Thursday, October 25, 2007

6 weeks left now. I guess.

It never fails to happen every Thursday night. Sometimes it takes an hour, sometimes two, sometimes two and a half. At some point my eyes begin to glaze over. My ears glaze over, my brain glazes over – if that’s even possible. Not from boredom though, but too much information. I want to start thinking, processing, wondering, imagining, carrying thoughts on a little farther, tugging on things – but I can’t because more information is flowing in and it’s all so good! All I can do is take notes and try not to think or I’ll be totally lost.

Tonight for the first half of class we had a class debate. We had all (supposedly) read both The End of Poverty and The White Man’s Burden. Part of the class took the stance of Sachs and the other part took the stance of Easterly. Then there was an independent third group thrown in to ask us difficult questions.

I definitely started to glaze over during part of the proceedings. The issues of poverty are so immense and so difficult. So many people claim to have the answer or the way. Easterly’s argument is that there are two great tragedies regarding this issue. One is that there are millions in extreme poverty fighting to survive, dying of preventable diseases, etc. The other tragedy is that trillions of dollars of aid has been spent on poverty alleviation over the years, and there are STILL millions of people in extreme poverty fighting to survive, dying of preventable diseases.

Point after point is made about bottom-up solutions and top-down solutions, homegrown methods, multi-lateral organizations, where things fail, where things succeed, etc. There are so many examples.

Sometimes I stop and think about the futility of it all. Someone (a whole lot of someones actually) spent time and energy researching and writing this book. I bought the book. And I’m paying money to sit in a classroom once a week and debate and discuss and learn about issues of poverty and development. And every day thousands of people are dying. I’m reading books and writing papers and people are suffering and dying. The incredible disconnect between the horrible, crushing reality of poverty and the disconnected, distant study of poverty…amazes me. Of course I do think classes like this are important.

And then there is the whole debate format which is only encouraged by Easterly who refutes Sachs in every chapter. Why can’t we all work together? Why can’t we all get along? Why can’t the economists and development people stop bickering about whose theoretical framework is correct and instead look at the strengths of each and where each is definitely right and go from there. Yeah, I’m sometimes na├»ve and an idealist. But this wasn’t my first reaction when I read the books. The idea came up in class and it spoke to me. Why argue whether development should be top-down or bottom-up – aren’t both methods needed?

I can barely say more than that because I haven’t been able to process much. And then a guest speaker came, Bwalya, who is the World Vision country director for Zambia.

He talked a bit about his background and growing up. He grew up in the middle class in Africa and never experienced poverty. He said that some Africans who live in the upper classes, they don’t believe that there is poverty in Africa – until they see it. That surprised me.

He went on to talk about the first time he was involved in participatory appraisal. He was interpreting for another World Vision person, talking to a woman in a poor village. At one point, the other guy asked Bwalya to ask the woman what she dreamed about at night. Bwalya was surprised at the question. What does this have to do with anything? And then he thought perhaps that she would respond that she dreamed about having a good house or having running water or having good government, etc.

He asked her the question. She didn’t respond. He asked again, in another language. Still no response. He tried a third language, thinking there must be a language barrier but she didn’t respond. After a few moments of tense silence, she finally responded. She dreamed about playing.

She dreamed about time for herself, about having fun, about being human. She had never had a childhood.

Bwalya went on. The poor have a vision for themselves of what their life could look like, but because of such poverty and so many setbacks, they have to lock up their dreams because it is too painful to think of. It is too painful to hope in them because it is too unlikely that they will ever be realized.

Bwalya sees his work with World Vision as peeling back the layers of fear and helping people realize their dreams. This is human development. You have to help people feel safe enough to live out their dreams: this isn’t just the American dream, it’s the human dream. Good development allows you do to this: to realize your dreams, to have the resources for them, and for you to be safe in doing this. Good development helps you get to a place where it’s not too scary to think about your dreams, where thinking about your dreams isn’t painful.

More things…

- When you ask in a community what do the people need, and they respond, what do you do? You can’t be all things to the poor. You can’t provide everything. You can help with some things. The poor will have to do some things on their own. And other things no one can help with.

- When the poor know enough about power dynamics, when they feel empowered, they realize they can come together and make their own power play. But people have to get so upset, so angry about the situation they are in that they no longer have fear. When the poor decide they’ve had enough, they have options. When they decide they’re tired of dying, civil wars will stop

- When you’re working with the extremely poor, they have NOTHING to give you but themselves. They are risk-averse because every situation is life and death for them. We sometimes underestimate the cost of adopting some new idea or process in the eyes of the poor.

This barely scratches the surface I’m sure. The issues of poverty, diseases, government, aid, history of nations, corruption, and so forth are so complex and interwoven it’s not hard to feel a bit overwhelmed and powerless to do anything.

After all that, I guess I do feel overwhelmed, but not yet overwhelmed. =)

My research methods class is still a bit annoying but the group project (due Sunday!) is taking shape and I’m pretty excited about it. We’re looking at the information needs of Spanish-speaking immigrants and how different barriers affect their information behavior. Basically, libraries have not done a good job in general making libraries accessible to immigrants. Even where they have, there is often a cultural gap in understanding about libraries and reading. And not much research has been done on this, apparently because we’re talking about such an enormously diverse population. And yet, programs are designed and libraries try to reach out to the population. Are they designing appropriate programs based on actual needs? How often are these things evaluated?

The professor isn’t taking us much beyond the lit review which is unfortunate. But honestly we wouldn’t have time to research this in 10 weeks anyway.

Back to the books…

Thursday, October 18, 2007

7 weeks left...still? Hasn't it been any longer?

Well, anyway, the portfolio process is on its way I'm happy to report! My advisor sent in his approval on Monday and the portfolio has been passed on to a second, unknown, reader.

I think I'll find out in another week or two what that person says.

Classes this week...interesting. Too tired to say more, hopefully I'll get to it this weekend before next week starts and fills up my brain again. =)

Friday, October 12, 2007

8 weeks left... I thought it was less.

I've been telling myself I had 7 weeks left so that's a bummer. Well, school is all kinds of crazy right now. I'm even having dreams about it.

I turned in my portfolio a week and a half ago and have heard nothing from my advisor. I had to hang out in the hallways at school until he came walking by just so I could ask if he'd actually gotten the email I sent with the link to my portfolio (even though I specifically asked him to let me know he'd gotten the email). Grr.

Since then I've email, called, and gone to his office. He hasn't acknowledged emails, answered calls or returned, or ever been in his office. Argh.

He has to sign off that he approves of my portfolio (so I can GRADUATE) by this coming Monday at 5:00. If he doesn't approve it and wants me to make changes, there isn't much time left for that! So I'm rather on edge here.

The other night I had a string of dreadful dreams. One of them involved having to catch a ferry to work. The ferry was right there, 20 feet away, I could see it. But I had to buy a ticket first. The ticket agent was slow and rung up the wrong thing and then had to do it over. He finally got me the ticket but by then the ferry had left.
The same night I had a dream that I was in Guatemala in the middle of nowhere and I was due to fly out of there. I didn't know what time my flight was but I knew there was only one flight on that day. I looked up the information and found out it left at 4:00. I thought this was perfect because it was around 2 or 3 in the afternoon. But then the people with me explained that we were 4 hours away from the airport and we'd never make it on time. I missed my only chance out of there!
Okay, so the truth is there were other ferries leaving later in the first dream (though I would be late to work) and there were flights leaving the next day in the second dream. But I'm sure you can all understand the frustration of just missing that departure.
I'm sure everything is fine and my advisor will approve the portfolio with no requested revisions. But until I find out I'm just trying not to stress too much!

Otherwise this has been...another week.

I helped lead my Wednesday class, Computing and the Developing World, with another professor from my school. He talked about participatory design, its background and definition and origins, etc. Then I talked about participatory design in developing countries, some specific examples and some challenges. Then we facilitated a discussion on the topic. It was pretty laid back and interesting.

My research methods class, I'm sorry to say, is a bit inane. I'm a little disappointed.

My Tools for Transformation class is always good. I've got a paper due this weekend that compares three contemporary social entrepreneurs. The first is Muhammad Yunus, the founder of the Grameen Bank in Bangladesh. (I think I mentioned elsewhere that you should all go out and read his book Banker to the Poor.) The second one I'm looking at is Rigoberto Zamora who founded Probigua in Guatemala. The third is Beulah Thumbadoo "who has made it her life's work to get South Africa to read."

I've already finished Banker to the Poor (and started on the paper), and now I'm onto The White Man's Burden (a fascinating book), which I'll eventually be comparing with The End of Poverty.

It's weird to admit, but this development stuff lights my fire a bit more than the library stuff.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Okay guys, I gotta brain dump.

I'm taking this class called Tools for Transformation taught by a practitioner in the field who works with World Vision. So our first class he has us start brainstorming what are the primary threats to life on earth...

global warming and pollution
homogenization of biosphere / lack of diversity
resource distribution
terrorism and wars
AIDS and other diseases
corruption and crime
lack of cooperation between countries
violence against women
limited access to information and technology
national debt
lack of access to the basics of life like food and water
peak oil crisis
extreme poverty
waste disposal
wealth gap
species extinction
ozone depletion
loss of top soil
and on and on!

The experts in the field say that if we fail to address these problems it will result in societal collapse or violence. There are a whole range of reasons for why governments and others don't respond to these (which I won't list).

We did start making lists of what are critical success factors that will help development people and others overcome these problems:

farsighted planning
clear goals and targets
education / knowledge / awareness
evaluation and measurement
cross-cultural awareness and understanding
knowledge of history (failures & successes)
social networks
guts & brains
technical knowledge

This was the class brainstorm. We also heard about what several different authors had to say:

  • different kinds of capital (human, resource, etc)
  • capital, labor, land, ingenuity
  • Uphoff: ideas, ideals, friendship
  • Landes: literacy, time consciousness, optimism
  • Inglehart: need a value system that emphasizes rule of law and tolerance of expression
  • de Soto: the ability to obtain title to a non-fixed asset
The second half of that list was from tonight. After finishing that discussion, we moved on to defining poverty. Your assumptions about poverty and its causes and impacts determine your responses. So it is important to know what your assumptions are. The class worked to define poverty as follows:

lack of basics: food, shelter, water, education
lack of access to markets, capital, finances, education, etc
poverty as identity, an inherited characteristic
poverty is relative
defined by society
disenfranchised / social isolation / being 'untouchable'
psychological blocks, limiting oneself, lack of options
lack of risk taking
lack of opportunity
having less than the cultural standard as far as resources, mental health, relationships, etc
lack of a social safety net

The discussion kind of broke down somewhere in there as we realized we all had such different experiences with what poverty is and how we define it. And realizing there is a different between relative poverty and absolute poverty - seeing yourself as poor versus really having absolutely nothing.

Our professor shared the idea of scarcity mentality versus abundance mentality. People can have the same amount but some have a mindset of scarcity and lack, while others in the same position have a mentality of abundance.

After this we watched a video called Guns, Germs, and Steel about the research of Jared Diamond who was trying to figure out just how the world became so unequal. He posits that 13,000 years ago we were all at the same place, but then things changed and certain parts of the world started advancing technologically.
His very simplistic answer for why comes down to geography.

People over in the fertile crescent area started farming wheat and barley which was very hardy and nutritious food. In places like Papau New Guinea they've been farming for thousands of years too, but they're growing things like tarot and banana which is much more difficult to grow and not quite as nutritious.

People in the fertile crescent area were able to domesticate animals so they left the hunter-gatherer lifestyle. They also began to use these animals for muscle power. Suddenly they could make a lot more food for themselves, coupled with the new technology of being able to store food. This freed up other people to specialize in other things. So they began to invent new technologies. People in places like Papau New Guinea had no animals they could get to pull a plow. All work is still done by human muscle power. Everyone has to work at this so there is no specialization and no one is able to go off and invent other things.

Diamond argues this comes down to geography because wheat and barley were grown in Eurasia, North America, etc and this is also where many domesticated animals came from. Some parts of the world didn't have barley and wheat and they didn't have these animals that were easily domesticated. (I'm oversimplifying the video, sorry!)

So there was a huge class discussion after this about how Diamond defined poverty, if he was really talking about poverty or about development, the value statements he made about 'us' and 'them,' his assumption that it was better to be developed in the way Westerners are, and so on.

In the midst of all this we're all reading Banker to the Poor by Muhammad Yunnus which is absolutely fascinating. Yunnus founded the Grameen Bank in Bangladesh and has helped lift thousands and thousands (or millions?) of people out of poverty through micro-credit loans. I'll stop writing this post so you can go out and get a copy of the book right now and read it. =)

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Holy cow guys!!

Okay, you might all be wondering where I've been for the last several months. I've been up to lots of things - traveling in Guatemala for six weeks, getting married, that sort of thing. The other big thing, at least in regards to this blog, is that I've been working on my portfolio.

The portfolio is the graduation requirement for school. It is a narrative, if you will, of my experiences, projects, the things I've learned, etc, while in school. If I pass - I get to graduate in December!!

That's right, I've got 9 1/2 glorious weeks of school left. And I'm sure they'll be interesting. I've got Research Methods, Tools for Transformation, and Computing and the Developing World. Those could use more explanation but I'll have to fill you in later.

The important thing is that I just turned in my portfolio! My advisor has some time now to decide if he likes it or not and if he approves it, it goes to a second mysterious reader in a week and a half. If they approve - holy cow! I'll get to graduate! So say a prayer. And, if everyone approves of it, I'll pass around the link. =)