Tag Archives: Community development

A history and future of WhyDev

There is nothing particularly remarkable about Mae Sot. The Thai-Myanmar Friendship Bridge can be reached by following the AH1 for just a few kilometres west. A short bicycle ride, as trucks and lorries kick up dirt and dust, brings you to what is typical of any border town; markets full of electronics, home-wares and food. The bridge links two countries that couldn’t be more different, yet are seemingly forever linked by the presence in Thailand of over 500,000 refugees from Myanmar.

Durable solutions for refugees who have been living in camps for more than two decades is as seemingly out of reach, even as a political transition across the border opens the door to expanded operations from international aid, trade and diplomatic sectors. A question posed by Brookings last year asks, “whether the outpouring of foreign aid to Myanmar expected in the medium term (three to five years) will be more of a blessing than a curse”. It is a question that any student or professional in the humanitarian sector should seriously be considering. 

What makes Mae Sot remarkable for me personally is WhyDev. I spent a few weeks in the first quarter of 2010 in the town, having returned from India on an internship with the Centre for Refugee Research. My partner was researching education and language policy in the refugee camps with the same organisation, and I was visiting. We were both in the middle of completing our Masters in development studies at the University of NSW. I spent much of my time in Mae Sot either eating Burmese tea leaf salad or drinking tea at a cafe with free WiFi.

I had experimented in unsuccessful travel blogging while moving through India in 2009; unsuccessful in the sense that only mum read my posts. I started to study and read the aid and development blogging scene, or blogosphere, while in Mae Sot. (People were still using the term ‘blogosphere’ back then). We are spoilt for choice in writers, voices and platforms today, but this was not so in 2010.

J’s, of Tales from the Hood, first post was only in April 2009, Jennifer Lentfer of How Matters in June 2010 and Duncan Green in 2008. There was a lack of young voices questioning, discussing and debating what we were being exposed to in development theory seminars or right-based approaches to programming. So, I registered the domain name, thewhyofdevelopment.com.

WhyDev plans world domination. Credit: Beth Rosen

The rest is far from history. We had our Facebook moment. Mike Clay, friend of the site, suggested that we drop ‘the’ and shorten to ‘WhyDev’. (Thanks Mike!). I reached out to eight other Masters students at UNSW and friends to collaborate. We met at a cafe in the suburb of Glebe, Sydney. Four years, and 400 posts later, WhyDev is on the front lines of questioning everything we hold dear in global development.

One particular person stuck around after that meeting in Glebe. Weh Yeoh has been the other half of WhyDev since its inception, bringing new meaning to the concept of ‘bromance‘. He shares a spirit of critical inquiry, grounded in empathy and compassion. Together, with Allison, Daniel and Laurie, we are planning for the future of WhyDev. A future built on the foundations of an incredible community of engaged humanitarians, where the needs and strengths of those on the margins are prioritised. We are committed to getting development right.

Brendan, Huy and Weh
Brendan, Huy and Weh

This starts with Weh’s current work at CABDICO, a Cambodian NGO dedicated to supporting and empowering people with disabilities. Community development in action. He was recently featured in the Sydney Morning Herald, highlighting the economic and moral argument for speech therapy for 600,000 people in Cambodia. On the back of it, they are also running a crowdfunding campaign that you must support within the next three weeks.

This is the future of global development; in particular, how humanitarian and development professionals work, support and empower individuals and communities. It is about focusing on the equitable distribution of knowledge, resources and capital within global development; moving from saviours to savoir-faire, top-down to bottom-led, duplication to replication, global development to why development?


What to help us create and shape this future? Know your comms? Check out our ad for a comms whiz-kid.

Valuing choice in education

What American holidays or festivals do you know?

american holidays

Believe it or not, this is taught in Cambodia.

The fascination with the Western world means that teaching English as a foreign language (TEFL) in Cambodia is modeled on Western paradigms. This approach tends to take three forms.

First, the content draws heavily on Western lifestyles. Learners talk about their foreign vacations in Mexico, ordering food at drive through and booking train trips. Yet Cambodia has no trains, no drive-throughs and is not anywhere near Mexico.

Second, this approach is premised on the idea that the learners will be receptive to Western methods of teaching. It presupposes background knowledge amongst students which most here do not possess.

Lastly, English tends to be taught as a subject to master rather than as a means to communicate. The combined effect of this approach is to dictate irrelevant content rather than considering the students’ choices whilst at the same time imposing an arbitrary ‘gold standard.’

As with all development work, education can reflect bottom-up or top-down thinking. We believe that development organisations should include, value and act upon the needs and desires of those involved. Development cannot succeed without giving individuals the freedom to make their own choices regarding how they want their lives to change. This freedom is both a means and an end to development.

With this background in mind, we chose to engage students in the process of developing their own curriculum. This way we were able to recognize their choices regarding what they wanted to learn. We found out that they were eager to share their traditions and uphold their cultural identity. So the curriculum we developed drew upon on that by incorporating Khmer food, celebrities, travel destinations and ceremonies. This results in a cross-cultural dialogue between our students and their teachers, who come from across the world.

When a curriculum reflects the realities of Cambodian life, students are engaged and are motivated to talk about their culture in English.  This is effective not only in motivating students to speak and practice English, but also to promote a balanced exchange of ideas.

cambodian meat

In addition we use a transversal approach when selecting the topics for the different levels. This means students study the same topics across levels enabling them to share ideas with other students outside of class. This makes English a real-life communication tool. It empowers our students to become independent and confident users of English, which is essential given that the majority of their interactions using English will be with other non-native speakers. (See Seidelhoffer 2005.) In the context of regional integration, where English is the sole language of ASEAN and set to become the region’s language of the workplace by 2015, this is vital.

Addressing the challenge of teaching English in the development context is complicated.  We have to balance successful teaching, empowering and responding to learners and also avoid giving undue weight to the Western content. Key is rejecting the unnecessary ‘golden’ standard prevalent in English teaching today. The standard not only values knowledge of the West above host cultures, but also demands learners master a Western ideal of English.

Instead, we’d like to see the field recognize the primary value of English as being a communication tool for everyone. By tailoring our teaching to match student choices, we begin to achieve this.

David Picart and Eleanor Paton work with Conversations with Foreigners in Cambodia as Education Services Manager and Volunteer Recruitment and Marketing respectively. They can be contacted on Twitter @david_cambodia and@eleanorpea. More information on Conversations with Foreigners can be found at www.volunteerincambodia.org.

Lessons from literature: What “Strength in What Remains” can teach us about development

What lessons can foreign aid take from post-genocide Burundi? This is not the question that Tracy Kidder’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book asks, but within the narrative of “Strength in What Remains” there are important lessons in development effectiveness. The hero, Tutsi medical student Deogratias (Deo), survives the genocides of 1993, and then homelessness and isolation in New York City. For Deo, a recovery from the trauma of his past has meant the unrelenting pursuit of his childhood mission to build a village medical clinic in regional Burundi. His story is riveting and profoundly moving – and the success of the clinic (Village Health Works) and is among its most rewarding aspects.

Though haunted by nightmares and sleeping rough in New York City, Deo meets a number of kind strangers who give him shelter, encouragement, and access to what he says will heal him most – books. Eventually he gains entry to pre-medical studies at Columbia University, no less, and later enrolls at the Harvard School of Public Heath. His recovery is a long and wrenching process.

Kidder’s attempts to render Deo’s journey accessible to the reader make for difficult though compelling reading. He is a witness, and his own voice in the narrative helps the reader not to turn away. Kidder admits that he cannot follow Deo emotionally into the “place beyond horror” that Deo must return to as he confronts his past, and in this sense we are at least partly relieved of that journey.

Perhaps the most harrowing scenes in the book describe the memories Deo carries of what he saw and heard as he escaped machete-wielding mobs possessed by an evil of apocalyptic proportions. The description of Deo and Kidder’s visits to numerous massacre memorial sites in Burundi and Rwanda more than a decade after the genocides is also deeply unnerving. Deo is by turns enraged, haunted, and in tears, and tells macabre jokes that Kidder struggles to appreciate. Afraid and full of sorrow, Kidder begins to wonder if there is such a thing as too much remembering.

But Deo has harboured a longstanding childhood ambition, and this will save him. As a boy, Deo watched his best friend Clovis die suddenly of malaria and had prayed for magic to “get his friend back to life”. This prayer stayed with him, and during the successive summers of his high school years, Deo convinced friends to help him make mud bricks for a medical clinic he was determined to build. It would be sixteen years before he succeeded, during which he would survive a massacre within the very teaching hospital he attended as a medical student.

How did Deo succeed where many others have failed, including a European Church-funded clinic nearby?  Deo doesn’t need lessons from the OECD’s Development Assistance Committee about sustainability, local ownership, gender and capacity building. He had gained the support of the village early on, through means including continuing efforts to make the bricks for the clinic’s buildings. As his plans gain momentum, Deo creates a separate committee for women when he sees their skill in determining village health and, consequently, clinic priorities (there is no mention of donor sectoral requirements or funding exigencies).

An international infrastructure company tells him it will cost USD50,000 to develop a road critical to accessing the clinic. In response, 166 impoverished Hutu locals donate their labour and tools – mostly shovels, pickaxes and machetes – for the six weeks it takes to widen the road. One works while carrying a feverish baby, who will die because there is no medical care in the village, in the hope that the road will save her next one.

This is not just a village effort. There is significant international expertise involved, but it is of note that the foreign aid links into this village health project are mostly created by Deo himself, with the continuing mentorship of his US mentor Paul Farmer (physician and anthropologist). Deo had tracked Farmer down after reading one of his textbooks on poverty and medicine, and had interned in Rwanda with his NGO Partners in Health. Now Deo’s mentor, Farmer mobilized several NGOs to work together to provide solar-powered electricity, a generator and fuel for the clinic, and to provide computers and a satellite system so the clinic can maintain records. Farmer also negotiated access to inexpensive supplies and medicines, including free HIV and TB drugs, from national and international health authorities. Upon his return to the clinic, Deo brought with him friends from medical school, one of whom would later return to run the clinic on a volunteer basis.

Village Health Works’ success is driven by its core belief in grassroots (that is, led and driven by the community), holistic, results-driven, collaborative, and scalable development. At a time when donor are increasing their focus on development as a tool for promoting national economic and trade interests, Deo’s focus on village-led poverty alleviation, and his successes, make for deeply nourishing reading. Village Health Works has drawn in the best that the international aid community can offer in terms of technical expertise, funding and responsiveness, alongside the commitment, courage and initiative of the villagers themselves. Perhaps the most valuable lesson from Deo’s story for aid practitioners is the power of international aid when it is truly village, rather than donor, led.

Cultural constructions of ‘appropriate’ housing

Steven Roche is a social worker volunteering with Little Children of the Philippines through the Australian Youth Ambassadors for Development Program, an Australian Government, AusAID initiative.

Societies define disadvantage in a number of ways. One way is through identifying and defining housing status, facilities and amenities, or the lack of. When these criteria are placed next to housing conditions in a developing country such as the Philippines, a country such as Australia predictably begins to look privileged.

The Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) counts people in ‘tertiary’ homelessness as “those living in a boarding house on a medium to long-term basis, and whose accommodation is below the minimum community standard of a small self-contained flat.” According to the Australian Department of Health and Ageing, one is considered to be in the category of ‘tertiary’ homelessness if lacking particular facilities or amenities: “people who live in rooming houses, boarding houses on a medium or long-term where they do not have their own bathroom and kitchen facilities and tenure is not secured by a lease.”

The ABS’s experts on homelessness have also said that elements required for adequate housing in Australia include: “…a sense of security, stability, privacy, safety, and the ability to control living space. Homelessness is therefore a lack of one or more of the elements that represent a ‘home’.”

These are formless concepts to people living in and around Dumaguete City in the Philippines. I recently collected data from nearly 500 disadvantaged families in Dumaguete City and surrounding Barangays (a term that translates roughly as ‘village,’ however signifies a defined area with formal governance structures) as part of my volunteer role with Little Children of the Philippines through the Australian Youth Ambassadors for Development (AYAD) Program. The data that emerged offers an idea of how the concept of ‘appropriate’ housing might be constructed differently in the Philippines, and can provide specific insights into the privileged housing conditions experienced in the developed world.

The set of eyes above belong to a ‘squatter’ in Dumaguete City in the Philippines, a young victim of Typhoon Sendong, which hit in December, 2011 and destroyed their houses after the nearby river swelled in a remarkable deluge.
The set of eyes above belong to a ‘squatter’ in Dumaguete City in the Philippines, a young victim of Typhoon Sendong, which hit in December, 2011 and destroyed their houses after the nearby river swelled in a remarkable deluge.

Economic status

The data indicated that these households were truly poor with meagre incomes that prohibit families achieving a well balanced diet, making house repairs, affording health care or affording school supplies.

To add perspective, these household incomes can be converted into US dollars. The rate at the time of collection was 1 US dollar to 40.6 pesos. In the Barangay of Taclobo, household incomes average at $51 per month and in Calindagan monthly incomes averaged at $81. Low incomes combined with poor security of tenure leaves families vulnerable.

Of the households researched, many were without formal leasing arrangements and few owned the land they live on. The Barangay of Canday-ong, for example, is considered to be a ‘squatters’ community, as residents had built their homes without permission years ago. Similar arrangements are dotted throughout other Barangays. Other Barangays offer cheap land rental in which a family may then construct a house. These are typically ‘handshake’ agreements without formal legal arrangements. Rental prices start at several hundred pesos, approximately $5 US per month.

Housing amenities and facilities are far removed from the definitions explored above.

Screen shot 2013-07-26 at 10.56.13 AM

Housing is constructed of cheap, yet durable, local and recyclable products. Houses made predominantly of bamboo are traditionally called ‘nipa huts’, which are made mostly from light materials such as wood, bamboo, thatched palm leaves and tin. A nipa hut is a common, sturdy and sought after affordable housing solution on the island of Negros. A small nipa hut can be constructed for approximately 17,000 pesos, a little more than $400 US. Many nipa huts have dirt flooring in entrances and storage areas while elevated areas have bamboo flooring.

In urban areas, houses take on different constructions. Heavier materials are used and security is more of a priority. Houses are constructed of wood, ply-wood, bamboo, concrete blocks and other materials such as tarpaulin (plastic), tin and used polythene rice sacks. Kitchens are typically undercover unplumbed sinks attached to the structure and open fire cooking areas are outside. Facilities are generally shared, such as CR’s (toilets), electricity connections (between houses) and showers are taken at communal deep wells with pumps.

Amenities that are thought of as essential in Australian communities are not readily available or affordable in some Barangays. For example, electricity from outside clustered urban communities requires more infrastructure and finances to connect to households, such as in Timbao and Ticala. In other communities, such as Daro and Candau-ay, barriers to electricity are almost entirely financial. Access to electricity is demonstrated in the following table:

Screen shot 2013-07-26 at 10.57.55 AM

Water, an essential amenity, is most often sourced from shared deep wells, and is reluctantly consumed. Households have no internal plumbing or sewage system. Instead, they use underground holes, tanks or other measures for disposing of waste. Most households have water trails or gutters which channel waste water away from the home into other areas, evaporating or disappearing into distant gutters, particularly in the more urban Barangays.

This data clearly outlines that the prerequisites for ‘appropriate’ living conditions in Australia, such as security of tenure and basic amenities, are remarkably unrelated to life for many in the Philippines. Disadvantaged housing circumstances in Australia are beyond comparison to the living conditions described above. These housing conditions provoke an array of poor health and social dysfunction. They also leave families vulnerable to natural disasters and the stress of uncertain tenancy arrangements.

For these eyes, an electrical connection and a lease would be a miracle, let alone any of the other perks that an experience of Australian disadvantage or ‘tertiary homelessness’ might offer. Defining disadvantage is institutionally and culturally constructed. The example of the ABS definition is defined by cultural expectations created by a history of economic success. The gaping difference between inappropriate housing conditions between these two countries, more than anything, further highlights the astounding privilege that developed nations enjoy, when set against the conditions of a developing country.

Self-reliance in community development projects: a mirage or an oasis?

Aid is the past.”

This quote came from Indian Foreign Minister Salman Khurshid earlier this month when Britain announced it would cut all aid money to India by 2015. The decision, while driven partially by Britain’s own economic woes, reflects the belief that India no longer needs foreign aid when it can support its own space program. Despite this, millions of Indians still live in poverty and many aid organisations and governments will continue to donate money and implement programs.

It raises an interesting question: how should we measure when a community no longer needs foreign assistance?

If the stated goal of most employees in this sector is to ‘work themselves out of a job’, then knowing  when we’ve reached the end-point of a project, program or entire funding relationship is essential to good development practice.

One response to defining that elusive end-point is the idea of self-reliance; a marker that should testify when a community is sustainably independent and in no further need of external assistance.

Although the idea of self-reliance has been around since the 1980s and a growing number of development organisations are making it the central tenet of their work, in practice, many communities are still grappling with what achieving self-reliance really means.

In the Brazilian Amazon, the Community Empowerment Network (CEN) is one organisation that has adopted the goal of self-reliance in its mission to end rural poverty in the Juá area. CEN supports an eco-tourism project there that creates jobs and contributes to local industries and culture by bringing sustainable tourism to the community.

At CEN, self-reliance is defined in three ways – knowing that people can solve a problem for themselves, ensuring that they have the resources and skills to do something about it, and granting them freedom from external obstacles. Identifying this tricky trio is only the beginning of the complex process of understanding what self-reliance actually looks like (let alone reaching it).

Self-reliance emerged as the core concept driving CEN after Founder and Executive Director Robert Bortner became frustrated with top-down development approaches that focused primarily on how much money had been given to a community as the measure of success. Instead, he wanted to take a more comprehensive approach that addressed the problems for the long-term. “Giving people money doesn’t necessarily solve a problem. If people aren’t interested in solving a problem for themselves, how are you going to change the situation?”

This question led the organisation to develop a method of teaching and learning called PRACTICAR, a mentoring model that works closely with community members to empower them to reach self-reliance through a focus on sustainability. In Juá, this means training community members so that they have the organisational capacity to manage and maintain an eco-tourism project. After skills are delivered in the areas needed, people form community groups to continue managing projects with their own funding and resources; part of their learning addresses income-generation.

While CEN considers its training programs for community members a success, Bortner says that the organisation, like many others, is still struggling to measure when self-reliance has been achieved. “It’s hard to define. Is it synonymous with self-empowerment? Superficially, it’s about giving someone something and then they can do it for themselves. But in reality, it’s a lot harder than that. It’s difficult to know when people don’t need any further help.”

For Emmanuel Ojameruaye, a member of the Urhobo community of Nigeria and Vice-President for Research and Program Development with the International Foundation for Education and Self-Help (IFESH), self-reliance is difficult to measure precisely because it is usually only thought of as an end-point. “Self-reliance can be a goal, but it’s also a mirage. It’s something that cannot be achieved 100% when you’re dealing with very poor communities.”

But, assessing whether a community truly owns a project often can’t be tested until after the funding has stopped. Given the complexities of measuring when self-reliance has been achieved, economic indicators still tend to be used to determine when it is time for an organisation to withdraw. Ojameruaye argues that financial sustainability remains one of the most effective measurement tools. “If you are building a block of classrooms in a village somewhere in Africa and the community contributes 50% of the costs, then in five years they contribute 75%, until finally they can build a school without any support, then that is self-reliance.”

Bortner also feels that economic indicators are a useful measurement tool. In addition, CEN uses timeframes to determine when they will leave. In their work in the Amazon, communities are told from the start how long the organisation will be there for. “For example, if the entire project is eight years, then at the end of that timeframe, we will leave and we will have made that clear from the beginning. We’ll still be around to help – leaving the skills and networks for them to use – but we will physically be out. And in the last few years of the project, our involvement will be significantly reduced,” Bortner says.

This strategy exposes the organisation to the risk of leaving before the community has reached self-reliance, but Bortner defends it. He argues that in practice, self-reliance is a continuum. “You need an exit strategy, you can only do so much; you improve self-reliance, you don’t achieve it. There is a point where you must get out or you will have just perpetuated dependency again.”

But still, no-one seems to be quite sure of a hard-and-fast measure for knowing when the time has come to leave. When enough is enough.

Ojameruaye believes that in part the only solution is better governance from above. Although this would seem almost contradictory in the framework of self-reliance, he insists that it is necessary, as long as it takes place according to certain conditions: “The government must provide support and impetus on a continued basis, but they should do that while ensuring that the communities participate and have a voice.”

Perhaps it’s the idea of voice that provides the best measure of all – it’s time to leave when the community says so. Both Bortner and Ojameruaye admit that while the self-reliance approach has its flaws, its respect for community voices and autonomy is what makes it a useful approach for the development field as a whole. It is through this focus on people’s needs that they can get closer to challenging the question of knowing how much help is enough. According to Ojameruaye: “People don’t want to be dependent, at least not for a long time. The communities should be the masters of their own development – this approach is about ensuring that.”


Why development workers should read children’s books

Certain trends inexplicably come into vogue every now and then. Take the current one of reading young adult fiction. Whether it’s Harry Potter, The Hunger Games, or Three Cups of Tea, it seems people everywhere are turning to fantastical works of fiction, to satisfy their desires for escapism into an unrealistic world.

Cross the line from adult fiction into reading children’s novels however, and you’ll be faced with a different reaction. “What can you possibly gain from a book written for children?” people ask.

The answer is simple. You can learn to think and be like a child again. This is a process that others have dubbed “unlearning” – letting go of what we have already learned or acquired.

Unlearning is a process of liberation, and it’s crucial for helping yourself to learn more. A fantastic metaphor is stripping the existing paint off a wall, so that you are able to lay down new paint over the top of it. Stripping the paint is a more arduous task than painting a new coat, yet we seem to focus more on the latter than the former.

I recently read The Phantom Tollbooth, by Norton Juster. The story centres around the adventures of a young boy named Milo, who is too bored with life to even look up from the pavement on his way home from school. For Milo, the world is full of facts and figures, which to him seems irrelevant.

The Mathemagician, who firmly believes that numbers are more important than words.

However, an unexplained package arrives at his house and inside is a cardboard tollbooth, which when set up, is a portal to another world ruled by two opposing kings. Azaz the Unabridged is the King of Dictionopolis, and his brother, the Mathemagician, rules the kingdom of Digitopolis. Both brothers are embroiled in an ongoing battle over which is more important: numbers or words.

The only solution to the problem is for a brave soul (you can probably guess who that is) to climb the Mountains of Ignorance and rescue the beautiful princesses Rhyme and Reason from their prison in the Castle in the Air. Rhyme and Reason were banished to this place because they refused to choose between numbers and words and thus infuriated both kings.

Along the way, Milo jumps to Conclusions, which turns out to be an island, swims in the Sea of Knowledge, meets the Whether man, who asks him whether or not it will rain, and spends time in jail with a Which, a kindly old lady who turns out to be nowhere near as scary as Milo imagined.When Milo orders a “light” meal during King Azaz’s banquet, he is served a plate of lightbulbs. When Officer Shrift, a police officer who is twice as wide as he is tall, wants to sentence Milo to jail, he asks him if he would prefer a long sentence or a short sentence. Milo replies that he would prefer a short sentence, to which Officer Shrift pulls out a piece of paper, writes “I am” on it, and hands it to Milo.

The heavy moralising tone of The Phantom Tollbooth sets it apart from other children’s books of the time. The message is clear; that the imagination is limitless. That experiencing new things with an open mind is ongoing, no matter who you are.

As you read the book, you cannot help but feel more and more childlike yourself. You want to be imaginative. You want to see the world as a child does. You want to appreciate simplicity.

I couldn’t help but feel how these attitudes are beneficial working in development. Taking a step back, the very concept of working in development is fairly audacious. It is quite bold to believe that you can take resources, whether they be human, financial or knowledge, and bring them to another country and culture to affect change.

We have an obsession with knowledge and learning in development. The much maligned phrases of “capacity building” and “trainings” indicate a willingness to impart knowledge that we have gained on other people. Armed with Masters degrees and limited experience in our countries of origin, we hope to bring what we know for the benefit of others.

But what if we were to approach these situations with an attitude of unlearning? What if, like a child, with eyes and minds open, we were ready to learn?

I was recently asked by some Cambodian colleagues to run a workshop on the social model of disability. This involved talking about how the definition of disability has changed, from a medical model, which highlights the impairments on bodies, to a social model, which emphasises the barriers that society places on individuals. Shifting the focus onto barriers is always an interesting exercise. We start to look towards society to see what barriers are erected by the community at large.

Milo meets Tock, a Watchdog, who helps him to unlock his imagination.

As a “trainer”, the implication is that I impart knowledge onto “trainees”. But if I allowed myself to “unlearn”, to strip back the paint off my own wall, then there was the real possibility that I could learn something valuable myself.

During this workshop, I always ask participants to collectively identify barriers that exclude people with disabilities from society.

When I held this training in China, participants tended to emphasise the physical barriers that such as lack of ramps and railings that prevented access to places for people with disabilities. However in Cambodia, the emphasis appeared to be more on stigmatisation and discrimination. In other words, attitudinal barriers seemed to be more disempowering.

Anyone who has spent considerable time in either of these two countries may not be surprised to hear these differences. But as a relative newcomer to Cambodia, this kind of information helped me to navigate working in a country and culture that I was unfamiliar with.

This is the value of reading children’s books such as The Phantom Tollbooth. They remind you that even as a so-called “expert” in a foreign country, at times, you’re more effective by relinquishing the baggage associated with what you have learnt. That seeing the world through a child’s eyes, and embracing that inner child within can help you along the way.

All it takes is ten minutes to remind yourself of the benefits of this attitude. As a start, I’d suggest heading over to read An Awesome Book, by Dallas Clayton, online via this link (thanks to Julianne Scenna for the recommendation). It’s a wonderful reminder of the power of dreaming big.

Next, you can purchase The Phantom Tollbooth here. I wish I’d read this book decades ago, but I’m thankful that I’ve read it now.

What children’s books have you read recently, and what did you learn?


Literacy in Development: the flaws with using literacy rates to inform development policy (part 3)

Parts one and two recap: Literacy is not a universal skill gained through schooling with culture and home practices as irrelevant, especially in a minority language community. Nor is literacy an automatic catalyst for economic development. But a lot of development policy assumes so. This is a particularly complicated (but interesting) concern in China.

This week, the world’s first World Literacy Summit is being held at Oxford, and making a convincing economic argument for investment in literacy is high on the agenda. However, what may not be on is how we measure literacy and design appropriate interventions. Literacy rates are one such measurement, but do they tell us what we think they tell us?

Do literacy rates measure what we think they do?

Literacy measures often use school attendance as a proxy, i.e. they measure things like how many community members completed primary school. This is because reading and writing at a grade 6 level (for example) is seen as “being literate”. This misses what sociolinguists call “subaltern literacies”, which are those ways of engaging with text that happen outside the classroom. These often go very much under the radar because the people involved are the poorest of the poor and the most excluded. In particular, these “illiterates” are excluded from Culture with a capital “C”: they don’t glow with learning and literature and refinement. They speak dialects, they do manual work, they are adults without much education. So what these people do with text isn’t valuable to those deciding on the standards and collecting the data. In fact, schooling measurements don’t acknowledge that these Others engage with text at all.

Nevertheless, in many countries, many people like this are actually more literate than their “betters” assume. They are the “literate poor”, but if they are not visible in measurements, development policies are unlikely to be directed to them.

Schooling-centred monitoring also fails to explain the shared practices between literate and illiterate community members which determine when literacy skills will be made available to others. Such monitoring is therefore deficient as a basis for designing programs to harness literacy’s instrumentality, because the data doesn’t clearly reveal all those for whom literacy is an instrument. And such monitoring fails to tap into home and community practices and attitudes which might stymie children’s acquisition of schooled literacy: does everyone completing primary school have the same literacy? And why are some communities’ children less likely than others to even get to that point?

How can you maximise the use of literacy for development if you don’t actually understand how it is used by people together?

There is discussion amongst scholars – some of whom are also practitioners – about how improving the understanding and measuring of literacy could improve economists’ policies for development. It’s an interesting strand within broader debates about the quantification of development. (I know many whydev readers have an interest in those debates; please share your thoughts below.)

Here’s the difficulty: how can we get the quantitative data development agencies want if we accept that we have to start looking outside the neat boundaries of formal schooling to harness important literacy practices? Bryan Maddox, of the University of East Anglia, suggests moving to a statistical methodology using a transparent, multiple thresholds in a “set of valued literacy functionings”, which would  index the varied literacies in a person’s life to his or her development.  This thresholds approach sits more comfortably with Sen’s influential Capabilities Approach to development, which

“argues that illiteracy is a ‘focal feature’ of capability deprivation and human insecurity. Illiteracy is viewed as a pervasive feature of capability deprivation and inequality, and literacy (particularly women’s literacy) as a source of agency, autonomy and socio-economic mobility” (Bryan Maddox and Lucio Esposito)

That is, it provides a more nuanced measure of the range of deprivation but also agency one person can have in different parts of their life.

However, for the moment, the bulk of monitoring still treads lead-footed through governments’ literacy/illiteracy rates, themselves built upon the outdated ideas of autonomous skills and school attendance. One example of this is UNESCO’s monitoring of whether we reach the Millennium Development Goal of halving adult illiteracy by 2015. This happens because evaluating situated literacy is more complicated, but this approach loses a lot by prioritising simplicity.

Literacy t-shirt
And does anyone care if your parent can?

Anna Robinson-Pant, also of the University of East Anglia, suggests this approach to monitoring leads to perceptions that literacy and schooling are the same, and therefore that adult literacy should be about acquiring the formal literacy missed through lack of childhood school opportunities, without giving weight to many other important literacy practices in adults’ lives. She suggests this results in smaller development grants for adult literacy programs. To me, that brings home a problematic, real-world outcome of the datedness of the literacy thinking which informs development policy.

More nuanced views on literacy, and more nuanced data, require effort.  Monitoring methodology can be seen as the dull, back-office side of development work. But the room for methodological improvement is real, just as real as the changes such improvements could precipitate in the world beyond the stats.

What David Foster Wallace taught me about development

Courtesy of a good friend of mine, I recently read this speech, by American author David Foster Wallace to graduate students at Kenyon College in 2005. If you have a spare 10 minutes, I wholeheartedly encourage you to head over and have a read. The central theme of Foster Wallace’s talk was that our “default setting” is to think that the world revolves around us, and therefore everything that occurs in our lives only happens because it has an effect on us. After all, we can only see the world through our own perspective, there are no other sets of eyes which we can use. However, Foster Wallace strongly advocated for the need to push past this, and to constantly remind ourselves that there are a whole number of other perspectives and lives going on, regardless of ours. Doing this, he felt, was a vital part of being a far better communicator, a far better writer, and most importantly, a far better human.

From a young age, Foster Wallace himself was tainted with the tag of “genius”. He was constantly praised for his achievements in class, on the sporting field, in his books. He wrote his first novel, The Broom of the System, at the age of 24. Ten years later, his second novel, Infinite Jest, was published, and it now sits in Time’s list of the 100 Best Novels since 1923, putting him alongside authors such as Hemingway, Orwell and Steinbeck. Foster Wallace didn’t complete a third novel, however. At the age of 46, he committed suicide by hanging himself with a belt. He had suffered through depression for more than 20 years, and it had finally gotten the better of him.

Although Foster Wallace may have been seen by many to be a modern-day genius, what he excelled in most was an absolute denial of this idea. He was exceptionally keen on the idea that he was really no different from anyone else, that he was not exceptional, and that the world continued to go on regardless of whether he was there or not. Listening to his own words, this realisation becomes immediately apparent:

“I gotta tell you, I just think to look across the room and automatically assume that somebody else is less aware than me, or that somehow their interior life is less rich, and complicated, and acutely perceived than mine, makes me not as good a writer. Because that means I’m going to be performing for a faceless audience, instead of trying to have a conversation with a person … I treasure my regular-guyness. I’ve started to think it’s my biggest asset as a writer. Is that I’m pretty much just like everybody else.”

David Foster Wallace addresses students at Kenyon College in 2005.


For me, I think you could replace the word “writer” with “development worker” and it would still have the same effect. As a writer, Foster Wallace was able to connect with his readers in ways that other authors couldn’t, because he was able to speak from an everyman perspective. For those working in development, the same attitude can be adopted. One of the most oft repeated lines in development is that for programs to work, we need to get away from the model of donor and recipient, and move towards a model of empowerment, a model that values the voices of everyone, not just those with Masters degrees. From a purely practical point of view, there is no point coming into an area and forcing your ideas on others, if, once you leave, those ideas are not accepted. I believe we can take Foster Wallace’s recognition that we are not inherently any more superior, or any more important, and apply it to our field too.

Many of us live in a world that could easily make us think that we are the centre of it. We are often praised for our achievements, we often excel in what we do, and we are often told that the world is full of boundless opportunities, if only we apply ourselves. Of course, praise has its place when deserved, and can serve an important purpose, but it can lead to losing sight of where we stand in the big picture. Although many of us are put in places of privilege, it is imperative to understand the true meaning of the word “serve”.

Perhaps the greatest exponent of that concept was Gandhi. In his autobiography, The Story of My Experiments with Truth, Gandhi said (emphasis is mine):

“Service can have no meaning unless one takes pleasure in it. When it is done for show or for fear of public opinion it stunts the man and crushes his spirit. Service which is rendered without joy helps neither the servant nor the served. But all other pleasures and possessions pale into nothingness before service which is rendered in a spirit of joy.”

In a short piece entitled The Nature of the Fun, Foster Wallace speaks of a similar parallel in the world of writing. He speaks of how initially, people tend to write simply because they think it is fun, until they are (unfortunately) recognised as having talent. After this point, it can become more about trying to write for others; for recognition, for adoration or for respect. Foster Wallace doesn’t only believe that this primarily serves the ego and vanity, it leads to, as he puts it “shitty fiction”.

I believe that by ignoring the true meaning of the word “serve”, we too can fall into the trap of “shitty development”. The following table, courtesy of How Matters, adequately illustrates this point:


Image courtesy of How Matters


We live in a world where it is easy to fall into the trap of the “default setting” that Foster Wallace described when speaking to Kenyon College graduates in 2005. All around us, we see examples of vanity and self-centredness becoming the norm. A recent analysis of modern day song lyrics showed that words such as “I” and “me” are more commonly used than ever before. Our obsession with Charlie Sheen and his obsession with winning, while amusing for 3.5 seconds, is a sad reflection on the pervasiveness of our voyeurism and the value we put on self-praise and chest-beating. And finally, my favourite study of recent times, women (as compared to men), who posted more photos of themselves and had the largest social networks on Facebook, are more likely to value their self worth according to their appearance, and use social networking as a method to seek attention.

As development workers, what can we conclude from all of this, and what is the best way forward? I think it involves taking the ego out of the equation, and removing that temptation to think that we are perhaps smarter, more special and more insightful than others. As tragic as Foster Wallace’s death was, there’s still a very important lesson to be learnt in the way he lived his life.


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Lessons learnt from an internship in India

This reflective piece was written soon after I returned from an internship working with refugees from Burma in India. I had the opportunity to work with a team of interns and staff through the University of New South Wales, helping to facilitate a dialogue between refugees from New Delhi and Mizoram and UNHCR staff. The conditions we witnessed and stories that we heard were shocking. They still shake me to my very core now.

It is now several months after, and as I read back on the piece, I acknowledge how raw and unpolished it is. My initial reaction to my experience there was a mixture of sadness, anger, shame, guilt and sympathy. These emotions soon gave way to an overall feeling of hopelessness. Once that dissipated, with the realisation that continuing to feel this was just another form of self indulgence, my emotions started to even out more as I had more time to process what I felt. What was written below was therefore the most raw, immediate reaction that I had upon returning to Australia.

I am amazed at how the context of a visit can change your impression of a country. Three years ago, I spent six weeks travelling throughout India. As a backpacker, my impression of the place was that despite the poverty and all the problems faced by the country, it was an overall happy place. I found pieces of evidence to support this view the entire time, whether it was the chuckling auto drivers, or the children playing cricket in the streets. I chose to block out the lepers and beggars, lined up like dominoes along the street pavement, sleeping in swags because they had no where else to go.

This time, there was none of that. There was no doubting the fact that the overwhelming impression I got from India was one of hopelessness. That the entire country is so full of problems, that there really is no hope for groups at the bottom of the pile, such as the refugees.

What makes it so hard for refugees in a country like India? I can think of two reasons off the top of my head. There are over 1.1 billion people all fighting for that last piece of the pie. Whoever doesn’t have access to it, or whoever is at the back of the queue, well, they don’t have much of a chance. As the Indian government always says – how can we provide a high standard of living for refugees when so many of our own countrymen live in absolute poverty? That argument is both irrefutable and ultimately unsatisfying, because it stratifies human beings into classes, where one class of person deserves one lot, whereas another class of person doesn’t. Which explains a little of the background to the next possible reason. In India, in a country where the caste system is still so obvious, there are  still well-defined classes and boundaries. And there’s no doubt that the refugees are at the bottom of this pile.

The refugees are not only the lowest class, but they are divided into classes themselves. Out of the Somali, Afghani and Burmese refugees, it was definitely the Somalis who had the worst conditions. They were not allowed to have basic registration, while other groups could. The only possible reason why this might occur is quite simply because they are black. Because they are black refugees, not only are they another sub-class, they are simply sub-human.

I can’t claim to know enough about Hinduism, spirituality and reincarnation, but I get the strong feeling that through a mixture of these things, there’s the acceptance of my lot in life, no matter how bad it is. Maybe it’s because of reincarnation, because of something I did in a previous life. Or maybe it’s because I just don’t have a choice. But in India, lots of people look down on people below them with glee. One story that will always stick with me is the story of how refugees from Burma have to go to the night market to pick up rotten fruit and vegetables at the end of the day, because they cannot afford to feed their families otherwise. This is produce which is not good enough for Indian people to sell to other Indian people. It is simply thrown on the floor. The Indian people know this happens, so some of the men will deliberately urinate on the fruit and vegetables. It’s not enough that the refugees have to scavenge for food without nutrients, but some of the locals need to rub it in their faces and humiliate them. What does this say about how we, as people, treat others?

What does it say about their ability to live lives with dignity when there are 7 or 8 people living in a room not much bigger than 3m x 3m, in conditions where it’s often impossible for all family members to lie down at the same time? Where sometimes family members have to go and sleep on the roof, causing their fathers and mothers to be afraid for their safety? We heard about the lack of sanitation, where more than 40 or 50 people have to wait to use one bathroom in the building. Where Indian landlords take advantage of refugees, because without proper documentation, they don’t have any legal rights. Often landlords would force the refugees to pay for the electricity bills of the entire building (including the landlord’s own home) instead of just their own apartment. And when the refugees were unable to pay up in time, or were late on rent, they would either rape the women, or simply kick them out.

This sort of stuff goes on all the time. When we were there, one man came to a day of our consultation and told the story of how he and his wife were kicked out of their apartment that morning, and then spent the morning wandering around looking for new accommodation before coming to be with us. Which amazes me – the dedication to attend despite all that – it showed that he really thought he was getting something out of it.

For refugees, they face all these sorts of problems continuously, but they don’t give up. They say they want to, but they don’t. I’ll never forget some of the things that were spoken – “Life is difficult in Burma, we don’t want to die, but here (in India) we want to die”.  Somali refugees told us something similar, that they would rather UNHCR sent them back to their home countries, so they could at least die there, rather than in a foreign land.

I think in the entire two weeks, I felt the most disturbed and upset when I heard about the desperation that was coming out of the groups. Because when people are really desperate, they become irrational, and you can feel that straight away. They requested us (the interns) to go and work in the local offices of the implementing partners because Indian people feared Westerners, and they wouldn’t cheat the refugees anymore. The fact that this seemed like a rational solution that could solve a problem was so distressing.

It’s also distressing to hear about the problems that children are facing, and the fact that for most of them, they really don’t have a future worth talking about. And you can feel the pain in the voice of the parents when they say this. We met a husband and wife in their mid 30s who were just so in love with each other, and so gentle and kind to us. They had left 6 children behind in Burma – with no hope of ever seeing them again. If they ever did, it would be a miracle. But in some ways, a lot of the other refugees with children are not much better off. Because the children don’t have access to good education, and so there really is nothing that’s going to help them lift themselves out of this situation. And even if they do go to schools, they are bullied, teased and hit. Sometimes even raped. There’s nothing really on the horizon for future generations.

I cannot fathom sexual and gender based violence (SGBV). It is not something that I have personally had to deal with, or know anyone from my childhood who has faced it. I think the most distressing thing about SGBV is that it occurs everywhere. There was the perception that this was something that happens late at night, in dark alleys. But the truth is that it occurs in the workplace, in the homes, in the hospitals from the doctors when women work as interpreters, even by police. There is no respite. It seemed like wherever the women turned, it was there – there was no escaping it. Which is why traditional and outdated solutions to SGBV do not work. Many of these solutions tend to be victim focused, which not only shifts the blame from the perpetrator to the victim, it also means that victims have some level of choice in placing themselves in dangerous situations. But as I mentioned earlier, women are in dangerous situations anywhere they go. They cannot choose to come home before dark because they work till 9 o’clock at night for almost nothing, or because they need to go to the night market to scavenge for food. Any solution that has any chance of working has to address core problems that are being faced, such as the lack of decent income that underlies their lives, and most importantly, the solution has to come from the refugees themselves.

Ultimately, I felt that coming from the refugees, the only solution that would solve the vast majority of their problems was resettlement. But who wouldn’t think that? I wouldn’t want to be without rights and dignity in a country like India. But the sad thing is that for most of them, this isn’t going to happen. They will be stuck in India until they die. For most of them, their dreams of living in a country with relative freedom and rights and happiness – it just isn’t going to happen. And for me, that’s the saddest part.

I don’t feel hopelessness now. Just a wider recognition that the world is full of problems that people are facing on a daily basis, and that there are little things that we can do to help. That maybe we won’t be able to change the underlying factors that are causing all this suffering. I won’t be able to stop wars, end climate change, put an end to genocide or persecution. But I can make a noticeable difference to people’s lives. And this was backed up by the faith and trust shown towards us by the refugees. The first thing I need to do is start listening to them.


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Ambassador’s Reception

Last week I spent time with the organisation I work with, Football United, at a project we run in Granville, one of the mostunderprivileged communities in one of the world’s most affluent cities, Sydney. It is Football United’s fourth year in Granville, running programs that engage Indigenous, refugee and migrant youth through football, whilst promoting leadership and development opportunities and facilitating relationships with community organisations, partners and mentors.

At this particular project, we were joined by  Monique Coleman, star of High School Musical and numerous other American TV Series that are aimed at a youthful audience. Thanks Wikipedia. The reasons for her attendance were two-fold (or possibly one-fold parts i and ii): promoting “Dialogue and Mutual Understanding”, topic of discussion in the United Nations International Year of Youth 2011 and promoting her own website “dedicated to empowering today’s youth”. She was a great communicator, friendly and, for the most part, aware of a set of appropriate issues that concern youth today: bullying, homelessness, multicultural society and so on.

It’s easy to bemoan the presence of an ambassador by implying that they undermine the efforts of those on the ground – whether local or not – spending each day doing what they do: medicine, teach, advocate, build. Billy Celebrity jets in for a day with his camera troupe, hugs a kid, conducts interview and photoshoot, probably wearing a pair of jeans that cost him more than any of his co-stars will see in a lifetime and probably made around the corner by a factory that exploits the community with sub-standard pay and no bathroom breaks. Everyone’s in on it. I remember seeing a list of sports stars employed as ambassadors. If you’d ever ran, kicked a ball or danced on ice, you were good to go. It was all too easy, the market was saturated. Hollywood too, spearheaded recently by George Clooney and friends, who are monitoring troops along the North/South Sudanese border to much criticism from “the international humanitarian blogosphere’s snark brigade“. “Bono-basher-in-chief William Easterly” is concerned about celebrity wonks getting too cosy with the policy-makers when they could use their powers to challenge the leaders, like John Lennon and Mark Twain did in the good old days.

So what? If UNICEF want attention and if Billy Celebrity can direct attention then that’s cool. What they drawing attention to, I suppose is relevant. To advocate for children and support UNICEF’s mission to “ensure every child’s right to health, education, equality and protection”. Maybe. Or maybe it’s to promote a new haircut. I’m inclined to be cynical like the afore mentioned snark brigade, in a world where video and sound-bites rule, these ambassadorial visits could be nothing but effective celebrity brand management.

I’d like to think, however, that I’ve developed my perceptions and opinion from, among other things, experience. I don’t have much, but what experience I do have of UN ambassadors, it’s hugely positive. I have nothing but gratitude for the minor celebrity that graced our project in Western Sydney. Her message was relevant, albeit a tad standardised. The big gains though, were for our project, and consequently – hopefully – the youth in the Granville community. Students who were previously unaware became aware of leadership and education opportunities, networks were expanded, ideas exchanged and influential policy makers turned up. Some even listened. All in all, last Monday was a positive experience for community-based, community-driven development.