have to be patient with people and teach them, it takes time.  Imagine you get your school years cut short because of government not functioning, for whatever reason (economic collapse, war, etc) and then you claw your way through school, learning 1950’s French era ways of building a bureaucracy.  Then fly-by-night, innovative, highly confident westerners come here and expect you to pick things up that are in no way intuitive.

I’ll hopefully pick up more about the local, work culture as I go here.

Nigerien Agriculture – from my experience

In Appropriate Technology, Economic Development, International Development, Natural Resource Management, Niger, Peace Corps, Sustainable Development on March 14, 2014 at 8:04 pm

(For the record – in English – someone from Niger is a Nigerien, someone from Nigeria is a Nigerian.) 

An acquaintance asked me to describe my experience with smallholder farmers in Africa, this is what I ended up writing for her.

My most intimate experience was as a Peace Corps volunteer living in a rural Nigerien village.  Farmers would generally have “ownership” or at least control over 1-3 hectares of land where, if the rains were perfect, they’d grow enough millet and sorghum for most of the year.  Land was not “owned” in our northern sense though, it was apportioned by the village chief or county chief (Chef du Canton).  Farmers could not take out loans against their land titles, there are no titles per se.  So, if a farmer wants to improve his yield – the options are (and all include money):

  1. To work WAY harder: rehabilitating degraded soil which you need tools or to employ manual laborers for, in which case they need the funds for these tools or laborers, which they almost never have.  Animal traction is difficult because of the soil but it depends on the geography.
  2. To purchase fertilizer/improved seeds: all the various scientific studies about Niger (google ICRISAT) and farming millet show that the only way to improve yields is to use fertilizer or invest in improved higher/faster yielding seeds.  For this you need money, but it also entails significant risk because this is an entirely rain-fed exercise; if you invest in fertilizer or improved seeds and the rains are inconsistent or otherwise deficient, you lose your investment.
  3. Irrigate: This is almost a non-starter as it’s so expensive or the field has to be in a perfect location close to a water source.  Definitely possible for some farmers that I knew along rivers or seasonal lakes, some of them invested in pumps and would irrigate their fields, planting more water-intensive crops such as maize.

The other issue is the whole market situation – most of the farmers I knew were straight-up subsistence farmers.  They were almost never selling their harvest unless it was a dire situation or something unusual like a wedding.  They otherwise needed the food to survive, and barely survive.

I found that in general my villagers were experts at managing their risks, they knew the bare minimum they had to do to avoid a huge loss but to keep their family alive.  In rough years like in 2005 and I think 2009/10 (I can’t remember the last really bad year) they lose/deplete their coping mechanisms, which are basically selling assets like their cattle/sheep/goats, sending family members away to earn money (sometimes young children), or migrating to urban areas as a last resort. These really bad years used to be far enough apart that people could recover, but now they’re closer together, leaving people vulnerable.  Also, population growth, even with intense family planning interventions from the government and NGO’s, is very high (something like average 7 living kids per Nigerien mother) so any improvements are negated by population growth; there’s not enough to go around.

In some cases the environment has degraded slowly enough that villagers still maintain their mental model of their home villages being a place where Allah should allow them to farm – but the land has become so degraded and dry over time, through deforestation and erosion – that harvesting a survivable crop is all but impossible.  These people make up the majority of those accepting WFP food distributions and literally living off of aid.  There are ways to rehabilitate the land; there’s a thing called “Farmer Managed Natural Regeneration” that has had great success using indigenous trees and grasses but it takes years to show an effect.

Anyway, I’ll leave it there for now

The Field

In Appropriate Technology, Capacity Building, Career Development, Economic Development, International Development, Microcredit, Niger, Organizational Development, Peace Corps on September 21, 2010 at 5:25 pm

I’ve been in Niger now since Sunday afternoon.  I built sufficient buzz amongst my little zeitgeist that people are asking me, “what’s it like to be back?”  That’s a good question, I’m glad you asked.

It’s awesome, really.  It’s good to be here, slowly getting into being here, getting to know the field office I’m supporting from HQ.  I kind of wish I knew more people here so I could hang out a little bit more, get out to the Grand Marche, etc.  I’ve got a whole list of things I want to buy while I’m here…  I’ve actually been working a lot.

The sounds are still there – the fast Hausa or Zarma, the revving motos, occasional prayer calls or African music.  Chaotic traffic.  Dust.  Some heat, although not nearly as bad as it could be, and to be honest, after a DC summer I’m loving the “dry heat.”

Because of the AQIM kidnapping 7 people, including 5 French, 1 Togolese and 1 Malagasy, France sent what seems like a garrison of soldiers here, and a handful of them were staying at my hotel.  I don’t want to get beat up by any French soldier that I could offend, but man if they don’t look silly in their short shorts.  They’re all decked out but with these 1980, daisy-duke camo shorts.  They almost look like they’ll break into a boy-band dance at any time.  But I digress…

The Niger River is really high, almost to touching the bottom of the bridge.  So I feel awful for the farmers and fisherman’s families whose campements next to the river have been washed away.

I’ve had Tele Sahel on for about an hour now while I’ve been online, and I’ve actually been very pleasantly surprised by all the industry that seems to have developed in Niger.  When I was here before, I remember the milk company and maybe the pagne company.  Now they’ve got lots of nice looking, Nigerien businesses advertised on TV (bottled water, various grocery stores, long-haul passenger bus systems, pesticides, hadj tour companies) which means they’re successful enough to pay for advertising, which is saying something here.

The other cool thing about Nigerien TV is they seem to broadcast a lot in Hausa and Zarma, in addition to French – in fact, most of the commercials are in either Hausa or Zarma.

As for the politics – all indications in my purview make it seem like the current military government is interested in helping regular Nigeriens.  My NGO colleagues say that the last Tandja regime was very anti-NGO and restrictive of many kinds of project, especially food-for-work.

A representative from Zain Mobile communications came and gave us an interesting presentation on using mobile phones to make cash transfers to rural beneficiaries.   We like this a lot and hope to integrate this – there are so many development advantages to this that it’s worth helping Zain enrich themselves and increase their customer base.  It promotes literacy and numeracy, the phones can be used for long term monitoring and evaluation, it does all the other proven things that cell phones have been linked to – such as what I’ve mentioned and other things like flattening commodity price fluctuations.

So, I’ll be more on my own with the local staff the rest of my time here, my M&E colleague Mamadou is heading up north for an assessment for the next 6 days.  Hopefully I can get some stuff done and leave the program in better shape than I’m finding it, which is not all that bad.

Alheri.

Literacy Tipping Point

In Appropriate Technology, Capacity Building, Economic Development, International Development, Niger, Peace Corps, Sustainable Development, Technology on September 15, 2010 at 10:51 am

Just read this interesting article on a Literacy Project in Niger.

It’s a CRS project using cell phones in literacy projects. As it turns out, if you give illiterate people cell phones and include literacy classes, they will retain their knowledge and use their literacy skills to send text messages. This is brilliant and I consider this a tipping point: where literacy is increased, living standards will go up.

I worked on a village based literacy program in the Torodi area of Niger in the late 90’s, and one major thing that kept people from retaining their literacy skills was that there was nothing to read in Fulfulde or Zarma. If you give them something to write and read, they’ll use their skills. Otherwise literacy isn’t of much use to them in their daily lives.

End the poverty cycle

In Appropriate Technology, Economic Development, Governance, International Development, Niger, Sustainable Development, Technology on July 12, 2010 at 2:59 pm

I’ve been recently reminded of the overwhelming factors working against those in the super-poor parts of the world that I work on helping every day.   The UN’s IRIN news service published this helpful article on “Preventing the Sahel’s next food crisis,” which is already in full swing.

In the international development field, as in many others, we all have our specialties.  This may be more of a function of how competitive it is to work in this field – that many people hyper-specialize to make themselves marketable and to stay employed.  This inevitably leads to tunnel vision, where we feel like what we’re focusing on is integral to the larger objective – which in our case is reducing poverty.

With that in mind – this list of how to prevent the food security crisis currently manifesting itself in the Sahel has both macro and micro level suggestions.  (Sahel – to those unfamiliar – means roughly the region of West and Central Africa between the Sahara Desert and the densely forested equator region, it stretches from Senegal to Sudan)

I’m in a spot professionally where the programs I help support are short term interventions that basically keep people alive and at worst maintain the prior status quo.  (would I then say status quo ante?)  We can do these interventions successfully and meet all our goals.  But what frustrates me is that in Niger and Chad (the two countries that now occupy my time) are stuck in a cycle of poverty.

Yes, there are nifty administrative ways we can get food aid shipped to these places quickly – we can all communicate better, have more eyes on the ground, use social media to attract attention and allocate resources more efficiently… but when does it stop?

I want to see the system change.   Nigeriens and Chadiens need a better deal.  We need a massive reallocation of policies and resources to help bring up the poorest of the poor.  And the more I work in the development field, the more I’m convinced that it has to come from the private sector.

I don’t have time right now to really delve into this – many have earned doctorates in more specialized aspects of this problem… But, landing my plane here… I think the best way forward is to see the poorest of the poor as regular, hardworking people who will work their tails off for the chance to help their families.  Put yourself in their shoes.  Lets give them the chance to help themselves.  Lets invest in the poor.

Design for the Poor

In Appropriate Technology, International Development, Natural Resource Management, Sustainable Development on May 30, 2007 at 3:27 am

This speaks for itself – a NYT article on innovative design for the poor.

The one thing that I saw as totally brilliant is the rolling water jug. Of course – that will just free up more room on the person’s heads. Now village women in Africa (the intended beneficiaries) will be pulling water behind them, probably in trains of 3-5 jugs per woman, with 60 lbs of stuff on their heads, and a baby on their backs. It’s the productivity/technology curse, right? The more we invent to make our lives easier, the more time we have to get more work done…

Another Anti OLPC blog post

In Appropriate Technology, International Development, Technology on May 6, 2007 at 5:54 am

I really don’t want this to be an anti One-Laptop-Per-Child project blog… but I read this article in todays NYT and couldn’t help but think about it:
Seeing No Progress, Some Schools Drop Laptops – New York Times

Apparently, having laptops issued one to a student in American schools, who have access to some of the best technology, with students who actually have previous experience with this technology, hasn’t worked as well as had been expected.

The article brings up one good point – the educational rubric hasn’t caught up to the digital age; having students really use wirelessly connected and networked laptops for their intended purpose – collaborating and exploring their creativity – was taking them away from concentrating on passing outmoded, standardized tests.

What we should take away from this, in relation to the OLPC endeavor… is what I have mentioned in previous blog posts – if you introduce a new technology or development intervention, you have to be aware of it’s wider systemic effects. I’ve come to realize that ecosystems are not just something related to the physical environment, but the social and political environment as well.

I’m in agreement with the sentiments of the OLPC project, and I love the idea of getting students the best technology possible. But with regards to what the NYT article highlights – the systemic effects of the intervention were not considered. Of course some the kids were going to IM each other and look at porn… they’re teenagers for gods sake…

A better plan would have been for the school to create a much more controlled educational environment that is more hardwired to the classroom – and give all the students their own, private flash-drives or iPods. The iPods could be specially adapted to hold the students entire scholastic identity, basically being their boot drive for whatever dumb computer terminal they log into. That way they could take their work home to their home computers – which should be provided to low-income people at subsidized rates and free municipal WiFi access. The school could then maintain their secure network and the students wouldn’t just be distractedly surfing the internet.

Even as a relatively responsible 33 year old grad student, I find that my always on laptop can be an enormous distraction. I find myself looking things up constantly, then getting sucked into reading the news or instant messaging with my friends. My workflow is a stream of short bursts; responses interrupting my creative efforts. My last blog post was done from a class, I’m sorry to admit. The professor structured class in the traditional, passive listening manner that these new technologies were designed to eliminate.

But then again, I have other professors who depend on us bringing our wirelessly connected laptops to class to take advantage of the collaborative and enabling environment they were intended for. I’ve had class meetings using Skype where we were spread out all over the world. It’s completely amazing and fun.

So there is hope for the OLPC project, but like I said the systemic effects of this intervention really need to be considered. The OLPC coordinators should read this NYT article carefully so they don’t end up with a completely busted project.

The One Laptop Per Child Field Tests

In Appropriate Technology, International Development, Technology on April 16, 2007 at 7:09 am

C|Net just ran an article on the OLPC saga: Engineering change: Plugging Africa’s kids in to $100 laptop.

I recommend clicking on the photos and reading the captions to get the whole story.

I’ve been following this story for a while, I’ve posted on it here a few times, just have a look through my archives. To sum up how I feel about it – I love the ideas and idealism, I have major issues with the execution of it as a development project.

As I said, there are tons of sustainability issues to consider – take a look at the photos in the article I linked to above and you’ll get an idea. They’ve decided to field test the laptop in a poor but not destitute village with a pretty poorly-outfitted school, even by Nigerian standards. They had to install electricity & generator and a satellite dish, which had not obviously been at this school before.

What I’m seeing as the first mistake is that Khaled Hassounah himself is training the kids to use the laptops. HUGE mistake. Sustainability error number one; now it’s just another project being pushed on them by a foreigner, a gift given to them that they did not ask for. They’ll ooh and ahh at the laptops and go along with what he says, and then as soon as things start to break down, the project will fall apart, because it’s not community based and generated.

They should have the schools compete to show who earns the right to use the new technology – that would provide motivation for schools to perform better. It would also increase the communities stake in the project. Also, it should be a Nigerian face that the kids are seeing training them to use the laptops. Hassounah should be intensively training Nigerian teachers, who then train the kids. Hassounah must be consumed with his own idealism – I totally understand him wanting to be the one with the kids, but the true home-run for him would be to watch a Nigerian (or otherwise local) teacher flawlessly train the kids.

I really, really hope the kids get some benefit out of the machines while the generator and satellite dish are working at least.