Links & Contents I Liked 163

Hi all,

Let’s start with this week’s highlights for a change:
We have a great piece on UNDP’s social media work, a great essay on how ‘Humans of New York’ commodifies storytelling and great reflections on how the anthropological flagship-blog ‘Savage Minds’ hasn’t changed the discipline (yet...); this week’s WTF goes to a report on ‘Spirit of America’ a private military company that looks like an NGO and creates ‘embedded venture capitalists’ in uniform…

And there’s more: Lessons not learned from Ebola; merging aid organizations for efficiency; Australian aid colonialism; are there really ‘infrastructure gaps’? Graduates leave Africa & the Rusty Radiator Award is around the corner.

New publications on the crisis of household surveys and R2P case studies and finally a call for data anthropologists; MOOCs as university transformation engines and the fading credibility of the academic journal impact factor.


New from aidnography

The answer to academic publishing challenges is not always open access

As I wrote before, academics tend to overestimate the significance of journal articles in the mediatized landscape of sharing knowledge, scientific progress and engaging with communities outside academia
In addition to better and affordable open access options we need to challenge ourselves, disciplines and funders more on finding alternative valid and validated outputs in addition to a 100 Dollar edited book or a journal article hidden behind a paywall. Just turning the book into a 300-page pdf file and the journal article into an unformatted document on your website will not do the trick-or cure cancer...
The answer to the question about the future of publishing is more complicated than shouting ‘open access! and starting new journals!
Development news
Ebola: Lessons not learned

A robust WHO? Can you imagine the WHO ordering the US or UK governments to end counterproductive measures such as quarantining returned Ebola health workers or banning airline flights to stricken countries? It will never happen.
Here is the true lesson to be learned: at a time of public fear and insecurity, it would be political suicide for any government to allow such external interference. The problem isn’t the institution, it only looks like it is; the problem is the governments that comprise it. That is not to say that WHO cannot and should not be improved. It is to say that the solution proposed cannot address the fundamental problem.
Marc DuBois on how 'the international system' never really learns from an emergency; I agree that blaming weak global governance on the UN system is convenient and very often misses the point about global power dynamics.

How trade deals like TPP fail the global poor

So we all agree that governance should be good and more people should live healthy and productive lives. Good work. This is all preamble to the only actual policy included in the chapter: the creation of a "Committee on Development" composed of representatives from each party, which will meet and discuss trade and development. The committee has no explicit power or instructions to do anything besides "facilitate the exchange of information," "discuss any proposals for future joint development activities," and so forth.
Then, after the committee is created, the chapter notes that nothing in it is binding if it clashes with the rest of the deal, and in any case, you can't use dispute settlement processing to enforce it either. The kicker of the chapter exists mainly to tell you the chapter doesn't matter at all
Dylan Matthews reminds us that global trade agreements like TPP are unlikely to benefit development processes-and why should they ?!

Does merging improve aid efficiency?

To date, however, there is little evidence to suggest that the merger of CIDA and DFAIT meaningfully changed the administrative efficiency of Canada’s aid program. From 2012 to 2014, Canada’s administrative costs increased from 4.9% to 5.6% as a proportion of the ODA budget. In large part, this increase was due to a reduction in the size of Canada’s ODA budget, which shrank from $5.5 billion to $4.4 billion over the same period
Secondly, in the cases discussed, differences in the administrative efficiency of the three autonomous donor agencies suggests that efficiency may be more closely linked to donor-specific factors than to their choice in model. In other words, donors may be more or less administratively efficient with any given model, as long as it meets and is suited to their individual contexts and constraints
Rachael Calleja on the complex cases of merging aid agencies with other government departments. As with a lot of 'evidence-based' research, there is a fundamentally political question at the heart of the problem that leaves room for interpretations either way-maybe the new Trudeau government will go back to an independent CIDA?!

We Took Part In An Australian Aid Program. It Was More About Helping Your Country Than Ours

Unfortunately for us, the purpose of the role-play was intended to encourage us to consider how much money we could make in the short-term if we conceded and allowed these developments to take place. We were not able to give the response that came naturally to us. Our desire to protect our land and culture is belittled as uneducated or misinformed which is hard to swallow when Australia and Australian companies are set to directly benefit should we follow their advice.
In Vanuatu, we already have the evidence of what happens when people are roped into the allure of money by foreigners.
The Australian Government thinks that policies which preference economic growth over social, cultural, and environmental protection will be the silver bullet solution for development and poverty. There is no evidence to support this position. Yet under the guise of this, they are presenting the problem as the solution.
Participants in an Australian DFAT-sponsored course are disappointed that traditional market-driven approaches to 'development' dominate the contemporary development agenda.

The Quiet Americans

Kitting out a Nigerien army unit is not what most humanitarians would consider the best response to Boko Haram. But for the NGO Spirit of America, it is precisely the sort of muscular aid – along with more traditional wealth-generating development projects – that’s needed to tackle the militants.
Hake’s narrative is that his NGO links well-meaning US troops in global hotspots with the generosity of the American people. Field representatives, all ex-servicemen, work with the soldiers as “embedded venture capitalists”. Their job it to understand the humanitarian problems the soldiers are trying to solve, with the internet then used “to crowdsource whatever capital, knowhow and material is needed,” says Hake.
#1 So this is a private military company disguised as NGO - what could *possibly* go wrong with this approach?!
#2 Never, I repeat: never let 'internet gurus' drive development or humanitarian operations: they might think this is a movie
#3 Retired US army generals make poor humanitarians; let them run charities to combat veterans' health and mental well-being challenges instead!

There are no trillion dollar infrastructure gaps

Instead of working towards filling theoretical infrastructure gaps, governments in developing countries should focus on improving actual public spending. In many countries, capital budgets are actually chronically underspent. On the other hand infrastructure projects often go over budget, past deadlines, and are delivered in poor quality.
The causes of poor investment performance are complex and not always well understood. They stem from investment management systems, public finance institutions, and competing political interests.
In Nepal, 70% of capital budgets are only spent in the last four months of every budget year as a result of a disorganised budget calendar, leaving more than 20% of all capital allocations unspent per year.
Philipp Krause on the question whether 'more money' is always the answer when it comes to developing countries' budget. I also wonder how developing countries' (real or perceived) infrastructure challenges compare to developed countries rising challenges of maintaining infrastructure that rapidly expanded after WWII and needs public support that is no longer 'affordable'.

Evidence-based policy needs better analysis not just bigger data

Now, there are analytical techniques available to deal with these issues, and so determine genuine causal relationships. But unfortunately even many academic researchers still fall into the trap of mistaking correlation for causation. The media regularly pick up stories that this of that causes longer life or whatever in which it is very likely there is no causal relationship whatsoever.
So, in a new paper in Nature, Julian Elliot and I with some other colleagues call for the responsible use of Big Data. That is that systems must be developed with attention not just to their capacity to combine a wide range of data from different sources, but also to ensuring the proper analysis of those data. This won’t happen unless we are proactive in ensuing it does, so please engage in debates and development of Big Data systems to support evidence-based decision making based on accurate analysis.
Howard White argues that we need better analysis of bigger data-below is an interesting link to another post on how anthropologists can play a bigger role in data science-by way of an indirect answer.

DFID should put long term research at the heart of development

As well as the things DFID is doing right in its effort to support development research, there are a few things that we would like to see DFID do even better. First, it could make stronger links between the research it supports and DFID programming. Second, while research capacity building is invaluable, additional investment may be needed to really bear fruit on this tricky agenda. Finally, it is tempting to measure the impact of development research in terms of the number of papers produced or people trained, but we need more sophisticated metrics and analyses to capture the full benefits of DFID investments in this field.
As easy as it is discursively to agree that long term development research is important, it is quite challenging to demonstrate 'impact' if it is not allowed to influence policy-making.

UNDP and their use of social media – 2015

Be social. Be genuine. Engage. Have empathy in your storytelling. Be human. We try to put ourselves in the shoes of our audience. Continue to improve upon what’s working so far but don’t get comfortable. Innovation is vital to social media –just staying relevant doesn’t cut it. These are challenges because of limited human capacity and budgetary resources. Getting support to procure new tools and enabling tools that will increase our productivity, time or resources to grow existing skill sets, having time to think of non-monetary incentives and innovative mechanisms that will nurture intrepreneurs in the organization to open up a culture of social media and effective communications is necessary.
Helen Clark being an amazing advocate of social media has made all the difference with our strategy. She not only champions social media—she’s an avid champion of strategic and effective communications. This opens up the space for “converting” the skeptics when she leads by example, rather than when a younger, more junior staff like me attempt to go against the “this is how it is” approach to the system and lots and lots of bureaucratic red tape.
David Girling features a long interview with UNDP's social media manager LeiLei Phyu. It's a long read, but worth your attention if you are interested in organizational communication.

Millions of graduates quit Sub-Saharan Africa

In total, 13 per cent of all degree holders from Sub-Saharan Africa emigrated over this period, the highest proportion of any region around the world, the report says.
Theodora Xenogiani, an OECD researcher and an author of the report, says a major cause of this migration is highly educated people being unable to use their skills. “If you have, for example, a scientist in a lab without tools and equipment, they might want to migrate, not just because of their salary, but because conditions do not enable him to do the research he might want to do,” she says.
But the report stresses that this is not a simple case of ‘brain drain’ — the phenomenon whereby a country loses its best thinkers — as many highly educated migrants maintain ties with their home country.
Xenogiani says migrant scientists tend to collaborate with people from their country of origin, especially if they too are working abroad.
New OECD report on the latest developments around highly-skilled migration and 'brain drain' from Africa.

Which of these videos is the worst in charity advertising?

Nominees for this year’s awards display the aid industry at its best and worst. Below are my choices for each category with the description provided by the jury.
Tom Murphy gets us in the mood for this year's Rusty Radiator award.

Our digital lives
Humans of New York and the Cavalier Consumption of Others

In this way, HONY joins organizations like TED and the Moth at the vanguard of a slow but certain lexical refashioning. Once an arrangement of events, real or invented, organized with the intent of placing a dagger—artistic, intellectual, moral—between the ribs of a listener or reader, a story has lately become a glossier, less thrilling thing: a burst of pathos, a revelation without a veil to pull away. “Storytelling,” in this parlance, is best employed in the service of illuminating business principles, or selling tickets to non-profit galas, or winning contests.
Vinson Cunningham brilliant essay is surely a must-read; there is theme emerging around consumption and how seemingly non-profit items like 'stories' or 'ideas' become commodified and part of the marketplace of the digital economy. Daniel Esser and I touched on this in our research article on development TED talks.

The community first: subverting the dynamics of putting technology in the classroom

Now, summing up, what educational technology projects usually have done is: they devote all the funds they have to buy technology or digital services, while their main asset, the community, usually remains unattended. Sooner or later, the project runs out of money and thus cannot go on. On the other hand, the asset upon which the project could rely is not put in motion and thus does not trigger the springs and levers that could create the necessary changes for the project to be laid on strong foundations. Yes, this is a cruel simplification, but it is not very far from a general truth: we lose our minds on technology and forget humans.
It says quite a lot about the ICT4D community that Ismael Peña-López has to write such a post in 2015...many points are obvious to most development people and yet implementing them is much harder...

Hot off the digital press
Household Surveys in Crisis

Household surveys are the source of official rates of unemployment, poverty, health insurance coverage, inflation, and other statistics that guide policy. They are also a primary source of data for economic research and are used to allocate government funds.
However, the quality of data from household surveys is in decline. Households have become increasingly less likely to answer surveys at all, which is the problem of unit nonresponse.
Those that respond are less likely to answer certain questions, which is the problem of item nonresponse. When households do provide answers, they are less likely to be accurate, which is the problem of measurement error.
Interesting research paper by Bruce D. Meyer, Wallace K. C. Mok, and James X. Sullivan. From a qualitative background I would argue that household surveys have never been as 'perfect' as economists believed them to be and it's good to see a broader debate on the limitations and challenges with them.

Forthcoming Special Issue: Contesting and Shaping the Norms of Protection: The Evolution of a Responsibility to Protect

Lots of open access articles on R2P almost literally from around the world!


Data and the Anthropologist: Could you be using your anthropology skills in a more data centric role?

There is an evolving understanding in the data science community that the social sciences are integral to understanding of the data big picture. This need extends beyond better understanding of human behavior and includes being an agent for social good.
Astrid Countee post on data science and anthropology is an interesting read, but I am not sure I totally agree with her positive vision. The question is ultimately about power: Has the algorithm the last word, or the social scientist/anthropologist? Are 90% of the monet spent according to the data and 10% spent according to the non-data scientist's recommendation?

Beantwortung der Frage: Was ist SM?

But I want to stay focused on the intellectual issue: The problem I see is that this disciplinary discussion–this cutting edge work on problems and modes of inquiry–still happens in closed, elite circles—increasingly elite, as more and more minted PhD’s either do not get jobs in anthropology, or get bad downward-spiralling adjunct jobs, or reinvent themselves in some other discipline, professional school or newfangled interdisciplinary unit. Good work happens everywhere, but this demographic fact is having a real impact on the discipline of anthropology. The formation of problems and modes of inquiry is not being pushed out of the university into alternative spaces mediated by blogs and social media, but higher and deeper into the enclaves–fed both by our own desire to believe that there is a trickle-down genius from the Named Chair Professors, and by the often unwitting performance of that role by people who all worked hard to get there in the first place.
So what difference could and should SM make here? Is this about new publics, open discussions, and access to these debates? I think not, because it is still a one-way street: as long as the people in the universities, in positions of disciplinary power remain disconnected from the new networked public spheres, the transformed labor market, the massive inequalities in wealth within and between universities, there is little hope for anything other than retrenchment and further exacerbation–faculty blame administration, administration dismantles disciplines, departments and schools; grad students blame everyone. Honest inquiry into the sources of these pathologies seems far from the arcane, pleasurable discussions of the ontological turn or the anthropology of infrastructure, but I don’t think it is. I think the production of those problems and modes of inquiry remains disconnected from the possibilities and promise of SM. In short, I worry nothing has changed.
Christopher Kelty paints a sobering picture of the 'impact' of the renowned Savage Minds anthropology blog that is celebrating its 10th anniversary!

Better Residential Learning Is The True Innovation of MOOCs

The most important innovations catalyzed by MOOCs have very little to do with technology, or even pedagogy. Rather, they are innovations at the level of institutional organizational and cultural change.
Happily, these organizational and cultural changes all result in more attention and investment in residential learning.
I agree with Joshua Kim that MOOCs and other forms of digital, online learning, raise important questions for the university as organization that goes beyond an online course of the question how many students globally attended a MOOC. Digital learning requires resources, investment and commitment from various parts of the organization!

Journal impact factors ‘no longer credible’

Because of these problems, “the JIF would now seem to have little credibility as an indicator of the academic standing of a journal”, the article warns.
Give people statistics and they will find ways to manipulate them! The academic journal impact factor will increasingly be tweaked as funding, promotion and other metric-based evaluation criteria depend on it.


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