Links & Contents I Liked 63

Hello all,

This week, the highlights of the link review are distributed evenly across the three sections: In Development there are interesting debates on 'Generation Z' & HR, the ethics and value of 'big data'
and why policy-makers like to embrace 'uncertainty' unless they actually have to make a decision...This month's Himal Mag features an article from Sri Lanka that reminds peace researchers that violence often affects 'post-conflict' societies in many different ways than the actual war; in Anthropology there's a very interesting essay on Napoleon Chagnon and the long-lasting debates around his research on the Yanomami tribe and how it has kept the discipline busy over many years; and in Academia the Thesis Whisperer asks the provocative question whether 'academic assholes' are calling the shots and whether 'circles of niceness' can be a counterweight.


New on aidnography
WhyDev guest post: The state of HR in development work 2013
Last week, Brendan Rigby and I published a post together over at, reflecting on People in Aid’s annual report ‘The State of HR in International Humanitarian and Development Organisations’. I am highlighting a few key excerpts below, especially on making sense of ‘Generation Z’ and that new HR challenges in the aid industry need to be discussed further in the context of academic institutions and development studies courses.

(see also this week's link to danah boyd's talk on How Tech Startups and Teen Practices Challenge Organizational Boundaries, filed under 'Anthropology'!)

Humanitarian Reporting Competition!! VOTE NOW

Global Citizen and DAWNS are community powered organizations committed to telling stories about issues related to global poverty. The 12 finalists you see below each have a compelling humanitarian story to tell. Click on their names to read, learn about and support their independent projects. You can vote for your favorite to win by clicking on their page and then clicking on the petition button on the bottom of the page.
It sounds a bit like a phrase from the Olympic games, but these really are 12 great projects that deserve attention and support!

Nominate Your Favorites in the ABBAs 2012

The third edition of the Aid Blogger's Best Awards (aka the ABBAs) are back and I need your inputs. For those new to this, the ABBAs are the premier aid blogging awards. The name alone should tell you how serious this is.

The ultimate goal is to raise the level of the aid blogging community. In particular, the hope is that this will give rise to lesser known blogs that deserve more attention.

Nominate your favorites below. Last year, the finalists came out quite skewed towards Western white men. I would love to avoid that problem again.
Talking about voting: The ABBAs are back in town/online!

Be open about any uncertainty in policy advice, scientists told

Scientists should avoid feeling that they must present a consensus on advice they give policymakers, and recognise the importance of being open about scientific uncertainty.
Miles Parker, former deputy chief scientific adviser at the UK's Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, said policymakers needed to be told about any uncertainties in the scientific advice they receive.

For government policies to work, they needed to be trusted and so had to be based on the best possible evidence, but also based on awareness of the potential limitations of such evidence, he said.

"We need honesty about the gaps in knowledge," said Parker. "We need science advisers who can recognise uncertainty when they see it."

Lidia Brito, director of science policy at UNESCO (the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization), said it was important for the scientific community to anticipate policymakers' needs, as it had done successfully in the run-up to last year's UN Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20), held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
Quite frankly, the SciDev summary seems rather 'academic' (not in the best meaning of the word, I'm afraid...) to me: In many areas, development included, government policy-makers are happy to use 'uncertainty' as a political excuse to do very little or to leave the policy-space open for opposing lobbyists who will go after any 'uncertainty' with the full force of their communication tools. I do agree with Melissa Leach that 'ritualistic processes' often take over meaningful debates, but again, many policy makers *hate* the idea that a scientific adviser will respond with 'it's complicated...' rather than with a 'solution'. For me the bigger question is whether politicians are willing to act and take risks even if there is uncertainty.

What does ‘systemic’ actually mean?

We make situations manageable by setting boundaries. Thinking systemically has to include a process of making this boundary setting conscious. A boundary determines what is deemed relevant and irrelevant, what is important and what is unimportant, what is worthwhile and what is not, who gets what kind of resources for what purpose and whose interests are marginalized, who benefits and who is disadvantaged. Boundaries are sites where values get played out and disagreements are highlighted. Power issues are often wrapped up in boundaries. Boundaries also determine how we approach a situation, what we expect from it, and what methods we might use to manage it.

So, in essence, if we want to call something ‘systemic’, we have to think about whether it covers the three aspects of interrelationships, perspectives, and boundaries to a satisfactory degree, and in an explicitly way.
Marcus Jenal's post is an important dissection of the 'systemic thinking' buzzword. Linked to the previous post you can ask yourself whether most organizations in development are capable and willing to engage in such uncertain exercises without boundaries...

Setting out a framework for the post-2015 framework…

The vision in this context was defined as the ultimate actual change that people aspire to. It is not – what a post-2015 framework should deliver, but the major systemic changes that the framework needs to be a part of. It was clear from this discussion that despite there being diverse normative starting points within the group (environmental sustainability, social justice, equity), there was both an implicit and an explicit agreement that people were to be at the centre of this vision. We share a vision of the world where every person is safe from harm, enjoys human rights, experiences equality and has the capabilities to experience the good life. And in turn, a people-centered focus would drive the way the world works together as a system – fostering cooperation and mutualism within the limits of our planet’s resources.
The Participate and Beyond 2015 initiatives are interesting examples of 'systemic thinking' in the context of the post-2015 development goals. But why am I still skeptical that an imitative by CSOs will really influence the high-level deliberation process other than providing some cozy language on inclusive development post 2015?!

UK aid programme must be monitored more closely, warn MPs

The Department for International Development must work harder to ensure that the £3.6bn provided by Britain to multilateral organisations provides value for the taxpayer, the Commons public accounts committee has warned . Margaret Hodge, the Labour chair of the committee, raises concerns that a multilateral aid review has led to the withdrawal of a mere £8m after nine organisations were rated as poor.
"But we are determined to get even better value for money and more effective aid from multilateral agencies. We want to see clear evidence of reform in this year's updated multilateral aid review before committing any new funds. If it is not good enough we are prepared to stop funding."
Meanwhile in London...when it comes to the nuts and bolts of day-to-day development policy-making, most of the participatory, inclusive and 'systemic' language that may suggest uncertainty and complexity quickly evaporates into 'aid programs must be monitored more closely'...sigh...

Conditioned by war

In Sri Lanka, post-war trauma and a militarised peace have created a violent society, with children the worst affected.
“These murders show that Sri Lankan society is sick,” Dr Mendis has said. “The Police may not be able to cure this by themselves. It is within the responsibility of the government.” But does the current government want a psychological demilitarisation of Lankan society? Does Lankan society realise the insalubrious state of its collective psyche? Do individual Lankans understand that their personal safety is inextricably linked to their capacity to reject the violent mores spawned by the Fourth Eelam War?
The legacy of violent conflicts persists in society even, and sometimes even more, when the official conflict/war is declared 'over'. Unfortunately, this is nothing new for peace researchers, but worth pointing out when the liberal peace machinery of aid money, governance strengthening and building markets arrives...

The ethics of participatory digital mapping with communities

Some of the key ethical points raised at the Salon related to the benefits of open data vs privacy and the desire to do no harm. Others were about whether digital maps are an effective tool in participatory community development or if they are mostly an innovation showcase for donors or a backdrop for individual egos to assert their ‘personal coolness’. The absence of research and ethics protocols for some of these new kinds of data gathering and sharing was also an issue of concern for participants.
Linda Raftree's post is a gret summary and entry point for further discussions on ethics and digital development projects.
Her headlines give you a great sense about the topics of discussion:
Showcasing innovation; Can you do justice to both process and product?; The ethics of wasting people’s time; Data extraction; The (missing) link between data and action; Intermediaries are important; What does informed consent actually mean in today’s world?; Not having community data also has ethical implications; The problem with donors…

Big Data Is Not Going To Lead To Big Understanding

So, consider it this way: Big data is unlikely to increase the certainty about what is going to happen in anything but the nearest of near futures — in weather, politics, and buying behavior — because uncertainty and volatility grow along with the interconnectedness of human activities and institutions across the world. Big data is itself a factor in the increased interconnectedness of the world: as companies, governments, and individuals take advantage of insights gleaned from big data, we are making the world more tightly interconnected, and as a result (perhaps unintuitively) less predictable.
We’re more fooled by noise than ever before, and it’s because of a nasty phenomenon called “big data.” With big data, researchers have brought cherry-picking to an industrial level.
Modernity provides too many variables, but too little data per variable. So the spurious relationships grow much, much faster than real information.
In other words: Big data may mean more information, but it also means more false information.
How the Internet Reinforces Inequality in the Real World
Graham often circles back to that example when he’s thinking about what it might mean for a place to not be represented, either in peer-produced information on the Internet or in the algorithms that sort it all. This happens at the national level, with inequalities emerging between countries and regions. But it also happens within cities at the scale of neighborhoods. Zook has conducted other research illustrating the disparities in information layered over racially segregated parts of New Orleans. And we can see similar patterns – sometimes deceptive ones – emerged in the tweets from New York City during Hurricane Sandy. During the storm, the densest quantity of Sandy-related tweets emerged from Manhattan, relative to other boroughs of the city. But that doesn’t mean that Manhattan suffered the worst damage; rather, that it often produces the largest quantity of data. It’s easy to conflate the two, though, which is why maps often equate with power.
So what’s the solution to all of this? How do we avert a world where beneficial new digital tools perversely wind up reinforcing real-world inequality, obscuring some communities while portraying others in depth? Graham doesn’t know exactly what this might look like, but it might help, he suggests, if the platforms that we use to access information did a better job of telling us what they don’t know. Think, for instance, of all the Wikipedia pages begging for more information. What if the whole geoweb were populated with empty placeholders that announced "something belongs here about the Rwandan tourism industry, but no one has filled it in yet"?
Although the last two links are not directly development-related they are asking important questions about big data and the importance of engaging with the 'noise' and the people and communities that are not represented in your data set or on your map. Bottom line (as usual): You will need more 'data anthropologists' who have the skills to go beyond the 'big data' and look at the 'small' or 'missing' data.

Are Social Entrepreneurs Failing to Fail?

In the world of venture capital, tech gadgetry and science, openly sharing failure is standard operating procedure. Everyone channels Thomas Edison who said about himself, "I failed my way to success."
In the world of social change, it's the opposite. The received wisdom (the buzz) is all about the critical role failure plays in social sector innovation, but -- hypocritically - failing and flunking social entrepreneurs are leadership lepers.
Organizational failures are mostly unwelcome at social change conferences -- let alone given marquee billing. "FAILFaires" are mostly ghettoized workshops. Where are the travel expenses for losers to share what they did wrong?
Social sector transparency is extolled, expected and even applauded, but rarely rewarded. Few funders will fund failure the second time.
Coarsening our collective candor, the social sector is replete with competitions which too-often reward best presentation -- not necessarily best idea or best enterprise. The erotic fiction writer Anais Nin wrote, "We don't see things as they are, we see things as we are." And, none of us likes to see ourselves in the failure of others.
Jonathan Lewis asks the right questions on the sexiness of the 'failure' discourse and whether it really delivers what it promises (my cynical rule of thumb is usually that of the World Bank likes something you need to be extra suspicious ;)!)

How Napoleon Chagnon Became Our Most Controversial Anthropologist

In turning the Yanomami into the world’s most famous “unacculturated” tribe, Chagnon also turned the romantic image of the “noble savage” on its head. Far from living in harmony with one another, the tribe engaged in frequent chest-pounding duels and deadly inter-village raids; violence or threat of violence dominated social life. The Yanomami, he declared, “live in a state of chronic warfare.”

The phrase may be the most contested in the history of anthropology. Colleagues accused him of exaggerating the violence, even of imagining it — a projection of his aggressive personality. As Chagnon’s fame grew — his book became a standard text in college courses — so did the complaints. No detail was too small to be debated, including the transliteration of the tribe’s name. As one commentator wrote: “Those who refer to the group as Yanomamö generally tend to be supporters of Chagnon’s work.
Advance word of the book was enough to plunge anthropology into a global public-relations crisis — a typical headline: “Scientist ‘Killed Amazon Indians to Test Race Theory.’ ” But even today, after thousands of pages of discussion, including a lengthy investigation by the American Anthropological Association (A.A.A.), there is no consensus about what, if anything, Chagnon did wrong. Shut out of the jungle because he was so polarizing, he took early retirement from the University of California at Santa Barbara in 1999. “The whole point of my existence as a human being and as an anthropologist was to do more and more research before this primitive world disappeared,” he told me bitterly. He spent much of the past decade working on a memoir instead, “Noble Savages: My Life Among Two Dangerous Tribes — the Yanomamö and the Anthropologists,” which comes out this month.
The interviewer answered in the affirmative, and Kopenawa went on: “So, Chagnon made money using the name of the Yanomami. He sold his book. Lizot, too. I want to know how much they are making each month. How much does any anthropologist earn? And how much is Patrick making? Patrick must be happy. This is a lot of money. They may be fighting, but they are happy. They fight, and this makes them happy.”
A very long and interesting essay that says a lot about the academic discipline of anthropology...

Networked Norms: How Tech Startups and Teen Practices Challenge Organizational Boundaries

Many of you are helping people develop hard skills that they need to do a variety of jobs. This is utterly critical. Without those hard skills, people can't get very far in a knowledge economy that is dependent on highly educated and skilled workers. But if you want to prepare people not just for the next job, but for the one after that, you need to help them think through the relationships they have and what they learn from the people around them. Understanding people isn't just an HR skill for managers. For better or worse, in a risk economy with an increasingly interdependent global workforce, these are skills that everyday people need. Building lifelong learners means instilling curiosity, but it also means helping people recognize how important it is that they continuously surround themselves by people that they can learn from. And what this means is that people need to learn how to connect to new people on a regular basis.

Of course, much of today's organizational culture is at odds with this. There are still plenty of companies out there who focus on long term retention, even as their employee's knowledge base and networks grow stale. And there are plenty of employees who strive to be lifers, believing in a 1950s image of devotion to a company as the pathway to success. I believe that these models are what prompt large companies to grow stale and wither. Outside of the tech industry, we have not yet seen a radical disruption to organizational culture, but I would bet that it's coming for the simple reason that many knowledge industries are struggling tremendously.
And so my question to you is simple: are you preparing learners for the organizational ecosystem of today? Or are you helping them develop networks so that they're prepared for the organizational shifts that are coming?
danah boyd delivers an interesting talk that aligns with my first posting on the state of HR in development and how the 'Generation Z' may fit into existing organizational cultures.

Academic assholes and the circle of niceness

As we talked we started to wonder: do you get further in academia if you are a jerk?

Jerks step on, belittle or otherwise sabotage their academic colleagues. The most common method is by criticising their opinions in public, at a conference or in a seminar and by trash talking them in private. Some ambitious sorts work to cut out others, whom they see as competitors, from opportunity. I’m sure it’s not just academics on the payroll who have to deal with this kind of jerky academic behaviour. On the feedback page to the Whisperer I occasionally get comments from PhD students who have found themselves on the receiving end — especially during seminar presentations.

I assume people act like jerks because they think they have something to gain, and maybe they are right.
Cleverness is a form of currency in academia; or ‘cultural capital’ if you like. If other academics think you are clever they will listen to you more; you will be invited to speak at other institutions, to sit on panels and join important committees and boards. Appearing clever is a route to power and promotion. If performing like an asshole in a public forum creates the perverse impression that you are more clever than others who do not, there is a clear incentive to behave this way.
I have quality research publications and a good public profile for my scholarly work, yet I found it hard to get advancement in my previous institution. I wonder now if this is because I am too nice and, as a consequence, people tended to underestimate my intelligence. I think it’s no coincidence that my career has only taken off with this blog. The blog is a safe space for me to show off display my knowledge and expertise without having to get into a pissing match.

The Thesis Whisperer reflects on 'academic assholes' and suggests that creating 'circles of niceness' may offer some counter power. I am not so sure. In today's academic job market, 'circles of niceness' sound a bit like 'interdisciplinary research' or 'reflective methodologies' to me: People like it in theory, but then the mono-disciplinary 'academic asshole' walks in and presents a fancy data set and your 'nice' ideas about 'niceness' in research are likely to go quickly out the window...

Suggestions for reading

Centre for the Study of Professions was formally opened in 1999 in order to stimulate research and critical reflection within the study of professions.

The study of professions includes several areas of research, such as:
professional practice, its autonomy, social organisation, and governance
the qualification of professionals, work motivation, and professional careers
the social and historical role of professions

CSP develops the study of professions as a multidisciplinary field of research emphasising comparative approaches. The goal of CSP is to become a leading research facility within the study of professions in the Nordic countries.
The Centre for the Study of Professions in Norway has an absolutely fantastic list of resources on a multitude of research on 'professions' that would even be more fantastic if was curated a bit more...


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