Links & Contents I Liked 36

Hello all,
This week's collection of links is a bit more annotated than usual, but I felt that the Guardian's article on the Kibera settlement, an interesting post on the chances and limitations of academic migration studies, DfID's announcement about open access and a great post from 'onthinktanks' on the power of labels and frameworks deserved some additional reflections ;)! And while most of the attention was on India's power outage this week, there's a really insightful piece on the disappearing water of Delhi and good comment on Nepal and the current state of social science that shouldn't be missed!


The disappearing water of Delhi. More serious than you think

If a city has no sense of its river, imagine the ease with which it has ruined its natural water bodies, old step wells, man-made lakes, each time evoking the fallacious argument of development. Shamsi Talab, once a water reservoir, is hemmed in by growing construction around it. Jahaaz Mahal as its name suggests once stood like a boat on water, now on dry ground. Vinod Jain's NGO TAPAS has been fighting a 20-year-old legal battle to save Delhi's innumerable natural water reservoirs. Their studies reveal that there's enough space for the city to grow without killing its own most precious natural resource.
Although India was in the news this week because of the widespread power outage, the story about the shortages of urban drinking water deserves more attention as this is a growing problem in many urban areas that are expanding.

Social Science Engagement and Political Interregnum in Nepal

Apart from the populist commentary and activist slogans, there has been very little serious academic debate on the most significant issues such as ethnicity and state restructuring in Nepal. Social scientists with academic authority on the subject are largely silent and the debate in the public sphere is largely one-sided pushed by activists and donor-supported political pundits. Silence on the part of the social scientists ought to be a matter of concern especially in a context where sociological, historical as well as anthropological know­ledge appears to be critical in shaping the political debate on state restructuring. While it is not desirable for social scientists to engage as activists, academic silence should be unacceptable. For instance, it must be clear to the scholars of Nepal that the nature of structural violence and inequality in Nepal is not all about “ethnicity” and it cannot be dealt within the framework of the proposed model of ethnic federalism.
Interesting, longs and historically-grounded essay by my colleague Jeevan Sharma. Must read for Nepal enthusiasts!

The missing millions of Kibera

None of this conversation was 'real'; it took place through translators provided by our hosts, a local community project claiming to represent Kibera's youth, and yet comprised almost entirely of people in their 20s or older. Attractive, bright, and enthusiastic, they had an uncanny talent for taking a few mumbled words of Swahili and turning them into the neatly-packaged on-message anecdotes beloved by the sort of cynical vultures that film the 'guilt segments' for telethons.
The mythical million comes from estimates built upon estimates that have spread over the years like Chinese whispers through the NGO community and, later, the internet.
Does this matter? Yes, if it means that years of funding and community planning are based on figures that are complete and utter bullshit. Kibera hosts some of the world's poorest people; residents whose problems are very real and immediate, whose scale hardly needs exaggerating. In a community estimated to host several hundred NGOs, charities and agencies, sucking in millions of dollars in foreign aid, such a fundamental error raises a more disturbing question: if so many people are so wrong about something so basic, what else isn't true?
Martin Robbins' tone reminds me a bit of the aid fatigue literature of the late 70s and early 80s, although some of his criticism is certainly justified. If translators seem to be an issue, why don't you just bring your local and/or Swahili speaking friend with you next time? But that's only a practical point. Although Robbins highlights some of the cycles that reinforce certain assumptions about 'the largest slum' as an international journalist he could also choose not to go to Kibera and cover a different story from Kenya. Convenient access, media-savvy local and international aid workers and soundbite-size comments are what many journalist are looking for (even though the Guardian may be one of the few exceptions). Again, maybe one has to go against the flow and find an interesting story in a more unusual place. I'm also not convinced about the rhetoric at the end of this (first) article. Getting any number right in development can be tricky and especially on a larger scale many figures are intelligent guess work and forecasts based on small samples. Rather than implying that organisations inflate numbers to 'suck in' more aid dollars, this could have been an entry point to question our (media, academics, aid organisations) obsession with numbers and broader questions about quantifiable aid discourses. There's also a political aspect: To get media attention, donations and support you may have to inflate numbers or base your work on the worst-case scenario. And oftentimes development is focussing on the one place and story that seemingly stands for 'everything that's wrong' in some area or place and makes a good story for aid organisations as well as journalists. Let's see if the reporting gets a bit more nuanced in the next parts.

Labels, frameworks and tools: do they stop us from thinking?

I blame this dumbing down, in part, the rise of development studies (and related) programmes. They are too general in nature, focus most of all on jargon and the architecture of the industry, and offer little if any opportunity for technical specialisation. (I have first hand experience.) I continue to hold the view that we need more people with clear disciplines (lawyers, medical practitioners, economists, engineers, sociologists, anthropologists, historians, political scientists, etc.) and fewer with generalist and simply managerial skills (although these can be useful skills). I rather entrust my aid funding to a young smart anthropologist than to a PRINCE2 guru any day. The former will ask questions before getting on with it, the latter will be too busy filling templates and putting together a project structure that will spend half the budget before anything is actually done.
My advice to anyone wanting to join the industry is to study an established profession or discipline and apply it to a developing country context. If they are smart enough they will figure out the differences in context. And for employers: don’t look for ‘development studies’, hire instead economists, historians, astrophysicists, engineers, mathematicians, philosophers, anthropologists, linguists, etc. (come to think about it, that was the composition of my team at RAPID).
Although this great article questions discourses around labels, frameworks and tools (and I highly recommend Joy Moncrieffe and Rosalind Eyben's book on ' The Power of Labelling') I found Enrique Mendizabal's reflections on the link between development studies education and framework expertise quite interesting. I don't think any decent development studies course trains students in frameworks and tools, but once they join the world outside the university they will get quickly and thoroughly exposed to them. You may get a job/consultancy once as 'anthropologist', but if you want to stick around in the 'aid industry' you are encouraged to acquire 'technical' skills quickly and the next thing you know someone sends you on a PRINCE2 training seminar...

Is migration studies failing to defend migrant rights?

Anne Kalt from UCL stressed the role that academia, whether public health or social science, should play in this struggle: “we don’t always have an open ideology but we try to create an evidence base that can shift the way migration is talked about”. A more holistic approach to teaching migration should be part of the solution to help uphold migrants’ rights, especially given how many migration students there are in Europe. When circulating information about our conference, we identified almost 80 Masters and PhD programmes around the continent which relate to migration, and there are undoubtedly many more. Assuming each institution has 20-30 migration or human rights students (a very modest estimate) we are talking about at least 3,000 students every year. A holistic approach to migration studies has the potential to equip those who focus on migrants’ every day experience, and whose research might eventually inform the work of the third sector, with greater awareness of the available legal avenues. Through initiatives such as our conference, students can add to the current evidence base in an innovative way by piecing together research from various areas.
I could have filed this under 'Academia', but it also fits in with the previous post about the role of higher education to engage with development or migration policy and the 'real world'.
As a peace researcher by training and ideology :) I can sympathise with the ideas that Agata Patnya is highlighting. But in the face of a multi-billion dollar/Euro defense industry or an ever growing policing force to 'protect' EU borders we must also be clear about power relations and, more importantly, public perceptions of these issues. I would love to see migration studies influencing policy, but I'm afraid an op-ed in a right-leaning tabloid newspaper is more powerful than 'evidence-based' research. Critical social scientists need to be careful as to how close they want to be with those 'in power' and whether disengagement and a more radical opposition can also be a successful strategy, a 'weapon of the weak' if you like, given the overall powerlessness of critical peace or migration studies.

DfID Joins Open Access Trend; Who’s Next?

The UK International Development Secretary, Andrew Mitchell, announced yesterday that DFID has a new open access policy, which will require all researchers receiving DFID funding to make their findings available for free online. Publishing results in journals or websites that charge for access will no longer cut it because this prices out some groups, including many scientists in developing countries, from benefiting from the findings. The policy includes a requirement that all underlying data be made available within 12 months of collection.
Interesting initiative. Although from my experience at IDS which has received quite a lot of DfiD money over the years I wouldn't overstate the problem of publicly-funded research being 'hidden away' in expensive journals. Many projects publish working papers and other materials that are easily and freely available. Quite a few publish book-length works with independent publishers that often have reasonable prices and special discounts for readers in the global South. One could argue that supporting these publishers is also in the interest of 'the tax payer'. Many academics also reply promptly and willingly to E-Mail requests for articles. In short, a lot of the research is already available in more or less accessible form. One can always do better, but as previous discussions about 'open access' have highlighted there are other challenges involved, e.g. peer-review, impact factors and academic careers.
Open access policies will help researchers and policymakers use and build upon existing knowledge to shape programs that will affect people’s lives.
That sounds overly optimistic to me. In many areas of both policy and research it's not the 'bad' for-profit publishers that impede human progress and development, but policy-makers who simply don't read all that stuff (or take conclusions seriously) and academics who have to juggle many different career demands from their university, funders, students etc.

Writing Space for Ethnography

When I consider what I need to do to get a tenure track job, two things come to mind immediately—I need to publish peer-reviewed articles and I need to have marketable research. I had coffee with a recent graduate last week. On the job market, her sole focus, she told me, is to get two articles under review this year. She’s figuring out which of her dissertation chapters could be turned into articles, and for what journals. For many heading into, thinking about, or already on the market, we must write to get a job. (I’m also thinking about Alex’s most recent comments on publishing here.) Choosing what to write about and how to write about it is critical. But it’s not just writing. It’s what projects to take on (would you sign on to collaborative research?) and the mode of dissemination your work takes (through film, open access journals, workshops, or blogs).
Great reflections (and surprisingly short for Savage Minds...) on the links between academic job markets and finding ethnographic writing spaces.

More than Guns, Germs, and Steel – Anthropology 2.5
However, as we will see below, Romney may have flubbed the details but nails the basic premise of Diamond’s work from Guns, Germs and Steel to Collapse: that the differential success of the world’s nations is due to the accidents of agriculture, except when societies “choose to fail.”
Good review of 'Guns, Germs, and Steel' and interesting link to Romney's recent comments on his first memorable trip abroad.

Open access versus subscription journals: a comparison of scientific impact
Our results indicate that OA journals indexed in Web of Science and/or Scopus are approaching the same scientific impact and quality as subscription journals, particularly in biomedicine and for journals funded by article processing charges.
Heavy use of equations impedes communication among biologists
Long, equation-dense papers tend to be more frequently cited by other theoretical papers, but this increase is outweighed by a sharp drop in citations from nontheoretical papers (35% fewer citations for each additional equation per page in the main text). In contrast, equations presented in an accompanying appendix do not lessen a paper’s impact. Our analysis suggests possible strategies for enhancing the presentation of mathematical models to facilitate progress in disciplines that rely on the tight integration of theoretical and empirical work.
Kant vs. Peer Review
Last not least: If Kant's works would have undergone today's peer-review rituals...


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