Links & Contents I Liked 56

Hello all!

As the year is coming to its end, a special period of reflection for many of us seems to be setting in over the final stretch of 'the holidays'.
So I started combing through my every-increasing list of interesting and noteworthy links and decided to compile a slightly more special link review before the regular one will resume on Thursday. My aim is to share new links, but being selective in as much as I think that many of these issues have been part of bigger issues and/or are likely to 'stick around' in forthcoming debates in 2013.

his review features thoughts on participation, the value of global summits, politics in the 'post-2015' age, the future of philanthropy and Afghanistan, higher education funding, abolishing academic tenure as well as book recommendations.

Looking forward to a share-ful and networked new year!

New on aidnography
My development blogging review 2012

Participation for development: a good time to be alive

The 1990s were a time when people and participatory approaches were being mainstreamed; in the 2000s the pendulum swung back towards things and preset planning and continues to swing in that direction.
So why is this a good time to be alive as a development professional? The fourth trend – the quiet revolution of proliferating Participatory Methods (PMs) – is one reason. We now have an extraordinary variety of PMs. The named brands of the 1990s – PRA, Appreciative Inquiry, Reflect and many others – survive but increasingly now practitioners adapt and improvise their own ways of doing things to meet their particular contexts and needs. ICTs, most notably mobile phones, but also Geographic Information Systems (GIS) and other technologies, have added to the ever richer range of participatory methods that can be combined with others.
On the one hand, it is difficult to disagree with Robert Chambers' optimism and enthusiasm. And he is right that participatory methodologies have become more widespread. But on the other hand the big challenge I see for the future is that you as a big, hardly accountable aid organization still get away with almost everything - from bad fundraising practices, to debates void of complexities, unaccountable governance structures and ritualistic policy processes that consist of conferences, high-level meetings and the odd 'declaration'. And much of organized civil society, namely NGOs, have become firmly embedded in this system. Also, as the current 'impact' discussion highlights, there is a powerful 'new dawn' of ever-more sophisticated numbers on the horizon that is gaining momentum in evaluations, RCTs and complex statistical models that are far from participatory outside the computer labs of mostly elite Western institutions...

Afghanistan for Rent – A Decade of Missed Opportunities

As a result, Afghanistan today is hardly any closer to a sustainable peace. The future promises to be even bleaker. Well-connected Afghans, warlords, the Taliban and other insurgents jostle for power, and are positioning themselves to benefit from the country’s impressive natural resources. Foreign companies from China, India, the United States and Europe have targeted mineral resources including copper, iron, tungsten, gold and even the rare earth minerals, vital for computer chips. When the majority of NATO forces pull out in 2014, ordinary Afghans will hardly be the ones to benefit. Bitter ethnic and religious strife is emerging as a catalyst for an even more ruthless civil war. After seven years working with the International Committee of the Red Cross, Reto Stocker, who was the ICRC’s chief delegate in Kabul until October 2012, warned: “Life for ordinary Afghans has taken a turn for the worse.”
For many obvious reasons, Afghanistan will be on the 'watch list' of developments to watch next year. Long-term analysts Peter Jouvenal and Edward Girardet provide a detailed background to historical developments, the current stalemates and a way to move forward that would include a Switzerland-backed transparent negotiation process.

Africa: Books New & Notable

This annual books issue contains 22 books that have come to my attention that seemed to me to be of particular interest. It's hardly a systematic selection, and I've only read a couple of them so far. But they cover a wide range of topics, and I think most AfricaFocus readers will find at least of a few of them well worth their time.
An excellent list with great recommendations!

Favorite books of 2012

When I enrolled in graduate school this fall, I vowed to only add books to my Goodreads shelf if they were books I would have chosen while browsing through a bookstore. It seemed unfair to add every book on every syllabus to my "Books I Read in 2012" shelf. The collage that emerges is one that feels true to life: collections of essays, memoirs, reflections on photography, travelogues, love, conflict theory, social justice, feminist literature, more essays. Here are some favorites among them.
I love people who love books! Roxanne Krystalli's list is a great one to share and enjoy!

Merry/Happy Christmas

It’s a Christmas miracle: Your sneak preview of the [DRAFT] first chapter of the sequel to Disastrous Passion.
Will Mary-Anne and Jean-Philippe’s love survive the rigors of itinerant aid worker life? Will the refugees in Dolo Ado get their NFIs? What will the title be? Find out the answers to these and many, many more pressing questions, probably some time in February 2013.
Another volume of 'Disastrous Passion' will be launched in early 2013! Excellent news. If you have not picked up the first novel (I can't imagine any legitimate excuse for that...), check out my review from earlier this year.

Do global summits help to tackle poverty?

But there's far more to summits than the formal communique. Sometimes the text can obscure the real story and the long-term significance of the meetings. There are three other very good reasons why summits matter.
Third, and probably most important, the voice of civil society is vital at global events because it enables us to confront the stories our leaders want to tell their public, and to tell home truths about the progress made and the action needed. Civil society mobilisation and media work can do much to shift the terms of debates on, for example, the true causes of global hunger and the inadequacy of debt relief.
I found Stephen Hale's praise for global summits rather naive and full of an enthusiasm for global processes that sounded so mid- to late 1990s... Global summits and conferences have become so ritualized that they are mostly mere performances, a kind of policy-porn that pretends to depict meaningful relationships rather than just handshake and signature signing money shots...

Curtain Down and Nothing Settled. Global Sustainability Governance after the ‘Rio+20’ Earth Summit

The United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, held in June 2012 in Rio de Janeiro, was probably the largest event in a long series of mega-summits on environmental protection and sustainable development. Roughly 44000 participants descended on Rio de Janeiro to take part in ten days of preparatory committee meetings, informal consultations, side events, and the actual conference. Yet despite this unprecedented high attendance by participants from governments and civil society, the outcome of the conference is less than what many had hoped for.
From the working paper (page 18):
Yet the question remains whether such discursive developments cannot be achieved by other means. There are two possible alternatives to global mega-summits. One option is more specialized conferences that focus on one particular issue not covered by any existing negotiation (such as the climate or biodiversity convention). Examples could be global high-level summits on sustainability education, on the provision of food for 9 billion people, or on water. Focused summits could ensure a more concrete, and hence more sustainable, outcome. A second option is to grant sustainability more prominence in the United Nations General Assembly. The General Assembly still marshals the attendance and attention of most heads of state and government.
Sustainability summits could thus well be integrated into the normal procedures of the General Assembly. Such a regular meeting could provide the trigger and momentum for advancement in discursive developments, as can be observed from summits in the past, without the high political, financial and environmental costs incurred with megaevents such as Rio+20.
I am not convinced that the solution to mega events is more attention on slightly smaller conferences or the UN system. What Frank Biermann and Stephen Hale seem to largely ignore is the fact that the global elite is not really interested in sustainable 'solutions' to global problems and will wait until there is '100% scientific certainty' around issues that can never be achieved. so global summits will be with us for a while and they will continue to produce little tangible, enforceable and accountable results.

How should research be shaping development beyond 2015?

With the post-2015 development framework debate intensifying in this short film we asked a range of IDS experts how they think knowledge and research should be shaping the post 2015 development agenda.
Respondents include Melissa Leach, Duncan Green and Richard Manning who reflect on the importance of science and technology, politics, gender, and climate change.
This short 8-minute video from IDS is interesting for a few reasons: First, probably because of the shortness of the answers some ideas come across as a bit of policy 'bubble speak' along the lines of 'more of the same'. Second, even as Duncan Green calls for more 'real-time research', Richard Manning rightly points out that the MDGs were 'Made in New York' and Alyson Brody demands more influence from 'real people', we all kind of know that this is unlikely to happen and there is very little a research Think Tank like IDS can do to ensure that the post-2015 framework will be more meaningful than just 'MDG 2.0'-but these debates will obviously continue in 2013 and beyond...

Philanthropy: You’re doing it wrong

The logic, after all, is simple and clear. The value to the charity of my labor is $x; so if I just donate $y>$x then the charity is better off. What’s more, the value of my time is $z>$x, so in a way I’m destroying value by volunteering.
The problem with this logic is that it ignores the enormous value to the volunteer of volunteering. Volunteering is the best and most effective way of piercing the bubble that all wealthy people live in every minute of every day, and of giving such people a gut-level understanding of the problems the charity is trying to solve.
On that level, volunteering is much more effective than some fact-finding poverty tour, where a bunch of rich donors or potential donors jet in to observe the Great Work Being Done in some far-flung country. The logistics involved in organizing such tours are substantial, and the good they do is minuscule. So if you want to see for yourself what an organization is doing, find out by doing that work yourself.
But volunteering is also worthwhile for its own sake. It gives an extremely valuable perspective on life, one that’s hard to find elsewhere. And it can be incredibly rewarding, in ways both expected and unexpected. Find time to do it: almost nobody ends up regretting the time they spent volunteering.
Really great essay by Felix Salomon on easy opt outs of meaningful philanthropy. How we are envisioning the future of giving and cooperation is definitely one of the topics this humble blogger will continue to pay attention to in the new year!

Universities, “user pays”, and the death of personal responsibility

Considering that personnel costs make up more than 80% of most institution’s budgets, when you cut the state appropriation to a public university by, oh, about half (such as has happened at the University of South Carolina) the result is inevitable: raising tuition to cover the missing revenue, and hiring fewer faculty to replace retirees…so students end up paying more while getting less and less face-to-face with faculty. This is not because public universities are “fat and lazy.” It’s because higher education, like so many other things in our society, has become a site of “user pays” mentality. Instead of seeing higher education as a societal good (educated workforce that brings/creates better jobs, more informed citizenry, more vibrant arts, etc.), we now see it as something that only the student should pay for.
Ed Carr's timely reminder that issues around financing (public) universities, tuition cost and student debt have been a big topic this year and will likely stick around for another one...

Why I Have a Big Problem With Academic Tenure

Tenure is not viewed well by business leaders, taxpayers, and legislators as it leaves little disciplinary or removal remedy for ineffective teaching or research. A recent Wall Street Journal online survey shows responders oppose tenure 3 to 1. Subpar faculty are often used minimally in the classroom in an effort to reduce student complaints. Many things can and need to be done to increase the quality and reduce the cost of education. Addressing tenure in a constructive way is one of the major ones.
If 'business leaders, taxpayers, and legislators' as well as respondents to a WSJ online survey oppose something the common sense rule of thumb is that it is probably worth saving...But there is obviously more to James Wetherbe's 'problems with tenure'. The problem with Wetherbe's piece is that he implicitly sees a future of positive competition and weeding out of 'lazy academics' when in reality he should know better that this is unlikely to happen. Many institutions will quickly turn into systems of 'permanent tenure review' where professors will spend even more time than many already do today to satisfy some form of evaluation matrix. In that sense, tenure may be far from perfect, but without it the hyper-flexibilisation of academic work will only increase. As basically every other sector where 'competition' has been introduced in the past 30 years shows, standards will be driven down. Not more 'better', motivated, engaged professors, but the complete adjunctisation of the system is likely to be the result.
I do agree with James Wetherbe that tenure has little to do with 'free speech' today, especially with the historical religious connotation he mentions. But what tenure ensures in many cases (especially in the social sciences and humanities where 'industry relations' are not common) is the possibility to be at least some form of 'public intellectual' - even if that means in some cases that professors are not great teachers or publish a lot. In my view, the abolishing tenure debate is a thinly disguised attack on 'non-productive' disciplines and the remainders of public intellctualism that still exists!

The Folly of Scientism

The fundamental problem raised by the identification of “good science” with “institutional science” is that it assumes the practitioners of science to be inherently exempt, at least in the long term, from the corrupting influences that affect all other human practices and institutions. Ladyman, Ross, and Spurrett explicitly state that most human institutions, including “governments, political parties, churches, firms, NGOs, ethnic associations, families ... are hardly epistemically reliable at all.” However, “our grounding assumption is that the specific institutional processes of science have inductively established peculiar epistemic reliability.” This assumption is at best na├»ve and at worst dangerous. If any human institution is held to be exempt from the petty, self-serving, and corrupting motivations that plague us all, the result will almost inevitably be the creation of a priestly caste demanding adulation and required to answer to no one but itself.
If you really have some spare time on your hand treat yourself to this excellent essay that engages with questions around the power of (natural) science:
Both in the work of professional philosophers and in popular writings by natural scientists, it is frequently claimed that natural science does or soon will constitute the entire domain of truth. And this attitude is becoming more widespread among scientists themselves. All too many of my contemporaries in science have accepted without question the hype that suggests that an advanced degree in some area of natural science confers the ability to pontificate wisely on any and all subjects.
I think this essay is important to understand why so much of development research and policies focuses on measuring, counting and 'proving'-which brings us back to the very beginning and Robert Chambers' reflections on participatory approaches...


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Dear white middle class British women: Please don't send used bras (or anything, really) to Africa