All posts by Alex Jameson

Development Studies 2.0

Several weeks ago, I decided to sign up for Twitter. Previously, I had considered Twitter to be the bastion and habitat for the celebrity-obsessed, where they tell us they are going to the gym, to tan, or to do laundry. And Conan O’Brien and Sarah Palin.  I had never given it serious thought and resolved to let it pass as a fad. Yet in time, I found myself drawn in and now I am a professed fan.  I am not an expert in social media, but I am certainly willing to sing its praises.

The reason for my plunge into Twitter was for good intentions. My work in Ethiopia includes a public engagement component, and I have been regularly posting blogs about our work. I didn’t really know how many people were reading the posts, and thought that Twitter, along with my trusty old-friend Facebook (user since 2007), could help drive people toward the site. Using another old-friend, Google, I quickly found instructions on how to gain followers on Twitter and learned its three symbol language of #, @, and RT.  I now have seven followers!

Twitter opened my eyes. I read posts on international development, foreign aid, and sports, and receive links to new articles and interesting blogs that I have begun to read with great pleasure.  Soon, on the suggestion of these bloggers, I have aggregated everything into Google Reader through RSS, and the world of international development is a mouse click away.

My conclusion after two months on Twitter, and by extension blogs founds through RSS/Google Reader, is that I will soon, if I have not already, learn more about development then I did during my MA in Development Studies.

This is not an evaluation of my actual degree program, which had pros and cons, but an assessment of the impacts social media can have on the study of development, as compared to using only traditional forms of study.

Development is a huge and complicated subject that is inherently global and fast-paced. It has evolved immensely since its origins in the 1950’s. Experts in development are scattered around the globe, in the North and South, at universities and thankfully at project-level.  Many people, at least in the North, can read Hans Rosling, William Easterly, Jeffery Sachs, Amartya Sen, or Dambisa Moyo, but few can access lectures, let alone receive training from them.

Blogs form a limited answer to restrictions of time, money and space. If I want to know what Easterly thinks is important right now, I can check his blog. Or, even better, he will tell me when he tweets. Or even greater, Google Reader will show that all of the above and many more have posted blogs recently, perhaps in response to each other. For example, on July 16, Easterly told me that he read a great article on bureaucracy in development aid through a tweet, and then through his blog, Aid Watch. Then, I read that article and posted it on my twitter account. How awesome is that?  I did not wait for or scour for academic journal article in bandwidth hogging PDF, travel to Columbia University or buy an expensive new book. I know what some of the best people in development are thinking and talking about, right now.

These blogs and tweets, by the Rockstars of the international development field, are supplemented by dozens of blogs of lesser known, but equally brilliant, practitioners in the field of development.  In particular, Owen Barder, Duncan Green, Alanna Shaikh and a few others are practitioners, researchers and devotees of development who put forward great ideas, stinging critiques, and most importantly keep tabs on the trends in development.  Recently, Hans Rosling had a new TED video, using IKEA boxes to show his take on world population and child health. Within hours, the links created by Twitter had allowed these well-followed tweeters to send out the message to thousands of people. I am sure hundreds further posted the link on their Facebook pages and personal blogs as well, disseminating a great piece of knowledge to a huge audience. I was once lucky enough to see Hans Rosling speak, and if you ever get the chance, you have to take it.  Yet, I can’t help but think that these alternatives that have been brought to us by some smart entrepreneurs in California, USA, should drastically change how we learn about development.

So, should one forgo a formal education, particularly at the graduate level, for blogs, videos and twitters by Aid Thoughts? No, though it’s a great blog as well. The chief reason for formal education is its professional standing. If you want a job in development, you are going to need a level of education and the designations that come along with it. In the end, university is good for you; it teaches you to analyze situations in a critical manner, to draw comparisons, to think. You are more interesting at dinner parties.

The problem with these formal education pathways, at least in development, is they can’t keep up with the real time trends in development.  When you get out into the “real world” you find that all that theory you learned is good because it taught you critical thinking but significantly less useful in say, sourcing malaria nets, promoting aid transparency, or running business trainings for shoe shiners.  And, at least for me, what we often discussed in class was dated compared to what is being discussed by leaders in the field.  For example, World Bank and IMF structural adjustment policies were often batted around as the personification of evil on earth. It is good to know the history of these events, but they are not, from what I can tell, “trends” in development.  What is trending, to borrow a twitter phrase, right now includes:

China, Aid transparency, relief in Haiti and its discontents, the coming changes in US foreign assistance policy, AIDS2010 Vienna, microfinance pro’s and cons’

Often, the nature of development programs at the graduate level sees students that are looking for a career change or a higher professional designation. They will come armed with limited theoretical knowledge of development beyond a few readings of the heavy hitters I mentioned above. At least that was the case for me and many of my fellow students. This may depend on the pervasiveness of undergraduate study in development in a given country or perhaps on the quality of students they are admitting.   This would be akin to studying philosophy at a graduate level and having only read Plato, and there is a lot to learn in a short amount of time (one or two years maximum for a MA). This naturally means there is a catch up process. This is potentially problematic, as development is a topic that is difficult, wide-spread, and scattered. Most importantly, it’s about people’s fragile, constantly changing lives. This inherent difficulty. Coupled with the fast moving pace of events in the development field and the study of dated material (this will vary widely so perhaps is a generalization) may leave people short on key skills and knowledge as they enter professional situations.

Now, I anticipate many people saying that Twitter and blogs cannot provide the theoretical backbone to your learning that intensive study at a graduate level provides. I agree.  Individuals who study development need a theoretical base which to work off of, though I contend it provides only a limited amount of efficacy on your ability to work well in development.  But what is a theoretical base in development?  Are we talking about economic development, human development, social development, or community development? Or property development, which is what my 91 year old Grandmother thinks I do for a living, bless her heart.  It would take the entire length of an academic program to properly learn the true theoretical base of development as an academic discipline. And then you get that internship in Vanuatu or Ecuador and then what? Training on Stiglitz?

Often, when people talk about development in the classroom, a seminar, in a workshop, it’s one long list of bad projects, misspent aid, backward policies and other follies. It’s good to talk about mistakes as to avoid repeating them.  However, it tends to be limiting and takes away from the new imaginative ideas in development. Social media takes the discussion a positive step ahead.  Social media allows individuals all over the world to learn about positive new advances (and step backs in some cases) in development quickly, easily, early and often.

This is why I think Twitter, Google Reader and social media fit development perfectly.  Development, as I noted above, is really hard. It’s really difficult, really expensive, and prone to mistakes. There is no consensus on what works, and only slight consensus on what doesn’t.  Given the nature of studying development theory, which then gives over to the learn by doing – good luck out there – reality of development work, don’t these social media tools breath new light into development studies? They create a link between the theoretical base and the practical skills needed in development all in real time.

Do you need to know more about how USAID works? Then follow them on Twitter, or follow blogs that analyze USAID? Right now, Hillary Clinton is battling it out with the White House over USAID independence, which I learned on a blog, which I learned about through Twitter – real time information that could potentially affect how billions of dollars of aid money is spent.

I found out, through Twitter and Chris Blattman’s blog, that the services sector has overtaken the agriculture sector within the Ethiopia economy. That is a seminal event and I wouldn’t have known anything about it if it wasn’t for social media. And to add another link in the chain, I sent this information out to all my Ethiopian contacts for them to analyze and debate.

This has to be equally or more fruitful than reading an academic PDF on “Import-Substituting Industrialization” that is ten years old. Again, I am not discounting knowing theories of development, but instead trying to elucidate how helpful current information can be in addition to a traditional theoretical base. Information will also not be nearly as distorted as the mainstream media, if in the unlikely event it is noticed over the din of the 24 hour news cycle.

I have found dozens of organizations that are doing something similar to my work in youth livelihoods through internet research, including Twitter. Through this research and even better through coordination, my communities’ projects will benefit. The research will certainly benefit the program more than analyzing the Asian development model or the 1997 Asian financial crisis from a post [insert theory] neo [insert ideology] point of view.

Social media has another potential. If accessing the knowledge of the world’s development experts is an expensive and timely task for me (Canada GDP (PPP) per Capita $38,000), I imagine it is much harder for an Ethiopian (GDP (PPP) per capita $900). All sorts of challenges get in the way of a citizen of the global South to access development information. University is expensive, accessing academic journals is expensive, books are expensive or impossible to get, and a lot experts don’t come to our town to chat or give lectures. Now, many of my Ethiopian colleagues are well versed, thanks to coordinated training programs and good leadership in my organization. But often, they don’t know where to go to find information on development projects. Google is powerful, but its results vary and when your internet is slow, to lumber through potentially useless PDFs is tiring, and you have to know what you are looking for to make it effectual.  Social media can be used as tool that would let citizens of Ethiopia or Suriname learn about real-time events in development, just as it is doing for me.  Ethan Zuckerman calls it the serendipity aspect of social media.

Social media has already provided a powerful tool for advocacy on development related topics. It has been adopted by almost everyone in the field, and being used amazingly well.  Many students of development are likely reading the blogs I mentioned and other blogs I don’t know about but should. I propose that going forward individuals interested in the serious study of development should adopt these tools to supplement their formal education.  Spread the word! Tweet the word! Learning will be deeper, and the skills, tips, and hints you receive from hundreds of experienced practitioners are invaluable. It is like having twenty of your favourite professors letting you in on his or her thoughts. And the beauty of Twitter and Google Reader?  It won’t be long before those blogs I should be reading are coming through my RSS feed or ReTweeted by some of the smartest people in the world.

We live in interesting times.

Warning! Take with a grain of realistic salt: working in development

You got the job, you are on the ground, now what?

I came up with these points on “on the ground work” in a developing/less developed country. Not in a classroom, not in the Global North.  I am not assuming to know everything about working overseas, or to be an experienced “hand” in development, but these are a few points that have come up in discussions and in my own observations.

1. There are very few bleeding hearts.

  • A bleeding heart is someone who cares deeply about all the social malaise in the world on too personal of a level – they do not last long
  • A bleeding heart would likely lose his or her mind in a deeply impoverished country. You have to literally walk by profoundly entrenched poverty and its concurrent social impacts on a day to day basis and without proper judgment, filtering, and thick skin – you will sink.
  • You cannot stop and help everyone, and you cannot stop and explain to everyone how sorry you are that the world economic system has left them impoverished
  • You need a filter, a damn good one, to operate without losing your mind. Your filter depends on you – it could be actions such as exercise, cultural immersion, drinks in the pub, cheap paperbacks or long walks. Or it can be, and usually will have to be, an internal “gut check” every once in awhile.
  • You do not need a heart of stone; you need to be both focused on your individual task and conscious of the “big picture”

2. Nobody sits around debating social theories, capitalism, socialism, development theories and imperialism, or all the other “isms”.  They are far too busy.

  • At least very few people debate these issues beyond a bull session in the pub
  • The reality is that being conscious of these theories is very helpful, but it can only go so far
  • In my opinion, the best NGO/development workers are skilled, experienced personnel in logistics and program management. Private sector experience goes a long way. Being able to understand the realities of politics, domestic and international, is a vital skill.
  • You do get discussions about the difficulties the United Nations and seemingly every other NGO has with bureaucracy, and with logistics (the power went out again!).
  • You are more likely to hear a voiced complaint about making a business from poverty, the white land rovers, and the insane salaries of some NGO workers. It generally doesn’t come with more of a theoretical base than, “it reminds me of ‘White Man’s Burden, Lords of Poverty, or Dead Aid”.
  • To be frank, check your theoretical biases, about countries, NGO’s, and everything else at the airport and focus on your job. Maybe once you leave, you can re-filter everything through a theorized lens.
  • You will often find the very people most often attacked for pretty much everything wrong with development (the UN agencies, the USA, the World Bank, embassies, military consultants, et al) are a lot more knowledgeable than your text book or academic journal gave them credit for. Sure, you will find a dunce every once in an awhile, but don’t miscount people’s skills and knowledge. They probably read that book or journal article on Structural Adjustment Programs in the 1990’s as well.  They might have written it.
  • The only exceptions are history and, depending on where you are working, colonialism. You should be conscious of the history of the country you are working in, and colonialism and its present day echoes are still going to be part of your day to day life. That being said, people do not generally sit around discussing colonialism, instead they work in a context where colonialism was and still is a force.

3. Your local partners usually do know a lot, but they are not perfect

  • If you are in a developing country, you need to trust your instincts when things aren’t working and bring in the expertise you have
  • You might be wrong, or make a cultural mistake, but it can sometimes be better than sitting around and doing nothing
  • People who  are not afraid to voice disagreement and to make a stand on an important point are going to be successful in a development context
  • Your local co-workers are not rich, though they do, by and large, have good jobs. They will be struggling with family issues, finances, relationships, and putting their kids in a good school.  These pressures will affect their work performance, just as the pressure of living in a different culture affects you.

4. Don’t take point # 3 too far

  • You can read a million books, learn a bit of the language, eat the food and have 10 friends on your Facebook from the country, and you still will not know enough about Ethiopian/Indian/Peruvian/wherever culture. You are not from there; you are the “Other”.  You always will be. Deal with it.
  • You are stinking rich. Compared to most of the people in your work, in the country you’re visiting and working in, you are rich. Even if your bank account says otherwise, the locals know that back in your country you can earn a wage exponentially larger than they can make, even at a menial job.  And in many cases in the West, you get paid money by the government when you don’t work – something pretty alien to a lot of nations. Trying to explain the difference between a “student” or “intern” salary and a “western” salary is pointless. Trying to explain “cost of living” is pointless. You are rich. It is what it is. Deal with it.
  • Spending less money than you need, or less then the next person, doesn’t make you any better of a development worker, traveller or visitor. Contribute to the local economy.  You are a valuable source of foreign exchange to whatever country you’re in, don’t pretend otherwise.
  • Spend your money on sustainable and local products. A t-shirt made in China has gone through too much of a supply chain to pay much of a dividend to an African or South American street merchant.  Especially since it was donated and likely undercut the local textile industry. Drink local drinks and eat local food. It’s healthier anyway.
  • For heaven’s or mother earth’s sake, seriously, do not argue over inflated prices for foreigners that end up being the equivalent of cents or pence. This is easy to learn the longer you stay in a country as you become accustomed to the right prices.  If you are getting ripped off, then walk away. Do not ever yell at a merchant or taxi driver. You look like a bleeping idiot.  If you find yourself arguing over the equivalent of 20 cents USD for twenty minutes, take a deep breath, you’re in the wrong. See point 4b.
  • Your local partners will be right a lot of the time, or something will transpire that will make you realize why a certain course of actions were taken. Sometimes waiting is good as well. Find your voice and use it and let them use their voice

5. Ex-pat communities are small, imperfect, and interesting

  • Ok – so some people will party too much, or not enough, for your liking. Deal with it.
  • Some people are boring, some people are interesting, and it’s no different from home
  • There will be huge disparities in living arrangements, backgrounds, salaries and jobs. Don’t get jealous, and don’t spend a month’s salary on taxis and dinners at the Sheraton.  Or don’t assume everyone can drop money on taxis, beer, food, and weekends away camping in remote and expensive safari lodges. Don’t assume we all have drivers to take us from point A to B.
  • Don’t think for a second you won’t need someone from your own culture to talk to every once in awhile. You are not T.E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia) or Jake Sully from Avatar.  Not only will they be valuable sources of advice, if they have been there longer than you or even if they haven’t, but they might turn out to be a good friend.

6. Learn patience

  • It’s not “African time” or “Indian time” or whatever “time”; it’s just the way things are because of the reality of life. Again, be patient, take a deep breath, and work on something else if the plan is delayed.
  • You are not going to change the world on your own– if you haven’t figure that one out, you need a new career. You can change a corner of it, and together, the world can really make some great changes in a lot of areas (environment, poverty, health) but keep it in perspective. Don’t be a bleeding heart, focus on your work and do it the best you can.

DISCLAIMER: This is my point of view, on the few months I have lived in this world. People will wholly disagree with some of these points and are encouraged to do so.