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Hello all,

This was definitely a good week for the blogging just so happens that two interesting themes emerged: First, Harvard scholar Carol Vance kicks off an interesting discussion on how students and researchers should engage with the world they have set out to change; her case is the Policy Task Force that has been convened to advice India in the aftermath of the recent gang rape and murder case, but most of her argument is also very relevant for most other 'development' topics. A post from the blog of the American Anthropological Association on science and advocacy and another on the challenges of academic promotion systems and community engagement open up a broader debate on how academics can and should engage with students, deal with their aspirations and at the same time commit to meaningful and participatory engagement with local communities...Second, there's quite a lot on 'communication' in this week's review, featuring a great article on the Gates Foundation's strategic media partnership, my own post on the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue debate and reflections on how and why academics can and should write better.
And, as always, there's more to discover!


New on aidnography
3 reasons why I didn’t blog on the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue
Resisting the urge to engage can be an equally valid option than engaging to resist.
At the end of the day, or at least this short non-post, we may think more on whether there are strategies to change perceptions on development (and a more just/equitable/participatory/diverse society) by sidelining mainstream media, their sound bites and simplified images.

Understanding development (book review)
Understanding Development is a good textbook to get intellectual debates around international development started with audiences who have little prior (academic) knowledge of some of the core themes. As an undergraduate textbook it avoids ideology and contested spaces, which also means that it is not a passionate eye-opener for students or anything close to a ‘political’ treatment, but is a good starting point for some of the intellectual groundwork. Paul manages to deliver a comprehensive introduction into development that does not want to depict the subject as a fancy, adventurous ‘industry’ for self-fulfillment or as a gloomy, cynical ‘does aid work?’ rhetorical question.

Love in the Time of Log Bases

The Love Boat reference is perfect! The amount of romantic drama varies by context—Kosovo had more romantic drama than, say, Pakistan—but in my observation it is always there. I guess on one hand you need to remember that Disastrous Passion was written as a romance novel of sorts, so the endless romantic drama is inherently part of the formula. On the other hand, the volume of readers who have written accusing me of lampooning their actual lives leads me to believe that art may have inadvertently imitated real life.
I think we’re a hilarious and sometimes painfully absurd industry. And yes, pointing all of that out in language specific to the humanitarian industry was very intentional.
Again, my main purpose was and is to entertain humanitarian workers. I wanted the end product to be something that would appeal to our own niche market, if you will. Something that aid workers, whether they’re in a team house in a disaster zone or a cubicle in Washington, D.C., would immediately recognize as uniquely for them.
It will be difficult to get the Love Boat theme out of my head today ;)...and, yes, I think being called 'the Captain Stubing of the aid industry' is probably a title *everybody* wants to aspire to...And if you really need more encouragement to read J.'s book, my review is still available!

Africa’s illiberal state-builders

Our recent working paper ‘Africa’s illiberal state-builders’, explores the deeper nature of these regimes, asking the tough questions about their political economy. Examining the self-proclaimed revolution and modernisation strategies does not imply either an endorsement or a particular optimism as to the effectiveness and durability of these projects. Their neo-developmentalist initiatives are bold designs underwritten by huge financial and political capital, yet it is by no means certain that this can sustainably move Ethiopia out of the low equilibrium trap it has been stuck in, banish the spectre of ethnic violence from Rwanda, or reverse the dynamics of extraversion that have characterised so much of Angolan and Sudanese history.
Let's return to some more serious stuff...interesting new paper on African statebuilding-I only discovered the QEH blog recently, but I think they are doing an excellent job sharing their research in a more accessible way!

Interview with Jérémie Labbé on the Future of Humanitarianism

The humanitarian system, or rather I should say the humanitarian “systems” plural, have growing ambitions to be on all fronts: on the front of complex emergencies and conflicts; on the front of sudden onset natural disasters like earthquakes or floods; and also on the front of situations in which the population finds themselves in chronic vulnerability, relapsing into a food crisis every second year like in the Sahel or Somalia. Somehow, this modern humanitarian system is evolving towards something of a global welfare system. I think that those growing ambitions are certainly legitimate; they intend to address the causes of the crisis, to make sure there is no relapse into those crises.
Interesting conversation on the contemporary humanitarian system and potential future trends.

What is wrong with this picture? Carole Vance

As a US feminist and teacher, I am concerned this enterprise sends a very unsound message to students: that the bounty of good intention and concern is sufficient to justify and enable a raft of US-generated projects, NGOs, and ‘help’, with much knowledge or collaboration. For the record, I am not endorsing xenophobia, scholarship restricted to one’s back yard, or forbidden areas of engagement. What needs thought is a better process.
Elite colleges in the US are filled with undergraduate students, particularly women, who want to ‘change the world’ and especially ‘save women’. A good thing, except for the fact that they tend to believe that their good intentions are sufficient; in-depth knowledge of history, language, politics, and culture is not necessary; US policies and invasions have no bearing on what they do or how they might be perceived; the women in need of saving are not to be found in the US but elsewhere; and there are no activists and scholars in every region with long histories of work on the topics of their concern. It is important for undergraduate education, particularly in gender studies, to puncture this bubble rather than inflate it further, if only to make more effective and collaborative work possible, as well as to permit some self-reflection.
Teaching US students to work transnationally is an uneasy and very challenging undertaking, at best. I don’t pretend to know the ‘right’ way, but we need to reflect on the models of intervention that we offer students.
I didn't want to file this under 'academia', because it seems much more relevant for 'development'-related discussions and the complexities of engaging transnationally. Balancing academic teaching with the students' eagerness to get out of the classroom (and very often the country/continent...) to gain experiences, explore the world and 'make a difference' is difficult - and quite frankly, often outside the technical or legal realm of universities. Carol Vance makes an excellent point that 'we' in academia need to set the example whenever we work as 'advisors', 'consultants' and with 'communities'. This is not going to be an easy discussion when the demands on 'employability', generating funding and engaging with the 'world outside the ivory tower' are increasing, but often without sufficient time to live up to the participatory ethics we would like to employ...see also the link on tenure and community engagement further down in the Academia section.

Want to work in International Development?

Right from the start, Prof Maia Green drove home the message that cultivating “know who” is as important as know-how, particularly when establishing yourself doing consultancy work (which she does alongside her research).
Whether you feel it’s unfair or not, there were several examples of gaining internships or work experience with major NGOs through chance conversations at conferences or volunteering in the right place at the right time.
A good piece from Manchester University's career services. In line with the previous post, I wish they would have added 'humility' as an essential skill, too...

Behind the scenes with the Gates Foundation’s ‘strategic media partners’

The news business is in a tailspin, coverage has shrunk and philanthropic funding of journalism is increasingly what keeps many news operations (like Humanosphere) up and running. But this shift from selling lingerie to rich do-gooders supporting the news likely deserves more public attention. What does it mean for the Gates Foundation to move from mere underwriting or media sponsorship to more active involvement as a strategic media partner?
Yet in some of its earlier grants to media, the Gates Foundation specifically said they wanted grant recipients to focus on ‘success stories.’ While well-intentioned, any media organizations who accepted those marching orders (and many did) arguably neglected some basic tenets of journalism. One tenet has been that we shouldn’t take money in return for doing a specific story. So should we be taking money for doing categories of stories? The lines are fuzzy ….
What I am fairly certain of is that as journalists and news organizations come to depend increasingly on philanthropies like the Gates Foundation for financial support, it is even more important than ever that we stay focused on our main job – arguably, pushing for critical analysis and accountability – and tread carefully when asked to strategically partner with even the most well-intentioned humanitarian in promoting a cause … or solution.
Tom Paulson shares some great insights from a recent meeting on Strategic Media Partnerships organized by the Gates Foundation in Seattle. What I'm taking away from this is that development-related journalism will continue to have a hard time in any media context. In a recent interview with Germany's Die Zeit, Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger was very frank that the newspaper and the foundation behind it will be running out of money soon as the Guardian is generating substantial losses both online and offline. In my opinion, the Guardian is probably one of the best news brands engaging with international development and if they are struggling, other are, too, and more discussion are likely to ensue what the role of philanthropists like Gates can be in the global media sphere.

Development: What's the Story and Should We Tell It?

The story the media frequently tells--aided and abetted by the development industry which needs to raise funds--is centred on disaster, deprivation and disease. This sells newspapers and helps charitable giving. So why try to change it? Because it doesn't reflect the reality. Fatigue and cynicism will set in. Trust will be broken. And most importantly, it is a misrepresentation.
So how to make development interesting to viewers in the 6-7pm television news slot, preferably the local news slots which have even higher ratings than the national news ones? Not easy. First, think like a regular viewer. Why should they be interested? Find some stories that penetrate the lives of busy people who have no professional interest in development. Second, write like a regular person. Don't use jargon. Third, develop a relationship with media professionals (not only those converted about development)--get to know how they think and what they need. Finally, tell the real story--authenticity will win out.
Localising global stories is not easy, but it surely can be done. We have to change the conversation on development before it is too late.
IDS Director Lawrence Haddad is also reflecting on some of the challenges around media representation of development and how 'localising news' could be one avenue to explore further.

Personal professional blogging – what I’ve learned
Let's wrap up the 'communication section' with Ian Thorpe's reflections on his blogging at the intersection of personal reflection and official UN blogging and it's really a great introduction to the topic with lots of practical tips!

Science, Advocacy and Anthropology

The more general point is that at the very core of our discipline are commitments to the best of science and the best of advocacy. Advocacy suggests at minimum an ethical position to try to protect and better the lives of the individuals we work with, in particular those who are without access to power. Science stands for prediction (based on current understanding), followed by systematic observation and analysis and then, usually, revised understanding. But there is something more: we recognize that science is a practice that is undertaken in a social context, and as such it can be limited by the social hierarchies of its time, creating burdens and benefits, winners and losers. To have this awareness is not ‘anti-science.’ Indeed, it offers the sort of tough love of science that all responsible scientists ought to share. And every time the debate about ‘science’ versus ‘advocacy’ re-emerges, we cannot but hope that our discipline’s lengthy track record of critically embracing science can show that the debate itself is based on false premises.
We’d love to put an end to the futility of the science versus advocacy version of “Whack a mole” so we can focus on quality anthropological work for the public good.
The American Anthropological Association is writing on science and advocacy-interesting, and I wonder how these reflections may be linked to broader questions about careers, tenure, reputation-building and the role of anthropology as part of the academic 'industry'...

Politólogos on the Run: Contrasting Paths to Internationalization of Southern Cone Political Scientists

Political scientists from the Southern Cone have enriched the discipline with pioneering work. Many of them went into exile for political reasons, and thus produced part of their work abroad. Although Latin American political science has professionalized since the 1980s, many scholars still emigrate for study and employment. Argentines most numerously seek academic careers abroad, while Brazil has many more domestic doctorates and returns home after doctoral studies abroad. Uruguayans emigrate in proportionally high numbers and tend to settle in Latin American countries, while the number of Chileans and Paraguayans abroad is minimal. These contrasting patterns are explained by reference to factors such as the availability of high-quality doctoral courses, financing for postgraduate studies, and the absorptive capacity of national academic markets. Paradoxically, the size and performance of the diasporas may increase rather than reduce the visibility and impact of national political science communities.
Great article (open access!) on 'brain drain' and brain gain in the diaspora of Latin American political scientists.

On writing well

In the end, it comes down to what a scholar is trying to achieve. If the goal is just narrow professional success -- getting tenure, earning a decent salary, etc. -- then bad writing isn't a huge handicap and may even confer some advantages. But if the goal is to have impact -- both within one's discipline and in the wider world -- then there's no substitute for clear and effective writing. The question is really pretty simple: do you want to communicate with others or not?
How to Become a Good Academic Writer
But what is the mark of a good writer, you might ask? A good writer is one who is actually read by his would-be readers. As I always tell my students: If I start thinking of other things I’d rather be doing midway through your essay and you lose my attention, you have failed as a writer.
To see this, pick up any copy of The New Yorker. Their writers write so well that they can get you to read 5,000 words on just about any topic in which you might have had zero prior interest. If you can manage to do this with your academic writing, your academic writings can only get published in better journals and by better presses. Just like no seminar audience will ever fault you for being too clear, no reviewer will ever fault you for writing too well.
Much of academic writing is 'bad' because of the professional rituals around it. The medium 'journal article' has become such a pervasive currency for reputation building and yet, it also comes with many traditions, technicalities and restrictions that stifle creativity. Because of the current assessment system, journal articles easily become an entry in a huge, anonymous database rather than a read and valued piece of writing.

Is the focus on tenure and promotion a red herring?

The rhetoric about deep community engagement asserts that power must be shared in campus-community relationships. Community partners should participate as equals and their knowledge must be valued. But when community people learn that faculty champions of community engagement are focused on ensuring that professors get lifelong job security, higher salaries and more prestige, would it be a surprise that the community might wonder whether academics understand what is happening in the “real world” and whether the university’s commitment to solving societal problems is authentic?
The focus on tenure and promotion not only risks disillusioning and alienating the very people on whom the success of community engagement depends, it fails to address the real reasons why more faculty have not adopted activities like Community Service Learning or Community-Based Research. This effort also spends limited resources on a tactic that has so far not resulted in significant change in academic culture or structures.
I think this wraps up this week's most prominent 'theme' on how academia, 'local communities' and students can cooperate in a meaningful way; it is still a long and difficult way, but I think international development teaching and research really need to engage very proactively in them to remain relevant as academic disciplines with a strong focus on participatory engagement for social change with diverse communities around the globe!


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