Links & Contents I Liked 186

Hi all,

Greetings from Berlin! While catching up with friends I am finalizing this week's link review.

Development news: Global aid spending is a mess; an overview over adaptive learning networks; Ethiopia's climate crisis; Nepal-as always on the edge of failure; top UN whistleblower resigns; the power of status quo UN bureaucracy; changing aidwork in rural Kenya; Gates foundation fails U.S. public school policy-making.
Our digital lives: Start-ups are addicted to jargon; an artistic research podcast on lifelogging.
New publications on refugees and mobile communication; social media ethnography from the Chilean periphery.

Academia: The complexities of conferencing in and on 'Africa'; the stupidity of the knowledge economy.


Development news
Misplaced charity

By almost all of these measures, foreign aid is failing. It is as co-ordinated as a demolition derby. Much goes neither to poor people nor to well-run countries, and on some measures the targeting is getting worse. Donors try to reward decent regimes and punish bad ones, but their efforts are undermined by other countries and by their own impatience. It is extraordinary that so many clever, well-intentioned people have made such a mess.
In one big way, though, the proliferation of donors harms poor countries. Aid now comes from ever more directions, in ever smaller packages: according to AidData, the average project was worth $1.9m in 2013, down from $5.3m in 2000. Mozambique has 27 substantial donors in the field of health alone, not counting most non-Western or private givers. Belgium, France, Italy, Japan and Sweden each supplied less than $1m. Such fragmentation strains poor countries, both because of the endless report-writing and because civil servants are hired away to manage donors’ projects.
You could almost play a quiz with this article from the latest Economist: Was this written in 1996, 2006 or 2016...?

Where have we got to on adaptive learning, thinking and working politically, doing development differently etc? Getting beyond the People’s Front of Judea

Finally, this mapping suggests a potential for greater connectivity across the initiatives. There are some actors overlapping several of these, but there were significant gaps until literally just a few months ago. Unfortunately, this is tied up a bit in issues of organizational ownership: some initiatives are only weakly owned, with no steering hand from the lead organizations, while others are so identified with a single organization as to leave others with no entry point. Efforts pushing the sector in broadly the same direction should push together.
Dave Algoso and Alan Hudson provide an overview over current initiatives to make aid better, more adaptive, smarter. I wonder how in light of the previous commentary from the Economist we will view such initiatives in a few years' time-just as another fashion, a moment in time when thinking in aid really shifted, maybe a bit of both?

Drought in Ethiopia-“This is a climate crisis”

In his office in Jigjia, in the Somali region of Ethiopia, Abdifateh Ahmed Ismael is worried. He knows too well that this drought is not the last. “20 years ago the Somali region used to see 2-3 droughts once every ten years. But in the last 20 years that has changed dramatically. Because of climate change we see an increasingly amount of droughts and a new severity of drought. On top of that the droughts are coming back once every two to three years,” he says.
The result is that people do not get enough time to recover from the last drought before the next one comes.
“The recovery period that people used to have was around 7 or 8 years. This has now been reduced to 1 to 2 years. For pastoralists that is not enough for a recovery period. And because of that pastoralists are driven out of their livelihood loosing their livestock,” he says. Adding that deforestation and urbanisation adds to the looming crisis.
Tuva Raanes Bogsnes shares insights from Somali in the context of NRC's work in the region.

Nepal Doesn’t Want You To Know It’s On The Edge Of Failure

But grand promises are nothing new in Nepal. When I was growing up in the ’90s in Pokhara, a picturesque valley in the west, I remember our leaders promising to transform Nepal into “Singapur,” the local pronunciation for Singapore. For many years, the running joke was that they had turned it into Jhingapur (city of flies) instead.
Today, those pointy-nose trains are the least of Nepal’s worries. Over a year after the earthquake, the government has little to show for its reconstruction program.
Anup Kaphle provides a good overview over current (un)developments in Nepal and the broader discourse of failed and promised development.

Exclusive: Top UN whistleblower resigns, citing impunity and lack of accountability

But nearly two years after the CAR scandal broke, Donovan is scathing. “Although he says he has zero tolerance, Ban Ki-moon has appointed someone to coordinate what has been identified as just a failed, broken system.
“If you set the bar so low – that you are going to coordinate these dysfunctional entities, and try and improve the response – that just says it all,” she said.
While the UN has focused on reforming the system at the ground level, critics point to the relative impunity enjoyed by those in the highest echelons of the UN civil service – an accountability vacuum they say the Kompass case has laid bare.
Obi Anyadike continues IRIN's critical reporting from inside the UN bureaucracy-it will be interesting to follow Kompass' insights once he returns to Sweden.

A job at UN HQ? Goodbye principles and philanthropy, hello power and privilege!

With this golden web delicately spun around you, suddenly you realise how wonderful life can be. And how desperately fragile. Push too hard, you are made to understand, and you can be cast out of heaven. Remember that guy who insisted on addressing issues of sexual abuse by western peacekeepers? Rumour has it he was found guilty of misuse of UN copy paper, demoted to a P2 post and shipped off to a previously non-existent duty station in the middle of a tropical jungle. He’s lucky he still has a job.
You learn to recruit people who will not threaten you: the mediocre, those who soon wise up to the rules of the game. Occasionally, you allow yourself the luxury of an original thinker, someone capable of shaking things up the little that is needed to make a couple of the older bosses fall out of their places, allowing you to get a higher post. Sometimes you pick on someone who is stepping out of line, who thinks things can be done differently – better – and make an example of her. Because you can. You’re a fear-maker, now. Unaccountable. And you realise there was a higher plan all along: maintaining the status quo. It’s just you weren’t among the powerful ones who knew about it.
The UN never ceases to disappoint on reflective pieces of what's wrong in the world of global governance and administrating development in a complex, politicized and bureaucratized world.

Aid Workers in Turkana: Outsider Lives and Compound Lifestyles

Most of the people I’ve spoken to here, whether programme directors or field officers, are Kenyans. This would not have been the case 10 or 20 years ago. The expat aid worker presence, both here and in Nairobi, is falling year by year as Kenyan expertise increase and the restructuring of INGOs leads to more operations being managed and implemented at local and national level rather than from Europe. This reality, which can be seen across the globe as well as in Kenya, makes the need for greater recognition of the specific challenges faced by national aid workers even more crucial if we are to fully understand aid practice.
Gemma Houldey shares more insights from her research on the rural frontiers of globalized aid work, highlighting some of the smaller, but powerful changes that are currently occuring in the 'aid industry'.

Gates Foundation failures show philanthropists shouldn’t be setting America's public school agenda

But the Gates Foundation has spent so much money — more than $3 billion since 1999 — that it took on an unhealthy amount of power in the setting of education policy. Former foundation staff members ended up in high positions in the U.S. Department of Education — and, in the case of John Deasy, at the head of the Los Angeles Unified School District. The foundation’s teacher-evaluation push led to an overemphasis on counting student test scores as a major portion of teachers’ performance ratings — even though Gates himself eventually warned against moving too hastily or carelessly in that direction. Now several of the states that quickly embraced that method of evaluating teachers are backing away from it.
Philanthropists are not generally education experts, and even if they hire scholars and experts, public officials shouldn’t be allowing them to set the policy agenda for the nation’s public schools. The Gates experience teaches once again that educational silver bullets are in short supply and that some educational trends live only a little longer than mayflies.
The Los Angeles Times Editorial Board publishes an important op-ed on Gates' public school engagement-or as we in development would call it 'no sh*t Sherlock'...

Our digital lives
Startups can’t explain what they do because they’re addicted to meaningless jargon

“Content.” “Platforms.” “Synergy.” “End-to-end.” “Solutions.” It’s nearly impossible to find a startup at the conference that doesn’t resort to jargon when describing itself.
These words sound technical and informed. But they mean nothing, and they make it difficult for ordinary people to understand what a company actually does. In an effort to either sound smart and attract investors, or to simply dress up an otherwise boring product, startups that rely too much on jargon end up alienating the users they want to attract.
“It’s jargon, but it’s the only way that we can start out when we explain ourselves,” says co-founder Chris Parker. “We could turn the jargon on [even more] and say that we’re a ‘cloud-based streaming content delivery network,’ but we find that it doesn’t resonate with people.”
Josh Horwitz discovers how jargon is suffocating innovation; again, not news for our industry who knows how to play jargon Bingo...

On Lifelogging and the Quantified Self | Medea Vox

We’ve all heard about the Fitbits, GoPros, sleep apps and other digital trackers that create data points out of our everyday activities. But how did people self-archive before the digital? What does the era of digital storage do to our concepts of identity and self-representation?
Our colleagues from Malmö University's Medea research platform present their latest podcast.

Hot off the digital press
Report Launched for "Mapping Refugee Media Journeys" project

The report, “Mapping Refugee Media Journeys: Smart Phones and Social Media Networks” explores the benefits and risks of mobile phones for refugees. It calls for action from the European Commission and Member States to fulfill their responsibilities under the 1951 UN Refugee Convention to provide relevant, reliable and timely information and news for refugees.
A lot of interesting research is now emerging on refugees and media use-especially in the context of mobile phones.

Social Media in Northern Chile

Based on 15 months of ethnographic research in the city of Alto Hospicio in northern Chile, this book describes how the residents use social media, and the consequences of this use in their daily lives. Nell Haynes argues that social media is a place where Alto Hospicio’s residents – or Hospiceños – express their feelings of marginalisation that result from living in city far from the national capital, and with a notoriously low quality of life compared to other urban areas in Chile.
UCL Press continues its open access publishing of results from their big project on social media ethnographies-this time with a contribution on Chile.

Why are conferences in Africa excluding African scholars?

All this to say the conference was not one thing, but many. It was both structure and event. Did any of these acts, in isolation or collectively, allow us to decolonize the conference? No. One conference cannot historical legacies undo, but it can try to change the pattern, for it is the cumulative effects of our practices that render exclusionary social structures so resilient. Were we in part replicating colonial structures even as we worked to dismantle them? Of course. Will it be better next time? Depends. Do we support a politics of engagement or a politics of secession and retreat? Is challenging gatekeeping about the bodies that get through the gate, taking down the gate, holding open the gate as wide as one can? Taking a whack at the gate with Mbembe?
Dick Powis shares nuanced ethnographic reflections on an academic conference in, on, from and about 'Africa'. Probably a bit more nuanced than my previous post on How to avoid awful panel discussions? Organize and attend fewer events!

Universities ‘complicit’ in pushing knowledge economy fallacy

In every case, recalls Professor Spicer, the official view was that such organisations “employ a lot of smart people to do work which requires intelligence”. But as soon as they spoke to the workers themselves the researchers were told that, in reality, there was “a lot of stupidity going on”. The goal of their book was to “take stupidity a bit more seriously and ask why that is the case”.
Much of the problem comes down to the largely spurious notion of the “knowledge economy”.
The idea was pioneered in a 1962 article by the American academic and management consultant Peter Drucker (...). Unfortunately, claims Professor Spicer, the reality has failed to match the hype.
Matthew Reisz introduces a new book that continues the theme of Graeber's notion of 'bullshit jobs'.


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