"Africa is, indeed, coming into fashion." - Horace Walpole (1774)

4.07.2014

Shameless Self-Promotion

Upcoming Talks

4.06.2014

And we have a winner...

The finals aren't until tomorrow night, but everyone in the SWEDOW 2014 bracket group picked wrong (darn you, Florida!), so our winner this year is Jacob Price! Congrats, Jacob! Send me your address ASAP because I don't want this SWEDOW in my house much longer.

3.19.2014

SWEDOW 2014

It's that time again, and though I'm late getting this set up, I hope you'll be able to join our #SWEDOW 2014 bracket group before XXX on Thursday, March 20.
As always, this year's winner will receive a package full of FABULOUS SWEDOW prizes. This year, the packet includes a dozen Malaysian-made finger puppets, a George W. Bush and His Family Paper Doll Set, and a Chuy's Atlanta Koozie, plus whatever else I find in my house during spring cleaning and bragging rights for the year. Join today! 

11.13.2013

we have a winner

And the winner of Nina Munk's The Idealist is...

Comment #15, Kim Yi Dionne!


11.04.2013

Arrogance and the Idealist: a review & giveaway of Nina Munk's new Jeff Sachs bio

It's hard to come up with anything to say about Nina Munk's magnificent new book that hasn't already been said.  The Idealist: Jeffrey Sachs and the Quest to End Poverty takes as its task trying to understand Sachs and his Millennium Villages Project (MVP). Munk, who had a high level of access to Sachs and his staff for about six years, details the MVP as the realities of development, culture, and community preferences slam up against Sachs' expertise and view that the solutions to global poverty are primarily technical.

Others have written about how Munk beautifully portrays Sachs' hubris in the face of overwhelming evidence that some of his ideas are not working, pushback from experts and local leaders, and signals of distress from MVP field staff. This will no doubt be very satisfactory to Sachs' most stringent critics, who have long puzzled over why he was initially so resistant to having the MVP rigorously evaluated using the gold standard of impact evaluation methods, randomized control trials.

Munk's narrative is damning on these and many other accounts. It is an absolute must-read for anyone who is interested in doing good for those in need. Far from writing a cheerleader's account about someone who "just wants to help," Munk raises questions about whether poverty actually has technical solutions, or whether cultural norms and behaviors can derail even the most well-funded and planned activities. For example, Sachs' purpose-built livestock market in the Dertu, Kenya MVP now sits mostly unused. The reason? Somali-Kenyans living in the area don't want to sell their livestock in Dertu. Camels and goats are a sign of a family's wealth and serve as a kind of savings account for difficult times. In ordinary times, nobody wants to sell those animals - it would be like an American selling off her house to cash in on equity when he or she has no reason to want to move.

Technical solutions to the problems of poverty are all the rage in the era of randomized control trials and other well-designed studies of the impacts (or lack thereof) of particular interventions. There are good reasons for this; we need to have evidence as to whether some interventions work, and when we have such evidence, we can direct resources so they have the maximum impact to improve people's lives. But RCTs and other rigorous impact evaluations often lack a key element in their research designs: understanding the why's and how's behind program success or failure. The lack of contextual understanding is particularly important in understanding why interventions fail. For example, the excellent Tuungane I evaluation by a group of Columbia University scholars led by Macartan Humphreys showed clearly that an International Rescue Committee program on community-level reconstruction did not change participant behaviors. The study was as well designed as an RCT can be, and its conclusions are very convincing. But as the authors note, we don't actually know why the intervention failed. To find that out, we need the kind of thick descriptive qualitative data that only a mixed methods study can provide. (Full disclosure: I'll be leading an evaluation of a later phase of the Tuungane project to learn if anything has changed. More on that later.) A well-designed RCT makes it easier to ask those questions by providing clues and bases for hypothesizing on what went wrong.

I suspect that if Sachs had been willing to submit to rigorous, independent evaluation from the beginning of the MVPs, we might have a basis on which to test questions about why and how the MVP interventions succeeded and failed. As it is, we don't have that data. But Nina Munk has done a great service in her detailed description of the process by which the MVPs and Sachs got to where they are today. While I'm not hopeful that this will actually happen, an honest, independent evaluation of the project's failures might be the best thing that could happen for the MVPs and the field of development studies.

What do you think? Have you read Munk's book?

I have a free copy of Nina Munk's The Idealist to give away. If you'd like a chance to win, please leave a comment below. I'll use a random number generator to choose a winner. Comments will close at 5pm EST on Thursday, November 7. Please note that I can only ship the book to addresses in the US and Canada - deepest apologies to those of you living further afield.

4.17.2013

shameless self-promotion

I'll be at Duke University this Friday (4/19), speaking on conflict minerals in DRC at the Nicholas School of the Environment at 10am. Details are here. I'll also be speaking at a public event at Blacknall Memorial Presbyterian Church at 7pm that evening. Would love to meet anyone who'll be around!

Next Thursday (4/25), I'm speaking at my alma mater, the African Studies program at Yale University. Details for that are here.

4.01.2013

big life news

(It's April Fool's Day, but this is not a joke.)

In the personal/professional life news category, I have some that's big: I'll be leaving Morehouse College at the end of this academic year to take a position as Assistant Professor of Government at Colby College in Waterville, Maine. The choice to leave Morehouse was not an easy one; I will miss our bright and curious students more than I can say.

Even so, I'm very excited about the opportunity to teach at Colby. The college has a strong emphasis on undergraduate research, attracts bright and ambitious students, and is pretty much the idyllic liberal arts college campus of my dreams. I'll be able to lead regular study abroad trips to east Africa to explore aid and development questions up close with students, and am looking forward to working in a major that has a reputation of being among the most challenging on campus.

Up next: moving to Maine and, inevitably, buying a Subaru. Thanks for sticking with me for the next stage of Texas in Africa: the Not in Texas or Africa Years.

3.18.2013

'tis the season

It's SWEDOW bracket time! For those first-timers, this is an NCAA men's college basketball tournament bracket competition with prizes for the winner that are considered SWEDOW ("stuff we don't want,") a phrase coined by the inimitable Tales from the Hood. All you have to do to compete is fill out a bracket and join the SWEDOW 2013 group via the ESPN Tournament Challenge.

What can you win? Well, this year's prize pack includes (but is not limited to) a lilac bridesmaid's dress, Hanukkah socks, some BibleMan action hero DVDs, and a used Chipotle bag. If you have SWEDOW to add, email me ASAP so I can tell you where to send it. Get excited and enter now!

(Caveats: Whoever wins the bracket group gets the prizes, but I can't afford to ship them outside the US and Canada. In case someone outside the US & Canada wins, he/she gets bragging rights and the first player down the list from the winner who is in the US & Canada gets the SWEDOW. If the winner/prize winner doesn't claim his/her prizes after 7 days, I send it to the next person down the list until the SWEDOW is no longer my problem.)

2.22.2013

drinking the Rwandan kool-aid

Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair and businessman and philanthropist Howard Buffett have a column in Foreign Policy this week titled, "Stand with Rwanda."  In the piece, they argue that aid cuts to Rwanda in the wake of the UN Group of Experts' revelations that Rwanda is actively supporting the human rights-abusing M23 rebel movement in the DRC should be restored. They ignore the "generally democratic governments don't like to give money to war-mongering states" aspect of this issue, instead focusing on the negative effects of the cuts for Rwanda's population and how indisputably effective aid has been in Rwanda.

Blair and Buffett also argue that the DRC's problems are more-or-less entirely rooted in the DRC's poor-to-barely-existant governance, fragile security, and weak state. They do so via some poorly researched/blatantly wrong claims. To wit:
Then there is the international presence: the largest and most expensive U.N. peacekeeping operation in the world with almost 14,000 troops. At a cost of $1.5 billion each year, Western governments are paying a huge sum of money to maintain a U.N. force that does not have the mandate to actually secure the region. The international community should instead focus its support on African-led solutions to security, ideally through an African Union-led security force similar to AMISOM in Somalia."
First, MONUSCO does not have "almost 14,000 troops," it has 17,090, as can easily be learned by searching Google for "MONUSCO troop strength," then choosing the first hit, the most recent UN "MONUSCO Facts and Figures" page. Aside from making an error resulting from poor fact checking, Blair and Buffett are also apparently unaware that the Security Council is likely about to greatly strengthen the MONUSCO mandate to do more to "actually secure the region" by increasing its capacity to fight rebels and to protect civilians. I've said it before and I'll say it again: DRC is not Somalia. The "AMISOM for Congo" idea Blair and Buffett and many other people who don't spend time in the DRC raise from time to time (as is the case with the "AMISOM for Mali" idea) is unlikely to work. In all the discussions of what to do about Congo, including discussions about a possible SADC or another neutral force, an African Union mission has never been considered as a viable possibility because it is not a viable possibility. Too many of the largest troop-contributing states to African Union missions - namely Rwanda, Uganda, and Burundi - are entangled in the DRC crisis one way or another.

Blair and Buffet also write that, "(*Typo correction below.) There are a lot more than 30,000 Congolese Rwandaphones. Not to put too fine a point on it in places where statistics are unreliable at best, but estimates made by expert scholars Rene Lemarchand and Gerard Prunier put the population of South Kivu's Banyamulenge Rwandaphone population alone at somewhere between 50,000-80,000. Pinning an exact number on the North Kivu Rwandaphone population, known locally as Banyarwanda, is a bit tricker, but Prunier puts a pre-war estimate of the Banyarwanda population of North Kivu of about 1.12 million. There is little reason to believe that the Rwandaphone population of the Kivus is anywhere near as low as Blair and Buffett claim.
Finally, in the most perplexing claim of all, Blair and Buffett state that, 



At the same time, it should support proposals currently being agreed to through the International Conference for the Great Lakes Regionand the current peace negotiations underway between M23 and the DRC government in Kampala. Already, there are encouraging signs of progress. On Feb, 6, 2013, the government of DRC and M23 signed a preliminary agreement in which both parties accepted responsibility for the failure of an earlier peace agreement.
This defies reality. The Kampala talks have stalled over intractable issues and most of the major players have gone home. Getting the two sides to agree that the March 23, 2009 agreement failed to be implemented is the diplomatic equivalent of passing a resolution stating that the sky is blue.  The likelihood that any sustainable peace will come out of the Kampala talks is, to put it mildly,minuscule. No reasonable observer disputes the fact that the Congolese's state's many, many, many weaknesses are a major factor contributing to the proliferation of armed groups in the region. But likewise, no reasonable observer thinks that domestic politics and issues are the only causes of violence in the Congo. There is no question that Rwanda's involvement in Congo has caused far more violence and suffering than would have otherwise been present. There is also no question that the Congo will not be at peace until some viable form of effective domestic governance emerges. To claim otherwise is disingenuous.

Blair and Buffett also ignore the fact that having so much aid support frees up other resources for the Rwandan government to use in its military adventures in the Congo. Were Rwanda not wasting money on supporting the M23, Kigali would be able to fund many of the excellent development initiatives that were previously funded with aid dollars. I suspect they do not consider this idea in the piece because Blair and Buffett are both among the class of global development elites who are so impressed with Rwanda's very real development successes that they largely turn a blind eye to its abuses. The authors note that Rwanda has achieved these successes "all without the benefit of natural resource wealth or access to the sea," all the while ignoring that a significant portion of the Rwandan budget not funded by aid dollars comes from the illegal extraction, theft, and sale of Congolese minerals.

 Blair and Buffett are correct that solving the DRC's crises requires creative thinking and new approaches. (I would like to see more emphasis on grassroots peacebuilding at the community level, for example.) But ignoring Rwanda's role in the Kivus as a source of conflict will make the situation worse, not better. And continuing to fund a government that spends its own resources on rebels who rape women and conscript child soldiers is unconscionable for most taxpayers in donor states. It should be reprehensible to Blair and Buffett as well.

*Typo correction: I left out this quotation from the FP piece, "And the M23 and FDLR are just the most prominent of a host of militias and mini-militias operating in and around Kivu, where some 30,000 Congolese Rwandans currently reside."

2.07.2013

shameless self-promotion

A few upcoming speaking engagements:

  • 2/28: Tufts University, Fletcher School, World Peace Foundation: "Western Advocacy in Conflict: Do international public advocacy campaigns make an impact?" Panelists: Rony Brauman, David Rieff, Laura Seay, Amanda Taub - 12:30pm, Cabot C703
  • 3/7: Cornell University, Institute for African Development seminar series: "Substituting for the State: the Role of Civil Society Organizations in Providing Health Care and Education in the DRC" - 2:30pm, G08 Uris Hall
  • 3/28: Emory University, Institute of African Studies seminar series: "NGOs, Civil Society, and Authority in the Post-Conflict: Who’s in Charge?" - 4:15pm, Callaway S423
  • 4/19 (tentative): Duke University, Nicholas School of the Environment: "Good Intentions, Unintended Consequences: Conflict Minerals & Policy Responses to the DRC Crisis" - location TBD
  • 4/25: Yale University, Council on African Studies Brownbag Lunch Series: "Good Intentions, Unintended Consequences: Advocacy Narratives, Conflict Minerals, & Policy Responses to the DRC Crisis" - 12:15pm, Luce 203