Links & Content I liked 05

This is going to be the last Links & Content for this year...but there will be a final post early next week where I make a humble attempt to review the development blogging year 2011!

As always: Enjoy! Share! Comment! Please...


David's Perspective: If you aren't failing, are you really trying?

EWB applies a 'searcher' approach - every employee, program and team researches a problem, identifies potential ways to address the problem and tests the approach on a small scale to see if it works. If it doesn't work, EWB tries a different approach. If it does work, it's refined and scaled up. EWB knows failures are necessary on the path to a solution, and the entire organization is set up to recognize those failures quickly, then adapt and improve. I can't begin to tell you how different this is from the average development organization, and it's only the beginning. EWB publishes yearly failure reports, sharing mistakes made across the organization and how people have learned from them. These reports are now being copied by other organizations that recognize the importance of failure.
Engineers Without Border's David Damberger's TEDx talk (linked in the post above) has been rightly shared widely in the development blogosphere. Openly talking about organisational failure is still rare and it also contributes to an open, transparent, accountable and learning organisation. However, at this early stage there are still some interesting questions, e.g. how donors, 'ordinary people' and competitors in the aid industry will react. Similar to the open data idea there is a lot of 'who could possibly be against this?' enthusiasm - and that's great. But similar to open data questions around accountability will be tricky: Will donors stop funding an organisation because of a 'failed project'? Will organisations, advocacy groups or aid critics use 'failed projects' as examples for bad press on development, along the lines of 'now they are even bragging about bad aid and call it "learning"'? And what about private donors who may feel betrayed that their money did not 'end poverty', but contributed to a project that did not go ahead as planned? Don't get me wrong: Admitting failure is important, but it will require enhanced commuication efforts and new encounters with aid critics who may not share EWB's or others enthusiasm for openly admitting failure.
And at the same time, we will also be doing some serious thinking about how we take the programme forward without this citizen monitoring component - informed of course by the analysis of why the programme failed to deliver. A more traditional research, analysis and advocacy programme? Partnerships with the media? Strengthening the role of MPs in rural water supply policy debates? Continued rural data collection but using a network of trained volunteers rather than pure crowd-sourcing? We have ideas and we have commitment, and we're confident that a redesigned programme will have us back on track before long.Innovation involves risk taking. New ideas don't always work. Maji Matone's approach was new and innovative, it involved risk and it hasn't worked. Time to embrace this, admit failure, reflect, learn lessons, share those lessons and move forward with something new.
This is a great example of how 'admitting failure' can look like in practice and I think they are asking the right, difficult and complex questions to move the idea forward even one project has not delivered the promised results.

The contrast of these two events could not have been more stark. The first focused on the means of fulfilling “contractual vehicles” i.e. servicing donors’ needs and minimizing risk, while the Oxfam event launched their new report, “The Politics of Partnership: How donors manage risk while letting recipients lead their own development.”
A short, but very interesting (as always!) post from Jennifer Lentfer which reminded me once more that there is growing industry out there who delivers development very differently and unlikely with much reflection on how to admit failure...

Somali Terrorists Join Twitter #Propaganda
Not that @HSMPress is generating much buzz. Journalists, terrorism researchers and aid workers make up the lion’s share of its early followers, not eager Muslim youth. And Shabab’s adversaries are doing a much better job with Twitter, using it to warn Somalis of upcoming offensives. More #fail.
Interesting article on Twitter propaganda and al-Shabab from WIRED. More interesting examples in Bored in Post-Conflict's latest post on 

More Tweet Battles...


The allure of the chain hotel

Perversely, I've always felt there's something exotic and otherworldly about these places. It's as though their very sterility makes them the ideal blank canvas; a fascinating limbo.
Chain hotels are deeply embedded in the aid worker psyche and have become symbols of transnational development and the inhabitants of 'Aidland'. Even parts of my PhD research focussed on the role of international hotels, ritualisation and how peacebuilding discourses are framed. I know that Xan Brooks is probably only half-serious about the allure of chain hotels, but they are powerful and important spaces to think about contemporary (non-)places and place-less-ness in a transnational world.


“My grief lies all within” — PhD students, depression & attrition
From November to March is prime time for academic burn-out in graduate programs — I’m convinced of that. Perhaps it’s a seasonal thing; it can be easy to sink into a trough of exhaustion and stress, and not climb out of it for months. But rather than just the seasonal doldrums, my sense is that clinical depression, extreme anxiety and other mental health issues are becoming more common in graduate programs as well as in undergraduate education.
Really interesting article on the PhD process and mental health. The pervasive neoliberal academic management context of 'rankings' or 'success' within ever growing student numbers and real or preceived pressure to 'prove' that these programs are working may contribute to more pressure and mental health issues.
Reminded me a bit of my older post on development studies' unpreparedness to deal with students' uncomfortable experiences. The article is right to call for more research and more open discussions on this topic:
A larger problem is not only the context described above (and its effects), but also the thickly oppressive silence that surrounds it. Not coincidentally, I think, there is a parallel silence around the issue of attrition. Considering the high rate of attrition from PhD programs and the cost of graduate education, you’d assume there would be a plenty of research on the reasons why students “drop out.” But according to Chris Golde (2000) we still don’t have much information on why students leave PhD programs, partly because PhD attrition “looks bad” for everyone involved (responsibility for this “failure” is usually transferred to the student). I wonder how many students simply leave due to mental health and related issues brought on or exacerbated by the psychological minefield of the PhD process — and how much of this is preventable.

Long Term, Short Term

My guess for the next big disruption is that it will involve a move away from the degree itself. Alternative credentialing is the logical answer to Baumol’s cost disease. If you insist on defining degrees in terms of time, but the real world cares far more about competencies, then it seems like there’s an opening for certificates defined in terms of competencies. Once you break the stranglehold of the credit hour, all things are possible.
Interesting discussion at Community College Dad on how academic degrees may change in the long and short term. It would be interesting to think about this in the context of development studies teaching, the potential influence of employers to shape the curriculum and how previous experience in 'the field' could be better incorporated in development studies programs outside the traditional 1 or 2 year taught full-time MA program.


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