Links & Contents I Liked 20

Hello all,

A day earlier than usual to give you time to read, bookmark and/or download interesting stuff for the long weekend, I am happy to share my weekly link digest today.
Two impact studies on policy briefs and child sponsorship make the start, followed by a few interesting articles from the 'humanitarian industry'. But there's also space for anthropological insights from an afternoon at Starbucks in London and for reflections on the benefits and challenges of engaging with book reviews.

If you celebrate Easter-have a peaceful and calm long weekend and for everybody else a hopefully sunny pre-spring weekend ahead!


Should think tanks write policy briefs? What an RCT can tell us

‘I’d rather change policy than write a blog!’: When it came to what sort of follow up actions resulted from reading the brief, simple actions like passing it along, or telling someone about the findings were most likely. The least likely action cited by respondents was to write a blog about it… even less likely than actually changing a policy. There are any number of explanations for this, including the study sample and their self-perceived responsibilities, but it certainly confirms that convincing researchers and policy makers of the value of blogging is an uphill battle.
I'm picking this quote, because of the blogging reference, but Jeff Knezovich's post on a RCT-study on policy briefs has more interesting insights to offer:
Confirmation bias applies, even to policy briefs. (...) But those who had already formed an opinion didn’t budge – even, or perhaps especially, if it was contrary to their own beliefs.
Women less prone to share information than men! (...) But the gender divide was found to be consistent throughout the study, even controlling for a variety of factors. So the question remains, what is it about policy briefs that make them seemingly less relevant for/to women?

Child Sponsorship

The evaluation doesn’t answer perhaps the most important question about Child Sponsorship: is it better or worse than other NGO aid? In this study the counterfactual is no assistance, as opposed to a a good ongoing NGO project that wasn’t designed with marketing in mind.
However, to tie this post back to my surfing buddies, I don’t think that in their case the counter factual was ever going to be donating to an impeccably scoped and designed ideal NGO project. Almost certainly had their consciences not been tugged by the evocative adds they would have kept their credit cards in their wallets, and not donated to anything.
So, in that sense, you’d have to say that – uncool or not – on the basis of the best available evidence child sponsorships come out looking quite good.
On the other hand…This is the second ever impact evaluation of a child sponsorship programme. Second. Ever. After all those years of people sponsoring kids. That’s appalling. What we really need now is an NGO that sponsors poor, orphan impact evaluations…
Talking about impact studies, another interesting one on child sponsorship. The post rightly addresses some of the open questions, but this is likely to be an important study for the ongoing debate on child sponsorship as a development model.

Does everything have to be quantified?

I think that this is one of the divides in the field of evaluation. Those trying to evaluate programs involving creative measures may feel the need to validate them through providing statistical evidence of their value. I understand this drive, creative programs can easily be disregarded or misrepresented because they do not fit nicely into effectiveness measures, but I do not think there is much point in quantifying impacts that are so much more meaningful in their qualitative state.
I advocate for the use of creative media to involve stakeholders and analyze programs that are not necessarily creative in nature. As a result, I do not always feel the necessity of validating the work through systematized quantitative analysis -- it stands on its own, complementing other evaluation measures.
Cindy Banyai makes an excellent argument on the power of participatory evaluation techniques--just to offset the impact of the previous RCT posts a little bit ;)...

Know your place, aid worker

Compared to one of the most meagerly funded categories in the 2011 US Federal Budget – “Protection” (Police, Fire Fighters, prisons, etc.) which comes in at $60.7 billion - $16.7 billion for humanitarian aid, globally, all donors, sounds plain paltry. Or more to the point, when we remember that in 2011 natural disasters in the United States alone cost the country an estimated $14 billion, we start to get a sense for what we might more realistically expect from a mere $16.7 billion for responding to all disasters globally.
You can play around with numbers quite a bit (see Cynan in the comments to the post), but Tales from the Hood reminds us that the global 'aid (or humanitarian) industry' has certain financial limitations...

Playing the blame game in Haiti

It’s an article of faith in the US that if there’s a problem somewhere in the world, then the application of sufficient cash will solve that problem. Haiti is the most salient counterexample to that article of faith that the world has. And yet somehow Deborah Sontag went to Haiti and came back with 6,000 words which seem to say that the problem in Haiti was that there wasn’t enough money, and that it wasn’t spent fast enough. She doesn’t even dwell on the central irony in her piece, which is that it was precisely the disaster-responders — the Nepalese peacekeepers — who seem to have triggered the cholera outbreak in the first place.
Would it have been better had there been no peacekeepers at all? Of course not. But failed states like Haiti are hard to fix. And that’s the central problem with the way the NYT is treating the country — as though it’s a fixable problem, as opposed to a much more intractable one. Victims can be identified, and cholera epidemics traced back to a single source. But when the NYT runs this story under a headline blaming “Global Failures”, that implies a baseline of success which is frankly impossible to achieve.
(HT Jennifer Lentfer)
As much as I enjoyed Felix Salmon's critical comment on a NYT-article on Haiti (and, no, there's no Nick Kristof-bashing involved ;)...), it left me wondering about the obsession that 'we' in the aid blogosphere seem to have at times with the New York Times. It's a great newspaper, but engaging in traditional journalism has always come with a price and the NYT needs to realise that her readership has become very knowledgeable on many, if not most, international issues. Maybe paying less attention to NYT would be a first step, but it's too tempting to write about other writers.

Aid policy: A "new humanitarianism" at play in Syrian crisis

IRIN spoke to two international aid agencies that admitted to using activists to get aid into the country."We were looking around for ways and means to do what we felt was vital," said one international aid worker. "We had to find a way of getting this essential support and assistance to these people without going through the normal channels. It was when these networks presented themselves that we felt this was an opportunity and we took it.
"We have a responsibility and a mandate to assist in whatever way we can when the need is there," he went on. "That's what we're attempting to do in these incredibly difficult circumstances."
Some of it has to remain off the books, he added, which "has not made things easy in terms of our donors."
Every conflict/war/civil unrest/protest involves many shades of grey rather than black and white labels - and Syria is certainly not different. Nonetheless from a more theoretical point of view it's interesting to read about traditional humanitarian dilemmas and how agencies respond to them in new, networked ways.

Election Monitoring: Power, Limits, and Risks

Organizations know that election monitoring works best when domestic conditions are somewhat favorable and countries are already in transition, as in the post-communist countries in the early 1990s, and when organizations can engage consistently and sustain that engagement. However, organizations rarely have a pot of resources that they can simply allocate as they see fit. Instead, they are at the mercy of donors or governments that sometimes want monitors to go to countries such as Afghanistan and Pakistan to be seen, even if they have little hope of being effective. Similarly, a shortage of resources and the need to gain media attention to sustain the organization's image makes it harder for organizations to focus on proper follow-up after an election is over. Often, it's on to the next election right away.
A very nuanced overview about the chances and limitations of election monitoring.

The Neutron Book?

As it stands, Why Nations Fail comes close to being a neutron book. It describes wondrous worlds full of clever people after then, after the detonation of The Point of the Book, leaves only the buildings standing. (Exhibit F—the title to Chapter 13, “Why Nations Fail Today: Institutions, Institutions, Institutions.”) The people: gone.
(...)Yes, institutions matter. Yes, politics matters. But what matters most in human societies are human beings. Human beings who, by design or by accident, confront incumbent interests and distribute economic and political power. In politics, they are reformers, revolutionaries, and all manner of institutional innovators. In economics, they are entrepreneurs. Their story is the story of how institutions change, and why nations succeed. That, ultimately, is the more interesting story to tell. Among economists, it’s called agency. And, while not central thesis of the book, it is nonetheless the subtext that holds Why Nations Fail together.
Philip Auerswald's critical review of 'Why Nations Fail'; I want to read and review the book at some point, too, but I'm also afraid about the single narrative and how some case studies may be presented in ways they fit the overall argument (see my earlier comment regarding WNF and Nepal in the 'Development' section)

on aid worker's families & a distorted perception of the world

But for the most part, you end up accepting what at the outset of your career was unthinkable: that you cannot really integrate, why? Simple, you are different. In wealth, but also in background, interests and needs, and with time it just becomes so much easier to make friends with the other expatriates who have similar background and issues. They understand what your life is about, what the challenges are, and it means that when you have to start your life over from scratch, at least you have that gained.
This even happens when you get posted to HQ duty stations. We currently live in Holland, Europe (where both my hubs and I mostly grew up), and everyone speaks English. All the issues around wealth are gone, but still, my youngest goes to a British crèche, and although the oldest attends a Dutch school, she goes to the international class which is imparted in English. Why? Because we are not staying, because she already speaks three languages, and because Dutch is not very useful (trust me, if it were Chinese or Arabic she’d be learning it, we would all be.) I work from home, and my hubs is in an IGO, which means that we actually had more Dutch friends in Cambodia than we do here, and again, you have to wonder what that is doing to your child’s perception of the world.
As one commentator rightly said 'There are no easy answers' to make transnational careers and lives work. But I'm always intrigued by real-life stories behind abstract mobility theories.  

Why the Cultural Conversation Should Never Stop

As anthropologists we are all part of a larger narrative, in fact I believe our abilities to narrate various chapters of the human story is what sets our field apart from other sciences. This is engaged learning at its finest and whether I do it in front of a lectern for students, or at a conference for peers, or as a blogger, or as a podcaster, I do not value my training any less. In fact, if it weren't for my anthropological training, I'm not sure I could work with multiple audiences so easily. Public engagement ensures anthropological and human advancement, and, as ethnobotanist Wade Davis recently told me, we are all "entrepreneurs of knowledge," and it's up to us how we share that with others. My venues are simply evolving.
It's great to be an anthropologist and Melissa Rinehart's post at the HuffPost is a very encouraging read. Thank you!

Starbucks in a globalized world: An ethnographic snapshot in London

Since my snapshot research experience, I continue to wonder if the disaffected would continue to frequent Starbucks or whether they would seek out alternative, branded outlets or independent coffee shops where their personal identity – or at least that part of it which is attached to a first name – is neither probed nor revealed. One thing is certain from what we know about the pursuit of operating profit: a newly introduced consumer practice that has serious adverse effects on the bottom line of a global brand will not last long. It is complicated for a global corporation if a practice works in one location but not in another. What to do? I guess that’s what CEOs are paid to sort out. But if the new “name on the paper” ritual introduced to the U.K. by Starbucks succeeds in attracting and retaining a significant number of new customers, it will raise a question from an anthropological point of view in terms of relationship marketing: will other branded chains and independent coffee outlets be persuaded to follow suit or will they maintain existing practices as a conscious point of differentiation?
And why is it a great to be an anthropologist? Because you can sit in a Starbucks in London all afternoon long and still get clever and meaningful writing out of it :)!

Professionalization and the Poverty of IR Theory

So what happens when students who enter graduate school: With most of the methods training they will need;
Have strong incentives to adopt the "template" strategy for getting a job;
Confront a publishing and hiring environment in which methodological deviance is a liability;
Receive instruction from at least some instructors who are convinced that there's a "right way" and a "wrong way" to do social science; and
Train in Departments under intense pressure from Graduate School administrators to reduce the time-to-completion of the PhD?

Answer: an increasing risk of getting an IR degree as a time of intellectual closure; a perfectly rational aversion to debates that require questioning basic assumptions. In short, a recipe for impoverished theorization.
If you made it down to this post, congratulations! You spotted the 'nerdy academic post of the week' ;)! But if you are interested in academic hiring discourses, especially in the US-PolSci-context, this post actually provides a lot of food for thought.

The ‘damaging culture of league tables

The report from the Academy’s Policy Centre, Measuring Success, League tables in the public sector, covers rankings of schools, police forces and universities, and it concludes that many “have all the appearance of being useful”. “But they are often one-dimensional and can have perverse side effects that cause more harm than good,” it says.
THE takes a report on public service rankings as a starting point to discuss their improved university ranking.

Why Bother Writing Book Reviews?

In terms of intellectual agenda-setting, doing that kind of work can be useful and important. And niches can become central, with big change pivoting around them.
But it's hard work to write a book review. It requires art and craft to come up with something that engages in a serious and fair way with the material but also goes beyond the particular work to open out into bigger issues. It's equally hard to make the review—and this is sometimes too much to ask or expect—a pleasure to read. The question I keep returning to: Is the time spent reviewing other people's books more important than writing your own stuff, making your own contributions?
If the current climate in publishing and academe requires that scholars be ambitious and accessible, that they write clearly (if not simply) for more than the 15 people in a sub-sub-subfield, then professors will have an opportunity to become engaged in American cultural, social, and political life in meaningful ways. The monograph and book-review sausage factories are not, I think, the best use of our collective cerebral resources. It's better to write one good article than to review 20 books, and even better to write one good book.
I generally like book reviews. I like to read them, e.g. in the very informative Times Higher Education section, and I also like to write them. Rachel Toor makes some excellent points about the challenges of book reviews and one of the issues I have been thinking about since I started blogging is about the accessibility of them and how this is likely changing in the future. I have become less interested in 'formal' book reviews in academic journals that are mostly hidden behind paywalls. Although I still have access to many journals, I often feel that they treat book reviews as a side-issue-and I totally understand this in the context of busy editors and academic priorities of journals. However, many reviews often lack a certain passion and blogs for example are a great way to explore different forms of engaging with books-whether through the author's website/blog, or by adding a short interview with the author. Many publishers seem to have started to change their policies and generally they have responded positively to my requests for review copies. If you like books and writing, reviews are an excellent way to combine the two-not necessarily with a narrow 'CV focus' in mind, but with a 'public service' attitude in mind to share good, but also critical reviews with your readers. I have quite a few books on my desk right now and I look forward to sharing my thoughts about them with you in the future!

P.S.: Why not stay connected with @aidnography?


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